Jeff Gordon's 750th start brings career full circle
August 30, 2014, Pat DeCola, NASCAR.com
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HAMPTON, Ga. -- Ahead of his anticipated 750th straight Sprint Cup Series start in Sunday's Oral-B USA 500 (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), Jeff Gordon was asked Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway to highlight some of the best and worst moments of his career, to which he responded.
"How much time do you have?"
In a career that has included four Sprint Cup Series championships, three Daytona 500 victories and an unprecedented five Brickyard 400 wins -- the first of which he ranks as the best moment of his career -- there's no shortage of highlights from the illustrious, 91-wins-and-counting Cup tenure of the Hendrick Motorsports driver.
Gordon has had his share of lows, too, most of which he admits were particularly hard wrecks, but where his career is set to come full circle with a milestone start this weekend at AMS -- where, coincidentally, his very first start occurred nearly 22 years ago -- the focus was all on the positives, including the 750 mark itself.
"That's a big number. I hadn't thought about it a whole lot until I saw a decal made up and I was like 'Man, that's a lot of races, especially in a row,' " said Gordon, who currently leads the standings by 27 points over teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. "Really proud of that. It's been an amazing career in the Cup Series. Seems like it was just yesterday that it started right here over 20 years ago. I love this track and I love racing here, so it's pretty cool to have 750 happening here. ... I've had a lot of good moments. Luckily for me, they far outweigh the bad moments."
For Gordon, so much had to go right to get to this historic point that it's possible we might not ever see the same type of longevity in a driver again. Consider that 42-year-old Matt Kenseth is next on the list of current consecutive Cup starts at 526 -- a deficit of over six full seasons -- and it cements Gordon's current streak and Ricky Rudd's all-time streak of 788 as NASCAR's equivalents of Cal Ripken's consecutive Major League Baseball consecutive games streak of 2,632. If Gordon is able to top Rudd -- which could happen next fall at New Hampshire Motor Speedway -- it's more than possible that Gordon's mark would never be touched again.
But how has he been able to last this long?
"(I attribute my longevity) to my strong back," Gordon said, with tongue firmly in cheek. "No, I got very fortunate that I got a very young start as well as I got a chance to start with one of the best teams and team owners out there in Hendrick Motorsports and Rick Hendrick.
"All I can contribute (my longevity) to is just good things happening at the right moments, meeting the right people and getting here at a young age and good genes, too. I've taken some big hits. Some that could've taken me out of contention to stop that streak yet the schedule worked out or my body healed itself or whatever happened and here we are at 750. At the time, I didn't really think about that, but now I look back on it and it's something I'm proud of."
Don't be quick to assume Gordon is just another veteran hanging on too long in the twilight of his career. The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet is enjoying his best season since 2011, already matching his win total of the past two years combined with a dozen races to go with no signs of slowing down.
"We started the season really strong, running really well," he said. "I think at California, we were super strong with, I thought, the best car on the track and a shot to win that race and there was a great battle between Jimmie and myself. I felt like at that moment, we were onto something. And that's continued and we've even gotten better. I felt like we were onto something and we progressed down a path where we actually made things better, then we went to Kansas and won at Kansas. I think that was sort of the moment where we were thinking 'Alright, we've got fast race cars and we can win races.
"Last year, we had fast race cars and we didn't really close very well. This year, we're closing really well. Whether it's restarts, whether it's just the race cars themselves. Some of it's qualifying. We've been qualifying a lot better lately as well. It's just a lot of great effort from the team that started way back before this season started."
The way Gordon's season has gone, it wouldn't be surprising to see win No. 92 come in start No. 750, and it would be fitting.