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Highlights on the road to 85 Cup Series victories

September 06, 2011, Dave Rodman,

Jeff Gordon's path to 85 career Cup Series victories, which officially places him in sole possession of third on the all-time winner's list behind NASCAR legends Richard Petty and David Pearson, was marked with numerous highlights.

Perhaps the most notable was that his 85th win, which broke a tie with three-time Cup champion and 2012 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Darrell Waltrip, came at the track where Gordon made his premier series' debut 19 years earlier, Atlanta Motor Speedway.

As difficult as it is to believe, Gordon had to be reminded of the significance of the win, which occurred on Tuesday afternoon due to a two-day rain delay.

"I totally forgot about that," Gordon said through a laugh. "Eighty-five -- wow, that is unbelievable. I'm just blown away by the day we had, the kind of year we're having -- I'm rejuvenated by the kind of year we're having."

The icing on the cake came via Gordon's triumph after a stunning 10-lap battle with his Hendrick Motorsports teammate -- five-time defending Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson.

That victory fits well among the highlights that came along the way to 85 for Gordon -- who set the current milestone in his 642nd career start. Those highlights include:

Gordon's first victory in a Cup car came in his second start -- albeit a non-points special event during Speedweeks 1993 at Daytona International Speedway -- when Gordon won his Gatorade 125-mile qualifying race for the Daytona 500.

Even though it would take Gordon until his second full-time season and his 42nd career points-race start to officially win, that qualifying race proved, definitively, that he could compete at the premier level.

The 1994 Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, which was Gordon's first points-race win, was significant on a number of levels. First, it came in one of NASCAR's legendary "crown jewel" events and second, it proved, indisputably, what a fountain of emotion Gordon could be.

Gordon, ecstatic to score the most significant victory, to that point, of his racing career, sobbed uncontrollably in Victory Lane at Charlotte after that race -- typically for Gordon, an event that was cherished by some and mocked by others.

Just eight races later, Gordon hit a second gold rush-type achievement when he won the inaugural Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. To many motorsports observers Gordon -- whose nascent years in racing were spent in open-wheel cars, seemingly on his way to an ultimate Indianapolis 500 date -- was a lock to score an IMS win.

But the fact he did it in a stock car, close by the Midwest area where he'd grown up in racing after relocating from his native California as a young teenager, was stunning. Almost as significant was the fact that the Brickyard win was the first of three inaugural Cup race victories Gordon's scored in his career.

The next major milestone Gordon achieved came in the fall of 1996, when he won the Tyson Holly Farms 400 at North Wilkesboro Speedway. This victory, which came after Gordon had won at Dover and Martinsville, marked the first of three times in his career that Gordon won three consecutive points races and was his 19th career victory in the final race at the track.

If the Brickyard 400 could be considered NASCAR's fifth "crown jewel," Gordon added the third gem to his growing collection in the 1997 season opener, the Daytona 500. This was the first of Gordon's three career victories in the "Great American Race," and at the time, he was the youngest winner in Daytona 500 history at 25 years, six months and 12 days.

Gordon created his racing legacy while growing up in Indiana, but the native of Vallejo, Calif., scored his next significant milestone when he won the 1997 California 500 at what's currently known as Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.

The win, which was the second of three inaugural event victories Gordon's scored in his career, was his 26th career victory.

Gordon's 27th career victory, which came only five races later, was significant on several levels. When he won the 1997 Bud At The Glen, Gordon scored his first career Cup Series road course victory -- which was noteworthy for a short-track racer with no road-racing background.

But for anyone with a crystal ball in their arsenal it was a harbinger of awesome things to come, as it was the first of six consecutive road-course wins Gordon would score, between Watkins Glen and the current Infineon Raceway. Gordon remains the Cup Series' all-time road course victories leader with nine career first places.

Gordon was on a career year in 1998, which would ultimately be his third championship in four seasons, when he won the Pepsi 400 at Michigan International Speedway in August.

The victory, the 37th in Gordon's career, was his fourth consecutive victory that season, following scores at Pocono, Indianapolis and Watkins Glen, and marked the second of three times in his career that he won three consecutive races.

Gordon, who had actually notched another "crown jewel" event of his career three years earlier, made it a legendary milestone in 1998 when he scored his fourth consecutive Southern 500 at the historic Darlington Raceway. Gordon's 39th career victory was part of a streak of seven wins in nine races.

On the way to achieving this mark, Gordon actually recorded another notable event. On Aug. 31, 1997, Gordon won his second Southern 500 and captured a $1 million bonus from series' sponsor R.J. Reynolds in what was known as "The Winston Million," which was given to any driver to win three of four "crown jewel" races: The Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600, Southern 500 and Talladega's spring race, which was then known as the Winston 500.

Gordon's "career year" in 1998 -- in which he won 13 races and tied a Modern Era record first set by Richard Petty in 1975 --actually carried over to the start of the 1999 season, when Gordon won his second Daytona 500, but his third consecutive race, for the third time in his career. Gordon's dynamic victory concluded a stunning streak of 18 top-three finishes, including 11 wins, in 21 races.

His 50th career victory also closed a chapter in Gordon's check-off list for career achievements, when he won his fifth "crown jewel" event, the 2000 DieHard 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. However you rate Talladega's events, which have been flipped throughout the schedule through history, Gordon's won both of Talladega's spots on the schedule, some of the record 12 restrictor-plate wins he's scored.

Just how good Gordon had become as a road-course racer was proven when he scored his sixth consecutive road-course victory in the 2000 Save Mart/Kragen 350 at Infineon Raceway. At the time, it made Gordon -- who'd won 51 races in his career -- the all-time leading road-course winner, a tag he's regained in 2011.

Gordon notched his 58th career victory and the third of his three inaugural event victories, in the 2001 Protection One 400, the first Cup Series race at the recently opened Kansas Speedway.

Gordon would've never predicted his 59th victory would take so long to occur, but when he won the 2002 Sharpie 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway it ended a 32-race winless streak, which to that point was the longest in Gordon's career since his first victory in 1994.

Gordon's 69th career victory came in the 2004 Brickyard 400, which was Gordon's all-time-best fourth victory in the event.

With his first career win at Phoenix International Raceway on April 21, 2007, Gordon, with his 76th career victory tied Dale Earnhardt for sixth on the all-time wins list. Gordon memorably took a victory lap with a massive No. 3 flag waving out his driver-side window, a tribute to his long-time rival.

Gordon's 82nd career victory came in the 2009 Samsung 500, and it was special for more than one reason. It was Gordon's career-first Texas win and it ended a 48-race winless streak, to that point the longest in Gordon's career since his first victory.

Gordon probably was never one to snicker at the venerable Mark Martin who's often proclaimed his joy at celebrating in Victory Lane "because I never know when the next win will come." Gordon's 83rd career victory came in the 2011 Subway Fresh Fit 500, which was Gordon's second career Phoenix International Raceway win.

Most significantly it ended a 67-race winless streak, to this point the longest in Gordon's career since his first victory. That set the table for Gordon's 84th career victory, in the middle of the summer at Pocono.