Looped In Darlington: Jeff Gordon to roll 300

May 09, 2013, Mike Forde, NASCAR.com

Four-Time will join Allison, Pearson and Petty with 300th career top-five at Darlington

Jeff Gordon will reach NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start No. 700 on Saturday night at Darlington Raceway. That’s a big round number, but not all that unique. After all, 14 other drivers have done that already. One did it just last week (Bobby Labonte).

It’s what Gordon has accomplished with all those opportunities that will land him in the NASCAR Hall of Fame as soon as he’s eligible.

What’s more interesting is the other milestone he’s approaching: 300 top-five finishes. Gordon has been sitting on 299 since his third-place finish at Martinsville in March, but his dash to 300 is still absurd for two reasons:

-          His top-five percentage works out to roughly 43%.

-          He’ll be the fourth driver to reach the plateau, joining NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty (555), Bobby Allison (336) and David Pearson (301).

Gordon lags behind those three legends in the time it took to get to 300 (and he’s not there yet). Richard Petty needed 525 starts to reach 300 top fives. Allison needed 583 starts. Pearson needed 539.

Here’s where Gordon earns some points: field size. Throughout Gordon’s career, the average size of the starting field was 42 cars. That’s a lot, comparatively.

Allison’s average field size was 35 cars. Pearson’s was 33. Petty’s was 28. Presumably, fewer cars equals reduced competition. By that measure, it’s much harder to earn a top five now than ever before.

And in case you’re wondering, the car count during Gordon’s career ranged from a low of 34 to a high of 44. The 43-car field didn’t become standard until 1998.

Not including this season, Gordon has tallied double-digit top-five finishes in all but three seasons. One was his Sunoco Rookie of the Year season of 1993, when he had seven. His sophomore season also ended with seven top fives, two of which were wins.

The third season it happened: 2005, a forgettable campaign that ended with only his second points finish outside the top 10 -- and first since his rookie season. Gordon had eight top fives that year, the first and only time he missed the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

His best track in terms of top fives: Martinsville Speedway, with 26. His second-best track: Darlington Raceway, which actually is tied with Michigan International Speedway and Pocono Raceway with 18 top fives. That’s an astounding figure, considering Darlington moved to a one-race-per-year schedule in 2005.

Figure on a two-for-one milestone race for Gordon on Saturday night. Gordon has had two separate lengthy top-five streaks at Darlington. One was eight races that ended in 1999, the other was seven races that ended in 2010. He boasts the top driver rating at Darlington (111.8).

He’ll get 300 on Saturday night.