WHEN YOUR FIRST race happens to coincide with a legend’s final turn, you either are destined for your own chapter in the record books or will be a footnote in someone else’s.
Jeff Gordon finished a pedestrian 31st in the Atlanta Hooters 500 on Nov. 15, 1992, four spots ahead of Richard Petty, who spent the entire day on a victory lap.
While Petty exited the driver’s side window for the last time and went on to become NASCAR’s ambassador of slick, Gordon has yet to give up his steering wheel.
Gordon, 41, made his 700th consecutive start on Saturday night for the Bojangles Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. The only other driver in the field who traded paint on that November afternoon in Atlanta all those years ago was Mark Martin.
Gordon led briefly and hovered in the top five throughout the night before finishing third behind Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin.
“It just seems like it was yesterday that we were signing that contract and talking about starting in the Cup Series,” Gordon said. “So it’s hard to believe 20 years and 700 starts later, and all the success that we’ve had, too. It has been amazing.”
Need more perspective? How about this: Gordon started 11 rows in front of Joey Logano on Saturday. Logano was 2 when Gordon embarked on his remarkable streak. Aric Almirola, who inhabits Petty’s legendary baby blue No. 43 and started five rows behind Gordon, was 8.
“It’s amazing that the number is that big,” said Jimmie Johnson, Gordon’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate. “He got such an early start. He’s not all that much older than I am.”
Of those 700 starts, 33 have featured The Lady in Black as his dance partner. There are nine other tracks he has frequented more often, but there is no track Gordon has dominated as thoroughly as the one supposedly too tough to tame. He entered Saturday’s race with seven wins in 32 starts. Put another way, he wins roughly once for every four times the flag drops.
So, to have No. 700 happen in Darlington County is a fitting turn of events.
“This has been such a special track to me over the years,” Gordon said. “It’s such a great weekend for me, personally, to accomplish that.”
Gordon has made many friends and enemies over the years and, for various reasons at varying times, has been a polarizing figure.
“I always liked it when he got wrecked,” Denny Hamlin said with a smile this week. The 32-year-old Hamlin was 12 when Gordon made his first start.
“I don’t know,” Hamlin said. “I wasn’t a huge Jeff Gordon fan growing up.”
Hamlin’s mom clearly was smitten with Gordon … or at least, knew enough about Gordon to get her son an awkward present when he was 14.
“My mom signed me up for the Jeff Gordon fan club in 1994,” Hamlin said. “So I’ve still got my Jeff Gordon fan club membership card. He said he would renew it for me at no charge, if I wanted.”
Hamlin figures most of the disdain toward Gordon in his earlier days stemmed from the fact he was a legitimate threat to the dominance of Dale Earnhardt, Sr.
“I just remember in the stands every time he got wrecked, everyone was so happy, and I never understood that — why everyone was so happy,” Hamlin said.
But like or hate Gordon, there is one point no one can disagree about — he altered the sport in countless ways, including sponsorships, reach and media coverage. He has been NASCAR’s version of Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan.
“He obviously changed this sport dramatically,” Hamlin said. “Honestly, he’s the reason we’re getting paid what we’re getting paid right now. Like him or not, he’s changed our sport for the better over those 700 starts.”
Gordon said he has no idea if he’ll be able to break Ricky Rudd’s record of 789 consecutive starts. He definitely will need a lot of good fortune to approach David Pearson’s 105 wins.
“Never say never,” Gordon said. “It’s too far out there. You have to get closer before you can think realistically about those things.”
Gordon’s biggest fear is his first true realization. When he burst onto the scene, he saw how the older drivers seemed to barely be hanging on. He vowed when such a day came for him, he would not linger.
More and more, the Sprint Cup is feeling like a younger man’s sport to Gordon.
“I appreciate that you still consider me being a threat for the championship and wins because lately, just trying to get top-10s has been a struggle,” he said.
Gordon told a story about how he wrecked Darrell Waltrip at Dover toward the end of Waltrip’s career. He recalled how he felt horrible that his “torn-up lapped car” had taken out Waltrip during one of his last good days.
When Gordon looks at Martin — the way he runs a partial schedule each season long after he had retired from full-time participation — he knows Martin does it for love of the sport. He doesn’t know is if he will feel the same.
“I remember watching (Darrell Waltrip) and other guys run in the back in their last year or two, and I think every driver at a young age says, ‘I don’t want to end my career like that. I want to go out on top.’” Gordon said. “You either want to be able to walk away from it as a champion, or winning that race, or at least being competitive, if you choose.
“But,” he concluded, “that’s not always the way it happens.”
Based on his performance Saturday night, Gordon will not have make any such decisions any time soon.