22-years ago, Rick Hendrick took a chance on a 20-year-old driver from what was the NASCAR Busch (Nationwide) Series. It turns out, that chance has brought he and his Hendrick Motorsports team four championships, 87 wins and more than 23,000 laps led.
This weekend’s Southern 500 at Darlington will mark the 700th time that Jeff Gordon will step behind the wheel of a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series car for Hendrick Motorsports. Gordon will be the 15th driver to hit the 700-start milestone, something that hasn’t been done since Rusty Wallace did it way back in 2005 right before he retired.
In his career, Gordon had a streak of 14 straight years with two or more wins from 1994-2007. That streak is arguably one of the greatest feats in NASCAR history. He’s been booed. He’s been cheered. Overall, he’s a winner and he’s about to make history once again.
In 1992, Hendrick’s team took the risk of running Gordon in a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series car at the series finale at Atlanta. The race was the final one for Richard Petty, the end of an era. However, it was also the beginning of the Jeff Gordon era. Gordon’s won all of the sport’s biggest races. He’s won several Daytona 500′s, Coca-Cola 600′s, Brickyard 400′s and oh so many more. Gordon is third on the all-time wins list with 87 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series wins.
The race at Darlington this weekend will put Gordon in yet another category with drivers like Petty, Ricky Rudd, Dave Maris, Terry Labonte, Mark Martin, Kyle Petty, Bill Elliott and a few others that are fortunate enough to be involved in NASCAR for so many years. By the way, Darlington isn’t a bad place for Gordon either. In 32 starts at the egg-shaped oval, Gordon has seven wins, which is third all-time for the second-oldest track on the NASCAR schedule.
If Gordon races for another five years, which he likely will unless he loses his sponsor or something ridiculous like that, he can end his career with over 850 starts. With strong equipment and a lifetime backing from Hendrick, who knows how long he’ll keep driving. He might not ever be able to catch Martin since it looks like he’s never going to retire at this rate, but he may be able to pass Kyle Petty for sixth on the all-time list.
The next milestone in NASCAR’s top-20 most starts is going to be Labonte at Daytona in July, where he will pass Marcis for third all-time with 884 starts.
Joseph Wolkin can be followed on Twitter at @JosephNASCAR.