DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Jeff Gordon is proud he has reached 700 straight Sprint Cup starts. He's even prouder he has accomplished the feat while still near the top of the sport.
The 41-year-old Gordon is third in series history with 87 wins. His landmark start comes at Darlington Raceway in the Southern 500, a place where he's won seven times.
Gordon is 89 races from passing Ricky Rudd's record consecutive starts in Sprint Cup. Gordon remains a series force. He's made the Sprint Cup championship chase eight of the nine years it has been run.
And Gordon thinks his success is far from over.
"I know that this team is capable of it and I feel like I am," Gordon said this week. "We won the last race at Homestead (in 2012). So, yeah, I think that means a lot to me."
Gordon took time at Darlington to recall his rookie season 20 years ago when he was feeling his way in sport ruled by rough-and-tumble veterans ready to put you in a wall if you tried to pass. Soon enough, the driver once called "Wonder Boy" rose to the top. He won the first of his four Sprint Cup titles in 1995 and quickly became the favourite target of NASCAR fans who didn't take to his California roots and clean-cut style.
"I always liked it when he got wrecked," Denny Hamlin said of Gordon. "I don't know. I wasn't a huge Jeff Gordon fan growing up."
Gordon persevered, he believes, because of his focus on victory each time the green flag dropped.
"I've been fortunate that along the way my main focus was not getting to 700," he said. "It was going out there to win and be competitive."
A big reason, Gordon says, is car owner Rick Hendrick and the resources at Hendrick Motorsports. Gordon said Hendrick chose to take a chance on a young, untested driver and surrounded him with talented crew chiefs, mechanics and pit staff to make the No. 24 car successful.
Along the way, Gordon set a standard for blending on-track victory with success off the track with sponsors and fans. "He's obviously changed this sport dramatically," Hamlin said.
Gordon said the late Dale Earnhardt helped him look at contracts, licensing agreements and controlling the rights to your images. "It's turned into a big business," Gordon said. "My first contract I signed was more money than I ever thought I could make driving a race car, but it was nothing compared to what the second contract was."
Gordon has kept winning through it all, though his last series championship came in 2001.
-- The Associated Press