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When Jeff Gordon takes the green flag in tonight's race, he'll be doing so for the 700th consecutive time in his Cup career. The four-time Cup champion leads all active drivers in consecutive starts, and is second on the all-time list behind Ricky Rudd.
Gordon sees Rudd's "Ironman" record of 788 consecutive starts as too distant for him to consider breaking. “Never say never; but that to me is like David Pearson’s 105 wins. It’s too far out there. You have to get closer before you can think realistically about those things. I never dreamed I’d make 700 consecutive starts."
There's an asterisk next to Gordon's name on that list, one that will take a while for any other driver to erase. Every single one of his starts was for the same team, the same organization and the same number. Since Nov. 15, 1992, every Winston Cup, Nextel Cup or Sprint Cup race that's been run, Jeff Gordon was in it for Hendrick Motorsports driving the No. 24 Chevy.
Gordon, who turns 42 in August and is in his 21st season of Cup racing, has earned 87 of the Hendrick Motorsports' 212 Cup wins, four of the organization's 10 Cup championships and he encouraged owner Rick Hendrick to hire five-time champions Jimmie Johnson. So to say that Hendrick owes his level of success to Gordon is not an exaggeration.
Yet Gordon, always humble and gracious, thanks Hendrick.
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"And I’m proud of not just the record that I have of the number of wins and top fives and top 10s, but to do 700 consecutive [starts]. There are other guys who have done it, but it’s not an easy thing to do. But I've been fortunate that along the way my main focus was not getting to 700; it was going out there to win and be competitive and that’s because of Hendrick Motorsports."
What about those top fives and top 10s? In 699 races, Gordon scored 299 top fives, an astounding 42.77 percent. Top tens? That's 416 for an amazing 59.5 percent. In 20 full-time seasons he's finished out of the top ten in points only twice: 1993 and 2005. That consistency earned a staggering $132,122,663 in winnings - the all-time record in NASCAR.
That's money in the bank for Gordon, who credits his on-track rival Dale Earnhardt Sr. with helping him negotiate a contract that pays dividends for beings successful. "He was making a lot of money and he was investing it," Gordon said. "He certainly helped me look at contracts and licensing and protecting your likeness and controlling those rights and all those things. It’s turned into a big business.
"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. To me, these days, because I have a lifetime contract with Hendrick, I don’t talk contracts with anybody anymore. It’s like this is what I agreed to and I don’t discuss it."
Gordon recalled, “Back in those days, contract negotiations were just being talked about among the drivers all the time; you know, what’d you do, how’d you get this and what do you think about this structure or that structure. So Dale really helped me in the way I like to structure my contract, which I have today, where it’s a percentage of the income. Some of these guys I feel like get it before they've ever earned it. My first contract was not very much. I had to go earn it, and then I got a second contract that was really good."
It seems appropriate that career-start 700 comes at Darlington, a track where Gordon has won seven times, the last in 2007.
“I’m excited it’s happening here at Darlington," he said. "This has been such a special track to me over the years ... it’s such a great weekend for me, personally, to accomplish that. Obviously there has been a lot of effort over the years from the team to a lot of different people; crew chiefs and pit crew members have contributed to those 700 starts. So, I’m very proud of that and excited about the weekend.”