Monday, September 28, 2015

Jeff Gordon: From Wonder Boy to NASCAR's Iron Man

Credit: Todd Warshaw/NASCAR via Getty Images
Jerry Gappens, left, Executive Vice President and General Manager at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, presents Jeff Gordon with an award for earning the record for all-time most consecutive starts.

Jeff Gordon made NASCAR history Sunday afternoon when he took the green flag at New Hampshire Motor Speedway for his 789th consecutive career Sprint Cup start.

In a career filled with records, Gordon says this one's got a special ring to it, though.

“When I think of things I’ve accomplished in NASCAR, the Iron Man record is one I think ‘…damn, that’s a tough thing to do,’ especially when you see what happened to Kyle (Busch) or Denny (Hamlin) or Tony (Stewart)," said Gordon. "It could be an illness or a broken bone or an accident or a lot of things that can easily take you out of one race."

Barring something more severe and serious than anything he’s experienced in the last 23 years, when the season ends in eight more races, he’ll do what no other driver in the modern era has done: start every race of every season in his Cup career with the same owner and essentially the same primary sponsor.

Sure, in the last few years Gordon has worn the AARP livery, and occasionally Panasonic’s. This season 3M came on board. And yes, DuPont sold the Automotive Coatings unit and it was re-branded as Axalta - but it’s essentially the same company, and they remained with Gordon and Hendrick Motorsports. So for all intents and purposes, Gordon’s had the same sponsor for his whole career, even in his debut the last race of the 1992 season. 

Speaking to the press on Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Gordon acknowledged the role that such security played.

“I never had to think twice about whether I was going to have a ride. It was how good of a performance or result are we going to get that day. I’ve never had to worry about whether we had a sponsor or not. We have always been very secure in that instance.”  

Gordon also said that his record of consecutive starts didn’t begin with his debut in what was then the Winston Cup Series.

“Since I was five years old, I have missed only one race that I was scheduled to do, and that was because of poison ivy,” Gordon stated.

“You have to understand if you are a sprint car racer, you are racing 100 times a year. Coming into the Cup level and racing 30 times a year, now 38 times a year, and it’s a lot more work that goes into 38 weeks than what went into 100 races in a sprint car. But, still, to me if there was a race and I was scheduled to do it, then I was going to do everything I could to be healthy and to be focused and to give 100 percent. I think just by having that mindset and that effort, that is what got me here. It’s not that I was looking at ‘hey I want to set an Iron Man record’ or anything like that.”

In claiming the Iron Man title, Gordon surpassed the record of Ricky Rudd, 788 consecutive starts. Rudd would still hold the record had he not stepped away from racing in 2005. He returned in 2007, running 31 of 36 races, before walking away for good. 

Known as “Rooster,” Rudd was arguably the toughest driver of the modern era. After a crash in the 1984 Busch Clash left his face swollen and battered, Rudd used tape to keep his eyes open enough to see to race in the Daytona 500. He finished in seventh. The next week, using Band-Aids® instead of tape, he won the race at Richmond.

Behind Rudd, the 2000 Winston Cup Champion Bobby Labonte had 704 consecutive starts, despite having broken his shoulder blade twice. His streak ended in 2013 when after a cycling injury, he stepped aside and let AJ Allmendinger drive the No. 47 for a couple of races. Allmendinger took over full-time duties the next season, and Labonte has only run six races since then.

Rusty Wallace’s streak of consecutive starts ended in 2005, too, when he retired as a driver. Wallace now has a career in broadcasting, but his 697 starts should keep him at fourth on the all-time list for some time to come.  

The older Labonte brother, Terry, in addition to winning championships in 1984 and 1996, started 655 consecutive races from 1979 to 2000. The Ice Man, as Labonte was known, was also the Iron Man until his streak ended at Indianapolis in 2000. Inner ear injuries sustained at Watkins Glen sidelined Labonte for two races.  

Texas Terry held the Iron Man title longer than he’d anticipated, though. Before the 2001 Daytona 500, Labonte and Dale Earnhardt worked together on special paint schemes in anticipation of Earnhardt eclipsing his record later that season at Talladega. Instead, Earnhardt’s string of consecutive starts was frozen at 648 with his death in the 2001 Daytona 500.

Jeff Burton (626), Mark Martin (621) and Ken Schrader (579) hold the seventh, eighth and ninth places on the all-time list. None of them are active drivers. The only active driver in the top 10 for all-time consecutive starts is Matt Kenseth, who won Sunday in his 566th start.

At 43 years old, Kenseth shows no signs of slowing down, but he’d have to race another six seasons to surpass Gordon. Whether that's likely to happen is anyone's guess.

“I’m curious to see what happens with the more modern era of safer cars, safer race tracks and how that affects what drivers do in the future,” said Gordon. “Will they not race as long and they not get to it? Or will they blow this number out of the water and it won’t even be significant? I don’t know.”

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