When Jeff Gordon takes the green flag for Sunday's Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the four-time Sprint Cup Series champion will achieve one of the greatest milestones yet of his illustrious driving career.
Gordon, who comes into the weekend tied with now-retired Ricky Rudd for most consecutive Sprint Cup Series starts, will become NASCAR's new "Iron Man" when he competes for the 789th race in a row in NASCAR's Premier Series,
Gordon, who plans to retire from full-time racing at season's end, has never sat out a race since making his first top series NASCAR start on Nov. 15, 1992 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
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How significant is Gordon's latest accomplishment?
It's been more than 10 years since Rudd, who retired from driving in 2007, seized the "Iron Man" title from Terry Labonte with his 656th consecutive start, which came in the 2005 Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
If Rudd has to give up his crown to someone, he's fine with it being Gordon -- an old teammate and a driver with whom he once memorably locked horns in a race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
"He's got like 10,000 wins and I've got like 23, so we're not exactly in the same category," Rudd said of Gordon, who owns 92 Cup victories. "When I retired I said, 'I don't think anybody's ever going to be stupid enough to hang around that long to beat that (Ironman) record.' No disrespect to Jeff. He does well, he's running good, he can still win races today. It's not easy -- not just with injuries and stuff, but life. Life goes on with or without you, and a lot of sacrifices are made. He's made those same sacrifices, and I have a lot of respect for anybody that can do that."
To put Gordon's and Rudd's streaks -- which currently stand at 788 -- into perspective, consider that the next longest streak among active drivers belongs to Matt Kenseth, who has made 571 consecutive starts. At age 43, Kenseth is unlikely to break Gordon's mark, which will stand at 797 consecutive starts once he takes the checkered flag in the 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
"That streak don't mean a lot except for you've been around for a long time, you're getting older and your fortunate to not get hurt or not be sick a lot, but I guess it means a little bit more than that," Kenseth, the 2003 Sprint Cup Series champion, said on Friday in New Hampshire. "You've got to be competitive obviously to keep a ride and be doing that every week, but it's nothing I really ever set out to do. I don't know. Jeff said he would never catch Ricky and he did, but I don't know that I will race long enough to catch that mark, but who knows?"
One driver who could surpass Gordon's mark somewhere down the road is Joey Logano. But with fewer than 250 starts in NASCAR's top series, the Team Penske driver would need to compete 15 more seasons without missing a race.
"I've got a long ways to go," said Logano on Friday. "Fifteen years. Holy crap. I'm only 25. I guess I have a chance. You never know what's gonna happen or what life will bring you, but congrats to Jeff for what he's accomplished. I don't think people should overlook that. To start that many races consistently is unbelievable. ...
"I have a long ways to go. It's not really on my radar yet, but at least I'm on track, and we'll see what happens."
Probably the closest Gordon ever came to seeing his streak end was in May of last year. Doubtful for the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway after suffering severe back spasms and missing final practice due to intense pain, the veteran driver soldiered on for the full 600-mile distance and finished seventh despite having a relief driver on standby.
"My body is aching a lot more these days than it used to," Gordon, who turned 44 years old on Aug. 4, recently said. "So, there are no guarantees in the world and in racing. It's something that when I look at today and the streak that I'm on currently, it's something I'm very proud of and it's not an easy thing. When you look at those numbers, it's pretty staggering. It's not an easy thing to accomplish. . . . When I think of all the stats that I've achieved in this sport, that would certainly rank right up there.
"The stats that you want to achieve are the ones that you know are very challenging and difficult, and I think it speaks a lot of my commitment and our team's commitment and to safety, and, for me, of staying healthy and strong and focused on being at every single event that I can possible be in."
Alan Gustafson, the crew chief for Gordon's No. 24 team since 2011, has been impressed by his driver's resilience along the way -- particularly over the past few years as age has become more of factor.
"His durability's underrated," Gustafson said. "To have the durability he's had and the competitiveness he's had throughout his career, it's truly amazing and truly one-of-a-kind. I've been fortunate enough to work with Terry Labonte, who was in a similar situation, and I've been around Ricky Rudd, and there's just a different mentality with those guys.
"From their generation and the way they started racing, they're really tough, and there's no other way to put it. Jeff falls in that category. He doesn't get credit for that. He's very polished, he's very professional, he doesn't get that same type of credit that Ricky and Terry and those guys get for the toughness, but he's definitely in that category."
Gustafson attributes Gordon's impressive streak to more than being in top physical condition and being fortunate enough not to suffer an injury that required him to miss a race. Gustafson feels the same way about Labonte, who edged Gordon to win the 1996 Sprint Cup Series title for Hendrick.
"Terry and Jeff, for sure, it's mental toughness," Gustafson said. "They can overcome a lot mentally. They don't quit, they don't have that thought. It never comes to their mind. They're always going to do whatever they've got to do to get themselves in condition to be in the race car, and to me when I think of their toughness, that's what comes to my mind is just the mental toughness that those guys have and their ability to overcome lots of different things. It's a testament to their commitment."