LOUDON, N.H. (AP) Jeff Gordon had a knack for pinpointing the unprotected wall when the No. 24 crashed.
His car was shot.
Gordon rarely was.
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Sure, he bruised his ribs in 1999 at Texas Motor Speedway. He had a minor headache when the car lost its brakes, sliced through the grass and mud and slammed the wall in 2006 at Pocono Raceway. His 2008 wreck at Las Vegas tore the radiator out of the car and left it a mangled mess.
Gordon always walked away.
And he always slid back in the seat for the next race. Track after track. Year after year.
Gordon's mettle through a 23-year career long ago solidified him as one of racing's greats. And he's first yet again, NASCAR's new Iron Man.
Without much fuss, Gordon will make his 789th consecutive start Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, passing Ricky Rudd for the record. Rudd, who once used duct tape to keep his swollen eyes open so he could drive, set the mark in 2002 when he broke Terry Labonte's streak of 655 consecutive races.
''I remember when Ricky Rudd did that and Terry Labonte and other guys that had these incredible records and streaks. I thought, `Man they are old. I will never be around long enough to set that record or achieve that,''' Gordon said. ''Now here I am. Yeah, I'm old, too, but now I appreciate what those guys did and the effort they put into it and the commitment.''
The 44-year-old Gordon, married with two young children, will retire this season and shift into the Fox broadcast booth.
He has four championships, 92 career wins, spent his entire career in the No. 24 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports and leaves a legacy as the face of the sport as it swept into popularity a generation ago.
But before the TV gigs, the charity work and the ''Four Time'' nickname, there was race No. 1.
Gordon's streak began with his Cup debut on Nov. 15, 1992, at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He has never missed a race and holds the record for the longest consecutive starts streak from the beginning of a career.
His first race came in the last one for Hall of Famer Richard Petty. The race was won by another Hall of Famer in Bill Elliott, whose son Chase will replace Gordon next season at Hendrick Motorsports.
Gordon's streak is all the more impressive because he started in an era before 36 races a season was the norm. Gordon raced when the schedule was 30, 31, 32, 33 and 34 races before it moved to 36 in 2001.
Rudd, who had 23 wins and never won a championship, methodically built his streak in the 1980s with as few as 28 races in a season.
''When I retired, I didn't think anybody would be stupid enough to hang around that long to beat that record,'' Rudd told ''Race Hub.'' ''No disrespect to Jeff. He's still running good, he's still winning races.''
Should Gordon finish the season, he'll have 797 consecutive starts.
Who can catch him?
Matt Kenseth is second with 565, but at 43 he seems unlikely to race a full schedule until he's 50 when he could pass Gordon.
Many of today's drivers are starting younger and racing in a time of safer stock cars. Consider Joey Logano, who at only 25 has already started every race since 2009 and has 11 wins, including a Daytona 500 championship. With a ride for an ownership heavyweight in Roger Penske, Logano could cruise toward the mark in about 15 years and would still only be 40.
''It's not really on my radar yet, but at least I'm on track and we'll see what happens,'' Logano said, laughing.
Injuries have sidelined many of NASCAR's biggest stars. Kyle Busch could win the championship this season even after missing 11 races with a broken right leg and left foot. Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Larson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. all have missed races in their careers because of assorted ailments.
Gordon's durability has been as remarkable as anything else. He's had a balky back for the latter part of his career and it nearly ended the streak last season at the Coca-Cola 600. He cut short his practice runs because of back spasms and there was some concern if he could race. Hendrick even had backup driver Regan Smith on standby.
Gordon started and gutted out all 400 laps.
''I think that certainly stands out in my mind when I'm lying on a table and they are injecting big long needles into my back so that I could race on Sunday,'' he said. ''When you look back on it you go, `You know that's kind of crazy. Why did I do that? I probably didn't need to do that.''
He did it because he loves the thrill of racing.
''How he ran that Charlotte race, I don't know,'' team owner Rick Hendrick told The Associated Press. ''And how he ran for weeks after that, getting therapy before and after the race, and the pain he had, and to still run as good as he ran, I mean, he is the man. He is super tough.''
Gordon, facing only the fourth winless season of his career, is third in career victories, trailing only Petty (200) and David Pearson (105).
New Hampshire is a fitting venue for him to become the new Iron Man. He is the only driver to compete in all 41 Cup races there and leads all drivers in top-five finishes, top-10s, laps led and laps completed (11,967) at the 1.058-mile track. He has one more shot at a fifth championship, and that's foremost in his mind, but the streak is hardly to be dismissed.
''This is not a stat that I have ever thought about,'' he said.'' But now that I've reached it, I'm thinking about it a lot and I think it's one of the most significant stats that I've had.''