Gordon ready for 700th start at Darlington

Jeff Gordon is expected to reach another milestone in his already illustrious NASCAR career this weekend at Darlington Raceway.

Gordon, at age 41, will make his 700th career start -- all consecutively -- in the Sprint Cup Series. He will become the 15th driver in NASCAR's top circuit to compete in 700 or more races.

"I've been fortunate to race this long and have the type of career I've had," Gordon said. "It's really cool to see that this will be my 700th start, but it's not something I really paid attention to. It's hard to believe I've run that many - especially consecutively."

Since his Cup debut on Nov. 15, 1992 at Atlanta, Gordon has evolved from the "Wonder Boy," a nickname given to him by Dale Earnhardt in 1995, to one of the most accomplished drivers in the sport. The four-time Sprint Cup champion has scored 87 wins, including three Daytona 500 victories, 299 top-5 finishes, 416 top-10s and 72 poles in 699 career starts. He also has a NASCAR-record $131,087,923 in career winnings to date.

Darlington has been one of Gordon's best racetracks over the years. His seven victories here is tops among all active drivers. David Pearson holds the track record with 10 wins, followed by Earnhardt with nine.

Gordon has recorded 18 top-five finishes, 21 top-10s and three poles in 32 starts at Darlington as well. His total of 1,720 laps led around this 1.366- mile "egg-shaped" oval is best among active drivers.

"I always look forward to going to Darlington," he said. "It's a great track. It's fast and exciting. It's not the same track it used to be 10 years ago, but it's still one of those tracks where you have to push hard, be patient. We've run good there the last couple of times, so I'm looking forward to it."

Six of Gordon's seven victories at Darlington have come in the Southern 500. He won this race consecutively from 1995-98 and then took the checkered flag for the 2002 and '07 events. Gordon won the 400-mile spring race here in 1996. He finished 35th in last year's 500-miler at Darlington.

Right now, Gordon is 14th in the point standings. His Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jimmie Johnson, holds a sizeable 41-point lead over second-place Carl Edwards.

Johnson is the defending race winner at Darlington. When the series competed here one year ago, he gave team owner Rick Hendrick his 200th win in Cup. Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports also ended a 16-race winless streak.

"I know we were all trying very hard to get that 200th win for Rick," Johnson said. "All of our teams were close multiple times. Martinsville would have been extremely fitting, obviously, but Darlington has a great feel to it too. And, to understand some of Rick's early memories and the first race he ever went to watch being there at Darlington, it ties it all in.

"The history that track has in our sport, and that of Hendrick Motorsports and the history of NASCAR, it fits very well. It's a tough, tough racetrack to get around. I'm proud of every win I have there, and especially that 200th win."

Gordon delivered HMS its 50th victory in March 1996 at Darlington. He also gave the racing organization its 100th win in June 2001 at Michigan. Gordon shares ownership of Johnson's No. 48 team with Hendrick.

"Jeff is an icon of our sport," Johnson said. "When I was young, I bought his diecast car. It sat on a shelf in my room. I didn't know him. I watched him through the Thursday night thunder racing. He gave me hope as a young driver with a different background that I could end up in a stock car. I watched him through all of his amazing seasons. Then I met him and got to know him. He brought me on board, racing against him for wins and championships.

"It's been a wild situation for me, because literally, I was a fan, and then to be able to race against him and all of that, it was kind of mind-blowing. It's been a very cool experience."

Forty-four teams are on the preliminary entry list for the Bojangles's Southern 500.

Series: NASCAR Sprint Cup. Date: Saturday, May 11. Race: Bojangles' Southern 500. Site: Darlington Raceway. Track: 1.366-mile oval. Start time: 6:45 p.m. ET. Laps: 367. Miles: 501.3. 2012 Winner: Jimmie Johnson. Television: FOX. Radio: Motor Racing Network (MRN)/SIRIUS NASCAR Radio.