Numbers make Gordon odds on favorite at Darlington
by Pete McCole

March 15, 2003

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If you had to pick a favorite for this weekend’s Carolina Dodge Dealer’s 400 at Darlington Raceway, Jeff Gordon would be a good bet.

A six time winner at Darlington, Gordon leads all active drivers in victories at the track, including five victories in the Southern 500, tying him with Cale Yarborough for first all-time in the Labor Day classic.

Gordon's stats at Darlington are impressive.

Along with his six victories, Gordon also has 11 top-five's, 14 top-10's and has led at least one lap in all but three of his 20 career starts. He has led 1,299 laps, the most among all active drivers.

In September on 1997, Gordon became only the second driver to win the Winston Million, winning at Daytona and Charlotte before clinching the award at Darlington.

It wasn’t always that easy for Gordon at Darlington. In his first five starts at the track, he managed only one top 10 finish.

“We didn’t have the finishes we would have liked in our first few races here, but I’ve always enjoyed racing here,” Gordon said. “We ran well but either had mechanical problems or I knocked the fenders off the car.”

Darlington has a reputation for reeking havoc on drivers, rookies and veterans alike. The tracks egg-shape design and tight turns sent many drivers scraping the turn four wall, putting a famous “Darlington Stripe” on the right rear quarter panel, earning Darlington the nickname the track “Too Tough To Tame.”

“It’s still to tough to tame,” Gordon said. “You have to respect the track every lap and take what it gives you. If you try and take more than it will allow, you can count on a black stripe on the side of your car at the very least.

“It is a track that you have to have the utmost respect for. You have to race the racetrack. No matter how good your car is it's never going to be perfect in both ends of the racetrack because of the shape of the track.”

Gordon’s first top 10 finish of the 2003 season, last week at Atlanta Motor Speedway, moved the four-time NASCAR Winston Cup Champion up 12 positions in the points standings; entering Sunday’s race in eighth place, 141 points behind leader Matt Kenseth.

“Our first two races weren't spectacular, but they weren't catastrophic.” Gordon said, “Vegas was definitely one that it will take us a while to make up for. We're glad that we had a strong run at Atlanta. In some ways, we needed that run to get us on track and to gain some points.”

“Darlington is a track that can just reach out and bite you at any time, but it's certainly been a good one for us. I'm excited that we've come off of a strong finish at Atlanta (2nd) and can carry some momentum to a track that has such good stats for us.”

The next six races will be Gordon’s best chance to move up further in the standings, as the Winston Cup series pays visits to some of Gordon’s most successful tracks.

Of the six races coming up in the next few weeks, Gordon has two or more victories at four of them, including five victories at Bristol Motor Speedway alone.

“It's nice being in the top 10 in points now - knowing that we're going to some tracks like Darlington and Bristol and even Texas that were good tracks for us last year.” Gordon said, “We feel like we can really make some gains on them at some of these tracks coming up.

“I look at this point in the season last year, where we came into some tracks where we coulda, woulda, shoulda capitalized on but unfortunately weren't able to do that. I hope that this time we can make those things different and come out with some great finishes and hopefully a win.”

Darlington’s spring race date has been mentioned as one of the dates that could be moved to another facility in 2004 under a revamped schedule.

Given his past success at the track, Gordon would hate to see that happen, but he says he understands the sport needs to move to other venues in order to reach a bigger audience.

“I've always been a big supporter of seeing the sport grow and going to the next level.” Gordon said, “You look at the crowd at Rockingham - and we'll see what it's like this weekend at Darlington - but there are a couple of tracks in the southeast that the sport is starting to grow to a point that it would be beneficial to everyone involved, including the fans, if it went to a venue in another part of the country in a bigger market.”

“I really don't think that any new track should get more than one date. There are a few more cities out there that we can build some racetracks at that would be great for the sport and pick up new fans. I'd like to see us move into some of those areas. New York City, or near there, would be one of them.”

While Gordon’s fifth place qualifying effort makes him a perennial favorite, he has a long way to go before he can lay claim to the best record at Darlington. Although he leads all active drivers with sixth victories at the track, he ranks third on the all-time list, behind the late Dale Earnhardt with nine victories, and the great “Silver Fox”, David Pearson, with 10 Darlington victories. 

The author can be contacted nascar@autoracing1.com

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