Gordon sets NASCAR record with 789th straight start
LOUDON, N.H. (AP) Jeff Gordon kissed his wife and high-fived his two young children on pit road, a part of his life missing when he made his Cup debut in 1992.
What has been familiar for all 23 years of Gordon's career was starting a NASCAR race in the No. 24 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports.
He's never missed one - and now he's NASCAR's new Iron Man.
Gordon's latest milestone in a surefire Hall of Fame career came Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway when he set the NASCAR record with his 789th consecutive start. The 44-year-old Gordon passed Ricky Rudd for the record. Rudd set the mark in 2002 when he broke Terry Labonte's streak of 655 consecutive races.
''Jeff's a good guy, so if someone's going to break the record, better him than not one of your favorites,'' Rudd said by phone to The Associated Press. ''I've done my time. People still remember me. I may not be Iron Man 1. Maybe I'm Iron Man 2 now.''
Gordon will retire at the end of the season and shift in 2016 into the Fox broadcast booth.
The four-time Cup champion'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.
Should Gordon make every start the rest of the season, he'll have 797 consecutive starts.
Gordon has four series championships and his 92 wins have him third on the career list, trailing only Hall of Famers Richard Petty (200) and David Pearson (105).
Gordon and his family took a parade lap around the New Hampshire track in a duck boat usually reserved for Boston's champions.
''It's rare that we get the team and my whole family and they get to ride around the track with me like that, so that was very special,'' Gordon said.
Gordon's first race came in the last one for Petty, now a team owner. The Atlanta race was won by another Hall of Famer in Bill Elliott, whose son Chase will replace Gordon next season at Hendrick Motorsports.
Gordon was saluted Sunday by baseball's Iron Man, Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. Ripken started 2,632 straight games for the Baltimore Orioles - like Gordon, he set the streak with one team.
''Congratulations to Jeff on an amazing career,'' Ripken said. ''His love of his sport shows in the way he races and the fact he is about to become the `Iron Man' of racing. His ability to compete at the highest level of such a demanding sport for so long is a testament to his passion and skill.''
Rudd, who had 23 wins and never won a championship, methodically built his streak from 1981 to 2005 and won at least one race a season from 1983 to 1998.
Rudd, who once taped his swollen eyes open so he could drive, said he never thought any driver from his era would last long enough to break his record.
''I knew it was possible, but with the kids that come in today because they're so young,'' Rudd said.
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. Team owner Rick Hendrick even had backup driver Regan Smith on standby.
Gordon started and gutted out all 400 laps.
Rudd said Gordon has benefited from racing in an era where the cars and tracks are safer.
''You have to pat NASCAR on the back for catching up on getting these cars safer,'' Rudd said. ''For me, that's the one thing that will make the record more beatable in the future. It seems like it would be a rarer situation where a guy would get a concussion compared to years ago.''
New Hampshire was a fitting venue for Gordon 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 complete at the 1.058-mile track. He finished seventh on Sunday and is 10th in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship standings.