So long, lady in black: Jeff Gordon faces Darlington finale


DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) — Jeff Gordon hopes to make his last Southern 500 as a full-time driver as memorable as the rest of his career at Darlington Raceway.

Gordon is third all-time with seven Darlington victories, including a record six Southern 500s. He’d love nothing more than to lock up a spot in Sprint Cup’s championship chase with another checkered flag at the track “Too Tough To Tame.”

“That would be huge,” said Gordon, who sits a precarious 13th in points for the 16-driver Chase playoff. “I feel like we were in pretty comfortable position a month ago and we’ve just had some misfortunes.”

A win at Darlington on Sunday night would be a welcome balm for Gordon’s winless team and ease his worries about limping through the final 10 races with little to race for in his farewell season.

“We definitely feel pressure and it’s a little bit stressful right now being on the bubble,” Gordon said Friday. “I feel like we’ve performed well enough to be securely in by points, but I can’t say we’ve performed well enough to be real confident coming in here that we’re going to be one of the cars to beat.”

That has not happened often this season for Gordon, the 44-year-old four-time Sprint Cup champion who announced earlier this year he would step away from his longtime, No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports ride. He has come close — a third place at Bristol in April and at Pocono last month are his best showings this year — yet has not shown the magic and skill of last year’s run when he won four races and finished sixth in the Chase.

Some have wondered if the weekly celebration of Gordon’s career at each NASCAR stop has led to distractions.

“Honestly, I’ve had so many distractions over the years, far more distractions than I’ve had this year, and performed well,” Gordon said.

Particularly at Darlington.

He first won his first Southern 500 in 1995 when he was still an unproven driver on the way to his first Sprint Cup title. Gordon thwarted the Winston Million bonus try of Dale Jarett by winning a second straight Southern 500 in 1996, then became part of history himself a year later when he collected the $1 million prize.

Gordon took an unprecedented fourth Southern 500 in a row in 1998, then tied Cale Yarborough’s mark of five in 2002.

In 2007, Gordon moved in front with his sixth Southern 500 win, getting through the final laps with an engine ready to burst. Gordon recalled how his radiator blew up when he took the car to victory lane, one of his most memorable Darlington moments.

His sister, Kim, was on hand that day, Gordon recalled, and had not ever seen her brother win. When word reached the family of Gordon’s engine problems, they left Darlington early to beat the traffic, then were stunned when he finished out front in one piece.

“You can imagine. My stepdad got in a lot of trouble that day as they were listening to it on the radio driving out of here,” Gordon said with a laugh.

Defending Xfinity Series champion Chase Elliott will slip into the No. 24 driver seat next season after Gordon leaves. He has followed Gordon’s legacy of success at Darlington and elsewhere and hopes he can one day live up to that.

“This is not the only place he’s dominated at,” Elliott said. “He’s obviously made history at a lot of places and that separates him from a lot of the guys.”

Gordon said the reason he’s succeeded at Darlington is perhaps why the success overall has subsided in recent years. Darlington demands patience to wait out competitors before striking, he said.

“These days, you are aggressive from the time they drop the green,” Gordon said. “The cars have tons of downforce, the tires don’t fall off and you just go for it. This weekend I think it’s going to go back a little bit to the old school way of Darlington and I hope that suits my style and what we have as a race team.”

By Pete Iacobelli

AP Sports Writer

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