The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to Darlington (S.C.) Raceway for night racing with Saturday night's running of the Bojangles' Southern 500. This year's Darlington race marks the 10-year anniversary of one of the most memorable NASCAR finish in recent history. It was at Darlington in March 2003 that Ricky Craven drove to his final Sprint Cup Series win, beating Kurt Busch, then driving the No. 97 Roush Fenway Racing Ford by a scant 0.002 seconds, the closest margin of victory since NASCAR implemented electronic scoring in 1993.
"To tell the story as many times as I have over the last 10 years, it gets better and better each year," Busch said. "It just puts a smile on your face when you know you gave it your all and the guy that you were racing, a competitor, he gave it his all, and the two of us put on a show. That's what the fans want to see, and at the end of the day, two guys taking the gloves off, going after it and producing such a solid finish, I think we both knew right away we were part of something special."
Busch will be among the 43 drivers taking the green flag on Saturday night, this time around driving the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Ford. But while Busch's Darlington memories may return to that near win 10 years ago, Jeff Gordon, driver of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet is sure to have a milestone of his own in mind.
The green flag at Darlington on Saturday will mark Gordon's 700th-career Sprint Cup Series start. And there may be no better place for Gordon to celebrate such a career milestone that Darlington, especially when it comes to his chance for a win.
At Darlington Speedway, it's hard to bet against Gordon, After all, he's made seven trips to victory lane there, the most of any active driver on the circuit. That tally includes four-straight wins in the Southern 500 between 1995 and 1998. While he hasn't won at Darlington the last few years, he still runs well at the track and enjoys the yearly visit to Darlington.
"We've run well here the last couple of times, so I'm looking forward to the event," Gordon said."
The race at Darlington on Saturday won't just be the 700th-career start for Gordon, it'll be the 700th-straight, as the four-time Cup champion hasn't failed to start a race since making his debut in the final race of the season at Atlanta Motor Speedway in November 1992.
"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."
But this weekend's race will be the first full race back for Denny Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
Hamlin started last weekend's race at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, but gave the seat up to fill-in Brian Vickers during the last caution. Hamlin heads into Darlington on a mission to claim as many wins and points as possible before the cutoff to get into the Chase for the Sprint Cup at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway come September.
Hamlin has tasted victory at Richmond, winning there in 2010. When the circuit last visited Darlington about this time a year ago, Hamlin was second to none other than five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who just happens to be Gordon's Hendrick Motorsports teammate, driving the No. 48 Chevrolet. Gordon's most recent Darlington victory -- 2007.
And speaking of Johnson, he's a three-time Darlington winner, himself. Add to that the fact that he's the most recent Darlington winner, and he's also sure to be one to watch. It just so happens that Johnson's win a year ago was the 200th-career Cup win for car owner Rick Hendrick.
“Very cool to go back," Johnson said. "I know we were all trying very hard to get that 200th win for Rick. And all 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.”