Jeff Gordon chasing historic win at Darlington

Jeff Gordon chasing historic win at Darlington

Jeff Gordon is looking to make a little history this weekend at Darlington Raceway. The four-time Winston Cup champion is the active leader in wins at the historic track and would love to be the man that wins the last Labor Day race at...

Jeff Gordon is looking to make a little history this weekend at Darlington Raceway.

The four-time Winston Cup champion is the active leader in wins at the historic track and would love to be the man that wins the last Labor Day race at Darlington this Sunday (12:30 p.m. ET on NBC). The Southern 500, which has been a September tradition since 1950, will be moved to November as part of NASCAR's re-alignment for the 2004 season.

Jeff Gordon.
Photo by Thomas Chemris.
"Going to Darlington won't really be the same if it's not on this weekend," says Gordon, who shares the Southern 500 record of five wins with Cale Yarborough. "But in my opinion, the tradition is really with Darlington. People are still going to appreciate the history that goes on at Darlington even if the date is moved."

The track has a well-earned reputation for chewing up race cars. The unique egg-shaped oval was designed to accommodate a fishing pond in what is now Turn 4. The end result was two completely different turns and many confused drivers.

Even Gordon, who won four straight September races at Darlington from 1995 to 1998, has been nailed by the tight exit from Turn 4. After starting fifth and dominating most of the March race, Gordon caught a piece of the wall and lost the handling on his #24 Chevy. He finished 33rd while Ricky Craven battled Kurt Busch in a dramatic finale.

"I was out front and all I had to do was keep it out of the wall," Gordon said after the race. "Obviously, that wasn't as easy as I thought it was. I just got in there and it seemed like the right rear just caught it a little bit and sucked the right front in, knocked the toe out and it was over."

Gordon has racked up six wins, five poles and 11 top-5 finishes in 21 races at Darlington -- numbers that would make a career for many drivers on the circuit. But the 32-year-old California native has struggled recently with three consecutive finishes of 28th or worse despite earning two poles, including last weekend at Bristol.

"I'm looking forward to going back there and trying to get back to Victory Lane," says Gordon, who is looking for his first series win since Martinsville in April. "It's been frustrating on one side where the finishes haven't come the way we'd like them to. But at the same time, the performance of the cars and of the team has been going good."

The defending race champion has his work cut out for him. After running seventh in the first practice session, Gordon qualified 14th on Friday. His 167.493 mph lap was nearly 1.5 seconds off of the pace of pole sitter Ryan Newman. It's the furthest back Gordon has started the Southern 500 since his rookie season a decade ago when he finished a career-low 22nd.

"There are many drivers out there that will tell you they love it and hate it at the same time because it's a great race track," says Gordon. "But at the same time, it reaches out and bites you when you least expect it.

"What is amazing about Darlington is how little it's changed and how well it has held on to its history."

Notebook:

Dale Jarrett is one driver who will be emotional about the last Labor Day race at Darlington. The second generation Winston Cup racer watched his father Ned win the Southern 500 in 1965. "I've known very little else on Labor Day weekend than the Southern 500," says the younger Jarrett, who won back-to-back spring races at Darlington in 1997 and 1998. "I've been going there every year since I was born and when you talk about tradition and how things got started in our sport, you certainly think of Darlington and the Southern 500."

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jeff Gordon , Dale Jarrett , Kurt Busch , Ryan Newman , Ricky Craven , Cale Yarborough