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NASCAR: Gordon on verge of tying consecutive starts mark

It's a bit mind-boggling at first glance. Now in his final season and his final Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Jeff Gordon has never missed a race in his Sprint Cup career. Since his first start in the 1992 season finale at the Atlanta Motor Sp...

It's a bit mind-boggling at first glance. Now in his final season and his final Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Jeff Gordon has never missed a race in his Sprint Cup career. Since his first start in the 1992 season finale at the Atlanta Motor Speedway on the same day Richard Petty ran his final race, Gordon has competed for 23 full seasons without missing a start.

On Sunday, he's due to start the first race of the Chase at Chicagoland Speedway, which will tie him with Ricky Rudd for all-time consecutive starts at 788. The following week in New Hampshire, he can claim the record for himself. There may be eight drivers ahead of him who have more career starts, but they'll never have as many consecutive starts as Gordon - or be able to say they didn't miss a single race in their careers.

The only driver who might rack up a similar record is Jimmie Johnson, who is currently 293 races behind Gordon. Or, if Matt Kenseth elects to compete for another six seasons without missing a race, he could catch Gordon's consecutive start mark.

But after a winless season, can the 43-year-old Gordon survive this year's Chase? That will likely boil down to his Hendrick Motorsport team, which has been struggling. Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s fifth place at the Richmond International Raceway last weekend gave the four-car team only its fourth Top 5 finish in nine races.

"There's no secret that we're off right now as an organization," said Gordon in a meeting with the media prior to the Richmond event. "We're searching a little bit. We're working extremely hard."

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Whether the work pays off over the course of the next 10 Chase races may be problematical, especially for a team that has been winless thus far this season - compared to four victories by Gordon's Hendrick teammate Johnson and two by Earnhardt Jr.

But stranger things have happened in the Chase. Ryan Newman won nary a race in 2014, but was within a car length of winning it all in the finale at the Miami-Homestead Speedway. Tony Stewart went into the Chase winless in 2011 before ripping off five victories and edging Carl Edwards for the title.

"I hope we can do something spectacular in the last 10 races and do like Newman did last year," said Gordon. "It has been done before, not in this format, with Tony Stewart."

Stewart won under the original 10-race format. The current elimination formula brings an enormous amount of pressure no matter what kind of season a team has had.

The pressure "starts right in Chicago," said Gordon, who joked about it eating holes in his stomach now that the three-race elimination rounds and the Homestead finale have taken the place of the 10-race run. "In Chicago, before you go, 'OK I'd like to get this race off to a good start. But if it's not a good start, there's several more races where we can get ourselves in good shape.' You can have one mulligan. But when they don't have that many races before they start eliminating, you don't have that mulligan. You don't have time. It adds more pressure. You have to be on your A game."

It would be unlikely for Gordon and his team to suddenly come out of the gate strongly in Chicago, given the recent domination by the teams of Joe Gibbs and Roger Penske and the strong season by Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch. Gordon is more likely to follow the formula of Newman last year, trying to be consistent and not necessarily relying on victories, which would mean an automatic pass to the next round.

"There's a couple of different strategies," said Gordon. "When the Chase starts, it's everybody's intention, at least those who think they are contenders, to say, 'Man, we want to come out of the gate and show everybody who've you got to beat to win this championship.' You've got that and then you've got, 'You know, we've got the ability to just be super consistent and make our way all the way to Homestead by being really solid. We may not be the best team out there, but watch what we can do.'"

The new format is a game changer for the drivers, said Gordon. "I remember last year starting at Chicago, maybe because we thought we did have a shot, carrying more load on my shoulders and feeling the tension in the garage area with those in the Chase and with my team more than ever before. It seems like with that format you can't afford to make any mistakes."

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At least as long as he qualifies in Chicago and New Hampshire, Gordon will be the king of consecutive starts, which is saying a lot in a high-risk sport.

And it's not like Gordon backed into the record. Including his first race in Atlanta, Gordon crashed or hit the wall hard enough to damage his car beyond repair eight times during his first 31 races. Later in his career, he nearly took the old boiler plate wall down in Turn 1 at the Pocono International Raceway and was among the first to discover the school of hard knocks in Turn 4 at the Texas Motor Speedway.

More recently, it's been a running joke that if a wall needed a SAFER barrier, Gordon's car would find it. He's survived it all and won four titles. "It seems like just yesterday," said Gordon.

A fifth title remains a longshot, but Gordon will go out in fitting style even if he simply races to the end of the season.

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By Jonathan Ingram

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