Gordon's 700th start has meaning

DARLINGTON, S.C. -- It's often sad watching sports stars play out their careers in almost total obscurity, without having a chance to go out on top.

It's almost painful watching them go through the motions and compete at a level far below that which made them stars, in some cases just to collect a paycheck.

It happens in all sports.

Nobody wants to be that guy.

Jeff Gordon certainly doesn't.

"I remember watching Darrell [Waltrip] and other guys run in the back in their last year or two, and I think every driver at a young age says, 'I don't want to end my career like that,'" the four-time Sprint Cup champion says.

So when it was announced that Saturday night's race at Darlington Raceway would be the 700th career start for Gordon, it wasn't the number of races that seemed most significant -- even though the number is huge, with only 15 other drivers having achieved it.

It was the level at which the 41-year-old Hendrick Motorsports driver continues to compete.

Not that Gordon is turning heads the way teammate and defending Southern 500 winner Jimmie Johnson is, with JJ leading the points with two wins in the first 10 races.

He's not even performing at the level of another 41-year-old, Matt Kenseth, who is fourth in points with a pair of victories.

But Gordon is far from riding around in the back. He's 13th in points, which isn't bad when you consider that he has had two finishes of 34th or worse because of a crash or a parts failure.

Now he comes to a track where few have been better. His seven wins are third on Darlington's all-time list, behind David Pearson with 10 and Dale Earnhardt with nine.

He'll start eighth, which, with his experience on arguably the series' toughest circuit, makes him a legitimate threat to win.

"I appreciate that you still consider me being a threat for the championship and wins because, lately, just trying to get top-10s has been a struggle," Gordon says. "I know that this team is capable of it, and I feel like I am.

"I'm thrilled with the way things are still continuing to go for me because I do feel like we have opportunities to win races. We've had mediocre at best results, and we're still getting close to the top 10. So I'm pretty optimistic that we can get things going really well the second half of the season."

In other words, become even more relevant.

That's the goal of every athlete. It certainly is for pole winner Kurt Busch. The Furniture Row Racing driver is trying to remain relevant in a sport in which he was on top in 2004 with Roush Fenway Racing but hasn't been close since losing his ride at Penske Racing after the 2011 season.

But Busch is seven years younger than Gordon. He has plenty of time to make his career relevant again.

Gordon doesn't know when he'll hang it up, only that, when he does, he wants to go out on top.

So 700 isn't the big number for him, either. Bobby Labonte drove in his 700th career race last weekend at Talladega with little fanfare. That's because the 2000 Cup champion hasn't won a race since 2003. Labonte has had only two top-5s in the past seven years.

When Waltrip made his 700th career start, he was in a string of 251 consecutive winless races.

Gordon, as mediocre as he's been this year, has two top-5s and was leading late when he was an innocent crash victim at Bristol. He had two wins, 11 top-5s, 18 top-10s and two poles a year ago in finishing 10th in the final standings.

But, as even Gordon admits, there are no guarantees how long he'll continue to do this, even though he has a lifetime contract with owner Rick Hendrick.

So even the lifetime Gordon haters should appreciate what they're seeing at this stage of his career.

"I just look at what are our sponsors and how they signed and how am I feeling and how competitive am I and does Rick want me in the seat and am I valuable to the organization?" Gordon says. "Once you get those questions out of the way during the offseason, then you just go and drive the wheels off of it and do your best as a driver.

"So I pretty much look at one year at a time at this stage. I don't know if that's going to take me five more years or one more year. I really don't know."

As for his 700 starts, they're consecutive. The record for NASCAR is 788, set by Ricky Rudd.

Across other major sports -- Major League Baseball, NBA, NFL and NHL -- Gordon's streak is hands down No. 1 on the active list.

His closest competition comes from Jay Bouwmeester of the NHL's St. Louis Blues with 635 in a row. In the NFL, Washington Redskins linebacker London Fletcher leads the way with 240 straight.

What Gordon is doing ranks with Brett Favre's 321 consecutive starts in the NFL because he continues to perform at a high level.

"He's got such great talent," HMS teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. says. "Another thing about Jeff that helps his longevity, he knows what he needs out of a race car, a race team and the people around him. He's just really smart about those things to know how to keep the team jelling well and meshing well with him.

"He's been around this a long time, and I expect him to be competitive a long time."

That is Gordon's goal. He wants to go out as competitive as he was when Denny Hamlin's mother purchased her son a membership in the Jeff Gordon Fan Club in 1994.

Hamlin was 13 at the time.

"He's obviously changed this sport dramatically," Hamlin says.

And as far as Hamlin's fan club membership, Gordon jokes: "He's got a lifetime membership."

But Gordon is no joke, particularly when he comes to Darlington. He tops active drivers here in wins with seven, in top-5s with 18 and in laps led with 1,720 -- 903 more than any other driver.

If he could have handpicked a place to make a milestone start, this egg-shaped layout would be it.

"This has been such a special track to me over the years," says Gordon, whose 87 career wins trail only Richard Petty with 200 and Pearson with 105. "I feel like just showing up here, even though the tires still may be a little too hard for the track, the track is starting to get like old Darlington was, and I like that.

"I like slipping and sliding around. I'd like to see the tires wear a little bit more."

But what he likes most is coming to Darlington with a chance to be relevant.

There's nothing sad about that.