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Jeff Gordon: No. 700...while David Ragan tries to find time himself to celebrate...

Jeff Gordon: No. 700...while David Ragan tries to find time himself to celebrate...

Beautiful Friday at Darlington (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)




   By Mike Mulhern

   Now here's one for ya: Jeff Gordon -- remember when they called him 'the kid'? -- is about to make his 700th NASCAR start.
   Only Ricky Rudd has a better streak, 788, until he sat out the 2006 season.
   Of course when it comes to all-time races, Richard Petty is far ahead of the pack, with 1,185.
   Gordon's mark means he hasn't missed a race since his first one at the end of 1992.
   Is he going for Rudd's mark?
   That would keep Gordon busy through 2014 and 2015. Not much of a question for the 41-year-old racer, in a sport where Mark Martin, at 55, keeps on rolling.
    But Gordon says he's not looking that far ahead. "That, to me, is like David Pearson's 105 wins -- it's too far out there. You have to get closer before you can think realistically of something like that.
   "I never thought I'd make 700 consecutive starts. It's just amazing for me to try to swallow.
    "I'm just enjoying the moment right now."


   Jeff Gordon (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    Gordon just wants to get through this season, win some races, and make the playoffs.
   And, uh, sell that condo: : http://nyti.ms/10gKEYF
    Remember when Richard Petty would sit on pit wall after a race for two hours or more, signing autographs for anyone who wanted one?
   Remember the Wood brothers carried David Pearson's race car in a spartan rollback....and ate Beanie Weenies for lunch?
   Drivers used to be pretty much people like you and me, common folk, down-to-earth. But that was once-upon-a-time, long, long ago, it would seem today.
   Gordon, for all he's done for this sport, certainly deserves what he's made.
   "It's turned into a big business...and Dale Earnhardt taught me a lot," Gordon says. "The first contract I signed was for more money than I'd ever thought I could make in a race car. But it was nothing compared to the second contract.
   "I was lucky.
   "Now I've got a lifetime contract with Rick Hendrick, so I don't have to talk contracts with anybody any more. As long as there is a sponsor that wants to sponsor the car and as long as Rick says he wants me to drive it, we don't discuss things.
   "But back when, drivers talked about contracts all the time. And Dale taught me a lot about how to deal with that.
    "My first contract didn't really pay very good; I had to go out and earn it. But these days I see a lot of guys getting it before they've ever earned it. I'm seeing guys getting paid pretty good dollars today who haven't really shown anything yet."



   Talladega winner David Ragan, with Danica Patrick (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Now if he can just keep that tender back under control. Gordon says he can relate to Denny Hamlin's dilemma: "What worried me was when it first happened was I didn't know what was happening. It definitely takes your focus off driving the car, and feeling the car the  way you need to.
   "I'm managing the pain now, and I understand I'm not damaging something. It's just pain.
    "All the work I've put into it has certainly paid off. A few years ago I didn't think I'd be driving much longer because of that pain....getting out of the car and not even being able to stand up.
   "Now I'm hobbling out of the car but I can walk, and I feel pretty decent inside the car."

   Gordon says he's not just proud of making 700 consecutives starts, over 20-some years, but also his 87 tour wins, his 299 top-fives, and his 416 top-10s.
   "It's not an easy thing to do," Gordon says.
    It is amazing that not only has Gordon made it 700, but he' still competing for wins and championships. His last tour win was November at Homestead.
   "Lately we've just been trying to get top-10s, and that's been a struggle," he says. "We've been mediocre and yet we're still getting close to the top-10, and I have high hopes for the second half of the season.
   "I remember seeing some guys struggling through their last years in this sport, and as a young guy you say 'I don't want to go out like that. I want to go out on top, as a champion, being competitive.'
    "But then some guys were making more money at the end of their career not winning races than they'd made when they were winning races. It's kind of hard to step away from that.
    "And the passion for this sport - Mark Martin has shown us that. He tried to step away and then realized he didn't want to do that. He just didn't want to do it on a full-time basis...and I can understand that -- it's the grinding it out week after week for 38 weeks, that's when it gets so tough, and can burn you out."

   At the other end of the NASCAR spectrum, in a sense, is David Ragan.
   Yes, he just pulled off the biggest upset of the season, surprising Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson to win the Talladega 500.
   But Ragan drives for one of the smallest, low-budget operations in the sport. Team owner Bob Jenkins has spent most of his own money trying to make this two-car operation work. And it finally paid off.
   "I really haven't had time to celebrate," Ragan says.
   "It's such a different scene from a larger team to a smaller organization.  We've got 50 or 60 employees, and other teams have 300 or 400; so every single one of our guys had something to do with that race car.  Every one of them touched it, worked on it, prepared it, set it up, painted it and loaded it up.  Everyone had a part in it.
    "So I think everyone feels a little bit more gratified getting that win.  And a one-two finish.  It wasn't like we won and the other two guys were 35th and 40th.  We were all competitive. And the finish was unreal. 
     "But we also realize that reality sets in pretty quick:  We're here at Darlington....and it's fun to sit back and daydream about going to victory Lane here, but that's not a realistic expectation for us. 
    "Our expectations are finishing on the lead lap. And a top-15 or top-20 finish would be a great day.
    "But, again, a perfect storm could happen.  I believe the year Regan Smith won, he stayed out with a little different pit strategy at the end, and he put himself in position. 
    At the end of these races there are always five or six guys that can win, given the opportunity, so you never know. 
   "We may play some strategy at the end. 
    "I'm not going to say it couldn't happen.... but we just want a top-15 or top-20, to keep gaining momentum. 
    "We want to take some small steps.  We're not trying to jump over the whole pond just yet."
   How small is small here?
   Well, if you're doing a David Ragan die- cast model collection, better have a good billfold. He carries a lot of different colors.
    "Farm Rich was a one-race deal at Talladega....and their Facebook page and website crashed after the race with all the traffic there, so that was cool," Ragan says.
    On this weekend's quarterpanels: The Peanut Patch Boiled Peanuts.
   "Margaret Holmes' group," Ragan says. "They've meant a lot to the Front Row Motorsports team.  They stepped up and sponsored us several races last year. A local company."

  After Sunday's race, Brad Keselowski was miffed, claiming that Ragan had lined up in the wrong spot for the final restart, gaining an advantage.
   Tuesday Keselowski called Ragan to apologize.
    "That shows Brad is a good champion, and a good role model... and gave me a little bit different outlook on Brad's deal," Ragan says.
     "Brad certainly didn't have all of his facts right when he spoke after the race. That didn't really bother me, but it bothers some of your fans and family.
    "The technology is in place for us to look at and understand every move NASCAR does, so I knew what we had going on. I think there was just a miscommunication. 
    "There were never any hard feelings toward Brad. But that was cool for him to do that.  He certainly didn't have to.  That was something he did on his own, and I've got a lot respect for him for that."




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