HAMPTON, Ga. — Blog by Managing Editor Jacob Seelman for Race Chaser Online — Hendrick Motorsports photo — How appropriate is it that this weekend, when Jeff Gordon straps into his Hendrick Motorsports No. 24 Chevrolet for the 750th time, he’ll be doing so at the track which started it all?
Yes, Atlanta Motor Speedway has seen its fair share of historic moments over the years, many of which Gordon has been a part of. There was Gordon vs. Harvick in 2001 when the brash rookie beat the then-three-time Cup champ for victory; there was Gordon’s milestone 85th win in 2011, gaining sole possession of third on the all-time wins list.
“There have been a lot of significant moments that have occurred during my career at Atlanta,” Gordon said earlier this week. “My first Nationwide win … the 85th win, winning some championships there and this upcoming start.”
But before all that, there was Jeff Gordon’s first career Cup level start 22 years ago this November — the final race of the 1992 season.
Let’s put that into perspective for a moment — I wasn’t even born yet when Gordon made his first Cup start. I’ve watched the broadcast recording numerous times on Youtube, but I wasn’t around when it first happened!
That race was memorable for reasons other than Gordon — it was Richard Petty’s final start as a driver and the championship was won by Alan Kulwicki, the last owner-driver to win NASCAR’s premier series title before Tony Stewart did so in 2011. But it was still the beginning of something special.
“You throw Jeff Gordon into the mix, the first race he’d ever run and the last race I ran, it was big in the history of NASCAR,” Petty said of that particular day in a 2008 interview.
At the time, Gordon says he didn’t see the big picture at all.
“In my first Cup start, I was completely unaware of what I was getting into,” Gordon recalled.
That year, Gordon had won three races in the now-Nationwide Series, and Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick called him up for the final race of the 1992 now-Sprint Cup series.
It was a different level, a different animal than what Gordon had been used to. And it was a long day. After qualifying 21st, the then-rookie spun out part-way through the race and was ultimately scored in 31st place.
“I had a great race car, but I did everything I possibly could do to ruin that opportunity!” Gordon said.
However, that start was only the beginning of a long and successful career, and Gordon says to this day he still cherishes the fact that he got to race against Petty.
Fast forward to this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and you find Gordon leading in all statistical categories among active drivers with five wins, 16 top-five finishes, 26 top-10s and 1,297 laps led since that fateful start in 1992.
No driver has ever won their 750th career Cup start. In fact, other than Mark Martin in 2009 at Dover, who finished second and coincidentally was racing for Hendrick Motorsports at the time, no one has ever finished in the top ten in their 750th Cup start.
Ricky Rudd finished 17th in 2002. Dave Marcis was 18th in 1994. Hall of Famer Bill Elliott finished 22nd in his 750th in 2006, and fellow Hall of Famer Terry Labonte ended up 23rd in 2003. Michael Waltrip had the toughest day of the bunch when he made his 750th Cup start, he wound up 27th at Loudon in 2009 — the week before Martin made his 750th Cup start.
So Gordon heads to Atlanta with 750 looming as a bad omen, but all the past history at one of NASCAR’s most historic tracks to overcome it. He doesn’t have to win on Sunday — he’s already long locked into the Chase. But Gordon is in championship form and he wants to win, and make a statement.
It all started at one in Atlanta on November 15th, 1992. Now, 748 more starts later, Gordon meets another milestone at the very same place on Sunday.
In the 22 years between the two dates, he has made Hendrick’s quote from all the way back in 1992 seem prophetic.
“He’s going to be around,” Hendrick said of the rookie, “a long, long time.”
And if this season is any indication, Gordon’s going to be around a while yet to come.