by Ryan Isley
Jeff Gordon has not missed the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Chase for the Sprint Cup since 2005. This weekend at Darlington Raceway might help him extend that streak and make the Chase in his final season.
With just two races left before the 16-car Chase for the Sprint Cup is set, Gordon sits in the 15th spot and would be in the Chase should the field have already been set. However, Gordon is just 17 points ahead of Clint Bowyer in what could be the most important spot right now. Should two drivers outside the top-16 who don’t already have a win find a way to pick up that win in the next two weeks or if one driver outside the top-16 that doesn’t have a win picks up a win and Bowyer catches Gordon in points, Gordon would be running the last 10 races of the season just for show.
A win for Gordon would lock him into the Chase with no worries for the last week of NASCAR’s “regular season.” Luckily for Gordon, the series is headed to a track where he has won seven times, the second-most wins at any track in his illustrious career, with his eight wins at Martinsville being the only place he has won more.
Gordon’s first win at Darlington came in 1995, when he picked up the victory in the 1995 fall race and then he continued winning by sweeping the two races in 1996. He then won back-to-back fall races at Darlington in 1997 and 1998 before not winning again at the track until the fall race in 2002. His last win at Darlington came in 2007, the third year that Darlington had just one race. The 44-year-old driver has 19 top-5s and 23 top-10s to go along with his seven wins in 34 races at Darlington, adding up to an average finish of 11.4.
In the last 11 trips to Darlington, Gordon has one win, two runner-up finishes, three 3rd-place finishes and eight top-5s. He has only finishes worse than 12th once in those 11 races, when he came in 35th in 2012. Gordon has 16 finishes of 3rd or better in his career at Darlington, while finishing outside the top-20 just nine times. Three of those instances happened in his first three races at the track.
One thing that might be an advantage this season at Darlington for Gordon is that the race has returned to the fall for the first time since the track lost its second race following the 2004 season. Gordon’s numbers in fall races at Darlington are impressive. In his 12 fall races, he has five wins, eight top-5s and nine top-10s at Darlington for an average finish of 7.25. That includes a 22nd-place finish in his first fall race at Darlington in 1993. In his last 11 fall races, he has an average finish of 5.9.
One thing that will be different about Gordon’s 24 car this week should he find victory lane at Darlington for the eighth time in his career is that he won’t be driving the DuPont Chevrolet that he was in for the first seven wins. In fact, this will be the first time that Gordon has driven anything other than a DuPont car at Darlington in the fall. While a number of other drivers are going to be driving throwback paint schemes, Gordon will be driving a 3M paint scheme on his No. 24 Chevrolet. Many thought Gordon would be in the throwback paint scheme as well, as he drove a DuPont scheme at Bristol in the last race.
Gordon took to Twitter to explain why he wouldn’t be in a throwback scheme at Darlington during what has been dubbed by many as a throwback weekend for NASCAR at the historic track.
Throwback paint schemes might be nice for the fans, but the only throwback that matters to Gordon this week is getting back into victory lane, somewhere he hasn’t been since in 2015 and somewhere he hasn’t found at Darlington since 2007. If Gordon can find a way to pull out a win and secure his spot in the Chase, we might be talking about a chance for a 5th series title for the man who has driven the No. 24 for 23 full-time seasons.
Gordon can’t be ready for his farewell season to come to an end just yet. And what better way to keep his final NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season alive than by driving his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet to the checkered flag at a track where he is very familiar with victory lane?