CHICAGO – In a racing career that spans nearly 40 years, yard work is the only reason Jeff Gordon has missed a start.
The four-time NASCAR champion was clearing vines off his family’s house in Pittsboro, Ind., as a teenager when he ran into a patch of poison ivy.
“It went into my blood system, and I got extremely allergic, my arm blew up, and I couldn’t bend it to turn the wheel,” Gordon said. “I’ve never missed a race since then.”
The Hendrick Motorsports driver, who has 10 races left in his 23rd and final full-time season in Sprint Cup, will tie Ricky Rudd’s record for consecutive starts in NASCAR’s premier series when he takes the green flag Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway for the 788th straight race in the No. 24 Chevrolet.
Gordon, 44, will break the mark the following week at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, though he understandably was leery about discussing it.
“I’ve got to get through this weekend first,” he said. “That’s one of those things where I feel a little strange talking about it because I do appreciate and respect the safety of this sport.
“(That) side can be taken away from you at any time. I want to break that record. I think it’s a huge accomplishment because it’s not easy to do. It’s easier today because the sport is safer. I look at Ricky Rudd and what he went through to make it. That is pretty extraordinary. I can’t quite compare that.”
Though there have been advancements such as SAFER barriers and head-and-neck restraint devices that have lessened the rate of driver injuries, Gordon still has endured his share of heavy impacts. His crashes into unprotected walls at Richmond International Raceway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway led both tracks to add sections of SAFER, an energy-absorbing technology that made its debut in 2002 and reduces the G forces felt by a driver in a wreck.
Gordon said his most fortunate moment came in the March 1999 race at Texas Motor Speedway, where he slammed the turn 4 wall after a right-front tire failure.
“That was no SAFER barrier, no HANS, and seats and seat belts were not what they are today,” Gordon said. “That could have been a very serious injury. It ended up being bruised ribs, and I was hurting.”
After a week off, Gordon returned to finish sixth at Bristol Motor Speedway, completing 500 punishing laps on the high banks of the 0.533-mile oval.
“I had all kinds of padding and different things that I put in my suit and on the seat to try to protect my ribs,” he said. “But what I realized was in the car, with pressure against it, through the Gs of the corners at Bristol actually made it feel better. It was when the caution came out and had to take a breath is when I was actually hurting. But that was the closest I’ve come (to missing a race).”
In the latter years of his career, the most serious threat to the streak was an occasionally ailing back. Gordon missed a May 24, 2014 practice at Charlotte Motor Speedway but was able to finish seventh the following day in a 600-mile race that is the longest on the schedule.
“When it hurt as bad as it did, I was scared I might not make it into that race car the next day,” he said. “Luckily, I had some great doctors that got me through it to get the injections, and I was able to make it through.”