After top-10 finish, Jeff Gordon excited for ‘something better’ in Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s car at Martinsville

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DOVER, Del. — Jeff Gordon climbed from his car after 400 miles at Dover International Speedway and exhaled.

“Whew.’’

His first top-10 finish since returning to fill in for Dale Earnhardt Jr. provided a sense of excitement and pride for the four-time series champion.

He had come close before, scoring an 11th at Bristol, but Sunday gave Gordon his 476th career top-10 finish and also marked the first time he’s led laps, leading seven circuits.

“I felt like we had a really good race car all weekend long,’’ Gordon told NBC Sports after the race. “I realized real early on we were going to have our work cut out for us, starting 18th. It was really tough getting through traffic. I kind of led them down a path. We were loose that first run and over-tightened it and that didn’t do us any favors. But we got it tuned up and had some great pit stops and got our way into the top 10.’’

With Earnhardt, who is out the rest of the season because of a concussion, watching from the team’s pit box, Gordon took the lead on Lap 373. Gordon climbed to the front when crew chief Greg Ives kept him out as the rest of the field pitted. When the team didn’t get a caution, Gordon had to pit. He returned 12th and gained two spots in the final laps.

“I loved the risk, I loved the play and the guys were really solid all day and all weekend long,’’ Gordon said.

Gordon’s run leaves him with one race left. He’ll return to Martinsville Speedway later this month, a year after his final Sprint Cup victory. Unless something changes, Martinsville will become the site of Gordon’s 805th and final Sprint Cup start on Oct. 30.

“I wanted to get a top-10 in this car before my time in the car is over,’’ Gordon said of the No. 88 Chevrolet. “We got that. Now let’s go get a top five or something better at Martinsville.’’