The hardest hit, the one Jeff Gordon thought for sure would necessitate sitting out a race, occurred March 1999 at Texas Motor Speedway. That was when the right-front tire on the No. 24 car exploded, sending Gordon slamming into the outside Turn 4 wall and shooting across the track through the infield.
With no SAFER barrier in place to absorb the contact, the punishment Gordon took was severe. For several minutes he sat in agonizing pain, trying to catch his breath. Eventually, ever gingerly, he would extract himself from the smoldering No. 24 car.
Fortunately Gordon didn’t suffer a major injury, just bruised ribs and a cut chin.
“That could have been a very serious injury,” Gordon said. “I was hurting.”
Because there was an off-week before the next race at Bristol Motor Speedway, he competed in the Food City 500, maintaining a consecutive start streak that began in the 1992 season finale at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He completed all 500 laps at Bristol, a high-banked half-mile that beats drivers up physically.
“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,” Gordon said. “But what I realized was with pressure against the car, the Gs of the corners at Bristol actually made it feel better. It was only when the caution came out and I had to take a breath is when I actually hurt.
“That was the closest I’ve come (to missing a race).”
Though there have been other close calls, including wincing wrecks such as when his brakes failed at Pocono Raceway or when he pounded the inside wall at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Gordon’s streak of never missing a Sprint Cup Series race continues. And he will officially become NASCAR’s Iron Man when he takes the green flag Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
The Sylvania 300 represents Gordon’s 789th consecutive start, surpassing Ricky Rudd for the record. Rudd set the mark in 2002 when he topped Terry Labonte’s streak of 655 consecutive races. But while Gordon’s name will be ahead of Rudd and Labonte in the record book, the four-time Cup Series champion has no qualms about who rates higher on the toughness scale.
During a preliminary race for the 1984 Daytona 500, Rudd flipped wildly exiting Turn 4. To race he needed to tape his swollen eyelids open, which he did. In that same condition, Rudd would win a week later at Richmond International Raceway. Labonte raced in the final two races of the 1996 season with a broken left wrist so he could secure a second series championship.
“Those guys are way tougher than me,” Gordon said. “When you think of those guys and the conditions of the cars, they didn’t have any kind of air conditioning. They dealt with some major injuries and fought through.
“I’ve had some injuries along the way that I’ve had to fight through, so I have a taste of it; but certainly nothing like those guys. Those guys are way tougher.”
Although Gordon has enjoyed a 23-year career during which he’s never missed a race due to injury, it doesn’t mean the crashes haven’t taken a toll. Most pronounced is a problematic lower back.
In May of 2009, Gordon underwent a facet block procedure to help alleviate the discomfort, and while that’s helped, complications have lingered. Suffering great pain, he had to skip a practice session for the Memorial Day weekend race at Charlotte Motor Speedway last season. Gordon would go on to finish seventh in the Coca-Cola 600, NASCAR’s longest race.
“When it hurt as bad as it did, I was scared I might not make it into that race car the next day,” Gordon said. “Luckily, I had some great doctors that got me through it to get the injections, and I was able to make it through.”