DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) — Jeff Gordon's grown accustomed to change in NASCAR, especially at Darlington Raceway.
The four-time Sprint Cup series champion has won races at the track "Too Tough To Tame," in March, May, August and September and is ready for Darlington's latest schedule shift when the Southern 500 takes place April 12th.
Gordon says things are always changing in stock car racing and when Darlington holds its race does not matter — as long as he's lined up at the starting line. Gordon is the series' active leader with seven victories at Darlington, trailing Hall of Famers David Pearson with 10 and the late Dale Earnhardt with nine.
"It's still Darlington," he said. "The track conditions might change slightly, but you want to be positive and open-minded about what's best for the fans, for the sport."
After all, "The Lady in Black" was a much different layout when a young Gordon first drove it in a Busch Grand National car in the early 1990s. The start-finish line was on the backstretch, there were no lights and the surface was the same tire-chewing asphalt racers like Pearson and Richard Petty grew up on.
Gordon quickly grew to love it and became the Darlington master of this latest generation of racers. His last victory here came in May 2007. Since then the track has been repaved, which Gordon believes has evened the playing field among competitors at Darlington.
"We've had to more aggressive with the new pavement and that may have taken away a little advantage of what we had," he said.
It hasn't slowed him down too much: Gordon's finished in the top five in four of the past six Southern 500s.
Gordon visited the track Thursday, meeting fans purchasing tickets for next month's event and taking a prize-winner for a pace-car ride around Darlington.
Two Sisters, 7-year-old Leanna and 6-year-old Kayla Sheffield, are huge Gordon fans and got to miss school to see their favorite driver. The girls gave him a black-and-white checkered-flag pattern scarf for his own 6-year-old daughter, Ella Sophia.
"Thanks, this will keep her really warm," Gordon said, draping the scarf around his neck.
Gordon's visit finished at an area food bank before he left for Bristol, Tenn., and this weekend's Food City 500 where his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports team will try and continue its strong start this season.
Gordon's had three top-10 showings — fourth at the Daytona 500, fifth a week later in Phoenix and ninth last weekend in Las Vegas — and stands fifth in points 18 back of leader Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Gordon said he and crew chief Alan Gustafson are connecting as are Gustafson and team engineers.
"I'm very excited," Gordon said. "It's one of the best starts we've had in a long, long time, if ever."
Speaking of change, Gordon loves what NASCAR has done with its points system to put more emphasis on winning, its qualifying shift to the popular knockout format and even the latest wrinkle of allowing teams to use a cooling unit and prevent them from slowing down on the race track to reduce engine temperatures.
"NASCAR made a great call," Gordon said of the qualifying adjustment.
Gordon said he's long placed prime importance on victories — he's third all-time with 88 wins — and his glad to know that one checkered flag this season gets you into the sport's 16-driver playoffs. He's also glad that once a win is secured, it gives drivers and crew chiefs the ability to take chances at more wins as Gordon's teammate Earnhardt Jr. did in gambling that his fuel would hold in Las Vegas.
Earnhardt Jr. ran dry and got passed by Brad Keselowski on the last lap.
"Everything we do is risk vs. reward," Gordon said. "You're the seeing the benefits of getting that win (at Daytona) and letting Dale Jr. and (crew chief) Steve Letarte take that big risk on fuel in Las Vegas. I like what they did."
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