Racing Beat

Jeff Gordon takes the checkered flag to win the Dodge Avenger 500 at Darlington Raceway.

During his early years in NASCAR Cup racing, Jeff Gordon was nicknamed “Wonder Boy” by seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt. In many ways, the rivalry between the gunslinger and the young gun seems as though it just started.

Yet Gordon has now passed the legend in total victories.

“If it happened at Talladega, that would be really cool,” said Gordon, driver of the DuPont-sponsored Chevrolet, before a Talladega victory gave him 77 checkers. “I have great memories of racing Dale there. I feel like any win I have at Talladega, I attribute it a lot to Dale, because I learned so much racing with him.”

There was some controversy when Gordon celebrated his tying victory by waving a No. 3 flag as a salute to Earnhardt. Some fans saw it as a sign of disrespect, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. – the winningest active driver at Talladega with five victories – appreciated the gesture. And after Gordon passed Earnhardt Jr., fans saluted by throwing full beer cans onto the track.

Earnhardt Jr. says fans should cut Gordon, who picked up his 78th win at Darlington May 13, some slack. “If Jeff does something involving my father, some kind of recognition to him, I think it’s a responsibility of somebody from my side of the family to tell Jeff we appreciate it,” Junior said before the Talladega race. “I think if we don’t say anything, Jeff is going to wonder whether we liked it or disliked it. I would like to be told it was appreciated, so I would do that for Jeff.”

Gordon’s 76th career win came in his 481st career start and was his first win at Phoenix International Raceway. The Talladega conquest came a week later. Aside from series titles in 1995, ’97, ’98 and 2001, Gordon also has 60 poles, 220 top-five and 295 top-10 finishes. His to-date career winnings total in excess of $84 million.

At age 35, Gordon is in his 16th NASCAR Cup season, with four Cup championships. He has driven for the same team – Hendrick Motorsports – since his debut in November 1992, at the age of 20. He has averaged five wins per season; if Gordon competes at the same rate for five more years, he’ll accrue more than 100 career victories.

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Earnhardt’s 76th victory came Oct. 15, 2000, at Talladega – his 676th career start. He was 49 at the time. Learning from the Intimidator was learning from the best, especially when it comes to restrictor-plate racing. No driver was ever more successful at Talladega than Earnhardt, and during the eight years the seven-time champion and Gordon squared off at the venue dubbed “NASCAR’s Most Competitive Track,” Earnhardt claimed five Cup victories.

“Dale was just a master of the place,” Gordon says. “You’d watch him and see some of the things that he’d do, and you’d just shake your head going, ‘It’s not possible