Two decades ago, Jeff Gordon and Hendrick Motorsports dominated the competition at Darlington Raceway, site of Sunday’s Bojangles’ Southern 500.
Seven times Gordon won races at the Track Too Tough to Tame, including four Southern 500s.
With 93 career victories in what today is the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Gordon and the No. 24 Hendrick Chevrolet were tough to beat anywhere.
But Darlington was an especially good track for him. In fact, the only track where he won more often was Martinsville Speedway, where he won nine races.
The most memorable of Gordon’s four Southern 500 victories came in 1997, when he held off a furious charge from Jeff Burton in the closing laps to win the race and in the process capture The Winston Million, a $1 million bonus that R.J. Reynolds gave for winning three of NASCAR’s biggest four races of the year.
Little did anyone know at the time that Gordon (FOX Sports) and Burton (NBC Sports) would both go on to become NASCAR television commentators after their driving days ended.
The ’97 Southern 500 began on a strange note, when Dale Earnhardt passed out in his car on the opening lap of the race. The seven-time champion was pulled out of his car, placed on a stretcher and taken to a local hospital. A week later, Earnhardt would joke about it and insist he was never in any danger, but when it happened it appeared serious.
Once the race got going, Bill Elliott dominated early, leading 181 of 367 laps. But at the end of the race, it came down to a battle between Gordon and his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and Burton’s Roush Fenway Racing Ford.
Coming to the white flag, Burton dove under Gordon in Turn 4, but Gordon turned down on him and the two made contact at the start-finish line. On the last lap, Gordon was able to hold off Burton to become the first driver to win three consecutive Southern 500s.
Afterwards, Burton was not happy with Gordon. “We had the fastest car all day,” said Burton, who was hurt by a series of sub-par pit stops. “Now we know how to race. We know how he’s going to race, so we know how to race him.”
And Burton said he should have hit back harder.
“I just didn’t get him good enough. … I was going to do my best to make sure he didn’t win the race, because he cut down on me,” Burton said.
And Gordon said had the roles been reversed, Burton would have blocked him.
“I would have expected it (in the same situation),” Gordon said. “You get that checkered flag in your mind and in your sight and you’ll do just about anything to get there. That’s what I did.”