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NASCAR Cup Series

Gordon, Burton Put it On The Line in ’97 Southern 500

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.”

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NASCAR Cup Series

GALLERY: Earnhardt Jr.’s Top Paint Schemes Through the Years

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was at the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Tuesday to unveil his paint scheme for the 2017 Bojangles’ Southern 500 throwback weekend at Darlington Raceway. Following are 12 favorite Earnhardt paint schemes through the years since his rookie season of 2000. 

We ask you to weigh in on social media, where does this year’s Darlington scheme stack up for in your favorite paint scheme?

Daytona XFINITY – 2010

With his father’s success in the No. 3, fans hoped to see Earnhardt Jr behind the wheel of the famed number. The July event at Daytona proved perfect opportunity, as he drove a Richard Childress Racing prepared Chevrolet to victory lane.

Michigan – 2012

Going along with the “Dark Knight Rises/Batman” scheme, Earnhardt Jr. broke through to break a winless drought that lasted 143 races, dating back to 2008.

First Cup Win  – April 2000 at Texas Motor Speedway

In his ninth career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series start, Earnhardt led 106 laps en route to scoring his first career victory. For fans, the win is memorable following the bear hug in victory lane from his father.

Daytona – 2008 

The camo design from the 2008 fourth of July tribute also stood out amongst fans, despite the simplicity. Notably, the camo wasn’t done as a wrap, but rather painted by hand, layer by layer.

Axalta Scheme – 2017 

Axalta went with a much different look for the 2017 season, switching to the Sam Bass designed red and yellow Chevrolet SS.

Daytona – 2004

Budweiser came out with a promotion titled “born on date,” which would have the date the bottles were packaged featured. The scheme came at the perfect time, as Earnhardt passed Tony Stewart with 20 laps to go to win his first of two Daytona 500s.

Bristol – 2011

As Bristol Motor Speedway celebrated their 50 golden years of racing in 2011, Dale Earnhardt Jr planned a shining tribute to the historic track. 

Daytona – 2007 

With Daytona ran on fourth of July weekend, Earnhardt has always featured patriotic paint schemes through the years. This edition was memorable with how the stars shined on the dark blue, despite the race not going as planned with Earnhardt caught up in one of the wrecks.

Richmond – 2007 

On September 8, 2007, Dale Earnhardt Jr drove a new Car of Tomorrow special paint scheme for sponsor Budweiser. This Chevy Impala featured an Elvis Presley-inspired look for the Chevy Rock & Roll 400.

 

Charlotte – 2008

 

Switching from the familiar AMP scheme, fans raved about the orange scheme.

 

New Hampshire – 2013 

2013 saw many great paint schemes for Earnhardt Jr. but this is the scheme that fans resonated with.

 

All article photos courtesy of Nigel Kinrade Photography © 2017