Still out front: Gordon leaves Darlington as points leader

Jef Gordon led the way in his No. 24 Chevrolet early in Saturday's race at Darlington, but faded toward the end.

Jerry Markland/Getty Images

For much of Saturday night’s race at Darlington Raceway, it appeared that one of the biggest threats to contend with Kevin Harvick for the win was Jeff Gordon.

Although Harvick won the Bojangles’ Southern 500 and Gordon eventually had to rally late just to finish seventh, the night wasn’t a total loss for the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports. Gordon’s finish enabled him to maintain a slim lead in the Sprint Cup points standings heading into Easter, which provides a one-week break in the grueling schedule. 

Gordon started Saturday night in the ninth spot, and was a fixture in the top five and top 10 for the majority of the race. With an especially strong car on the long runs, Gordon was able to challenge Harvick multiple times throughout the race, but led a total of only eight laps.

We were the last car on two tires and then got ate up on those restarts. Actually that last one wasn’€™t bad to come home seventh. I thought it was going to be a lot worse than that.

Jeff Gordon

So despite leading the charge for the Hendrick brigade for much of the night, Gordon’s car began to fade in the closing laps as HMS Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. emerged as serious contenders for the win.

When the caution flew with nine laps to go and the field headed to pit road, Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson — like many around them — opted to take only two tires to improve track position for the late-race shootout.

On the ensuing restarts that followed, Gordon was shuffled back as those with four tires made their way back to the front of the field. Lining up seventh on the final green-white-checkered restart of the night, he was unable to regain any of the lost spots and had to settle for ending the night with yet another top-10 finish.

"There toward the end, I don’t know, we just kind of started fading," Gordon said. "I got into the wall a little bit and got the right side flattened up a little bit and then from there our night just went downhill. 

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"We just made some mistakes and got behind. We were the last car on two tires and then got ate up on those restarts. Actually that last one wasn’€™t bad to come home seventh. I thought it was going to be a lot worse than that."

While it could have been worse, the four-time series champion was able to record his sixth top-10 finish in eight races, giving him a one-point advantage over Matt Kenseth heading into the Easter break. The Sprint Cup Series will not race again until April 26 at Richmond.

Gordon currently leads all drivers with an average finish of 7.4, but has yet to score the first win of the season that would go a long way to securing a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

The veteran driver called Saturday night’€™s end reuslt a "€œmissed opportunity"€ at a much-needed win, but added that he remains confident in the team’s ability to provide strong cars week-in and week-out.