Gordon (back) vows to be ready for Dover

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Jeff Gordon (24) prior to the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. (USA TODAY Sports: Randy Sartin)

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Jeff Gordon (24) prior to the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. (USA TODAY Sports: Randy Sartin)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — On the 20th anniversary of his inaugural NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the Coca-Cola 600, Jeff Gordon knew what it would take to see the checkered flag Sunday night.

To endure NASCAR’s longest race on Memorial Day weekend, Gordon had to sit out the final Sprint Cup Series practice on Saturday afternoon after enduring back spasms in the final round of knock-out qualifying Thursday night and during the first practice run Saturday morning.

The decision to skip the final practice though would pay off in more ways than one. Gordon, the three-time winner of the Coca-Cola 600 would keep his streak of consecutive NSCS starts alive and most of all maintain his championship lead after 12 starts.

Gordon, driver of the No. 24 Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet SS had his work cut out for him though after starting 27th. In a race where physical form would be a factor, Gordon took his discomfort in stride and methodically worked his way through the field during the grueling 600-mile race.

While championship rivals Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson dominated the race, Gordon would surface to the lead on Lap 213 during green flag pit stops and again on Lap 374 for two laps, but a gutsy two-tire call by crew chief Alan Gustafson following the final caution of the night on Lap 383, gave the 42-year old veteran an opportunity for back-to-back points paying victories. Unfortunately, the gamble fumbled.

Still, the relentless attitude and perseverance of the Hendrick Motorsports team delivered them their ninth top-10 run of the year after a seventh place run. Gordon maintains the championship lead by 11 over Matt Kenseth.

“It was better (back) than Saturday morning and that was what I was thankful for,” said Gordon. “I think the procedures and different forms of therapy that I did. Thanks to all the folks — there are quite a few people that were tending to me and I appreciate every one of them. I don’t think I would have gotten through this long race. It was tough. I was aching in there. There was one time when I got on the brakes into (Turn) 1 and it triggered something. I didn’t know what was going to happen after that, but it settled down. Luckily I started getting off the brake. We had such a great race car. I’m really proud of this Drive To End Hunger Chevy team. Alan (Gustafson) and all the guys — I love that call there at the end. Just like the call that was made when we won the first race here. I don’t know if I could of held off Matt (Kenseth) but we were going to give them a heck of a run.

“I got a decent restart there, but when Matt got to my outside I got real loose. At that point I was kind of just a sitting duck it got real tight. It was a good effort. I’m happy that I got through it. It tells me a lot about what kind of threshold I have and I just want to show this team the kind of commitment I have to them because of what they have shown me this year.”

From Charlotte, Gordon heads to the demanding track of Dover (Del.) International Speedway, where the “Monster Mile” is known for its rough and tumble attitude. Despite its characteristics though, Gordon feels he’ll be ready.

“The one thing we didn’t have this weekend was time,” he said. “It happened on Thursday. I was hoping I would be okay by Saturday. I wasn’t and then we got real aggressive from Saturday to Sunday. Luckily that paid off. Now having some rest and being able to take it easy and do my normal therapy I should be fine by Dover.”