Jeff Gordon wishes the Nextel Cup's championship chase would go through Darlington Raceway for years to come -- for himself and the sport.

Gordon has won a record-tying five Southern 500s at Darlington. The 55th and final Southern 500 will be run Sunday.

"On a personal level, I think it's a mistake because we run good at this track," Gordon said. "But if you could pick this track up and set it in New York City or LA or Texas or Miami, then we'd be racing here."

Gordon says Darlington's historic, tricky 1.366-mile oval is one of the most difficult on the circuit and a challenge drivers battling for a Nextel Cup crown should have to face. However, Darlington's smallish capacity of about 60,000, plus its so-so attendance records in the face of bigger, newer layouts throughout the country are reasons it lost one of its two Nextel Cup dates for the 2005 schedule.

"The bottom line is decisions have to be made for the better of the sport," Gordon said. "The history of a racetrack can only take you so far."

Next season, a race at Texas Motor Speedway will replace Darlington in the final stretch.

Gordon shares the Southern 500 wins mark with Cale Yarborough. Gordon is also third on the track's all-time victories list with six, behind David Pearson (10) and the late Dale Earnhardt (9).

Beyond his personal success, though, Gordon thinks Darlington belongs in NASCAR's 10-race championship chase. "But then I'd want to see a road course in there, too," he said.

Gordon, who won the last of his four NASCAR titles in 2001, is second in this year's championship race, 41 points behind Kurt Busch with races here, and next week at Homestead-Miami Speedway to go.

Browning's Tragedy

Darlington Raceway President Chris Browning was back at the track less than two weeks after the death of his 10-year-old daughter.

Erin Carleton Browning died Nov. 1 after a long fight with bone cancer. Chris Browning, Darlington's leader since May, passed off all his day-to-day duties to track vice president Mac Josey and, following the funeral, got away for a few days of recovery at the beach with his wife.

The two discussed bypassing Browning's first Darlington race weekend. But Browning wanted to be near friendly faces.

"I hope this takes my mind off other things," Browning said Friday.

NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter understood why Browning wanted to be here.

"I don't think any group deals with hardship and tragedy better than" NASCAR, Hunter said. "And that's always been the case in this industry. . . .The outpouring of support for Chris has been unbelievable."

Recently, NASCAR competitors throughout the circuit came together in support of car owner Rick Hendrick and his teams following the deaths of 10 people on an airplane that crashed en route to Martinsville Speedway.

Browning's tragedy has drawn a similar response, Hunter said.

"It's good for him to be around people right now," Hunter said. "Especially people who care for him. That's one way to take your mind off tragedy, to stay busy."

Browning's time at Darlington has been short. But he's made a deep impact on the staff and community with his quiet composure and focus as his daughter lay ill.

"He's a remarkable man," Darlington spokeswoman Cathy Elliott said. "He really is."

Softer Hard (Liquor) Line

Longtime team owner Richard Childress is happy that NASCAR has finally opened the sponsorship doors to hard liquor companies.

"It's not only bringing money to the racing teams, it's a new category coming in," Childress said. "They'll put so much marketing in so, so many places, it will be good for the sport. They'll take us to a whole other place."

NASCAR announced Wednesday that it has dropped the restriction against distilled spirits sponsorships, with the stipulation that the liquor companies spend at least 20 percent of their advertising budgets on promoting responsible drinking.

Childress, who fields Nextel Cup cars for Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton and Robby Gordon, said that just mirrors the beer and malt beverage sponsors who have previously been part of the sport.

"It's all about responsibility and moderation," said Childress, who recently opened his own winery, Childress Vineyards, in North Carolina. "That's my concern. We teach responsibility and moderation at my winery." . . .

Owner Bill Davis has replaced crew chief Frank Stoddard on the No. 22 Dodge driven by Scott Wimmer. Davis says Derrick Finley will take over as interim crew chief for the final two races. . . . Points leader Kurt Busch said Smirnoff Ice is shifting sponsorship to his No. 97 for 2005-06 after two seasons with Roush Racing teammate Matt Kenseth. . . .

How's this for irony: NASCAR's chief spokesman, Jim Hunter, arrived at Darlington after getting a tooth pulled Friday morning that made it difficult for him to comment on -- well, anything. "I'm no dummy," said Hunter, smiling.

Four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon says he'll miss Darlington, but concedes that "decisions have to be made for the better of the sport."