DENVER

Frank Gore came face-to-face with Garrison Hearst last season.

And Gore discovered Hearst was rooting for him over the other running back the 49ers had at the time.

"I talked to him last year," Gore said of Hearst. "He's the one who told me I needed to hurry up and run (Kevan) Barlow out of here."

Gore's presence, of course, did make Barlow expendable. Barlow was shipped to the New York Jets in August for a fourth-round draft pick.

And, now, Gore is within striking range of running Hearst out of the team's record book.

Gore enters today's season finale against the Denver Broncos with 1,542 yards rushing. He needs 29 yards to eclipse Hearst's team-record of 1,570 yards, which he set in 1998.

Moreover, Gore has a chance to break the 49ers' all-time single-season record of combined yards. Including 453 yards receiving, Gore has 1,995 yards from scrimmage. The club record also belongs to Hearst, who accounted for 2,105 combined yards in 1998.

Roger Craig is the only other player in 49ers team history with more than 2,000 combined yards in a season. He did it twice (1985 and '88).

Gore said he wants the victory today against the Broncos, who might need a victory to qualify for the AFC playoffs, but he also would reach a goal of etching his name into the team's record book.

"It would mean a lot, especially in my first year as the starting back," Gore said. "It (team rushing record) was one of my goals before the season, and getting it would be great.

"If I don't, I got next year to try it again. But I want it right now. I want it right now."

Gore rise to become one of the top running backs in the NFL has been the story of the season for the 49ers (6-9), who matched their win total of the previous two seasons. Gore, named recently as a starter on the NFC Pro Bowl team, is 120 yards out of the conference lead in rushing behind the New York Giants' Tiki Barber, who gained 234 Saturday in the win against Washington.

Gore is averaging 5.5 yards a carry. Since 1970, only four running backs have led their conference in rush yardage while maintaining a 5.5 or higher per-carry average. The last to do so was Barry Sanders (6.1) in 1997. The others are O.J. Simpson (twice), Walter Payton and Eric Dickerson. Sanders also did it twice.

With one game remaining in the season, Gore has silenced the critics who wondered if his body could withstand the punishment of an NFL season. Gore endured serious injuries to both knees to derail a promising college career at the University of Miami (Fla.).

Gore's playing time as a rookie was limited because of shoulder injuries that required surgeries after the season. This season, those shoulders have carried the 49ers' offense.

"Without question, this year he's done an outstanding job," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "He has touched it a lot."

Gore has averaged 22.7 touches a game, including his team-leading 59 pass receptions. And when he is not carrying the ball or catching passes, Gore is often throwing his body into the fray as a blocker.

He has taken part in 76.6 percent of the team's offensive plays this season. But in the past four games, when theoretically he should be wearing down, Gore has played 93.3 percent of the snaps.

"I'm happy about that," Gore said. "I'm learning. I've learned a lot from the beginning to the end. I can watch all my films and try to better myself next year. That helped me out a lot."

Gore is signed through the 2007 season, but the 49ers would like to lock him up to a long-term contract that could make him one of the top-10 paid running backs in the league.

"I feel I showed a lot of people I can carry the load," Gore said. "I can run inside; I can run outside; I can catch the football. My coaches know what I can do. Whenever they want to re-sign me, they'll do it. I'm just going to keep playing football and try to make the organization better."

You can reach Staff Writer Matt Maiocco at 521-5492 or mmaiocco@pressdemocrat.com

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