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Gordon races into rarified air

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INDIANAPOLIS – When Jeff Gordon was introduced to the racing world, he was a teenaged racing prodigy from Pittsboro running Midwestern bullrings on ESPN’s Thursday Night Thunder.

He fast became a racing superstar when he won the inaugural Brickyard 400 as a mustachioed 23-year-old – and followed with a resume of wins and championships that turned him into a racing legend.

Now, a veteran 43-year-old likely nearing the twilight of his career, Gordon has entered racing’s version of rarified air – becoming the first driver to win five major races on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval.

Gordon won Sunday’s Brickyard 400 with a 2.325-second margin over Kyle Busch. But the way he won was a microcosm of the years he’s brought a car to his home track.

“You never know when your next win is going to come,” Gordon said. “We’ve been close a couple of times to getting No. 5. Every time I come here to Indianapolis, I feel like we have a shot at winning. It’s just a special place. I love racing here.”

Gordon adds to a resume that has seen him win three Daytona 500s, four championships in NASCAR’s top series, and now five Brickyard 400s.

“As a kid growing up, I idolized the drivers who raced here,” Gordon said. “The difference is, Daytona, it’s a restrictor plate track, drafting, avoiding wrecks. Here, it’s a total team effort. You have to have a good racecar, you have to have good pit stops, have the right strategy.  In my opinion, for me personally, this is it. This is as good as it gets.”

Gordon now takes aim at his fifth championship – and his first since 2001. He currently leads the Sprint Cup points standings with a 24-point lead over teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., and has clinched a spot in the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Sunday’s victory was his second of the year and the 90th of his career. He is 10 wins shy of joining Richard Petty and David Pearson as the only NASCAR drivers to win 100 races in the top series.

But the championship chase has rejuvenated him.

“These two guys beside me play a big role,” Gordon said of car owner Rick Hendrick and crew chief Alan Gustafson. “My wife and kids play a big role. Seeing them experience coming to the racetrack, seeing me experience Victory Lane, those things change your perspective on what’s important to you and how much effort you want to put into something.

“You feel you’ve won all you can win, you’ve won four championships, a guy like Jimmie Johnson starts dominating. You lose the motivation. With Alan coming so close with Mark to winning the championship, the drive he has, how good his racecars are, I don’t want to be the weak link. It’s pushed me to work harder.”

One lap after starting the race on the outside of the front row, he was drafting polesitter Kevin Harvick down the frontstretch and passing him in Turn 1. From there, Gordon was one of a handful of serious contenders, despite a threat of rain and teams trying multiple pit strategies early in the race.

Gordon’s fifth win also featured a late-rate two-man shootout for first, and a memorable restart.

The restart will be cemented in the 21-year-old race’s lore. Starting on the outside lane alongside Kasey Kahne – with whom he had been battling nose-to-tail for all of the previous stint – Gordon went into Turn 1 side-by-side with Kahne and held the position. Gordon pulled into the lead off Turn 2 while Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth all roared past Kahne.  

“I know it didn’t go well for Kasey,” Gordon said. “We both got really sideways. We knew that was for the win. He got me in Pocono last year on a restart. I love Kasey, I love racing with him. I wanted to be able to race him for this win. I’m glad it went well.”

“It was all about who was going to get to the backstretch first was going to win the race,” Hamlin said. “(Gordon) did the best job of that.”

When Gordon came back around in the lead, the frontstretch fans stood and roared, which grew as he held — and extended — it without challenge for the final 17 laps.  

It was reminiscent of the 2001 race, in which Gordon was second to Sterling Marlin on the last restart, timed an inside move right at the green flag to tuck underneath, and motored to the lead and the eventual victory.

Gordon’s 1998 win also came with a final-stint restart, as he was fourth coming to the green flag, and had passed Dale Earnhardt, Mike Skinner and Sterling Marlin within three laps, and eventually won the race.  And he held off challengers in NASCAR’s first-ever green-white-checkered finish for his fourth Brickyard win in 2004.

Gordon’s car got better as the runs got longer, as he began to reel in the drivers in front of him, including a 20-lap duel with his teammate Kahne where the two became nose-to-tail, and were far clear of the rest of the field. Gordon looked to be ready to time his pass when the final yellow came out.

The last yellow – which came when rookie Ryan Truex stalled on the track on Lap 140 – deprived the crowd of a late-race duel of Kahne and Gordon like the Gordon-Ernie Irvan one of 1994, or the 1998 finish with Mark Martin in close pursuit.

It’s not the first time Kahne has had a race-winning car, only to lose the lead on a late restart. Tony Stewart did the same to him in 2005.

“We had a great battle with Kasey Kahne,” Gordon said. “I didn’t want to see that caution, because I thought I could push him to slide the back a little bit. I don’t know if I would’ve gotten by him. I’m terrible at restarts. I didn’t think I wanted to see a restart, and then I had the restart of my life.”

But while passing at Indy has long been difficult, Gordon was closing gaps and overtaking much of the day.

“It seems like there’s been one car that’s been hitting it a lot lately and it’s been the dominating car,” runner-up Kyle Busch said. “Jeff might not have led the most laps today. He was always behind somebody, in dirty air, in a lot of traffic, and he was able to make passes. There were not a lot of guys who could do that today.”

All five of Gordon’s Brickyard victories have come with the only team he’s driven for in NASCAR’s top series – Hendrick Motorsports – which has been dominant at the race. Gordon and teammate Jimmie Johnson have now won nine of the 21 events held at Indy. 

Hendrick had a premonition. He couldn’t have been the only one – Indianapolis mayor Greg Ballard had declared Sunday to be “Jeff Gordon Day” in the city two days before.

“Anytime you can come here to Indy and win, it’s special,” Hendrick said. “To see Jeff back it up after 20 years is a great day. The car was super-fast. I had a feeling this morning. I told him, ‘you’re going to win the race today.’”

He’s won with different crew chiefs – Sunday’s was the first for Gustafson. He’s also won with Steve Letarte and Ray Everenham atop the pit box. And it has rejuvenated Gordon.

Much has changed. In 1994, Evernham was credited with being one of the first crew chiefs to put significant emphasis on pit stops and crew fitness. Before long, the crew chief was as well-known as the driver. Today, strategy calls are critical, especially at a one-groove racetrack where passing is difficult like Indianapolis.

 “The best thing that ever happened to me was meeting (Hendrick),” Gordon said. “To sit down with Rick Hendrick, meet him and be able to drive a good Cup car, that’s what turned it all around for me. I had a pretty good career going, but who knows where it would’ve gone for me had I not had the opportunity to drive for the best team and the best car going. It started with Ray Evernham and that group. I’ve been able to drive awesome racecars year after year. It’s continued with Alan. These guys make me look good.”

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