INDIANAPOLIS (AP) The reminders that Jeff Gordon won here 20 years ago plaster Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
There’s a massive banner that drapes the grandstand containing Gordon’s image with the years of his four Brickyard 400 victories listed. Stroll past the merchandise tent and there’s a blast from 1994: Gordon, dressed in his red, yellow and green ”Rainbow Warrior” firesuit for a 20th anniversary T-shirt photo, arms raised high in celebration.
Gordon will be feted with his own day Sunday in Indianapolis and he was presented with the No. 24 from the recently removed track scoring pylon.
It’s been a throwback weekend that celebrates the days when Gordon was the next big thing in NASCAR. And he’s been honored by track officials for a career that has long marked him one of NASCAR’s greats.
Gordon even got caught up in the nostalgia at his charity bowling event this week. He found an article about him from when he was a teenager in an old racing magazine where the young prospect mapped out his future goals.
”I had no chance at all at that moment in my mind of ever racing here,” Gordon said, ”and yet, four years later I was winning the inaugural Brickyard 400.”
Twenty years later, he’s just as big a threat to win in Indy. For all the fun Gordon has had reflecting on 20 years of racing at the Brickyard, it’s what’s ahead Sunday that really has him pumped.
He enters Sunday’s race with the points lead, one win this season, and a firm belief the No. 24 is a contender for that elusive fifth Indy win.
”I feel like this is the best chance that we’ve had at winning this race legitimately with the speed of the car as we’ve had in a very, very long time,” he said.
He’s off to a strong start after qualifying second Saturday behind Kevin Harvick.
Gordon felt at home at the Brickyard from the first time stock cars stormed into the open-wheel city and put a new spin on the famed track. He won two days after his 23rd birthday, only his second victory, but it remains one of the biggest in a career of 89 wins and four championships.
Gordon also won the Brickyard in 1998, 2001 and 2004. Jimmie Johnson, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, tied his mark with wins in 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2012.
A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser won four Indianapolis 500s. It’s possible Gordon and Johnson could join Michael Schumacher as a five-time winner at the track. Schumacher won his five F1 races on Indy’s road course.
Gordon has always been competitive at the track, with 16 top 20s overall and three straight top 10s. He finished second in 2011.
Gordon recalled the excitement surrounding his first race at Indy, which sold out in less than 24 hours after the ticket office opened. An estimated crowd of 250,000 fans absolutely jammed the place and Gordon recalled the die-hards lined up 10 deep around the garage just to get a peek at the drivers that would soon usher NASCAR into a boom period.
The days of the Brickyard owning the hottest ticket in town are over. What hasn’t changed is that familiar No. 24 on the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
”He’s been with the same team, so that’s really been a big deal to be around one of the best organizations his whole career,” teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. ”He’s pretty sharp about what he needs as far as a crew chief and engineers and people, and I think he’s done a good job of sustaining the integrity of his team and the success of his team.”
At Daytona this year, Gordon insisted he was serious about considering retirement if he wins a fifth championship. After his win at Kansas, Gordon backed off and said he could race until 50 if his cars remain stout.
He has a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship all but secured. Winning a championship in the Sprint Cup/Chase era – his four wins all came under an old points format under the Winston Cup tag – served as his primary motivation to keep racing, keep proving he can still be as good as ever. Led by crew chief Alan Gustafson, Gordon said there was still room for his team to improve.
”I feel like even though we’re leading the points with this new point system, we’ve got to be better than this if we’re going to win the championship,” Gordon said.
Gordon already has one reason to celebrate on Sunday. Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard declared Sunday, July 27, as Jeff Gordon Day.
He’d like to walk away with more than a fancy proclamation, like that fifth Brickyard checkered flag.