You don’t usually see history made at a typical NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race. But when you do, it’s always something special.
Such was the case Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, when Jeff Gordon made an aggressive pass around Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne with 17 laps to go to win his record fifth Brickyard 400. Not only has Gordon won more NASCAR races here than anyone else, he’s won more races at IMS than guys named Foyt, Mears and Unser. The only other five-time IMS winner is Formula One star Michael Schumacher, and those cars don’t race here any more.
Gordon’s victory, from a historic perspective, was huge, especially given that he won the first Brickyard 400 as a 23-year-old in 1994.
After the race, I asked Gordon where this triumph ranked, especially compared to his three victories in the Daytona 500, unquestionably NASCAR’s biggest race.
"In my opinion, for me personally, this is it," said Gordon. "This is as good as it gets."
The difference, Gordon said, is that skill plays much more of a factor here, while luck — bad luck, usually — is a key to winning at Daytona.
"We all know the significance of the Daytona 500," Gordon said. "To me, what I love about this race, besides we’re here at Indianapolis, as a kid growing up I just idolized the drivers that raced here, and to me this was just the ultimate place.
"But the difference is that at Daytona it’s a restrictor-plate track, it’s drafting, it’s avoiding these wrecks, all these things, where here it’s just to me the total team effort. You have to get it done with a great racecar. You do it on restarts. You have to have good pit stops, pit strategy. It’s the total team effort. At the same time it’s a very historical place."
Then Gordon said something very interesting.
"The significance of this win at this point in the season, what it does for you as a team, confidence, positioning yourself to try to go win a championship, I don’t know how you really rank it," Gordon said.
The record books show that from 1995 to 2001, Gordon won four NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships. Since Jimmie Johnson joined the Hendrick armada in 2002, Johnson has six titles and Gordon none. Zip. Zilch. Zero.
But this just might be the year Gordon finally completes his Drive For Five. He certainly thinks he’s up to the task, and why not? He has a healthy points lead, two race victories and he’s racing with the verve and the skill of a man half his age.
"This team certainly has rejuvenated me in a lot of ways," Gordon said. "Makes me want to dig down even deeper than I possibly can to give them everything back that they’re putting into it. So they’ve inspired me in so many ways. I’m just having a blast this year driving awesome racecars.
"To win now two races, this one being such a big one, leading the points, I’m not thinking about anything else, in all honesty, other than going race to race in this season to try to battle for a championship. That’s the only thing I’m thinking about at this point.
It wasn’t always that way, Gordon admitted.
"You feel like you’ve kind of won all that you could win, you’ve won four championships, then a guy like Jimmie Johnson comes along and starts dominating, you kind of lose the motivation," he said. "I think between conversations I’ve had with Rick (Hendrick team owner), with Alan (Gustafson, crew chief), the drive that he has, that work ethic that he has, how good the racecars are, I don’t want to be the weak link. So it’s pushed me to give more, do more, work harder."
So has his family, interestingly enough. Gordon said his wife Ingrid wants to know what’s it’s like to win a championship
"My wife and kids, they’ve never experienced it," Gordon said. "Ingrid has never experienced a championship. I told her, I said, ‘Hey, I know you want to know what it’s like to win a championship. Well, there’s a big commitment that it takes.’ She’s like, ‘Whatever it takes.’ That’s the kind of year that we’re having. We’re just putting everything we possibly can into it."
Whether that’s good enough to win another championship remains to be seen. There are a lot of fast cars out there and there’s a lot of racing left.
But on a warm July afternoon at the most famous and historic race track in the world, it was good enough to make history. And good enough to make one of the sport’s greatest champions feel like a kid again.