Back home in Indiana, Gordon gears for Brickyard

Jeff Gordon was just 23 years and two days old and making his 50th career NASCAR Cup start when he won the inaugural Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1994.

Some considered the victory an upset. After all, champions such as Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace and Bill Elliott topped the entry list. Former Indy 500 winners A.J. Foyt and Danny Sullivan rounded out the field.

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“I don’t think anyone thought we were the favorite coming in,” said Ray Evernham, who won four Cup championships as the crew chief for the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet. “The big equalizer that day — that made me feel like we had a shot and could be legitimate contenders — is that no one had raced here before.

“I thought if we could prepare the car — and we had as much testing as everybody else — even though the guys like Rusty and Dale had a lot more experience, none of the other crew chiefs and none of the other drivers had any experience here. That gave us a better shot.”

Still, Gordon was just a kid. “The Kid,” according to Earnhardt, and Gordon had just one win prior to Indy, in the Coca-Cola 600. And Earnhardt desperately wanted the first Brickyard 400 trophy.

“They were an underdog coming in,” said Andy Petree, who was Earnhardt’s crew chief at the time. “That was the first time they asserted themselves. It was the first time they threw the gauntlet down and said, ‘Hey, we are a force to be reckoned with.'”

While the Brickyard was revered by the 86 drivers attempting to qualify for 43 spots in the first stock car race on the 2.5-miler, few had grew up in the area and could appreciate the magnitude of the event.

That wasn’t the case for Gordon, who spent his formative years in nearby Pittsboro, Ind., 16 miles northwest of the Speedway. Even in his early NASCAR days, Gordon remembers the hype leading up to what would be his first of a record four Brickyard 400 trophies.

“The impact was huge,” Gordon said. “I mean, huge. I feel like to Indianapolis but more so for NASCAR and the Cup Series — the buzz, the buildup, the event itself. I’m not saying that just because I won it. I was so thrilled just to be there and be a part of it, driving through that tunnel and pulling in and out of the garage area.

“As a kid, I used to go to certain days in the month of May or a test day and go watch and just stand there and just dream of actually racing there … I always dreamed about racing at Indy and thought those dreams had gone away when I was moving down south and starting my NASCAR career.”

Gordon’s Vallejo, Calif. heritage didn’t stop the fans from embracing him as the local favorite. John Andretti had the name and also grew up in Indy, but in 1993, Gordon had won the rookie of the year award and his popularity was on the rise.

“He wasn’t considered a favorite,” said Wallace, the 1989 Cup champ, who settled for fourth in the inaugural event. “I’ll be cocky. I thought I was the favorite — me being the first one to take a lap during the test and Dale leading the first lap. We never thought about the competition. We were all about showmanship. They just out-prepared us and blew our doors off.

“After that, he went into the Brickyard year after year considered the favorite. Even though he was born in California, he had just enough Indiana in him to keep the crowd behind him.”

In 15 starts, Gordon has seldom disappointed his loyal Hoosier fan base, amassing four wins, nine top fives and 12 top 10s. Gordon has started from the pole three times and led a series-high 440 laps — more than twice as many as any other current competitor.

While Gordon’s four IMS victories equal the numbers amassed by A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears in the Indianapolis 500, five wins at Indy would tie him with Michael Schumacher’s dominant run in the United States Grand Prix.

“It would be fitting for Jeff Gordon to be the American that won the fifth race on an oval at Indy,” Evernham said. “Long before Tony (Stewart) came along, he was the kid from Indiana. It would be another great compliment to Jeff’s career.”

For Gordon, it would be an honor to win a fifth Brickyard 400. More recently, however, a Cup victory at Indy has served as a precursor to the title. Seven of the last 11 teams to kiss the bricks at Indy have gone on to win the Cup championship in the same year.

Gordon is currently second in the Sprint Cup point standings. He trails leader Stewart by 175 points with six races remaining before the Chase. But the four-time champion, who has the tour’s top average finish of 8.6 at Indy, knows there’s plenty of time and opportunity to win a fifth title.

“We’ve shown consistent strength all year long, and I think consistency right now is almost as important as momentum,” said Gordon. “I think the momentum is really going to be key just prior to the Chase — who can get that momentum and go into the Chase and even start the Chase with that strong momentum and continue it on.

“That’s, I believe, what’s going to separate the team or the top teams that are going to go vie for the championship.”