Best of the Brickyard, No. 4: Jeff Gordon’s date with destiny
In August 1994, the world was a very different place than it is today.
— Bill Clinton was president.
— Pop singer Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley confirmed they had secretly married 11 weeks earlier.
— Major League Baseball players went on strike, forcing the cancellation of the World Series.
— Notorious terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, better known as Carlos the Jackal, was captured.
Meanwhile, back home in Indiana, NASCAR raced at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the very first time. And Jeff Gordon, who two days earlier had turned 23 years old, won the inaugural Brickyard 400, a huge and emotional victory for the young driver who grew up in Pittsboro, Ind.
It was a monumental weekend.
A total of 86 drivers entered the first Brickyard 400, with 79 ultimately making qualifying attempts. The pole winner was a surprising Rick Mast, with Dale Earnhardt qualifying on the outside of Row 1. Gordon started third, next to Geoff Bodine.
The defining moment of the race came on Lap 100 of the 160-lap race, after a restart. Brett Bodine was leading heading into Turn 3, when brother Geoff nudged him and got him loose, allowing Geoff to take the lead. In Turn 4, Brett hit Geoff, sending Geoff’s Ford spinning helplessly into the wall and out of the race. The incident would be a sore spot for years to come with the brothers.
In the closing laps, Gordon waged a furious fight for the lead with the powerhouse No. 28 Robert Yates Racing Ford driven by Ernie Irvan with Brett Bodine third. It was a classic Chevy vs. Ford battle, with a pair of the sport’s hardest charging drivers dueling to make history.
In the final 25 laps, the lead changed hands four times, and as the two battled for the lead, the pack closed up, with six cars in contention late in the race.
Irvan led Lap 155, only to have a tire go down, allowing Gordon to pass him and lead the final five laps. At the end, the top six finishers were Gordon, Brett Bodine, Bill Elliott, Rusty Wallace, Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip — a group of all-stars that collectively has won 16 NASCAR Sprint Cup championships and 349 races.
Gordon remembers it fondly.
"Most of the things that stand out to me was really about just the madness and craziness of how big that event was, how popular it was among fans, not just traditional NASCAR fans but new fans to the sport," said the four-time champion. "Even if you go back to the test that we had, the fans were just lined up on the fence around the garage area just wanting to see stock cars race at Indianapolis, and it was much of the same when it came to race day — just so many fans and you just couldn’t walk anywhere without getting mobbed. That just showed you the impact and significance of that inaugural event."
And to this day, Gordon cherishes the men and women who come out to watch him race at the Brickyard.
"It’s amazing how the Indiana fans have treated me over the years," he said. "When I go to Indianapolis, I get obviously a bigger round of applause or whatever the area are cheering or clapping. It’s louder there than it is anywhere else that we go, and that speaks volumes about my connection with Indiana and the way the fans treat me there. It’s unlike any other place that I go, and I love it."