In a fairytale world, Jeff Gordon would have kissed the famed Yard of Bricks one last time with his wife and kids, waved to a roaring crowd in Victory Lane and maybe even shed a joyful tear.
Already the owner of a NASCAR-record five wins at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Gordon was seeking to become the first driver in history to win six times at the venerable 2.5-mile track where he and Formula One legend Michael Schumacher were tied for most victories.
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But instead of celebrating an unprecedented sixth win at the fabled speedway where he dreamed of racing as a teenager growing up in nearby Pittsboro, Indiana, Gordon stood in his garage stall looking straight ahead, arms folded, wiping sweat from his brow as crew members plastered duct tape to his No. 24 Chevy and the sound of beating hammers resonated above the hum of the engines in the background.
On Lap 50 of Sunday’s 160-lap race, Gordon’s hopes of a fairytale win in his final Brickyard 400 quickly vanished when Clint Bowyer spun sideways across the track, and Gordon — trying to take evasive action — bounced off teammate Kasey Kahne, spun and hit the outside wall, suffering major damage to his No. 24 Chevrolet.
After an extended visit to pit road where his pit crew pulled sheet metal from the car, Gordon returned to the track in 42nd, five laps down to the leaders, and immediately struggled to maintain the minimum speed that NASCAR requires a driver to keep in order to remain on the track.
Only a short time passed before Gordon pulled off the track and into his garage stall, and emerged from his iconic No. 24 Chevy visibly frustrated about the disappointing turn his day had taken.
"We’re never going to give up," Gordon said, while watching his team members pound away on his badly damaged car. "We got back out there as fast as we could. The splitter was too torn up on the front and creating lift. The car didn’t have any front downforce and was pushing bad."
Asked what caused the wreck, Gordon walked reporters through it as best he could.
"We were just racing there on a restart," the four-time Sprint Cup Series champion said. "I was side-by-side with Kasey Kahne and I saw the No. 15 (Bowyer) get sideways and was just trying to avoid him and we both kind of got loose. I got loose.
"The car came around and it was just everything I could do to try to recover and not hit the No. 15. And then it spun around and got into the outside wall and tore up the nose."
Gordon eventually returned to the race after a lengthy stay in the garage, finishing 42nd and completing 110 of 164 laps.
Even before the wreck, Gordon faced an uphill climb in trying to snare his sixth Brickyard victory. Starting 19th on the 43-car grid after admittedly not being aggressive enough in qualifying on Saturday, the Hendrick Motorsports driver picked up four positions in the first 10 laps, but struggled to make significant forward progress from there.
When the wreck occurred, he had restarted 15th on the previous lap.
"It’s not the way we want our day to go here," said Gordon, who just Thursday was recognized with a special day held in his honor in his adopted hometown of Pittsboro. "We didn’t start out fantastic, but we really made some gains on the first pit stop.
"I feel like we were going to continue to make gains and work our way to the front. But we’ll never know now. Yeah, it’s an unfortunate way to end it."