Jeff Gordon’s surprise return to Indianapolis Motor Speedway this weekend, where he will sub for Dale Earnhardt Jr. as driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, no doubt will be greeted with joy and great anticipation by NASCAR fans.
But in August of 1994, the year Gordon recorded the first of his record five victories in the first NASCAR race ever run at the iconic track, he hardly entered the race as the fan favorite or the odds-on favorite.
Only two days removed from his 23rd birthday at the time, Gordon was in just his second season as driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet in NASCAR’s top series. He had only one career win in the series where he would go on to win 93 times, third all-time behind only Hall of Famers Richard Petty and David Pearson.
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In other words, many fans didn’t even know who he was just yet.
The favorite to win that day actually was Dale Earnhardt — the father of Dale Jr., who is sitting out this Sunday’s race at Indy as he continues to recover from concussion-like symptoms. Gordon is driving for Earnhardt Jr. for at least the next two races at Indy and Pocono.
Gordon has said what he remembers most about the day was how the fans, more than 250,000 strong, turned out to get a taste of what NASCAR’s top stars could do on the 2.5-mile track that until then had been reserved for open-wheel racing.
"Most of the things that stand out to me were 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 Gordon, who was making his 50th career start that afternoon and had registered his first career win earlier in the season in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The win did not come easily for Gordon, as he had to do battle with some of the sport’s toughest competitors of the day throughout the entire event.
Earnhardt started on the front row alongside pole-sitter Rick Mast, but the two drivers made contact going into the first corner on the first lap, upsetting the handling of Earnhardt’s iconic black No. 3 Chevrolet. Exiting the fourth corner on the opening lap, Earnhardt hit the outside wall and began a freefall through the field.
Gordon, whose family moved to Pittsboro, Indiana, just 25 miles from the track, to further his racing career when Gordon was only 14, started third in the race and was more patient.
Geoffrey Bodine looked strong early on, but was eliminated from contention on Lap 100 after his younger brother, Brett, put the bumper to Geoffrey and sent him spinning off Turn 4 in front of the field. The contact was the culmination of a yearlong family feud and left Geoffrey fuming after the race.
Ultimately, it came down to a duel between Gordon and Ernie Irvan over the final 25 laps. Gordon and Irvan swapped the lead four times, putting on a great show for the fans watching at home and in the packed grandstands.
Their battle allowed Brett Bodine, Bill Elliott, Rsuty Wallace and a suddenly resurgent Earnhardt to close in over the closing laps.
But with five laps to go, Irvan lost a right-front tire going into the first corner while leading. With Irvan slowing, Gordon dove underneath and took the lead for the final time of the day.
Gordon then drove off to score the first NASCAR win ever at Indy. He would go on to total five Brickyard victories, tying Formula One legend Michael Schumacher for the most wins by a driver at the iconic track, before announcing his retirement from full-time Sprint Cup racing at the end of last season.
Now Gordon suddenly has an unexpected chance to add to that career total this Sunday.
Ray Evernham, the winning crew chief that historic day in August of 1994, described the victory as a watershed moment for not only Gordon, but for the entire No. 24 race team.
"In one lifetime one person doesn’t get many chances to make an everlasting mark or set a record that no one will ever break," Evernham told Stock Car Racing magazine later that year. "When those things happen, it is the greatest payback that you will ever receive for the hard work and effort you’ve invested. That Brickyard 400 did those things for us."
For Gordon, the excitement of the fans for that inaugural race still stands out.
"Even if you go back to the test that we had (before the race), 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," Gordon said. "That just showed you the impact and significance of that inaugural event."