By Ben White
NASCAR came to Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first time for the inaugural Brickyard 400 on Aug. 6, 1994. This year, the Cup Series moves from the 2.5-mile oval to the 2.4-mile road course for the first time in the history of NASCAR’s presence at the iconic Indiana track.
One driver has simply dominated the win column using the same iconic number that he wheeled to victory lane there on five occasions.
He is four-time Cup Series driver Jeff Gordon, driver of the iconic No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. The Vallejo, CA. native began driving micro midgets at the age of five and eventually became ultra-successful in Sprint cars after his family relocated to Pittsboro, Ind. to be at the center of the sport when he was in his early teens.
Gordon had his sights squarely on becoming an open-wheel Indy Car driver, hoping to follow in the footsteps of his hero, Rick Mears, as an Indianapolis 500 winner. Then in 1990, his direction changed when an opportunity came to test a NASCAR stock car at North Carolina Motor Speedway. He joined NASCAR team owner Bill Davis that year in the NASCAR Busch Series and then NASCAR’s Cup Series with Rick Hendrick in 1992.
What followed was Cup Series magic with crew chief Ray Evernham to the tune of 47 victories and three championships through the 1998 season. Gordon also enjoyed two wins with crew chief Brian Whitesell in 1999, 23 wins and a fourth championship with crew chief Robbie Loomis through 2001, nine wins with crew chief Steve Letarte and 11 additional wins with crew chief Alan Gustafson for a total of 93. Gordon officially retired from driving in 2016.
During the post-race interview after winning for the fifth time at Indianapolis in 2014, Gordon was asked about the emotions he was feeling.
“Very, very similar (to his first victory in 1994),” Gordon said. “I remember in '94, you know, in the closing laps of just disbelief. You don't want to see a caution. You're leading the Brickyard 400 with just a handful of laps to go. You want to take that moment in and look into the crowd and see what they're doing, but at the same time you don't want to lose focus. You know it's not over, 'til in this case, the white flag waves.
“I kept going in and out of those emotions of, ‘all right, don't get off track, what's going on. Remember, you’ve still got to get to the end. Be ready if there is a caution.’ But yet I'll say on that last lap I looked up in turn four just to see everybody standing and cheering. That's awesome. That sends a chill up your spine as a race car driver in a race that is so important to you, yet you have so many fans out there supporting you at the same time.”
During those years, Gordon’s victories at Indianapolis Motor Speedway came in 1994, 1998, 2001, 2004 and 2014. Gordon seemed to love winning in years that ended in four.
“(Laughter) Wow, I hadn’t actually thought about that,” Gordon said in a recent interview. “I just loved that track and loved the fan support. I loved the first 10 years of going there because everyone was so excited. It was different and so much tradition of going there. Growing up through high school and all the years of how fans supported me there as if I was the adopted local boy is how I always say it. To go there and perform at that level on that track is so special to me.
That (the 1994 victory) is one of the days I’m most proud of.”