Jeff Gordon seeking another honor at Indy
July 25, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
SPEEDWAY, Ind. -- For Jeff Gordon, Friday was a day of commemoration. The president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway presented the four-time NASCAR champion with the No. 24 from the scoring pylon, which was recently replaced along the frontstretch. And the mayor of Indianapolis stopped by to proclaim that Sunday would be Jeff Gordon Day in the Circle City.
"Now I just hope my competitors are respectful of this on Sunday and move out of the way," Gordon joked.
There's still one more thing Gordon is after this weekend, though -- a fifth career victory in the Sprint Cup Series race at the Brickyard, which would make him the all-time winner on an oval track that hosted its first race in 1911.
And this weekend, he likes his chances.
"This weekend, there's no doubt -- I feel like this is the best chance that we've had of winning this race, legitimately, with the speed of the car, as we've had in a very, very long time," Gordon said. "… This is definitely, overall, from the strength of the team and speed of the car, by far the best chance we've had of winning in a long time."
There's certainly good reason behind that optimism, given that Gordon comes to Indianapolis as the Sprint Cup points leader, with a race victory already this season, and in the midst of easily his most consistent campaign since he nearly won a fifth title in 2007. And now here he is back at the Brickyard, 20 years after he won the inaugural race at the speedway, an event which provided NASCAR with a stirring jumping-off point at this open-wheel shrine -- and a large reason for the presentations Gordon received Friday in the track's media center.
That 1994 victory, by NASCAR's brightest young star at the world's most famous race track, helped lift the sport to another level. Gordon collected additional Brickyard titles in 1998, 2001 and 2004, and stands tied with Indianapolis 500 winners A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser, as well as Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, for most victories on the oval course. A triumph Sunday by either Gordon or Johnson would tie Formula 1 icon Michael Schumacher for most victories at the track all-time.
And yet it's Gordon who has left the more personal imprint here, given that he went to high school and developed as a young racer in the nearby town of Pittsboro, has raised over $3.5 million for an area children's hospital, and hosts an annual charity bowling event that's become a fixture on the calendar. A record-tying fifth career victory at the Brickyard, two decades after his first, would only add to Gordon's legacy at what's essentially his hometown track.
"It's awesome to know that every year we can go back and have a chance of winning," he said. "But no better chance than this year. Hendrick has been on top of their game, and (crew chief) Alan (Gustafson) and the 24 team have really stepped it up this year. That’s why we're leading the points, and that’s why I'm optimistic about this weekend."
For Gordon, the impact of a fifth career Brickyard victory could generate ripples that extend beyond Indianapolis. He's led the points for 12 weeks this year, has the best average finish in the series, and recorded a victory at Kansas that likely locked up his berth in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. But given that Johnson and Brad Keselowski lead the circuit with three wins apiece, Gordon knows his points standing may belie the fact that he's playing catch-up.
"We are having a great year. We've not had maybe this strong of cars in the last few years, but we've always had some really unfortunate circumstances work against us in the last couple of years. Where this year, our cars and our team are better. Maybe that’s why good things are happening for us. We're putting ourselves in good positions," he said.
"It's great to be in this position, but we look at our competitors, and we haven't won the most races, and we need to win more. … We want to be the best out there. Even though we lead the points with this new points system, we've got to be better than this if we're going to win the championship."
No better place to start than Indianapolis, where eight times the Brickyard winner has gone on to win the series championship. Gordon should know -- he's done it twice.