INDIANAPOLIS — Jeff Gordon let his focus wander in the final five laps of Sunday’s race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
It was a rare moment when he didn’t have to be concerned with on-coming traffic. He was too fast to catch.
With a clear path ahead, he had the opportunity to stare into the speedway’s grandstands. There he saw a wave of emotion from fans, many of whom were there 20 years ago when Gordon, a hometown favorite, won his first race at the famed Brickyard.
“You’re leading the Brickyard 400 with just a handful of laps to go,” he said. “You want to take that moment in and look into the crowd and see what they’re doing.”
When Gordon took the checkered flag, the party was just getting started.
No other driver – not A.J. Foyt, not Al Unser, not Rick Mears – had ever won five oval races at the Brickyard.
A gimpy back had him thinking about retirement twice in the past few years.
But on a surprisingly sun-splashed day, Gordon felt no pain.
And he’s certainly not ready to slow down.
“I don’t think anybody had anything for the 24 [Gordon],” Kyle Busch said after finishing second, more than 200 yard behind. “It seemed like anybody that he got behind he was able to pass those guys. At this place aero situations are so difficult that he could handle through it and pass guys in the long run. His car was really good today and that proved just being able to get out there so far and then he was just riding.”
Denny Hamlin wound up third, followed by Matt Kenseth in fourth, Joey Logano in fifth, Kasey Kahne in sixth, Kyle Larson in seventh, Kevin Harvick in eighth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. in ninth and Austin Dillon in 10th.
Gordon was 10 car lengths behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne when a caution came out for Ryan Truex’s disabled car with 21 laps to go.
Kahne, who led a race-best 70 laps, re-started on the inside of Gordon with 18 laps remaining. Gordon got the jump on Kahne going into the first turn, and from there he easily pulled away to the victory.
“Looking back, I should have chosen the top [lane] obviously, but I pretty much let Jeff control that last re-start,” Kahne said. “I took off and never spun a tire. And the inside had been more grip; in a straight line throughout the race.”
Said Gordon: “I’m not very good on restarts and wasn’t very good today. I finally made the restart of my life today when it counted most.”
Kahne got pinched on the inside and gave up four other positions before falling into line.
By then, Gordon was easily on his way to making Brickyard history.
Whether it’s because he grew up in nearby Pittsboro or because he’s always had such reverence for the racetrack, fans overwhelmingly approved of his victory Sunday. They stood three-deep at the fence to take pictures of him on his victory lap, and many waited to watch their favorite driver and the rest of his team kneel and kiss the bricks.
It’s why the Brickyard 400, not the Daytona 500, is the most important race for Gordon.
“To just see everybody standing and cheering, that’s awesome,” he said. “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. This is for them.
“We all know the significance of the Daytona 500. To me, what I love about this race. Besides we’re here at Indianapolis, as a kid growing up I just idolized the drivers that raced here, and to me this was just the ultimate place.”
Gordon already was safely locked into the upcoming Chase for the Championship. But now he closes in on the playoffs as the No. 1-ranked driver in the standings.
And he has all the momentum.
“The significance of this win at this point in the season, what it does for you as a team, confidence, positioning yourself to try to go win a championship, I don’t know how you really rank it.
“In my opinion, for me personally, this is it. This is as good as it gets.”
Thousands of fans Sunday agreed.