INDIANAPOLIS — Long before Jimmie Johnson arrived on the NASCAR scene, Jeff Gordon was the fastest thing on wheels.
He was the “Wonder Boy” who racked up wins at a record place. He brought the southern sport to Madison Ave. and became such a household name that even rapper Nelly name-dropped Gordon in a song.
Gordon won all the big races, collected four championships in seven years and had 58 victories before his 30th birthday.
Then his pace began to slow, the rest of the field caught up to him and Johnson moved into the Hendrick Motorsports shop as the new kid on the block. Gordon hasn’t won a title since, while Johnson has won five.
Now, 13 years after Gordon launched “The Drive for 5,” Gordon is on track to collect that elusive fifth title.
The Sprint Cup points leader won Sunday’s Brickyard 400, a race that often gives a preview of the championship. Nine times in 21 years, the winner at Indianapolis Motor Speedway went on to hoist the Cup at the end of the year.
“If you can do it here, you can do it anywhere,” Gordon said after his NASCAR-record fifth win at Indy.
Gordon, a week shy of his 43rd birthday and often fighting an aching back, won on the 20th anniversary celebration of his first Brickyard victory. It came on the day the Mayor of Indianapolis proclaimed “Jeff Gordon Day” and showed Gordon is trying to make 2014 his year.
Although he talked in January of retirement considerations, Gordon is reinvigorated and deeply committed to winning a title with his No. 24 team.
“You feel like you’ve kind of won all that you could win, you’ve won four championships, then a guy like Jimmie Johnson comes along and starts dominating, you kind of lose the motivation,” Gordon said.
But he is inspired by the work ethic and dedication of crew chief Alan Gustafson, and fears being “the weak link” of the race team. He also is motivated to share his success with wife, Ingrid, and their two young children. Gordon married Ingrid in 2006 and the couple quickly added a boy and a girl to the family.
“It’s pushed me to give more, do more, work harder,” he said. “Ingrid has never experienced a championship. I told her ‘Hey, I know you want to know what it’s like to win a championship. Well, there’s a big commitment that it takes.’ She’s like ‘Whatever it takes.’
“That’s the kind of year that we’re having. We’re just putting everything we possibly can into it.”
It’s going take everything Gordon has to win this Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, the first under a winner-take-all, elimination round format.
A model of consistency all season long with 14 top-10 finishes in 20 races, the slate will be wiped clean come September. Gordon will have to be aggressive and out front to make it through the three elimination rounds. If he is one of the four drivers to advance all the way to the Homestead finale, the title will go to the best driver in the fastest car on one day only.
That could be Gordon, if he drives anything like he did at Indy.
Although he’s struggled with restarts for several years, and did most of Sunday, he finally nailed one when he needed it most.
A late caution gave him one shot at taking the lead away from teammate Kasey Kahne, and he figured a perfect strategy as they headed toward the green flag. Kahne had given Gordon the outside lane, and he knew if he was alongside Kahne in the corner, he’d be able to hold him down and loosen Kahne’s car.
“I treated him like a competitor at that point, he might not have liked it,” Gordon said. “When it comes down to the end of a race, we’re here to win.”
The victory was the 90th of Gordon’s career, and he’s just the third driver to hit that mark. Although it was once believed he might chase Richard Petty’s record of 200 wins, David Pearson’s 105 is suddenly in reach depending on how long Gordon wants to stay in his Chevrolet.
Pearson’s total is a long way away for Gordon, but the championship is suddenly very near. His win in May at Kansas was motivating for driver and crew, but the win at Indy on Sunday convinced them all the title is a very real possibility.
“It’s certainly a huge confidence boost for this team. We recognize the significance of this,” he said. “I don’t know if we believed we were capable of winning this championship this year, truly believed it. We do now.”