Gordon Back Home In Indy
August 5, 2001 | 12:00 A.M. EST
Those three drivers have each won the Indianapolis 500 four times, making them the biggest stars of the world’s biggest race.
Jeff Gordon was already a superstar, but Sunday’s Brickyard 400 victory clearly places him among the elite drivers to have competed at Indy in the track’s storied 90-year history.
NASCAR’s Winston Cup Series has raced at the Brickyard only eight times. Gordon, after pulling off a late-race charge Sunday, now has three victories. Oh, by the way, it took 25 years for the Indy 500 to have a three-time winner – Louis Meyer.
“I knew Ray Harroun. Mr. Meyer, I’m not familiar with,” Gordon said. “I would imagine he won three races here. That’s great.
“It’s just a great feeling to win here at Indianapolis. I love this place. It’s a dream come true for me to compete. I thought it would be in an open-wheel car, but there’s nothing sweeter to me than doing it in a stock car.”
Gordon became a three-time Brickyard 400 winner Sunday, using some solid pit strategy by crew chief Robbie Loomis to get to second place, then charging by Sterling Marlin with 24 laps to go.
“This has just been a phenomenal day,” said Gordon, who celebrated his 30th birthday Saturday. “It feels unbelievable to just hear these people cheer us on. I love Indianapolis and I love the state of Indiana, it’s just been so good to us.
“Sometimes things just work in your favor, and it did today. I didn’t think we had the car to do it. I don’t race for statistics. I just race to win. If we win, the statistics will come. To win three Brickyard 400s, it’s awesome.”
Loomis himself was a bit choked up after the race.
“It’s really special,” said Loomis said. “We started so bad today (27th), but this crew just worked and worked and worked to get the car better. We’ve really go to count our blessings. I was praying a lot at the end. But I’m just very fortunate to be with this team. This driver is so great and so is this team. This is just unbelievable.”
Marlin, trying to return Dodge to victory lane, finished second, a close .943 seconds behind. Johnny Benson was third, with Rusty Wallace fourth and rookie Kurt Busch fifth. Ward Burton was sixth, followed by Steve Park, Bill Elliott, Ricky Craven and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Gordon started way back but struggled in the early going, falling outside the Top 25 as his car had handling problems. But Gordon figured the poor handling was because of being buried in the field, and they resisted making huge changes in chassis.
“When we were back there, I was pretty frustrated at times,” Gordon said. “The car wasn’t very good in traffic. We started to make some adjustments, and I realized the adjustments really weren’t doing much. I said to Robbie one time, ‘I want to be careful, not getting is too far out of whack on our setups. All we need to is get up front.’
“That one time, however it worked out, we had come in and the caution came out. Those are the kind of things you’ve got to have happen if you’re going to come to 27th.”
That one time was when Gordon made a green-flag pit stop and returned to the track still on the lead lap. After the caution waved, Gordon remained on the track and moved up to the Top 10 when several cars made stops under the yellow.
“After that, the car just drove great,” Gordon said. “The track position allowed the car to get some clean air, and it started driving for me.”
Park appeared to have the fastest car, but a caution with 29 laps to go changed things dramatically. Park and most of the leaders changed four tires, putting Park a distant eighth on the restart with 25 laps left. Marlin didn’t pit and got the lead, while Gordon and four others changed only right-side tires.
“Our car wasn’t really good on new tires,” Marlin said. “It took four or five laps to come in. That last round, we’d run maybe 12 laps, and we could make it on fuel…the caution came out, and we decided just to stay out and give it our best shot. Here, the slow cars line up on the inside, and it’s really hard to get through the traffic.”
Gordon jumped Marlin as the green flag waved, beating him to the inside of the track as they headed into Turn 1. Gordon completed the pass for the lead and moved a few car-lengths ahead.
“It took our car a couple laps to get going on restarts,” Marlin said. “Once the tires came in, I could go pretty good. For some reason, all day long the car wouldn’t go on restarts. Unfortunately, whoever was trying to get the lap back – we got a good jump on him, and Jeff was able to clear him and get inside me going into 1. If it wasn’t for that, I might have been able to hold him off. Our cars were pretty equal.
“I thought we had the car to beat. We’d been leading earlier in the day and running second, third and fourth. At that time, the car was really driving good. I thought we could hold him off.”
That wasn’t the case. Gordon had a trick up his sleeve – or rather, under his foot.
“I knew that with the two tires that I had, I needed to either get by him on the first lap or the first couple corners,” Gordon said. “He was kind of playing with me, and I was kind of playing with him. I hung back, and he slowed way down. Typically what happens is you kind of come up on him before you take the green, and (the leader) will slow down and wait for you to tap him. As soon as they feel you tap him, they take off.
“Well, as soon as I tapped him, I laid in the gas and picked his rear wheels up off the ground and busted my grille in. But I knew I couldn’t lift. I was really pushing him when we first got going there.
“When I went to third gear, man, my car went into a different time zone. It just took off. It looked like his third gear wasn’t matched up as good as mine. … I got just his (left-rear) corner, and he kept pushing me down where there is a lot of debris and speedy-dry. I didn’t want to go through that, but I knew I had the momentum and I had to try to make it work.”
A caution with 21 laps remaining jumbled the field again, but Gordon was too strong, too determined. Perhaps he knew that the last three winners of this race also won the Winston Cup championship. Sure, Gordon padded his lead after Ricky Rudd had engine problems, but there was more to it.
Gordon grew up in nearby Pittsboro, Ind., so he knows as well as anyone how much Indianapolis means. The Brickyard 400 is a race everyone wants to win, so maybe Gordon wanted it a little bit more this year.
The gain in points was a big deal, too. Gordon came in leading Rudd by 45, but he left leading Dale Jarrett by 160. Jarrett finished 12th Sunday, but teammate Rudd had engine problems and finished 39th, dropping to third in the standings.
“(Saturday), I thought it was a coincidence (the last three Brickyard 400 winners won the Winston Cup title),” Gordon said. “Today, I hope it’s true.
“I really do believe this race today was all about the team and all about some good luck and good fortune. Things are going our way, just like things have been going our way this year for the championship. Nothing guarantees a championship at this point in the season.
“This is definitely going to give us some momentum. This is going to do a lot for our team. If we can win today, that’s an indication we can do about anything.”
Park built a lead of more than five seconds before making a green-flag pit stop on Lap 105. The cycle of stops were completed 14 laps later, and Park found himself 3.9 seconds ahead of Stewart.
Park was going to have to make another pit stop before the end of the race, but some drivers – Marlin, defending champion Bobby Labonte and rookie Kurt Busch among them – were going to try to make the rest of the way without another fuel stop.
“It was going to work out good for us if it went green,” Marlin said.
That strategy was washed away when debris was spotted in Turn 3 on Lap 131, bringing out a yellow.
Under that caution, Marlin didn’t pit and grabbed the lead. Five drivers, led by Gordon, changed only two tires. Park changed four, putting him back to eighth on the restart on Lap 135, right behind Stewart.
“I’m a little disappointed,” Park said. “It seems like when we have such a big lead, there’s always a debris caution. For some reason, the leader of the race never sees it. It’s just disappointing. Track position was everything. My hat’s off to Jeff Gordon. They made the right call.
“The last pit stop just got us a little bit behind, and with only 20 laps to go, there was not enough time to work our way back up front.”
Even if Park had time, there was a man named Gordon there. The Brickyard, it seems, belongs to him.