NASCAR & Auto Racing

Indy tradition is great, but Gordon just wants to win

INDIANAPOLIS - The first car Jeff Gordon drove around Indianapolis Motor Speedway wasn’t, actually, a car.

Gordon was living in nearby Pittsboro, attending Tri-West High School and driving sprint cars at tracks in and around Indianapolis. Valvoline had a base in the track's massive infield from which it helped supply some of the local racers.

"I would drive my truck over here and get cases of oil and some fuel," Gordon recalls. "They liked the local guys and they loved to help you out. I got permission through them to go around the speedway, in my own pick-up truck."

Yeah, it was a big deal.

"To me," Gordon says, "that was like getting to meet the president."

Sunday, Sprint Cup cars will race in the 15th running of the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard. And NASCAR's Indianapolis era almost perfectly mirrors the stock-car career of Gordon, a four-time Cup champion who'll start fifth Sunday.

Gordon has been in every race here, joining only Jeff Burton, Bobby Labonte and Mark Martin in that club. Bill Elliott will miss his first Cup race at Indy after failing to make the race Saturday.

He also, of course, won the inaugural event in 1994 and added victories in 1998, 2001 and 2004 that make him the only driver who's won this race more than twice.

His victory in NASCAR's inaugural event here was just Gordon's second career Cup victory - he'd won the Coca-Cola 600 in May of 1994 - and it should never be forgotten how much having a driver with Gordon's background win that race might have helped cement this event's place in stock-car racing.

Indy cars had never shared these hallowed grounds before that inaugural Brickyard 400, and more than a few people resented an invasion of this 2.5-mile motorsports shrine by these big, loud "saloon" cars.

Gordon, however, was not completely one of "them."

Even though he had defected to stock cars, Gordon had run sprint and midget cars at places like Salem, Winchester and Terre Haute and had dominated ESPN's "Thursday Night Thunder" events at Indianapolis Raceway Park.

He'd moved to Indiana from his birthplace of Vallejo, Calif., so he could race full-blown sprint cars before turning 16. He wasn't a homegrown Hoosier, but he rapidly built a following among the fervid fans of this region.

It didn't hurt when he started listing a new hometown on his entry blanks.

"When we were racing around here, nobody could pronounce Vallejo," Gordon said. It's correctly pronounced Vah-LAY-ho.

"My mom would get mad because every time they would announce me they would say Valley-Joe or Valley-Ho."

Pittsboro, however, was no problem.

"We were living in Pittsboro so we changed it and that stuck," Gordon said. "It wasn't that we were trying to become a Hoosier or anything like that, it's just that's where we lived."

So when Gordon won in 1994, it was almost like a hometown boy had made good.

"I had a huge following that year - maybe more than I do now," Gordon said with a chuckle. "When we won, I remember how many people stayed in the grandstands as I drove around here. I don't think I've experienced anything like that since. It was the ultimate and honestly it has never quite lived up to that since."

Gordon said he was "a mess" when he came off Turn 4 toward the checkered flag toward that victory.

"It was too good to be true," Gordon said. "I was not believing what was happening. That whole day, it seemed like every time anybody challenged us it was like 'where did they go?' Something took them out. It was just meant to be our day."

They've been running the Indianapolis 500 here since 1911 and no driver has ever won it five times. The only five-time winner in a major race at Indy is Formula One's Michael Schumacher.

Gordon could match Schumacher's feat Sunday, but that's not his main focus. Fourteen years after winning the first race here, Gordon is now a four-time champion with 81 career victories. He's also won at least two races each year since 1994.

But Gordon has not yet won this season. Only once before has he gone this deep into a season without a victory - it took him until the 24th race to win in 2002.

"I just want to win," Gordon said. "I feel like we've made gains. These guys have been working really hard. And this is a track we always seem to shine at and step up. It doesn't seem to matter what kind of year we're having, I just always feel like we can come here and be competitive."

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