There was a period a few years ago when many wondered whether Jeff Gordon’s best days were behind him.
The four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion earned only one victory from 2008 through 2010 before he rediscovered his stride in 2011.
That seems like ancient history now, a fact Gordon underlined Sunday by winning the Brickyard 400 for a record fifth time at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The one-time “Wonder Boy” of NASCAR, who’s now 42, won the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994. Gordon won the race again in 1998, 2001 and 2004.
This year he moved his No. 24 Chevrolet past his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne for the lead on a restart with 17 laps left in the 160-lap race and never looked back.
“Twenty years later, it’s still awesome” to win at Indy, Gordon said.
He acknowledged that he’s not the best driver at NASCAR’s double-file restarts, sometimes spinning his tires as he accelerates, but “I made the restart of my life today. That was our only shot at winning.”
Kyle Busch finished 1.5 seconds behind Gordon in second place. Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth, Busch’s teammates at Joe Gibbs Racing, finished third and fourth. Joey Logano was fifth and Kahne finished sixth.
As Gordon passed Kahne’s No. 5 Chevy on the outside as they moved into Turn 2, the crowd erupted and Gordon’s crew chief, Alan Gustafson, stood on his pit box and repeatedly pumped his right arm in jubilation.
The crowd appeared to be between 80,000 and 90,000, less than half the number who witnessed Gordon’s first Brickyard 400 victory at the sprawling, 2.5-mile Indianapolis track, which has roughly 250,000 grandstand seats.
But many of those attending Sunday were fans of Gordon, a favorite son who spent a good part of his teenage years in nearby Pittsboro after his family moved from California to provide him more racing opportunities. Even before the race, Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard had declared Sunday as “Jeff Gordon Day.”
Gordon said he could see the crowd standing and cheering on the final lap and “that sends a chill up your spine as a race-car driver in a race that’s so important to you,” he said.
After Busch got his No. 18 Toyota to second place on the final restart, he couldn’t close the gap with Gordon. “There was no catching him, definitely not,” Busch said. “Those guys were really, really fast.”
Gordon’s victory also marked the 12th consecutive year that a Chevrolet driver has won the Brickyard 400. Gordon’s teammate, Jimmie Johnson, has won the race four times, so their team owner Rick Hendrick has a total of nine Brickyard 400 victories.
It was Gordon’s second Cup win of the season — he also won at Kansas — and the 90th victory of his career. He’s third on the all-time wins list behind Richard Petty (200) and David Pearson (105).
With two wins this year, Gordon also clinched a berth in NASCAR’s 16-driver Chase for the Cup title playoff that starts Sept. 14 at Chicagoland Speedway.
Gordon also leads the Cup title point standings by 24 points over Dale Earnhardt Jr., another of his teammates. Earnhardt finished ninth Sunday.
Gordon had a fast car all weekend — he started second behind pole-sitter Kevin Harvick — and Gordon said he knew he had a strong car the moment he climbed into the Chevy for practice.
“It just had that feel, it had the balance that I love to have,” he said.
Hendrick said he had a premonition about the race. “I told [Gordon] this morning, ‘This is your day,’” Hendrick said. “He gets around this place so well. It’s pretty special.”