INDIANAPOLIS - With a fifth Brickyard 400 victory on the line Sunday, Jeff Gordon looked like the driver he was 20 years ago.
Gordon nailed the final restart of the race – no given because restarts have been Gordon’s Achilles heel – to pass Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne with 17 laps remaining at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
His power move from the outside lane past Kahne put Gordon out front for good, and he put in cruise control for a NASCAR-record fifth victory at historic Indy. The win came on the 20th anniversary celebration of Gordon’s win in the inaugural Brickyard 400, and on “Jeff Gordon Day” as declared by the Mayor of Indianapolis.
The win moved Gordon into a tie with Michael Schumacher, whose five Formula One victories at Indy had been the gold standard.
“God, I finally had the restart of my life,” Gordon screamed on his radio. He’d botched one earlier in the race, and the four-time NASCAR champion has struggled with restarts for some years.
So when a late caution gave Gordon one last shot at Kahne, who dominated and led a race-high 70 laps, Gordon and his No. 24 team knew the driver was in control of his own destiny.
Crew chief Alan Gustafson talked fuel mileage with the driver – Gordon had enough to get to the finish, and Kahne was cutting it close – but Gustafson said nothing about the pressure looming over the final restart.
“The restart is going to be the race, really,” Gustafson conceded in a television interview moments before the field went green.
Nobody had any reason to worry as Gordon nailed it when he needed it most.
“I’m not very good on restarts and wasn’t very good today, and I finally made the restart of my life when it counted most,” Gordon said in Victory Lane. “I knew we had a great race car, we just needed to get out front.”
Kahne plummeted to fifth after the restart, then ran out of gas on the final lap and had to nurse his car home to a sixth-place finish.
Kyle Busch finished second, 2.325 seconds behind Gordon, and was followed by Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth.
Joey Logano was fifth in the highest-finishing car from Team Penske, which brought Juan Pablo Montoya to the race in an effort to get the win. Roger Penske has won a record 15 Indianapolis 500s, but is winless in the Brickyard. Montoya was never a factor and finished 23rd.
Kyle Larson, who grew up a Gordon fan, finished seventh and likened Gordon’s win on Sunday to Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s season-opening win in the Daytona 500.
Kevin Harvick, the polesitter and the driver with the car most everyone thought would be tough to beat, was eighth and followed by Earnhardt and rookie Austin Dillon.
Carl Edwards finished 15th hours after Roush-Fenway Racing finally confirmed he was leaving the team at the end of the season.