All this week we’ll be previewing the 2015 season in motorsports with journalists and IMS staffers. Today, USA Today’s Brant James discusses Jeff Gordon’s final drive this summer at the Crown Royal 400 at The Brickyard.
There’s been a storybook symmetry with the kid who grew up in nearby Pittsboro, and the track at 16th and Georgetown. Gordon won NASCAR’s first race there in 1994, anointing it as a stock car venue, too, soothing the outrage over the notion of anything but open wheel cars in the Month of May racing upon the yard of bricks. His career path unwittingly veered a generation of sprint car drivers away from open-wheel racing – among them Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne and recently, Kyle Larson – toward NASCAR.
But the brickyard and its denizens, eager for a Midwestern hero and finding an easy one to attach to in Gordon, have remained faithful to the Indiana kid. And he’s repaid their adoration in kind, last season claiming the 20th installment of Sprint Cup’s annual summer race in Indianapolis.
And now, barring unforeseen circumstance, it’s down to the last jaunt in a firesuit through Gasoline Alley. Certainly, Gordon could undertake a one-off at Indy in the future for the sake of nostalgia. But NASCAR rules would preclude him doing so with Hendrick Motorsports, which moves on in 2016 with a full four-car team and Chase Elliott in the No. 24 Chevrolet. It’s difficult to conjure a circumstance where racing at the Brickyard in anything other, or anything less, than the Hendrick cars that powered him to 92 wins and four titles would suffice at all.
And so this summer, they will likely turn out in droves, the man from Iowa who was there as a kid for Gordon’s first Brickyard win, or the family from Nebraska who watched Gordon’s kids, Leo and Ella, kiss the bricks last summer. Every race track on the Sprint Cup circuit this season will market Gordon’s last soiree. His picture might as well be on every NASCAR ticket sold this season. IMS will market it, too, but probably won’t have to very hard. Granted, Gordon has dusted the circuit in memories and victory lane celebrations in 22 seasons, but no place is as thick with it as Indy.
It’s easy to become jaded in sports, as a fan, or an athlete or a reporter. But moments such as the one you’d expect in July make you remember what’s special to you and why. And if Gordon delivers a sixth Brickyard victory, well, you probably wouldn’t be surprised.
Brant James is a motorsports writer for USA Today Sports who has worked previously at ESPN.com and SI.com. The first race he ever covered alone on the beat: the 2003 Brickyard. The only race he ever had to leave early because his wife went into false labor: the 2004 Brickyard. Follow him on Twitter at @brantjames.