Did Jeff Gordon announce his retirement specifically to coincide with Throwback Thursday?
OK probably not, but here on The Blog we’re thrilled to have a timely opportunity to look back on a day when a driver’s young career took flight on one of the bigger days in the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
When Jeff Gordon fired up his No. 24 Chevrolet in the 1994 inaugural Brickyard 400, just two days after his 23rd birthday, he was on the doorstep of NASCAR greatness.
The Pittsboro, Indiana, product (Gordon moved there from California at age 14 to chase his racing dreams) had shown flashes already, from a 1993 Rookie of the Year award in then-Winston Cup to a first Cup win in May 1994 at the 600-miler at Charlotte.
But he had never raced in an event like the 1994 Brickyard 400. No one in NASCAR had. It featured the series’ biggest crowd (300,000-plus), biggest purse ($3.2 million) and biggest qualifying field ever – eighty-five cars for 43 spots. Indianapolis 500 winners A.J. Foyt and Danny Sullivan were in the field.
The second-year driver, behind an adoring crowd, rose to the occasion. Gordon qualified third, got to the lead on Lap 3 and went on to lead a race-high 93 of the 160 laps including the final five.
“I remember in ’94, you know, in the closing laps … just disbelief,” Gordon said last year. “You don’t want to see a caution. You’re leading the Brickyard 400 with just a handful of laps to go. You want to take that moment in and look into the crowd and see what they’re doing, but at the same time you don’t want to lose focus.”
You know where the story goes from there. The next season, in 1995, Gordon would win seven times and take the first of four Cup titles. The others were 1997, 1998 and 2001 – the last two also featuring Brickyard 400 wins.
In a nice piece of symmetry, Gordon’s fourth Brickyard win came 10 years after the first, in 2004, and the record-breaking fifth Brickyard 400 title (the most all-time by a driver in a major IMS oval race) came 10 years after that, in 2014. That fifth win was also his 90th Cup victory.
After this season, Gordon says his full-time NASCAR days are over. But, as he told AP writer Jenna Fryer today while making the media rounds off that announcement, nothing will ever beat winning the 1994 Brickyard 400.
Pretty good memory to take into the next chapter of life.