Commentary

Jeff Gordon 'on top of the world'

Updated: July 29, 2014, 11:56 AM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- Suddenly the 20 years between winning the first Brickyard 400 and winning the 21st were swept away, and Jeff Gordon's emotions in the final laps were "very, very similar," he said.

Sunday, for his record fifth win of this race, Gordon nearing age 43 was Gordon nearing 23 again.

"I remember, in '94, in the closing laps, just disbelief," he said. "And you don't want to see a caution. You can't believe you're leading the Brickyard 400 with just a handful of laps to go. And you want to take that moment in, and look into the crowd and see what they're doing."

Then and now, Indianapolis Motor Speedway provides Gordon his very best receptions nationwide, because the California kid moved to Indiana to race at age 14 and has been claimed as a bona-fide Hoosier ever since.

Even wanting to absorb it all in the late laps, "at the same time you don't want to lose focus, and you know that it's not over. ... So I kept going in and out of those emotions of, 'All right, don't get off track in what's going on.'

Still, he said, "On that last lap I looked up in Turn 4, and just to see everyone standing and cheering. That's awesome. That sends a chill up your spine as a race driver."

Same thrill, but vastly different reasons.

That first Brickyard was only his second Cup win. This one made him only the third Cup driver in history to win 90 races, and now David Pearson's 105 might just be within range if Gordon stays long enough, even if Richard Petty's 200 isn't.

And this one could be a launching pad toward a fifth season championship that has eluded him for 13 years, so long that Gordon has teetered at times on the precipice of being rated as over the hill. Clearly, all race, he had the strongest car in the field. He was best on long runs, and every late lap was stronger for him. He had to beat one late -- but not very late -- caution.

On the final restart, with 17 of the 160 laps remaining, there was another flashback to '94: Gordon did something he hadn't thought he could.

"I'm terrible at restarts," he admitted, acknowledging a weakness that has been obvious in recent years, and was again earlier Sunday.

"Restarts didn't go great for us all day today," he said. "So I didn't think I wanted to see a restart."

With teammate Kasey Kahne leading late, Gordon had planned to force Kahne to wear down his car, and pass for the lead during a long run.

[+] EnlargeRick Hendrick, Jeff Gordon
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesJeff Gordon and team owner Rick Hendrick celebrate a record fifth Brickyard 400 victory.

But they caught the caution, and then, "Out of nowhere, I have the restart of my life, at the most important moment that you could ask for in a race, in a season."

Here's how it unfolded:

"I had spun the tires a couple of times on restarts, so I wanted a fast pace. Kasey was slowing it down. That's why we were so jockeyed when we came through the restart zone. I really had to let him go.

"I thought I had let him go too much, but I was able to get to his quarter [panel] as I shifted to fourth gear, and I was able to have just the best position I could ask for."

Kahne, as the leader at that point, had the option of restarting inside or outside, and chose the inside. Gordon was delighted. One thing Gordon has always been a master at, if he gets outside a car in a corner, is holding the other car down and loosening it up.

"Once we got down into [Turns] 1 and 2, I could hear him getting loose," Gordon said. "I've got to thank him -- he raced me awesomely clean. It could have got real ugly down there."

After that, Gordon was clear, and ran away from Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin, who finished second and third after Kahne's loose car fell back to a sixth-place finish.

Saturday, Gordon had said he believes this race is won by the best team 90 percent of the time, and that the championship is won by the best team 90-plus percent of the time. (In one 12-year stretch, 1998-2009, the winner of this race went on to win the Cup.)

Clearly Sunday, the race was won by the best team with the best car. So does it follow that the 24 team is now the best in Cup, the one that can take him at long last to that fifth title?

"I do think we were today," he said. "I think the reason why we're leading the points is because I believe we're the best team. I don't believe that means we always have the best race car. ... But this weekend we had the best car and the best team. No doubt about it. That tells me if you can do it here, you can do it anywhere.

"It's certainly a huge confidence boost for this team. We recognize the significance of this. ... I think we saw we were the points leaders. We saw we won at Kansas [his only other win so far this year].

"But I don't know if we believed we were capable of winning this championship this year -- truly believed it.

"We do now."

Then he stopped himself.

"Right now I'm on top of the world, so of course I'm going to say all these things."

Just like 20 years ago -- except that the world he's on top of now is very different.

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