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 kicked it into 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.
"I told him this morning that this was his day," said team owner Rick Hendrick.
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. He said he erred in picking the inside line for the restart.
"I should have chosen the top [lane], obviously," he said. "I pretty much let Jeff control that last restart. I thought I made the right decision."
Kyle Busch finished second, 2.325 seconds behind Gordon, and was followed by Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth.
"It is just a small victory, we're still just inching our way there," Hamlin said about JGR's strong run.
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.
Gordon, who won NASCAR's first race at storied Indy in 1994, also won the Brickyard in 1998, 2001 and 2004. There had been a lot of fanfare leading up to this race, though, as speedway officials celebrated Gordon's 20th anniversary win, who was 23 when he picked up just his second career victory. Eight days short of his 43rd birthday and the father of two young children, Gordon has 90 victories, third on the career list.
A tinge of gray at his temples, and his hat on backward, Gordon said it took extreme focus over the final 10 laps not to prematurely celebrate and cough away the win. It meant tuning out the crowd, which was on its feet and cheering him to the finish.
"I was trying not to let it get to me and not think about it too much," he said. "And yet you can't help it. It's such a big place and such an important victory and a crucial moment in the season and the championship, and those emotions take over.
"This one is for all those fans throughout the years and all weekend long – they're saying 'We believe you can get [championship] number five.' We got [Brickyard] No. 5!"