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Jeff Gordon arrived in Indianapolis this week with the look of a man set on a definite target from which he would not be deflected, the prize in question being a record fifth Cup victory at the iconic Indianapolis Motor Speedway. And at the end of nearly three hours of racing on Sunday afternoon, he'd sealed the deal and was driving into victory lane to celebrate his 90th victory in 745 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races.
"I don't think there is a greater feeling for a race car driver and a race team than to be here in Victory Lane in Indianapolis," said Gordon after winning here for the first time since 2004. "That's what it took today. It was a total team effort to be here in Victory Lane. I'm exhausted!"
Gordon's win comes on the 20th anniversary of his first victory at the Brickyard: the mayor of Indianapolis had even proclaimed Sunday to be 'Jeff Gordon Day' in honour of that occasion. The honour became even more appropriate after the 2014 race as Gordon is now only the second racer to win five times at top-level races held at the speedway, the other being Michael Schumacher in United States F1 Grand Prix events. No one has ever won five Indianapolis 500 races.
"I was trying not to let it get to me and not think about it too much," Gordon admitted afterwards. "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 ... There's nothing better, especially at one of the biggest races to have your family here."
Gordon had started the afternoon in second place alongside Kevin Harvick, who had swept qualifying on Saturday afternoon to set himself up as the driver to beat on race day. However Harvick lasted only a single lap in the lead before the #24 was able to pass him into turn 1, and Gordon stayed in the lead from there through to the first caution on lap 21 which has been pre-arranged in order for the teams to check tyre wear after overnight rain.
Playing an early race strategy card, Penske's Joey Logano stayed out under the caution to lead at the restart. When he finally pitted for his deferred stop under green on lap 32 it was Gordon's Hendrick Motorsport team mate Kasey Kahne who took to the front and soon emerged as the man to beat. Also looking strong was Joe Gibbs Racing's Denny Hamlin, who had been deeply disappointed to qualify down in 27th place but who now took the lead on lap 44 as green flag pit stops cycled through.
Nor was Kevin Harvick out of the picture: he returned to the front again on lap 55 before his own pit stop: the differing strategies in terms of pit timing and the number of tyres taken meant that Hamlin was back on top on lap 66 before Kahne took control again on lap 73 and maintained it with only a three-lap hiatus all the way through to lap 126 at which point he pitted and Gordon picked up the baton.
Kahne had cycled his way back to the front once again with Gordon right on his rear bumper when a caution came out for Ryan Truex's car which had slowed on track and needed to be retrieved. That set up a restart on lap 144 with Kahne selecting to take the green on the inside line leaving Gordon to navigate the outside.
"I was kind of glad he took the inside because I really wanted the outside," Gordon revealed. "I knew we had a great race car. We just needed to get out front. Kasey kind of hung back and I kind of got a little ahead of him and I had to back up and was able to stay on his quarter panel and once we got down into 1 and 2, I could hear him get loose.
"I've got to thank him. He raced me awesome and clean because it could have gotten real ugly down there," he added. "I'm not usually good at restarts, but I made the restart of my life today when it mattered most."
"Looking back, I should have chosen the top obviously," sighed Kahne. "I pretty much let Jeff control that last restart ... But either way, he was going to pass me in 1 and 2."
In any case, Kahne had a more critical issue after he was warned by his pit crew that he was a lap or two short on fuel. Dropping back to six place at the restart and picking up the draft from other cars helped him conserve some gas but even so the #5 car ran dry coming through turn 3 on the final lap although he was still was able to coast across the line.
"Because of that [restart], I was able to save fuel and make it. If I had beat him, I would have had to race the heck out of him. He was faster than I was. So, we probably would have finished a lot worse," Kahne admitted. "So, I guess for points it was good. I would have loved to win at the Brickyard. We had a good car. I thought I gave it all I had. The team gave it all they had and we just came up a little short."
With Gordon pulling out a two second lead of Kyle Busch in the final laps, the only threat to his landmark fifth win was a late caution. "There was no catching him, definitely not," admitted Busch. "I was trying to save my stuff so the guys behind me didn't catch me.
"I don't think anybody had anything for the #24," Busch added. "It seemed like anybody that he got behind he was able to pass those guys. At this place aero situations are so difficult that he could handle through it and pass guys in the long run. His car was really good today and that proved just being able to get out there so far and then he was just riding."
"Once I got clear of him I was like, I can't believe this is happening now. No caution; please no caution now," said Gordon. And his prayers were heard as the race reached the chequered flag without further interruptions.
In a race that had looked set to be dominated by the big Chevrolet teams (Hendrick and Stewart-Haas), it was strange to see the three Joe Gibbs Racing cars of Busch, Hamlin and Matt Kenseth finish immediately behind Gordon at the end of 160 laps, while Joey Logano crossed the line in fifth place just ahead of the coasting Kahne who had led a race high 70 laps compared to 40 for Gordon.
Behind Kahne was Kyle Larson, while Kevin Harvick had to settle for eighth place ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Austin Dillon, whose Richard Childress Racing team mate - last year's race winner Ryan Newman - finished just behind him in 11th place.
"We just started off bad really from the first lap," sighed Harvick. "We were just way too tight as we went through the day and we never could make it better. Just made it worse most of the day. So yeah, just way too tight."
The race had been long on strategy and short on cautions, with only two cars listed as not running at the finish. Stewart-Haas Racing's Danica Patrick suffered a broken rear axle on lap 68 although her team was subsequently able to get her back out for a few laps later in the race, while Trevor Bayne exited the race after hitting the wall on lap 96 when the Wood Brothers #21 suffered a cut tyre.
"I had a right-rear tyre go down getting into turn three," said Bayne of his accident. "I thought I felt it about a half-a-lap sooner, but just didn't have time to check it out. The spotters are on the other side of the race track, so they can't tell what's going on.
"It let go getting into turn three and I had it saved off the fence and then the right-rear tyre cut the brake line so I couldn't get it stopped by the time I hit the inside guard rail," he continued. "We were running top 20 and had a chance to do even better than that. It stinks to end our day like this with a brand new car, so I feel bad for my guys here."
"It just one of those things," said Patrick of her own issues. "It's too bad and these things never happen when you're having a bad day! ... We were the fastest car out there at times. We qualified better and had a good car for the race, it just didn't end the way we wanted it too. The good thing is, I get to come back to Indy and that makes me happy."
Paul Menard also had a long day after getting helped into the wall at turn 3 by contact from Juan Pablo Montoya on lap 32. That didn't result in a caution, but it left Menard circulating two laps off the lead in 34th place by the finish. IndyCar Series regular Montoya went on to finish in 23rd place in the Penske #12. Kurt Busch finished in 28th place after clashing with Brad Keselowski on pit road, which left Keselowski with minor damage although he went on to complete the race in 12th place.
In terms of the Chase, Gordon is now firmly locked in to the championship play-offs thanks to this win added to his win at Kansas and his 24 point lead in the points standings put him beyond doubt providing he fulfils the requirement to make qualifying attempts in the remaining six races before the cut-off point at Richmond in September.
"To win now two races, this one being such a big one, leading the points, I'm not thinking about anything else, in all honesty, other than going race-to-race in this season to try to battle for a championship," said Gordon. "That's the only thing I'm thinking about at this point.
"This team certainly has rejuvenated me in a lot of ways," he added. "Makes me want to dig down even deeper than I possibly can to give them everything back that they're putting into it. So they've inspired me in so many ways. I'm just having a blast this year driving awesome race cars."
Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards and Joey Logano have also locked themselves in subject to the same proviso, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brad Keselowski had already clinched their spots at the last race two weeks ago at New Hampshire.
Next weekend the Cup field heads back to Pocono for the second race of the season at the 'tricky triangle', where Gordon's team mate Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be hoping for a repeat success to add to the one he took there at the start of June.
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