When the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway rolls around, it’s hard not to think about Hendrick Motorsports driver Jeff Gordon.
Indy has been the site of some of Gordon’s greatest successes. He has won the prestigious race four times, as the inaugural winner in 1994, and again in 1998, 2001 and 2004.
Gordon tops the list for most NASCAR victories at the 2.5-mile track. He also ranks first in poles with three, top-fives with 10, top-10s with 14, and laps led with 476 in 18 starts.
For Gordon, Indy is a very special place. Unknown to many race fans, he first aspired to become an Open Wheel driver with a dream to win the Indianapolis 500. He lived many of his childhood years in nearby Pittsboro and once went to the track as a fan and met his hero, legend Rick Mears.
When stock cars came into his life in 1990, Gordon changed his career path to NASCAR and, ironically, realized his dream as the first winner of the Brickyard 400 in 1994 while driving for Hendrick.
“Growing up here and going to the track numerous times as a kid, there is just something special about each trip,” Gordon said. “But that special feeling changes quickly when I get out on the track because this place is so challenging.
“The four corners look the same, but each is unique with different transitions and bumps. As a driver, factoring that in with the few little dips, the way the wind is blowing, the radius and everything else can give you an advantage.
“The car has to be good, as well. We’ve had the best car or one of the best cars in each of the races we’ve won here.”
The 2012 season has been one of the toughest in Gordon’s 20-year career in NASCAR. Seemingly everything has gone wrong. There have been many freak occurrences on track. For example, the season began with a blown engine in the Daytona 500 in February – and it’s been a challenge since.
Ranked a disappointing 17th going into Indianapolis this weekend, Gordon has had to deliver the same answers to the media all season long. The Vallejo, Calif., native tries to be upbeat, but you can hear the frustration and heartache in his voice.
“Obviously our season hasn’t gone the way that we had hoped it would,” Gordon said at New Hampshire. “We’ve shown a lot of speed. We’re capable of leading laps but we just haven’t come up with the results.”
Gordon finished sixth at Michigan, sixth at Sonoma, Calif., fifth at Kentucky, 12th at Daytona and sixth at New Hampshire. The No. 24 team seems to be making progress.
“I feel like we’ve turned a corner,” Gordon said. “I feel like in the last few weeks we’ve put some good results together and getting to the finish with the car in one piece and having good runs. These next several weeks are obviously crucial for us.
“We’ve got Indianapolis and a bunch of tracks coming up that we’re definitely capable of winning at. And we know that we’re going to have to win at those in order to get ourselves into the Chase.”
Gordon has been highly commended for the way he has handled himself – and the situation in which his team finds itself – with only seven races remaining before the Chase begins at Chicagoland Speedway on Sept. 16.
Gordon has kept much of his emotions to himself.
“Well, there are definitely feelings in the heat of the moment,” Gordon said. “Especially when you sense the frustration and it comes out in things you say on the radio or how you handle some of those situations behind closed doors.
“But, when it comes to how to handle it publicly, I just don’t think it does the team or myself or anybody any good to handle that negatively.
“So whatever frustrations and challenges that we’ve been dealt this year, we’ve just continued to try to handle them internally. And I would say that there has been very little questioning of anyone. It’s really been just how do we turn these great runs into great results.”
Gordon touched on the root of the problem. His impressive on-track performances haven’t been reflected in the finishing orders, which tends to spark thoughts the team is headed in the wrong direction.
“Obviously, what makes that even more challenging is the weeks go by and you don’t get the results,” Gordon said. “The fans, the media, the social media and all those things start to weigh on you heavily.
“So, it’s nice to have a lot of support out there as well, like our sponsors and our fans. But most importantly, it’s what the team does. This team is one that has gotten through some pretty tough times this year and has stuck together.
“I certainly hope that the worst is behind us, but I just feel like the last few weeks with things going more our way at the end of these races, that’s helped us to understand that hey, we’ve just got to keep sticking together and we’re going to get the results.
“Now, are they going to be enough to get us in the Chase? We’ll see. If we get in the Chase, are they going to be enough to win the championship? We’ll see. But I’ve been very proud of the way we’ve handled ourselves through all this.”
Should Gordon win his fifth career Indy race Sunday, it will definitely be the highlight of a season that’s considered one of his most disappointing. He gets hope from how well he and his team ran at IMS in 2011.
“I think back to last year at Indianapolis and how good we were,” Gordon said. “That’s what memory I’m going to have this year. How can we be that good and improve on our performance versus our competition in these next several weeks?”
Many don’t feel Gordon has much of a chance to make the chase. But wins, and the more the better, will get him into a “wildcard” spot. A win at IMS would be a huge boost for the team.
“I think most people look at us while we’re in 17th or 18th or wherever we are in the points and no wins, as ‘These guys don’t have a shot,’” Gordon said. “We look at it as, ‘Gosh, we’ve run so good at this track and this track and this track and this track. We are capable of winning multiple races.’
“We’ve got to put all the things together to pull off those victories. But we feel like we’ve run good enough to do it and are continuing to run good. And this is a good stretch of races for us to pull it off.”