Speeding past the sport’s best drivers 20 years ago, Jeff Gordon won the inaugural Brickyard 400 en route to starting his own legacy. Much has been made of the win’s impact — his second of 90 Cup victories, — even though it was hardly surprising at the time. After all, Gordon was blooming in his second season and the Indiana native was expected to morph into one of the sport’s all-time best. For me, on its 20th anniversary, the bigger statistic that remains is just two active drivers remain competing on the Cup circuit from that race: Gordon and Bobby Labonte, who popped up as part of his limited schedule Sunday.
So much has changed since then, but who would have thought at age 43 Gordon would be the only Cup driver to survive NASCAR’s robust growth period? It’s hard to believe, and a stark reminder of how short the careers of athletes can be even in NASCAR. To complete 21 Brickyard 400s, Jimmie Johnson needs to race until the year 2022 (age 47). To match that total, Tony Stewart must race until 2019 (age 48). Do you honestly see either driver lasting in the Cup Series that long with the amount of outside commitments, the grueling nine-month schedule and the push to keep up performance? Burnout can be mental just as much as physical and the pressure wears out even the best of athletes.
Once a generation, we still might have someone pop up like a Kyle Larson, who’s young enough and mentally tough enough to last that long. We’re still waiting on the next Mark Martin freak that enters the Cup Series late — in his 30s — but has the physical fitness regimen to stay active long into their early 50s. But for most, the clock ticks quickly once they hit a certain age — for every Martin there’s a Darrell Waltrip, who stopped winning by age 45. Ditto for Richard Petty, while Cale Yarborough cashed in for the final time at 46. Heck, we might be witnessing the beginning of the end for Stewart (43) right this second and not know it yet.
So Gordon, who once said he’d be done racing by his early 40s, should be celebrated for his longevity — and his success. Just one of the other 42 drivers in that first Brickyard field even had enough talent to qualify for Sunday’s race, let alone have the competitive fire and talent to make it to Victory Lane. Johnson may have overshadowed Gordon’s success at Hendrick Motorsports over the last decade, but make no mistake — he is still one of the greatest this sport will ever see.
“Through the Gears,” post-Indy we go …
FIRST GEAR: Hendrick remains atop the charts
Gordon’s victory, which cemented his lead atop the Sprint Cup standings, is also another notch in Hendrick’s belt. After a month outside Victory Lane, HMS simply dominated, with Kasey Kahne leading a race-high 70 laps and Gordon following close behind, armed with the fastest car. While Joe Gibbs Racing finished 2-3-4 — a sign of continued improvement — it’s clear that when all the cards are shown in “major events” like Indy, it’s still Hendrick that remains a step above everyone else. The organization may have just seven of the 20 Sprint Cup wins so far this season but that total’s still good enough to lead all teams on the circuit.
Although snookered on the final restart, Hendrick’s most promising showing may have come from Kahne, who put himself in position to win. Now only four points out of a Chase spot, the success of the No. 5 team of late has most thinking it will make the postseason, either by sneaking in the old-fashioned way or via a trip to Victory Lane at Michigan or Bristol.
“It is the strongest effort the team has put out all season long,” Kahne said after coming home sixth. “All of us working together, yeah, we can take a lot out of here.”
So with Gibbs and even Penske Racing a step behind, at this “major” it’s clear Hendrick can take the words “title favorite” and wear them proudly around the shop once again. With Gordon on pace, Kahne seemingly on the brink, Dale Earnhardt Jr. making a push in his final year with Steve Letarte and Johnson being … well, Johnson, you get the picture.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see a Gordon-Earnhardt-Johnson contingent inside the Final Four — and if Kahne reaches Victory Lane, any kryptonite within the organization disappears. And let’s not forget Chase Elliott making the Nationwide Series his personal playground right now, his three victories and continued development leaving HMS in position to stay at the top of NASCAR’s ladder over the long-term.
SECOND GEAR: Kevin Harvick’s swings and misses
For Kevin Harvick, the off week was a chance to regroup and relearn how “The Closer” can finish races with what has arguably been the fastest car on the circuit. Leading 894 laps, only Johnson has run up front more, but Harvick, despite two victories, has seen a long list of team-inflicted mistakes take their toll. He’s got only one top-5 finish in the last eight races, with another missed opportunity at Indy on Sunday. Winning the pole in demanding fashion, he failed to find the handle over the course of the race and wound up a disappointing eighth. It’s part of a trend, the eighth straight event in which the No. 4 — which admittedly often qualifies up front — has finished worse than its starting spot.
“Yeah, we just started off bad really from the first lap,” he said. “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.”
Harvick’s frustration has clearly built over the last few months and often led to public criticism of his team. While others like Johnson can struggle pre-Chase and get the team together, you get the sense Harvick’s emotion makes this team in its first year a different case. So watch the performance of the No. 4 closely over the next month; while they’ve clinched a Chase spot, a poor performance now is likely a good predictor of how they’ll do when the races really count.
INDIANAPOLIS | Edwards couldn't say "no" twice
THIRD GEAR: Indy’s single-file parade
For those who watched the Eldora Truck race, where passing happened every turn of every lap, Sunday’s Indy slate was a bore by comparison. One observer, taking photos in Turn 1, quipped that the field was single-file, first to 43rd, every time within the first two green-flag laps. That’s par for the course at Indy, whose racing has suffered exponentially since Goodyear’s embarrassing tire debacle of 2008.
Since then, the route has been to go towards conservative, same speed, single-file racing at a track already hard to pass rather than risk a handful of blowouts. So teams have now resorted to fuel strategy, stretching their stops and trying to go off sequence in a race that feels more like a road course than an oval. Why not? If you’re stuck in 25th with no hope of moving up, daring pit calls are your only hope to get to the front.
Here’s the difference between Indy and say, Watkins Glen: people play around in the pits on road courses and actually pass. At Indy, there’s little if any of that, which is why it’s no surprise the stands look emptier every year. It’s a broken record that’s got to be fixed one of these years if the race is ever going to match the hype.
FOURTH GEAR: Danica’s Indy drought continues
It’s been nearly a decade since Danica Patrick put herself on the map, contending for victory as a rookie at the Indianapolis 500 in 2005. Now, in 2014, her limited success stories are getting old, improvement seemingly not fast enough as her sophomore season at Stewart-Haas Racing has passed with little more than a blip on the radar screen.
That’s why Indy is so important, a chance for her to connect to past success. Instead, for the second straight year, Patrick wasn’t really a factor, as a broken rear gear erased a strong qualifying run and added to the list of disappointments this season.
“It just one of those things,” she said after ending the day inside the garage. “It’s too bad and these things never happen when you’re having a bad day. We were having a good 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 to.”
For Patrick, it was one of the last times this season she had a chance to jump into contention. The Chase will leave her all but invisible, on the outside looking in to what’s been a disappointing Cup career.
Indy, notoriously a poor track for rookies, was forgiving to Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon. Both top freshman contenders ran inside the top 10 Sunday, while Austin’s brother, Ty, won the Nationwide Series race at the track on Saturday. Both youngsters find themselves on the Chase bubble as the regular season winds down. … It was a tough day for Paul Menard, who was one of the few drivers to make contact with the outside wall Sunday. A 34th-place disappointment at the only track where he’s won a Cup race leaves him on the outside of the Chase looking in. Chances are that’s where he’ll stay. … Carl Edwards was 15th after his long-rumored departure from Roush Fenway Racing was made official. Look for Edwards to join Joe Gibbs Racing in a fourth car, with sponsorship and details to be announced in early September. For its part, RFR quickly re-signed Greg Biffle to ensure it still has one veteran to team with youngsters Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne next season. And no, no one was surprised.
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
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