Jeff Gordon got “The Call.”
NASCAR veteran Gordon, one of the sport’s most popular drivers, won the Brickyard 400, one of the sport’s crown jewels, for a record-setting fifth time on the 20th anniversary of his winning the inaugural event at the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1994.
It happened on the day that the mayor of Indianapolis had declared to be Jeff Gordon Day, prompting Gordon’s team owner, Rick Hendrick, to tell him on the morning of the race, “You’re going to win the race today.”
It all reads like something even a Hollywood scriptwriter would never dare to be so bold as to write.
Yet, it really happened. It was a real NASCAR moment.
In years past, NASCAR fans would delight in pointing out that questionable, almost unbelievable triumphs were the result of someone high up in the NASCAR hierarchy making "The Call."
Perhaps the most memorable was when seven-time Cup champion Richard Petty won the Firecracker 400, his 200th victory and final race on July 4, 1984, at Daytona International Speedway—after President Ronald Reagan made the command for drivers to start their engines by phone from Air Force One.
After the race, Petty joined the President in the press box to celebrate his victory.
Petty got "The Call," too.
As legend would have it, during that call, the driver was told “today is his day to shine and that race officials would look the other way and it's up to the driver not to mess things up.”
If only such a legend were true. It remains for some as the only explanation for the results of several races in NASCAR’s history.
On Sunday, Gordon’s No. 24 Chevrolet was a dominant car. There was no call from upper management. His Alan Gustafson-led Hendrick Motorsports team came prepared to win. It was clearly the best team all weekend.
Although Gordon didn’t start the race from the pole, he did start in the front row alongside pole winner Kevin Harvick, whose Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet was powered by a nearly identical Chevrolet engine—also prepared by Hendrick Motorsports.
A start from the pole wasn’t necessary for Gordon to win his 90th race at a track where, as a young boy growing up in Indiana, he looked up to those who raced on it.
“To me, what I love about this race, besides we're here at Indianapolis, as a kid growing up, I just idolized the drivers that raced here. And to me this was just the ultimate place,” said Gordon in the post-race press conference.
Gordon looked to open-wheel cars as his future. That was, until stock cars entered his life.
This fifth win forces us to look back on his first, 20 years ago, in a very different world when that first win at the Speedway caught everyone’s attention. He beat the best in the business, including champions Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Bill Elliott.
Now, at 42 years old, Gordon races against the sons of those NASCAR greats, continuing on in a career that only recently he hinted might be coming to an end.
Earlier in the season, and as a result of a few good race outcomes, Gordon was leading the drivers points. It was bittersweet for the four-time Cup champion, as Gordon’s team was winless. The new rules for qualifying for the sport’s championship series, the Chase, make it almost mandatory that a team have at least one win, if not two, to be able to participate.
A frustrated Gordon hinted then at his retirement. On Sunday, he was singing a different tune.
“This team certainly has rejuvenated me in a lot of ways,” said Gordon. "(It) makes me want to dig down even deeper than I possibly can to give them everything back that they're putting into it. They've inspired me in so many ways.
“You never know when your next win is going to come. You’re only as good as your equipment and your cars, and I had to prove to my team that they had the best guy.”
On Sunday, he reminded his teammates that they had the best guy to go with the best car.
Early in the race, there was a time that called for patience and holding back emotions after a difficult pit stop. Gordon handled it like only a veteran could.
“I had to remind myself that you don’t win races at the beginning—you win at the end. And we had a long way to go,” said Gordon.
Emotions bubbled up again late in the race as Gordon battled with teammate Kasey Kahne. It took a veteran’s poise to focus and wait for the right time and the right place to make a pass for the lead.
Fortunately, that moment to pass never came, as a caution flag fell with 21 laps remaining. It would force a restart—a restart, according to crew chief Gustafson, “that would determine the race,” as he talked live on television to an ESPN pit reporter.
“I knew we had a race car that could win this race,” said Gordon. “We had terrible restarts all day and then…I had the restart of my life.”
Gordon powered past Kahne on that final restart. With 17 laps remaining, he opened up a huge lead over the rest of the field.
Somewhere, the racing gods were smiling down on Gordon. So did the hometown fans in the stands. They stood and cheered for one of their own, many of them just babies for his first Brickyard 400. After the race, Gordon admitted he had been looking into the grandstands.
“I was trying so hard with 10 (laps) to go not to focus on the crowd,” Gordon said in his Victory Lane interview. “Every once in a while, I’d glance up there and I could see the reaction. I was trying not to let it get to me and not think about it too much. 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.”
At a time when an older generation of NASCAR’s fans are drifting away from the sport in droves, electing not to watch the racing on television or in person, a NASCAR moment like this should be a good enough reason for those fans to reconsider.
And if this one win isn’t enough to win them over or to help attract the new generation of fans the sport so desperately needs to survive in this instant-gratification world of the 21st century, then a fifth championship surely will.
That fifth title has been as elusive as the Holy Grail for the past several seasons. It has proved to be just beyond reach. With his place in the Hall of Fame all but guaranteed, Gordon believes that his career might not be complete without it.
Gordon admitted after Sunday’s Brickyard 400 win that it may be the heady emotions of the moment that have him believing that this could be the year.
“We were the best team this weekend," Gordon said. "We think we can win this championship. That’s what’s important.”
Sunday’s win may not be remembered as the 90th of his career, but rather as the turning point for his fifth title.
And no, Jeff Gordon didn't get "The Call."
Bob Margolis has covered NASCAR, IndyCar, the NHRA and Sports Cars for more than two decades as a writer, television producer and on-air talent. All quotes are taken from official NASCAR, team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.
Follow Bob on Twitter: @BobMargolis