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Memory Lane: Gordon Wins Inaugural Brickyard 400

Jeff Gordon’s victory in the inaugural Brickyard 400 on Aug. 6, 1994 was his second career NASCAR Cup Series win, but there was no question it was one of the most significant events in American auto racing history.

This was more than just a fresh new face in his second season of Cup competition driving under the checkered flag at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the rainbow-colored No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet. Far more.

Gordon became the first driver to win a race at IMS in a stock car, as only open-wheel Indy cars had raced at the fabled facility since it opened in 1909. His win at the most famous racetrack in the world also further ignited a new explosion of popularity for NASCAR that expanded its fan base far beyond its traditional Deep South roots, helping to also trigger a track construction boom in the late 90s that saw ovals built all over the United States.

The polished “Wonder Boy” Gordon was born in California, raised in Indiana and cut his racing teeth in USAC open-wheel cars. His victory at Indianapolis only intensified his friendly, generational rivalry with Dale Earnhardt, the multi-time Cup champion, famous rough-and-tumble “Intimidator” and North Carolina native who embodied NASCAR’s Southern heritage.

1994 Brickyard 400

Gordon’s win in a competitive race before a capacity crowd also silenced the few remaining doubters who questioned whether heavier, slower NASCAR stock cars could produce a thrilling show on the long straightaways and relatively flat, 9-degree banking in the four turns at IMS.

Earnhardt started second beside surprise pole sitter Rick Mast, but his usual aggression cost him after brushing the wall while trying to take the lead in Turn 1 at the start. His No. 3 Goodwrench Chevrolet started to drop through the field, and Earnhardt ended up fifth, leading just two laps.

Gordon, who started third, moved to the front on Lap 3 and stayed there until Lap 24. He once again regained the lead on Lap 48, keeping out front until Lap 70.

Geoff and Brett Bodine battled for the lead on Lap 100 of the 160-lap race, with contact between the two feuding brothers in Turn 3 that helped Geoff take the lead. But Brett exacted revenge in the next corner, hitting his brother into a spin that also collected Dale Jarrett.

Brett Bodine continued and played a role with Gordon and Ernie Irvan in the merry-go-round exchanges of the lead in the closing stretches of the race.

Superstar Rusty Wallace took the lead with a blistering pit stop during the final caution of the race, with Gordon second and Irvan third on the restart on Lap 135. But Gordon finally passed Wallace for the lead on Lap 136 after they ran side by side down the backstretch, in Turns 3 and 4 and on the front straightaway after the restart, the huge crowd roaring in approval.

Jeff Gordon, Ernie Irvin in 1994

Irvan flexed his muscle on Lap 140 by passing Gordon, who decided to tuck in behind Irvan due to loose handling in his No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet. The two drivers stayed nose-to-tail as the laps wound down, pulling away slightly from the rest of the field.

Gordon slipped past Irvan on Lap 145 but couldn’t pull away. Irvan went high in Turn 3 and passed Gordon in Turn 4 on Lap 150, a move that was unsuccessful the previous lap.

It appeared Gordon would wait until the final few laps to make a move for the win. But Irvan slid high in Turn 1 on Lap 156 after apparently running over debris on the frontstretch, and Gordon pounced.

Gordon dove under Irvan’s car and grabbed the lead, the 21st lead change of the day. Irvan was yet another contender to disappear from contention when his right-front tire blew on the backstretch on the same lap Gordon passed him.

Brett Bodine jumped to second and immediately set his sights on Gordon. Bodine trimmed the gap over the last five laps but ran out of time and real estate to pull up to Gordon’s bumper.

Gordon crossed the finish line .53 of a second ahead of Bodine, and two stars were born. One was the kid who moved to nearby Pittsboro from his native Vallejo, California, to race USAC open-wheel cars. The other was NASCAR stock car racing at IMS.

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