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Ben Smith

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Coming Sunday
•The NASCAR series comes back to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and The Journal Gazette has the race covered with veteran motor sports reporter Ben Smith. The preview section will have features on Dale Earnhardt, the rising stars of the series and NASCAR’s attendance problems. Also look for the starting grid.
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Jeff Gordon won the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994 at age 23. Now 42, he believes he has what it takes to win his fifth Brickyard.

Indy magic still alive as Gordon seeks win 5

There is gray in the sideburns now, and here’s time going upside your head. Jeff Gordon, an elder statesman? Wonder Boy (as Dale Earnhardt used to call him with that trademark Earnhardt smirk) leaving the Wonder Years in the dust?

Married, 42, he’ll be 43 on Aug. 4, a man in full with a wife and two kids and, you know, responsibilities …

Shoot. Might as well yank him out of that fabled No. 24 and stick him behind a walker.

Or, he can come back here to Indianapolis and sit down and reminisce awhile, because this is the place that made him.

Before he won the inaugural Brickyard at 23, he was merely NASCAR’s future, and then, suddenly, he was its present.

The place wasn’t home – he was born in California – but it felt like it, because he moved to Indiana when he was a teenager, went to high school 12 miles west of the Speedway, learned how to be a race driver on mean little tracks carved out of the corn and bean fields.

And then came ’94, and the Brickyard.

“Most of the things that stand out to me was really about just the madness and craziness of how big the event was, how popular it was among fans,” Gordon said last week. “Even if you go back to the test that we had, the fans were just lined up on the fence around the garage area just wanting to see stock cars race at Indianapolis. … You just couldn’t walk anywhere without being mobbed.”

And now it’s 20 years later and most of that is gone, and the irony is thick. The event itself has gone gray at the temples just as Gordon has, but with Gordon it’s only cosmetic. As the 21st running arrives in less than robust shape, its inaugural champion hasn’t felt this robust in years.

He comes in leading the points, to start with, and that hasn’t happened in a while. The man’s won 89 Cup races, more than anyone except Richard Petty and David Pearson, but 81 of those came prior to 2008. From 2008 through 2010 he won exactly one race; since 2001, when he won his fourth Cup title, he’s finished third or higher in the points only three times.

But now?

Now he’s already won once and he’s got six top fives and it’s like the old days, suddenly, coming to Indy with a bit of a swagger even if he hasn’t won there since 2004.

“I feel really good,” says Gordon, who won four of the first 11 Brickyards and whose name, a decade past the last one, is still all over the race record book. “Our team is really strong, very consistent … Indianapolis is a great track for us, as strong as our cars are and our team is this year. I think Indianapolis is a track we can really shine.”

The difference now, of course, is he feels that way about every track. It’s not just Indianapolis, where the fans love him like nowhere else and where, even in that arid stretch between 2008 and 2013, he still finished in the top five three times and the top 10 five times. It’s the road courses and plate tracks and bullrings and mile-and-a-half cookie cutters, too.

“I’ve felt good about every track we’ve gone to this year,” says Gordon, and, indeed, he’s scored top fives everywhere from Daytona to Sonoma. “That’s the thing: The way the cars have been driving and as competitive as we’ve been, I’m excited to go to every track because I feel like we have a shot at a win everywhere we go.”

Everywhere: Daytona, Sonoma, Kansas, on and on. And Indianapolis, of course, where it all began and where, though the shine is off the thing, it never will be for the man with gray in his sideburns now.

“I’m extremely excited about going to Indianapolis,” Gordon said last week. “The way our cars are performing, the way our engines are performing, Indianapolis is a track that we can certainly win at.”

In other words: Best hold off on that walker.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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