Brickyard 400

... and the finish.

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Ben Smith

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Brickyard 400

The start of the 21st Brickyard 400 ...

Shades of 1994 felt with deciding pass

– This one belonged to the math majors again, until it didn't. Until the family man reached back and found the kid again. Until he drove hard into Turn One on the last restart, and 20 years blew away in an eye blink.

In 1994, it was Dupont on the car and Ray Evernham up on the pit box, and Ernie Irvan whom Jeff Gordon reeled in to win the inaugural Brickyard 400.

Sunday, it was Kasey Kahne he took down with 17 laps to run in a car with not Dupont but Axalta on the hood – and, up there on the box, crew chief Alan Gustafson pumping his fist like Namath after hitting Don Maynard for six.

Out there behind the pits and across the track and in lonesome scattered outposts around this rambling old place, what passes for a crowd these days at Indy no doubt was doing the same.

The Tournament of Roses Parade, after all – because that's what this is, still, mostly, which explains all the empty seats – had just made several thousand hearts skip a beat for once. It might have been a fuel strategy, track position deal again for the balance of the day, but for a handful of seconds it was a racer's race, decided by racers.

“The restart of my life,” Gordon called it, down in Victory Lane with his wife and his kids and his race team.

“It's the only time you can ever pass anyone, so you've got to go and push hard and take that chance,” said Joey Logano, who finished fifth.

And so Gordon did. On a day when, yes, Gustafson and the crew – all those math majors – gave him the strongest car out there and kept him in position to do something with it, he dropped the hammer and held the outside line through Turn One, waiting for Kahne to blink.

“Once I got down into one and two, I could hear him getting loose,” Gordon said. “I thought I let him go too much, but I just was able to get to his quarter (panel) as I shifted into fourth gear and I had the best position I could ask for … ”

A racer's move. A racer's moment, happening in a place where those moments are few and far between because of the unique configuration of the track and an aerodynamic package that punches a big hole in the air, giving the car out front an immense advantage.

“It's tough out there,” said Denny Hamlin, whose pit strategy got him up front until he took too little fuel on one off-cycle stop and had to come in again. “Every year it's pretty much the same here: If you get a car that is decently fast and put him out front he's probably gonna pull away from the pack.”

Gordon did that early, Kahne did it for long stretches, Hamlin did it some. In the end, though, it came down to one rare moment straight out of 1994, and a whole lot of other moments that were not so rare and not particularly thrilling, even if they were, as ever, integral to the whole.

“This track allows for wacky strategy,” Hamlin said. “A lot of the race is out of our hands (as drivers). It's about how fast our car is and how strategic our crew chief is.”

Gordon certainly would second that. And third, and fourth, and fifth it.

“Here, it's … the total team effort,” he said. “You have to get it done with a great race car. You do it on restarts. You have to have good pit stops, pit strategy. It's the total team effort.”

Plus one dazzling Way Back Machine moment, reaching 20 years into the past for the move that would tie 1994 to 2014 forever.

“Once I got clear of him down there, I thought I can't believe this is happening,” Gordon said.

Sounded familiar.

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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