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Brickyard Still a Jewel for Gordon

July 31, 1998

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) _ Of all his victories, none means more to Jeff Gordon than the inaugural Brickyard 400.

``I love this track,″ said Gordon, who will start third in the 43-car field Saturday, the same starting position he had when he won in 1994.

Gordon, who turns 27 Tuesday, is the youngest driver in NASCAR’s top stock car series. He has won two Winston Cup titles and 34 races since his rookie season in 1993.

Yet heading into the fifth running of the Brickyard 400, Gordon says the excitement of racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway has not diminished.

Gordon was born in California but spent most of his teenage years in Pittsboro, a 15-minute drive from the speedway. He knows it will be hard to top winning that first Brickyard on his home track.

``It keeps the fire burning in you to come and do it again,″ he said. ``I’ll certainly never forget that moment. I’d like to feel it again. ... The passion of driving and the desire to win at a track like this, brings out a little extra.″

There is also the history of the track, the home of the Indianapolis 500 since 1911.

``There’s a lot of attention on this race, and I think it just has to do with the prestige of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the excitement of NASCAR Winston Cup racing right now, and the huge purse,″ Gordon said.

Gordon, who earned what was then a record $613,000 for his 1994 victory, is one of five drivers who have the opportunity for a much bigger payday on Saturday.

Series sponsor Winston has a bonus program, called the No Bull 5, which will add $1 million to the winner’s share if Gordon, Rusty Wallace, Bobby Labonte, Mark Martin or Dale Jarrett _ the top five finishers in another of NASCAR’s major events, the Coca-Cola 600 in May at Charlotte _ should win the Brickyard.

Gordon leads the series points and tops everyone with five wins this season. So it would hardly be an upset to find him in victory lane Saturday.

``I’d have to say that Jeff Gordon is the guy to beat,″ said Ernie Irvan, who will start from the pole on the 2 1/2-mile oval for the second straight year.

Irvan who came to closest to keeping Gordon from his dream in 1994, battling the youngster for the lead until a flat tire deflated his shot at victory with five laps to go.

``It would be great to be in that same position again with five laps to go,″ Irvan said. ``Maybe this time would be my turn.″

Actually, Irvan had another good shot at winning the Brickyard in 1996 when he lost to then-teammate Jarrett by less than a second.

``Every Brickyard 400 that I’ve been in, it seems like I’ve had the potential to win,″ he said.

If Irvan can pull it off on Saturday, he would be the first driver to in this race win from the pole. Last year, he led the first 39 laps and was dominant in the first half of the race before a bad pit stop relegated him to 10th place.

``I couldn’t get through traffic,″ Irvan said. ``That’s what you have to work on here at the Brickyard. You’ve got to get your car to run through traffic. If you can’t, you’re not going to be able to run fast enough to win this race.″

Jarrett will start next to Irvan on the front row.

``We’ve got a good race car and I think we’ve proved the last three years we know how to get around here,″ he said.

The second-generation NASCAR star has sandwiched a pair of thirds around his win two years ago. And even though Jarrett has no Indiana ties, the race at Indy remains special to him.

``I think the fans and everyone around here is excited that we’re here,″ he said. ``And since it’s still relatively new, that’s exciting.″

The big money could be a factor as well.

``It could certainly make a difference in a decision I might make at the end of the race,″ Jarrett said. ``That’s a lot of money. And, as much as the money, what’s at stake is saying you’re the first one to win it.″

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