By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor
INDIANAPOLIS – 25 years in, the Brickyard 400 may be a shell of its former self, but back in 1994, NASCAR hitting the track at the prestigious Indianapolis Motor Speedway had the sports world buzzing.
In their first foray around the 2.5-mile speedway that had been reserved for open wheel cars since 1909, the drivers and teams put their stock cars through the paces over a jam-packed weekend of action, leading to a hell of a show when the green flag flew on Sunday for the inaugural race.
To illustrate just how massive it was that NASCAR was getting to race at Indianapolis, 85, that’s right, 85 cars showed up in an effort to make the 43-car field.
Throughout the nearly day long affair that qualifying became, Rick Mast laid down the fastest lap to snag the pole, with Dale Earnhardt alongside on the front row. Jeff Gordon, Geoff Bodine, and Bobby Labonte would round out the top-five starters.
Even legendary driver A.J. Foyt made an appearance at the first Brickyard 400, coming out of retirement to do so, and qualifying back in 40th place. The race wouldn’t be much better for him as he would only finish in 30th.
Meanwhile, once the race took the green on Sunday, Mast was able to get the jump and led the first lap over Earnhardt, who brushed the wall a lap later and was forced to pit road for an unscheduled pit stop as a result.
Gordon took over the lead from Mast for the first time at lap three and set the early pace out front, serving notice to the remainder of the field that he would be a force to be reckoned with for the majority of the day.
Though Geoff Bodine was able to power past Gordon for the lead at lap 25, the first round of green flag pit stops would begin a short time later and Gordon cycled back to the top spot 23 laps later.
After another stint at the front of the field, a caution at lap 81 for debris gave Bodine the opportunity he needed to retake the lead over Gordon. Once more, he was able to hold serve over Gordon for a number of laps before a new contender – his brother Brett – made his first appearance to challenge for the lead with a bit of pit strategy.
When the green flag flew for the restart, the Bodine brothers went head to head for the lead with Brett holding off his older brother as the cars got back up to speed. Heading into Turn 3, Geoff gave Brett a nudge in the rear bumper, sending Brett up the track and allowing him to skate by for the lead.
Needless to say, Brett was not a fan of the move and paid his older brother back with a bump of his own off of Turn 4. The contact sent Geoff spinning into the wall, while Brett was able to continue on in the race.
“Brett spun me out,” Geoff said. “We’ve had some family problems and personal problems between us here lately, and unfortunately he took it out on the race track with me. Never expected he’d do it. He’s still my brother and I love him, but he spun me out.”
Brett had a different account of what happened, saying: “I would never carry a family problem, I would never carry a personal problem with another driver out onto the race track. There’s no room for that. I race the 7 car and I race the 75 car. Just because I’ve got two guys in them with the last name the same as mine, doesn’t mean I treat them any different or anything like that at all. We’re paid professionals. We have to go out there and race each other, just like we race the other 40 cars. It’s just unfortunate.
“Geoff got in the back of me over in (Turn) 3 and got me loose. He dove underneath me and gave up the good line getting into (Turn) 4. As we went through 4, I had a better approach to the corner. I was able to get back in the gas. I thought he would accelerate harder off the corner and I got into the back of him. That’s the way it happened.”
On the ensuing restart, Brett held onto the lead until they reached Turn 3, when Gordon was able to put his Chevrolet back out front.
That is until the final caution set up the final trip to pit road for the leaders. Rusty Wallace, who was looking to deliver another Indianapolis triumph to car owner Roger Penske, was able to beat Gordon and Ernie Irvan off of pit road to take his first turn in the lead.
Wallace’s lead would be temporary as he got the short end of the stick following a ferocious battle with Gordon and Irvan, before having to bail out of the fight, losing numerous positions in the process.
With Wallace out of the picture, it was down to Gordon and Irvan to settle the race among themselves over the final 20 laps. Every time a handful of laps passed, it would be one of the two in the lead, setting up a thrilling duel to the finish.
But with five laps to go, Lady Luck did not shine favorably on Irvan, who blew a tire and was forced to pit road, handing the lead back to Gordon with the checkered flag in sight.
That was all it took for Gordon to lead the final laps and score the first NASCAR win at the famed track.
Brett Bodine rebounded to finish second, followed by Bill Elliott, Wallace, and Earnhardt to round out the top-five finishers.
Legendary announcer Bob Jenkins had the call to the finish for Gordon, saying: “And Jeff Gordon is about to write his name into the racing history books. Years from today when 79 stock car races have been run here, we’ll remember the name Jeff Gordon, winner of the inaugural Brickyard 400.”
And remember Gordon’s name we did. Though the 1994 win at the Brickyard was just his second career win, he would finish his career with 93 total wins and five triumphs at Indianapolis.
“What a battle,” said Gordon in Victory Lane. “We had a great car all day long and the only car I was really worried about was that 7 car. I saw him have his misfortune and I thought we just had to be nice and smooth and ride it out from here, but that wasn’t true.
“We had a caution and Ernie and the 2 car were right there. I pulled away, but Ernie, he kept loosening me up. So, I let him go by and then I’d get on him and eat his tires up and loosen him up and he let me go by. I just want to commend that whole Havoline team and Ernie Irvan. He drove me a really nice, clean race. We didn’t have to worry about anything.”