Commentary

Gordon's historic quest has an asterisk

Updated: July 25, 2010, 11:56 AM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

It would be appropriate NASCAR drama if Jeff Gordon broke the longest losing streak of his career by becoming the winningest driver ever on the 101-year-old rectangle called Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

But he takes issue with how much that prospective title would mean. I agree that comparing his achievements with those of Indy car and Formula One drivers at the Speedway is like comparing apples to oranges to kumquats.

The kumquats clearly are Michael Schumacher's five "wins" in Formula One at Indy, on the road course, in overwhelmingly dominant Ferraris in a short-lived U.S. Grand Prix. And one of those "wins" barely qualifies as an achievement: cruising around and finishing at the head of the shameful six-car promenade of 2005 after 14 cars pulled out of the race in a tire debacle.

[+] EnlargeJeff Gordon
AP Photo/Tom StrattmanJeff Gordon and car owner Rick Hendrick kiss the yard of bricks at Indy after Gordon's fourth Brickyard win in 2004.

The oranges are Gordon's four NASCAR wins in the Brickyard 400, plus the fifth one he'll be going for Sunday.

The apples, to which nothing else compares in Gordon's eyes, are the four wins apiece in the Indianapolis 500 by A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr. and Rick Mears.

"That is one statistic that I will fight everybody on," Gordon said recently. "I mean, they've been having the Indy 500 since 1911 or 1912 or something [it was 1911]. You can't compare the history of the Indy 500 to the Brickyard 400, which has been there since 1994.

"So I'm proud to have four wins there, but you look at how few guys have won four in an Indy car there, [and] I'm guessing it must be harder in an Indy car than it is in a stock car."

Anyone with a broad view of motor racing would agree with him. But for NASCAR partisans, the case might need spelling out.

First the sheer arithmetic, then a look at the ordeals of Gordon's four peers -- no, the correct word is counterparts -- among four-time Indy winners.

A 400-mile race is a piece of cake in NASCAR, shorter than the norm. A 500-mile race is a rare test of Indy cars, which for the rest of their seasons rarely run more than 200 miles.

Until recent years of de facto kit cars in the Indy 500, the cars historically were just too complex and delicate -- there was too much that could and did go wrong -- to be anything but iffy for 500 miles.

Gordon clicked off his four Brickyard 400 wins in only 11 tries, 1994-2004. And those were all in consistently superior Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets.

But at least Gordon can be proud of beating some strong competition. Schumacher breezed to his five (four legit) wins at Indy in only seven starts, when Ferrari was peerless. To reinforce just what child's play it was for Schumacher, consider that in 2002 he felt so playful at the end that he backed off and let Ferrari teammate Rubens Barrichello win it, just to make some semblance of a show of it -- and laughingly admitted afterward what he had done.

Foyt, the first to win four Indy 500s, took 20 tries, first in front-engine roadsters and then in rear-engine cars -- the latter, his renowned Coyotes, designed and built in his race shop in Houston.

Foyt was an also-ran three times before his first 500 win, in 1961. From there, he went at a rapid pace, winning again in '64 and '67. But then he stalled for a frustrating decade of being the perennial favorite and the perennial disappointment -- and if you think fans were disappointed, you should have seen the Texas bull after every loss.

When he finally won the fourth, in 1977, it was such a monumental achievement that Foyt at first could find only these words for it: "Goddamn, we did it!"

That is one statistic that I will fight everybody on. I mean, they've been having the Indy 500 since 1911 or 1912 or something [it was 1911]. You can't compare the history of the Indy 500 to the Brickyard 400, which has been there since 1994.

-- Jeff Gordon

And those were the days when Indy car racing was so deadly, so maiming -- without even knowing names, you could pick Indy car drivers from NASCAR drivers in a group just by the burn scars, mangled hands, etc. -- that few NASCAR drivers dared to try it.

Cale Yarborough, LeeRoy Yarbrough, and brothers Bobby and Donnie Allison took brief shots at it. Of those, Donnie Allison was the most successful, finishing fourth and winning rookie of the year honors at Indy in 1970.

I'm annoyed by all those stories of how few Indy car drivers have successfully transitioned to NASCAR because no NASCAR driver has ever successfully transitioned to Indy cars. And after all, two Indy car specialists, Foyt and Mario Andretti, did win the Daytona 500.

Haunted by a phobia that lingers even today, the stock car boys stayed away for fear of "getting barbecued," as Neil Bonnett said with an uneasy glibness during his one brief attempt to qualify for the 500.

So Foyt's achievement, monumental as it was on paper, was even more towering for the fact that he had simply survived for 20 years to win four 500s.

Unser's four wins arguably required even more patience and persistence than Foyt's. After four starts, and missing the '69 race altogether, Unser became a sudden star by winning in '70 and again in '71. But he had to wait seven years for his next one, in '78, and then another nine years -- and even then carry a so-so car to an upset -- for the fourth win in '87.

Of the three four-time winners, Mears arguably had the least difficult path, four wins in 13 starts, 1979-91. Mears drove for a peaking Team Penske, which was so dominant that his first win came in only his second Indy start.

Times having changed at Indy since the CART-IRL split of 1996, I would have put an asterisk beside Helio Castroneves' name had he won his fourth 500 this past May. His first three were for Roger Penske in an era when Penske grew even more dominant over poorly financed IRL teams, the only consistent exception being Chip Ganassi's team.

If Gordon should get a fifth Brickyard 400 win Sunday and I had to place that on the all-time list of achievements at Indy, I'd rate it roughly equal to the six drivers who won three Indy 500s each -- Louis Meyer (1928, '33, '36), Wilbur Shaw ('37, '39, '40), Mauri Rose ('41, '47, '48), Johnny Rutherford ('74, '76, '80), Bobby Unser ('68, '75, '81) and Castroneves (2001, '02, '09). Schumacher would continue to hang way out there on a branch of the kumquat tree.

No doubt, a fifth Gordon win would be the feel-good story of the summer in Indiana, where Hoosiers adopted Gordon as a favorite son after he moved from California to spend his teen years in the town of Pittsboro, west of Indianapolis, racing sprint cars.

At the site of his breakthrough triumph, when he won the first Brickyard 400, in 1994, he would break his current losing streak of 48 races, dating to Texas Motor Speedway on April 5, 2009.

And he would, technically, be the winningest driver ever at Indy. But even he and his adoring Hoosiers know that it would be, as Foyt has long differentiated the various forms of motor racing, "just a different breed of cat."

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.

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