It's been 20 years since Jeff Gordon's first career Cup victory at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the prestigious Coca-Cola 600. He was struggling to contain his emotions long before he took the checkered flag, and by the time the 22-year-old got to Victory Lane, he was weeping.
"I tried to hold it back as much as I could because I wanted to stay focused and didn't want to make any mistakes," Gordon recalled Wednesday as the speedway celebrated the anniversary at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. "It did start to take over and that chill in my spine was definitely there with taking the white flag. I got to Victory Lane, and it all just kind of erupted."
Speedway President Marcus Smith showed Gordon a highlight video of the victory that reminded the four-time champion just what he had accomplished with the win. He became the first driver since David Pearson in 1976 to win from the pole, but had to battle Rusty Wallace throughout NASCAR's longest race of the season.
Gordon only emerged the victor after crew chief Ray Evernham gambled on taking two tires on a late pit stop and Gordon used track position to put Wallace away.
The video reminded Gordon of what he felt that day: validation.
"Just a combination of pure joy and accomplishment, a weight being taken off your shoulders," he said. "Because that first win, you don't ever know if you are ever going to do it and then when you finally do, 'Wow, I've accomplished something that I never thought I would." And then being able to say, 'Maybe I do belong here.'"
Gordon proved that time and again, collecting 88 victories and four Cup titles over the last two decades.
"This car is so special. This Rainbow DuPont Chevy," Smith said of the car Gordon drove the bulk of his career for Hendrick Motorsports. "The No. 24 — when it hit the track, and Jeff Gordon was driving it, this sport was never the same."
Gordon heads into Saturday night's race at Kansas Speedway leading the Sprint Cup standings, and will go for his fourth Coca-Cola 600 victory on May 25.
Despite seven top-10 finishes in 10 races this season — including second-place finishes at Texas and Richmond — Gordon is still seeking his first win. He badly wants to get into Victory Lane soon as drivers race for one of the 16 spots in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field.
So far, eight different drivers have wins with 16 races remaining in the regular season.
"I've never seen winning be so important as it has this year," Gordon said. "When you get that one win under your belt, I think that one win will get you into the Chase, two wins is for sure going to guarantee you a shot in the Chase, but when you get that one or two wins, it just puts you in a place where now it doesn't really matter where you're at in points."
FATHER-SON: There could be a father and son racing against each other in a Sprint Cup event for the first time since 2005 if both Dave and Ryan Blaney qualify for Saturday night's race at Kansas Speedway.
Ryan Blaney will be attempting to make his Sprint Cup Series debut. He's entered in the No. 12 Ford for Team Penske, which already has cars for Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano in the race. The 20-year-old will be trying to qualify the same car that Juan Pablo Montoya will enter at Michigan and Indianapolis later this summer.
"As a racer, you want to go out there and win," he said. "But realistically, I know this is my first Sprint Cup Series race and this will be the first race for Jeremy Bullins as a crew chief, so we really want to go out there and just be competitive and get the best finish that we can."
Dave Blaney has qualified for two races this season in the No. 77 Ford for Randy Humphrey. The team has missed the field six times, and had to withdraw twice, including the Daytona 500, where they did not have a backup car.
Should both Blaneys qualify for the race, it would be the first time a father and son have been in the same Cup race since Bobby Hamilton and Bobby Hamilton Jr. in 2005 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
BACK TO INDY: Al Unser Jr. will be at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this month as a driver coach for KV Racing Technology.
A two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, Unser retired from competitive racing in 2007. He's a two-time IndyCar champion, has 34 career victories and won the Indy 500 in 1992 and 1994. He proved he's still got something behind the wheel last month when he staged a thrilling lap-by-lap battle with Kyle Petty to finish fifth — the highest pro — in the Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race at Long Beach.
"Obviously, Al brings a tremendous amount of knowledge and experience to the team and will be a huge asset," said KVRT co-owner Jimmy Vasser. "You don't win the Indianapolis 500 twice and come from a family that has won it nine times without figuring out a few things that the other guys haven't."
Unser Jr.'s father, Al Unser Sr., is a four-time Indianapolis 500 winner. Bobby Unser, his uncle, is a three-time winner.
Unser Jr. will help the team prepare Sebastien Bourdais and Sebastian Saavedra for the May 25 race. KVRT won last year with Tony Kanaan.
CRIPPS HIRED: Lazier Partners Racing has landed a respected engineer for its Indianapolis 500 effort in David Cripps.
Cripps was engineer for Panther Racing during its run of four consecutive runner-up finishes from 2008 to 2011. He'll be the lead engineer for the No. 91 Chevrolet of 1996 Indy 500 winner Buddy Lazier.
Cripps was most recently the technical director for the U.S. Bobsled team during the 2014 Sochi Olympic Winter Games. The U.S. earned four medals, two bronzes in men's bobsled, and a silver and bronze in women's bobsled. The team also announced it has acquired associate sponsorship for the 500 from lawnmower engine manufacturer Briggs & Stratton.
THEY SAID IT: "It couldn't have been timed any worse. It was like, 'You do realize that is right in the middle of hunting season?' So maybe some of these big white-tailed deer we have out here in Kansas will be safe this year." — Clint Bowyer on the September due date of his first child, a boy.