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NASCAR Indianapolis 2015: Jeff Gordon says goodbye to the Brickyard

No track has meant more to Jeff Gordon than Indianapolis, whose career is marked with defining moments on the hallowed speedway.

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Jeff Gordon forever is linked with Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

As a child growing up in Northern California dreaming of racing in the Indianapolis 500, the hallowed grounds of 16th and Georgetown were Gordon's beacon. It's why his parents relocated to Pittsboro, Ind., roughly 30 minutes outside the track's front gate, when he was just entering his teen years.

To further his burgeoning career, Gordon needed to live in state without an age limit prohibiting what kind of cars he could wheel. And if he were to one day to be a part of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, then being in the hub of open-wheel racing made most sense.

Once residing within the Hoosier state, Gordon had no shortage of avenues to showcase his immense talent. Over the next few years, he would win just about every sprint car race of consequence, seemingly destined to become America's next great driver.

But while the ability was obvious, there was one major hurdle Gordon couldn't overcome. Racing Indy-cars required money to obtain a quality ride, something Gordon simply didn't have. That lack of opportunity spurred him to look south and to NASCAR, where a driver could still land a seat with good team because of their proficiency and not the size of their checkbook.

The transition to stock cars seemingly ended Gordon's quest of Indianapolis glory. At that time only open-wheel cars sped across the frontstretch bricks.

A funny thing happened, though. During Gordon's 1993 rookie season in what is now the Sprint Cup Series, Indianapolis announced it would host a NASCAR race the following year -- instantly revitalizing a once dormant dream.

That next summer one of the most anticipated races in NASCAR history took the green flag, and of the 43 drivers comprising the inaugural field, just one had strong ties to the area. And in a finish that could've easily been construed as scripted because how the events unfolded, the local favorite ended the day celebrating in Victory Lane.

The win was the second of what to date is 92 Cup Series victories Gordon owns, and the first of what would be five Brickyard 400 triumphs. And in the 21 years since, Gordon's career became synonymous with Indianapolis, as only retired Formula One driver Michael Schumacher has more victories (six).

Gordon's first Indianapolis win became one of the defining moments that helped explode NASCAR's popularity to unimaginable heights. A regional sport with a core audience based primarily in the Southeast, stock car went national in the 1990s, its television ratings and attendance on par with and often exceeding that of all other professional sports.

In addition to fueling NASCAR's rising status, Gordon ushered in a new era at Indianapolis. Not only was the track no longer exclusive to open-wheel cars, its annual stock car race evolved into the marquee attraction as warring factions destroyed IndyCar. Only recently has the spectrum gone back to how it used to be, with the Indianapolis 500 the speedway's crown jewel.

For young open-wheel drivers growing up in Indiana, they didn't dream of one day racing in the Indianapolis 500, but the Brickyard 400. Thanks to Gordon's vast success, they were welcomed in stock car land where opportunities to compete were rife.

However, the time has come for Gordon to say farewell to the track he adores and to the legion of supporters who've seen him develop firsthand from a teenage prodigy to a legend.

A yearning to spend more time with his two young children compelled Gordon, 43, to announce in January that this would be his final season. And so Sunday will be the last time he races in front of his home state fans and on the track he cherishes more than any other.

Befitting his status, the sport has gone all-out to demonstrate to Gordon what he means to them and the legacy he leaves behind. Nearly every stop on the NASCAR circuit has seen him showered with adulation and gifts, including a racecar for his two kids, a giant bottle of wine and even a track named after him.

While continuing to express sincere gratitude, he has tried to focus on making his final season more than just a long goodbye. But Indianapolis is different and if anyone knows that, it's Gordon. The track has defined his career, just as he's come to define the track as the home of NASCAR's second biggest race.