May 24, 2015

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) The closest Jeff Gordon will ever come to leading the Indy 500 will be in the pace car.

Despite retiring from NASCAR at the end of this season, the four-time Sprint Cup champion said that ''The Greatest Spectacle in Racing'' will remain for him a dream, one he fulfilled in part by winning the Brickyard 400 and now by driving the pace car for Sunday's race.

''Would I have liked to at least run one Indianapolis 500, knowing what it's like? Sure,'' he said. ''It won't be happening, but I'd have liked to know what it's like.''

Gordon was chosen to lead the field of 33 cars to the green flag by Chevrolet, which makes the Corvette pace car. But it took some flexibility and understanding from his sponsors and NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick to pull off his own version of ''the double.''

Gordon returned to drive in the Coca-Cola 600 in North Carolina on Sunday night after watching the first few laps of the Indy 500 with his family before flying south.

Gordon didn't lead any laps at Charlotte Motor Speedway and finished 15th.

''We've seen guys compete in this race and still make it to Charlotte,'' Gordon said. ''I have my wife and kids here. I want them to see how fast these cars go through the corners. I want them to see at least a few laps.''

Gordon made it back in plenty of time for the mandatory driver's meeting in Charlotte and was eager to chase his fourth Coca-Cola 600 title in what's expected to be the final Memorial Day weekend race of his NASCAR career.

''It was a lot of fun up there'' in Indianapolis, Gordon said before the Sprint Cup race. ''But it's great to be back here in Charlotte.''

Gordon grew up in nearby Pittsboro, Indiana, and remembers watching the 500 and thinking to himself that there was always someone important pacing those high-tech cars to the start-finish line.

''I remember when I was living in Indiana, pursuing other kinds of racing, and IndyCar was on the radar,'' he said. ''I went to several IndyCar races to be introduced to car owners and drivers and tried to get in my foot there. NASCAR was meant to be for me, it just was. I knocked on a lot of doors. It didn't happen with IndyCar. I went down south and things started to happen.''

Gordon said Sunday was his first Indy 500 visit to the speedway since 1983, when he was 11. When he saw that year's race, which Tom Sneva won, Gordon says he was ''just a kid watching and aspiring to be out there.''

Gordon has come close to driving an IndyCar.

He was offered a ride by team owner Barry Green in the late 1990s but declined. Then in 2003, Gordon was invited to Indianapolis Motor Speedway to test a Formula One car on the road course along with Juan Pablo Montoya, who would later move to NASCAR and then return to IndyCar. Montoya won Sunday's race for his second Indy 500 trophy.

Gordon won the first time NASCAR came to Indianapolis in 1994, the young driver taking the lead late when Ernie Irvan got a flat tire. Gordon won three more times over the next decade, and then won his fifth Brickyard 400 after taking the lead on the final restart last July.

''I accomplished more than I ever hoped to in racing, but one thing that eluded me that we pursued - my dad, my mom and myself - was getting a chance to race the Indianapolis 500,'' Gordon said. ''And I've said before, winning the inaugural Brickyard 400 fulfilled that dream.''

That doesn't mean that Sunday didn't fulfill more dreams.

Gordon spent time hanging out with veteran Johnny Rutherford, then got to spend some time with Rick Mears, the four-time Indy 500 that he still considers his racing idol.

''I certainly had plenty of opportunities to make laps around this track, but never have I had an experience like today,'' he said. ''It has been a thrill already.''


Associated Press writers Rick Callahan and Pete Iacobelli contributed to this report.

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