LIKE A BRICK HOUSE – NASCAR bringing Sprint Cup to Indy for annual Brickyard 400
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
Like the golfers of the PGA playing a course like Augusta National in the Masters, there seems to be something magical that happens when NASCAR’s finest race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The cream always seems to rise to the top. And drivers who appear to have the best years of their careers behind them somehow summon the strength to run with the younger dogs at the famed Brickyard.
The list of NASCAR winners at the Brickyard reads like a Who’s Who of the sport – Dale Earnhardt, Dale Jarrett, Ricky Rudd, Bobby Labonte, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Bill Elliott, Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart. There are no “fluke” wins so far in NASCAR races at the Brickyard.
And, like golfing at the Masters, NASCAR’s graybeards can put on a show at Indy. Dale Jarrett, winner in 1996 and 1999, came back and ran second in 2004 at age 47. Earnhardt won in ’95 at 44. Elliott won in ’02 at 46, and Rusty Wallace got his third career runner-up finish in ’02 at age 45.
Even the younger winners know they’ve done something special by winning at Indy. Jeff Gordon, who won the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994 at age 22, knows as well as anyone what place that track and that race hold in the history of the sport. He spent many of his formative years living just down the road from Indy, in the town of Pittsboro, dreaming of one day driving a race car on that storied stretch of asphalt and bricks. In those days, few could have imagined that the bastion of open-wheel racing would one day open its doors to NASCAR.
“I love the fact that we get to go there in a stock car,” Gordon said during his weekly press briefing at Chicagoland Speedway. “It’s a lot of fun to bring NASCAR to the Brickyard.”
Gordon went on to say that winning at the Brickyard requires a well-tuned car, and that goes a long way in explaining why the wins at Indy only seem to go to top-echelon drivers and only to the best race teams.
“You have to have the car really balanced out right, and it’s tough to do because you have four unique corners,” Gordon said.
“Even though they look the same shape, they’re all different.
“It’s a hard place to pass at so track position is extremely important. Qualifying well is important there and then we’ve been seeing a lot these days with softer rear springs versus bigger rear springs and what downforce package seems to be the best combination at a track like Indy where you have these long straightaways where you want to try to get down the straightaways good, but have the downforce in the car for the grip through the corners.”
The team and driver that seem to have Indy figured out the best are Gordon’s teammate Jimmie Johnson and the crew of his No. 48 Chevrolet. He has a chance this year to join an elite roster of four-time winners at Indy, a list that includes both open-wheel and NASCAR racers.
“It would be a huge honor to join the list of four-time winners,” Johnson said. “Just to win there once is a career maker for anyone, so to have three victories there means a lot to me.
“When I went [to Indy] to do the winner’s circle appearance a month or so ago, I was there with [four-time Indy 500 winner] Rick Mears, and to see him as a four-time winner and to talk about his experiences at the track and what it’s done for his life and career was neat and helped me open my eyes to his world and the open-wheel world there.
“So I’m pumped and excited.”