SPEEDWAY, Ind. – Every NASCAR Sprint Cup driver can tell you why they so badly want to win at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
But they differ somewhat on how to do it.
When the Brickyard 400 gets the green flag today, it will mark the 19th time NASCAR has conducted a race on the historic 2.5-mile Indy track.
And drivers will be trying to win just as hard as they did in the first one back in1994.
True, a driver tries to win any race he’s in. But the motivation to do so today isn’t based so much on the race alone. It exists because it’s at Indianapolis.
As has been said many times, Indy is hallowed ground. Over the decades it has become a motorsports shrine, largely due to the growth, and impact, of the Indianapolis 500 – called the single largest sporting event in the United States.
Some of the greatest drivers in racing history, Foyt, Mears, Andretti, the Unsers and so many others, have enriched their legends with victories at Indy.
While growing up and nurturing their future careers, many drivers dreamed of winning at Indy.
For years, when it came to Indy, stock car drivers were on the outside looking in. Even so, they coveted an opportunity to race there.
They’ve had that opportunity for 19 years now. And the Indy aura hasn’t faded one bit.
“When you come to this race track you know you are some place special,” said three-time Indy winner Jimmie Johnson. “After 11 years of racing, it still has the same feel for me.”
“This is Indianapolis and as a kid you grow up wanting to race Indy Cars and race in the Indy 500,” said Kevin Harvick of Richard Childress Racing. “Just to come to Indy and be able to race and be fortunate to win is something you will always remember.
“You can feel the rich history. You can see it and I think everybody respects that.”
“I think the opportunity to win would be unreal,” said Roush Fenway Racing’s Carl Edwards, who needs victories if he is going to make this year’s Chase. “Last night I took my brother out and we drove a little cart and we went out on the race track.
“We were like eight-year-olds talking about how awesome it was to be at Indianapolis on the race track.”
While it is true that some of Open Wheel racing’s greatest drivers have won at Indy, some of them more than once, the list of Brickyard 400 winners is composed of some of NASCAR’s most accomplished superstars.
Jeff Gordon has won four 400s, tops among all Cup drivers, while, as said, Johnson, Gordon’s teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, has won three times. Tony Stewart, like Gordon an Indiana native, has won it twice.
Other notable winners are Dale Earnhardt, Dale Jarrett, Bill Elliott, Ricky Rudd and Bobby Labonte.
But the race has also had some surprise winners – especially over the last two years.
Jamie McMurray won in 2010, the same year in which he also won the Daytona 500 and the Coca-Cola 600.
Last year Paul Menard outran Gordon to the checkered flag to win for the first time in his career. Indy has played a significant role in his family’s racing history.
“I watched a video of last year’s race yesterday at home,” Edwards said, “and my heart was beating in my chest watching Paul hold off Jeff for those last few laps.
“I was watching on my laptop and was getting anxious and nervous watching Paul. That’s how special this race is.”
It’s been firmly established that the Brickyard 400 is special. But what do you have to do to win such a special, meaningful race?
Here’s where opinions vary.
Unlike other 2.5-mile superspeedways, Indy is flat. There is minimal banking in the turns – which means that while speed is obviously necessary, tire grip and proper balance count for a great deal.
“Indianapolis is probably one of the trickiest tracks we go to on the schedule,” Kyle Busch said. “Pocono is one and Darlington is another.
“It’s so hard to find a line that really, really works for you or works for your car because the groove is so narrow. It’s plenty wide for one and one-half cars, but the line you run around here, you vary six inches and it’s so different.”
“If you make a mistake here or your car isn’t handling like you need in the turns – it’s loose or it’s tight – you have such a long straightaway to pay the penalty,” Johnson said. “A tenth in the corner translates to three or four tenths at the end of the backstretch or frontstretch.”
“You have to be very particular in car setup,” added Busch. “You go from practice, where there’s not a lot of rubber on the track, to the race with a lot of rubber on it.
“The trajectory of the corners changes. So how wide do you enter the corner? How sharp do you turn down?”
As it is at almost every race, tire management is important at Indy. But changing conditions can make that somewhat worrisome.
“We never put on a set of tires in practice,” said Biffle, who was quickest in “Happy Hour” at 181.499 mph. “We just worked on the old set of tires. I’ll be curious to see if the track picks up speed or grip.”
“When it comes to grip, Indianapolis is finicky,” said pole winner Denny Hamlin of Joe Gibbs Racing. “It’s very weather sensitive. When the sun comes out, the handling of the car changes completely.
“You are constantly battling with that. You are battling the weather as much as you are battling the handling of the car or tire wear.”
It’s obvious many things have to be considered when it comes to preparation for a race at Indy. Teams strive for perfection – but then, they know a little good luck can help.
As much as the drivers want to win at Indianapolis, they know it is never an easy task.
“Experience does pay,” Johnson said. “It took me a long time to figure this place out.
“It’s one of the most demanding tracks we’re on from a driver’s mental capacity and line-specific. If you slip up at other ovals you can run in the second or third lane.
“You can’t do that here. You will lose way too much time.”