Drivers Yearn To Win At Historic Indianapolis, But It’s Never Easy

Denny Hamlin, who won the pole for the Brickyard 400, says changing weather conditions can greatly affect handling at Indy.

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.”

Carl Edwards, on the front row at Indy, is one of many drivers who recognizes the history and tradition of the Brickyard.

“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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Young ‘Phenom’ Jeff Gordon Showed His Worth Early And Often

It wasn't very long after Jeff Gordon made his debut in NASCAR Cup racing that he began to win races and earn a reputation as a young "phenom."

I was watching when a young phenom named Jeff Gordon entered the NASCAR Winston Cup scene. Young, different, polished and mustached, he was far from the good ol’ boys I was introduced to in my first years of watching Cup.

Gordon was, and looked like, a child but he knew how to wrangle a car. His debut came in 1992 in Atlanta, the very last race of the season and the final curtain call for the sport’s most visible star, Richard Petty.

For Gordon, ascension in the sport soon followed. Words like “dominant,” “unbelievable,” “talented” and “upstart” were bandied about constantly.

Gordon won races, collected championships. Then came gossip about, first, a forbidden romance, then a wedding and later a broken marriage.

When the successful duo of crew chief Ray Evernham and driver Gordon parted after three championships there was talk of the end of a short-lived but stellar era.

But Gordon won again. He won races then another championship with crew chief Robbie Loomis. Gordon now had earned four titles.

Being a Dale Earnhardt fan I never, in good conscience, called myself a Gordon fan. But, I did like him. I couldn’t help myself. Not only did the man have enormous talent and parlay that into wins and championships, he was, for what it’s worth, my peer. Gordon is only one year older.

At a time when most of the drivers had a decade or more (a lot more in some cases) on me, it was exciting to see someone with whom I could identify win on the track.

This was a time long before drivers may have started their Cup careers in their late twenties or older – like Joey Logano. This was a time when Harry Gant wowed and thrilled race fans with his can’t-lose string in his fifties, earning the name “Mr. September.” Youth was missing and certainly wasn’t dominating.

But I couldn’t help but be dazzled by Gordon. As the Crown Royal Presents The Curtiss Shaver 400 At The Brickyard 400 Powered By BigMachineRecords.com runs this weekend – hold on, I’m tired from typing all of that – my thoughts do turn to the inaugural race run at Indianapolis back in 1994.

Gordon, as you recall, won the race and solidified his place in the annals of NASCAR’s storied history – at the tender age of 23.

A few years later my father presented my husband a collectible plaque with Gordon’s picture next to a stamp of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, tying the two together. It was a gorgeous piece, but we were Earnhardt fans and found it to be a “dust collector” and sold it at a garage sale years later for a song.

Driving for team owner Rick Hendrick (left), and with Ray Evernham as his crew chief, Gordon went on to win three Sprint Cup championships.

I still kick myself about that. But hindsight is 20/20. At the time I was adamant about Earnhardt as my one and only driver. It was much later in my NASCAR fandom that I grew accepting and respectful of all the drivers in the field.

With four victories to date at Indy, Gordon still holds the record for most wins at the Brickyard 400.

Gordon is sure to be in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. His accomplishments have made me soar. In addition I’ve been pleased for him personally as I watched him fall in love, get married, and create a lovely family.

It’s been difficult to watch him struggle this season. His chances for making the Chase are shrinking. It concerns me that he may not make it or even win a race this year.

Gordon isn’t finished; at least I hope he’s not. There are legions of Gordon fans still waiting to witness the “Drive for Five” so they can celebrate a fifth championship with Gordon. I’ll cheer with all of the rest.

In the meantime, I’ll be cheering loudly for Gordon to revisit victory lane at Indy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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