Jeff Gordon makes his 20th career start on the fabled bricks of Indianapolis Motor Speedway this Sunday.
In some ways we can say that NASCAR’s rise in popularity happened when Gordon won the inaugural race in 1994. A part of the country that had mostly been exposed to Indy cars was getting their first look stock cars, while the kid who raced midgets in Indiana was about to become the face of NASCAR across the country.
It may not seem like that big of a deal when looking back at everything that has transpired over the last 20 years, but almost everything good that has happened for the sport came as a direct result of NASCAR finally getting to race on the bricks.
Not only was Gordon born at that moment, which kicked off one of the great rivalries in the sport with Dale Earnhardt, but growth began to happen in imaginable proportions. America was ready for Gordon and stock car racing.
Meanwhile, open wheel racing was dying as internal greed and stupidity crippled the sport to being barely a blip on the sports page when they race.
Tony George, owner of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, should get just as much credit as anyone for NASCAR’s rise because of his role in destroying the popularity of the open wheel cars.
Following NASCAR’s first race on the bricks, tracks started popping up all over America. California, Texas, Las Vegas, Chicago and Kansas all soon began to have NASCAR events and the sport was off and running. Sponsorship loyalty among the fans proved to greater than other sports, which meant there was plenty of money to be thrown around for anyone selling NASCAR.
Gordon would go on to win four NASCAR Sprint Cup titles and also triumph three other times at Indy. His four Brickyard victories are matched only by teammate Jimmie Johnson, who captured his fourth last season.
Gordon’s 8.8 average finish in 19 starts is second only to Indiana native Tony Stewart (8.2). Gordon is one of four drivers to have started all 19 NASCAR races on the bricks. Jeff Burton, Bobby Labonte and Mark Martin are the others.
The Gordon-Earnhardt rivalry was capitalized on by both drivers who went into business with each other, but it was the on-track digs that kept the rivalry charged. Example: In 1995, the year Earnhardt won the second Brickyard 400 and proclaimed, “I am the first man to win the Brickyard 400.”
When looking for the top candidates to win the week besides Gordon, who is always a candidate here regardless of how he is faring on a season, it usually serves well to take a look at what happened at Pocono a few weeks ago.
Johnson dominated that race, leading 128 of the 160 laps. The comparison between the tracks is due to the long straightaways and also the sweeping Turn 3 at Pocono which resembles the flat turns at Indy.
Greg Biffle finished second at Pocono and was followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr., Stewart and Ryan Newman. Biffle is one of many that have fared very well at Indy over their careers, but have yet to win. Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer and of course, Mark Martin also fit the bill. Martin has a 12.8 average finish in his 19 starts that includes two runner-up finishes.
Micah Roberts is a former Las Vegas race and sports book director, and longtime motorsports columnist and sports analyst at GamingToday. Follow Micah on Twitter @MicahRoberts7 Contact Micah at [email protected].