Brickyard offers spark Jeff needs

Aug 2, 2005 5:47 AM

It’s hard to believe that we already have 11 Brickyard 400 races in the record books as NASCAR once again rolls into the sacred racing grounds of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It seems like only yesterday that Jeff Gordon burst onto the national scene with a win in the inaugural Brickyard 400. It was Gordon’s second career win in his second full season. That first NASCAR race at the Brickyard was much anticipated by the fans, media, and especially the drivers. Everyone wanted to be the first to win and when it was over, Gordon had dominated in what would be a preview into the future, leading 93 of the 160 laps.

The next season there was still lingering animosity, at least from the late Dale Earnhardt, about not winning the inaugural race. In the post race interview after Earnhardt had just won the second Brickyard 400 he proclaimed himself "the first MAN to win the Brickyard 400" taking a shot at the young Gordon and his boyish looks. That was one of the many great quotes from Earnhardt directed at Gordon that fueled a great rivalry. In a way, it ignited the sport to where it is today.

Many great drivers paved the way for NASCAR, taking it new levels of popularity, but the emergence of Gordon and Winston Cup racing at the Brickyard took it to a whole new level of popularity. Their arrivals both signify a simultaneous shift in AutoRacing popularity across America.

Tony George brought NASCAR to his prestigious track in 1994, the same year he unveiled plans for the Indy Racing League. By 1996 all the top open wheel drivers were racing full time in CART and the Indy 500, while still popular in name, was a mere minor league race. Motor sports fans began to devote more of their attention to the stock cars. As they became more accustomed to the sport, with the strategies and the names, the driver that was just coming into his own was Gordon.

After all these years, the Indy Racing League currently has most of the top drivers racing for them and has squashed CART, but the irreparable damage has already been done. The audience Open-wheel racing once had is now fully in tune to NASCAR and the broad appeal may never be matched or even come close. That is unless NASCAR gets their own Tony George to really mess things up.

Gordon has gone on to win 70 more career races and four Cup championships since that inaugural Brickyard 400 win, including three more wins on the storied grounds. The only driver, other than Gordon, to win the Brickyard 400 as many as two times is Dale Jarrett. To win four is quite an accomplishment and a testament to his greatness in the sport.

Winning at Indy means everything to Gordon. It was always a goal of his to win there since racing midgets in his adopted state of Indiana as a youngster. Stock cars were never in the plan. Even though it’s not the Indy 500, it’s safe to say everything worked out okay for him in the stock cars.

Gordon is the defending champ at the Brickyard, but he comes in limping this year and fighting for his season. The bottom line is that if he doesn’t do well in this race with only six to go until the Chase for the Championship begins, he may not make it. Doing well just doesn’t mean a top 10 either. He needs a win or at least a top 5 to get the team rolling in the right direction. Hopefully for them, that will carry some momentum into Watkins Glen where they expect to win.

A top 5 at Indy has been just about the norm for Gordon. Of the 11 races he’s run there, he’s had eight top 6 finishes. However, things are worse than ever right now for Gordon and his team. Every week it’s something different. They have great equipment but someone isn’t putting it together right. If they can figure out the weak link in their organization there still is time to salvage the season. Look for Gordon to bounce back strong this week.

We’ve mentioned over the last two months about keeping track of the two Pocono races run as a reference to handicap the Indy race. The relevance has always been there because the teams use the same set up at each track. Most of the time the exact same cars are used due to the similarly flat turns and long straights. They need a car that can handle the turns but can also flat out haul down the drag strip. Getting the right combination is tough but we’re fortunate to have Pocono as a preview to see who’s already there.

Coming into this season, the only driver to have never won at Pocono that has captured the Brickyard is Kevin Harvick. Granted, there’s not a whole lot of data over just 11 races and with two drivers combining to win six, but it does have validity. Take, for instance, Bill Elliott in 2002 when he won on the two tracks in consecutive weeks. Dale Jarrett won at Pocono in ”˜96 and ”˜98, sandwiching in Brickyard victories in ’97 and ’98.

Bobby Labonte swept the season at Pocono in ”˜99, won the Brickyard in 2000, then came back to win at Pocono in ”˜01. And then of course you have Gordon, who did the same season thing as Elliott in ”˜98 on consecutive weeks. However, Gordon won 13 races that season.

The field of candidates to win the Brickyard this season is wide open. The favorites come from Roush Racing, which has never won at the Brickyard. Roush swept Pocono this season with wins by Carl Edwards and Kurt Busch. What’s surprising about the Roush wins at Pocono is that Jack Roush had never won there before. Mark Martin had six second place finishes at Pocono, but never a win.

So after years of coming so close but not winning the Cup championship, led by Martin’s four runnerup finishes, the titles are falling off the tree for Roush. The owner has had the last two Nextel Cup champions drive his cars. Next up on the Roush list after crossing off a Cup title and winning at Pocono is a victory at the Brickyard. Then, maybe, they’ll be ready for a Daytona 500 win.

If we stay with the Pocono-Brickyard trends, it should lead us to a group of Roush drivers and of course Gordon, who seems to buck all trends when it comes to racing at Indy.

Over the last six races, the driver to accumulate the most points has been Tony Stewart. Next come Rusty Wallace and Kurt Busch. All three had great runs at Pocono two weeks ago when Busch absolutely crushed the field with an overwhelming performance. Rusty finished second in that race followed by Martin and Edwards.

Stewart, like Gordon, is a native of Indiana and has always dreamed of winning at Indy. He’s had some really good cars in both the Brickyard 400 and the Indy 500 but hasn’t been able to get it done. His best finish in NASCAR there has been fifth, which he’s done twice in six starts. He also has the Pocono past going for him like some of the other Brickyard champions, having won at Pocono in 2003. Stewart opened as an 8-1 co-favorite to win the race, but has been bet down to 6-1. Right now Stewart is the hottest thing going and the public loves him.

Some long shots to keep an eye on were drivers that performed well at Pocono, most of which use Hendrick powered engines. Brian Vickers, Kyle Busch, and Joe Nemechek should fetch a handsome price. Also, Kasey Kahne has been seen as high as 18-1 driving with the same team that included Bill Elliott, which smoked the field in 2002. Kahne was charging hard two weeks ago at Pocono until Edwards sent him into the wall late in the race.

A curious thing happened in the final day of testing at the Brickyard a few weeks ago. The father-son tandem of Bobby Hamilton Sr and Jr each posted the fastest times of the entire two-week test session. Hamilton Jr was driving his No. 32 Tide ride, a car that has been worse than ever this season. Senior was driving his own entry from his garage that has never raced in the Cup series.

Something really smells fishy about those times, but nevertheless, the Sports Books reacted. Hamilton Jr., generally 250-1 for each race, is now 70-1. His dad is 60-1.