G forces

Jul 29, 2003 7:00 AM

Every season when the Brickyard 400 rolls around we’re always reminded about the popularity shift in American motor sports.

Prior to NASCAR’s event at the most famous motor racing track in the world, the top open wheel division had a strong fan base while NASCAR was just starting to gain some momentum with fans across the country.

The man we have to thank for the rise and fall of each type of racing is Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner, Tony George.

Being the owner of the most famous track that has the most famous race, the Indy 500, gave George the type of leverage he needed to greedily get things his way. He also had the successful NASCAR race for two years that gave him another source of income outside of the Indy 500.

When the time came for him to take CART’s final offer following the ’95 season, he refused and took his race with him to form his own league, the IRL. It sent the open wheel division into disarray that they’ve never been able to recover from. Meanwhile, NASCAR had major tracks open up all over west of the Mississippi and became America’s second most watched sport behind the NFL.

NASCAR has created a fan base that will only multiply upon generations to come.

Coincidentally, at the same time NASCAR was making its debut of the fabled track, Jeff Gordon was in his second year with only one career win under his belt. Gordon won the inaugural event two days after his 23rd birthday.

Eight years later, with 60 more career wins that include another two Brickyard victories, some will say that Gordon’s infusion of young energy into NASCAR had a an equally great impact on the growth of the sport as the Brickyard itself. With him winning the first race there, it created animosity with some of the other drivers who desperately wanted to win that race.

The following year after the late Dale Earnhardt won at Indy, it prompted him to say in victory lane, "I am the first man to win the Brickyard 400," poking fun at the driver they were starting to call "Wonder Boy".

Gordon (7-1) has been the most successful driver on the track. In 9 races, he’s finished in the top 10 seven times including the three wins. The only driver posting more top 10’s is Rusty Wallace (15-1) with eight. Wallace has been runnerup three times.

Of the nine NASCAR races run at Indy, there have been six different winners. Dale Jarrett (25-1) and Gordon are the lone multi-winners.

Between looking at the last two Pocono events and this week’s Indy test session, a guide can be followed to choosing a great candidate to win. Pocono’s long straights and tight turns make it the only track similar to Indy on the Winston Cup tour. All six Indy winners have won at Pocono.

Two names jump to the forefront as candidates to be extremely fast this week -- Ryan Newman (8-1) and Jimmie Johnson (8-1).

Johnson started first and second in the two Pocono races, posting the fastest recorded time in the Indy test session by eight-tenths of a second. Newman started second and first in the two Pocono races, but no recorded test times at Indy at the request of Roger Penske. The famed car owner must have something up his sleeve. Rumors have it Newman was even faster than Johnson.

It’s nice to have speed and the fastest car during practice, but Indy has proved those assets do not assure victory. No pole winner has ever captured the Brickyard. The best start by a winning driver was Bill Elliott (25-1) last year when he started second. However, Brickyard champs have started in the second row four times.

Of all the past winners, only Ricky Rudd (60-1) has never won a Winston Cup driving championship, showing it takes a fast car and great driver to win at the Brickyard.

Matt Kenseth (10-1) looks like a good candidate to win because of his intelligence and ability to move through the field swiftly. Kenseth is on his way to a championship, but he must qualify better from the start.

The furthest anyone has come back to win at the Brickyard is Gordon’s 27th starting spot in 2001. Still, the scenario looks perfect for Kenseth to do well. Last year he finished third after starting 18th.

Bobby Labonte (8-1) is a past winner with three top 5 finishes at Indy and has had past success at Pocono. We thought so highly of Labonte’s chances staying close to the front that we matched him up as a dog against Gordon (7-1).

It’s very doubtful there will be a surprise winner this week, but you never know. There are a few longshots out there that may evoke some interest.

John Andretti (40-1): Will drive a DEI entry this weekend. For the first time in his NASCAR career, he will have the opportunity to drive a really fast car on a track that has given him comfort. He’s had wins before with restrictor plates and has succeeded in the scattered pit sequences of Martinsville driving for Richard Petty. In the recent test session at Indy, only Johnson was faster.

Nothing wrong with backing an Andretti at Indy.

TOP 5 Finish Prediction:

#17 Matt Kenseth (10/1)

#12 Ryan Newman (8/1)

#2 Rusty Wallace (15/1)

#24 Jeff Gordon (7/1)

#18 Bobby Labonte (8/1)