It’s hard to believe this is the eleventh NASCAR Nextel Cup event run on the fabled grounds of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but that first race in 1994 sent the fastest growing sport in America on a steady climb to the top.
When Indy debuted with stock cars, a young driver named Jeff Gordon (5-1) also became nationally known by winning his second career race, the first ever at the Brickyard. Gordon turned 23 two days prior and was getting a lot of grief in the garage by his peers for what some were calling erratic driving.
True, he was all over the place, but no more than any of the young guys that come up bright eyed. Gordon would finish that season eighth in points. The following year, he won seven races and the first of his four Cup Championships. Still, Gordon didn’t get many breaks from his peers in the garage. After the late Dale Earnhardt had won the seccond Brickyard 400, he declared, "I am the first man to ever win the Brickyard 400."
That was a cold slap at the youthful driver, who was in the process of bringing in crossover fans all over the country. Gordon returns this week looking for his fourth Brickyard 400 victory. It’s appropriate that his great accomplishments are stamped throughout his reign in the early years of NASCAR at the world’s most famous track.
"I was driving down 16th Street when I got here and saw the billboard where they have all the (Brickyard) winners. And to see my face up there three times is a very special thing," Gordon said. "To know that nobody else has won it more than twice, and (Dale) Jarrett is the only guy to do that, is already an incredible feeling."
Gordon has also noticed after 11 seasons on tour and now being one of the elder statesmen himself a change in perception from all.
"I think the difference I’ve seen (since ’94) is that I feel like I have earned more respect," he said. "I’ve been in this sport long enough to be with a team that gives me good race cars. But I think I have shown I’ve got what it takes to be here and win races."
This week’s race comes conveniently for all the teams in North Carolina because they don’t have much preparing to do, except the couple of cars that turned themselves into accordions last week. Because Pocono is so similar to Indy due to the long straights and tight flat turns, most of the teams will use the same car.
This will appear to give the bettors an edge by looking deeper into the numbers and all the drivers that have been competitive both races this year at Pocono. The correlation between the two tracks is pretty strong.
Last year’s Indy winner, Kevin Harvick (15-1), has never won at Pocono but he’s the only Indy winner to have that claim. We’re only talking about 10 races in history, but all the names to have won at Indy have been some of the best of all-time at Pocono. I believe the late Tim Richmond would have won Indy for sure.
Gordon has finished half his Pocono starts in the top 5, winning three. He also has three Indy wins and six top 5 results in 10 starts.
Mark Martin (15-1): Has never won on either track but he’s been second six times at Pocono. At Indy, he has one runnerup finish and five in the top 10. So the correlation is there.
Jimmie Johnson (6-1): Might be a nice choice since he made the rest of the field look silly last week at Pocono. No one has ever done the Pocono-Indy three-step (winning all three in a year). Then again, no one has looked as good as Johnson in some time.
Sterling Marlin (18-1): Had a great test session last month and looked to have good cars at both Pocono races, but faltered. The positive aspect of Marlin this week was his average times reported from the test sessions didn’t vary much. He’ll be very good on long runs this week.
Ganassi Group: Marlin’s teammates Casey Mears (25-1) and Jamie McMurray (20/1) are also part of the Chip Ganassi group that’ll do anything to win at Indy. Remember when Ganassi smoked the field with Juan Pablo Montoya winning the Indy 500? Well, he spent millions in research to be better than everyone else and was. Last year, McMurray finished third.
Roush team: Looked great last week at Pocono. Martin and Kurt Busch (8-1) were expected to run well, but the fourth place finish by Greg Biffle (22-1) came as a surprise. Martin was seventh fastest times during last month’s Indy practices. Busch’s car got away from him last week after it started out great. Look for small adjustments and a great run.
Tony Stewart (9-1): Still seeking his first Brickyard win. He’s been close and even had the best car. The track is suited for him and his style and some day he’ll win. His Pocono practice times and lap times during races weren’t very special. However, that car was totaled last week. Maybe with a new vehicle, they get lucky and faster.
Kasey Kahne (8-1): Got his sixth top 5 finish last week with a third at Pocono. This is the perfect setting for Kahne to roll up on the NASCAR world, much like Gordon did in ’94. The kid is close, but he’ll have a tough time battling the Hendrick monster.
Also: Dale Jarrett (20-1) has three wins at Pocono and two at Indy. Bill Elliott (25-1) won back to back in Pocono and then at Indy in consecutive weeks two seasons ago. Bobby Labonte (18-1) swept Pocono in ’99, came back to conquer the bricks, then won the 2000 race at Pocono.