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Thursday, July 15, 2010

The First Sixteen: The Brickyard 400

The first driver to put a modern era stock car on the track at Indianapolis Motor Speedway was A.J. Foyt. Speedway President Tony George became the second later the same day. It was September 1991 and Foyt had brought a stock car to the track for filming of a commercial for Craftsman Tools. During taping George and Foyt decided it might be fun to see what the car would do on the track. It was a completely unplanned event that started much speculation about a NASCAR future at IMS.

The next summer Goodyear invited nine NASCAR teams to test tires at the track. 10,000 fans watched the two day compatibility test that June. Soon after the June 1992 testing, improvements began at the track. Many changes needed to occur at the track built for the relatively light Indy Cars to support the much heavier stock cars. Stronger catch fences were installed, outside retaining walls were reinforced, the pit area was made wider, pit stalls were recovered in concrete, and the apron replaced with a warm up lane.

On April 14, 1993 Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Tony George and NASCAR's Bill France, Jr  announced that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway would join the NASCAR schedule with a 400 mile race to be simply called The Brickyard 400. From the first running of the Brickyard 400 it has been NASCAR most attended event. With seating for 400,000 IMS had the capacity to provide a show for any race fan who could get there. On August 6, 1994 over 250,000 of those race fans, including myself, converged upon Speedway Indiana to watch the inaugural running of the Brickyard.

ABC carried the race, which from 1994 to 2000 was scheduled for a Saturday afternoon start. Rick Mast held the pole for the Inaugural Brickyard 400, one of only four poles of his NASCAR Cup career. Ernie Irvin held the late race lead until running out of fuel, allowing Jeff Gordon to race on for the victory.

The 1995 running of the Brickyard 400 was delayed over four hours due to rain.  The race only had one caution for just four laps of yellow fag racing.I hadn't even planned on going, but as they started the cars I wandered 3.3 miles from my apartment down to the track to see what was happening. I bought a ticket from a guy standing in Georgetown Road who told me they had only ran 20 laps. For $20 I sat in the Tower Terrace, seventh row and watched my favorite driver Dale Earnhardt bring home the win.

1996 was a historical race. Not because of who won, who led the most laps, who started from the pole, or because of any wreck during the race but because of the start of a new tradition. The Indianapolis 500 winner always drinks milk after exiting the car. The Brickyard 400 had no such tradition; something felt as if it were missing from the first two runnings of the Brickyard 400. Then, in 1995, Dale Jarrett's crew chief, Todd Parrott made the comment after the win that it "sure would be neat to go kiss those bricks". The whole crew started over to famed yard of bricks, having to stop once to tell slightly panicked NASCAR officials that they were "just gonna go kiss the bricks". The crowded quieted, wondering what the Roberts Yates Crew was doing as they turned their hats around backwards. The crew knelt and gave homage to the history of IMS by kissing the bricks in unison. A tradition was born.

At the end of the 1997 Brickyard 400 it was fuel strategy that paid off for Ricky Rudd as competitors Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, and Dale Jarret had to give up the lead to head for the pits. 1998 saw the first two-time Brickyard 400 winner as Jeff Gordon crossed the finish line ahead of Mark Martin. Dale Jarrett became the second two-time winner of the Brickyard 400 in 1999. Bobby Labonte won the 2000 Brickyard 400 by passing Rusty Wallace on the backstretch after Wallace had led 114 laps of the race.

The race moved to Sunday in 2001 as Jeff Gordon made the history books again when he passed Sterling Marlin on a restart for a third time Brickyard victory. 2002 gave Bill Elliot a new race to add to his long list of wins as he finished ahead of third time second place finisher Rusty Wallace.  Kevin Harvick took advantage of lap traffic in the 2003 Brickyard on a restart with 16 to go and passed Matt Kenseth to became the first winner to start from the pole. Another historic event occurred at the 2004 running of the Brickyard. For the first time in NASCAR Cup racing, and the only time at Indy, the Green-White-Checker Rule was used. One lap added to the race made all the difference as Dale Earnhardt Jr. lost an engine and Mark Martin had a tire go down. Jeff Gordon went on to win his 4th Brickyard 400.

2005 brought Indiana Native Tony Stewart his first Brickyard victory. Stewart and his team celebrated by climbing the fence at the start finish line. Points Leader Jimmie Johnson gained a win at the Brickyard in 2006 but gained no points toward the Chase, as Matt Kenseth, second in the points standings, finished right behind Johnson in the race. In 2007 Juan Pablo Montoya became the first, and only driver to race in all three major events then held at the track (Indy 500, Brickyard 400, and U.S. Grand Prix). Montoya finished second to Tony Stewart who cimbed the fence again for his second win in the 400.

2008 introduced the Car of Tomorrow to Indy. Tires were an issue as set after set of Goodyears blew up, blistered, and broke down as quickly as after 10 laps on the track. Jimmie Johnson gained the advantage and held off Carl Edwards for a second Brickyard victory. 2009 saw Mark Martin start from the pole and Juan Pablo Montoya dominate most of the race. A late penalty against Montoya dashed his hopes for a win and Jimmie Johnson held off Mark Martin for back-to-back wins at Indy. That was Johnson's third win at Indy and the first time a driver posted back-to-back victories in the race.

Jeff Gordon has the most wins with four, the most top fives with nine, the most poles with three, has led the most laps the the Brickyard, and has the most top ten finishes with 13. Casey Mears has the record for fastest qualifying lap from 2004 when he started from the pole with a qualifying speed of 186.293.Jeff Burton has completed the most laps at the Brickyard. Kasey Kahne has the best average start with a 6.2 and Tony Stewart has the best average finish with an 8.5. Chevrolet has won 11 times at the Brickyard, Ford has three wins, and both Pontiac and Dodge have one win each. Eight out of 16 times, the winner of the Brickyard 400 goes on to win that year's Cup Series Championship.

Coming off the break, the drivers are ready to head to Indianapolis again next week for the 17th running of the Brickyard 400. History will be made in some way, as it is every time we hear "Gentlemen, start your engines".

Photo Credits:
Photo 1 Dale Earnhardt, 1995,
Photo 2 Jeff Gordon, 2001,

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