Although this year marks the running of the 20th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, my early memories of NASCAR at the Brickyard predate Jeff Gordon’s inaugural 1994 victory by more than two years.
In 1992, long before social media and universal access to the Internet facilitated the instantaneous spread of information, word began to leak of an impending NASCAR tire test at Indy. NASCAR aficionados were excited at the prospect. Open-wheel purists were incensed that stock cars might invade the hallowed ground previously reserved for IndyCars.
Many wondered if NASCAR vehicles could actually negotiate the flat 2.5-mile speedway with squared-off corners. On June 22-23, 1992, they had the answer, when an elite group of nine NASCAR drivers took to the asphalt at the Brickyard.
Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, Davey Allison, Bill Elliott, Darrell Waltrip, Ricky Rudd, Ernie Irvan, Mark Martin and Kyle Petty all participated in the June tire test at the Brickyard. On the second day, Elliott posted the top speed of 168.767 mph, lending credence to the notion that the NASCAR Sprint Cup cars not only could handle the Brickyard but could also stage an exciting race there.
Two years later, Gordon won the first NASCAR race ever staged at the big track, beating Brett Bodine to the checkers by .53 seconds. A year later, Earnhardt led the final 28 laps and held off Rusty Wallace by .37 seconds to add what already had become one of NASCAR’s marquee events to his resume.
My lasting memory of Earnhardt at Indianapolis, however, is not a celebration of victory. Rather, it’s the most difficult move Earnhardt ever made in a race car — climbing out from behind the wheel during the 1996 race.
A week earlier at Talladega, Earnhardt had suffered a broken collar bone and a dislocated sternum. Despite the intense pain caused by his injuries, Earnhardt vowed to start the Brickyard 400 and did so. After six laps, with tears welling in his eyes, Earnhardt turned the legendary No. 3 Chevrolet over to Mike Skinner, who brought the car home in 15th place.
Afterwards, race winner Dale Jarrett and his crew established the tradition of kissing the yard of bricks at the start/finish line.
The 1997 race was special, too, with Rudd pulling off an unlikely win as an owner/driver in the No. 10 Ford, beating Bobby Labonte to the finish by a scant .183 seconds.
For me, perhaps the most indelible Brickyard memory involves the 2006 race, which was a defining moment in Jimmie Johnson’s career. Early in the race, Johnson fell off the lead lap after blowing a left front tire.
By Lap 117, Johnson was not only back on the lead lap but in the lead, and he went on to win the event en route to his first NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. If any race epitomized the No. 48 team’s resilience and utter calm under extreme pressure, the 2006 Brickyard 400 was it.
Those traits became the hallmarks of Johnson’s run of five straight titles.
I remember the 2007 race more for what happened afterward — winner Tony Stewart and his crew climbing the frontstretch fence.
I remember the tire fiasco of 2008, when NASCAR Sprint Cup cars couldn’t run full speed for more than 10 laps without risking a blowout. That race, however, led to yeoman testing at the Brickyard, through which Goodyear developed a new chemistry for its tire compounds to the ultimate benefit of NASCAR racing. Tires haven’t been an issue at the Brickyard since that race.
I remember Martin, the pole winner, chasing Johnson to the finish for the final 24 laps in 2009, a harbinger of the battle those two drivers would stage in the Chase. I also remember Juan Pablo Montoya’s heartache when a pit road speeding penalty derailed his dominant car, which had spent 116 laps in the lead.
I remember 2010 for Jamie McMurray’s emotional win, which also completed a trifecta for team owner Chip Ganassi. Early that year, Ganassi cars had won both the Rolex 24 Hours At Daytona (GRAND-AM) and the Indianapolis 500 (IndyCar). McMurray had also won the Daytona 500 in February, making 2010 the most successful and memorable in Ganassi’s long history in motorsports.
I remember 2011 for the unlikely victory of Paul Menard, who grew up with his eyes on Indy. Menard became the fourth first-time winner that season and made Richard Childress the only owner to field winning Brickyard 400 cars for three different drivers.
I remember the 2012 event for Johnson’s absolute dominance. The driver of the No. 48 Chevy won in a blowout after leading 99 of the 160 laps. A lopsided win, however has been the exception rather than the rule at the Brickyard.
In fact, whether it’s the mystique of Indy or the unique configuration of the track, the Brickyard always produces its share of surprises.
This Sunday, we’ll find out what the 20th renewal of the race will bring.