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Hitting The Bricks Still A Thrill For Cup Drivers

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, July 29 2012

Dale Earnhardt Jr. heads out for practice at the Brickyard on Saturday. He was asked that day about how badly his father wanted to win the first Cup race at Indy. See below for answer. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

There seems to be a building current of thought that the Brickyard 400 has lost its magic and that it’s time to board up Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the summer.

Loudly and definitively, that current of thought has not touched the NASCAR garages. Many competitors in today’s 2012 edition of the race still treat the Brickyard as the No. 2 race on their Most Want To Win lists. Virtually all put it in the top five.

Here is what some of the sport’s superstars had to say about racing stock cars at Indy:

Jeff Gordon, driver of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet: “It’s still just such a special place to drive into to experience. Even just flying over when we come in and fly into Indianapolis, I’m always excited and eager to look out the window and find the track. I can remember the first time that happened when I was probably ten or 11 years old coming to Indianapolis for the first time racing Quarter Midgets.

“And it’s still that same way even though I get a chance to race here and we’ve won here four times. It’s just a very special place and I love just competing here. It’s a very challenging race track to compete on in our cars. I like that challenge.”

Matt Kenseth, driver of the No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford: “Yeah, you want to win everywhere and if you can pick any race and just one I think it is the Daytona 500. After that probably the 600 at Charlotte and the Southern 500 and the Brickyard, those are the four biggest races of the year. If you could pick four races, if you were lucky enough to pick four races to win, those would be it. I think this would be the second one on most

Jimmie Johnson is a former Brickyard winner. He won there in 2006, 2008 and 2009. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

people’s lists.”

Jimmie Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet: “I think everybody shares the same emotion when you drive through the tunnel and come into this race track. You know you are somewhere special. After being in the sport for 11 seasons now, it still has that same feel to me. Even when I was here for the advanced media tour, there is just a special feeling when you drive through the tunnel and come out the other side and look around. You know where you are and it’s a cool feeling to have.”

Fast facts

The track: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Location: Indianapolis, Ind.

Configuration: 2.5-mile oval

Banking: 9 degrees in corners, zero degrees in straights

Grandstand seating: 250,000

The event: The Brickyard 400

Number of races: 18

First race: 1994

First pole winner: Rick Mast

First race winner: Jeff Gordon

Most wins: Four, by Jeff Gordon

Most poles: Three, by Jeff Gordon

Today’s polesitter: Denny Hamlin

Last year’s winner: Paul Menard

Highest average finish among today’s drivers: 8.07, by Tony Stewart

Races won from the pole: 2

Last polesitter to win: Jimmie Johnson in 2008

Narrowest margin of victory: .183 seconds, by Ricky Rudd in 1997

Wanting it bad

The hype surrounding the first Brickyard was more than hype to the drivers. All wanted to be the first to win at Indy in a stock car.

Perhaps wanting it the most was Dale Earnhardt Sr. So says his son.

“I remember him talking about it before he had won here about how he wanted to be first,” Dale Earnhardt jr. said Friday. “When they first came here to test, he had to be the first guy out on the race track. There was a lot of competition between him and Rusty (Wallace) and all the guys to get on the race track first because of the photo

Kyle Busch and crew chief Dave Rogers do their homework at Indy. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

opportunity. The same thing about sitting on the pole for the first race, and winning the first race.

“When he didn’t win the first race, I think that disappointed him. He expected to come here and win the first race at this track. I knew it meant a lot to him when he did eventually win here because he knew, I think, that he was on the backside of his career. He wasn’t certainly wasn’t staring at 15 more years, and knew the opportunities would be limited coming here once a year. It meant a lot to him to get a win.”

Trivia time

Jeff Gordon was the first driver to win back-to-back poles at Indy. He did it in 1995 and 1996. Who was the last driver to win consecutive poles at Indy?

New guy

Carl Edwards will be racing with a new crew chief on his pit box today as it was announced that Bob Osborne was stepping down because of health issues.

Edwards was asked if he thought the change  to Chad Norris would affect his performance.

“I think with the structure at Roush and the way we have done things I don’t expect to miss a beat with Chad here,” Edwards, who said he was shocked when told that Osborne would withdraw. “We talked a lot here this last week and even through the off weekend and I don’t think that there is really much of a learning curve. Chad works so well with all the guys and has worked in the R&D department and headed up so many different projects. He has been around the sport a long time. I didn’t realize that about Chad. I didn’t realize his experience, which is pretty extensive. The kind of guy he seems to be and the way the guys have embraced him, I think we will be pretty good.”

New garages

The Cup teams are using the new, pit-side garages this weekend. Those would be the garages installed to accomodate the Formula 1 teams.

Asked about using the pit-side garages, Jeff Gordon said, “I love it. It’s awesome. Every guy in the garage area is thankful. There is a breeze moving through there. This place can get very hot. Those other garage stalls are so tight trying to get in and out of them. It just makes it so convenient, yeah; it’s a long walk from the hauler so you kind of just make camp out there. The only thing is I didn’t see a bathroom anywhere near by so that’s a long haul. Other than that I love it I think it’s very cool. I wish we would have started sooner.”

Trivia answer

Ernie Irvan was the last driver – and only driver other than Jeff Gordon – to win back-to-back poles at Indy. He did it in 1997 and 1998.

Tough stuff

On a map or from the air, IMS looks like it would be cake for a driver. Long straights and, seemingly, four identical corners.

Not cake, the drivers say.

“There are so many different nuances here that make this track tough,” Kyle Busch said. “Let alone going down the straightaway at 200 miles per hour looking down into a flat corner and making it work. Sometimes you’re tight and sometimes you’re lose – you’ve got to find that fine balance and that balance gets disrupted an awful lot in the air with the way that the air moves around these cars and what not.”

Directoral debut

Driving the pace car today will be film actor/director Ron Howard.

Ron Howard will drive the pace car today. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

Jeff Gordon was asked about Howard coming to the Brickyard and said, “This kind of came through my request. We talked to NASCAR Images about doing some things and they had asked me if there was somebody out there that might be kind of off the radar that you wouldn’t necessarily say okay this is who you want to bring to the race track. I really thought long and hard about it. I’ve been such a huge fan of his movies and his career and how he has gone from being an actor to a director, producer. I think that whole process is interesting, but then to know that he is making a racing movie right now, even though it’s a Formula 1 movie. I’m a big Formula 1 fan.

“I kind of threw that name out there and they made it happen. Here he is. He is very interested in what is going on now that he is doing a racing movie; he is interested in all forms of motorsports. He is very eager to learn and also share his thoughts about the process. It’s like a two year process to make this movie that he’s making. I think that the story that he’s telling is very interesting between Niki Lauda and James Hunt. I actually watched a documentary several years ago on an airplane going somewhere about James Hunt. He is quite a character. I am looking forward to seeing how they tell that story. He is in there taking pictures and asking questions, listening on the radio. It’s been a really fun experience. He’s a real down to earth guy.”

Up next

The Pennsylvania 400 at Pocono Raceway. Brad Keselowski won last year’s event and Joey Logano won the pole.

Something to watch for next week: Deer on the track.

“Yeah, we have seen deer all over the place up there,” driver Greg Biffle said. “I have seen them at the track. We had to wait once because they were trying to shoo one off into the woods there because he was near turn one. It is fun to joke about but it would be pretty serious if one got out on the race track. We definitely need to watch out for that.”

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, July 29 2012
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