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Two Brickyarders Have Chance To Rise Above

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, July 27 2013

Crew chief Chad Knaus and driver Jimmie Johnson have historical opportunity this weekend. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

Indianapolis Motor Speedway history has been stuck on four – four event winners – for a lot of years. Two Sprint Cup teammates think too many years, and would love like crazy to do some un-sticking on Sunday afternoon in the 2013 running of the Brickyard 400.

Hendrick Motorsport’s Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon have each won four Brickyards since NASCAR began racing at the famed 2.4-mile rectangle with rounded corners in 1994. And talk about symmetry: Johnson was the last driver to win at Indy and Gordon was the first.

In winning four, the two Hendrick drivers have earned the right to look horizontally into the eyes with such racing legends as Rick Mears, A.J. Foyt, and Al Unser Sr.

The opportunity to become the first American to win five is overpowering to Johnson and Gordon.

“Fifth would be incredible,” Johnson said Saturday morning. “To do anything Jeff Gordon has done is huge. The guy is massive in our sport and had done so much. Truthfully somebody I looked up to as a young kid racing and still do today. He started off as a hero of mine and turned into a friend and a teammate. It’s been an amazing ride all along, but to tie what Jeff has done here at the speedway is just absolutely amazing.

“Also, to add Rick Mears to that as well, grew up in southern California, Rick Mears and the whole Mears gang grew up in Bakersfield. Watching Rick’s career and knowing that he came from my background inspired me to actually pursue IndyCar racing when I was younger. My opportunities led me to NASCAR and things turned out as they have. Long story short to do anything that either of those two has done is pretty awesome.”

Said Gordon, “When you look at the list of names who have multiple wins here, it’s impressive. I’d like to separate myself and be a five-time winner in our series. But I’ll never compare that to my biggest heroes – Rick Mears, A.J. Foyt and those guys. I guess my experience of coming here as a kid and seeing the Indy 500. It’s a different race

Jeff Gordon has four, but wants one more. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

and should always be held to a different standard as any other race – not just NASCAR but Moto GP, Formula One or anything else.”

Gordon, who grew up in Indiana after moving there from California as a kid, said that while winning five Brickyard 400s would be terrific, it would not be totally terrific. Totally terrific belongs to the guys whom upon so much of the place’s history was made. Guys who took much greater risks and who did it at a time when there was only one indisputably biggest race in the world.

“I’ll always be one of those purists that looks at the Indianapolis 500 differently than any other race that happens here,” Gordon said. “When we’re talking about the Brickyard 400 going on for 100 years, then I’ll stack up four-time winners against four-time Indy 500 winners.”

That’s right, because of his background, Gordon lines up with those who say the 100-year-old 500-miler sits atop his list of biggest races.

“If you grew up with NASCAR,” he said, “then the 600 (in Charlotte) or Southern 500 (at Darlington) might have a little more prestige. But if you grew up watching IndyCar racing like I did and racing sprint cars and midgets, the Brickyard 400 leapfrogs those.”

Chances for being the first to five appear to be best for Johnson. He’s the defending champ and has won three of the last five 400s. Gordon’s last came in 2004. Johnson, at 37 years old, is theoretically closer to the prime of his career than the 42-year-old Gordon.

And, Johnson, who won five-straight Cup championships from 2006 through 2010, is leading in points and is tied for most victories (four, with Matt Kenseth), is having another championship-worthy season.

Johnson has been unofficially installed as the guy to beat Sunday. He understands that.

“In my heart I feel like I need to come here and win,” Johnson said. “Its pressure I put on myself. I don’t know the outside pressure I haven’t paid too much attention to it. With how we have been performing and the history we have had here over the last few years I feel like we definitely have a shot and we should put that pressure on ourselves as a team and I should put that on myself as a driver that I need to come here and win the race and hopefully can. It’s an honor to have other teams and the media paying attention to what we are doing and say that we are the team to beat. We put more pressure on ourselves than what is surrounding or outside stuff is.”

But Sunday’s race will be run with Gen 6 cars for the first time at Indy, a quirky track for all cars which race on it. Johnson sounded a bit wary of the effect.

“It is different for sure,” he said. “We are still trying to get the exact feel that I’m looking for. Again, last year we had so many tools to work with to help the car perform like we wanted to that we just don’t have that luxury this year. I don’t know what the speeds are, but I feel like we are a little bit slower than what I anticipated from a driver’s effort stand point. I don’t know what it says on the stop watch, but I thought we would be a little bit more on kill on a lap like we see on the mile and a half’s. We are not the fastest car yet, so we will work to get there.”

Then there is the unique nature of racing as a sport – it’s the one sport where outcomes are ultimately dependent on machines. Machines that are asked to do some very improbable things.

Chad Knaus, Johnson’s crew chief, talked about that aspect of Sunday’s race.

“We have got standard push rod V8s that are turning almost 10,000 RPM for a full race,” Knaus, who has wrenched for Johnson since Johnson’s rookie year of 2002, said. “You’re pushing it to its outer limits. In all reality, these engines with the restrictions that we have on how we go forward, they shouldn’t be doing what they are doing. I think it’s phenomenal.

“So, yeah, we are definitely on the outer limits of what these things be should be able to do, but I think that’s part of the draw and I think that’s very important. It wasn’t so long ago that if you had 30 cars finishing a Cup race, that was a big deal. It’s like, man, everybody made it, nobody had anything break, nobody had anything fall apart.”

So, while 43 drivers will have a chance to win at Indy Sunday, only two will emerge with the right to say he did something A.J., Mearsy and Big Al couldn’t.

“It’s a major for us,” Johnson said of Brickyard 2013. “So it has that feel to it. And then for each driver, every driver respects this facility and respects what this victory does and can do and will do, and what it’s done for so many drivers. It doesn’t matter if it’s F1 or IndyCar. So we’re all very aware of that. And that rings a little different for Tony (Stewart) and a little different for Jeff (Gordon). You look at Dale Jarrett and just being a stock car guy when he won here and how special it was to him; even though he didn’t aspire to being an IndyCar driver, it still meant the world to him. It’s meant the world to me. I wanted to be an IndyCar driver growing up. My focus changed in my mid-teens and stock cars was the thing for me.”

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

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, July 27 2013
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