Commentary

List of Brickyard winners a veritable who's who of NASCAR racing

Have dreams of winning at the Brickyard? You'd better bring a Hall of Fame résumé, because also-rans don't stand a chance, writes Ryan McGee.

Updated: July 24, 2008, 6:19 PM ET
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

There are a lot of truths when it comes to NASCAR at the Brickyard.

You must get up early enough to hear the cannon blast that opens the gates.

You must plunk down the ridiculously low ticket price of $3 to see the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum.

And if you have any dreams of winning the race, you had better bring a Hall of Fame résumé with you. Because, believe you me, also-rans do not -- I repeat, do not -- win the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard. We've had 14 editions of the second-biggest stock car race on the schedule, and we've had nine different winners, studs all.

"When the NASCAR Hall of Fame starts putting together its list of the best drivers from the last decade, it will be easy," says Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian Donald Davidson. "Pull out the list of Brickyard winners and you're there."

The superpowers
When the green flag dropped on the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994, everyone knew it was a big deal. They knew NASCAR had been trying to sneak in under the fence at Indianapolis for decades. They knew the open-wheel powers of the time stuck their collective tongues out at the idea of "taxi cabs" on their hallowed track.

"Everyone wanted to be the first to do everything," recalls ESPN analyst Andy Petree, then Dale Earnhardt's crew chief. "Dale started second and hit the wall trying to lead the first lap of the race."

But no one had any idea what a big deal the winner would turn out to be.

Jeff Gordon's thrilling win over Ernie Irvan was just the second Cup victory of his career. Fourteen seasons later, he has added 79 more wins, including three more Brickyards.

The next year, Earnhardt did win, jokingly declaring himself as "the first man to win this race." Then came Dale Jarrett's turn, followed by Ricky Rudd, Bobby Labonte, Bill Elliott, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson ... do you see a pattern forming here?

The nine Brickyard victors, from Gordon to defending champ Tony Stewart, have combined to win 354 races, 18 Cup titles and 11 Daytona 500s. When the thinnest résumé on the list belongs to Harvick, who owns a Rookie of the Year trophy and 11 wins, including a Daytona 500, that's what you call a stout group.

"Last year, all the winners posed with the trophy they keep at the track," says Rudd, who pulled off a stunning upset as a driver-owner in '97. "I was looking at the names on it and the guys I was standing with and thought, 'There is some serious horsepower involved here.'"

[+] EnlargeDale Earnhardt
AP Photo/Tom StrattmanDale Earnhardt was the second winner at the Brickyard.

Nerds need not apply
"One interesting aspect of racing here at Indianapolis has been the number of near misses by racers who were close to becoming stars but never really did," Davidson adds. "This has always been true of the Indianapolis 500 and has carried on into the 400. There are rarely, if ever, flukes."

The same can't be said for any other race, including the one down in Daytona each February (paging Pete Hamilton and Derrike Cope).

"When the old lady wants you to win, you'll win," says three-time Indy 500 winner Johnny Rutherford, referring to the track he loves like a mother. "She may give you a little taste of glory, let you think that she has deemed you worthy of greatness. Then she'll slap you in the face for thinking so."

Before you start thinking that Lone Star JR has spent too much time breathing methanol exhaust, consider the case of the Brickyard 400 pole winners.

Rick Mast won the pole position for the inaugural race in '94. For three days, the nation was entertained by Mast's tales of growing up in Rockbridge Baths, Va., of how he sold a cow to buy his first race car. He led two laps and finished 22nd. Slap.

Ditto for Jimmy Spencer's pole-winning run in 2001, Casey Mears in '04, Elliott Sadler in '05, and Reed Sorenson one year ago. Hey, fellas, until you learn how to become a legend, she'll let you win a little trophy on Friday, but kissing the bricks on Sunday is not an option. Slap, slap, slap, slap.

A brick in the teeth
But Mother Speedway doesn't pick only on second-tier racers; she likes to humble the legends, as well. Rusty Wallace finished second an excruciating three times. In '95, a near miss on pit road allowed Earnhardt to slip out first and beat him on track position. He held the lead with fewer than 15 laps to go in 2000 and '02 but was passed both times, first by Labonte, then by Elliott.

"If I couldn't win it, I was happy to see Bill do it," Wallace says now. "He'd been down on his luck for a long time and needed that. But dammit, I could have won three Brickyard 400s real easy and I've got none."

In 14 starts, Mark Martin has finished seventh or better eight times but has no silver brick to show for it. Former Cup champs Terry Labonte, Kurt Busch and Matt Kenseth are a combined 0-for-27. Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sport's biggest star and a a Daytona 500 winner, has cracked the top 10 only twice in eight tries and has an average finish of 21st.

"It's tough," admits Busch, who saw his best car end up against the wall in the infamous spat with Spencer in 2002. "But you know what? It should be tough. It's the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. You want to earn your way onto that trophy."

I am legend
So good luck this weekend to those who seek to add their name to said trophy.

Good luck to those already mentioned, as well as guys such as Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch. Racers who are no doubt good at what they do but have yet to achieve true greatness.

Good luck to each of them as they battle the elements, 42 rivals and the racing gods.

Perhaps the speedway will allow you to stand with her and her chosen immortals.

But be ready for the slap.

Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at mcgeespn@yahoo.com.

Ryan McGee | email

ESPN The Magazine, NASCAR

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