Winning the Brickyard trumps Chase concerns

Updated: August 6, 2006, 1:40 PM ET
By Mark Ashenfelter | Special to ESPN.com

The Chase can wait. For at least 400 miles, Kasey Kahne said his focus won't be on racing cautiously to assure himself a spot in the top 10 -- and a place in the Chase -- come the end of the year's 26th race.

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He said the focus at Indianapolis Motor Speedway will be on winning, and not just because that would do wonders for him in the points standings, either. Kahne said he has two goals: to win the Allstate 400 and to make the Chase.

"I'm not going to be thinking about points at all. The one thing I want to do is win the race," Kahne said. "A top-five would be great. We're going to definitely go for that. So far, we've had two top-fives & at Indy, and we're going to try to do that again, but if it comes down to some kind of crazy move to try to win late in the race, we're going for it. That's the way it is. We want to win."

Winning at the Brickyard drove Tony Stewart relentlessly until the Indiana native turned the trick a year ago. A native of Enumclaw, Wash., Kahne doesn't have quite the same draw to the state, but he has lived in Indy.

"It would mean a lot to me, too," Kahne said. "I've never raced in the Indy 500, but I lived there for three years and watched every race that's been going on when I was in that city. It's pretty neat. It would mean everything. There's one racetrack I want to win at right now, and that's Indianapolis."

Another driver pulled toward the Brickyard is Casey Mears, nephew of four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rick Mears. It was big news when Mears won the pole for the then-Brickyard 400 in 2004, and even he admits he doesn't know what it would be like to be the driver kissing the bricks Sunday afternoon.

Mears' season with Chip Ganassi Racing has been inconsistent, but Ganassi has won the 500 and Mears obviously would love to earn his first Nextel Cup win at the most hallowed racing ground in America.

"Out of every race out there, this is the one I want to win the most," Mears said. "In the past, I tried to qualify for the [500] there. Didn't do it in 2000, 2001. Just didn't have the team to do it with, and missed the show.

"To come back [in] stock cars now, sit on the pole, we had a car that was just awesome last year -- we ended up sixth [and] should have been better than that. I feel like the guys have done a very good job of building a new race car for us for the Speedway that we tested. It works really well. So I'm very excited about our chances this weekend, and this is definitely the biggest race I could run."

Not surprisingly, Casey has been more than willing to pick his uncle's brain when it comes to Indy. And although Rick hasn't turned a competitive lap at the historic 2.5-mile facility in years, the younger Mears is still seeking him out.

"Just a couple weeks ago, we were talking about the track after the test, and just the way that he approached the track and little things that he thought were the most crucial and critical areas to consider, and he's been a huge help with running this place," Casey Mears said.

There's no comparing the way an open-wheel car and a stock car drive around the Brickyard, but Casey said his uncle's tips are still applicable.

"We're on the brakes harder, we're off the gas longer," Casey Mears said of his stock car. "[But] the way that you approach the track and you approach the corner are the same. A lot of the things I described that I was feeling, Rick was agreeing with, then again saying how he got around the track and I could agree with how that felt in a stock car. Even though it's not identical, the way that you approach this particular track, you know, is the same or pretty close in Indy cars and stock cars."

Even though the Indy 500 isn't the spectacle it used to be, the Allstate 400 never will have history on its side. What it does have is ever-increasing prestige in NASCAR circles. But even if it were just another race, the lure of Indy always will be special to Mears.

"The interest in the Brickyard 400 is getting bigger and bigger and is becoming more and more important to these teams," Mears said. "Obviously, Daytona has always been an important race to the stock car teams, but I think that Indy is definitely not first of all, but a lot of people think of it as a close second to Daytona, and it just keeps growing every year."

Winning at Indy isn't easy, so it's not surprising that the winner's list in stock cars is headed by Jeff Gordon and includes Dale Jarrett, Bobby Labonte, Bill Elliott and Stewart, all former Cup champions. In fact, Ricky Rudd and Kevin Harvick are the only other winners there in a Cup car.

"Turns 1 and 2 look like Turns 3 and 4, but they're not. In fact, they are completely different," Jeff Burton said when asked why the track's so tough. "Therefore, all four corners are different at Indy. I think making your car stable but real fast is the biggest key.

"It is so hard to pass, so having track position is very important, which makes qualifying very imperative. To me, the biggest challenge is being able to get good grip off the corners. The track slickens up a lot. You also have to be able to have enough speed into the corners. Those are the biggest challenges."

But even if he never wins at Indy, simply racing there has been a thrill for Burton. And he's undoubtedly far from the only driver to feel that way.

"I have a tremendous amount of respect for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and what it's meant to the history of motorsports," Burton said. "Certainly, it has been an icon in American motorsports -- and in worldwide motorsports, for that matter. I look at it like it's not 'our place.' One of the reasons it's such a special place for me is we have the honor of going to a place to race which another form of racing made so famous. I hold that in high regard, and I hold the racetrack and all of its history in a higher regard."

Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine, which has a Web site at www.scenedaily.com.

• Ashenfelter is an Event News Editor at ESPN.
• Worked at NASCAR Scene for eight years.
• Has covered NASCAR since 1999.