Drivers have different motivation, same goal
Jeff Gordon will be chasing history -- not to mention a spot in the Chase for the Nextel Cup -- at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Tony Stewart simply will be chasing a victory at a track that means the world to the Indiana native.
And at the moment, with Gordon on the outside looking in at the Chase, it's possible a fifth win at Indy would mean as much to him as a first victory would mean to Stewart. During a recent test at the track, Gordon was hopeful the session would pay dividends once competition at the Brickyard starts for real.
"Everywhere we've tested this year, we've run well, [and] winning a big race like this definitely can help the morale of the team and build some momentum," he said. "Right now, we're looking at a stretch of races coming up that we have to run well to get in the top 10, and Indianapolis is one. It's an important race for us already, but it's one that we'd love to win."
Legends A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears have each won the Indianapolis 500 four times, and Gordon joined them as a four-time winner when he claimed the Brickyard 400 last year. And last month, Michael Schumacher won the United States Grand Prix for the fourth time, though the circumstances of that race left something to be desired. But no matter what, if Gordon makes next weekend's Allstate 400 at the Brickyard his fifth win, he won't say he stands alone.
Gordon, after all, has too much respect for what those others have accomplished.
"To get number four was a great moment for me and this team," Gordon said. "If the media wants to keep pumping it up, that's fine. For me, growing up as a kid and watching the Indy 500, I recognize that there's a difference between the two races. It's not that I wouldn't want to be compared to A.J., Unser and Mears; it's just a different race and different circumstances."
If anyone has been compared to Foyt over the years, it's Stewart. The two are friends, and Stewart wants to win at Indy with a passion.
The track has been repaved and ground since NASCAR was there last August, but Stewart says the changes went down flawlessly.
"It's phenomenal; there's hardly a bump on the track right now," he said. "Makes it really fun for us as drivers, and as teams it makes it a little easier. The grip's higher, but at the end of the day you still push the car as hard as you can and go as fast as the setup will let it go."
The one certainty is a Stewart win would set off a heck of a celebration. Helio Castroneves was the first to climb the fence after winning at Indy, but Stewart has taken the art form to new levels by climbing to the flag stand at Daytona and New Hampshire.
Still, he focused on the track, not the fence, during his recent test session.
"Let's just worry about getting to the checkered flag, then we'll worry about testing the fence. We've got to get through phase one before we get to phase two," Stewart said. "If I bust my butt at that point, who cares, at least I have the trophy."
Defending Craftsman Truck Series champion Bobby Hamilton was the fastest driver over six days of testing. And he did it in a car his Bobby Hamilton Racing team put together using a chassis bought from PPI Motorsports.
Having to make the field on speed won't be easy, but Hamilton welcomes the challenge.
"We have a very good truck organization, but I'm smart enough to know that experience is what counts, and running a Cup team week in and week out is huge," Hamilton said. "We know we're against all odds coming here. We'll try to come up here and have a good time. We'd like to run good, but we don't want to get in the way of the guys running for the Chase. But we buy our pit passes just like they do."
With 46 drivers testing -- including almost every regular other than Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman and Mike Bliss -- there were 5,291 laps turned over the six days. That's good for 13,227.5 miles, and it's hoped all that action will help widen out the groove, alleviating the tendency of freshly paved tracks to lead to single-file racing.
Dale Jarrett, a two-time Brickyard 400 winner, said he'd put a high value on this race even if he weren't fighting for a spot in the Chase.
"Being a former winner, I understand everything that goes along with winning this race, and I just love to compete here," Jarrett said. "The couple of times I haven't had a very good car here, it's just been a miserable week because you come here wanting to run well. Last year was a lot of fun even though we didn't win, and other years where maybe we didn't have competitive cars and didn't win, it was still a lot of fun to race.
"So I put this race very high on my calendar, so yes, it's important for us because we're around that top 10 [in points], but it's more important because I want to get back to Victory Lane here."
Second-year Hendrick Motorsports driver Brian Vickers said there's one main reason to win at Indy, and it's not that it would be his first Nextel Cup win.
"This track means so much to everybody and has so much history, and everybody wants to run good here. In the scheme of things, if you look at the championship, it's no more or less important than the race before it or the race after it," Vickers said. "But when you ask any driver out here, ask any fan, ask anybody in the garage, it's one of the most important races.
"I mean, it's personal. It's very gratifying. It's one of the toughest races to win. It's very challenging. It's very historic. If I could win anywhere, this and maybe the Daytona 500 would be it."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.