Indy has earned special place in NASCAR lore
The seemingly endless straightaways. The tunnel effect created by hundreds of thousands of screaming fans sitting in grandstands on both sides of the track. Gasoline alley. Oil stains left behind by legends such as Rick Mears, A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Johnny Rutherford.
For any racing fan, the atmosphere at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is so thick with history and prestige you're liable to get choked up. For racers who always stood in awe but never thought they'd get a chance to race there, the atmosphere at the Yard of Bricks is incomparable. For Jeff Burton, it's as if you need a passport just to go visit.
"Indy just has a special feeling about it," he said. "It's almost like traveling to a foreign country; everything is different. Indianapolis itself is a nice town, pretty normal, but when you roll through that tunnel, it's like going someplace different. The place is so unique in every way."
That's why, from the very first time the stock cars came barreling through the gates in 1994, this weekend was a big deal on the NASCAR calendar. And through the years, as stock car legends such as Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon and Bill Elliott have put their names next to those of Mears, Foyt and the Unsers as gentleman callers lucky enough to have kissed the bricks as winners at this historic venue, NASCAR's 400-miler at the Brickyard has emerged as one of the top two events on the Cup schedule.
|“||It's like the Taj Mahal for us. The history of the track. The racing legends who have raced there before. You can feel it when you enter. I want this race more than any other. ”|
|— Ryan Newman|
"The Brickyard is one of the crown jewels of our sport, just like winning the Daytona 500," Elliott said.
Adds veteran driver Ken Schrader: "This week is a 'major,' kind of like raising the alert level to five. Obviously, Indy has become a huge deal. Virtually every team spends two days testing at Indy before we unload there on race weekend. Most teams bring brand-new race cars designed specifically for Indy.
"The only other race on the circuit where the entire garage puts more time and energy into it is the Daytona 500. Indy is historic, challenging, and, hey, it pays pretty darned good, too."
Some drivers say that calling Indy one of the top two races of the year is selling the event short. Others in the stock car old guard staunchly insist the Daytona 500 is, and always will be, NASCAR's premier event. The camps are divided by distinct lines -- whether they be geographic lines attributed to the growth of the sport drawing more Midwestern racers into the series, or generational lines.
"The Brickyard 400 is more than just a race," says Ryan Newman, a South Bend, Ind., native. "I grew up with Indy being everything. And I'm sure if you ask Tony [Stewart] or Jeff [Gordon], or anyone else who cut their teeth racing in Indiana, they'd say the same thing.
"It's like the Taj Mahal for us. The history of the track. The racing legends who have raced there before. You can feel it when you enter. I want this race more than any other."
And he's not speaking for Stewart out of turn. It's no secret how much the Columbus, Ind., product covets the checkered flag at Indy. He has tried in an open-wheel car, but fell short in every Indy 500 bid. And he's tried since 1999 in a stock car, again falling short. The 2002 Cup champion ranks a Brickyard trophy higher than a Daytona 500 one, without hesitation. In fact, he ranks it higher than any trophy out there.
"If I could give away my championship and just get one win at Indy," Stewart said, "I would do it in a heartbeat."
|“||Indy is big because it pays a lot of money, and that's why it's big. It's not the Daytona 500 and it's never going to replace the Daytona 500. Daytona will always and forever be our biggest race of the season. ”|
|— Kyle Petty|
But Kyle Petty isn't buying any of that. His father, NASCAR legend Richard Petty, won the Daytona 500 seven times. It was a big deal to Kyle, who would tag along as a kid. Growing up in North Carolina, there was no question that stock car racing was a religion and the Daytona 500 was the Holy Grail.
"Indy is big because it pays a lot of money, and that's why it's big," Petty said. "It's not the Daytona 500 and it's never going to replace the Daytona 500. Daytona will always and forever be our biggest race of the season. I think Indy's more important to a few other drivers, but all in all, if you had your choice and could only win one, a stock car driver is going to want to win the Daytona over any other race."
As well a stock car driver should, Petty insists.
"Daytona is where we started, and as stock car drivers, it's where we have our roots," he said. "Open-wheel racing in America really developed in Indianapolis and the Indianapolis 500. We just go in and race there once a year. Indianapolis will always belong to names like Foyt, Mears, Andretti and guys like that. We're not going to come in here and rewrite the history books of the track. We'll just be a little part of it."
But no one can doubt that Indy has become a big part of NASCAR. Whether you're talking numbers -- from attendance to ratings to dollars -- or passion, the first weekend of August is one NASCAR fans and drivers alike get geared up for.
"I think most drivers say they would most like to win the Daytona 500 or the Brickyard if they had a choice," second-year driver Brian Vickers said. "They're both very, very prestigious. Indianapolis Motor Speedway is special because it's one of the oldest and most recognized race facilities in motorsports, period."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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