Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Brickyard Preview: Gordon and NASCAR Grew Simultaneously Through Indy

By Micah Roberts

Gordon and NASCAR grew at same time
Six seasons have passed since Jeff Gordon last won at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the longest drought of his career there. Winning in Indiana always came natural for the California kid who’s father-in-law moved the family to Indiana to get into more competitive races for the up and coming driver. At the time, Gordon had aspirations of competing in the Indy 500, but it’s safe to say that despite not ever competing in an Indy car race, things worked out for the best and Indiana was the major reason why.

After giving the stock thing a try, his tenacity and willingness to wheel the car at the highest possible speeds around corners caught the eye of Rick Hendrick who signed him to run full-time in the Cup series in 1993. In Gordon’s second season he won the Coca-Cola 600, one of the biggest races in the season. Two months later he would go on to win the inaugural Brickyard 400, a race that every veteran on the circuit wanted to win more than any other because of the prestige of the track.

When Dale Earnhardt won the following year, he was still burning from not winning the inaugural race -- losing to a kid -- prompting him in the post-race interview to say that he was the “first MAN“ to win the Brickyard 400. Gordon’s win thrust him into mainstream NASCAR and from there, not only did he take off as one of the best ever in the sport, but NASCAR began to take off from being a perceived ’southern thing’.

Madison avenue found the combination of Gordon’s boyish good looks and success on the track against drivers that many around the country thought were red-necks, too good to pass up on. Gordon soon found himself being publicized in national advertising to a degree that no other NASCAR driver -- not even Richard Petty -- had come close to before. And with that came a lot of resentment from some of the other drivers -- especially from Earnhardt -- and helped pave the way to a new prosperous era.

Gordon would have continued to win the way he did even if he hadn’t won the first Brickyard 400, but the win was monumental because it brought new fans to the sport nationally and Gordon was the face that did it. The Indy cars were in the middle of a battle that forever changed that type of racing for the worse and the Brickyard 400 brought an entire audience of mid-west folks into NASCAR who we’re always Indy car first and Gordon was the signature face that got it started.

Gordon had 13 wins in 1998
In 1998, after two consecutive 10 win seasons and winning two Cup championships, Gordon reeled off 13 wins, one of which was the Brickyard 400 to become the first to win the race twice. Three years later in 2001, Gordon won the Brickyard 400 again, and then again, three years later winning in 2004, which remains his last win there.

Jimmie Johnson has won three of the last five seasons at the Brickyard, but it wasn’t with the same type of impact that Gordon will forever hold at the track. Johnson came into an era that had already peaked with almost every corner of the country having a Cup race. Gordon’s aura at the track exits because of it’s importance to the entire growth of NASCAR. At the time, there were no tracks at Texas, Fontana, Las Vegas, Homestead, Chicagoland, Kansas or Kentucky.

This week Gordon has a great chance to win for the fifth time at Indy, largely on the basis of his Pocono win six weeks ago, but also because of past success on the track.

Even though Gordon is on the verge of tying the track record for career wins with five, he still holds the past history with great reverance and modestly down plays his accomplishments there in the broad scope.

"I don’t think what I’ve done should ever be compared to what A.J. Foyt or Al Unser or Rick Mears did here with their four Indianapolis 500 victories," Gordon said earlier this week. "And I don’t think Michael Schumacher’s five wins (in Formula 1) should be compared either. They are all completely different disciplines — sometimes on a completely different track.”

Pocono is always a great barometer to use when handicapping Indy even though the configuration is vastly different, but each track has similar flat turns and endless straightaways.

Others drivers that should perform well this week on the basis of Pocono include Denny Hamlin, the Busch brothers, Juan Pablo Montoya and of course, Johnson. On the basis of just running well consistently at Indianapolis, you have to begin with Indiana native and two-time Brickyard winner Tony Stewart. Kevin Harvick has also performed well annually in the race with a 2003 win and six other top-10 finishes in his 10 starts.

It's been hit or miss for the No. 48 team at Indy (Getty)
For Johnson, it's either hit or miss at Indy. In between his three wins in nine races, he's got finishes of 36th, 38th, 39th and 22nd (last year) giving him a poor average finish of 18.3 in those starts. At Pocono last month, Johnson finished fourth. This week he'll be using a brand new chassis as he attempts to tie Gordon's NASCAR record with four wins on the track.

Over the last six races at Indy, no one has a better NASCAR rating than Tony Stewart (109.3). NASCAR began keeping a rating system in 2005 that factored in detailed information like quality passes, laps led and finish position for each race and Stewart has been the best despite running for two different teams over that span. Stewart won in 2005 and 2007 while driving for Joe Gibbs and finished third and fifth the last two seasons driving for his own team.

Of course, Stewart also has extra incentive to win at Indy because of being an Indiana native, and like Gordon, he also had goals of winning the Indy 500.

“It’s my home race, obviously," Stewart said. Growing up in Indiana and every year watching the Indy 500 and the whole month of May leading up to it, a race at the Brickyard is more than just a regular points race. It’s always been a big race to all of the Cup drivers, but then when you grow up in Indiana, it just makes it that much more important."

An interesting note to consider is that a Ford hasn’t won at the Brickyard since Dale Jarrett did in 1999. A Dodge last won in 2002 with Bill Elliott, who incidentally also won at Pocono that year. A Chevy has won the last eight straight years. The surprise out of the short history of NASCAR at Indianapolis is that no Roush-Fenway car has ever won.

Edwards will attempt to give Roush his first Indy win (Getty)
Two years ago, Jack Roush finally got his first Daytona 500 win and he currently has the points leader, Carl Edwards, who has proven to be pretty good at both Pocono and Indy over the years giving him a great shot to break through.

Despite Roush being shutout in 17 tries, Edwards at least has a good handle on what it will take to win at the Brickyard.

“Indy is tough because you have to be able to turn in the center of the corners and that sounds very simple, but it’s very difficult because the corners are so sharp for such a high-speed race track," Edwards explained. "You have to have a really big engine because you slow down so much and then have these short chutes in between, so the FR9 should be a big help to us this year. I was second at Indy in 2008 and to be that close to victory and see the celebration going on makes you want it even more.”

It's also interesting to note -- with Edwards currently leading in points -- that eight of the 17 Brickyard winners have gone on to win championships the same year. Johnson has done it three times, Gordon twice, with Stewart, Jarrett and Bobby Labonte all doing it once.

Edwards is always a candidate to win, but I'll stick with mostly guys in Chevy bow-ties this week as recent history suggests.

Top-5 Finish prediction:
1) #24 Jeff Gordon (10/1)
2) #14 Tony Stewart (10/1)
3) #22 Kurt Busch (10/1)
4) #29 Kevin Harvick (10/1)
5) #48 Jimmie Johnson (6/1)

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