Top 10 moments at the Brickyard
July 23, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
The first test took on the feel of a major event. The first qualifying session produced a shocker: as many cars went home as made the race. The ending was straight out of a storybook. Indeed, revered old Indianapolis Motor Speedway seized a spot in NASCAR's consciousness from the very beginning, and even now, two decades later, still hasn't let go.
That much is evident just by walking through the gates -- and with the way this old speedway plays on the emotions of anyone who cares an iota about tires and fuel. The setting, the atmosphere and the history combine to make it among the most special environments that NASCAR competes in, all of it augmented by a difficulty level that typically reserves Victory Lane for the very best. For all those factors, winning at Indy in NASCAR's premier division remains a career-defining moment, and that will never change.
We've certainly witnessed that in how these Brickyard moments created over the last 20 years continue to resonate, even long after the seasons in which they unfolded have passed. The great and even infamous chapters written there continue to linger, not dissipated by time, but rather burnished by the legacy of the most famous race track in the world. Sunday's 21st running of the Brickyard race will almost certainly inspire another, given how the place magnifies the effect of both victory and loss. Until then, though, here are the top 10 memories so far.
10. Oh, brother: 1994
The Brickyard was a big deal from the beginning, to the point where it could even drive a wedge between family members. OK, maybe the Bodine brothers weren't on the best of terms coming to Indianapolis in 1994, but events in that inaugural race didn't help. Brett and Geoff Bodine both had strong cars that qualified in the top 10 -- no small feat with 86 (!) vehicles entered -- and were running 1-2 when the gloves came off. Geoff bumped Brett, who responded by ramming his older brother into the wall. In interviews after the race, it became clear that a family feud was underway. "He's not talking to me," Geoff said. "We've not spoken in a couple of months," Brett added. Brett at least salvaged the day, finishing second behind some transplanted Hoosier who won the race.
9. Four-time: 2012
Oh, how Indianapolis used to beat up on poor Jimmie Johnson. Pummel him, bruise him, leaving him sitting woozy on the pit wall while his car was on fire. He won races and contended for titles from the very beginning, but a certain 2.5-mile square of asphalt proved his nemesis. He would break down, he would crash, he would hit so hard he wouldn't remember climbing out of his car. So it was not without some irony that Johnson would go on to become one of the best ever at the same track that once so bedeviled him. Johnson's dominant Indianapolis victory in 2012 was the fourth of his career, and made him one of just five men to triumph as many times on the venue's oval layout. "I'm at a loss for words," he said afterward. Those who had watched him struggle there a decade earlier could understand why.
8. Speed trap: 2009
While it wasn't quite the whipping he put on the field to win the Indianapolis 500 in 2000, it was close. Juan Pablo Montoya was cruising toward his first oval-track victory on his best layout in 2009, having led 116 of the 134 laps contested before he pulled in for what should have been his final pit stop of the day. No other driver was close -- until Montoya was flagged for speeding on pit road with 26 laps to go. Understandably, the Colombian was furious. "I was not speeding. I swear on my children and my wife," he vented over the radio. NASCAR said otherwise, and a pass-through penalty dropped Montoya back to an eventual 11th-place finish. He would let another slip away the next year, when pit strategy and a crash derailed an effort that led 86 laps. No wonder he's coming back with Roger Penske this week.
7. A wreck and a rear: 2002
The feud between Kurt Busch and Jimmy Spencer may have started over Bristol and met its end at Michigan, but its most public flashpoint came at Indianapolis in the 2002 edition of the Brickyard, where Mr. Excitement exacted some payback by driving straight through the No. 97 car. Busch's reaction, though, remains the most memorable part of the entire incident -- the future series champion climbed out of his car, nonchalantly leaned against the side with his arm crossed, stalked down the banking as he saw Spencer's car approaching, and waved his arms wildly. The next time Spencer circled by, Busch bent over and motioned to his rear end -- short-track shorthand for "send that guy to the back." Unfortunately, all he received was a summons to the NASCAR hauler for his efforts.
6. Awesome again: 2002
That same race produced a somewhat unexpected and emotional winner, as Bill Elliott capped his career with a victory at the most prestigious track to have eluded him. Driving for Ray Evernham and with young son Chase in attendance, Awesome Bill was awesome one more time, leading 93 laps to record what would prove the penultimate victory of his time behind the wheel. In an era where young stars were emerging and the Brickyard winner often forecast the series champion, the 47-year-old Elliott was something of a throwback, even though he had won the most recent race at Pocono. "It feels like it's taken me a lifetime to get here," he said after overtaking Rusty Wallace with 11 laps remaining. Elliott had won so much, yet Indy nearly brought him to tears. Such is the power of the Brickyard.
5. Testing the waters: 1993
How big is the Brickyard? So big that even the first official stock-car test there in 1993 proved one of the most anticipated events on that season's schedule, and to this day remains a highlight of NASCAR's era at the track. In April of 1993, Tony George and Bill France Jr. jointly announced the next season's inaugural race, and in August of that year 31 teams showed up for a two-day test session. Fans lined the streets outside Indianapolis to see the NASCAR haulers arrive, and nearly 50,000 people watched from the stands. "This is a phenomenal happening," Darrell Waltrip called it. Bill Elliott set the top speed, Kenny Wallace crashed, and everyone was awed and impressed. "It's a pretty neat thing," no less that Dale Earnhardt called it. The stage had been set, and one year later the main event commenced.
4. Winning in the rain: 1995
It was a rainy weekend that year in Indianapolis, with the remnants of Hurricane Erin threating to push the Brickyard back a day. That Saturday afternoon crept on -- yes, back then the race was run on a Saturday -- and forecasts looked grim until a break in the weather allowed the event to begin late in the afternoon. Dale Earnhardt -- who famously battled Rusty Wallace to become the first driver to test on the track a few years earlier -- led the final 28 laps to again edge his old rival in a thriller. Problem was, only the people on hand saw it, because ABC had extended beyond its broadcast window and turned programming over to local affiliates. Fans were not amused. "Everybody's mad," one North Carolina TV staffer told the Associated Press. Except for the Intimidator, that is.
3. Kissing the bricks: 1996
Although it feels like it's been part of Brickyard lore forever, Indianapolis' most famous NASCAR tradition actually didn't begin until the third race at the rectangular track. And it was the idea of crew chief Todd Parrott, who oversaw Dale Jarrett's first victory there in 1996, and then thought -- why not kiss the famed yard of bricks that comprises the start/finish line? So Parrott, Jarrett, and the rest of the Robert Yates Racing No. 88 team did just that, and a ritual was born. Ricky Rudd did it the next year, then Jeff Gordon, then Jarrett and Parrott again in 1999, and soon even Indianapolis 500 winners were following suit. In the years since, kissing the bricks has become one of NASCAR's most enduring traditions. After 400 miles, those bricks probably taste like dirt and tire rubber. But to the winner, nothing tastes better.
2. Career climber: 2005
Tony Stewart lived to win at Indianapolis. He grew up south of the city in Columbus, cut his racing teeth east in Rushville, and always returned to the corner of 16th and Georgetown as if pulled by force of gravity. But five runs at the Indy 500 produced a top finish of fifth, and his first six attempts at the Brickyard resulted in more strong efforts capped by only frustration at the end. He once termed it "hell week" because of all the pressures and demands on him. That ended in 2005, when Stewart passed Kasey Kahne with 11 laps remaining, and recorded an emotional victory that propelled him to his second title. Stewart celebrated by emulating open-wheel driver Helio Castroneves and climbing the fence to the flagstand, and claiming what still ranks among the biggest checkered flags of his career.
1. Hometown hero: 1994
No question, there were some who initially bristled -- a young open-wheel driver named Stewart among them -- at the idea of stock cars on a race track which, to that point, was only open in the month of May. Those first few NASCAR races at Indianapolis were even run on Saturday, because the next day was considered the sacred domain of the open-wheel machines. All it took was Jeff Gordon, standing in Victory Lane and basking in the cheers of hundreds of thousands of fans, to blow it all away. If there was one moment when NASCAR took its biggest and boldest step toward true national acceptance, it was Aug. 6, 1994, when America's brightest young racer conquered the world's best-known track.
That is no overstatement. For NASCAR, that first Brickyard was a seminal event on par with the first flag-to-flag television broadcast of the Daytona 500 in 1979. Although the sport had raced all around the country for decades, it still fought the misconception that it was a regional circuit. That canard was dismissed for good after Gordon beat Ernie Irvan in a thriller, and a native Californian who had adopted nearby Pittsboro as his hometown was cemented as a Hoosier legend. "I took an extra lap so I could wipe away the tears," Gordon said then. He was hardly the only winner that day, though. He carried his entire sport to a well-earned victory as well.