Everybody Wants To Win

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SPEEDWAY, Ind. – There’s little doubt what the biggest race in NASCAR is. That would be the Daytona 500.

And there’s little doubt what the biggest race in Indianapolis is. That would be the Indy 500.

But when you bring the two together, you get the Brickyard 400. A big deal, for sure. But as time goes by, perhaps the novelty of NASCAR at Indy has worn off.

Perhaps when the eighth Brickyard 400 gets under way Sunday at 2:30 p.m. EDT, it will be just another race, just another of the 36 steps on the Winston Cup ladder.

Yeah, and the $6.7 million purse is just chump change.

“Everybody wants to win at Indianapolis,” Steve Park said. “The track is full of racing history, and it would be an honor to be apart of the record books. This is the second biggest race of the season for us, with the Daytona 500 obviously the biggest. Whether it’s the Indy 500 or the Brickyard 400, the race still holds a large amount of prestige.”

And it doesn’t hurt that the winner will take home a little less than a million bucks. Funny how money and prestige go hand-in-hand, kinda like Dale Earnhardt Jr. and autograph hounds these days.

Money, though, no matter how much you have, only goes so far as a motivator. Ultimately, Winston Cup drivers need something else to pump them up – like the excitement of Bristol, the history of Darlington or the magnitude of Charlotte.

Then there’s the tradition of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It doesn’t call itself the Greatest Race Course in the World for nothing.

“It’s definitely quite an event to win,” defending champion Bobby Labonte said. “I didn’t really think that much about it until the cool-down lap. It is overwhelming as far as a victory goes.

“I was telling somebody, ‘In my house, I’ve only got two trophies, and this is one of them. You can figure out what the other one is and make it out.’ That’s all that’s in there. It definitely is different than anywhere else you could win.”

The Winston Cup cars came to Indy in 1994, ending a nearly century-long run of the Indianapolis 500 as the only race here. Since 1911, when the Memorial Day race was called the “International Sweepstakes,” IMS and the Indy 500 became THE race to win. Careers were made – and broken – at the Brickyard.

Louis Meyer, Wilbur Shaw, A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Al Unser and many others became household names, reaching legendary status in motorsports. If you win the Indianapolis 500, you become famous.

Meanwhile, NASCAR began to grow from its roots as a bootlegger, rough-and-tumble Southern sport. By the 1990s, all Winston Cup races were on TV, and nearly every race was sold out. Tracks constantly added seats as demand grew.

Speedway president Tony George recognized NASCAR’s growth, and NASCAR recognized the Speedway’s immense popularity and tradition. The Brickyard 400 was born.

“When we signed to come here, everybody kind of took notice: ‘OK, these guys are moving to one of the most hallowed racing facilities in the world,’ ” two-time winner Dale Jarrett said. “It gave us a lot of credibility…certainly the (Daytona) 500 is still considered our biggest race, but (Indy) certainly helped our sport at a time whenever we’ve wanted to move forward as a major-league, helped put us on the map. And the money’s not bad, either.”

Jeff Gordon, who grew up in Indiana, won the inaugural Brickyard 400, and though he’s won the Daytona 500 twice and the Coca-Cola 600 three times, Gordon still considers that ’94 victory as his greatest.

“For me, it’s hard for anybody to compare that race to others,” Gordon said. “The first time stock cars were here it was pretty amazing. Growing up around Indiana and driving by this race track and going to the museum and the Indy 500 and all – I never dreamed I’d ever get a chance to race here. And then getting to race in the very first stock car race that was ever here is hard to compare – especially after you win it. But it’s still very special every year.

“This race in ‘94 jump-started my career to a whole new level. It just soared, and it had a lot to do with coming in here and being able to win it. It’s just special for all of us. We put a lot of effort into it. It’s a very prestigious event because of the history of all that’s gone on here. And it’s a very good-paying event…so when you do something special like that (’94 victory), you’ll always remember it.”

That victory was emotional to Gordon, and many drivers said it was emotional to simply drive on the track that year. That may have changed a little bit, but not much. Even though Ward Burton said he doesn’t get “goose bumps up here anymore,” he admits “it’s always neat to come up here.”

And, now, Indianapolis is “beginning to build its stock car racing tradition,” Kyle Petty said.

“That’s good. That’s something I think everybody in the garage wants to help them build,” Petty said. “It is building within the garage. The Brickyard 400 is one of the very biggest races of the season for everybody in terms of prestige and definitely in terms of purse.

“A stock car racing heritage at Indianapolis is good for everybody. I remember when everybody was so excited about us going to Indy to begin with. We took like eight or nine cars up there for a test with NASCAR, just seeing how the cars would do at a place like Indianapolis. The response was incredible. People packed the seats the track opened up for them, and they went nuts watching just nine cars going around that place.

“The races haven’t always been the down-to-the-wire finishes but we haven’t run that many races at Indy yet either. Those close finishes will come, the memorable finishes where they keep replaying them over and over on television. Still, the racing has been pretty good. And there have been a lot of really big moments in those races.

“Everybody wants to run well at Indy. That, in itself, means it’s a big race. Yeah, you want to run good everywhere, but places like Indy, you really want to shine.”

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