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July 27, 2012  |   By Bruce Martin

NASCAR's top stars eager to earn piece of history with Brickyard victory

When it comes to the top levels of GRAND-AM and NASCAR, all roads lead to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Kroger Super Weekend at the Brickyard. The fans, drivers and teams have arrived in Indianapolis, where track activity began with NASCAR Nationwide Series practice Thursday and continues with a full-day of GRAND-AM racing Friday before the Sprint Cup Series hits the track Saturday morning for practice with qualifications later in the day.

It all leads up to the big moment on Sunday – the Crown Royal Presents the Curtiss Shaver 400 at the Brickyard Powered by BigMachineRecords.com– with plenty of storylines featuring the top drivers in NASCAR Sprint Cup racing.

Looking at past Brickyards, no manufacturer has been more successful than Chevrolet. Thirteen of the 18 NASCAR races at IMS have been won by Chevy drivers, led by Jeff Gordon’s four wins, including the knaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994.

This weekend’s race has extra meaning for Gordon as he attempts to become the first driver to win this event five times. Mired in 17th place in the standings, Gordon realizes the time is now to start winning races in order to get one of the two wild-card positions in this year’s “Chase for the Championship.” Those positions are awarded to the drivers 11-20 in Sprint Cup points with the most victories at the cutoff race for the Chase on Sept. 8 at Richmond, Va.

"Growing up here and going to the track numerous times as a kid, there is just something special about each trip here, but that special feeling changes quickly when I get out on the track because this place is so challenging,” said Gordon, who lived in nearby Pittsboro, Ind., during his formative years of racing in the 1980s. “The four corners look the same, but each is unique with different transitions and bumps. As a driver, factoring that in with the few little dips, the way the wind is blowing, the radius and everything else can give you an advantage. But the car has to be good, as well. We've had the best car or one of the best cars in each of the races we've won here.

"We ran well here last year. A lot has changed since we were here last, but I'm hoping we can take what we've learned in that time and be even faster, even better this year."

Gordon has four wins, 10 top-five and 14 top-10 finishes in 18 starts in the Brickyard. He was second last year and has led an astounding 476 laps overall.

Gordon would also like to bring home a fifth Brickyard trophy because it would be his first win at Indianapolis since he became a father. His previous Brickyard wins came in 1994, ’98, 2001 and 2004.

"I want to bring that trophy (home) and watch (son Leo and daughter Ella) fight over it,” Gordon said. “These days, Leo's been starting some fights, so I'm curious to see who would win and for that trophy to be a fifth Brickyard trophy? That would be a good day.”

While Gordon is the only four-time winner at the Brickyard his teammate – five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson – is attempting to join him in Sunday’s race. Johnson drove to victory at Indianapolis in 2006, ’08 and ’09. He won the Cup title in each of those seasons and arrives in Indianapolis fourth in the standings.

“You drive through the tunnel at Indy and come in and look around, the history just starts talking to you,” Johnson said. “I’m so happy to have had three very special moments there myself. I hope to have a fourth and join some elite company that have won four times there. Track position is everything. The track position challenge starts in qualifying. Clearly a fast race car is important, but maintaining track position and especially having track position at the end of the race is everything.”

Johnson has three wins, three top-five and four top-10 finishes in 10 starts at the Brickyard and has had the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet in front of the field for 130 laps. He finished 19th last year.

While Johnson and Gordon are the only drivers to win the Brickyard at least three times, Tony Stewart is going for the trifecta Sunday. Stewart, from nearby Columbus, Ind., already is a three-time Cup champion and will attempt to become a three-time Brickyard winner on Sunday.

Stewart has two wins, six top-five and nine top-10 finishes in 13 starts. He has led an impressive 227 laps at the Brickyard, not counting the laps he has led in the Indianapolis 500. Stewart was sixth in last year’s race.

Stewart is seventh in the standings and understands what it takes to win at Indianapolis.

“It’s a place that is a momentum-driven track,” Stewart said. “You don’t just have two ends to the racetrack and two big 180-degree corners. You’ve got four 90-degree corners to negotiate. If you have one bad corner at Indy and if your car’s not right, you’re going to be bad in four corners versus two corners a lap. And with it being 2.5 miles, you carry so much speed, if you lose momentum at that track, it just seems like it’s really a big penalty.”

There are four active drivers who have won the Brickyard one time, including Bobby Labonte in 2000, Kevin Harvick in 2003, Jamie McMurray in 2010 and Paul Menard last year.

Harvick’s one win is including in his four top-five and seven top-10 finishes in 11 starts. He has led 92 laps. He was 11th last year but second in 2010.

“It’s been a very good racetrack for us over the years,” said Harvick, who is sixth in the Cup standings. “For whatever reason, it seems like we always run well there. Hopefully we can do the same thing this year because it’s a fun race to win. To experience that back in 2003 was pretty cool, and hopefully we can experience that again this year.”

McMurray is another driver that badly needs to get a win or two if he hopes to have a chance to get into the Chase. He is 20th in the standings – the final position for any driver that can be eligible for a wild-card position in the Chase.

His one win is included in his three top-five and five top-10 finishes in nine starts. He has led the field 43 laps. McMurray was fourth at the “400” last year.

“Indianapolis is such a special place to race,” McMurray said. “I remember going there my first time and being in awe of the place, just to appreciate the history of this track. 2010 was obviously a special year for our team and to go out and win the Brickyard 400 is something that I will never forget. We tried to gamble on fuel mileage last year and led some laps in the closing stages of the race, but just didn’t have the car to race hard at the end with our fuel strategy. This will be a busy weekend for us. We will run the inaugural Grand-Am race at Indy on Friday, before getting into the Sprint Cup Series activity on Saturday and Sunday.“

And the most recent winner at the Brickyard is Menard, who scored his only career Cup win in last year’s race at Indianapolis and was finally able to bring his father, a long-time Indianapolis 500 team owner, at victory at the “Racing Capital of the World.”

“Obviously, you’re going to have a little more bounce to your step,” Menard said of returning to Gasoline Alley as the defending Brickyard winner. “Not just me, but the entire No. 27 NIBCO/Menards team will. You get to see the billboards hanging up. I’ve heard there’s a big picture on the Pagoda. Stuff like that is going to be neat, but I have gone through that tunnel between Turns 1 and 2 for years, and I always get goose bumps. That’s never going to change. There are a lot of pictures and memorabilia that remind me of that day, because at the time it was very surreal. Seeing everyone’s faces in Victory Lane, riding around the track in the convertible with Richard (Childress, team owner) and my dad (John Menard) and kissing the bricks with everyone from RCR. There are a lot of great memories there.”

Menard’s victory is his only top-10 finish in five starts at Indianapolis. He has led 21 laps.

There is another former winner in the field but his victory came in the 2000 Indianapolis 500. Juan Pablo Montoya is attempting to be the only driver ever to win the Indy 500 and the Brickyard as a driver in his career. His second-place finish in his first Brickyard 400 in 2007 is his only top-10 finish in five starts, but he has led an eye-popping 202 laps. He was 28th last year.

“I’m actually pulling double-duty at Indy, so we are going to be busy this weekend,” Montoya said. “We’ve got GRAND-AM stuff all day on Friday and then the Cup stuff on Saturday and Sunday. We have so much going on between the NASCAR race and the GRAND-AM race, it’s exciting. I still feel that race owes me, so I’m pretty pumped up about going there and hopefully snatching one up this year.”

Of the drivers attempting to win at the Brickyard for the first time in their career, none are as popular as Dale Earnhardt Jr. who is second in points entering this weekend.

“Everyone wants to win at Indianapolis,” Earnhardt said. “Everyone wants to go through the process they have at post-race, the celebration and the unique thing that they do. I’ve read about the history and read about how it has survived two world wars and how it was basically the proving grounds for the automobile back in the turn of the century. I would love to be able to say I’ve won a race there. It’s at the top of the list. It battles with tracks like Daytona (Fla.).”

Earnhardt had just two top-10 finishes in 12 starts at the Brickyard but has been in front for 61 laps. He was 16th last year.

Two more drivers have strong ties with Indiana as Ryan Newman is from South Bend and was a top-level USAC winner before heading to NASCAR in 2001. Newman’s fourth-place finish in 2002 is his only top-five and top-10 at Indianapolis in 11 starts and was 12th last year. He has led 14 laps.

“It’s a unique racetrack. We all know that,” Newman said. “It’s a lot of fun, especially when you’re up front. It seems like the straightaways go on forever, and you can just sit there and relax and drive the race car. The racetrack is really fun to drive. It’s one of the hardest tracks to race, which is why some people love it and some people hate it. It’s really a deal where, if you have a fast race car, you will have fun. If your car isn’t fast, it’s going to be a miserable day. It is so difficult to pass there. Track position is so important.

“But for me, I think racing at Indianapolis is just about the history of the track. The history of all auto racing at that facility and around there. Growing up in Indiana and being an open-wheel driver, I got to spend a lot of time around the Speedway and competing there and knowing the history of people like A.J. Foyt, Mel Kenyon and all the greats who have raced there. Just to know my tire tracks are in theirs, that’s cool. That’s what makes it special.”

Although Kasey Kahne is from Enumclaw, Wash., he used to live in Indianapolis when he was a USAC star before heading to NASCAR. He has two top-five and four top-10 finishes in eight starts and has had his car in front for 88 laps. He started second and was 18th last year.

“Winning at the Brickyard and the Daytona 500 are on the top of my list,” Kahne said. “For me, coming up in the sprint car ranks, I raced in the Indianapolis area a lot and learned early on how significant winning at the Brickyard was. When you think about the drivers that have won at Indy throughout the years, it would mean a lot to be able to add my name to that list. We’ve been close a few times, and it’s certainly a victory I’d love to pull off.”

Kurt Busch is another driver that has never won at Indianapolis and although he is way back in 25th position, he eloquently spoke of what makes the Brickyard so special to a race driver.

“It is that same feeling of going to places like Wrigley and Soldier Field,” Busch said. “I’ve been on the grandstand side in Turn 1, and when I walked up there and felt that nostalgic feeling it gives you that genuine, ‘All right, this place was built back in the early 1900s and this grandstand sections is probably at least 70 years old depending on if and when it was updated.’ But there is an old, nostalgic feel of a place with history, a place of importance, and you take in those moments.

“I went and watched the Formula One race there. I’ve seen the start of the Indy 500 there. It’s just a very, special and unique place. My first time making a lap around there, I was captivated by the fact that I was racing at the Brickyard. Then on Lap 2, I was back in the moment and was like, ‘I have a job to do.’”

Busch has one top-five and four top-10 finishes in 11 starts and has led three laps at Indianapolis. Busch was 21st last year after starting fourth.