Indianapolis is no longer the crown jewel of NASCAR, but the Brickyard is still what makes racing special

A brick factory is no longer a brick factory.

Yes, the competition still has that word in its title – Verizon 200 at Brickyard. An Indy is still an Indy, and the Indy will always be amazing. The trophy that AJ Allmendinger lifted after a shocking victory a year ago looked the same as the one that Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Jimmie Johnson and their legends got. Like every Indianapolis champion (regular or otherwise) since Dale Jarrett in 1996, ‘The Dinger’ fell to his knees and kissed the bricks in the yard .

It’s summer. It’s Indianapolis. It’s a stock car in Indianapolis during the summer. But let’s be honest: it’s just…different.

“When you retire as a driver, what are they going to measure you against the greatest man who has ever raced in NASCAR?” Danny Hamlin asked rhetorically. “They want to know how you’re doing at the ‘Crown Jewel’ event. For me, it’s always the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600, South 500 and Brickyard 400. I still want to win in Indianapolis because I never have. When I will, I’ll be excited. I’ll win at Brickyard, but I won’t win the Brickyard 400. I don’t think anyone will win from now on.”

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On Sunday, the NASCAR Cup Series will receive the green flag for the 29th time in the racing capital of the world. That’s a puzzling number for those old enough to remember the old-school crowd at the Indianapolis 500 saying their “taxi” at the track was like spitting on the cathedral floor . But for the second summer in a row, the average car won’t be racing the most sacred 2.5-mile-horsepower highland mecca — the 113-year-old rectangle of modern motorsport. Instead, they would only travel along part of a short slide and a sizable stretch of the road ahead, but would enter and leave these straights after crossing a larger portion of the Speedway’s 2.439 miles left and right.

“I think that was the weirdest part of last year, just rebooting the way your brain approaches the whole weekend. Even the way you drive in the infield of a street car is different,” admits three-time Brickyard 400 champion Kevin Harvick and 2019 Winner of the last two oval editions of 2020 and 2020. He grew up wanting to follow the tire track of another Bakersfield, California-raised racer, four-time Indy 500 champion Rick Mills. “I’m not going to lie and tell you I love it. For me, driving through that tunnel, through the museum, into Turn 2 and the back road, I get chills just thinking about it. Last year I thought, ‘ Well, heck, we’re not even going to play there anymore.'”

To be clear, the new race is not bad, at least from the one-year sample size. Last year’s inaugural Cup Series road course weekend was a lot of fun. This year’s schedule is full of rare IndyCar/NASCAR double-header races. Again, this is a concept that has long seemed impossible. See also: IMS owner Tony Hulman had Bill France Sr. escorted off the venue in May 1954 when the NASCAR founder was spotted snooping near Gasoline Alley.

But, again, at Indy, driving the car clockwise out of the oval turn 1, then turning right in the infield before reaching turn 4, it’s just…yeah… .different.

“I don’t think anybody’s going to try to sell you the same idea of ​​IndyCar racing as an oval,” explains Kurt Busch, one of only eight drivers to drive 20 or more Brickyard 400s one. His best finish was his first start, finishing fifth as a rookie in 2001. In 2014, he completed his only Indy 500 and a sixth-place finish earned him Rookie of the Year honors. He won’t be racing this weekend and is still recovering after a practice crash in Pocono.

“My sadness is that I never won that game and now I think I’ll never have a chance,” he said. “But it’s also sad for those of us who have been around for a long time when we see what has happened to the Oval over the years.”

Oh yes, that: the whole reason for deciding to make a layout switch.

Some of the most striking images from NASCAR’s glory days were made with Brickyard’s first stock cars. Gordon’s victory at the inaugural event in 1994 came before a crowd of more than 250,000 who watched as the kid, who graduated from high school near Carmel, Indiana, won the second of his 93 career cup series victories . Over the next few years, the silver-brick trophy was borne by the NASCAR Hall of Fame conga series, from Earnhardt and Jarrett to Bill Elliott and Tony Stewart. Brickyard becomes the ultimate reminder every August that NASCAR, the dominant force in American motorsports, has taken the torch from open-top racing.

But as the new stuff faded and the bulkier stock cars struggled to hold any side-by-side races on the IMS’ narrow geometry, attendance dwindled. Then came one of the most disturbing days in NASCAR history, when the shoebox-like Car of Tomorrow teamed up with Goodyear’s ill-planned tire strategy to create a race that wasn’t a race at all. The venue would run a few laps and then pit to change their shredded tires – over and over again. Thousands of fans already left in disgust when Johnson stopped Carl Edwards. Most never came back.

When the race moved to the July 4th weekend in 2020, the idea was to create an all-American vacation for racing fans. But the pandemic has other plans. When the 2021 schedule was announced, the Oval was already out. A road course originally designed for Formula 1, then added to the IndyCar calendar (after another tire crash, this time in F1). Last year, an estimated 60,000 fans attended the new NASCAR event, nearly double the attendance at the Brickyard 400 low, with 30,000 watching in 2017 and 3 million watching on TV, double the 2018 audience .

As with everything in NASCAR, it would be a mistake to judge today’s success versus the Great Gatsby-esque days of the late 1990s and early 2000s. No one believes the era of 250,000 Brickyard fans will return, but when measured by 2022 – which is by no means 1999, but certainly more enthusiastic than 2017 – it’s easy for those in charge to argue that last year The numbers feel like headed in the right direction.

“I don’t know if anyone really wanted to do what we did, but we also knew something had to be done,” Olmendinger explained after winning a year ago. The 40-year-old racer raced 10 times in the original Brickyard 400 and finished seventh in his only Indy 500 in 2013. He will be back with Kaulig Racing this weekend to defend his victory. “I also think it’s easy to say ‘well, it’s not a real Indy’ before a game, but I think if you see me just celebrating there, it’s still a special place, it’s a special game. “

Special, but not the crown jewel. No longer a cornerstone event on the NASCAR schedule throughout the season, but, as Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Douglas Boles — a man of energy that makes the Energizer Bunny look like a sloth — Tirelessly reminding racing fans via his social media, Sunday’s Brickyard 200 is the culmination of a week-long race calendar at Indianapolis and Indiana Speedway.

“It’s not the same and will never be the same,” Harvick added. “But I also don’t think anybody’s going to play harder to win it.”

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