NASCAR still trying to find its way around tradition-rich Indianapolis

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The differences are subtle between Sunday’s NASCAR race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Indianapolis 500 f or the IndyCar Series.

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Jimmie Johnson pulled up to his crew after doing a burnout after his win last year at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Sunday will be the 20th anniversary of NASCAR's first race at the famous track.  FILE/ASSOCIATED PRESS
FILE/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Jimmie Johnson pulled up to his crew after doing a burnout after his win last year at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Sunday will be the 20th anniversary of NASCAR's first race at the famous track.

The IndyCar race has a 33-car field; NASCAR has 43. The infield is open to fans for the 500 race; it’s closed for stock cars. The IndyCar race is steeped in history and tradition; Sunday’s Crown Royal Presents the Samuel Deeds 400 at the Brickyard is still trying to find its niche at the 104-year-old racetrack.

The race will mark the 20th anniversary for NASCAR at the Brickyard. Jeff Gordon and defending race winner Jimmie Johnson both have four wins at Indianapolis, but their records generally aren’t embraced as significant as the record four wins by A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears.

Another reason why NASCAR probably won’t get top billing at Indianapolis is stock car racing considers Daytona International Speedway its premier track. There have been 106 Indianapolis 500s – the racetrack was dark for six years during World Wars I and II.

“The first time they came, I’ll be honest, I was 100 percent against it,” Tony Stewart said of his favorite track opening its hallowed gates to cars with roofs and fenders.

“When you grow up in the state of Indiana, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the Holy Grail to you. You know, I didn’t want to see anything different come to it. To me, it was the Indy 500 and that’s all it was supposed to be.”

Stewart tried unsu ccessfully to win the Indianapolis 500 six times. He moved fulltime to the Sprint Cup Series in 1999 and he won the 400-mile race at the Brickyard in 2005 and 2007. His opinion now has softened a little.

“But, you know, after watching the first race, the second year, I was kind of on the fence, and by the third year I was a fan of it,” he said. “Luckily my career path, I mean, it’s allowed me to come race here every year.

“Now with Formula One coming in, Moto GP, the GRAND-AM Series, Nationwide cars running here, I think the mindset has changed that it’s too historic of a speedway to run one race a year on it. To be able to bring so many great different series and divisions here, it’s pretty neat that a lot of people get the honor to race here at Indy now.”

His wins are Indy are “definitely not just another victory to us,” Stewart said. “It’s a big deal to us to win here.

Stewart won’t be the only IndyCar Series driver-at-heart who will be driving Sunday.

Danica Patrick, AJ Allmendinger, J.J. Yeley and Casey Mears all have either raced in, or attempted to qualify for, the Indy 500. None of them ever won the big race.

Patrick has competed in seven races with six top-10 finishes. Now that she’s committed fulltime to NASCAR, it’s doubtful she’ll run in another Indianapolis 500.

“As the years go by, more and more distance goes between my full-time IndyCar career, it gets less and less likely,” Patrick said. “While Indy can kind of make a driver, I feel like it is part of what made me who I am today.”

Gordon and Ryan Newman both had open-wheel roots. Gordon originally wanted to be an IndyCar driver, but he wound up in NASCAR. And like Stewart, Gordon and Newman both grew up in Indiana.

Despite being a four-time series champion and winner of 87 races, Gordon admits he still has a burning desire to drive an IndyCar.

“For me it was being amazed at how fast those cars go through those corners, corners that I’m used to going through at much slower speeds and just the technology of the cars,” he said. “Would I like to drive one of those cars somewhere? Yeah, I would.”

For now, Gordon, along with everyone else with IndyCar roots, will have to be content with driving a stock car at the world’s most famous race course. And that’s good enough.

“This is an event that I definitely circle on the schedule. I emotionally have a lot invested in it. When you’re here, you’re amped up because you’re at Indianapolis.”


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