SPEEDWAY, Ind. -- John Andretti used to sneak into Gasoline Alley at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as a child. He knew every hole in the fence, every blind spot from the yellow-shirted security guards, every great hiding place among men and their high-octane machines.
"They used to throw me out, then I'd just sneak back in," Andretti said. "I grew up dreaming about racing here. I graduated from high school right down the street, and I used to walk by the green walls (around the speedway) and dream about being on the other side of the fence."
Andretti, who drove his Pontiac to a 10th-place finish in time trials, doesn't have to crawl through holes in the fence any more. As a driver for Petty Enterprises, he not only has a pass to get into the most-hallowed racing grounds on earth, but he gets a police escort as well.
"I enjoy coming home," the nephew of IndyCar great Mario Andretti said. "I'm proud they let me out there."
There are four Indiana natives in this afternoon's Brickyard 400 (1 p.m., ABC-Ch. 6). All four grew up with aspirations of coming home to the Brickyard as a competitor. And while they consider the Indianapolis Motor Speedway their favorite raceway, all four contend the season-opening Daytona 500 remains the biggest stock car race on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series circuit.
"I'm going to say Daytona in all honesty," said Rushville, Ind., native Tony Stewart, whose Pontiac is 11th on the grid. "Daytona is the biggest stock car race of the year. It wouldn't change because it's Indy week. If I had to say which one, between the Indianapolis 500 and the Brickyard, I would say it is the Indianapolis 500.
"Daytona is still the No. 1 race for Winston Cup drivers. You stop in November and even before the season starts, Daytona is what everybody talks about. That is where everybody's mind-set is. At the end of the season, you start thinking about Daytona. It is the same in IRL -- you are racing in Phoenix, but you are thinking what are we going to do for Indy.
"Ever since I was born, I had always dreamed of coming to the speedway and going under the checkered flag. But there's 42 other guys who have that dream, too."
Pole sitter Jeff Gordon has a lot of history at both Indianapolis and Daytona Beach. He's won the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400 two times each.
But Wednesday, Gordon came home to Pittsboro, Ind., a small town about 13 miles west of the Brickyard, to see old high school friends and to join in the celebration of re-naming the main street through town "Jeff Gordon Boulevard."
"I have a lot of reasons Indiana is a very special place for me," Gordon said. "No other state has a boulevard named after me. I've been an adopted native."
Gordon was born in California, but he moved to Pittsboro when he was old enough to walk so he could pursue a racing career. Besides the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the central Indiana area features a hotbed of racing activity.
Not only do they race IndyCars and Winston Cup stock cars at the Brickyard, but local short tracks flourish with USAC midgets, World of Outlaws and late model racing.
"I think that's why so many drivers come out here," said driver Kenny Irwin, another Indianapolis native. "When I was growing up here, I could race three nights a week. Whether it's a sprint car on dirt, you can go to Eldora. You can race Winchester, Salem, IRP. You can start at the Speedrome. There are so many different race tracks in this area that you can race pretty much whenever you want, and that breeds race car drivers, I guess.
"I'd say winning a go-kart race here would be a big thing. Just getting to race here is pretty cool, and winning a race here would be unbelievable."
Irwin's Ford is 15th in the starting lineup.
Gordon's lap of 179.612 mph established a stock car record on the 2 1/2-mile oval. And as he drove down pit road following his run, thousands of fans cheered wildly from the grandstands -- certainly a change from the way fans treat him at other raceways.
"I got choked up," he said.
Mark Martin's Ford will start second today. He ran 178.941 mph in qualifying.
David Green was a surprising third in time trials at 178.902 mph, followed by point standings leader Dale Jarrett in fourth at 178.859, Michael Waltrip in fifth at 178.816, Mike Skinner in sixth at 178.667, Bobby Labonte in seventh at 178.642, Bill Elliott in eighth at 178.547, Ken Schrader in ninth at 178.518 and Andretti in 10th at 178.476.
The Brickyard remains second in stature to the Daytona 500, and the winner's purse reflects that. Today's winner will earn about $700,000 -- almost half of what Gordon earned six months ago for winning the Daytona 500.
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