Is this really the 18th Brickyard 400 (check that, Allstate 400 at The Brickyard)? It can't be, can it? Are we that old?
"You're telling me," says Mark Martin, one of only four drivers to start every edition of stock car racing's annual midsummer visit to the great rectangular track that real racers still refer to as, simply, The Speedway. "When I came along in 1981 the idea of NASCAR racing at Indianapolis was, well, people would just laugh at you if you even suggested it. Now we've been there nearly 20 years? That's crazy."
Like its older cousin, that century-old 500-miler they run in May, the 400 is rather choosy when it comes to selecting who gets to kiss the bricks (a tradition that was started by the so-called taxi cab drivers, thank you very much). And even though the Brickyard has slowly eased into a regular part of the NASCAR life, one part of the Indy experience has never changed. Whomever the old rectangular track allows to stand in Victory Lane at day's end is vaulted to the status of racing superstar.
"It's Daytona and Indy," confesses Jamie McMurray, who won both the 500 and the 400 last year. "There are tracks or races that may mean more to individual drivers here and there. Hometowns and all of that. But across the board, there are two races that everyone wants to win before they hang it up. It's Daytona and Indy, and then everywhere else. It's not even close."
So now, as we look back over the previous 17 editions of the Brickyard, which ones still manage to break away from the crowd? I'm glad you asked. Grab a tall glass of milk and read on.
5. 1997 -- Ricky rolled
By '97 the great driver-owner experiment that started earlier in the decade was beginning to crumble. The super-teams were expanding to four and five cars and the sponsors were bolting mom-and-pop operations, such as Rudd Performance Motorsports, and aligning themselves with the superpowers.
When the green flag flew on the fourth Brickyard 400, Ricky Rudd's Tide Ride quietly started seventh and hung around at the back half of the top 10 all day long. Rudd and crew chief Jim Long made the gutsy call to try to take advantage of the race's high number of cautions, roll the dice on fuel and throw out the last scheduled pit stop altogether.
Rudd had just surrendered the lead to Martin when the yellow was shown. When nearly the entire field pitted, the No. 10 Ford stayed out. "Even still," admits Dale Jarrett, the race's defending champ who had dominated all day, "we thought we'd catch him."
Jarrett never did. Neither did Martin, or anyone else. On raggedy tires and an empty fuel tank, Rudd took what was easily the biggest win of his storied career. And it turned out to be Little Big Horn for the once-en vogue troop of driver-owners.
"In the paper the next day, they wrote that it was like the little corner hardware store going head-to-head with Wal-Mart and winning," Rudd recalls. "That might sound overdramatic. But it's the truth."
4. 2003 -- Harvick gets happy
Kevin Harvick stunned the motorsports world in 2001 after he was pressed into Cup series service following the death of Dale Earnhardt. He won two races, rookie of the year, and even added a Nationwide (then Busch) Series title. But the two seasons that followed were a bit of a mess. He did win a race at Chicagoland in '02, but when he rolled into Speedway, Ind., on Aug. 3, 2003 he was mired in a 1-for-74 slump that had Earnhardt fans grumbling for a replacement. By the end of the day, all of that talk had vanished.
The 27-year-old restarted second behind leader Jamie McMurray, both stuck back in lap traffic thanks to the confusing days before double-file restarts and wave-arounds. When the green flag dropped, the 29 car used those backmarkers to execute a gorgeous pick-and-roll move that catapulted Harvick into the lead and into Victory Lane.
The momentum from that victory carried on to hand him a fifth-place finish in points, hushed the critics, reestablished his place as a top-flight star and kicked off one of the greatest postrace burnouts in recent memory.
3. 2005 -- Smoke gets in your eyes
In 2003, after leading 69 laps but finishing 12th, Tony Stewart was asked about the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and groused, "I'm trying not to take this personal, but what the hell does this racetrack have against me?"
His frustration was easy to understand. The Columbus, Ind., native had spent his entire life replaying the same dream in his mind -- winning at Indianapolis. When he arrived at the Speedway in '05, he was 0-for-15. A particularly torturous and cruel 0-for-15. Through five Indy 500s, six Brickyards and four IROC events, he had led 236 laps and picked up seven top-10 finishes. Every year, in either May or August, he seemed to be closer. But something would always happen.
But thanks to an even-keeled attitude -- part of his new promised calmer outlook on life -- he steadily reeled in Kasey Kahne after the race's final round of pit stops. With 11 laps to go, he seized the lead.
"During those last laps, I just ran as hard as I could trying not to think about all the stuff that might go wrong," he recalls. "My dad was in the suites over Turn 2 and every time I went through there I could see him. I thought about all the sacrifices he and my mom made, just hoping one day we'd stand in Victory Lane at Indy. When it came true, it was just unbelievable."
The resulting celebration has become part of Indianapolis lore, as he climbed the frontstretch fence a la Helio Castroneves to share the moment with a couple hundred thousand of his fellow Hoosier State residents.
2. 1995 -- Back in black out
Few rivalries have dominated the NASCAR landscape like the seven-year war between Rusty Wallace and Dale Earnhardt. And though it certainly had bigger moments (including a water-bottle throwing face-off at Bristol a few weeks later), Rusty versus Dale never had a bigger stage than it did at the second edition of Brickyard 400.
"The thing that irritates me is that I didn't lose the lead to Dale on the track," Wallace says now. "I lost it on pit road. I had a straightaway lead going into the final pit stop. But coming down pit road I had a wreck happen right in front of me. Then a tire rolled through. I had to stop. Dale slipped by. I never caught him after that."
He came close, shaving what was a giant lead all the way down to .37 seconds, but the checkered flag was waved before he could close the final gap.
Unfortunately, no one but the people actually in attendance saw it. Delayed several hours by rain, the race finally started late in the afternoon. Unfortunately, ABC had nary a satellite to put the telecast up on, as all of its time was eaten up by its brand-new "Baseball Across America" project. There wasn't even a way to get a highlight package fed up to ESPN to be shown on "SportsCenter." Instead, America had to wait until the following afternoon to see The Intimidator hold up his silver-dipped brick and tell the world "I'm glad I could be the second man to win it, if not the first."
Who was the first?
1. 1994 -- Feels like the first time
As Martin reminded us earlier, there was a time when the idea of stock cars rumbling around Indianapolis was a preposterous as them doing laps on the moon. So much so that longtime Indianpolis Motor Speedway chairman Tony Hulman once had NASCAR's Bill France Sr. shown the door when he was seen snooping around Gasoline Alley.
So when Hulman's grandson, Tony George, and France's son, Bill Jr., announced that fendered cars would race at Indy in 1994, the reaction was met with cheers in one corner of the motorsports world and gasps of horror from the other. "I think that's why you had so many open-wheel guys come out of the woodwork to try and run that race," says A.J. Foyt, who came out of retirement to add his name to the nearly 90 drivers on the entry list, joined by fellow 500 vets Geoff Brabham, Danny Sullivan and Gary Bettenhausen.
The debate about whether the 400 was a good idea ended as soon as ABC hit the air and everyone saw the sold-out crowd jamming The Speedway for its first non-Indy 500 event in nearly eight decades.
"Everyone wanted to be the first to anything," Wallace says with a laugh. "When we had our first test session I was the first car on the track, but Earnhardt passed me to lead the first practice lap. The whole race weekend was like that. That first lap, when we came down that little ol' frontstretch and all those thousands of fans were lined up on either side of us. I still get chills thinking about that."
Rick Mast, who famously sold a cow to buy his first car, won the first pole. Earnhardt pancaked the right side of his Chevy as he desperately tried to get around Mast to lead the first race lap. Brothers Geoff and Brett Bodine raced for the lead, wrecked each other in the process, and then aired out their dirty family laundry live on ABC.
As the day drew to a close, Ernie Irvan was threatening to stink up the show in the final stanza, putting his famous Texaco-Havoline Ford out front. But with five and half laps to go, he cut a tire, wobbled, and a kid celebrating his 23rd birthday slipped into the lead.
"I graduated high school just a few miles up the road from The Speedway," Jeff Gordon recently recalled. "My dad and I had sat in those grandstands and watched my heroes race. When I was coming up the Indy teams wouldn't give me the time of day, so we went south to go NASCAR racing. When that happened I figured my Indianapolis dreams were done. It turns out they weren't."
It was just Gordon's second career win. Since then he's added 82 more, including three more Brickyards. "On paper, I guess I've had bigger wins. But there will never be one more special than that first win at Indy. Never."
Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.