INDIANAPOLIS -- The Brickyard 400 is one of NASCAR's most prestigious and important events. But in its 17-year history, it has rarely produced a classic car race.
One of the few exceptions came in 1996, when Dale Jarrett defeated Ernie Irvan at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a classic battle between the Robert Yates Racing teammates. Jarrett didn't win the Cup championship that year (it went to Terry Labonte), but he put together an amazing season that included additional victories at the Daytona 500 and the Coca-Cola 600.
I don't cover many NASCAR races, but I was on hand at the '96 Brickyard on behalf of the English magazine Autosport. Fast-forward 15 years, and I had the pleasure of spending a few minutes this week with Jarrett as he reminisced about what he called "one of the top couple of wins in my career."
Jarrett brushed the wall in his Ford Thunderbird during his qualifying run and therefore lined up an unrepresentative 24th. But he moved steadily through the field -- yes, there was once plenty of passing in the Brickyard 400! -- and by Lap 100 of 160 he was in the top five with what appeared to be the fastest car on the track.
Irvan took the lead from Johnny Benson on the 108th tour and paced the field until a yellow flag for debris on Lap 125. During the pit stop exchange, Jarrett got ahead of his teammate, and when the green flag flew, both Yates Fords quickly passed the cars of Labonte and Ricky Rudd, who had not pitted, to run 1-2 at the 135-lap mark.
On the 139th lap, Irvan got a big run on Jarrett exiting Turn 2 and executed a clean pass into Turn 3. Barring mistakes, it was now Irvan's race to lose, and he had emotion on his side as well as he tried to avenge his defeat in the inaugural Brickyard in 1994, when a punctured tire late in the race handed the victory to Jeff Gordon.
Jarrett takes up the story.
"The race came down to the two of us battling," he recalled. "When you know that basically you have the same equipment, the same engines and all of that, you don't know how you're going to pass someone. But I kept working Ernie, and as the laps got down to within 10 to go, we had pretty much pulled away from everyone. I wanted to get by, but obviously I wasn't going to do anything that would jeopardize us from finishing first and second for Robert Yates.
"Finally, I saw an opening; Ernie slipped a little bit. He kept getting into Turn 1 pretty hard and his car would push up so he gave me just enough of an opening there. It was with six laps to go and I was able to hold him off then."
Jarrett passed Irvan in Turn 2, but Irvan never got a chance to fight back because Robert Pressley crashed in Turn 4 on Lap 158, causing the race to end under caution in the pre-green-white-checkered era.
It was a crushing defeat for Irvan, who a couple of weeks after losing out in the 1994 Brickyard had nearly lost his life when his car suffered another Goodyear tire failure at Michigan International Speedway.
"The first time I was here, it was heartbreaking; this time it was worse than that," Irvan said in a postrace interview after the '96 Brickyard. "Other than the Daytona 500, this is the place you want to win the most. The only good thing about finishing second is my teammate finished first."
Looking back, Jarrett believes it is actually more difficult to race a teammate for a win than it is going up against outside competition.
"I think it's much harder being the teammate in second," he remarked. "When you're in front, you know that you have the respect of your teammate and he's probably not going to put you in a bad position. In that case, I knew that I wasn't going to put Ernie and myself in that position. I had to wait until there was a complete opening. I wasn't going to force the issue. So being second is harder in that situation because you don't want to create a situation where you might take one or both cars out, so you're a little bit more careful. If you're the one in front, you can take advantage of that a little bit."
Of course, in 1996, the Brickyard 400 was a Very Big Deal. It was the first year of the CART/IRL split that would decimate Indy car racing over the next decade, and the atmosphere at Indianapolis Motor Speedway's stock car race was much more electric than it had been for the first IRL-affiliated Indianapolis 500 just two months earlier.
Just to have the opportunity to race here was incredible. But to go to a Victory Lane where I knew so many of the best drivers in the world had been to in the Indy cars it stands out for me.
”-- Dale Jarrett
Unlike in recent years -- especially since the Goodyear tire debacle of 2008 -- the Brickyard 400 was Indy's toughest ticket in those days. Bringing stock car racing to IMS proved to be a double-edged sword; it was certainly good for the speedway's profit sheet, but it helped turn Indianapolis into a NASCAR town, and those profits helped then-IMS CEO Tony George fund the IRL and strengthened its role in devaluing Indy car racing.
Funny how things ebb and flow; now the unified IndyCar Series is slowly rebounding, while NASCAR is battling declining attendance (the Brickyard being the most dramatic example) and television ratings.
The Indianapolis 500 is once again the unquestioned No. 1 race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Meanwhile, the novelty of NASCAR at IMS has worn off. The fact the Brickyard 400 is usually an incredibly boring car race hasn't helped its cachet among stock car fans, and my own opinion is that adding Nationwide Series and Grand-Am races to the Brickyard 400 weekend isn't going to do much to revive interest and rebuild attendance.
Still, for NASCAR drivers, the Brickyard 400 remains among the sport's must-win events.
"Just to have the opportunity to race here was incredible," Jarrett said. "But to go to a Victory Lane where I knew so many of the best drivers in the world had been to in the Indy cars it stands out for me. The history of the place and the challenge of the racetrack with stock cars it is such a hard track to drive in stock cars. All of that together certainly puts it right toward the top.
"The 1996 race was great day for Robert Yates Racing and just a tremendous thrill for me to be able to go to Victory Lane here."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.