Looking for a shot in the arm

INDIANAPOLIS -- It was only a moment ago, a time when the Brickyard 400 rivaled the Daytona 500 and the Indy 500 for recognition as the biggest show in racing.

This event was all the rage. It was NASCAR's magical new playpen at auto racing's storied old track.

But that was then and this is now. Something is missing. The buzz is gone. The newness has worn off. The novelty has faded.

The Brickyard 400 needs a spark. It needs a moment to remember. It needs something special to happen Sunday the way it did a few years ago.

Jeff Gordon, the young phenom with local ties, shocked the old guard by winning the first Brickyard 400 in 1994. NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt won it one year later.

And the people came. Huge crowds, filling the enormous grandstands around the historic 2.5-mile rectangle, making Indy NASCAR's highest-attended event by the late 1990s.

Those were the days, but things changed. The racing here was less than stellar. The economy crashed about the same time as a tire debacle ruined the 2008 race and soured many fans on this event.

Two decades since stock cars first invaded this hallowed ground, it needs something to shake things up and get back to where it was, or at least start the journey back.

The Brickyard 400 is like a beloved baseball player in a slump who only needs one ringing double off the wall to turns things around.

It's the old golfer who needs to sink a 30-foot putt on the 18th hole to win the tournament. It's the star basketball player who hasn't made a shot all night but becomes the hero again by draining a 3-pointer at the buzzer to win the game.

This race needs that kind of moment Sunday, something that makes it stand out again and show this is still a special place.

We all need that at some point, don't we? Something that lets us say, "See, I've still got it."

Indianapolis Motor Speedway still has it, but the Brickyard 400 needs a little help. So, what would it take?

It takes just one unusual occurrence, such as a side-by-side, sheet-metal-banging battle as two cars come off Turn 4 and head down the long frontstretch to the checkered flag.

If that duo happened to be teammates Jimmie Johnson and Gordon, men each trying to win at Indy for the fifth time, so much the better.

Not likely, of course, but you never know.

"Winning five here would be unimaginable," Gordon said. "There was a time, back in 1994, when I ranked this place No. 1. Looking at all the factors, I know Daytona is the top now, but this still is a special place."

This race never has had the best on-track action for stock cars. For a long time, it didn't matter. NASCAR was just happy to be here, and most fans were happy to see it.

The new Gen-6 car could make the racing here a little better, as it has at some other tracks this season. We'll see.

The racing doesn't need to be better if the right person wins. Dale Earnhardt Jr. going to Victory Lane would do it, of course.

A Junior win would make the Earnhardts the first father-son winners in the Brickyard 400 and only the second in Indy history, joining Al Unser Sr. and Jr.

"Anybody who wins here gets to put their name among a list of legends," Dale Jr. said Friday. "It's a pretty big deal. There is a good amount of envy for the guys that have won."

A rare Dale Jr. victory is a big deal anywhere, but it could transform the trajectory of this event.

And we can't leave out Danica Patrick. She loves this place, a track where she made her name and enjoyed enormous success in the Indy 500. Patrick is the first woman to the lead the Indy 500. She had six top-10s in the event, including third place in 2009, the best finish ever for a woman in the historic race.

"I don't care what I drive around Indy, I love being here," Patrick said. "I just like everything about it. I like the facility. Obviously, I've had great experiences, but to me, the special thing about Indy is the track.

"I've had great memories, and I love the tradition. The older I get, the more I realize how much history and tradition plays a role in what's important and what matters and what means the most to you."

The chances of her winning Sunday are about the same as those of Jacksonville winning the 2014 Super Bowl, but Patrick winning would send the entire sports world into a frenzy and make this Brickyard 400 one of the biggest stories in racing history.

OK, let's get back to more realistic possibilities, such as a Juan Pablo Montoya victory. Montoya would become the first driver to have won the Indy 500 and the Brickyard 400. A pit road speeding penalty probably cost him a victory in this event four years ago.

"It would be very special to win it," Montoya said. "It would be amazing. We have high expectations. I won the Indy 500, and even when I was running Formula One, I came close to winning here a couple of times."

Mark Martin has come close here, as well, finishing second twice. What a story it would be if one of NASCAR's most beloved competitors, the perennial runner-up who finished second in the championship four times, managed to win Sunday at this racing shrine in what might be his final Sprint Cup season.

Indy is a place of unending memories. The Brickyard 400 needs one of those special memories Sunday, something that makes us all smile.

This race had them in the past for those of you who care to look back. It was only a moment ago.