Saturday, August 2, 2003

Indy not losing its allure for NASCAR

Historic track still thrilling for drivers

The Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS - Of all the trophies Bobby Labonte has won, he keeps just two at home: for the 2000 Winston Cup championship and for that year's Brickyard 400.

"I've got most of the trophies and stuff boxed away, but those two are special. This is a special race," Labonte said Friday before climbing into his Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolet for the opening practice ahead of the 10th Brickyard 400.

Qualifying: 11 a.m. today (TNT).
Race: 2:30 p.m. Sunday (Ch. 5, 22).
Track: Indianapolis Motor Speedway (rectangular oval, 2.5 miles, 9 degrees banking in turns).
Race distance: 400 miles (160 laps).
"I rode around here with Bill Elliott the first time we were here," Labonte added. "He's been around this sport longer than I have, and he was amazed, and so was I."

Nobody disputes that the Daytona 500, which has been around 45 years, is the biggest stock-car race, but it has taken the event at Indianapolis Motor Speedway much less time to reach No. 2.

Elliott, the defending Brickyard champion, understands the Indy mystique.

"When you get out on the racetrack and think about all the history that this track has seen over the years, that's kind of a special feeling to me," Elliott said.

The first Indianapolis 500 was in 1911, and its winners have become household names: Foyt, Unser, Mears, Andretti.

There was little reason to believe stock cars would find a home at the sprawling speedway until NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr. and speedway president Tony George stunned racing purists and rewrote Indianapolis tradition in 1994.

Even before former Indiana resident Jeff Gordon won the inaugural race that year - an emotional day for him and the sellout crowd of more than 300,000 - there was a sense in the Winston Cup garage that this race was going to be very important.

"Man, we knew it was going to be big," 1997 Brickyard winner Ricky Rudd said. "Five or six teams came here for a Goodyear tire test (in August 1993) and I think there were about 30,000 people in the stands. It was awesome."

Said two-time Brickyard winner Dale Jarrett: "We were all a little bit starstruck at the opportunity to race here, and we still are."

Despite all the praise for the track and the race, the competition has lacked drama. The narrow, slightly-banked, flat-ended 2 1/2-mile oval does not lend itself to good racing for the 3,400-pound stock cars. The 1,525-pound Indy cars often run side-by-side at 220 mph and pass with relative ease, while most of the Brickyard 400 races have been characterized by fields running mostly single-file at about 170 mph - although the stock cars do get up over 200 before braking hard for the corners.

That puts a premium for the NASCAR drivers on track position and fuel mileage.

"When I won it, we did it on mileage," said Rudd, who was an owner-driver in 1997 and now races for the Wood Brothers. "There were 10 other cars that could have done what we did and just taken tires on the last stop, but they didn't do it and we did. It's probably going to take some kind of strategy like that to win it on Sunday."

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