Indy isn’t a NASCAR crown jewel anymore, but the Brickyard is still special to stock car racers

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The Brickyard is the Brickyard no longer.

Yes, the race still has the word in the title — the Verizon 200 at the Brickyard. Indy is still Indy and Indy will always be amazing. The trophy that AJ Allmendinger hoisted after his shocking win one year ago looked the same as the one earned by the likes of Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Jimmie Johnson and their fellow legends. And like every Indianapolis winner — stock car or otherwise — since Dale Jarrett in 1996, “The Dinger” fell to his knees and kissed the yard of bricks.

It is summer. It is Indianapolis. It is stock cars at Indianapolis in the summer. But let’s be honest: It’s just … different.

“When you retire as a driver, what do they do to measure you against the greatest who’ve ever raced in NASCAR?” Denny Hamlin asked rhetorically. “They want to know how you did in the ‘crown jewel’ events. For me, that was always Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600, Southern 500 and the Brickyard 400. I still want to win at Indianapolis because I never have. When I do, I will be so excited. I will have won at the Brickyard, but I will not have won the Brickyard 400. No one will, I suppose, from now on.”

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On Sunday, the NASCAR Cup Series will take the green flag at the Racing Capital of the World for the 29th time. That is a mind-bending number for those aged enough to remember when the old-school Indianapolis 500 crowd said that “taxicabs” on their track was like spitting on the floor of a cathedral. But for the second straight summer, stock cars will not be racing on the most hallowed 2.5 miles of horsepower’s high holy ground, the 113-year-old rectangular circuit that berthed modern motorsports. Instead, they will only wheel their way down a portion of a short chute and a sizable chunk of the frontstretch but will enter and exit those straights after weaving left and right through the larger section of the Speedway’s 2.439-mile road course.

“I think that was the strangest part of last year, just rebooting the way your brain approached the whole weekend. Even the way you drive around the infield in your street car is different,” confessed Kevin Harvick, a three-time Brickyard 400 winner and victor in the last two oval editions in 2019 and 2020. He grew up wanting to follow in the tire tracks of another Bakersfield, California-raised racer, four-time Indy 500 champion Rick Mears. “I’m not going to lie and tell you that I like it. To me, driving through that tunnel, looking right past the museum and into Turn 2 and the backstretch, I’d get chills just thinking about it. Last year I thought, ‘Well, hell, we’re not even going to race over there anymore.'”

To be clear, the new race isn’t bad, at least as far as one can tell from a one-year sample size. Last year’s inaugural Cup Series road course weekend was plenty entertaining. And this year’s schedule is packed with a rare IndyCar/NASCAR doubleheader. Again, that’s a concept that for so long seemed like such an impossibility. See: IMS owner Tony Hulman having Bill France Sr. escorted off the grounds when the NASCAR founder was spotted snooping around Gasoline Alley in May 1954.

But also, again, being at Indy and steering one’s race car clockwise out of oval Turn 1 and then hanging a hard right into the infield before reaching Turn 4, it’s just … yeah … different.

“I don’t think that anyone is going to try and sell you on the idea that the Indy road race is the same as racing on the oval,” explained Kurt Busch, one of only eight drivers to start 20 or more Brickyard 400s. His best finish was in his first start, a fifth-place run as a rookie in 2001. In 2014 he made his lone Indy 500 start, a sixth-place finish that earned him Rookie of the Year honors. He won’t be in this weekend’s race, still recovering after a practice crash at Pocono.

“My sadness is that I never won that race and now I think I’ll never get the chance,” he said. “But those of us who have been around a long time were also sad when we saw what happened to the oval race over the years.”

Oh, yeah, that: The whole reason for the decision to make the layout switch.

Some of the most remarkable images of NASCAR’s greatest glory days were produced by the first iteration of stock cars at the Brickyard. Gordon’s win in the inaugural 1994 event took place in front of more than 250,000 spectators, as they watched the kid who graduated high school in nearby Carmel, Indiana, earn the second of his 93 career Cup Series victories. In the years that followed, those who grasped the silver brick trophy were a conga line of NASCAR Hall of Famers, from Earnhardt and Jarrett to Bill Elliott and Tony Stewart. The Brickyard became the ultimate every-August reminder that NASCAR had seized the torch from open-wheel racing as the dominant American motorsports force.

But as the newness wore off and the bulkier stock cars continually struggled to produce any side-by-side racing on the narrow geometry of IMS, attendance waned. Then came one of the most uncomfortable days in NASCAR history, when the shoebox-like Car of Tomorrow joined forces with a poorly planned tire strategy from Goodyear to create a race that wasn’t a race at all. The field would run a handful of laps and then pit to replace their shredded tires — over and over and over again. By the time Johnson held off Carl Edwards, thousands of fans had left in disgust. Most never came back.

When the race was moved to the July Fourth weekend in 2020, the idea was to create an All-American vacation for race fans. But the pandemic had other plans. When the 2021 schedule was announced, the oval was out. The road course, originally designed for Formula One and then added to the IndyCar calendar (after another tire debacle, this time in F1), was in. Last year, an estimated 60,000 fans attended the new NASCAR event, nearly twice the attendance of the Brickyard 400’s lowest point, a crowd of 30,000 in 2017, and 3 million watched on television, double the audience of 2018.

As with all things NASCAR, judging success now versus the Great Gatsby-like days of the late 1990s and early 2000s is a mistake. No one believes that the era of 250,000 Brickyard fans is coming back, but when measured using the yardstick of 2022 — which isn’t 1999 by any stretch, but certainly a much heartier scale than 2017 — it is easy for those in charge to argue that last year’s numbers feel like a steer in the right direction.

“I don’t know that anyone really wanted to do what we did, but we also knew that something had to be done,” explained Allmendinger after his win one year ago. The 40-year old racer made 10 starts in the original Brickyard 400 and finished seventh in his only Indy 500 start, coming in 2013. He will be back to defend his win with Kaulig Racing this weekend. “I also think that it’s easy to say, ‘Well, it’s not really Indy’ before the race, but I think if you saw how I just celebrated out there, this is still a special place and this is special race.”

Special, but not a crown jewel. No longer a cornerstone event of the season-long NASCAR schedule, but, as Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Douglas Boles — a man with energy levels that make the Energizer Bunny look like a sloth — has tirelessly reminded race fans via his social media, Sunday’s Brickyard 200 is the capstone for a weeklong calendar of racing held throughout Indianapolis and Speedway, Indiana.

“It is not the same and it will never be the same,” Harvick added. “But I also don’t think anyone is going to not race any harder to win it.”

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