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

The brick factory is no longer the brick factory.

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 great. The trophy that AJ Allmendinger held aloft after his shock victory a year ago looked just like those won by the likes of Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Jimmie Johnson and their other legends. And like every Indianapolis winner — stock car or not — since Dale Jarrett in 1996, “The Dinger” got down on his knees and kissed the brick yard.

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

“When you retire as a driver, what are they doing to put you up against the greatest to ever drive NASCAR?” Denny Hamlin asked rhetorically. “They want to know how you did at the ‘Crown Jewels’ events. For me it’s always been the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600, Southern 500 and Brickyard 400. I still want to win Indianapolis because I never did When I do, I’ll be so excited. I’ll have won the Brickyard, but I won’t have won the Brickyard 400. Nobody’s going to do it from now on, I suppose.”

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On Sunday, the NASCAR Cup Series will receive the green flag in the racing capital of the world for the 29th time. That’s a startling number for those old enough to remember when the old-school Indianapolis 500 crowd said that “cabs” on their route were like spitting on the floor of a cathedral. But for the second summer in a row, stock cars won’t be racing on the 2.5-mile-high holy ground of horsepower, the 113-year-old rectangular racetrack that modern motorsport entered. Instead, they will roll down only part of a short chute and a significant portion of the front stretch, but will enter and exit these straights after weaving left and right through the larger section of the speedway’s 2,439-mile street course.

“I think that was the weirdest part of the last year, just rebooting the way your brain has been approaching it all weekend. Even the way you drive your road car through the infield is different,” admitted Kevin Harvick, a three-time Brickyard 400 winner and winner of the last two editions of the Oval in 2019 and 2020. He grew with it desire to follow in the tire tracks of another racer who grew up in Bakersfield, California, four-time Indy 500 champion Rick Mears. “I’m not going to lie and tell you I like it. Driving through that tunnel, right past the museum and looking into Turn 2 and the back straight, I get chills just thinking about it. Last year I was like, ‘Well damn, 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 judge from a sample size of one year. The street circuit weekend of the first cup series last year was very entertaining. And this year’s schedule is packed with a rare IndyCar/NASCAR doubleheader. That, too, is a concept that for so long seemed such an impossibility. Behold: IMS owner Tony Hulman has Bill France Sr. escorted off premises when the NASCAR founder was spotted sniffing around Gasoline Alley in May 1954.

But also to be back in Indy and driving your car clockwise out of the oval of Turn 1 and then hanging sharp right into the infield before hitting Turn 4, it’s just…yes…different.

“I don’t think anyone is going to try to get you into the idea that Indy road racing is the same as racing on the oval,” said Kurt Busch, one of only eight drivers to have competed in 20 or more Brickyard 400s went. His best finish was his first start, a fifth-place finish as a rookie in 2001. In 2014, he made his only start at the Indy 500, a sixth-place finish that earned him Rookie of the Year honors. He will not compete in this weekend’s race as he is still recovering from a training 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 have also been saddened to see what has become of oval racing over the years.”

Oh yes, that: The whole reason for the decision to change the layout.

Some of the most notable images from NASCAR’s heyday were produced by the first iteration of Stock Cars at the Brickyard. Gordon’s victory at the inaugural event in 1994 came before a crowd of more than 250,000 as they watched the boy, who graduated from high school in nearby Carmel, Indiana, claim the second of his 93 career Cup Series wins. In the years that followed, those who snagged the silver brick trophy were a conga lineage of NASCAR Hall of Famers, from Earnhardt and Jarrett to Bill Elliott and Tony Stewart. Each August, The Brickyard became the ultimate reminder that NASCAR, as the dominant American motorsport force, had taken up the torch of open-wheel racing.

But as the novelty wore off and the bulkier production cars constantly struggled to produce side-by-side races on the tight geometry of IMS, attendance waned. Then came one of the most awkward days in NASCAR history when tomorrow’s shoebox car combined with a poorly planned tire strategy by Goodyear to create a race that wasn’t a race at all. The field completed a handful of laps and then pitted to replace their shredded tires—over and over and over again. When Johnson held Carl Edwards back, thousands of fans had left in disgust. Most never came back.

When the race was moved to the 4th of July weekend in 2020, the idea was to create an All-American holiday for race fans. But the pandemic had other plans. When the 2021 schedule was announced, the oval was out. Originally conceived for Formula 1 and then (after another tire debacle, this time in F1) added to the IndyCar calendar, the street circuit was hot. Last year, an estimated 60,000 fans attended the new NASCAR event, almost twice as many as many as in the previous year The Brickyard 400 low point, 30,000 viewers in 2017 and 3 million television viewers, doubles the viewership of 2018.

As with all things NASCAR, it’s a mistake to judge success now in comparison to the Great Gatsby days of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. No one believes the era of 250,000 Brickyard fans is returning, but judging by the 2022 yardstick — which is nowhere near 1999, but certainly a much warmer magnitude than 2017 — officials have it easy to argue that the numbers of the last year felt like a handlebar in the right direction.

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

Special, but not a crown jewel. No longer a cornerstone of NASCAR’s annual schedule, but as Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Douglas Boles — a man with an energy level that makes the Energizer Bunny look like a sloth — has tirelessly reminded race fans via his social media, The Brickyard 200 Sunday marks the capstone of a week-long calendar of races held throughout Indianapolis and at the Speedway, Indiana.

“It’s not the same and it never will be the same,” Harvick added. “But I also don’t think anyone isn’t going to race harder to win it.” Indianapolis isn’t a NASCAR crown jewel anymore, but the Brickyard is still special to stock car racing

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