NASCAR: Brickyard 400 loses some luster with fans, not with drivers

nascar indy brickyard jamie mcmurray. ACTION SPORTS PHOTOGRAPHY
Jamie McMurray won NASCAR's Brickyard 400 race in 2010.

By AL PEARCE on 7/28/2011

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It was not long ago that the Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway stood unchallenged as NASCAR's second biggest race behind only the Daytona 500. The inaugural event in 1994 drew upward of 275,000 fans, leading Speedway officials to quip that they could have sold a million tickets if they'd had enough seats.

The annual midsummer race remained important--although nothing like in its early years--until three or four years ago. But the embarrassing Goodyear tire debacle of 2008 deeply hurt its prestige, and many will argue that the 400 still hasn't recovered.

With 2008 still painfully fresh, attendance and media interest dipped in 2009. Attendance went down again last year, and if race-week rumblings can be believed, it will be down again for Sunday afternoon's 18th-annual race. Some series watchers say officials will be thrilled if a strong walk-up sale on Sunday morning gets attendance into the 100,000 range.

Why the alarming decline in just a few years? Why has the Brickyard 400 become--if not just another stock-car race--something approaching that? Almost everyone who follows NASCAR has opinions, from the 2008 tire fiasco to the economy (travel/lodging/tickets) to the proximity of Kentucky (it hosted Sprint Cup a month ago) and Michigan (which hosts in three weeks) to poor sightlines (but haven't they always been poor?) to boring racing to uninspiring promotion efforts.

On the latter front, officials have urged drivers to step up, check their egos at the gate and help promote this weekend's race as never before.

But even a bad crowd at Indy beats a good crowd at most NASCAR venues. And even a boring Brickyard 400 win beats a thrilling win anywhere except Daytona Beach in February. Such is the prestige still attached to the world's most famous speedway, if not to its second biggest race.

"For us, it's where you bring your latest and greatest car," says Kevin Harvick, a Brickyard 400 and Daytona 500 winner. "It's all about trying to win and putting it on the line. It's a prestigious race, and nobody goes there with any intention other than winning."

Says teammate Jeff Burton, "Being at the Brickyard with NASCAR is an unbelievable experience. The things that are in front of me [in my career] that really mean a lot are winning a championship, winning a Daytona 500 . . . and certainly the Brickyard 400 is on that list as well."

Six active drivers have won Brickyard 400s: Jeff Gordon (four), Jimmie Johnson (three), Tony Stewart (two) and Harvick, Bobby Labonte and defending champion Jamie McMurray (one each). Other winners include retired drivers Dale Jarrett (two), Ricky Rudd and Bill Elliott, and the late Dale Earnhardt (one each).

On-track activities open on Friday with practice sessions from 1 to 2:15 p.m. and from 3:15 to 4:30 p.m. Teams will practice again on Saturday morning from 10 to 11:30 and qualify that afternoon at 2:10. Sunday afternoon's 160-lap, 400-mile race (on ESPN) is scheduled for a 1 p.m. start.

Nationwide, Truck series run nearby

The Brickyard 400 is part of NASCAR's annual three-series, three-race weekend in the Indianapolis area. The Nationwide Series and the Camping World Truck Series have Friday and Saturday night races at Lucas Oil Raceway in nearby Clermont, Ind. Unlike recent years, only a few Cup drivers have entered either of the support races.

Nationwide championship contender Elliott Sadler is the only "outsider" entered in Friday night's AAA Insurance Truck Series 200. Team owner Kyle Busch is skipping it but Josh Richards will drive the No. 18 Toyota as Busch chases his second consecutive owners' championship. Teams will practice at 10 and 11:45 on Friday morning, qualify at 4:40 p.m., and then run their 200-lap, 137-lap race at 7:30 p.m.

X Games superstar and action-sports icon Travis Pastrana is scheduled for his Nationwide debut in Saturday night's Kroger 200. He's undaunted despite less-than-spectacular results in his K&N East Pro Series races, most recently a 22nd two weeks ago at Loudon, N.H. He's also finished sixth, 25th, 33rd and 22nd.

"For me, it's always about a new challenge and finding the most competition," Pastrana said after a recent Late Model test. "I've been talking with [driver coach] Matt Crafton, really working on figuring out how to adjust the car. You might be good at the beginning or end of practice, or good in qualifying or good in the race, but it's so difficult. You have to continue to work with the team to make your car better. It's been a lot of fun and humbling, for sure."

Pastrana will face a fairly manageable field--Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski are the only Cup stars expected--in the 200-lap, 137-mile race. Teams will practice Saturday morning at 10 and 11:45, qualify at 4:45 p.m., and then race at 7:15 p.m.

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