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Feature Writing
Second Place
Jerry Bonkowski, The Sports Xchange

Brickyard 400 Has Plenty of Traction 17 Years Later

            INDIANAPOLIS – One of the most monotonous, boring parts of being a Sprint Cup driver is taking part in so-called "tire tests."
            If you ever want to see a driver simply going through the motions, a tire test is the best place to do it.
            But one so-called tire test will forever stand out in NASCAR lore.
            Back in 1992, while all their counterparts left Michigan International Speedway on a Sunday evening after a race there and headed back home towards North Carolina, nine other Cup teams detoured to Indianapolis – or more specifically, the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
            For the first time in NASCAR history, Cup cars would spend the next two days, June 22 and 23, racing around IMS, all under the pretense of a "tire test."
            In reality, it was anything but.
            That two-day session, which featured Bill Elliott, Ernie Irvan, Darrell Waltrip, Mark Martin, the late Davey Allison, the late Dale Earnhardt, Ricky Rudd, Rusty Wallace and Kyle Petty, was actually a stealth plan by NASCAR president Bill France Jr. and Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George to determine whether Cup cars could actually race at the legendary Brickyard.
            Could they handle IMS's infamous four corners? Could they meander through the fabled "short chute" between turns 1 and 2? Could they stop quickly enough to enter pit road at a safe speed?
            The answers after those two days of testing were unanimous: yes, yes and yes.
            And while some additional tweaks had to be made to accommodate an actual Cup race at IMS, including changing pit road and its entry, two years later, what many thought they'd never see in their lifetime – an actual Cup race at Indianapolis – came to fruition with the inaugural running of the Brickyard 400 on Aug. 6, 1994.
            With the exception of the Daytona 500, no other race in NASCAR history has grown as quickly and became as popular in such a short period of time as the Brickyard 400.
            In just 17 short years, the 400 has established itself as arguably the second-most popular race on the Cup schedule behind the Daytona 500.
            Other tracks that have come online during the same relative time period – New Hampshire (1993), Chicagoland and Kansas (both 2001) – can only dream about the kind of success that has taken place at the Brickyard since the first green flag dropped there on a NASCAR race in 1994.
            As we prepare for Sunday's 18th annual renewal of the 400, perhaps more than any race other than Daytona, the 400 is as wide open of a race as you'll find – and it doesn't have Daytona's restrictor plates to hold down horsepower and bonsai driver moves.
            Sure, we've seen some of the sport's greatest drivers win there, including four times by Jeff Gordon, three times by Jimmie Johnson and twice by Tony Stewart and Dale Jarrett.
            But we've also seen unexpected winners like Ricky Rudd in 1997, Kevin Harvick in 2003 and last year's totally unexpected triumph by Jamie McMurray.
            One other thing about the Brickyard 400 is its unanimous popularity among Cup drivers. No one hates to come there. Rather, returning to Indianapolis is always among the high points of each driver's schedule during the lengthy 36-race season.
            And why shouldn't they look forward to it? It's not only the second-most popular race, it draws around 200,000 fans, has one of the biggest prize purses on the circuit and to leave IMS as a Brickyard 400 winner is one of the crowning accomplishments of any driver's career.
            Even guys like Stewart, who grew up 50 miles away from Indianapolis and attended numerous Indy 500s, still can't get over that NASCAR has become its own type of institution and established its own legacy and lore at IMS.
            "Every time I go through the tunnel and into the infield, I still get goose bumps," Stewart said a few years back – and he still feels that way.
            When Stewart won his first Brickyard 400 in 2005 (he also won again in 2007), it was a side of him that we've never seen before. He had tears of joy, followed by the biggest smile he's ever had on his face. He sought out his father in the turn 2 stands immediately after winning to share one of the most special moments that can be shared between father and son.
            While other drivers try to make as quick of a getaway from a racetrack as they can after a win, Stewart was so happy that day that he stuck around for nearly six hours after the race to accommodate every reporter, fellow driver and fan he could, jubilant in knowing that he finally was able to etch his name alongside some of his childhood heroes like A.J. Foyt and Rick Mears as Indy champions.
            And to think, Stewart's win, as well as every other one that has occurred since the 1994 inaugural Brickyard, all share one thing in common: they all began with what so many drivers take for granted: a simple tire test.