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They're Back Home in Indiana Again

Tenth running of Brickyard 400 is an opportunity for four Hoosiers to shine in their home state.

August 03, 2003|Shav Glick | Times Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS — It isn't the Indianapolis 500, but it is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, so for drivers who grew up in Indiana dreaming of taking the checkered flag while crossing the historic yard of bricks at the finish line, winning the Brickyard 400 is about as good as it can get.

Jeff Gordon, whose family moved to Pittsboro, Ind., after he spent his early childhood in Vallejo, Calif., won the first Brickyard 400 and after winning the Daytona 500 twice and the Winston Cup championship four times, still says that "I'll never be able to accomplish anything greater than winning that inaugural Brickyard 400."

The last Indiana driver to win the 500 was Wilbur Shaw, of Shelby, in 1940.

The 10th running of stock car racing's Indiana celebration is today and three other Indianans -- Tony Stewart of Rushville, Ryan Newman of South Bend and John Andretti of Indianapolis -- will join Gordon in hopes of a hometown (or home-state) victory.

All of them grew up in the shadows of motor racing's largest and most famous racing facility, and all expected to be driving in the 500 only to turn to NASCAR and the Winston Cup when its fortunes began to turn to gold and foreign drivers began to fill the fields of CART, and more recently, the Indy Racing League.

"Ever since I came to Indianapolis as a kid to race quarter-midgets in the early 1980s, it was a dream of mine to come here and race," Gordon said. "I thought it would be in an open wheel car, not a stock car.

"I remember when I moved down South and pretty much threw away the dream of racing here until NASCAR said they were ready to come here. All of a sudden I had a whole new enthusiastic impression about Indianapolis -- just to come here and race.

"I always wanted to get out on this track and drive a race car. I had no idea I could come here and win, in a stock car to boot."

Newman, who like Gordon raced quarter-midgets locally before he was a teenager, briefly had the Brickyard pole Saturday after a record run of 184.237 mph only to have Californian Kevin Harvick better it 20 minutes later.

With weather conditions cooler than expected, Harvick posted a lap of 184.343 mph in his Chevrolet Monte Carlo. Eleven qualifiers had faster speeds than Stewart's year-old Brickyard record of 182.960.

Newman, who drives a Dodge for Roger Penske, said the best thing about winning at Indy would be that "it would be another win." He has four of them this year, including last week in the Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono, but inconsistency has left him in ninth place in Winston Cup points.

"It would be awesome, really, but you never know until you do it," said the Purdue graduate. "To come back here and see the changes made to the speedway, and for it to still be the speedway is really cool.

"Just being in Indiana, you really get the 'Back Home Again in Indiana' feeling."

It will be the eighth time Newman has started on the front row in 21 races this season.

Andretti, rescued from the unemployment ranks by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the DEI team to drive this one race, was fastest in Friday's final practice but only 11th when it counted Saturday. A veteran of seven Indy 500s, the nephew of 1969 500 winner Mario Andretti, John was unceremoniously dumped by Kyle and Richard Petty last June. His best 500 finish was fifth in 1991.

Andretti had the last laugh after qualifying. Christian Fittipaldi, his replacement in the 43 Petty Dodge, failed to qualify, and team owner Kyle Petty made it only with a provisional.

The biggest surprise was the failure of veteran Ken Schrader to qualify. It will be the first time since the 1984 race at Riverside that the 48-year-old Missourian will miss a Winston Cup race. His streak of 579 consecutive starts is third among active drivers behind Ricky Rudd's 700 and Rusty Wallace's 609.

Stewart, who was fastest qualifier a year ago, will start from the eighth row in Joe Gibbs' Chevrolet. The Winston Cup champion ran 182.541, a shade below his 2002 record, and blamed himself for the relatively slow time.

"It wasn't because of the car, it was because the driver made a mistake," he said. "I just overdrove the entry to Turn 1 pretty bad."

Surprisingly, Gordon was the slowest of the Indiana Four. Three times in the last 10 years he has won the pole, but his 182.223 left him on the 10th row today.

"We used to kick butt here in qualifying, and I'm not doing anything different," Gordon said. "The cars are still great race cars, but we're off somewhere and the other guys have found something that works, but for the race we'll be fine."

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Brickyard 400

THE FACTS

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