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NASCAR: Only the Strong Emerge at Brickyard 400

25 July 1998

INDIANAPOLIS, - Take a quick look at the winners of the first four Brickyard 400 races, and one trend becomes apparent.

Dale Earnhardt

Only elite drivers in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series have won the annual classic at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway - Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Dale Jarrett and Ricky Rudd. Those drivers have combined to win nine Winston Cup championships and 140 NASCAR Winston Cup races.

Quite simply, only the strong emerge over the 160 laps at the Speedway. This race rewards experience, skill and savvy - the common bond among all top drivers. The Brickyard 400 starts at noon (CDT) Aug. 1, as all of the top stars of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series will make their fifth annual stop to the fabled 2.5-mile oval at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

There are two reasons why the Brickyard is one of the toughest races to win on the NASCAR Winston Cup circuit.

First, this race has become one of the crown jewels of NASCAR since the inaugural in 1994. Every driver wants to add a Brickyard 400 victory to his resume, and the pressure is enormous. The race also boasts one of the largest purses in motorsports, raising the pressure and the stakes.

Second, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is one of the most unique tracks in NASCAR racing. Its long straightaways and relatively flat, 9-degree turns pose quite a challenge to teams accustomed to racing on ovals with high banks. Teams have spent many hours testing this summer at the Speedway, tweaking chassis and suspension setups, and tire air pressures in an effort to find the sweet spot.

There are a handful of NASCAR superstars who could be considered due to win the Brickyard 400 for the first time.

Rusty Wallace finished second to Earnhardt in 1995 and fourth in 1994, and his Miller Lite Ford was one of the fastest cars during testing in July at the Brickyard. Mark Martin, locked in a tight battle with Gordon for the points lead, finished fourth in 1996 and fifth in 1995 in the Valvoline Ford.

Ernie Irvan finished second in 1996 and won the pole last year. His Skittles Pontiac also was one of the fastest cars during prerace testing. Bill Elliott finished third in 1994 and fourth in 1995.

The strong group of emerging NASCAR superstars also are contenders for victory at Indy. Leading that list is Jeremy Mayfield, this year's breakthrough driver on the circuit. Mayfield was fourth in the point standings after 17 races in the Mobil 1 Ford, and he earned his first career victory in June at Pocono, Pa. Last year at Indy, Mayfield showed glimpses of the talent that has emerged this year by finishing fifth in the Brickyard 400..

Bobby Labonte also is one of the young guns who could earn his first Brickyard 400 victory. He just missed winning last year, trailing Rudd across the line in second place by just .183 of a second in the Interstate Batteries Pontiac.

While this event has been a playground for the elite teams and drivers in NASCAR Winston Cup, there still have been surprises.

Rick Mast stunned the huge field by winning the pole at the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994. That same race, Brett Bodine finished a surprising second in one of the strongest finishes of his career.

Even Rudd's victory last year qualified as a bit of a surprise despite his impressive credentials. He gambled on fuel mileage late in the race, staying on track when leader Jarrett pitted for gas, and led the last 13 laps for the victory.

Rudd's victory in the Tide Ford was a lesson in persistence and strategy, as Rudd had dropped to 24th place in the 43-car field on Lap 50.

Editors Note: The images displayed in this article (plus many more) can be viewed in The Racing Image Galleries and the Visions of Speed Art Gallery.