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Sprint Cup to Indy

After a week off for the Sprint Cup series, this Sunday begins 17 consecutive weekends of racing that will culminate with the crowning of the 2008 champion at Miami Homestead in November. That long run of racing will start Sunday with the 15th running of a NASCAR race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It’s really hard to believe that stock cars have been running at the famed track for that long. I can remember vividly the excitement generated by the first ever race there in 1994 and that first race didn’t disappoint. For decades, that track had been strictly reserved for the Indianapolis 500 and the open-wheel series. To some, a car with fenders racing at Indy was pure blasphemy. My, how times have changed.

I had the opportunity to spend a few days in Indianapolis several years ago attending an industry seminar. I asked many of the locals that I ran into about the differences in the Indy 500 and the NASCAR race at Indy. To a person, they responded that the NASCAR race had long surpassed the Indy 500 in local popularity and excitement. Now, don’t misunderstand, the Indy 500 remains a big deal, but the Brickyard at Indy is a huge deal.

Do you remember who won the first pole position for that first race in 1994? It was Rick Mast. Remember him in the NO. 1 Skoal car? And the first winner? Jeff Gordon at the age of 22 won that race, which was run on a Saturday during the day, in only his second full season in cup racing. Only 6 current active drivers ran in that 1994 race and the race included such racers as AJ Foyt, Morgan Shepard, Lake Speed, and Geoff Bodine. Heck, Junior Johnson had the McDonald’s car with Jimmy Spencer driving.

I believe that this race has jumped to the second most sought after win on the cup schedule, behind the Daytona 500 obviously. At the least, it is considered one of the Big Three, along with the Coke 600 at Charlotte and the Daytona 500.

Only three drivers have managed to win multiple times at the Brickyard. Jeff Gordon leads all drivers with four wins and Dale Jarrett along with Tony Stewart two each. Past winners of this race read like a Who’s Who. Dale Earnhardt, Bill Elliott, Ricky Rudd, Bobby Labonte, and Jimmie Johnson have all won this race in the past. It’s a big race and a lot of fun.

Speaking of AJ Foyt and Indy, Tony Stewart officially unveiled his 2009 ride on Friday. Smoke will drive the NO. 14 red and black Chevrolet with Office Depot and Old Spice as sponsors. Why the NO. 14? Stewart’s hero happens to be AJ Foyt. And with the timing of the announcement, coming at Indy, was no mistake. Of course, Stewart is from Indiana and combined with the significance of the car number, the announcement location was a no-brainer.

Lots of people know Foyt from his unmatched Indy racing career, but did you know that he also has won the Daytona 500 and the 24 Hours of LeMans? That ornery Texan could drive anything with wheels. Smoke, with the attention of the announcement wins his third race at Indy with a trip to Victory Lane Sunday.

Jeff Findley is a BNI News contributing columnist.