The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the only racing facility in the U.S. designated a National Historic Site, and has already added to its history this year with the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, arguably the most renowned auto race in the world.
Today, while it was far less expected, the Speedway adds more history to its hallowed paddock as NASCAR runs one of its most story-filled races in recent memory at the track.
This date has been circled for months on many calendars in the NASCAR garage, as it has been known since Tony Stewart announced his impending retirement last offseason that this would be his final appearance in the Brickyard 400, one of NASCAR’s biggest events which happens to be at the “home track” of the Rushville, Ind. native and sure-fire future NASCAR Hall of Famer.
And that alone is reason to watch on Sunday. While Kyle Busch is the assumed favorite, and is on the pole as he tries to become just the second back-to-back winner in the Brickyard 400’s 23-year history, Stewart has a realistic chance to add to his storied history at the World’s Most Famous Speedway.
Smoke, as some fans call him, starts third as he tries to become just the third driver to win three (or more) times in the event, although he has yet to win the race since becoming an owner-driver (although another Stewart-owned car, Ryan Newman, won in 2013).
Stewart’s Indianapolis ties extend beyond his NASCAR career. Before coming to NASCAR Stewart raced in the IndyCar Series, winning the series championship in 1997, and Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year in 1996. Stewart was the first driver to do “the double,” running both the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on the Sunday before Memorial Day, in 1999.
And yet, Stewart’s final start in the Brickyard 400 has been overshadowed, as four-time Sprint Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon comes out of retirement to fill the seat of the injured Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Gordon’s final season was the main storyline of the 2015 NASCAR campaign, and his win at Martinsville, the 93rd of his career, allowed him to reach the “Championship Four” and run for the series title in the season finale at Homestead, which was believed to be his final start.
But with Dale Earnhardt Jr. out of the car with concussion-like symptoms, who better for Hendrick Motorsports to turn to than Gordon? The term “super-sub” has been used with several drivers who have often been substitutes in the event of injury (Regan Smith, Brian Vickers, etc.), but this is the ultimate “super-sub,” as Hendrick can put a driver of Gordon’s experience, talent, and knowledge in the car.
Gordon is expected to be in Earnhardt’s seat through at least next week’s race at Pocono. Expectations for any race team often drop with a substitute driver, but there is no reason why they should here, especially considering Gordon’s record at this particular track.
Gordon, who is a Pittsboro, Ind. native and grew up dreaming of running at The Speedway, has won the Brickyard 400 five times. To put that in perspective, no driver has won the Indianapolis 500 more than four times.
Gordon won the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994, and added wins in 1998, 2001, 2004, and as recently as 2014. Gordon is the only driver who has been in the field for every Brickyard 400, a streak that continues today with the 23rd edition.
Gordon is driving a car not numbered 24 for the first time in his career, but joins an illustrious list of drivers to pilot #88 in the Sprint Cup Series (Buck Baker, Darrell Waltrip, Bobby Allison, Dale Jarrett, Dale Earnhardt Jr.).
Gordon and Stewart are both synonymous with Indianapolis as much as any other driver and any other track on the NASCAR circuit, and today their paths cross once again as their cars cross the venerable Yard of Bricks 160 times on this hot Indiana Sunday.
As Gordon briefly returns, and Stewart bid farewell to his favorite venue, take time today to take it all in and savor this historic event, whether you are watching from the hallowed grounds of Indianapolis or your living room.
And wouldn’t it be even more special, unbelievable, and breathtaking if cars numbered 88 and 14 crossed that Yard of Bricks for the 160th time running side-by-side? It would only be fitting if these two legends could produce a legendary battle to the checkered flag.
23rd Brickyard 400
Row 1: Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards
Row 2: Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin
Row 3: Brad Keselowski, Ryan Newman
Row 4: Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr.
Row 5: Jamie McMurray, Kyle Larson
Row 6: Kurt Busch, Austin Dillon
Row 7: Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano
Row 8: Chase Elliott, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Row 9: Ryan Blaney, Matt Kenseth
Row 10: Greg Biffle, Trevor Bayne
Row 11: Jeff Gordon, Chris Buescher
Row 12: Paul Menard, Danica Patrick
Row 13: A.J. Allmendinger, Kasey Kahne
Row 14: Michael McDowell, David Ragan
Row 15: Aric Almirola, Matt DiBenedetto
Row 16: Clint Bowyer, Brian Scott
Row 17: Landon Cassill, Casey Mears
Row 18: Cole Whitt, Ryan Ellis
Row 19: Regan Smith, Michael Annett
Row 20: Reed Sorenson, Patrick Carpentier
Failed to qualify: Josh Wise