Brickyard 400 is a race for champions

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Darrell Waltrip

Darrell Waltrip — winner of 84 career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races and a three-time champion — serves as lead analyst for NASCAR on FOX. He was selected for induction into the prestigious NASCAR Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2012. Want more from DW? Become a fan on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.

Folks, there is no doubt in my mind how special Indianapolis Motor Speedway is. As a young kid growing up in Owensboro, Ky. — which is on the southside of the Ohio River and then you have Indianapolis not too far away on the north side of the Ohio River — it was always a passion and dream of mine to always go there and drive a race car. I was something like 12 or 15 years old and at the time I always thought I would drive an Indy car. I had driven a sprint car a little bit. All my heroes were open wheel drivers. I would go to all the big dirt track races up in Indiana. But I had a friend that took me to races down south. We went to places like here in Nashville. We went to Atlanta, Charlotte, etc. and I soon found that my passion was for stock cars and not in Indy cars. I liked the way stock cars looked. I liked the way they sounded. A Chevrolet was a Chevrolet and a Ford was a Ford. So it made it more interesting to me as a young man and so stock cars is where I went to make my mark. In the early '90s, Les Richter, who was working for NASCAR, called me. He wanted to know if I wanted to drive at Indy because he knew my love of the place. I had never raced there and only been around the track once with my Dad and a friend years before. I hemmed and hawed around with Les on the phone. I told him I felt it was too late in my career to switch series. I told him as a young man I had thought about it but now I was too old and just needed to stick to what I know. To this day I can still hear Les laughing on the other end of the phone. Then he says, "No you big dummy. I mean are you interested in driving Indy in a stock car. We are going to have a tire test there." So I was part of that first group that got to go over there and we did a tire test for two days. Folks, I have been very fortunate to have been able to do a lot of neat things in my life, but rolling down pit road and out onto the track at Indy for the first time was an absolute thrill of a lifetime for me. For racers, going to Indy is like going to the Holy Land. When you walk inside the joint, the history just surrounds you. You don't get a feel like it from anyplace else. It's just incredible. Words don't do justice to how I felt when they said "Gentlemen Start Your Engines" in 1994 and us stock car boys finally were getting to race at Indianapolis. For me personally, the best memory at Indy came in 2000 during my last year on the Cup circuit. Kmart was my sponsor and I was driving for Travis Carter. We called it Victory Tour 2000 — we did appearances in almost all the towns on the circuit with autograph sessions and promotions as was a way to reflect on my 84 wins and to thank the fans for 29 years of support. But, I would be lying if I didn't tell you that I was just arrogant enough to think I could still win a race that year despite the obstacles the team was facing. So anyway, we test at Indy and we aren't very good. We were only like 20th on the chart. We thought we had a pretty good car but were just down on horsepower. So Carter calls Robert and Doug Yates, who were supplying the motors to the team at the time, and tells them we need help. Now remember that Robert Yates and I go clear back together to the DiGard days. Well lo and behold, they give us one of Dale Jarrett's motors. Not just that, they gave us everything we needed — I mean the good stuff. Man what a difference it made. When I rolled out for that first practice at the Brickyard in 2000 I must have had 100 more horsepower. That baby would fly. We were up there near or at the top of the charts for all the practices. So I go out to qualify and folks, I nailed it. I put the car at the top of the charts. I can still remember my brother Michael running down pit road to the car and I jumped in his arms. Stevie and the girls came running from the motorcoach. The crowd was cheering and we were all crying. I get goosebumps eight years later just writing this. But wouldn't you know, Ricky Rudd was one of the last few cars to qualify and he knocked me off the pole by only a couple 100th's of a second. But that's ok. For my last race ever at the Brickyard, ol' DW is on the outside pole. We had a great race car that day. We ran up front all race long. Unfortunately, during out last pit stop of the day there was a problem in the pits and it cost us so much track position. I had to restart 25th with only a few laps to go. I was able to race my way up to 11th before the checkered flag flew. Sure, it wasn't a win, but if I have to point to a special weekend, the one at the Brickyard 400 in 2000 ranks right up there. Now speaking of winning the Brickyard and getting back to the title of this story, it is a race for champions. It seems like it is pretty easy to predict who is going to win. Predicting the pole is something else. It is fickle because it's more based on the luck of the qualifying draw, the weather, etc. But the one thing that is pretty predictable is who is going to win. If you look at the record books since we started racing there, there have only been two drivers, Ricky Rudd and Kevin Harvick that have won the race and hadn't been an existing or past Cup champion. Now I can't tell you which champion will win this weekend, but I think a safe bet for the winner will be a current or past NASCAR champion. Heck, knowing that, maybe I should go up there this weekend and race. I have a past champions provisional. I mean Bill Elliott uses his. Terry Labonte uses his. But upon further review, I think my wife Stevie might have something to say about that. So I will just table that idea. I can still dream about it though, because if there was ever one race in a Cup car that I would love to do again, it would be at Indianapolis. I love the track and I love the town. More importantly, I love the fans up there. They are so passionate about racing and they appreciate us stock car guys being there. All I know, for whatever reason, they sure had a soft spot in their hearts for ol' DW and I will never forget them.

Oh, by the way

I think the race this weekend will prove whether Toyota has an advantage in horsepower or not. Those long straightaways where you need horsepower will allow you to really see who has it. Now don't get me wrong, your car has to handle diving down into Turn 1 and Turn 3, but horsepower will be at a premium this weekend. The Chevrolets, especially the Hendrick cars, have always been really good at Indy. The Roush Fenway Fords are also expected to be strong. And with the roll he has been on, don't discount Kasey Kahne in his Dodge either. If there is a difference in horsepower, then it will show up this weekend because at Indy, horsepower is King.
Tagged: Terry Labonte, Ricky Rudd, Dale Jarrett, Bill Elliott, Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne

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