NASCAR's Indy roots run deep

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Ryan McGee

Before the Brickyard 400: NASCAR at Indy
As you have probably already heard and will continue to hear until you'll want to scream this weekend, it is a really big deal that NASCAR is racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. No, you don't understand. It is a really, really big deal.

Indy is the birthplace of modern racing. The stuff we take for granted every Sunday — pace laps, yellow flags, "Gentlemen, start your engines" — it all originated at The Brickyard. The first Indy 500 (which for you youngsters out there actually used to be a bigger deal than the Daytona 500) was held in 1911. The track itself opened two years earlier as a testing facility for Detroit automakers and a car playground for really, really rich people.

Over the next eight decades, open wheel racing grew into the sport of kings. Meanwhile, the sport of The King, Richard Petty, was toiling around in the dirt on tracks like the North Wilkesboro Speedway and on the beach at Daytona. Not surprisingly, stock car racers that made their living on bullrings in front of 1,500 people to earn checks of $1,500 were insanely jealous of the men who raced in front of 200,000 fans for paydays that reached into six, then seven digits.

We all know about the recent Memorial Day double-duty exploits of Robby Gordon, Tony Stewart and John Andretti. But long before those guys were either out of diapers or even born, the desire of "taxi cab drivers" to get a shot at Indy glory drove some of NASCAR's best to load up and head to Gasoline Alley during the pre-Brickyard 400 era of 1993 and earlier.

Who, you might ask, am I talking about? Read ahead. You might be surprised.

Junior Johnson — 1963
It's true. The Last American Hero attempted to qualify for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing in May of 1963. Johnson won 50 Nextel Cup races as a driver and 132 as an owner. In fact, he almost won the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994 with Bill Elliott, who finished third.

But his lone qualifying effort for the 500 didn't work out, failing to crack a field that included the likes of A.J. Foyt, Dan Gurney, Rodger Ward and eventual winner Parnelli Jones.

The good news — back then the 500 and the World 600 at Charlotte were run one week apart so Johnson was able to make it home in time to win the pole and finish second behind Fred Lorenzen.

The Wood Brothers — 1965
With Jimmy Clark behind the wheel of a Lotus-Ford, the Ford Motor Company sought to find a competitive edge for the Formula One legend. They found that edge in the form of a pit crew from Stuart, Va. — the legendary Wood Brothers.

"We got the call from Ford, and we were a bit skeptical about going up there," says Leonard Wood, still co-owner of the family team. "But we arrived that weekend, and Jimmy Clark could not have been nicer. And if anybody had any questions about why we were there, they quit asking after our first pit stop. We had him in and out of there in no time."

Due in no small part to the Woods, Clark won the race by outlasting Jones and a youngster named Mario Andretti.

Cale Yarborough — 1966-72
Yarborough made three Indy 500 starts between '66 and '72, running the 500 and 600 during one May week in 1967. Yarborough actually ran Indy Cars full-time for a few seasons before returning to NASCAR for good in 1973.

"I will never forget the feeling of sitting on the frontstretch at Indy," says the three-time Cup champ. "No roof over your head, the band playing and the balloons being released. It took me back to my soapbox derby days when I was kid in South Carolina. It was really something."

Yarborough's best 500 finish came in 1972 when he wound up 10th.

Lee Roy Yarbrough — 1967-1970
Lee Roy — no, he wasn't related to Cale, proven by the missing "o" — won 14 Cup races in just 198 starts. He nearly won the Indy 500 in just three. His average finish in three tries was a disappointing 23rd, but a very fast car in 1969 was undone by a spilt header.

Yarbrough pulled off the Charlotte-Indy week-long double twice — in '69 and '70.

The Allisons — 1970-75
The Alabama Gang invaded south-central Indiana on four different occasions — Donnie in 1970 and '71 and Bobby in '73 and '75. Big brother Bobby won the most NASCAR races — 85 to 10 — but Donnie owns family bragging rights at Indianapolis.

Donnie Allison finished fourth and sixth in his only two Indy starts. He nearly pulled off the May double in 1970, finishing fourth behind Al Unser Sr. at Indianapolis after winning the World 600 at Charlotte the weekend before.

Bobby finished 32nd and 25th with two mechanical failures.

So now that you are all learned up, feel free to spend your weekend correcting your friends and neighbors when they say, "You know, NASCAR wasn't allowed at Indy until 1994..."

Ryan McGee is the managing editor of Totally NASCAR, and NASCAR This Morning on Fox Sports Net. He can be reached at his e-mail address:

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Busch Beat
NASCAR Busch Series team owners are playing it politically correct in public about the addition of a 2005 race in Mexico City, but most are worrying behind closed doors. The biggest concerns have to do with travel and security costs.

"I think it's a great idea," says one owner who wishes to remain anonymous. "But I am already trying to figure out how to make it to California and Vegas financially.

"Any kind of international travel presents a whole new set of issues, especially when you're towing equipment and sending 15 people."

Truck Stop
No one expected Toyota to need 13 races before grabbing its first win in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, but in the end, the execs at Toyota couldn't have planned it better.

Travis Kvapil's victory last Saturday came at the Michigan International Speedway, less than one hour away from Detroit's Big Three automakers, who typically use MIS as one giant hospitality tent for their employees and investors. Ouch.

Why We Call Richard Petty "The King" Fact of the Week
The King never raced in Mexico, no NASCAR race has ever been run there, but he has raced outside of the good ol' U.S. of A.

Petty started seventh at the Canadian National Exposition Speedway in Toronto on July 18, 1958. Unfortunately, he wrecked just past halfway and finished 17th out of 19. Meanwhile, father Lee Petty ran away with his 35th career victory.

Who's Hot & Who's Not
Mark Martin: Don't look now, but Martin is creeping ever so slowly toward the NASCAR Top 10. After a runner-up finish at Pocono, Martin jumped two spots to 13th and only 89 points out of 10th. Be forewarned — he owns six top tens at Indy and three wins at Watkins Glen.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Before his sports-car burns, Little E was second in points and just 105 markers behind Jimmie Johnson. In the two weeks since, he has exited the car early twice, posted an average finish of 28th and dropped to third in points, 267 in arrears.
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  • Speed Mail of the Week
    From dj88rules in Cape May, N.J.: I am sick of hearing about how Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman rule the Brickyard 400 and yet no one mentions Dale Jarrett. He has won there twice, you know! How does his record stack up to Gordon's?

    Dear 88,
    It stacks up pretty well. Gordon has three wins and eight top tens in ten tries. D.J. has two wins and six top tens. If he hadn't run out of gas back in '98 and had pit road problems the last two years, he might have four wins.

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