For the men and women of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, this weekend represents the last breather, the final break before 17 consecutive — and grueling — weekends of racing to wrap-up the 2014 season.
The next off-weekend for NASCAR road warriors? That would be the weekend before Thanksgiving in late November. Between now and then, it’s flat out, balls-to-the-wall racing for 17 weeks to crown the next Cup champion.
And it all starts at the world’s most historically significant race track, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which next Sunday will host NASCAR’s second-biggest race, the Brickyard 400, a/k/a "The 21st annual Crown Royal Presents the John Wayne Walding 400 at the Brickyard Powered by BigMachineRecords.com."
The Brickyard 400 is always something of a paradox, in that the narrow track surface doesn’t typically produce racing with stock cars that’s as good as it is with the much lighter, faster and higher-downforce open-wheel cars. And yet, the Brickyard 400 over the years has produced many moments of high drama and even magic.
There was adopted Hoosier Jeff Gordon winning the first Sprint Cup race here in 1994 after Brett Bodine wrecked his brother Geoff, who was leading at the time.
In 1995, Dale Earnhardt put the fabled black No. 3 into Victory Lane; a year later, the toughest man in racing had to get out of his car mid-race because of a broken sternum suffered in a prior crash at Talladega.
After the ’96 race, winning crew chief Todd Parrott and his driver, Dale Jarrett, began a tradition that continues to this day: The entire winning crew kneels down and kisses the yard of bricks at the start-finish line.
Bill Elliott won the 43rd of 44 races in a NASCAR Hall of Fame career in 2002, as he drove one of Ray Evernham’s Dodges to victory. In his post-race Victory Lane photos, Elliott posed with wife Cindy and their then-6-year-old son, Chase — who is now leading the 2014 points standings in the Nationwide Series standings after winning his third race of the season Saturday night at Chicagoland Speedway.
One of the most emotional Brickyard 400s came in 2005, when Indiana native Tony Stewart finally won on the one stage where he most coveted the victory that had eluded him for so long.
Jamie McMurray completed an improbable Daytona 500-Brickyard 400 sweep in 2010, and a year later, Paul Menard won his first Cup race in 167 starts. Menard’s victory meant just as much for his father, John Menard, who had fielded Indy 500 entries for 35 years without a victory, as it did for Paul.
Last year, another Indiana native, Ryan Newman, won his first Brickyard 400.
So what will happen this year? That remains to be seen, but there is no shortage of compelling story lines.
With 19 of 26 races complete in the Sprint Cup regular season, 11 drivers have won races and virtually assured themselves slots in NASCAR’s playoff round, the 16-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup. Three of the past four Brickyard winners — McMurray, Menard and Newman — are winless this year and eager to punch their Chase tickets.
Stewart, the three-time Cup champ and two-time Brickyard winner, has a Monday press conference, during which time he’s expected to discuss his return to racing dirt sprint cars for the first time since his gruesome accident last year. Stewart won on Friday night and finished third Saturday night in a pair of Michigan sprint car races. Stewart, too, is looking for his first Cup win of the season and is expected to be fast here.
Kurt Busch, who in his first career IndyCar race finished sixth and was rookie of the year in this year’s Indianapolis 500, will be one of big story lines of the week. Can he back up his earlier success with a victory on Sunday?
Hendrick Motorsports teammates Gordon and Jimmie Johnson are both four-time Brickyard winners. If one of them can win again on Sunday, they will tie Formula One superstar Michael Schumacher with a record five race victories at this track.
Juan Pablo Montoya has a chance to become the first driver to win the Indy 500 and the Brickyard 400. Montoya will wheel one of Roger Penske’s Fords, which have been wicked-fast of late. Speaking of The Captain, Penske has won the Indy 500 a record 15 times, but has yet to find victory in the Brickyard 400. That could change on Sunday, with Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Montoya among the pre-race favorites.
Throw in support races from the NASCAR Nationwide Series and the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship and it absolutely will be a jam-packed weekend of racing. And it just might be a history-making one, too.