EXCLUSIVE: Winning Indy means everything for NASCAR’s Big 3

Winning the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway may be huge for drivers, but for NASCAR's big three automakers it is a matter of history, as well as the future. 

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While NASCAR racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway isn’t the novelty with race fans that it was when Jeff Gordon won the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994, it’s still ground zero for a fierce three-way battle among Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota, the three automakers competing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

Chevrolet has won what this time around is called the Crown Royal Presents the John Wayne Walding 400 at the Brickyard for 11 consecutive years. Look around the infield and Chevrolet has a huge presence — lots of shiny new Camaros, Corvettes and Silverado trucks for race fans to look at and climb in.

All told, Chevrolet has 24 new cars on site, along with a staff of 60 and eight different pace cars for the four series racing at the Brickyard this week.

Not only is this one of the biggest showrooms anywhere, it’s an important link to past glories for Chevrolet.

"We’re proud to race here," said Jim Campbell, GM’s U.S. vice president performance vehicles & motorsports. "To get to race at Indianapolis is pretty special. I really consider Indianapolis Motor Speedway more of our home track, just because of the history and the heritage of the co-founder of the company and his brothers. Louis Chevrolet and his two brothers, they raced here. Think about that — that’s the co-founder that started Chevrolet, and here we are over 100 years later racing."

Indeed, Louis Chevrolet won the second race ever run on the 2.5-mile track in 1909, two years before the first Indianapolis 500 took place in 1911. Louis would eventually compete in the big race four times.

Racing here does something else important to Chevrolet: It helps the automaker sell cars and trucks.

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"Race fans have an elevated perception of our brand and our vehicles because of our involvement in racing and what the cars have to do to survive," says Terry Dolan, manger of Chevrolet racing. "We spend millions of dollars to build those image attributes. We’re able to comfortably build them here. Our display footprint gives us a chance to intercept people."

And nothing reinforces brand elevation like winning.

"The iconic races are all objectives we put on our scorecard," said Dolan. "Is it (the Brickyard 400) in the bull’s eye of the target? You bet it is."

Chevrolet appears to have the upper hand again, with Kevin Harvick qualifying on the pole for the Brickyard 400, with Jeff Gordon on the outside of Row 1 and Chevrolet drivers holding down five of the top seven starting spots.

For automaker Toyota, the Brickyard is equally important, but with a very different back story: While Louis Chevrolet raced here in 1909, Toyota didn’t run here until 2007, and to this day, this remains the only Sprint Cup track where the automaker is winless.

David Wilson, the president and general manager of TRD, U.S.A., Toyota’s domestic racing arm, minced no words about what a Brickyard 400 victory would mean in a season that’s seen ups and downs for Toyota teams. "It’s huge," said Wilson. Then, chuckling at the enormity of what winning could do, he added, "This would make up for all the sins of the past 19 races, honestly. It would really be a lift to our organization."

Friday notebook: Toyotas lead the way in Sprint Cup practice at Indy

Wilson is quick to point out, quite correctly, that Toyota has solved its engine reliability issues, with just two failures of Cup engines in 19 races so far in 2014 — down from 10 at the same point last year. In the three most recent races, Toyotas have finished second each time, with four Toyotas winding up in the top eight in the most recent Cup race at New Hampshire.

A Brickyard victory for Toyota would be the automaker’s high-water mark since coming into the Sprint Cup Series. Their best hope might be Brian Vickers, who qualified fifth, or the Joe Gibbs Racing duo of Kyle Busch (12th) and Matt Kenseth (13th).

Ford Motor Co., meanwhile, rides into the Brickyard red-hot, having won four races in a row for the first time since 2001. And the Blue Oval Boys have some history here, too: Jim Clark won the 1965 Indy 500, using lightning-fast pit stops from the Wood Brothers NASCAR squad, who moonlighted here.

The last victory for Ford in the Brickyard 400 came when Dale Jarrett won in 1999, so the Ford teams are plenty motivated.

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"There is so much history at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, so winning here is a big deal," said Jamie Allison, Ford Racing director. "We feel our Ford teams are riding a big wave of momentum, especially when you consider Roush Fenway, Team Penske and Richard Petty Motorsports have all won races over the past month. We’ve won on every kind of track this season, so nothing would be better than to run our winning streak to five here at the Brickyard — one of the most fabled tracks in all of racing."

One other incentive for Ford: Roger Penske has won the Indianapolis 500 15 times, but he’s 0-for-20 in the Brickyard. That could change, as Brad Keselowski qualified third in a Team Penske Ford and will be one of the men to beat.

"I’ve been very fortunate to win a championship, but at this point in my career I don’t think I have any of the marquee race wins, and when you think of marquee races you think of Daytona, you think of Indy and places like that," said Keselowski. "So it’s definitely something that sits on you and makes you feel like you need to get it done and I think we’ve got a great opportunity for that."

As for taking care of the boss, Keselowski knows it’s a priority.

"It’s the last thing left on the Penske bucket list and I think that’s why you see a third car here with Juan Pablo Montoya," said Keselowski. "He wants to make it happen and Juan is certainly known for his talents here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, so he’s all-in as much as you can be and it would be a huge honor to be the guy that pulls it off for him."