INDIANAPOLIS – Six of the past nine winners at Indianapolis Motor Speedway went on to win the Nextel Cup championship, a stat that’s not lost on any of the NASCAR heavyweights.
The top drivers recognize that whoever kisses the bricks at the end of Sunday’s race becomes the odds-on favorite to hoist the championship trophy four months from now.
“It would be hard, based on the statistics, to not favor that person,” said Jimmie Johnson, who last season became the sixth driver to parlay his Brickyard win into his first Nextel Cup title.
Before Johnson it was Tony Stewart (2005), Bobby Labonte (2000), Dale Jarrett (1999) and Jeff Gordon (1998, 2001). Most agree that it’s not the Brickyard win itself that carried them to the title. Rather, the race is so difficult, only the top teams can realistically win it.
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“I think the guys that win here are the big teams, the heavy hitters in the sport,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who scored a career-best sixth-place finish here last season.
“It’s sort of like a Daytona 500, except you don’t see any fluke winners here. You don’t see guys luck out. You always see the dominant teams.
“It’s just that hard of a race to win and it’s so hard to put it all together. Obviously it takes a real, real good race car. Those are the teams that were producing them over the years.”
Indy’s historic 21/2-mile oval is unique to NASCAR, making it difficult for anyone outside of the elite teams to win here. With little banking, long straightaways and four corners, the track has a bit of a rectangular shape.
It took Stewart six tries in NASCAR to conquer the track, which had tormented him during earlier pursuits of an Indianapolis 500 title. Finally able to put it all together in 2005, he went on to win his second championship.
Any correlation, Stewart believes, comes from the strength of his Joe Gibbs Racing team. After all, he finished 12th here in 2002 – the year he led 43 laps, faded late and punched a photographer after the finish – and recovered to win his first title.
“I think (the stats) are probably a sign that the type of track and type of program you have to have to win this race,” he said. “If you’ve got a good package for here, it’s a good package for the race tracks that we have to run in that 10-week stretch that gets you to the end.
“So if you run good here, you’ve got a good shot at winning the championship.”
Stewart, coming off his first victory of the season two weeks ago in Chicago, is a favorite to win here Sunday. His 2005 Indy win dramatically improved his attitude about the Brickyard and freed him from the stress he always seemed to be under during every visit.
Typically unapproachable, irritable, and sometimes even mean during Indy stays, Stewart was loose and relaxed Friday as he waited out a rain delay in his garage stall.
“Definitely last year, the stress level wasn’t nearly as high,” he said. “I wasn’t trying so hard to win. Now we’ve won. It’s not that you don’t try to win, it’s that you’ve got that bit of pressure off your back to win the first one and you have the knowledge of how you won the first one.
“So it’s actually a lot less pressure because you’re not sitting here trying to figure out what you have to do to win. You know what it takes to win. You just have to figure out how to make those things happen again.”
So does Gordon, a four-time Indy winner, who heads into the race on top of the Nextel Cup points standings. Many believe he’ll be kissing the bricks on Sunday and ride that wave all the way to a fifth Cup title.
But his Brickyard win in 1994, the inaugural NASCAR event, and 2004 didn’t translate into titles and Gordon puts little faith in the statistics.
“It’s just coincidence,” he said. “Winning or losing this weekend does not mean you will win or lose the championship.”
Matt Kenseth also considers the numbers a coincidence. After all, he didn’t win here in 2003 – he finished second – but still won the championship. Kenseth believes a good team could have a horrendous race Sunday and still rebound to celebrate a championship.
“One race isn’t going to make or break you for the championship, especially when it’s not in the Chase,” Kenseth said.
“Obviously, Jeff Gordon or someone like that could have a problem here, finish last and still have a shot at the championship.”