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Indianapolis is not a NASCAR crown jewel anymore, however the Brickyard continues to be particular to inventory automotive racing

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The Brickyard is the Brickyard now not.

Sure, the race nonetheless has the phrase within the title — the Verizon 200 on the Brickyard. Indy continues to be Indy and Indy will all the time be superb. The trophy that AJ Allmendinger hoisted after his stunning win one 12 months in the past appeared the identical because the one earned by the likes of Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Jimmie Johnson and their fellow legends. And like each Indianapolis winner — inventory automotive or in any other case — since Dale Jarrett in 1996, “The Dinger” fell to his knees and kissed the yard of bricks.

It’s summer time. It’s Indianapolis. It’s inventory vehicles at Indianapolis in the summertime. However let’s be sincere: It is simply … completely different.

“Whenever you retire as a driver, what do they do to measure you towards the best who’ve ever raced in NASCAR?” Denny Hamlin requested rhetorically. “They need to understand how you probably did within the ‘crown jewel’ occasions. For me, that was all the time Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600, Southern 500 and the Brickyard 400. I nonetheless need to win at Indianapolis as a result of I by no means have. After I do, I might be so excited. I’ll have gained on the Brickyard, however I can’t have gained the Brickyard 400. Nobody will, I suppose, any further.”

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On Sunday, the NASCAR Cup Sequence will take the inexperienced flag on the Racing Capital of the World for the twenty ninth time. That may be a mind-bending quantity for these aged sufficient to recollect when the old-school Indianapolis 500 crowd stated that “taxicabs” on their monitor was like spitting on the ground of a cathedral. However for the second straight summer time, inventory vehicles is not going to be racing on probably the most hallowed 2.5 miles of horsepower’s excessive holy floor, the 113-year-old rectangular circuit that berthed fashionable motorsports. As a substitute, they are going to solely wheel their means down a portion of a brief chute and a large chunk of the frontstretch however will enter and exit these straights after weaving left and proper by the bigger part of the Speedway’s 2.439-mile street course.

“I feel that was the strangest a part of final 12 months, simply rebooting the way in which your mind approached the entire weekend. Even the way in which you drive across the infield in your road automotive is completely different,” confessed Kevin Harvick, a three-time Brickyard 400 winner and victor within the final two oval editions in 2019 and 2020. He grew up eager to comply with within the tire tracks of one other Bakersfield, California-raised racer, four-time Indy 500 champion Rick Mears. “I am not going to lie and inform you that I prefer it. To me, driving by that tunnel, wanting proper previous the museum and into Flip 2 and the backstretch, I would get chills simply fascinated with it. Final 12 months I assumed, ‘Properly, hell, we’re not even going to race over there anymore.'”

To be clear, the brand new race is not unhealthy, at the least so far as one can inform from a one-year pattern dimension. Final 12 months’s inaugural Cup Sequence street course weekend was loads entertaining. And this 12 months’s schedule is filled with a uncommon IndyCar/NASCAR doubleheader. Once more, that is an idea that for therefore lengthy appeared like such an impossibility. See: IMS proprietor Tony Hulman having Invoice France Sr. escorted off the grounds when the NASCAR founder was noticed snooping round Gasoline Alley in Could 1954.

But additionally, once more, being at Indy and steering one’s race automotive clockwise out of oval Flip 1 after which hanging a tough proper into the infield earlier than reaching Flip 4, it is simply … yeah … completely different.

“I do not assume that anybody goes to attempt to promote you on the concept that the Indy street race is identical as racing on the oval,” defined Kurt Busch, considered one of solely eight drivers to begin 20 or extra Brickyard 400s. His greatest end was in his first begin, a fifth-place run as a rookie in 2001. In 2014 he made his lone Indy 500 begin, a sixth-place end that earned him Rookie of the Yr honors. He will not be on this weekend’s race, nonetheless recovering after a apply crash at Pocono.

“My disappointment is that I by no means gained that race and now I feel I am going to by no means get the possibility,” he stated. “However these of us who’ve been round a very long time had been additionally unhappy after we noticed what occurred to the oval race through the years.”

Oh, yeah, that: The entire cause for the choice to make the format change.

A few of the most outstanding photos of NASCAR’s best glory days had been produced by the primary iteration of inventory vehicles on the Brickyard. Gordon’s win within the inaugural 1994 occasion happened in entrance of greater than 250,000 spectators, as they watched the child who graduated highschool in close by Carmel, Indiana, earn the second of his 93 profession Cup Sequence victories. Within the years that adopted, those that grasped the silver brick trophy had been a conga line of NASCAR Corridor of Famers, from Earnhardt and Jarrett to Invoice Elliott and Tony Stewart. The Brickyard grew to become the last word every-August reminder that NASCAR had seized the torch from open-wheel racing because the dominant American motorsports pressure.

However as the novelty wore off and the bulkier inventory vehicles frequently struggled to supply any side-by-side racing on the slender geometry of IMS, attendance waned. Then got here one of the uncomfortable days in NASCAR historical past, when the shoebox-like Automotive of Tomorrow joined forces with a poorly deliberate tire technique from Goodyear to create a race that wasn’t a race in any respect. The sphere would run a handful of laps after which pit to switch their shredded tires — over and time and again. By the point Johnson held off Carl Edwards, hundreds of followers had left in disgust. Most by no means got here again.

When the race was moved to the July Fourth weekend in 2020, the concept was to create an All-American trip for race followers. However the pandemic had different plans. When the 2021 schedule was introduced, the oval was out. The street course, initially designed for Formula One after which added to the IndyCar calendar (after one other tire debacle, this time in F1), was in. Final 12 months, an estimated 60,000 followers attended the brand new NASCAR occasion, almost twice the attendance of the Brickyard 400’s lowest level, a crowd of 30,000 in 2017, and three million watched on tv, double the viewers of 2018.

As with all issues NASCAR, judging success now versus the Nice Gatsby-like days of the late Nineteen Nineties and early 2000s is a mistake. Nobody believes that the period of 250,000 Brickyard followers is coming again, however when measured utilizing the yardstick of 2022 — which is not 1999 by any stretch, however actually a a lot heartier scale than 2017 — it’s simple for these in cost to argue that final 12 months’s numbers really feel like a steer in the best route.

“I do not know that anybody actually needed to do what we did, however we additionally knew that one thing needed to be carried out,” defined Allmendinger after his win one 12 months in the past. The 40-year outdated racer made 10 begins within the unique Brickyard 400 and completed seventh in his solely Indy 500 begin, coming in 2013. He might be again to defend his win with Kaulig Racing this weekend. “I additionally assume that it is easy to say, ‘Properly, it is not likely Indy’ earlier than the race, however I feel in the event you noticed how I simply celebrated on the market, that is nonetheless a particular place and that is particular race.”

Particular, however not a crown jewel. Not a cornerstone occasion of the season-long NASCAR schedule, however, as Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Douglas Boles — a person with vitality ranges that make the Energizer Bunny appear like a sloth — has tirelessly reminded race followers through his social media, Sunday’s Brickyard 200 is the capstone for a weeklong calendar of racing held all through Indianapolis and Speedway, Indiana.

“It’s not the identical and it’ll by no means be the identical,” Harvick added. “However I additionally do not assume anybody goes to not race any tougher to win it.”

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