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July 28, 2013

NASCAR celebrates 20 years at Indy

INDIANAPOLIS — Traditionalists balked and some were downright outraged at the mere suggestion stock cars dare set their fenders on the sacred ground of Indianapolis.

Stage a NASCAR race at the home of the Indianapolis 500?

May as well make Indy 500 winners swig orange juice in Victory Lane or have the track install lights for a night race. Heck, make it the Indianapolis 350. None of it could have been worse than big, bad NASCAR storming into their city — an open wheel city.

“I think Indy cars belong at Indy and stock cars belong at Daytona,” 1986 Indy winner Bobby Rahal said more than 20 years ago.

“I think it’s a big mistake because Indy has all that tradition and romance and I don’t believe it should be tampered with,” said Johnny Rutherford, also a former Indianapolis 500 champion.

Romance? What is this, a love story?

Well, sort of.

It’s time to pucker up and kiss the bricks once again when NASCAR runs its 20th Cup race today at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon are as much a slice of Indy racing history as A.J. Foyt and Rick Mears.

There’s a generation of drivers coming up who dreamed of racing at Indianapolis for 400 miles, not 500.

The Brickyard may not be the marquee race to win on NASCAR’s schedule. Rahal was on to something, the Daytona 500 is still No. 1.

But Indy is a close runner up.

“You have the Daytona 500 and then the Brickyard 400,” Gordon, a four-time Indy winner, said. “Some people may rank it different than that, but that’s how I look at it. There was a time, maybe back in 1994, where I would have ranked this No. 1.”

Then the next big thing in NASCAR, a 23-year-old Gordon won the inaugural race in 1994. An estimated crowd of 250,000 fans absolutely jammed the place and Gordon recalled the die-hards lined up 10 deep around the garage just to get a peek at the drivers that would soon usher NASCAR into a boom period.

NASCAR hadn’t just raced at Indy — it took it over.

Dale Earnhardt won in 1995 and then Dale Jarrett started a celebration with his 1996 win that lasts to this day, and even carried over to Indy. Jarrett and crew chief Todd Parrott knelt down and planted a big ol’ kiss on the bricks, the start-finish line for the race.

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