INDIANAPOLIS — For NASCAR’s drivers, at least, the Brickyard 400 remains one of the Sprint Car Series’ marquee events despite the race’s sliding attendance in recent years.
“It’s the obvious second” in prestige, Clint Bowyer said Friday before practicing for the 20th running of the race Sunday. “It’s the Daytona 500 and then the Brickyard.”
NASCAR estimated that 125,000 spectators attended last year’s race. That’s a sizable crowd but smaller than the 200,000-plus who came to the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994 to see the novelty of stock cars racing around the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Jeff Gordon won that first race and three other Brickyard 400s. Gordon and his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson are the only four-time winners of the race.
“I can’t believe it’s been 20 years,” Gordon said. “To me, that inaugural race really set the precedent for how impressive this facility is, and how prestigious the race was the first year and always will be.”
Amid speculation that the 104-year-old Indianapolis track might one day install lights, one notion for boosting the Brickyard 400’s crowd again is holding the race at night.
“It would be awesome to race here at night,” Gordon said. “I would never want to see the Indy 500 run under the lights. But the Brickyard 400 breaks traditions.”
In the opening practice for this year’s race, Juan Pablo Montoya turned the fastest lap at 185.410 mph on the 2.5-mile, rectangular oval Indianapolis track. Montoya is a former Formula One driver and IndyCar driver — he won the Indianapolis 500 in 2000 — who moved to NASCAR.
After Montoya, the next fastest drivers in the practice session were Kurt Busch, Austin Dillon and Paul Menard, whose only Cup victory was the Brickyard 400 in 2011.
The weather was unusually mild for Indiana in late July, with temperatures in the upper 70s. The final practice and qualifying to set the 43-car field is today.
Practice sessions aren’t necessarily reliable indicators of a car’s strength. They’re often used by teams to test various car setups for the race and qualifying.
Nevertheless, other notable names on Friday’s speed chart included Kevin Harvick (seventh-fastest), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (10th) and Kyle Busch (11th). Johnson was 13th followed by Bowyer at 14th, Gordon at 21st and Tony Stewart at 25th.
Danica Patrick, who first gained fame as an IndyCar driver at Indianapolis before she also migrated to NASCAR, was 37th with a best lap of 175.610, nearly 10 mph slower than Montoya.
Earnhardt said Johnson, a five-time champion who has four wins this season and again leads the Cup standings, “will be fast, as usual,” in Sunday’s race.
“Greg Biffle runs well here,” Earnhardt said. “You’ve got to expect Kyle (Busch) to be competitive. Kasey (Kahne) will probably be quick. The usual players, but definitely we’ll be watching Jimmie.”