The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series returns from a two-week break with one of its marquee races, the Brickyard 400, on Sunday.
Many Cup drivers say a victory at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway ranks second only to winning the series’ crown jewel, the Daytona 500.
This is the 20th anniversary of the first time NASCAR stock cars competed at the 2.5-mile home of the Indianapolis 500 for open-wheel race cars, and thus it’s the 21st running of the Brickyard 400.
Jeff Gordon won the inaugural event in 1994, the first of a record four Brickyard 400 victories he would earn. Jimmie Johnson, his teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, shares the record with four wins.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years, but I’m looking forward to celebrating those 20 years, hopefully, with another win,” Gordon told reporters last week.
Former Cup champion Brad Keselowski of Team Penske arrived with a head of steam, having won two of the last three races, at Kentucky and Loudon, N.H. But Keselowski has never finished in the top five in four Brickyard 400 starts.
However, Keselowski did win at Indy in 2012 driving in NASCAR’s second-level Nationwide Series for team owner Roger Penske.
Penske also is bringing Juan Pablo Montoya back to the Brickyard 400 this year. Montoya, a former Indy 500 winner, had spent the last seven years competing in the Cup series. This year he returned to IndyCar racing and won the IndyCar event at Pennsylvania’s Pocono Raceway earlier this month.
Montoya agreed to drive in two Cup races for Penske this year: He finished 18th at Michigan in June.
If he wins Sunday, Montoya would be the first driver to win the Indianapolis 500 and the Brickyard 400. Montoya’s best finish in the Brickyard 400 was a second in 2007, the first year he drove in the race.
Penske has a record 15 Indianapolis 500 victories, but the longtime team owner never has won the Brickyard 400.
The race’s name refers to the speedway’s nickname; a century ago the track’s surface consisted of more than 3 million bricks. Now there is only a thin row of bricks.
With seven races left until NASCAR’s Chase for the Cup playoff starts, pressure is starting to mount on some drivers to post their first win of the season.
NASCAR this year changed the rules for earning earn a Chase berth by putting a greater emphasis on winning races during the regular season. A win virtually guarantees that a driver will be among the 16 who compete in the 10-race playoff.
Among those still without a win this year: three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart, who reveres the Indianapolis Motor Speedway more than perhaps any other driver.
Stewart, 43, grew up in Columbus, Ind., and the former IndyCar series champion has won the Brickyard 400 twice, in 2005 and 2007. “If you can’t win the Daytona 500, this is the perfect second [race] to get your first win for the year,” Stewart said.
Other drivers without a win yet this season include former Cup champion Matt Kenseth, former Brickyard 400 winners Ryan Newman and Paul Menard, and Clint Bowyer, who is winless in his last 60 Cup races.
The weekend at Indy also includes a sports car race today in NASCAR’s Tudor United SportsCar Championship Series and a Nationwide race Saturday.