SPEEDWAY | Ryan Newman has been there before.
On the pole, that is.
Jimmie Johnson has been there as well.
In victory lane, that is.
They start on the front row for the 20th Brickyard 400, Newman, the last man in the qualifying line, knocking Johnson to the second spot in the field with his 50th career pole after Johnson had obliterated Casey Mears’ nine-year-old track record.
Johnson and Newman in the front row represents some of the best of NASCAR at a time the Brickyard 400, which helped usher in stock-car racing’s most popular years, is at a crossroads.
The first, held in 1994, had a million ticket requests a year in advance, and nobody wanted only one seat. The race sold out a year ahead for over a dozen years, but the tire debacle of 2008, when Goodyears popped like pinatas and caused NASCAR to throw yellow flags every 10 green-flag laps to prevent high-speed blowouts, soured ticketholders. Attendance has slipped every year since, and more quickly than the general decline in attendance and television ratings for the Sprint Cup series as a whole.
If the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is half-full for the 400 – which would be about 120,000 people in a facility now seating about 235,000 – it’ll be considered a good crowd.
NASCAR boss Brian France took a verbal jab at Speedway management earlier in the week, saying they were focused on organizational changes with the IndyCar series.
“We expect them to get settled as an organization and have their focus and effort at a higher level as we go down the road,” France told The Indianapolis Star.
Supposedly preoccupied, IMS added three races from NASCAR’s Nationwide and Grand-Am series last year and got a lukewarm welcome, a lack of interest that continued this year. About 20,000 watched a pair of lively road races on Friday, and perhaps 25,000 were on hand for Saturday’s qualifying sessions and Indiana 250 in the Nationwide circuit. New track president Doug Boles believes the sports car races should stand on their own on a different weekend.
In the long term, adding lights to the 1,000-acre century-old facility to allow for a nighttime running of the 400 is among the potential Speedway improvements.
“If putting lights up and making a night race more enjoyable for the fans, then I think we’re all for it,” said Carl Edwards, who qualified third.
In the short term, a good race, with lead-changes on the track and plenty of passing in the pack, might encourage more people to come to the 2014 edition. But the Speedway is notoriously hard for stock cars, wider and more lumbering than Indy cars, to pass on. Qualifying well is crucial, which is why Newman’s lap of 187.531 mph, which edged Johnson’s 187.438, was important.
It was also warming to the South Bend native’s heart.
“I got emotional on the backstretch when the crew told me (he’d won the pole),” Newman said. “It’s awesome to get that standing ovation from these Indiana fans.”
Johnson, leader of the Sprint Cup standings, is always in the conversation at the Brickyard, as a four-time winner and defending champion should be.
“A fifth would be incredible,” Johnson said. “I can’t believe I have four of them.”
For Johnson, a fifth victory wouldn’t be surpassing A.J. Foyt and Al Unser on the oval, but Rick Mears, the third four-time Indianapolis
500 winner, and especially Gordon, who has four Brickyard 400s in his pocket.
“To do anything Jeff Gordon has done is huge,” Johnson said. “The guy is massive in our sport. He was somebody I looked up to as a young kid racing and still do today. To add Rick Mears to that – I grew up in southern California (as did Mears). My background inspired me to pursue Indy car racing when I was younger, but my opportunities led me to NASCAR and things turned out as they have.”
Which is to say, he’s been there and done that a lot.