INDIANAPOLIS — Traditionalists balked, and some were outraged at the mere suggestion stock cars dare set their fenders on the sacred ground of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Stage a NASCAR race at the home of the Indianapolis 500? May as well make 500 winners swig orange juice in Victory Lane or have the track install lights for a night race. Heck, make it the Indy 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 500 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, a three-time 500 champ.
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 Sprint Cup race today at Indianapolis. Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon own a slice of Indy racing history just as A.J. Foyt and Rick Mears do. A generation of drivers coming up dreamed of racing at Indianapolis for 400 miles, not 500.
The Brickyard might 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 runnerup.
"You have the Daytona 500 and then the Brickyard 400," said Gordon, a four-time winner at Indianapolis. "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, Gordon, the 23 and who was raised in Indiana, won the inaugural race in 1994. An estimated 250,000 people jammed the place. Gordon recalled the diehards lined up 10 deep around the garage just to get a peek at the drivers who would soon usher NASCAR into a boom period.
Tony Stewart, a former open wheel champion, never has gotten to fulfill his boyhood dream of winning an Indianapolis 500. But the Indiana native has twice won the Brickyard, putting an end to his skepticism that winning a NASCAR race in Indy would never mean as much as winning an open wheel one.
"The first time (NASCAR) came, I'll be honest, I was 100 percent against it," Stewart said.
That feeling didn't last long. Stewart won in 2005 and 2007, and was won over that NASCAR could truly call Indianapolis home.
"It was everything to me," he said. "My whole life, since I was a kid, that's what I wanted to do. Not that I had some fascination with kissing bricks as a child. But my fascination to do it here was pretty obsessive."
Newman on pole
Ryan Newman snatched the pole from Jimmie Johnson for today's race with a blistering qualifying lap of 187.531 mph to set a track record Saturday.
Newman was the last of 45 drivers to make an attempt. Johnson's speed of 187.438 stood in the top spot for more than an hour.
"I guess it helps, but I don't know if my phone will be ringing (Saturday night)," said Newman, who is looking for a ride in 2014 after his Stewart-Haas team told him this month his contract would not be renewed. "Maybe, hopefully, Monday morning."
Tampa's Aric Almirola (184.794 mph) qualified 21st, and David Reutimann (183.329) of Zephyrhills will start 31st.