The annual Brickyard 400 has long been considered NASCAR's second-most important event, ranking behind only the Daytona 500 in terms of prestige. A victory at the hallowed Indianapolis Motor Speedway is all but equal to - and to some stock car drivers, even bigger than - a victory in the Great American Race.
This weekend's Sprint Cup event continues the Speedway's centennial celebration. The track opened in 1909, and two years later hosted the inaugural Indianapolis 500 - to this day the most important auto race in the world. Stock car racing's first large-scale invasion of the Speedway was a June 1992 test session involving the sport's biggest names.
The following April, Tony George and the late Bill France Jr. - then the respective presidents of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and NASCAR - announced the creation of the Brickyard 400. On August 6, 1994, California-native but adopted Hoosier Jeff Gordon won the inaugural event.
Since then, a who's who list of ten NASCAR heavyweights have tasted victory at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Gordon himself holds the event record with four Brickyard 400 triumphs. He won in 1998 and 2001 - both years that he won the Sprint Cup title - before tying the Speedway's oval record with his fourth win in 2004 (Formula 1's Michael Schumacher won the U.S. Grand Prix on the track's road course five times).
In addition to Gordon, six other Sprint Cup champions have won the 400, including Georgia's Bill Elliott in 2002. Dale Earnhardt won the second race in 1995 and subsequently declared himself "the first man to win the Brickyard 400," a jab at Gordon's youth. Dale Jarrett won in 1996 - an event that saw his crew chief Todd Parrott initiate the the victory tradition of kissing the row of bricks that make up the track's start-finish line - and again during his 1999 championship season. Bobby Labonte won the 2000 race, again during a title year - in fact, Gordon's '98 and '01 victories book-ended a streak of four years in which the Indy winner won the championship.
Native Hoosier Tony Stewart won in 2005 - the first victory for an Indiana-born driver at the Speedway since Wilbur Shaw's 1939 Indy 500 win - and again in 2007. The '05 win was, again, during a championship season. Finally, Jimmie Johnson has won three Brickyard 400s, in 2006, 2008, and 2009, during his five-year stranglehold on the Sprint Cup championship.
The three Brickyard winners without a title have still left their mark on the sport.
Ricky Rudd held off Labonte to win the 1997 running of the 400 driving for his self-owned Rudd Performance Motorsports team. It was Rudd's 19th of 23 Cup wins. The Virginia native scored 20 of those in over a 16-year stretch from 1983 through 1998 in which he had at least one win. It is the longest streak in the sport's history. He also holds the all-time consecutive starts record, with 788 starts from the 1981 season-opener at Riverside to the 2005 season-finale at Homestead. He was named one of NASCAR's 50 Greatest Drivers in 1998, as part of the sanctioning body's 50th-anniversary celebration.
Current Sprint Cup title contender Kevin Harvick became the first driver to win the Brickyard 400 from the pole when he won the 2003 race. Harvick, of course, was thrust into the spotlight when he was tabbed to replace Dale Earnhardt after his fatal crash in the 2001 Daytona 500. He answered the call by winning the Rookie of the Year Award and finishing ninth in points despite missing the first race and competing simultaneously in what is now the NASCAR Nationwide Series and winning that circuit's championship. Harvick won the 2007 Daytona 500 and has three wins already in the 2011 Sprint Cup season.
Finally, there's 2010 Brickyard champ Jamie McMurray. Few had heard of the Joplin, MO, native when he burst onto the scene in 2002, winning in just his second-career start as a substitute driver for Sterling Marlin. It took nearly five years for McMurray to get back to victory lane, at Daytona in July of 2007, and he only had three total wins entering last season. He opened the year by stunning the racing world with a win in the Daytona 500, then joined Jarrett and Johnson as the only drivers to sweep the sport's two biggest races when he won at Indy in July.
For all the star-power that has won at Indianapolis, there are plenty of other big names who haven't. Rusty Wallace retired with three runner-up finishes but zero wins. 1986 Daytona 500 champ Geoff Bodine was crashed from the lead in the inaugural race by his own brother Brett and never got redemption with a victory. Among active drivers, veterans Mark Martin, Jeff Burton, and Matt Kenseth have all come close but have come up short. Juan Pablo Montoya has dominated the last two Brickyard 400s, leading a combined 202 of 320 laps, but he has been cruelly denied both times in his bid to become the only driver with a win in the 400 and the Indianapolis 500 - a race he won in 2000.
The Daytona 500 can thrust a driver to superstardom, as it did for Trevor Bayne this past February, and the same is true for the Brickyard 400. Six of the 10 previous winners - Rudd, Jarrett, and Elliott are retired, Earnhardt is deceased - will be attempting to add another Indy trophy to their case. The other 37 drivers who take the green flag Sunday will be looking to etch their names into immortality with a triumph at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.