When Jim Nabors sings "Back Home Again In Indiana" before every Indianapolis 500, he could just as easily be singing directly to a handful of NASCAR drivers as they make the yearly return to their home state for NASCAR's Brickyard 400.
Jeff Gordon grew up in nearby Pittsboro and became an overnight icon in the Hoosier state when he won the first Brickyard 400 in 1994, doing so in only his second full-time season in the then-Winston Cup Series. It was one of the best local-boy-makes-good stories ever seen in the world of sports. Gordon has since gone on to win four times in the Brickyard in total, the last in 2004.
"It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years," Gordon said in this week's Chevrolet media release. "That was such a big event. ... Growing up in nearby Pittsboro (Indiana) made that such a special win for me."
Tony Stewart grew up in Columbus, Indiana, about 50 miles south of Indianapolis. When he got out of high school, Stewart drove a tow truck for a living while embarking upon his racing career and would oftentimes drive past Indianapolis Motor Speedway, dreaming of one day racing there.
Not only did that dream come true, Stewart is a two-time Brickyard 400 winner. Stewart said in his weekly media release:
You dream about something for so long, you become consumed by it. When I was in USAC trying to make a living as a racecar driver, I drove a tow truck for a guy I raced sprint cars against.
I would drive down Georgetown toward 16th Street, parallel with the frontstretch, and wonder what it would be like 300 feet to the left running 200 mph.
I got a chance to do that, and finally, after years of trying to win, be it in Indy cars or stock cars, I got to know what it feels like, to see that view coming down the front straightaway, seeing the checkered flag and knowing that I was the first driver to cross the stripe, versus the second, third or fourth-place guy.
I had wanted that moment for so long, and I finally got it.
And then there's Ryan Newman. After he won last year's Brickyard 400, Newman made it clear that there's now two iconic sports entities from South Bend, Indiana: Notre Dame football and himself. Newman said in this week's Chevrolet media release:
It's hard to rationalize a race beating the Daytona 500, but with all that happened to me last year, winning the 2013 Brickyard 400 is kind of in a tie with me winning the 50th running of the Daytona 500. ... Plus, I am from Indiana and that place is important to my state.
While winning the Daytona 500 will almost always be looked upon as the pinnacle of success in NASCAR, winning at Indianapolis is something just as endearing—and even more so when it comes in a drivers' home state, in front of his home fans and leaving everyone full of home pride.
In a way, winning the Brickyard 400 is the Hoosier Holy Grail for guys like Gordon, Stewart and Newman.
And every time they return to the fabled 2.5-mile oval, it's not just a return home; it's also a rare home race for them, a return to a revered place built upon hallowed and sacred ground.
They don't get that same feeling at Daytona or Charlotte or Talladega or anywhere else.
When you grow up in Indiana, sure, you may root for the Indianapolis Colts or Indiana Pacers or even the Fighting Irish or Purdue Boilermakers. But when it comes to racing, there's only one state that can lay claim to the greatest and most well-known racetrack in the world, Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
As Gordon said, it really is hard to believe that Sunday will be the 21st edition of the Brickyard 400. It's still a young pup when compared to the big daddy of them all in NASCAR, the Daytona 500, which has been around 55 years, and to the even bigger granddaddy of them all, the Indianapolis 500, which will celebrate it's 99th year in 2015.
And then there's the inherent difference between the Brickyard 400 and Indy 500 for many fans, myself included.
The Brickyard is not and never has pretended that it's in the same league as the 500. First off, it's only 400 miles vs. 500. Second, it's stock cars racing against the heritage of Indy cars, and it takes places on a track that was built specifically for open-wheel racing, not stock cars.
To this day, I still get two different kinds of feelings going through the tunnel into the infield at IMS. On 500 race-day morning, you get the sense you belong there. On 400 race-day morning, I still get the feeling that I'm interloping, imposing upon such a storied place with a different race series that is almost like cheating with a mistress, while the 500 is your beloved spouse.
On 500 morning, I get a homey feeling. On 400 morning, I still feel like a guest. I wonder if I'll always still feel that way.
And I know I'm not alone in that feeling based upon conversations I've had with other reporters and fans, even some drivers themselves (those not from Indiana, obviously).
But if you're someone like Gordon, Stewart or Newman, being back home again in Indiana is the end-all and be-all.
And if you're fortunate enough to win in front of your family and friends, bend down to kiss the bricks at the start/finish line in celebration and you just happen to be from the Hoosier state, well, it just doesn't get any better for a home-state kid.
Quotes used in this column were obtained from individual driver media releases as well as the weekly Chevrolet NASCAR media release.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski
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