The NASCAR Cup Series heads to the Brickyard at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway after a rare weekend off. While every driver wants to uphold that age old tradition of brick smooching, the following are the top ten NASCAR drivers who most wish or most need to kiss the bricks at one of motor sports most historic and storied venues.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. needs a victory, or at least at great run, at the Brickyard in order to relieve his bubble boy status. Junior currently sits in the 13th position in the points, just outside the championship chase contenders. He trails Clint Bowyer, who is in the 12th spot, by just 15 points.
Last year, Junior qualified well at the Brickyard, starting the race in the third position. He ran well and in the top ten until his engine gave up the ghost on lap 127, relegating him to a 36th place finish. According to the loop data, Earnhardt Jr. ranks sixth among all drivers in the laps led category. Junior has also led 41 of the 800 laps run at the famed raced track.
But for Dale Earnhardt Jr., racing at Indy is all about the history.
"When somebody asks me what it would feel like to win here, I think about the open-wheel history of this track, and I think about drivers like (Mario) Andretti and (A.J.) Foyt and the guys even before them," Junior said. "I think about the history of this track and how it's survived the war and closed down and opened back up and everything that it's been through.
"When they first brought stock cars here to practice, it was a realization for a lot of people, including myself, being an aspiring driver at the time, that I may have a chance one day to race at Indianapolis that I otherwise didn't think that I would have unless I was to go in the open-wheel series."
Kevin Harvick, currently the points leader in the NASCAR championship chase race, hopes to continue atop his perch with a victory at the Brickyard. Harvick is one of two drivers, the other being Ricky Rudd, who has won at the Brickyard but has not been NASCAR Cup Champion.
Harvick also needs a win at Indy to secure his top seed in the Chase. He has two wins this season so far, both at the superspeedways of Talladega and Daytona.
“Our big turnaround started last year at Indy,” Harvick said of Richard Childress Racing’s 2010 rebound. “We made a lot of management changes, and we started over on our race cars. We took a different direction with the engineering and really just came up with a new plan.
"But all of the credit goes to (team owner) Richard (Childress). He pulled the trigger on a lot of different things, whether it was reorganizing people or whether it was getting us the funds to build new cars. I mean, he stepped out on a huge limb to spend the money to start over with four teams halfway through the year, and it's paying off for us.”
Jeff Burton, who sits in the seventh position in the Chase standings, desperately needs a great run at the Brickyard. Burton is one of only four drivers who has started every race of the sixteen run at Indy. Burton has one top five and four top tens.
For Burton, racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is all about honor. "I think it's an honor to go to Indy every year," Burton said. "The history is unbelievable.
"There is nowhere we go where you get the sense of people like you do at Indy with the grandstands on both sides of the front straightaway. When you walk out on Sunday afternoon to start that race, it's like nothing else. The driver's introductions there are pretty cool. It's amazing to see that many people and the excitement at Indy is cool. It's an open-wheel, sacred-ground race track and the fact that we can go there and race is truly an honor."
Kyle Busch is just hoping that by Sunday, he will still have enough gas left in his personal tank to celebrate at the start finish line. Busch will be doing the triple, racing the Truck and Nationwide Series at ORP and the Cup car at the Brickyard.
In order to accomplish this feat, Busch will have a little help from a friend and teammate. Brad Coleman will be in his Nationwide car for practice as well as the qualifying session.
While Busch is impressed with all the encompasses a race at Indy, he still ranks it as second in his book as far as prestige. “It’s number two. It’s right there," Busch said. "Daytona is one, Indy is two. They’re both pretty close.
"Daytona probably pays a little bit more because NASCAR has to do that. Indy is an important racetrack for a lot of people. The history of that place, it’s all been Indy cars. But it’s still one of the first big superspeedways in America dating back to the early 1900s. There’s a lot there that everyone always wants to win.
"I’m just wishing one day I can put my name on that list by getting a win at that track and trying to run up front. You always want to win the big races. You want to win the Brickyard 400, the Daytona 500, the Coca-Cola 600—some of those big races—before your career is over.”
Greg Biffle is hoping for some Brickyard magic. Along with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Biffle is on the chase cusp as well, sitting in the 11th spot. Biffle has one top five and three top 10s at the Brickyard, with a driver rating of 90.7, which is 13th best.
Biffle and crew are bringing a brand new car to the race track this weekend. The Biff is ready for the uniqueness of the rectangular track at Indy.
“Indy is a unique track and passing can be difficult so track position will be crucial," Biffle said. "We will have to be on our toes as far as pit strategy goes because fuel mileage can become a factor.
"We have run well there the last couple of years and if we can go back there and run as well as we did last year, I’ll be happy. Needless to say, our last couple of races have been disappointing and we really can’t afford any more bad races before the Chase. We are looking forward to this weekend at Indy though as an opportunity to get some points back.”
Carl Edwards is hoping for not only a back flip prior to the traditional brick kissing, but also for redemption at the Brickyard. Edwards is fresh off his NASCAR penalty for aggressive driving against his favorite nemesis Brad Keselowski in last week's Nationwide race.
Edwards will also be calling attention to a special cancer survivor as part of sponsor Aflac's Crew of Courage. Edwards will be honoring Jerry Snyder, a tongue, throat and lung cancer survivor.
“I’m fortunate to meet many Aflac policyholders and hear their stories of personal triumph,” Edwards said. “Jerry Snyder is one of these individuals, and he deserves to be recognized and honored. We’re proud to welcome him into the Aflac Crew of Courage and I look forward to spending time with him.”
Jimmie Johnson, four-time consecutive Cup champion, ESPY winner, new father, and immediate past winner at the Brickyard, is looking to continue his streak of honors with another session of brick kissing.
For Johnson, racing at Indy is all about memories and making his own personal history.
"I have a lot of memories watching the (Indianapolis) 500 with my grandfather and my dad," Johnson said. "And then even watching the (Brickyard) 400—watching Earnhardt fight so hard to be the first car on track for that test session, Jeff winning the inaugural race. It's definitely a race that I'm excited to go to. And the history of the track means a lot to me and the fact that I've won three there means a lot to me as well.
"It would be a huge honor to join the list of four time winners; just to win there once is a career maker for anyone. So to have three victories there means a lot to me and when I went to do the winners circle appearance a month or so ago, I was there with Rick Mears and to see him as a four-time winner and to talk about his experiences at the track and what it's done for his life and career was neat and helped me open my eyes to his world and the open-wheel world there. So I'm pumped and excited."
For Tony Stewart, racing and winning at the Brickyard is perhaps more special than to any other driver. Indiana is home turf for Smoke and his dream and goal has always been to win at his home venue.
Stewart finally did just that, achieving his goal to be in Victory Lane at his beloved home track. Stewart now will focus on making another Brickyard dream come true, winning as a driver and team owner.
“It would be awesome," Smoke said of that possibility. "A perfect example was the first year we won the Chili Bowl, which is the biggest Midget race in the country. I won it for good friends of mine, Keith Kunz and Pete Willoughby. Then we were able to win it two years later, but it was the first time I had won it driving my car, and it was just an unbelievable feeling knowing that I had a hand in helping build the program.
“It’s always been a dream to win in Indianapolis, and I’ve been very blessed and fortunate to win it twice now, and that’s something that if I died tomorrow I would die a happy man because of those two races. But it would be that much more special to win it as a team owner."
Of any driver, Juan Pablo Montoya would most likely argue that the Brickyard owes him one. JPM was leading when, with just 35 laps to go, he received a pit road speeding penalty, relegating him to an 11th place finish. He had led 116 of 160 laps of that race.
If Montoya were to win at the Brickyard, he would also make American racing history. He would be the first driver ever to win the Indy 500 and the Brickyard 400.
Montoya also has a reason to celebrate at Indy with the birth this past week of his third child, daughter Manuela.
Team owner Chip Ganassi has the world of confidence in his talented and sometimes fiery driver.
“Drivers are always looking for a particular feel in a car, and they get that feel at certain tracks and they take off,” Ganassi said. “So what does that mean for Juan at Indianapolis? I don’t know. But he and Jamie (McMurray) like that place, so I’m excited.”
There is most likely no one in NASCAR currently that is more hungry to win a race than four-time yet winless Jeff Gordon. The driver of the No. 24 Dupont Chevrolet currently sits second in the point standings but will fall back when the field is set if he does not start racking up some "W's".
Gordon actually has four wins at the famed Brickyard. He would like nothing more than to make that five, making him the first NASCAR driver to do so.
“The Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy 500—guys like Rick Mears and A.J. Foyt, Johnny Rutherford, Al Unser—all those guys were heroes of mine that I aspired to be," Gordon said. “Living in Indiana, racing around Indiana, Indianapolis Raceway Park, the fairgrounds, Bloomington, all over the place, it was every short-track, open-wheel, (NASCAR) Sprint Cup driver's dream to race at Indianapolis one day.
"To be able to do that in the very first ever NASCAR stock-car race there in 1994, win it, then go on to win it three more times is something that I probably put up as the highest accomplishments of my career.
“This is a big event. We know that, we know we're capable of winning. It's definitely getting down to crunch time for us getting in the Chase. It's not just about where we're at in points now; we need those bonus points to really prove to ourselves and everyone else that we can compete for this championship. I can't think of a better place to get 10 of those bonus points than this weekend at the Brickyard.
“This place has been really good to us in the past. With the way things are going for us, I think we've got an excellent shot at it.”