Like the tortoise and the hare, sometimes the fastest car doesn’t always win in NASCAR. In 166 Cup Series starts, journeyman Paul Menard had collected just five top-5 finishes, leaving critics claiming his career was more a product of his moneymaking father than raw talent. Even after landing a ride driving for a powerhouse team, Richard Childress Racing, Menard was seldom considered a threat to win. But in last year’s Brickyard, saving a little extra gas put his No. 27 Chevy in the lead down the stretch, keeping the driver off pit road while other lead-lap cars were forced to stop. At one point, a hard-charging Jeff Gordon was gaining more than two seconds per lap on Menard but ultimately came up short, with the 30-year-old earning his first and only NASCAR Cup victory in a major upset. It was an emotional moment for Paul’s father, John, who had pursued the Indy 500 dream for decades as a car owner but was never able to win open-wheel’s biggest prize. “My heart was going 1,000 miles a minute,” he said. “I don’t know if I can take it. It’s unbelievable, a wonderful place. Our family has spent so much time here and now, to have Paul’s first victory here… it’s incredible.”
7. Two Legends Duel In Brickyard 400 Finish of 2002
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Rusty Wallace, the 1989 Cup champion was NASCAR’s short track ace but a bridesmaid in the races that seemed to count the most. Never a Daytona 500 winner, he finished second at Indy three times, leading 148 laps but could never pull off the big trophy. His third and last chance came in 2002, leading for 12 circuits and holding crucial track position and clean air entering the final 50 miles – you want to be out front at one of the sport’s most difficult tracks to pass. But NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver, Bill Elliott would not be denied as his No. 9 Dodge scuffled with, then slipped by Rusty en route to claiming victory. Why is this one so memorable? It was a “last hurrah” of sort for both men, front and center in this race but who would win a total of just twice more (one for each) before retiring full-time from the Cup Series.
6. 2002: Kurt Busch vs Jimmy Spencer
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Kurt Busch and Jimmy Spencer had a long and sordid history by the time the 2002 Brickyard 400 came around. And after getting shoved out of the way at Bristol that Spring, a move that made the difference on Victory Lane Jimmy Spencer reminded an audience of millions he never forgets. Hitting Busch’s rear bumper hard entering the corner, the move left Busch losing control and slamming the outside wall hard, totaling his No. 97 Ford. The younger Busch, then only in his second Cup season went on a rant against Spencer during and after the race, a feud that would simmer and boil over by August of 2003 in another incident that ultimately lead to Spencer’s infamous one-week suspension from the Cup Series.
5. Tire Problems At 2008 Brickyard 400
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Goodyear? More like Good God when it comes to the 2008 version of this event. With a tire compound incapable of lasting at high speed, steady blowouts kept the longest green-flag segment of the race at 13 laps. Big names like Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, and Juan Pablo Montoya were among the innocent victims, ugly wrecks that turned the race into a game of low-speed, single-file survival. Jimmie Johnson took the checkers during a final “sprint” where simply keeping yourself from spinning out was considered successful. How bad was it? Some of the race’s top finishers admitted that even on the white-flag lap, they were driving at no more than “80 percent” of top speed to ensure their car made it to the checkers in one piece.
4. Tony Stewart Wins At His Hometown Track… Then Climbs The Fence
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Tony Stewart lives and breathes Indy. The Indiana native, an open-wheel convert had always put the Indy 500 and Brickyard 400 at the top of his career list of races to win. But while the 500-miler has always been elusive, bad breaks and a full-time transition to NASCAR keeping him out of Victory Lane it took just seven years to claim success in a stock car. Passing Kasey Kahne in the race’s final 15 laps, Stewart pulled away to a convincing margin of victory and then celebrated by climbing the fence to the delight of 200,000+ hometown fans chanting, “Tony, Tony.” Sometimes cantankerous in public, it was a “let his hair down and relax moment” that helped spark a summer surge, one which ultimately propelled him to a second Cup Series championship by November.
3. Dale Earnhardt Tastes Victory At Indy
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The second Brickyard 400 took almost two days to complete, rain pushing the start of the race back several hours. When it did go green, it stayed there with just two caution flags, letting the cream rise to the top as it gave limited chances for drivers and teams to adjust their race cars. There is no better person to handle that strange scenario than NASCAR’s Intimidator, Dale Earnhardt; rising from his 13th starting spot, he took the lead for the first time with 28 laps remaining and held off a hard-charging rival in Rusty Wallace to take the checkered. After going 0-for-16 years at the sport’s other big race at the time, February’s Daytona 500 it was a relief for Earnhardt to get the monkey off his back for this prestigious race in start number two.
2. A Bodine Brothers Feud
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Racing brothers having bad blood between them? That’s nothing new; just ask Kurt and Kyle Busch. But having their argument play out on one of NASCAR’s biggest stages? Now that’s something different altogether, especially when it happens while battling for the lead. With 60 laps to go, Geoff’s No. 7 and Brett’s No. 26 made contact off Turn 4, spinning Geoff in front of the field of 40 cars coming right at him. Dale Jarrett couldn’t avoid it, causing a mess on the frontstretch and ending the hopes of perhaps the only car that could have run with Jeff Gordon that day. Brett? He finished second, but didn’t talk to his brother for a long time afterwards. "We've had some family problems,” said Geoff afterwards, “Some personal problems between the two of us, and (Brett) unforunately took it out on the race track and never expected he'd do it. He's my brother I love him, but he spun me out."
1. Jeff Gordon’s Win … And Ernie’s Flat Tire
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Heading into NASCAR’s first race at Indy, Jeff Gordon had the number “one” on the most important line on his resume: Victory Lane. Just 23, the man with Indiana roots and a superstar label so desperately wanted to put his name on the map; and for most of the day, it looked like it would be a walk in the park. But as the laps wound down, Ernie Irvan’s No. 28 creeped up, taking the lead with 11 laps remaining and setting up a frantic finish between the two. But it was then, just as the duo started slicing and dicing it all went kaput for the Texaco/Havoline Ford; a flat tire sent him scurrying to pit road while Gordon was left to cakewalk to Victory Lane.