There's something about historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway, site of Sunday's NASCAR Brickyard 400, that makes NASCAR drivers misty-eyed.
Tony Stewart, a three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion and two-time Brickyard 400 winner, calls the track "sacred ground." Bobby Labonte, another former Brickyard 400 winner, said "I still get little goose bumps" when he's at Indy.
Most Cup drivers also agree that if they can't win NASCAR's biggest prize, the Daytona 500, winning the Brickyard 400 is the next best thing.
But many fans are less enthralled with the Brickyard 400 these days, and that's a problem for NASCAR and the speedway as they celebrate the 20th anniversary of stock-car racing at Indy.
For decades, the 2.5-mile track west of downtown Indianapolis had one purpose: hosting the famed Indianapolis 500 on Memorial Day weekend. That changed in 1994, when the track took the radical step of allowing NASCAR to race there.
The first race was so novel that more than 200,000 spectators filled the speedway that year as Jeff Gordon captured the first of his four Brickyard 400 victories.
But now the Brickyard 400 draws half that many spectators. And in a nod to that drop, the speedway this year placed giant tarps over thousands of seats between Turns 1 and 2, and between Turns 3 and 4, rather than have television cameras showing swaths of empty grandstands.
What happened? A confluence of factors:
—The novelty wore off.
—The racing often is boring; passing is tough at Indy, so the racing frequently consists of cars running single-file.
—The Brickyard 400 was caught in the overall pullback in NASCAR's popularity from a decade ago, much of which stemmed from the economic collapse of the late 2000s.
—NASCAR's expansion — with new tracks in Chicago, Kentucky and Kansas — gave would-be Indy spectators other choices.
—And a tire debacle that plagued the Brickyard 400 in 2008 — just as the economic problems were taking hold — left a lingering bad taste that kept many fans from returning.
"It was bad timing, no doubt about that," Gordon said.
The 2008 race was marred by failed tires throughout the field, which forced drivers to pit every 10 to 12 laps simply to keep racing. Jimmie Johnson survived the ordeal to win the second of his four Brickyard 400 victories.
Dale Jarrett, a two-time Brickyard 400 winner and now a NASCAR announcer with ESPN, said the 2008 race had a big effect on why the race's attendance tumbled.
"That day, unfortunately for the drivers, the teams, for our series, NASCAR racing, was a day that certainly wasn't taken very well, especially by the fans," Jarrett said.
"People, they don't tend to forget those things as quickly. So when the expenses have gone up to travel, [to] be a part of it, they think back on that ... I think they're a little more reluctant."
The allure of Indy certainly hasn't waned for the drivers.
Stewart, who was an IndyCar racing champion before he moved to NASCAR in 1999, at first was among those who shuddered at the idea of stock cars at Indy.
"I was one of them that absolutely thought it was a crime initially," Stewart said. But after he saw a replay of the initial race, Stewart changed his mind. "It really showed why NASCAR belonged there," he said.
Ricky Rudd, who won the Brickyard 400 in 1997, remembered feeling "like we were invited guests" when NASCAR first ran at Indy and that he was nervous due to "wanting to do well there, not necessarily for yourself, but [to] just uphold the dignity of the stock car crowd."
Johnson, the six-time Cup champion whose consistently winning ways and bland personality is cited by some for NASCAR's drop in popularity, this week was asked why the Brickyard 400 crowds had declined.
"I thought it was my fault," Johnson quipped. Then he said: "I don't think we'll ever trace back to what it is, but [the 2008 race] didn't help by any means."
Harvick wins pole
Kevin Harvick, who won the Brickyard 400 in 2003, won the pole for this year's race with a lap of 188.470 mph.
Gordon was second-fastest in Saturday's qualifying, followed by Brad Keselowski and defending champion Ryan Newman.
Elsewhere in the 43-car field, Juan Pablo Montoya qualified eighth, Kyle Busch was 12th, Danica Patrick was 14th and Dale Earnhardt Jr. will start 23rd.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times