By David Morgan, NASCAR Contributor
As the calendar continues to roll through the month of July, this coming weekend is always a special one for the drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. For the 23rd year, the series heads to Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the running of the Brickyard 400. With that in mind, we take a step back in time 20 years ago to the 1996 edition of the Brickyard 400 in this week’s edition of “Throwback Thursday Theater.”
With the first two races at Indianapolis going to Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, all eyes were on the field to see which driver would be the next to take home a win at the historic track. Along with the storyline of who would win the Brickyard 400, a crash involving Earnhardt the week before at Talladega, which saw Earnhardt’s car turned head on into the outside wall in the tri-oval and flipping, would have the Intimidator heading to Indianapolis nursing a broken collarbone and a fractured sternum. As a result of his injuries, Earnhardt would start the race to be credited with the points, but would give way to relief driver Mike Skinner at the first caution.
Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin would start on the pole for the third running of the race, with Gordon taking the advantage on the start, leading the first three laps before Martin took over at lap four. Two laps later, the first caution of the day would come out after a crash at the back of the pack involving Greg Sacks, Robert Pressley, Ricky Craven, Dave Marcis, and Bobby Hillin, Jr. The crash would give Earnhardt his opportunity to come down pit road to make the driver change with Skinner.
“The car was real comfortable and I wasn’t in much pain riding along there, but the plan was to get him in there just in case anything happened, I wouldn’t hurt myself anymore. Dadgum, it was hard to get out of there. It’s my life right here,” said an emotional Earnhardt after climbing from the car.
Meanwhile, back up front Martin continued to lead for the next 15 laps before the second caution of the day came out for a hard impact into the Turn 4 wall by polesitter Gordon, who seemed to have a tire go down to send him into the wall. As a result of the impact, Gordon was able to limp his car down pit road and to the garage and would be done for the day.
Just as the caution came out, the third place starter on the day, Lake Speed, was able to get by Martin for the lead, with the caution giving Skinner a chance to lead as well before the lead cycled around to Ken Schrader when the green flag came back out at lap 28.
When the race went back green, some fantastic racing for the lead ensued between Schrader, Sterling Marlin, Kyle Petty, and Johnny Benson, Jr. The four drivers would only be able to lead for a lap or two before Benson took over for an extended period of time at lap 32.
As the field came through Turn 4 on lap 38, Petty looked to suffer the same issues that befell Gordon earlier in the race, sending his No. 42 car hard into the outside wall. After impacting the wall, Petty came back across the track and collected Marlin before making a second heavy impact into the inside wall just at pit entry. Somehow, Martin, who was running just behind Marlin, was able to avoid the two spinning cars without getting any damage.
As the race continued to play out, Benson continued his march at the front of the field, leading a total of 70 laps before the two Robert Yates Racing cars of Dale Jarrett and Ernie Irvan took over in the closing stages of the race. Jarrett led his first four laps of the race at lap 135, with Irvan right on his rear bumper trying to find a way into the lead. Irvan would successfully take over the lead at lap 139, but Jarrett was right back in attack mode as he wanted the lead back.
Heading through Turn 2 with seven laps to go, Jarrett made his move, diving low on Irvan and completing the pass as the two made their way onto the backstretch. Just as Jarrett had done to him, Irvan dropped right back in behind Jarrett as he wanted the lead back and a shot at Indianapolis glory.
Though Irvan looked to be making ground on that endeavor, he would run out of time as a crash in Turn 4 by Robert Pressley on the penultimate lap would bring out the caution, meaning that whichever driver won the race back to the finish line to take the white flag and caution flag together would win the race.
Jarrett was just too strong on those final laps and streaked across the finish line ahead of Irvan to score his first Brickyard 400 win.
“The car was great all day long. I was a little bit tight and I could tell that Ernie was getting tighter too. I knew that was a place that I could make my move. He got in a little hard and a little bit high and I saw an opportunity to get by him and I just took it and the car worked a lot better out front. What a feeling. This is just fantastic,” Jarrett said.
“You’ve always watched races at Indy and now to have the opportunity to be right here in victory lane is such a tremendous feeling. This is such a great place. I want to thank God for a safe race here, for giving me the abilities that he has, and for saving a lot of people out there, including myself. What a year to win the Daytona 500, the Coca-Cola 600, and now the Brickyard 400.”
As usual, Jarrett pulled his No. 88 Ford into victory lane to celebrate the win, but he and his crew chief Todd Parrott had something else up their sleeve to celebrate the win with. After the victory lane festivities, Jarrett and his crew assembled at the start/finish line, where they all kneeled down and kissed the bricks in celebration. From that point on, any driver that has won the Brickyard 400 in the years since will visit both victory lane and will also make the journey to the finish line to kiss the bricks.