Since 1994, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series has been racing on the hallowed grounds of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, with the past 23 years producing some memorable moments and some that were, well, not so memorable.
For this week’s edition of “Throwback Thursday Theater,” we’ll jump back to the 2002 running of the Brickyard 400 that resulted in NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott finally adding an Indianapolis win to help end his career on a high note.
Between 1982 and 1994, Elliott won 41 races, including the 1998 series championship, but through the late nineties, Elliott hit a major slump, failing to win any races through the 2000 season. With his career in its twilight, Elliott got a chance to climb in equipment capable of winning races in 2001 when he joined Ray Evernham’s Dodge team as the manufacturer re-entered the sport.
The return of Dodge paid off big time for Elliott as he was able to win in late 2001, giving him momentum into the 2002 season. Elliott added another win for Evernham and Dodge in mid-2002 with a win at Pocono, but one win was still missing – Indianapolis.
As the series rolled into the storied track the next week, Elliott and his team were full of confidence that this would be the year they captured a Brickyard 400 win.
Tony Stewart would start on pole with Elliott alongside and the Indiana native, who was also still seeking his first Indianapolis win, led 33 of the first 38 laps before giving way to Elliott under the second caution of the day at lap 39.
The first caution fell at lap 12 when Brett Bodine and Mike Wallace got together, testing out the newly installed SAFER barriers at the track, which was the first installation of the safety device at any track on the circuit. Since then the barrier have been placed on every track on the schedule, with tracks still working to implement them more and more.
The lap 39 caution came as a result of Kurt Busch making hard contact with the Turn 3 wall after a nudge from his rival Jimmy Spencer. Busch and Spencer had been feuding all season long, with the feud stemming from Busch moving Spencer out of the way earlier in the season at Bristol for Busch to score his first career Cup Series win.
As expected, Busch was not happy with the contact from Spencer, standing by his damaged car with folded arms and then walking down the track and pounding his chest as Spencer drove by under caution. The next time Spencer drove by, Busch motioned to his rear and pointed at Spencer, signaling he should be sent to the back of the field.
Back in the lead, Elliott was a machine, leading 81 of the next 91 laps before caution came out on lap 128 for Elliott Sadler cutting a tire and putting debris down on track.
Under caution, the leaders all came down pit road for their final pit stops, with Dale Jarrett, Mark Martin, and Stewart electing to take two tires, while the remainder of the lead lap cars, Elliott included, took four. Though Jarrett came off pit road with the race lead, he left his pit stall with the catch can still engaged, forcing him to make another trip down pit road to serve his penalty.
Jarrett’s misfortune would leave Martin and Stewart on the front row for the ensuing restart, with a few cars on the tail end of the lead lap starting ahead of them.
Once the green flag flew for the restart on lap 134, Martin would get held up by those cars just enough for Stewart to make his move in Turn 2, diving low and executing a flawless pass to re-take the lead, with Martin falling in behind in second.
Stewart’s lead would only last for three laps before Rusty Wallace, who also took two tires on the prior pit stop, tracked Stewart down and took over the lead with 24 laps to go.
Though Wallace had the lead, the dominant car of the day belonging to Bill Elliott had the advantage with four tires vs. Wallace’s two tires and it wouldn’t take long for Elliott’s Dodge to fill Wallace’s rear-view mirror. With Elliott running right in the tire tracks of Wallace’s Ford, it was only a matter of time before he would be able to get by him and take over the lead once more.
With 12 laps to go, Elliott would get his chance, pulling alongside Wallace down the backstretch and clearing him into Turn 3 to re-establish himself as the car to beat in the waning laps.
Elliott pulled away for a lead of more than a second over Wallace, but with seven laps to go, the final caution of the day came out for debris, giving the rest of the field one final shot at Elliott.
Despite them all being bunched up for the restart, Elliott was just too strong, getting the jump on Wallace when the green flag flew with three laps to go, easily winning his first Brickyard 400 by a margin of 1.269 seconds.
Following Elliott and Wallace to the line was Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, and Kevin Harvick. Jarrett rebounded up to 10th by the finish, while Stewart finished 12th on the day.
As Elliott made his way toward Victory Lane, car owner Ray Evernham was nearly speechless as he celebrated his first Indianapolis win as a car owner. Evernham had won two times prior as a crew chief for Jeff Gordon.
“I owe an awful lot to these guys,” said Evernham. “To Dodge. It just means a lot, man.”
Elliott was all smiles in victory lane, as he could finally celebrate a win at Indianapolis.
“I’ll tell you what, these guys, when we came here and tested, we worked so hard on race stuff and every lap I drove that race car paid off,” said Elliott. “We ran 125 laps the first day and 170 the second so I had already run two races before I got here. I’m so proud of these guys and what they’ve done and what they’ve accomplished. It makes my job awful easy. It says a lot for the guys here and the guys at the shop that put these things under me week in and week out.”
“Man, Rusty was tough. His ol’ piece would go down that straightaway. You know, I kept working on him and working on him. I felt like if I ever could get to him, I’d be okay, and I finally got to him over there and got him a little loose and was able to power under him.”
“This is the greatest, man. This is the greatest.”
For Elliott, his 2002 Brickyard 400 win was the next to last win of his career as he would retire from full-time racing after the 2003 season, winning his final race at Rockingham in November 2003.