SPEEDWAY, Ind. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. says he knew how much competing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway meant to his father, even if the two didn't have deep conversations about the matter.
"... I remember how excited he was and everybody else was about that specific tire test," Earnhardt Jr. said of a Goodyear tire test that took place nearly two full years before the inaugural 1994 Brickyard 400.
"And I remember the mental and literal race to be the first guy on the race track once they got here. My dad and Rusty (Wallace) sort of were elbow-to-elbow trying to be the first guy to be on the track. For my father, for some reason, that was historic in its own right."
The elder Earnhardt had already won five of his seven championships in NASCAR's Cup Series when a handful of teams arrived at the world-famous 2.5-mile facility for the first time. Along with Earnhardt (Richard Childress Racing) and Wallace (Penske Racing), other drivers participating in that test included Kyle Petty (SABCO), Darrell Waltrip (Dar-Wal Racing), Ernie Irvan (Morgan-McClure Motorsports), Bill Elliott (Junior Johnson & Associates), Mark Martin (Roush Racing), Davey Allison (Robert Yates Racing) and Ricky Rudd (Hendrick Motorsports).
Although raised on the dirt tracks of the south, Earnhardt had become a savvy businessman on his way to the top, and he understood the importance of NASCAR's Indy arrival perhaps more than anyone.
Earnhardt Jr. said he knew it was a big deal as well.
"I guess the first thing that raced through my mind was, 'What would the racing be like? What kind of race would we see?' " he said. " 'What kind of style of racing would we see when the cars went around such a big track with no banking and all the corners being 90 degrees; what would the cars do and how would the drivers be able to compete with each other?'
"It turned out to be quite a thrill and a lot of fun to watch the first race. ? I felt like the door was always closed to stock cars racing here. I felt like that was just one thing that would never happen; that IndyCar and open wheel would be too protective or that the history and tradition of this place would never be broken. But it was awesome that we got the opportunity to come here."
Sunday's Crown Royal presents the Samuel Deeds 400 at the Brickyard (ESPN, 1 p.m.) will mark the 20th time NASCAR's Cup Series has competed at Indy. Two decades after the first race, it's an event that still ranks high in the eyes of the competitors.
"I think it's the history of the race track -- everyone wants to win here, and it's about the trophy -- who has won here, how hard it is to win here and the history of the track and race itself," said Jeff Gordon, a four-time Cup champion and four-time winner of the race.
"I can't believe it's been 20 years since we won here in 1994. That certainly says a lot about how fast things can go by. To me, that inaugural race really set the precedent for how impressive this facility is and how prestigious the race was the first year and always will be."
Honing his skills in open-wheel sprint-car series in the surrounding area, Gordon said it was common for all young hopefuls to talk and dream of one day competing on the "big track."
"When you're racing locally nearby here, it doesn't matter your name or what kind of car you drive," he said. "Your goal is to race here in May. Everybody that I raced with every weekend would talk about, 'Oh, I have a chance at a ride with this team or that team.' Whatever it was, it was always the buzz. Your goal ? was to win enough races to get the opportunity to go race in the Indianapolis 500."
When those doors failed to open for Gordon ("I realized very early and quickly that the chances of me ? getting a top ride was very slim," he said), it became much easier to look elsewhere.
With his stock-car career on the fast track, Gordon said he was pleased to learn that NASCAR would test at Indy, but disappointed because he had yet to begin his Cup career.
"It looked like so much fun that day, the way they were swapping positions," he said. "It was an exhibition but looked like a fun exhibition that I wanted to be a part of. I was thrilled to be a part of it in 1994 when it actually happened. It was a dream come true to win that race."
Gordon and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson are the most successful Cup drivers at Indy, with four wins each. Five drivers in the inaugural race are back once again for the 20th running -- Gordon, Martin, Bobby Labonte, Jeff Burton and Joe Nemechek.
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