The 2016 Brickyard 400 was a race that fans will not soon forget. It was not so much for the racing itself, however, but what the fans were able to witness as the checkered flag flew. When Kyle Busch’s Skittles Camry crossed the line of bricks, he was able to cement himself as a serious championship contender. Furthermore, he asserted his dominance in the sport. Busch rewrote the record books by sweeping both poles and both victories in the NASCAR XFINITY and Sprint Cup Series. But perhaps even more important than the win was a tribute lap by two legends of the sport; after Busch was crowned a 2-time winner at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The records, and the image of two legends driving together for one final lap will live on for decades. Indeed it was the fans who were treated to an extra special 2016 Brickyard 400.
Fans were Treated to a Special 2016 Brickyard 400
Xfinity Lilly Diabetes 250
It began in the XFINITY Series heat race, the 20-lap qualifying race to determine the starting lineup outside of the front row. Busch led all 20 laps and cruised to the victory. Then he went out and set a blistering fast 49.467-second lap, grabbing the Xfinity Pole. And finally, he led a ridiculous 62 of 63 laps en route to the win at the Lilly Diabetes 250 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The victory was his 83rd career XFINITY Series win and 7th of the year.
Busch has been putting on a clinic in all three of NASCAR’s top divisions over the past several seasons. Regardless of being a fan of the 31-year old Nevada native or not, and whether or not one agrees with his eligibility to race in the lower series, what Busch has accomplished is impressive and fans should be in awe, or at the very least, respect the talent and accolades that “Rowdy” has. All of this is without mentioning what he accomplished for one of the Sprint Cup Series’ most prestigious races of the year. Driving the number 18 Skittles Camry, Busch rocketed to the pole, his second of the weekend. Then from the drop of the Green flag, Busch made a point of proving who the dominant driver would be.
Busch set a new track record leading 149 of 160 laps, surpassing the so-called king at Indy in Sprint Cup, Jeff Gordon. The victory was the 38th in his career, which moved him into a tie for 19th all time in career Cup wins with Matt Kenseth. Kenseth has been driving six years longer than Busch in the series. Busch also tied Jimmie Johnson as the only other driver to win back-to-back Brickyard 400 races. Fans literally witnessed history as it happened, a truly magnificent racing performance over the weekend. But the real delight was what fans were treated to after the race was official: the luxury of witnessing nostalgia of legendary proportions.
Jeff Gordon’s Return
It was announced in the week before the Brickyard that soon-to-be Hall of Fame inductee, retired driver Jeff Gordon would return behind the wheel as a substitute for injured Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Indianapolis, and Pocono the following week. Fans were delighted to hear the news. This became even more excited as evident with the loud cheers during driver introductions. It began to sink in that the long-time driver of the famed number 24 car would be back on the track for one more try at Indy glory. Gordon was average for most of the race and rightfully so; he hadn’t been in a race car in eight months!
Through strategy and driving ability, narrowly avoiding a wreck and re-learning how to do restarts, Gordon powered his way to a 13th place finish in the 88 Axalta Chevrolet. It didn’t matter where he would have finished for this weekend to have been special for the fans. That he was able to finish on the lead lap and be near the front was remarkable. This is something very few drivers would be able to accomplish.
But Gordon wasn’t the only one driving in (likely) their final Brickyard 400. Indiana native Tony Stewart entered the race on a hot streak. He had announced at the beginning of 2016 that this would be his final season. Stewart had previous success at his home track. He also turned in a solid performance in Sunday’s race, placing 11th. But after the checkered flag flew, both Gordon and Stewart weren’t quite ready to say goodbye to the track that was so good to them for so many years.
Rarely does a driver salute the fans for an extra lap after a race he didn’t win. But on this Sunday, the circumstances were perfect. Two drivers who spent a large portion of their youth growing up in the Indiana area, who both dominated at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and marked their careers there, were able to finish near each other on the track in their final try. So Stewart, as clarified in his post-race interview, told his spotter to relay the message to Gordon’s spotter that “after this thing’s over we need to go one more lap around here because it most likely is the last chance we’ll get to do that”. On Gordon’s team radio, T.J. Majors, the 88 team’s spotter specifically clarified that the lap would also be for the fans.
Only legends that make a profound impact on their sport are able to do such a salute. The fans, not only in the stands but at home, were treated to a very special farewell. It was a chance to sit back for an extra lap and remember all the memories of watching those two drivers. Stewart has been much more subdued in his farewell season than Gordon last year. But at his home track he knew he needed to do something special.
That these two drivers were racing in their farewell race must have had some sort of impact on the fans. Ratings were up for this race. According to Adam Stern, motorsports reporter for the SportsBusiness Journal, the race on NBCSN had 5.2 million viewers on TV, up 11% from 2015. They also had better viewership than when the more widely distributed ESPN aired the race for the final time in 2014. It was also the most watched NASCAR race ever on NBCSN.
Will the races the rest of the season and beyond draw those numbers? It’s a good bet that this week at Pocono might be close. Gordon is uncertain about driving any more races beyond that week. Beyond that though, it is unlikely. What is certain, however, is with the records Busch set and with Gordon and Stewart calling it quits; we may never see another Brickyard 400 that is that special, for the drivers and fans.