By Andrew Charman
Jeff Gordon earned himself a place in Indianapolis history by dominating the Brickyard 400 to become NASCAR's first four-time winner at the famed speedway, but this was a day dominated by tyre failures, sparking 12 caution flags – more than twice as many as in any previous Brickyard 400.
Indy fans were looking for a continuation of Brickyard history when Casey Mears put the #41 Target Dodge on pole position at the track where his Uncle Rick Mears added four Indy 500 wins to six poles. But the real interest was further back, especially among those trying to break into the top 10 in points and earn a place in the 10-race final shootout for the first Nextel Cup. One of those was rookie sensation Kasey Kahne, currently 12th in points 69 points back from 10th, and with all three of the Evernham Motorsports squad quick in happy hour practice, many predicted Kahne could open his win account in front of 250,000 spectators at one of the biggest venues of all.
The 160-lapper saw action at the first turn, Mears and fellow front-row qualifier Ward Burton bouncing off each other, Burton's #0 Netzero Hi-Speed Chevrolet dropping back to fourth behind Elliott Sadler and Dale Earnhardt Jr. “Tell Casey I owe him one,” said Burton on his radio. Mears led the first three laps until Sadler's #38 M&M's Ford drove round him, but by now the first yellow was out, Jason Leffler's excursion into the Nextel Cup proving brief with a heavy hit in the wall after a tyre went down.
At the restart on lap 9 Sadler resumed his lead while Earnhardt Jr's #8 Budweiser Chevrolet ran into the back of Mears, who saved the spin but was shuffled back to eighth. Now Burton led the chase of Sadler, Earnhardt behind and fighting off Jeff Gordon's #24 Dupont Chevrolet, who went by on lap 12. Further back the now struggling Mears was hit again, this time in the side by the loose #9 USW/Dodge Dealers Dodge of Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart's #20 Home Depot Chevrolet moving ahead of both of them.
Lap 15 saw Gordon into second and closing the three second gap to Sadler, until on lap 23 it was removed by a yellow flag after Tony Stewart spun, luckily without hitting anything. “My fault, I got too close to the rumble strips,” Tony told his team as everyone headed for pit road. The top four exited as they had entered with Sadler leading Gordon, Earnhardt and Jeremy Mayfield's #19 UAW/Dodge Dealers Dodge, and as the green flew on lap 27 Sadler worked hard to keep Gordon behind him. Jeff could wait, however, and at the end of the lap simply drove into the lead passing the pits.
Now Earnhardt found himself with a tight car, and both Mayfield and Matt Kenseth's #17 DeWalt Ford quickly went by the Budwesier Chevrolet. But then the caution flew again as points leader Jimmie Johnson went for a wild ride in his #48 Lowe's Chevrolet after the closely following#12 ALLTEL Dodge of Ryan Newman took the air off Jimmie's rear spoiler.
The green flew on lap 33, cruelly for Mark Martin who was on pit road fixing a puncture on the #6 Viagra Ford, but within nine laps that flag was out again as the left front tyre on Tony Raines' Dodge exploded on the frontstretch, everyone heading for pit road. Several teams gambled on taking only two tyres and Dale Jarrett benefited most, the #88 UPS Ford coming out in third. At the restart on lap 49 the fastest mover was Robby Gordon, the #31 Cingular Wireless Chevrolet snatching fourth but then getting loose allowing Stewart and Kenseth to go by. Just behind the Evernham Dodges were working together, Kahne heading Mayfield and Bill Elliott, the Brickyard winner having one of his irregular 2004 outings. Kahne was running a wider line than rivals and passing them on the outside, but on lap 59 the rookie became the latest puncture victim. Luckily he kept it out of the wall but unluckily the race stayed green and Kasey lost a lap in the pits.
Up front Gordon was 2.5 seconds clear of Sadler and Kenseth coming on strong, passing Jarrett for third on lap 64. Three laps later the caution flew again, and again it was a left front tyre, this time on Sterling Marlin's Coors Dodge. Foolishly he stayed on track, hoping to avoid the penalty for entering a closed pit road, and instead had to stop on circuit as sparks from a grinding wheel set the tyre alight. Kahne was happier, as the first lap-down car getting his lap back but restarting 35th. Meanwhile Sadler beat Gordon out of the pits, followed by Kenseth, Jarrett and Stewart. They went green on lap 73, but for only seconds as Rusty Wallace's #2 Miller Lite Dodge was pushed into the wall and chaos erupted behind, Scott Wimmer's #22 Caterpillar Dodge drilling the #10 Valvoline Chevrolet of Scott Riggs which bounced from wall to wall and collected several other cars, those of Ward Burton and Terry Labonte the most heavily damaged.
Cleaning up after the Brickyard record sixth caution took six laps, and Gordon waited until turn two to stick the Dupont Chevrolet past Sadler and back into the lead. Behind them Stewart rounded Jarrett for fourth, then quickly disposed of third-placed Kenseth. Gordon meanwhile was the fastest car on the track, pulling away from Sadler, while by lap 86 that man Kahne was back up to 14th with virtually half the race still to run.