Tim Tuttle
Wednesday July 21st, 2010

The list of drivers who have won the Brickyard 400 in its relatively short 16-race history is extraordinary. It is an exclusive club of nine and eight have also been either Daytona 500 or Sprint Cup champions. Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, Dale Jarrett, Bill Elliott and Jimmie Johnson have won all three. Tony Stewart, Bobby Labonte and Kevin Harvick own two of the three.

NASCAR arrived late to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, 83 years after the first Indianapolis 500, but it has been busy building its own traditions through those drivers who kiss the bricks. Indy's annual mid-summer stop will never surpass the Daytona 500 as the race Cup drivers -- with the possible exception of Hoosier-born Stewart -- want to win the most, but it clearly ranks second to historic tracks like Charlotte, Richmond and Bristol.

"It's just a phenomenal place and I think that's why you see the group and list of drivers and teams that have won this race are literally ones that, a lot of times, went on to win championships or have won championships in other big races, because that's when you see really the best come to the forefront," Jarrett said.

Ricky Rudd is the sleeper among the Brickyard 400 winners. He had a decently fast Ford, started seventh, and stretched his fuel into a victory in 1997. It was the biggest win out of the 23 in Rudd's long career.

Johnson, winner of three of the past four Brickyard 400s, is the favorite Sunday and most expect Stewart, Gordon and Harvick to be serious contenders.

Juan Pablo Montoya might be a threat, too, if Earnhardt-Ganassi can find a setup like he had last year in leading 116 laps before a pit-lane speeding penalty relegated him to 11th.

It also seems like the Brickyard is overdue for another Rudd-esque result, the biggest victory of their career. (Montoya, by the way, doesn't qualify; he's already won the Indy 500.). Here are five prime candidates.

1. Mark Martin

It's difficult to believe that with 40 Cup victories and several near-Cup championships that Martin doesn't have one of NASCAR's three big prizes. He finished second last year at the Brickyard and said he drove his Chevy beyond the limit trying to beat Hendrick teammate Johnson.

"I don't usually say that I want to win one race over another, but Indy is different," Martin admits. "Well, Indy and the Daytona 500. Of course, those two stand apart from the rest."

Martin hasn't been as strong this season as in 2009, particularly lately with one top-5 in the last 10 races. But Indianapolis, with its long straights and flat, high-speed turns, is unique and offers Martin and the No. 5 the opportunity at a turnaround performance.

2. Jeff Burton

Burton has driven in all 16 Brickyards and, frankly, doesn't have an overall record that inspires much hope for him Sunday. His top finish is fifth in 1999 and he has three more top-10s. But he's been stronger in recent years, leading 87 laps in 2006 and has two top-10s in the past three years.

Most importantly, Burton has been a contender this season more times than he wants to remember, but he hasn't been able to close the deal. But this is a veteran with 21 Cup wins and it's not a stretch to believe he can do it at the Brickyard.

"I feel good about going to Indy because our engines are strong and we've been good on flat race tracks and those where turning is really important,"

Burton said. "So, I'm optimistic about running well. This race presents an opportunity for us that would mean a lot to our race team. To win he Brickyard, from a historic standpoint, is huge. We're running well enough to win and I think we can certainly be in contention to do so."

3. Kurt Busch

Busch has struggled at Indianapolis, an average finish of 19.0 in nine starts and finished 27th a year ago. But he's having an outstanding season with new crew chief Steve Addington, two wins to bring his career total in Cup to 22 and fifth in the points. Busch drives for Roger Penske, which means maximum effort has been made in preparing the No. 2 Dodge for Indianapolis.

Penske-owned cars have won the Indy 500 15 times, but the owner has yet to score a Brickyard victory.

"When you look at the Captain's accomplishments and the records for Penske Racing, the significant major voids in stock car racing are a win in the Brickyard 400 and a NASCAR points title," Busch said. "I know those are major goals for Roger and I want to be the driver who delivers the goods to him.

A win Sunday would be as prominent and important a feat that's possible."

4. Kyle Busch

Busch has an amazing 18 Cup victories at age 25, but he's still looking for that first major. He admits Indy isn't his best track, that he's still learning how to drive it, but he's also finished fourth, seventh and 10th in five starts.

"You always want to win the big races," Busch said. "You want to win the Brickyard 400, the Daytona 500, the Coca-Cola 600--some of those races--before your career is over. Daytona is (number) one, Indy is two. They're both pretty close. Daytona probably pays a little bit more because NASCAR has to do that. Indy is an important racetrack for a lot of people. There's a lot there that everyone always wants to win."

5. Denny Hamlin

Hamlin is in the midst of his best season, tied with Johnson for the Cup lead with five wins. He's also masterful on flat tracks, with victories this season at Martinsville and Pocono. Hamlin finished third in the tire-marred Brickyard in 2008 after starting 23rd.

"There is so much history and I think every driver wants to win and be a part of that history," Hamlin said. "Indy is a lot like Daytona because winning means so much at those places that it almost lives outside of the schedule and points and thinking about the Chase.

"I think we've shown at Indy that we have what it takes to win there and the team really builds great cars for this track."

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