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Brickyard is special for drivers

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INDIANAPOLIS — Winning the Brickyard 400 is special — and not just because a $6.5 million purse makes it one of stock car racing's biggest paydays.

Bobby Labonte, the Winston Cup points leader, says the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway sets the race apart from virtually all others in NASCAR.

"You can just feel the history here, the great drivers who have raced at this place," he said. "It does pay a lot of money. But there's more to it than that."

Labonte, who leads series champion and two-time Brickyard winner Dale Jarrett by just 53 points, and former race winner Dale Earnhardt by 107, has another reason to enjoy his yearly visits to the historic speedway. He's doing very well on the 2 1/2-mile oval.

The younger of the two racing brothers from Texas has finished second, third and second the last three years.

Winning it, especially this year, in the midst of such a tight championship race, would be a big boost for Labonte.

"But that's not because it's the Brickyard," he said. "A win, any win, would be good right now."

Labonte, who has one victory this season and 13 in his career, will have a good shot at winning the race when he starts third in the 43-car field on Saturday.

"Track position is very important nowadays, and on a track like this, it's really important," Labonte said. "If you have good track position, you could possibly win.

"At a place like Michigan, it might not be quite as important because the track is wider and banked. Here, you don't have that luxury, and you might not have the opportunities to pass."

Ricky Rudd, who will start from the pole, alongside surprise front-row qualifier Darrell Waltrip, won here in 1997 after starting seventh.

"I think as long as you are in the top 10 somewhere here, it's an advantage because you don't have to wear down your equipment in the first part of the race," Rudd said. "And the further you get back in the field, you end up with the air getting pretty mixed up and your car tends not to handle as good as it does in the front of the pack."

Jarrett, who won here in 1996 and 1999, will start fifth Saturday.

"I feel like we have the opportunity to win again," he said. "But I think the competition has caught up a lot — not only here, but a lot of places.

"I don't know that you can ever have a perfect race, but last year was as close as it could come because we did everything just like we needed to do."

Jarrett credited his crew with keeping him out front, saying they did outstanding work on pit stops. Another major factor was the decision by crew chief Todd Parrott to maintain track position by taking only two tires on the final stop.

Everything went just as planned.

"You couldn't write out a better script," Jarrett said. "It's going to be tough to top that."

Earnhardt, whose victory here came in 1995, when he started 13th, agreed that it takes just about a perfect race to win at Indy.

"A lot of people talk about the track not being a passing track, but you've got to pass to advance," Earnhardt said. "I think winning this race every year would be cool."

The seven-time series champion says all the drivers focus on big races, but he has always treated each event the same way.

Jeff Gordon, the only other two-time Indy winner, spent his teen years living in nearby Pittsboro, Ind., and considers the speedway sort of a home track.

He won in 1994 and 1998, but might have a tough time Saturday because he starts 28th in a field of 43.

Part of his enthusiasm comes from driving a track unique to the circuit.

"There's no other track shaped like this, and I doubt if there's another track as smooth as this one," Gordon said. There's a lot of excitement, and you recognize that as you're competing."