NASCAR: Rudd, Jarrett, Bobby Labonte look back on Brickyard 400 triumphs

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Time has not lessened the significance of winning at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for Ricky Rudd.

Rudd was not fortunate enough to win a Sprint Cup championship or a Daytona 500 in his driving career. But his 1997 Brickyard 400 triumph is something he takes deep pride in.

“It was just such a big day,” Rudd recalled today in an NASCAR teleconference. “I still have visions of that. I was fortunate enough to win a few more races along the way, but none of them seem to stand out in the detail that Indy has.

“It’s almost like it was a dream but yet it came true. I just have very vivid recollections of how that thing unwound.”

The same goes for fellow Brickyard champions Dale Jarrett (1996, 1999) and Bobby Labonte (2000), who joined Rudd today to recall their own Indy memories.

As part of his 1996 Indy win, Jarrett and his crew chief at the time, Todd Parrott, also started what’s become a tradition in both the Brickyard and the Indianapolis 500: The post-race kiss of the Yard of Bricks for the winning team.

Jarrett said the two talked beforehand about doing that if they won, but Parrott wound up having to remind his driver in Victory Lane.

“Todd grabbed me and said, ‘Hey, remember what we talked about,'” said Jarrett. “It wasn’t until then that I remembered that we were going to do something a little different. We hadn’t told any of the crew or anything like that. So we just told them to follow us and went out and had our time on the Yard of Bricks.”

“..Of course it’s a lot more orchestrated now than what it was at that time, because we took everybody by surprise,” he continued. “But to even see the guys that win the Indy 500 go out and be a part of it, it’s pretty cool to know you started a tradition that will probably carry on for a long time.”

As for Labonte, who will look to make this weekend’s show at Indy in a third car for Tommy Baldwin Racing, he remembers his Brickyard win as a pivotal moment in his successful run to the 2000 Cup title.

“It seemed like that was kind of the trend for a lot of guys for a few years,” he said. “It seemed like if you won the Brickyard, you ended up winning the championship. Some of it was for sure, some of it didn’t happen.

“We definitely had what we felt like was momentum on our side. Just that race there and being able to win it with our guys, we were on a roll. That just really boosted our confidence up more than we ever could imagine.”

F1: Lewis Hamilton chases history at US Grand Prix

Lewis Hamilton is closing in on the F1 championship. Getty Images
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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — From New York to Texas, Lewis Hamilton returned to the United States this week with yet another Formula One championship ready for the taking.

Finish off Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel once and for all at the U.S. Grand Prix this weekend and the British driver would climb another step among racing’s greatest drivers. A fifth season championship would tie him with Argentina’s Juan Manuel Fangio for second all-time behind only Germany’s Michael Schumacher, who won seven.

Hamilton storms into what could be a chilly, rainy Texas weekend with a commanding 67-point lead over Vettel heading into the last four races of 2018. If Hamilton wins Sunday, Vettel has to finish no lower than second to keep the championship going another week to Mexico City. Any Hamilton finish that leaves him eight points or more clear of Vettel clinches the title.

Yet facing constant reminders of what’s at stake, Hamilton refused to get dragged into talking about his place in F1 history.

“None of us are saying how cool it would be. We are not focusing on `ifs.’ We are focusing on making sure we deliver,” Hamilton said Thursday. “We expect Ferrari to punch back hard here this weekend.”

Others were happy to do it for him.

McLaren’s Fernando Alonso, sitting next to Hamilton in the drivers’ news conference, ranked Hamilton among his top five champions in F1 history, no small compliment considering Alonso won championships in 2005 and 2006.

“Lewis showed talent from day one fighting for the championship his rookie year, then winning in 2008,” Alonso said. “He was able to win races when the car deserved to win it, but he was able to win races in seasons when the car wasn’t in top form … It’s impressive.”

If he’s feeling any pressure about the weekend, Hamilton isn’t showing it.

He spent the first part of the week in New York with an appearance on “Good Morning America” and a trip to Times Square to see his image on one of the towering video boards. On Thursday, he cracked jokes about fictional NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby from the movie “Talladega Nights,” quipped about his love of American pancakes and talked up a Circuit of the Americas track that brings out his racing instincts.

“They really don’t make tracks like they did in the old days. Some of the new tracks really aren’t that good. This is one that is,” Hamilton said. “You can actually race here. I’ve had the chance to race here. Real races.”

Hamilton has dominated this track since it opened in 2012, winning five times and starting from the pole or second each time he won. He won the inaugural race with McLaren and his victory in the rain with Mercedes in 2015 clinched the season championship (his third). He comes back to Austin having won six of the last seven races this season, a streak interrupted only by Vettel’s victory in Belgium back on Aug. 26.

With 100 points still available, Vettel is still mathematically alive in the championship but would need a run of Ferrari victories and a historic collapse by Hamilton and Mercedes to win it. And it has to start this week.

The German is the only driver to beat Hamilton in Austin. That came in 2013 during his dominant season with Red Bull that won Vettel his fourth championship. Last year, Vettel led after the start but Hamilton easily reeled him in and passed on lap 14 and the Ferrari never threatened an easy Hamilton victory.

The circuit won’t quite be the same. Race officials installed new kerbs on turns 1, 16 and 17 to keep the cars from running off track. Vettel snatched the lead at the start last year when Hamilton forced him left but he was able to cut the corner and head downhill.

The 2017 race ended in controversy when Red Bull’s Max Verstappen passed Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen around turns 16 and 17 on the final lap to finish third. Race officials determined it was an illegal overtake because all four of Verstappen’s wheels left the track and a 5-second penalty knocked him off the podium.