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Ben Smith

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Associated Press
Jimmie Johnson takes the checkered flag just before crossing the yard of bricks to win the Brickyard 400 on Sunday in Indianapolis.

Brickyard losing out with fans

– The ones who matter still revere the place, with all that history hanging off it like Spanish moss. Who doesn’t want be first to the checkers here, fleeing past that cliff of a grandstand and its vast company of ghosts?

And so on with the testimonials, as this inaugural Super Weekend goes in the books.

“Even just flying over when we come into Indianapolis, I’m always excited and eager to look out the window and find the track,” says Jeff Gordon, who has won four times here.

“I don’t care what I drive around this track, I love being here,” Danica Patrick says.

“There’s so much history here. It’s just a different feel,” Denny Hamlin agrees.

So, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway still has its cache for the NASCAR crowd, after two decades. Tony Stewart still burns to win a third time here as much as he burns to win one at Daytona in February. Ditto Gordon, even with four wins. Ditto Jimmie Johnson, who, after winning his fourth Brickyard 400 Sunday, remembered watching the Indianapolis 500 as a kid in El Cajon, Calif., and wondering what it would be like to someday go there.

“I remember it was the only race I would sit and watch in its entirety,” he said. “I also remember different points where I would take the couch and turn it at the wall and build a cushion tunnel to sit in and pretend I was a race car driver while I watched the race.”

Such an irony, then, that Johnson and his Sprint Cup brethren can no longer carry an entire weekend at a place they obviously hold in the highest regard.

That’s the real lesson of the Super Weekend, conceived to prop up an event that’s simply not what it used to be. Tiregate in 2008 and a sluggish economy that hit NASCAR’s blue-collar fan base hardest have done their work, and now the truth has come home: The palmy days of 250,000 turning out for the Brickyard 400 are over.

Once again Sunday, the place was nearly half empty, on a day when the weather was as temperate as it ever gets in Indiana in late July. Reported attendance was 125,000, right at or slightly less than last year. Don’t it expect it to rise much above that in the future.

And so: Bring on Nationwide and the Rolex Grand Am boys.

Next to no one showed up for the Rolex races Friday afternoon, which was a shame because it was rousing stuff, with periodic rainstorms to make things dicey and more than rubbin’s-racin’ than even NASCAR gives you most weekends. The Nationwide fared better Saturday, though it will never be as good a show at IMS as it was on the Lucas Oil Raceway short track.

Those days are done, too, of course. Estimated attendance was robust by Nationwide standards – 40,000, some said – and so, even though NASCAR itself fumbled things by stealing the win from Elliot Sadler with an absurd black flag for jumping a restart, that probably means it’s at IMS to stay.

“I really think this has the potential to develop into a terrific weekend,” said Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, who’s sort of obligated to say that sort of thing.

“This is a facility that warrants this type of activity,” said NASCAR president Mike Helton, who has the same obligation.

And Gordon, who may or may not be as wedded to fluent Press Release?

“I love seeing all the different racing,” he said. “I enjoyed watching the Grand Am race, with the rain and then the sun, rain and sun. I think it’s great. I hope the fans enjoy as well.”

They can only hope.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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