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Good things come to Brickyard winners

By By JENNA FRYER, AP Auto Racing Writer
INDIANAPOLIS — Six of the past nine winners at Indianapolis Motor Speedway went on to win the Nextel Cup championship, a stat that’s not lost on any of the NASCAR heavyweights.
The top drivers recognize that whoever kisses the bricks at the end of Sunday’s race becomes the odds-on favorite to hoist the championship trophy four months from now.
Before Johnson it was Tony Stewart (2005), Bobby Labonte (2000), Dale Jarrett (1999) and Jeff Gordon (1998, 2001).
Most agree that it’s not the Brickyard win itself that carried them to the title. Rather, the race is so difficult, only the top teams can realistically win it.
Indy’s historic 2 1/2-mile oval is unique to NASCAR, making it difficult for anyone outside of the elite teams to win here. With little banking, long straightaways and four corners, the track has a bit of a rectangular shape.
It took Stewart six tries in NASCAR to conquer the track, which had tormented him during earlier pursuits of an Indianapolis 500 title. Finally able to put it all together in 2005, he went on to win his second championship.
Any correlation, Stewart believes, comes from the strength of his Joe Gibbs Racing team. After all, he finished 12th here in 2002 — the year he led 43 laps, faded late and punched a photographer after the finish — and recovered to win his first title.
Stewart, coming off his first victory of the season two weeks ago in Chicago, is a favorite to win here Sunday. His 2005 Indy win dramatically improved his attitude about the Brickyard and freed him from the stress he always seemed to be under during every visit.
Typically unapproachable, irritable, and sometimes even mean during Indy stays, Stewart was loose and relaxed Friday as he waited out a rain delay in his garage stall.
So does Gordon, a four-time Indy winner, who heads into the race on top of the Nextel Cup points standings. Many believe he’ll be kissing the bricks on Sunday and ride that wave all the way to a fifth Cup title.
But his Brickyard win in 1994, the inaugural NASCAR event, and 2004 didn’t translate into titles and Gordon puts little faith in the statistics.
Matt Kenseth also considers the numbers a coincidence. After all, he didn’t win here in 2003 — he finished second — but still won the championship. Kenseth believes a good team could have a horrendous race Sunday and still rebound to celebrate a championship.