Dale Jarrett starts longtime tradition at Brickyard

Twenty years since the first-ever Brickyard 400, Conover native Dale Jarrett reflected this week on his two victories at the prestigious event.

Despite two drivers — Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt — winning at Indiapolis in the Sprint Cup Series before him, Jarrett was the first driver to “kiss the bricks” following his first of two victories at the Brickyard back in 1996.

“It's something I would like to take all the credit for, but it was something that (crew chieft) Todd Parrott and I talked about doing if we were fortunate enough to be able to win at the Brickyard,” Jarrett said. “To be quite honest, when I got into Victory Lane, I had kind of totally forgot about it. It wasn't on my mind. I was enjoying being in a Victory Lane that I'd seen so many great champions be there and be a part of. I was just enjoying the scenery, so to speak. Todd grabbed me and said, ‘Hey, remember what we talked about?’ It wasn't until then that I remembered that we were going to do something a little different.”

Since that day, the winner of NASCAR’s only Sprint Cup Series race at Indianapolis has celebrated on the front stretch of the event by kissing the thin three-foot strip of bricks left as a reminder of the track’s early days.

“ It's pretty cool now to see that every race winner and their teams (kiss the bricks),” Jarrett said. “It's a lot more orchestrated now than what it was at that time because we took everybody by surprise, 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.”

Jarrett repeated as Brickyard 400 champion in 1998, returning to kiss the bricks once again. He is one of only four drivers to win the event more than once — a list that includes Gordon (1994, 1998, 2001, 2004), Jimmie Johnson (2006, 2008-09, 2012) and Tony Stewart (2005, 2007).

Returning to the track every year, Jarrett said he still gets goosebumps from the hallowed ground.

“Whichever tunnel you go in to go into this place, it's definitely a different feeling,” Jarrett said. “I would advise getting there a little early because your emotions can take over.”

A few memories at the Brickyard stick out for Jarrett, most of which involve his two career Indy victories.

“As I got to Victory Lane, to see just what it meant to the people around me — to see (car owners) Robert and Doug Yates — knowing their story, how hard they had all worked to get to that moment,” Jarrett said. “They came close to winning that race in '94. We finished third in '95 when I was driving the 28 car. To see them be able to get that was just a tremendous feeling for me.”

Sunday’s race is the first for ESPN in its 2014 coverage of the Sprint Cup Series with Jarrett serving as one of the lead analysts — a position he’s held since 2008.

This is the final of an eight-year deal for ESPN covering NASCAR, which shifts its coverage to FOX and NBC next season.

“Even though it's our last year, these next 17 weeks are going to be special,” Jarrett said. “We have different cameras that will show different things along the way, especially the pits, something we used at Chicago in the Nationwide race, showing pit stops.”

Jarrett offers his advice to the field of rookies that will take their first-ever Sprint Cup Series ride at Indianapolis on Sunday — a list that includes Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon.

“I think the biggest thing would be to enjoy and appreciate the opportunity they have to race at Indy Motor Speedway,” Jarrett said. “Appreciate it, enjoy it, get the most that you can out of it.”