Favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Jeff Gordon and Alan Gustafson in Victory Lane at Phoenix last season. (ASP, Inc.)
After a well-deserved off week, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to the famed yard of bricks at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for this weekend's Crown Royal presents the Curtiss Shaver 400 at the Brickyard.
The annual Brickyard 400 is considered one of the most prestigious races of the season by those in the garage area. In 18 visits, 11 drivers have put their name on the winner's trophy at the famed speedway, seven of them former series champions. Winning at Indianapolis is no simple feat, and will rank among the most important victories in a driver's career.
Veteran Jeff Gordon knows just how special it is to score a victory at IMS. The Hendrick Motorsports driver won the inaugural event in 1994, and has since gone on to collect a total of four Brickyard 400 wins, the most among all Cup drivers.
In last year's event, Gordon had one of the strongest cars in the field, leading 36 of the 160 laps. While he had plenty of fuel to make it to the end, his task was to chase down leader Paul Menard, who was attempting to stretch his fuel mileage to the end. Gordon charged nearly to the back bumper of Menard's No. 27 Chevrolet, but was forced to settle for second as Menard went on to score his first career Sprint Cup Series victory.
As the season moves to Indianapolis this weekend, Gordon is mired in 17th in the series standings and running out of time if he wants to be a part of the championship battle in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. An up-and-down season has left him scratching his head for answers, it seems things have finally started to fall into place for Gordon and his Alan Gustafson-led team.
Since their 35th-place showing at Darlington in May, Gordon’s No. 24 team has scored five top 10s in the last eight races — moving him from 24th in points to 17th. Headed to one of his best tracks (he holds the second-best average finish), the four-time champion is in dire need of a win. Going off their notes from last year, look for the veteran to record his name in the record books again and kiss the bricks for the fifth time.
If Gordon wants to score that all-important fifth Brickyard 400 win and join the in Chase wild card discussion, he will have to beat teammate Kasey Kahne and defending series champion Tony Stewart.
Kahne started on the outside of the front row in last year's event, led 48 laps, but was foiled in the fuel mileage gamble in the closing laps and finished 18th. This season, Kahne has been making the most of his time at Hendrick Motorsports, scoring two wins, including the last Cup Series race at Loudon two weeks ago.
While Gordon may hold the most wins at Indianapolis, Stewart holds the best average finish among active drivers (8.1). The former open-wheel star has two wins at the Brickyard and has finished inside the top 10 in nine of his 13 starts. This season Stewart and his Steve Addington-prepped team have three wins, and this organization knows how to step up when it matters most. It’s safe to say that anytime the circuit hits the brickyard, Stewart is on everyone’s radar.
Five Favorites: Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth
Richard Childress Racing's Kevin Harvick has flown a bit under the radar thus far in the 2012 season, but that is about to change as the series heads closer to the Chase. Currently sitting sixth in the championship standings, Harvick has three top 5s and nine top 10s through the first 19 races.
The proud new father has been solidly consistent this year, finishing outside the top 20 on only two occasions. Harvick is the 2003 Brickyard 400 champion and also holds the third-best average finish (10.0) among active drivers.
Although it appears Harvick is a safe bet to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, a win would go a long way when the 12-driver field is reset following Richmond in September. Look for Harvick and his Shane Wilson-led crew to contend for that win on Sunday.
Whenever any form of motorsports heads to Indianapolis, one name stands above the rest is Roger Penske. The famed team owner has a total of 15 victories in the Indianapolis 500, but is searching for his first NASCAR victory at the yard of bricks.
While the majority of attention surrounding this organization has focused on AJ Allmendinger’s failed drug test and the fallout from that announcement, Brad Keselowski is set to put the attention back where it belongs: on the track.
“It definitely gives you a sense of pride when you go to Indy as a member of Penske Racing," Keselowski said. "You look at everything Mr. Penske has been able to accomplish there in open-wheel racing. It would be one of the coolest things I could ever do in a racecar if I could get him his first win in the Brickyard 400. I really think we have a good chance to do that on Sunday.”
Keselowski is among the best in the garage at overcoming adversity and rising to the occasion at the most significant times, and this week should be no different. At the famed speedway, Keselowski holds the 10th-best average finish (14.0) and was ninth in last year's race.
With three wins to his credit in 2012, Keselowski is 10th in the championship standings, but in search of more victories. Overcoming adversity and stepping up on the sport's biggest stages are among Keselowski's most notable attributes, so look for a solid day out of the No. 2 team this weekend.
The defending Brickyard 400 winner, the aforementioned Menard, was able to score that illusive first career Sprint Cup Series victory last year by stretching his fuel mileage to the end, but result was no fluke, as he also had one of the strongest cars of the day. Only once has the defending race winner gone on to win the following year at Indianapolis (Jimmie Johnson, 2008 and ’09), but could Menard be the second?
Much like in 2011, Menard is currently on the outside of the top 10 in championship standings in 15th. With time running out before the Chase field is set, a win would once again put Menard solidly in the wild card discussion heading to Richmond.
Five Undervalued Picks: Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Paul Menard, Mark Martin, Clint Bowyer
It is not often that a former race winner at a track is a darkhorse pick, but considering the type of season Jamie McMurray and his Earnhardt Ganassi Racing teammate, Juan Pablo Montoya, are having, it is hard not to consider them as such.
McMurray, the 2010 Brickyard 400 winner, has the seventh-best average finish (13.1) among active drivers with one win, three top 5s and five top 10s. McMurray was fourth in last year's event, but has finished outside the top 15 on four occasions.
This season, however, both McMurray and Montoya have been out to lunch. After a host of internal changes during the offseason, the expectations were high for team owner Chip Ganassi, however his cars currently sit 20th and 21st in the championship standings.
Of course, this is Indy, and much like fellow team owner Penske, Ganassi expects to run well here. Montoya has been a contender throughout the years in the Brickyard 400, only to have mistakes on pit road and accidents ruin solid runs. In fact, aside from finishing second in his first attempt at Indy in a stock car in 2007, Montoya has finished 28th or worse in three of his five starts.
This weekend, however, the Ganassi teammates are running in Friday’s Grand-Am Road Racing Series at Indy. Whether this will take away or contribute to the team's overall effort is up for debate.
Another former Indianapolis 500 winner you may want to keep an eye on is Penske Racing's Sam Hornish Jr. Taking the reins of the No. 22 Dodge from the suspended Allmendinger, Hornish now has the rare opportunity at a second chance in the Sprint Cup Series.
Hornish has struggled to adjust to the unexpected promotion to Cup over the past two races, but at a track he is comfortable racing at, perhaps this team will come into their own with Hornish as their driver this weekend at Indianapolis.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Jamie McMurray, Juan Pablo Montoya, Sam Hornish Jr., Regan Smith, Jeff Burton
If there is one certainty for this weekend's race at Indianapolis, perhaps it is going with Chevrolet drivers on your fantasy lineup. Since the Cup Series has been racing at IMS, the bowtie brigade has won 13 of 18 races, including the last nine events.
Among the most unique tracks on the schedule, the key to success at Indy will be a solid setup that makes the car work well throughout all four of the track's unique corners. Fuel mileage was a deciding factor in last year's race, and may play a major role in this year's race as well.
Best of luck to all the fantasy racers out there this weekend, and if you win, don't think twice about going out and kissing the bricks on your patio.
Best Average Finish at Indianapolis (Wins):
1. Tony Stewart — 8.1 (2)
2. Jeff Gordon — 9.1 (4)
3. Kevin Harvick — 10.0 (1)
4. Carl Edwards — 11.0 (0)
5. Clint Bowyer — 11.8 (0)
6. Mark Martin — 12.9 (0)
7. Jamie McMurray — 13.1 (1)
8. Greg Biffle — 13.1 (0)
9. Kyle Busch — 13.1 (0)
10. Brad Keselowski — 14.0 (0)
There are 16 races left in the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, and already it is being remembered as the “Year of the Upset.” And Paul Menard solidified that designation in the Brickyard 400 at the iconic Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday.
Menard, winless in 166 career Cup starts and a longshot in his No. 27 Richard Childress Racing Chevy, conserved enough fuel over the final 35 laps and held off a hard-charging Jeff Gordon to earn the unlikely win at the Brickyard.
In the process, he joined Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne, Southern 500 winner Regan Smith and Coke Zero 400 winner David Ragan as first-time winners on the circuit this year. Three of those — Bayne, Smith and now Menard — not only hit paydirt for the first time, but did so in crown jewel events, marking a first in the Cup Series.
“I knew that we saved plenty of fuel, but I was more worried about the guys that pitted for fuel and were coming hard,” Menard said. “Slugger (Labbe, crew chief) told me where Jeff (Gordon) was and he how fast he was coming. They set me loose with three laps to go, and the car was really good.”
Gordon, who led 36 laps and had one of the best cars on the grid, finished second. Smith, 2010 Brickyard 400 winner Jamie McMurray and Matt Kenseth rounded up the top 5.
“As disappointing as it is not win this race, it sure was great to run that good,” Gordon said. “And I gotta congratulate Paul Menard. I don’t think there’s anybody in this garage area that appreciates a win here at the Brickyard more than Paul. He grew up here as a kid and I think that’s pretty cool.”
Ah yes, the back story on Menard and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Menard’s father, John, owns the Menards chain of home improvement stores throughout the Midwest. As a long-time supporter of automobile racing in the United States, he has sponsored numerous Indianapolis 500 entries going back to 1982 — including three cars manned by Tony Stewart (1996-98), as well as son Paul’s ride since his debut in NASCAR in 2003.
Needless to say, with the family’s history and affinity for Indianapolis, there could not have been a better track for 30-year-old Paul — having run full-time on the Cup circuit since 2007 — to get his first win.
“My first year here was in 1989 — that I can remember, anyway,” Menard said. “Just spent a lot of time in the garage area. I didn’t miss an Indy 500 from ’89 to 2003; I was here for the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994 — it’s just a really special place for my family and myself.”
No win at Indy comes easy, and this race was no exception. An otherwise staid race was thrown for a loop when Landon Cassill went for a spin with 41 laps to go. The top seven cars, led by Brad Keselowski, remained on track under the caution period, choosing track position over fuel and fresh tires. Menard, along with McMurray and Smith, among others, topped off their fuel cells just before the race went back to green with 34 laps remaining. Menard restarted 16th.
Once back to green, the majority of the field that had not pitted under caution made stops, as it cycled into a fuel window that would carry them to the end, handing the lead to Menard with 15 lap to go, although he was quickly passed by McMurray. Gordon, who pitted with 26 laps to go, found himself charging threw the field as the laps wound down, but was still 12 seconds out of the lead with only 12 laps to make something happen.
As the top-10 cars conserved fuel by running noticeably slower laps, Gordon surged, picking off positions as the race came to its conclusion. Menard was told to go full throttle with three laps remaining, as Labbe’s calculations showed the No. 27 machine had enough fuel. When the word came to the driver to punch it, he flew by McMurray and, although Gordon was able to work his way back to second just after Menard took the lead, the gap was too great for the four-time Brickyard winner, and Menard won the race to the checkered flag by .725 seconds.
“Every time I got to a car that was saving fuel it kind of held me up,” Gordon said. “I knew that we weren’t going to get to Paul, it was really about him running out of fuel.”
As for the race-winner, Menard not only enjoyed his most memorable day in NASCAR, but moved into a wild-card spot in the Chase for the Championship standings. NASCAR’s new Chase qualification rule states that positions 11 and 12 be awarded to the drivers with the most wins ranked 11th-20th. Menard and Denny Hamlin currently occupy the spots with six races until the playoffs begin.
“I think we're 14th (in points) now (and) with the wild card,” Menard said of the upcoming Chase. “We got five or six races left. We got a lot of work to do. We have Richmond and New Hampshire — those are two of our worst tracks, honestly. We have a lot of work to do.”
The announcement in 1993 set the world of motorsports on its ear. And the inaugural race in 1994 captured the attention of millions. The fendered stock cars of NASCAR — at the time the “next big thing” on the North American sporting landscape — were racing at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
With its roots cemented in the early years of the 20th century, Indianapolis, with its Gasoline Alley and still-surviving yard of bricks at the start/finish line, has long been a bastion of open-wheel racing; easily the most notable speedway in the world.
So when then-NASCAR CEO Bill France Jr. and former IMS president Tony George revealed to the world that NASCAR would occupy an annual date at the Brickyard, expectations and enthusiasm soared. And when Jeff Gordon, then a NASCAR newcomer, and racing legend Dale Earnhardt scored the first two wins at the speedway, the capacity crowds — thought to be in the neighborhood of 300,000, although IMS does not release attendance figures — felt it had witnessed history. It had seen something. And in all fairness, it had.
However, 18 years later, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and NASCAR find themselves at a crossroads. Gone are the bulging crowds, although NASCAR’s attendance figures — while typically inflated — estimated a gathering of 140,000 last season, still a nice pull. That number is nearly half of the estimate from just a few seasons prior, though.
So what happened to the perfect pairing of America’s most historical speedway and most popular racing series? Where is the hype and “can’t miss” nature of one of NASCAR’s crown jewel events?
The simple answer is that there is no simple answer, but a number of factors that have witnessed a decline in interest, attendance and ratings of the Brickyard 400.
The most obvious observation is that stock car racing at Indy — even back in its mid-’90s heyday — isn’t that exciting. Open-wheel IndyCar rockets jet around the flat 2.5-mile speedway in excess of 225 miles per hour, thanks to an abundance of front downforce that keeps the cars glued to the track. Stock cars, in turn, are incapable of producing such aero-dependent handling capabilities.
The result is 400 miles of drawn-out, largely single-file racing — hardly your steamy Saturday night in Bristol or crisp autumn afternoon at Talladega.
The 2008 Brickyard 400, a race that can only be described as a monumental debacle — when Goodyear tires turned to dust instead of wearing into the track evenly — didn’t do the event any favors, either. Whether this remains a reason why fans stay away, it marked the point when attendance — already in a noticeable slide — hit a point of no return.
And then there are the fans themselves, many saving pennies in a recession that seems will never end. If a family is to attend only one race per season, it needs to get its money’s worth. And again, NASCAR’s short tracks and plate venues offer the most bang for the ever-precious buck.
Sightlines at Indianapolis do not help the cause, either. NASCAR patrons are used to seeing nearly all of a race track, and at Indy, the famed pagoda and infield granstands make that impossible. Sitting on the living room couch watching a hi-def television allows for the storylines and any on-track excitement to play out via the 76 cameras employed by ESPN in unencumbered fashion.
Still, to drivers and teams alike, winning at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a career-defining achievement.
“Being at the Brickyard with NASCAR is an unbelievable experience,” veteran driver Jeff Burton says. “The things that are in front of me (in my career) that really mean a lot are winning a championship, winning a Daytona 500 and certainly the Brickyard is on that list as well.”
Of course, there are those outside of the competitors who can appreciate NASCAR's visits. The Brickyard is a demanding race, an event where driver and team must bring their A-game. The length, strategy and finesse involved often make the race an enjoyable mental exercise for the more informed viewers.
But again, that angle often presents itself just as well (if not better) from the comfort of the living room. Lost there is the “experience” of the day — the sights and smells of a NASCAR race and overall aura of the Birckyard itself. However, toss in any number of online resources for the at-home fan and suddenly, those on the couch are more plugged in to what's really playing out.
NASCAR and the speedway hope to make “being there” just as important to the fans once agin, though. The largest driver autograph session of the season has been organized at IMS on the day before the race. The catch? Only ticket holders for the 400 can attend. And next year, the Nationwide Series and the France family-owned GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car Series will compete at Indy on the same weekend as the Cup race.
Whether bringing in more stock car races is a good thing for the mystique of the speedway or whether it will help with attendance are debatable.
What’s not up for debate is that a once-cherished event has become — in the eyes of the all-important fan — just another race. And that needs to change.
Agree? Disagree? Let Matt know below. You can follow him on Twitter@MattTaliaferro