Jimmie Johnson dominates, scores fourth victory at Indianapolis
From left: Rick Hendrick, Jimmie, Genevieve and Chandra Johnson. (ASP, Inc.)
It took Jimmie Johnson only 29 laps to steer his No. 48 Chevrolet to the front of the field in Sunday’s Brickyard 400. Once there, he rarely looked back, leading 99 of the final 131 laps to score his fourth Sprint Cup Series win at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Johnson, who qualified sixth, also gave Chevrolet its 10th straight win at the famed auto racing venue, while team owner Rick Hendrick scored his eighth win at IMS in NASCAR’s 19 visits.
“I knew (the) second or third lap yesterday on the track that we were going to have an awfully good chance at winning,” Johnson said of Saturday’s first practice session. “That confidence that I had helped us through practice yesterday. There were a couple moments where maybe an adjustment didn’t work and we lost a little pace, but I just had a feeling, and I just knew we were going to be fine.
“We qualified well and then went out there today and put it on them, so ... solid performance.”
Johnson beat Kyle Busch to the line by a race-record 4.758 seconds. Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon rounded out the top 5. Johnson’s only real competition — Denny Hamlin (sixth) and Brad Keselowski (ninth) — led a total of 49 laps but faded late.
Johnson’s third win of the season ties him with Keselowski and Tony Stewart for most on the circuit.
Johnson’s previous three Brickyard wins also coincided with three of his four Cup titles (2006, ’08 and ’09).
“I feel that from a performance standpoint, we’re as strong as we’ve ever been,” Johnson said. “We’ve had issues late in a race that’s cost us track position for a variety of reasons, and that’s the part that we need to make sure is buttoned up before the Chase starts and carry that through the Chase.
“But from a performance standpoint, these are amazing racecars. We’ve made a lot of progress through the off-season and then getting started this year. I feel really good about the Chase — I’m ready for it to start.”
Johnson’s shop mate at Hendrick Motorsports, Dale Earnhardt Jr., ascended to the top of the Sprint Cup championship standings thanks to a fourth-place showing. Previous points leader, Matt Kenseth, was swept up in a wreck on lap 134 of 160 and finished 35th.
“You can't win the championship until you lead the points,” Earnhardt’s crew chief, Steve Letarte, said. “To lead at any time in the season, especially this late in the season, proves this team is capable of winning a championship.
“We definitely haven’t hit our stride yet. There’s still room for improvement.”
“We need to win more races,” Earnhardt added. “If we want to win the championship, we have to. I imagine we can win a couple races in the Chase. I don't know if finishing fourth or fifth (each week) is going to do it.”
Why has NASCAR taken one of the fans’ favorite venues on the circuit at Lucas Oil Raceway, and replaced it with a track that typically does not host the most exciting brand of stock car racing?
Money, of course. The .686-mile short track was one of only seven tracks (Bristol, Charlotte, Darlington, Daytona, Dover and Richmond) that has hosted a Nationwide/Busch Series event each year since the series debuted in 1982. But with Cup races at the Brickyard bleeding out attendance on a yearly basis, IMS and the France family decided to bring NASCAR’s junior circuit, as well as the Rolex Grand Am Sports Car Series, to the hallowed grounds beginning this year.
Of course, many fans were in an uproar when the announcement was made. LOR (aka, IRP, ORP) has played host to some of the best short track action in NASCAR’s three touring series over the years. And the Brickyard, while a prestigious facility steeped in tradition, has simply not proven able to stage entertaining stock car races. Add in the 2008 tire debacle, and attendance struggles to reach 50 percent capacity.
To be fair, there was talk of NASCAR’s increased sanctioning fees being a reason LOR could no longer sustain an NNS race, money problems that were scoffed at by officials. In the end, though, that may have been a moot point. Waning fan interest at IMS equates to less dollars, and if NASCAR has been consistent on one point throughout its history, it’s that decisions are made solely with the bottom line in mind. If more suits can be wined and dined, more sponsorship programs sold and activated, and more concessions sold, it’s a no-brainer for the sanctioning body — competition level be damned.
So once again, a short track is sacrificed as the sport kneels at the altar of aero-dependent monstrosities. LOR holds 40,000; IMS is said to hold 270,000. When a Cup date can’t fill up half of those seats on Sunday, can you imagine the ghost town that the Brickyard will be on Saturday? Speaking of ghost towns, one of the most exciting venues on the circuit will turn into one, the victim of a speedway’s and a sanctioning body’s greed.
Photo by ASP, Inc.
Richard Childress vs. Kyle Busch: Did Kyle have it coming?
Following Busch’s on-track and post-race pit road run-in with RCR driver Kevin Harvick at Darlington, Richard Childress made it clear to Kyle Busch and NASCAR that if Busch damaged his vehicles again, there’d be hell to pay.
Richard Childress, to no one’s surprise, is a man of his word.
When Busch got physical with RCR driver Truck Series rookie Joey Coulter one month later at Kansas Speedway, Childress made good on his promise, hunting Busch down in the garage, putting him in a headlock and force-feeding him a few knuckle sandwiches.
It’s important to remember that this “feud” has roots stretching back well over a year. Busch had been involved in other incidents with Harvick, the mild-mannered Jeff Burton and former RCR driver Clint Bowyer. Harvick had also mixed it up with Busch’s teammates, Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin. So this episode may have been bigger than just Childress vs. Busch — indeed, it seems the 65-year-old team owner was sending a message to Joe Gibbs Racing.
The Kansas incident was the breaking point, though, and although Busch claimed to have not known of Childress’ declaration that he would tolerate no more, Busch took the brunt of the message.
Childress, who’s been in the sport since 1969, still appreciates the value of a buck. As Busch’s antics sent the fab bill in Welcome, N.C., higher and higher, Childress handled the situation in the same manner any number of rivals do on short tracks all across America every weekend.
Was it right? Probably not. Did Busch have it coming? Oh yeah. And NASCAR seemed to think so as well, as Childress got off with a $150,000 fine and probation.
Word is, donations were pouring in almost immediately.
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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
NASCAR’s running of the inaugural Sprint Cup Series race at Kentucky Speedway last weekend should have been the culmination of all things grand — one that left an indelible image on the core of race fans everywhere. Suffice to say, the result was not exactly a 2001 event at Talladega or the 1994 Brickyard 400. Instead, it was what one could have reliably expected: just another 1.5-mile race along the lines of Las Vegas, Kansas and —excuse me while I cough a little bit — Chicagoland.
While it was certainly refreshing to see the grandstands full (once people actually got in) at the Kentucky race, coupled with the announcement that the Nationwide Race at Lucas Oil Raceway (formerly O’Reilly Raceway Park, which begat Indianapolis Raceway Park) is being moved to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, part of NASCAR’s popularity problems are becoming readily apparent:
The tracks hosting NASCAR races are terrible.
You’d be hard pressed to find a track built in the last 15 years that comes remotely close to fostering racing the likes of which was commonplace at some of the more storied NASCAR locales — particularly ones that have lost a date or are little more than termite estates now. It took Auto Club Speedway (i.e., California) 14 seasons of competition before it hosted a race worth finishing, which has been reinforced by the dwindling attendance and its loss of a race date. Kentucky was little more than another race at Chicago, albeit with twice as many gracious and geared-up fans, some of whom waited over five hours to get in, while many others — estimated to be as many as 20,000, but more likely around 5,000 — gave up and went home. Inexcusable on the track’s part, by the way.
The decision to move the Nationwide Race form LOR/ORP/IRP to the Brickyard is even more befuddling. Part of the motivation is to help sell packaged ticket bundles that include the Nationwide and Rolex Grand Am Series (the latter on the former Formula One road course) to fill the stands at the speedway, which have become glaringly empty in the last few years. Credit the tire fiasco of 2008, the economic impact on the Midwest, the general malaise that has overcome NASCAR as a whole since 2007 and the sport’s message becoming more mixed.
For a circuit like the Nationwide Series that barely fills up the frontstretch at any one track, how is it going to look on TV when just a smattering of people are occupying seats by the flag stand at the big track? That said, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone within the sport who is not toeing the company line about the Nationwide Series at Indianapolis as a “great opportunity.”
It is great for those competitors who have never raced there, and may spur some sponsorship interest. However, for the fans and those Nationwide teams that compete and struggle to show up on a regular basis, it simply compounds an already growing problem. How are Nationwide teams to compete with their Cup counterparts at a track as one-dimensional as Indy, while a short track like the one down the road puts them on an even keel for a change?
Lucas Oil Raceway by ASP, Inc.
I was on hand at the track formerly known as Indianapolis Raceway Park in ’07 when Toyota scored its first Nationwide Series victory with series stalwart Jason Leffler and fellow Toyotian David Reutimann in hot pursuit. There was racing throughout the pack, a clear view of pit road from virtually any seat and a full grandstand, to boot. The next day, while at the Brickyard 400, no one could have been aware of what was transpiring between Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick in the closing laps, until Smoke let loose with one of his more memorable post-race interviews that was broadcast over the PA system.
What’s more, that race was one of the few that had a relatively full crowd, and considering the typical margin of victory at a Nationwide race, I fail to see how the move helps anyone.
What is doubly frustrating is that the tracks NASCAR should be at — or looking at visiting — are largely ignored. Since 2000, the margin of victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway — which lost a date to Kentucky — stands at 1.14 seconds, with some of the most memorable last-lap, down-to-the-stripe finishes in the sport’s history highlighting its finishes. The margin in Saturday night’s Kentucky race was .179 seconds, courtesy of a late-race, double-file restart. With the exception of the start of the race and a lap 142 restart, there wasn’t much memorable about the evening with the exception of Jamie McMurray’s smoke show in Turn 2 and the aerial view of traffic backed up for miles on I-71 (not that TNT acknowledged the significance of the shot).
The Nationwide race at Road America last month, which looked like musclecar bumper cars, drew over 50,000 on a Saturday — with half of the track not visible or even having a place to stand and watch. The NNS attendance at Daytona, a track synonymous with stock car racing? 50,000. There are clearly tracks NASCAR should be entertaining to entertain, rather than racing at a venue just because the guy who owns most of the tracks owns it.
Considering NASCAR needs to reach as many fans as possible, racing at as many new venues and in new areas of the country is necessary. Five years ago, I was of the mindset that NASCAR should predominately run in the southeastern United States, but make an effort to visit most every area of the country at tracks at least twice. That was fine. It helped build the sport and NASCAR could reap the benefits.
An attempt to build newer tracks in untraditional markets, however, has run into stiff opposition.
The planned Bristol-esque track that was long-rumored to be built on Long Island fizzled, and when a big push for a track to be built in Washington state in 2007 was broached, the speaker of the house in the state’s legislature accused Richard Petty of having a DUI, while another house member stated publicly that, “These are not the kind of people you would want living next door to you. They’d be the ones with the junky cars in the front yard and would try to slip around the law.”
Considering the precarious position the sport remains in as the economy dictates what survives and what dies, Jeff Burton’s sentiment is right on target: Going to different markets and areas of the country are key, but only if it produces a better product.
NASCAR was arguably at its best in the early- to mid-1990s, with exponential growth, interest, excitement, appropriate coverage to pique curiosity and a lack of over-saturation. Each time a new track was built, a little piece of the past died, though. That will come with any evolutionary step, but is it too much to ask for the old favorites like Atlanta and Darlington to not be substituted for calamities like the tracks in Fontana and Kentucky?
This isn’t to say that NASCAR’s oldest tracks haven’t had issues of their own. I once sat in traffic reminiscent of Kentucky’s going to Michigan International Speedway in the ’90s. When Charlotte Motor Speedway brought the term “levigation” into our vocabulary, it did so by destroying the finest 1.5-mile track that motorsports had ever known. And regardless of how brightly Bruton Smith paints the walls yellow, it is not the same track it once was.
We’ve all watched as chunks of the track at Martinsville and Daytona started flying around, while North Wilkesboro never really looked much different when it hosted its final race in 1996 than its first 40 years earlier. The difference is each of these places provides something special, having been witness to some of the greatest moments in the sport’s history. If they are going to be replaced by new locations, is it too much to ask that they produce something tangible — beyond ROI for ISC and SMI — in return?
New tracks are needed in NASCAR, no question. The problem is, the ones that are awarded new dates continually resemble the same ones that no one cares about in the first place. That points to a downward trend — and at the absolute wrong time for a sport that has some distinct challenges that lay ahead.