Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – INDIANAPOLIS, IN – No matter its position in the NASCAR Cup Series schedule, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has always represented a venue with a lot on the line and a lot to deliver – for both NASCAR competitors and the sport’s fanbase.
After spending much of the last half decade as the series regular season finale, the historic 2.5-mile venue is now home to NASCAR’s Independence Day weekend slate featuring Sunday’s Big Machine Hand Sanitizer 400 Powered by Big Machine Records (4 p.m. ET on NBC, IMS Radio Network and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
The motivation to kiss auto racing’s most famous yard of bricks – as the Brickyard 400 winner traditionally does – remains high priority for all the drivers. However, only five current drivers have sealed their race work with that treasured kiss – four-time winner Jimmie Johnson (2006, ‘08, ‘09, and 2012), two-time winners Kyle Busch (2015-16) and Kevin Harvick (2003 and 2019) and Ryan Newman (2013) and Brad Keselowski (2018).
Johnson, Busch, Harvick and Newman hold the distinction of being the race’s only four drivers to win from the pole position.
For defending race winner Harvick, who earned both his Indianapolis victories from the pole position, this event remains one of the toughest competitions of the year – no matter when it falls on the schedule. The driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford takes a hefty 52-point edge over Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney into Sunday’s race. And he’s fresh off one of the most dominant Brickyard performances, leading 118 of 160 laps en route to his win in 2019.
Harvick said he expects this year’s race under unusual circumstance – a one-day show with no practice because of COVID-19 health precautions – to work in the veterans favor, especially at a difficult track like Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“You can’t sit too far out on a limb and try a bunch of things like you would in practice on a normal race weekend,” Harvick said. “The other piece of that is you don’t have a bunch of people studying what you do with all the SMT data to try to copy it and drive their car and set their car up like what you are doing because the race is over by the time all that happens.
“It has been very unique and it has been something that plays well for our team to just show up and race because I think for the most part that experience is helping us get to where we need to be quicker.”
Interestingly, many of the 2020 season’s best are among those drivers looking to celebrate in Indianapolis’ Victory Lane for a first time. Eight of the top 10 drivers in the series driver standings – Blaney, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr., Alex Bowman, Aric Almirola and Kurt Busch – have never won a NASCAR Cup Series race at Indianapolis.
Among those, Logano has been closest. The driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford has a pair of runner-up finishes and was second to Harvick last year. He has seven top-10 finishes in 11 starts.
Hamlin, the season’s only four-time race winner, has eight top-10 finishes in 14 Indianapolis starts, including a career-best finish of third, three times in the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
Elliott, on the other hand, who leads all drivers with five stage wins in 2020, has only one top-10 finish in five NASCAR Cup Series starts at the Brickyard. His best showing was a ninth-place finish last year, and he has yet to lead a lap.
“I’ve really struggled at Indy,” acknowledged Elliott, who drives the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
“We’ve just been trying to get better there. It has just consistently been a huge challenge for me every year. My excitement level probably isn’t as high as some others about going to Indy, but that’s just because of how hard it has been.
“I would love to get over the hump. I think it would be such a cool place to run well and have success at. We are looking forward to giving it our best show this weekend.’’
His Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson shares that optimistic sentiment. The seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion will be retiring from fulltime competition at the end of the season and is looking for his first win since 2017. Should Johnson win on Sunday, he would tie his former Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon for most wins (five) all-time at the historic track. He’s had only two top-10 finishes since his last win in 2012 at Indianapolis and goes into the race highly motivated.
“Winning this race is one of the proudest I have been in my career,” said Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. “There is so much effort that goes into the event back at the [race] shop. It’s high priority when you look at the race schedule. It’s a ring race. When I drive in there and see the pagoda, I get the goosebumps.”
INDIANAPOLIS ROAD COURSE TO CHALLENGE XFINITY SERIES
Saturday’s Pennzoil 150 at the Brickyard (3 p.m. ET on NBC, IMS Radio Network and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) will be the NASCAR Xfinity Series debut on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s 2.439-mile road course. The Xfinity race will be the second event of a doubleheader Saturday with the NTT IndyCar Series scheduled to run at 12 p.m. ET.
It is a highly-anticipated new venture for series drivers, who welcome the challenge of road course racing at one of the world’s most famous ovals. Unlike the NASCAR Cup Series which will show up and race on Sunday, the Xfinity Series is being given a pair of 50-minute practice sessions because of the change in race course.
For Xfinity Series standings leader and Indiana-native Chase Briscoe it’s a ‘home’ race and the timing couldn’t be better. The driver of the No. 98 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford arrives back home in Indiana fresh off a series-best fourth victory scored last week at Pocono Raceway. And he leads the series points standings by three-points over JR Motorsports driver Noah Gragson in what’s been a robustly competitive season-to-date.
Briscoe has a pair of top-10 finishes in two starts on the traditional Indianapolis 2.5-mile oval the series used previously and he is optimistic about his chances on the road course too. His very first Xfinity Series victory came on a road course at another famous oval – Charlotte Motor Speedway – where he earned the 2018 inaugural Xfinity Series race win. Last season, Briscoe raced to top-10 finishes at all four road course venues – at Watkins Glen International, Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Road America and the Charlotte ROVAL.
A victory in Saturday’s race at Briscoe’s most-revered track stands to not only extend his points advantage but represent a big sentimental accomplishment too.
“I don’t know what it is about Indiana, but I feel like everybody from Indiana has a special pride about being from Indiana,” said Briscoe, whose team owner Tony Stewart is as famous a racing Hoosier as there is.
“I’m not sure if it’s like that for other states, but there is something about us Hoosiers where we want to see other Hoosiers do well. There’s just a lot of pride in being from Indiana and trying to win for Indiana and, obviously, it’s even bigger when we go to Indianapolis Motor Speedway. There is something about a Hoosier at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.”
One of Briscoe’s most fierce competitors is another driver with a long family history at Indianapolis Motor Speedway – Austin Cindric. The driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford is the son of Tim Cindric, longtime team president of the Indy 500’s winningest organization Team Penske.
Not only does Cindric understand and share in the sentimental value of the hallowed Indianapolis track, but he’s been good at the Brickyard and both his career Xfinity Series victories have come on road courses (Watkins Glen and Mid-Ohio in 2019). In fact last year, Cindric’s worst finish on the schedule’s four road course races was third-place – on the Charlotte ROVAL. He is definitely considered a master on this venue and beyond that, comes to Indianapolis feeling especially motivated as he still looks for his first win of the 2020 season.
Cindric is ranked fourth in the championship standings, 46 points behind Briscoe. He is one of three drivers among the top-eight still looking for that first trip to Victory Lane. Another with high hopes headed to Indianapolis is veteran Justin Allgaier – a road course winner and also a past champion on Indianapolis’ oval track. He sits a distant seventh in points – 113 points behind the leader Briscoe – but leads the series in stage wins (five) and is second only to teammate Gragson in laps led (344-317) among the series regulars.
A victory this weekend would be the Playoff insurance Allgaier would love to secure after a robust, yet frustrating season start. He is the only current fulltime Xfinity driver with a win on the famous Indianapolis oval and he earned that in 2018, weeks after claiming consecutive road course victories at Mid-Ohio and Road America. The driver of the No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet has three career road course wins and has finished top-five in three of the last four races at Indianapolis. Last year he finished ninth or better in all four Xfinity Series road course races.