In the NASCAR Nationwide Series, past Indy 500 winner Sam Hornish Jr. is returning to the Brickyard with the points lead.
Seven races remain until the 12 drivers for the 2013 version of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup are all locked in and ready to battle for the series title. Some drivers look like locks to make the 10-week postseason by virtue of multiple wins or their position near the top of the standings.
For others, however, the prospects are a little more daunting.
When the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rolls into Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the 20th running of the Crown Royal Presents the Samuel Deeds 400 at the Brickyard Powered by BigMachineRecords.com (1 p.m. ET, Sunday, ESPN), four drivers with previous wins at Indy who are currently outside the top 10 but still in contention for one of the two Wild Card spots in the Chase need to find Victory Lane again to better solidify their spot in the postseason.
If the Chase were to begin today, former Brickyard 400 champions Jeff Gordon (1994, 1998, 2001, 2004), Tony Stewart (2005, 2007), Jamie McMurray (2010) and Paul Menard (2011) would all be outside the top 10. Based on the Wild Card rules where the two drivers ranked between 11th and 20th in points with the most wins would earn entry into the Chase, only Stewart would have a chance to run for the title. Martin Truex Jr. would join Stewart as the other Wild Card entrant.
Because of these drivers' success at the Brickyard their chances to make the Chase might hinge upon their performance this Sunday.
Of the four, Gordon has had the most success at the historic 2.5-mile track that opened in the early 20th Century as a testing ground for the budding American automobile industry. In 19 starts, he has four wins, 11 top fives and 15 top 10s with an average finishing position of 8.8 and a driver rating of 101.8 over the past eight races at the track. In last year's race, he finished a respectable fifth after leading only the 72nd lap.
"I never dreamed I would win one, let alone four," Gordon said. "Winning five would be unimaginable."
Although Gordon is currently 12th in the standings (only two points outside of 10th), one spot and three points higher than Stewart, Stewart would make the Chase based upon his one win (Dover) already this season.
In addition to his two wins, Stewart has six top fives and 10 top 10s in 14 races. His average finishing position of 8.2 at Indy is his second-best among all tracks, behind only Watkins Glen (7.9). He also has the second highest driver rating among all active drivers (102.8).
In 2005, when he won his first race at Indy it was a dream come true.
"When I was in USAC trying to make a living as a race car driver, I drove a tow truck for a guy I raced sprint cars against," said Stewart, who drives the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 14 Chevrolet. "I would drive down Georgetown toward 16th Street, parallel with the frontstretch and wonder what it would be like 300 feet to the left running 200 mph.
"I got a chance to do that, and finally, after years of trying to win, be it in Indy cars or stock cars, I got to know what it feels like, to see that view coming down the front straightaway, seeing the checkered flag and knowing that I was the first driver to cross the stripe, versus the second-, third- or fourth-place guy. I had wanted that moment for so long, and I finally got it."
With Sunday's race being the 20th running of the Brickyard 400, Gordon and Stewart, who both grew up in Indiana, would love to score the win in this milestone race. There was perhaps not a more emotional win than in 2011 when Menard, who grew up following his family to the Indy track, crossed the finish line first.
"Indy is a place where I spent a lot of time when I was younger," said Menard, who drives the No. 27 Chevrolet for Richard Childress -- the only owner to have three different drivers win at the Brickyard. "It will always be a very special place for me since it's the track where I got my first (NASCAR Sprint) Cup Series win."
Currently, Menard is in 20th place (the last spot eligible for Wild Card contention), only 36 points behind Kasey Kahne in 10th. In six races at Indy, Menard's best finish, outside of his 2011 win, is a pair of 14th-place finishes in 2010 and 2012.
When McMurray led the final 11 laps to win the 2010 Brickyard 400, he had already triumphed in that year's season-opening Daytona 500. He would go on to notch one more victory that year in the fall Charlotte race for a career-high three wins in a single season.
McMurray, who hasn't won since 2010, is 15th in the standings, just 16 points outside the top 10. In 10 starts at the track, he has collected three top-five finishes and five top 10s. He has finished on the lead lap in nine of his starts. Last year he finished in the middle of the pack, 22nd.
A win for any of these four drivers would definitely help them validate their tickets to the Chase… granted they'll need to stay on course.
FANTASY FOCUS: After reviewing loop data for Indy, there are three names that stood out -- Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and Mark Martin. There are five categories in which all three veteran drivers placed in the top five: Driver Rating (1. Johnson -- 106.3; 2. Stewart -- 102.8; 3. Martin -- 102.5); Average Running Position (1. Martin -- 9.449; 3. Stewart -- 11.655; 4. Johnson -- 11.786); Fastest on Restarts (2. Johnson -- 167.717 mph; 4. Martin -- 167.115 mph; 5. Stewart -- 167.021 mph); Fastest Green-Flag Speed (1. Johnson -- 170.173 mph; 3. Stewart -- 169.906 mph; 4. Martin -- 169.688 mph); and Fastest Early in Runs (1. Johnson -- 171.471 mph; 2. Martin -- 171.178 mph; 3. Stewart -- 171.119 mph).
With lead in hand, Hornish returns to Indy
Seven years ago Sam Hornish Jr. accomplished a feat that many young boys and girls grow up dreaming about -- winning the Indianapolis 500.
Two years later, he achieved another milestone that many young race car drivers aspire to obtain -- racing in one of NASCAR's three national series. It's one thing to make it to one of NASCAR's national series, but to make it there and be competitive reaches a whole different level.
And, Hornish is doing just that.
When Hornish and his fellow NASCAR Nationwide Series competitors hit the track at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this Saturday in the Indiana 250 (4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) he will be grasping a seven-point advantage over runner-up Regan Smith in the standings.
"It feels good," Hornish replied when asked how it felt to be back on top of the series. "As I've said all along, we have fast Ford Mustangs and a strong team. We've had a lot of strong performances and a couple of off days. This championship is very tight, and it is going to come down to consistency."
So far this season, Hornish has racked up 14 top 10s in the first 18 races and led the points for the first seven races before handing the lead over to Smith. After Sunday's second-place finish at Chicagoland, he resumed his perch atop the standings.
Hornish's hold on the lead though remains tenuous since the top-10 drivers in the standings are only separated by a scant 69 points. But with an Indy 500 win and a runner-up performance in last year's inaugural NASCAR Nationwide race at Indy on his resume, he will be more than prepared to defend his lead.
Plus, winning at Indy holds more of a personal connection to Hornish.
"My mom went to the Indy 500 when she was pregnant with me and some of my fondest childhood memories involve coming to this track with my family," Hornish said. "To win here in the (NASCAR) Nationwide Series would be amazing in ways that (are) difficult to articulate. … And I am grateful that I have that opportunity."
In addition, to battling for the victory and protecting his series lead, there's something else he'll be competing for in Saturday's race -- the fourth and final $100,000 bonus in Nationwide's Dash 4 Cash. Regardless of whether Hornish wins or not, the driver who places highest between him, Austin Dillon, Elliott Sadler and Brian Vickers will win the bonus.
Staff Report - NASCAR Wire Service