NASCAR Sprint Cup Series News & Notes -- Indianapolis When In Indianapolis: Brickyard 400 Often A Title Harbinger It doesn't happen every year, but media and fans alike know that Sunday's winner at Indianapolis Motor Speedway could be crowned...
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series News & Notes -- Indianapolis
When In Indianapolis: Brickyard 400 Often A Title Harbinger
It doesn't happen every year, but media and fans alike know that Sunday's winner at Indianapolis Motor Speedway could be crowned a king.
Eight times during the Brickyard 400's 16-year existence, the race winner has capped his season with a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title. Even more impressive, 14 of those 16 race winners have been a past, present or future NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion.
Those are stout odds in any realm, which only boosts anticipation for Sunday's 17th annual Brickyard 400 -- the fourth event in the 10-race "Race to the Chase" -- the 10-race summer stretch that sets the field for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Much is at stake as the series roars back to work from last week's break. The top-12 drivers in the current standings (the top 12 at the end of race No. 26 at Richmond International Raceway qualify for the Chase) face varying pressures, but all live by one mantra this time of year -- win, win, win.
And since standings leader Kevin Harvick (No. 29 Shell/Pennzoil Chevrolet) and Ricky Rudd are the only non-champion drivers to win the Brickyard 400 (Rudd in 1997 and Harvick in 2003), the spotlight shines squarely on the latter, who's enjoying a career year and has excelled at Indianapolis.
Harvick has two wins in 2010 (Talladega Superspeedway in February and Daytona International Speedway three weeks ago) but needs to solidify his Chase seeding (drivers are seeded per the number of wins they accrue in the season's first 26 races; each win is worth 10 bonus points).
"Our big turnaround started last year at Indy," Harvick said of Richard Childress Racing's 2010 rebound. "We made a lot of management changes, and we started over on our race cars. We took a different direction with the engineering and really just came up with a new plan. But all of the credit goes to (team owner) Richard (Childress). He pulled the trigger on a lot of different things, whether it was reorganizing people or whether it was getting us the funds to build new cars. I mean, he stepped out on a huge limb to spend the money to start over with four teams halfway through the year, and it's paying off for us."
Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet) is another top-12 driver seeking a return to Victory Lane. He'd love to do it at Indianapolis, where he leads all drivers with four victories. The four-time series champion is chasing dual "Drives for 5". Not only does he seek a fifth series title -- he's currently second in the standings -- but he'd like to be the first NASCAR great with a quintet of Indianapolis wins (Michael Schumacher leads all drivers with five wins in Formula One competition there).
Reigning and four-time series champion Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet) nips at his Hendrick Motorsports teammate and mentor Gordon's heels; Johnson has won three of the last four Brickyard 400s, including last year, and would like a fourth victory. Chase-wise, he and Denny Hamlin (No. 11 FedEx Express Toyota) seek to separate from the other. They each have a series-high five wins.
Indianapolis' historic track is hallowed ground to Indiana native Tony Stewart (No. 14 Old Spice Chevrolet), who was stymied in Indianapolis 500 bids during his open-wheel days. He has two Brickyard 400 wins and a third would boost his Chase status (currently ninth in the standings and winless in 2010).
Adding to the high-powered drama, three former Indianapolis 500 winners are entered in Sunday's field -- Juan Pablo Montoya (No. 42 Target Chevrolet), Sam Hornish Jr. (No. 77 Mobil 1 Dodge) and Jacques Villeneuve (No. 32 Dollar General Toyota).
Three Times A Champion? Ganassi Poised For Historic Triple
Sunday's 17th annual Brickyard 400 could prove significant for Chip Ganassi Racing.
Ganassi, whose owner partnership with Felix Sabates fields the NASCAR Sprint Cup teams of reigning Daytona 500 champion Jamie McMurray (No. 1 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet) and former Indianapolis 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya, will make American racing history if either driver wins the Brickyard 400.
Reigning IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti, who drives for Ganassi in open-wheel competition, won the Indianapolis 500 in May. Paired with McMurray's Daytona 500 win, that gives Ganassi two of racing's crown jewels.
No owner has won a Daytona 500, Indianapolis 500 and Brickyard 400 -- or an Indianapolis 500 and a Brickyard 400 -- in the same season. History could compound if McMurray or Montoya take Sunday's checkered flag.
"So many times you have drivers who are good at a particular type of track," Ganassi said. "Fortunately, our guys are good at the tracks that have the big races. Believe me, that's a big help, and it's no small thing."
So is Montoya's experience. The 2000 Indianapolis 500 champion led 116 of 160 laps last July, with the opportunity to become the first driver to win the Brickyard 400 and the Indianapolis 500, but a pit-road speeding infraction with 35 laps remaining negated that. He served a drive-through penalty and finished 11th.
Ganassi said neither he nor Montoya harbor negative vibes. He cited Montoya's longtime passion for the track. And McMurray, who's enjoying a rebirth in his return to Ganassi in 2010, also has a history at Indianapolis. During his first Ganassi stint from 2002-05, McMurray finished third in the '03 Brickyard 400 and seventh in '04.
"Drivers are always looking for a particular feel in a car, and they get that feel at certain tracks and they take off," Ganassi said. "So what does that mean for Juan at Indianapolis? I don't know. But he and Jamie like that place, so I'm excited."
A win would aid either driver's Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup bid. Now 18th in the standings, McMurray is 181 points out of 12th, the last spot. Montoya is 21st, 242 points out of 12th.
"Someone pointed out to me the other day that we're eighth and ninth in laps led in NASCAR," Ganassi said. "We're nowhere near that in the points. So that tells you we have some other things we have to work on. We have to get to the finish. We're showing we have fast cars, and we're showing that we can put the equipment on the track. Our engines are good. But we're just not making it happen at the end of the race. So that's what I would say we're working on."
On The NASCAR CAM Video Teleconference: Jeff Gordon
Jeff Gordon, the four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion and series leader in wins at Indianapolis, was the guest on Tuesday's NASCAR Teleconference.
Following are some excerpts.
Q: Where do you rank your four Brickyard 400 victories in career accomplishments?
A: "The Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy 500 -- guys like Rick Mears and A.J. Foyt, Johnny Rutherford, Al Unser -- all those guys were heroes of mine that I aspired to be.
"Living in Indiana, racing around Indiana, Indianapolis Raceway Park, the fairgrounds, Bloomington, all over the place, it was every short-track, open-wheel, (NASCAR) Sprint Cup driver's dream to race at Indianapolis one day.
"To be able to do that in the very first ever NASCAR stock-car race there in 1994, win it, then go on to win it three more times is some- thing that I probably put up as the highest accom- plishments of my career."
Q: Why is Indianapolis so hard to conquer?
A: "You got to have a fast race car and you can't make mistakes. That's what we saw last year. Juan Pablo had a great race car. I think he had the car to beat. One little mistake took him out of it. That's what you've got to do at the Brick- yard to win, is get yourself in position, have a fast racecar, then not make mistakes."
Q. Do you feel more urgency to win the Brickyard 400 this year, considering how high you are in the standings and how long you've gone without a victory?
A: "This is a big event. We know that. We know we're capable of winning. It's definitely getting down to crunch time for us getting in the Chase. It's not just about where we're at in points now; we need those bonus points to really prove to ourselves and everyone else that we can com- pete for this championship. I can't think of a bet- ter place to get 10 of those bonus points than this weekend at the Brickyard.
"This place has been really good to us in the past. With the way things are going for us, I think we've got an excellent shot at it."
Q. What are your thoughts on Bobby Labonte, another series champion and Brickyard 400 winner who's struggling right now?
A: "I feel like it's always been known in our sport that somebody that is a past champion such as Bobby, the caliber of driver he is, that you're always going to have a good ride. I feel like he still has a lot of good years left. He keeps himself in great shape. He's a smart driver.
"But the move (from) Gibbs, however that happened, whether it was his choice or some- body else's choice, has definitely impacted his career. I speak to Bobby every once in a while in the garage, around the motor coach lot. It really is tough to not see him in a quality ride right now because I think he's very capable of getting that job done.
"Just looking at his past history in the sport, stats, what he's done, how he's worked so hard at it, too, it's tough to not see him in a ride that's giving him the results I know he's capable of. "
Q: Any frustration about not winning, despite consistent top fives and top 10s?
"I'd like to get back to being more dominant. We need to lead more laps. That's what was putting us in position to win races earlier in the season. We got off that a little bit. We weren't leading like we were. That's what's gonna get us back into Victory Lane. I feel like we're right there, though. We're just so close.
"The consistency only helps build confi- dence and puts ourselves in position to get more laps led and get that win."
Loop Data: Hendrick Boys Martin, Johnson Need Indy Slump Buster
Mark Martin' s Hendrick Motorsports sophomore slump needs to end soon, lest he might find himself outside the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup top 12 come New Hampshire.
It would be a weird scenario, indeed, especially considering his first year with Hendrick. This season's struggles for the veteran are surprising, to say the least.
To finish the year last season, Martin joined Jimmie Johnson as the only drivers with a mathematical chance at winning the championship.
But this season has been mostly a disappointment, especially in the last six races -- all of which have been finishes outside the top 10.
Over that span, Martin has had an average finish of 20.5, a Driver Rating of 70.8, an Average Running Position of 18.5, a Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 31%, five Laps Led and a Pass Differential (passes minus times passed) of minus 34.
Worse yet, the slump has dropped Martin from a comfy 10th in points to a perilous 14th.
But Indianapolis should provide the Rx that Martin needs to rebound with six races remaining before the Chase starts.
He has finished in the top 10 in four of his past five Indianapolis races. Over that span, he has averaged a Driver Rating of 104.8, an Average Running Position of 9.2, a Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 82.0 and 34 Fastest Laps Run.
Johnson hopes for the same slump buster. Though, to be fair, his recent woes are more a result of bad luck than bad runs. In finishes of 31st at Daytona and 25th at Chicagoland, Johnson averaged a Driver Rating of 99.0 -- proof that he ran better than his results would suggest.
After a bumpy start to his Indy career (Johnson had finishes of 18th, 36th and 38th in three of his first four IMS races), the four-time series champion has rebounded -- big time.
Winning three of the last four Indy races, Johnson has scored a Driver Rating of 116.4, an Average Running Position of 11.1, 80 Fastest Laps Run and 128 Laps Led. And that includes a finish of 39th in 2007.
Bubble Watch: Charting The Top 12
The Race to the Chase is as tight in the standings as it is on the track.
Seven races remain before the cut-off event at Richmond International Raceway. The top 12 drivers in the standings after Richmond compete in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, and heading into Sunday's 17th annual Brickyard 400, three drivers are within immediate striking range of 12th-place Clint Bowyer (No. 33 Wheaties Fuel Chevrolet), who currently occupies the final Chase-eligible spot.
How precarious is it? Bowyer punted Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88 AMP Energy/National Guard Chevrolet) -- figuratively -- from Chase eligibility following Chicagoland Speedway's event two weeks ago. Bowyer finished fifth, bypassing Earnhardt, who finished 23rd.
Yet Earnhardt trails by only 15 points in 13th. And his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Mark Martin (No. 5 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet) trails him by 12 points, Bowyer by a mere 37.
That rumble they hear is 15th-place David Reutimann (No. 00 Aaron's Dream Machine Toyota), whose Chicagoland victory -- the second of his four-year NASCAR Sprint Cup career -- signaled a serious Chase charge.
Reutimann has more ground to cover. He trails the 12th-place Bowyer by 96 points, but was 21st in the standings and a much heftier 180 points out of 12th after the road-course event at Infineon Raceway four weeks ago. The Chicagoland victory combined with a strong showing at Indianapolis would stamp him as a legitimate Chase contender.
One can't mention Reutimann without Ryan Newman (No. 39 Haas Automation Chevrolet), who's only three points behind in 16th place, 99 points out of 12th.
Even 17th-place Kasey Kahne (No. 9 Budweiser Dodge) isn't beyond possibility. He's 120 points out of 12th, but runs well at Indianapolis (two top fives and four top 10s in six career starts there, including a runner-up finish in 2005).
Inside the top 12, 11th-place Greg Biffle (No. 16 3M Ford) isn't much more protected than Bowyer. He leads Bowyer by only six points and trails Roush Fenway Racing teammate and 10th-place Carl Edwards (No. 99 Aflac Ford) by 53 points.
Even ninth-place Tony Stewart and eighthplace Matt Kenseth (No. 17 Crown Royal Ford) aren't comfortable. Stewart is 56 points ahead of Edwards, but only 93 ahead of the 12th-place Bowyer. Kenseth's margin over Stewart is 55 points.
Milestones: AJ Allmendinger (No. 43 Valvoline Ford) will make his 100th series start in Sunday's Brickyard 400.
Bobby Labonte (No. 09 Phoenix Construction Chevrolet), the 2000 NASCAR Sprint Cup and Brickyard 400 champion, will make his 600th consecutive series start.
Mark Martin, Matt Kenseth and Labonte continue quests for career marks -- Martin for his 50th series pole, Kenseth for his 100th top five and Labonte for his 200th top 10.
Triple-Header, Indiana-Style: Kyle Busch (No. 18 M&M's Toyota) is the only driver who plans to compete in all three national-series events this weekend. He'll drive his own No. 18 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota in Friday's NASCAR Camping World Truck Series event at O'Reilly Raceway Park, and Joe Gibbs Racing's No. 18 Fleet Locate Toyota in Saturday's NASCAR Nationwide Series event at ORP. On Sunday, he'll shift gears to nearby Indianapolis Motor Speedway, for the Brickyard 400.
Busch will have assistance on Saturday, which includes NASCAR Sprint Cup practices and qualifying at the Brickyard. JGR teammate and NASCAR Nationwide Series driver Brad Coleman will practice and qualify the No. 18 car for him at ORP.
Montoyas' New Arrival: Juan Pablo Montoya and his son, Sebastian, are officially outnumbered. Wife Connie recently delivered the couple's third child, daughter Manuela, which means mom, Manuela and older sister Paulina now carry the majority in the Montoya household.
Go Watch The Trucks: The cars are the stars at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but the transporters that get them there will enjoy a spotlight of their own Thursday night. It's the second annual NASCAR Transporter Parade and Festival in Speedway, Ind., just down the street from the historic Brickyard. The event runs from 5-8:30 p.m., and includes a festival at the corner of Main and 15th Streets. Live music and a pit-stop competition at 6:30 are part of the fun.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series transporters arrive at 6 p.m., and will park in two rows on Main Street. They'll depart for the track at 8 p.m., heading north on Main and east on 16th Street.
And Sing Along: Country artist Luke Bryan will perform Saturday at noon at the Speedway's Plaza Stage at the Plaza Pagoda. Indianapolis native and fellow country artist Casey Jamerson will perform at the same venue at 11 a.m. on Sunday.
Grammy Award-winner Steven Curtis Chapman will sing Sunday's National Anthem.
Up Next: Pocono
The road goes on. Next up for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is the Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500 on Sunday, Aug. 1 at Pocono Raceway (1 p.m. ET) on ESPN.
It's the fifth event in the Race to the Chase -- the 10-race stretch that sets the field for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup -- and the series' second annual trip to Pocono.
Denny Hamlin is the defending race winner. There was no polesitter a year ago due to weather (qualifying rainout), although the thenstandings leader, Tony Stewart, started on the pole per procedures outlined in the NASCAR Sprint Cup rule book.
Hamlin, a four-time Pocono winner, also won this year's earlier event, in June.
Here's a taste of why he's so good there: Hamlin leads six pre-race NASCAR Loop Data categories for Pocono -- Driver Rating, Average Running Position, Fastest on Restarts, Fastest Laps Run, Laps Led and Speed in Traffic.
Bill Elliott (No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Tire & Auto Center Ford) leads all drivers with five Pocono victories. He and Ken Schrader are tied for the lead in poles, with five each. Rick Hendrick of Hendrick Motorsports leads all team owners with 11 Pocono wins.
The Race: Brickyard 400
The Place: Indianapolis Motor Speedway (2.5-mile rectangle)
The Date: Sunday, July 25
The Time: 1 p.m. (ET)
Race Distance: 160 laps/400 miles
TV: ESPN, Noon (ET)
Radio: IMS & Sirius NASCAR Radio Channel 128.
2009 Polesitter: Mark Martin
2009 Winner: Jimmie Johnson
Schedule Prior To Race Day:
Friday -- Practice, 2-3 p.m. and 3:30-4:30 p.m.
Saturday -- Qualifying, 10:10 a.m.; Practice, 2-3 p.m. and 3:30-4:30 p.m.