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Brickyard 400 Preview: Kissing the Bricks at Indy

Mark Taylor

Mark Taylor

Taylor covers NASCAR for RotoWire. He is a three-time winner of the FSWA's Racing Writer of the Year award. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

NASCAR will make its annual stop at the historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway for this weekend's Brickyard 400. The Brickyard plays host to this prestigious stock car racing event on motor racing's most identifiable and iconic track. Indianapolis has seen 18 Sprint Cup Series races, so we have some very longstanding data on how the drivers perform at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

IMS is a rectangular oval with very flat banking all the way around. The straights are completely flat, and the four corners have banking that varies from nine to 12 degrees. The track is very temperature sensitive, so constant adjustments to the race car are a must to keep up with the changing handling conditions throughout the event. Goodyear developed a great tire for stock cars at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the last few seasons, so tire wear should not to be an issue this Sunday afternoon. The long green flag runs that are commonplace at Indy could bring the fuel-mileage factor into the strategy; keep that detail in the back of your mind when picking drivers this week.

The rectangular oval at Indianapolis is perhaps the most unique track that the series visits each year. No other track on the circuit has enough comparable characteristics to draw a reasonable comparison. Before last week's off-date, the racing we just experienced at the flat one-mile oval of New Hampshire Motor Speedway is probably the most recent and closest set of data to consider. Those drivers that dominated at Loudon are likely to keep the momentum rolling this weekend at Indianapolis. Let's take a quick look at the loop stats for the last seven NASCAR races at Indy. Since the Sprint Cup Series only races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway once a season, this span will cover the last seven years and should give us a good statistical tool to evaluate the drivers for this weekend's Crown Royal Brickyard 400. Indy's results are really our best information to evaluate driver performance, so this chart will have some added emphasis in our prognostications this week. You'll notice that Tony Stewart leads the list from both an average finish and driver rating standpoint. Considering that he struggled quite a bit at New Hampshire, this could be the race where the owner/driver rallies to solidify his Chase hopes and turns in his fourth victory of the season. The following table has the loop stats from the last seven years or seven races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUAL. PASSES# of FASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15DRIVER RATING
Tony Stewart6.722092121823105.8
Mark Martin7.11873824945104.5
Juan Pablo Montoya22.4101105202610102.4
Jimmie Johnson17.315196130737100.0
Jeff Gordon9.4205714380399.4
Matt Kenseth11.7161162881296.4
Greg Biffle13.0174524986795.9
Kasey Kahne17.6171568882294.3
Kevin Harvick12.1176284178193.5
Kyle Busch13.1181173975092.8
Jeff Burton16.9137379769590.9
Clint Bowyer11.814512266589.4
Carl Edwards11.019842557186.8
Denny Hamlin18.5139342650686.1
Jamie McMurray15.4112142146382.1
Brian Vickers17.29481952581.2
A.J. Allmendinger17.0831426080.7
Brad Keselowski 14.02216179679.0
Dale Earnhardt Jr.24.9131224846276.3
David Ragan19.4820130975.6

Recent history show that Chevrolet has a complete stranglehold on this historic venue. The last nine victories at Indy have gone to Chevrolet drivers of various camps. Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart alone have won five of those nine victories at IMS. These dominant drivers are set up to be the focus of attention again this weekend. With Stewart starting to find his stride and Johnson beginning to rediscover his groove, the duo should step up its game to mount a challenge for the win at Indianapolis. Last year's Brickyard 400 saw the No. 27 team and driver Paul Menard take control late and out-duel Jamie McMurray and Stewart to win at Indianapolis. Considering the struggles of Richard Childress Racing this season (no wins through the first 19 races), we don't expect to see a repeat performance this Sunday afternoon. With the resurgence of Roush Fenway Racing in 2012, we can't overlook Ford's opportunity to upstage Chevy this weekend. Drivers like Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth are more than capable of pulling the upset in this Sunday's 400-mile event. We'll take a look at the Johnson/Stewart combo and the streaking drivers in the Sprint Cup Series, along with historical data in order to give you the drivers you need this weekend to dominate the Brickyard and your league.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Tony Stewart -
Stewart's two wins and four Top-5s in the last seven years at Indy make him the class of the field this weekend. The fact that the owner/driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet already has three wins to this season is just further evidence that Smoke is in race-winning form this year. Considering that Stewart and this team can win any given week, the timing looks right for the veteran driver to challenge for another victory in the 2012 season. Stewart is one of only three multi-race winners at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and that fact puts him in some pretty select company.

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson's luck at Indianapolis has really been boom-or-bust over his career. The excellence of his three victories at the huge track is only rivaled by his three DNFs in this significant race. So deploy Johnson with just a hint of caution this weekend. The No. 48 team is sitting on two wins this season, so the five-time Sprint Cup Series champion has the great potential to kiss the bricks this Sunday afternoon at Indianapolis. We have to keep in mind that Johnson's three wins have come in the last six years at IMS, so the upside potential is tremendous.

Matt Kenseth -
The No. 17 Ford team has been strong lately, with Kenseth entering this event atop the championship standings. Despite leading more than 300 laps for the season, the veteran driver has forged only one victory. That could easily change at the Brickyard. The Roush Fenway Racing star has never won at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but he does crack the Top 5 here at a stellar 42 percent. Kenseth led 10 laps and finished fifth in this event in 2011, so the pieces might finally be in place for Kenseth to kiss the bricks this weekend.

Kasey Kahne -
Another good, veteran driver to rely on this weekend would be Hendrick Motorsports star Kahne. The No. 5 Chevy team is racing as Kahne has finished in the Top 10 in the last three races, including the recent win at New Hampshire. Indianapolis has been a good track for him, with two Top-5s and four Top 10s in eight career starts. Kahne led a career-high 48 laps at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last season, so he and crew chief Kenny Francis surely haven't forgotten those lessons. Now with a powerful Hendrick Chevy at his disposal, Kahne could finally realize his potential at the Brickyard.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for a Top 10 and have an outside shot at winning

Jeff Gordon -
Outside of Tony Stewart, Gordon has one of the longest and most impressive resumes of NASCAR racing Indianapolis. The Hendrick Motorsports veteran might be looking at his best chance to get back into victory lane at the Brickyard in a long time in this weekend's race. Gordon's a four-time winner of this event and has led close to 500 laps at Indy for his career. His last win came here in 2004, but he flirted with victory lane last season by leading 36 laps and finishing second. Gordon should be a steady Top-5 finisher at IMS.

Mark Martin -
2012 has proved to be a very fruitful season for the Michael Waltrip Racing veteran. A return to part-time racing seems to be just the thing to spur Martin to greater performance. The veteran of 30 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series seasons has some truly impressive career numbers at the rectangular oval in Indiana. Martin has 18 career starts at IMS, so he's not short on experience at this facility. Martin boasts an impressive 61 percent Top 10 rate at Indy and recent finishes of second-, 11th- and eighth-place in the last three seasons. The No. 55 Toyota team is a safe solid play this weekend.

Joey Logano -
Logano appears to be in good position heading to Indianapolis, despite his unsettled contract situation and uncertain future at Joe Gibbs Racing. The driver of the No. 20 Toyota is racing with urgency to secure a top spot in the Chase for the Cup in a few weeks, and he's also racing for his future in the sport right now. Youngster Logano won't waste a good opportunity to get some points at the historic Brickyard. In three career starts he's earned finishes of 12th-, ninth- and 25th-place at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Considering how impressive Logano was recently in winning at Pocono Raceway, which has very similar characteristics to the Indy oval, we have big expectations for him in the Crown Royal Brickyard 400.

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin has a series of ups and downs in his resume at the Brickyard. With only two Top-10 finishes in six career starts, it might seem as if we should lay off the No. 11 Toyota team this weekend. Contrary to that logic we believe this will be a big race for Hamlin. His new crew chief Darian Grubb guided Tony Stewart to finishes of third-, fifth- and sixth-place the prior three seasons at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. That experience will be of great benefit to the Joe Gibbs Racing star. Hamlin has always been a top performer at Pocono with it's similarities to the Brickyard. He led 21 laps and finished fifth recently at the big triangle, and that could be a good barometer for this Sunday afternoon.

Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Indianapolis who can provide a solid finish

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Given Earnhardt's poor record at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it's a bit of a reach to put the Hendrick Motorsports star in the sleepers list this week. The driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet has only two Top-10 finishes in 12 career visits to the Brickyard. However, this has been a career defining season for Earnhardt in 2012. Currently second in the overall driver standings and collecting Top 10's almost every week, we have to look to the upside this weekend. Earnhardt has led as many as 33 laps (2007) and finished as high as sixth (2006), so we know the potential is there for a great finish in the Crown Royal Brickyard 400.

Clint Bowyer -
Bowyer has been pretty consistent the last month of NASCAR racing, and that includes his really impressive win at Sonoma. The Michael Waltrip Racing star has managed a very respectable 11.8 average finish at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in six career starts. That includes two Top-10 finishes and no finishes outside the Top 20. The Brickyard has never reached out and bitten Bowyer so that's a measure of confidence you can bank on if you roll him in your fantasy lineups this weekend. Considering how strong the No. 15 Toyota was at Pocono a few weeks ago, we have high hopes for the team in this one.

Jamie McMurray -
The 2010 winner of the Brickyard 400 is solidly in the sleepers list this week. While this season has been a campaign of mediocrity for the No. 1 Chevy team, there have been some bright spots along the way. McMurray came here last year as the reigning event champion and defended that title well with a brilliant fourth-place finish. The Earnhardt Ganassi racing veteran has good career numbers at this facility, and will likely field a fast car this Sunday at Indianapolis. McMurray's 56 percent career Top 10 rate at the Brickyard makes this one of his most successful venues on the circuit.

Ryan Newman -
The driver of the No. 39 Chevrolet has a lot of momentum heading into the Crown Royal Brickyard 400 this weekend. Newman endured a sub-par April and May part of the schedule, but has begun to show some signs of life with his good Daytona and New Hampshire finishes. While the veteran driver has some very ordinary Indy stats, we have to negate that a bit coming into this race. Newman was a 12th-place finisher at the flat triangle of Pocono recently and he has Top-15 finishes in three of his last four starts at the Brickyard. He should continue his good racing and post a potential Top-10 finish at IMS in this event.

Brad Keselowski -
With Keselowski's big win at Kentucky just a couple of weeks ago the Penske Racing star served notice that he will be a Chase participant later this season. That win was his third of the 2012 season and virtually assures Keselowski of an at large berth in NASCAR's postseason schedule. The driver of the No. 2 Dodge has only two career starts at Indianapolis. Those have yielded finishes of 19th- and ninth-place with 17 laps led in last season's Brickyard 400. We expect Keselowski to build on this solid but short Brickyard resume this Sunday afternoon.

Paul Menard -
The 2011 Brickyard 400 winner returns to the scene of the crime this weekend to defend his event title. Menard shocked the NASCAR world last season when he out-raced stars like Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart in the closing laps and won at the historic speedway where he'd never cracked the Top 10 before. Menard will be hard-pressed to equal that feat, but he should be able to maintain a high level of performance at Indianapolis. The RCR driver had a pair of Top-20 finishes in the four starts prior to his big win at the Brickyard last year, so he should be a steady performer this time around.

Regan Smith -
Outside of Smith's first career Sprint Cup Series victory at Darlington last year, the Brickyard was his second-best performance of the season. The Furniture Row Racing driver earned a hard-fought and richly-deserved third-place finish in last season's Brickyard 400. It was Smith's fourth career start at the rectangular oval and first time venturing into the Top 10. While a repeat performance is highly unlikely, we take heart in looking at the No. 78 Chevy team's recent performance at the similar oval in Pocono. Smith finished 16th there in early June and could post a similar finish in Sunday's Crown Royal Brickyard 400.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Kyle Busch -
The Joe Gibbs Racing star has had an incredibly difficult season to this point. Ranked 13th in the standings, Busch is battling to keep his Chase hopes alive with only one victory to his credit thus far in 2012. The Brickyard has held a lot of success for him over the years. Five Top-10s in seven starts just speaks to his excellence at this historic track. However, we feel compelled to downgrade him this week. Busch has two DNFs and only one Top-10 finish in the last seven races entering this weekend. It's best to stay away from the No. 18 team and avoid the risk this weekend.

Martin Truex Jr. -
The Michael Waltrip Racing driver has slipped into a bit of a mid-summer slump. After recording Top 10s in six of the first eight races of the season, Truex has fallen into a rut. He's recorded only three Top-10s in the last 11 races. In Truex's seven career starts at Indianapolis Motor Speedway he has only one Top-15 finish and a lowly 23.4 average finish. Considering how much the No. 56 Toyota team struggled at Pocono in June, we have to be very pessimistic about the team's chances in this installment of the Crown Royal Brickyard 400.

Kurt Busch -
At times it may seem as though we're picking on Busch. No offense to the Phoenix Racing veteran, but he's not having one of his typical seasons even on his best race tracks. Busch probably wouldn't think of Indianapolis Motor Speedway as one of his better ovals, so that's even more reason to bench the No. 51 Chevrolet this Sunday. In 11 career starts at the Brickyard Busch has only four Top-10 finishes. Only one of those has come in his last seven trips to the historic Indiana oval.

Juan Pablo Montoya -
The 2012 season has been a real puzzle for the Columbian racing star. Montoya is 21st in the championship standings and is in serious jeopardy of missing the field for the Chase for the Cup. Considering the EGR star's background in open-wheel racing and experience at Indianapolis, it almost seems counterintuitive to downgrade Montoya this week. However, the driver of the No. 42 Chevy has some lopsided numbers at the famous speedway, at least racing in stock cars. Montoya sports only one Top-10 finish in five career starts at the Brickyard, netting a lowly 22.4 average finish. That's not the fantasy racing help you're looking for this weekend.