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John Wayne Walding 400 Preview: 20 Years of NASCAR Racing 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.

After the off-week the Sprint Cup Series is back in action as we had to the historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway for this weekend's John Wayne Walding 400. The Brickyard will plays host to this prestigious stock car racing event on motor racing's most identifiable and iconic track. 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 9 to 12 degrees. The track is very temperature sensitive, so constant adjustments to the race car are a must in order to keep up with the changing handling conditions throughout the event. Over the last few seasons Goodyear has been able to develop a great tire for stock cars at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, so we expect solid racing and for tire wear 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 for this 400-mile event, so we'll need to keep that detail in the back of our minds when making our driver list this week. Despite the fact that we'll be racing with a new aero-package for the first time at Indianapolis, the setup for this race seems pretty predictable. The rectangular oval has hosted 20 Sprint Cup Series events to this point, so we have some very lengthy data on how the drivers perform at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway is perhaps the most unique track that the series visits each year. No other track on the circuit has enough comparable characteristics to draw even a modest 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 nine NASCAR races at Indy. Since the Sprint Cup Series only races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway once a season, this span will cover the last nine years and should give us a good statistical tool to evaluate the drivers for this weekend's Crown Royal John Wayne Walding 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 Jimmie Johnson leads the list from a driver rating standpoint, and Tony Stewart leads from an average finish standpoint, and for years both have been top performers at the historic speedway. The following table has the loop stats from the last nine years or nine races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Jimmie Johnson13.82121733021,057109.8
Tony Stewart6.8292951211,037104.1
Jeff Gordon8.7284105551,105102.0
Juan Pablo Montoya20.315110620376296.7
Kyle Busch11.626548421,04496.5
Kasey Kahne15.327178881,08596.4
Matt Kenseth13.624716291,10095.8
Greg Biffle13.120558531,02794.6
Kevin Harvick13.0219284390490.2
Denny Hamlin16.9190415773888.3
Clint Bowyer13.317212372784.6
Carl Edwards13.223444672184.4
Jeff Burton21.4147399770584.4
Brad Keselowski 14.588294430683.9
Dale Earnhardt Jr.20.4208454871582.4
Brian Vickers17.29481952581.2
Jamie McMurray16.1156142657479.4
Joey Logano17.412071134978.8
Ryan Newman17.0134274557878.5
A.J. Allmendinger18.0972427977.6

Recent history has shown us that Chevrolet has a complete stranglehold on this historic venue. The last 11 victories at Indy have gone to Chevrolet drivers of various camps. Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart alone have won six of those 11 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 right now and Johnson beginning to rediscover his race-winning groove, the duo should step up their games to mount a challenge for the win at Indianapolis. Last year's 400-mile race at motor racing's most famous track saw the No. 39 team and driver Ryan Newman take control late and hold off Johnson and Kasey Kahne to win his first-ever Brickyard trophy. Considering that Newman is no longer with Stewart Haas Racing, it could prove difficult to defend his race win of one year ago. However, the other drivers of the SHR camp will certainly draw a lot of scrutiny this weekend. With the resurgence of Brad Keselowski at New Hampshire, we can't overlook Ford's opportunity to upstage Chevy this weekend. Drivers like Joey Logano, Carl Edwards and Keselowski are more than capable of pulling the upset in this Sunday's John Wayne Walding 400. As for Toyota, their chances of winning a first Brickyard 400 trophy will primarily fall on Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth. The two stars are racing the most consistently in that manufacturer's camp and both will be looking forward to their first chance to kiss the bricks at Indianapolis. We'll take a look at top contenders Johnson and Stewart 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 fantasy racing league.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson's bad luck at Indianapolis has really turned around in the past few seasons. The bad luck has evaporated and now the wins are pouring in. The six-time champion has won four of the last eight events at the historic speedway, and that ties him with teammate Jeff Gordon for the all-time lead at Indy. The No. 48 team is sitting on three wins to this point in the season, so the Hendrick Motorsports star has great potential to kiss the bricks this Sunday afternoon at Indianapolis. Given that Johnson won this event two years ago and finished runner-up last season, he's got to be considered the top contender to win this event.

Brad Keselowski -
With Keselowski's big pole position and dominant victory at New Hampshire two weeks ago, the Penske Racing star served notice that he will be a Chase participant later this season. Not only that but his chance to win at new speedways seems greater than ever after winning his first Loudon race. The driver of the No. 2 Ford has only four career starts at Indianapolis. Those have yielded finishes of 19th-, a pair of ninth-place and a 21st-place finishes the last four years. Coming off the big New Hampshire performance we expect the veteran driver to show up with a fast car this weekend at the Brickyard and to post a career-best performance, possibly a race-winning performance.

Kevin Harvick -
Another good, veteran driver to rely on this weekend would be Stewart Haas Racing star Harvick. The No. 4 Chevy team is experiencing some tough luck right now, but could easily turn it around this weekend. Indianapolis has been a very good track for Harvick, with one victory, four Top 5s and seven Top 10s in 13 career starts. Harvick has led close to 100 career laps at Indianapolis Motor Speedway so he knows all too well what it takes to get to the front and stay there at this rectangular oval. The simple fact that Harvick has moved to Stewart Haas Racing could be enough to put him back in victory lane at this historic oval.

Tony Stewart -
Stewart's two wins and seven Top 5s at Indy make him one of the top drivers in the field this weekend. The fact that the owner/driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet is winless to this point in 2014 matters not. Every time we visit the Brickyard, Smoke switches his "A" game on. Considering that Stewart just forged a Top-10 finish at New Hampshire shows that the yearly Stewart summer hot streak is warming up. The veteran is one of only three multi-race winners at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and that fact puts him in some pretty select company at this 2.5-mile speedway.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the Top 10 with an outside shot at winning

Matt Kenseth -
The No. 20 Toyota team has been getting better of late. That first win of 2014 feels like it's just around the corner. Kenseth will get arguably his best shot ever at kissing the bricks this Sunday afternoon at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He's cracked the Top 5 in two of his last three starts at Indianapolis. At some point, JGR and his team are going to bring a car strong enough to win here. Not only will Kenseth have his best shot at winning this prestigious race, but he'll carry the hopes of Toyota high into IMS. This manufacturer has never tasted victory in the Brickyard 400, but Kenseth could erase that this Sunday afternoon. Certainly another Top-10 finish to go with his prior eight here is in the offing.

Kyle Busch -
The Joe Gibbs Racing star rides a four-race Indianapolis Top-10 streak into this weekend's John Wayne Walding 400. The Brickyard has held a lot of success for him over the years. Seven Top 10s in nine total starts just speaks to his excellence at this historic track. Coming off the strong runner-up finish at New Hampshire two weeks ago, we wouldn't rule anything out for Busch. Even though he's only led 42 laps over those nine starts at IMS, he's at the front enough to give due consideration. A first-ever victory in this prestigious race isn't likely, but yet another Top-10 finish seems more than likely.

Jeff Gordon -
Outside of Tony Stewart, Gordon has one of the longest and most impressive resumes of NASCAR racing at 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 he's led close to 500 laps at Indy for his career. His last win came here in 2004, but he's flirted with kissing the bricks more than once recently. Gordon's runner-up finish in 2011 and seventh-place finish last season are proof of his high level of performance at this track. The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet should be a steady Top-5 finisher at IMS.

Ryan Newman - Last year's winner of the Brickyard returns with a new team in 2014, but that doesn't mean his hopes or chances aren't high. Newman has posted Top-5 finishes in two of his last three races with his No. 31 RCR team. That bodes well coming to yet another flat track this Sunday afternoon. Newman's Indianapolis dossier isn't very impressive, but it's what he's done here of late that makes him fantasy racing worthy. With the victory last season and a strong seventh-place finish in 2012, the veteran driver's performance here is swinging in the right direction. Newman should be a steady performer with a lot of upside the John Wayne Walding 400.

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

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
In recent seasons Indianapolis has been a track of surprise winners. In 2010 it was Jamie McMurray upsetting the stars of the sport, in 2011 it was Paul Menard winning his first Sprint Cup victory at the Brickyard and in 2013 it was underdog Ryan Newman kissing the bricks after 400 miles. Earnhardt has never won at this historic oval, and he's a prime candidate to throw off that dry spell and surprise the NASCAR world with a win on Sunday afternoon. With only four career Top 10s at this track, the history doesn't look so good, but two of those have come in the last two seasons. The No. 88 team has been improving steadily at IMS, and could explode into victory lane Sunday afternoon.

Joey Logano -
Logano appears to have derailed from his early-summer hot streak in each of the last two races. With 17th- and 40th-place finishes each of the last two weeks, the Penske Racing driver is looking to rebound at the Brickyard. Based on historical numbers, things look good for Logano. In five prior starts at Indianapolis Motor Speedway he has two Top-10 finishes. That includes 11 laps led and a steady eighth-place finish in this event one year ago. The No. 22 Ford was powerfully fast at New Hampshire two weekends ago, but bad luck robbed him of a Top 5 there. Things should be different for Logano this time around.

Kasey Kahne -
The Hendrick Motorsports star has a mixed resume at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Kahne has 88 career laps led, three Top-5 and five Top-10 finishes in 10 Brickyard 400 starts. When he's not hitting the big finishes and paydays in this prestigious race, he's had some pretty tough outcomes. We're reminding of Kahne's big crash in turn 2 and DNF here in 2007 when he was racing for owner Ray Evernham. However, most of Kahne's Indy heartbreak lies squarely in the distant past. His start here last season netted a brilliant third-place finish. The driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet should be a big upside player in the John Wayne Walding 400.

Greg Biffle -
The Roush Fenway Racing veteran has been the strongest and most consistent driver of that stable at Indianapolis in recent seasons. Biffle's six Top-10 finishes in 11 career starts works out to a very respectable 55-percent rate. That places him among the top drivers in the Sprint Cup Series in cracking the Top 10 at the Brickyard. The driver of the No. 16 Ford had a forgettable effort in last season's race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but we're willing to bet Biffle will use that as motivation for this trip to the historic oval. His 24th-place finish here last year snapped a five-season Top-10 streak at IMS.

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 ups-and-downs for the No. 1 Chevy team, there have been some bright spots along the way. McMurray has always been a top performer at the historic rectangular oval. The Chip Ganassi racing veteran has good career numbers at this facility, and will likely field a fast car this Sunday afternoon at Indianapolis. McMurray's five career Top 10s and 14.1 average finish at the Brickyard makes this one of his most successful tracks on the circuit.

Paul Menard -
The 2011 Indianapolis winner returns to the scene of his biggest moment as a Sprint Cup Series driver. Menard shocked the NASCAR world in that race when he out-dueled 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 this weekend, but he should be able to maintain a high level of performance at Indianapolis. The RCR driver has posted steady 14th- and 12th-place finishes here since that big win, so he should be a steady performer in the John Wayne Walding 400.

Juan Pablo Montoya -
The second NASCAR start of the season is on tap for Montoya and he couldn't be more excited. After a Top-20 finish at Michigan a few weeks ago, the veteran driver has to be hungry for a better finish at the Brickyard. Montoya sports only two Top-10 finishes in seven career starts at Indianapolis, but one of those came in this event one year ago. His steady ninth-place for EGR in this event last season has to be front and center on Montoya's mind as he rides a strong Penske Racing Ford into this weekend. This team and driver have Top-10 potential Sunday afternoon at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin has a series of ups-and-downs in his resume at the Brickyard. With only three Top-10 finishes in eight career starts, it might seem as if we should lay off the No. 11 Toyota team this weekend. What is most troubling is his recent level of performance. The Sprint Cup Series just left New Hampshire Motor Speedway, one of Hamlin's better venues. The Joe Gibbs Racing star had a very fast car there, but could only manage an eighth-place finish with a Top-5 car. It's just one more questionable performance in what has been a tumultuous year for the driver of the No. 11 Toyota. Hamlin brings a lot of upside, but he also brings a lot more risk to Indianapolis this weekend.

Kurt Busch -
At times this season it has looked like Busch was finally ready to click with his new No. 41 team, but setbacks have made these bright spots only look like head fakes. The veteran driver has four career Top 10s at the Brickyard in 13 starts. That works out to a lowly 31-percent rate. Busch's last three efforts at the historic oval are 21st-, 36th- and 14th-place finishes. Granted those efforts came during a transition period in Busch's career, and he now resides with Indy-proficient super-stable Stewart Haas Racing, but we have to take note of those disappointments. With only four Top 10s through the first 19 events of 2014, and coming off a letdown of 17th-place at Loudon, we recommend keeping Busch on the shelf for this one.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -
With the Brickyard belonging lock, stock and barrel to Chevy drivers the last several seasons, it's hard to be a Ford driver coming to this track this weekend. If you're not Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano or Greg Biffle it could be difficult sailing at the 2.5-mile flat oval. In Stenhouse's case he's made one career start at the track which was a 25th-place finish one year ago. Things have not come easy for the No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing team this season and the young driver comes to Indianapolis a lowly 28th in the driver standings. With little history, questionable level of performance and a lot of youth working against him, it would appear that we're better served passing on Stenhouse for the John Wayne Walding 400.

Danica Patrick -
With seven career IndyCar starts at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and a respectable average finish of 8.7 across those starts, it would seem that Patrick is a no-brainer for this 400-mile race at the Brickyard. However, racing at Indy in a stock car is a much different experience. Patrick started her only NASCAR race here one year ago and finished a disappointing 30th, 2 laps down to the leaders. Racing at this unique oval is all about hitting your marks and tempo as well as sensing your car's handling as it changes throughout the day. These factors make mastering a stock car at Indianapolis very difficult. Patrick has had some bright spots along the way this season, but this won't likely be one of them.
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