Big Machine Vodka 400 Preview: Cut to the Chase

Big Machine Vodka 400 Preview: Cut to the Chase

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

In the wake of Erik Jones' big weekend at Darlington, we come to the yard of bricks this week.  This Sunday the Monster Energy Cup Series comes back to the historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway for this weekend's Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard.  The Brickyard will play host to this prestigious stock car racing event on motor racing's most identifiable and iconic track.  This will be the second-straight season that NASCAR's top division concludes its regular season at Indianapolis.  For years, NASCAR had ended its regular season at Richmond, under the lights.  Starting last season, the top division now duels it out on the huge rectangular oval of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  This will be the race that settles the playoff field of drivers for the Chase for the Cup.  This is the significance that Indianapolis has been needing to propel it from just a prestigious race, and into a more meaningful event.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway 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

In the wake of Erik Jones' big weekend at Darlington, we come to the yard of bricks this week.  This Sunday the Monster Energy Cup Series comes back to the historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway for this weekend's Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard.  The Brickyard will play host to this prestigious stock car racing event on motor racing's most identifiable and iconic track.  This will be the second-straight season that NASCAR's top division concludes its regular season at Indianapolis.  For years, NASCAR had ended its regular season at Richmond, under the lights.  Starting last season, the top division now duels it out on the huge rectangular oval of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  This will be the race that settles the playoff field of drivers for the Chase for the Cup.  This is the significance that Indianapolis has been needing to propel it from just a prestigious race, and into a more meaningful event.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway 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.  The rectangular oval has hosted 25 Monster Energy Cup Series events to this point, so we have some very extensive 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.  The racing we experienced just a few weeks ago 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 14 NASCAR races at Indy.  Since the Monster Energy Cup Series only races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway once a season, this span will cover the last 14 years and should give us a good statistical tool to evaluate the drivers for this weekend's Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard.  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.  The following table has the loop stats from the last 14 years or 14 races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

DriverAvg. FinishQuality Passes# of Fastest LapsLaps LedLaps in Top 15Driver Rating
Kyle Busch10.73912013241,733106.7
Jimmie Johnson14.23601823021,576101.3
Kevin Harvick10.3377981521,63398.6
Kyle Larson12.61857571598.6
Denny Hamlin12.8350791121,41294.1
Erik Jones16.06271026393.4
Brad Keselowski11.12254710891291.6
Joey Logano11.825222551,04890.2
Clint Bowyer14.227128431,18786.0
Ryan Blaney20.5968738281.9
Kurt Busch19.729223191,18278.9
Ryan Newman15.624130451,03378.9
Martin Truex Jr.20.926036111,02278.4
Daniel Suarez12.5481015776.3
William Byron19.014237973.2
Austin Dillon18.8989136171.7
Paul Menard17.822242260868.9
Chase Elliott21.8728025568.7
Aric Almirola22.3917022567.5
Chris Buescher16.023105066.6

History has shown us that Chevrolet has had almost a complete stranglehold on this historic venue.  Until Kyle Busch's win in a Toyota four seasons ago, the previous 12 victories at Indy had gone to Chevrolet drivers of various camps.  Busch would go onto win the 2016 installment at the Brickyard, making two in a row for manufacturer Toyota, and Joe Gibbs Racing.  However, it would be the unlikeliest of heroes, Kasey Kahne, that would take Chevrolet back to victory lane two seasons ago at Indianapolis.  It was Kahne's final win for former boss Rick Hendrick, and it snapped Toyota and Busch's two-race win streak at the Brickyard.  In this event one year ago Ford star, Brad Keselowski, swept into Indianapolis victory lane for the first time in his career.  In so doing, he gave Ford its first Brickyard win in a very long time.  Dale Jarrett was the prior Indy winner for Ford way back in 1999, so Keselowski's upset ended a very long dry spell for Ford at the yard of bricks.  It will be interesting to see this weekend if Ford can hold serve or if Chevrolet can surge back to their Indianapolis prominence of old.      

Even though Chevy drivers dominated this track for more than a decade, it seems that Toyota and Ford teams have taken the ball away from the bowtie brand.  Busch's twin victories here in 2015 and 2016 are a big reminder of this fact.  Busch has hit a bit of a winless drought the last several weeks, and this would be the perfect venue to get the No. 18 JGR Toyota team back into the win column.  We can't overlook Ford's opportunity to upstage everyone again this weekend.  Drivers like Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski are more than capable of pulling the upset in this Sunday's Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard.  At the moment, Toyota teams seem particularly dangerous.  With Denny Hamlin and Erik Jones racing so well, they are definitely the momentum plays this weekend.  We'll take a look at the top contenders and the streaking drivers in the Monster Energy 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

Kyle BuschThe Joe Gibbs Racing star is a two-time winner at the rectangular oval coming into this weekend's Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard.  Busch has two victories and two runner-up finishes in the last seven races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  The Brickyard has held a lot of success for him over the years.  Despite finishing eighth in last season's 400-mile contest, Busch's No. 18 Toyota was the dominant machine for the first 70 laps of that race.  He led 27 laps before succumbing to Kevin Harvick.  The last three-straight pole positions at Indy have gone his way, so the veteran driver always has great starting track position here.  Busch is the driver to beat in Sunday's Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard. 

Denny Hamlin Hamlin has had a series of ups-and-downs in his resume at the Brickyard over the years, but he's come on very strong the last five seasons at the Brickyard.  After recording only two Top-10 finishes in his first six starts at Indianapolis, the driver of the No. 11 Toyota has collected four Top-5 and five Top-10 finishes in his last seven starts at the rectangular oval.  Over that seven-race span Hamlin has led a noteworthy 86 laps, with 37 coming in last year's event alone.  That shows that he's not just riding in line, but getting to the front and leading laps.  Flat tracks have always played to Hamlin's strength as his dominance at Martinsville Speedway has shown over his career.  Coming off two victories and four Top-3 finishes in the last five races, the Joe Gibbs Racing star is red hot coming to Indianapolis this weekend.

Kevin Harvick Another great veteran driver to rely on this weekend would be Stewart Haas Racing star Harvick.  The No. 4 Ford team is a weekly Top-5 contender as he showed at Darlington this past week.  Victories had been elusive this season until just recently with his wins at New Hampshire and Michigan.  Indianapolis has been a very good track for Harvick, with one victory, six Top 5's and 12 Top 10's in 18-career starts.  Harvick has led over 200-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.  Harvick's 22 laps led and fourth-place finish in this event one year ago is a good barometer of what to expect this Sunday afternoon.

Kyle Larson The Chip Ganassi Racing driver has shown up with very fast race cars the last several weeks.  It's a big reason why Larson has been coming on strong in the point standings of late.  The runner-up finish at Darlington this past week has him riding a five-race Top-10 streak into Indianapolis.  He's had very good success at Indy in just the handful of starts he's made here to this point in his career.  Larson's five-career starts at the Brickyard have netted three Top-10 finishes.  His recent Top-5 at the similar Pocono oval is a good indicator going into this event.  Larson has been stellar the last two races, with a sixth-place finish at Bristol and runner-up finish this past weekend at Darlington with 106 laps led between those two races.  The CGR star is peaking at the right time in the schedule.  We would not be surprised to see him upstage everyone this weekend at Indianapolis.

Solid Plays – Near locks for a top 10 with an outside shot to win

Erik Jones The driver of the No. 20 Toyota comes to the Brickyard as one of the hottest drivers in the series the last 7 weeks.  Jones' Darling victory this past weekend has capped a run of five Top-5 finishes during that seven-race span.  The Joe Gibbs Racing youngster will be making his third-career start at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  For what he lacks in experience he made up for in performance in this event one year ago.  Jones qualified 13th on the starting grid and piloted his Toyota Camry to an impressive runner-up finish in last season's Big Machine Vodka 400.  This young driver has the speed, and is gaining the experience to upset the bigger names in Sunday's 400-mile race at the Brickyard.

Brad Keselowski Keselowski's Top-5 finishes the last two races are a major confidence booster heading into the playoffs.  Now, the Penske Racing star will attempt to defend his turf as the Indianapolis winner of one year ago, and runner-up finisher the previous season.  The driver of the No. 2 Ford has only nine-career starts at Indianapolis.  Those have yielded one win, two Top-5 and five Top-10 finishes along with 108 laps led.  After some mediocre racing at IMS earlier in his career, something has really flipped the switch on for Keselowski and crew chief, Paul Wolfe, the last two seasons at racing's most hallowed grounds.  He may not have the inside track on winning Sunday afternoon, but you can bet Keselowski will be nipping at the heels of the leader in the Big Machine Vodka 400.

Kurt Busch The Indianapolis resume has been a mixed bag for the driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet.  Busch's six Top-10 finishes in 18 starts wouldn't normally inspire much confidence entering this weekend.  However, it's been the body of work this season that makes this Chip Ganassi Racing driver a steady play at the Brickyard.  Coming off last weekend's seventh-place finish at Darlington, the veteran driver rides a two-race Top-10 streak into IMS.  Busch has nabbed a pair of Top-10 finishes in his last four Indianapolis starts.  That includes an impressive 19 laps led and sixth-place finish in this event one year ago.  Some fantasy racing players will over focus on his career record at this facility, but his current level of performance warrants a fantasy start this weekend.       

Chase ElliottWith a victory and three Top-10 finishes in the last four events, Elliott comes to Indianapolis eighth overall in the championship standings and performing as one of the more consistent drivers in the series right now.  He's put some of his struggles of the midsummer well behind him now.  The Hendrick Motorsports driver will be making his fifth-career start at the Brickyard this Sunday afternoon.  Those prior four starts have been nothing noteworthy, with just two Top-15 finishes to his credit.  Elliott will look to turn in his career-best Brickyard performance on Sunday.  Given how well he's performed the last five weeks, including great finishes at Watkins Glen, Michigan and Bristol, we expect big things for the No. 9 Chevrolet team in the Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard.

Sleepers – Drivers with good history at Indianapolis & solid upside

Clint Bowyer  Just when we thought Bowyer was down and out, he's found a way to rebound the last two races.  With a seventh-place finish at Bristol and a sixth-place finish this past week at Darlington, Bowyer is once again pointed in the right direction after a long slump.  The Stewart Haas Racing veteran has 13-career starts at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and he has only four Top-10 finishes for a 31-percent average.  However, two of those Top 10's has come in the last four starts.  Bowyer is looking to get his team into shape for the upcoming playoffs.  Right now he sits an unsettled 15th in the driver standings.  That's resulting in some real urgency in his racing.  Bowyer led a career-high 37 laps and finished fifth at Indy last season, and we're banking on that for Sunday's race.

Daniel Suarez  Suarez is in that same scramble mode that his teammate, Clint Bowyer, is in coming to Indianapolis this Sunday.  The driver of the No. 41 Ford sits an uncomfortable 16th in the point standings, and looking to clinch a Chase berth at the end of Sunday afternoon.  Suarez is coming off a good stretch of fifth-, eighth- and 11th-place in the last three events and hoping to keep it rolling in the Big Machine Vodka 400.  This will be the Stewart Haas Racing driver's third-career start at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  He has respectable seventh- and 18th-place finishes in his two prior starts, so navigating the four tricky corners of this flat oval have not given Suarez much trouble.          

Ryan BlaneyThe driver of the No. 12 Ford will be happy to see another large oval this weekend.  The intermediate and larger ovals have been his best tracks by far during his brief Monster Energy Cup Series career.  Blaney will be making his fifth-career start at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this weekend.  The young driver had a steady 12th-place finish in his Brickyard debut four years ago, and he nabbed a career-best Brickyard finish of 11th-place last season.  That gives him a pair of Top 15's in those four-career starts at the historic track.  Blaney has an average finish of 12.4 and three Top 10's during his last five races.  He should put that momentum to good use in the Big Machine Vodka 400.  The No. 12 Penske Racing team is in good shape coming to Indianapolis. 

Matt DiBenedetto We put DiBenedetto in the sleepers list for the first time this season in last week's Darlington race, and he didn't disappoint.  He rewarded fantasy racing players with a strong eighth-place finish at the Track Too Tough to Tame.  He now has three Top 10's in his last four events coming into the Brickyard this week.  We predict more of the same for the driver of the No. 95 Toyota Camry.  DiBenedetto's strong efforts at recent ovals like New Hampshire and Pocono set up well for this weekend.  Although he has just four Indianapolis starts to his credit, DiBenedetto does have one Top 10 in those prior efforts.  That experience coupled with his recent speed is a great combination for Sunday's 400-mile battle.  We wouldn't be surprised to see this journeyman driver hang another Top 10 on the board. 

Ryan Newman In staying with the consistency theme, we have to keep the No. 6 Ford team circled this week on the sleepers list.  Newman has been racing well in July and August, and he has three Top-10 and six Top-15 finishes in the last eight races.  There's no reason to expect this driver and team to cool off this Sunday afternoon at the Brickyard.  His effort in this event one year ago yielded a steady 10th-place finish.  Newman now rides a two-race Indianapolis Top-10 streak into this weekend's action.  Those efforts go nicely with his Brickyard win in 2013.  Since that victory, Newman has the one win, two Top-5, three Top-10 and five Top-15 finishes.  That works out to a strong 11.2 average finish at Indy over the last six seasons.  Newman shouldn't disappoint in Sunday's Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard.

Paul Menard Menard snapped a 15-race Top-10 drought with his strong ninth-place showing at Darlington this past Sunday evening.  That was a good effort considering the No. 21 Ford team is still scrambling to contend for one of the open Chase for the Cup spots at the rear-end of the playoff field.  That urgency to succeed should help Menard this weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  The veteran driver is a one-time winner (2011) at this historic oval, and he owns a pair of Top-10 finishes in his last three starts at the Brickyard.  Menard has always been comfortable racing on this track, and it shows in his respectable 17.8 average finish across 12-career starts.

Slow Down – Drivers to avoid this week

Martin Truex Jr. Truex has been less than superhuman the last couple races, so he slides into the slow down list week.  The Joe Gibbs Racing star only has three Top 10's in 14-career starts at the historic speedway, and he's crashed out of the last two Brickyard events.  Truex was not many laps from tasting the possible thrill of victory at Indianapolis Motor Speedway two seasons ago.  However, the veteran driver got together with Kyle Busch's No. 18 Toyota and both crashed out well short of the full distance.  Unfortunately, Truex had similar bad luck at the rectangular oval last season as well, and it led to another DNF and 40th-place finish.  Given his current track record, the driver of the No. 19 Toyota should show up with decent speed, but he's been having incredible problems finishing these Indianapolis races. 

Joey Logano Logano has fantastic Indianapolis numbers.  He has six total Top-10 finishes in 10 starts at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  That 60-percent rate is enviable among any driver in NASCAR's top division.  However, the Penske Racing star is slumping coming into Brickyard weekend.  Logano is currently mired in a five-race Top-10 drought, and he's coming off a forgettable 14th-place finish at Darlington Raceway this past week.  The veteran driver has been razor sharp most of the season, but the late summer has gone stone cold for the No. 22 Ford team.  Last season's 13th-place finish at Indianapolis ended a five-race Top-10 streak for Logano at the historic track.  It could also be a precursor of what to expect this weekend.

Jimmie Johnson Johnson's poor performances of late gives us some major pause coming to Indianapolis, but the No. 48 team's career-long excellence here is almost too good to ignore.  The seven-time champion has won four-career victories at this oval, with the last coming in 2012.  However, since that win he's been on a steady decline at the Brickyard.  The driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet has only posted two Top 10's in the six starts at Indy since that victory.  Last season's effort resulted in a subpar 16th-place finish in the Big Machine Vodka 400.  There are many question marks surrounding Johnson and his team right now, and frankly the recent performances at Indianapolis don't inspire much confidence at all. 

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. The last several weeks have been beyond a struggle for the No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing team.  The veteran driver has labored to no Top-10 finishes and just one Top-15 finish the last eight races.  The average finish stands a lofty 26.8 over that span.  Stenhouse is coming off a pair of 33rd-place finishes at both Bristol and Darlington.  The recent run has been a house of horrors for this team and driver.  Stenhouse has a rough record at Indianapolis.  In six prior starts the Roush Fenway Racing driver has one Top-15 finish and four finishes outside the Top-25.  That Brickyard average is coming in around 27.5.   The veteran driver has DNF'd his last two starts at IMS, and that's a very poor sign.  Stenhouse is a risky fantasy racing play for the Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard. 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Taylor
Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A nine-time FSWA finalist, Taylor was named the Racing Writer of the Year in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016 and 2017. He is also a military historian, focused specifically on World War II and the U.S. Navy's efforts in the Pacific.
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