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Weekly Preview: Kissing the Bricks

Mark Taylor

Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A four-time FSWA award winner, Taylor was named the 2016 Racing Writer of the Year. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

This Sunday the stars of NASCAR will be racing at the historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The Brickyard will host the annual stock car racing event on motor racing's most identifiable and awe-inspiring track. Indianapolis has hosted 16 Sprint Cup races to this point, so we have some very reliable data on how the drivers race and react to the conditions 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 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. Goodyear has been able to develop a good tire for stock cars at IMS in the last few seasons, so we expect solid racing and the ability to make this pass this Sunday.

Indianapolis is perhaps the most unique track that the series visits each year. No other track on the circuit has enough comparable characteristics to even draw some comparison. Let's take a look at the loop stats for the last five races at Indy. Since the Sprint Cup Series only races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway once a season, this span will cover the last five years and should give us a good statistical tool to evaluate the drivers for this weekend's Brickyard 400. Since Indy's results are really our best information to evaluate driver performance, this chart will have some added emphasis in our prognostications this week. You'll notice that Mark Martin leads the list from an average finish standpoint. This could be the race where the Hendrick Motorsports veteran revives his Chase hopes and turns his season around. The following table has the loop stats from the last five years or five races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Tony Stewart7.214985111676111.8
Jimmie Johnson16.011081128542104.9
Mark Martin6.21223414656104.8
Juan Pablo Montoya17.33951116347102.0
Jeff Gordon8.213421753096.2
Matt Kenseth13.08381851893.6
Mike Bliss11.0200012493.4
Denny Hamlin17.3109342640493.3
Jeff Burton15.494339748493.1
Kyle Busch14.8127153953592.8
Kevin Harvick14.4114253653791.9
Kasey Kahne18.4104304056491.4
Greg Biffle16.2119131162890.7
Carl Edwards11.211239439587.4
Clint Bowyer13.5915042983.4
A.J. Allmendinger15.0230413080.2
Joey Logano12.020004079.0
Reed Sorenson16.35281631277.5
Dale Earnhardt Jr.26.274184135175.1
Jamie McMurray20.6755023573.3

Recent history has shown us that once a driver figures out the four corners of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, they can reap the rewards for seasons to come. Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart have won each of the last five races at IMS. These dominant drivers are set up to be the focus of attention again this weekend. With Johnson racing extremely well right now and Stewart reeling off multiple Top 10's, the duo should step up their games to mount a challenge for the win at Indianapolis. Last year's Brickyard 400 saw the No. 48 team take control late and Johnson lead the last 24 laps en route to his third career win at IMS. Smoke wasn't too far behind, finishing a brilliant third in last season's installment of this 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 five Top 10's in the last six years at Indy make him the class of the field this weekend. The fact that the owner/driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet is winless to this point in the season really doesn't devalue his fantasy racing worth in this event. With Smoke's recent Top 5's at flat tracks in Pocono and New Hampshire, don't count out the owner/driver this weekend.

Jimmie Johnson
Johnson's luck at Indianapolis has really come of time in the last few seasons. After struggling earlier in his career at the historic speedway, the defending Sprint Cup champion has reeled off three wins in the last four races at Indianapolis. With five victories already in 2010, the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet is on pace to collect 10 wins this season. Johnson could pick up one of those this Sunday at IMS.

Kurt Busch
The No. 2 Dodge team has been strong on intermediate ovals this season with Busch picking up wins at Atlanta and Charlotte. We still believe the veteran Penske Racing driver has what it takes to win at one of these large flat tracks as well. Busch led laps and cracked the Top 10 at both Pocono and Loudon, but he didn't have a car capable of winning those weekends. That could change at Indianapolis this Sunday. Busch owns a career-best finish of fifth in the Brickyard 400, and that mark could fall in this event.

Kevin Harvick
The championship standings leader appears to be in good position heading to Indianapolis, despite his throw-away performance at Chicago two weeks ago. The No. 29 team is racing with urgency to secure the top spot in the Chase for the Cup in a few weeks. Veteran Harvick won't waste a good opportunity to win at the historic Brickyard. In 9 career starts he's earned one victory and six Top-10 finishes at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

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

Kyle Busch
Owner Joe Gibbs is no stranger to victory lane at Indy. Tony Stewart has taken him there twice in recent years. Now the owner of this three-team Toyota stable casts his eyes towards Busch. The outspoken firebrand of the JGR stable is the team's next hope at kissing the brick of Indianapolis. Busch has led 39 laps and collected three Top 10's at the historic track, so he's used to running up front in the Brickyard 400.

Jeff Gordon
Gordon has no wins to show for this season, and he's currently mired in his biggest winless drought of his career. The Hendrick Motorsports veteran might be facing his best chance to get back into victory lane in a long time in this weekend's Brickyard 400. Gordon's a four-time winner of this event and he's led well over 400 laps at Indy for his career. His staggering 81 percent Top 10 rate at IMS screams "safe fantasy play."

Juan Pablo Montoya
The 2010 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. However, the No. 42 team has given him good cars most races, just the luck has come up short. Montoya's best tracks are road courses and flat tracks, so Indianapolis is a great venue for the EGR driver due to his past Indy Racing League experience. Montoya started and finished second in the 2007 Allstate 400 and he led 116 laps here before a pit road speeding penalty cost him a win in 2009.

Kasey Kahne
Another good, veteran driver to rely on this weekend would be Kahne. The No. 9 team is racing well right now as Kahne has finished in the Top 10 in four of his last five races. Indianapolis has been a good track for the Richard Petty Motorsports star, with four Top 10's in six career starts including a pair of seventh-place efforts the last two years. We expect to see this hot driver and team stay on a roll this Sunday afternoon at the Brickyard.

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

A.J. Allmendinger
Allmendinger has been a very productive driver the last several weeks with seven Top 15's in the last eight races. In two career starts the driver of the No. 43 Ford has a 10th- and 20th-place finish at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It appears that this huge flat track plays to Allmendinger's driving strengths. We would be very surprised if he breaks his Top 15 roll in the Brickyard 400.

Jeff Burton
The veteran Richard Childress Racing driver has been on a campaign to make the Chase for the Cup this year. Entering this event Burton is ranked seventh in the standings and really entrenched in the Chase field. He has one pole position, 97 laps led and two Top-10 finishes in his last four visits to Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In a race at the similarly configured Pocono recently, Burton finished a solid seventh.

Sam Hornish Jr.
The third-year Penske Racing driver has been a bit up-and-down this season. He's ranked 29th in the championship standings and he's looking to find the consistency need to crack the Top 25. Hornish has had some good cars along the way in 2010, as evidenced by his 16 laps led and 11th-place finish at Pocono recently. His No. 77 Dodge came to live on that huge triangular track, and we expect to see that same kind of speed from this team at the Brickyard.

Clint Bowyer
Bowyer has been steadily coming on in recent weeks. While he's probably a 50/50 proposition for this season's Chase for the Cup field, he's likely to post many Top 10's as the season moves into the second half. Bowyer boasts one career Top 5 at the Brickyard, and he's never finished outside the Top 20 in four starts at the historic track. The driver of the No. 33 Chevrolet had a ground-pounding hot rod at Pocono recently and that bodes well for this event.

Carl Edwards
The No. 99 team and Edwards have been a frequent face in the Top 10 lately. After sixth- and second-place finishes at Daytona and Chicago respectively, we're getting the sense that Edwards' year-old slump may be coming to an end. The Roush Fenway Racing star carries that momentum to the Brickyard this weekend. His two career Top 10's in five starts at IMS and good loop stats are an encouraging sign of what's to come for Edwards this Sunday.

Paul Menard
Menard has been performing better of late. He's fresh off 18th- and 10th-place finishes at Daytona and Chicago. We believe this will be another weekend of racing on the positive side of the ledger for Menard and the No. 98 team. He was a Top-20 finisher at Pocono Raceway a few weeks ago, and we expect to see that same excellence on display at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Mark Martin
Something is inexplicably wrong at the No. 5 team. We're not sure what exactly, but Martin has not been himself this season. That's not encouraging heading to Indianapolis. Busch has only one Top-10 finish in his last seven races, and the team's last outing at Chicago was anything but inspiring. Despite Martin's pole win and runner-up finish at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last season, we can't recommend him for this race at the Brickyard.

Martin Truex Jr.
Truex's career 22.8 average finish at IMS doesn't inspire much confidence for this race, and his recent inconsistency is disturbing as well. His 11th-place finish at Chicago two weeks ago snapped a three-race Top 20 drought for the No. 56 team. Truex struggled with the flat track at Pocono recently and posted a sub-par 25th-place effort. That finish hangs like a cloud over the Michael Waltrip Racing driver heading to the Brickyard 400.

Elliott Sadler
The Richard Petty Motorsports veteran has two career Top 5 runs at IMS, but he also has six finishes outside the Top 30 in his 11 career starts at Indianapolis. It's another long season for the driver of the No. 19 Ford, entering this event ranked 27th in the championship standings. The numbers point to a poor finish for Sadler in the Brickyard 400, and we're willing to roll the dice on other drivers as a result.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Given Earnhardt's inconsistency lately and his poor record at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he makes the obvious choice for the flops list this weekend. The driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet has only two Top-10 finishes in 10 career visits to the Brickyard. Flat tracks have never been the strength of this NASCAR icon, so it's best to stay clear of Earnhardt at Indianapolis.