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Brickyard 400 Preview: Auto Racing's Field of Dreams

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 weekend NASCAR will be making its annual stop at the historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The Brickyard plays host the prestigious stock car racing event on motor racing's most identifiable and awe-inspiring track. Indianapolis has hosted 17 Sprint Cup Series races to this point, so we have some very reliable 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 9-12 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. Goodyear has been able to develop a great tire for stock cars at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the last few seasons, so we expect solid racing and for tire wear not to be an issue this Sunday afternoon.

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 six NASCAR races at Indy. Since the Sprint Cup Series only races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway once a season, this span will cover the last six 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 Tony Stewart leads the list from both an average finish and driver rating standpoint. Considering that he's fresh off a runner-up finish at New Hampshire, this could be the race where the owner/driver solidifies his Chase hopes and turns in his first victory of the season. The following table has the loop stats from the last six years or six races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Tony Stewart6.818486111788109.3
Juan Pablo Montoya21.066105202481106.4
Mark Martin7.01483824814105.3
Jimmie Johnson17.012881129611100.1
Greg Biffle14.0140514978897.7
Kevin Harvick12.3145284169595.1
Jeff Burton13.8127359763895.0
Kyle Busch13.7155173967394.0
Mike Bliss11.0200012493.4
Jeff Gordon10.715522765593.3
Matt Kenseth12.811281866592.7
Kasey Kahne17.5130314070490.8
Clint Bowyer11.612010058989.6
Denny Hamlin16.8113342641288.9
Carl Edwards10.515642548787.8
Jamie McMurray17.390141639582.3
Brian Vickers17.66671944981.9
Joey Logano10.533008979.6
A.J. Allmendinger15.3300414076.3
Dale Earnhardt Jr.26.391184138473.8

Recent history has shown us that Chevrolet has taken complete control of this historic venue. The last eight victories at Indy have gone to Chevrolet drivers of various camps. Jimmie Johnson and Stewart alone have won five of those eight wins at IMS. These dominant drivers are set up to be the focus of attention again this weekend. With Johnson starting to find his stride right now and Stewart beginning to rediscover his groove, the duo should step up their games to mount a challenge for the win at Indianapolis. Last year's Brickyard 400 saw the No. 1 team and driver Jamie McMurray take control late and outduel Kevin Harvick to win at IMS. Considering the struggles of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing this season, we don't expect to see a repeat performance this Sunday afternoon. With the resurgence of Roush Fenway Racing in 2011, we can't overlook Ford's opportunity to upstage Chevy this weekend. Drivers like Carl Edwards 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 five Top 5's 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 is winless to this point in the season really doesn't devalue his fantasy racing worth in this event. With Smoke's 48 laps led and runner-up finish at New Hampshire recently, the timing looks right for the veteran driver to pick up his first victory of the 2011 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 DNF's in this significant race. So deploy Johnson with a measure of caution this weekend. The No. 48 team is only sitting on one win to this point in the season, so the reigning Sprint Cup Series champion really hasn't been in race-winning form of late. Still, Johnson's three wins have come in the last five years at IMS, so the upside potential is tremendous.

Kurt Busch -
The No. 22 Dodge team has been strong of late, with Busch picking up the victory a few weeks ago at Sonoma. Despite leading over 500 laps for the season, the veteran driver has forged only the one win. Busch's runner-up finish at Pocono and his recent strong outing at Loudon two weeks ago have our confidence high of his abilities on flatter ovals. The Penske Racing star has never won at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but he does crack the Top 10 here at a 40 percent occurrence rate. The pieces may finally be in place for Busch to kiss the bricks this weekend.

Jeff Gordon -
Gordon has two wins already this season, and he's looking for more hardware for his trophy case as we come to 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 well over 400 laps at Indy for his career. His last win came here in 2004, so you can guarantee the No. 24 team will be racing with a purpose on Sunday afternoon.

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

Ryan Newman -
The recent Loudon winner has all the momentum heading into the Brickyard 400 this weekend. Newman is in the Top 10 of the driver standings and he's soaring like an eagle after his first victory of the season. While the veteran driver of the No. 39 Chevrolet has some very subpar Indy stats, we have to negate that a bit coming into this race. Newman has four Top 10's in the last six races, and two of those have come at the flat ovals of Pocono and New Hampshire. He should continue his good racing and post a career-best finish at IMS in this event.

Kevin Harvick -
Harvick appears to be in good position heading to Indianapolis, despite his throw-away performances at Kentucky and Loudon the last two races. The No. 29 team should start 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 get some points at the historic Brickyard. In 10 career starts he's earned one victory and seven Top-10 finishes at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The recent performance lull should come to an end starting with the Brickyard 400.

Carl Edwards -
The championship standings leader has been a frequent face in the Top 10 this season. Entering this event, Edwards leads all drivers with 13 Top-10 finishes this season. The Roush Fenway Racing star carries that momentum to the Brickyard this weekend. His three career Top 10's in six starts at IMS and good loop stats are an encouraging sign of what's to come for Edwards this Sunday afternoon. He should forge yet another Top-10 finish in this prestigious race.

Kasey Kahne -
Another good, veteran driver to rely on this weekend would be Kahne. The No. 4 team is racing well right now as Kahne has finished in the Top 10 in two of his last three races. Indianapolis has been a good track for the Red Bull Racing star, with four Top 10's in seven career starts. Considering his sixth-place finish at the just-completed Loudon race, 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

Kyle Busch -
Owner Joe Gibbs is no stranger to victory lane at Indy. Tony Stewart took him there twice a few years ago, and Bobby Labonte did way back in 2000. Now the owner of this three-team Toyota stable casts his eyes towards Busch getting him back there. Driver Busch is probably Gibbs' best hope of kissing the bricks of Indianapolis this weekend. Busch has led 39 laps and collected four Top 10's at the historic track. While chances of a victory are slim, the driver of the No. 18 Toyota does have a good chance to crack the Top 10 on Sunday afternoon.

Juan Pablo Montoya -
The 2011 season has been a real puzzle for the Columbian racing star. Montoya is 17th 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 extensive experience on this oval. Montoya has led over 200 laps in the last two Brickyard 400's, but has managed to let the wins slip through his fingers.

Mark Martin -
The last 18 months have been a real boggle for the veteran driver Martin. He enters this race with only five Top 10's on the season and an uncharacteristic 20th-place standing in the driver points. However, we feel that this could be a weekend where Martin bucks the current trend and has some real fantasy racing value. The Hendrick Motorsports driver has 17 career starts at IMS, so he's not short on experience at this facility. Martin boasts an impressive 59 percent Top 10 rate at Indy and recent finishes of 11th-, 2nd- and 11th-place in the last three seasons. The No. 5 Chevrolet team is a good stealth pick this weekend.

A.J. Allmendinger -
Allmendinger has been a very productive driver the last several weeks with four Top 15's in the last five races. In three career starts the driver of the No. 43 Ford has a 10th-, 20th- and 16th-place finishes at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It appears that this huge flat track plays to Allmendinger's driving strengths. Coming off the strong 12th-place finish at the flat oval in Loudon, our optimism is very high. We would be very surprised if he breaks his current Top 15 roll in the Brickyard 400.

Joey Logano -
The hottest Joe Gibbs Racing driver of late hasn't been Kyle Busch or Denny Hamlin´┐Ż It has been Logano and his No. 20 team. The young driver has two Top 5's and three Top 10's in the last five races and more Sprint Cup Series points than either of his more heralded teammates during the same span. Coming off a strong Top 5 run at New Hampshire, the rising star of the JGR stable is bringing lots of momentum to Indianapolis Motor Speedway this weekend. Logano's career finishes of 12th- and 9th-place at IMS are also a big factor in this selection.

David Ragan -
The Roush Fenway Racing driver has four career starts at Indianapolis with three Top-20 finishes to his credit. While Ragan's stats are not eye-popping they are respectable considering the struggles he had the last couple seasons. Now two races removed from his first career win, Ragan is still competing well each week. His eighth- and 14th-place finishes at Kentucky and Loudon since the Daytona win show just how good this driver and team have been this season. A career-best Indy finish is likely in store for Ragan on Sunday afternoon.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Clint Bowyer -
Bowyer has been fighting consistency issues the past month. The Richard Childress Racing star has failed to crack the Top 15 in his last three races, and he has two DNF's during that span. Bowyer's disappointing 17th-place finish at New Hampshire, an oval where he won in 2010, really signals the problems that the No. 33 team are experiencing right now. Despite his brilliant fourth-place finish in this race one year ago, we have to recommend sitting Bowyer on the bench for this one.

Jamie McMurray -
Surprisingly, the 2010 winner of the Brickyard 400 is in the slumps list this week. Nothing has gone right for McMurray this season. Even his potential Top-10 finish at Loudon two weeks ago was ruined by an empty gas tank. The Earnhardt Ganassi racing veteran has good career numbers at this facility, and will likely field a fast car this Sunday at Indianapolis, but this team's bad luck will likely torpedo any chances of a Top 15 run in this prestigious event.

Regan Smith -
The Furniture Row Racing driver has slipped into a bit of a mid-summer slump. After the win at Darlington and Top 10 at Charlotte, Smith has fallen into a rut. He's failed to crack the Top 15 in his last five races, and he's slipped to 27th-place in the driver standings. Smith has three career starts at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, with no finishes inside the Top 30. This is just a terribly bad time to visit IMS if you're the No. 78 Chevrolet team.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Given Earnhardt's inconsistency this summer and his poor record at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he makes an obvious choice for the flops list this weekend. The driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet has only two Top-10 finishes in 11 career visits to the Brickyard. Three of Earnhardt's last six trips to the Brickyard have led to DNF's. Given his spotty record at IMS and recent struggles, we'd suggest keeping the NASCAR icon shelved for this week.