Johnson, Gordon look for fifth NASCAR win at the Brickyard

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Geoffrey Miller's Five Things to Watch in Indianapolis

Geoffrey Miller highlights the five NASCR storylines to watch in this weekend's Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

1. Expect Brickyard speeds to be up considerably
NASCAR’s new car and the ever-looming fear of a repeat of 2008’s tire issues at Indianapolis sent several teams to the 2.5-mile speedway over the spring and summer for testing sessions. The tires, at least during those sessions, lasted.

But there was still a big surprise: The Gen-6 was impressively quicker than recent years in laps around the track that turns 104-years-old in August.

“With everything they’ve worked on with the Gen-6 car, I feel like it’s really relaying over to this racetrack,” Trevor Bayne said after a test in April. “Some tracks we go to you can’t tell a big difference, but with this place, with as much speed as you’re carrying into the corner, the aero packages are really amplified here. I think it’s a great package, and we’ve had a lot of grip.”

That grip has translated into speed. Jeff Gordon reported during the same test that his engineers reported a reading of 214 miles per hour on an on-board speedometer at the end of the straightaway.

Temperatures for that April test were decidedly cool and unlike the typical July weekend in Indianapolis. But an odd weather pattern has settled over the Hoosier state this weekend, leaving forecasted temperatures nearly 20 degrees under the average. The lower temperatures should keep the corner grip level higher than normal, thus increasing speed.

How the added speed will affect the racing won’t be known until Sunday, but it can often be a detractor thanks to the increased need for drivers to race in clean, non-turbulent air.



2. Jimmie, Jeff Go For Five at Indy  Jimmie JohnsonFive has long been a hallowed number at Indianapolis.

In the other big oval race there — you may have heard of the Indianapolis 500 — no driver has ever crossed the plateau of four wins shared by A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears. Michael Schumacher scored five Indianapolis wins during the brief stint of Formula 1 on the IMS road course, but that’s a fact often brushed aside faster than Bernie Ecclestone's ability to endorse a check.

Heading to its 20th running this weekend, the Brickyard 400 already has two drivers looking to cross into the five-win tier: Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson, of course, got win No. 4 last year — just seven years after his first Indianapolis victory. Gordon won the inaugural trip to Indianapolis in 1994 and recorded Brickyard win No. 4 in 2004.

Gordon has 15 career top 10s in his 19 Brickyard starts — the most in the series — but Johnson heads to Indianapolis sounding extra confident. He claims there’s a specific way to drive the car at Indianapolis that once discovered and mastered will lead to plenty of success.

“I found it through a lot of frustrating test sessions, races, a few crashed cars, and then it finally clicked,” Johnson said. “I don’t remember the exact moment. I do at Martinsville, but I don’t at Indy. It was just one weekend we came back and the light went off in my mind and I’m like, ‘That’s how!’ And then we won.”



3. Greg Biffle seeks redemption from 2012 near-miss  Greg BiffleAnother confident Sprint Cup driver heading to Indy is Greg Biffle.

Easily lost in the shuffle of Johnson’s fourth Indianapolis win last season was that Biffle had a car plenty capable of winning until a risky pit strategy play didn’t work out. The No. 16 averaged a running position of fourth during the race (only Johnson was better) and took two tires during the final pit stop to grab the lead and advantage of clean air.

But it wasn’t enough, and Biffle led just four laps (two under green) before Johnson passed him and cruised to victory over the final 29 laps.

Beyond last year’s near-miss, Biffle has the sixth-best average finish at the Brickyard among Sprint Cup active drivers with six top 10s in 10 starts.

“I love racing at Indy, we always seem to run well there. I can’t wait to kiss the bricks,” Biffle said. “I feel like we have a good car, we’ve gained a lot on downforce and a lot on drag. I’m looking forward to having a good engine and qualifying up front. This thing is going to be ours.”


4. Eldora puts Brickyard in a shadow
Somehow, someway, a small half-mile Ohio dirt track that sells $2 beers and a white t-shirt with a screen-printed mud stain under the slogan “Got dirt?” has managed to zap nearly all of the buzz from NASCAR’s biggest racing series racing at the most well-known speedway in the country.

That’s pretty crazy, right? It’s also true.

The excitement for Wednesday night’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series at Ohio’s Eldora Speedway was, as many would say, palpable. It was NASCAR’s first return of a national touring series to a non-pavement track in over four decades. And the show? Well, even though the trucks looked disappointingly slow, they produced a race worth watching again and again.

It was without a doubt a rousing success for NASCAR — if only because it re-energized a segment of the fan base put off by the slot car racing seen too often on the sport’s larger, paved tracks.

But what was the cost of that great event to this weekend’s show at the Brickyard?

The visuals are going to be jarring with the stands looking barren and the racing spread out. Unless something from the Gen-6 has changed things wildly and unpredictably at Indianapolis — I’m not holding my breath — most of the passing will come on restarts and pit road.

I’m glad NASCAR tried the dirt race. I hope they do it again. But when the powers that be are trying so hard to re-invent NASCAR at Indianapolis in order to draw back 200,000-person crowds, it seems a bit silly to let the lead up to the race be overshadowed by an event everyone knew would be the main attention grab coming off the Sprint Cup off-weekend.



5. Nationwide “Dashing for Cash” at the BrickyardIt’s still going to be plenty odd for a NASCAR weekend in Indianapolis to not feature the Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series at the rough-and-tumble .526-mile short track on the west edge of the city, Lucas Oil Raceway Park. It’s also plenty odd to see how empty Indianapolis’ behemoth grandstands will look for Saturday’s Nationwide race in the late afternoon.

But that doesn’t mean Saturday’s race won’t have a bit of intrigue.

In the last year’s inaugural running, controversy ruled the day when Elliott Sadler was penalized for apparently jumping a late restart. The penalty ultimately cost Sadler the race — he pitted to serve the penalty from the lead — and left him incensed over both the lost win and the championship implications.

You can bet NASCAR will be asked to clarify those restart rules this weekend.

Saturday also marks the end of the Nationwide Series’ four-race “Dash 4 Cash” program that makes a $100,000 bonus to the highest-finishing series regulars who were in the top 4 of that list at Chicagoland Speedway last week. Eligible this week are Sadler, Sam Hornish Jr., Austin Dillon and Brian Vickers.

Sadler took the first of the four bonuses at Daytona with Dillon scoring the second and third.


Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller

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