This July 4th was supposed to be a fresh start for NASCAR and Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Officials hoped a new 2020 race date for one of the sport's crown jewel events would breathe fresh life into a racetrack that's gotten stale for stock car racing. There was hope, just a few months ago, a holiday weekend could recharge attendance and get 100,000 people back into the stands.
But now? With COVID-19? One of the largest racetracks in America will have a total of just 1,500 people come through its gates — all of them racing-related employees. The pandemic bringing the country to its knees has left the Roger Penske-owned speedway as just another place people can't gather for risk of catching the deadly coronavirus.
After seven weeks of skating past COVID-19 infections, the virus is catching up with the NASCAR garage area, too. Seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnsonwill miss his final Indy race, testing positive after wife Chani started experiencing allergy-like symptoms. The Friday night withdrawal sent shockwaves through the sport's garage area as Johnson became the first driver to contract COVID-19 since NASCAR's return in mid-May.
"My first priority is the health and safety of my loved ones and my teammates," Johnson said. "I've never missed a race in my Cup career, but I know it's going to be very hard to watch from the sidelines when I'm supposed to be out there competing."
According to NASCAR, Johnson, who is asymptomatic, will be granted a playoff waiver should he still qualify for the 2020 postseason. It's unclear how many races he'll miss as rules require two negative test results at least 24 hours apart to be medically cleared.
So into the void comes Justin Allgaier, just the second ever person to drive the No. 48 Chevrolet in a points-paying Cup Series event. It's an incredible opportunity for the longtime NASCAR Xfinity Series regular to audition for the full-time job once Johnson retires at the end of the season. Allgaier, who last drove a Cup race in 2016, is considered a longshot at best but a surprise win at Indy? It'll be a Cinderella story for the ages.
Track position will be key this weekend in a race where the cream often rises to the top. NASCAR's qualifying system already puts the top 12 cars in owner points up front; chances are, Sunday's winner will come from there. Pole-sitter Joey Logano is still seeking his first Indianapolis win to add to a growing Hall of Fame resume. Denny Hamlin is in the same boat, bringing momentum from a Sunday Pocono victory that gave him a series-leading four on the Cup circuit this year. Kyle Busch, meanwhile, could use some past Indy victory magic to recharge what’s been a winless 2020 overall.
But the biggest story surrounding this weekend, as the politics hopefully quiets down around the sport, is how the cars actually race around this 2.5-mile oval. The current Cup Series handling package on larger tracks was created, in part, to remedy the single-file, spread-out competition that's developed over the years for stock cars at Indianapolis. It's only fitting the record for lead changes here (26) happened during a year (2008) where tires were blowing on the race cars every 10-12 laps.
NASCAR has yet to recover here from that embarrassing moment, spurring experimentation like Saturday's Xfinity Series race on the track's infield road course. If Sunday produces another snoozer, similar to Kevin Harvick's dominating win from the pole last year, expect the Cup Series to consider abandoning the oval altogether in 2021. That'll be a big white flag of surrender for a partnership that initially brought stock car racing to national prominence when they first raced at the speedway in 1994.
Big Machine Hand Sanitizer 400
Time: 4 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Radio: IMS, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Aric Almirola
What in the world has gotten into the No. 10 team at Stewart-Haas Racing? No, Almirola hasn't won, but after falling to the precipice of the playoff bubble this veteran, in the last year of his deal, has turned red hot. The last four races, Almirola has posted four straight top-5 finishes, including a third and a fifth at Pocono last weekend.
Just how rare is that for one of the sport's nice, unassuming guys? The four-race total produced a career high for top-5 finishes in a season (four).That's for a driver who’s made the playoffs multiple times and raced nearly a decade with some decent opportunities at SHR, Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Richard Petty Motorsports. With pending free agency looming and other options available (cough, Kyle Larson, cough) did Almirola just peak at the right time?
Who's at the Back: Quin Houff
Who? Houff, a 22-year-old with 27 total starts in NASCAR's top three series, was tabbed to drive the No. 00 full-time in 2020. He replaced popular former driver Landon Cassill at Starcom Racing despite not a single career lead-lap finish at the Cup level.
Alas, a year with no practice has made a near-impossible task for Houff even worse. He crashed out in one of the Pocono races, finishing dead last, and has accumulated an ugly average finish of 32.9. He's got zero top-25 results and has fewer points than any driver who's competed in all 15 events thus far.
How bad has this rookie campaign been? Houff has 11 fewer starts than now-sidelined Kyle Larson. And he’s still 52 points behind him! Geesh.
This year's NASCAR All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway comes with a new twist: the"choose cone'"rule.This tweak, commonly used on short tracks, forces drivers to pick a specific lane on the restart after driving past a specific point. Currently, only the leader is eligible to switch between the inside or outside lane on a restart. NASCAR also announced this week the race at Bristol will have three stages comprised of 35, 35 and 15 laps apiece.
Go FAS Racing and driver Corey Lajoie have picked up a new nine-race primary sponsor: President Donald Trump. The Patriots of America PAC has signed on in a nine-race deal that plasters the 2020 Republican's reelection campaign all over the No. 32 Ford. While the driver was less political, focusing on voter registration, team owner Archie St. Hilaire was all-in on the new deal. "I am honored to be part of the President's re-election campaign," Hilaire said. "As a Trump 2020 supporter, this team will do everything possible to secure victory on and off the track, electing Donald Trump to a second term. Let us bring this country back and Keep America Great."
NBC will cover its first NASCAR Cup Series race of the season this weekend at Indianapolis.FS1 will return for two more Cup events, Kentucky Speedway and the All-Star Race, before ceding coverage to NBC the rest of the year.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Racetracks left on the NASCAR circuit where Kevin Harvick hasn’t won: Kentucky Speedway and the Charlotte ROVAL (where only two races have been run). Harvick also never won during his career at the now-defunct Rockingham Speedway from 2001-04.
Wins for Denny Hamlin at Pocono Raceway after Sunday's victory. That's a career high for him at any track and the most of any active driver in the Cup Series.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Martin Truex Jr. isn't the most conventional pick at Indianapolis. On paper, it's one of his worst tracks: he has just three top-10 finishes in 15 career starts. But Truex had the speed here back in 2017, leading eight laps before tangling with Kyle Busch on a restart while battling up front. It's a crown jewel he desperately wants to win and one of the few not checked off on his bucket list. A cheaper price may make him a better play for your roster.
Kyle Busch has had a difficult year but track history is on his side in Indianapolis. He once led 149 of 170 laps here en route to a dominating victory. It's the type of track where Joe Gibbs Racing horsepower and good pit stops can put Busch in position to capitalize; expect them to do so.
Clint Bowyer is not the first name you think of at Indy. But on the heels of two straight top-5 finishes here, he's got to be on the shortlist for your fantasy roster. Nearly 40 (37) laps led in 2018 shows he can get the job done up front. And a 22nd-place starting spot? That should lead to precious position differential points.
Previous Indy (2013) winner Ryan Newman is running out of time to close the points gap caused by missing three races early in the season. Can this weekend be the track he needs to jumpstart a slow summer? Runs of third, 10th and eighth the last three seasons at this place have been solid, under-the-radar performances.
Why not take a flyer on Justin Allgaier? He'll likely start at the back due to the driver change on the No. 48 team and will be playing with house money. He's got a best finish of just 27th in two Indianapolis career Cup starts but those aren't really comparable; both were with underfunded organizations. It's a chance for this lovable underdog to prove himself on one of the sport's biggest stages.
A really cheap alternative here might be Corey Lajoie in the No. 32. Lajoie was a quiet 19th last season at Indy, an impressive leap from his 30th starting spot with the single-car, Go FAS Racing outlet. He could make a similar jump under the right circumstances.
What Vegas Thinks
Kevin Harvick has the edge at Indy with 4/1 odds to win, according to stats compiled at vegasinsider.com. Kyle Busch is next on the list with 5/1 odds followed by Denny Hamlin at 6/1.
A reasonable longshot would be the aforementioned red-hot Aric Almirola. He's sitting at 40/1.
What I Think
I picked Kyle Busch last week. While he didn't come through, I'm not losing faith in the 2019 Cup Series champ just yet — especially heading to a track that’s in his wheelhouse. At some point, Busch has to post a Cup victory in 2020. I think Indianapolis is his chance to right the ship.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)