For years, the Brickyard 400 has been known as NASCAR’s crown jewel race that always struggles to meet expectations. Everyone wants to kiss the bricks but the actual taste you get when you do it? That’s how too many fans feel watching the racing itself. The same goes for the sport’s regular-season finale, no matter the racetrack, during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoff era.
Both trends have been negative for the sport. But both also have a rare, unique opportunity to change direction on Sunday in Indianapolis for the Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard.
NASCAR’s new handling package is expected to adapt well to Indianapolis Motor Speedway's 2.5-mile layout. It's a track that was built for open-wheel racing, not stock cars, its long straightaways and tight turns always posing a challenge for NASCAR chassis to race side by side. But the hope is drafting becomes paramount with reduced horsepower and slower speeds, making Indy a mini-restrictor plate race of sorts in which anything could happen up front in the regular-season finale.
That's important because, for the first time since 2013, the points are razor-thin tight at the back of the postseason field. Daniel Suarez and Ryan Newman are tied for the 16th and final spot heading in; Clint Bowyer sits just eight points ahead of them. Lurking 26 points behind Bowyer (and 18 behind the cutoff line) is seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.
Johnson had the speed at Darlington to make it an even closer race, a top-five car until getting swept into a late-race accident that spoiled his chances. But 18 points in the form of two stage race bonuses is not an impossible margin to close. There could easily be a scenario in which Indy’s final stage begins with four drivers less than 10 points apart, racing for the final two spots on the playoff grid.
Of course, there could always be a major upset that scrambles the field even further; any full-time NASCAR driver can make the playoffs with a Hail Mary Indy win. Matt DiBenedetto has been posting career bests at almost every racetrack the second half of the season; he nearly won Bristol a few weeks ago. Paul Menard has an Indy victory under his belt from back in 2011. Those are the most likely picks to steal one from those drivers outside the playoff bubble looking in but with Indy's new-look package? You never know.
Fuel mileage has also occasionally played a role here in a race that often runs with just a few caution flags. That strategy brought Ricky Rudd his only Brickyard 400 victory in 1997. Could another series of risky calls from the pit box bring someone like Austin Dillon back into the playoff picture? (He won the Coca-Cola 600 on fuel mileage in 2017).
Weather conditions will also be ideal Sunday; 74 degrees and just a 20 percent chance of rain. Add it all up and it’s the best possible sell in several years to get some fans in the stands. A major NASCAR schedule shakeup in 2021 is looming; already, next year's Indy race has moved to the heat of July 4th weekend. Getting a good crowd Sunday is crucial when assessing the track’s long-term viability in the sport.
Right now, open-wheel racing can still draw well over a quarter-million here for that "other" race run on Memorial Day weekend. On the other hand, 50,000 NASCAR fans, while impressive elsewhere, just won't cut it for independent IMS ownership.
NASCAR's new package and an actual playoff race, for once, heading into the regular-season finale give Indy one last-gasp opportunity for stock car success. Who knows if it'll translate into nail-biting action on Sunday but, no matter the outcome, NASCAR has put its best foot forward in trying to lay a new foundation of Brickyard 400 history.
Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard
Time: Sunday, 2 p.m. ET
Track: Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Indianapolis)
Radio: IMS Radio Network, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Toyota
Erik Jones was just the latest Toyota driver to hit paydirt, rocketing to a Southern 500 victory in the twilight hours of Monday morning. Heading into the postseason, it’s the Camry contingent setting themselves up to be heavy favorites.
A closer look at the last six races shows all four of Joe Gibbs Racing's teams sit 1-2-3-4 in Cup Series average finish. The fifth team, run by Matt DiBenedetto and Leavine Family racing, is tied for 7th (9.7). JGR has now won 13 of the season's 25 races and Kyle Busch needs to merely start the race at Indianapolis to clinch the 2019 regular-season title.
Toyota may be the smallest group among NASCAR's three manufacturers each week. But what they lack in quantity, they sure make up in quality.
Who's at the Back: Aric Almirola
A 17th-place finish with a backup car wasn't the worst possible outcome at Darlington. But Almirola, once a Cinderella darling of the 2018 playoffs, has had the bottom fall out over at the No. 10 of Stewart-Haas Racing. He’s earned finishes of 33rd, 29th, and 17th the last three weeks, wrecking hard at both Michigan and Bristol to plummet to 14th in the season standings. Only once in the last 10 races (New Hampshire) has he been fast enough to get out front and lead some laps.
Luckily, Almirola still had enough of a points cushion to clinch a postseason bid with ease. But all signs point to a first-round exit if this team can’t start righting the ship.
A win for Erik Jones paid off with a contract extension for him to drive the No. 20 at Joe Gibbs Racing. The deal, announced Friday at Indianapolis, ended months of negotiations and speculation he was headed elsewhere in 2020. "I put my heart and soul into this and this race team," Jones said. "This is my living and how I want to make a career and what I do."
Ty Dillon denied rumors of his possible retirement in a passionate Instagram post on Friday.The 27-year-old grandson of Cup owner Richard Childress has struggled in three full-time seasons; he's earned just one top-5 finish for Germain Racing's No. 13 Chevrolet. But Dillon made it clear he's not giving up. "I plan on racing for many, many years," Dillon explained in the Instagram story. "To hear it from my mouth, I'm not retiring, and I plan on winning races and championships."
One of NASCAR's newest owners may be out of the sport in less than six months, another cautionary tale as the sport looks to attract new blood. Twenty-three-year-old Matt Hurley, who started a NASCAR Xfinity Series team this summer, suspended operations this week after a promising start with driver Shane Lee. H2 Motorsports built itself from scratch into a top-10 effort in just seven races, carrying longtime NASCAR backer (and rebuilt retail company) Circuit City as primary sponsor. But Lee was released and the car was withdrawn before last weekend's Xfinity Series race at Darlington; since then, doors were reportedly locked and employees released. Just two weeks ago, the organization claimed it was considering expansion. Now, it's uncertain if they will ever return.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Laps completed for Kyle Busch out of 7,041 possible laps this season. He's finished off the lead lap only twice, at Chicagoland and Kansas, in the sport's first 25 races.
Postseason appearances in 15 tries for Jimmie Johnson in the sport's playoff era. That streak will be put to the test on Sunday with Johnson currently 18th in the 2019 standings.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Denny Hamlin saw a Brickyard 400 win slip away after a late caution for Jeffrey Earnhardt'swreck last year. You have to believe Hamlin's out for vengeance, especially considering he's riding a summer hot streak that reestablished him as a championship contender. Hamlin's Indy track record is decent, posting seven top 10s in 13 career starts, and even that's somewhat deceptive. He’s posted five top 10s in his last seven trips to Indy, leading 86 laps in the process.
Team Penskeheads to Indy a clear step behind the Joe Gibbs Racing juggernaut heading into the postseason chase. But this racetrack holds a special place in Roger Penske's heart; he’s won more Indy 500s here (18) than anyone else. It made last year's victory with Brad Keselowski so special and chances are the three-car Ford team will be at or near the front of the pack again. Joey Logano might be a good value pick considering he was just 13th in last year's race; he'll be much better than that this Sunday.
The playoff bubble driversshould all be on your radar here as they attempt to fight for their postseason lives. Clint Bowyer was fifth at Indy last year, leading 37 laps but I tend to like him the least of this quartet; he's never posted back-to-back top-10 finishes there. Daniel Suarez has just two starts at Indy, posting an average finish of 12.5, but should be a top-10 contender.
Ryan Newman may be in the best position of this group, scoring a win as recently as 2013 while running third and 10th at Indy the last two times out. I actually like him and Suarez to make the postseason over Bowyer but don't discount a shocking upset by Jimmie Johnson. His four Brickyard 400 wins trail only Jeff Gordonand the No. 48 team should be good for at least stage bonus points as they try and close the gap.
How can you not ride the hot hand of Matt DiBenedetto at this point? His career Indy track record includes two DNFs in four starts but he's also snuck in an eighth-place finish back in 2017. At this point, history matters little as Leavine Family Racing is knocking out top-tier performances every week.
You know what team ran eighth with DiBenedetto in that bizarre 2017 Brickyard 400? Go FAS Racing and Corey Lajoie. The new handling package could benefit underdog teams here and Lajoie’s an excellent survival pick with top-20 potential at minimum price.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Busch leads the pack with 3/1 odds to win Indy. Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick sit tied for second at 6/1.
What I Think
Joe Gibbs Racing ends the regular season with another statement race, running 1-2-3 while Denny Hamlin exorcises the demons of Indy past in victory lane.
— 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 email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.