The old saying goes that major news comes in “3s,” right? This weekend’s Brickyard 400 lives up to that mantra with a trio of storylines involving three of the most important, well-known names in the world of NASCAR.
There’s Jeff Gordon, coming out of retirement to drive the No. 88 of Hendrick Motorsports. Gordon, who hasn’t driven a car since Homestead last November, finds himself just two years removed from a stirring Brickyard 400 victory. He’s the winningest stock car driver at Indianapolis and, despite posting the 25th-fastest speed in Friday Happy Hour, must be looked at as a dark horse contender for the win.
Gordon replaces Dale Earnhardt Jr., still sidelined after a series of concussion-type symptoms left him feeling ill after Kentucky. Friday, the driver acknowledged progress but he’ll be out at least through Pocono, as his chances for making the 2016 Chase are declining rapidly. How will the sport fare without its Most Popular Driver in the car for the foreseeable future? Indy will be a far bigger test of if fans will still tune in; it’s one of the sport’s “crown jewel” races that typically brings in a larger summer audience.
And then there’s Indiana native Tony Stewart, running his favorite track for a final time and entering the Brickyard with mucho momentum. A runner-up Loudon finish leaves hope the No. 14 team could pull an upset and put their hometown hero back in Victory Lane here one final time.
Sunday may not have the specter of the 100th open-wheel Indy 500 this May, an event which produced a sold-out crowd, but this Indy race still has plenty going for it.
2016 Brickyard 400
Time: 3 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Indianapolis Motor Speedway
TV: NBC Sports Network
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Toyota
After Team Penske Fords won three out of the last four Sprint Cup races the season’s top manufacturer, Toyota, bounced back in a big way Sunday. The Loudon event was dominated most of the day by Joe Gibbs Racing’s Kyle Busch and JGR’s single-car ally, the Furniture Row Racing Toyota driven by Martin Truex Jr. When both drivers suffered from unrelated issues late, Matt Kenseth surged to the front and coasted to victory over Stewart. In all, Toyotas led 299 of 301 laps and upped their win total to 9-of-19 on the year, easily besting Ford and Chevrolet. It’s a reminder that despite recent gains from their rivals JGR and company remain formidable opponents come September’s Chase.
Who’s at the Back: Chase Elliott
The sport’s most promising rookie most of the season has hit a rough patch. Elliott, involved in another wreck at Loudon, has now finished outside the top 20 in four straight races. Before that stretch? He’d run outside the top 20 just twice. The results leave Elliott, once a Chase lock, only 54 points ahead of fellow freshman Ryan Blaney (who is currently in 17th) and a pack of hungry drivers behind him. In theory, that should be more than enough with seven races left but we’ve seen bigger collapses before in the Chase era. Elliott needs a solid run at Indy this weekend to stop the bleeding.
Earnhardt, out through Pocono, has given no timetable on his return to the No. 88. Gordon, for his part is committed for the next two races and then the team will reevaluate. As part of Gordon’s return to the sport it was revealed he also was offered the No. 14 car for February’s Daytona 500, a move that would have had him subbing for Tony Stewart. Unfortunately for Gordon, FOX broadcast obligations got in the way although their absence from the sport until February gives him the green light to drive for HMS as long as is needed.
NASCAR owner Richard Childress said this week he’s closer to finalizing his driver lineup for 2017. Two of his three drivers, Ryan Newman and Paul Menard, have their contracts expiring at the end of this season while the owner’s grandson, Ty Dillon, is scheduled to move up to Cup full-time. Childress would like Dillon in the fold racing along with brother Austin, but sponsorship has been hard to come by. Newman’s future appears the most tenuous as Menard, according to the car owner, is in position to re-sign a long-term deal with family backing.
TV ratings for the sport continue to be a major story. Loudon declined 13 percent year-to-year on NBC Sports Network; the audience for the race as a whole has declined nearly one full ratings point in three years. Attendance concerns at the track were also on display as the grandstands were far from capacity. Will those worries carry over to Indy? Last-minute ticket sales are up with Gordon coming out of retirement but the jury is still out as to whether the track will even break the 70,000 mark. By comparison, well over 300,000 attended a sold out Indy 500 event back in May.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Straight races all four Hendrick Motorsports cars have finished outside the top 10.
Points separating Trevor Bayne, who currently holds the last Chase spot (16th) from 22nd-place point man Greg Biffle. With Earnhardt expected to drop out of the field this weekend, expect that pack of drivers to shuffle all the way through Richmond for that final slot.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Kyle Busch was our pick here last week and he was out front for half the race in New Hampshire before fading late. Expect that type of momentum to continue at Indy, a race where Busch is the defending champion. His 2015 breakthrough for Toyota shows no signs of letting up as Busch led the field in Happy Hour practice Friday. Repeat victories are rare but a top-5 bid feels certain here unless something mechanical goes wrong.
Kevin Harvick, second in Happy Hour, also has a rich history of success at Indy. While winning just once, in 2003 he has seven straight top-20 finishes at the track and always seems to nose his way into contention. The No. 4 car has been shooting itself in the foot recently – pit problems and pit box mistakes the order of the day – but at some point luck has to turn back in their direction.
Kyle Larson is running a No. 42 car that’s come close to winning Indy in the past with Juan Pablo Montoya. Two-for-two on top-10 finishes in Larson’s previous Indy starts, chances are high he’ll be ripe to repeat that performance this weekend considering his recent NASCAR performances. Fresh off a Wednesday victory in the Eldora truck race, Larson is motivated to win a race before September and move himself off that precarious Chase bubble for good.
Greg Biffle, coming off three straight top 10s, seems to be putting together a last-ditch effort to contend for a Chase bid. Indy, where he ran 19th last season, wouldn’t seem to favor the Roush Fenway cars but the No. 16 team has quietly put up some decent numbers here. Just once since 2007 has Biffle run outside the top 20 at this track and his career average finish there is a respectable 13.6. I’d ride the momentum and see where it goes.
Paul Menard? Yes, that Paul Menard. The 2011 Brickyard 400 winner was 14th last season and has five top-15 finishes in his last six Indy starts. Menard, who’s had some uncharacteristically bad luck this season, is looking to build a solid foundation for 2017 and excels on these types of strung-out, horsepower tracks.
As for Gordon? He's a dark horse contender but the "boom or bust" mentality for someone coming out of retirement should make you stay away from a fantasy perspective. Would you pick a plumber to fix your house, for example that hasn't done a single job in eight months, especially considering there are dozens of other qualified candidates available? Choose at your own risk.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Busch has 11/2 odds to win Indy as of Friday night with Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. close behind (13/2). Team Penske comes next as Joey Logano (7/1) and Brad Keselowski (8/1) are expected to excel at a track their boss, Roger Penske, has won at more than any other on the IndyCar side.
What I Think
Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, even Kyle Busch would produce some kind of storybook ending at Indy. But I’m going to go with a different type of surprise: Jimmie Johnson, after a month or two of struggles at Hendrick Motorsports, gets the act together for the team and takes the No. 48 back to Victory Lane at Indy.
— 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.
(Photo by ASP Inc.)