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Twenty years after first Brickyard win, Jeff Gordon shoots for fifth


Each week, Geoffrey Miller’s “Five Things to Watch” will help you catch up on the biggest stories of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ upcoming race weekend. This week, Geoffrey is at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where a batch of storylines lead the series up to the race once simply known as The Brickyard 400. Among them: the importance of practice and qualifying this weekend, NASCAR’s weariness to change the schedule in 2015 and the importance of Sunday’s race for three particular drivers.

SPEEDWAY, Ind. — Qualifying at the Brickyard is always among the most important of the season for Sprint Cup teams in terms of how it will affect their Sunday race strategy. The 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway is notoriously difficult in the passing department and the tight confines of pit road give a sizable advantage to those in prime spots — the same teams qualified up front.

So Saturday at Indianapolis will be a pressure-filled time for those who want to kiss the bricks Sunday, even before weather concerns  and NASCAR’s new qualifying format was tossed in the mix.

The green flag will wave on Session 1 of the three-round qualifying at 2:10 p.m. ET should rain stay away. The National Weather Service Friday gave the track a 30 percent chance of thunderstorms during that time period. Any delay would be tough on an otherwise packed track schedule with the Nationwide Series race set to start at 4:30 p.m. ET, meaning a wet track would likely mean total cancellation of the session in favor of Friday’s practice speeds.

But should the rain stay away, the three-round session will see a bunch of drivers all trying to time a lap in the best weather conditions possible — i.e., more clouds and less sun.

NASCAR growing weary of schedule suggestions

The two years of success for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series at Eldora Speedway as a mid-week, primetime feature has certainly been a boon to both the series and the sport at large. With the 2015 national series schedules still unannounced and previous overtures of significant change from the sport’s leaders — assertions largely since retracted by CEO Brian France — the topic of more NASCAR races on weeknights has become a popular one.

Ryan Newman, last year’s winner of the Brickyard 400, was completely in favor of the idea Friday at Indianapolis.

“I’d turn some races into Wednesday night races, some into Saturday night or Sunday races when it made sense,” Newman said before noting the schedule could be condensed without dropping races. “I think just realigning it and being able to be on TV on our own special event on Wednesday night — especially in football season — would be good for our sport.”

Of course, such a shift would be dramatic for the sport often slow to change. It would also require crossing several hurdles in terms of logistics and politics — a point that NASCAR’s chief communications officer Brett Jewkes wanted to make crystal clear Friday on Twitter.

“Armchair schedule-makers at full froth this week,” Jewkes wrote. “Amazing how, quick and easy it sounds. #ItsNot

So much for that, right? In a clarifying tweet, Jewkes wrote “Love all the ideas, don’t love the notion that there’s a magic wand and it’s easy. It’s not.”

For fans desperate for a shake-up in the season schedule, it sure seems like the wait will continue despite some fascinating ideas and what-ifs.

Gordon extra confident on 20th anniversary of inaugural Brickyard win

Buzz of Jeff Gordon’s inaugural Brickyard 400 win 20 years ago — and after Sunday’s green flag, 21 races ago — has been steady this week at IMS. The track is selling t-shirts commemorating the first of Gordon’s four Brickyard wins and the mayor of Indianapolis even declared Sunday as “Jeff Gordon Day” in the city that once served as his transplanted home.

But Gordon, the current Sprint Cup points leader with a 12-point advantage on Dale Earnhardt Jr., made it clear among the pomp-and-circumstance of the anniversary that he’s serious about winning a fifth. He thinks his Chevrolet is decidedly strong for Sunday’s race — and that’s saying something for a driver with a career average finish of 8.8 at the track.

“From an overall strength of the team and speed of the car, this is by far the best chance we’ve had at winning in a long time,” Gordon said Friday at IMS.

It’s been 10 years since Gordon was a winner at Indy, but he’s nabbed four top-5 finishes and seven top-10 runs in that period. 

“We’ve come in here and didn’t really have what it took to win and made more out of it than I anticipated once the green flag dropped,” Gordon said. “This weekend there’s no doubt I feel like this is the best chance that we’ve had at winning this race legitimately with the speed of the car as we’ve had in a very, very long time.”

Montoya searching for right feel in pursuit of elusive Brickyard

Twice, Juan Pablo Montoya watched tremendous chances to become the first driver to win the Brickyard 400 and the Indianapolis 500 disappear in painful fashion. In the former, he led 116 laps in 2009 and blew the race with a pit road speeding penalty and ended the 2010 edition in a crash after fighting to recover from bad pit strategy.

He’s back at IMS this weekend in his new part-time role as a third driver in Penske Racing’s No. 12 and finished Friday’s first practice a little disappointed with the feel of his car.

“I wasn’t that happy with the car to be honest,” Montoya said during his off-week from his full-time Penske IndyCar ride. “It’s hard because they’re so different and what Brad (Keselowski) and Joey (Logano)  drive every week and what they look for in the car is a little bit different than what I want out of the car.”

Montoya, the 2000 Indianapolis 500 winner, was 28th fastest in the one practice session Friday after running 20 laps.

“I think I’ve been pretty good here and I know what I want out the car,” Montoya said. “So that makes it a lot easier so we know what we need to work on to be a little better.”

Kurt Busch makes second trip to Indianapolis in 2014

Kurt Busch added his name to the list of drivers who have competed in the famed Memorial Day weekend double — he raced both the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 in May — but he enters this weekend’s Brickyard 400 as the first among that group to be at the same place numerically (25th) in both series’ point standings entering the 400.

It’s both a dubious and unimportant distinction, but still a fascinating one considering Busch is currently locked in the Chase for the Sprint Cup thanks to his Martinsville win. He’s 25th in IndyCar points with the 80 points he earned in May’s double points-paying 500 and 25th in Sprint Cup points after one win, four top-5 finishes and just nine lead-lap finishes in 19 races.

Busch was optimistic Friday that his team had made progress toward more consistency.

“Our (Sprint Cup) team has turned a good corner since Indianapolis when I ran here in May,” Busch said. “When we unloaded at Pocono in June, that seemed like we were grabbing another gear and our team has found a good rhythm since then.”

Busch finished third in that Pocono race at a track that many teams like to use as a barometer for IMS success. 

“We’re hoping to cash in on some of those setup notes and procedures that we’ve been following since the first Pocono,” Busch said.

Busch, sixth in the Indianapolis 500, can take over the crown of best average finish in the same year’s 500 and 400 with a top-10 finish on Sunday.

Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller

Photo by Action Sports, Inc.