To oval or not to oval? That’s the question surrounding the NASCAR Cup Series when it comes to Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
This weekend, both Cup and the sport’s Xfinity Series will once again run on the 14-turn, 2.439-mile road course. Cup will do it for a second straight year in 2022 after a series of underwhelming events on the main attraction here: the 2.5-mile oval that’s played host to the Indy 500 for over a century. From 1994 through 2020, the Brickyard 400 was a crown jewel event that started with great fanfare but ended under a black cloud of empty seats, held within a legendary motorsports arena that can accommodate over 300,000 fans.
Count NBC analyst Dale Earnhardt, Jr. among those who like the road course layout. Earnhardt had high praise for IMS after driving around it on Friday, comparing it to the high bar set by the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL the past couple of seasons.
“When you take a racetrack and make a road course out of an oval, it just feels like, how could that work? It’s too forced, right?” Earnhardt told the Indy Star Friday. “But man, this track is so well done. I’ve heard the drivers comment about how much fun it is over and over and over, and now I can see it.”
The first Cup weekend on the road course last summer was wild, characterized by “turtle” bumps that launched cars into spectacular crashes and a green-white-checkered finish that saw Denny Hamlin and Chase Briscoe tangle, handing the win to AJ Allmendinger. In between, though there were long stretches where the cars spread out, allowing Kyle Larson to build a comfortable lead until some late cautions flipped the script.
Add in the difficulty of the sport’s Next Gen chassis to adapt to road course racing and an appetite remains for stock cars to return to the oval layout. Track owner Roger Penske appears open to the idea, confirming the road course is back next year but claiming NASCAR could bring back a revamped Brickyard 400 as early as 2024.
“We’re looking at that,” Penske said Friday. “Do we alternate [the road course and the oval], year after year? We don’t know.”
“Not running the oval,” added 2014 Cup champion Kevin Harvick, “Is embarrassing for our series.”
For now, those turtles have disappeared, leading to hope for a competitive race that brings more fans to the stands and adds excitement to a market that had appeared to sour on NASCAR. An IndyCar doubleheader (they’ll run with the Xfinity Series Saturday) should help along with a successful return of the Camping World Truck Series to nearby Indianapolis Raceway Park on Friday night.
How do you succeed on this road course? Hard to say with the Next Gen car making its debut here. Pole sitter Tyler Reddick, who won at Road America earlier this month, claims there’s little he can take from that experience and apply to Sunday’s race.
“Indy and Road America couldn’t be any more different from one another,” he explains. “Yes, they are road courses and yes, they have two really big braking zones but what happens after those braking zones is much different at Indy. You’ve got tight corners and back-to-back left to right sequences at low speeds, so how you make lap time at Indy is quite a bit different.
“And what’s also difficult to figure out at Indy is depending on what your car is doing; you may have to have a different attack of getting from Turn 7 to Turn 10 and then from Turn 14 to the front straightaway.”
With limited track history here, expect another unpredictable race with the possibility of an upset winner. Just two playoff spots remain for winless drivers and Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex, Jr. are holding their breath; they sit top 5 in the series standings but remain vulnerable due to an inability to reach victory lane.
And then, there’s Allmendinger, holding a win-or-bust mentality as a full-time NASCAR Xfinity Series driver. Does he believe there’s an opportunity for him to go back-to-back?
“Being a part of Kaulig Racing’s first Cup Series win will always be so special to me,” Allmendinger said. “Heading back to Indy for the first time since then will be a surreal feeling. This is a place we have had circled on our calendar, and hopefully all the hard work will pay off.”
Verizon 200 at the Brickyard
Date: Sunday, July 31
Time: 2:30 p.m. ET
Track: Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course
Radio: IMS, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Daniel Suarez
Lost within a wacky post-race at Pocono Raceway was Suarez notching another solid finish with Trackhouse Racing Team. Teammate Ross Chastain has nabbed most of the media attention, both for his two victories and constant run-ins with everyone from Denny Hamlin to Chase Elliott.
But Suarez, one might argue, has more consistency as of late. He’s earned four straight top-10 finishes for the first time since his rookie season (2017), climbing seven spots in the standings over the last month (19th to 12th). Is the real dark horse to go deep in the playoffs hiding in front of our faces?
Who's at the Back: Joe Gibbs Racing
Joe Gibbs Racing became infamous at Pocono for all the wrong reasons, becoming the first organization in NASCAR’s modern era of Cup racing to have its win taken away after the race. First-place finisher Denny Hamlin and runner-up Kyle Busch were both disqualified for a rule violation discovered in post-race inspection, issues on the front fascia where NASCAR Cup Series Managing Director Brad Moran claimed “there was some material that was somewhere it shouldn’t have been.”
Later this week, JGR admitted “a single piece of clear tape” was placed over each of the lower corners of the front fascia. Despite being just two inches wide and 5.5 inches long, that was enough to affect the car’s aerodynamics and have it fail inspection tolerances. The team chose not to appeal the penalty, leading to a 10-point playoff swing between Hamlin and Chase Elliott, the NASCAR points leader awarded a fourth victory this season despite not leading a single lap of the race.
Front Row Motorsports is appealing a 100-point penalty and $100,000 fine assessed after Pocono Raceway. FRM and driver Michael McDowell have been accused of running a car that modified a single-source supplied part, a no-no under the new rules surrounding the sport’s Next Gen chassis. Brad Keselowski and his RFK Racing team suffered a similar fate after Atlanta, putting him in must-win territory for the 2022 Cup Series playoffs.
Ty Gibbs will substitute for Kurt Busch a second straight week in the No. 45 23XI Racing Toyota. Busch is still recovering from concussion-like symptoms suffered after a hard wreck in Turn 3 during Pocono qualifying last weekend. In his Cup debut for the team in that race, Gibbs kept his nose clean and finished on the lead lap in 16th.
Petty GMS Motorsports announced Saturday they’ve re-signed current driver Erik Jones to a long-term deal. Jones, in his second year driving with the No. 43 team, has had a strong year, sitting 15th in points with two top-5 performances and an average finish of 17.0. That’s only slightly below his average (15.9) in his final year driving for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2020.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Laps led by the top three finishers at Pocono: Chase Elliott, Tyler Reddick and Daniel Suarez after Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch got disqualified.
DNFs from Aric Almirola this season through 21 races. He’s the only driver to both start and finish every race this year.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Since there’s only one race to point to on the Indianapolis road course, your best bet is to side with those who have excelled at this track type. Chase Elliott fits the bill, the hottest driver on the circuit who has five straight results inside the top two. Runner-up at Road America earlier this month, the seven-time road course winner is seeking his first victory on a right-turn track with the Next Gen chassis. Feels like a nice time for him to check Indy off the bucket list, right?
It’s hard to argue with Ross Chastain on a road course this year. Runs of first, seventh, and fourth have him revved and ready for an IMS track where he finished a disappointing 29th last season. Add in a little extra motivation after some contact with Denny Hamlin at Pocono last week and you can expect the No. 1 Chevrolet to be running up front.
Pole-sitter Tyler Reddick will have his value reduced somewhat due to starting at the front of the field. So what? The Road America winner from earlier this month will be a hard driver to pass as he looks to put an ugly Silly Season news cycle behind him. Don’t let a ho-hum 21st from last summer fool you; the No. 8 will be one of the cars to beat all afternoon.
AJ Allmendinger qualified just 20th in his bid for two straight Indianapolis victories. That just makes the No. 16 Chevrolet driver even more attractive for your fantasy roster due to position differential points. Even a top-10 finish would be more than enough to help you cash in.
Joey Hand starts just 27th but should catch your eye as a longshot bid. The road course ringer is getting the hang of Cup, running 20th and 21st in his last two starts with a Rick Ware Racing car that struggles to simply finish inside the top 30. The price here is just too good to pass up.
While Justin Haley isn’t typically known as a road course racer, he was a surprising top-10 finisher at IMS last summer. This season, he’s posted a position differential of plus-10 in three road racing events along with two top-15 finishes. You could do worse with a No. 31 Chevrolet that’ll be one of the cheapest on the fantasy market.
What Vegas Thinks
The vegasinsider.com odds for Indy’s road course have Chase Elliott a strong favorite at +400. Kyle Larson sits next at +650 followed by Ross Chastain at +700.
Looking for a longshot? AJ Allmendinger is a surprising +2000 in his bid for two straight at IMS.
What I Think
I’m going to go with Chase Elliott to continue his recent hot streak and cash in on a road course for the first time this year. But a second win by Tyler Reddick? It wouldn’t surprise me. Watch for another surprise winner at a race they’ve got a high chance at success.
— 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.