Some 27 years after NASCAR made its debut in Indianapolis, the Greatest Spectacle in Racing will hold a second stock car racing experiment. Abandoning the legendary oval, home to over 100 Indianapolis 500s, the Cup Series will run the 14-turn, 2.439-mile oval instead with Sunday’s running of the Verizon 200 (NBC, 1 p.m. ET).
The change was made following years of declining crowds at a facility that once held 350,000 fans for the inaugural running of the Brickyard 400 in 1994. That number had dwindled to less than a quarter of that by the 2019 edition of the race, pre-COVID, that event dominated by Kevin Harvick producing a grand total of 14 lead changes in 160 laps.
Compare that to the Xfinity Series debut on the road course last year, which produced 13 lead changes in just 62 circuits along with plenty of drama. A three-abreast, bumper-slamming ending saw Chase Briscoe slide ahead of AJ Allmendinger and Austin Cindric, working his way into victory lane in one of the better stock car finishes at the speedway.
So NASCAR took the plunge, putting the Cup Series on the now Roger Penske-owned road course in a last-ditch effort to reignite the buzz of stock cars racing on famed Indianapolis soil. It’s also ignited a debate as to whether it changes the prestige of winning what used to be a crown jewel event.
“I grew up with a certain perception of how I wanted to race,” Harvick said last week. “I just believe that with the biggest racing series in the country that when you go to the Brickyard, you race on the oval.”
“It doesn’t matter,” was Joey Logano’s counter to that. “It’s Indy. It’s a racetrack that everyone in the world wants to win at. It’s a world-class facility and everyone in the world wants to say they’ve won at Indy, whether it’s on the road course or on the oval, in a stock car or an IndyCar or a tricycle.”
Logano, of course, is part of track owner Roger Penske’s stock car organization, one of the legends of this speedway with a record 18 Indianapolis 500 wins. He hasn’t had the same success in stock cars, victorious just once in 55 NASCAR Cup starts (Brad Keselowski, 2018) and is hoping the road course changes his fortunes.
Ditto for Chip Ganassi Racing, still searching for a first Indy win in stock cars after going 0-for-35 on the oval. From Juan Pablo Montoya to Kyle Larson, Ganassi has had stars capable of closing the deal but suffered through years’ worth of bad luck. Selling his NASCAR team after the season, the road course provides one last gasp at an opportunity with drivers Kurt Busch and Ross Chastain.
Chastain joins one of several drivers holding an advantage this weekend after racing on the layout in NXS last year. He and Briscoe will look to pull an upset that would steal a playoff bid; Cindric and Allmendinger are also moonlighting in Cup, hoping their Indy experience can beat the big guns of the sport. Will any of them have a surprise breakthrough, ala Jeff Gordon in 1994 here to take their career to the next level?
Denny Hamlin, Christopher Bell, Michael McDowell and Aric Almirola are rooting against those Cinderella stories. The four of them will clinch postseason bids as long as there’s not a new, playoff-eligible Cup winner at the end of Sunday’s race.
That’s what’s on the line entering the next chapter of stock car history at Indianapolis. But the most important number to watch? The size of the crowd. That, more than any other driver, fact or figure will determine the long-term future of this race in a sport where money does the talking.
Date: Sunday, Aug. 15
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Track: Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course
Radio: IMS, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Kyle Larson
Larson’s victory at Watkins Glen International was a career-best fifth for him at the Cup level this season. It also re-established him as the championship favorite after a surprising month-long struggle at tracks like Atlanta and New Hampshire.
There were no such issues this time around, Larson leading 27 laps and pulling away from Martin Truex Jr. after his pit crew got the No. 5 out front during the final round of green-flag stops. His 2.4-second margin of victory over Chase Elliott gives them each two road course victories on the year.
Who’s at the Back: Michael McDowell
February’s Daytona 500 longshot is turning back into one heading toward the playoffs. McDowell now has four straight finishes outside the top 20 for the first time this season, running just 21st at the Glen, one of his better tracks.
Slowly but surely, he’s slipped to 19th in the standings and would be some 151 points out of a postseason spot without that upset win.
The racing world is in mourning as legendary NASCAR broadcaster Bob Jenkins passed away this week from brain cancer at the age of 73. Jenkins was the main ESPN play-by-play announcer for NASCAR from 1981-2000, part of a racing career that spanned five different decades as his excitement turned millions of fans onto the world of motorsports. He had been a part of Indianapolis Motor Speedway coverage since 1979 and missed only two Indy 500s until his cancer diagnosis, either as a broadcaster or simply a race fan.
Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell are still not speaking after a Sunday incident between them at Watkins Glen. The two had built what Larson felt was a decent relationship after racing against each other for years on dirt tracks across the country. But Bell remains incensed after contact between them during the Glen’s final stage spun out his No. 20 Toyota in turn 1, costing him any chance at the win.
A NASCAR comeback bid by Max Papis was sidelined this week after he tested positive for COVID-19. Papis, who hasn’t raced in any of the sport’s top three divisions since 2013, was scheduled to run for Rick Ware Racing in the Xfinity Series but has since been replaced by J.J. Yeley.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Career Indy wins for Hendrick Motorsports in Cup, more than any other NASCAR organization.
Career road course Cup starts for Brad Keselowski without a victory. He started from the pole at the Glen and wound up in 35th position after brake issues.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
There’s limited experience for drivers entering this weekend at the Indy road course. That shouldn’t matter to Chase Elliott. Elliott could easily have been five-for-five on road course victories this season, running second twice (Sonoma Raceway, the Glen) and 21st on the Daytona road course after getting burned by a late caution flag.
The best bet is always to pick Elliott, then build around him on a daily fantasy roster. The cost is exorbitant but, in many cases, you just can’t win without the No. 9.
Kyle Larson is a good backup option although remember, he never won a road course race, period in the Cup Series before this season. Martin Truex Jr. might be the more consistent bet, notching three straight top-10 finishes on this track type.
Christopher Bell enters Indy hungry after his contact with Larson. Here’s a guy who’s already won on a road course (Daytona), was second at Road America July 4, and was in position for second, maybe better during the Glen this past weekend. I wouldn’t be afraid to use him.
AJ Allmendinger’s price raises him up a level due to past road course success. Even though he’s a part-time Cup Series driver these days, he’s the best bet to run well among the ringers. Two top-10 finishes in three road course starts this year, plus a near-miss on the Indy road course last year in NXS have set the stage for him to challenge up front.
If anyone’s going to pull a major upset at Indy, it’s 2020 road course NXS winner Chase Briscoe. Briscoe’s Stewart-Haas Racing team has been showing signs of life as of late, running sixth and ninth in the last two road course events. Just beware of the rookie’s boom-or-bust mentality knowing what’s at stake.
If you’re looking to go off the beaten path, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has two straight top-20 finishes on road courses. Not a driver you’d think of on this track type, he pulled a +26 position differential at Road America last month (running 12th) which could make the difference in you cashing in.
What Vegas Thinks
Chase Elliott remains at impressive +200 heading into Indianapolis according to vegasinsider.com. Kyle Larson is next up, sitting at +350 followed by Martin Truex Jr. at +600.
Thinking Ganassi could cash in with one last Indy start? Kurt Busch is sitting at +4000.
What I Think
I’m going to go with Chase Elliott. How could you bet against him at this rate? But keep an eye on both Chase Briscoe and AJ Allmendinger. You never know.
— 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.