INDIANAPOLIS – It’s a home game for me this week as NASCAR comes to my hometown. The Brickyard 400 (2 p.m. ET/NBC/IMS Radio Network) will close out the regular season. That alone is a big storyline – but so are these.
Sunday’s race will mark the 26th and final race of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regular season. Heading into it, 14 of the 16 spots into the postseason are locked in. With how close the playoff bubble is, we have two spots available among four drivers.
Currently, Clint Bowyer (+8) and his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate of Daniel Suarez (+0) hold onto those final two position – but as you can see, Suarez is in a tie for the 16th and final spot with Ryan Newman (-0). These three make the most sense to duke it out.
Jimmie Johnson is within striking distance at -18 but that’s a lot of ground to make up still in one race.
See, stage points are going crucial with this group, which sets the stage for these four to work pit strategy to their advantage. Do you go for a race win or position yourself with stage points? We saw that a few weeks ago in Bristol where despite finishing one spot behind Bowyer in the race itself, Suarez actually scored more overall race points than his teammate and made up a lot of ground in the standings by virtue of that.
These four have to play the stage points game to perfection. An example, if Bowyer elects to go for the win but doesn’t while Johnson scores say 10 stage points, he’s only eight points down heading to the final stage. That means all he has to do is outplace Bowyer by at least eight spots. That certainly doable.
Bowyer, did finish fifth in last year’s race but that’s his only top five at the Brickyard since 2011. Suarez, finished seventh as a rookie in 2017 but 18th last year.
Newman and Johnson could hold the advantages. Newman, has five top 11 finishes in his last six Brickyard’s. Johnson, has four Brickyard 400 wins and was third just two years ago.
Having said all of this, what happens if someone behind them wins?
Paul Menard is too far out to make the playoffs on points but he is a past Brickyard winner. Chris Buescher finished 14th in 2016 and ninth in 2017. He also enters with 14 straight top 20 finishes on the season.
Matt DiBenedetto came away with a top 10 finish a couple of years ago here. Now, he has a much better car.
If I’m a driver who has to win to make the playoffs, I’m not going for stage points but rather using pit strategy to steal a race win instead. Indy is a place that this could happen too.
Johnson’s Playoff Streak
Since NASCAR adopted the playoff system in their premiere series in 2004, Jimmie Johnson is the only driver to make the postseason in each year. The seven-time champion though is on the verge of seeing that streak end on Sunday.
Johnson, heads to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway 18 points out of the final cutoff spot to make the playoffs. He needs stage points but likely needs a win too. The problem is, Johnson hasn’t won a race since June of 2017. He’s won at Indy four times but none since 2012. His playoff chances hinder on ending those droughts on Sunday afternoon.
The question is, will he win?
Johnson, has just one top 10 finish in his last five Brickyard tries. He’s had just two top 10 finishes in his last 12 starts on the season. His last seven results have been – 30th, 30th, 15th, 19th, 34th, 19th and 16th respectively.
Does that sound like a driver who can compete for a win this weekend?
If he wants to avoid missing the playoffs for the first time ever, he better win.
Will New Package Spark NASCAR Interest Again?
This weekend will be a strong test for this new racing package that was debuted in the Cup Series in 2019. See, the Brickyard 400 has proven lately that the racing has been just okay. While we’ve had 24 combined lead changes the last two years, most were on pit sequences. Prior to that, we saw just four lead changes in the 2016 race.
Most fans came to the realization a while ago that the 2.5-mile track wasn’t suited for NASCAR. Despite having around 250k fans in the stands for the races’ early years, the crowds started to fall off.
The 2008 tire debacle was the final nail in the coffin. Now-a-days, IMS is lucky to draw between 30-40k for the Brickyard. That’s over 200k less fans that a couple of decades ago.
The track doesn’t have the best visual perspective from the grandstands and to watch a high speed parade in the baking hot sun isn’t what fans desired anymore. So, in came a switch to September which this will be only the second and final year of that. This weekend’s forecast looks great with highs in the 70’s. You have to believe this is exactly what IMS and NASCAR had in mind with the move from late July to September. Unfortunately, remnants from Hurricane Gordon hit Indy last September and washed out the weekend. Then, a schedule change for 2020 sees the race moved up to Independence Day weekend.
So, that makes this weekend one with upmost importance. With that being said, the Cup Series comes with a new racing package. The cars now feature a lower horsepower, higher drag coefficient with more downforce. Will that make Sunday’s race the best show that NASCAR has ever put on at Indy?
The NASCAR XFINITY Series race the last two years have produced better action than the Brickyard and they had a similar package as to what the Cup cars have now. We saw 30 lead changes the last two years in the Indiana 250 NXS race. By comparison, there were only 28 lead changes in the last THREE Brickyard 400’s.
The drivers though aren’t real sure what to expect. The caution that while the NXS race has worked, the Cup race may be a bit different in that these cars carry 100 more horsepower still than the ones in XFINITY.
Still, the race needs some new life and cooler temps mixed with a new package may be able to provide just that.
The Brickyard has always been a race that is based on pit strategy. I don’t think Sunday’s race will be any different. See, teams race Indy like a road course race and count backwards. You know you can pit here and not lose a lap. So, some go off strategy to gain an advantage later. For the teams that have nothing to lose, they’ll give up stage points to position themselves for a win later on. For the playoff bubble drivers, they need all the points that they can get.
So, you’ll see a lot of drivers just swinging for the fences hoping for a marquee event win. Others, will race for valuable points.
Will a strategy of stretching fuel to the absolute max to the end work, or will someone with fresh tires have the speed to close the gap and win?
Entering The Playoffs Hot
We’ve seen this time and time again in professional sports. It’s no necessarily the best team that wins the championship in the end, it’s normally the one who enters the postseason the hottest.
That’s why Indy this weekend is so important for the drivers with championship aspirations. Some already have momentum on their side, others are still searching. If you have it, you want to keep it. Losing momentum now could be costly.
Kyle Larson may be the hottest driver in the sport right now. No, he hasn’t won in over 70 races, but it appears that he’s getting close. His last trip to victory lane came in the 2017 regular season finale at Richmond. Why not close out 2019’s regular season with a win too?
Larson, finished runner-up last weekend in Darlington for his fifth straight top eight finish on the year. Furthermore, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver has six in his last seven and a top 10 in eight of his last 10 starts overall. The 15 races prior to that, he had just four top 10’s. The problem though is, Larson hasn’t finished in the top 10 in each of his last two Brickyard 400’s. He was 28th in 2017 and 14th last year. He did have three straight top 10’s though in the three years prior.
Another hot driver is Denny Hamlin. He was involved in a crash last weekend but does have six top five results in his last seven starts overall. He also was third in this race last year and has four top five’s in his last five Indy tries.
Kevin Harvick also hopes to keep the momentum going. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver heads to Indy with a top seven finish in five of his last six tries on the season. He also has been in the top eight at the finish in Indy in all five tries since joining SHR in 2014 too. Also, Harvick has scored three top five finishes in his last six starts on the year compared to only having five in the previous 19 tries. Coincidentally enough, out of Harvick’s eight top five finishes in 2019, six of which are fourth place runs. He finished fourth in this race last year.
Both Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch are starting to heat up again too. Keselowski, won this race last year and was second in 2017. The Team Penske driver also has two straight top five finishes on the season including five top 10’s in his last six.
Busch, won this race back-to-back in 2015 and 2016 to go along with runner-up’s in 2012 as well as 2014. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has scored a top 10 in eight of his last nine Indy starts. On the season, while Busch hasn’t won a race since June, he does have six top 10 finishes in his last seven tries.
Martin Truex Jr. (4 top sixes in his last 6), Chase Elliott (3 top 10’s in last 4) and Erik Jones (5 top 4’s in his last 6) are right there but they could potentially lose momentum too. Truex, enters Indy with finishes of 13th and 15th respectively though the last two weeks and was only 33rd in this race in 2017 and 40th last year. He has one top five finish in 14 Indy tries.
Elliott, has never had a top 10 in Indy while Jones was second last year but 31st the year before.
Crown Jewel Sweeps
One thing that we’re seeing in NASCAR’s crown jewel races is that Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing are sweeping high honors.
See, the top races on the year are run in the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600, Southern 500 and the Brickyard 400. William Byron won the pole for Daytona, Charlotte and Darlington. Can he win the pole for Sunday’s Brickyard 400 too?
JGR is certainly hoping so.
When Byron wins the pole, JGR wins the race. Denny Hamlin won the Daytona 500. Martin Truex Jr. won the Coca-Cola 600. Erik Jones won the Southern 500. Will Byron win the pole for this weekend’s race and Kyle Busch win the race itself in Indy?
JGR and Toyota have a combined five cars if you count Leavine Family Racing. They have the smallest car count in Cup in terms of manufacturers. Despite that, Toyota has won 13 of the 25 races run this regular season. Can they add a 14th in the Brickyard 400?