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.
How To Tune In
Coverage – 2 p.m. ET
Green Flag – 2:23 p.m. ET
TV – NBC
Radio – IMS Radio Network
Distance – 160 Laps/400 Miles
Stage Lengths – 50/50/60
Defending Race Winner – Brad Keselowski
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.
Each say that they expect updates from their crew chief on how the others are doing as they’re going to be in a race amongst each other. Johnson, says that if he can end his winless drought in fashion by winning at Indy, it would be a hell of a story.
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. He was fastest in final practice. Chris Buescher finished 14th in 2016 and ninth in 2017. He was fourth in final practice himself. 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. He was fifth in final practice.
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. He looks so far like he could. Johnson, was ninth and 17th respectively in practice this weekend and quickest in final practice on the 10 lap average chart.
He said that his team has worked so hard to make this work that even on days that they’re not supposed to be in the shop that they’re in anyways.
Also, when Cliff Daniels became Johnson’s new crew chief, the cars for the next couple of races were already set up. He didn’t get a chance to really put his fingerprints on Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet until a few races ago. Johnson notes that something as small as that is noticeable.
All of this though would certainly be a “hell of a story” if Johnson can win. He’s riding an 84 race winless streak and if he can end that at Indy, a feat that if he does win would tie Jeff Gordon for most wins ever here, would be a storybook ending to the regular season.
Battle For Top 10 In Points Too
The full focus on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race weekend so far is on the playoffs. We have two wildcard positions available with four drivers vying for them. While that is THE story for the Brickyard 400, there’s another under the radar story going on too.
See, everyone is focusing there, but what if I told you the fight to be in the top 10 of the points standings at the checkered flag of Sunday’s Brickyard 400 (2 p.m. ET/NBC/IMS Radio Network/SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) is critically important too?
See, the drivers in the top 10 of the final regular season standings get playoff points. 10th gets one point, ninth receives two, seventh three, etc. We’ve seen in the recent past how just a small margin of a point or two will be the difference of transferring from one round to another.
These playoff points available for being in the top 10 of the final regular season standings can be the difference of making it to Homestead or not.
“Yeah we talked about that this week,” Erik Jones said. “Just trying to get those extra points. We want them right. Those playoff points are huge and can carry you through the rounds and get you in a better spot. It’s possible. It’s going to take a mistake from someone to really make up that many points in 1 race but it’s possible.”
See, Jones currently sits in a tie with Alex Bowman for 11th in the points standings right now. They trail Ryan Blaney by 16 points for that 10th spot. Kyle Larson is just four points clear of Blaney so you essentially have a four driver battle for two spots there too.
“I don’t know how we’ll do it,” Larson said on Saturday in terms of his strategy for Sunday’s race. “Yeah we’re close. Right now just moved into ninth last week so it would be good to stay there then we’ll get two extra playoff points which will help.
“For me, I think we got to look at how those other guys are calling those races and what we can do to gain points on them just to stay in ninth position. You never know, those 1 or 2 extra points can come down to us making it into the next round. At the same time, you also don’t want to give up a shot at the win either. We’ll see how it goes.”
It’s going to be close that’s for sure. These four really can’t put themselves out of position in both stages for points. They have to take them when they’re given. But, they also want to win and close the regular season with momentum. Currently, both Larson and Jones have it.
Larson, has five straight top eight finishes. Jones, won last week and has five top three finishes in his last seven starts on the season.
“I think we do the same thing that we’ve done all year,” Jones said on his strategy. “If we feel like we have a car that can win, we’re going to position ourselves for that win. If we feel like it’s a rough day and we’re struggling, we’re going to take the stage points for sure. It just matters how the day goes. If we’re running up front and I’m in the top 3, then Chris will make the calls accordingly to that.”
“I think once you get into the playoffs, if you can continue that momentum it’s good,” said Larson on his momentum. “Like you said, we’ve had momentum. I don’t want to go out there and have a slow car. If you have a slow car and finish average that can hurt your momentum and confidence more so than crashing and finishing last. As long as we can have a fast car then we can continue the momentum that we’re on.”
For Jones, he said making it to the third round is his overall goal and thinks that he can get there. But, if he can’t these few playoff points that he may not grab could be the reason.
“Making it to the Round of 8 is my goal,” the Joe Gibbs Racing driver said. “If we can make it there, then I’d say that we’d had a successful year. The first round has a couple of good tracks. The ROVAL is kind of tough but I guess it’s the same for everybody. We’re on a roll and want to keep it rolling through Indy and into Vegas. We want to go deep.”
Jones, said that the playoffs last year was a lot different than he expected. It gave him a good learning experience for this year’s go around.
“A lot different. A lot more intense. This playoffs, I don’t think any of the 16 guys are like we’re definitely going to make Homestead. I don’t care if you’re Kyle Busch or Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin, I think it’s just tough especially when you get down to rounds and things happen. It’s still racing and you can’t control everything. You just have to make it through each round. You have so many different tracks. It’s so diverse. It’s just a challenge.
“That was the biggest thing for me. You just have to be so perfect for 10 weeks. We had 1 mistake in the first round in Vegas and it killed us. We were done. We never made it back up. It’s like you can’t have those incidents and really have to be on your game.”
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?
2 Keselowski – He’s the defending race winner and said that his car is better this year than ever before here. Keselowski, hasn’t finished worse than second in Indy since 2016 and enters with two straight top five finishes on the season including five top 10’s in his last six tries.
42 Larson – It will look like an IndyCar race. Penske and Ganassi duking it out for the win. Larson, has five consecutive top eight finishes on the season and six in the last seven races. He was runner-up last week in Darlington and has a strong car this weekend in being first in practice on Saturday morning.
1 KuBusch – I really think CGR can put both cars in the top three. Busch, finished sixth in this race last year and has three top 10 finishes in his last four races on the season. Also, Busch was second and ninth respectively on single car runs in practice on Saturday including being quickest on the five lap and 10 lap averages and second on the 15 lap.
20 Jones – The JGR driver won last Sunday. He was gifted a contract extension on Friday. He was third in final practice as well a sixth and fifth respectively on the five lap and 10 lap averages. Jones, finished third in this race last year.
24 Byron – He won the NXS race in a similar package in 2017. Byron, was 10th and 12th respectively in practice. He was third on both the five lap and 10 lap averages in final practice.