Matt Stallknecht · Friday July 26, 2013
The off week is over, Eldora has come and gone, and the big boys of the Sprint Cup Series are ready to spring back into action. Yes folks, its Indianapolis week, and this Sunday, the stars of NASCAR will take to the Brickyard to contest the second biggest stock car event on the planet: the Brickyard 400 (I refuse to call it by whatever ridiculously wordy name they have bestowed upon the race this year). Despite the perceived loss of luster over the years, the Brickyard 400 still stands tall as one of the biggest, most prestigious, and most important races of the year, no matter what anyone says or thinks, and as such, the sport will garner far more attention this week than it usually does. Can the race live up to it’s annual hype? I’ll address that and much more in the wall of text listed below.
Could this year’s Brickyard 400 restore the race to its former glory?
For a very long time, the Brickyard 400 was a huge deal in the world of sports. When I attended this race back in 1999, enthusiasm for the event was at an all time high, and there was a real sense that the Brickyard was not only one of the biggest events in NASCAR, but one of the biggest events in all of sports. Among the drivers, teams, and even parts of the media, that prestige still remains, and those who have been to Indianapolis and have bathed in the track’s history can likely attest to that prestige as well.
Yet, unfortunately, the race has lost a great deal of its former luster over the years in the eyes of general fans, which is a shame given how much pageantry used to surround this event. The race began to lose its mainstream appeal right around the time the COT debuted. Up until 2008 (the first year of the COT), Indianapolis generally put on a fine show with the Generation 4 car, and was regularly the most attended race of the year. The Generation 5 COT car, however, was totally ill-suited to the track. The COT was too boxy, too-intensive on the right-front tire, too bulky, and lacked the right aero-format to put on a good race at Indianapolis. In turn, for 5 years (2008-2012), Indianapolis staged joke-worthy races that ruined the track’s reputation for putting on good NASCAR events.
There is hope, however, that the Gen-6 car can bring competitive racing back to IMS. A major Goodyear tire test was conducted in mid-July, and every single one of the drivers raved about how the Gen-6 car, coupled with a new Goodyear tire for this weekend’s race, drove on the track. The general consensus among drivers was that Goodyear finally nailed a tire combination that wore out well enough to bring back competitive racing to the speedway. Couple this enthusiasm with the new Gen-6 car, a very drafty and downforce-heavy car that is actually quite well-suited for the tight turns of Indianapolis, and suddenly there is a real possibility that Sunday’s event could be a much different race than we are accustomed to at Indianapolis.
All told, this year’s Brickyard 400 is looking to be a much better event than iterations of the race that permeated the COT years. A softer tire that wears out correctly is a recipe for more comers and goers, while the aero package of the Gen-6 car is such that the cars will actually be able to suck up and pass each other on Indianapolis’ long straightaways. Could this be the year that Indy regains it’s favor with race fans? The answer could very well be “yes.”
Who are the favorites heading into the weekend?
Indianapolis is undoubtedly one of the three or four most difficult tracks on the circuits. It tests every single aspect of a team. The driver is incredibly important at Indianapolis, as the track’s four tight, technical turns are insanely hard to nail lap after lap due to how narrow the groove is coupled with the incredible corner entry speed (up to 212 mph is expected). On top of the technical nature of the turns, the drivers also have to deal with another unique challenge they don’t usually have to worry about: draft. The long straightaways of Indianapolis make it such that a trailing car can get a massive pull on a lead car, which can lead to some hairy moments when a driver is in deep traffic. As such, draft and traffic management are more important here than at most tracks, which is yet another challenge for the driver.
The engineers are more important at Indianapolis than anywhere else as well. With how fast and aero-intensive Indianapolis is, aerodynamics and horsepower become absolutely paramount to success here, more so than any other intermediate-style track. The pit crew must also be on point, as a bad pit stop or a fueling miscalculation can spell disaster given how large Indianapolis is. If a driver runs out of fuel, they likely won’t make it back to the pits.
As such, given the sheer number of challenges Indianapolis provides, only the very best teams and drivers succeed here. You can probably see where I’m going with this. This weekend has Team 48 written all over it. Johnson and Co. have won the Brickyard 400 four times, and given how strong both driver and team have been thus far in 2013, one can safely assume they will be a threat to win an unprecedented fifth time at Indianapolis. Matt Kenseth also figures to be a threat. His No. 20 team has shown more speed than anyone else on downforce tracks this season, and given that Indianapolis is the ultimate downforce track, it only makes sense that he will be the main threat to topple the No. 48’s shot at a fifth Indy victory.
Is this Juan Pablo Montoya’s final shot at a Brickyard win?
It may not be completely fair to say that it is do or die time for Juan Pablo Montoya, but unfortunately for the talented Colombian driver, I’m afraid it is reaching that point. The former F1 standout has had a rough go of it throughout his foray in NASCAR, and considering the fact that his contract with EGR runs out after this season, the murmurs that his NASCAR days are numbered grow increasingly easier to believe. It doesn’t help that EGR development driver Kyle Larson is knocking on the door of the Cup ranks either. As such, Montoya enters Brickyard 400 weekend, and the rest of the season as a whole, on something of a hot seat.
As for Montoya’s efforts at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, they have been something of a microcosm of his NASCAR career as a whole. Twice, Montoya has had by far the best car in Indianapolis, only to be robbed of wins due to unfortunate circumstances. In 2009, a questionable pit road speeding penalty cost Montoya the win, and in 2010 a bad strategy call by then crew chief Brian Pattie led to a series of events that led a lightning fast No. 42 car into a wreck at the back of the field. Lots of speed, very little luck, and a great deal of overdriving: that has been Montoya’s career in a nutshell.
Given the raw speed that Montoya has displayed this season, coupled with his previously shown acumen for the Brickyard, Montoya figures to be a factor in the race he so desperately has dreamt of winning once again. Should Montoya win the race, it will likely save his ride, his sponsorship, and perhaps even his future with NASCAR. But if Montoya has another late race collapse like he had in 2009 and 2010, it could very well be the nail in the coffin of what has been a largely underwhelming NASCAR career.
Will ESPN’s coverage quality sink now that they are a lame duck?
A major piece of the puzzle that is NASCAR’s future was put into place on Wednesday. NASCAR announced that a massive 10 year, $4.4 billion dollar deal had been struck with NBC Sports which stipulates the final 20 races of each Sprint Cup season be broadcasted by the Peacock Network. Seven of those races will take place on NBC’s conventional over-the-air network, while a whopping 13 would be placed on the cable-based NBC Sports Network. Frankly, the deal does not look to be a very smart one at this stage of the game, as NASCAR is simply too large, too popular, and too important to be relegated to such a relatively unknown cable network for so many races, and I fear that the sport will stand to lose much more than they will gain in this deal. But that’s a story for another column.
The most immediately relevant consequence of this announcement was the fact that ESPN / ABC would no longer be producing coverage for anymore NASCAR races from 2015 – 2025. By extension, this means that ESPN will essentially be a lame-duck TV partner for this year and next year, and that could spell disaster for the production quality of the races ESPN covers this year and next. When NBC was in a similar lame-duck position in 2006, its coverage quality absolutely tanked, much to the chagrin of the millions of fans who watch the sport on a weekly basis. Sunday’s race at the Brickyard ought to give us a pretty clear picture of what sort of broadcast experience fans can expect out of ESPN for the next year and a half as they transition away from the sport. If ESPN’s Sunday coverage is rock-solid like it has been the past two years (ESPN seriously amped up their quality in 2011, and objectively took over as the top race broadcaster in the sport), then there is reason to believe that the coverage will probably stay that way through the end of the contract. But if the coverage is suddenly poor, it could be a telling sign that ESPN is pulling resources away from NASCAR now that it sits in a lame duck position. It is certainly something you will want to keep a watchful eye on these next few weeks.
All told, losing ESPN as a broadcast partner is a rather short-sighted decision on NASCAR’s part, given the fact that with the loss of ESPN, NASCAR will lose a great deal of exposure and clout among the general sports community. We will see on Sunday if ESPN is willing to maintain a high quality of coverage despite all of this. If the coverage proves to be poor, it could be a long rest of the season for fans who watch the races from home.
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