The Cup Series heads to the heartland of America this week for the annual running of the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis. Having taken place every year since 1994, this event has quickly become the second-biggest race on the schedule, if not in prestige, at least in purse money. Increasing fan support does nothing but help the race’s growing reputation, too; hosting the largest crowd on the circuit at estimates of nearly 300,000 fans, the Brickyard is certainly a jewel that any driver wants to have on their resume at the end of their career.
But the track that’s on every driver’s victory lane fantasy wish list also proves to give fantasy owners fits as to who to pick from their team for the race. With incredibly flat corners that put handling at a premium, the immense size of the track can cause teams to pay a huge penalty if they make a mistake in calculating fuel mileage. That’s got everyone’s fantasy team on edge, hoping their driver’s fuel tank is nowhere close to running out of gas heading into the first of 17 races in a row to end the year.
So, what more do you need to know in order to have your fantasy team kissing the bricks after a dominating Sunday performance? Read on to find out in this week’s edition of Picks ‘N’ Pans.
Cami’s Race Rewind
Tires could have proved to be Jimmie Johnson‘s undoing in last year’s Brickyard 400, but good work on pit road and a strong car helped the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet motor past the competition to win its first race at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Johnson suffered a flat tire early in the race which put him at the back of the field, but by lap 117, he was back up front and looking unstoppable. But just as the race seemed all but won, a late-race pit stop and a call for four tires took Johnson out of contention once again, dropping him behind cars that had decided to stay out on the track.
The call proved to be the right one, however, as Johnson darted through traffic with ease; he retook the lead with just eight laps to go, cruising home after that to give him victories in two of the biggest races of the year: the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400. Matt Kenseth led the RCR entries of Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer across the finish line behind Johnson, with Mark Martin rounding out the top-five finishers.
Mike’s Keys to the Race
Indianapolis is a massive 2.5-mile quad-oval with four corners that are banked at only nine degrees; the ¾-mile straightaways are supposedly completely flat. There are six holes of a golf course, garages and a museum in what amounts to an enormous infield. The track is incredibly temperature sensitive, which can make handling by far the most important aspect of car setup for the weekend. Qualifying takes place at 10 a.m ET on Saturday morning, so an early draw is a huge benefit to teams that can get on the track before the sun heats up the surface.
As far as Sunday’s race, the teams that perform the best at Indy are the ones that can make their cars handle on flat tracks and get off of the corners the fastest. Eight of the 13 races held at the track have been won by Chevrolets, so expect to see Hendrick, Gibbs and Childress at or near the front all day long. While never finishing first in the race, Roush Fenway Racing also has had multiple top-10 finishes at the Brickyard, including two seconds and a third for Kenseth.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Jeff Gordon has won the Brickyard a total of four times, nearly one third of the total races run at the track. Hendrick obviously has a handle on what it takes to win here, especially when you not only consider Gordon’s victories but last year’s champion of the event, Johnson. Gordon’s team in particular has been on a roll all season long, and even though they do not have crew chief Steve Letarte, who is still serving his suspension for the Sonoma violations, they have finished second, fifth and ninth in the last three races and do not seem to be paying much of a penalty.
As such, expect Gordon to be in contention again at the end of the race this weekend.
Denny Hamlin has already proven that he can handle racing on flat, big tracks by winning both races last year at Pocono. In his only start at the Brickyard last year, he brought his car home in 10th place, an admirable effort for his first time out. While he has been struggling the last few weeks besides his victory at Loudon, Hamlin did finish sixth at Pocono earlier this year and arguably had the best car that day, leading 49 laps before losing track position. Expect no sophomore slump at the Brickyard this year; Hamlin should be in contention for the second biggest purse in the sport this weekend.
Sit ‘Em Down:
Bobby Labonte is a former champion of the Brickyard, but his recent history at the track has been far from impressive. His last two finishes at the track have been 40th-place, and his finishes this season have not been any indication that he’ll do any better this weekend. While Petty Enterprises has been improving, they simply don’t have what it takes yet to compete for the top 15 consistently. Once the green flag drops, it’s a safe bet that Labonte will be in the second half of the pack this weekend.
Kasey Kahne simply stinks this year. In the last 10 races on the schedule, he has a ninth- and 11th-place finish; the other eight finishes have been 20th or worse. He came home in 22nd at Pocono earlier this summer, a track that is often a precursor to how teams are going to run at Indy. Kahne is the embodiment of the struggles of Evernham Motorsports this year, and despite the fact that he has two top-10 finishes in three races at the Brickyard, his team simply can’t find the magic this year. Don’t count on Kahne to break out of his slump this weekend.
Roll the Dice:
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been less than stellar at Indy over the years, and the last few races have not been very impressive for him, either. He has two top-10 and four top-15 finishes at Indy in seven races, as well as just two top-10 finishes in the last six races this season. Sitting 12th in points, Earnhardt needs a strong run this weekend to get himself solidly into contention for the Chase, and Indy might be the race to do that… although it will be a roll of the dice to race him this weekend.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Fresh off his win at Chicagoland, Tony Stewart heads to Indiana hoping for another date with the bricks this Sunday. Stewart has always run well at Indy, fulfilling a lifelong dream by winning the race back in 2005. With an average finish of 8.4 in nine races at the track, Stewart is a threat to win again here each time out. With the momentum of his first win of the season behind him, look for Smoke’s summer streak to keep sizzling this weekend.
With four top-10 finishes in the last five races, 2003 Brickyard 400 champion Harvick comes into this weekend’s race hoping to pull off the same thing Johnson did last year – win the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 in the same year. In six Indy starts, Harvick has four finishes inside the top 10 and no finish worth than 19th, making him one of the odds-on favorites this weekend.
Sit ‘Em Down:
Last year’s early exit from the Brickyard 400 was one of the final nails in the coffin that sent this driver packing to Evernham Motorsports. But while Elliott Sadler found some early success with the team last year, things haven’t quite turned out as planned in 2007. With three straight finishes of 33rd, this team isn’t showing any signs of finally getting things figured out, and I wouldn’t count on them suddenly turning things around this weekend. Other than a third-place run at Indy in 2004, Elliott has failed to finish in the top 20 seven times.
Another driver who has had his fair share of misery at Indy is Casey Mears. You would figure with a name that has been made famous at this track that some of that good luck would rub off… but so far, it hasn’t. Mears ran well at Chicagoland and earned his first top 10 in four races. But his average finish of 21st at Indianapolis doesn’t spark much confidence in seeing him continuing that streak into a second week.
Roll the Dice:
Jamie McMurray wasn’t able to savor his Daytona victory for long after posting a 38th-place finish at Chicagoland, but he could see a quick turnaround this weekend. In four races at Indianapolis, Jamie Mac has two top-10 finishes and an average finish of 13.3. Currently, he sits 15th in the standings, 112 points out of the Chase. If McMurray wants to be in the top 12 after Richmond, he needs to turn it up now, and the Brickyard is a good place for him to find out if he really has what it takes to make a late-season push into the playoffs.
Mike: I really appreciate you leaving me so many fine scraps for picks this week. Do you think Stewart is going to continue his momentum after Chicagoland and win his second Brickyard?
Cami: He has as good a shot as anyone else. I think he needed to get that first win and then he’ll go on a major roll. He’s always been strong at the Brickyard, and the momentum from Chicago is a big bonus. I wouldn’t necessarily say you got the “scraps” though.
Mike: If you say so. I agree that Gordon has a hell of a record at Indy, though, and they are on a roll this year… so I think that will be a good choice. On the other hand, I’m a little nervous about Hamlin since he’s only had one race at Indy.
Cami: But Hamlin has been running well most of the year. He’s shown that not having a long track record at a place isn’t hurting him. I think Harvick is on an upswing again right now and should run well at Indy again. You could have taken Johnson, ya know. Maybe he would run well for you; he certainly didn’t for me last week.
Mike: I just don’t like his record at Indy. Two top 10s and a 36th and 38th made me a little bit too nervous. Speaking of nervous, are you really going to bet against your boy Mears again? You know what happens every time you pick against him.
Cami: Well I figured I took the obvious pick with Sadler, so I was trying to be bold and go out there on a limb. Granted, it might snap out from underneath me; but I have a good feeling about it. His momentum from the win at Charlotte has stalled and at Indy, he’s more often that not outside the top 20.
Mike: I’ll give you that, but he’s let you down before, so I could see it happening again. In the meantime, I don’t blame you on the Sadler pick. I went the same way with Kahne. I know he has a good record at Indy, but he has just been absolutely pathetic this year so I had to go with it.
Cami: We’ve been waiting all year for Kahne to finally show up in the top 25 so we can sit him! I knew you’d be giving me grief about the McMurray pick, that’s what actually helped me to decide to go that way. But he does have two top 10s at the Brickyard and has performed a lot better this year. If he’s gonna make a bid for the Chase he needs to do it now. His average is a lot better there than your boy Junior.
Mike: Blast Junior all you want about Indy, but he’s generally strong there and just misses out on the finishes. Hopefully, he won’t get caught up in someone else’s mess this time. He needs a strong run to head to the Chase, so I guess we’ll see how it pans out Sunday.
Crank ‘Em Up: 14.1
Sit ‘Em Down: 22.6
Roll the Dice: 19.1
Crank ‘Em Up: 12.7
Sit ‘Em Down: 22.5
Roll the Dice: 18.1
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