The 100th edition of the Indianapolis 500 sold out, but the Brickyard 400 this Sunday might get 20 percent of the fan base. How low will attendance need to go for either Indianapolis Motor Speedway or NASCAR to ever consider pulling this race? Do you see stock cars racing at Indy in five years?
Sean Fesko, Staff Writer: I don’t think NASCAR will leave the Indianapolis market unless the track asks it to. It’s too prestigious a track to not race at, even if the racing is single file at times. As for the 20 percent of the fan base part of this question, with Jeff Gordon returning to his best track, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a huge surge in ticket sales.
Mark Howell, Senior Writer: History will keep the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at IMS — not so much the history of the Brickyard 400 itself, but the history surrounding a NASCAR weekend at the most hallowed grounds in motorsports. If empty seats were the impetus for dropping events from the schedule, the Cup series calendar would shrink to about 15 races. We always knew stock cars at Indy would make for less-than-thrilling competition, but it’s the price to pay for running at such a sacred facility.
Bryan Gable, Staff Writer: NASCAR will race at Indy as long as NASCAR wants to. It is pretty clear, though, that this is an event more for the competitors than the fans. The opportunity to race, or perhaps win, at Indianapolis is just too good for the drivers to pass up. As for IMS itself, I think the track owners are happy to have NASCAR races on the calendar, even though the attendance has been an issue lately.
Amy Henderson, Senior Editor: Well, the Indy 500 is usually actually a good race, so, there’s that, but I don’t see NASCAR leaving anytime soon, even if it should. While Indy is a wonderful historic track, NASCAR trying to claim that history is a bit of a sham — it would be like IndyCar racing at Darlington Speedway or Daytona International Speedway and suddenly claiming that it’s the second most prestigious race on the schedule because the track hosts an iconic race for another series entirely. The saddest part to me is that since NASCAR has raced at Indy, it’s taken away some of the prestige and grandeur of the Southern 500, which was one the race to win, second only to the Daytona 500 and sometimes not even that. Stock cars simply don’t race well on Indy’s surface, and I doubt that any rules package will ever really make the racing there really good. Indy is much ado about very little substance when it comes to NASCAR.
With Dale Earnhardt, Jr. out for at least two more weeks, former teammate Jeff Gordon will pilot the No. 88. Gordon was stellar at Indy and Pocono during his career, but can he find the old magic after being out of the car since November? And how does Earnhardt’s absence impact Hendrick Motorsports as it works to prepare for the Chase?
Howell: Jeff Gordon will have a seamless transition back to driving. The No. 88 is pretty much his old No. 24, just with a different number and paint scheme. Doing TV has kept Gordon engaged with what’s happening in the sport, and he’s not too far gone from the cockpit. A decent stint of practice and Gordon will be good to go. As for Dale Earnhardt, Jr.‘s Chase chances, maintaining good health and reducing the after-effects of a concussion are more important than risking future medical woes. Sitting out a few weeks is just what Earnhardt needs.
Clayton Caldwell, Contributor: I’ve heard a lot of people in the HMS camp say they are looking forward to Gordon’s input in the cars to help make them faster. Gordon’s a driver who was really detailed in his feedback, and that could be a benefit to a team that has struggled in the past few months. As for Pocono Raceway, he’ll be strong, like always, but a top 10 is a good day given the circumstances.
Henderson: Gordon was a good choice for many reasons, but to expect wins is a little unrealistic. The team prepared these cars for Earnhardt, who likes a vastly different feel in his cars than Gordon did. A week or so isn’t much time to make the kind of changes it may need to be to Gordon’s specifications. It’s less driver and more situation here. As for HMS as a whole, Earnhardt’s absence does affect the organization. Not only does it put his team in a bit of a panic mode if he’s back in the car before the Chase as he will need a win to qualify, but it has potential to affect the No. 48 team in its Chase preparation as well, as the two teams work so closely together, and Jimmie Johnson’s preferences dovetail well with Earnhardt’s rather than Gordon’s. Yes, the team can learn from Gordon, but whether what they learn is translatable to Earnhardt and/or Johnson is another question entirely.
Fesko: Gordon will contend for top 10s even though he’s been out of the car. The No. 88 team is perhaps the strongest team in the HMS stable despite not winning yet this season, and Gordon could absolutely leverage that into a podium finish or perhaps even a win. Earnhardt’s absence, I’m sorry to say, won’t impact HMS’ preparation as a whole. The No. 88 team, certainly, as it will be scrambling to get a win when Earnhardt returns. But not the entire organization.
We often hear about teams being plagued by bad luck (just ask Martin Truex, Jr. and Kasey Kahne), but is there really any such thing in the sport, or at this level do teams make their own luck?
Gable: Teams certainly do have some control over their fortunes, but bad luck definitely happens in racing. Guys like Jerry Nadeau and Steve Park were plagued by it their entire careers. No matter how well a race team prepares, sometimes you just cannot avoid that faulty engine part failing or another driver spinning directly into your path. Usually, things have a way of evening out in the end.
Caldwell: It can be a little bit of both. When you get a lug nut caught between the wheel and the hub of a car during a pit stop, that’s bad luck. But I often hear people say that it’s bad luck when someone wrecks by themselves, when usually that’s not the case. If the driver spins due to losing control, it’s because the car was not handling good, which falls on their shoulders, or because the driver messed up, neither of which qualifies as bad luck. We use the term too often in this sport, but sometimes there is just nothing you can do.
Henderson: Any team can be hit with a stroke of bad luck—a cut tire from debris on the track, a crash not of their making, failure of a $5 part. It happens and it’s part of racing. But when something becomes long term, then the team needs to look deeper within itself; luck can also come from circumstances. Is the team getting it done on pit road? Is strategy working? Are the crashes the result of running midpack rather than at the front? Not all of those issues come from luck alone. Sure, bad days happen, but when there are a lot of them and they happen regularly, it’s time to address the deeper questions.
Fesko: There are bad breaks for sure. Just ask Dale Earnhardt each year he saw his Daytona 500 hopes slip away. Kevin Harvick has seen similar issues the past few years – he should have a dozen or more wins with Stewart-Haas Racing than he does – and Martin Truex, Jr. is going through the same thing this year. What’s important is how the teams handle the misfortune. Eventually things will turn around naturally, so trying too hard to fix things could just compound the problems.
The XFINITY Series will finish its heat race experiment this weekend at Indianapolis. How would you assess their success or failure to this point? Would you bring them back in 2017?
Caldwell: The heat races are OK, but nothing to jump up and down about. They shorten the main event, which I think people like, but unless you let these teams really work on these cars after the heat races, it’s kind of pointless. When we see those races in dirt, those drivers and teams change everything if they have an ill-handling car. In NASCAR, due to the tight inspection process, you can’t do that. You can only make minor adjustments, which makes them pointless.
Henderson: I like the idea of the heat races and would like to see them back in 2017, but with a few changes. Right now there is too little reward and a whole lot of risk—a crash means no race and no points for a team and they’re just not going to take the risks that make racing exciting. I’d like to see them run before final Sprint Cup practice each weekend and give the teams a chance to make adjustments and repairs ahead of the main race, or to bring out the backup (and getting it off the truck, set up, and through inspection in a hour or so is no small task). Also, there should be some bonus money in it for the winners. Teams need incentive to race harder.
Howell: The heat races have been a welcome addition to the XFINITY Series. They give the series a local track feel and make a little more drama than we’re used to seeing. I think NASCAR should keep them on the schedule and maybe even consider adding more of those weekends to the calendar in 2017.
Gable: I still like that NASCAR was willing to try something new with the XFINITY Series, which needed (and still needs) a shakeup. The heat races were interesting at first, but they haven’t had the action for which fans might have hoped. It seems that improving one’s qualifying position is not enough motivation to create hard racing throughout the pack. So if NASCAR wants to bring the heat races back, I would add in the provision that the bottom few drivers get eliminated. Shortening up the time between races wouldn’t hurt either.