Say what you will about stock car racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. On Sunday, the Crown Royal Presents the Samuel Deeds 400 produced one of the most compelling finishes of the season, with nobody knowing until race's end who would take the win.
A plethora of pit stop strategies shuffled the field throughout the latter stages of the race, with Brad Keselowski only yielding the lead to pole-sitter Ryan Newman with a green-flag stop with 12 laps to go. Newman and Jimmie Johnson had dominated the entire race, with one of them all but assured to take the win.
Though Johnson led the majority of laps with 73, it was Newman who brought home a popular victory at his home track by taking only two tires in the final sequence of pit stops.
Who else, besides Newman, took advantage of a big week in NASCAR, one that expanded far beyond the reaches of the fabled Brickyard? And who wishes that he or she could have a do-over?
It was every bit the race victory that the hometown hero desperately wanted, and his performance at the Brickyard should go a long way toward settling Newman's 2013 plans.
In qualifying, when it looked like Jimmie Johnson had the field (and track record) licked, Newman blasted out as the very last car on track and turned in a lap of 47.992 seconds. The lap not only beat Johnson's time of 48.016 seconds, it also set a stock car record in Indianapolis.
On race day, Newman managed to hang around the front of the field all day, despite seemingly bowing out of contention after a botched left front tire change on a green-flag pit stop. But he made up the time, both on track and off (a two-tire pit stop helped), and scored his first win since Martinsville in April 2012.
We all knew it was inevitable, but on Sunday, it finally happened: Johnson won his sixth Sprint Cup championship, making him one of only—
Wait, sorry. That one's supposed to be for November. My bad.
Johnson won his fifth Brickyard 400, becoming one of only two drivers to ever win five races at Indianapolis (the other being Michael Schumacher in Formula 1) and the first to win five on its oval—
Wait, sorry again. It just looked like that was going to happen for most of the day.
One more try: Johnson dominated much of Sunday's race, leading 73 of 160 laps. But a slow final pit stop, in which he took four tires instead of two, left him seven seconds behind Newman, and the deficit proved too much to make up. Johnson still finished second, though, scoring his ninth top-five finish of the season.
No, Stewart didn't drive himself to Victory Lane on Sunday, as is always the ultimate goal for a Hoosier in Indianapolis. But the owner-driver, who said that a win for teammates Ryan Newman or Danica Patrick would mean just as much to him as a win of his own, per Tom Jensen of FoxSports.com, got just that when Newman took the checkered flag.
Sure, it may have been his lame-duck driver that won the race, as Kevin Harvick will take over the car next season. But it reaffirmed Stewart-Haas Racing as a competitive team and a force to be reckoned with in Chase contention, giving both Stewart and Newman a chance to make the 10-race playoff.
The weekend started off poorly for Burton, as crew chief Luke Lambert was forced to call the race from inside the team's hauler due to an eye ailment. It ended even worse, with the No. 31 car losing power while in 17th place early in the event and pulling behind the wall.
The result: Burton finished last and now teeters on the edge of the top 20 in points, only four ahead of Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who's in 21st.
He may not be worrying about his job security at Richard Childress Racing for the moment, knowing that he'll return in 2014, but the No. 31 team still isn't as competitive as it needs to be. If RCR returns to four cars next season, adding both Ryan Newman and Austin Dillon, it seems like this team would be at the bottom of the ladder.
It was a big week for Austin Dillon, who competed in all three NASCAR national series events: the Camping World Truck Series Mudsummer Classic at Eldora Speedway on Wednesday, the Nationwide Series Indiana 250 on Saturday and the Sprint Cup race on Sunday.
The picture says it all about how Wednesday ended, but Dillon quietly put together two respectable runs on the back end of the week as well. Though he only finished 12th on Saturday, that run, plus the misfortunes of Nationwide title rivals Regan Smith and Sam Hornish Jr., enabled him to take the series points lead for the first time since joining that series full-time.
He finished a lap down and 26th on Sunday—a clean and respectable debut for a Cup driver at Indianapolis.
What should have been one of the most heartwarming stories of the entire race weekend turned into one of the most heartbreaking.
Turner Scott Motorsports and sponsor Brandt replaced the typical livery of Justin Allgaier's No. 31 Nationwide Series Chevrolet with a tribute to the late Jason Leffler, the longtime TSM driver who passed away in a sprint car accident earlier this year. The hope was that, in tribute to their fallen comrade, Allgaier would challenge for the win on Saturday.
Sadly, it wasn't meant to be. The car suffered engine issues before the beginning of the race, only making its way to the track after the rest of the field had already completed 19 laps. He could only muster a 34th-place finish at race's end—a bitter pill to swallow given the circumstances.
Perhaps this slide could be titled "The Entire Sport of Stock Car Racing," because there wasn't a single thing about Wednesday's Mudsummer Classic that wasn't cool.
One-off rides for Kenny Wallace, Dave Blaney, Ryan Newman and pole sitter Ken Schrader. (And dirt.)
Dirt track stars like Scott Bloomquist and Jared Landers joining the fun. (More dirt.)
Heat races, a la local short-track racing, to set the field. (Also, dirt.)
Norm Benning using the last-chance qualifier to race his way into the field, winning an intense battle with Clay Greenfield. (Did I mention dirt?)
A thrilling battle between Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson for the victory. (I feel like I haven't mentioned dirt yet.)
Dillon, the grandson of Richard Childress, giving team owner Rod Sieg, father to two drivers, his team's first victory. (Also, there was dirt.)
In short, expect this experiment to return to the Truck schedule in 2014. (Because who doesn't love dirt?)
Sure, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Super Weekend—a Grand-Am Race on Friday, Nationwide on Saturday and Sprint Cup on Sunday—may be a unique combination, but it comes at the expense of the former Nationwide event at Indianapolis Raceway Park (now named Lucas Oil Raceway).
The track, which through 2011 hosted a Nationwide and Camping World Truck race every year, didn't even invite ARCA back to its short oval after last season. In fact, both NNS and CWTS had raced there from their inaugural seasons until the track cut NASCAR ties after 2011. USAC still visits, and did so on Saturday, but the big names have disappeared.
Try envisioning a Nationwide driver coming from 42nd to win at the big track, as Carl Edwards did at LORP in 2009. That's exactly the kind of excitement that NASCAR fans miss out on when the sport doesn't race there.
ESPN picked up its Sprint Cup coverage at Indianapolis and immediately established itself as everything NASCAR fans hoped it would be.
The commentary booth of Allen Bestwick, Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree played the race as straight as any booth in history, jelling over the past few years into this generation's competent answer to Bob Jenkins, Ned Jarrett and the late Benny Parsons.
Reports from the pits were well-timed and well-delivered, led by the time-tested skills of Dr. Jerry Punch. Even SportsCenter anchor Sage Steele provided some entertainment as the pace car driver at the start of the race.
If its coverage at Indianapolis is any indication, race fans should be in good hands with ESPN for the rest of the Sprint Cup season.
Sunday's broadcast was so good, in fact, that NASCAR fans might already be lamenting ESPN's loss of the NASCAR contract after 2014.
As current ESPN pit reporter Dave Burns demonstrates in this throwback photo, NBC and its NBC Sports Network will score roughly the second half of the season once again in 2015, after outbidding ESPN for the rights. 20 Sprint Cup races and 19 Nationwide Series events will be broadcast on the Peacock network, with the remainder of each schedule (plus the full Camping World Truck Series season) going to Fox and Fox Sports 1.
It's clearer than ever that the sports channel landscape is changing for cable television, with NASCAR set to become a power player for both fledgling sports networks. ESPN isn't in any deep water yet universally, thanks to its MLB, NBA and NFL contracts, but with NASCAR, IndyCar and Formula 1 all on NBC now, it's no longer the destination for motorsports programming.