Dropping the Hammer: A Preview of the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard

Rob TiongsonSenior Analyst IJuly 24, 2009

INDIANAPOLIS - JULY 27:  Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet leads the field to the green flag to start the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Allstate 400 at the Brickyard at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 27, 2008 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR)

The Lure of The Brickyard

How can you sum up the amazing weekend of racing ahead for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway? (Sunday, 2 PM, LIVE on ESPN)

After all, it's the world's most premier stock car racing sanction competing at what is arguably considered the most famous speedway around the globe for 400 miles.

Imagine, if you will, being a young musician, who has dominated the airwaves for a couple of years and then getting the opportunity to record an LP at the famous record studio known as Abbey Road.

Every driver and team would be kidding if they didn't tell you how excited they'll be to be at Indy, where many of motorsports' staying powers and legends have made history.

Until 1994, the action on the track was filled with pre-race activities with qualifying rounds and practice sessions that would lead up to the Indianapolis 500 in May.

Open-wheel racing icons like Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, the Unsers like Al Sr., Al Jr., and Bobby, as well as Gordon Johncock, Rick Mears, Emerson Fittipaldi, Johnny Rutherford, and Danny Sullivan are names that can roll off the mouths of racing fans like that of an NFL enthusiast who can name all the winning Super Bowl teams.

Some of the NASCAR's greatest have established their legacy with a victory at this renowned facility as their open-wheel "cousins" have in the speedway's 100-year history of racing.

Jeff Gordon, the late Dale Earnhardt Sr., Dale Jarrett, Ricky Rudd, Bobby Labonte, Bill Elliott, Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart, and Jimmie Johnson are among those who have conquered "The Brickyard."

To win at Indianapolis, a good aerodynamic package, solid pit stops, and a car that can adjust well to the ever-changing track conditions in this late July contest are some of the factors for each of the 43 drivers who will compete in this 160-lap event.

Drivers need to put aside the fact that they are competing on these hallowed grounds. Much like the discipline required to master the high speed banked turns of Daytona and the various turns at Watkins Glen, Indy requires absolute focus and attention to every detail throughout the race weekend.

 

Keys to Victory

With relatively minimum banking in the corners and the long, 5/8-mile long straights, handling and horsepower will be talked about as frequently as the cars traversing around the 2.5-mile race course.

While a fast car may be optimal in short green-flag runs, a chassis that will respond positively throughout various junctures of the four-hour marathon is often preferred for a driver looking to capitalize on those punishing trips around Indy.

While Pocono is the three-turned "stepchild" of Indy, drivers and teams who excel at the triangular-shaped super speedway will find that success will be easy to come by at The Brickyard.

Sacrifices may have to be made at various points on the track. Some drivers may be able to handle a car that's loose coming off the corner, while others may prefer a car that'll be geared toward the fuel mileage game.

Pit stops and pit strategies are very critical at Indy. How many races have been dictated by the activity along the often congestive action in the pits?

Gordon can attest to a lightning fast stop in 1998 that propelled him to a second Brickyard victory.

Sure, he didn't come out of pit road first in the last round of stops, but a sub-17 second full-service with four fresh tires and a full tank aided the DuPont Chevy to easily overtake the top-five drivers who pitted for either two tires and fuel or fuel only.

If the Speedway, Ind. speedway conquers you, she'll lure you to the SAFER barriers of her corners, push your car to its limits, and sometimes, trap you into some bad luck.

As the saying goes in motorsports, "Everybody remembers the winner. Nobody remembers who finishes second."

Who to Watch For At Indy

Based on the all-time winner's list at Indy, the track favors seasoned veterans over youth, although Jeff Gordon may attest to such an assessment when, at age 23, he came through with his breakthrough victory in 1994.

When you calculate the average age of the drivers who have won at Indy in the previous 15 runnings of the Allstate 400, it adds up to a rather stout 30.6.

Indianapolis is not your typical young gun's track. If you're hoping for a victory by the relatively young drivers from Joe Gibbs Racing with Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, and Joey Logano, you may want to reconsider and go with a team stacked with relative age and experience.

Sunday's race could be a battle between Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing, serving as a microcosm to this season's Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.

Gordon leads all drivers in victories at Indy with four victories all behind the wheel of Rick Hendrick's No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet.

Averaging an 8.6 finishing spot in this race, the Vallejo, CA native turned Pittsboro, IN hero generally strives under the scrutiny and hype surrounding Indy race weekend.

Jimmie Johnson cannot be overlooked as a possible driver to beat for the 400-miler. Although his average finishing position is a mediocre 20.3 in seven previous races, the driver of the No. 48 Lowe's Chevy has been a solid front runner.

Johnson has led 104 laps, placing the El Cajon Californian in the top-five spot of the all-time lap leaders list at Indy (on the NASCAR side).

Hendrick "affiliate" and self-owner/driver Tony Stewart is about the next best driver at this facility that's not named Gordon or Johnson.

In 10 starts, Smoke has two wins, four top-five results along with six top-10 finishes. All of those came from his amazing tenure at JGR as the driver of the No. 20 Home Depot car.

Stewart may feel more meaning with an Indy victory, attempting to race his way into the winner's circle in his own equipment in the form of the No. 14 Old Spice/Office Depot Chevy.

One of Sunday's sleepers may be Jeff Burton, who has been running a rather paltry 2009 campaign. The No. 31 Caterpillar/Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet team has experienced some ho-hum races, entering the Brickyard weekend in the 17th spot in the points standings.

Sure, Burton's odds for a Chase berth are a longshot at best. A victory on Sunday, however, is not out of the question.

Burton had a heartbreaking finish in the 2006 running of this race, having led the most laps (87 of 160 trips), only to finish with a disappointing 15th place with arguably the most dominant car on the track.

If anyone embraces and strives on the role as the dark horse, South Boston, VA's Burton is one not to disappoint.

Juan Pablo Montoya will be an interesting driver to follow (and I don't mean just his Twitter account either!) on Sunday. It will mark the Colombian's return to the Brickyard since the year 2000, when the former open wheel star experienced one of his career moments with a victory in the Indianapolis 500.

Sporting a paint scheme and wearing an Impact! Racing uniform paying homage to that memorable victory from that May of 2000, a solid showing (or perhaps a victory) will definitely aid to the Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing team's chances of a Chase seed in September.

Other favorites include Elliott Sadler, Mark Martin, Kasey Kahne, and Carl Edwards.

Rob's Rant...

ESPN is picking up the television coverage for the rest of the racing season for the NASCAR Cup gang and for fans, it's a time of mixed reaction.

The Bristol, CT-based network will have the familiar trio of Dr. Jerry Punch, Andy Petree, and Dale Jarrett calling the shots from the booth. Covering the action on pit road will be Jamie Little, Vince Welch, Dave Burns, and Shannon Spake.

Will we see some of the promise from last season with the Worldwide Leader In Sports? Jarrett was a solid color commentator, complimenting Petree when Punch left the forum open for some "driver to crew chief banter" throughout the race.

Pit road coverage is superb and the fine quartet will deliver consistent reports to deliver the dramatic development in the remaining 17 races of 2009.

However, as is the case with the other broadcasting partners, commercials will be a hot topic around the water coolers of the office come Monday morning. Yes, they're annoying and can break up the flow of the coverage.

The question is, just how will they time these commercials so that race fans watching the coverage on the tube will be satisfied with the presentation of each contest.

An alternative may be tuning in to the radio, which fans often do when the tolerance limit has been reached with various factors on the television side.

Does it bother anyone that the Nationwide Series has not only been "Cup Lite," but rather, "The Joe Gibbs Racing Series?" As those argue that the Cup side has become the "Hendrick Cup," NASCAR's second premier series has become almost laughable.

This is not something new, but it's a sad thing to that drivers with relatively presentable looks but little racing skills/experience are hired over those who deserve at least a "cup of coffee."

Finally, this is to you, the readers, who have been faithful to me since Day One back in late September of 2008.

It has been quite some time since I've written on here with a NASCAR piece, but life can be quite busy at times. So I apologize to my readers with the lack of articles from recent times, but there are wonderful times ahead for those who follow my works.

Writing on Bleacher Report is quite a privilege and an honor. I've met many great people who I can truly call and consider as my friends and colleagues.

That said, changes are coming which will make my works much more enjoyable for you, the readers, as well as for me.

While I will keep this "good news" a relative secret, I'll just say that with the help of the fine folks at B/R, from Zander Freund to Joe Yanarella, my pieces will be more focused, more geared for enjoyment, and most of all, everything you look for when it comes to the observations and importantly, the news and facts surrounding the NASCAR world.

So as we go down the stretch in 2009 and beyond with the future, my NASCAR articles will be much better, much more oriented to you, the fans and readers, and something that will hopefully get you all to feel like you're in the garage areas, pits, and grandstands of some of America's finest racing facilities.

Enjoy the race weekend at Indy, wherever you may be!