It’s not about the points, it’s not about the Chase, and it’s not even about rivalries this weekend in Indianapolis. It’s about one thing that every driver, from rookie to experienced veteran, wants to do once in their life: kiss the bricks.
The green flag will fall on the 17th annual Brickyard 400 Sunday with an abundance of story lines. Many drivers, some who are previous winners at the Brickyard, are still looking for their first wins of the 2010 season.
Others are looking for their first career wins in one of the biggest races of the year. Some, like Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin, who have won five races this season, aren’t concerned with just winning another race. Both drivers could have the thinking that they have a leg up on the competition heading into Sunday, and each are ready to duel for company bragging rights.
Team owner Chip Ganassi has had plenty to brag about thus far. Ganassi won the NASCAR season opening Daytona 500, and then won the biggest race of the IndyCar season in the Indianapolis 500 with driver Dario Franchitti.
Ganassi is the only owner to ever accomplish the feat and will be looking for another first on Sunday he one of his drivers was to win the Brickyard 400. For Jamie McMurray that would mean he took home the two biggest races of the NASCAR season as he’s been in the process of revamping his career since the move back to Ganassi.
Moments like those are what the Brickyard is about, making or solidifying careers. Bill Elliott, at the time driving for Ray Evernham, pulled out an unbelievable win in 2002. As did Kevin Harvick a year later when he won for Richard Childress.
Sunday will be more of the same. Whichever driver pulls into victory lane and is the one to head out to the infamous start-finish line made of bricks, will know what it feels like to be a champion. Winning at Indianapolis puts your name among greats and into the history books. Everyone remembers who won at Indy.
Will our Creatures be able to say that they too lived vicariously through the driver they picked to win at the Brickyard? Here’s who they believe will be the first driver to the checkered flag.
Misan Akuya: Tony Stewart
Stick with Smoke, that is my motto. Tony Stewart is going to win big soon and he would certainly love to do it at Indy. He has a pole and two wins at the Brickyard along with an average finish of 8.5, which leads all drivers. In his first start with his No. 14 team he led laps and finished third. This Sunday he'll try for two better.
Kyle Brandt: NO PICK SENT
No pick sent.
James Broomhead: Juan Pablo Montoya
Montoya was the class of the field at Indy last year, and was only robbed of the win by a questionably zealous pit lane speeding penalty and car that made overtaking harder than quantum mechanics. If he can avoid the pitfalls in the pits, and the sort of over-physical driving he seems to have resorted to sometimes this year, then he could pick up from where he left off before the penalty last year.
Kelly Crandall: Jimmie Johnson
While he’s lost his momentum since the win at New Hampshire last month, Johnson is the best current driver when it comes to Indy. The stats may show that it’s Tony Stewart, but Johnson has won races this year and has won the last two Brickyard 400s.
The No. 48 Lowe’s team doesn’t mess around when it comes to big races. After the birth of his daughter and with the Chase getting closer and closer, he needs more wins to break the tie with Hamlin. No better way to assert your dominance than by becoming the second NASCAR driver, besides teammate Jeff Gordon, as a four-time winner at Indianapolis.
Billy Fellin: Tony Stewart
This guy has been money at this track in past years and he's been getting hot as of late. I think Indy is when we finally see Smoke into fire and in the victory circle.
Christopher Leone: Tony Stewart
Tony Stewart, my pick for the weekend, is at the forefront of this crowd. The 1997 champion of the IZOD IndyCar Series may have never won an Indianapolis 500, but twice he’s claimed the checkers at the stock car event, in 2005 and 2007.
His average finish of 8.5 is the best of any active driver, and he’s led laps in six of the 11 stock car races he’s run at the Brickyard.
Kara Martin: Tony Stewart
If I keep picking him this season, surely he will eventually win, right? Stewart has proven that he has what it takes to pucker up to those bricks by winning twice in Indy and he is so overdue for a win. What would be more fitting and special than Stewart's first win of the season at "home?"
Go Smoke go!
Dustin Parks: Tony Stewart
It is hard to fathom that we are over halfway through the season and Smoke has failed to capture a checkered flag. Sure, he is sitting ninth in the points, but he is far from satisfied as to how his season has gone.
But, now we are coming to Stewart's yard. The Indiana native is so much at home at this track he might as well live at the speedway. He's won twice, has five top-fives and seven top-10's in the 11 races he's competed at the track. His average finish is 8.7.
The track is sacred ground to Stewart going back to his open-wheel days. He never won the Indianapolis 500, but when he got that win in 2005, and literally wanted to soak every bit of it in. Driving around the track, taking a drink of Coca-Cola from the stands, and finally doing what is his signature move and climb the fence.
I have to go with him cause he's the hometown boy, and he deserves to get to victory lane. No better place than what he considers his home track.
Patti Rodisch: NO PICK SENT
No pick sent.
Sal Sigala Jr.: Jimmie Johnson
I put his name in a hat with three other drivers, and his was the one I picked.
Rob Tiongson: Jeff Gordon
He's the original four-time at this track, having won here in 1994, '98, '01, and '04. Despite their struggles at a similar track in Pocono back in June, I look for the No. 24 team to deliver Gordon with a stirring performance on the track and in pit road with an effort that translates into a trip to Victory Lane at the Brickyard.
Alan Wade: Jeff Gordon
In the last five years only two different drivers have won at the Brickyard: Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson. Last year Montoya proved he was the class of the field and that one stupid mistake can erase that advantage in a split second, literally. Jeff Gordon is the all time champion in Cup at Indy, and I think this Sunday he finally breaks through the frustration of 2010 and brings it home to kiss the bricks once again.
Kara Martin (2,657) Jeff Gordon finished third (2)
Billy Fellin (2,605) Kevin Harvick finished 34th (3)
Sal Sigala Jr. (2,563) Jimmie Johnson finished 25th (2)
Christopher Leone (2,503) Kevin Harvick finished 34th (3)
James Broomhead (2,476) Jimmie Johnson finished 25th (2)
Rob Tiongson (2,448) Jeff Gordon finished third (0)
Dustin Parks (2,407) Kevin Harvick finished 34th (2)
Kelly Crandall (2,394) Jimmie Johnson finished 25th (2)
Misan Akuya (2,297) Tony Stewart finished ninth (1)
Patti Rodisch (2,251) Kurt Busch finished 26th (0)
Alan Wade (849) Jimmie Johnson finished 25th (1)
Kyle Brandt (231) Tony Stewart finished ninth (0)
The Brickyard is not a typical race that a NASCAR fan can tune into on any given Sunday. When the green flag flies there will be one thing that separates the contenders from the pretenders: horsepower.
Doesn’t sound like anything you don’t need to normally win a Sprint Cup race, but at Indy, horsepower is key. The driver that unloads fast on Friday and maintains that speed, or somehow gets faster, by Sunday will be the one to contend with. Juan Pablo Montoya was that driver last year and didn’t lose because he wasn’t fast enough.
Indianapolis won’t be the case where the fastest car doesn’t always win, this Sunday the only drivers with a chance to win will be the fastest.
Summary of Picks
Juan Pablo Montoya —1
Photo Credit: Mark J. Rebilas