The famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway tends to celebrate many of racing's finest in open wheel and stock car vehicles. IndyCar names like Andretti, Foyt, Mears, and Unser are among those who are synonymous with the likes of NASCAR greats like Earnhardt, Gordon, Jarrett, and Johnson.
She's regarded as one of the toughest and most famous facility in all of motorsports, revered as a testament to toughness with both man and machine. Her long straights are accompanied by corners that truly test the balance between horsepower and finesse, biting the dust for some and glorifying those who treat her well.
That doesn't mean that a dark horse can't have a good day at The Brickyard, as sometimes showcased in previous years. Who'd think a guy like Ricky Rudd, Bill Elliott, or Kevin Harvick would shine in "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing?"
So while the usual suspects will receive their usual fanfare and praise prior to/and on race day, pay attention to these ten dark horses who just may be poised to pull off a Sunday surprise at Indy. As old childhood buddy LeVar Burton puts it, "You don't have to take my word for it!"
It's been quite the season for NASCAR's version of "Body By Jake," who's not exactly lit up the Sprint Cup Series as he did in 2008. If he ever wanted to make people forget about his Gateway controversy, a trip to the famed grounds of Victory Lane at Indy might just be what the duck, er...doctor ordered.
He leads all active non-winners at Indy in average finish (11.2), with a top-five and additional top-ten to boot in his previous five starts. While it may not be something to go with a Ford racer this season, Edwards and his No. 99 team have made some strides recently, especially with their runner-up effort at Chicagoland and a sixth at Daytona.
Sitting 10th in the points race, it's safe to assume that a 190 point day at Speedway would be just about right for "Cousin Carl." And if Ford's most dynamic racer ever needed to give the Blue Ovals something to smile about, a win on Sunday would mark the manufacturer's first win...of the entire season.
Far from it for Mark Martin to be labeled a dark horse for a race, but in the case of the Brickyard 400, the 51-year-old Batesville, AK native certainly fits the billing for that here.
He's led some laps at this facility (57 to be exact) and has logged in six top-fives and 10 top 10's in his previous 16 starts, giving him an average finish of 13.4, which is pretty good for a racer who's yet to win a Cup race at IMS.
Martin and the No. 5 team could certainly use one of those vintage "Mr. Consistency" performances on race day, like his runner-up finishes in 1998 and last year, where he as almost the best in class but beat by the sport's best in each occasion (Gordon and Johnson respectively).
Obviously wanting to better those finishes by one position, it's been a long, hot summer for NASCAR's ageless wonder, who's slipped from the comforts of a top-12 spot in the Chase to 14th, struggling in the past five races with an average finish of 18.8, which are un-Martin like numbers. That said, if this team can turn it around and get back to their standards of last season, the averages should balance out.
Shrub has to feel like a put upon racer whenever he straps into his racecar at Indy, most especially since joining the Gibbs collective in 2008. When he was a Hendrick driver, he enjoyed top-10 performances from 2005-'07, including finishes of 10th, seventh, and fourth when he was piloting the No. 5 Chevrolet.
Since then, he hasn't had much luck in the No. 18 Toyota, placing 15th and 38th in his previous two outings. That's not for lack of talent or to say that he hasn't figured out Indy. More or less, it's just bad racing luck that's gotten in the way of NASCAR's most dynamic racer.
While some may overlook him prior to race day, if the 25-year-old Vegas native gets it done, he might make a believer out of many not only for his Chase hopes, but perhaps his first and much anticipated Sprint Cup championship.
You've got to feel like he's perhaps the biggest dark horse of them all in the NASCAR world, as he's truly been knocking on the door for his first career victory. For the 28-year-old Los Gatos, Calif. native, he's been fuming for a win so much that he and his car owner, better known as "The King" (aka Richard Petty), clashed heads after a disappointing Daytona finish earlier this month.
You know he wants to win badly in the most premier of stock car series in the world, desperately wanting to prove to his naysayers that he does belong in NASCAR. Will we see the Allmendinger who struggled mightily as a Red Bull driver in 2007, or the one who emerged as a sleeper since mid-'08? Only time will tell.
He's placed 10th and 20th in his previous two starts at Indy, all respectable performances for a driver often overlooked by fans as a legit contender. That said, don't be surprised to see the No. 43 Valvoline Ford in a position to play spoiler to the likes of Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, and Jimmie Johnson.
Matt Kenseth and Indianapolis Motor Speedway are often like marriages: filled with many ups and the occasional downs.
The bright side: he's logged in six top-10s in 10 starts, including finishes of second (2003 and '06), third ('02), fifth ('05), and 10th ('07 and '09).
The flip sides: he's not exactly a great qualifier at IMS, averaging a 22.4 place spot. And not to mention, he's piloting a Ford, which seemingly translates to driving a Toyota machine in the open-wheel circuit during the late 1990s.
He's made the most with little in 2010, currently sitting eighth in points with four top-fives and eight top-10's thus far, which isn't exactly great but in a season dominated by the likes of Childress, Gibbs, and Hendrick, it could be a race in which Kenseth pulls a Daytona trick at the world's most famous superspeedway.
It's hit or miss for a racer who some insiders regard as the "calmer Kyle Busch" or "today's version of Mark Martin." As mention in Kenseth's preview, the Vancouver, Wash. native has done a lot with so little in 2010, although some of that solid strength from earlier in the season has fizzled significantly with each passing month.
Sure, there's those two top-fives and 10 top-10's but those came relatively earlier in the year. And then there's his numbers at Indy: one top-five and three top-10's in his previous seven starts.
So why is he a dark horse if his numbers aren't exactly in his favor? Well, in his last two races at this facility, he's placed eighth and fourth, which means there's only three more spots for the aggressive and exciting Roush-Fenway racer to go: first place.
There's nobody else who wants Jamie McMurray to win Sunday's Brickyard 400 more than car owner Chip Ganassi, who's had quite the season in the NASCAR and IndyCar divisions.
McMurray took home the checkers in the Daytona 500 earlier this year, while his open wheel counterpart Dario Franchitti brought home his second Indianapolis 500 trophy just a few months ago. So you know that Ganassi and Felix Sabates are going to throw everything they've got to see that the Joplin, MO-born racer will wind up in Victory Lane.
While this track is a bit of a rollercoaster experience for the EGR driver, he has placed third, sixth, and seventh in his previous starts. Put him under a good chassis and deliver on pit stops, the No. 1 Chevrolet might have the makings of a winner. Now that would definitely spell out the triple crown winner in racing.
If there's a racer on the circuit who's circled July 25 on his calendar, it's Juan Pablo Montoya. He's probably been waiting for this race to come much like any member of an NFL team that's been sitting idle for Super Bowl Sunday...and lost it the previous year.
In the case for JPM, last year's Brickyard 400 slipped away at his fingertips...or his toes, rather. A costly speeding violation on pit road sent the surefire winner from the lead to a tremendously disappointing result of 11th, definitely not indicative of the machine and monster that the 2000 Indy 500 champion piloted.
This year, it's been a season to forget for the dynamic and strongly outspoken veteran, unable to duplicate his magical Chase-position season in 2010. It's not for lack of effort but rather just a lack of luck on their side.
He nearly won the 400 in 2007, starting on the outside pole before placing second, followed by a crash-related 39th place finish in '08. If the usual suspects don't wind up in the winner's circle, it's probably because the No. 41 Target team got the job done right this time.
This very race could define the remainder of the 2010 season for the No. 88 AMP Energy/National Guard Chevy team of Dale Earnhardt and crew chief Lance McGrew.
A season on the brink of either going south of disappointment or north to the promised lands of "The Chase," the time is now for the real "Little E" to show up at the racetrack. He's appeared to be having more fun as of late, growing his beard to nearly the same stature as Beach Boys' lead vocalist Mike Love, while just going heading to the battlefield more than apt for a victory.
Indy's not treated the fan favorite kindly, with the '04 Daytona 500 champion scoring only two top-10's in his previous 10 outings, which aren't exactly screaming contender immediately.
However, after seeing how David Reutimann made a believer out of many with his stirring second career win at Chicagoland two weeks ago, it might be a sentimental favorite who pulls of a shocking victory at a track that "The Man" scored a sounding victory in 1995.
Anyone got a heartburn at Indy should seek the consultation and help of "Mr. Nice Guy" aka Jeff Burton, who'll be piloting that noisy and eye-catching No. 31 Priolsec OTC Chevrolet for this Sunday's Brickyard 400.
It's friendly colors which saw Victory Lane three years ago at Texas Motor Speedway, so it's a reminder of the great potential for the '94 NASCAR Rookie of the Year winner and outspoken veteran.
He's not exactly fared well at Indy, averaging an 18.2 finishing position and a 25.5 starting spot in his previous 16 starts. However, there's that pole position run of 2006, a race he should have won had it not been for an ill-handling machine toward the end of the 400.
Burton's placed in the top-10 four times, including a fifth, sixth, eighth, and ninth in 1999, '00, '07-'08. His season has been feast or famine, much like his luck at the Speedway, Ind. facility, but you know that with the resurgence of Childress' team, it could be the No. 31 team's turn to finally shine after a dismal 2009.