Mash The Gas: NASCAR Brickyard 400 Preview

Tony Stewart in turn one at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. [John Wiedemann Photo]

Turn one action in the 2016 Brickyard 400. [John Wiedemann Photo]

by Dan Margetta and John Wiedemann

The NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series makes its annual stop at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Brantley Gilbert Big Machine Brickyard 400 Sunday afternoon.

Brantley Gilbert Big Machine Brickyard 400
Indianapolis Motor Speedway
400 miles (160 laps)
Sunday, July 23
2:30 p.m. ET
NBC, 2 p.m. ET
IMS Radio Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Stage 1 (Ends on lap 50),
Stage 2 (Ends on lap 100)
Final Stage (Ends on lap 160)
This, the 24th running of the prestigious Brickyard 400, will be the final one conducted in the middle of summer as the race moves to a September date and the final race before the playoffs in 2018.

The Brickyard 400 remains one of the prestigious races on the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup schedule and ranks high on the list of races drivers want to win. The legendary Indianapolis circuit is a flat 2.5 mile oval that provides challenges for the big, heavy, NASCAR stock cars. Passing has been difficult in recent years and track position and horsepower are key components to winning the race. The Indianapolis track races very similar to the tracks at Pocono and New Hampshire and drivers who perform well at those two venues often have success at Indy. There are just seven races remaining before the playoffs begin and traditionally the driver who wins Indianapolis fares well in the playoffs as 19 of the 23 Brickyard 400 winners have won Cup championships.

The 24th edition of the Brickyard 400 is set for Sunday afternoon and here are some drivers to watch…

Matt Kenseth (Dan Margetta)
Matt Kenseth has won just about all the top prizes in NASCAR Monster Energy Cup competition. He has won a championship and two Daytona 500’s to go along with triumphs in the Coca-Cola 600 and Southern 500, but the one crown jewel that has eluded him is the Brickyard 400. He has finished second three times, including last year, and has eight top five finishes. His 17 starts in this race leads all active drivers and he has finished in the top ten eleven times. 2017 is significant because this may be Matt Kenseth’s last shot at capturing the Brickyard crown as it has already been announced he is losing his #20 Joe Gibbs Racing ride and his future is at the moment uncertain. Matt Kenseth has finished seventh or better in this race the last four years and he’s coming off a strong race at New Hampshire where a pit strategy call likely cost him a victory. Kenseth is listed at 12-1 odds this weekend and he will wheel a Tide sponsored ride in a bit of a throwback to Ricky Rudd’s 1997 Brickyard 400 win. With the youth movement fully underway in NASCAR, Matt Kenseth needs a victory to remind the sponsorship decision makers the “old guys” shouldn’t be forgotten and Sunday afternoon’s Brickyard 400 is a great opportunity to make such a statement.

Martin Truex Jr. (John Wiedemann)
The hottest driver in NASCAR is Martin Truex Jr. Racking up playoff points like they are going out of style, Truex is positioning himself for a comfortable ride right into Homestead to battle for the championship. On the checkoff list this week is another flat track, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Still looking to wipe away the idea that they can only win at 1.5 mile tracks, which isn’t a bad thing, the 78 team will be looking to dominate again this weekend. Last weekend was a single stage win, but another playoff point. Will Truex pick up a stage win this weekend – probably. Will he get two – probably not. With teams strategizing this race like a road course, grabbing both stages and the victory will be more difficult than usual. But Cole Pearn, #78 crew chief, always has tricks up his sleave. Can Truex beat the two time defending champion of this race, Kyle Busch? I believe he can.

Kyle Larson (DM)
Kyle Larson has really come into his own this season and he represents the aforementioned youth movement as we head to Indianapolis, a place he has run quite well at in his limited starts. Larson has one top five finish and three top ten finishes at Indy and his seventh place average finish is best in the garage. He’s also coming off back to back runner-up finishes after starting last in the field and has made a strong case as a championship favorite. He’s listed at 5-1 odds to win this weekend and has never finished outside the top ten at Indy. Plus his #42 Ganassi Racing ride historically has had success at the Brickyard as Juan Pablo Montoya dominated many Brickyard 400’s before coming up short of the victory. Kyle Larson finished fifth in this race last year and he has a way of finding places to pass at tracks where passing opportunities are scarce. Kyle Larson is definitely one of the drivers to watch on Sunday.

Kyle Busch (JW)
Last year Kyle Busch led 149 laps of the 170 lap Brickyard 400 after starting on the pole, true domination. It was his second Brickyard 400 win in a row and he put on a clinic on how to run the track. This season has seen a different Kyle Busch where he has run well but has not been able to seal the deal and find victory lane. Teammate Denny Hamlin has finally scored the first win for Joe Gibbs Racing and that victory may have opened the door for the team. Can this racetrack do the same for Kyle Busch? I’m not so sure. I’m kind of in a need to see it before I believe it at this point. Watching how the #18 team unloads off the truck and seeing their speed in the opening practice will be key to predicting the weekend. Busch will be able to turn things around, which really just means getting a win, and the JGR teams will find speed. It’s just a matter of time and it could be this weekend. If it is this weekend that Busch breaks through, it will be a record three-peat of Brickyard 400 victories.

Brad Keselowski (DM)
Car owner Roger Penske has had tremendous success at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the Indycar Series, having won 16 Indianapolis 500’s, but he has zero markers in the Brickyard 400 win column and Penske driver Brad Keselowski is probably getting tired of hearing about it. Keselowski delivered Penske’s first stock car Indy victory a few years ago in the NASCAR Xfinity event and he would like to be the one to capture Penske’s first Cup Brickyard win. Keselowski has three top ten finishes at Indy and he ranks in the top ten in Driver Rating and has the fifth most number of laps led at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Currenty Keselowski’s status for 2018 is a bit up in the air as contract extension negotiations are ongoing but not yet finalized and the team has to be careful not to let that situation become a distraction. Brad Keselowski is listed at 15-1 odds this weekend and the Brickyard 400 is high on the list of races he would like to win. Roger Penske’s stock car winless streak at Indy could come to an end this weekend if Brad Keselowski has something to say about it.

Ryan Blaney (JW)
It’s probably more a wish on my part, but I think it would be awesome for Ryan Blaney to put the Wood Brothers #21 in victory lane at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Blaney has raced twice in the Brickyard 400 with a best finish of 12th at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. With Blaney winning at Pocono, he has basically set himself up for the Playoffs. While Blaney has run very well this year, finishes have been a roller coaster with his final position. In 19 races, Blaney has seven top tens and an average finish of 18.6. In the last seven races Blaney has finished in the top ten every other time. Guess what, after last weekend’s 19th place run it’s time for another top ten.

Erik Jones (DM)
Erik Jones is my long shot pick this weekend as he enters the Brickyard 400 at 40-1 odds. This will be Jones’ first start in the Brickyard 400 but he does have some experience at Indianapolis in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. In those Xfinity races, Jones has qualified strong but ran into problems during the race. In 2016 he started third and finished 22nd and in 2015 he started second and finished 34th. Jones’s ride on the Cup side is the #77 second Furniture Row Racing entry and he has enjoyed many strong races this year. The team has been on the verge of contending for victories and the Brickyard 400 would be an ideal event for them to breakthrough. With Jones already announced as leaving the ride for the #20 Joe Gibbs Racing seat in 2018, the status of the #77 team is a bit in limbo and this is another group that can’t let that become a distraction. With the resources of the #78 Furniture Row team, currently the best team on the circuit, to draw from, Erik Jones may surprise a few people this weekend.

Clint Bowyer (JW)
It’s hard to say he’s a long shot, but Clint Bowyer hasn’t won in quite a while, October of 2012 at Charlotte was the last time he visited victory lane. Indianapolis is a track where he runs well though. In fact, last season he was running at the front for Harry Scott’s team when he was taken out late in the race, and running with the front pack didn’t happen very often last season. Bowyer has three top ten finishes at Indianapolis with the most recent a sixth place run in 2015. This season so far Bowyer has four top fives, the most he’s had in a season since 2014, and eight top ten finishes with an average finish of 12.6 (his best since 2013). It is a bit of a stretch to pick Bowyer for the win, but looking at how well he ran at last weekend at the flat New Hampshire track, a top five is likely.

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