No matter its position in the NASCAR Cup Series schedule, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has always represented a venue with a lot on the line and a lot to deliver – for both NASCAR competitors and the sport’s fanbase.
After spending much of the last half decade as the series regular season finale, the historic 2.5-mile venue is now home to NASCAR’s Independence Day weekend slate featuring Sunday’s Big Machine Hand Sanitizer 400 Powered by Big Machine Records (4 p.m. ET on NBC, IMS Radio Network and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
The motivation to kiss auto racing’s most famous yard of bricks – as the Brickyard 400 winner traditionally does – remains high priority for all the drivers. However, only five current drivers have sealed their race work with that treasured kiss – four-time winner Jimmie Johnson (2006, ‘08, ‘09, and 2012), two-time winners Kyle Busch (2015-16) and Kevin Harvick (2003 and 2019) and Ryan Newman (2013) and Brad Keselowski (2018).
Johnson, Busch, Harvick and Newman hold the distinction of being the race’s only four drivers to win from the pole position.
For defending race winner Harvick, who earned both his Indianapolis victories from the pole position, this event remains one of the toughest competitions of the year – no matter when it falls on the schedule. The driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford takes a hefty 52-point edge over Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney into Sunday’s race. And he’s fresh off one of the most dominant Brickyard performances, leading 118 of 160 laps en route to his win in 2019.
Harvick said he expects this year’s race under unusual circumstance – a one-day show with no practice because of COVID-19 health precautions – to work in the veterans favor, especially at a difficult track like Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“You can’t sit too far out on a limb and try a bunch of things like you would in practice on a normal race weekend,” Harvick said. “The other piece of that is you don’t have a bunch of people studying what you do with all the SMT data to try to copy it and drive their car and set their car up like what you are doing because the race is over by the time all that happens.
“It has been very unique and it has been something that plays well for our team to just show up and race because I think for the most part that experience is helping us get to where we need to be quicker.”
Interestingly, many of the 2020 season’s best are among those drivers looking to celebrate in Indianapolis’ Victory Lane for a first time. Eight of the top 10 drivers in the series driver standings – Blaney, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr., Alex Bowman, Aric Almirola and Kurt Busch – have never won a NASCAR Cup Series race at Indianapolis.
Among those, Logano has been closest. The driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford has a pair of runner-up finishes and was second to Harvick last year. He has seven top-10 finishes in 11 starts.
Hamlin, the season’s only four-time race winner, has eight top-10 finishes in 14 Indianapolis starts, including a career-best finish of third, three times in the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
Elliott, on the other hand, who leads all drivers with five stage wins in 2020, has only one top-10 finish in five NASCAR Cup Series starts at the Brickyard. His best showing was a ninth-place finish last year, and he has yet to lead a lap.
“I’ve really struggled at Indy,” acknowledged Elliott, who drives the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
“We’ve just been trying to get better there. It has just consistently been a huge challenge for me every year. My excitement level probably isn’t as high as some others about going to Indy, but that’s just because of how hard it has been.
“I would love to get over the hump. I think it would be such a cool place to run well and have success at. We are looking forward to giving it our best show this weekend.’’
His Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson shares that optimistic sentiment. The seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion will be retiring from fulltime competition at the end of the season and is looking for his first win since 2017. Should Johnson win on Sunday, he would tie his former Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon for most wins (five) all-time at the historic track. He’s had only two top-10 finishes since his last win in 2012 at Indianapolis and goes into the race highly motivated.
“Winning this race is one of the proudest I have been in my career,” said Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. “There is so much effort that goes into the event back at the [race] shop. It’s high priority when you look at the race schedule. It’s a ring race. When I drive in there and see the pagoda, I get the goosebumps.”
TIL NEXT TIME, I AM STILL WORKING ON MY REDNECK!