Saturday, July 24, 2010

Lots of Chevy's Look Primed To Get Their Eighth Straight Brickyard 400 Win

By Micah Roberts
Las Vegas Review-Journal

No matter how hard you try, it’s tough to make a case for any manufacturer other than Chevy to win Sunday’s Brickyard 400 at the storied grounds of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Not only does history point to a Chevy win, but the actual performance during Saturday’s qualifying and final practice sessions all lean to the guys with bow ties.
You can make a slight case for Kasey Kahne, Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin or Kurt Busch, who represent the best their manufacturers have to offer, but it will be a tough hill to climb to get past all the great Chevys. It’s not just because a Chevy has won the last seven Brickyard 400s, or that nine of the top-10 qualifiers are Chevys; rather it has more to do with the sheer volume of quality performances during practice by those driving the Impalas.

Friday’s two practices and Saturday's qualifying session were dominated by Juan Pablo Montoya. He lit up the boards with fastest laps during each of the two practice sessions and then went out and laid down the fastest lap in qualifying for the pole. The 2000 Indy 500 winner not only has a fast car this week, but he has unfinished business at the Brickyard as well, making him a top candidate to win Sunday. It still burns Montoya that he was penalized late in last year's race while leading. He put on an awesome display while leading 116 laps, only to finish a disappointing 11th.

Montoya wasn’t as impressive during Saturday’s post-qualifying practice while running exclusively in race trim as opposed to Friday’s top laps while in qualifying trim, but it’s going to be tough for someone to take away Position 1 throughout the day just because it’s his kind of track. The flat, sweeping left turns of Indy suit Montoya well and in many ways make entering and exiting the turns similar to a road course.

Montoya’s teammate, Jamie McMurray, will start fourth and is using the same car that finished runner-up in the Coca-Cola 600 in May. The duo will attempt to give car owner Chip Ganassi an unprecedented triple crown of sorts by winning the race. No car owner has ever won the Daytona 500 and Indy 500 in the same year as Ganassi did this year, and adding that third prestigious trophy to the case would be the ultimate gift any driver could give his owner.  

The most impressive group of cars during the final practice sessions came from the trio of Childress drivers led by Jeff Burton. Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick each had solid practices as well, giving all three drivers at least one session where they were no worse than third-fastest. For Burton, his practices were equally similar to Pocono, where he had a strong run despite finishing seventh. Burton was fastest during the first session and second-best during happy hour, and it’s not so coincidental that he’s using the exact same chassis he did at Pocono.

Two of the bigger underlying themes coming into the race involve Chevy drivers Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon and the all-time track records they could shatter. The Brickyard has been in existence for over 100 years and this week's race is only the 17th time NASCAR has had the honor of racing on it. But Gordon and Johnson could enter some hollowed territory should either of them win.

If Johnson wins Sunday, he would become the only driver — in Indy cars or stock cars — to win three straight races on the oval of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Michael Schumacher won the USGP four straight times on the infield road course and five overall. Jeff Gordon could tie Schumacher’s all-time facility mark with a win and pass A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears, whom he is currently tied with at four wins on the oval, a list Johnson is also attempting to join this week.

Johnson and Gordon also share a common bond with their past wins resulting in championships. Gordon has won the Sprint Cup title in two of the four years he’s won on the Bricks, while each of Johnson’s three wins have resulted in a title. Gordon and Johnson are part of an elite group in that area as well. Only two of the 16 Brickyard 400 races have been won by drivers who haven’t won a Championship — Kevin Harvick and Ricky Rudd, and in eight of the 16 instances, drivers that won the race also won the title the same year.

Based on the final practice sessions, neither Johnson or Gordon look to be top contenders, but they are a must for consideration just because of their history. Johnson’s final practice looked similar to what he did at Pocono, where he finished fifth, and he’s using the same chassis this week. Gordon’s practice didn’t raise any eyebrows, and was actually kind of mediocre, but it’s very reminiscent to his practices from 2004, the last time he won on the track.          

Mark Martin will use the same car this week that led 14 laps and finished runner-up in last year's Brickyard 400. He’s one of only four drivers to have competed in all 16 NASCAR races at Indy and has done very well compiling six top-five finishes, with a 13.4 average finish. He is one of the few, like Burton, who had terrific practices for both Friday and Saturday sessions. The Las Vegas Hilton Super Book has Martin listed at 40 to 1, which is easily the best value on the board. 

Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman are both teammates who drive Chevys and hail from Indiana. Newman looked the stronger of the two in practice, but Stewart is never someone to gauge on mere practice times because he always seems to do better than what he practiced. And when it comes to the Brickyard, Stewart gets greedy. He’s a two-time winner on his home track and holds the track record for best average finish at 8.5. If using Pocono as a model comparison because of the similarities between the horsepower needed on the long straightaways and the proper balance needed on the flat turns -- a race where Stewart finished third -- then he should be OK for this race despite his practice times.

Toyota's hopes lie within an unsuspecting source. Usually, it’s either Denny Hamlin or Kyle Busch who give the manufacturer the best chance to win. But this week it rests with Martin Truex Jr., who was the fastest during happy hour. Michael Waltrip Racing already gained an impressive win two weeks ago at Chicago, but a win at the Brickyard would be a little sweeter for the team making serious noise against all the mega-teams in NASCAR.   

As for Hamlin, he has been in a bit of a tailspin since winning at Michigan six weeks ago. After getting five wins in the first 15 races, Hamlin has experienced finishes of 34th, 14th and 24th over the last four races. It all started with an awful run at Sonoma, where Hamlin admittedly said the team didn’t do any type of testing and didn’t take the race seriously because the road courses represent only two races a year. While the logic may appear sound, the lackadaisical preparation for that race carried over into other places where he should have run well.

Hamlin should be in good shape this week because of Indy’s flat surface. On the similar track of Pocono, Hamlin has four career wins, including a victory there this season. During Saturday’s early practice session, Hamlin looked strong as he ran the most laps and had great average speeds. It was a little surprising to see that Hamlin didn’t bring his Pocono chassis this week because the tracks are so similar and because Hamlin has dominated every race with that car going, three-for-three in wins. His practice was good, but there would definitely be more comfort if he had his money car.

The ugly duckling of NASCAR this year has been Ford, which has gone winless through the first 19 races — the longest such drought since 1977. A Ford also hasn’t won at the Brickyard since 1999, when Dale Jarrett turned the trick. Ford's hopes this week rest with Kasey Kahne who had the quickest average lap speeds during happy hour among all drivers that ran at least 20 laps. Kahne is using his Michigan chassis that finished second.

The trio of Penske Dodges didn’t stand out in any practice session. Dodge's hope for gaining a win is with Kurt Busch, who will be using his winning Coca-Cola 600 chassis. Even though Dodge is the last non-Chevy to win at Indy, it doesn’t look promising this week.

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