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.
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.
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.
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 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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