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Brickyard 400 Preview

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I often wonder what might have happened to NASCAR had they not ever had to have the opportunity to race on the storied bricks of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, or better yet, if former track owner Tony George never existed.

George gets labeled as a greedy man who single handedly destroyed open-wheel racing which at a time when it was far more popular than NASCAR. He had a vision of starting his own Indy Car series and taking his track and the Indy 500 with him which slowly killed off the more competitive CART series.

He accomplished the feat and the Indy Car series is still functioning -- barely, but we can credit George with also helping make NASCAR what it is today, the most popular form of auto racing in America. One of his other visions was to bring the stock cars the storied grounds of Indy and rake in some more cash and it happened in 1994. It‘s a huge spike in the growth of NASCAR as we know it today.

The California kid, Jeff Gordon, won that 1994 inaugural race and was featured on cereal boxes afterwards. Midwest audiences that had normally supported open-wheel racing only, warmed up to the idea of stock cars. West coast audiences became more excited about stock cars as well and soon race tracks started sprouting up in Fontana, Texas, Las Vegas, Chicago, Kentucky and Kansas.

Here we are 22 years later and NASCAR is thriving better than ever with a billion dollar TV contract and sponsors waiting patiently to get their logos on a car due to the proven support the die-hard fans show. Gordon had a little bit to do with it all because of the national exposure, the timing was right in America, but it really all started with the NASCAR racing on the bricks. And we can thank Tony George for making it all happen.

Gordon will be making his 22nd and final start at Indianapolis this weekend, and no one has been better. Among all drivers with at least two starts, Gordon has averaged an 8.3 finish with five wins, including last year. He’s got 12 top-five finishes in those 21 starts leading a track record 528 laps. He’s the only driver to have started all 21 Cup races on the bricks. Because of the track’s history and Gordon getting his racing career started in Pittsboro, Indiana, there is no track more special to him than the Brickyard.

Sunday’s race will be the 20th of the season and yet Gordon, in his Swan Song season, doesn’t have a win yet. He’s currently 10th in points and should make the Chase, but the surprising part is that he’s had only two top-five finishes. He doesn’t look anywhere as good as he did last season when winning at Indy. Last year I picked him to win because he was running well. In fact, I think I’ve picked him to win at Indy in this column about eight times over the past 15 years and have been correct half the time. But I can’t go his way this time just because I didn’t see enough good things out of him at Pocono Raceway last month.

Pocono and Indy are very similar 2.5-mile layouts with long straight-aways. Indy has four very tight turns, but the set-up for turn-3 at Pocono is similar and we have seen through the years if a driver does well at Pocono that they fare well at Indy.

Martin Truex Jr. absolutely dominated at Pocono leading 97 laps to get his first and only win of the season. Kevin Harvick, who won at Indy in 2003, finished second -- again -- and led 39 laps. Only five drivers led laps at Pocono with Gordon, Kasey Kahne and Carl Edwards being the others.

The one difference between the Pocono set-up and Indy this week is that NASCAR has raised the spoiler a few inches higher to create more drag. This will slow the cars down a bit, but it shouldn’t change what we saw at Pocono last month compared to the drastic aero-package changes we saw at Kentucky relative to other 1.5-mile set-ups.

Kyle Busch is the hottest driver on tour right now with three wins in his past four races and has averaged a 10th-place finish over 10 career starts at Indy. He finished ninth at Pocono and his brother, Kurt Busch, finished fifth. Both should fare well this weekend, but I’m going to go another way, and it isn’t Truex Jr. or Harvick.

I’m going to ride with Jimmie Johnson who is looking to tie his boss Jeff Gordon for most wins at Indy. Johnson has four wins along with the highest driver rating at Indy and a series-leading four wins on the season. He also finished third at Pocono.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #48 Jimmie Johnson (7/1)
2) #4 Kevin Harvick (5/1)
3) #78 Martin Truex Jr. (10/1)
4) #18 Kyle Busch (10/1)
5) #41 Kurt Busch (10/1)

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