Brickyard 400 Preview

The 2018 NASCAR Cup Series season sure has flown by in a blink. The 26th and final race of the regular season is this weekend on the storied grounds of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the most famous race track in the world. Indy cars made the track famous, but the track, in turn, helped take NASCAR to another level of national popularity after first visiting there in 1994 when a young up-and-comer named Jeff Gordon won the inaugural race.

That was the beginning of NASCAR as we know it today with big TV contracts and brand new tracks spouting up all across America. It was that first Brickyard 400 that opened the eyes of those in the midwest to NASCAR. NASCAR was no longer a just a southern thing. It was now mainstream and tracks were soon built in Texas, Fontana, Las Vegas, Kansas, Chicago, and Kentucky to accommodate the popularity which also translated well through the Las Vegas bet windows. The new generation of racers who always dreamt of winning the Indy 500 as kids were now being drawn into NASCAR.

“Oh, I think it’s the racetrack, man," Clint Bowyer said. "It’s the history behind it. It’s a hard race. It’s a hard place to get around, as a driver. But it all comes down to the history, the people who have won that race and won at that racetrack before you. That’s why you want to win there so badly.”

Sunday's race is the first time the Cup Series hasn't raced in early August or late July. NASCAR is using the popularity of the track as a means to build up some momentum for what is essentially a wild card race of sorts. it's the last chance for the drivers outside the top-16 in points to make the Playoffs, which begins next week in Las Vegas.

The Playoff field is basically set with the exception of a new driver winning a race. Win the race, make the Playoffs is what drivers like Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (100/1), Ryan Newman (100/1), Paul Menard (200/1), Daniel Suarez (50/1), Jamie McMurray (100/1), and William Byron (100/1) will all be shooting for this weekend.

Those are the six drivers that have a legitimate shot of actually winning.

The first case to be made for one of those six winning is that we've seen a new driver win for the first time this season in three of the past four races, including the last two. Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, and Martin Truex Jr. have combined to win 17 of the 25 races this season, but things are evening out.

Chevrolet is finding lots of speed lately, such as the team of Hendrick Motorsports who have three cars in the Playoffs with rookie William Byron, in Gordon's famed No. 24, needing to win to join his teammates. Byron led 10 laps and finished sixth at Pocono Raceway on July 29, which is key because Indy's 2.5-mile flat layout resembles Pocono the most. He also won at the Brickyard last season in the Xfinity Series.

“It was a really awesome weekend last year," said Byron. "Winning at Indy is something that’s really cool, and it was one of my best memories from last year. I enjoy the track – it’s a cool place and a really special racetrack. The track’s really narrow, really fast and it’s kind of a mix between a Michigan or a Pocono as well. It’s hard to prepare for it because we only go to one track-type like Indy each year, but it’s an exciting race and it’s also the cutoff for playoffs, so the strategy and trying to go for a win will be pretty exciting.”

Byron's teammate Alex Bowman, who sits 16th in points, was third at Pocono. Both Indy and Pocono have the longest straightaways in the series and tight turns. Do well at Pocono, expect to do well at Indy.

Daniel Suarez also fits the bill as a possible candidate to win and make the Playoffs because he was runner-up in that Pocono race, leading three times for 29 laps. His Joe Gibbs teammate, Kyle Busch, won at Pocono and has won two of the past three at the Brickyard. Suarez has never won a Cup race, but expect him to have a great car Sunday capable of winning.

As for Paul Menard in his Wood Brothers No. 21 Ford, his only career win came in the 2011 Brickyard 400 while driving for Richard Childress Racing. Jamie McMurray won the 2010 Brickyard 400 and has had cars that are almost as good as his Ganassi Racing teammate Kyle Larson.

Ryan Newman's No. 31 RCR Chevrolet showed great speed last week at Darlington during practices and was competitive during the race before getting wrecked. He dreamed of winning the Indy 500 as a kid growing up in Indiana but settled on winning NASCAR's Brickyard 400 in 2013.

And then there's the curious case of last year's winner, Kasey Kahne, winning in a lame duck situation for Hendrick Motorsports. He knew he wasn't coming back to the team for 2018 and managed to find a great set-up and pull off the upset after struggling most of the season. If it can happen to Kahne, who hadn't won all season until then, it can happen to almost anyone which gives those six candidates above some hope.

With Chevrolet showing speed lately, it comes at a perfect time because they've dominated at Indy winning 17 of the 24 Brickyard 400s. Chevy has won 13 of the past 15, including 12 straight from 2003 to 2014, which culminated with Gordon winning his fifth and final time at Indy, a track record Jimmie Johnson could tie with a win.

“Last year’s race at the Brickyard was pretty exciting – a final lap, three-wide battle for the win," said Johnson. "It was a good show for the fans. This race is a big one to win. Our cars have had a lot of speed lately even though the results haven’t been there. There really is no quit in me or this team and I think our cars are capable of running in the top five every week. We just need to focus on minimizing mistakes.”

Johnson has never gone this long into a season without a win, but remember HMS and Chevrolet are now faster. This should be a good spot for the seven-time champ to run well.

Overall, I think it's time for Larson to finally win his first race of the season and it would be the biggest win of his career. He hasn't been able to close races out, but I think it will happen Sunday. His best Indy finish was fifth in 2016. Keep an eye on practices Saturday (no Cup activity Friday) to validate how good he'll be Sunday. If he practices well, it will translate to race day.

As for the Big-3, they're all going to be good. Kyle Busch has been on the pole the last two season and was on his way to his third straight Brickyard win last year, leading 87 laps, before being wrecked on lap 110. He was also runner-up in 2014 and 2012. He also won at Pocono in July and finished third there in June.

Harvick's only Brickyard win in 17 starts came in 2003, but his 9.7 average finish is the best among active drivers. He's been eighth or better in his four starts -- sixth-place the last two years -- since being with Stewart Haas Racing. He was fourth in both Pocono races this season, leading a race-high 89 laps in the June race.

Truex Jr. loses his ride after the season as Furniture Row Racing closes its shop. I never thought it would be the only team operating outside of Charlotte in Denver. But it did. They've evolved into a powerhouse. They dominated last season and won a Championship.

They've got four wins this season. In their last three seasons of being a dominant team, Truex has been very good at Indy, but wrecked with Busch last season after being eighth in 2016 and fourth in 2015. His Pocono win in June means more here than his team running out of business or never winning at Indy.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #42 Kyle Larson (7/1)
2) #19 Daniel Suarez (50/1)
3) #18 Kyle Busch (7/2)
4) #4 Kevin Harvick (7/2)
5) #48 Jimmie Johnson (80/1)