The pivot point of NASCAR bursting onto the national scene was when the Cup Series first raced on the storied grounds of Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1994. It was won by an up-and-comer named Jeff Gordon who would go on to win four more times there over his career.
I contend that the 1994 race won over folks in the Midwest who were mostly open-wheel Indy racing fans. I also believe it was part of the reason the open-wheel CART series split up, or at least Indianapolis Motor Speedway former CEO Tony George is the reason because he allowed NASCAR to race on the famed Bricks while also taking his track and Indy 500 race to the new open-wheel Indy Racing League he created in 1996.
All the top named drivers stayed in CART while the IRL featured mostly no-name drivers who were racing in the minor leagues. The move irritated and confused fans. NASCAR, with a kid from Pittsboro, Indiana winning the first Brickyard 400 was attractive and captured a new audience that continued to grow to where it is today.
After NASCAR raced at Indy, it was almost like a Manifest Destiny situation of expansion westward. Tracks were soon built at Texas, Fontana, Las Vegas, Chicago, Kansas, and Kentucky. I believe the Brickyard started the NASCAR boon and it also built one of the greatest rivalries with Gordon and Dale Earnhardt. After Earnhardt won the second Brickyard 400, he suggested that he was the first ‘Man’ to win the Brickyard 400 taking a shot at the Gordon kid. The rivalry was on and fans chose sides.
Sunday’s Big Machine Vodka 400 at Indy will be the 26th and final race of the regular season and it will also be the 26th NASCAR Cup Series race on the most famous track in the world. But none of the previous 25 races will have as much importance on the season as Sunday’s race which will decide the final 16 drivers to qualify for the Playoffs that begins next week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
There are four drivers separated by 26-points or less sitting 15th through 18th in points attempting to clinch the final two spots (15. Clint Bowyer 625 points, 16. Ryan Newman 617, 17. Daniel Suarez 617, 18. Jimmie Johnson 599). Last week at Darlington, Suarez bumped Newman out of the way causing Newman to finish poorly (23rd) while Suarez finished 11th. Newman, an Indiana native, and former Brickyard winner vowed payback. Get your popcorn ready this week for this featured bout.
Jimmie Johnson was having a great run in the top-10 for most of the race last week but finished 16th. The seven-time champ is in danger of missing the postseason for the first time in his magnificent career. He hasn’t won since the 2017 season, but he’s also a four-time winner at the Brickyard. If he wins he’s automatically qualified for the Playoffs. The Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook has him posted at 60-1 to win.
The first thing I always do when handicapping Indy is looking what happened in the previous Pocono races and this season because the Indy date was pushed to a later date we have two races to go off of.
The similarity goes beyond both being 2.5-mile layouts. It’s the long straightaways and a flat turns at indy that resembles Turn 3 at Pocono. Kyle Busch won the June 2 Pocono race and Denny Hamlin won the July 28 Pocono race. Last week’s winner Erik Jones finished third and runner-up. Jones was runner-up at the Brickyard last season.
NASCAR will be using the race package this week that has been featured on most of the big tracks with the cars having aero-ducts and engines producing 550 horsepower, a package that Kyle Larson has had top-five finishes in his last five starts using it. He was runner-up last week at Darlington with it and fifth in the last Pocono race. He’s probably the best value on the board at the SuperBook at 12-1 odds.
The best long shot to take a shot with is William Byron at 40-1. The No. 24 is the same number Jeff Gordon used to win five times at the Brickyard, but the top reason is how well his car was set-up in the last Pocono race where he finished fourth.
His Hendrick Motorsports teammates Chase Elliott (20-1), Alex Bowman (60-1), and Jimmie Johnson (60-1) all might be worth throwing down $5 or $10 on. A Hendrick Chevrolet has won 10 of the past 25 Brickyard races, the last coming in 2017 by Kasey Kahne which came as a surprise to many. They know how to set cars up well for Indy.