Is this the era of the underdog at Indianapolis?
July 24, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
Indianapolis Motor Speedway is defined by greatness, in more ways than one. The facility itself is steeped in it, that sea-green glass pagoda tower and canyon of a frontstretch evoking historic exploits too many to mention. It’s been around since 1909, after all, and from Wilbur Shaw and his roadster to Rick Mears and Roger Penske to Jeff Gordon and Michael Schumacher, the Brickyard has long been a place where the best excel.
We’ve certainly seen that over the two decades now that NASCAR has competed at the 2.5-mile facility, a track where victory and championships often go hand-in-hand. Of the previous 19 Sprint Cup Series events at the Brickyard, all but four have been won by drivers who also own a series title. Eight times -- most recently Jimmie Johnson in 2009 -- a driver has used an Indianapolis victory as a stepping stone to a much bigger crown.
It’s a testament to just how difficult the track is, the fact that Indianapolis winners are almost always drivers who have won a championship, are en route to winning a championship, or -- like Ricky Rudd and Kevin Harvick -- top-tier competitors whose resumes lack only a title. In that regard the Brickyard is a little like Darlington Raceway, a very different facility in a very different part of the country, but whose construction was nonetheless inspired by founder Harold Brasington’s visit to the big house at 16th and Georgetown. The underdog isn’t exactly welcome at either place.
Occasionally, though, one slips through. At Darlington there have really only been two, Lake Speed’s shocker in 1988 and Regan Smith’s no-tire gamble in 2011 that delivered Furniture Row Racing its first (and to date, only) Sprint Cup victory. At Indianapolis the most notable exception is Paul Menard, who took advantage of late cautions that left the best cars with backfiring pit strategy, and then stretched his fuel to edge Gordon at the end. Sure, Menard’s family had been around Indy forever, but he was still a first-time winner who stood 14th in points.
Indianapolis returned to form last season, when Johnson won at the Brickyard before battling eventual champion Brad Keselowski down to the final race of the year. And yet, that kind of order stands in stark contrast to this season, where the only thing predictable has been the No. 48 team’s steadiness at the top of the standings. Given the narrow point differences further down, the rest is about as unstable as a city perched on a fault line -- you never know when things will get shaken up.
The Brickyard, as the name might suggest, has always been a rock against the chaos. Now, who knows. Two of the last three winners not only don’t have a championship, they didn’t even qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup in the years when they visited Indy’s elevated Victory Lane. Heck, the last 14 races there have even featured 14 different pole sitters, this on a narrow, flat layout where passing can be difficult and track position is everything. Indy’s glass ceiling is getting chipped away bit by bit, and one more surprise winner might shatter it for good.
Given what we’ve seen already this season -- 15 points separating six positions right around the Chase boundary, David Ragan roaring to the front at Talladega, a part-time Sprint Cup driver winning the most recent race two weeks ago in New Hampshire -- it certainly seems possible. On any given Sunday, the line between the greatest and the rest can be blurred completely out of focus. Why not at Indy? There may very well be another Menard lurking out there, ready to upset the establishment. The top candidates:
Jamie McMurray. Like Menard, an exception to the rule. McMurray won the Brickyard in the midst of a charmed 2010 season that also saw him claim the Daytona 500 and the fall race at Charlotte. Had the Chase been a 12-man field then, he would have made it. But it wasn’t. As it stands he’s perhaps the most under-the-radar contender at Indy, finishing in the top 10 in half of his career starts there. He’s also a good qualifier at the Brickyard, where winners almost always start toward the front.
Juan Pablo Montoya. Oh, those close calls. They’re still painful to remember -- both 2009, when JPM led 116 laps before speeding on pit road, and 2010, when he paced 86 circuits but his team opened the door for McMurray with what proved the wrong tire call. Montoya hasn’t shown quite the same proficiency at Indy since, finishing deep in the field the last two years. But he’s still a former Indianapolis 500 champion, and if there’s anywhere he’s going to break through on an oval track, it’s here.
Joey Logano. Hey, never discount a Penske driver at Indianapolis, right? After all, the Captain has won 15 times at the Brickyard in open-wheel cars, and Keselowski claimed the inaugural Nationwide Series race at the big track a year ago. Also remember that Logano is historically good at Pocono, which features one corner modeled directly after Indianapolis, and some setup tactics that transfer. Logano has cracked the top-10 just once in four starts there, but he showed earlier this year that he can be fast on big tracks.
Mark Martin. At the Brickyard, Martin will slide behind the wheel of the No. 55 car that Brian Vickers drove to victory two weeks ago at New Hampshire. Crew chief Rodney Childers proved at Loudon that he knows how to set up a vehicle for a flat, technical track. Martin may have had a quiet 2013 season, but did we me mention he hasn’t finished worse than 11th in any of his last eight Indianapolis starts? Or that his average finish there is better than Johnson’s? We just did.
Kurt Busch. Yes, the guy is a former series champion with 24 career victories, but he’s driving for a No. 78 team that has one win in eight years on NASCAR’s top circuit, and is in serious Chase contention for the first time ever. Busch himself hasn’t had the best of luck at Indy -- his most memorable moment there might be pointing to his rear end after getting wrecked by Jimmy Spencer in 2002. But it’s impossible to forget how good his car has been so many times this season, particularly at New Hampshire two weeks ago.
Paul Menard. Could the next Paul Menard be … Paul Menard? Hey, the guy hasn’t finished worse than 14th at Indianapolis in four years. He’s surely familiar with the place, given his family’s close ties to the facility. Although he’s slipped in the standings in recent weeks, for much of this year Menard showed an ability to maximize track position and stay out of trouble. That’s just the kind of steadiness it takes to contend at the Brickyard, and perhaps extend this era of the underdog for one more year.