News & Media


Fantasy: Favorites are favorites for a reason at Indy

July 28, 2011, Dan Beaver, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

Stewart, Johnson, Gordon have earned the right to be top picks for Brickyard

At the beginning of the year, ask any driver in the field which race they want to win and they will say the Daytona 500. It's the first race of the season and the next race on the calendar. After that, the politically correct answer to the question will always be "the next race," but secretly there are two events that stand head and shoulders above the rest.

The Daytona 500 is steeped in tradition among stock car racers. But Indy is simply steeped in tradition. Drivers who rose through the sprint car and open wheel ranks all dreamed of racing in the Indy 500 and a handful of this week's competitors have actually lived that dream. Everyone else just wanted to race on these hallowed grounds. But when NASCAR started visiting Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1994, the dream changed. No longer did the top stock-car drivers simply want to race there, they also wanted to win.

That is no easy feat, as evidenced by the fact that only a handful of drivers have won the Brickyard 400. Top drivers like Mark Martin, Juan Montoya, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, and Kasey Kahne have come painfully close with second-place finishes. So far, each of them has been denied the victory. Others, like Greg Biffle, Denny Hamlin, and Brian Vickers, came as close as third for their best finish. And they all want to know what it was like for Bobby Labonte in 2000 when he finally got his Brickyard win after finishing first or second in his previous three attempts at Indy from 1997 through 1999.

Flat Track Rhythm

Despite taking last week off before the long, uninterrupted run to the final race at Homestead, drivers have had a chance to find their rhythm. The most recent race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway was contested on another flat oval and next week, the series rolls into the tricky Pocono Raceway, which had one of its three corners patterned after Indy.

Most teams would happily finish 43rd in both races surrounding this one for a shot at a Brickyard 400 victory, but they don't have to. Drivers who performed well in the Lenox Industrial Tools 301 can expect to carry that momentum into this weekend. Fantasy owners who scored high last week can stand pat. Those who didn't can make the necessary changes to their team and make up lost ground.

Indy has four distinct corners with two extremely long straights and two short chutes. Passing is difficult, but the best drivers in the field know precisely how to do that without crashing their competitors. The cream will rise to the top this week and catastrophes should be limited to the back of the pack.

The Favorites

It took a while for Tony Stewart to get his usual summer rhythm and before the Lenox Industrial Tools 301 he was a little cranky about being asked the same questions over and again. Everyone wanted to know what was different this year and why he had not yet broken out of his slump. He refused to respond with his words and used his right foot to do the talking. He had one of the dominant cars at Loudon and was in position to pounce if teammate Ryan Newman ran out of fuel. The No. 14 team didn't need strategy at New Hampshire, which is good news because potentially running out of gas at Indy has dire consequences and few will take the risk. Stewart's victories in 2005 and 2007 are only part of the foundation for recommending him this week. The bigger reason is because he finished in the top five in his past two attempts at Indy.

Jimmie Johnson must feel like he is in a production of The Lady, or the Tiger every time he comes to Indy. When he stays out of trouble, he's been perfect; entering this event last year, he had three victories in his previous six starts. The other three efforts in that span were catastrophic, however, with a best result of 36th -- often caused by crash damage. Last year was his first mediocre finish since his sophomore year, but a solid run in the Lenox Industrial Tools 301 will have restored this team's confidence and will make them contenders again.

Teammate Jeff Gordon also had a mediocre run in last year's Brickyard 400, but like Johnson the driver of the No. 24 has multiple victories on this track. He leads the league with four and the most recent of these came in 2004. He is the only major driver in the field this week with top-five finishes in 50 percent of his Indy starts and he has top-10s in 72 percent of the races, which makes him a solid choice regardless of his salary cap expense. Last week, Gordon threatened to win his third race of the season, but Newman had more fuel, Stewart was slightly stronger in the final run, and Gordon himself blew a tire on the final lap. That will all be forgotten as soon as he straps on his helmet this week.

Indianapolis


Our experts pick the studs and duds for this week.

Dark Horses

Kyle Busch has been star crossed at Indy and in six previous attempts there, he has managed to earn only one top-five. He is a driver with the capacity to surprise fantasy owners every week though, and despite a modest record, he has to be considered one of the threats to win this week. Having just achieved the century mark in combined wins in NASCAR's Big Three series and having tied Mark Martin with 49 Nationwide victories, he has one more milestone that is immediately ahead of him -- and this might be the biggest of them all. Assuming Kurt doesn't manage to win first, Kyle's next victory will tie the two brothers for 26th on the all-time Cup wins list and bragging rights will be up for grabs in the Busch family.

Indy is a magical place where careers are defined. That becomes clear when one asks Danny Sullivan about his spin and win in the Indy 500 or Jamie McMurray about his remarkable string of major-event victories last year -- one of which was in the Brickyard 400. Because storylines often write themselves on this track, Joey Logano has to be watched closely. He hasn't dominated his recent races, but crew chief Greg Zipadelli has managed to make the right calls at the end and give the Young Gun three top-fives and six top-15s in his last eight attempts. This includes last week's fourth at New Hampshire that made him one of the best values in the game. Logano's two career attempts on this track ended in a 12th in 2009 and a ninth in 2010.

Underdogs

Fantasy owners keep waiting for something to happen with Greg Biffle and last week's crew chief swap could have been a difference maker. It wasn't, and now they are left to wonder if the season can be salvaged. By the numbers, Biffle should be at least a dark horse this week with back-to-back top-fives in the 2009 and 2010 Brickyard 400s, but until he starts to develop a little momentum, he should be left in the garage.

Fantasy Power Ranking

Flat tracks, past three years
1.Jimmie Johnson5.18 17.Matt Kenseth18.51 33.Scott Speed33.41
2.Jeff Gordon7.34 18.David Reutimann19.19 34.Robby Gordon33.51
3.Denny Hamlin9.16 19.Jamie McMurray19.35 35.Travis Kvapil33.56
4.Tony Stewart10.26 20.Martin Truex Jr.19.98 36.Mike Skinner34.60
5.Carl Edwards11.58 21.Brian Vickers20.46 37.Scott Wimmer34.61
6.Mark Martin11.67 22.A.J. Allmendinger21.08 38.Andy Lally35.25
7.Kyle Busch11.81 23.Joey Logano21.16 39.Landon Cassill35.50
8.Jeff Burton13.14 24.Marcos Ambrose24.51 40.Mike Bliss35.51
9.Kurt Busch13.34 25.Brad Keselowski24.85 41.David Stremme36.03
10.Ryan Newman13.63 26.David Ragan25.73 42.J.J. Yeley36.17
11.Clint Bowyer14.14 27.Casey Mears27.21 43.Terry Labonte36.39
12.Dale Earnhardt Jr.14.19 28.Paul Menard30.14 44.Michael McDowell36.96
13.Kevin Harvick14.34 29.Bobby Labonte30.47 45.Erik Darnell37.32
14.Juan Montoya14.50 30.Regan Smith31.08 46.Dave Blaney37.70
15.Greg Biffle15.32 31.Trevor Bayne31.45 47.Joe Nemechek39.14
16.Kasey Kahne17.14 32.David Gilliland32.93 48.T.J. Bell40.89

Juan Montoya is another driver who looks good on paper, but is often too hard on the emotions of fantasy owners to make him an acceptable pick. His second-place run in 2007 was followed by a 39th in 2008. That poor finish was caused by crash damage. So was last year's 32nd. To make matters even more frustrating, he has qualified on the front row in three of his four starts on this track and threatened to win almost every year. Montoya is his own worst enemy most weekends, however, and that is abundantly clear at Indy where speeding penalties on pit road and overdriving the corners are responsible for most of his disappointments.