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Drivers keep pedal down in inaugural visit to Indianapolis

July 26, 2012, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com



Drivers keep pedal down in inaugural visit to Indianapolis
INDIANAPOLIS -- Nationwide drivers keep the pedal down in their inaugural visit to Indianapolis

At just after noon local time on Thursday, Justin Allgaier's No. 31 car rolled out onto the racing surface to open Nationwide Series practice at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. And with that, a new kind of NASCAR stock car was in action on the world's most famous race track for the first time in 18 years.

The sport's No. 2 series invaded the Brickyard for a historic pair of practice sessions in advance of Saturday's inaugural Nationwide Series event on the 2.5-mile oval, which from a stock-car perspective has been solely the province of Sprint Cup cars since NASCAR first came to Indianapolis in 1994. After three decades of competition on the short track in nearby Clermont, the Nationwide circuit was moved to the larger facility at the corner of 16th and Georgetown as part of a "Super Weekend" that also includes a pair of sports-car events in addition to the big show Sunday.

"Normally we can hold our breath when we qualify. Here, that's a long lap. That's about two minutes of holding your breath."

--MICHAEL ANNETT

"I think it's great that we get the opportunity," said former Indianapolis 500 champion Sam Hornish Jr., a Nationwide Series regular for Penske Racing. "Anytime you get to be the inaugural race of anything at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, that's a pretty good feeling. So a lot of teams are pulling out all the stops to get their cars to Victory Lane here. It means a lot for everybody to have that opportunity to come here and run, and they're going to make the most of it."

First things first. Although seven Sprint Cup regulars are entered in Saturday's race -- including Kyle Busch, who led both practice sessions in a truly monstrous No. 54 car -- for most drivers in the Nationwide event, Thursday marked their first time around a technically demanding facility that's been around since 1909. And some found they could mash the accelerator to the floor and keep it there for long stretches, thanks to cars that have less horsepower than their brethren in the premier series, and allow drivers to charge much deeper into the corners before they turn the wheel.

"I don't think you'll ever be able to run wide open completely," said Allgaier, a Turner Motorsports driver who stands fifth in Nationwide points, "but I think a lot of guys were taken aback by how hard you could drive it. It would be a pretty hairy ride if you decided you wanted to try to run wide open."

And yet some drivers were thinking about just that, particularly in qualifying trim. Busch paced the first practice session Thursday with a lap of 173.957 mph, and Michael Annett figured the Sprint Cup star came close to keeping it floored all the way around. "From what he ran, they were the fastest car on the board in race trim ... and the time they picked up, they had to be almost wide-open, if not [completely]," Annett said. "There's a lot of grip the first two or three laps on these tires, and with the adjustments we make for qualifying, I think it's going to be pretty close to that."

Going flat-out will certainly be the goal in qualifying, which is set for Saturday afternoon. "Normally we can hold our breath when we qualify. Here, that's a long lap. That's about two minutes of holding your breath," said Annett, who drives for Richard Petty Motorsports. "But it's going to be fun. It's going to be interesting. ... The fast guys [in qualifying] are going to be pretty close to wide open, and if you're not, there's going to be a big loss in time."

Nationwide engines produce 650 horsepower, about 200 less than their Sprint Cup counterparts, and Thursday that speed difference was evident. In turns 2 and 4, Allgaier said, drivers could keep the accelerator mashed all the way down, because they haven't built up as much momentum coming out of the short chutes at either end of the track. In turns 1 and 3, which follow long straightaways, they had to lift -- but not much. Just a little bit to set the nose of the car, according to Hornish. "You'll definitely be pretty close to flat [out] once you get a good handle on a car," he added.

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Busch seemed to have just that, pacing final practice with a speed of 175.836. Austin Dillon can't imagine Busch came off the throttle much, if at all. "He might be just barely [coming off], but he's close to it," the Richard Childress Racing driver said. "We're tight, and I think he's got his car pretty loose to do it. But yeah, I think you're going to see someone go wide open for sure to get the pole, or right at it, and some people are going to be touching that wall coming off the corner because you're just going to get a little bit tight."

That flat-out speed, though, doesn't mask the difficulty of this race track, particularly for drivers in a series that has no history at a place like Indianapolis. Long straights, sharp corners, zero banking, a tight pit road with a wall on either side, a narrow racing surface that puts a premium on track position -- they all combine to present a challenge unlike anything most of the Nationwide drivers have seen before. And then there's the fact that crew chiefs don't really have a notebook to fall back on. No, these guys aren't at little Lucas Oil Raceway anymore.

"It's maximum horsepower and maximum downforce that you need to go fast here, because there's no banking. So you're really hung out, you're really on the edge, and it's a lot of momentum to carry down these long straightaways to make up speed and time," said RCR driver Elliott Sadler, the current series points leader. "So a lot of these Nationwide guys are fighting an uphill battle, teams that are coming here for the first time. This place is not forgiving at all. It's fast. The corners are sharp. You've got to be on your money to run some fast laps here."

All that speed and grip "invites you into the corner," Dillon said, making the track notoriously easy to overdrive. "You don't realize you're in the corner until you're in it, and you can't see it until you're in it," Annett added. For some in the Nationwide field, particularly those drivers in lesser equipment or with little experience, the place could be a handful. But not even the difficulty level can dampen the enthusiasm that comes with competing here for the first time, an experience that mirrors what those trailblazing Cup drivers enjoyed at Indianapolis nearly two decades ago.

"The history of this race track precedes itself," said Brian Scott, who drives for Joe Gibbs Racing. "When you're on the frontstretch at speed for the first time, you see the pagoda [scoring tower] and the grandstands, and you think about all the close Indy 500 finishes and all the champions who have come through here. It's a great experience to be out there on the track at speed. This place makes you in awe of it."