Track Smack: Indy legacies and weekday nights
July 24, 2014, David Caraviello, Kenny Bruce and Brad Norman, NASCAR.com
Editor's note: Track Smack is a weekly feature that will showcase a panel of NASCAR.com experts providing their analysis from the previous week, while also looking ahead.
David Caraviello: How fitting that our Midwest Bureau Chief Brad Norman joins us for this discussion on the heartland. An event at Indy remains massive, whether some fans want to admit it or not. Driving through that tunnel still makes the hair on your arm stand up. Winning can still bring drivers to tears. Those yellow-shirted security guards can still be a terror. Being there in person makes it all feel that much bigger for certain, but even today Indy continues to stand out because of what it means to people in this industry.
Kenny Bruce: Brad has a yellow stripe on his butt 'cause he's a rookie. It's funny because on a Tuesday conference call with former Brickyard winners Dale Jarrett, Ricky Rudd and Bobby Labonte, one of the members of the media opened with "I wasn't born when any of you guys won the race." So I guess it's definitely become a part of the NASCAR fabric, as they say.
Brad Norman: Drivers seem to love the place, too. And why wouldn't they? It's one of the most historic tracks in the country. But do you think it's one of those "check-it-off-the-bucket-list" type of places, as it pertains to NASCAR exclusively? Is it in the same club as a Daytona or a Darlington?
Caraviello: I'm frightened to admit that the first Brickyard I covered was just the sixth one ever run. But I haven't missed one since, and I love going back, because the atmosphere there is simply unparalleled. That doesn't mean it's better than the Daytona 500. It's just very different. You can really feel that you're at a place that's been around since 1910. The weight of tradition hangs off everything, and that's why it remains so special.
Bruce: I don't know that some of the younger drivers appreciate the history, if only because in their eyes, NASCAR has always raced at Indy. But the track remains a remarkable venue, and I think most teams still cherish the opportunity to compete there.
Caraviello: Yeah Kenny, I think those guys who were there in 1994 -- or even the years immediately following -- and remember how groundbreaking it was, perceive things a little differently than the drivers who followed them. You could probably say the same thing about the fans and media members.
Norman: Winning at the Brickyard also seems to be ... while not a qualifier for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, it's certainly something that carries weight. Win the Daytona 500. Win the Southern 500. Win at Indy. In that regard, it holds major significance as well. Despite the fact that Richard Petty or Junior Johnson never raced there.
Caraviello: Brad, I think it is. I've always believed fans attending in person perceive things very differently (and much more positively) than those who solely watch on television, because they get to soak in that feel of the place that doesn't translate through the screen. Indy unquestionably has that. Is it the same as it was in 1994, or 2004? No. But it's still one of those few tracks that genuinely gives you chills. That frontstretch during the opening ceremony is a special place.
Norman: Great point, David. And how about those bricks? You'd have to think that's one of the more famous and meaningful post-race celebrations in the sport. I always love seeing drivers line up with the backward hat on, young kids in tow and ready to pucker up.
Caraviello: And, the place is so damn hard, that typically guys who win there already have the track record to be considered for Hall enshrinement. That's changed a little in recent years (as we'll address later) with some surprise winners, but Indy to me is much like Darlington in that it's normally the domain of the very best. Indy may not make a career, but it can certainly validate one.
Bruce: Kissing the bricks, the ride around the track after the fact as fans cheer your accomplishment -- it's definitely not your typical track. And it's one of the few events that continues to be mentioned years after a winning driver has stepped out of the sport. "Former Brickyard 400 winner ..." You hear that for the Daytona 500 also, but anywhere else?
Caraviello: You mean to tell me you don't remember all your former winners of the Yankee 400? For shame.
Bruce: At the moment, no.
Caraviello: Probably quite realistic -- if you want to earn the wrath of every team in the garage. The turnaround time for those guys is tight enough going from Sunday to Saturday -- a midweek event may well have shops working around the clock. Maybe having it after an off-weekend would make it more feasible, but you don't have many of those.
Bruce: I think from a TV standpoint, it would be well worth the risk to throw it out there. But if I'm a track owner, I'm not so sure. Give me three days to sell all the hot dogs, beer and T-shirts I can versus a one-night, midweek show?
Norman: It's realistic. There are plenty of intelligent, creative people surrounding the sport who could figure out a feasible way to make this happen. The follow-up question: Is it worth pursuing? Would everyone from teams to drivers to tracks to the sanctioning body sign off on such an event? That's the bigger issue.
Bruce: DC, I think that would make sense -- go midweek close to home, roll into an off-weekend and then back at it the following weekend. Then again, back in the day (here we go), they raced several times a week. With the same car!
Caraviello: Back in the day, they'd race at Daytona on July 4, and sometimes be at Dover two days later. But that was a different era. The demands on these Sprint Cup teams is high enough as it is. Unless they scaled back how they do things, a midweek race would really be a challenge in terms of logistics and personnel management. Does that mean it's impossible? No way. But doing it in the Trucks is one thing. In Cup would be quite another.
Norman: I like the idea of following up an off-week, but I'd like to see what would happen the following week. Do you do a one-day show at Dover on Wednesday, for example, and then trek up to Pocono to start practice on Friday? If that's the case, you need to pick your tracks carefully -- and even then, you're assuming that they'd be willing to give it a try.
Caraviello: The battle of what the sport needs versus what the tracks want seems a barrier to a lot of things. A midweek event would have to include the perfect day at the perfect track, and with the right promoter willing to take the risk. Darlington could do it, a few others. But they'd need to be willing to first.
Bruce: The big question is "would it work?" The answer is "well, we won't know until we try." Even though I think the idea is worth consideration, what are we trying to accomplish? Better TV ratings, better attendance? Or just change for the sake of change. I don't believe in the "well, we've always done it this way," but I have to admit, sometimes it's done a particular way because it works. Now I've completely reversed my opinion.
Norman: Seems like NASCAR is in a place where it is trying new things, too. New Chase format. New rules package. Likely engine changes coming next year. Maybe this is next.
Caraviello: Perhaps our Midwest Bureau Chief (Des Moines, hello!) has hit on something -- find a track that needs to reinvent and reenergize itself. Dover doesn't have lights, but if you want to try something really out of the box to command attention -- well then, maybe Wednesday night does beckon.
Norman: Must be all that Midwestern corn I've consumed lately.
Caraviello: We knew all those trips to Iowa and Chicagoland would make you smarter!
3. The past few years have produced some mild upsets at Indianapolis, with Ryan Newman, Paul Menard and Jamie McMurray all winning there since 2010. Who might be the best candidate to continue that trend?
Caraviello: Two words: Morgan Shepherd. Hey, his average finish at Indy is 10th! Watch out, Joey Logano! This might finally be the year! Of course, he also hasn't started the race since 1998, which may be a slight hang-up.
Bruce: Tenth? Are you serious? Sounds like a great trivia question.
Norman: So long as he maintains minimum speed … In all seriousness, is Greg Biffle considered a mild upset? You could make an argument that he would be, given the struggles of both his own No. 16 team and Roush Fenway Racing overall. He's one of the best at Indianapolis -- five top-10s in the past six races.
Caraviello: Now that I've returned to reality, I'm right with you. Biffle has historically been great there, and given that he's 16th in points ... I think a victory by the No. 16 car would indeed qualify as a mild upset along the lines of Newman last year. Not that Ryan's a slouch, by any means, but we all got used to seeing championship favorites win this event year after year.
Bruce: I think Juan Pablo Montoya falls into that category. He's been so close before, is back with a team that's clearly capable, and I'm betting he feels he has something to prove.
Caraviello: For the trivia buffs, Morgan Shepherd's finishes at Indy: 10th, 10th, fifth and 15th. Somebody give the guy a commemorative brick, at least.
Bruce: And Shepherd did it with three different car owners at that, DC.
Norman: Really, would anyone be surprised to see Kyle Larson in Victory Lane? He'd be the first driver since Paul Menard in 2011 to earn his first career Cup win at the Brickyard. Would be a great story to tell his son one day. Somehow we've gone from Morgan Shepherd to Kyle Larson, a span of 50 years.
Caraviello: Juan was 18th in his first Sprint Cup start this season at Michigan, and on a day when a lot of teams were out to lunch. That was just a warm-up for this weekend anyway. If Larson can apply some of that Pocono knowledge this weekend, the kid could really be a factor. And then there's Kasey Kahne, who's had good runs at Indy, is 17th in points, and is still looking for that signature win to define his career.
Bruce: OK Brad, put down the ear of corn. I'd be stunned to see Larson win at Indy, this early in his career.
Norman: The corn works in mysterious ways, Kenny.
Caraviello: Watch out for those children of the corn. And note that Morgan Shepherd has the third-best average finish at Indy behind Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon, and just ahead of Rusty Wallace and Dale Earnhardt. Luminaries all!
Bruce: Face it, Cup drivers don't normally get that breakthrough win on the bigger stages ... well, other than Jeff Gordon (Coke 600), Trevor Bayne (Daytona 500) and probably a ton of others I'm forgetting.
Norman: Paul Menard.
Caraviello: And Brad Norman drops the mic, ladies and gentlemen. That day, and those sideburns, will live with us forever.