Indy continues to be an important market for NASCAR, ranking No. 2 in TV ratings. "Everybody wants to win this race," said Tony Stewart, who won in 2005 and 2007. "This is a marquee event. The Daytona 500 is still the biggest race of the year, but the Brickyard is the second-biggest." The native Hoosier is eager to bag his third win at his "home" track.
He's got a lot of competition. Although Brian Vickers won the last race, Jimmie Johnson - a four-time Brickyard winner and five-time series champion who's currently top in the NASCAR standings - is the man to beat.
Stewart currently sits 13th in the points standings - five points out of The Chase (NASCAR's championship system). His lone win this year qualifies him for one of the two Wild Card positions, but because he's outside of the Top 10, his place in The Chase is not assured.
But don't look for "Smoke" to run a cautious race on his home track. At New Hampshire his gamble to go for the win didn't pan out; he ran out of fuel when a late-race caution and the subsequent green-white-checker rule threw the race into "overtime," adding extra laps. Expect the same bold choices at IMS.
"It doesn't matter if you've won one or 10, when I'm at Indy, I am only here to win - especially since it is my home track," he said at a recent press conference at IMS to promote the race. "My whole life, since I was a kid, that's what I wanted to do. My fascination to do it here was pretty obsessive."
Explaining that this is not a fuel-mileage race and that it's usually a championship contender in the fastest car in Victory Circle, he said, "That's what you want in a marquee event like this. You want the fastest car to win, the best team and the best driver on that day. It's really a big boost to your team if you can win Indy."
He's had that boost twice in the past and he wants it again. "You look at the history of this track and who won race here and how many times they've won," Stewart continued. "I was honored to win one of them and the second was even that much better. You get into some elite company and it's some company you'd definitely like having your name associated with, so it would be a big honor."
The next generation
The new Generation 6 car may have a significant impact on this year's race. NASCAR introduced the car with the hope that its new configuration would encourage more passing. But it remains to be seen if those changes will make any difference on the flat Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which typically doesn't allow for much passing by heavy stock cars.
When the fifth-generation Car of Tomorrow was introduced in 2007, racing suffered. But Trent Bailey, NASCAR's competition communication manager, says that's history. More grip in the Gen-6 car means more passing on the flatter tracks. "I think we've proven, and our drivers have confirmed, that this new car is racier."
Two years in the making, the new car looks more like the cars sold on the showroom floor. "The silhouette is nearly identical," Bailey says, which is important because "people want to see the drivers race cars that look like the ones they buy."
Beyond aesthetic appeal, the new car is 150 pounds lighter, thanks to its carbon fiber hood and deck lid, giving it a better power-to-weight ratio. Because it's 10 pounds heavier than the discontinued Car of Tomorrow, with the weight balanced on the left side, it will turn better in the corners.
More camber on the rear axle has improved handling and a larger rear spoiler increased downforce, which will enable the cars to run faster and pass more. "Already this year, we've gotten lots of positive feedback from the drivers," Bailey said.
But the new car is "racier" for some more than others. Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsport appear to have come to grips with early season engine problems after adopting a slower approach to the Toyota's horsepower. They qualified on the front row at Daytona and won two races this summer, indicating that reliability is no longer an issue.
But Richard Childress Racing, Roush Fenway Racing and Penske Racing continue to struggle. Biffle recently admitted that his Roush Ford lacks performance, particularly in traffic.
Regardless of new car and engine issues, the Brickyard seems to favor repetition. Jeff Gordon has won four times; so has Jimmie Johnson. Two other drivers are multiple winners: Dale Jarrett and Tony Stewart.