With the "Chase for the Championship" already under way, the Brickyard 400 fills an important slot in NASCAR's mid-summer schedule. Its role is particularly significant this year, due to the potential impact of the new points system, which awards three bonus points for winning a race.
A single point is still awarded for leading a lap, and another point is given for leading the most laps during each race, but the new points system has another twist: the "wild card" option. Under the old system, the top 12 teams entered the chase. Under NASCAR's new system, the top 10 teams still automatically enter the chase, but the 11th and 12th spots will be awarded to teams that finish 11th-20th and have won at least one race during the season.
With its new format putting more emphasis on winning, both for the bonus points and for wild card purposes, NASCAR has created a very tight - and exciting - championship battle.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a flat track that requires drivers to brake before entering the turns, roll to the apex and carry as much momentum out of the corner as possible. The flat racing surface may not favor the handling of NASCAR's 2008 "car of tomorrow," but it suits the driving style of some competitors.
Kyle Busch, "KyBu" to Twitter fans, has managed top-five finishes in his past four flat-track races. His worst finish on this type of track in 2011 is third (Martinsville and Pocono). Although he relinquished the points lead at Loudon, Kyle has the skill to win here; whether he has the focus is the question.
Kevin Harvick has scored in the top 15 in his past nine flat track starts. He's also a former winner at the Brickyard, a track that favors past success.
Another former winner - a four-time winner - Jeff Gordon seems to be finally hitting his stride this year, with two wins, a pole and a spot in the top 10.
Carl Edwards and his Roush-Fenway Racing team have been getting stronger on flat tracks. Steadily finishing in the top 5 in nearly half of this season's races - with an average finish of 10th all year - he has quietly been putting together a championship-caliber season. However, the consistency that was his early trademark hasn't been there lately and there's some concern about whether he is fading.
Kurt Busch (Kyle's big brother) has shown he's finally figured out how to take a punch and come back strong. After some serious issues early in the season, the Penske team has managed to pull together and Kurt has been delivering impressive finishes on the track, while demonstrating the focus it takes to master the Brickyard.
With his typical reserve and conservative driving style, Matt Kenseth is putting together a very strong season. Two race wins and consistent finishes have boosted him in the points. He has the determination to run well at Indy.
Although he's been solidly in the top 5 in the standings since early in the season, five-time champion Jimmie Johnson has only one victory this year. Uncharacteristic mistakes and pit crew drama have left many wondering if this is the year somebody beats the 48 team. However, Johnson's team has shown an uncanny ability to turn it on once the championship chase begins and Jimmie's already driving as if he's in the Chase, so it's not wise to count them out.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is comfortably within the top 10, an improvement over past seasons. However, he has yet to win this year, and has seen his average finish drop to 14th after a string of solid finishes.
Ryan Newman is an old school racer who's got the tenacity to take on a long, grinding race like the Brickyard 400. Maybe his win at Loudon last weekend marks the end of a downslide that has disrupted his momentum.
Chasing the dream
Currently out of the top 10 but never out of contention are Tony Stewart, who has yet to win a race this season, let alone begin his patented summer hot streak; IMS favorite Juan Pablo Montoya and Clint Bowyer, who just celebrated his 200th start, but whom many feel has lost his early-season momentum.
First timers having great seasons, leaving the door open for a maiden victory at the Brickyard. It all started in February with a surprise win when 21-year-old Trevor Bayne swept into the lead and held on to win a very emotional Daytona 500 in his first start there. Others followed: young Regan Smith won at Darlington; Brad Keselowski calculated his way to a fuel mileage victory at Kansas and David Ragan won the Coke Zero 400 over the July 4th weekend.
The stage could be set for adding a new member to the first-timers group. A.J. Allmendinger and Paul Menard have been running strong seasons. Allmendinger has faded a bit since his commanding start, but consistently puts himself in position to challenge for wins with top-10 qualifying positions that have resulted in two top-10 finishes. Indy is one of his best tracks. Likewise, Menard has been qualifying well, with five top-10 starts and has recently delivered top-10 results.
Tire issues plagued the 2008 Sprint Cup race at the Brickyard, amplified by the diamond-ground surface that tends to abrade the rubber. Extensive testing before the 2009 race led to the development of tire combinations that can withstand the surface conditions, and after two days of testing at IMS earlier this year, Goodyear decided to continue using the same tread compound at this year's Brickyard 400.
Because the Indianapolis track is flat, another thing the drivers won't have to worry about is sustained two-car drafting. Double-car drafting, in which two-car tandems work together, took over during the season-opener at Daytona, when drivers realized that the fastest way around the superspeedway was with a partner who would "push" him to the front and swap the lead when his engine got too hot. Few drivers appreciated the emergence of the "pusher" as a key role, especially when they felt deserted by their partner, but because the cars have to scrub off speed in the corners, the unpopular drafting method is unlikely to be effective here.
It may be just another reason drivers enjoy this race. Sadly, the fans seem to be losing interest. Although this is the second-biggest event of the season, attendance has dropped 50 percent in five years and ticket sales for this year's race are reportedly lagging behind last year's. IMS hopes to lure spectators by adding a driver autograph session on Saturday and offering live performances by country music stars and a vintage stock car show. One thing's for certain: there's plenty of parking, and with special offers for those unfortunate Kentucky ticket holders, IMS may just lure a few extra fans this year.