The Brickyard 400 remains one of the crown jewel races on the NASCAR schedule. But the race — this year, termed the Curtiss Shaver 400 by its title sponsor — has undergone a significant facelift for its 19th running.
Having been the lone standalone event on the NASCAR schedule — other than a brief run when it was paired with an event in the now-defunct International Race of Champions — the one-race weekend will multiply, with four races utilizing both the oval and road course during the four-day event.
Whether it pumps life into an event that has seen its attendance decline over the years is to be seen, but it certainly will be the busiest weekend in IMS history.
Thursday will feature an afternoon of Nationwide Series practice, followed by two Grand Am races on Friday — an event highlighting its Continental Tire series in the afternoon, then the Daytona Prototype and Grand Touring cars take the stage for a twilight endurance race late Friday afternoon. The green flag is scheduled to fall at 4:10 p.m.
Saturday will see Sprint Cup practice and qualifying, Nationwide Series qualifying and then a 100-lap, 250-mile Nationwide Series race on the 2.5-mile oval in the span of an afternoon.
The Super Weekend concept takes the events that had happened across two tracks — Lucas Oil Raceway (formerly Indianapolis Raceway Park) previously handled the support races — and consolidates them at one big oval. It also creates, for the first time, an event where the road course and oval will be used as part of the same weekend.
Whether that pumps additional interest and attendance into the Brickyard 400 is to be seen. The race has long been loved by drivers, but the perceived lack of passing and the inability for fans to see the entire track, unlike most of the ovals on the NASCAR schedule — as well as a down economy — have been cited as reasons for the race’s declining attendance in recent years.
On both of those counts, Indy can be like what Dale Jarrett once described it as — a “road course with four left turns.” From the driver standpoint, it’s tricky in that it combines sheer speed down the 5/8-mile straightaways with four tight 90-degree corners.
That puts a premium on both horsepower and driving skill, which can make wheel-to-wheel racing difficult, but also goes a long way in allowing the cream to rise to the top.
The Brickyard’s winners list is a who’s who of NASCAR royalty in the last two decades. Since Jeff Gordon won the initial race in 1994, and Dale Earnhardt and Jarrett followed with the next two, the cream has risen to the top at Indy. Gordon — who will be making his 19th Brickyard start this year — has won it four times. Jimmie Johnson has won it thrice. Tony Stewart and the since-retired Jarrett have won it twice. Bill Elliott, Dale Earnhardt and Bobby Labonte have also won the event. The only drivers to win who have never won the NASCAR championship are Ricky Rudd in 1996, Kevin Harvick in 2003 and, interestingly, the last two winners — Jamie McMurray and Paul Menard.
What to watch for:
Close competition: There have been 19 races on the Sprint Cup schedule this year. Twelve different drivers have won them, indicating close competition. The race that is most similar to Indianapolis — Pocono, another 2.5-mile speedway with relatively flat turns — was won by Joe Gibbs Racing driver Joey Logano earlier this year. The teams will head back to Pocono next week. Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski have won three races. Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin have won two each.
“The series is so competitive, that we go into this week as the defending race winner, but you can’t go in there expecting to win,” said defending Brickyard champ Paul Menard, who has not won since but is 15th in points, knocking on the door of the Chase. “You need to do the best job you can to hope to win and put yourself in position to win. Everybody catches up with you pretty quick.”
The F1 course gets a reboot: The Formula One course —with a few tweaks — will get its first action in a few years with the Grand Am events on Friday. The main event will be the Brickyard Grand Prix at 4:10 p.m. Friday, a 2 hour, 45-minute endurance race that will utilize Turn 1 of the oval, the south short chute, most of the front straightaway and the infield road course. It will also feature several familiar drivers — Juan Montoya will become the first driver to run four different disciplines at Indy. The 2000 Indianapolis 500 winner will also start the Sprint Cup race. He has run Formula One at Indy and will now run in a Daytona Prototype. Former Indy and Brickyard starter Scott Pruett is also entered. So is 2010 Brickyard winner Jamie McMurray. Current IndyCar driver Sebastien Bourdais will run the race, as will former IndyCar drivers Paul Tracy and Eliseo Salazar.
“This is kind of crazy with pretty much everything with four wheels,” Montoya said.
The chase to the Chase: Since NASCAR has gone to the Chase for the Cup format in 2004, the focus at the Brickyard has changed from it simply being one of NASCAR’s “crown jewel” events to being a key points race for positioning to the Chase for the Cup. There are still six races remaining for the drivers to position themselves points-wise for the Chase. For those who appear to be in the top 12, the race for the win could be interesting, as drivers’ points are arranged in the Chase based on the number of wins on the season.
The pits: Fuel mileage and two-tire or four-tire pit strategy calls have decided several Brickyard races, and the pits figured large in the last three races. It has also allowed drivers to come from well back in the field — Gordon started 27th in 2001, Jarrett 24th in 1996 and Stewart 22nd in 2005 — and win. It also allowed Johnson to recover from a blown tire in 2006 that put him well back in the field. The difficulty in passing on-track puts a premium on pit calls.
Last year, Menard pitted under yellow on Lap 123 and stretched his fuel, while many other contenders pitted later. In 2010, Montoya dominated the race, but a late four-tire stop shuffled him back in the field, and allowed McMurray — who had taken two tires — to take the lead. A pit road speeding penalty cost Montoya in 2009.
The bowties: Chevrolets have won the Brickyard for nine consecutive years. The last non-Chevy to win was Bill Elliott in a Dodge in 2002. Not only that, but Hendrick Motorsports (seven), Joe Gibbs Racing (three) and Richard Childress Racing (three) have won 13 of the previous 18 races. Those three teams have won eight of the last nine races and 10 of the last 12. Hendrick and RCR both run Chevy engines, Gibbs runs Toyota, a mark that has not yet won at the Brickyard.
Crossover appeal: Being the home of open-wheel racing, a lot of the “crossover” drivers get attention when they come to Indy. Casey Mears, J.J. Yeley, Robby Gordon and Danica Patrick have all competed in the Indy 500 and are entered for one of the two oval races this weekend — Gordon nearly won it in 1999, and is the brother-in-law of IndyCar Series points leader Ryan Hunter-Reay. Tony Stewart is the only driver to win both IndyCar and NASCAR season championships. Montoya (2000) and Sam Hornish Jr. (2006) are seeking to become the first Indianapolis 500 winners to win a stock-car race on the oval. In addition, both Montoya and Scott Speed have run the Formula One United States Grand Prix at IMS.
Television: ESPN (NASCAR events), Speed (Grand Am Rolex Series race)
Radio: Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network
Noon-5 p.m.: Nationwide Series practice
8 a.m.: Grand Am Continental Tire Series practice and qualifying
10 a.m.: Grand Am Rolex Series practice and qualifying
1 p.m.: Continental Tire series race
4:10 p.m.: Rolex Series race (2:45 endurance race)
8:30 a.m.-12:20 p.m.: Sprint Cup series practice
12:35 p.m.: Nationwide Series qualifying
2:10 p.m.: Sprint Cup qualifying
4:30 p.m.: Indiana 250 Nationwide Series race
1 p.m.: The 19th annual Curtiss Shaver 400 at the Brickyard
Past Brickyard Winners
Year Date Driver Team Manufacturer Laps Miles Race Time Avg. Speed (mph)
1994 Aug. 6 Jeff Gordon Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet 160 400 3:01:51 131.932
1995 Aug. 5 Dale Earnhardt Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet 160 400 2:34:38 155.218
1996 Aug. 3 Dale Jarrett Robert Yates Racing Ford 160 400 2:52:02 139.508
1997 Aug. 2 Ricky Rudd Rudd PM Ford 160 400 3:03:28 130.828
1998 Aug. 1 Jeff Gordon Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet 160 400 3:09:19 126.770
1999 Aug. 7 Dale Jarrett Robert Yates Racing Ford 160 400 2:41:57 148.288
2000 Aug. 5 Bobby Labonte Joe Gibbs Racing Pontiac 160 400 2:33:56 155.918
2001 Aug. 5 Jeff Gordon Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet 160 400 3:03:30 130.790
2002 Aug. 4 Bill Elliott Evernham Motorsports Dodge 160 400 3:11:57 125.033
2003 Aug. 3 Kevin Harvick Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet 160 400 2:58:22 134.548
2004 Aug. 8 Jeff Gordon Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet 161* 402.5 3:29:56 115.037
2005 Aug. 7 Tony Stewart Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolet 160 400 3:22:03 118.782
2006 Aug. 6 Jimmie Johnson Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet 160 400 2:54:57 137.182
2007 July 29 Tony Stewart Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolet 160 400 3:24:28 117.379
2008 July 27 Jimmie Johnson Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet 160 400 3:28:29 115.117
2009 July 26 Jimmie Johnson Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet 160 400 2:44:31 145.882
2010 July 25 Jamie McMurray Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Chevrolet 160 400 2:56:24 136.054
2011 July 31 Paul Menard Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet 160 400 2:52:18 140.766
*2004 race expanded to 161 laps because of green-white-checkered finish.