The Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway could well be the optimal race for the regular-season finale. If this track goes green for most of the race, the driver and team with the best setup will be the winner. If it has a lot of yellows, strategy is going to come into play – and both scenarios have been part of its makeup in recent years.
This is a Crown Jewel event, so even without the added incentive of securing a playoff spot, drivers would be going for broke. Dark horses like Kasey Kahne and Paul Menard have won the race, but so have some of the favorites like Kyle Busch in back-to-back races in 2015/2016.
Indy is prone to streaks, which is common among flat tracks. Six drivers entered this week have at least three top-10s in the past four races – with the majority of those results landing in the top five. And while Indy is uniquely shaped with four distinct corners, a comparative can be found with the triangular Pocono Raceway so that fantasy owners have some recent results to compare.
Last week, Joey Logano was practically giddy in the media center after finishing second to teammate Brad Keselowski in the Southern 500. There may have been more than one reason for that since he knew that Indy would be the next race on the schedule. This is a track that has been kind in the past with a current five-race streak of top-10s; three of those were top-fives, including a second in 2015. He has the opportunity to score another victory for one of the drivers who are not part of the Big 3.
Kevin Harvick is one of the drivers with a current Indy streak. His is not quite as impressive as Logano’s with only one top-five in the past seven races, but his last four attempts all ended eighth or better. Factor in his current momentum, and Harvick is likely to continue in his role as the best among the Big 3. He has finished ahead of Busch and Martin Truex Jr. in the last three races.
Kyle Busch may well have been on his way to a third consecutive Brickyard 400 win last year if not for contact from Truex that took them both out of the race. That snapped a seven-race, top-10 streak that included a pair of runner-up finishes in addition to his two wins. The only thing that may give fantasy owners pause is that he has made several unforced errors in the past two weeks. Busch may be trying just a little too hard.
Last week was the first time this year that Kyle Larson backed up one top-five with another. He was the class of the field until the final restart. In all likelihood, his Darlington race was lost on pit road and not behind the wheel. He fell to third at the checkers, but that is the seventh time this year he has finished among the top three. He should challenge for another top-five – and if he gets it, he will be gathering momentum at the right time of the season.
Daniel Suarez could be this week’s most pleasant surprise. His seventh-place finish in last year’s Brickyard 400 preceded another seventh in the July race at Pocono. This summer, he backed up that strong run on the Tricky Triangle with a pole-winning effort and second-place finish. In order to make the playoffs and get all four Joe Gibbs Racing drivers in the top 16, he is going to have to win this week. This team has both the speed to do it if the race goes green and nothing to lose if they have to resort to strategy.
By his numbers, Denny Hamlin should be a favorite. Unfortunately, the same thing was true last week at Darlington and the No. 11 was a non-factor after they gave up the lead early in the Southern 500. Hamlin entered last year’s Brickyard 400 with three consecutive top-fives on this track before he became a casualty of the chaos that erupted. He is a flat track master, and if not for the fact that he has not earned a top-five in the past 12 races of this season, he would be this week’s best differentiator instead of his teammate Suarez.
A pair of accidents has us waving the red flag over Clint Bowyer. Last week, he could not see around lapped traffic to note that Ryan Newman was slowing to pit. Last year, he was eliminated from the Brickyard 400 on lap 148. His 31st-place finish in that race was one of four times in the past five Indy races in which he’s been 20th or worse. He is also losing momentum this season with only one top 10 in the past eight weeks and an average finish of 18.1.