NASCAR Pre-Race Media: Sunday’s Verizon 200 (1 p.m. ET, NBC, IMS Radio Network) race preview

INDIANAPOLIS — The NASCAR Cup Series will have another inaugural event on the schedule this weekend in Sunday’s Verizon 200 (1 p.m. ET, NBC, IMS Radio Network). For the first time ever, the Cup Series will also race back-to-back weeks on road courses too.

While this isn’t just another race on the schedule as this is the third to last regular season event, it’s one that’s definitely going to be vastly different than we’ve ever had here before.

See, this would have been the Brickyard 400 but last year’s race on July 5 was the last on the famed oval. This year, the Cup stars join the NASCAR Xfinity Series drivers on the 2.439-mile road course layout for what is going to feel vastly different than we’ve seen here in the past.

Is this the new future? Is this the fix that NASCAR and IMS have needed to fix their relationship with the fans?

Those aren’t answers we know today. What we do know is, it’s a shared weekend with the NTT IndyCar Series and a race specifically that has huge playoff implications. Right now, we have 13 drivers that have clinched spots into the postseason. Three more spots are up for grabs with things greatly more interesting on the bubble than it would have been prior to Aric Almirola’s shock victory in Loudon.

With this being the first time on the road course, does that open up a chance for another surprise winner?

Trends say, no. Chase Elliott has to enter as the one to beat as he’s won the last three inaugural races on road courses. He won the inaugural race on the Daytona road course, the inaugural race at COTA as well as the inaugural race in Road America. Can he make it four straight?

Elliott, has won six of the last nine road course races in general with the only three that he didn’t win being this past February in Daytona when he led the most laps but was screwed for a caution being displayed for rain in which he was going to cruise to an easy victory. The other was a runner-up in Sonoma and again last Sunday in Watkins Glen.

If not Elliott, who else can beat him on Sunday?

Martin Truex Jr. comes to mind. While he’s had just two top five finishes in five road course races this season, he’s typically been the only other driver outside of Elliott to excel on them.

Elliott’s teammate in Kyle Larson also should be a factor. He was runner-up to Elliott in COTA, won in both Sonoma and last Sunday at Watkins Glen and if not for late race contract with Alex Bowman in Road America, he was going to finish in the top three or four that day as well.

These are the top three. Elliott and Larson have finished 1-2 four times already this year with three of them being on road courses.

Hendrick Motorsports has also won 8 of the last 9 overall road course races in general including four straight now.

Counting Joe Gibbs Racing, them and HMS have combined to win each of the last 10 road course races and went 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 last weekend.

Throw in Furniture Row Racing (Martin Truex Jr.) who was aligned with JGR, these three teams have won 13 of the last 14 road course races. The only one they didn’t win was when Ryan Blaney (Team Penske) was victorious in 2018 on the Charlotte ROVAL when Truex was crashed in the final turn on the final lap or else it would be 14 straight.

I also like Joey Logano’s chances. Team Penske would love a win on his own track and Logano has three top four finishes in five road course starts this season.

Denny Hamlin is probably the only other one I feel good about in terms of favorites. He’s had four top eights in five tries this year himself.

What about some sleepers?

Christopher Bell won Daytona’s road course and was runner-up in Road America this year. He was a top three car before being spun by Larson last week too. Kurt Busch has three top six finishes in five road course races while his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate of Ross Chastain has three top seven’s in those same five races.

Bowman has three top 10’s in five tries while last year’s Xfinity Series winner on the IMS road course and Indiana native Chase Briscoe has a pair of sixth place finishes on road courses this season.

Who to fade?

Kevin Harvick is the defending Brickyard winner but three of his five road course finishes in 2021 have been 22nd or worse. I’d fade SHR in general minus Briscoe in fact. Aric Almirola isn’t a great road racer and his finishes on these tracks this season have been 17th, 26th, 23rd, 14th and 16th respectively. Finally, Cole Custer hasn’t had a finish better than 13th on five road course starts this season either.

I also don’t like Brad Keselowski or Ryan Blaney’s chances. Combined, they have one road course top five and two top 10’s between them this season. Five of their finishes are 15th or worse.

William Byron is also another to fade. His worst performances this season have come on road courses.

The playoff bubble and the regular season championship will shine with Larson and Hamlin tied atop the points and Tyler Reddick leading his RCR teammate of Austin Dillon by just 15 points for the 16th and final playoff spot. With Kevin Harvick (+95) 80 points ahead of Reddick at the moment and Chris Buescher 135 points behind Reddick for the cut spot, it really now just comes down to Hamlin vs. Larson and Reddick vs. Dillon in terms of points. Everyone else is just racing for the win. 

Larson, has stormed back from a 144 point deficit leaving Darlington this past May to being tied with Hamlin now in points accumulated through 23 races. 

Leaving the Lady in Black back on Mothers Day weekend, Hamlin had accumulated 529 points on the season already. That day was his ninth top five result in the first 12 races of the season. Meanwhile,  Larson finished runner-up to Martin Truex Jr. in that race and now had 385 points of his own. As we come into Sunday’s Verizon 200 (1 p.m. ET, NBCSN, IMS Radio Network) this weekend, that advantage is gone. It’s mono y mono. 

How?

In the last 11 races, Hamlin has just three top five results with a best finish of fourth in the first Pocono race. Larson meanwhile, has seven top five finishes in that span including all seven being in the top two. That’s allowed him to make up 144 points on Hamlin in 11 races. Can he hold him off in the final three events of the regular season and take home the crown of being the regular season champion?

It’s going to be close.

“(Hamlin) is so good at Daytona, too, so it would be nice to get a couple good weeks and get that point lead because I know he’s going to go there, and anything can happen at Daytona,” said Larson following his Watkins Glen win. “But I know he’s going to go there, and he’s going to get stage points, and he’s going to challenge for the win. I know he’s looking at me as the same

“If he could go into Daytona being even or ahead, he’s going to feel like he’s got the advantage. I’d like to have a good couple weeks before we get there and give us a little bit of wiggle room.”

First up is Indianapolis this weekend to where neither has any past experience at on the road course. On the season though, Larson has two wins and a runner-up in five road course starts this season. In the other two races, he spun at Daytona while running in sixth back in February and was third towards the end of the July 4 race at Road America before being spun accidentally by his teammate Alex Bowman. 

Hamlin meanwhile has four top eight finishes in five road races this season too.

That’s why this weekend could really be a wash among the two. 

Then it’s to Michigan where Hamlin has two runner-up finishes in his last three tries including four top eight finishes in his last five starts in the Irish Hills. Larson though, has also been at his best on 2-mile tracks too. He has three wins there with Ganassi and five top three’s in his last eight starts. Now, he’s with Hendrick. Imagine what he could do there with them.

Then it’s to Daytona to close out the 26 race regular season to where Hamlin is obviously far better than Larson on superspeedway’s.

That’s why this is going to be an interesting battle to the finish because I can make a case for either to win the regular season.

In the case of Reddick vs. Dillon, Reddick has five top 11 results in his last six starts on the season including scoring 48 stage points in this span. Dillon, hasn’t had a top 10 finish since May 30 in the Coca-Cola 600 and has finished behind Reddick in each of the last six races. He’s has scored just six stage points in this timeframe as well which combine that with Kurt Busch and Aric Almiorla winning in two of the last three races and you get why Dillon went from +104 to -15.  

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