NASCAR Pre-Race Media: 5 burning questions for Sunday’s Verizon 200 (1 p.m. ET, NBC, IMS Radio Network)

What Is The Brickyard’s Future?

There was always wild theories on how to fix the Brickyard 400. When this race came about for the 1994 season, it was met with high anticipation with sky high regard. The inaugural race was the largest NASCAR crowd to ever witness a race in person. This race was instantly put on the map because of that.

It remained that way for years. Then, the race lost its luster and fans have always speculated on what to do about it. Would lights be needed? Would the road course work? Drivers and fans scoffed at that notion because this is Indianapolis and this was the one time a year that the stock car stars got to race around the famed oval. Whether there were 200,000 people here to see it or 20, a win on the Indianapolis oval packed a lot of punch for these drivers in the sport.

But, something still needed done and NASCAR worked with Indianapolis to make it happen. Lights would cost too much money but the road course was already there. As fans have clamored for more road races, Indianapolis went outside of the box and helped fill that void.

Road America and COTA were already coming on board. With the Charlotte ROVAL mixed with Sonoma and Watkins Glen already on the schedule, why not Indianapolis?

Well, here we are. The Verizon 200 is this weekend. Last year, the Xfinity Series drivers put on a hell of a show for their inaugural road course event, so now it’s the Cup drivers’ turn. After 27 years of racing on the oval, it’s time for the Cup stars to turn left and right at Indianapolis.

Is this the new future?

Well, I think it all depends. It works in the sense that you get a NASCAR-INDYCAR doubleheader. Indianapolis is a perfect spot for that but you’ll never got a doubleheader during the Month of May and the NTT IndyCar Series is never going to run around the oval outside of that month. So, the only other way to make this work would be to do it on the road course.

Does that put the nail in the Brickyard’s coffin and the Verizon 200 now come to light as the future of NASCAR at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway? It means a lot to Roger Penske and both series’ to share a weekend and to do so on hallowed grounds.

Why would Penske want to do this outside of Indy?

But, as questions come up, what if this is a flop? What if fans don’t show up in droves? Would lights work? I’ve been told numerous times that lights aren’t necessarily a viable option for the immediate future. Prior to Penske buying the place, to light up the place, it would cost around $25 million. You’re never going to run the Indy 500 at night, so you’re essentially spending $25 million to help the Brickyard out but how long will it take to make that money back?

Since Penske has taken over, he’s been more receptive to lights as that initial figure has dropped down to between $18-$22 million. If he’s going to do lights, it’s going to be for more than the Brickyard. He’s interested in a long endurance race too. Does that help foot the bill to where you’re not using the lights for just one race?

Still, the long term future of NASCAR at Indianapolis isn’t known. This is a short term fix but what’s the long term gain? No one on this planet has that answer.

How Did We Get Here?

This is the next logical question. How did we go from such high crowds with such a large volume of demand to racing on the road course nearly three decades later?

The inaugural race was sold out. 250k attended on Aug. 6, 1994. They had to use a lottery system to award those tickets because the demand was so high, it was estimated almost 1-million ticket request were put in.

So, how did the race go from so popular to just another race on the schedule?

First off, you have to look at the timing of when this race came. It was 1994. There wasn’t a lot of NASCAR races in the midwest at that point and a NASCAR race on these hallowed grounds gained a lot of attention. Plus, two years later, CART and IRL had their war and split. 1996 saw the Indy 500 run with IRL drivers. CART teams ran in Michigan. The split hurt open wheel fans and what was Indy Car in general’s loss was NASCAR’s gain.

One could say by the end of the 90s, the Brickyard was more popular than the Indy 500.

But, as the we entered a new century, the factors that helped NASCAR a decade earlier, started to work against them. INDYCAR and Champ Car (formerly CART) merged back together in 2008. That’s also the same year of the tire debacle for the Brickyard.

The pendulum started shifting.

Plus, the Indy 500 is always in May with much more ideal weather conditions. The Brickyard was always held until 2006 during the first weekend of August. In 2007, it was moved to the end of July.

Most of the Brickyard’s were run in the extreme heat of the day in the middle of an Indiana summer. Fans grew tired of baking in the sun to witness a race on a track that wasn’t built for them.

The racing was less than ideal already here. Then throw in 2008’s debacle with the heat of the day and you get the tide going back out to sea.

INDYCAR was rising again and fans started flocking to 16th and Georgetown in droves for the Month of May and just skipping the Brickyard 400. 2008 was the tip of the iceberg but reality is, the ship was sinking before that. All that was missing was that one wave to capsize the boat and 2008 was it.

From 2008 on, the crowd really started diminishing. In 2017, they thought about changing things up. Would more people show up if they moved the race back to September as the final race of the regular season?

The weather conditions in theory would be better and the importance of the race was back. Unfortunately, 2018’s race was met with Hurricane Gordon coming up and delaying the entire weekend to a one day show on a Monday.

2019 was better, but something just didn’t jive. So, 2020 was going to be moved to Fourth of July weekend. Back to the heat of the summer. This time, it has a new date though that could work. Then COVID hit. No fans could come. COVID may be the thing that ending up putting the oval race out of its misery.

So, here we are, the third straight year with a different date, this time on the road course. Four of the last five years the Brickyard has run in either late July, mid September, early July and now August.

A new name, a new date and a new layout. Is this the future?

To those wondering how we got here, this should suffice.

Is Winning This Race As Special As The Brickyard 400?

Ask any NASCAR driver and they’d say that winning the Brickyard would be a highlight of their career. Ask them off the record and they’d probably say winning at Indianapolis meant as much or in some instances more, than in Daytona.

Several drivers told me over the years that winning a race at Indianapolis whether there were 250k fans or no fans would mean the same to them. It’s a special place and the feeling of an Indy win would mean the same no matter the year.

That’s now over. The stars will race on the road course. Does a win on Sunday equal the same feeling as it would have if this race was on the oval?

“We lost a ‘major.’ That part of it stinks,” said Denny Hamlin. “I think as a driver, you would not regard the road course win the same as the Brickyard win. But I’m for whatever they want to change to get enthusiasm in that area. Indianapolis has always been one of the highest tune-in markets every week, but we need to get them to the race track. If they mix it up and more people come and see us race the road course, then that’s OK. I’m good with that.”

Austin Dillon agreed.

“I think that the oval, I think we lose a crown jewel when we don’t go to the oval there,” he said this past week. “This history of it. I don’t think the road course will ever be what the oval history has. So, I’m kind of disappointed that we don’t get to race on the oval. Now, in saying that, I’ve had a lot of fun on the simulator running the road course at Indy. It seems like a cool track, and I wouldn’t mind going twice and doing it two different ways. If we have to run the road course, we still want to be able to run the oval because of the history and legacy there. Everybody wants a real Brickyard trophy. I feel like this weekend, when you win there, it’s not going to be like winning on the oval. That’s my viewpoint.” 

Kevin Harvick echoed those sentiments himself too.

“For me, driving through that tunnel and understanding the history and everything that comes with racing on the oval at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is something that I always look forward to. I can’t imagine driving backward on the frontstretch and driving the road course in the infield. It’s an oval thing for me.

“When you look at the oval and you look at the history of the racetrack and everything that comes with that – some guys may not have grown up like that, so some people will have a much different opinion – but for me the oval just holds a huge place in racing and it holds a huge place in the things that I look forward to every year.

“I remember the first time I pulled in there for a test in 2001 and you roll into the racetrack and you think, ‘Man, I just accomplished everything in my childhood dreams, rolling into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.’ Getting to go out on that racetrack and hearing the echoes of the cars through the grandstand is something that I’ll never forget, standing there on the front straightaway. I’m sure I’ll get over it as we start to get into practice and realize it’s just another race but, for me, it’s going to be a difficult hurdle to overcome.”

I mean it’s an inaugural event. Any inaugural winner means something and is cherished. Ray Harroun’s 1911 win in the first Indy 500 gets brought up still to this day. So does Jeff Gordon’s 1994 Brickyard 400 win. Does this Sunday’s winner get the same treatment?

I know it’s not a first NASCAR race here, so the win could be diluted in a sense and I know it’s on the road course, but this is a first. Being the first at something means a lot. Does it mean the same here?

“For my opinion and my perception, I don’t view it as Indy, no,” Kyle Busch said. “Indy is the oval. That’s what makes the allure of Indy and that’s the prestige of the place and being around since 1900. It’s been there forever, it has a lot of history there. Spin and win with (Danny) Sullivan, and (Rick) Mears and A.J. Foyt and the Unser story and all that stuff for years. The Andretti story – all of that is IndyCar, obviously, but then it all started in 1994 with NASCAR going there and Jeff Gordon winning five times and (Dale) Earnhardt winning and Dale Jarrett winning, Bobby Labonte winning. It’s like the who’s who has won the Brickyard 400.

“I don’t foresee that being the same allure being on the road course. That doesn’t mean we won’t dig hard and go try to win what we have in front of us, though.” 

Said Aric Almirola, “If I’m being honest, I’m sad about it – to be just honest. I think racing on the oval was so cool just because I was a kid and went and watched an Indy 500 back in the late ’90s. It was a special place and to race on the oval was just special. I mean, you think about the history of that racetrack and the people that have run around that rectangular racetrack and crossed that yard of bricks and all those things, and all the races that went on before you dating back to the early 1900s, it’s just a very special place. So, to not race on the oval is weird. I’ll certainly miss it, but I have no doubt that we will put on an exciting race on the road course and it will be a lot of fun to try and figure that place out. These new road courses have been favorable with the fans, so I hope we put on a good show for them.” 

Maybe several decades down the road if this race works and the road course is the future this winner will mean something, but the short term fame from Sunday’s win may not mean as much as the long term if this race pans out.

Even if it doesn’t, this would be a footnote in history that fans would say “remember that time NASCAR race on the road course at Indianapolis and so and so won the inaugural race?”

How Does This Race Play Out For Strategy Calls?

The Brickyard 400 was always ran in terms of strategy like a road course. You count backwards and use pit strategy from there. Then, factor in the stage breaks and you saw teams elect to pit before the stage ended to give up points but gain track position after.

What happens on Sunday?

We’ve had 13 different winners which means three wildcard spots are for the taking. There’s also just three races left in the regular season, including Sunday’s Verizon 200, so there’s huge playoff implications riding on this one.

For those that have already won a race this season, you’re free to just swing for the fences. Go big and go for a win. What do you have to lose?

For those that are outside of the bubble and really have their only shot of making the playoffs is to win, use the same strategy as those that have already won this season. Give up stage points because they’re not going to help you now anyways and go for a win.

But, you also have the strategy in the sense of those that are still playing the points game. What do they do? A win guarantees you a spot into the playoffs, so that factor is there staring you in the face. So is the part that if you give up stage points and elect for track position but don’t win, you lost a massive amount of points and can play yourself out of a wildcard spot.

So how do you strategize a race like this?

Any Interest In INDYCAR/NASCAR Crossovers?

Last year, was also a doubleheader weekend, but the stars of the NTT IndyCar Series as well as NASCAR couldn’t mingle. Due to COVID, there was no crossover. INDYCAR practiced and qualified on Friday of that race weekend and raced on Saturday. Once they were done, they had to clean up and get out. Then, the Xfinity Series teams and drivers moved in. They raced later on in the day on Saturday last year before having to do the same. Once they were out, then the Cup teams could move in.

Now, they’re all here together. With that said, are any drivers interested in a cross over in the future? How many INDYCAR drivers would run the NASCAR race and how many NASCAR drivers would be interested in an INDYCAR race?

Team Penske has teams in both so their drivers would lead the list of ones with the best options of racing in both. But, how many would?

We know Sage Karam is racing in the Xfinity Series this weekend. Would others join him?

Jimmie Johnson is the most obvious while Kurt Busch on the NASCAR side with Ganassi raced in the 2014 Indy 500 with Andretti.

What about anyone else? Kyle Busch has long wanted to try an Indy Car but it was always shutdown. Is this a better option?

The biggest clash in the sense on where this is on the schedule and how NASCAR drivers are getting close to playoff mode. Also, with INDYCAR having a Chevrolet tie with engines here and engines in NASCAR, those drivers are that are part of the bow tie camp can easily cross over. But, what about the Toyota or Ford drivers in NASCAR or the Honda ones in INDYCAR.

Would Honda be willing to let Scott Dixon race a Chevrolet in NASCAR? Would Toyota allow Kyle Busch to race at Honda or Chevy in INDYCAR?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s