On Fourth of July weekend, NASCAR finds itself at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a venue once thought to be an unfathomable location for NASCAR during this holiday weekend, for a new tradition that was once thought to be unfathomable
Shifting away from Daytona International Speedway marked the end of a tradition that began with Daytona’s opening in 1959 and ended in 2019, but the beginning of a tradition for NASCAR and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that kicked off this weekend.
For the first time since 1945, the Hulman-George family was not overseeing racing at Indianapolis as the track owners. Instead, Roger Penske has been overseeing his first weekend of racing as the owner of the famed racetrack and his second weekend as the owner of INDYCAR, in a rare instance where the U.S.’s premier open-wheel racing series will be paired with the U.S.’s premier stock car racing series; two series that were once locked in a tight battle with each other among fanbases.
Although the Xfinity Series has raced on the 2.439-mile grand prix road course, along with INDYCAR, the NASCAR Cup Series takes center stage on the famed 2.5-mile oval for the Big Machine Hand Sanitizer 400 at the Brickyard, the 27th edition of the race.
When you look at Sunday’s race, it is hard not to focus on no. 4 Kevin Harvick, who is looking for his fourth win of 2020 this weekend at the Brickyard. Him and no. 11 Denny Hamlin traded the top two spots last weekend at Pocono but Harvick has two up on Hamlin at the famed 2.5-mile track; two wins that is.
Harvick is the most recent Cup Series winner at Indianapolis, leading 118 of 160 laps last September en route to his second win at the track and first there since August 2003.
After 15 races in 2020, Harvick has scored as many top 10s (12) as he did in 2018 after 15 races. Harvick has fell short of the five wins and 11 top 5s he scored in the first 15 races of 2018 but he has a better average finish in this season (7.3) than in 2018 (9.3) and sits atop the points standings by 52 points this season, different from his 2018 performance of being 75 points behind the points leader after 15 races.
This weekend may only pad Harvick’s impressive statistics this season, considering Harvick has six consecutive top 10 finishes at Indy, including three top 5 finishes. In that time, Harvick has led 227 of 981 laps or 23.14% of the laps and has an average finish of 4.67 in that time span while starting no worse than seventh.
While a random draw of 11th may have put a damper on the last statistic, Harvick has some impressive statistics to back his season and his performance at Indy up as he looks for Cup title no. 2 and Indy win no. 3 Sunday.
Denny Hamlin has come close to both a Cup title and an Indy win but has never been able to lay claim to either. In 2008 and 2018, Hamlin had his best chances at winning at Indy, but late-race caution flags took the win from his grasp and handed it to one of his Cup champion competitors on each occasion.
In 2008, Hamlin led with 10 to go before the final competition caution in a day filled with high tire wear and high tensions fell, which gave Jimmie Johnson’s pit crew to strike and earn him the win. In 2018, Hamlin also led with three laps to go before Brad Keselowski claimed victory in a close battle.
Despite coming close on a couple of occasions, Hamlin still holds a good record at Indianapolis in recent times. In the last eight races at Indy, Hamlin has finished outside of the top 10 twice (2013, 2017), scoring an average finish of 7.75 in that time, with 86 laps led.
Hamlin starts sixth Sunday and it is clear to see that his career is close to mirroring the likes of elite drivers such as Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt and even Harvick. All four have won a NASCAR Cup Series championship, a Southern 500, a Daytona 500, a Coca-Cola 600 and a Brickyard 400.
Although the Coca-Cola 600 has come and went for Hamlin in unceremonious fashion this year, he starts sixth Sunday in one of two steps left this season toward joining the aforementioned elite company.
Starting on the front row are two drivers each looking for their first win at Indianapolis. No. 22 Joey Logano starts on the pole and no. 1 Kurt Busch starts second.
Logano’s Indy record is about as impressive as Hamlin’s is in the last eight races, with only two finishes outside of the top 10 (2012, 2018), an average finish of 9.25 and 66 laps led in that time span.
Busch’s record is not nearly as impressive as the record that Logano, Harvick and Hamlin each hold. In the last eight Indy races, Busch has only finished in the top 10 twice (2015, 2018) and led only 19 laps, all coming in the 2018 race. His second-place finish is also his best start at Indy and will be his best chance to win at the hallowed track.
Jimmie Johnson was set to start fourth in his final Indy start before an announcement came Friday night that he had tested positive for COVID-19. In his place will be Justin Allgaier who will start the no. 48 Chevrolet Camaro at the rear of the field Sunday.
Allgaier ran the Cup Series full-time in 2014 and 2015, driving the no. 51 Brandt HScott Motorsports Chevrolet, with a best finish of eighth at Bristol in April 2015 and a best Indy finish of 27th in July 2014. It is unclear how long Johnson will be out of the car or if Allgaier will be filling in for the duration of the seven-time champion being sidelined.
No less, this is the first time since the November 2001 New England 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway that Johnson has missed a race, ending a streak of 663 consecutive Cup starts, the longest active streak before Friday’s announcement brought an end to it.
Lastly, no. 43 Bubba Wallace starts 17th Sunday in a race that, last year, saw him be thrust him into the spotlight with a strong third-place finish. This season, the spotlight has been on Bubba but the performance has been there too.
Bubba has scored two top 10 finishes and sits 21st in points (-51 behind 16th place no. 20 Erik Jones) after 15 races in 2020, matching his 2018 numbers, with a 19.3 average finish, his best avg. finish after 15 races in a season during his career so far.
Last year, Bubba started 15th before finishing third. If Bubba is able to play the same track position and performance games with crew chief Jerry Baxter that he did with crew chief Derek Stamets last season, then this year’s Big Machine Hand Sanitizer 400 at the Brickyard could be a big race for Bubba’s season and for NASCAR as a whole.
Top 20 in Cup points:
1. Kevin Harvick (581 points; 3 wins, starts 11th)
2. Ryan Blaney (-52; 1 win, starts 12th)
3. Brad Keselowski (-67; 2 wins, starts 9th)
4. Chase Elliott (-71 behind Harvick; 1 win, starts 10th)
5. Denny Hamlin (-75; 4 wins, starts 6th)
6. Joey Logano (-81; 2 wins, starts 1st)
7. Martin Truex Jr. (-81; 1 win, starts 8th)
8. Alex Bowman (-117; 1 win, starts 3rd)
9. Aric Almirola (-150; starts 5th)
10. Kurt Busch (-151; starts 2nd)
11. Kyle Busch (-158; starts 7th)
12. Jimmie Johnson (-191)
13. Clint Bowyer (387 points, +60 ahead of 17th place Austin Dillon; starts 22nd)
14. Matt DiBenedetto (+57; starts 15th)
15. William Byron (+45; starts 18th)
16. Erik Jones (341 points, +14 ahead of 17th place Austin Dillon; starts 23rd)
17. Austin Dillon (327 points, -14 behind 16th place Erik Jones; starts 16th)
18. Tyler Reddick (-26; starts 13th)
19. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (-30; starts 24th)
20. Chris Buescher (-43; starts 20th)
24. Ryan Newman (-88; starts 14th)
30. Matt Kenseth (-159; starts 21st)
Rookie of the Year battle:
No. 8 Tyler Reddick (315 points)
No. 38 John Hunter Nemechek (-46)
No. 95 Christopher Bell (-63)
No. 41 Cole Custer (-74)
No. 15 Brennan Poole (-204)
No. 00 Quin Houff (-246)
Coverage of the Big Machine Hand Sanitizer 400 at the Brickyard starts at 4 p.m. EST (TV: NBC; Radio: IMS Radio, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Stages will be 50 laps/50 laps/60 laps with the race ending at lap 160. The race is official after lap 80, should there be inclement weather or any adverse circumstances preventing the race from completing the entirety of its advertised distance.