Friday, July 27, 2012

Indy a true Indicator of who Sprint Cup champion will be

It can be debated where the Indianapolis Motor Speedway stands among NASCAR's best tracks. It built its tradition so much that another major series, IndyCar, is named after it. They have been racing at the famed 2.5-mile oval for over 100 years.
NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series didn't come to Indianapolis until 1994 and while Sunday's 400-mile, 160-lap race will be the 19th Sprint Cup race there, the track seems to have cemented its place as one of NASCAR's major players. It's hard to say if the speedway deserves to be held in the same esteem as say Daytona, Talladega, Darlington or Bristol. If NASCAR had four so-called major events, such as golf and tennis do, the four places that would be considered a NASCAR major would bring about a lot of debate.
But one thing that can't be debated about Indianapolis is that if a driver finishes well there, it often bodes well for the rest of the season.
Of the 18 races there,  eight times the winner went on to win the Sprint Cup title. Jimmie Johnson accomplished the feat three times, Jeff Gordon twice, and Tony Stewart, Dale Jarrett and Bobby Labonte each did it once.
However, there is more.
There have been 11 drivers win at Indianapolis, and they have combined for 22 titles, led by the late Dale Earnhardt's seven, Johnson's five, Gordon's four and Stewart's three. The only drivers to win at Indy who have not won a Sprint Cup title at some point in their careers are Ricky Rudd in 1997, Kevin Harvick in 2003, Jamie McMurray in 2010 and Paul Menard last year.
But that's not all.

Of the 18 previous seasons since NASCAR has been at Indy, history also tells us the eventual Sprint Cup champion will likely have a good finish there, even if it's not a win. In those 18 races, the Sprint Cup winner has finished 12th or better 16 times. The only exception to the rule was Johnson, who was 22nd in 2010 and 39th in 2007.
And here's one more item to think about: The eventual Sprint Cup champion has finished sixth or better 14 times, including Stewart taking sixth last year.
So, that brings the question of why is Indy such a prime indicator of who that season's champions will be?
Here are a couple of possibilities.
First, there is the pressure. Indianapolis is one of those races teams covet to win, this includes the crew chief, pit crew, spotter and driver, making all the right calls and all the right moves. If that happens, it's one sign the team is performing well. While there's pressure to do well every week, there are certain places, like Daytona and Indy, for example, where it means a little more.
Second, involves all the variables at Indy. It's the only track on the NASCAR circuit that has four distinct turns. The rest of them, count one continuous corner as two. You'll often hear a driver talk about being loose going into Turn One, or needing more bite coming out of Turn 2. But really, it's just one long sweeping turn.
That's not the case at Indy. Each corner is separated by what is called a short chute, a small stretch of straight track 660 feet long.  So, a car has to have good handling capabilities to perform well. You can't win at Indy on just power alone.
But yes, power is a factor, too. The front and back straightaways are also long, each at over 3,300 feet, so yes, good power is required.
When it comes down to it, a driver and team at Indy have to be hitting on all cylinders (both figuratively and literally) to run well at Indy. And maybe that's a big reason why teams that do well at Indy, also usually do well over the course of the season.
The guys with strong Indiana ties always want a top performance in their home state, but there's no guarantee of that happening either. Jeff Gordon (Hoosier-raised, not Hoosier born though), Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman are among the Hoosiers who will want to finish well.
Here's a look at who look for at the 1 p.m. race that will start ESPN's coverage of the Sprint Cup Series.
1) Tony Stewart:  He's got two wins at Indy, with six top-five finishes and nine top 10s. A pretty safe bet on his home track.
2) Jimmie Johnson: He has three wins at Indy and is a major threat to get his fourth.
3) Jeff Gordon: Going with another home stater here. He has four wins and even though he's 17th in points, his car has been good all season. There's no better place for him to breakthrough and get his first win of the year.
4) Kasey Kahne: No, he doesn't have a win at Indy, but he's been running well lately, picking up the win two weeks ago at New Hampshire. Also, he's a Hendrick Motorsports driver and that team has had plenty of success there.
5) Kevin Harvick: He's the only driver in the top seven without a victory this year. He does have one win here and has seven top 10s in 11 races at Indy.
Shoulda, woulda, coulda: It would make a great story if Juan Pablo Montoya became the first driver to win the Indy 500 and Brickyard 400, but it's not something that has a big chance of happening. Montoya has only one top 10 finish at Indy in NASCAR and has not been a regular contender at other places this season as he sits 21st in the points standings.
I was a perfect last week. Since there was no Sprint Cup race at least I can say I didn't get any wrong.
Here's a look at my results after 19 races and 95 picks.
10  wins
34 top fives
45 top 10s
One last thing: Well, really, it's two last things today. The estimated attendance at Indy has dropped each of the last five years, from 270,000 in 2007 down to 138,000 last year. Also, if you're into flyovers, the one for Sunday is scheduled to be two United States Marine Corp V-22 Ospreys, one of the coolest flying machines you  can see. A part of those V-22s are manufactured at the Boeing plant in Delaware County, Pa.

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