Two weeks of no Sprint Cup racing has flown by, thanks in part to the Nationwide series and of course the amazing experience of the Truck Series racing on the dirt track of Eldora Speedway, but now the big boys return to racing at the historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Brickyard 400. A track that is known for the high speed Indy500 has struggled in recent years to transfer that excitement to NASCAR races, but as we’ve seen all season long the gen-6 car might be able to change that.
Saturday’s qualifying session saw Jimmie Johnson go out early and to no one’s surprise sets a blistering speed of 187.438mph, beating the previous track record of 186.293mph. His time stood for most of the session and it looked extremely likely that the 48 car would be starting on pole. That was until the final car of the session took to the track, driven by Ryan Newman at his home track (although growing up 2.5 hours away it’s hard for me to comprehend that this is a ‘local’ track!). He beat Johnson’s time, setting a time of 47.992 seconds (187.531 mph) and giving Newman his 50th career pole and his first since September 23rd 2011.
As the green flag drops Newman gets a great start and is already out front by the time the cars head into turn one. But for Johnson the start isn’t so good as he is passed by Carl Edwards. But that situation doesn’t last long as on lap two Johnson is able to make a move on Edwards to reclaim second place. Newman quickly shows that his pole run was no fluke and that he is genuinely fast as by lap four he has opened his lead up to 1.3 seconds and continues to pull away from Johnson. While the two cars up front seem to be setting off into their own personal race behind them fifth place Denny Hamlin is getting all kinds of pressure from Tony Stewart who keeps running lower and lower into the turns to try and find a way round the 11 car. Eventually after almost running over the grass Stewart makes the move stick and sets off in pursuit of fourth place Kurt Busch.
A potential issue starts to plague the top three as they each have a piece of trash on their grilles and although the drivers are reporting their temperatures are okay at the moment with them being so far away from each other they have no immediate way of getting rid of it if their engine temperatures do start to climb. In fact Edwards is able to come to an agreement with fourth place Busch that if things get too bad he will slow down a bit and let Busch pass him so that he can then remove the trash. While the leaders contemplate their issue and how to deal with it, Dale Earnhardt Jr develops a more immediate issue as he reports having a loose rear wheel and on only lap 13 is forced to come to pit road from 13th place to rectify it and comes back out a lap down and in last place. Jr isn’t the only car struggling so is 5th place starter Hamlin who is slipping back through the field and is reporting that his car is horribly loose.
On lap 25 the first run of green flag stops gets under way when Martin Truex Jr comes to pit road closely followed by Hamlin. Over the course of the next few laps all the cars come down pit road for fuel and tyres. While Newman stays out longer than second place Johnson he isn’t able to make the extra time on track count or overcome a great stop by the 48 team as he comes out in second place behind the 48. Newman’s lead was 2.8 seconds before the stops started and after the stops he is 2.8 seconds behind with Edwards, Kurt Busch and Juan Pablo Montoya behind him. Newman is on a charge and four laps later he has reduced Johnson’s lead to half a second and the gap keeps coming down. While that gap reduces the gap back to third place is extending and by lap 40 is up to eight seconds. There is also a battle for fourth place as Montoya is able to find a way passed Kurt Busch and soon finds Stewart on his rear bumper. Stewart starts to employ the same tactics that he used earlier and tries to get his car as low as possible into the turns and after a few laps he eventually makes a move stick thanks to a bit of help from a back marker to slow the 42 down.