A pensive Brad Keselowski. He's been unusually quiet lately. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Put your money on Chevy here this weekend.
No surprise there, of course.
And put some money on yet another track record.
No surprise there, either. These new 2013s are considerably faster than last year's stockers, and speeds are up three miles an hour so far over last year.
Chevy drivers have won 10 straight here, and Jimmie Johnson -- Sunday's big favorite -- has won four of the last seven at this very flat but very fast track. And Dale Earnhardt Jr. was over in New York City Thursday on a pre-race media tour.
And Chevy execs are as thick as flies, with a rainbow fleet of Camaros and Corvettes on parade. Somewhere around, there might even be a new SS, coming this fall to a dealer near you (list price $44,470).
The man to beat Sunday at the Brickyard (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
The Brickyard, amid heavy speculation about next summer's 400 being run at night under the lights, finally opened Friday for practice for Sunday's 400, one of stock car racing's most prestigious, if not most exciting, events.
"Boy, you're going to need nuclear power to light this place," Clint Bowyer says with a laugh. "You're going to have to shut down downtown to have enough power to light this track."
Not really, of course. And Musco, the world-renowned sports lighting specialist, which does all the NASCAR tracks, would probably love to light Indy just for the publicity.
Certainly this race weekend could use a shot of something. This 400 has been less than thrilling the last few years.
And some crews are scratching their heads over the strange schedule NASCAR has for this race weekend, in accommodating two companion races, for Grand Am sports cars, on the Formula 1 road course, and for Nationwide cars, on the big track. The Sprint Cup garage closed Friday at 3 p.m., after just 90 minutes of 400 practice. Quals are 2 p.m. ET Saturday, lead-in to the Nationwide 250 at 4:30.
With a sparse crowd Friday at this 257,000-seat track in the heart of town, and not a great crowd anticipated Saturday either, there continue to be questions about this race weekend package, particularly NASCAR moving the Nationwide race from cross-town short track Raceway Park.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. looking under his Indy car (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
There are also more questions about how in the world NASCAR managed to pull off its $4.2 Billion TV deal with NBC. That's like 50 percent more money than ESPN/ABC's current contract, which was signed in the heady days of late 2005 when this sport was at its peak, and which runs through the end of 2014.
It doesn't appear that NASCAR has done much the past few years to justify such a huge leap in TV money.
However NASCAR may just have caught NBC at the most opportune moment, with parent Comcast, the largest cable company in the country, just completing a multi-billion-dollar takeover of the famous network, and Comcast readying to challenge big-time in the TV sports world.
For NASCAR it is a gamble. But it also ensures some $20 million in TV income each Sprint Cup weekend through 2022-2024.
NASCAR is gambling that NBC's promotion of this sport will be lavish as well.
And more than one here is wondering just how much input savvy promoter Bruton Smith might have had behind the scenes in the NASCAR-NBC deal. Smith is still the sharpest tool in the NASCAR toolbox.
Kurt Busch works on his Sunday game face (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Juan Pablo Montoya (185.410 mph) led the Chevy parade Friday. Montoya's stunning loss in this race in 2009, when he led 116 of the 160 laps but lost on a pit road speeding penalty, still hangs over him. And Montoya, with only two wins on the tour since joining in 2006, has struggled all season.
A better pick here might well be Kurt Busch, second quickest in practice. He's had one of the hottest cars on the tour most of the season, though some of the hardest luck.
Again Blue Oval teams are a mystery. This hasn't been a great season for Ford teams, and things don't appear to be improving.
Ford's last Brickyard 400 win was with long-retired Dale Jarrett in 1999.
Toyota has never won this race. However Matt Kenseth could easily break that drought this weekend.
Clint Bowyer, who continues hanging tough in the race to the chase, second in the standings to Jimmie Johnson, also likes his own chances.
"There is nothing like Indy, there isn't, man," Bowyer says. "It is so fast. You get down there to the end of that straight, and that baby bends hard left. The first time you're out on the track, you think 'There is no way in hell I'm going to make that corner.'
"It gets your attention probably more than any track I go to. You're carrying so much speed down into the corner, the first few times around this baby you're pretty wound up."
Roger Penske's two, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski, are the only Ford drivers showing much punch so far at this huge, 2-1/2-mile square track, with its four 90-degree corners. Logano and Keselowski are showings signs of finally breaking out of a slump that began back in early April.
Taking a flat 90-degree like this corner at Indianapolis Motor Speedway at 200 mph requires a deep breath (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
And then again maybe it won't be speed that wins this 400.
Tires and gas mileage are always a factor here. Goodyear has bounced back well from the 2008 problems, and tires haven't been a major issue at this track lately.
However this season at some other tracks tires have been an issue....such as at Michigan in June, where a late flat cost Johnson a win.
Goodyear just tested two weeks ago at Kansas, to try to identify some issues to resolve. But no decision has apparently been made yet on what type of tires to take to that track.
In fact a vigorous debate appears to be going on behind the scenes between NASCAR and Goodyear over how to create better racing, with NASCAR pushing hard for 'softer' tires that give up speed during a long run, and Goodyear struggling with issues related to that on some of the Sprint Cup tour's new smooth asphalt, like at Kansas and Michigan.
Part of that debate could be related to another debate NASCAR is having with teams over expensive 'trick' springs.
Such trick springs have been long a staple in this sport, with teams 'propping' up cars for pre-race and post-race inspection, and then letting the cars 'settle' down to lower races heights. The rigmarole stems from NASCAR's car height rules.
Teams say NASCAR could easily just drop the height rule and the inspections, because car height at the nose is self-correcting -- if a team sets it too low, it damages the front bumper.
Teams have been buying lavishly expensive $1500 trick springs in huge numbers, trying to take advantage of minute differences in how much they compress for how long and under what conditions.
"We used to buy $50 springs and could use 'em till the paint wore out," one crewman said. "Now we can't even buy as many of these $1500 springs as we need."
A recent rash of odd left-rear tire problems appears to stem from expanded use of trick springs.
And this debate could somehow be linked to Jimmie Johnson's car height issues at Loudon, N.H., two weeks ago.
Jeff Gordon, 1994. (Photo: IMS)
NASCAR officials are also reported to be debating some changes to these car bodies in the next few weeks, altering the side-skirts, which affects how much air gets under the car and destabilizes it.
The tour has been marred this season by numerous races where the leader has a decisive aerodynamic advantage over the rest.
Tires are not expected to be an issue here. Goodyear developed a tire to deal with the wear issues on this grooved asphalt.
During Goodyear's test here earlier this year Jeff Gordon hit 214 mph at the end of the frontstretch, an amazing number, considering how flat these sharp corners are.
But that was in the cool of the morning, and on softer tires than Goodyear has for this 400. Those softer tires didn't last long enough for Goodyear to want to run them in the race. So teams will be running here on last year's tires.
However smooth asphalt at other tracks does still seem to be an issue again for tires.
Jeff Gordon, 2013 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
"We had the opportunity to tire-test here and get a chance to feel what this car is like," Gordon, the 1994 Brickyard winner, said. "It's obviously going to be really fast.
"We are back with the same tire we have had the last couple of years. This surface is tough. It's abrasive. And it's really hard to find any different tire; durability is the key and most important thing. We certainly have that."
Teammate Earnhardt, whose father won the 1995 Brickyard, says his own debut here, in an IROC race, wasn't auspicious: "I just got destroyed by everybody out there.
"It was such a different track, and really big place. The shape of the track is unique.
"It's a real technical track. If you are just looking at the track, you would assume all the corners look relatively similar. The car must go through each corner pretty much the same, and what you might be fighting in one corner you would probably assume you would fight in all of them.
"But all the corners are really different, extremely different.
"Turn one is really tight, and feels much tighter and shorter-radius corner, and each corner after that appears to be less so.
"Turn four is the larger corner, without a better way to describe it.
"The car certainly doesn't drive the same through them year after year.
"It's a technical track, and when you adjust on the car, you have to be careful not to ruin something at the other end of the track and make problems."
Indianapolis Motor Speedway is holding a contest for 'best mustache ever in NASCAR.' How about a vote for this Fu Manchu? Well, maybe you just had to be there....(Photo: Charlotte Motor Speedway)