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David Ragan puts Jack Roush's Ford on the Brickyard 400 pole

  David Ragan: going for Jack Roush's first Indianapolis Motor Speedway victory...and hoping to re-sign with sponsor UPS (Photo: IMS)

   By Mike Mulhern


   With pressure on team owner Jack Roush to get his drivers and sponsors all lined up for 2012, and with the future of star driver Carl Edwards still up in the air, David Ragan will have the point for Sunday's Brickyard 400, and their UPS sponsorship may well be on the line here.

   Ragan, the Daytona 400 winner earlier this month, and Kasey Kahne, heading to Rick Hendrick's camp at the end of the season with long-time crew chief Kenny Francis, went 1-2 in Saturday afternoon qualifying at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
   However, a better 400 pick is probably second row starter Jimmie Johnson. Despite whatever issues he and crew chief Chad Knaus may be having over their pit road work, Johnson has won three of the last five 400s. One edge Johnson might have here – rival Kyle Busch appears to have an off-car for the second straight race. And rival Denny Hamlin blew an engine Friday, the 11th engine a Gibbs driver has lost this season, ominously. While the Gibbs guys have won more Cup events than any other team so far, it has come at a cost.
   "We've won from all over the place, but I think you'll have to be starting top-10 if you're going to get it done this time," Jeff Gordon, Johnson's teammate, said after his own run, eighth-fastest.
   Gordon won from 27th in 2001; Tony Stewart won from 22nd in 2005, and Johnson himself won from 16th two years ago.
   If Gordon is correct, the top 10 for the start: Ragan, Kahne, Johnson, Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski, AJ Allmendinger, Juan Pablo Montoya, Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Edwards.
   And if starting back in the pack is troublesome, then Kyle Busch and teammate Denny Hamlin may be in trouble. Hamlin blew an engine Friday and will have to start last; Busch has had trouble in the body-template inspection station, and he hasn't shown much speed.
   However it's unclear if speed or gas mileage or track position will be the key in this race. The past two months NASCAR Cup events have pretty much come down to fuel mileage.
   If Sunday's 400 follows history, and action here typically does, then a Rick Hendrick driver should be favored, because Hendrick men have won seven of the 17 400s. On the Ford side, Roush is still winless here, though Robert Yates won twice. Team owner Richard Childress (who is trying to lock up driver Clint Bowyer for 2012, though a sponsor is still up in the air) has two 400 wins. The lone two upsets – Bill Elliott in Ray Evernham's car, and Ricky Rudd in his own car. Last summer Jamie McMurray capped a great season for team owner Chip Ganassi with a two-tire late-stop victory.
   One man to keep an eye on is Montoya, who dominated the last two 400s here but didn't win. He was hit with a late-race pit road speeding penalty two years ago, and last year his four-tire pit stop under a late caution proved the wrong call, and he wound up in the wall after watch too many rivals making two-tire decisions to gain track position. However Montoya has a new crew chief here.
   While the technical aspects of this race itself and Edwards' future are two big stories this weekend, the biggest story may be played out up in the grandstands: how many fans will show up?
    Attendance has been falling the last few years, and everyone seems to have opinions why, if no good solutions.
   This Brickyard comes surrounded by several big picture issues, particularly the seeming lack of pre-race pizzazz, and worries that the crowd will again be down.
   One issue here is whether this late-July afternoon event is at the right spot on the NASCAR calendar, and the NASCAR clock.
   However NASCAR and the track promoters don't seem to agree with those questions: tickets go on sale Monday for next summer's Brickyard weekend, with Grand-Am and Nationwide tours becoming part of the weekend events leading up the Sunday July 29th 2012 Brickyard.
    So, with NASCAR officials putting together the 2012 Sprint Cup tour calendar, it may be time to question some things…like why the big buzz so far is about gas mileage and track position.
   …and some complaints that Goodyear's tires this season are simply "too good." (Ford's Greg Biffle, Dodge's Keselowski, Toyota's Martin Truex Jr., and Chevy's Montoya tested here for Goodyear.)
    The Brickyard's issues are numerous and obvious, if the answers aren't.
    But, again big picture for the sport, the 2012 tour may need some big tweaking. For example, odds are that Montreal, again, won't be a Sprint Cup race….which has to be quite perplexing from a business standpoint, since many major NASCAR series sponsors – like Home Depot and Lowe's – would eagerly jump into Montreal Cup marketing.
   And this sport needs all the marketing punch it can get right now.

   Nevertheless, here's the official marketing line on the 2012 Brickyard 400:
   -- Ticket prices have been reduced from $165 to $150 in the E & B Penthouse Sunday July 29. Seats in the A Penthouse, Northwest Vista Deck, Northeast Vista Deck, Southeast Vista Deck, South Vista Deck (sections 1-4) and Southwest Vista Deck will be reduced from $160 to $150.
   -- Fans who purchased Penthouse and Deck seats for this year's Brickyard 400 can renew their seats for next year's race over a two-week period beginning Aug. 1, and will have the first opportunity to purchase tickets for those seats for next year's Nationwide race. Prices for the Nationwide race Saturday July 28 will range from $65 for Penthouse seats to $25 for general admission seats in Stands E, B & A. Seats in the Paddock and the Northwest, Southeast and Southwest Vistas are also priced at $25. Tickets for the Nationwide Series practice Thursday, July 26 are $10 for open seating.
    -- All seats will be general admission and priced at $30 for the two Grand-Am races Friday July 27 on the Formula 1 road course. Open seating will be available in the H, J, Paddock Penthouse, Press Paddock Penthouse, Paddock, A Penthouse, Stand A, Southeast Vista, Southeast Vista Deck, Southwest Vista and Southwest Vista Deck.
   --  Fans also can buy "Super Weekend" tickets for $80 that provide open seating for Thursday and Friday, with limited general admission seating Saturday and general admission infield access Sunday. Children 12 and under will receive free general admission when accompanied by an adult with a "Super Weekend" or single-day general admission ticket.


  The big Brickyard 400 story may be right here, in the grandstands, rather than down there on the track. (Photo: IMS)

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