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The money man this summer: Rick Hendrick. And what's he got that everyone else is still searching for? Maybe Denny Hamlin has found it

The money man this summer: Rick Hendrick. And what's he got that everyone else is still searching for? Maybe Denny Hamlin has found it

Rick Hendrick: so many ways to win


   By Mike Mulhern

   Psst! The smart money here is on Rick Hendrick to be in victory lane celebrating Sunday afternoon.
   But with whom, well, that's up for debate.
   Denny Hamlin took the pole for Sunday's 1 p.m. ET start of the Brickyard 400, and he pointed to an interesting, if sometimes overlooked issue here -- that clouds and shade and shadows can change the track dramatically during the race.
   "It's finicky, very weather sensitive," Hamlin says.  "When the sun comes out, the handling of the race car changes dramatically.   You're constantly battling that. From my standpoint you're battling the weather as much as you are your race car."
    Just past the halfway point of the NASCAR season, it's pretty easy to size things up:
   -- Hendrick's Chevy guys, all four, have their acts together big-time, and any one of them -- Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and (hard-luck) Jeff Gordon -- could win Sunday's Brickyard 400. Throw in Tony Stewart, who runs with Hendrick engines and engineering and has already won three times this year, and Hendrick has a lot of ways to win here.
    -- Jack Roush's Ford guys too, though it might be more of a stretch, particularly for Carl Edwards, whose season has been something of a downer, even as teammates Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle are up at the top of the standings heading toward the playoffs.
    For Edwards "It has been a crazy couple of weeks.
    "So much happened after Loudon, I am glad we had the off weekend and were able to kind of gather everybody up and get a good plan."
   Because long-time crew chief Bob Osborne has sidelined himself, for unexplained reasons, and Roush has plugged Chad Norris in as new crew chief.
    "I think Bob is doing pretty well; he won't quite tell me exactly how he is doing. He keeps things pretty quiet.
    "The biggest thing is we are all behind Bob 100 percent and hope he gets better and feels better. We are all excited that he is still able to contribute in a huge way with our team."

   -- Brad Keselowski, though with little support from teammates (and with that AJ Allmendinger distraction hanging heavy), could also win this 400 for Dodge, at the track where team owner Roger Penske is a legend...but also still winless in a NASCAR stocker.
   -- Gas mileage and track position have been major players in victories this, so much so that the lack of yellows bunching the field has prompted track owner Bruton Smith, one of the most powerful men in the sport, to tell NASCAR to fix the problems. Paul Menard won this 400 last year in a daring gas mileage gambit that paid off. And the line Sunday is for a number of teams to gamble on fuel again...and as big a layout as Indianapolis Motor Speedway is, running out of gas on, say, the backstretch, could bring out a caution that might turn the race on its head.
   -- Remember, when handicapping this race, that Chevrolet drivers have won nine straight here, and 13 of the 18 races. Ford has won three times, but not since now-long-retired Dale Jarrett in 1999. To say this is a Chevy track is understatement -- especially if you've watched the army of General Motors officials parading around this place all week.


   When Tony Stewart is in a good mood, like here, better keep a close watch (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   -- The best driver here, overall, is easy ol' Smoke. And Stewart looks supremely at ease this week (fortunately for the photographers dogging him).
   -- Kevin Harvick typically runs well at this flat 2-1/2-mile track, but he's seemed a bit off his game this season.
   -- Over in the Toyota camp, well, things aren't quite so clear.
   First, the Joey Logano situation appears to be a drag on the Joe Gibbs operation; Matt Kenseth is widely expected to be joining Gibbs in 2013, and the official announcement is figured to be held up as Gibbs waits for Logano to decide what he wants to go.
    The newest twist in the Logano situation of course is Allmendinger's indefinite suspension, which appears almost certain to open up that hot Penske ride, with one of this sport's top sponsors, Shell.
   Ryan Newman is also figured to be in the picture for Penske, because they teamed for years, and Newman is squeaky clean. However Stewart says he's planning a full-time three-car Cup operation for 2013, with Danica Patrick likely in one car, and Newman, despite losing Army sponsorship, in the other....unless Chevrolet executives decide to make a surprise pitch to sign Logano, who remember is just 22 and thus with a lot of upside potential. (Jim Campbell, are you willing to pull the trigger on a deal like that?)



   What next for Joey Logano? Will he stick with Joe Gibbs and Toyota? Will he get the nod from Dodge/Ford's Roger Penske? Or might Chevy's Jim Campbell pull a fast one and sign the 22-year-old to one of his teams for 2013? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Hamlin, who has become Gibbs' defacto lead driver this season, while teammate Kyle Busch, ah, just putters along, has had some back issues lately, which even forced him out of a ride a few weeks ago. Just how serious that might be is not clear. But Hamlin, like Busch, has been erratic. He won Phoenix, then almost vanished for a month or so, resurfacing to win Kansas and have strong runs Darlington and Charlotte. Then more off weeks, until good runs at Kentucky and Loudon, N.H. What to expect here?

    One question -- has Toyota resolved its engines issues?
    And, remember, this track, with its very long, fast straights, and tight turns, is an engine track. Horsepower means a lot here.
    On the other side of the Toyota camp, the resurgence of the Michael Waltrip operation is one of the year's big stories. But despite strong runs the wins haven't come as anticipated. And it's still surprising to think of country boy Clint Bowyer winning at Sonoma....
    Has the Waltrip charge started to falter?
   -- The new marketing of Indianapolis Motor Speedway's NASCAR weekend as a three-for-one package, with Nationwide and Grand-Am as well as Sprint Cup, may be admirable, and an interesting promotional gamble. But logistically it's a headache. And there are big holes in the four-day game plan.
   First, no room for any rain in the game. Practice times for everyone, all 200 drivers in the various series, has been extremely limited.
   Second, putting Nationwide cars on the big oval is questionable. Not only because that has left nearby short-track Raceway Park idle instead of filled with enthusiastic fans hungry for bruising short-track action.
   But if any track can stage a jam-packed deal like this, and have it all run very smoothly, this is the one. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway operation, all the way around, is the class of the field in this sport, from traffic control to marketing innovations, to just simply getting the job done right. There are a lot of other NASCAR track owners who should be up here learning.

   Junior? Earnhardt concedes he doesn't typically run well here, because he's not a patient driver....on a track that demands patience.
    "We're coming here with pretty high expectations, with what’s been one of my best years maybe in my career," Earnhardt says.
    "The cars (on this track) aren't a real dream to drive; but I don't know that even when they are fast they drive very well.
    "We liked the speed the car has, and I could have my best finish here in quite awhile.
    "I think the reason I struggle here is because it is one groove...and following people around the track and not being able to get to their bumper because of the aero-push, I don't have a lot of patience for that.
    "I like tracks where I can change my line. But you have but really one choice to run through the corner here. You don't have a top groove. You can't really take a bigger arc in the corner or change how you exit. You have just one choice. Everybody has that same limitation, and you sort of snake around the race track."

   Gordon, meanwhile, has had more on his plate the past week or so than most others. He went to Africa, and here he's shepherding film producer Ron Howard around. Howard is putting together a film about F1 legend Nikki Lauda, who was nearly killed in a fiery crash in 1976, and his racing with also legendary James Hunt (who was something of an F1 version of Tim Richmond....though some insist Richmond was only a tyro compared to Hunt).
    "We talked to NASCAR Images about doing some things," Gordon explained, "and they had asked me if there was somebody out there that might be off the radar to bring to the track. 
    "I thought long and hard about it.  I've been such a huge fan of his movies and his career and how he has gone from being an actor to a director, producer.  And I'm a big Formula 1 fan.  I threw that name out there, and they made it happen, here he is. 
    "He is very interested in what is going on, now that he is doing a racing movie. He is interested in all forms of motorsports.  He is very eager to learn and also share his thoughts about the processs."




     Can Brad Keselowski win Roger Penske's first Brickyard 400? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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