Indianapolis, downtown from the Speedway (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
What's happened here?
This Brickyard 400 used to be one of the biggest events on the stock car tour...
...a power-packed race week, with the sport's power brokers wining and dining corporate sponsors and potential sponsors at many of this city's great restaurants...
...a race week filled with sizzling tension in the garage....leading up to a race with more uncertainty than most, and turning 180 at times with unexpected suddenness.
Even those pre-race practice sessions a month before the big race were hot stuff.
But now, where's the buzz?
Where's the drama?
Momentum is big in sports, and this event needs to catch fire again.
Remember that 1993 summer afternoon when NASCAR teams descended on this awesome place, and Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace raced to see which one could turn the first lap....and those great Earnhardt-Wallace battles....and Earnhardt's surprising ironman start, just a week after that terrible Talladega crash....
Remember those duels between teammates Dale Jarrett and Ernie Irvan....
Remember Tony Stewart's bitter disappointments, and angry outlashes....
Remember Ricky Rudd's upset victory....
Remember Kyle Petty's savage crash....
Remember Ernie Irvan's heartbreaking flat tire when victory was just moments away...
Jimmie Johnson leads the pack around the Brickyard down the stretch in 2012 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Considering the wild, thrilling finish to this May's Indianapolis 500, with a record 68 lead changes...and following that stunning four-wide finish in the Indy Lights' warm-up two days previous, NASCAR's stockers look to have some catching up to do here.
Who to keep eyes on in Sunday's Brickyard 400?
Ryan 'Rocketman' Newman, fighting for a ride for 2014. He's on the pole for the 1 p.m. ET start...with race favorite Jimmie Johnson right beside him, in an all-Chevy front row. Newman's 187.531 mph is a track record; eight others also broke the old mark, set in 2004.
Ford's Carl Edwards and Toyota's Denny Hamlin will be on the second row, and they've got some proving to do. Hamlin has had several bad crashes lately, and he's out of the playoffs. Edwards, a good closer, hasn't led that many laps; in fact his star has appeared waning the last year or so.
Newman's teammate Tony Stewart also has some proving to do, considering his team's struggles this year.
Juan Pablo Montoya: time to do something (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Other good story lines to ponder:
Juan Pablo Montoya was once one of the most feared racers in the world.
An Indy-car champion.
An Indy 500 winner.
Seven wins on the Formula 1 tour, including legendary Monza and Monaco.
His aggressive driving was renowned.
But in his six-plus years on the NASCAR stock car tour, Montoya has yet to become such a feared power at the wheel.
In fact he's been mostly pretty mediocre.
Only two tour wins, at Sonoma in 2007, at Watkins Glen in 2010.
Yes, he's had his moments here. Like in the 2009 Brickyard 400, where he dominated but lost a huge lead in the final laps when caught needlessly speeding on his final pit stop. And in the 2007 400, his first, finishing second.
It's long past time for Montoya to make his mark in this branch of the sport.
Maybe with a different team things might be different, given the erratic performance of team owner Chip Ganassi's operation over the years. However Montoya has been loyal to Ganassi, and sponsor Target likes the demographic push the Colombian brings.
If it's Indy, where's Smoke? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
While the focus here in Sunday afternoon's Brickyard is mostly on Johnson, the sport's top driver again this season, gunning for a record fifth 400 win, and the man likely to be his toughest challenger at the end, Matt Kenseth, there are other potentially interesting story lines.
-- Kurt Busch. He's been very fast nearly everywhere, and he could easily have won two or three races already this year with crew chief Todd Berrier, if not for almost crazy bad luck.
-- Kasey Kahne. Like Busch, fast, but dogged by bad luck.
-- The great Ford debate.
Ford drivers won three of the first six Brickyards. And Ford's Ernie Irvan had the inaugural Brickyard won until his right-front blew with just a few laps to go. (Two weeks later Irvan suffered that near-fatal crash at Michigan.) But Ford hasn't won here since 1999. And this season Ford teams have appeared a step slow at too many tracks, for some reason.
Ford's best bets here should be Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards.
-- Tony Stewart. If NASCAR has a Mr. Indianapolis, it's this guy. Like mentor A.J. Foyt, Smoke can race and win in nearly any type of car. However this season he's been clearly off his game...or his technical crew has been off its game. And that's plagued his teammates too.
Matt Kenseth (R), with teammate Kyle Busch's crew chief, Dave Rogers (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
-- Danica Patrick, too. But not for her prowess at the wheel, or for her winning potential; rather, for the massive publicity overkill surrounding her. A cutesy A-1 story in USAToday about 'love in the fast lane,' her romance with fellow racer Ricky Stenhouse. Yet more puff pieces of course, even in the usually sharper Indy Star. And almost wall-to-wall coverage on ESPN, to gross excess, for a driver who has yet to show much talent in Sprint Cup cars, to be honest. She drives but she hasn't really raced for position. And team owner Tony Stewart made a stark statement about sponsorship money and this sport only two weeks ago when he dumped Daytona 500 winner Ryan Newman for 2014 but kept Patrick. Money obviously means more than talent. Teammate Newman is on the front row here, teammate Stewart row three, Patrick row 17.
-- The ever-present threat of a gas mileage gambit victory, like Ricky Rudd's in 1997 and Paul Menard's in 2011.
-- The ever-present issues of clean air versus dirty air, making pit stop strategy quite important, especially at these record speeds. A man may be lightning fast when on the point, but if stuck back in traffic he could be just another also-ran. This puts a lot of pressure on crew chiefs -- not necessarily to make the right calls but to avoid making the wrong call.
-- And Wednesday night's Truck race on Tony Stewart's Eldora dirt, the first time in some 40 years that NASCAR has taken one of its top divisions to a dirt track. The 17,000-seat facility, two hours northeast of Indianapolis, provided a fun time, if not the anticipated thrills-and-chills. It makes for a nice mid-week pre-Brickyard lead-in, and NASCAR is expected to keep it on the Truck calendar next year.
Eldora dirt! (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
But the biggest story line here this weekend is the Brickyard 400 itself.
NASCAR crowds may be off nearly everywhere these days, but that drop-off is acutely visual at this 257,000-seat stadium.
One reason should be obvious to anyone who has watched a stock car race here: these nine-degree-banked turns are virtually flat, and at 200 mph the stock car racing groove is one-lane wide. Passing for the lead is difficult.
And with speeds this season up four to five mph, passing will likely be even tougher here.
The Rocketman, again. Ryan Newman salutes the Brickyard crowd. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
One big question, here and as the tour heads toward the playoffs in a few weeks, is 'Can anybody get Jimmie Johnson off his game?'
Well, someone may be trying: light rain early Saturday morning kept Johnson from his usual run.
It may take more to stop this train.
The line in this sport is that these six weeks between this 400 and the September Richmond 400 are the weeks that show who's got championship potential and who is likely just an also-ran.
"You definitely need to bring your best stuff here -- we are getting into the final few races before the chase and you don't want to start the chase with unknowns," Johnson said.
"For us, Indy has been a good time to debut things. Last year we felt the 'skew' would be the direction to go. We struggled with it at some tracks, but we came here and scienced it out just right...and this track is very forgiving for how that system worked. You don't have a lot of bumps or big transitions in the corner and off.
"From the first lap on the track it was like 'Whoa! This is going to be good.'
"The 'skew' was nice to have in certain areas of the corner, especially center-off. But on corner-entry it wasn't real fun to drive; you'd let off the gas and the way things would move, it gave you a really loose sensation."
Brad Keselowski: can he help Ford rebound? Is there something in this new Ford nose that just doesn't work that well? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Brad Keselowski was one of the first last summer to recognize what Johnson had under the rear end, and he wasn't happy about it. NASCAR, when pressed about the trick, decided not to change the rules until the end of the season.
Ironically perhaps Keselowski's team was working in that same area earlier this year only to get busted by NASCAR in that major Texas Motor Speedway flap in April. That team has been in something of a slump ever since.
So here this week it hasn't been lost on anyone about the partitions Johnson's crew chief Chad Knaus has raised in the Cup garage, to partially hide his car and equipment from rivals.
Johnson tries to make light of that: "NASCAR has given us an advantage to hide our stuff so that we can work in private and not let anybody see what is going on, but they won't allow any other team to do it. It's just for the No. 48."
Then he laughs, and says it's just part of a little home improvement project: "Honestly, you might have noticed it over the last few years -- we want to spruce up that area. Chad was inspired to do that a year or two ago. Chad even went through all the steps to get it approved with NASCAR."
Clint Bowyer (L) is still in sight of Jimmie Johnson in the standings, but Johnson looks to be pulling away (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)