INDIANAPOLIS – You kick everything you know to the curb here. Lesson No. 1 as the stock car boys (and girl) come to Indianapolis for the 21st time today.
Somewhere at the end of it this afternoon, if the storms stay away, whoever’s tasting the grit and dirt and spent Goodyear of the bricks will be doing so because he turned conventional wisdom inside-out. Because he took everything he thought he knew, wadded it up and pitched it in the nearest dumpster.
I know this because every time I pick a Jimmie Johnson or a Jeff Gordon to win, a Paul Menard wins, or vice versa. And I know it because Johnson himself says it’s so, and if you’re gonna take anyone at his word it’s a guy who’s won here four times since 2006 and has led 172 of the last 300 laps.
My natural tendencies just didn’t work around this track,’ Johnson said this week, before putting the No. 48 Chevy in the sixth row Saturday in knockout qualifying. I had to make a conscious effort to drive differently I’ve got to change my game coming here.
This is not a place where it flows, agreed Juan Pablo Montoya, who stuck his No. 12 Penske Ford on the outside of row four.
And if by that they both mean nothing comes easy here, well, surprise, surprise. If you’re a driver, the only place you’re happy is out front; you can’t pass here because the corners are too short and the straightaways are too long. And if you’re a spectator, you have to want to keep track of what’s going on, because the place sprawls too much to get more than a narrow sample size from any one vantage point.
It is, frankly, a lousy venue for NASCAR, which is why whole sections of seats in the north chute and third turn are covered over with advertising this year. And why the Brickyard will once again struggle to breach 80,000 fans for an event that, as recently as eight or nine years ago, drew north of 250,000.
What those who show up will see is a race that comes down mostly to track position and hitting the right pit cycle, a matter sometimes of simple dumb luck. No one knows that better than Ryan Newman, who won last year because he came out ahead of Johnson on his last stop after Johnson had dominated the race.
It’s all about getting the timing right, Montoya says. You do the timing right and the car drives, you’re good.’
So who finds that all today?
Throw ’em in a hat and pull one out.
If it’s Kevin Harvick, remember that only three Brickyard winners have done it from the pole, but also remember the only time Harvick won (2003) he won it from there. If it’s Gordon, who starts outside Harvick in the front row, note that he leads the points and 20 years ago he won the inaugural Brickyard, the kind of symmetry the NASCAR gods love.
Johnson looks good because he’s dominated the last two years and he drives a Chevy, and Chevies have won 12 straight Brickyards. Stewart you like because he loves the place like no other, he always runs well here and, with just two top fives and six top 10s this year, he needs the win.
Here’s your guy, however: Brad Keselowski.
He starts inside of row two. He won the inaugural Nationwide race here in 2012. He led 95 laps a month ago at Pocono, the track most nearly like Indy and he’s won two of the last three Cup races and he’s driving for Roger Penske, who’s never won at the Brickyard but surely has to sometime.
It’s the last thing left on the Penske bucket list, Keselowski said Saturday. He’s all in as much as you can be.’