Tony Stewart will never forget his first time. He was five-years-old, living with his parents in his hometown of Columbus, Ind., when he and his father boarded a bus in the small hours of a May morning. As the bus motored through the early morning darkness, Nelson Stewart hoisted his son into the luggage rack, where little Tony grabbed a pillow and closed his eyes. When he opened them an hour or so later, he had arrived at the place that would soon become his favorite spot on the planet: Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Stewart and his father sat in the second row between Turns 3 and 4 for the Indy 500, and Tony was dazzled by the raw speed of the sleek Indy machines, the thump of the horsepower on his chest, the smell of burnt rubber wafting in the air. It was right around this afternoon that Stewart decided he wanted to become a race car driver and -- he hoped -- one day win a race at the Brickyard.
He achieved that goal in 2005, when he took the checkered flag in the Brickyard 400 on his way toward capturing his second Sprint Cup championship. It says here he'll win again at his favorite track on Sunday. Why? Two reasons: One, Stewart loves hot, slick tracks more than any other driver in the series, and on Sunday the temperature in Indy will be in the 90s, which will bake the track just to Stewart's liking; and two, he and his Stewart Haas Racing teammate Ryan Newman appear to be peaking, as Newman finished first and Stewart second in New Hampshire two weeks ago.
The Brickyard 400 is always one of the most revealing races of the season. Teams spend months preparing for this event and every organization will bring its newest cars -- equipped with the latest and greatest technology -- to the track on Sunday. It's no coincidence that the cream usually rises at Indy; three of the last six winners at the Brickyard have gone on to win the Cup championships.
Here are four other drivers I'll be watching when race no. 20 of 2011 goes green on Sunday:
1. Jimmie Johnson
The five-time defending Cup champ has won three of the last five races at Indy. Yet Johnson enters this weekend in a far different place than in his previous title years. Yes, he's second in the points standings, but he has only one victory in 2011 -- the fewest wins he's had at this point in the season since his rookie year of 2001.
So far the theme of the 2011 season has been parity. No driver has emerged as the clear title favorite. That could begin to change on Sunday if Johnson authors a dominating performance. After all, this is usually the time of the season when he begins to turn it on.
2. Kevin Harvick
Indy is one of Harvick's best tracks. In 10 career starts at the speedway, Harvick has one win, a second-place run (last year) and an average finish of 9.9. This season he leads the series in victories with three, which means he's a lock to qualify for the Chase under the new playoff-qualifying format, and so he can aggressively take chances on the track and in the pits while other drivers who are on the Chase bubble can't.
Even though Harvick is having an impressive season, he'll be the first to tell you he still needs to find more speed in his car to win his first championship. Last year in the Chase he didn't possess the straight-line speed of either Johnson or Denny Hamlin, and that's the main reason he finished third in the final standings. How he fares on Sunday may be an indication of whether or not Harvick will have enough power under the hood to topple Johnson this fall.
3. Juan Pablo Montoya
Currently 17th in the standings, Montoya probably needs to win two of the next six races to qualify for the Chase. His best chances will be on Sunday at the Brickyard and on Aug. 14 on the road course at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International.
Montoya dominated this event in 2009, leading a race-high 114 laps. But he was caught speeding on pit road late in the race and finished 11th. Last year he had another fast car at Indy. He sat on the pole, led 86 laps, but then crashed and wound up 32nd.
Can Montoya break through on Sunday? If he does, he could wind up being the surprise driver who advances to the Chase. He'll certainly be the favorite to win at Watkins Glen, where Montoya -- a road course specialist -- took the checkered flag last year.
4. Carl Edwards
Edwards has flashed Johnson-esque consistency this season. He leads the points and leads the series in top-five finishes (10), top-10s (13), average starting position (11.2), averaging finishing position (10.6) and winnings ($4.2 million). But the one thing he's not doing -- and this is the only reason he's not the clear-cut title favorite at this point -- is winning a slew of races. He only has one victory in 2011, and if we've learned one thing in the past few years about the Chase, it's that it takes victories to win the title.
How will Edwards do on Sunday? In six career starts at Indy, Edwards has one top-five finish. Expect him to quietly put together another top-five run on Sunday