Thursday July 26th, 2012

Jimmie Johnson is already a lock to qualify for his ninth consecutive Chase for the Championship.
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images for NASCAR

It is always one of the most telling races of the grueling, nine-month long NASCAR season: the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

There are several reasons the elite drivers and the top teams usually rise at Indy. It falls after a rare weekend off, so teams have had extra time to prepare. Plus, even though the crowd is expected to be down on Sunday (the appeal of NASCAR in the heartland still hasn't recovered from the tire debacle of 2008 when NASCAR had to throw a caution flag after every nine laps of green flag racing due to a weak tire), the Brickyard 400 is still considered to be one of the sport's marquee races, just a notch below the Daytona 500.

This explains why teams always bring their top equipment, which they've spent months testing and perfecting, to the 2.5-mile track. And every turn at Indy is unique, requiring different lines and different braking points, which makes the Brickyard the most challenging oval on the circuit. Add it all up and you rarely get fluke winners here (Paul Menard's victory at Indy in 2011 notwithstanding).

So my pick to win on Sunday is the driver who I think will be hoisting the big trophy at season's end at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the driver who already has two wins this season and has finished seventh or better in seven of his last nine starts, the driver who has won five of the last Sprint Cup six championships: Jimmie Johnson.

Currently fourth in the standings, Johnson is already a lock to qualify for his ninth straight Chase. (No other driver has advanced to the playoffs every year since the Chase era began in 2004.) Johnson has won three of the last five starts at Indy, but he's had plenty of mishaps at the 2.5-mile track as well. He suffered one of his most violent crashes of his career at Indy in 2007, slamming into the wall outside of Turn 4. In 10 career starts here, he has three finishes of 36th or worse and in his last two starts at Indy he hasn't cracked the top 15 and led only two total laps.

But this season already has taken on the feel of another championship run for the No. 48 team, and it typically begins its march to the title at Indy. No team in the last decade has been better at peaking just as the Chase starts, and Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus like to use Indy as the starting point for revving up their intensity, their focus and -- most significant -- their speed.

Here are four other drivers to watch on Sunday:

1. Matt Kenseth

Kenseth has authored a masterful season. He's the points leader, is tied with Johnson and Denny Hamlin with a series-best nine top-five runs, and Kenseth's average finish of 7.7 would be a career high if he maintains his blistering pace.

Indy could be a message-sending type of race for Kenseth. He's a lame duck driver -- he's leaving Roush-Fenway Racing at season's end, most likely for Joe Gibbs Racing -- and drivers with that status rarely contend for championships. But Kenseth could be different. His crew guys, most of whom he's been with for years, have genuine affection for him, and a strong run on Sunday would show the garage that this team isn't going to wilt down the home stretch of the regular season.

Kenseth finished fifth in this race last year; I suspect he'll top that on Sunday.

2. Tony Stewart

A native of nearby Columbus, Ind., Stewart considers Indy his home track and this to be his most important race of the year. In his last seven Cup starts at Indy, Stewart has been the sport's most dominating driver. Consider: Over that stretch he has the best average finish (6.7); the fastest average green flag speed (169.959 mph); and the fastest average speed in traffic (168.030 mph).

Stewart is currently seventh in the standings, but he has three wins, which means he'll be in the Chase. Expect him to be ultra-aggressive, as he'll try to put on show for his friends and family, who'll be in his private box high above Turn Two.

3. Sam Hornish Jr.

Hornish has only started four Cup races in the last two years, has failed to come in the top 15 in any of those events, and has a career average finish of 29.3 in his three Cup races at Indy. So why could he be a wild card on Sunday? Two reasons: He knows his way around Indy as well as any other driver in the series and he's supremely motivated.

Driving for Penske Racing, Hornish is filling in for A.J. Allmendinger, who is serving an indefinite suspension for a failed drug test. Owner Roger Penske hasn't said that Hornish will finish the season in the No. 22 Dodge, but Hornish could make a compelling case with a strong run at the Brickyard, where he won the Indy 500 in 2006.

Make no mistake: Hornish is a longshot, but so was Paul Menard last year when he took the checkers in the Brickyard 400. So Hornish is worth keeping on eye on once the green flag waves.

4. Jeff Gordon

It is officially panic time for Gordon, who is winless this season and 17th in the standings. The only way that Gordon, a four-time Cup champion, will make the Chase is to win two of the last seven regular season races and sneak into the playoffs as a wild card.

Gordon's body of work at Indy is impressive. He leads the series in career wins at the track with four and he's finished sixth or better here in 12 of his 18 starts. Last August he came in second at Indy. If he's going to have a legitimate shot at advancing to the Chase, he'll likely need to finish one spot higher than that on Sunday.

But that won't be easy at the track where championship contenders typically flourish. It says here that Johnson's drive to a sixth title will shift into a higher gear on Sunday.

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