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NASCAR Brickyard 400 preview: Jimmie Johnson's drive for five

Photo: Sean Gardner/Getty Images for NASCAR

Expect Jimmie Johnson to get intimate with Indy Speedway's famed bricks for the fifth time.

It is one of NASCAR's four Majors, a race that drivers spend months playing out in their heads -- What line should I take? How aggressive should I be early? What chances should I take late? -- and teams spend millions of dollars preparing for. The Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is always one of the most significant stock car races of the year, and not just because it's held on the most storied track in America. The Brickyard, after all, usually provides clues and insight into which drivers will be serious contenders for the championship in the fall.

Last year, seven of the top 10 finishers at Indy qualified for the Chase. And of the last eight winners at the Brickyard, four have gone on to cruise to the Cup title. So why, of all the 26 regular season races, is Indy the most accurate barometer for forecasting who will be fast in the months of September, October and November?

Simple: The majority of the teams build new cars for Indy that are equipped with their latest aerodynamic and technological innovations, which they've had extra time to prepare because the Brickyard 400 always falls after a rare off-weekend. The new cars and the additional man hours spent perfecting them typically cause the haves in the sport to rise and the have-nots fall at Indy, the third Major of the season. (The others, to me at least, are the Daytona 500 in February, the Southern 500 at Darlington in May, and the Bristol night race in August.)

This isn't a set-in-bricks rule, though. Two years ago, Paul Menard stormed out of the back-of-the-pack fumes to steal a win at Indy -- his only victory in 238 career starts in the Cup series. And in that same race, Regan Smith, driving for underfunded Furniture Row Motorsports, came in third, which at the time was only the second top-five finish of his four-year career.

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Still, in the first 19 NASCAR races held at the 2.5-mile oval at the corner of 16th Street and Georgetown Road, the top drivers on the top teams have usually dominated, which is why I'm picking Jimmie Johnson to win on Sunday. The five-time champion, somewhat stunningly, is having a career year in 2013. He leads the points, has four victories, and has an average finish of 8.8, which if the season ended today would be the highest\ of his career. (His previous best was 9.7 in 2006.)

And Johnson has a history of smooching the bricks. He's won four times at Indy, including last year, which ties him with Jeff Gordon for the most 400 victories. It says here that it will be an upset if Mr. Five Time doesn't take the checkered flag on Sunday.

Here are four other drivers to watch when the green flag drops in the 20th running of the Brickyard 400:

1. Tony Stewart

A native of nearby Columbus, Ind., Stewart always views this race as the most important of the season. He owns a suite above Turn 2, which will be filled with friends and family members.

A two-time winner at the Brickyard, he is currently 13th in the standings. If the playoffs started today, he'd qualify as a wild card based on his win earlier this year at Dover, but Stewart certainly doesn't want to be in such a precarious position. He's finished 20th or worse in three of his last four starts, so on Sunday he needs to stop bleeding points. Expect a top-five performance.

2. Jeff Gordon

With seven races left in the regular season, Gordon is in a dangerous position. He's ted with Martin Truex Jr. for 12th in the standings. the final spot that advances to the Chase, but he has yet to win this year. That means if he falls out of the top-12, he'll have to win a race before September 15 to qualify.

The good news for Gordon is that Indy, statistically, is his third best track on the Cup circuit. His career average finish of 8.8 at the Brickyard trails only his average finishes at Kentucky (7.7) and Martinsville (7.0). And remember: the aging Gordon has come in fifth or better in four of his last six starts at Indy. Look for him and his No. 24 team to be particularly aggressive on the track and pit road as the laps wind down to try to notch that first victory of 2013.

3. Brad Keselowski

The defending Cup champion has had a remarkably quiet season. He's yet to win, has only nine top-10 finishes in 19 starts and an average finish of 15.1 (exactly five spots lower than his average last year), and is ninth in the standings. Keselowski gained four spots in points with his fourth-place finish in New Hampshire two weeks ago, but he's far, far, far from a shoo-in to qualify for the Chase.

In his last two starts at Indy, he has finished ninth. On Sunday, we'll find out if Keselowski and his team have been sandbagging so far this year. If they are going to make a move, the time is here.

4. Juan Pablo Montoya

If there is going to be an upset winner on Sunday, it will be Montoya. Though it's looking more and more like he could lose his ride with Chip Ganassi Racing at season's end -- Montoya is 23rd in points and has only three top-10 finishes this season -- he could surprise at Indy, which is one of his favorite tracks in the world.

The winner of the 2000 Indy 500, Montoya has twice led the most laps in the Brickyard 400 (in 2009 and '10). Each time, he was undone by a miscue -- he was busted for speeding on pit road late in '09 and he crashed in '10 -- but in both years he had the car to beat. Can he pull off an upset on Sunday? If he does, don't be surprised.

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