After 160 laps of racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the question fairly begged to be asked: did the finish of the race justify the previous 140 laps or so?
It’s a question that has been asked a lot this year, and the answers have been hit and miss. Sure, Paul Menard won in thrilling fashion, winning a fuel mileage showdown with Jeff Gordon and Regan Smith. A first-time victory is always cool, especially to a driver who saw his father spend a lot of money for not a lot of results at IMS when he was an Indy Car team owner. The fact that it happened by passing the defending race winner, spurred on by a crew chief who has worked for just about every team out there and for an owner who has taken a bunch of stuff for expanding to four cars with Menard was purely incidental.
Growing up within shouting distance of the Brickyard, it’s safe to say every race there is magnified. In the glory days of the 500, you had 350,000 people jammed into the confines of the old speedplant. When something would happen, I swear you could hear the roar from Terre Haute. On one of the fly-by shots from the Goodyear blimp, you could see that there weren’t 350,000 people there. There weren’t 200,000 people there. If I had to guess, I would say it was about 145,000, give or take.
That’s not a bad day at work, if you’re any other track. For Indy, it’s less than half-full.
The racing, to be honest, was anything but stellar, except on restarts and near the end of the race. The strategy was interesting, if you like that sort of thing, but I would hazard to guess that NASCAR fans care less about fuel mileage than they do about some kick-ass, run-‘em-hard-and-pass action. After all, what do we have Formula One for, if not to give us our weekly fill of strategies?
Fan favorite Kyle Busch, Toyota’s best finisher in 10th, said it was about par for racing at Indy. “Indy has never really been one of my favorite places anyways just because it’s so hard to run around here and gain track position or even pass,” he said. “If you could pass people, sure, it wouldn’t be that big of a deal. You can get stuck behind a guy for 50 laps and not be able to make a move on him.
“That’s just frustrating, but it’s the same for everybody.”
IMS is not, truth to tell, built for NASCAR. It’s built for single-seat cars. It was built in 1909, for heaven’s sake, and they didn’t know what side-by-side racing was back then. They were amazed when the cars finished 500 miles.
In the latter stages of Sunday’s race, most everyone dived onto pit road with 30 or so to go and got fuel and tires. That made it so they could get to the end on fuel. Menard and the rest then set the cruise control to make it to about 6 to go, and then went hell-for-election to the checkered.
Sorry, but that’s not blowing my skirt up. Nor, I imagine, is anyone else feeling much of a breeze. The first 130 or so were interesting, in a “let’s see what happens, unless something major goes down with NFL free agency” kind of way. The one crash—four-wide doesn’t work at Indy…ever—set up a chance for the race to redeem itself in terms of excitement. Once the 35 bales of chewed-up grass were blown off the North short chute from all the lawn-mowing that was done in the race to avoid the wayward Landon Cassill, the strategy began to play out.
Jeff Gordon was the lone hope for a come-from-behind thriller. He had plenty of gas, and set the No. 24 on kill for the final segment. He came close, but Menard extended just enough to earn the victory. Even though it didn’t work, it did recall memories of Gordon Johncock’s 1982 victory in the Indianapolis 500. Gordo held off a fast-closing Rick Mears that year, using up most of a 13-second lead to win the race by a few car lengths. While that tantalizing vision danced at the edge of recollection, Menard was busy putting the hammer down. Had Mike Bliss gotten in the way just a little bit more as Menard came past, Gordon would have completed the comeback and won No. 5. How bad is it when one of the major whoopsie moments flickers in front of the crowd with a couple laps to go…and it’s a guy who won’t move over for the leader with second-place coming hard?
Having grown up in the shadow of IMS and having it be such a large part of my childhood, I am saddened by the fact that the Brickyard 400 has become almost a sideshow of cosmic proportions.
The new car, which NASCAR should be commended for mandating, has created a problem or two. It didn’t get rid of aero-push, which at Indy is the primary handling condition, for one thing. If the front of the car is aero-dependent, and is susceptible to dirty air, then why is anyone surprised that the racing suffers? Safety-wise, it’s been a God-send. Racing-wise, not so much; it’s been more of the same. I don’t have the answer, other than to say keep looking for a solution so they can race side-by-side. Let them massage. Let them run wickers and Gurney flaps and inserts…let them RACE, and we’ll see who the best is when the checkered waves.
Next year, in an effort to make the Brickyard a bigger deal, they’ll have the Nationwide Series and the Rolex Grand-Am Series at IMS for a weekend triple. Might work, but it might not. Here’s a better solution: move Nationwide and Grand-Am to the Brickyard and put Cup at Lucas Oil Raceway. The racing would be better, I’m sure, and you can always build more seats…
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