The third annual Verizon 200 at The Brickyard – potentially the last on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course layout – took many by surprise, myself included.
A Surprisingly Clean Affair
At a track notorious for creating restart carnage to where NASCAR elected to revise the restart zone, there was just one caution on lap 2 for Justin Haley and only a handful of spins otherwise.
The race ended on a 77-lap green flag run that made up 93.9% of the race’s 82-lap distance. The run time of the race was a brisk 2 hours, 9 minutes and 59 seconds. For the drivers, however, it was anything but brisk.
All 39 drivers in the field went all out for nearly two straight hours of green-flag racing with no breaks and no margin for error. And throughout all of that, the race was decided by just 0.937 seconds between race winner Michael McDowell and runner-up Chase Elliott.
With the introduction of stage breaks in 2017, the potential for one caution or caution-free races went away. But with stage cautions scrapped for the road course races in 2023, the potential was once anew.
The NASCAR Cup Series visit to Sonoma Raceway in June certainly came close. The race opened on a 49-lap green flag period – the second longest in Sonoma Cup history – and just two cautions waved through the 110-lap event.
A one-caution race finally came to fruition on Sunday (Aug. 13) in Indianapolis.
It was the first such race since March 2012 at Auto Club Speedway. On that day, the lone caution was for rain that ended the event after 129 of 200 scheduled laps.
The last caution-free race was at Talladega Superspeedway in October 2002 – could it happen again? While still unlikely, Sunday showed that it’s certainly possible.
Altogether, Sunday marked the ninth Cup race since 1993 to either have one caution or no cautions.
|August 2023||Indianapolis R.C.||82||1|
|March 2012||Auto Club||129||1|
For an added bonus: since races with stage breaks have at least two cautions, the following Cup races since 2017 had no cautions other than the stages.
|March 2019||Las Vegas||267|
|July 2022||Road America||62|
A Career-Defining Race
If one looks at the 2010 Cup Series season – one that’s 13 years in the rearview mirror – they’d find more differences than similarities: different drivers, different cars and different teams. The cream of the crop has prevailed and lasted throughout time, while many drivers and teams fell by the wayside.
But two of the underdogs of the late 2000s and early 2010s that are still present today are McDowell and Front Row Motorsports. They haven’t just lasted, however; they’ve progressed and thrived.
A first-time Cup team in 2005, FRM had three Cup wins to its name prior to last weekend: a 2013 victory at Talladega with David Ragan, a 2016 victory in a fog-shortened affair at Pocono Raceway with Chris Buescher and a 2021 Daytona 500 triumph with McDowell.
A win is a win, but one could argue that all of the wins were due to circumstances or the unpredictability of superspeedway racing.
The team’s fourth win was anything but.
McDowell and FRM didn’t just win at IMS: they left the entire field in the dust. After starting fourth, McDowell led 54 of the 82 laps – 65.9% – en route to the victory.
Prior to Indy, the most laps McDowell had led in a single race was 34 at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway in June 2022. With a total of 245 laps, the 34 he led accounted for 13.9% of the race.
Percentage-wise, McDowell’s career high was 14 of the 90 laps led at Watkins Glen International (15.6%) last season.
McDowell’s career highs in 452 starts were also the career highs for FRM in 1,272 entries. And in start No. 453 and entry No. 1,273, respectively, they completely blew those numbers out of the water.
Now, FRM General Manager Jerry Freeze and No. 34 crew chief Travis Peterson made it clear in Sunday’s post-race presser that they don’t view themselves as underdogs or view the win as an upset. And for good reason; if Sunday was the first-ever race that a fan watched, McDowell and the No. 34 team looked like anything but underdogs.
But when viewing McDowell’s early 2010s tenure as a start-and-park driver and FRM’s results of the late 2000s and early 2010s, Sunday’s domination was nothing short of remarkable: the Davids of the early 2010s were the Goliaths of today.
The win at Indy put not just McDowell and FRM on the map, but also Ford. Prior to this weekend, the most recent road course winner for Ford was Ryan Blaney, all the way back at the inaugural 2018 race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL.
Sunday wasn’t the mountaintop for either party. Remember that aforementioned 2022 Watkins Glen race? McDowell was a top-five car, and that’s the track up next on the schedule. FRM and McDowell have put the field on notice, and they will be one of the teams that everyone will be watching next weekend.
About the author
Stephen Stumpf is the NASCAR Content Director for Frontstretch, and his weekly columns include “Stat Sheet” and “4 Burning Questions.” Stephen also writes commentary, contributes weekly to the “Bringing the Heat” podcast and is frequently at the track for on-site coverage. A native of Texas, Stephen began following NASCAR at age 9 after attending his first race at Texas Motor Speedway.
Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.
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