In an 82-lap race that featured just one caution on lap 2, the NASCAR Cup Series’ return to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course proved to be a grueling endurance battle between three drivers: Michael McDowell, Chase Elliott and Daniel Suarez.
The trio all started in the top four, and they effectively held the top three spots all day outside of off-sequence pit strategies. Suarez eventually lost touch with McDowell and Elliott in the final stage, and it was McDowell who prevailed over Elliott for his second Cup win and an automatic spot in the 2023 playoffs.
But What Really Happened?
McDowell had the fastest lap, fastest five-lap average and fastest 10-lap average in Saturday’s (Aug. 12) practice, but it was Suarez who stole the show in qualifying with his first pole since 2019.
A lap 6 restart was the last time the field was bunched up, and McDowell quickly took the lead from Suarez before the lap was over. Midway through stage one, the order was McDowell-Suarez-Elliott. McDowell ultimately prevailed for the stage one win, a first for both McDowell and Front Row Motorsports.
McDowell lost the effective lead to Suarez during the first round of pit stops, but he took it back on the final lap of stage 2 by passing Suarez and Brad Keselowski (who was on older tires) in one corner. Elliott got by Suarez a few turns later to take over second.
The final round of pit stops on lap 49 saw a critical mistake from the No. 99 crew, and Suarez found himself nine seconds back of Elliott and McDowell with no way of catching up without a caution.
The final 33 laps were a duel between McDowell and Elliott, and while the No. 9 car was able to stay within one to three seconds of the No. 34 car on the final run, it was not enough as McDowell took the checkered flag.
Who Stood Out?
McDowell, Elliott and Suarez were the stars of the day. All three entered Indianapolis below the playoff cut line and winless on the 2023 season, and the trio left the rest of the field in the dust.
In McDowell’s case, it was the first time in his Cup career that he led the most laps. He ultimately led 54 of the 82 in what proved to be, without a doubt, the most dominant Cup win in the history of FRM. The win broke a 94-race winless streak for both McDowell and FRM, and the win was the first for Ford on a road course since Ryan Blaney won the inaugural race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL in 2018.
Elliott and Suarez both had average running positions of fourth in what proved to be their most dominant performances of the season. But despite having days that were as close to perfect as possible, they both lost ground to the playoff cut line by virtue of McDowell’s win.
Suarez entered the five points behind the cut line and leaves 28 points back, while Elliott entered 55 below and leaves 80 below. Both drivers were serious threats for the win, and now it will likely take a win to make it with just two races remaining.
Alex Bowman is also in a must-win situation, but his fifth-place finish at Indianapolis was his first top 10 since April. After strong runs at Pocono Raceway and Michigan International Speedway went haywire via crashes, the No. 48 team was finally able to put a race together from start to finish.
Speaking of putting a race together, Chase Briscoe was the class of Stewart-Haas Racing at his home track. SHR’s other cars struggled to run in the top 20 while he finished sixth and had an average running position of 10th for his strongest performance in months.
Finally, in a race chock-full of international talent, it was Shane van Gisbergen who, once again, led the way. While unable to duplicate the win in his debut, the New Zealander finished 10th in his second start after running in the top half of the scoring pylon all afternoon.
Who Fell Flat?
In terms of the playoff cut line, Bubba Wallace, Ty Gibbs and AJ Allmendinger proved to be the big losers. Wallace finished in 18th, but he now clings to the final playoff spot with his points cushion cut in half.
Gibbs is now 49 below the cut, and he was playing catch up from the start after an early spin dropped him out of the top 10. He managed to climb back to an impressive 12th-place finish, but the lack of stage points what not what the No. 54 team needed. As for Allmendinger – who expressed displeasure with the speed of his car on Saturday – a bad day with an early spin culminated with a 26th-place finish.
While Suarez and van Gisbergen were solidly in the top 10 for Trackhouse Racing Team, Ross Chastain crossed the line in 17th after yet another race where he was nowhere to be found out front. The No. 1 team is already locked in, but it needs to find consistent speed in a hurry.
Likewise, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Preece and Aric Almirola of SHR ran well behind Briscoe. Harvick never ran higher than 23rd all day while Preece was only able to bring the No. 41 car home in 31st. To add salt in the wound for Almirola and the No. 10 team, a potential 19th-place finish turned into a last-place showing after Almirola ran out of fuel with two laps remaining.
In what was a relatively clean race, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Joey Logano made the highlight reels for the wrong reasons. Stenhouse got into the back of and spun both Jenson Button and Kamui Kobayashi, while Logano lost control after hitting a curb and sent Justin Haley into the tire barriers for the only caution of the day. And on the ensuing restart, Logano had trouble braking and spun in front of the field in turn 1. The day was only a struggle from there for the No. 22 team, and Logano brought the car home in 34th.
Better Than Last Time?
It has been heavily rumored that the Brickyard 400 and the Indianapolis oval will be back next year, so the road course layout was already in thin ice.
What didn’t help its reputation was two wreckfest endings that required multiple late restarts in both 2021 and 2022.
The third race was a complete 180 from the first two. NASCAR employed a new restart zone before turn 14 so that cars wouldn’t be on top of each other heading into turn 1 like years past, but that proved to be no difference with lack of cautions on Sunday (Aug. 13).
Sunday was the first one-caution Cup race since 2012, and 77 of the 82 laps were a part of the final green flag run.
You’d get varying responses depending on who you asked, but to me, the lack of cautions is what made the race a thrill. In a season that has had numerous races decided by a restart with under 10 laps to go, it was a pleasant surprise to see almost an entire race run from start to finish without a yellow.
We saw which cars had the speed and which cars didn’t on Sunday (Aug. 13). And with nearly two full hours of non-stop green flag racing, there was no margin for error; just one mistake from the No. 99 took Suarez from winning contention to a distant third.
There was zero margin of error for McDowell either. After 77 laps and 187.8 miles around a 2.439-mile road course, he and Elliott finished less than a second apart. Despite the spread-out field, the battle for the win wasn’t over until the checkered flag waved. Elliott kept pace with McDowell, and a slip from either driver would put the other in victory lane.
Of course, all of this will be moot if NASCAR returns to the oval. But with such a long run to the finish on Sunday, the best teams and drivers unquestionably prevailed. And with how frequent cautions have occurred with the Next Gen car on average, what we saw on Sunday may not be seen again for a long, long time.
Paint Scheme(s) of the Race
This was a tough one to decide admittedly, so I will include three for this week.
Everyone loves a good throwback, and Harvick’s Mobil 1 paint scheme in his final Indianapolis race threw back to Tony Stewart’s final Indianapolis paint scheme in 2016.
Of the international stars present, Brodie Kostecki had one of the most unique paint schemes out there. It’s rare to see a green and black car hit the track, but Mobile X and Richard Childress Racing absolutely made the combo work.
Finally, Purdue University at Indianapolis has made itself known as a sponsor through Stewart’s SRX Series this season. The Brickyard marked the debut of its colors in the Cup Series, a brilliant blend of black and gold adorned Preece’s No. 41 car on Sunday.
The NASCAR Cup Series returns to the Finger Lakes region of Upstate New York and Watkins Glen International. It’s the penultimate race of the 2023 regular season and the fifth of six road course races this year.
The playoff battle has only intensified, and not a single team or driver has dominated the four road course races already in the books. With plenty of contenders, the 90 laps around the 2.45-mile track will be must-see TV.
The 25th race of the Cup season will take place on Sunday, Aug. 20 at 3:00 p.m. with TV coverage provided by USA Network.
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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