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Brickyard Short On Fans, Long On Storylines

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Monday, July 30 2012

Jimmie Johnson is warming up his checkered flag carrying arm. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Brian Lawdermilk)

Several potentially season-altering storylines came out of Sunday’s Brickyard 400. Storylines that just might still be bouncing around the room when the Sprint Cup Series arrives at Homestead in November.

Storylines such as:

– Kyle Busch having the type of run which the racing world  had come to expect from the guy since he began driving for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008.

Busch’s season had not just been bad (relatively), but tough to figure. His list of standout moments as he arrived in Indy stood in the vicinity of, well, one; his victory at Richmond in the spring. Yes there were a couple of other charges and podiums, but Busch’s JGR career has been about one thing and finishing second to Tony Stewart at Auto Club Speedway was not really that one thing.

Busch arrived at the Brickyard 13th in points and heading lower. His average finish in his previous seven races was 22.6.

Normally, it would be a big mystery why hyper-emotional Kyle Busch would get out of a car after finishing a distant second in an important race like the Brickyard and smile and joke and celebrate like he had just won PowerBall.

No mystery on Sunday. Busch was beaten by a car – driven by Jimmie Johnson – which could not have been beaten with the aid of a nitrous bottle. Finally, after weeks of frustration, Busch and team got what they deserved

Kyle Busch had a statement finish on Sunday.

and needed.

“We had a really good race car today,” he said. “Dave (Rogers, his crew chief) and the guys brought a phenomenal piece here from the Joe Gibbs Racing shop, and we worked on it well this weekend, and we felt like unloading right off the truck it was pretty good, felt pretty comfortable.

“The laps in the Nationwide car in my Monster Energy Camry there I think helped a little bit, but also just having a good race car over on this side helped a little bit, too.

“Can’t say enough about the effort the guys put in for our best finish here and our best run. If it wasn’t for the 48, we were probably in our zip code on the rest of the field, but Jimmie Johnson was in his own country today, so we just couldn’t keep up with him. That was the best we had, and it seemed like that was the best anybody had.”

Busch clearly thinks fortune has been reversed and the view here is that he is correct.

Storyline: Busch re-enters ranks of Chase and championship contenders.

– A strong favorite to win the championship emereges.

Jimmie Johnson was having a pretty darn good season up until Sunday. He had a couple of victories and was piling up top-fives and top-10s as though he had Groupons for them.

Jimmie Johnson and Rick Hendrick put lips to the bricks after winning Sunday's Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Christa L Thomas)

But in no way had he assumed the role of concensus – or even de facto – driver to beat this year. Not like he did during the fabulous five-year run. He was fourth in points prior to the Brickyard and that was his high-water mark on the season.

But on Sunday, the Chad and Jimmie Show was looking like a re-run from 2006-10 seasons. Halfway through the race, you knew it was his. You knew the old mojo was going to keep him out of the trouble which sprang up around him. You knew he was not going to run out of fuel. You knew that his big lead was safe as Apple stock and that there would be no green/white/checkered restart at Brickyard 2012.

Jimmie’s in. And now, as it did to perfection for five straight seasons, the No. 48 Hendrick team can focus on getting things lined up for the Chase.

Here is what Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus had to say post-race.

“I feel that from a performance standpoint, we’re as strong as we’ve ever been,” Johnson said. “We’ve had issues late in a race that’s cost us track position for a variety of reasons, and that’s the part that we need to make sure is buttoned up before the Chase starts and carry that through the Chase.

“But from a performance standpoint, these are amazing race cars. We’ve made a lot of progress through the off‑season and then getting started this year. I feel really good about the Chase. I’m ready for it to start.”

Knaus said,  ”Yeah, I think that I feel as though that the product we’re bringing to the racetrack right now is very competitive week in and week out, and once again, it’s in the details. Jimmie does a fantastic job of driving the race cars. But he can’t clearly do it without good pit stops and a good race car, and Jimmie communicating what it is that he needs in the race car, how comfortable he is in the car, much like what he did yesterday, he was able to say, look, the car is good, we may be a half a tenth off the pace, but the car is good.”

“The level of communication that we’ve got right now is really good, and remember, he’s awesome, there’s no doubt about it, he’s the best race car driver that we’ve got in the sport right now. But if we have poor pit stops, he can’t get it done. If we have poor race cars, we can’t get it done, and fortunately enough, everybody we’ve got at Hendrick Motorsports and everybody we’ve got in the 48‑88 shops are doing their jobs, and we’re able to go out there and put up some good numbers.”

Storyline: Jimmie Johnson looking primed for six-cess.

– Carl Edwards’ restart button didn’t function as had hoped.

Edwards has been the high-visibility driver on the bubble for much of the year. A point away from winning the

Carl Edwards' weekend at the Brickyard started well but sputtered late. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

championship last year, he became a mystery mucker this year. Two top-fives in 19 races leading up to the Brickyard? Still doesn’t seem possible for one of the great scrappers of his time.

Then word came that crew chief Bob Osborne was stepping down because of health issues. Nobody, least all the folks at Roush Fenway Racing, were smiling about that: The guy has been a classy, loyal warrior during his nine years as a Roush crew chief.

But the bad news may have come with an opportunity; the kind of opportunity that basic change can produce. Perhaps the situation would provide a rallying point. And, with Chad Norris helping unload the No. 99 car at IMS, things looked promising early in the weekend. Edwards and the car practiced well and qualified well.

But on race day, any momentum gained on Saturday morning and afternoon, left Indy on Saturday evening. With it went a large hunk of hope for a Chase berth. Edwards had mechanical problems and finished 29th on a day he needed a podium if not a victory.

“I don’t think we are points racing anymore,” Edwards said. “I think we are officially racing only for wins. We were going over what happened while it was fresh in our mind to determine the best strategy. We had one thing, we had a very fast race car. Greg finished third with his car and I felt like ours was as good as his 3M Fusion. Right now we are going to talk to the guys. Chad and I want to make sure they know that we do not quit. We keep going. We don’t give up. We put our best effort out there and if it is meant to be, it will be.”

Edwards looked the part of beaten combatant as he tried to talk about the rest of the season.

“I think it will involve lots of pushing on the right pedal and turning left and going as fast as possible. We have to take chances. We have to go race. We can do that, we can race like that. It will actually be a big relief in a way because there is no other choice. We just go race for wins. I wouldn’t bet against us. We can do it.”

Storyline: Edwards won’t have to worry about losing Chase on a tie-breaker this year.

– Indy has never been a Dale Earnhardt Jr. kind of place. In his first 12 starts at the Brickyard, he had just two top-10s and an average finishing spot of 22nd.

This year’s race, one had to suppose, would be one of those which was tell us if the underpinnings of the 2012

Dale Earnhardt Jr. headed to big finish?. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

Junior Run To The Chase was were made of rebar or balsa.

Earnhardt was one of those who arrived at the Brickyard thinking about those underpinnings.

“We were looking forward to this race,” he said afterward. “Wanted to run well here. Want to win this race. Want to get a trophy here and go to Victory Lane.”

After a fourth-place finish – one which moved him to the points lead for the first time since 2004 and the prosperous days at DEI – Earnhardt’s hopes for 2012 look to be quake proof.

He’s got just the one victory, but we all know what wins championships under NASCAR’s consistency-rewarding point system.

Earnhardt’s top-five was his ninth in 20 starts. Only Johnson, who has 10, has more.

“I’m proud of that because it says a lot about our body of work,” he said. “All season of long we’ve been working hard and finishing well. That is symbolic of how well we’ve done. I’m proud of that. I have felt that way about our position in points all season long. We need to win more races. If we want to win the championship, we have to. I imagine we can win a couple races in Chase. I don’t know if finishing fourth or fifth is going to do it. We’ll just have to see. We’d like to step it up just a little bit more.”

Storyline: Junior Moves To The Top At Indy

– Once again, attendance took a dip at the Brickyard. Perhaps below the 100,000 mark. Once again, the race was a dog as aerodynamics ruled the day.

And once again this morning, fans and media are debating the continued existence of a race that just eight years ago was selling 250,000 tickets.

But once again, the race sparked big-race attention. The competitors still view the event as crown jewel. The race still offers mid-summer, big-event relief and portends to the important days ahead for a series which now produces so few big moments, places, personalities and events.

Were the sport catching fire in other places, for other events, it would be correct – healthy, even – to debate whether or not the Brickyard should be put to sleep. But if right to life in NASCAR is based on building, or even sustaining, interest, then the entire sport should be considered a candidate for an urn on the fireplace.

Storyline: Brickyard attendance down again but special feeling lives on.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Monday, July 30 2012
2 Comments

2 Comments »

  • dick says:

    Safety up/attendence down! Sad, but true. These “high speed parades” with too few restarts are just boring as ____! I’m not the type that goes to see the wrecks…..but I do expect to see restarts. Bunch’em up and race!! Or I stay home.

    And couple that with tracks, like Indy, where a spectator sitting in a $100+ seat can only see at best 1/3 to 1/2 of a lap and watches the rest of the lap on TV (megatron) and it’s not surprising people stay home and actually see the whole race in their livingroom. Personally, I’m only 130 miles from there and I wouldn’t go to Indy to see a race if the ticket was free!

  • Tony Geinzer says:

    I feel JJ is going to gang up on 6 Titles and no one( other than JJ Fans) will be happy. I find I don’t want to veer too far off road here, but the 1st Major (Southern 500) and the 5th Major (Brickyard 400) need some serious work. The Southern has a decent sponsor, but needs to return to Labor Day. The Brickyard, needs to reach out for serious fans because they don’t have the NASCAR History like some of the others do and I find Ticket Sales would end the Nationwide Tour and merge it with Sprint Cup or whatever it is in 2015.