Indy Can Provide Harsh Reality
By: Dustin Long - @dustinlong on July 24, 2014 | 8:27 A.M. EST
Holding off a herd of competitors will take a strong engine in Sunday's Brickyard 400. (Photo: Getty Images)
SPEEDWAY, Ind. - Ghosts linger and wash over one as you pass through the Indianapolis Motor Speedway gates. From its first 500-mile race in 1911 to NASCAR’s debut in 1994 to today, this 2.5-mile speedway has tested many with few conquering it.
Modern upgrades, including a new scoring pylon installed this week, can’t change what this track is about.
This track remains a proving ground.
NASCAR’s annual trip here this weekend is no different. Sunday’s Brickyard 400 will show teams where they stand less than two months before the Chase begins.
Indianapolis’ 5/8 of a mile straightaways reward horsepower. A malnourished engine will wilt under such conditions and lag well behind the leaders. Yes, track position is important at Indy, but if one doesn’t have enough horsepower it won’t matter.
Hendrick Motorsports engines have been the best this season, helping Hendrick, Stewart-Haas Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing to strong runs this season. The only team that has shown it can compete with those engines are the Team Penske cars of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano with their Roush-Yates engines.
Most engine builders target Indianapolis for updated versions, knowing how the track and competition will test their equipment. If these new engines aren’t strong enough, there’s still time before the Chase for upgrades. If the engines are strong, it’s a sign that those groups are working in the right areas.
“The Chevrolet engine seems to be right there,’’ said former champion Dale Jarrett, an analyst for ESPN. “They've got a little something on everyone.’’
Particularly the Hendrick motors, which have won four of the past five races on unrestricted horsepower tracks. Jimmie Johnson won at Michigan and Charlotte. Dale Earnhardt Jr. won at Pocono, and Jeff Gordon won at Kansas. The one exception in that string is Keselowski’s win at Kentucky where handling is as critical as horsepower because of the track’s bumpy surface.
“Don't count Doug Yates out,’’ Jarrett said of the man who builds Ford engines for Team Penske, Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports. “He doesn't like being second to anyone, anything. I think we've seen (Keselowski) and (Logano) be beneficiaries of that. Doug Yates always had something a little bit more when it came time for Indy.’’
While Penske has been strong with Yates’ motors, Roush Fenway Racing has not. Carl Edwards’ two wins are at Bristol and Sonoma, tracks where horsepower is not as important. Roush failed to place a car in the top 10 at Kentucky, Michigan and Pocono last month. The Michigan race marked the first time since 2000 that Roush did not have a car finish in the top 10 there. It led the team to test there this week, but it wasn’t just Michigan that Edwards, Greg Biffle and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. were focused.
Biffle admits the Michigan test was a “dual-purpose test” to find speed also for Indianapolis. Biffle said that he was about half a second behind the faster cars during a Goodyear tire test last month at Indy that included Tony Stewart (Hendick engine) and Logano.
“We knew we had to find that speed,’’ Biffle said. “We feel like we have found some of that speed. I feel pretty good about going to Indy now.’’
Roush isn’t the only organization searching for speed, though.
“I think the one organization or one group that's going to be hurting a little bit are the Toyotas,’’ Jarrett said, noting Joe Gibbs Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing. “I think they've been behind. I think it's a significant amount that they're behind.’’
That’s a big change from last year when the Gibbs cars of Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin won eight races at 1.5-mile and larger tracks. Now, the Toyotas are trying to catch the Hendrick engines and others.
“I know that they were looking towards the Brickyard as trying to up things a little bit to try to get a little bit more power, but that's a huge gamble,’’ Jarrett said of Toyota. “As we all know, anytime that you start trying to make more power, you're sacrificing a little bit of reliability somewhere along the way to make that power work.’’
That’s the dilemma teams could face if they can’t catch the Hendrick engines this weekend.