NASCAR Cup storylines: Indy road course

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A new chapter of NASCAR Cup Series racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway begins this weekend.

After 27 years of competition on Indy’s famous 2.5-mile oval, NASCAR’s premier division will run for the first time on the Brickyard’s 14-turn, 2.439-mile road course.

Sunday’s race (1 p.m. ET, NBC) is the final act of NASCAR’s joint weekend with IndyCar at IMS. Both IndyCar and the NASCAR Xfinity Series will run Saturday on the Indy road course.

The race could provide another shakeup on the road to the Cup playoffs. Following Sunday, the series heads to Michigan (Aug. 22) before closing out the regular season on the oval at Daytona (Aug. 28).

It hits different

After years of subpar racing and poor attendance for the Brickyard 400, it was not entirely surprising for Indy’s Cup race to move to the road course.

But while the road course may provide a more lively show – which is what happened last year for the Xfinity Series – it still marks a massive change for what was a crown jewel event.

The inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994, won by Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon, was a milestone in NASCAR’s rise to becoming the most popular form of racing in America. From there, over a quarter-century of history was made.

That’s over. Maybe not forever, but certainly for now.

Kevin Harvick, winner of the last two Brickyard 400s on the oval, shared his thoughts on the matter this week. To him, Indy means the oval.

“I can’t imagine driving backward on the front stretch and driving the road course in the infield,” he said. “…When you look at the oval and you look at the history of the racetrack and everything that comes with that – some guys may not have grown up like that, so some people will have a much different opinion – but for me, the oval just holds a huge place in racing and it holds a huge place in the things that I look forward to every year.

“I remember the first time I pulled in there for a test in 2001 and you roll into the racetrack and you think, ‘Man, I just accomplished everything in my childhood dreams, rolling into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.’ Getting to go out on that racetrack and hearing the echoes of the cars through the grandstand is something that I’ll never forget, standing there on the front straightaway.

“I’m sure I’ll get over it as we start to get into practice and realize it’s just another race. But, for me, it’s going to be a difficult hurdle to overcome.”

Get to the points

While Kyle Larson officially took the regular season points lead after his win at Watkins Glen, he and Denny Hamlin are still tied on points at 917 (Larson’s five victories this season gives him the tie-breaker over the winless Hamlin).

The Indy road course will be new for both drivers, but Larson’s won two of the last three road course races. His Hendrick Motorsports team has won eight of the last nine road course races, including the last four.

Hamlin’s fifth-place finish last week at Watkins Glen was his fifth top 10 in his last seven road course races. But with how dominant the Hendrick organization has been in this discipline, Larson seems poised to take the lead outright if he avoids trouble.

Meanwhile, the bubble battle between Richard Childress Racing teammates Tyler Reddick and Austin Dillon remains close entering Indy. Reddick holds the 16th and final playoff position by 15 points over Dillon.

On Tuesday, Dillon told reporters in a media teleconference that he was “pretty calm” about the situation. He also said that while having 13 different winners this season has had an “unfortunate” impact on his playoff outlook, he feels confident after learning the Indy road course on the simulator the last few weeks.

“I usually don’t pick up the road courses on the simulator very fast, but for some reason, Indy came to me pretty quick, which is good, I think, for what we’re going into,” he added.

“I think qualifying is the biggest thing on my mind right now for this coming weekend and getting a good qualifying position because I know how important, the way it is, it’s so hard to pass on all these road courses that get strung out, that starting position matters.”

Cup qualifying is scheduled for Sunday morning at 9:05 a.m. ET. The Cup race begins shortly after 1 p.m. ET that afternoon.

They’ve seen this before

Seven drivers entered for Sunday’s Cup race competed in last year’s inaugural Xfinity Series race on the Indy road course. With the circuit being an unknown for most of the field, this past experience could prove useful.

Current Cup rookies Chase Briscoe and Anthony Alfredo are in that aforementioned group of seven.

Briscoe, an Indiana native, won last year’s Xfinity race after holding off Austin Cindric, A.J. Allmendinger and Noah Gragson in the final laps. Alfredo finished 20th.

Cindric and Allmendinger are also entered for Sunday. Cindric will make his seventh Cup start this season for Team Penske. Allmendinger will make his fourth Cup start this season for Kaulig Racing.

Finishing second in last year’s Xfinity race behind Briscoe was fellow Hoosier Justin Haley. He’s entered for Sunday in Spire Motorsports’ No. 77.

Completing the group are Ross Chastain and Josh Bilicki. In last year’s Xfinity race, Chastain and Bilicki finished sixth and 23rd respectively.

Regarding a surprise win, Cindric and Allmendinger obviously stand out for their road course acumen. A victory from either wouldn’t impact the Cup playoff picture, as both are Xfinity full-timers.

But Briscoe’s three top-10 finishes as a Cup freshman have all been on road courses. He’s finished sixth at both COTA and Road America, as well as ninth last week at Watkins Glen.

Chastain has also posted three finishes of seventh or better in his last four road course starts.