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A new hope: Hailie Deegan’s success could transform NASCAR

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — An effervescent 18-year-old, who channels the sport’s pioneers in spirit and aggression, moves closer to leading a NASCAR movement.

But Hailie Deegan does not take this journey alone. With family close by and female competitors watching, Deegan’s rise through stock-car racing could open more driving opportunities for women. As long as she continues to succeed.

Deegan’s achievements are not measured against foes but history. She was the first woman to win an ARCA West race in 2018. Her runner-up finish in last weekend’s ARCA event at Daytona International Speedway tied Shawna Robinson and Erin Evernham for the best result by a woman in that series.

Brian Deegan with daughter Hailie before last weekend’s ARCA race at Daytona. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Such marks are just the beginning, her father, former motocross superstar Brian Deegan, says.

“She’s going to be a pioneer to break down all these barriers that haven’t been done yet,” he told NBC Sports after celebrating his daughter’s Daytona performance.

“I’m excited that no girl has won yet because there is a chance to set records. That’s what our house has been about, setting records and creating new opportunities and just breaking down those barriers. I think she’s got a cool road ahead of her.”

Deegan’s Daytona performance came 10 years after Danica Patrick’s heralded stock-car debut at the same track. Patrick’s arrival raised hopes that more women could follow her to NASCAR, but those aspirations vanished as funding faded and results waned for many. Eventually, those obstacles sidelined Patrick. Deegan, who moved from Toyota’s development program to Ford’s program in the offseason, is poised to shake up the sport.

Others can’t wait, including Jennifer Jo Cobb, who has competed in the Truck series since 2010 minus the resources Deegan has.

“What I do hope is for her success,” Cobb told NBC Sports, “because what I’ve always wanted to see happen is for a woman to have the money so that we could prove that with the right resources it can be done.”

FADING HOPES

When Patrick made her stock-car debut in the Daytona ARCA race a decade ago, she was one of a series-record six women in the 43-car field. That Daytona Speedweeks also saw a female in the Truck race (Cobb) and two women in the Xfinity race, including Patrick. A few months later, Patrick was one of four women to compete in the Indianapolis 500.

“I thought it was super exciting,” Kenzie Hemric told NBC Sports of so many women racing in top levels in 2010, a year before she made her ARCA debut. “I thought, ‘Gosh, all these women are getting these chances and it’s going to be so good for me.’

“I thought I would be right there with them in a couple of years.”

Although Patrick had won an IndyCar race, led the Indianapolis 500 and appeared in multiple Super Bowl commercials, her move to stock car racing helped attract more attention.

“The way I liken Danica in NASCAR at the time is if we had a female quarterback playing for one of the major NFL teams,” said Norma Jones, who wrote a dissertation in 2016 on Patrick in NASCAR for her doctorate in philosophy at Kent State University.

Jones said among Patrick’s biggest impacts was showing that a woman could reach the heights of auto racing.

“If you can’t imagine something to happen or if you can’t place that there,” Jones said, “then it’s an impossibility for you.”

Kenzie Hemric, shown in 2015, was the first female selected to the NASCAR Next program in 2013. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Kenzie Hemric, whose last name was Ruston before she married NASCAR driver Daniel Hemric, also was a pioneer. She was the first female driver selected to the NASCAR Next program, which highlighted rising young talent. Kenzie Hemric was selected in 2013 and ’14. Among the drivers also chosen then were Chase Elliott, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, Ryan Preece and Cole Custer.

Hemric competed in K&N Pro Series East from 2013-15. Her first series race came a few weeks after Patrick won the 2013 Daytona 500 pole. That would be among the highlights for Patrick, who never finished better than 24th in the points before completing her NASCAR career with the 2018 Daytona 500.

Patrick, who did not have any stock-car experience before 2010, was a victim of unrealistic expectations that had a far-reaching effect, Hemric said.

“I think fans, sponsors and everybody expected more results out of her that weren’t necessarily achievable,” she said, “and I think just falling short on those unrealistic expectations made it really hard for other women and sponsors to help other women at that time.”

Lack of sponsorship left Hemric without a ride in the ARCA East Series after 2015. She ran Super Late Model races in 2016 but never made it back to NASCAR as a driver.

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

McKenna Haase scans the living room in the Indianapolis home she rents and sees a sprint car seat, midget car seat, asphalt car seat, her racing helmet and seat belts.

Haase, who turns 23 Thursday and again will race sprint cars this season, became a race fan after a chance meeting with Kasey Kahne at a Nashville, Tennessee mall when she was in the third grade. Her passion for racing grew and she later convinced her parents to let her compete.

She became the first female to win a sprint car race at Knoxville (Iowa) Raceway, which hosted its first automobile race in 1901 and is home to the Knoxville Nationals. Her victory came in 2015, a day before she graduated from high school as class valedictorian. Haase has won at Knoxville four other times.

One of the points Jones discussed in her 229-page doctorate dissertation about Patrick in NASCAR was the role of women in a masculine sport. Jones wrote that “women sporting competitors talk about desiring to be perceived as just athletes, without the gender identification.”

So does that mean recognizing Haase as the first female to win at Knoxville merely reinforces gender divides instead of celebrating a significant accomplishment?

McKenna Haase participated in NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity Combine in 2016 and ’17 but was not selected for the program either year. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)

“The local people are probably sick and tired of hearing that phrase (track’s first female winner) over and over again, and even myself it’s like I want to just be known as a really good race car driver at this point,” Haase told NBC Sports.

“Now, are there other first female records that I’d like to break? Absolutely, because there is something to be said about going someplace that nobody has ever gone.”

She acknowledges that “it’s not like we need special treatment or anything like that, but we are at a disadvantage, so to be able to overcome something like that to accomplish something is special.”

Haase says there are numerous challenges competing in a male-dominated sport.

“It starts out fine until the next thing you know you get up into those higher levels and there’s that strength difference, there’s that bravery difference and there’s like a passion difference and a priority difference in what (female drivers) want to do with their lives,” she said. “Another challenge, I guess, would just be obviously the men in general. Now you’re looking around and there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of men at the track and one female.”

While she admits the obstacles can make the sport “very frustrating at times,” she said she races because “I was designed to be where I am for a reason.”

Those reasons include youth racers. She started the Compass Racing Development program in 2015 to give kids a chance to race an outlaw karts. She’s had about 10 children compete in that program, including four girls. Haase also will launch Youth Racers of America Inc. and plans to host a national motorsports camp in Indianapolis in December for 300-500 youth racers.

The idea for Youth Racers of America stemmed from a paper she wrote at Drake University on the economics of motorsports.

“I basically did a study on where I think our sport is missing and what our greatest value proposition is,” she said. “All my research tied back to youth motorsports and the lack of support in that area and support for the future of the sport.”

“IT’S FUN TO DO THE IMPOSSIBLE”

The poster came from T.J. Maxx and hangs in Jennifer Jo Cobb’s office in a race shop that barely holds five trucks and various parts and pieces.

A black high heel shoe is on the white poster. Above it reads: “The question isn’t who is going to let me, it’s who is going to stop me.”

On the opposite wall in Cobb’s office is a smaller framed poster with words over a giant lipstick kiss imprint that states: “Life is tough and so are you.”

Jennifer Jo Cobb has run more national series NASCAR races than any other woman except Danica Patrick. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“These are my sources of inspiration,” Cobb said. “I need to be reminded.”

Racing has not been easy for the 46-year-old Cobb, who has made 190 Truck starts and 31 Xfinity starts. Only Patrick (252 starts) has been in more national series NASCAR races than Cobb, whose team is beginning its 10th season.

She has done it with minimal resources. Even a week before Truck teams were to arrive in Daytona, Cobb needed to find wheels for her race truck, a driver’s uniform and possibly a hauler to transport her vehicle and equipment to Daytona because her team’s hauler was not operational.

Cobb is undeterred by such difficulties. She just thinks back to how her father, Joe, whom she calls her hero, raced.

“He had less money than anybody else he raced against,” she said. “Driving into the racetrack, just my mom, my dad and me at like 10 years old … and this moment is as clear as day for me, there was one tire on dad’s open trailer tire rack.

“I’m looking around and my mom’s commenting, ‘Look at all the tires these guys are bringing’ for local dirt racing. I said, ‘Yeah dad, why do we have only one tire?’ My dad’s response was ‘Because that’s the spare for the trailer, and if we break down we have to have that.’ ”

Cobb recalls that her father won that night.

“He taught me, not even realizing it, some really huge life lessons, that created my character, which is never give up,” Cobb said. “I say all the time I probably don’t belong here. I know I don’t. This is a sport for people with a lot of money.”

Even with the financial hardships and one top-10 finish in her Truck career,  if a younger female sought Cobb’s advice on racing, she would not dissuade that person.

“Look at all the things that people have said were impossible,” Cobb said. “My favorite is it’s fun to do the impossible. How many times was Walt Disney told that his little mouse dream was ridiculous. If you ask me, it’s nobody’s business to discourage you.”

EXTRA MOTIVATION

At a time when many teens attempt to navigate life’s complexities, Hailie Deegan experiences often take place in public.

She makes those challenges seem easy, often smiling, laughing and full of energy. Deegan is not afraid to share amusing experiences on social media including the time last year she put the wrong fuel in the van she drove and faced a repair bill in the thousands of dollars.

But it’s not always so much fun having everything you do watched.

Hailie Deegan (No. 4) trails Michael Self on the last lap of the ARCA season opener last week at Daytona International Speedway. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“Trust me, it’s a lot of pressure,” Deegan told NBC Sports. “It’s a lot that comes with racing, Being a girl in racing does bring attention. … At the end of the day it has its pros and cons. When you’re doing good, it gets you noticed. When you’re doing bad, it tears you down. That’s how racing is.

“Racing is kind of like the craziest roller coaster you’ll be on, emotionally. It takes a toll on you because you’re going to have lot more bad races than good races.”

Deegan’s victories have been memorable for more than the historic value. She made contact with the leader on the last lap in all three ARCA West races she’s won. Twice Deegan took the win from a teammate, including at Colorado National Speedway last June. Deegan, echoing a sentiment from generations of drivers, said after that win: “If you take a swing at me, I’m going to take a swing at you back.”

Deegan acknowledged after her runner-up finish at Daytona last week “that one thing I regret from the past two seasons was making more enemies than I should have. Carrying more grudges than I should have. That is something this season, especially coming to the ARCA Series and a lot of news drivers, I want to stay away from that and have people on my side.”

Especially young girls.

“That is always cool having little girls come up to me and say they want to be a race car driver one day,” Deegan said. “That motivates me more because you know what you are doing is right and all the work you are putting in is worth something.”

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Kyle Larson says his dirt track racing will be key to next contract

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Kyle Larson says being allowed to race on dirt tracks will play a key role in which Cup team he competes for after the 2020 season.

Larson’s contract expires after next season. While social media has put him in the No. 48 car when Jimmie Johnson completes his final full-time season next year, there is no guarantee he’ll leave Chip Ganassi Racing for Hendrick Motorsports.

“I enjoy what I’m doing with Chip right now,” Larson said Wednesday in a media session a day before the NASCAR Awards Show (8 p.m. ET Thursday on NBCSN). “Obviously I’m a free agent, I guess, at the end of the year. I guess I’m excited just to hear what people have to say.

“If I do end up with Chip I’ll be perfectly happy with that. He gave me my first shot. I’ve got a great relationship with him and the team. More than anything, I just look forward to racing race cars. I haven’t really thought too much about (what team he’ll race for after 2020). Obviously, I’ve been reading everything everybody else has too. It’s cool to see your name in the mix for stuff like that, but we also have to focus on the on-track performance next year.”

Larson is considered among of the top free agents in a loaded class that includes Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones and Alex Bowman, among many whose contracts expire after the 2020 season. Larson finished a career-high sixth in points this past season. He has made the playoffs four consecutive years. 

Larson said that Ganassi’s willingness to let him race sprint and midget cars during the NASCAR season “definitely” gives Ganassi an edge over other teams.

“Wherever I end up, that is going to be priority for me is still being able to race quite a bit on dirt tracks,” Larson said. “I think teams understand that is what I love. We’ll see. I think Chip definitely continuing to let me run and then also letting me run more than I have in the last few years has been awesome.”

Larson’s agreement with Ganassi allows Larson to run 25 dirt track races during the NASCAR season. Ganassi’s rule is that Larson can’t drive a sprint or midget car 24 hours before he is to be in a Cup car but Ganassi waived that rule in 2017, allowing Larson to run in the Knoxville Nationals the night before the Cup race at Michigan. Larson finished second in the Knoxville Nationals and won the Cup race at Michigan the next day.

An issue for Hendrick Motorsports could be Larson’s desire to race on dirt tracks. Hendrick used to allow Kasey Kahne to run on dirt tracks but then took those privileges away after an accident Kahne had. Hendrick permitted Kahne to race those cars more than two years later.

Larson also said that he is grateful to Ganassi for hiring him when others didn’t pay much attention to the rising star.

“I want to do the best job I can while I’m with Chip and if I continue to be with Chip,” Larson said. “He took me from nobody, nobody ever heard of me or even when they started to hear about me wouldn’t give me a shot. I”m very loyal and thankful for that. I would love to be with Chip for the rest of my career if I could.”

Who will take over for Jimmie Johnson in the No. 48 car in 2021?

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CONCORD, N.C. — How does one replace an icon in a sport? And with whom?

Car owner Rick Hendrick faces those questions with seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson’s announcement that the 2020 season will be his last as a full-time Cup driver.

Hendrick was ready with a response during Thursday’s media session with Johnson at the Hendrick Motorsports complex.

“I’ve already picked a guy,” Hendrick said before a dramatic pause.

“Jeff Gordon is coming back.”

Everyone laughed.

But the reality remains, the No. 48 car — the most successful car in the 2000s — is open for 2021. As for Hendrick’s plans in finding a driver?

“We’ve got another year,” he said, turning the conversation to getting Johnson a record eighth championship.

The No. 48 car’s opening likely will create a frenzy among free agents and drivers with contracts that give them the chance to opt out of deals. While the car is winless in its last 95 races and Hendrick’s last title came in 2016, the organization remains among the best in the sport and such an opening is a rare opportunity for any driver.

So who could be that driver?

Hendrick has trended toward hiring younger drivers in the last 15 years. Five of his nine hires in that time featured drivers age 24 or under at the beginning of their first season with the organization.

Brian Vickers was 20 when the 2004 season began. Kyle Busch was 19 at the start of the 2005 season. Chase Elliott was 20 at the beginning of the 2016 campaign. William Byron was 20 at the start of the 2018 season, and Alex Bowman was 24 when he began that year.

One of the benefits for Hendrick is that he already has a sponsor in Ally, which recently signed an extension through the 2023 season. Unlike other teams where driver hires might be made based on how much sponsorship a driver can bring, Hendrick has time and leverage in making this selection.

“They’re really very supportive and wide open to what happens,” said Gordon, co-owner of the car, about Ally. “So ’21 definitely things are going to change. So we’ve got to evaluate and look at what type of driver is going to suit that car.”

The driver social media already has in the No. 48 car in 2021 is Kyle Larson. He has acknowledged having a contract through the 2020 season and has professed a loyalty to Chip Ganassi Racing, his home for his entire Cup career. Larson would be 28 years entering the 2021 season. One concern for Hendrick might be Larson’s dirt track racing. Hendrick used to allow Kasey Kahne to do that and changed his mind after Kahne escaped a flip one night.

There are other drivers to consider.

Erik Jones signed a one-year extension with Joe Gibbs Racing to go through the 2020 season. Jones will be 24 by the time the 2021 season starts. That would mark the start of his fifth Cup season. He’s already made the playoffs the past two years and will be among those expected to make the playoffs in 2020. His playoff luck, though, has been awful. Accidents marred his 2018 playoffs and mechanical issues, including his car failing post-race inspection led to his early exit in this year’s playoffs.

Matt DiBenedetto also has a contract only for the 2020 season. He joins the Wood Brothers, replacing Paul Menard, for the upcoming year. DiBenedetto has earned the respect of many for how he’s climbed the ranks, often with poor equipment. He’s turned that into better rides and nearly won the Bristol night race before Denny Hamlin passed him late in the event. DiBenedetto will be 29 entering the 2021 season. That would be his seventh full-time Cup season.

Of course, if Hendrick wanted to change things up, there could be other options.

Brad Keselowski once drove for JR Motorsports and ran nine Cup races for Hendrick Motorsports early in his career. In 2009, with no room for Keselowski at Hendrick for a full-time ride, Keselowski made plans to move to Team Penske the following season. Hendrick told The Associated Press in 2009 of Keselowski: “Wherever he goes, he’ll always be close enough for me to get him and bring him back.” Whether that remains possible remains to be seen. Keselowski signed a multi-year contract extension in July 2017. The 2012 Cup champion will turn 37 shortly before the 2021 Daytona 500.

Another driver move that could be enticing would be Chase Elliott’s close friend, Ryan Blaney, joining him at Hendrick Motorsports in 2021. Blaney, who has made the playoffs each of the past three years, is settled in at Team Penske, signing a multi-year contract extension in July 27. But what does Blaney say of some hopes of some fans? He told NBC Sports: “That’s what they say, that’s not something I’ve really thought about at all.” Blaney would be 27 entering the 2021 campaign.

Other possible candidates could include Ross Chastain, Justin Haley, John Hunter Nemechek, Corey LaJoie and JR Motorsports drivers Daniel Hemric and Noah Gragson, should they have a breakout season. 

Chastain will be 28 entering the 2021 season. He has proven spectacular in the Xfinity and Truck series and could be the type of racer Hendrick appreciates. Chastain’s teammate at Kaulig Racing in the Xfinity Series is Haley, who would be 21 at the start of the 2021 season. Haley finished third in the Truck playoffs in 2018 and placed 12th in the Xfinity playoffs this year. He also won the rain-shortened Daytona Cup race in July.

LaJoie will be 29 entering the 2021 season and has done a lot with the equipment he has. Bowman showed that someone who starts out in less-than-stellar equipment can win races for Hendrick. Could LaJoie be that type of candidate?

Nemechek will be 23 going into the 2021 season. His plans for next year have yet to be announced with GMS Racing announcing it will not return in the Xfinity Series. Nemechek showed well in the final three Cup races for Front Row Motorsports for Matt Tifft and that could be a spot for him next year. Gragson, who will be 22 entering the 2021 campaign, completed his rookie Xfinity season this year for JR Motorsports. He went winless but had nine top-five and 22 top-10 finishes. Hemric will be 29 when the 2021 season begins. The key for him is he needs to win.

Of course, many things will change before Hendrick Motorsports is ready to announce Johnson’s successor. Whenever that day is.

But, no, it won’t be Jeff Gordon.

Daniel McFadin and Nate Ryan contributed to this report

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How many drivers have won Cup races since Jimmie Johnson’s last victory?

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When the NASCAR Cup Series returns to Dover International Raceway this weekend to begin the second round of the playoffs, several statistics stand out.

Among them:

* This will be the 100th Cup race held at the 1-mile oval since it opened in 1969 (and the 50th since it switched from asphalt to concrete in 1995). As of Sunday, the Monster Mile will be just the 10th track in the nation to have hosted 100 or more NASCAR Cup Series events.

Jimmie Johnson‘s most recent Cup win came June 4, 2017 at Dover. (Photo: Getty Images.)

* With 11 wins there in his Cup career – the most he’s earned at any NASCAR track – seven-time Cup champ Jimmie Johnson is the all-time winningest Cup driver at Dover. However, following his 83rd and most recent Cup career win there on June 4, 2017, Johnson has failed to return to victory lane at any track since.

* While no one needs to remind Johnson of the length and scope of his career-long winless streak — it is now at 88 races — 19 different drivers have won a Cup race since Johnson’s last visit to victory lane, according to Racing Insights.

Here’s the full list (and how many wins each driver has since June 2017):

Kyle Busch 17
Martin Truex Jr. 16
Kevin Harvick 13
Brad Keselowski 7
Denny Hamlin 6
Chase Elliott 6
Joey Logano 5
Kyle Larson 3
Ryan Blaney 2
Kurt Busch 2
Erik Jones 2
Clint Bowyer 2
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 1
Austin Dillon 1
Aric Almirola 1
Alex Bowman 1
Kasey Kahne 1
Matt Kenseth 1
Justin Haley 1

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Recent history kind to first-time winners in Brickyard 400

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Then there was one.

The Cup Series regular season comes to an end this weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (2 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC).

The 160-lap race on the 2.5-mile track is the last opportunity for drivers to lock themselves into the 16-spot playoff field via a win or points.

Making the task even more daunting is that after Sunday’s Southern 500, there are only two spots left to fight over.

What are the chances a driver who hasn’t clinched a playoff spot yet can earn their first win of the year at the Brickyard?

Based on recent history, they’re decent.

In 25 runnings of the Brickyard 400, only four times has a driver earned their first win of the year in the race.

However, three of those four occurrences have happened in the last eight years. In all four occasions though, the driver failed to win again that year.

It first happened 2003, when Kevin Harvick snapped a 37-race winless streak to earn his fourth career Cup victory. He wouldn’t win again until the spring 2005 race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

The second occurrence was 2011. That year Paul Menard led 11 of the final 16 laps and beat Jeff Gordon to earn his first career Cup win. In the 293 races since, Menard is winless.

Ryan Newman followed in 2013, winning at his home track two weeks after it was revealed he wouldn’t return to Stewart-Haas Racing the following year. He wouldn’t win again until the spring 2017 race at Phoenix.

The most recent example of a first-time winner at Indianapolis came in 2017 with Kasey Kahne.

The then-Hendrick Motorsports driver survived two overtime restarts to claim his only win at Indianapolis. It also marked his first win since Atlanta in 2014. Kahne would never visit victory lane again after being forced into an early retirement in 2018 due to health issues.

Which winless drivers still trying to clinch a playoff spot this year have the best shot at winning Sunday?

Drivers near the bubble

Clint Bowyer (15th, +8 points above cutline) – Bowyer enters the weekend with two straight top 10s. Led 37 laps at Indy last year – his career-best there – before finishing fifth. It was his first top five there since 2010.

Ryan Newman won at Indianapolis in 2013. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/NASCAR via Getty Images)

Daniel Suarez (16th, tied with Ryan Newman at 617 points) – No laps led in two Indy starts. Best finish was seventh in 2017.

Ryan Newman (17th) – Hasn’t led a lap at Indy since his 2013 win. Has one top five (third in 2017) and one top 10 (10th in 2018) since the victory.

Jimmie Johnson (18th, 18 points behind cutline) – With four Indy wins, Johnson has the historical advantage among the drivers fighting for the last two playoff spots. But since he finished second to Newman in 2013, Johnson has just one top five at the track (third in 2016). He was in contention late in 2017 before a wreck took him out.

Paul Menard (19th, 69 points behind cutline) – Lightning isn’t known for hitting the same spot twice, but Menard would probably like for an exception to be made. In his seven Indy starts since winning there, he has two top 10s, finishing 10th in 2016 and ninth last year in his first start there for Wood Brothers Racing.

Potential spoilers for the spoilers

Matt DiBenedetto – The Leavine Family Racing driver has shown his potential over the last two months on short tracks and road courses, which lend themselves to drawing the competition together. But with the best ride he’s had in his career and time running out to prove himself for future employers, there’s no telling what DiBenedetto can will himself to in the regular-season finale.

Chris Buescher – Buescher only has one top 10 in three Indy starts (ninth in 2017) but he’s on his own personal streak of consistency. He enters the weekend having not finished lower than 18th in the last 14 races. Weirder results have happened at Indy, just ask Menard.

Don’t need to win, but they could

There are four playoff drivers who have yet to win – Kyle Larson, Aric Almirola, William Byron and Ryan Blaney.

Larson is the only one of the four with a top-10 finish at Indy, having earned three in his first three starts. He enters this weekend with eight top 10s in the last 10 races, including five top fives.

Byron placed 19th in his lone Brickyard 400. However, he has three top 10s in four starts at Pocono Raceway, the speedway similar to Indy with its long straightaways and relatively flat turns. He finished fourth there in July for his only top five in the last seven races.