In the history of the Brickyard 400 this may rank as the most preposterously exciting moment of all
The competitive excitement of the 2017 racing season just rose several notches as Indianapolis Motor Speedway, under fire for dismal stock car racing over the years, answered back with the wildest weekend outside of the 500 perhaps ever seen - certainly the most exciting to date.
The 250 produced the most competitive racing while the 400 saw the most eye-popping challenge - and the highest incidence of crashing since NASCAR debuted here in 1994
The Brickyard 250 for the Xfinity cars showcased some of the best racing anywhere this season and showed the big picture for the sport, but the takeaway of the weekend was in the 400. It began as a Kyle Busch runaway with only Martin Truex offering anything resembling resistance, leading eight laps to Busch's 87. That all got shot to pieces following Ricky Stenhouse's hard hit - on the next restart Truex took out Kyle Busch and himself when he broke loose in One - a crash mildly reminiscent of Dale Earnhardt and Tim Richmond at Pocono in 1982.
Pocono analogies abounded later. Following the Busch-Truex melee the race ran green with Trevor Bayne seemingly in the fuel catbird seat - until with eleven to go what we thought was the biggest crash of the weekend erupted involving Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch, and Erik Jones, who has wrecked the last two races now. On the next restart Jimmie Johnson - seemingly blowing up - challenged Kasey Kahne and Brad Keselowski. Just when it seemed Keselowski had them cleared the Hendrick cars stayed nose to nose and still got a gigantic sidedraft, to where the leaders were three abreast through Turn Three - an impossible scenario it appeared for a split second they would pull off - it was Tim Richmond stuffing it three abreast on Geoff Bodine and Neil Bonnett in the Tunnel Turn at Pocono in 1986 all over again.
It all added up to a day personified by competitive ferocity, a bad rules package on Sunday doubly exposed as such by the racing on Saturday, dubious TV timing (why not start just after 12 PM area time?), some questionable officiating - I'm not sure there should have been a second GWC restart - and yet another eye-popping upset winner in a season that's been strikingly replete with them.
The win comes in a dismal season for Kahne and amid Rumor Control Central speculation that he is on the way out; it is unclear whether this win will help that much, for he's led just thirty-one laps and has only three top-fives and one additional top-ten. Kahne's struggles, though, now mirror a run of mediocrity and worse by Jimmie Johnson since winning the Mason-Dixon 400 - just two top-tens in that span for Johnson.
Johnson's recent slippage comes as Chase Elliott has posted five top-tens in that same span but has gagged twice in the last four races; overall Elliott has been maddeningly inconsistent - he has led just twenty-eight laps since leading 106 at Phoenix; he's posted six top-fives and four other top-tens this season but nowhere has he shown that he truly knows how to win; in his two seasons he's been streaky, with top-tens galore for weeks followed by lengthy stretches where he doesn't finish well.
Showing greater consistency has been Brad Keselowski, the runner-up at Indianapolis being his fourth such this season amid Atlanta and Martinsville wins and four other top-fives so far this season. While Keselowski remains on a run, Penske teammate Joey Logano stopped recent bleeding by finishing a largely-unnoticed fourth, only his third top-ten since the penalized Richmond win.
Their strong effort comes amid Ford comment about addressing aerodynamic inadequacy; whatever their recent struggles Ford did showcase depth taking four of the top eight spots and six of the top thirteen. The run that stood out was Aric Almirola, two races into his return to Richard Petty's #43 from his back-breaking layup after Kansas, involved in a late crash, and charging to finish a respectable thirteenth. The chaos for Stewart-Haas' team makes Danica Patrick's eleventh all the more eye-opening. Of the five Chevrolets in the top twelve Chris Buescher and AJ Allmendinger's 9-10 finish for Brad Daugherty's team impresses even more than Kasey Kahne's win.
Completely unnoticed were Matt Kenseth in fifth and Daniel Suarez in seventh, showcasing Toyota's strength but also the inadequacy of its competitive depth after Busch. Truex, and Erik Jones crashed out.
The Lillys Diabetes 250 at Indianapolis showcased terrific racing and finally showcased the answer to NASCAR's competition headaches spanning some seventeen or more years
A number of fans, and some writers, have suggested NASCAR needs to cancel racing at the Brickyard and switch instead to the rinky-dink bullring at Indianapolis Raceway Park. That IRP looks curiously dilapidated even on television gets overlooked; that people overrate its racing has also been ignored. IRP is a very good facility for short track open wheelers - USAC's short trackers put on great battles there and have done so forever - while the Busch/Xfinity Series and Trucks have also seen some spirited battles but nothing approaching superspeedways for competitive depth.
Top-heavy sedan bodies on radial tires with little to no downforce and horsepower 50-plus percent higher than 500 - the short tracks in NASCAR have seen the same struggles - aeropush, inability to make the cars handle better, etc. - that the superovals have seen. No short track in the world can overcome when the cars simply are not designed for passing.
The Xfinity Series' 2017 running thus refutes the argument for switching to IRP and also finally answers the question of why NASCAR has had so much problem with passing. Running restrictor plates, returning the larger spoiler, and also debuting drag ducts - scoops in the nose that channel air entering the nose out the front wheelwells, thus blasting open a bigger draft - the Xfinity cars hit the balance of horsepower and drafting effect that creates passing, and it showed especially when Kyle Busch and Joey Logano swapped the lead some three times in one lap - curiously instead of old-school crossover passing down low, they did it backward with crossover passing up high - and Justin Allgaier not only challenged Kyle Busch, he fought him like someone no longer afraid of the presumptive dictator of the Xfinity Series seemingly whenever he runs there. Blowing his ill-advised short-pit bid before the end of the second segment of the 250 was a head-shaker for Allgaier, and it left it up to William Byron to slay the Busch dragon.
It is this kind of competition package and resulting balance of drafting effect and horsepower that NASCAR has maddeningly been missing for nearly twenty seasons - certainly NASCAR would have saved itself a lot of headaches if this package had been figured out for 2001 onward. One wonders who thought of the idea of drag ducts, for while the concept of making the draft more effective has been a no-brainer for decades, how it's being done is truly eye-popping and clearly works.
As for no-brainers integrating this package into Cup and the Trucks - and for that matter the rest of NASCAR's series - and for all tracks qualifies as the ultimate no-brainer, because it works, period.
BTW three abreast all the way through Three and Four at Indianapolis Motor Speedway........?
And it offers a compelling lead-in to Pocono as there now is a series of scores to settle as July reaches its conclusion.