Following Erik Jones second career victory, NASCAR heads back to the Mid-West. The final race of the Cup regular season concludes at the hallowed grounds of Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Big Machine Vodka 400. The regular-season finale was perennially held at Richmond on Saturday night so as to not compete with the opening weekend of NFL. However, NASCAR decided to schedule one of its most borning races head to head against NFL. Because reasons… Ratings wise, we already know how this is going to turn out.
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Kyle Busch wrapped up the regular-season championship last Sunday night. However, not all playoff spots are concrete as of yet. The last two playoff spots remain fluid as Clint Bowyer holds an 8 point lead for 15th. Meanwhile, Daniel Suarez and Ryan Newman sit tied for the final spot with Suarez holding the tiebreaker. Trailing behind that duo is past champion Jimmie Johnson who all but needs a win to overcome his 18 point deficit. Of course, Newman wrecking out Suarez and himself in the process wouldn’t hurt either.
Speaking of a win, it is the guaranteed way into the playoffs. Any number of drivers could steal a spot away from Bowyer, Newman, or Suarez should they win including Paul Menard, Chris Buescher, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. or Austin Dillon. My prediction is the playoff picture remains static as Bowyer and Suarez take the final two spots.
Another factor that makes Indianapolis a by thought to NASCAR is the Sunday morning schedule. Cars will go through tech on Saturday night and sit impounded until Sunday morning. Starting at 10:35 AM Eastern, qualifying will begin and the race will proceed at 2 PM. I don’t see anything preventing NASCAR from holding qualifying Saturday, so it begs the question “Why?”. Just why is NASCAR holding qualifying mere hours before the race when they don’t have to? Especially, when this is the last race for teams to make the playoffs. You figure the Series would want to be as prep friendly as possible.
What this also means is those of you building lineups only have a few hours to analyze practice speeds and track history in lieu of starting position. In conjunction with all of the NFL lineups, you’ll be adjusting with the 1 PM games. Thus, to get you as mentally prepared as possible this week’s article is a preview. We’re going to analyze Indianapolis as concisely as possible so that once qualifying is over you can simply build lineups. The last thing you need is information overload in a compact window. Add in the NFL lineups you’re also making and adjusting, too much data and analysis could freeze you still Sunday morning and by lock you may have no clear idea just what you did with your lineups.
Indianapolis is a behemoth. Matching Talladega and Daytona, it ranks as the longest oval in the Cup series measuring at 2.5-miles in length. The one distinguishing factor about Indy versus the super speedways in Alabama and Florida is its relative flatness. With zero degrees along the straightaways and just nine degrees in the four turns, Indy is essentially flat. A super-long flat track with single-file racing culminates in the exact manner you think it would, boring. What isn’t a good television product definitely isn’t a good live product either. Attendance for the Xfinity and Cup races are so low it’s become an annual tradition to wonder whether NASCAR should even race here.
It’s almost as if this track wasn’t made for stock cars to race on. Almost.
What to do with 160 laps?
Judging past data versus current expectations at Indianapolis is a bit noisy. The annual Indy race was always held in July but now is an early September event. Besides changes in temperature and humidity, there is also the motivation factor. In mid-July teams set up plans for Indianapolis with a hint of looking towards the future knowing they still had 7+ races to make the playoffs. Now, Indianapolis is it! If you don’t do exactly what you need to do, the season is a fair disappointment. You could be like Jimmie Johnson pondering how much longer you want to race after another failed playoff attempt.
Something else skewing the numbers we’re about to see is last year’s first September Indianapolis race was rain-delayed. The race didn’t take place until Monday and no one led more than 37 laps, not even 1/4 of the total laps. Could the calendar and playoff factor really impact Indianapolis that much? Probably not but all we have is a one-race sample to compare to other four races. Even then our one race is skewed by the impact of rain.
If we just assume that Indianapolis returns to its normal form then we should expect our top lap leader to notch between 70-90 laps led. Last year was our obvious anomaly for previously mentioned reasons. In 2016 Kyle Busch turned Indianapolis into a snooze fest leading 149 laps from the pole. Truth be told, Kyle was on his way to replicating that effort in 2017 when he led 87 laps from the pole before Martin Truex Junior inexplicably wrecked himself and Kyle going into one of the turns.
So perhaps, our eyes should be on outright domination which should lead us toward a single dominator lineup. Heck, even if we return to 2013-2015 levels we’re still looking for just a single dominator. This is going to sound a lot like Pocono but with so few laps on the board (160) the prospects of the driver who leads the second-most laps becoming optimal look slim. Chances will be you’re better off saving money with a driver who finishes top 5 then by chasing another Hog.
Where to Find a Dominator
Once again, the similarities to Pocono are going to resonate. Listed below are the stats for the top-two lap leaders at Indianapolis dating back to 2013.
|Starting Position||Final Position||Place differential||Total Laps Led||Fastest Laps|
If you start out front you gain such an advantage over the rest of the field, it’s bananas. While it doesn’t show up above, last year’s pole-sitter (Kyle Busch) led 27 laps giving him the third-most laps led and Kevin Harvick who started 2nd led 22 laps himself. Thus, even in a wacky race, the front row found their way to the lead like previous races.
It’s early but before we have seen one lap turned at IMS, your early Hog favorites should be whoever sits atop the pole. While I think the optimal strategy is to go after one dominator and then surround them with place differential and top ten finishers I do see the path to a dual dominator build. Quite frankly, if you just stack the front row you all but guarantee yourself 75% of the laps led.
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