Perhaps like no other the race on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule, the Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard typically boils down to which team and driver make the best strategy play at the end. Kasey Kahne’s win in 2017 and Paul Menard’s triumph in 2011 serve as shinning examples of how making the right late race calls in terms of when to pit or not to pit as well as what to do in the pits can decide who will take the checkered flag.
The areo-sensitive Indianapolis Motor Speedway can make passing quite difficult. As a result, track position is king and those who can best claim that for their cars as the race draws to a close are most often those who come away with the win or top finishes at this historic 2.5-mile facility.
And now, given this race’s position as the last race of the so-called “regular season” will even further add to the complications crew chiefs and drivers will face as the 400-mile event plays out. Those already secure in their positions for the upcoming NASCAR Playoffs do not have to worry about the possible pitfalls of taking risks but can instead concern themselves only with winning at one of auto racing’s most revered venues. And more, those who can only make the playoffs with a win can gamble in going for victory with the hope of strategy not only playing out in their favor in terms of earning a coveted win but also in grabbing one of the two as yet unclaimed playoff places.
The four drivers on the playoff bubble are those who have the most to lose on Sunday afternoon in Indiana.
Clint Bowyer enters the race with a mere eight point cushion over Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Daniel Suarez and Rough Fenway Racing driver Ryan Newman while Hendrick Motorsports campaigner Jimmie Johnson sits 18 markers below the cut line.
So what do these drivers do in the event of a late race decision to stop or not stop? Do they take on two tires, four tires, or gas only on their final stop? Do they run the risk of stretching fuel mileage at the end in the hope of winning the race at the risk of running out of fuel and finishing well down in the order only to miss out on a playoff opportunity?
Drivers such as Paul Menard, who will start his Wood Brother Racing Ford on the front row, Chris Buescher, Matt DiBenedetto or Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. have nothing to lose. There is no way they can “point” themselves into the playoffs so each of these drivers can gamble on late race fuel mileage or take just two tires on the final pit stop where the bubble drivers may have to play it safe.
Further, playoff secure drivers such as pole sitter Kevin Harvick or multiple-time Indy winner Kyle Busch can also afford to take chances to not only secure a win but also add to their playoff points totals going into the championship stretch run. They can pit just before the end of stages to set themselves up for later in the race where the bubble drivers will have to finish out stages to earn the much needed points.
While IMS may not be known for the best racing on the MENCS circuit, this Brickyard 400 provides plenty of reasons to continue watching right up to the drop of the checkered flag.
The race is set to start just after 2:00pm ET on NBC.
Here is today’s starting lineup: