Indianapolis features a stacked field as NASCAR takes on the always-chaotic road course

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - JULY 31: Ty Gibbs, driver of the #45 Monster Energy Toyota, leads the field during the NASCAR Cup Series Verizon 200 at the Brickyard at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 31, 2022 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course featured carnage and chaos when the NASCAR Cup Series last headed to the Brickyard.

The headlines that came out of the world-famous speedway were less about two surprising winners and more about that chaos and carnage. In the race’s first year, displaced curbs sent cars airborne and contenders spinning into walls in the final laps, overshadowing a win by AJ Allmendinger. The race’s second year featured wild divebombs and overshoots into the first turn on restarts, overshadowing Tyler Reddick’s eventual win.

This year, NASCAR hopes the drivers will be the stars. And it’s certainly a stacked field entered for Sunday’s Verizon 200 at the Brickyard (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC, IMS Network and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

In addition to NASCAR’s regular full-time stars – minus Noah Gragson, who is officially leaving Legacy Motor Club following his suspension for ‘liking’ a derogatory meme on Instagram – global legends from other forms of motorsport are trying their hand at NASCAR.

Shane van Gisbergen proved that drivers can win in a one-off start when he climbed through the field in the rain at the Chicago Street Race. He’s back to defend his perfect Cup Series win record at Indianapolis, once again driving in Trackhouse Racing’s PROJECT91 entry.

Joining van Gisbergen is his competitor from the Australian Supercars series, Brodie Kostecki, who’s actually beating van Gisbergen in the standings in Australia. Kostecki will be driving the No. 33 entry for Richard Childress Racing.

Competing for his hero Michael Jordan in the No. 67 23XI Racing entry is Kamui Kobayashi. The Japanese driver has extensive sports car experience in addition to a stint racing in Formula One, including setting a lap record at Le Mans in France, a track that NASCAR headed to earlier this year with an exhibition Next Gen entry.

Jenson Button will also join the field in the No. 15 Rick Ware Racing car prepared by Stewart-Haas Racing. The Formula One World Champion has actually raced on the road course at Indianapolis seven times behind the wheel of an F1 car. It’s Button’s third and final NASCAR start of the season.

The last of the superstars joining the Cup Series stars for Indianapolis is Mike Rockenfeller, replacing Noah Gragson in the No. 42 car. Rockenfeller is a sports car ace and German touring car champion who competed alongside Legacy Motor Club team owner Jimmie Johnson in the NASCAR Garage 56 entry at Le Mans.

It’ll be up to NASCAR’s best to defend against that influx of foreign talent. And, with the regular season drawing to a close, there’s extra motivation to do so.

Tyler Reddick has to come in as the favorite. He’s won three times at road courses in the Next Gen car, including a win at the Indy road course. It gives him the best record on road courses in the Next Gen car. However, mistakes from his pit crew and strategy miscues and have hurt him in recent weeks, hurting his momentum coming in.

Allmendinger, the only other defending winner at the track in the series, doesn’t have much momentum on his side either. His Kaulig Racing team has struggled with results since Justin Haley finished second at the Chicago Street Course.

“The last two years at Indy have been really special,” said Allmendinger. “To be able to kiss the bricks in the Xfinity Series and Cup Series has been a dream come true.”

“Our road course stuff hasn’t quite been where we need it to be, but we are definitely working hard on it. We were close last year on the Cup side, and if we get to Indy and unload well, we can have a shot to go win the race,” Allmendinger added.

Unlike Reddick, who already won earlier this year at Circuit of The Americas, AJ Allmendinger is in precarious position to make the Playoffs with just three races to go in the regular season. Allmendinger is 24 points below the cutline.

Of the drivers who haven’t won, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski are in good position and practically locked in barring three new winners in the final three races.

Bubba Wallace sits 58 points above the cutline, while rookie Ty Gibbs is just three points to the good heading into Indianapolis.

Michael McDowell is three points below while Daniel Suarez is also in range, sitting just five points below. Suarez believes that his Trackhouse Racing team can absolutely make the Playoffs.

“We just have to be smart,” he said. “We need to do what we do and stay out of trouble and get good finishes. When we are in sync we are a team that is hard to beat.”

“You have to keep in mind, with two road courses and a superspeedway, anything can happen,” Suarez added. “Sometimes with the strategy and the way people push and move around at the end of these races on road courses it can be a wild card. We just have to maximize every day and continue to work.”

Other drivers outside that range are thoroughly in a must-win position. Hendrick Motorsports drivers Alex Boman and Chase Elliott both missed races earlier in the season – for injury or suspension – and need a win to make the postseason.

Also in that position are three of the four Stewart-Haas Racing drivers. That includes Ryan Preece, who comes to Indianapolis 25th in the standings. But he knows that Indianapolis can be an opportunity.

“I think the road racing can definitely kind of put a variable in there that maybe we can squeeze one out,” Preece said. “I think there’s some added confidence, too, knowing that I’ve had some decent finishes at road courses, and they’re so unpredictable.”

NASCAR is attempting to remove some of the chaos from the track as well. After securing the curbs for last season’s race, the sanctioning body has moved the restart zone further back into the final corner, meaning the field will be spread out before hitting Turn 1, hopefully eliminating dive-bombs. The choose cone will also make an appearance.

Those changes were made by NASCAR in consultation with the drivers. Something the drivers also have an opinion on: returning to the road course instead of the oval. The old Brickyard 400 was a ‘crown jewel’ event, and several drivers have expressed interest in returning.

Veteran driver Aric Almirola sees the merit of both the oval and the road course, though.

“I think racing on the oval was so cool just because I was a kid and went and watched an Indy 500 back in the late ’90s,” Almirola detailed. “It was a special place, and to race on the oval was just special.

“I mean, you think about the history of that racetrack and the people that have run around that rectangular racetrack and crossed that Yard of Bricks and all those things, and all the races that went on before you dating back to the early 1900s, it’s just a very special place.”

“So, to not race on the oval is weird, but the fans love these road-course races and they put on a great show, so we’re looking forward to seeing what we can do.”

Cole Custer looks to continue strong road course record and kiss the bricks in the Xfinity Series

Cole Custer has proven something of a road course ace since returning to the Xfinity Series for Stewart-Haas Racing. He’s picked up two wins this season at Portland and the Chicago Street Course and has looked consistently strong at the discipline.

Winning at Indianapolis as well in Saturday’s Pennzoil 150 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course (5:30 p.m. ET on USA, IMS Network and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) would be a major boost at a special track.

“To kiss the bricks would be huge,” Custer said, in reference to a special ritual at the famous racetrack. “That’s every racecar driver’s dream.”

You grow up wanting to kiss the bricks at Indianapolis because you’ve seen your idols do it before you. It’s always a big race that we have circled on the NASCAR schedule. You want to go and win there just so you can do that. Not sure if I would climb the fence, but we’re definitely kissing the bricks. Hopefully, we can get it done this week,” he added.

It would be an especially major boost as the postseason approaches.

Custer is one of just three drivers who’ve mathematically clinched a spot as five races remain, and even drivers with a single win – Justin Allgaier, Sam Mayer, Chandler Smith, Sammy Smith and Jeb Burton – could lose their spot with four or more winners in those five races.

Justin Allgaier, for one, isn’t concerned heading into Indianapolis.

“We had a really strong Chevrolet here last season, and with the speed we’ve had on road courses thus far in 2023, I feel extremely confident that we’ll have a strong Camaro on Saturday,” said Allgaier.

However, should defending winner AJ Allmendinger take the checkered flag again, that spot would be closer, since Allmendinger is competing full-time in the Cup Series this season and can’t qualify for the Xfinity Series postseason.

Coming into Indianapolis, there are still two spots available for drivers on points as well. Riley Herbst, Custer’s teammate, is in precarious position in the tenth and final spot, but with a forty-point gap to the cutline.

Earning the win would secure his postseason spot, but it would also be his first-ever series win, which would mean even more.

“It would mean a lot for many different reasons,” Herbst said. “I feel like we’ve been so close to my first career victory, and it just makes it more disappointing the longer we have to wait for it.”

“On top of that, every young racer dreams of winning at Indianapolis,” he explained. “It’s one of racing’s most iconic tracks, and it’s an honor to go to victory lane there.”

“To kiss the bricks on Saturday would just be that much sweeter when you combine it with it being a first career win for myself. We’ve run well there the past few years, so hopefully we can bring the fast racecar that we’ve had the past few weeks and get it done.”

Shane van Gisbergen makes his oval debut as the Truck Series Playoffs begin at IRP

The NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series Playoffs begin at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Part in Friday night’s TSport 200(9 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

But all eyes will be on Shane van Gisbergen, who will be making his oval debut driving the No. 41 Chevrolet Silverado for Niece Racing before heading across town to race at the road course at the big speedway on Sunday in the Cup Series.

As for the Playoffs, which begin at the historic .686-mile track, the postseason resets the points standings, but it’s not a complete blank slate.

Corey Heim, regular season champion, has a thirty-point cushion as the series begins the Round of 10. Zane Smith, in second place, has just 22 Playoff points to begin the round.

That eight point advantage is big for Heim.

“I think from a logistical viewpoint, as far as the amount of Playoff points that put us ahead, it definitely means a lot—just being able to have that buffer going into the Playoffs, and not have that close counter with the Playoff cutline right from the start,” he said during Truck Series Media Day on Tuesday.

“I feel like it is nice to start the Playoffs off with a little less stress and being able to go from there. I feel like, at the same time, if you have one bad race, one DNF and you are kind of back to earth again. I feel like that there’s positives and negatives to it. I think that kind of stems from the Playoff format as it is, but it’s certainly not a bad thing to be the Regular Season Champion.”

Two drivers will be eliminated at the end of the round, and Ben Rhodes and Nick Sanchez sit in that position heading into IRP. They have just 13 and 5 points respectively in the Playoff standings.

It’s Grant Enfinger, who’s in fifth with 17 points, who’s the defending winner at the track

“I’m excited to get the Playoffs started, and I feel good about starting it out at IRP,” Enfinger said.

“I think that IRP is a great track for the Truck Series. It has multiple grooves we can choose, but it’s still a tough short track with a lot of character.”

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA – JULY 29: Blaine Perkins, driver of the #9 RACELINE Chevrolet, drives during qualifying for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series TSport 200 at the Indianapolis Raceway Park on July 29, 2022 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)

NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: Verizon 200 at the Brickyard
The Place: Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course
The Date: Sunday, August 13
The Time: 2:30 p.m. ET
The Purse: $9,158,803
TV: NBC, 2 p.m. ET
Radio: IMS, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 199.998 miles (82 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 15),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 35), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 82)

NASCAR Xfinity Series
Next Race: Pennzoil 150 presented by Advance Auto Parts
The Place: Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course
The Date: Saturday, August 12
The Time: 5:30 p.m. ET
The Purse: $1,619,312
TV: USA, 5 p.m. ET
Radio: IMS, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 151.22 miles (62 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 20),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 40), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 62)

Next Race: TSport 200
The Place: Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park
The Date: Friday, August 11
The Time: 9 p.m. ET
The Purse: $699,222
TV: FS1, 8 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 137.2 miles (200 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 60),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 120), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 200)

Owen Johnson