NASCAR returns to the wild Indianapolis Road Course

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - AUGUST 15: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Ground Toyota, drives as Ross Chastain, driver of the #42 Clover Chevrolet, spins during the NASCAR Cup Series Verizon 200 at the Brickyard at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on August 15, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

The NASCAR Cup Series returns to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course for the second year in a row, once again foregoing the oval for the 2.4-mile circuit. And the decision didn’t disappoint last year, with the track providing more than its share of action – and chaos. AJ Allmendinger found victory lane after a race filled with contact, revenge, and curbs sending cars into the air and the walls. Expect more of the same in the Verizon 200 at the Brickyard (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC, IMS Radio and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Importantly, though, the speedway removed the curbs and bumps that caused so much trouble in last year’s event, launching cars into the air before coming undone and creating a pileup, according to FOX Sports’ Bob Pockrass. He notes that NASCAR will now be forced to police track limits, but at least the risk of a similar incident this year is gone.

Everything else about the track remains the same, though, giving Allmendinger a good chance to defend his win. He will be racing for Kaulig once again on Sunday on a part-time basis, as he continues his fight for an Xfinity Series championship on Saturday.

“Being a part of Kaulig Racing’s first Cup Series win will always be so special to me,” Allmendinger said. “Heading back to Indy for the first time since then will be a surreal feeling. This is a place we have had circled on our calendar, and hopefully all the hard work will pay off.”

However, he’ll have to beat Chase Elliott, who’s not only won the third-most road course races in NASCAR history, but is on a high: he’s won three of the last five races and finished second in the other two. But he’s not confident coming to Indy after his fourth-place finish last year.

“I feel like that’s probably been one of my worst road courses, personally,” said Elliott. “Never really felt like I got ahold of the track last year. So going back, I need to do some homework this week on how to be better up there, because I do not feel very good about that track and just never got a good groove there last year at all and was never really on offense.”

The veterans will also have to face off against an alln-ew road course ringer out on track, in the form of former Red Bull Formula One driver Daniel Kyvaat. The GP3 champion has been competing in NASCAR’s road-course-based Whelen Euro Series, and will be making the jump across the pond to drive a second entry for Team Hezeberg. The 26 Toyota will be racing alongside Lorins Hezemans in the 27 car, which has made several starts this year.

“I’m very happy to be able to make my NASCAR Cup Series debut at Indianapolis,” said Kyvaat. I have always been passionate about racing in NASCAR, the top form of motorsport in the United States. NASCAR has always been intriguing to me, as a pure form of motorsport.”

Another new driver to the Cup Series scene is Ty Gibbs, who will be making only his second start at Indianapolis, once again subbing for Kurt Busch while the 23XI driver has yet to obtain medical clearance to race after a crash during practice at Pocono.

Gibbs, who has been taking advice from Bubba Wallace, driver of the other 23XI car, said that his goals “are the same as last week,” those being: “just to complete the race and learn all we can.” He managed to drive from the back of the field to compete at the front last week, and will certainly still be hoping for a similar result, though.

One thing that’s on every driver’s mind, though, is the Playoff picture. Just five races remain and fourteen drivers have already won, leaving just two spots open to advance on points. Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex, who both hold those points, believe they need a win to get in, and any drivers outside know they need one.

But a first-time winner found victory lane at Indy last year, and expect drivers without a win to be aggressive knowing that the road course might be their chance.

Xfinity Series stars running doubleheaders

Two Xfinity Series championship contenders will be using the Pennzoil 150 at the Brickyard (3:30 p.m. ET on NBC, IMS Radio and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) as warmup for a Cup Series race. AJ Allmendinger, who finished runner-up to Austin Cindric in last year’s race, and Ty Gibbs will both be making two starts this weekend.

And Allmendinger comes in with road course confidence, having already won two races on the discipline at Circuit of The Americas and Portland, as well as his success last year.

Fellow championship contender Ty Gibbs said his first Cup start at Pocono “was pretty cool,” but said that “now it’s time to focus on Indy. I do love the road courses, and obviously Indy has all the history. So excited about it, and I know we’ll have a strong Monster Energy Toyota GR Supra.”

Other drivers competing in both races are Chase Briscoe, Alex Bowman, Ty Dillon, Bubba Wallace, Austin Dillon, Ross Chastain and Kaz Grala.

Truck Series starts the Playoffs in short track style

The Truck Series begins its Playoffs a few miles away from the other national series at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park for the TSport 200 (9 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). The trucks last raced on the 0.686-mile oval in 2011.

Zane Smith enters the Playoffs as points leader, with a fifteen-point buffer as regular-season champion. But that won’t keep him from being aggressive.

“I think you kind of have to go about it as going for wins,” Zane Smith said. “That points buffer will run out quickly. It doesn’t take much to fill up those spots, so I think we’re just going to do what we’ve been doing for the rest of the year. It’s worked out for us, and we’ve shown a lot of consistency, and I think that’s what you need to do in the Playoffs to get to Phoenix.”

The strategy has indeed worked well for him this season, having accrued three wins. The Playoffs are contested in a three-round, seven-race elimination format.

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA – AUGUST 14: Chase Elliott, driver of the #1 Allstate Peterbilt Group Chevrolet, leads the field during the NASCAR Xfinity Series Pennzoil 150 at the Brickyard at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on August 14, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: Verizon 200 at the Brickyard
The Place: Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course
The Date: Sunday, July 31
The Time: 2:30 p.m. ET
The Purse: $8,671,417
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 at the Brickyard
The Place: Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course
The Date: Saturday, July 30
The Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
The Purse: $1,750,651
TV: NBC, 3 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)

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series
Next Race: TSport 200
The Place: Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park
The Date: Friday, July 29
The Time: 9 p.m. ET
The Purse: $622,754
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