|PHOTO: Matt Kryger, IndyStar|
These aren’t merely opinions – the statistics tell the same tale. In 23 previous runnings, the race has never seen a last-lap pass for the win. Four of the last five had a margin of victory of two seconds or more. Fights in NASCAR are nothing new, particularly when the stakes are high in the sport’s “crown jewel” races, but in the Brickyard 400, they’re unheard-of. The closest thing to an on-track scuffle in the event came in 2002, when the ongoing feud between Kurt Busch and Jimmy Spencer saw Busch gesture at Spencer following an early crash. Drivers have instead had to fight with today’s ever-changing array of “spaghetti against the wall” aerodynamic changes.
This year, Kyle Busch comes to Indianapolis looking for not only his third-consecutive Brickyard 400 win, but his third-straight year of sweeping the XFINITY and Cup races. Last summer, he led 149 of 170 laps in a race with only four lead changes. Even the last-place battle, which was competitive in 2013 and 2015, was sewn-up after just four laps. Though winless so far in 2017, Busch is almost certainly the favorite to win it again, particularly after his near-miss at the other 2.5-mile flat track in Pocono. And, given his 10-second victory last Saturday in Loudon, awaiting the winner of this Saturday’s XFINITY race is practically a formality.
And that’s one of the big problems– the predictability of it all. In 1994, no one knew for sure how the heavy and unsteady stock cars would handle the sprawling oval. Tests conducted in 1992 raised questions about whether cars could draft or race side-by-side through the corners. There were surprises in qualifying, from H.B. Bailey putting in the first timed lap, to Rick Mast’s pole position, to open-wheel veterans like Danny Sullivan and A.J. Foyt bumping several Cup regulars from the field, including Loy Allen, Jr., that year’s Daytona 500 polesitter. It was a special event not only because of the history, but the unpredictability.
What’s ironic is, for every year the Brickyard 400 has stagnated, the Indianapolis 500 has seen a return to greatness. The point of departure seemed to come in 2011, when Dan Wheldon’s stunning triumph after J.R. Hildebrand’s wreck was followed in July by Paul Menard taking his first Cup win, holding off the legend Jeff Gordon. Since then, the 500 has consistently seen spectacular race-long battles every single year, capped by Takuma Sato’s victory in May. Arguably, the best moment in the 400 in that span had nothing to do with the racing itself, but rather Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon’s final lap last year after they finished 11th and 13th.
It also doesn’t help that, since 2013, Indianapolis has now been big-footed by Wednesday’s Truck Series dirt race in Eldora, which has consistently put on a much better show. Combined with the late-summer heat and the ludicrous decision to move the XFINITY Series away from Indianapolis Raceway Park, the Brickyard 400 lost its final significance – its exclusivity in the world of stock car racing. Simply put, the race isn’t special anymore.
Many proposals have been brought forward, ranging from running the infield road course to simply taking the event off the schedule. Personally, I’d like to see the return of something closer to “The Winston Million” or the “No Bull Five,” where the XFINITY Series is sent back to IRP and the Brickyard regains its title as a crown jewel race alongside Daytona, Talladega, Charlotte, and Darlington. While I don’t believe the fallacy that drivers will race harder just because a race is worth more money, I think it would be a nice way to pay homage to the speedway and acknowledge that it isn’t just the 20th event on a 36-race schedule.
At the end of the day, I want the Brickyard 400 to succeed. I still think a win in the event is meaningful, and traditions like “kissing the bricks” have brought something new to the speedway’s history. But more than that, I want to be excited by the event again, to see it as an equal to a Daytona 500 or Southern 500. But for that to happen, NASCAR and the speedway need to be honest about the problems facing the event, and have the courage to undo past mistakes.