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Saturday, July 30, 2011
Brickyard 400: What can we expect?

By Terry Blount
ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- Before I tell you what you might see Sunday in the Brickyard 400, allow me to list a few guarantees, things I'm certain you won't see:

• A sellout crowd -- Not even close. A half-sellout (around 125,000) is more likely, which isn't so bad. It just looks bad at a place with a quarter of a million seats.

• Tires becoming chopped beef -- Not going to happen, although I'm sure the painful memories of that day at Indy three years ago still lingers for some of you.

It was an embarrassing day for NASCAR and Goodyear when the race had mandatory cautions every 10 to 15 laps because the tires resembled shredded lettuce.

Kenseth
Roush Fenway Racing driver Matt Kenseth topped the speed chart in Friday's early practice at the Brickyard.

These tires are good now. Actually, they're almost too good. One reason fuel-mileage races have increased this season is that the tires don't fall off much, so teams don't need to change tires as often as in past years.

• All 43 cars attempting to run the entire race -- Last place in this event last year paid $134,513. The Brickyard 400 is start-and-park heaven. Get in the show and go home with some big dough.

OK, enough of the factual analysis. Time to predict a few things you could see on the old rectangle Sunday (1 p.m. ET on ESPN):

• A Roush Fenway Racing victory -- That's going out on a limb, folks. It may not sound like it, considering how good the RFR cars have been this season, but the Jack Roush boys are winless at Indy.

"Indy has eluded us, but there have been a number of occasions where our cars were good enough to win," Roush said. "It was either a fuel-mileage situation or the way it worked out by taking tires or not taking tires.

"We had the speed to win on a number of occasions but just didn't have things work out for us at the end so that we could close the deal."

Indy is one of only two tracks (OK, Kentucky's one race makes three) where the Roush team hasn't won. RFR is 0-for-10 at Chicagoland Speedway. Roush has 17 losses and counting at the Brickyard.

But that was then, and this is now. The new and improved FR9 engine could be the difference here. Big horsepower helps on the long straightaways, and the FR9's advanced cooling system might come into play with temperatures expected to be in the 90s at the green flag.

A Roush driver led all three practice sessions this weekend -- Matt Kenseth in the first practice Friday and Greg Biffle in the second session Friday and Happy Hour Saturday.

"For how successful we've been as a company, yeah, it kind of surprises me that we haven't won here," Biffle said Friday. "This could definitely be the year. I finished third last year and probably had a car that could win. We've tested well, and I really think that one of our cars has a good opportunity to win."

A Chevrolet driver has won the past eight races at Indy. A Ford driver could end the streak.

• The Earnhardt Ganassi Racing duo can salvage its season here -- The 2011 season has been a total bust up to this point for EGR drivers Juan Pablo Montoya and Jamie McMurray, but Indy is their best track.

Jamie McMurray
Jamie McMurray kissed the bricks after the 2010 Brickyard 400. Will Sunday's race bring the same fortune?

McMurray won here a year ago, making Chip Ganassi the first team owner to win the Daytona 500 (with McMurray), the Indy 500 (with Dario Franchitti) and the Brickyard 400 in the same season.

McMurray needs something good to happen. He's 29th in the standings and hasn't posted a top-5 this season.

"A lot of things have happened that were out of our control," McMurray said. "We've had three blown engines, one transmission failure and flat tires. It's frustrating. More than anything right now it's just about getting a good baseline. Honestly, I mean, it's just about working on next year already."

Montoya, the 2000 Indy 500 winner, should have won this event the previous two years. He had the field covered in 2009 before he was caught speeding on pit road, a penalty he vehemently disagreed with at the time.

He led the most laps last year before crew chief Brian Pattie opted for four tires on the final pit stop. It dropped Montoya from first to eighth, and he wrecked by overdriving the car trying to get back to the front.

The sometimes-volatile Pattie/Montoya pairing is over. Montoya has a new crew chief this weekend in Jim Pohlman.

"He's very open-minded," Montoya said Friday of Pohlman. "He really wants to get the job done. It's fun to have somebody so pumped up. That's what it takes."

• A surprise winner -- It's the theme of the season with 13 different winners in 19 races, including four first-time winners. The previous 10 events have produced 10 different winners.

So who could surprise everyone at Indy? Kasey Kahne. He was second on the speed chart in two of the three practice sessions.

• Dale Earnhardt Jr. ending his slump -- I won't get crazy and predict a Junior victory, not at a track where his average finish is 22nd. But the No. 88 Chevy has looked good in practice. A top-10 finish is a realistic possibility.

It better be. It's time to put up or shut up. After five consecutive bad results that dropped Earnhardt six spots in the standings to ninth, he needs to turn things around to stay inside the Chase cutoff.

• Blown engines -- It's a rarity these days, but hot conditions and high RPMs on the long straights can put motors over the edge. And the Joe Gibbs Racing guys can't feel too comfortable going in.

JGR's season-long engine problems continued Friday when Denny Hamlin's motor went up in smoke at the end of the second practice session.

Somebody will push it too far Sunday and watch the motor go bye-bye. Hopefully, that driver won't be leading when it happens.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.