Jimmie Johnson still the best bet at Indy

July, 26, 2013
07/26/13
6:27
PM ET

NASCAR heads to one of the most sacred grounds in the world of racing this weekend: Indianapolis Motor Speedway. And I, for one, am excited.

Let's break down some of the key storylines for Sunday's race, the 20th running of the Brickyard 400 (1 p.m. ET, ESPN).

The best bet: Jimmie Johnson

With four wins at Indianapolis, all in the past seven races, Johnson is tied with Jeff Gordon for the most in race history. And with one more he'll tie Michael Schumacher for the most career wins at the track; Schumacher won the now-defunct Formula One U.S. Grand Prix five times.

Johnson's win last season was one of the most dominant performances in Brickyard 400 history. In fact, his average running position during the race was a 1.58, the best at the track since NASCAR began tracking it in 2005.

Amazingly, he spent only five laps of the entire race outside the top three.

He also had a perfect 150 driver rating, the only driver to do that at any track the past three seasons.

However, it's been feast or famine at the Brickyard for Johnson. In his first race at the track, he finished ninth. Since then, he has four wins and six finishes of 18th or worse in 10 starts, with three DNFs.

The safe bet: Jeff Gordon

All the history Johnson can make with a fifth Brickyard 400 win, just copy that for Jeff Gordon. While Johnson has been boom or bust, though, Gordon has been consistently solid.

All four of his wins came from 1994-2004, but in 15 of the 19 Brickyard 400s ever run, he's finished ninth or better, including a 2011 runner-up finish that rivaled the strength of Johnson's 2012 win.

In that race, Gordon was the fastest driver on the track on 49 circuits, or one more than Johnson last year. And he finished second behind Paul Menard based on Menard's pit strategy, with Gordon's closing-laps rush to the front coming up one spot short.

Gordon was able to do something in 2011 that is difficult for many in stock cars at Indianapolis -- make passes. He made 83 of them -- three times as many as Johnson needed to win last year.

The fool's bet: Roush Fenway or Penske

In 2002, Bill Elliott won the Brickyard 400 in a Dodge. Since then, Chevrolet has captured 10 straight victories.

To find the last win by a current manufacturer other than Chevy, you have to go back to 1999, when Dale Jarrett won in a Ford. Toyota has never won a Brickyard 400.

So while Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle have shown Indy strength in the past, I wouldn't count on them for a win, since this is one of just three active Cup series tracks where Roush Fenway has never won.

Also, for all the success Penske Racing has had in the Indianapolis 500, with a far-and-away-record 15 victories, the team has never won a Brickyard 400.

The Eliminator: Brickyard edition

For old times' sake, let's break this out.

For those of you unfamiliar with The Eliminator, I'll use this space to pick a winner. But instead of just picking a winner, I'll use stats and historical trends to tell you why all but one driver can't win the race.

1. Fourteen of the past 15 Brickyard 400 winners finished 12th or better in the previous Cup race (34 eliminated, 11 remaining).

2. Seventeen of the 19 Brickyard 400 winners won earlier in the season (five eliminated, six remaining).

3. Seven of the past nine and 12 of the past 15 Indianapolis winners finished eighth or better in the previous Pocono race (four eliminated, two remaining).

4. Chevrolet has won the past 10 Brickyard 400s; a Toyota has never won (one eliminated, one remaining).

Your winner: Jimmie Johnson.

Matt Willis has been a studio researcher at ESPN since 2006, working on "NASCAR Now" and "SportsCenter," among other shows. He graduated from Ithaca College in 2006 with a degree in journalism. While there, he worked on ICTV, on shows such as "Ya Think You Know Sports?" and "Sports Final." He also was a member of the IC Comedy Club and figures about half of the jokes he makes in his column are actually funny.

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