Commentary

Another surprise at the Brickyard?

Updated: July 28, 2012, 2:18 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- The best of the best win the Brickyard 400.

Well, that used to be true.

Seven Cup champions have won this race. Eight times, the Indy winner went on to win the championship that season. Five times, the driver who won was the man who led the season standings entering the race.

Jeff Gordon has won it four times. Jimmie Johnson has three Brickyard victories. Tony Stewart has gone to Victory Lane here twice, as did Dale Jarrett. Even the great Dale Earnhardt won this event.

[+] EnlargePaul Menard
Jason Smith/Getty ImagesPaul Menard stunned NASCAR Nation with his improbable victory in the 2011 Brickyard 400.

Legends win at this legendary track.

But legends didn't go to Victory Lane the past two years. When the winner took the checkered flag, it was more this reaction: "You must be kidding me."

Paul Menard rocked NASCAR's world with his surprising victory last year. Jamie McMurray's victory in 2010 wasn't as big a shocker because he had won the Daytona 500 that year. But he wasn't having a great season, and few people believed he had any shot at winning the two biggest races of the year.

Until 2010, every Indy winner ranked in the top 10 of the Cup standings entering the event. McMurray was 18th in 2010, and Menard ranked 19th when he won it last year.

So, what now? Will the Brickyard 400 (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, ESPN) go back to being a race where the stars kiss the bricks? Or will the upset winners of the past two years start a trend of Indy shockers?

"One thing about the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is that the most bizarre things happen in both IndyCar and NASCAR races," said Jeff Burton, who would love to become another shocking winner on Sunday. "You never know what is going to happen. It's a long track where people can pit and not go a lap down. It opens the window for strange things to happen."

Strange or not, odds are the race will produce another winner who ranks among the all-time best, or at least ranks among the best this season.

However, a few guys could pull off another stunner in a season that has produced 12 different winners in the first 19 races.

So here are some drivers who just might pull it off and beat the odds:

• Mark Martin -- He could win it as a part-time driver, another Brickyard 400 first. Martin has finished 11th or better in seven consecutive Indy races. He has finished second twice, including in 2009, when he won the pole.

A win for Martin would work in both categories. He ranks among the best ever, but it also would be a surprise to see him win this weekend.

Michael Waltrip, Martin's team owner for the No. 55 Toyota, said nothing Martin does on a racetrack surprises him.

"You realize there are people who come along every now and then who are just special," Waltrip said. "Mark is one of them."

Waltrip has two other drivers who could surprise folks Sunday -- Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. But both of them rank in the top 10 in the standings, and Bowyer won at Sonoma, so it's a bit of a stretch to put them in the surprise category.

Chad Johnston, Truex's crew chief, said a win by his driver Sunday wouldn't surprise him a bit.

"Martin has been good everywhere we've been," Johnston said. "He is not scared to go fast. He is especially not scared to go fast right from the get-go.

"Indy is intimidating with the speeds you carry heading into the corners. Martin doesn't flinch at it. He's wide open. Plus, from an organizational standpoint, we have been fast at all the big tracks this season. We'll also have a new Toyota engine this week and a brand-new car. We are going all out with everything we have for this weekend. I think this is our best shot yet."

• Juan Pablo Montoya -- Some fans might argue that this wouldn't be a surprise because he gave away a victory here in 2009 with a pit road penalty and crashed when he had a chance to win in 2010.

But, considering how poorly Earnhardt Ganassi Racing has performed the past two seasons, and the fact that Montoya still hasn't won a Cup race on an oval, it would shock a lot of people to see the No. 42 Chevy go to Victory Lane on Sunday.

Montoya has led 202 laps at Indy over the past four seasons. Since 2005, he has 105 of the fastest laps at Indy, the most among active drivers. And his teammate -- McMurray -- won it two years ago.

EGR team owner Chip Ganassi would do the Indy double for the second time. Ganassi driver Dario Franchitti won his second Indy 500 in 2010, and he won it for the third time this year.

So here's a word Ganassi used in January that he won't use if Montoya wins Sunday -- "pathetic."

• Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- OK, it's not exactly a shock if the guy ranked second in the standings wins the race, but it would be surprising because Junior has stunk up the Brickyard most of his career.

He doesn't have a top-5 finish in 12 starts at Indy, one of only three Cup tracks where that's true, along with Sonoma and Homestead. He's averaging a 25th-place finish in his past five Indy starts.

So a victory Sunday would tell everyone Earnhardt is a serious title contender.

"I would love to be able to say I've won this race," Earnhardt said. "It's at the top of the list."

• Regan Smith -- Talk about a shocker. The New York Mets winning the 1969 World Series would be less of a surprise than a Smith win here.

But Smith has a couple of things working in his favor. One is new crew chief Todd Berrier. He won the Brickyard 400 with Kevin Harvick in 2003.

"Todd has a proven record," Smith said. "He also has a good understanding of our team, which should ease the transition."

Smith also finished third at Indy last year.

"That was one of the highlights of the season," Smith said. "I like racing at Indy. It's one of the crown jewels of Cup."

Winning at Indianapolis is a big deal, whether you rank among the best of the best or just happen to be a guy who has one lucky day.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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