INDIANAPOLIS -- There's never been a shortage of hype at Indianapolis. But it's no overstatement to say, this could be the most important Brickyard 400 ever.
Not that it's ever been a small race, but the reasons this event has garnered so much attention in the past seem shallow in comparison to this year's criteria. The Brickyard 400 has always hung its hat on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's rich heritage and the race's enormous purse. But with the advent of a new points structure, the romantic, fluffy story lines, which once dominated this week, should take a backseat to those centered on the championship chase.
Never before have so many teams come to Indy with so much at stake. There are just six races remaining before NASCAR's post season cut-off. And with positions six through 14 separated by less than 200 points it seems the final five spots in the all-important top-10 are up for grabs.
Ryan Newman and Bobby Labonte rank eighth and ninth, respectively. But if they don't reverse course soon, both could easily be on the outside looking in at the conclusion of the 26-race regular season.
In his last nine races, Newman has cracked the top-10 just twice and has recorded three finishes of 30th or worse. Newman, an Indiana native, has more than Hoosier pride on the line Sunday: His championship hopes may cling to this race. Nonetheless, he's unfazed.
"If we hold our own we'll be just fine," Newman said. "If we focus on what's ahead of us we won't have to worry about what's behind us."
What's behind Labonte may be cause for future concern. When crew chief Michael McSwain was released last month some speculated the move would hamper performance. Since then Labonte has finished 17th (New Hampshire) and 29th (Pocono) to drop him from sixth to ninth in the standings.
Directly on the bubble is defending Brickyard winner Kevin Harvick. After
engine failure last week, his first DNF since Atlanta in October of 2002, he slipped to 10th. Surprisingly though, despite having only a 40-point advantage over Jeremy Mayfield, Harvick is poised for the battle.
"It doesn't matter," says Harvick, scoffing at the notion of pressure. "You have to go out and race hard and do what you have to do."
If Harvick does what he's done at Indy in the past, this week should not pose a problem. In three Brickyard starts he's never finished worse than 11th.
Meanwhile Mayfield has surged, stringing together three consecutive top-10 finishes. With a qualifying position for the "Chase" now clearly in sight, conservative racing isn't an option.
"We're not going to play it safe," confirmed Mayfield. "We have nothing to lose really. We've got to run hard. We've got to try to win this race."
Mayfield's Evernham Motorsports' teammate Kasey Kahne has flirted with victory, finishing second four times this season. However, no driver has ever gotten his first career victory in the Brickyard 400.
Mark Martin has suspiciously broken from character this week. The normally introverted veteran has been overtly confident, leaving no doubt about his outlook for Sunday.
"We're gonna run good here," asserts Martin, who has six top-10 finishes in 10 Brickyard starts. "I'm not just wishing that, we're gonna run good this weekend. I know for a fact."
With the inconsistent year he's had, Martin's optimism is somewhat surprising. After finishing last in the Daytona 500 he started the year 43rd in the standings. He has since picked up 30 positions and ranks 13th heading into Sunday's race. The margin between Martin and the final qualifying position for this year's Chase for the Nextel Cup is just 89 points.
"We can't do anything about the points tally to this point," adds Martin. "But if we won the Brickyard, it wouldn't matter what the points were, to me, anymore because that would be the greatest day of 2004, and we'd worry about tomorrow on Monday."
On Monday the worrying may get more intense for everyone fighting for a spot in the Chase. There will be only five races remaining before the cut-off. Which means next week could be the most important Watkins Glen race in history.
Mike Massaro covers NASCAR for ESPN and ESPN.com.