The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series isn’t the auto racing circuit that immediately springs to mind when you think of the storied Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but that’s where the drivers are headed Sunday, after a two-week break got everyone rested and ready for the regular season’s final seven weeks.
A driver who’s under the radar in the playoff race right now is Jamie McMurray. Indeed, McMurray is under the radar in general. He was termed “just an average driver” by my NASCAR consultant, my brother Bill, who can normally gin up a venomous opinion on anything as banal as whether the sun will rise in the east. Apparently McMurray is even blander than that.
For better or for worse, the record backs that up. The 37-year-old McMurray started driving NASCAR full time in 2003 and in the ensuing eleven years he’s finished in the Top 20 six times. Yet he’s never broke the Top 10, and he’s only won five races in his career. Now, as the playoff stretch looms, he’s going to have to break pattern and either win a race or get to the Top 10.
McMurray currently sits 16 points out of the Top 10, the baseline for automatic playoff qualification (click here for a layman’s guide to the NASCAR postseason). That’s a manageable distance to make up if he just drives consistently over the next seven races. But if he comes up short of the 10-hole, McMurray will need an outright win to get in the wild-card discussion. He’ll also need to at pass Tony Stewart and Martin Truex in points, and possibly more.
The established record of McMurray makes it easy to bet against him, easy to just dismiss him as “just an average driver.” And frankly, that’s probably where I’m at too. But consider this—of the five races that McMurray has won his career, one of them came in Indianapolis, back in 2010. He’s a 75-1 shot to do it again on Sunday, and a win puts him in a whole different light.
THE REST OF THE FIELD
The big development in the playoff race is that Brad Keselowski has put himself back in the Top 10. The defending champion still has not won a race in 2013, but he’s now at least in position to qualify for the postseason on points alone, sitting at #9.
Seven drivers are in comfortable shape for the playoffs—and by comfortable, I mean they have at least one bad race in them and can still be in the Top 10. Of the seven, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth have four wins apiece, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch have won twice, while Carl Edwards has one win, and Clint Bowyer and Dale Earnhardt Junior are doing it on points alone.
As of today, the other three automatic qualifiers would be Keselowski, Greg Biffle and Kasey Kahne, though none have any margin for error. Truex and Stewart hold the wild-card spots, with Jeff Gordon needing just a three-point gain on Kahne to slip into #10.
SUNDAY AT THE BRICKYARD
Johnson is a heavy favorite to win the Samuel Deeds 400 (1 PM ET, ESPN). The points leader is a 7-2 favorite, which is the smallest price I’ve seen this year. With his four wins in the last six trips to Indy though, I at least understand why.
Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne are at 7-1, while Denny Hamlin and Jeff Gordon are are 12-1.
What we can expect at Indianapolis is wide open racing. It’s spread out, and according to Bill, if you can get rolling on the straightaways, the corners are built to allow for a strong move to pass. “Tire management is important,” Bill did caution. The open racing and higher speeds can result in blown tires, and here, as in so many other areas of the race, the drivers depend on the hidden heroes in their crews.