The Indianapolis Oval Is NASCAR’s Worst Option, Except for All the Rest
The 2008 Brickyard 400 won by Jimmie Johnson was so awful that NASCAR could have used it as the excuse to flee Indianapolis Motor Speedway and never return. Now, reeling from a debacle nearly as bad on the venue’s road course, the pendulum is swinging back toward returning to the 2.5-mile oval next year.
It’s a dilemma for NASCAR and potentially the beginning of the end for stock car racing at the country’s most hallowed track.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway executives are talking about a change for 2024
Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Doug Boles revealed his organization is considering returning its annual NASCAR race to the track’s 2.5-mile oval beginning in 2024. NASCAR conducted the Brickyard 400 on the big track from 1994-2020, then moved onto the IMS road course in 2021.
Speaking on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, Boles cited a clear driver preference as well as the prestige of the big track.
“We never said we’re not going to go back to the oval when we switched to the road course,” he explained. “We wanted to see how it worked. That’s why we started with Xfinity and then rolled it into Cup. And then we wanted to give it some time to really see how it worked instead of just one year.”
It hasn’t worked. Two big wrecks in Turn 6 and Chase Briscoe coming off the grass to punt Denny Hamlin off the course marred the end of the debut on the road course. Last year, two-wide restarts instantly became four- and five-wide demolition derbies in Turn 1.
Races on the oval generally weren’t memorable
Indianapolis Motor Speedway has always been engineered and maintained with open-wheel racing – specifically, the Indy 500 – in mind. In that respect, there’s a legitimate case that NASCAR should have never brought its Cup Series there in 1994.
The racing has seldom been captivating, even with the first four editions of the Brickyard 400 averaging 19 lead changes. The saving grace of racing there was that the big names had a knack for winning, beginning with Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, and Dale Jarrett. Bill Elliott, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, and Kyle Bush were among those who followed.
However, the 2008 race won by Jimmie Johnson was without a doubt one of the greatest embarrassments in NASCAR history. Officials knew beforehand the tires would not hold up to the demands of the track, and six competition cautions to allow teams to swap out sets destroyed the racing. It soured fans on NASCAR at IHS, and many never came back.
But two tries on a road course vastly inferior to Watkins Glen, Sonoma, and the Charlotte Roval have some observers longing for the old days.
“It’s a little bit odd to be this passionate about the oval when the races were not consistently amazing and oftentimes boring,” racing writer Jeff Gluck of The Athletic said on The Pit Reporters Podcast. “But to me, if you’re going to be in Indianapolis … the whole point of going there is the prestige of the oval, the place that the Indy 500 is run for all those years. That’s the magic. The road course, there’s nothing there that does anything for me.”
Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course ‘was just sort of circus-like, right?’
The past two years left such a sour memory that The Athletic’s Gluck rates the Indianapolis Motor Speedway date as the Cup Series race he’s least looking forward to in 2023.
“It brings out sort of the worst of the drivers sometimes. Last year was just sort of circus-like, right? I mean, the restarts – everybody just goes into Turn 1 and piles into each other. Even the champ, Joey Logano, just goes into the corner in Turn 1 with no intention of making it at all. Just uses all the other cars. That’s what everybody does. … I just don’t think it’s the best display of NASCAR racing.”Jeff Gluck
Weighed against that, the oval sounds better by the day. Of course, leaving Indy might be even better, but that’s not going to happen unless and until racing on the oval and the road course each produces a farce too recent to wipe from everyone’s memory.
Track president Doug Boles unwittingly offers that up as a possibility. He’s considered the idea of alternating between the oval and the road course every other year.
“We haven’t decided exactly how that looks,” Boles said. “I will tell you that I do think you’ll see that sooner rather than later.”
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