Even if it hasnât been outrightly stated, this feels like a reckoning for NASCAR at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The past decade has been a turbulent one for stock cars at the worldâs most famous race course. Throughout the first 15 years, more than 250,000 people walked through the turnstiles each year and offered the race a prestige matched only by the Daytona 500.
Now the race struggles to attract 30,000 and has never produced the most exciting on-track product. The Goodyear tire debacle of 2008 forced NASCAR to throw a caution every 10 laps to change tires, and fans never truly forgave them for it.
The 110-year-old venue has some of the worst sightlines in motorsports, and the novelty of something other than the Indianapolis 500 taking place in Speedway, Indiana, has worn off.
So, is this weekend the beginning of the end of the Brickyard 400?
“I think thatâs probably a better question for the NASCAR execs as to whether we should keep going back there,” defending winner Brad Keselowski said over the weekend. “They seem to have a plan and know things that I probably donât know, but I think that the reaction that we get from going to Indy is always going to vary.
“Thereâs always going to be some open-wheel loyalists who would rather not see us there, but there has also been a fan base there that really loves having us there, so Iâm kind of mixed.”
Under pressure from fans to make changes to a stagnant schedule, NASCAR leadership has promised a new look beyond the date shuffling that will come next season.
For the Brickyard, that means moving to Independence Day weekend in 2020. But thatâs not the most immediate fix as NASCAR will bring its new low horsepower, high downforce competition package to the famed 2.5-mile speedway this weekend.
A variation of this package has actually been used at Indianapolis the past two seasons in the NASCAR Xfinity Series to generally positive results. There was a four-wide stage finish in 2018 and the long straightaways have actually allowed for passing in the slipstream before getting to the flat narrow corners.
NASCAR officials hope that this style of racing brings a new energy back to the Brickyard.
After all, the Indianapolis 500 itself went through a decadelong slump before the 100th running in 2016 brought fans back in droves. The attendance numbers for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing really hasnât dropped off in the following years.
2013 Brickyard 400 winner Ryan Newman, an Indiana native, still cites 2008 as a turning point in the race.
“I think the tire deal from ’08 was a huge black eye for that racetrack and our sport,” Newman said. “I think weâre still on the rebound of that, and I think you also saw that cycle go through with the Indianapolis 500, where the attendance went down and now itâs booming back.
“Will it happen in NASCAR? Good question.”
Even if this package doesnât produce optimistic results, NASCAR and the Speedway have one more trump card they could play next season and beyond — a race on the infield road course.
Formula 1 raced on a variation of the infield circuit from 2000-2007. IndyCarâs month of May has kicked off with an infield road course race for the past five years. Thatâs certainly an option for NASCARÂ if oval racing at the Speedway canât be salvaged.
Four-time Brickyard 400 winner Jimmie Johnson feels itâs important to continue racing at Indianapolis, a top-five NASCAR television market, in some capacity moving forward.
“Just from my own point of view, it would be a bummer not to go to the Brickyard with the history of that racetrack,” the seven-time champion said. “I guess you could argue the fact that they have a road course, and road course racing is pretty entertaining for Cup cars. Maybe thatâs an option.
“I just feel like in my heart of hearts, we need to go to the Brickyard and race.”