Another Hendrick vs. Penske battle set for the Brickyard?

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It almost seems preordained: The two most powerful teams of the 2014 Sprint Cup season going head-to-head for supremacy on the sport’s most hallowed ground.

Hendrick Motorsports and Team Penske have combined for 11 wins in 19 races this season. Throw in Hendrick-powered Stewart Haas Racing and you have 14 in 19.

And coming to the green tomorrow for the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the two sides are well-represented in the front end of the grid.

Starting alongside SHR pole sitter Kevin Harvick on the front row will be HMS’ Jeff Gordon. Behind them will be Penske’s Brad Keselowski on the inside of Row 2.

Then there’s Tony Stewart (SHR) in Row 3, Kurt Busch (SHR) and Juan Pablo Montoya (Penske) in Row 4, Joey Logano (Penske) and Kasey Kahne (HMS) in Row 5, and Jimmie Johnson (HMS) in Row 6.

You get the picture. Those that aren’t affiliated with Hendrick or Penske are likely going to have their work cut out for them tomorrow.

“We certainly look at all the Hendrick cars – and the Stewart Haas cars having Hendrick chassis and Hendrick engines and just how good they’ve been – then Penske: to me, they’re the team to beat outside of what we have,” Gordon said today at IMS regarding the teams’ rivalry.

“At times, they’ve been better than us and at times, we’ve been better than them.”

Right now, one could argue that Penske’s been better as Keselowski has won two of the last three Sprint Cup races. But Keselowski noted that while Penske and Hendrick have been the strongest teams so far, a lot can still change in the weeks ahead.

“You never know what somebody else has in their hands – much like if you’re playing a game of poker,” he said. “You think we have the two strongest hands with Penske and Hendrick, and certainly, that’s been the case to this date in the season. But you don’t know what’s out there.

“I find it hard to believe that [Joe Gibbs Racing] is gonna go a whole year without a dominant car. It’s not like them. So I’m sure they’re going to catch on as the season progresses – and maybe [Michael Waltrip Racing] or [Richard Childress Racing], who knows?

“But we’re a long ways from over and while I think you can look at the past – it’s an indicator to the future, but not a complete premonition.”

Still, it would seem that the world’s greatest race course is set for a fight between the sport’s heavyweights. And while Keselowski is wise to say that the past isn’t a window into the future, both he and Gordon surely hope that doing well at Indy will ultimately foreshadow a championship celebration this fall.

Podcast: James Hinchcliffe might find a silver lining in disguise at Indy after ‘an emotional roller coaster’

Richard W. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway
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INDIANAPOLIS – No one could blame James Hinchcliffe for going incognito at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this weekend, and he might do exactly that on the eve of the Indianapolis 500.

But it won’t be because the SPM driver is bummed about missing the biggest race of the IndyCar season. Actually, it’s because the crushing disappointment of getting bumped from the field a week ago might have a silver lining.

“I’ve heard all these stories from way back when to the present day of what it’s like just outside the speedway on Saturday night before the race,” Hinchcliffe said during a new episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast that was recorded and released Saturday. “Up Georgetown (Road), in the Coke Lot, you hear all these crazy stories about all these crazy parties and the rest of it.

“And honestly, we’re always isolated in our little bubble inside the speedway in the drivers lot. Part of me is tempted to dress up in disguise and just venture out there and see what it’s all about. I’m very tempted to do that and maybe document some of the exploits out there.”

And if Hinchcliffe lingers well into the night? Well, it’s not as if he has a 500-mile race to worry about Sunday.

“I know the (track’s) cannon is going to go off at 6 a.m. (Sunday) and wake us up, but I have fewer responsibilities tomorrow than most of my colleagues,” the Canadian said with a laugh.

Of course, it still has been one of the longer weeks in the life of a 31-year-old who is ranked fifth in the points standing and seemed on track for a career season. Before Indy, Hinchcliffe’s average finish in the first five races was 5.8, including a third at Barber Motorsports Park.

But the momentum screeched to a halt when his No. 5 Dallara-Honda was knocked out of the field in the closing hour of the opening day of qualifying at the Brickyard last Saturday.

Hinchcliffe gamely accepted the outcome with a series of graceful interviews shortly afterward and has maintained a brave face during a week of promotional appearances

“It’s been an up and down week,” he said. “It’s been an emotional roller coaster. The term good days and bad days doesn’t even apply. You have good hours and bad hours.

“The busier I’m keeping myself, the better I’m feeling. There were times you have that little driver tantrum in your head like, ‘I don’t want to do any of this stuff because I’m in a bad mood! And blah, blah blah.’ But talking about it helps you get over it, and staying busy takes your mind off it a little bit.”

Still, there is no escaping the reality of when the green flag falls on the 102nd running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

“Sunday is probably going to suck,” he said. “There’s no way around that. The start of the race is really going to suck. Then when I see how hard it is out there, I might think it sucks a little less.”

It has been easier to swallow because of “fan support that has just been completely overwhelming,” and Hinchcliffe of course has a perspective about Indianapolis that few have after a near-fatal practice crash in 2015 (“(Missing the race) actually wasn’t the worst day I’ve ever had at Indianapolis Motor Speedway”).

His comeback from the brush with death brought his team closer together, and he’s hoping the latest spate of adversity will do the same.

“One of the hardest parts was just being back with the crew right afterward, getting back to the garage and seeing a group of like 10 grown men literally brought to tears over what just happened,” said Hinchcliffe, whose team misjudged the amount of time left in the session after a tire vibration problem quickly ended what would be his final attempt. “It shows you how much this race means. If we had a really bad crash at Detroit on Saturday morning and couldn’t get the car fixed in time for Sunday. We’d all be like, ‘Man that really sucks. We’ll fix the car and come back next week.’

“But not getting to start Indy, man, is just such a gut punch for these guys and for all of us. But at the same time, it brought us closer as a group. There were mistakes made that we’re going to learn from. There’s no doubt that we come back as a stronger unit because of this. Emotionally, from a preparation point of view, from an execution point of view.”

There was a jolt of positivity from a second-place finish in a pit stop competition Friday. Hinchcliffe’s team, which has posted the fastest pit stop in two races this season, fell to Scott Dixon’s team in the final after pulling out a surprise victory over Will Power’s crew from the non-preferred right lane in the semifinals.

“Even if we beat Dixon in the finals, it wouldn’t have felt as good as that win did,” Hinchcliffe said. “It was such an awesome performance. The guys have been killing it in the pits. It’s definitely a point of pride for us.

“It was fun to get back in the car and do something for the fans and do something for the boys. We won a check at the end of the day. Add it to the beer fund and go have a fun Sunday night.”

Other topics discussed in the podcast:

–How and why he became a popular star by learning how to showcase his affable personality early in his career;

–Why the IndyCar Series needs a driver to play the villain role;

–An expanded explanation of why he believes the Indianapolis 500 should be separate from the championship;

To listen to the podcast, click here for Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play or play the Art19 embed below: