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Even as NASCAR hits Brickyard, Indy 500 chatter still buzzes

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A marathon Brickyard 400 is finally in the books on Sunday, but the allure of the Indianapolis 500 was a talking point among several drivers throughout the weekend within the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series garage.

As evidenced by two recent guest stars who’ve made their maiden Indianapolis 500 bows – Kurt Busch in 2014 and Fernando Alonso in 2017, both with Andretti Autosport (Alonso in a McLaren Honda Andretti) – when a star from another discipline of motorsport shows up for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, people take notice, and a heck of a lot of words get typed.

So who could be next from the NASCAR world making a crack at Indy, or simply paying a visit on race day? It’s always fun to prognosticate and look ahead, even if the chances seem remote and all the stars – and contracts – have to align to make it happen.

KYLE BUSCH

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – JULY 22: Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Skittles Toyota, poses with the Coors Light Pole Award decal after qualifying for pole position for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 22, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)

No one doubts the younger Busch brother’s ability, and the 2015 NASCAR Cup champion knows a thing or two about winning at Indianapolis. He won back-to-back Brickyards in 2015 and 2016 and was well on his way to a three-peat in 2017 before he and Martin Truex Jr. collided, continuing his unlucky, unhappy and thus far winless season.

On Friday Busch revealed he had a ride in place for this year’s Indianapolis 500, but said it fell through because his boss wouldn’t allow it. He didn’t specify whether said “boss” was wife Samantha Busch or his Cup series team boss, Joe Gibbs.

“It would be a unique opportunity,” Busch said of the prospects, and such a chance to race it would open up a double possibility with the ‘500 and the Coca-Cola 600 in the same day – same as Kurt did in 2014.

Gibbs seemed to pour water on that idea to ESPN.com reporter Bob Pockrass, saying Busch has “got a full plate” at the moment.

The issue with Busch running Indianapolis seems more a manufacturer-related one. Workarounds are possible but as Busch drives a Toyota in Cup, the likelihood of them being happy seeing him in a Honda – a fellow Japanese manufacturer – or a Chevrolet – a fellow NASCAR competitor – isn’t the best-case scenario. That’s not to say it can’t be done as Kurt Busch raced a Honda in 2014 while competing in a Chevrolet in NASCAR, but all parties would need to clear the way for this to happen.

This actually transitions nicely into a Kyle who could have an easier workaround from a manufacturer standpoint…

KYLE LARSON

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – JULY 22: Ricky Stenhouse Jr., driver of the #17 SunnyD Ford, and Kyle Larson, driver of the #42 Target Chevrolet, talk during qualifying for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 22, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

It’s the question of when, it seems, not if Larson races the Indianapolis 500. He’s said multiple times he wants to do and his team boss, Chip Ganassi has said he’s open to the idea himself. But it has to make sense from a timing standpoint. Yes, I’ll admit I wrote an admittedly last-ditch-for-2017 column about the idea earlier this year once Larson won at Auto Club Speedway, thus securing his playoff spot. But Ganassi doused water on the idea for this year in a gathering of reporters at St. Petersburg – noting how everyone blows up his social media in March and April for May of the current year, and it goes quiet in June, when the next year planning actually needs to take place.

Larson said this year’s two heavy accidents featuring his Ganassi teammates – IndyCar’s Scott Dixon and IMSA’s Sebastien Bourdais – have temporarily halted his desire.

“I do, but when I see Scott Dixon’s and (Sebastien) Bourdais crash, it makes me think twice about it a little bit. I’ll get the courage up to do it someday,” Larson said this weekend, via NASCAR Talk.

Put aside the accidents for a minute and let’s get back to looking at Larson’s realistic prospects depending on how the manufacturer and car count scenario could shake out. There’s a good possibility Ganassi’s IndyCar program will downsize for the full season next year if one or more of its three non-Dixon drivers doesn’t return. But what that could do would be open the opportunities for a Honda engine lease and an extra chassis to run. Larson, a Ganassi driver, has driven other manufacturers for the team before; he’s won the Rolex 24 at Daytona in a Ford-powered prototype and he races a Chevrolet in NASCAR, so a Honda in IndyCar could work out for him.

KASEY KAHNE

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – JULY 23: Kasey Kahne, driver of the #5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet, kisses the yard of bricks with his crew after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 23, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Who says you can’t go home again? It’s easy to forget Kahne was a star on short tracks growing up, and had a handful of Formula Atlantic starts in 2001 before his NASCAR career began, and his Cup career started in 2004.

Kahne’s NASCAR Cup future seems uncertain at the moment but Sunday’s win at the Brickyard 400 was a massive boost for him. It ensures his playoff eligibility this year and helps further his case to see out the rest of his Hendrick Motorsports contract in 2018.

J. Douglas Boles, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway track president, is renowned as a marketer and works incredibly hard from a promotional standpoint across the board. And the opportunity to have the active Brickyard 400 champion racing in the Indianapolis 500 the next year would be something to marvel at.

The reality of a situation would hinge on Kahne’s own desire to get back into open-wheel – he hasn’t been in an open-wheel car in more than a decade and he’s also a father now. But if he’s available, you wonder if it’s worth planting the seed.

DANICA PATRICK

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – JULY 23: Danica Patrick, driver of the #10 Aspen Dental Ford, is introduced prior to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 23, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Yes, I can’t believe I just typed that… and yet I also wonder if it’s possible once again. Like the others mentioned here she has been out of open-wheel for several years. She was IndyCar’s biggest star for a good six or seven years even if her results didn’t back it up.

This much we knew though. She was always good at Indianapolis, a regular top-five finisher and occasional win contender who generally took care of her equipment. She also hasn’t had the spotlight on her ability in the NASCAR side of affairs much, if at all, in recent years. Her results have been floundering at best; the occasional top-10 or top-15 finish is a surprise sprinkled in amidst a flurry of top-20s.

Like Kahne, her NASCAR future will be dictated by sponsorship and with the Nature’s Bakery lawsuit that occurred earlier this year leaving her Stewart-Haas Racing team looking to fill the gaps, you wonder how much more she’s willing to take beyond the rest of this year and into 2018.

Again, if she’s available, and more importantly if she’s interested, a comeback – especially in a year with a new universal aero kit that everyone would be learning – would undoubtedly dominate headlines.

While in this subhead, I’d also note Patrick’s boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (pictured above with Larson) would be a popular Indy 500 first-timer – particularly in a car with “BC Forever” logos and Jonathan Byrd’s support, the Byrd family having invested heavily and supported the late Bryan Clauson. It’s no secret Stenhouse and Clauson were close, and if there was a way for Stenhouse to clear the Ford manufacturer hurdle, he’d probably impress if he had the shot at the ‘500.

BRAD KESELOWSKI 

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – JULY 22: Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, stands in the garage during practice for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 22, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

“Kes” actually has an IndyCar test under his belt, his surprise one-off run for Team Penske at Road America in 2016. And after his runner-up finish at the Brickyard on Sunday, he got super close to putting the fabled “blue deuce” into first place and delivering Roger Penske his first ‘400 win.

Last year, Team Penske president Tim Cindric gave it a “20 percent chance” Keselowski could one day race in both the ‘500 and the Coca-Cola 600. Better than nothing, right? It’s hard to see it for next year with Team Penske figuring to have both Helio Castroneves and/or Juan Pablo Montoya in Indianapolis 500 entries, the question being if one or both would be extra cars beyond their full season.

DALE EARNHARDT JR. AND JEFF GORDON

We can pretty much say straight up neither of these two will be racing in the ‘500. But Junior riffed this weekend, “I’ve never been to the Indy 500 obviously, so that would be a great experience. It’s an impressive place.”

Gordon’s driven the pace car for the Indianapolis 500 before, so it’d make sense and would be a natural to bestow the same honor to Earnhardt Jr. given his relationship with Chevrolet. It’s also worth noting new IndyCar team owner Mike Harding ran his Chevrolet for Gabby Chaves with Junior’s stylized No. 88 at this year’s race – and Earnhardt gave it his approval on social media.

It would not be a stretch to see Earnhardt a guest of either his longtime manufacturer or this team at next year’s race.

Just don’t expect to see him in a race car, because that might break the Internet.

FORT WORTH, TX – JUNE 09: Gabby Chaves, driver of the #88 Harding Group Chevrolet, practices for the Verizon IndyCar Series Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 9, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

F1 Preview – 2018 German Grand Prix

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The German Grand Prix continues its biennial presence on the Formula 1 calendar – it’s hosted F1 events in even numbered years since 2014 – as Formula 1 returns to the Hockenheimring this weekend.

The German fans will undoubtedly be joyful in Sebastian Vettel entering his home race in the championship lead, by nine points over Lewis Hamilton. Yet, somewhat surprisingly, Vettel despite being one of the most successful and decorated drivers of his generation, Vettel has won in Germany only once (2013, at the Nurburgring) and he has never won at Hockenheim.

Conversely, Hamilton has won in Germany three times, including twice at Hockenheim (2008 and 2016).

As such, Vettel will hope to add to his points lead over Hamilton with a win on home soil, though Hamilton may be equally as motivated after watching Vettel his own home race at Silverstone two weeks ago.

Nevertheless, their 2018 championship duel will most certainly continue to be closely fought.

Talking points ahead of the German Grand Prix are below.

A Different World in 2018 vs. 2016

Nico Rosberg during the Formula One Grand Prix of Germany at Hockenheimring on July 31, 2016 in Hockenheim, Germany. Photo: Getty Images

The Formula 1 landscape looked completely different back in 2016, the last time Formula 1 visited the Hockenheimring. Bernie Ecclestone was still the chief executive of Formula 1.

Nico Rosberg was partnering Lewis Hamilton in the Mercedes team, and was on his way to a driver’s championship that year.

Vettel and teammate Kimi Raikkonen were in the midst of a slump as Ferrari went winless in 2016.

The world was still getting to know a then 18-year-old Max Verstappen, the young Dutchman having won the Spanish Grand Prix in May that year.

And the cars looked completely different, with skinnier and taller rear wings and taller rear tires highlighting the appearance differences.

In 2018, Vettel and Ferrari might be the strongest combination. Rosberg is long from Mercedes, and Valtteri Bottas is doing his best to shine in the wake of Hamilton’s enormous shadow.

Verstappen is still a rising star, though he has come under fire at times for overly aggressive driving and his Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo has garnered more headlines this year, with a pair of race wins alongside his status as an F1 free agent after 2018.

In short, the Formula 1 landscape is hardly recognizable from what it was back in 2016. And even though Hamilton won that year, followed by Ricciardo and Verstappen in second and third, very little will carry over from that race two years ago.

Hamilton, Mercedes Look to Take Back Momentum from Vettel, Ferrari

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – JULY 08: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes WO9 leads Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of Great Britain at Silverstone on July 8, 2018 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)

The seesaw championship fight has tilted back in the favor of Ferrari, with Vettel leading Hamilton after finishes of third and first in Austria and England. Hamilton, meanwhile, DNF’ed in Austria and came home second in England after spinning on Lap 1.

Hamilton trails by nine points, but this is hardly an unfamiliar position for Hamilton in 2018 – he started the year trailing Vettel until he took the championship lead for the first time after the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

Both teams have had multiple swings of momentum this year – Vettel won the opening two races before finishes of eighth in China (he spun after contact with Verstappen) and a pair of fourth place efforts in Azerbaijan and Spain before getting two more wins in Canada and England.

Hamilton, meanwhile stumbled out of the gates somewhat with finishes of second and third before taking a fortuitous win in Azerbaijan and two dominant wins in Spain and France before the misfortune in Austria.

All told the ebb and flow of the 2018 season seems to change with every race, and while Vettel now leads Hamilton again, things could change this weekend.

Raikkonen Trying to Fend off Ricciardo, Bottas

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – JULY 06: Kimi Raikkonen of Finland driving the (7) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Great Britain at Silverstone on July 6, 2018 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Kimi Raikkonen is somewhat of a forgotten man this Formula 1 season, but he does rank third in the championship at the moment, 10 points ahead of Ricciardo and 12 points ahead of Bottas.

However, both Ricciardo and Bottas are likely thought to have had better seasons – Ricciardo has the aforementioned wins (at China and Monaco) and the only thing that has kept Bottas from the top step of the podium is a string of horrendous luck.

However, Raikkonen, to his credit, has picked up the pieces whenever others around him have faltered, and he has six podium finishes through 10 races.

However, in order to fully silence any critics, and maybe even keep his Ferrari drive, Raikkonen would do well to get a win in 2018.

Misc.

  • The driver challenging Raikkonen’s position within Ferrari is Sauber’s Charles Leclerc. The Ferrari junior driver has five points finishes, and that could have been six if not for a pit stop error at Silverstone that caused him to leave his pit stall with a loose wheel – it forced him to retire. Leclerc’s star is on the rise, and he could shine again in Germany.
  • Nico Hulkenberg is the “other” German driver on the grid. And though he has a 24 Hours of Le Mans win to his name, he is yet to finish on the podium in an F1 race. The Renault package may not be a podium threat in usual circumstances, but if he stays clean and others falter, he could sneak in there…and doing so in his home race would make that overdue podium even sweeter.
  • After a pair of eighth place finishes, Fernando Alonso has helped McLaren at least stop the bleeding after a dismal stretch of races from Monaco through France in which the team scored zero points. However, the team still has a long way to go, and Germany could be another weekend of struggles.

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