Insider: Chaotic first NASCAR road race at IMS ends with more questions than answers

Nathan Brown
Indianapolis Star

INDIANAPOLIS – After years of mediocrity in one of NASCAR’s crown jewels, Roger Penske and the sanctioning body opted to take a risk last fall.

For more than a decade, the Brickyard 400 had produced snooze-fests on what many in NASCAR had called the series’ “asphalt rectangle.” The Brickyard thrived in its infancy when more than 200,000 fans came out to see Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt join A.J. Foyt and Al Unser in the oval track’s record books. But quickly, the casual fan and veteran driver began to realize the Racing Capital of the World was a less than perfect fit for America’s most popular form of motorsports.

Drivers enter the first turn of the road course at the start of the Verizon 200 at the Brickyard on Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021, at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

While IMS lore and the race’s ‘crown jewel’ classification kept the Brickyard 400’s TV ratings in the top-third on the schedule, race attendance went into freefall. What was once seen as perhaps NASCAR’s biggest boon had become one of its biggest frustrations.

Though a veteran-heavy segment of drivers yearned for the Brickyard 400 to remain untouched, claiming the opportunity to race on the IMS oval outweighed the race’s shortcomings, in Penske’s orbit, mediocrity’s a four-letter word. Risk-taking has always been the backbone of his success.

With last fall’s announced switch from the oval to the road course at IMS for the first time, excitement was the goal.

Chaos, and questionmarks for 2022, took its place.

Madness starts to unfold

Years later, record books will state that A.J. Allmendinger, racing’s definition of a journeyman, won the Cup’s Verizon 200 — the replacement for the Brickyard 400 — with a NASCAR team still in its infancy. Kaulig Racing and Allmendinger have run just four races this season. Sunday’s victory is just the second in Allmendinger’s Cup career. His resume includes 2004 Champ Car Rookie of the Year honors, a 2003 Atlantic Championship, a devastating near-miss in the 2013 Indy 500 and various other close calls. Now, he owns the type of memorable victory at the world’s most famous racetrack that takes a 39-year-old driver into a stratosphere he’s never known.

But five, 10, 20 or 50 years into the future, Allmendinger’s win Sunday, through two overtime green-white-checkereds and 13 more laps than scheduled, will likely serve as a footnote to the destroyed curbing in Turn 6 that stole the storylines and turned a relatively clean race into what Austin Dillon called a “demolition derby.”

Kevin Harvick’s claimed “disgrace” to be relegated to the road course, which Kyle Busch called a “parking lot” earlier this weekend, painted the picture of a bland, boring race without the oval’s lore. Instead, we saw one with more questions leading into next year’s race than it began with.

“I’m missing the oval already,” said Dillon, after his No. 3 Chevy wrecked during the second of two massive pileups exiting the Turn 5-6 combination on the road course during overtime. “I hope the fans enjoyed it, but I thought it was a mess pretty much all day.”

NASCAR drivers Chase Briscoe (14) and Denny Hamlin (11) fight for the first place position Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021, during the Verizon 200 at the Brickyard at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

To NASCAR and IMS’s defense, the first 70 laps of Sunday’s action went off almost completely without a hitch. As expected, the Hendrick trio of Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott and William Byron jockeyed for the lead most of the race, and with 15 laps to go, it looked as it Larson would cap a monumental weekend, having already won dirt racing’s Super Bowl late Saturday at the Knoxville Nationals.

But an errant piece of debris that sprang free from a car just past the exit of Turn 6 had other ideas. Fans noted afterwards that the debris bounced well outside the racing line and may not have deserved a caution, but with the yellow flag, all but five cars chose to take fresh tires for the race’s closing stretch.

Denny Hamlin, who bowed out of a late battle in last year’s Brickyard 400 with eventual winner Kevin Harvick with a blown tire, assumed the lead, with Larson and Chase Briscoe, last year’s Xfinity race winner on the IMS road course, breathing down his neck.

The green flag fell with six laps to go, but Martin Truex Jr. spun crossing over the curbing in Turn 6, which track workers had been hammering down pieces around the edge all day. Unbeknownst to most, traffic that lap stirred up a sizable debris field stemming from that curbing, but with Truex Jr. still rolling, the race pressed on.

More:Curb on IMS road course causes 2 major crashes in NASCAR race

Quickly, though, it hit a screeching halt for an hour or more. The next time around while running nearly the front, Byron chopped the apex off Turn 6, as many drivers did Sunday. But this time, his right-front tire exploded, send him into a massive spin, with others behind him quick to follow. Abruptly, his day and those of Joey Logano, Ryan Preece, Christopher Bell and Daniel Suarez were finished in ruin.

Joey Logano (22) crashes into a tire wall Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021, during the Verizon 200 at the Brickyard at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

'Holy moly, that's a lot of money'

But their wrecked cars were by no means the only headaches felt around the track. After the dust settled, it was clear abrasive edges of the metal curbing had been exposed. The barrier, seen flapping in the chaos like a tarp in the wind, was ticking time bomb that had burst – one not even IMS president Doug Boles expected to be a remote issue come the weekend.

“It’s the same style curbing we’ve had since we re-did the road course in 2014,” he told reporters post-race. “They’ve been replaced and repaired, and we’ve never had any issues with those at all.

“We look at the curbs between every session, as well as at night and in the morning, and there was no indication earlier (Sunday) that there was anything wrong. It was a surprise to us when, during the race, we started to have issues with it.”

But it was by no means the first time this weekend track workers and NASCAR officials had paid special attention to one of the course’s trickiest segments.

Crew members work to secure a section of rumble strip Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021, during the Verizon 200 at the Brickyard at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Leading into the long back-stretch in the IMS infield, Turns 5-6 create a special issue. With far more grip and downforce with a lighter car, open-wheel Indy cars have to execute that segment with precision. Putting even a wheel on that curbing could quickly lead to all four wheels being off the ground.

But both levels of stock cars tend to slide around corners, particularly tough during restarts where cars can be running two or even three-wide. To try and slow the field down for Saturday’s Xfinity race, IMS and NASCAR inserted “turtles” on drivers’ left exiting Turn 6 -- narrow, tall, rounded speed bumps meant to enforce the track limits.

In Saturday’s race, though, NASCAR deemed them overly penalizing after several drivers couldn’t avoid them while running at speed on Lap 1. With significant traditional curbs, as well as another sausage-shaped curb (similar to the temporary “turtles”) on drivers’ right exiting Turn 6, they ruled there wasn’t enough leeway to stray off the prime racing line while passing through the sector in traffic. Ahead of Sunday’s Cup qualifying and race, the “turtle” was removed, giving drivers more room to drift left coming out of 6.

In a way, though, the turn combo called for a less-premise line, meaning cars two-abreast quickly became three, and portions of the curbing rarely, if ever, touched by Indy cars and only occasionally in Xfinity, became a regular path through the course for drivers to chop the turn’s apex and grab some minuscule advantage headed for Turn 7.

Christopher Bell (20) and Ryan Preece (37) slide out during a massive crash caused by a piece of curbing Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021, during the Verizon 200 at the Brickyard at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

After a closer look, and without a backup curbing to attach during the race stoppage Sunday, Boles and NASCAR president of competition Scott Miller decided to remove the curbing section altogether during the red flag, leaving only the sausage curb on the right to deter from cutting straight through the outside of 5 and onto the straight.

That lone barrier, Miller said, had been deemed essential following Xfinity’s initial test on the course back in January 2020. To remove that undamaged portion, he said, would be to essentially create a small straight where, for congestion purposes, had held an S-curve to slow cars down and steady traffic.

“If we hadn’t been able to get those damaged bits out of there, we probably would have had to (call the race),” Miller said. “But the fact we could take them out, and they could race on that part of the track led for our decision to continue.

“There’s grass there, and cars would probably be running 15-20 mph faster. We weren’t going to sign up for that one.”

Added Austin Cindric, who won Saturday’s Xfinity race: “If there aren’t curbs there, that’s grass, and if there isn’t grass, there’s a wall. It’s give and take. There was a lack of give and take (Sunday), compared to (Saturday’s Xfinity race). And (after the Turn 6 turtle was removed), we found a way to make another issue that wasn’t one yesterday.”

Austin Cindric (33) spins out in front of Kurt Busch (1) while driving through turn 7 Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021, during the Verizon 200 at the Brickyard at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Shortly after the lengthy stoppage, with the curb no longer there, Bubba Wallace drove well wide in Turn 5 and opted to hold his line to somehow drive inside the sausage curb meant to be the track’s extreme limit there. In the midst of that chaos, this year’s Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell ran his right-side tires right over the top of it, launching him through the turn and spinning. Only he and Dillon’s days ended in the mess, though it collected more than a half-dozen cars and created another red flag.

“I was sitting during the red (flag), thinking, ‘Holy moly!’ That’s a lot of money these team owners have to go through,” Allmendinger said. “But it’s our own job not to turn over it that way. There’s a fine line.

“I thought the track had the right limitations, but the curb was coming up in the wrong spot when you hit it. We’ve all got to race the limit of the racetrack, but when these things get out of control, you’re along for the ride. At times, in an Indy car, you can save and correct a little. But in NASCAR, you need to be able to maneuver, make a mistake and get away with it.”

Christopher Bell (20) and Daniel Suarez (99) slide out during a massive crash caused by a piece of curbing Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021, during the Verizon 200 at the Brickyard at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

'Stubborn guys don't lift'

The race continued once more with a second overtime, which only saw Briscoe shoved ultra-wide through Turn 1, after which the Ford driver held his line and cut a massive portion of the course. He rejoined the field alongside Hamlin and resumed battling for the lead with less than two laps to go, but moments later caught the No. 11-car driver’s rear and turned him sideways. Amidst the contact, Allmendinger snuck back and cruised to his first Cup win since 2013 at Watkins Glen.

For a diverse pool of local race fans, Allmendinger was by no means a disappointing storyline. His ovations were thunderous as he and his No. 16 car team took the ceremonial ‘kiss’ of the Yard of Bricks. Mere steps away, tempers simmered higher on pit lane, as Hamlin made his way over to confront Briscoe, while other teams collapsed their pit stands and rolled their bashed and broken cars back to their haulers.

Even Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney, who finished second Sunday, carried an air of disgust.

“It was tight race, and some stubborn guys don’t lift,” he said.

Perhaps the driver with the most bones to pick in how Sunday’s race panned out, Larson, was less concerned.

AJ Allmendinger (16) kisses the bricks after winning the Verizon 200 at the Brickyard on Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021, at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“I’m sure they’ll figure it out next year,” he said. “I think the racing, for sure, was more exciting, but if you ask a few people, they’ll say (winning) means more on the oval. I don’t understand why. There’s no doubt this is more exciting, and I definitely would have been happy to win and be kissing the bricks.”

In that spirit, Boles reaffirmed what was already all-but-known – next year’s third edition of the weekend tripleheader at the Racing Capital of the World isn’t due any changes, as he and Penske continue to host Cup on the road course.

From Boles’ position, Cup race day ticket sales were up Sunday 20% over Saturday’s combo that included IndyCar and Xfinity races and Cup’s lone practice. In all likelihood, Sunday’s chaos will drum up as much intrigue in the pool of casual race fans as it will questions among the paddock. Because a race that seemed to provide just the right dose of clean, back-and-forth drama boiled over with its mayhem.

In IMS history, there are achievements – four-time Indy 500 victors and Gordon’s five Brickyards and Michael Schumacher’s five U.S. GPs among them – and then there are whole days that stand the test of time. The “pretty good” and even the “so-so” days are long lost in the shuffle, but Sunday’s not set to be one of them.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles helps crew members clean up the track after a massive crash caused by a piece of curbing Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021, during the Verizon 200 at the Brickyard at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Twice, tire suppliers Michelin (F1 in 2005) and Goodyear (NASCAR in 2008) tires brought unsuited equipment for teams to race with. But Sunday? IMS simply wasn’t ready.

“This is one of those events (we believe) we’ve made the right decision on for right now,” Boles said. “I think we want to have it back again on the road course, and we’ll just see where it goes.

“I don’t think this has any impact.”

Email IndyStar motor sports reporter Nathan Brown at nlbrown@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter: @By_NathanBrown.