Five things we learned at Indy
Jamie McMurray won the Brickyard after Juan Pablo Montoya squandered the lead
Several Chase drivers on the bubble did their best to stay in the hunt on Sunday
The Brickyard's attendance was a cause for concern in Indianapolis this weekend
It's never over 'til it's over. For a second straight year, the Brickyard 400 invited us in for a snooze-inducing, dominant performance by one driver that had the trophy all but engraved by halfway. With just 25 laps to go, Juan Pablo Montoya seemingly had nothing to worry about except clearing his throat for the victory speech.
It never came, the latest example of how quickly things can change in this sport. As we've seen so many times this season, a boring race was revived with a surprise yellow flag, then a frantic finish, costing the favorite a win while producing a shocking upset. That nightmare-turned-dream between teammates, no less, leads off five things to take away from Sunday's Brickyard 400:
1) Jamie McMurray has gone from zero to hero.
It was Chip Ganassi, McMurray's first Cup owner, who took a chance on the Missouri native who'd scored just 11 top-5 finishes since he left the program after 2005. Driver and owner chose to put past differences aside, starting fresh with a second campaign defined by the confidence both had in each other.
Six months into 2010, it's easily become the comeback story of the year in most any sport. McMurray began with a shocking victory in February's Daytona 500, outside the top 5 seemingly all day long until he charged up and powered his way in front for the final two. Since then, he's been a sucker for big events, finishing second in NASCAR's other old "Winston Million" key races: April's Talladega thriller, Darlington's 500-miler, and May's Coke 600 at Charlotte. That final runner-up finish was held the same day as Ganassi's thrilling Indy 500 win with Dario Franchitti, setting him up for what would be an unprecedented Triple Crown: victories in the three biggest sporting events on the calendar.
Two months later, mission accomplished, McMurray capitalized again late in the race -- this time, after his teammate's ugly finish gave him a chance inside the last 20 laps.
"It is remarkable to be put in this position. Honestly, I'm in shock right now," said McMurray, who passed Kevin Harvick on the final restart after Montoya's crash. "When [Harvick] gave me the outside [line], he gave me what I needed, and then the car was better at the end."
That gave his car owner the keys to a historic moment we'll likely never see again for decades.
"I'll tell you what, I'm speechless," said Ganassi. "I'm the luckiest guy on the planet. You wouldn't dare dream this, you wouldn't dare to dream this kind of year. That is the kind of year it has been."
It goes to show how much drivers and owners still care about winning, in a season in which neither one of the EGR cars will likely sneak into the Chase. No matter how much NASCAR tweaks the point system, nothing replaces the pure joy of finishing first in the world's biggest races.
2) Juan Pablo Montoya got snakebit at Indy, again.
McMurray's gain was his teammate's loss, Juan Pablo Montoya snakebit at a track where he should have won two straight. Last year, it was his own fault, a costly slip on pit road proving the culprit. But this time, crew chief Brian Pattie's decisions combined with a questionable debris caution caused this agonizing defeat.
It all boils down to that yellow flag, the fourth debris caution in the race -- triggered when Montoya was pulling away and seemingly headed towards the victory. That sent the No. 42 down pit road with 21 to go, where the decision was made by Pattie: four tires and fuel, despite several cars he knew would gamble on taking just two.
"Bad call," he said following the race after reportedly sitting in the hauler for several minutes, holding his head in his hands. "Crew chief error."
It proved to be a devastating one. Dropping to seventh, Montoya was stuck in the dirty air of traffic, upsetting the handling of his car. Getting a little overaggressive to compensate -- seemingly the story of a 2010 season that's now included seven DNFs -- he smacked the wall off turn 4 to pancake the side of his Chevy. That left him 32nd, sitting in the garage with no comment to reporters after watching his winless streak in NASCAR grow to 112 races -- slightly over three years.
3) Hendrick had himself a horrific day at Indy.
The King of stock cars at Indy, Rick Hendrick entered the day with seven wins in 16 Brickyard 400s. There were high expectations for the newly-bearded owner, who joked his new facial hair came after losing a bet with Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
But after Sunday's disastrous day, don't expect to see him keep it. For the first time in Hendrick's career, all four cars failed to crack the top 10 at the Brickyard, highlighted by four-time winner Jeff Gordon's mediocrity. A favorite entering the weekend, the No. 24 was never on point from the start, sitting midpack until on-track contact left him with a flat tire, a broken splitter, and a 23rd-place finish.
"We just didn't have it," Gordon said, and he wasn't alone. Teammate Jimmie Johnson had everything but the kitchen sink thrown at his car, yet never contended and slammed into Bill Elliott's car on pit road and ran 22nd. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. got involved in the Montoya wreck and wound up 27th, seriously damaging his Chase hopes (we'll get to that in a minute). Only Mark Martin's 11th-place day salvaged the hopes of a team where you expect the world each week.
But before you sound the alarm ... calm down. Remember, Johnson and Gordon are virtual Chase locks, leaving them open to radical changes just to gain the 10-point bonus for finishing first. Whether they run 5th or 25th doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things right now if they don't win.
"To be honest with you," added Gordon. "This race, other than giving a team momentum... there's not a whole lot that correlates to the other tracks that we go to. We feel pretty confident in what we have going forward."
Considering their past history, I would be, too.
4) Chase bubble drivers making sure their bubbles don't burst.
The next seven races mark the end of the regular season, the last chance for drivers on the back half of the Chase bubble to protect their position. And, like we always see this time of year, Indy marked the best runs yet for a number of competitors simply trying to earn themselves a playoff spot.
Everyone seventh through 12th in the standings finished inside the top 12 on Sunday, dramatically increasing their "bubble" cushion towards the Chase. Among the strong performances included Greg Biffle, who challenged Montoya at several points until a four-tire stop dropped him to third at the finish; Carl Edwards, who charged back to seventh after a green-flag stop for overheating; Tony Stewart, who had about a 15th-place car until a two-tire pit strategy under the final caution left him 5th; and Clint Bowyer, whose fourth-place finish gives him back-to-back top-5s for the first time in his Cup career.
As you might expect, those clutch results increased the gap between the herd and 13th place. Martin (13th) sits 62 points back while Earnhardt Jr. (14th) trails by 93 with six races remaining. Ryan Newman (147 back and in 15th) is the only other driver within 150 points of Bowyer in 12th, shrinking the list of possible bubble contenders and giving incumbents the edge entering August.
5) Empty seats lead to big worries about the future of Indianapolis.
Perhaps the biggest story Sunday was what we didn't see: fans in the stands. Yes, 140,000 is still tied for the third-biggest crowd at NASCAR races this season, trailing only Daytona and Las Vegas in a year filled with ailing attendance. But consider this: just five years ago, at NASCAR's peak the Brickyard 400 drew 280,000, marking Sunday a 50 percent decline at a track which just pulled at least 100,000 more for its crown jewel, the Indy 500.
What's gone wrong? The economy plays a small factor, but the bigger worry is the constant struggle for stock cars to stage competitive racing. Since the Great Tire Debacle of 2008, when tires blew out every ten laps in a farce of a race that scared fans away, Goodyear's produced a safer compound with a different problem - it's too conservative. The tire never drops off during the course of a full fuel run, leaving speeds the same and drivers finding it near-impossible to run side-by-side with NASCAR's dreaded aero push.
"You're not really racing the tires, you're racing that air," said Edwards of the sport's new Indy issue, making new tires secondary to simple track position. "You could run very hard on the short run and ratchet some positions up, but no tires or two tires was the deal here."
"I didn't see many people moving forward," said Johnson, adding the car's newest tweak to the fix-it list. "It's more difficult to pass with the spoiler because there is no air coming below the wing like we used to have. Now, that spoiler just kicks the air even higher and makes a bigger hole behind the car."
"We're really struggling to pass," added Gordon. "My car didn't feel any better on Lap 1 compared to Lap 15 [of a green-flag run]. This [setup] is probably the best of both worlds."
Judging by attendance and a race that failed to live up to lofty standards, it's not good enough. A post on the Indy Star website got some attention last week when it mentioned this race could be pulled because of poor attendance in 2012. I haven't heard anything confirming those reports, but a precipitous drop in spectators can only add more fuel to the fire.
Race Grade: D. For the majority of this 400-mile snoozer, Montoya had the field covered in a way that even fans of his would struggle to stay awake. In the end, pit strategy paired with timely "debris" to give us a fairy tale ending, but doesn't it have a bit of a sour taste when you know the outcome was a tad bit forged? McMurray's a great story, for sure, but this one doesn't leave me quite so psyched.