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Prestige versus entertainment as NASCAR drivers debate Brickyard 400

Syndication: Indianapolis

It has felt inevitable all year, but Denny Hamlin said with near certainty on Saturday at Michigan International Speedway that the NASCAR Cup Series will leave the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course after the season and return to the historic super-oval next year.

Translation: It’s the return of the Brickyard 400.

Hamlin was asked about the upcoming tire compatibility test at Indianapolis where NASCAR will turn a handful of cars loose without a rear diffuser as an extension to the aerodynamics test on Monday and Tuesday at Richmond Raceway.

That conversation evolved into one about the current Brickyard weekend with the Cup Series racing alongside IndyCar and then into why Hamlin believes the Brickyard 400 needs to be on the schedule instead.

“It’s a major,” Hamlin said. “No matter if you like the racing or not, we took a major off the schedule. I love the debate on social media (about the four crown jewels) so what’s the fourth one now?”

Daytona 500
Southern 500
Coca-Cola (World) 600

“There is no fourth one,” he added. “You can make one up but there isn’t one. The Brickyard was it, simply because of the historic nature of that facility, so we’re going to get a major back next year.”

Syndication: Indianapolis
Jenna Watson/IndyStar via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Next week will mark the third year in a row that the NASCAR Cup Series has contested the Verizon 200 in lieu of the Brickyard 400. Through at least its first 20 years, the Brickyard was considered the second most prestigious race of the year as it was contested on the same layout as the Indianapolis 500 with a purse that matched the importance.

The race also symbolically represented NASCAR’s ascent towards the mainstream as the inaugural event in 1994 coincided with the open wheel split that irrevocably damaged IndyCar and allowed Stock Cars to become the most popular discipline in the United States.

But the entertainment factor never matched the prestige, and the Brickyard 400 became the Verizon 200 in response to lagging ticket sales and fan feedback, the decision resulting in a pair of chaotic races within the infield road course.

Tyler Reddick, who drives for Hamlin at 23XI Racing, isn’t entirely sure if returning to the 2.5-mile circle track is in NASCAR’s long-term best interest.  

“I mean, not really, to be honest with you,” Reddick said. “I just think where we are, with our cars right now, it doesn’t do well on single-lane race tracks. We’ve seen that clean air is so important and at Indianapolis, there’s only one lane unless we make the cars really slow like they tried with the Xfinity rules package a couple of years ago.”

Reddick is referencing a 490 horsepower, high drag aerodynamics package used in 2017 that produced 16 lead changes in 100 laps and a .108 margin of victory from William Byron to Paul Menard.

“I never want to be negative, but what I heard about the test at Richmond, I don’t see anything coming out of that,” Reddick said. “I would love to race on the oval again but I also want this to be a good race for the fans.

“I don’t want it to be a gimmick race where it’s so easy to pass that no one wants the lead but you also don’t want a race where it’s extremely difficult to pass and you could drop anyone out front with clean air and you can’t even get to within two car lengths of the leading car.”

That point was best illustrated by Alex Bowman who offered a third alternative to the pair of Indianapolis Motor Speedway layouts.

“Gosh, I think that’s a pretty prestigious event and that race means a lot to me given the type of race cars I’ve raced throughout my career,” Bowman said in reference to his formative years racing pavement midgets around the Midwest. “Man, my last memory there was pretty terrible with a huge crash.

“So, at the same time, I think if you put them on (nearby Indianapolis Raceway Park), you’re going to have the best show ever. That’s just my opinion and that doesn’t mean much, and I’ll race wherever they put it, even if it’s in the parking lot.”

His Hendrick Motorsports teammate, 2021 Cup Series champion Kyle Larson will make his Indianapolis 500 debut next May and echoed Hamlin’s sentiment about the prestige of the Brickyard 400 above all else.

“Yeah, I’m in favor of that,” Larson said. “It’s a way more important race and I think we would all agree that we prefer to kissing the bricks after winning the oval instead of the road course. But, I have fun on the road course too so whatever it ends up being, I’m cool with it but it just means more on the oval there.”

Matt Weaver is a Motorsports Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.

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