Five storylines worth watching


INDIANAPOLIS -- Twenty years in, the Brickyard 400 is entrenched as one of NASCAR's most familiar races.

The notion of stock cars racing around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, once thought of as blasphemous, has become accepted. In fact, the novelty of NASCAR at IMS wore off a decade ago, and attendance is barely half of what it used to be, yet the Brickyard is still considered a premier race in the Sprint Cup Series.

With its traditional late July/early August date, the Brickyard is also an important event in the countdown to NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup. Refreshed from a rare weekend off, the Cup Series enters an intense seven-week run to determine the 16 drivers who will be the participants in this year's expanded playoff field.

Here are five storylines to follow when the green flag flies (Sunday 1 p.m. ET, ESPN and WatchESPN).

1. The race for the Chase: At this point of the season (Race 20 of the 26 that determine the field for the Chase for the Sprint Cup), there are really two battles going on: The fight for the No. 1 seed, determined by most race wins, and the competition to make the Top 16, whether on points or with a race win.

Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski lead the series with three wins apiece, but a hot streak by any of the four drivers with a pair of victories ( Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards and Joey Logano) could vault them to the top of the heap. With just 11 race winners so far, it looks less and less likely all 16 Chase drivers will get in with a win, so those drivers with a single triumph ( Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch and Aric Almirola) also look safe.

Gordon, whose win came at Kansas Speedway, is the current points leader.

It's the fight for the final five Chase places between drivers who are currently winless that holds the most interest. Matt Kenseth (fourth in the point standings), Ryan Newman (seventh), Clint Bowyer (10th) and Paul Menard (11th) appear solid on points, but there are a few big-name drivers on both sides of the bubble who need either a win or a string of solid top-5 or top-10 results. They include Kyle Larson (14th), Austin Dillon (15th), Greg Biffle (16th), Kasey Kahne (17th) and Tony Stewart (19th).

2. The local favorites: Hoosiers love their homegrown heroes, and all three local drivers in the Brickyard field have come up big back home again in Indiana.

Stewart, who embraces his Indiana heritage and his love of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as much as anyone, is a two-time Brickyard winner, while South Bend native Newman scored a popular victory just last year when he was driving for Stewart-Haas Racing.

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