Five storylines worth watching

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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.

But it's adopted Hoosier Gordon, who lived 20 minutes outside of Indianapolis in the small town of Pittsboro for a few years in his teens when he broke into USAC racing, who has tasted the most success at IMS. Gordon won the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994 in one of NASCAR's "too good to be true" stories, and he added three more victories through 2004. Now he and his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Johnson are vying to become the first driver to win five times on the IMS oval; as well as he has run this year, at age 42, it wouldn't be a surprise at all if Gordon took that historic fifth Brickyard win on the 20th anniversary of his first.

3. The dark horses: The Brickyard 400 has occasionally thrown out a surprising result; Ricky Rudd won for his own team in 1997, while Bill Elliott scored the next-to-last win of his career at Indianapolis in 2002.

In recent years, Brickyard anomalies have almost become a trend. Jamie McMurray captured the 2010 race as one-quarter of team owner Chip Ganassi's "Chip Slam" (the 2010 Daytona and Indianapolis 500s, the Brickyard and the 2011 Rolex 24 at Daytona), followed a year later by Paul Menard's lone Sprint Cup Series victory. Even Newman's emotional win last year, when he knew he would not be retained for 2014 by Stewart-Haas, came somewhat out of the blue.

Who has the best chance of springing a surprise this year? It could be Juan Pablo Montoya, who dominated the 2009 and '10 Brickyards but came away disappointed. Although he recently returned to full-time Indy car racing, Montoya is wheeling one of Team Penske's ultracompetitive Fords, and the Colombian qualified eighth for Sunday's race.

Three more drivers to watch: Brian Vickers, who will start fifth, sitting 18th in the points, may need a race win to make the Chase; Kyle Larson, who replaced Montoya in Ganassi Racing's No. 42 Chevrolet this year; and Wood Brothers Racing's Trevor Bayne, who was quick in practice and tends to thrive in important races.

4. End of Ford futility?: To say that Chevrolet has owned the Brickyard 400 is an understatement, and I'm not talking about the fact that Chevy has supplied the Pace Car and support vehicles for every NASCAR race at Indianapolis over the last 20 years.

Chevrolet has won 15 of the 20 Brickyards to date; the last non-Bowtie branded stock car to win at Indy was Elliott's Evernham Motorsports Dodge in 2002. Pontiac is another one-time winner, courtesy of Bobby Labonte and Joe Gibbs Racing in 2000, and surprisingly, Ford has won only three times: twice with Dale Jarrett (1996 and '99), sandwiching Rudd in 1997.

Fifteen years after Ford's last Brickyard win, company executives are surely itching to find their way back to Indianapolis' elevated Victory Circle. They have an excellent chance this year, because the Team Penske Fords driven by Keselowski and Logano have been competitive everywhere in 2014, and they'll both start in the top 10 on Sunday. Remarkably, 15-time Indianapolis 500 winning team owner Roger Penske has never won the Brickyard 400.

The Roush-Fenway Racing Fords continued to struggle, but Greg Biffle really needs a win, and Carl Edwards can never be counted out.

5. Still an event in decline?: No NASCAR event in memory debuted with more fanfare than the Brickyard 400, and for a period in the late '90s into the early part of the 21st century, the Brickyard was the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's toughest ticket.

Then folks realized that as a car race, the Brickyard 400 really isn't often all that entertaining. Stock car fans also noticed that once you strip away the history and the mystique, IMS isn't the greatest place to actually watch a car race, with limited sight lines and dated amenities.

The Brickyard 400's attendance slide started several years before the Goodyear tire debacle of 2008, but that farcical event rapidly accelerated the decline. The 250,000-strong sellouts of the early years have been replaced by the jarring visage of an Indianapolis Motor Speedway that is half-filled at best on race day. No event on the Sprint Cup calendar rose to prominence so quickly, nor faded so fast, a development that must surely be of great concern to both IMS and NASCAR.

Changes are underway to make IMS a more fan-friendly venue, and the anticipated construction of a new "apron" inside the four corners is expected to make the track a better match for stock cars in the future. The Brickyard is still considered a top-tier NASCAR race, but there is no denying that the event has lost much of its luster, and it will be interesting to see how the relatively new management regime at the Speedway reacts as they try to reverse the decline.

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