Analysis: Can NASCAR ever make the Brickyard 400 great again?

Another year and another lackluster Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, particularly when it comes to action on the track and fans in the grandstands.

Analysis: Can NASCAR ever make the Brickyard 400 great again?
Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota takes the checkered flag
Race winner Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Race winner Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Jeff Gordon
Dale Earnhardt
Tony Stewart, Stewart-Haas Racing
Carl Edwards, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, crash
Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Roush Fenway Racing Ford, Greg Biffle, Roush Fenway Racing Ford
Pre-race ceremony
Race action
Jeff Gordon, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, Tony Stewart, Stewart-Haas Racing
Fans watch happy hour action

With NASCAR’s new five-year sanctioning agreements in place, there is little use pondering the thought of the race leaving anytime soon – if ever.

So, that basically leaves us with one question.

Pardoning the election year pun, but can anything be done to make the Brickyard great again?

It depends on your perspective.

From a prestige standpoint, nothing has changed with how much it means to NASCAR competitors and teams to run on the iconic motorsports track, and even more so, winning on it.

The history of the speedway and the prestige of running there is likely what sparked the enormous interest when NASCAR elected to send its Sprint Cup Series there back in 1994 for the first time.

And for several years that – along with victories in the event by the likes of then-newcomer Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Sr., Dale Jarrett and Ricky Rudd – was enough to sustain the interest.

But let’s be honest.

Sub-par racing

When it comes to the competitiveness of the racing itself, what takes place at Indy with stock cars has never held a candle to the spectacle that is produced by open-wheel cars. And there is good reason for that – the track was designed for open-wheel racing.

NASCAR was always out of place at the track, but the mere merging of two motorsports giants was possibly that demanded to be explored and rightfully so.

The tire debacle in the 2008 race coinciding with the start of a major national recession provided an easy excuse for fans to begin reassessing the time and money they spent on the NASCAR product at Indy.

The race has never been the same since, especially when it comes to fan attendance.

Thus, it was left to the action on the track to carry the excitement and interest of fans. Even two years of different aerodynamic rules packages have made little difference in the quality of the racing.

"There's no aero package that's going to change that"

Adam Stevens, crew chief for two-time Brickyard 400 winner Kyle Busch, provided a nice analysis Sunday of why aero rules may never be able to truly fix the competition problem.

“This is a tough place. There’s not much banking and there’s only one preferred groove in each one of the corners, and that makes clean air a big deal,” he said. “It’s not like you can spread out and go bottom to top like you can at a lot of high-banked places. 

“That’s just the way it’s going to be, and there’s not an aero package that’s going to change that. It’s just the way that it is. There’s no tweak or change that’s going to make that fundamentally different.”

Given that, it’s seems clear the Brickyard 400 will never produce the kind of racing on the track which fans – veteran and casual alike – have come to expect in NASCAR races. That’s important because in this day and age, the racing product is the one thing NASCAR touts more than any other in encouraging fans to go to the track.

Personally, I still think holding one race annually at the most historic of motorsports venues is reason enough to continue the tradition.

But if there comes a day when the quality of the racing product becomes the sole determiner of whether it’s viable for NASCAR to continue to compete at Indy, I fear the race may one day be discontinued.

The sad truth is, it may not be possible to make the Brickyard 400 great again, or anywhere close to the level of “must-see” status that it once held.

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