SPEEDWAY, Ind. – It was kind of surreal.
On a Friday, just two days before the Brickyard 400, there wasn’t a single NASCAR Sprint Cup car on the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
There was no practice, no qualifying – nothing.
This was unlike anything in the past. Normally, a Friday before what is generally accepted as NASCAR’s second-most prestigious race would be a day swarming with activity.
The garage area would be teeming with crewmen scattering in every direction as they went about their tasks. Whistles would be shrilling constantly, warning everyone that a rumbling car was on it way to the track – or coming back to the garage.
But on this Friday, there was none of that.
That’s because NASCAR’s weekend schedule at the Brickyard has changed radically. The Sprint Cup race is still the highlight event on Sunday, of course, but it is now accompanied by companion events in the Grand-Am Series and the Nationwide Series.
The new schedule had practice for the Nationwide cars on Thursday and Friday was turned over completely to the Grand-Am sports cars.
Then, well, talk about a busy day – on Saturday Sprint Cup cars would have two practice sessions, followed by qualifying for the Nationwide Series, then Cup qualifying. Finally, at 4:30 p.m., the inaugural Indiana 250 Nationwide race would get the green flag.
That’s a packed schedule …
Most Cup drivers were not at the track on Friday. Those that were either had personal appearances or chose to watch the Grand-Am events.
A few, such as Juan Pablo Montoya and Jamie McMurray, competed in the Grand-Am races.
Many more Cup drivers were active on Thursday as part of two (and only) practice sessions for the Nationwide event, which will be conducted at the Brickyard for the first time after years at nearby Indianapolis Raceway Park.
Seven of the 10 fastest cars in the final practice session were driven by Cup regulars – which should come as no surprise, given that they are far more familiar with Indy’s 2.5-mile oval.
The Busch brothers, Kurt and Kyle, posted the two fastest speeds of the day. Kyle led the way with a speed of 175.838 mph, over a mile per hour quicker than his sibling.
“It felt good for the first time here,” Kyle said. “We’ve just been trying to make the car snug to make it better in the long run. You’ve got to be snug here because the place is so flat.
“Hopefully the car will stay with us all day Saturday.”
Speaking of Saturday, the younger Busch knows – as do all other Cup drivers – that it is going to be very hectic, which means there will be precious little time to make any needed adjustments.
“It’s going to be tight for the crews,” Kyle said. “Their time to relax for a little bit in the garage is not going to happen because they will be swapping back and forth between practice, qualifying and races. There’s a lot to do.
“It is a tight schedule. It’s a good thing I’m not a rookie and I’ve been here a few times in the Cup cars, so the limited time shouldn’t be a problem.”
Regardless of where he qualifies, Kyle will be considered a victory contender in the Nationwide race. He hasn’t won in 2012, but it’s hard to ignore the fact he has 51 series wins, including 13 in 2010.
As for the Sprint Cup circuit, Kyle is 13th in points with one victory. He is currently ranked as the No. 2, and final, candidate for a “wildcard” spot, behind Kasey Kahne.
That’s good, but it could be better.
Even though it is the Brickyard 400, Kyle, whose best finish was a fourth in 2007, maintains there is no real change in his strategy to make the Chase.
“You have to approach the races leading up to the Chase the way you have all the other races all season,” he said. “You go there and try to do the best job you can.
“You want to win on any weekend, so all through practice you try to figure out what you need in you car to make it the fastest you can.
“If the car handles and drives well, you can try a little harder to make speed out of it.”
Now in his fifth season with Joe Gibbs Racing, Kyle hopes to join two former Gibbs drivers – Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte – as a winner at the Brickyard.
“I’m wishing I can put my name on that list by getting a win and running up front,” Kyle said. “You always want to win the big races, the Daytona 500, the Coca-Cola 600 and the Brickyard 400, before your career is over.”
For Kyle, like it will be for every other driver, the opportunity to win at Indy will be greater if, on Saturday, total preparation is complete – and the sooner the better.