Indianapolis Motor Speedway  Source

NASCAR returns to action this Sunday with the Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard being run at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The race will begin at 2:00 EST on the NBC Sports Network. With only one race remaining before The Chase For The Cup begins the action should be hot with both drivers competing for the last two playoff spots and drivers who have already clinched jockeying for position.

The Track

Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a 2.5 mile asphalt and brick track located in Speedway, Indiana, a suburb of Indianapolis. The track has a flat rectangular oval layout which is very similar to Pocono Raceway. Drivers who run well at Pocono usually find success at Indianapolis.

The track is known as "The Brickyard" because 3.2 million bricks were used to cover the original dirt course in 1909. Asphalt paving was uncommon at the time. Over the years sections of the track were paved with asphalt at various times until the racing surface was completely covered in 1961, except for a three foot wide section of bricks over the start/finish line.

In 1994, NASCAR made its debut at the world famous track and has held an annual race there ever since. It is tradition that the winning driver and his pit crew kneel down to kiss the bricks after the race. In NASCAR jargon "kiss the bricks" means winning a race at Indianapolis.

Playoff Implications

This year's Brickyard 400 is the 26th and final race of the 2018 NASCAR regular season. The next ten races represent the playoffs known as The Chase For The Cup. Only 16 drivers will qualify for the playoffs and the field is whittled down by points earned until the championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

14 of the 16 playoff spots have already been clinched. 10 by drivers who have won at least one race this season: Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer, Chase Elliott, Austin Dillon, Joey Logano, Erik Jones, Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski.

Four drivers have clinched a spot based on points scored over the course of the season: Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Denny Hamlin and Aric Almirola.

Jimmie Johnson and Alex Bowman are the only two drivers left who can claim a spot by virtue of points scored. Everyone else needs to win the race in order to qualify for the playoffs. With 24 drivers facing playoff elimination a lot of risks are going to be taken during the race.

Kyle Busch only needs to score 22 points at Indianapolis to secure the regular season championship. He can do that by finishing 15th or better, or by earning stage points to prop up his total if he finishes lower. All of that depends on Kevin Harvick's day at the track. Harvick is the only driver who could possibly surpass Busch for the title, but he is going to need a lot of help. Basically barring a miracle Busch will win the regular season championship and earn 15 bonus points for The Chase.

Favorites to Win

#18 Kyle Busch   Source

This week's race marks the end of the regular season for the NASCAR Cup Series and it comes as no surprise the driver leading the Cup Series in points is the favorite this week.

Kyle Busch leads the drivers points standings because he is consistently fighting for the checkered flag in the closing laps at nearly every track on the circuit. That includes Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Busch has captured the last two poles here and won two out of the three last races. Last season he was dominating the race before being caught up in a wreck on Lap 110.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway closely resembles the track at Pocono with it's flat turns and long straightaways. A driver's performance at the two Pocono races earlier this year is a strong indicator of how he will perform at the Brickyard. Busch finished third in the first race and won the second. Busch knows a win wraps up the regular season title and will provide serious momentum heading into the playoffs, along with crucial bonus points. Everything is pointing towards a victory for Kyle Busch this week.

Kevin Harvick is the only driver who can mathematically topple Busch for the regular season championship, but it won't be easy. He needs to win this race to have a real shot at the championship. Harvick has one career victory at Indianapolis, but it came back in 2003. However his 9.7 average finish at the Brickyard is highest among active drivers. He has finished in 6th place here the last two years and finished in 4th place in both Pocono races this season. Harvick will have to step up his game to push across the finish line first this week and knowing he has to win to have a chance at the regular season title might provide the extra motivation he needs.

Kyle Larson has to be feeling the pain after dominating the race at Darlington last Sunday, but coming home with a third place finish. On top of that he has five runner-up finishes with no victories this year. Larson has four career starts at Indianapolis with three top-ten finishes to his credit. One of his runner-up finishes this year came at Pocono, so we know he has a good set-up for the flat tracks. Larson has been the fastest of all the Chevrolet drivers this season and Chevy's have a strong history of winning on this track. Look for Larson to be in the mix for the checkered flag again this Sunday. It may be the week he finally takes it.

Martin Truex Jr. has never won at Indianapolis, but he has two wins at Pocono. One of those wins was the first Pocono race this season. Truex is a better racer at the 1.5 mile tracks, yet Indianapolis represents his last chance to score bonus points for the playoffs. He currently trails fellow Big Three members Busch and Harvick in that department, so the motivation is there to strengthen his position.

Daniel Suarez is only in his second season as a full time Cup Series driver, but he can make the playoffs by winning at the Brickyard on Sunday. Still searching for his first career win, his recent track history shows he has the capability to pull it off this week. His first career start here last season resulted in a seventh place finish. Earlier this year he took the pole and finished runner-up at the second Pocono race. Suarez is a teammate of Kyle Busch, who has been dominant at Pocono and Indianapolis lately. Joe Gibbs will make sure the two teams are sharing notes to give Suarez a chance at qualifying for the playoffs this year.

Jimmie Johnson leads all active drivers with four career victories at Indianapolis, but his team has struggled mightily this year. Johnson has never gone this far into a season without winning before, his best finish this season was third place at the first Bristol race. The Chevy's have begun to show more speed recently and Johnson has the experience to use that speed to claw his way to the front of the field. He also needs to finish well to claim one of the two remaining spots available for the playoffs. Last season Johnson's teammate Kasey Kahne struggled all year before pulling off a big upset by winning the Brickyard 400. Johnson could very well be a surprise winner this year.