It is also one of the tougher tests they will face all season.
The historic 2.5-mile oval has hosted NASCAR’s top-level series, now known as Sprint Cup, since 1994 but didn’t add the second-tier Nationwide Series until this year. For many drivers in the field, it will be their first time racing at Indy — and they are in for a challenge.
“This place is not forgiving at all,” Nationwide points leader Elliott Sadler said. “It’s fast, the corners are sharp. You’ve got to be on your money, I think, to run some fast laps here.”
Sadler raced at Indianapolis 12 times in Cup, including a third-place finish in 2004 and a fourth-place finish in 2008.
He said the track’s combination of long, high-speed straightaways and sharp, unbanked turns make it one of the toughest to master.
“Banking makes us drivers look good, because it makes it more forgiving,” Sadler said. “The banking can catch you if you’re tight or if you’re loose and you can move around on the track. Here, you’ve got to run the bottom, it’s very flat so if you overdrive the corner, the car takes off on you, there’s no banking to catch you. It’s a very tough, hard, momentum place to race at, and it’s going to take these guys a race or two to understand what they need, especially when you’re (in) traffic with 42 other cars around you.”
Tough? Sure, but Sadler is thrilled to be back. Without a Cup ride, he didn’t get to race at Indy last year.
“You know how you don’t ever know how much you’re going to miss something until you’re not there? It killed me not to be here at the big track last year,” Sadler said.
The challenge certainly doesn’t diminish the thrill of getting to run at Indy for brothers Austin and Ty Dillon, the grandsons of NASCAR team owner Richard Childress.
“I asked them both what it felt like,” Childress said. “I could see the smile on their face. They didn’t have to even say anything (to show) how special it was to be able to drive around and to be able to come to Indianapolis to race because there is so much history.”
Austin Dillon said drivers who have raced at Indy in Cup will have an advantage today.
“I think it’s very tough, because it invites you into the corner because there’s so much grip. The grip level is high, it’s very smooth — and it’s easy to overdrive.”
Having Nationwide race at the “big track” — instead of at Lucas Oil Raceway, a nearby short track — is part of Indianapolis Motor Speedway officials’ push to put more action on the track in hopes of boosting sagging attendance.
NASCAR drew huge crowds at Indy for more than a decade. And while drawing more than 100,000 fans is impressive for any event, attendance at the Brickyard has steadily declined in recent years.
“(It) just raises the level of the entire sport having other motorsports being able to participate here,” said Chip Ganassi, who owns teams in NASCAR and IndyCar. “It’s still the world’s center of racing, and still arguably the greatest race course in the world in any configuration. ... The electricity at this place, it doesn’t matter what you show up in. It’s a magical center of motorsports.”
After having Nationwide cars practice Thursday, Indianapolis took a one-day break from NASCAR on Friday to host the Grand Am sports car series on the road course, part of which winds through the track’s expansive infield. The Nationwide race is today, with the Cup race Sunday.
Having more action on the track didn’t make much of a difference during the day Friday, as a relatively small crowd was on hand for the Grand Am races.
Sadler still thinks it’s a good idea.
“I think it’s neat that they’re running so many (different series) with the road course and the oval,” Sadler said. “To me, in today’s world, with ticket prices and people not able to travel, this gives them a really good bang for their buck, to have this many different styles of racing and cars going on at the racetrack.”
Danica Patrick’s IndyCar days helped her develop an appreciation for the track’s place in history, and hopes others in Nationwide will walk away from Indy feeling the same way.
“I’m determined to make them all love it, and to make them see what I see,” Patrick said.