With the NASCAR Cup Series regular season rolling into its final weeks, Indianapolis Motor Speedway will host one of the most important races of the season.
Drivers still looking for that all-important, playoff-sealing race win and drivers hoping to surge in the point standings will target Indy, where chaos on the famous speedway’s road course is a virtually certain result.
It wasn’t always this way.
When NASCAR made its debut at IMS in 1994, it was stock car racing history at its highest point. NASCAR officials and drivers had looked with envy at the world’s most famous road course for decades, and finally speedway officials and NASCAR president Bill France Jr. worked out the details. NASCAR stars would race on the 2.5-mile Indy oval.
The story was one of the biggest in auto racing in years. A crowd estimated at 300,000 poured into the speedway, and the environment was electric. The finish turned into a huge celebration as Indiana’s own, Jeff Gordon, rolled to victory.
That first race was a success on many levels, and it led to an annual visit by NASCAR to Indy. But, over the years, much of the race’s initial sparkle dimmed as NASCAR’s ongoing car-design changes made competition on the relatively flat rectangle less appealing. Attendance declined, and the annual visit to Indy became, in many ways, just another race.
The solution, beginning in 2021, was to move the race to the track’s road course. Road races in general had created a new level of excitement in NASCAR and, with interest in the Indy oval race declining, the move to the winding infield course was made.
It was a mixed blessing.
Chaos ruled, both in 2021 and last year. In the first race, won by AJ Allmendinger, nine of the 40 starters failed to finish because of late-race crashes in the heart of the course.
In 2022, the race had a bizarre ending. Crowded restarts made the entry into Turn 1 on the road course a mad stampede, and wrecks were plentiful. It turned into something of a zoo.
On the final restart, anticipating another wild rush into the first turn, Trackhouse Racing driver Ross Chastain had a bright idea (although one that didn’t exactly work out). Restarting fourth, Chastain, instead of joining the crowd trying to negotiate the first turn in heavy traffic, drove on the track’s frontstretch straightaway, avoiding the turn entirely, then rejoined the field via an access road.
Chastain raced Tyler Reddick for the win over the final laps. Reddick prevailed, and Chastain was dropped to 27th place after NASCAR officials voiced disapproval of his off-course journey.
Chastain said later he thought his move fit under NASCAR protocols. He said he took the detour after it became clear he couldn’t make Turn 1.
“I was turning in, and I realized there was no way we were making it,” he said. “I got out of the way and took the access lane. I realized there was no way we were making Turn 1. I can’t turn in – I’m going to be in the grass. I took the alternative.
“I didn’t plan on that. With three cars to my right and everybody running into each other, I couldn’t see how we could make it.”
Now NASCAR returns to Indy for Year 3 of the road-course experiment, and the uneven results of the first two races have more than a few drivers lobbying for a return to the oval course for the 2024 season. Combine the chaos on the road course and the still-special nature of racing on the historic Indy oval, and it seems like a no-brainer.
IMS officials have indicated strongly that the race will be back on the oval next season.
If this year’s event is to be the last on the road course – at least for some time, it’s likely to be a barnburner. With playoff spots at stake, the course curbing is likely to take a beating as drivers try to extend braking and passing zones.
No one will be surprised if Trackhouse drivers Daniel Suarez and Chastain are at or near the front as the NASCAR field turns right and left at Indy, perhaps for the final time.