Brad Keselowski is red hot, having won two of his last three races, as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series makes its annual stop at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
But Keselowski, the 2012 Cup champion who drives the No. 2 Team Penske Ford, will have to buck history if he hopes to win the Brickyard 400 on Sunday.
Chevrolet drivers, including last year’s winner Ryan Newman, have won the last 11 Brickyard 400s and 12 of the last 13 at the famed Indy track. Six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson has four of Chevy’s wins during that span.
A Ford driver hasn’t won the Brickyard 400 since Dale Jarrett 15 years ago.
Toyota, which began competing in the Cup series in 2007, has never won the Brickyard 400. Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the only track where Toyota — which builds its racing engines in Costa Mesa — has not won a Cup race.
Winning the Brickyard 400 would be “a tremendous box to check for us,” said David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, whose drivers include some of the top names in NASCAR: Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer and Denny Hamlin.
Chevy and its drivers naturally believe their motors are a key factor in the Brickyard 400 winning streak. “I think we have an advantage,” said Johnson, whose team, Hendrick Motorsports, also is a leading builder of Chevrolet engines in the Cup series.
But Chevrolet’s streak no doubt also reflects a bit of coincidence, luck and percentages. For starters, there are simply more Chevrolets in the field. Of the 46 cars entered in this year’s Brickyard 400, 23 are Chevrolets, 13 are Fords and 10 are Toyotas.
Winning any race also involves much more than horsepower. The car also must handle well, the driver must avoid accidents and pit-stop strategy plays a big role. “A lot of things have to go right to have a shot here,” Kenseth said.
That’s especially true at Indianapolis, a 2.5-mile rectangular oval with flat corners where it’s tough to pass and there’s a premium on drivers being able to quickly get back up to top speed after they emerge from the corners.
“A misnomer is that this is just a horsepower race,” Wilson said. “It’s not. You have to have a balanced effort.”
Toyota and Ford flexed their muscle Friday in the first practice for Sunday’s race. Kenseth posted the fastest time, 186.285 mph, in his No. 20 Toyota and was followed on the time charts by Bowyer and Keselowski.
Johnson, driving the fastest Chevrolet, was fourth at 185.647 mph. Qualifying to set the 43-car field is Saturday.
Penske’s two drivers, Keselowski and Joey Logano, are seen as Ford’s best chance of ending Chevrolet’s streak. Keselowski has three victories through 19 Cup races this season and Logano has two.
“We prefer to look ahead and not dwell on the past,” Jamie Allison, Ford’s racing director, said of Chevy’s streak at Indy. “We’ve been in contention here at the Brickyard several times, and right now our Ford teams are running well, carrying momentum and we’re all focused on running a great race.”
Toyota’s Wilson acknowledged that “Penske with their two cars are really doing well.” But he also noted that Toyota drivers have finished second in the last three Cup races, “so we’re knocking on the door and would love to notch one here Sunday.”
Follow Jim Peltz on Twitter @PeltzLATimes