NASCAR Cup Series
Indy Interest
NASCAR Cup Series

Indy Interest

Updated Jul. 9, 2021 10:50 a.m. ET

By Bob Pockrass

For the sixth consecutive year and for the 15th time in the last 16 years, no NASCAR regular will race in the Indianapolis 500.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, that’s understandable. There’s no way a driver could race both IndyCar in Indianapolis and NASCAR Cup in Dover this year with the races running at the same time Sunday afternoon.

But the chances for an increase in crossover of stock-car drivers giving the main IndyCar event – or other open-wheel races – a try appears to be increasing, thanks to two bold moves over the last couple of years and one move that should come in 2021.


The first was the development of the IndyCar aeroscreen and enhanced halo, which took 18 months to create and protects a driver from flying pieces from the front and adds some protection (but not complete) from above. Drivers saw that safety measure potentially helping drivers avoid injury in a crash at Iowa last month.

The other was the purchase of the speedway and the IndyCar Series by Roger Penske, the accomplished businessman and motorsports enthusiast who owns teams in both NASCAR and IndyCar and certainly could help convince sponsor or wary team owners on either side of the circuits.

And a third reason could come next year if Jimmie Johnson can land a deal to do the full road-course and street-course circuit of the schedule.

The 7-time Cup champion, who will retire from full-time Cup racing after this season and has tested an IndyCar for Chip Ganassi Racing, isn’t looking to do Indy, but he knows he could influence whether more stock-car drivers attempt races.

"The one thing that hasn’t changed and never will is just how fast those things are," he said. "That’s why my interest in ovals is pretty low.

"[Going] 240-250 in the draft on an oval – a single Jimmie Johnson in his 20s would have jumped at that opportunity, but where I sit now, I don’t need to be out there doing that."

But the aeroscreen is one of the reasons Johnson appears more comfortable in the car and willing to potentially do a dozen or more events.

"I know it’s been a game-changer for me," Johnson said. "That’s really been a concern that I have with an open-vehicle and an impact and where the front tire and wheel assembly goes.

"To have that wind screen and the halo that’s combined into it to protect you not only from debris and intrusion but also from anything above, it has raised the safety level of those cars tremendously." he said.

Some NASCAR team owners look at the speeds and the previous open cockpits and have not wanted their drivers to even think about the Indianapolis 500. Joe Gibbs wouldn’t allow his star, Kyle Busch, to do it in 2017. Busch signed a new deal in 2019 that started this year, and it is believed he negotiated Indy 500 approval into his deal. 

Open about wanting to do it (his brother Kurt did it in 2014), Busch wasn’t able to put together a deal for 2020 but he certainly has his eyes on it.

Drivers want to go to Indy in their prime. AJ Allmendinger – who drove for Team Penske in the 2013 Indy 500 and then in 2016 said he wouldn’t race an open-cockpit car again – said he would also consider IndyCar road courses.

The Indy 500? Allmendinger, who current races part time in the Xfinity Series for Kaulig Racing, said he is at a point in his life where he doesn’t think he could do it.

"The Indy 500, that’s just a commitment level that you have to be prepared for when you show up to that place," Allmendinger said.

"You can’t have any fear. You know the dangers that go with that race track. It’s also part of the history. You have to be 100 percent committed and have it out of your mind. I feel like that time is passed for me."

Allmendinger could have been a star in IndyCar, a form or racing impacted by the series split from 1996-2007 that created two competing open-cockpit series, but also two racing circuits competing for the spotlight and funding. 

He won five races in the Champ Car World Series in 2006, but with limited availability for rides amid the upcoming merger, he was taken to NASCAR by Red Bull.

Michael McDowell won the Pro Mazda Series in 2004, a road racing series designed to groom IndyCar drivers. He ended up racing in NASCAR.

"Both series were kind of struggling," McDowell said. "They weren’t what they are today and there wasn’t a lot of Americans getting opportunities in Champ car and the [Indy Racing League] was just ovals, so there was just a lot of variables.

"I was fortunate enough to be able to go sports-car racing and kind of fill the gap for a little while."

McDowell is still open to racing in the Indy 500, but he knows the chances of actually doing the "double" is unlikely unless he has major corporate support.

"I always wanted to run the 500, but it has never really presented itself," he said. "As years go by and it gets further and further away, it’s something that I don’t feel like is unrealistic because I’d love the opportunity to do it, it just hasn’t really been at the forefront.

"I’m not in a position like Kyle or Kurt [Busch] or those guys that have a big brand and a big name, where they can go sell both races and go back and forth and do it right, so if the opportunity presented itself, I would love to do it, but it’s just never come up."

While IndyCar drivers have tended to struggle in stock cars, the transition of the top talent to race an IndyCar potentially could be smoother. With the downforce and braking packages of an IndyCar, those cars are designed to handle better.

"There are many stock-car drivers that want to try IndyCar," Johnson said. "Hopefully I can be somebody to help take down this barrier between the two sports here in North America and we can see a lot more crossover."

Has Johnson talked about that with Penske? Not really. His talks with Penske have focused on only one NASCAR driver racing IndyCar.

"I’ve been trying to find a seat in one of his cars, which isn’t easy to do," Johnson said.

On The Air

Gander RV Trucks KDI Office Technology 200 (Dover), 5 p.m., FS1

Xfinity Drydene 200 (Dover), 12:30 p.m., NBCSN
Cup Drydene 311 (Dover), 4 p.m., NBCSN

Xfinity Drydene 200 (Dover), 1 p.m., NBCSN
Cup Drydene 311 (Dover), 4 p.m., NBCSN

Stat of the Day

This is the third Cup doubleheader of the season. So far, six drivers finished better in both second races than they did the first race: William Byron, Matt DiBenedetto, Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

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They Said It

"Worrying about points is a different game for me. I didn’t think that I played that to the best of my ability last year. I made a few mistakes this year." – Jimmie Johnson


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