NASCAR drivers prepare for Charlotte, offer thoughts on Indy
By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer
Some NASCAR drivers will watch the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday and wonder what could have been.
Some NASCAR drivers will watch and wonder what could be.
And other NASCAR drivers will watch and not wonder the least bit of whether their racing careers could have taken a different path.
The ultimate race for open-wheel oval racing, the iconic Indianapolis 500, draws worldwide interest.
His brother, Kyle, had a deal set in 2017 to do it, but team owner Joe Gibbs wouldn’t let him attempt to run both Indianapolis and the 600-miler at Charlotte on the same day. Busch still wants to land a deal to compete in the Indianapolis 500.
"It's certainly on my radar," Kyle Busch said. "The year that I had it sold and committed and sponsorship was there and everything like that, I got told no.
"I haven't necessarily tried to sell sponsorship since."
The driver most often mentioned who could possibly do an Indy 500 one-off is Kyle Larson, because of his ability to jump into a variety of race cars and excel. Larson bristles somewhat at the Indy 500 question because he doesn’t want to create any false expectations that he will run it.
He hopes to someday but right now doesn’t have a set plan. He didn't grow up wanting to race Indianapolis despite his sprint-car roots (most IndyCar drivers come up through sprint cars or other cars with open cockpits).
"My goal and dream at the time was always to make it to NASCAR," Larson said about his early years racing. "Obviously if IndyCar — or whatever the lower series are — opportunities came first, I probably would have entertained it maybe just because I thought that's what I would have had to have done at the time.
"But thankfully it all worked out, and I'm a full-time NASCAR guy and can maybe someday do some other stuff in IndyCar if I got the opportunity."
One driver who competed in the IndyCar developmental series is Michael McDowell, the 2004 Star Mazda champion. But within a couple of years, he was signed with Michael Waltrip Racing and put on a NASCAR route.
"My journey was headed that way," McDowell said. "To think of all that stuff and not ever have a shot at it? As time has gone on, I've been so thankful that I made the move to NASCAR that I did because for me, there wasn't a lot opportunity at the time [at the top IndyCar level].
"I just caught NASCAR at the right time, right before development driver stuff went away and all that. So if I had waited two or three more years, I don't think I'd ever have a long-lasting career. So I'm thankful I did what I did, but when I watch it, I definitely want to do it."
It would seem that Indiana native Chase Briscoe would have a huge desire to race at Indy, but he doesn’t.
"Honestly, I don't think I'm brave enough to try it," Briscoe said about going 240 mph in an IndyCar. "I tell everybody I just want to start-and-park. I want to be a part of the opening ceremonies.
"I want to be a part of walking out, during the brick walk, taking the green flag. ... I would love to run a road course, but I don't know about an oval yet."
Bubba Wallace never had the Indy 500 dream. In fact, when he raced as a youngster, he didn’t necessarily have professional aspirations.
"I didn't know what the path was — we just raced to race," Wallace said. "But I never really ever had any desire to go the IndyCar route or run the Indy 500.
"I respect the hell out of those guys. Those guys are nuts."
Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson even had his reservations about driving an IndyCar on an oval, as he competed only on the road courses last year in his first post-NASCAR season. But with safety improvements, including an aeroscreen that keeps debris from flying into the face of the driver, he eventually got comfortable with it and will start 12th Sunday driving for Chip Ganassi Racing.
Johnson will have most of the NASCAR garage rooting for him — except for maybe Austin Cindric, son of Team Penske President Tim Cindric. Austin grew up going to the Indy 500 and obviously will root for his Penske teammates.
"I look at the Indy 500 as a race fan," Cindric said. "It's what I've grown up watching, and idolizing drivers and teams and the process and the fanfare.
"I've tried to put myself in the driver's seat, especially on qualifying day. But I don't know what I'm missing."
Cindric does have an Indy 500 start in the back of his mind.
"I'd love to be able to do it as a driver and [would] love to do it on merit and [would] love to do it in a quality car, a quality entry," Cindric said. "I also say that I’m pretty focused and committed on my job right now.
"But I did say going to the race last year that that'll be my last time at the Indy 500 on race day [as a fan]. And the next time … I'm either on the grid or out of a job. So one of the two. Hopefully, the first one."
Tyler Reddick also isn’t ruling it out.
"I don't say I wonder what could have been. I wonder what it could still be, right?" the 26-year-old Reddick said. "I'm young. I would love to hopefully find myself in the seat of something like that if the opportunity presented itself."
If any of those drivers wonder if they will regret not pursuing an Indy 500 opportunity — there are plenty of reasons not to as it would take focus away from a NASCAR championship effort — they might want to listen to Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Earnhardt was asked Tuesday if he ever wished 15 to 20 years ago that he had found a way to compete in the Indy 500.
"Of course," said Earnhardt, who is now part of the NBC Sports broadcast team for the race. "Without a doubt there are regrets that I didn’t maybe try to figure out a way to be able to experience that once in my life.
"When you’re watching a guy like Kyle Larson talk about it and consider it, you’re encouraged because you want to see him go out there and do it. Having my own experience, my own regret, I certainly think that a guy like Kyle Larson would have the same regrets if he doesn’t ever give it a shot."
Earnhardt knows his time has passed, just as it has for him making another start in the Daytona 500.
"That ship has sailed," he said. "I’m 47. I’ll always wonder, I guess, what might have been, what I could have had the opportunity to do."
What to Watch For
Can the Next Gen car handle 600 miles? Can the left rear tires handle the loads with the teams looking for maximum speed with tire pressures and camber likely different than what Goodyear recommends?
And will a driver dominate as has been the case in past 600-mile races at Charlotte?
The hope is that the Next Gen car will race like it has at many of the other intermediate tracks, which except for Texas have had solid racing this year.
Speedway Motorsports did put down resin earlier this week in hopes of creating a second groove.
Thinking Out Loud
The race on Sunday always brings up debate on whether a 600-mile race is still necessary on the NASCAR calendar.
And as I’ve said before, sure it is.
While several races could be shortened with little impact, it is good to have one marathon on the schedule, one ultimate test of driver and machine. The 600 fills that role.
The Sunday night of Memorial Day weekend seems like a perfect time to do it, with many people having Monday off from work.
They Said It
"I'm going to have to try to frame that window net and put it over my mantle on my fireplace or something." — Ryan Blaney after his All-Star win
Bob Pockrass has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s. He joined FOX Sports in 2019 following stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @bobpockrass. Looking for more NASCAR content? Sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass!