<
>

Will Indy win translate to Cup title?

INDIANAPOLIS -- The great indicator just might be back: Whoever wins the Brickyard 400 is likely to go on to win the NASCAR championship.

The Brickyard bellwether wandered away the past four years, but before that, eight times in 12 years the winner here went on to win the Cup.

Saturday's top three qualifiers for Sunday's race -- Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski -- are in the thick of Chase talk.

Harvick won the pole at 188.470 mph, a record for NASCAR at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Gordon, this race's first four-time winner, will start alongside Harvick with a lap at 187.770.

And Keselowski, the hottest driver on the tour with two wins in the past three races, will start third after qualifying at 186.893.

Each of the three is a whole Sunday drama unto himself.

Keselowski drives the flagship of a three-car effort by owner Roger Penske, who has won the Indianapolis 500 a runaway record 15 times and the Daytona 500 once.

But motor racing's best-known owner has never won the NASCAR race here.

"It's the last thing left on the Penske bucket list, and I think that's why you see a third car here with Juan Pablo Montoya," Keselowski said.

Montoya and Keselowski's full-time teammate Joey Logano will start eighth and ninth, respectively. Montoya was added to the Penske roster because of his vast experience here, having won the Indy 500 in 2000, and he made some serious threats to win the Brickyard with owner Chip Ganassi.

Penske "wants to make it happen, and Juan is certainly known for his talents here," Keselowski said. "So he [Penske] is all-in. And it would be a huge honor to be able to pull it off for him."

Two of Gordon's Brickyard wins, in 1998 and 2001, have launched him to Cup championships. But he hasn't won here since 2004.

"I feel very confident about this weekend," Gordon said Saturday.

The No. 24 team is revitalized this season, and Gordon sits atop the point standings and already has one win, so he's virtually locked into the Chase.

"I'm a big believer that, in this race in particular, the best team wins 90 percent of the time," Gordon said. "I think that's also the case when it comes down to the championship. Ninety percent, or maybe even more of a percentage, the best team wins the championship."

Gordon teammate Jimmie Johnson translated wins here to championships three times: 2006, '08 and '09. And Johnson, like Keselowski, comes into this race with three wins on the season and locked into the Chase. But Johnson, a four-time winner here, will start a mediocre 11th and will need to pick his way to the front on a track where it's notoriously difficult for stock cars to pass.

The pole puts Harvick, who has two wins this year, in prime position to continue what has been the story of his season: either dominate races or fall back with mechanical failures or pit mistakes.

So Sunday (1 p.m. ET, ESPN) could tell a great deal about how Harvick and his team will perform in the Chase come September.

"It's time to get into Chase form, and this is where it all starts," Harvick said. His pit crew has caused him trouble this season, but "having the first pit stall [with the first selection, due to the pole] is going to take some pressure off the guys for sure."

But he seemed resolved to take some heat off himself -- to stop reacting angrily when his crew makes mistakes.

"If we get behind, I think our car is fast enough to make up for it," he said. "We have to make good decisions throughout the day and as few mistakes as possible and see if it all falls our way. But the car is capable of doing what it needs to do.

"I just don't think we need to worry about the mistakes anymore," Harvick continued. "You're gonna have mistakes, and you're gonna have mistakes in the last 10 weeks [during the Chase], and now's a good time to go through those exercises. We've been through some problems. We've fixed the problems with the cars ... and I feel like that [fixing pit crew performance] is the last thing we have to do to put ourselves in 100 percent championship form."

Because this is still considered NASCAR's second-most prestigious race, behind only the Daytona 500, "When you come here, you feel like you're racing against everybody's latest and greatest stuff," Harvick said.

"So I'm ready. They [his crew] are ready. We're ready to go."