Our panel of experts weighs in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR this week:
Turn 1: You can take the combination of Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon to win at Indy or you can take the field. Which option do you take and why?
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: Well, considering Jeff Gordon hasn't won there in nine years, that's a little like saying you can take the 49ers and the Cowboys vs. the field for the Super Bowl this season. JJ certainly is a good bet since he's won four of the past seven Brickyard 400s, but I have to take the field if you're giving me 41 others drivers. Surely a Toyota driver is going to win at Indy eventually, even though Toyota is winless in this event. And surely a Ford guy will win again here soon and break their 14-year drought. A Jack Roush driver never has won at Indy, and Chevy has won 10 in a row. So I get it. Chevy, in general, and Johnson, in particular, are good bets. But I'm going with the law of averages on this one and saying someone besides JJ or Jeff will go to Victory Lane Sunday.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: Hey, I would have taken Johnson alone and given you the field, but since you're offering the Gordon bonus, I accept. Both are superb at driving at the old place, with JJ maybe a step ahead because of a little more doggedness and a little more ease when the cars slide up in the corners. Alan Gustafson is capable of a master stroke, but Chad Knaus is the crew chief who has shown the mastery and temperament to win at the Brickyard four times. Tony Stewart is the only one who makes me flinch a little at my bet, but then no bets are certain or they wouldn't be bets. Johnson and Gordon come as close to a lock as you can get here.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: Not so long ago I would've taken that duo and laughed in your face. The first decade and a half of the Brickyard was the playground of the immortals and no one else. But look at the past three years. Jamie McMurray? Paul Menard? Of course, they are sandwiched in between Johnson wins. But this tells me that it's more of a dice roll than it's ever been. So give me the field. (Says the guy who annually leaves Vegas having paid the sports book power bill.)
David Newton, ESPN.com: Johnson and Gordon, but mainly because of Johnson. Five-Time has won the Brickyard 400 three of the past five years, four of the past seven and is the defending champion. He's won two of the past six races this season and easily could have won four times during that streak with a little luck. Nobody is hotter, and he'll be the favorite on Sunday. Hands down. Having Gordon in the back pocket is a bonus. Forget that the last of his four Indy victories was in 2004. He was fifth here a year ago and second in 2011 when Paul Menard beat his dominant car on insane fuel strategy. This isn't even a fair bet.
Marty Smith, ESPN Insider: Give me the field -- but given the way Johnson has performed in 2013 and considering the beatdown he laid in a dominant victory at Pocono, it's not an easy choice. I expect a slew of cars to enter the fray with a chance: 42, 15, 5, 78, 29, 14, 18, 20, 22, 88.
Turn 2: How much of an indicator of Chase success do you believe the Brickyard 400 is?
Blount: Zero. Two of the past three winners were Jamie McMurray and Paul Menard, who didn't make the Chase those seasons. Yes, Johnson won the Chase three times after winning at Indy, but Jimmie was winning a lot of races, so I don't see the big rectangle as an indication of championship success. At one point, four consecutive drivers won championships in the season they won at Indy -- Gordon in 1998, Dale Jarrett in 1999, Bobby Labonte in 2000 and Gordon again in 2001, but that was a long time ago. This event really is about teams going all out to win a race that pays big money and gives an organization prestige.
Hinton: Not as much as it once appeared to be. The Brickyard winner hasn't gone on to the championship since Johnson in 2009. Stewart failed to win his beloved race in '11 and went on to the Cup in a rout during the Chase. Johnson won the race last year but couldn't keep up with Brad Keselowski down to the wire of the season. The Brickyard-Cup connection is a theory we developed back during the reigns of first Gordon and then Johnson. It has faded. Of course, Johnson could refurbish the theory this year -- he'll be that strong at Indy and that strong down the stretch.
McGee: I think it's pretty significant. With the exception of McMurray and Menard, no one has won the Brickyard and not made the Chase. If you've got it dialed in at Indy, then you're poised for the stretch run.
Newton: Let's see. Paul Menard (can't believe I've mentioned his name twice in Turn 4 today) won in 2011 and didn't make the Chase. Jamie McMurray won in 2010 and didn't make the Chase. But there was a time when the winner of this race went on to win the title seemingly every year. Jeff Gordon did it in 1998 and 2001, Dale Jarrett did it in 1999, Bobby Labonte did it in 2000, Stewart did it in 2005 and Johnson did it in 2006, '08 and '09. Teams that run well at Indy typically are championship contenders. This year will be no different when points leader Johnson kisses the bricks -- again. So I'll go with a dang good indicator.
Smith: Marginal. Championship-caliber teams generally win at Indianapolis -- Paul Menard and Jamie McMurray are exceptions -- but very little actual on-track data is applicable to other tracks. Indianapolis Motor Speedway is its own animal. Four straightaways and four 90-degree left-hand turns in a track that was built for open-wheel machines. That makes for a hell of a challenge with a 3,500-pound hunk of steel -- and that's why the big dogs typically do the hunting there. They're more prepared. And just better.
Turn 3: The Eldora truck race on dirt is one of the most anticipated events in years. What are you expecting to see Wednesday night?
Blount: Part of the excitement of this race is the fact that no one really knows what to expect. As Brad Keselowski said, "It could be the smartest thing we ever did or the dumbest thing we ever did." But I think it's going to be a blast because it's so different from what we normally see in a NASCAR event. I expect to see is a lot of bumping and banging and quite a few cautions. What we may see is utter chaos from guys who haven't raced on dirt or haven't done heat races since they were teenagers. Adjustments have been made to the trucks to make them more dirt-compatible, but it's still not really known how these machines will race in this environment. I can't wait, and I think we'll have fun on our special race chat for the event that night.
Hinton: The unexpected. Nobody knows how trucks will perform; that's a vast unknown, although it likely will be a lot of fun. If these were dirt late models, as in the Prelude to the Dream or sprint cars, picking a winner would be a lot simpler -- from among the drivers with the most dirt experience. But this? Who knows? My only concern is that many spins will slow down the action. Other than that, a wild ride is all I can predict.
McGee: I honestly have no idea. And if the crew chiefs and drivers are honest with you, neither do they. I will tell you this, though. I am fired up about it. I love this new role the trucks are playing, the old-school, get-back-to-our-roots role. I like what NASCAR is doing with this series now, hitting new (but old) markets and trying new (but old) ideas. To me, this is what this series should be. That's what it was when I used to go cover them in the early days, at places like the Portland Fairgrounds, the Topeka road course, and old Grand National tracks like Hickory, etc. The trucks lost their way when they became just a weekend Cup support series. It's good to see them back.
Newton: Chaos. You'll have a mixture of dirt-track ringers to drivers with little to no experience on dirt. You'll have a truck that never has competed on dirt with tires that may or may not provide the much-needed grip. There are more unknowns in this race than any in recent history -- for all of NASCAR. It could range from the greatest show the series has seen to a total disaster. My hope is that the cautions for stupidity -- or inexperience -- don't outnumber passes for the lead. As for what I expect, I'll defer to Dave Blaney, who has more experience at Eldora than most. "I just don't know,'' he told me.
Smith: A heaping helping of awesome. How many of those guys have ever even raced on dirt? NASCAR tells me 14 entered drivers have dirt experience. Bedlam.
Turn 4: Where do you rank racing at Indy among NASCAR's major races? Or should it not be considered a major race any longer?
Blount: The Brickyard 400 isn't what it used to be. Not even close. Ten years ago, it probably was NASCAR's second-biggest event with crowds in excess of 250,000, even though it's never been a great race to watch. But the magic is gone and the newness of stock cars racing at the Brickyard has worn off. Also, the place never has recovered completely from Tiregate in 2008. However, it's still the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a place where every driver wants to say he went to Victory Lane. Every driver wants to kiss the bricks. It's hallowed ground, and it always will be. And it remains one of the highest-paying races of the year. So despite the event's lost luster, it's still special to all these teams. I don't buy into this theory of NASCAR majors. There's the Daytona 500 and everything else, but Indy remains an event that matters more than most.
Hinton: Well, the drivers still think, or at least claim, that it's a very big deal. And Indy remains hallowed ground, to be sure. But the fans have voted with overwhelming absence. Tony George's worst fear, back when they were initiating this thing in the early 1990s, was that the fans would show up once, out of curiosity, and then wouldn't come back after they realized they couldn't see all the way around the track. That nightmare failed to come true for many years. But now, it has. And even if the fans could see all the way around the track, they wouldn't like much of what they saw. I fear yet another deeply disappointing crowd Sunday.
McGee: I'm not sure it will ever get past the tire debacle of '08 in the eyes of the fans. But if you poll the garage, there's no doubt in their minds that this is still one of the crown jewels.
Newton: Call me a hopeless traditionalist. I still rank the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600, Southern 500 (even though it's not on the traditional Labor Day Weekend) and the spring race at Talladega as the Big Four. The August night race at Bristol ranks right behind them. The Brickyard 400 was a big novelty for a few years because stock cars dared tread on the hallowed ground of Indy cars, attendance was crazy big and the payoff was one of the highest in the sport. But the race has fallen so far over 20 years that the track had to add a Nationwide Series and Grand-Am event in 2012 to enhance the weekend for a crowd that barely justifies being a crowd anymore. Really? There is a solution to boost this race at least back into the top five. Move it to the start of the Chase to create the excitement and buildup a race at IMS deserves. It still won't crack my top four. But I'm hopeless.
Smith: It is absolutely a major race. There is entirely too much prestige to think otherwise. If feels different. It feels huge. Granted, crowds are down, and the biggest knock is that the race gets strung out. But they get strung out everywhere. To me, it's the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600, Bristol at night, Darlington and Indy. You only give me four majors? I drop Bristol.