Sunday May 29th, 2016 5:32PM

Will Indy identify the next NASCAR Sprint Cup champion?

By Reid Spencer-NASCAR Wire Service
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Perhaps more than any other race on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule, the Brickyard 400 historically has been an excellent predictor of the series championship.<br /> <br /> In 1998, Jeff Gordon started a streak of four straight years in which the Indy winner went on to win the title. Dale Jarrett (1999), Bobby Labonte (2000) and Gordon (2001) followed.<br /> <br /> In 2005, Tony Stewart won both the Brickyard 400 and the series crown. Jimmie Johnson accomplished the same feat in three of his six championship seasons, 2006, 2008 and 2009.<br /> <br /> To Gordon, the very nature of racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway helps explains why eight Brickyard winners within a span of 12 years also won Sprint Cup championships in the same season. <br /> <br /> "I think that this is a track that demands the best team, the best cars - because track position is so important here," Gordon said Friday at IMS. "(It's) so hard to pass here. And because of that, what happens is that the pit crew becomes crucial. The pit strategy becomes crucial, and the speed of the car, especially in qualifying, becomes crucial.<br /> <br /> "I don't know what the percentage rate is of those who go on to win the championship, but typically, that means the best team is pretty much going to win this race, which means they're probably going to be the one to beat for the championship."<br /> <br /> <b>ENCOURAGEMENT FOR KENSETH</b><br /> <br /> Seeking his first win of the season, not to mention the accompanying ticket to the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Matt Kenseth was fastest in opening practice on Friday at IMS.<br /> <br /> Not one to get overly enthused about a performance in practice, Kenseth nevertheless was encouraged by the speed of his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.<br /> <br /> "I felt like we had a really good hour-and-a-half," said Kenseth, who topped the speed chart with a lap at 186.285 mph. "It was productive, so one of our goals was to get a good lap in case it does rain tomorrow. They always go off first practice speeds (in the event of a qualifying rain-out), and we've been bit by that this year. <br /> <br /> "We wanted to try to lay down a lap early when the track was as good as it could be and we were able to do that in case there is bad weather for qualifying. Then we just worked hard on race trim the whole time. Felt like we got through a lot of stuff. Felt like we gained a lot. I feel like we're closer than we've been in a long time in balance and in speed. Still have a lot of work to do (Saturday), but I felt pretty good about today."<br /> <br /> Clint Bowyer, another Chase regular still looking for a win this year, was second fastest in the opening practice at 186.070 mph. Bowyer and Kenseth were the only two drivers to top 186 mph. <br /> <br /> <b>HISTORIC DOUBLE?</b><br /> <br /> Fresh from his breakthrough victory at Daytona International Speedway in early July, Aric Almirola can be forgiven for thinking big.<br /> <br /> After all, he put the vaunted No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports car in the winner's circle for the first time in 15 years.<br /> <br /> Almirola would like nothing better than to complete the Daytona/Brickyard double, last accomplished by Jamie McMurray in 2010.<br /> <br /> "We brought a brand-spanking new race car with, I'm sure, a lot of horsepower from Doug Yates, so I'm expecting good things," Almirola said Friday morning before opening Sprint Cup practice. "We haven't been on the race track for practice yet, but every time you show up at the race track, you expect to run really good. <br /> <br /> "I don't think anybody shows up at the race track expecting to run 35th, so I fully intend to have a lot of speed and be able to go race on Sunday for a Brickyard 400 win. That would be amazing to have an opportunity to win at probably both of the most historic race tracks on our circuit."<br /> <br /> <i>WDUN will have live IMS Radio coverage of Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Brickyard 400 from Indianapolis Motor Speedway beginning at 12 pm on 102.9 FM and 1 pm on 550 AM.</i>
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