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Ben Smith

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Look for Smoke at Brickyard finish

“I think (Ryan) Newman said, ‘Go flat till you see God, and then lift.’ That’s a Cup car.”

– Danica Patrick

INDIANAPOLIS – And that’s only half-right, Ryan Newman.

The rest: At this place, God looks different in every corner.

“The shape of the track is unique compared to anything else we race on,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said this weekend. “It’s a real technical track, and if you are just looking at the race track you would assume that all the corners look relatively similar. But to be honest all the corners are really different.”

It is, in other words, a hall of mirrors, this most hallowed rectangle in motorsports, and it takes some almighty sleight of hand, and no little luck, to get it all hooked up for 160 laps on a summer day in Indiana. Which is why the Brickyard 400 hardly ever comes down to a pile of guys going door handle to door handle.

Mostly it comes down to one man on one day – which is why the Brickyard frequently turns into the worst show on the Sprint Cup circuit, with a single lottery winner leading a parade of stock car-shaped floats.

“There is nothing that is like Indy,” Clint Bowyer said, trying to explain all this. “There isn’t, man. It is so fast. You go down there to the end of the straightaway and that baby bends hard left. The first time you’re out on the race track you think there is no way in hell that I’m going to make that corner, and she goes around there and you just have to work on your balance and perfect it from there.”

And that’s just one corner, as previously noted. There are three others to hold your breath through, and then there are those epic straightaways (Think: Driving across Nebraska), and then there’s the ever-changing weather conditions, the pit strategy, and, oh, yeah, the fact that everybody’s here this year with a new car, the Gen-6.

“Things,” Jimmie Johnson said Saturday, “are so much different.”

Mind you, this was Johnson talking – four-time winner here, defending champion, and the man who broke the track record Saturday before Newman broke it again to swipe the pole on the last run of the day. Still, you figure J.J.’s the odds-on favorite, right?

Well … this being Indy, only maybe.

This is a place where you look for a guy who A) loves racing here; B) understands it; and C) generally does well at Pocono in Pennsylvania, a kinda-but-not-exactly Indy, and on NASCAR’s two road courses, Sonoma and Watkins Glen, which like Indy demand dialing it in on very different corners.

And, so, yeah, Johnson’s a guy to look out for today, because he fits that profile to a “T.”

Of course, so does fellow four-time winner Jeff Gordon, who’s won six times at Pocono, five times at Sonoma and four times at the Glen, and who qualified ninth Saturday.

So you like them and maybe you like Newman, whose luck here has been perpetually out (two top 10s in 12 starts). Or Juan Pablo Montoya, who nearly always runs well here. Or even Kyle Busch, who’s had two top fives and six top 10s in eight starts here.

My gut says it won’t be any of those, however.

My gut says the weather forecast calls for Smoke today.

My gut’s talking Tony Stewart, who’s had a checkered year so far – 12 finishes of 15th or worse – but who’s also been fifth or better in the last six races, and who fits the profile: A two-time winner here who loves the place like ice cream, and who starts high enough (inside of Row 3) to get it done.

Plus, he hasn’t won here since 2007. So he’s due.

If, of course, there is such a thing here.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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