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Top 25 NASCAR Drivers at the Brickyard | 20-16

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a five-part series looking back at the top 25 drivers to race in the 24 editions of the Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard Powered by Florida Georgia Line, based on victories, results, laps led, qualifying performance and other factors. The drivers will be unveiled five at a time, starting with No. 25 and finishing with No. 1. The 25th Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard Powered by Florida Georgia Line is scheduled for Sept. 7-9 at IMS. View Top 25 NASCAR Drivers at the Brickyard | 25-21

No. 20: Denny Hamlin. It took a little while, but Denny Hamlin has grown into being one of the most consistent recent NASCAR Cup Series performers at the Brickyard.

Hamlin recorded two top-10 finishes in his first six Brickyard starts between 2006-11, including third in 2008. But since then, he has finished in the top six in four of his six starts, including third again in 2014.

He has led in four races for a total of 75 laps.

Qualifying also has become a strong suit for Joe Gibbs Racing standout Hamlin. His best qualifying spot was 10th for his first six starts. But then he broke through with his only career Brickyard pole in 2012 and has three other top-five starts since then.

Consistency never has been a problem for Hamlin at IMS, as he has been running at the finish of all 12 of his career starts. Finding speed was an early puzzle that Hamlin finally solved about six years ago, and he should remain a contender for his first Brickyard victory for years to come.

No. 19: Brad Keselowski. Roger Penske has won a staggering 17 Indianapolis 500s as a team owner, a record that should continue to grow and probably will stand for decades, if not forever.

But it’s almost as mind-blowing that Penske never has entered Victory Lane as a team owner for the Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard Powered by Florida Georgia Line. Rusty Wallace came painfully close to delivering for Penske, finishing second in 1995, 2000 and 2002.

Now the NASCAR standard bearer for Penske is 2012 Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski, and he is the leading candidate to break the NASCAR victory drought for “The Captain” at IMS.

Keselowski has four top-10 finishes in eight starts at the Brickyard. His best chance to deliver Penske a long-sought NASCAR victory at IMS came last year, when he finished second to Kasey Kahne in the wildest, most chaotic Brickyard ever. Keselowski led 23 laps last year but slipped behind Kahne on a restart with two laps to go in NASCAR’s version of “overtime.”

One of NASCAR’s hardest chargers, Keselowski has wasted no time getting to the front at IMS. He has led in six races, tied for sixth all-time in Brickyard annals despite making just eight starts. His 99 laps led is 13th on the all-time list in the Brickyard.

Now the only milestone left is to deliver a first NASCAR win at IMS for Penske, who will have no trouble providing Keselowski with directions to Victory Circle if he takes the checkered flag.

No. 18: Mark Martin. Mark Martin was considered by many observers to be one of the best drivers never to win a NASCAR Cup Series championship. He finished second in the standings five times, arguably the toughest foil to the legendary Dale Earnhardt during many of The Intimidator’s seven championship seasons.

The same could be said about Martin and the Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard Powered by Florida Georgia Line: He is one of the best drivers never to win the annual NASCAR classic.

Martin finished second twice in 20 career Brickyard starts. He also recorded 11 top-10 finishes, tied for third on the all-time list.

Qualifying at IMS also was a strong suit for Martin. He produced nine top-10 starts, tied for third on the all-time list.

Perhaps Martin’s best chance to win came in 2009, when, at age 50, he became the oldest pole sitter in major event history at IMS and finished just .400 of a second behind winner Jimmie Johnson in the race during a late-career resurgence with Hendrick Motorsports.

Martin’s lack of victories in the Brickyard was a bit of a statistical oddity considering he was nearly untouchable in a stock car at the Speedway in International Race of Champions (IROC) competition. Martin won the first three IROC races at IMS, from 1998-2000.

No. 17: Matt Kenseth. Matt Kenseth’s record in the Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard Powered by Florida Georgia Line is a microcosm of his illustrious career – consistent and fast, but rarely headline-grabbing.

Kenseth, veteran NASCAR fans may recall, was the last driver to win the NASCAR Cup Series title before the Playoffs started in 2004. He captured his only championship in 2003 with just one victory in 36 races, a controversy that spurred the formation of the NASCAR postseason.

Take a quick look at Kenseth’s Brickyard career record, and it’s a mirror of that 2003 season – minus the victory. Kenseth has 12 top-10 finishes in 18 starts at IMS – second on the all-time list behind only five-time winner Jeff Gordon – and has finished runner-up three times in the race. He has been a metronome since 2011, with top-seven finishes every year except for 2012.

Qualifying has been the sole weakness of Kenseth at IMS. He has started in the top 10 only three times, with a best of ninth.

But when it comes to gaining spots on Race Day, few have been better at the Brickyard than Kenseth. The only thing missing from his resume at Indy is a victory, and he must be considered one of the favorites entering this year’s race after exiting retirement midway through this season to return to Roush Fenway Racing, where he started his Cup Series career.

No. 16: Ernie Irvan. What could have been for Ernie Irvan.

Irvan only made five starts in the Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard Powered by Florida Georgia Line, from 1994-99, as his career was cut short by injury. But every year he was on track at IMS, the aggressive, fast Irvan was one of the biggest threats for the pole and for victory.

“Swervin’” Irvan finished 10th or better in three of his five Brickyard starts. He also won the pole in 1997 and 1998, remaining with Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch as the only repeat top qualifiers for this race.

It’s also safe to say that Irvan, not Gordon, very well could have made history as the first winner of the Brickyard on Aug. 6, 1994. Gordon passed Irvan for the lead on Lap 145, but Irvan showed his trademark tenacity by hanging on Gordon’s rear bumper and passing him five laps later.

Irvan led while only five laps from the finish when his No. 28 Texaco Havoline Ford fielded by powerful Robert Yates Racing slid high in Turn 1 after apparently running over debris on the frontstretch and cutting a tire, letting Gordon slip past for the lead and victory. Irvan ended up 17th in one of the most deceptive finishing positions in the race’s history.

There was another near-miss in 1996.

Irvan battled Robert Yates Racing teammate Dale Jarrett for the win over the closing 35 laps, with Irvan leading Laps 139-153. Jarrett drove past Irvan in Turn 2 on Lap 154 and never got a chance to make one final pursuit of his teammate, as a crash by Robert Pressley in Turn 4 on Lap 158 forced the race to end under caution.

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