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Who Is Next First-Time Cup Winner at Brickyard?

Justin Haley shocked the motorsports world with his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory July 7 on the huge stage of Daytona International Speedway, winning the weather-shortened Coke Zero Sugar 400.

It was just the third career Cup Series start for Indiana native Haley, 20, who races full time in the NASCAR Xfinity Series for Kaulig Racing and part-time in the Cup Series for Spire Motorsports.

The win was arguably the biggest upset on a major NASCAR stage since unheralded Trevor Bayne won the 2011 Daytona 500. Haley’s triumph also revived memories of NASCAR journeyman Paul Menard winning the 2011 Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, earning his first – and still only – Cup Series victory in his 167th career start.

Victories at Daytona and Indy by Haley and Menard were stunners, even if there weren’t many similarities between them.

Part-timer Haley gambled by staying on track during a caution period with storms arriving in the Daytona Beach area. The race never was resumed, and Haley was declared the winner for the low-budget Spire team. Cup veteran and full-timer Menard was a force through most of the 2011 Brickyard race, leading 21 laps and holding off the legendary Jeff Gordon at the finish.

Still, Haley’s victory raised this question: Who are the drivers poised to break through and win the Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard Powered by Florida Georgia Line for the first time Sunday, Sept. 8, joining Ryan Newman (2013), Kyle Busch (2015), Kasey Kahne (2017) and Brad Keselowski (2018) as first-time Brickyard winners since Menard’s surprising victory?

IMS.com devised this completely unscientific list of five drivers who are due to break through on the bricks (in alphabetical order):

Kurt Busch: Kurt Busch knows success at IMS. He has six top-10 finishes in 18 Brickyard starts. He was named Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year after finishing sixth in his sole start in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” in 2014.

Busch is a student of the sport’s history, so IMS holds a special place in his petrol soul. He also won the 2004 Cup Series championship and has 31 career Cup Series victories.

Add that all up, and that makes it even harder to believe Busch is entering his 19th career start in this race without a victory.

But Busch is enjoying a strong start to this season, his first with Chip Ganassi Racing’s Chevrolets after spending the last five years at Stewart-Haas Racing. He is eighth in the series standings, with 10 top-10 finishes in 18 starts.

Busch perhaps came closest to victory last year, when he started fourth and finished sixth after leading 19 laps. Ganassi’s team knows how to win this race, as it triumphed with Jamie McMurray in 2010.

So, Busch could cross the bricks first in one of the most satisfying victories of his distinguished career.

Denny Hamlin: Over the last seven years, Denny Hamlin has become Mr. Consistency in the Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard.

Hamlin has finished in the top six in five of his last seven Brickyard starts, including a career best-tying third last September. But none of those races have included a trip to Victory Lane at IMS.

That lack of success is hard to explain. Hamlin has shown speed, winning the pole in 2012 and starting in the top 10 four other times since 2012. He has led 86 combined laps since 2012, including a race-high 37 laps last year. Plus Hamlin has been running at the finish at all 13 of his Brickyard starts.

Hamlin drives for Joe Gibbs Racing, which has won this event five times, second only to Hendrick Motorsports’ 10 victories.

The man from Virginia is overdue to break through at IMS. A victory by Hamlin this Sept. 8 should surprise no one.

Kyle Larson: He can drive anything, anywhere, any time. Everyone knows that about Kyle Larson, who grew up in California but made a racing name for himself in USAC open-wheel competition throughout the Midwest.

Larson also displays uncanny car control in his Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet in the NASCAR Cup Series, thrilling fans with his saves of sliding, wiggling hulks of a 3,500-pound stock car.

So, there’s no doubt that one of the most naturally gifted racers in the Cup Series garage area has the skills to master the winning balance of horsepower for the long straights at IMS and handling for the tight, slightly banked corners.

Larson started his Brickyard career with three consecutive top-10 finishes from 2014-16. He hasn’t enjoyed as much success in the last two years, finishing 28th in 2017 and 14th last year.

But Larson has the speed and talent to get that first Brickyard win for a team owner who knows just a bit about kissing the bricks.

Joey Logano: It’s been good to be Joey Logano for the last nine months.

Logano earned his first NASCAR Cup Series championship last November for Penske Racing. He leads the standings at the halfway point of this season and is locked into the NASCAR Playoffs with his two victories.

A Brickyard victory would give Logano just the right propulsion heading into the Playoffs, as the IMS race is the last event of the regular season.

That win also would ensure Penske Racing completed its second consecutive clean sweep of the major auto racing events in one season at IMS. Will Power swept the INDYCAR Grand Prix and Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge in 2017, with Brad Keselowski winning the Brickyard for Penske. Simon Pagenaud swept both May races for Penske this year.

“Sliced Bread” finished 13th last year in the Brickyard. But that disappointing result came on the heels of five consecutive top 10 finishes in the annual NASCAR classic at IMS.

If anyone is going to continue the Penske dominance at IMS this September, Logano is a safe bet.

Martin Truex Jr.: The other drivers on this list have produced enough consistent success at IMS to be immediately pinpointed as prime candidates for their first Brickyard victory.

Martin Truex Jr. isn’t one of those guys. His best Brickyard finish is fourth in 2015, one of only three top-10 finishes in 14 career starts at IMS. He finished 40th – last place – last September.

But Truex has been on too strong of a run the last two-plus seasons to dismiss as a potential Brickyard winner.

He won the 2017 Cup Series championship for Furniture Row Racing and barely missed a beat last year with the team, finishing second behind Logano in the standings. Furniture Row disbanded after last season, and Truex has slotted in nicely with the powerful Joe Gibbs Racing team. He’s fifth in the standings at the halfway point, with a series-high four victories.

Sure, Truex doesn’t have the greatest track record at IMS. But when you’ve been this good for the last 2 ½ seasons, it’s hard to be ruled out as a potential Brickyard winner. Plus Truex drives for JGR, which has won this race five times.

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