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Johnson, Stewart among favorites at Indy

What kind of hold does Indianapolis Motor Speedway have on NASCAR drivers? Just ask Tony Stewart.

“It was everything to me. My whole life, since I was a kid, that’s what I wanted to do,” Stewart said of the desire to kneel down and kiss the legendary Yard of Bricks. “Not that I had some fascination with kissing bricks as a child. But my fascination to do it here was pretty obsessive.”

For many drivers, winning at Indy is a close second to the Daytona 500. They get their chance again today as NASCAR makes its 20th appearance at the 2.5-mile oval track.

Five story lines to watch:

1. Gen-6 at Indy: There’s a new car smell at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The Generation 6 car races at Indy for the first time. So far it’s been fast through practice and qualifying. Will that translate to a good show, which at Indy means more passing?

2. Unlucky underdogs: The Brickyard has not been kind to the underdog. Paul Menard unleashed a stunning run to victory in 2011. Jamie McMurray collared a win in 2010. But for the most part the big dogs have dominated. Fifteen of the 19 winners are Sprint Cup champions. Ricky Rudd (1997) and Kevin Harvick (2003) join Menard and McMurray as drivers who have won at Indy but don’t have a Cup championship.

3. Chevy runs strong: Chevrolet has won the past 10 races at Indy and 14 overall. That streak looks to continue with the Chevy SS taking seven of the top nine spots in qualifying. The last non-Chevy winner? Bill Elliott driving a Dodge to victory in 2002. Ford last won with Dale Jarrett in 1999.

4. Grid locked: Want to win the Brickyard? Start among the t0p 10 spots. That’s where 11 of the 19 winners have come from. But driving through the field can be done. Gordon started 27th and won in 2001. That’s the deepest any race winner has started. Two drivers have won from the pole: Harvick in 2003 and Johnson in 2008.

5. Penske’s year?: Roger Penske has won a record 15 Indianapolis 500s. That’s 15 more wins than he has in the Brickyard. Can Penske end his drought that includes three runner-up finishes? Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano attempt to give Penske that elusive victory. Keselowski’s best finish is ninth in three starts and Logano’s best is ninth in four starts. At least Penske has company. Roush Fenway Racing is 0-19 at Indy.

Five Drivers to Watch:

1. Jimmie Johnson: The Sprint Cup points leader is the driver to beat with four wins in the past seven Brickyard races. Johnson, who has a series-leading four wins this season, isn’t invincible at Indy. His average finish at the track is a pedestrian 16.8.

2. Tony Stewart: The hometown favorite has two wins at Indy (2005, 2007) and his 8.2 average finish is best among all drivers. Stewart always heats up in July and August. He needs a hot run today. Stewart, who has finished 20th or worse in three of his past four starts, is 13th in points but holds the 12th and final spot in the Chase standings thanks to a valuable win.

3. Jeff Gordon: Gordon is 12th in points, but 13th in the Chase standings and desperately needs a win. What better place than the Brickyard? His 8.6 average finish is second only to Stewart.

4. Martin Truex Jr.: His 21.5 average finish at Indy is slightly worse than his 21.3 starting position. Not good news for a driver fighting to keep the No. 11 spot in the Chase standings. Truex broke through to finish eighth last year.

5. Austin Dillon: The Nationwide Series regular has one big win this week. Can he make it two? Dillon, making his first Sprint Cup start at Indy, won the Camping World Truck Series race at Eldora Speedway on Wednesday. Only one driver - Menard - has earned his first Cup victory winning at the Brickyard.

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