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Brickyard 400: Starting grid and lineup for NASCAR at Indianapolis Motor Speedway 2016

As Joe Gibbs Racing’s dominance looks to continue, Hendrick Motorsports seeks to rebound from its slump.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

It's been a week dominated by the soon-to-be retiring Tony Stewart, an out-of-retirement Jeff Gordon, and a sidelined Dale Earnhardt Jr. dealing with concussion-like symptoms.

The concurrence of sentiment has pushed the attention away from the Toyota-affiliated teams of Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing. An uncharacteristic position for the manufacturer that's dominated NASCAR this season with a Sprint Cup Series-best nine victories in 19 races, with its five drivers, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr., combining to lead 57 percent of all laps.

Lest anyone think it would take a backseat on a weekend featuring the hoopla of Stewart racing for the final time on his home state track, Gordon's surprise return or the indefinite absence of the sport's most popular driver, the carmaker made its presence felt in the opening minutes of practice on Friday when Busch, the defending Brickyard 400 winner, stormed to the top of the speed chart.

What followed was equal parts frustration and resignation from a non-Toyota driver in a radio transmission to their team: "Toyotas are in their own (expletive) league again."

Although Jimmie Johnson in a Chevrolet would eventually unseat Busch and set the fastest time (184.185 mph), Busch led the second session (184.619). He then captured the pole in qualifying on Saturday. Starting alongside the defending race winner is JGR teammate Edwards, with Hamlin fourth and Truex eighth. Kenseth in 18th was the outlier.

Add it all together and a second consecutive Brickyard 400 victory for Toyota and the continuation of its 2016 superiority seem a distinct possibility.

"I don't feel like we have a brand-based advantage because of some rules or something like that," Edwards said. "We just have a really great team of people. (Toyota Rain Development) is building great engines. We work really well together as teammates.

"All cylinders are firing. It's not one thing, I guess is what I'm saying."

Toyota's rise and that of JGR and FRR coincides with the rescinding fortunes of Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet's flagship operation and traditionally NASCAR's preeminent team and historically its most successful.

Among Hendrick Motorsports' four full-time drivers, only Johnson has won this season (twice), and he currently ranks a team-best eighth in the points standings. Teammate Kasey Kahne is immersed in a prolonged slump -- he hasn't won since August 2014 -- as questions linger about his future with the organization; meanwhile, Earnhardt's status is in doubt due to what is believed to be his third concussion in four years, necessitating that Gordon come out of retirement to fill in.

Even rookie sensation Chase Elliott isn't immune, with four straight finishes of 21st or worse entering Indianapolis. Elliott is the successor to Gordon as the driver of the iconic No. 24 car.

Overall, a Hendrick Motorsports driver hasn't recorded a top-10 finish in the past three races -- its longest drought since 2000.

"I've been doing this long enough that you can't stay on top forever," team owner Rick Hendrick said Friday. "You have to work hard to get back. And I think we've made a lot of improvements. I think we'll see some -- hopefully, this weekend."

Due to NASCAR's cyclical nature where one team will ascend to the top only to inevitably slide back when the competition catches up, Busch anticipates Hendrick Motorsports will make its presence felt sooner rather than later -- likely in time for the start of the Chase for the Sprint Cup playoffs in mid-September.

"Certainly there's been some good speed out of those cars this year," Busch said. "They have run well. They've had good finishes. ... I don't think there's any reason to be worried yet. Those guys certainly do know how to turn it on when they need to turn it on and that's probably going to be here in a couple weeks."

With Gordon's return, Johnson believes it will provide the team "a fresh set of eyes" in helping address Hendrick Motorsports' shortcomings. Gordon, who is an equity partner in the organization, worked as a Fox Sports analyst during the first half of the NASCAR schedule.

"Jeff has had a unique opportunity to see the sport from a totally different angle," Johnson said. "I know he's formed some opinions watching other race cars and where the Toyotas might beat us. So, to be able to sit in the car and look for those opportunities and moments, I think will be helpful for us, for sure."

But the expected gains Hendrick was hoping to showcase this weekend haven't yet materialized. As the Toyotas surged in time trials, Hendrick's quartet lagged. Johnson qualified 13th, Elliott 15th, Gordon 21st and Kahne 26th.

A level of performance that indicates any Hendrick Motorsports turnaround is unlikely to occur Sunday, and is at least a week away.

"We're being highly motivated by other organizations and teams that are out there and are getting great results," Gordon said. "But, we're too good of an organization not to find a way to only make ourselves better and stronger and our cars faster to get back to that place."

Brickyard 400 starting lineup

Position Driver Make Speed
1 Kyle Busch Toyota 184.634
2 Carl Edwards Toyota 184.547
3 Tony Stewart Chevrolet 184.328
4 Denny Hamlin Toyota 184.079
5 Brad Keselowski Ford 183.591
6 Ryan Newman Chevrolet 183.202
7 Kevin Harvick Chevrolet 182.852
8 Martin Truex, Jr. Toyota 182.500
9 Jamie McMurray Chevrolet 182.463
10 Kyle Larson Chevrolet 182.386
11 Kurt Busch Chevrolet 182.349
12 Austin Dillon Chevrolet 182.286
13 Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet 183.554
14 Joey Logano Ford 183.273
15 Chase Elliott Chevrolet 183.068
16 Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. Ford 183.020
17 Ryan Blaney Ford 182.823
18 Matt Kenseth Toyota 182.223
19 Greg Biffle Ford 182.057
20 Trevor Bayne Ford 181.980
21 Jeff Gordon Chevrolet 181.851
22 Chris Buescher Ford 181.265
23 Paul Menard Chevrolet 181.196
24 Danica Patrick Chevrolet 180.058
25 A.J. Allmendinger Chevrolet 183.169
26 Kasey Kahne Chevrolet 183.109
27 Michael McDowell Chevrolet 182.819
28 David Ragan Toyota 182.400
29 Aric Almirola Ford 182.219
30 Matt DiBenedetto Toyota 182.083
31 Clint Bowyer Chevrolet 181.932
32 Brian Scott Ford 181.690
33 Landon Cassill Ford 181.342
34 Casey Mears Chevrolet 180.792
35 Cole Whitt Chevrolet 179.651
36 Ryan Ellis Toyota 179.019
37 Regan Smith Chevrolet 178.356
38 Michael Annett Chevrolet 177.978
39 Reed Sorenson Chevrolet 176.180
40 Patrick Carpentier Ford 174.027