Weekend Of Speed

Closing in on a race fan’s dream weekend, and hoping the weather is fine for everyone hoping to make it to their track of choice in the next three days. Here in Charlotte the forecast is for speed, speed, and more speed….as Ryan Newman, Jeff Gordon, and others are exploring lap times previously thought unattainable in a Cup car at Lowe’s Motor Speedway.

Obviously the “ levigating” of the track surface at Lowe’s has given drivers a big confidence boost, as well as providing enough grip for speeds in the 192 mph bracket. Those are Atlanta or Texas speeds, the highest in NASCAR. Drivers I’ve spoken with during May have had some reservations about when or if side-by-side racing will be possible on the new surface. Last Saturday night’s Challenge seems to suggest there’s really only one groove. But here’s hoping that by Sunday evening enough rubber will be laid down to allow cars to battle all the way around the 1.5 mile trioval and stage the kind of event Lowe’s is noted for.

There are, of course, story lines aplenty on this Memorial Day. Indy, Charlotte, F-1 at the Nurburgring, NHRA, and more. I think the Indy winner will likely come from the Andretti-Green stables, with the Penske and Rahal squads certainly having a shot. I like the chances of the Newman-Haas boys as well; Bruno Junquiera has run well at the Speedway before, and Sebastien Bourdais surely has the talent. But there are two compelling story lines from Indy this weekend: the return of Kenny Brack, and the chances of Danica Patrick. Brack is a guy I’ll be pulling for come Sunday. He’s always been accessible, gracious, and fast. And anyone who survives the kind of wreck he lived through at Texas two years ago is already a legend. Getting right back up to speed at Indy in his first real outing in an IRL car is an amazing accomplishment.

Patrick is a somewhat different story. Undoubtedly the IRL’s marketing machinery is salivating at the prospect of seeing her in Victory Lane Sunday afternoon. But as has been pointed out elsewhere, a Danica win could spawn the sort of situation facing PGA Tour golf: when Tiger Woods is in the hunt, interest is through the roof. But when he’s not, no one cares. While her Rahal-Letterman car will no doubt have the speed, I suspect her lack of experience at Indy will keep her from contending. Setting up for a good qualifying run is nothing like preparing for 200 laps of hard battling. Indy is one of those places where a slight error in setup puts you laps down before halfway, and I’d guess Danica and her engineers haven’t been together long enough yet to have the right
combination figured out. We shall see come Sunday.

The 600 will be a shootout Sunday night. I always love to see the unexpected in racing. ogic favors either a Hendrick or Roush car, since they’ve combined to dominate the Cup tour this year, Jimmie Johnson is on a true hot streak at Lowe’s, and Mark Martin won the Challenge last Saturday. But I think now that we could see a Ray Evernham Dodge in Victory Lane, or perhaps Dale Jr. and Steve Hmiel will combine to write a new
page of 600 history. Either way, it will be a terrific show.

Whatever happens this weekend will have to go a long way to top what I saw, though, at The Lowe’s Dirt Track Wednesday. The Eckerd 50 for the DIRT Modifieds wasn’t a great race, unless you’re a fan of Tim Fuller and the Faust M1 bunch. What made the night memorable was the cast of characters driving, walking the pit area, and watching the show. When I ventured into the pits before the heats, I encountered something probably never to be repeated: Billy Pauch, the Pennsylvania dirt legend, within arm’s length of Boris Said, the extraordinary road racer fresh off his Nurburgring 24 Hours win, and now carving out a career in NASCAR. Boris indicates he’s going to try the dirt later this year at Ken Schrader’s I-55 Speedway in Missouri, which will be well worth the price of admission. Just down the row of haulers, Cup winner Carl Edwards exchanging ideas with Mod legend Brett Hearn, who
provided his backup car to Edwards for the night’s show. Also in the house, former USAC Triple Crown champ JJ Yeley, who has some Mod experience, with Dave Blaney taking one of his annual rides in a big-block. When I arrived in the press box, who was camped out there but Tony Stewart, working the cell phone as intently as he was
watching the action.

The amazing combination of stars was one more indication that racers are racers, no matter where they ply their trade. And one more reason to be thankful I’m located in Charlotte, one of the hubs of the sport.

Enjoy this Memorial Day weekend of speed.

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