Speed Reading: Darlington ghost town; Montoya in Memphis

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Ryan McGee

You know the situation this weekend. Two races to The Chase, two drivers clinched (paging Misters Johnson and Kenseth), one guy close (Harvick), seven guys separated by only 48 points and one poor guy is trying to sneak his way in (the dreamy Kasey Kahne).

But, believe it or not, there is more going on in NASCAR these than Chase-related chaos.

Don't believe me? Read on my axle grease covered brothers and sisters...

Ghost Town, S.C.
To a large group in the Cup paddock, there is still something very strange and dirty about not being at the Darlington Raceway during Labor Day weekend. For more than five decades the Palmetto State hosted NASCAR during the first weekend of September, beginning with the inaugural Southern 500 in 1950. While no one misses the annual threat of hurricanes — Tropical Storm Ernesto blew through Thursday night — the sport's older generation feels a little like they are cheating on the Lady in Black by racing in SoCal.

"My entire life Labor Day meant Darlington," says Dale Jarrett who nearly won the coveted Winston Million bonus at The Track Too Tough To Tame. "As a kid I went down there with my Dad (1965 Southern 500 champ Ned) every year. Then I went back as a Busch Series competitor and eventually as a Nextel Cup driver. But I think the spring race there has been a bigger success than some people expected and it is very important that we be here in Southern California, so it seems to be working out for everyone."

Everyone except the good people of Darlington. I drove through there on Friday morning and stopped by the track and its Joe Weatherly Stock Car Hall of Fame and Museum. I counted six other people. I'm thinking they might have a slightly smaller economic impact on the area than the 80,000 that were there four years ago.

Must be football season
One week before the official start of college football, NASCAR had already gotten in the mood with a gridiron-like ACL injury.

Andy Brown, rear tire carrier on Kurt Busch's No. 2 Dodge, felt a pop in his knee during a pit stop on lap 238 at Bristol last Saturday, hitting the deck like a sacked QB. Then, in a move that would have brought a tear to Jack Youngblood's eye, he returned to work the remaining pit stops.

"That was probably not a good idea," the 23-year old admits. "We're pretty sure that made it worse."

Garage veteran Larry Robinette will sub for Brown while further tests are run on the knee.

Juan on the way
Most folks in the Busch Series garage are eyeing Memphis as the race when they might finally get their first glimpse of Formula One defector Juan Montoya.

Daimler-Chrysler officials are nearing an amicable end to the standoff between two of its largest racing empires - McLaren-Mercedes, Montoya's current employer, and Chip Ganassi Racing, his ride for 2007. The boys at McLaren were none too happy when Montoya stunned the racing world by announcing his intention to go Cup racing next season, then became further rankled when the Colombian said he wanted to run some Busch Series tune-ups this summer. So the legendary open wheel organization promptly anounced that they would hold him to his contract until the end of '06.

Now it appears that the 2000 Indy 500 champion will be free to race elsewhere at the end of the F1 season, not the calendar year as originally expected. The first race after the guys in Europe pack it in for winter is the Sam's Town 250 at the Memphis Motorsports Park. Maybe he'll stop by Graceland for a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich.

Modest Kenseth among best
Pre-race driver introductions are a real-time popularity poll, with some drivers drawing endlessly loud cheers and others a soul-shaking ran of boos. No matter where we race from week to week, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the leader in the cheers department, Jeff Gordon gets the jeers.

"It doesn't really matter what kind of noise they make," Dale Earnhardt Sr. liked to say. "As long they are making noise, you're doing something right."

Which brings us to the guys in the middle.

I'm talking about the drivers who receive a different kind of sound from the masses — a polite and respectful round of applause.

The men who preceded Matt Kenseth in the golf-club clap were guys like Harry Gant, Terry Labonte, and Alan Kulwicki — gentlemen who typically kept their cars in one piece, didn't have a whole lot to say, and just took care of business whether anyone noticed or not. In their hometowns and home states they may be just this side of national heroes, but national audiences never seemed to put them on the same level as their higher profile contemporaries. Full story...

Ryan McGee is the managing editor at NASCAR Images. He can be reached at his e-mail address:

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Busch Beat
Denny Hamlin is a leading member of the so-called Buschwhackers, Cup drivers who are running a full-time Busch Series schedule and stomping the second division's regulars. But the soon-to-be Nextel Cup Rookie of the Year will be cutting back his NBS schedule next season and the 25-year old says he expects more than a few of his cohorts to follow his lead.

"I think a lot of the younger guys are realizing that it might be best to concentrate on one series. Seat time is great, but during a weekend like Bristol you are literally running from one end of the track to the other all day long."

Hamlin and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate J.J. Yeley have already announced intentions to cut back and all-but '06 champ Kevin Harvick says he will do the same.

"As the Car of Tomorrow is phased in, a lot of guys will start cutting back," Hamlin continues. "Especially during weeks when Cup is running the new car and Busch is running the old one. Anything you might learn on Saturday won't translate to Sunday."

Truck Stop
Earlier in the week, Michael Waltrip trotted out the candidates for his still-empty Burger King-Dominos Camry, hoping to prove their worthiness of Toyota's new Cup program. Waltrip has made no bones about the fact that he prefers David Reutimann, who currently sits third in Truck Series points driving a Toyota Tundra for Mikey's big brother Darrell.

This ain't your daddy's NASCAR
When word reached the NASCAR world that geriatric QB Jeff George had rejoined the Oakland Raiders, the reaction was the same as everywhere else - shaking heads followed by laughter.

"Maybe I need to call Rusty," Kurt Busch said, referring to the man he replaced in the No. 2 Dodge. "I want to make sure he isn't going to show up and want his car back."

Who's Hot & Who's Not
  • Matt Kenseth: Three weeks ago, Kenseth was teetering on the brink of dropping out of our Power Poll Top 5. Now he is the first driver not named Jimmie Johnson to occupy the top spot this summer, thanks to two straight wins. Don't forget, he won at Cali back in February.

  • Matt Kenseth's California Speedway career Cup stats
  • Kasey Kahne: Everyone inside the top 10 in points seems to want to let Kahne in, but the No. 9 team hasn't been able to close the deal. His 12th-place Bristol run wasn't bad, but still cost him ground. Three weeks ago, he was 37 points out of 10th. This week, he's 90 back.

  • Kasey Kahne's California Speedway career Cup stats
  • Complete power rankings
  • Speed Mail Benny
    NBC/TNT analyst and 1973 Winston Cup champ Benny Parsons continues treatment for lung cancer, an ailment discovered back in July, and will miss this weekend's races at the California Speedway. BP is too exhausted from the treatments to make the trip west, but feels good about the progress being made.

    Just last week, driver Bobby Hamilton described his ongoing fight with neck and head cancer. "Those treatments are designed to kick your butt and then build you back up. It knocks the tar out of me, but makes me want fight back harder."

    Benny plans to be back in the booth next weekend for the high profile Chase cut-off race at Richmond. In the meantime, let him know you miss him by emailing

    Speed Mail Ryan

    Tagged: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Dale Jarrett, Sterling Marlin, Todd Kluever, Elliott Sadler, Tony Stewart

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