This Week in Auto Racing July 1 - July 4
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by Steve Schwarz, Auto Racing Editor Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - With the holiday weekend upon us, the racing community throws as many events on the schedule as possible. The highlight race is Nextel Cup's Pepsi 400 at Daytona on Saturday night. NASCAR Nextel Cup Pepsi 400 - Daytona International Speedway - Daytona Beach, FL This week's Pepsi 400 ranks among the most prestigious of the season along with the season opening Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis. That is why the qualifying field will include close to 50 entrants. Among them will be Bill Elliott and a rare appearance from Bobby Hamilton. Any story about this week's race must include a few paragraphs on DEI's dominance in restrictor-plate racing. So...DEI has won five of the last seven races at Daytona and 10 of the last 14 on all "restrictor-plate" tracks. Earnhardt Jr. won his first-career Daytona 500 in February at DIS and could very easily have won at Talladega in April had the race not finished under caution. However, the No.8 Budweiser Chevrolet is not the defending champion this week. That title belongs to Greg Biffle, who captured the mid-season classic by 4.102 seconds over his Roush Racing teammate Jeff Burton. Biffle and crew chief Randy Goss worked their fuel strategy to perfection and the rookie No.16 Ford driver ran the final 41 laps on one tank of fuel to take the checkered flag. All the favorites in the race, Earnhardt Jr., Michael Waltrip and Kevin Harvick were surprised by the strategy or didn't have the fuel mileage to try it and couldn't mount a serious charge over the final laps. Biffle will attempt to be just the fifth driver to win back-to-back Pepsi 400s. Only Glenn "Fireball" Roberts (1962-1963), A.J. Foyt (1964-1965), Cale Yarborough (1967-1968) and David Pearson (1972-1974) have been able to accomplish the feat. On the other hand, Earnhardt Jr. is trying to pull off a "double" of his own and win the Daytona 500 and the Pepsi 400 in the same year. It won't be an easy feat for Earnhardt Jr. as only Bobby Allison (1982), LeeRoy Yarbrough (1969), Cale Yarborough (1968) and Fireball Roberts (1962) have been able to win twice at Daytona in the same year. Beside trying to win back-to-back at Daytona, Earnhardt Jr. is also in the midst of a great championship battle with Jimmie Johnson. The two drivers hold more than a 200-point edge over their nearest competitor, 2003 Nextel Cup champion Matt Kenseth. But leading by a large number of points means little in 2004. Unlike in previous years when a driver could build up a large margin a coast to a championship, most of the lead will be wiped out by the 10-race "Chase for the Championship." For that reason, Johnson and "Junior" can take more chances this week to bring home the prestigious title. On the upswing in the last few weeks is Waltrip's DEI's No.15 Chevrolet. He has earned four top-10s in the last five weeks and it would have been five- for-five if Rusty Wallace hadn't lost his brakes and crash into Waltrip at Pocono. Waltrip has improved from 30th in the standings to 18th in that time. You can't count him out this week. You also can't count out Jeff Gordon. The No.24 Dupont Chevrolet driver has won four times at Daytona, though his last win was back in 1999. To win at Daytona (or Talladega for that matter) you need horsepower, help, and you have to be at the right place at the right time. Earnhardt Jr. always has the horsepower, always seems to have someone to draft with and knows how to be in that right spot every time. Put your money on him again this week. Busch Winn-Dixie 250 - Daytona International Speedway - Daytona Beach, FL It's Daytona, so Dale Earnhardt Jr. must be the favorite - and the defending champion. Earnhardt Jr. won last year's race and has won the pole in three of the last four Busch races at the 2.5-mile Florida track. In the race, "Junior" led all 100 laps, defeating fellow DEI driver Michael Waltrip by 0.161 seconds. "We had a real strong car, thanks to all the guys," said Earnhardt Jr. "When they put cars together like this they are definitely going places. We stayed up front all night and I didn't think that was possible." While everyone will be watching "Junior," the real fun will be between title contenders Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch. The two young drivers have dominated the series like few in the past. In 17 races, the two have combined for seven wins and 16 top-fives. Truex Jr., in the No.8 Chevrolet, started the season on fire, winning four of the first 12 events, but has slipped every so slightly of late. His five straight races without a win is a season long, though he does have two second- place results. Busch has won two of the last five events and stands 28-points behind Truex Jr. He has qualified in the top-five in seven of the last eight races. The No.5 Chevrolet driver finished just 24th at Daytona in February after his car suffered from an overheating problem. But Busch did win the ARCA race on February 2nd, his first-ever trip to the superspeedway. "I'd really like to change the worst finish part and make this race one of our best finishes. We know "Junior" and Truex Jr. are going to be tough, though," said Busch. "Hopefully, the car will perform like it did at Talladega and really suck up in the draft, and be able to pull out and pass. "The team is focused on repeating as champions (Brian Vickers drove the No.5 in 2003), and they show that every week by how they prepare the cars and how they perform on pit road." It should be a fun duel to watch. Craftsman O'Reilly Auto Parts 250 - Kansas Speedway - Kansas City, KS These are tough times for Roush Racing driver Jon Wood. Following a breakout year in 2003 in which he won twice, had 20 top-10s and finished fifth in the championship, the Stuart, VA native is scrambling to keep up this year. Through nine events, Wood and the No.50 Ford have posted zero wins and just one top-five. "I'm not sure if it is the new body style, or the new tires, or the combination of the two, but we're off just enough that we haven't been real competitive this year," said the 22-year-old. I'm hoping we can figure out a few things before Saturday so we can run up front again this year," Wood said. "I know this team is capable of winning, we just need to find a couple more pieces of the puzzle." In last year's event, Wood led a race-high 67 laps en route to a 1.176-second victory over teammate Carl Edwards. "It definitely was an exciting race last year," Wood said. "We went from the back to the front about three different times. I passed more trucks in that race than I probably have this entire season. It would be great to go back there and win again." Trailing points leader Dennis Setzer by 267 markers, Wood desperately needs the win. Setzer continued his great string of results with a third-place finish at Milwaukee last week. The 44-year-old is having his best season with two wins and seven top-10s to date. Setzer held the top spot at Milwaukee until Ted Musgrave, who had the fastest truck all night, ran him down with four laps to go. Musgrave, from Franklin, WI, became the first repeat winner in the ten Craftsman Truck Series events held at the historic Wisconsin track. "We had the power of the people behind us tonight," said Musgrave. "It was awesome during driver introductions and to hear the whole stands cheer for me." Musgrave now has posted three-straight top-three finishes to pull within 218 points of Setzer. INDYCARS Argent Mortgage Indy 300 - Kansas Speedway - Kansas City, KS Bryan Herta was hired by Andretti/Green Racing to replace the injured Dario Franchitti early last season and it didn't take long for the Warren, MI native to show off his talents. Following a fifth-place finish at Texas and a 14th at Richmond, Herta grabbed his first IndyCar Series victory at the Kansas Speedway. Herta didn't have the fastest car, but with the aid of some great pit strategy, inherited the lead when teammate Tony Kanaan was forced to make a final "splash and go." Herta only led the final six laps, but that was enough and made the turn into Victory Lane. Following his sixth consecutive top-10, Tony Kanaan maintained the lead in the championship. But his margin has been reduced to just 15 points after his Andretti/Green Racing teammate Dan Wheldon collected his second win of 2004 in last week's SunTrust Indy Challenge. These are good days for Michael Andretti. His drivers sit one, two, eight and nine in the standings. He seems to have no desire to drive anymore and has quickly become a dominant owner. "I'm perfectly happy where I'm at, living it through (my drivers) now," Andretti said. "It's getting to be more and more fun. I think winning is great, no matter what. I'm so happy for Tony and all the guys when they win. A lot of hard work goes into it." His team is tight-knit, but competitive, which has helped account for their success after just one-and-a-half years of racing. "I think it all comes down to what we talked about all along - the chemistry," Andretti continued. "It starts with these (drivers). They've got to get along. And they all get along. You may think they're acting, but they're not. They're really friends. They root for each other. They know that if they all work together as one, each one is going to be better off for it." It's amazing what you can accomplish when you work as a team instead of having individual agendas. CHAMP CARS Grand Prix of Cleveland - Burke Lakefront Airport - Cleveland, OH Normally, when a fan goes to see a road course race, he is lucky to find a seat where he can see one turn and maybe a long straightaway. Not the case for this week's Grand Prix of Cleveland. The event is run over airport runways and taxiways which allows the fan the best view of road course racing in motorsports. The entire course is visible from the stands. Through four events, the championship is a three-way battle between Newman/Haas Racing teammates Bruno Junqueira (105 points), Sebastien Bourdais (98) and Patrick Carpentier (99). Bourdais captured last year's Cleveland event, defeating Paul Tracy by 2.241 seconds. Except for a 15-lap segment when veteran Jimmy Vasser held the top spot due to a different fuel strategy, Bourdais and Tracy battled one-two the entire night. While Bourdais has already earned two wins in the first four events, Junqueira has fashioned his lead with four solid performances. The Brazilian has tallied three second-place finishes and a six-place result to earn his six-point margin. Carpentier, driving for Forsythe Championship Racing, has, like Junqueira, posted four straight top-notch results (4th, 4th, 2nd, 4th). Just behind the trio is defending series champion Paul Tracy (79). The Canadian opened the season with an impressive win at Long Beach, but has since slipped. The volatile Tracy has become frustrated and it showed last week as he was fined a total of $15,000 for criticism of officials and making objectionable gestures. Tracy needs to refocus on racing this week to get back in the title chase. FORMULA ONE French Grand Prix - Circuit De Nevers - Magny-Cours, France The French Grand Prix at Magny-Cours is the 10th event of the 18-race 2004 schedule, meaning we are at the mid-point of the season. Ferrari has rebounded from a mediocre (for Ferrari) 2003 to the dominance of 2002 when it won 15 of 17 events. Through nine races, six-time Formula One champion Michael Schumacher has won eight times, failing only an Monaco after a freak accident in the tunnel. In addition to the wins, Ferrari's "other" driver, Brazilian Rubens Barrichello has been the runner-up six times. Schumacher holds a 36-point margin over his nearest non-Ferrari rival Jenson Button of BAR/Honda. "I think he's even better than he's ever been," said owner Peter Sauber of Schumacher. Meanwhile, last year's two top rivals, Williams/BMW and McLaren/Merecedes are nowhere to be found. The Williams team is in disarray with Juan Montoya set to drive for McLaren in 2005, rumors aplenty of Ralf Schumacher about to sign with Toyota and the team under-performing. "Taken as a whole, (things) certainly don't reflect well on the team," said Patrick Head. He added that the team should be scoring more points despite the fact that the radical new design FW26 is no match for some of its rivals. "The lack of performance is certainly a factor, but it is not an evil car to drive and it's faster than the FW25 (last year's model)," Head replied. Whether or not defending French GP winner Ralf Schumacher even races at all this week is still up in the air following his big crash at Indy. Schumacher is "recovering well, but we don't know if he'll be fit enough for France." is all that new technical director Sam Michael would say. If Schumacher cannot run, Marc Gene will be the driver. As for Ralf Schumacher's seat in 2005, it is also "up in the air," but former F1 driver Jacques Villeneuve is rumored to be set to test the FW26 in August. At McLaren things are even worse. Lame duck driver David Coulthard has scored nine points all season and Kimi Raikkonen, runner-up in the 2003 drivers championship, has just eight markers. On the other hand, things are looking up at BAR/Honda and Renault. "At this mid-point of the season, our entire team must feel very proud of what we have achieved to date, however, we are under no illusion that the second half of the year is going to be just as demanding in order to maintain the momentum and performance we are currently showing," said BAR team boss ,David Richards. Takuma Sato earned a career-first podium finish at the United States GP and Button holds the third spot in the standings despite a mechanical problem at Indy. Rumors have the team debuting a new aerodynamics package at Magny-Cours. At Renault where they will celebrate the 25th anniversary of their first F1 victory, the team is quite satisfied. Overall, it is better than I had expected," said driver Fernando Alonso. "But more in terms of our position in the Constructors Championship than my own place in the drivers' standings. It is a bit of a surprise for us to be second. Personally, for me, I do not think it is too bad to be fifth. I have not finished three races, and started from the back in two of them. So I am reasonably pleased, but I expect to be much stronger in the second half of the year." Behind the Ferrari juggernaut, the contest for second should be an exciting one between BAR, Renault and possibly Williams.