This Week in Auto Racing July 23 - July 25
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by Steve Schwarz, Auto Racing Editor Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - It's a busy weekend for racing fans highlighted by a trip to New Hampshire for the Nextel Cup series and a first ever IndyCar race at the fabled Milwaukee Mile. NASCAR Nextel Cup Siemens 300 - New Hampshire International Speedway - Loudon, NH With just eight races left in the 26-event setup for the "Chase for the Championship, most of the big names have put themselves in good position. Defending Siemens 300 champion Jimmie Johnson leads the series by 105 points over Dale Earnhardt Jr. Johnson has been on a huge roll, as have most of the Hendrick Motorsports drivers, earning 10 top-five results in the last 12 events. Since Martinsville in April, the No.48 Lowe's Chevrolet driver has jumped from fourth place and 79 points down to his current 105-point lead. During that same period, "Junior" has just six top-five finishes. The No.8 Budweiser Chevrolet driver will most likely not make up any ground this week following a fiery crash in a American Le Mans practice session. The incident left him in the hospital for a day with second-degree burns over six percent of his body. Earnhardt Jr. is likely to give his seat to his Chance 2 Motorsports teammate, Martin Truex Jr., at NHIS after starting the race. That will allow him to rest his injuries yet still receive championship points. Still, using a rookie in NASCAR's premier series will probably cost him a few points. Jeff Gordon holds down third place in the standings following a string of four consecutive poles and two wins over the past month. In last year's race at NHIS, Gordon led a race-high 133 laps before falling out of the running because of an extra pit stop for fuel. Fourth place Tony Stewart continues to race well while annoying fans and drivers alike, but so long as NASCAR doesn't suspend him, he will easily make the "Chase." Meanwhile, 2003 Nextel Cup champion Matt Kenseth started the season as consistent as ever. He qualified poorly, but raced well. Over the last six races though, the No.17 Roush Ford driver has just one top-10 result and fallen from 179 points out to 399 points behind Johnson. Still, with the new format, all you have to do is qualify for the "Chase for the Championship" and the margin behind the leaders almost completely disappears. The real drama over the final two months will be for positions six through 10. Currently Bobby Labonte, Elliott Sadler, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman hold down the playoff spots, but six other drivers are within 175 points of 10th-place Newman. The new format has certainly created excitement at mid-season that would not have been there under the old system. Under the 2003 system, only the top- three drivers would hold a realistic chance of a championship. In 2004, the list of legitimate contenders is 16 teams long. Busch Siemens 200 - New Hampshire International Speedway - Loudon, NH While the Nextel Cup Series has adopted a new format for 2004, the Busch Series title will continue to be determined by the old method season-long method. It rewards overall consistency more than wins. However, in 2004 the most consistent drivers are also the winning drivers. Martin Truex Jr. and rookie Kyle Busch are one-two in the standing and one-two in victories. Truex Jr., using DEI equipment, has amassed series-highs in wins (four) and top-10s (13). Busch trails Truex Jr. by just 52 points (2,863-2,811) and has three wins and 12 top-10s to his credit. He has led the most laps (697), earned the most money ($784,825) and has led at least one lap in 13 of the 19 events. "It (NHIS) reminds me of the Chicago Motor Speedway, where I ran my second truck race," said Busch. "It is a flat mile, with very long straightaways. It's a fun track to drive." The two youngsters are more than 300 points ahead of their nearest rival - veteran Jason Keller. Keller, Ron Hornaday Jr. and defending Siemens 200 winner David Green are all within nine points of each other in a battle for third through fifth. Green had to beat off Nextel Cup drivers Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth for the 0.474-second victory. "Racing Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth those last fifty laps was a real thrill for us," said Green. "Anytime you beat the so-called 'Buschwhackers' it's a huge accomplishment." If the 1994 champion is to get back in title contention, he had better start with another win this week at Loudon. INDYCARS Menards A.J. Foyt Indy 225 - The Milwaukee Mile - West Allis, WI The IndyCar Series arrives at the famed Milwaukee Mile for the first time in its history. The series has just completed the eighth race of its 16-race season and for the second consecutive season Tony Kanaan leads at the mid-point. Last year, Kanaan left the Nashville Superspeedway with a 14-point lead over Gil de Ferran, but finished the season in fourth place behind champion Scott Dixon. Since the series began in 1996, just one driver leading at mid-season has gone on to win the title - Sam Hornish Jr, 2001. This year Kanaan owns a 61-point margin over his Andretti/Green Racing teammate Dan Wheldon. The Brazilian has recorded seven consecutive top-fives and posted wins at Phoenix, Texas and last Saturday night at Nashville. "I'm going to take each race as it comes," said Kanaan. "It's way too early to be thinking about the championship, other than to just try and get the maximum number of points from each race." For Wheldon, history is on his side. In four of seven seasons, the driver in second place at mid-season has gone on to win the championship (Dixon - 2003, Sam Hornish Jr. - 2002, Buddy Lazier - 2000, Tony Stewart (1996-1997). While Kanaan and Wheldon have led a strong Andretti/Green Racing team to the top of the charts, the Rahal-Letterman duo of Buddy Rice and Vitor Meira has been a major factor since Indianapolis. After winning the "500" Rice has gone on to capture a win at Kansas and finished in the top-six three times. He and Meira finished one-two at Kansas and qualified one-two at Nashville before faltering late in the race. Rice sits third in the championship, just ahead of Penske Racing teammates Helio Castroneves and Hornish Jr. For Rice, the distractions continue as the 2004 Indy 500 winner spent Monday at the White House. "This was the pinnacle," said Rice. "For the leader of the free world to take time out of his busy day to meet with me and Rahal Letterman Racing is outstanding. I can't thank him enough." He was the first "500" winner to visit the White House since 1991. It remains to be seen whether the continuing distractions will effect his concentration. The relatively flat Milwaukee Mile (nine degree banking) is similar in makeup to the Pikes Peak International Raceway that teams have raced at for years. Last year's race at PPIR was won by Dixon, though Team Penske led 118 of 225 laps. Kanaan started on the pole and finished second. Expect another big effort from the No.11 team. CHAMP Molson Indy Vancouver - Concord Pacific Place - Vancouver, WA The Champ Cars continue their series despite running in relative obscurity due to its poor television contract. Yet for some reason the series is resisting the inevitable merging with the IndyCar Series. The Molson Indy Toronto was a perfect example as the race was shown on tape delay so virtually no one saw Sebastien Bourdais dominate. The Frenchman led 75 of 84 laps. Combined with Bruno Junqueira's crash with Mario Dominguez on the opening lap, it gave Bourdais a comfortable 28-point lead in the championship. Bourdais now has four win in six races. He and his Newman/Haas Racing team should be the dominant team in the series for years except that Formula One is likely to steal him away next year. In just 24 Champ Car events since joining the series as a rookie in 2003, Bourdais has earned seven victories and eight poles. Defending series champion Paul Tracy won last year's event at the Concord Pacific Place, leading 77 of 100 laps en route to a dominating 17.820-second victory. The Canadian is fourth overall, but has been unimpressive since winning the season opener at Long Beach. FORMULA ONE German Grand Prix - Hockenheimring - Hockenheim, Germany What a difference a year makes. Following a win in last year's German Grand Prix, Williams/BMW driver Juan Montoya sat just six points behind leader Michael Schumacher with four races remaining in the season. The Columbian failed to capitalize on his chance and finished the season in third place behind Schumacher and Kimi Raikkonen. In the off-season, he signed with McLaren/Mercedes for 2005 and became a "lame duck." Through the first 10 events of 2004, Montoya is sixth overall with zero wins and zero poles. His teammate Ralf Schumacher is also jumping ship, signing a deal with Toyota in early July and leaving the Williams/BMW team is complete disarray. Meanwhile, Ferrari and Michael Schumacher march on. The six-time champion has already had two winning streaks of five in a row. He began the season winning at Australia, Malaysia, Bahrain, San Marino and Spain. He suffered his only blemish at Monaco, crashing in the tunnel. But since that point Schumacher has been untouchable. And it is not just his flawless Team Ferrari. He has shown why he is the best that ever put on a balaclava. At Magny-Cours, the No.1 Ferrari driver knew he needed to stretch his lead in his third stint to account for a rare fourth pit stop and the champion did exactly that. Schumacher held a three-second lead after lap 32, but because the team had short-filled on his previous stop, Schumacher knew he needed a 20-second lead to make the extra stop. The German posted brilliant lap after brilliant lap and at lap 58 held a 22.2- second margin over Alonso. The Ferrari pit crew made no mistakes and the race was over. Schumacher proved it wasn't luck in the next race at Silverstone. Raikkonen, who started on the pole, jumped to a 3.5-second lead on the very first lap and held the margin until his first green flag pit stop. When the McLaren driver went to the pits for fuel and tires, Schumacher stayed out for an additional four laps. And in what has become his custom, the German posted his four fastest laps of the race, building up a lead of 23.3 seconds. With the large gap, the champion could make his first pit stop and retain the race lead. The race should have been over at that point, but a huge crash by Jarno Trulli on lap 40 at the Priory corner brought out the safety car and Raikkonen took the opportunity to duck into the pits for his final stop. When the race was restarted, Raikkonen quickly passed two backmarkers who were between himself and the Ferrari and fought for the lead. But Schumacher was up for the challenge and fought off the Finnish driver for the 2.130- second victory. With an 11th win at the Hockerheimring, Schumacher can tie his record for wins in a single season which he set in 2002.