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This Week in Auto Racing May 13 - May 16

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by Steve Schwarz, Auto Racing Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - NASCAR returns from its traditional Mother's Day break with its first night race of the regular season at the Richmond International Raceway.

NASCAR

Chevy American Revolution 400 - Richmond International Raceway - Richmond, VA

The Richmond night race will be the final short track race of the first half of the 2004 Nextel Cup season. The night races at the .75-mile track are always one of the highlights of the Nextel Cup season and is a great time for both drivers and fans alike.

While Dale Earnhardt Jr . continues to lead the championship, it is the Hendrick Motorsports pair of Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon who are on the move.

Johnson, 25 points behind Earnhardt Jr., has posted four straight top-10 results and six in the last seven races.

The four-time Nextel Cup champion Gordon is 27 points back and has earned five straight top-10s including back-to-back victories at Talladega and California. Fortunately there was no controversy at Fontana, no beer cans and no more booing of Gordon than usual. A week after beating Earnhardt Jr. in a controversial "non-finish" at Talladega, Gordon dominated in the Auto Club 500, his third victory in eight tries on the two-mile California track.

"When they dropped the green flag, this car just ran straight to the front," Gordon said. "Randy Dorton in the engine department, thank you, thank you. This was the baddest engine we've ever had under the hood."

Gordon and company arrive at Richmond on a huge roll, but were not very successful at the Virginia track in 2003 finishing 16th and 10th. Johnson's No.48 Lowe's Chevrolet was equally mediocre, finishing 19th and 11th.

For his career, Gordon has just two wins at Richmond and Johnson's 11th-place finish in last year's fall race was his best effort in four tries.

"Junior" has had better success at Richmond, with four top-10s in the last six races. The "owner" of most restrictor-plate races has become a pretty good short track racer as well.

Earnhardt Jr.'s teammate however is struggling mightily this year. Michael Waltrip currently sits in 30th-place, 374 points behind 10th-place Elliott Sadler for the final guaranteed position in the "Chase for the Championship." In fact, the best finish for this personable Owensboro, KY native is a 10th- place at the Bristol Motor Speedway.

Along with Earnhardt Jr., Johnson and Gordon, the other current "Chase for the Championship" qualifiers are 2003 Nextel Cup champion Matt Kenseth , Kevin Harvick , Kurt Busch , Ryan Newman , Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte and Sadler.

Stewart, who has won three times at Richmond, could use a good run this week. The No.20 Home Depot Chevrolet driver has been erratic of late which has led to problems with other drivers.

One driver in particular, Rusty Wallace , has indicated a desire to even the score. But Wallace, who leads all active drivers with six Richmond wins, is too close to the top-10 to think about revenge. He is just 118 points out of the top-10.

Joe Nemechek , who is currently 20th overall, will attempt to defend his Chevy American Revolution 400 title. Of course, at that time he was driving the No.25 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet now used by rookie Brian Vickers .

He is in the No.01 U.S. Army Chevrolet for 2004. Last year, the MB2 Motorsports Chevrolet was being driven by Jerry Nadeau , who suffered season- ending injuries in a crash during practice at Richmond on May 2, 2003.

Nemechek, who was dominant all evening leading a race-high 155 laps, was out front on lap 393 when rain halted the race. Waltrip his seven top-10s and a win and is just 16 points behind Truex Jr.

Busch

Funai 250 - Richmond International Raceway - Richmond, VA

At Gateway last week, Martin Truex Jr . grabbed his third title in the last six weeks and the championship lead away from Michael Waltrip . He was the first driver to win from the pole at Gateway in its eight-year history.

Truex Jr.'s win also showed his versatility. The 24-year-old Mayetta, NJ native has won on the short track at Bristol, the 1.25-mile Gateway International Raceway and the 2.66-mile superspeedway in Talladega.

"I feel really comfortable in the car," Truex Jr. said. "The biggest thing I have to learn is the tires."

Looks like he has learned his lessons well.

Meanwhile Waltrip continues to do better in the Busch Series Chevrolet than in his Nextel Cup ride. Waltrip is still undecided as to whether he will compete for the entire Busch schedule.

"We've talked regularly (with sponsor Aaron's) about what we want to do in 2004 and we've basically decided that we won't even think about a decision on that until Charlotte.

Waltrip is a busy man with his Nextel Cup drive, his Busch drive and later this season he'll make a spot appearance in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. Very Ken Schrader like.

Rookie Kyle Busch is third in the championship, followed by veteran David Green and Robby Gordon .

But the man to beat is obviously Truex Jr.

Craftsman

UAW/GM Ohio 250 - Mansfield Motorsports Speedway - Mansfield, OH

The Craftsman Truck Series is running just its fourth race of the season and will be visiting the Mansfield Motorsports Speedway for the first time in history.

Carl Edwards leads the championship coming off three consecutive top-seven results including a victory at Daytona. He is 22 points ahead of defending series champion Travis Kvapil , who has led his new Toyota-powered team to a unexpectedly quick start. David Reutimann (fourth) and Mike Skinner (fifth) are showing the three American manufacturers (Chevrolet, Dodge and Ford) that they must step up their games or they will be quickly passed by.

Reutimann is also a contender for the Raybestos Rookie of the Year award. The second generation driver, from Zephyrhills, FL, led laps in the first race of the year, before ultimately finishing ninth at the Daytona. He added a third at Atlanta and an eighth at Martinsville. He is just the second rookie to earn top-10 finishes in his first three starts. He can tie Kurt Busch 's 2000 rookie record of four consecutive top-10s at Mansfield.

"That's pretty cool," said Reutimann. "I hadn't really thought about it a whole lot because, as a driver, you want to race and win. I would like to keep a streak like that going all year long."

"I watched David drive Nemechek's Busch Series car last year," said three-time Winston Cup Series champion Darrell Waltrip . "He did an incredible job at a place he had never even been before."

This week, with no driver having any experience at Mansfield, should be a chance for the rookie to win the race. At least one first-year driver has won a race in each year since 2000.

"As someone new to the division, you don't feel you are as far behind the veterans as you did at Martinsville," said Reutimann.

When they hit the finish line this time, he may not be behind anyone.

INDYCARS

Indianapolis 500 Qualifying - Indianapolis Motor Speedway - Indianapolis, IN

It's May, which means all eyes in the racing world turn to Indianapolis, Indiana for the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing," the 88th running of the Indianapolis 500.

Racing begins with a week of practice followed by pole qualifying on Sunday.

So what speed will it take to earn the inside of Row One?

"I'm still thinking it's going to be 225 m.p.h., because I think the track probably will pick up a couple miles per hour from today," said IndyCar champion Scott Dixon on Sunday. "I think it will be 224 or 225."

Through Monday's practice session, only two-time Indy 500 champion Helio Castroneves had broken the 220 m.p.h. barrier. Speeds have been successfully reduced from last year when the pole was won by Castroneves with a four-lap average of 231.725 m.p.h. and a total of 11 drivers posted speeds better than 228 m.p.h.

Following Tony Renna's tragic death during a practice session at Indy last fall and Kenny Brack's accident in the series finale in Texas, IndyCar officials decided to slow down the cars for safety reasons.

Tony George, the CEO of the Speedway and the IRL, told the Indianapolis Star "a change had to be made more than anything for our own peace of mind." George said "the goal is to have top speeds at Indy below 220 m.p.h."

The series mandated a reduction in horsepower of 10-percent by reducing engine size from 3.5 liters to 3.0 liters and installing a new aerodynamic package.

To date, it appears to have worked.

Castroneves and teammate Sam Hornish Jr. will attempt to give owner Roger Penske his fourth consecutive Indy 500 win and 14th overall. The Penske team figures to be part of an 11-car Toyota-powered field. Honda expects to have 11 cars, led by four from Andretti Green Racing and Chevrolet currently has eight cars.

That's 30 cars, three short of the maximum 33 entries. For the first time in a long time there may not be a full field.

"It's a lot different today," Penske said. "It used to be you could bring a two-year-old car here and be competitive. Not anymore."

That and a still tight economy (an engine lease program for Indy costs between $350,000-$450,000) have made it hard for IndyCar officials to fill out the field.

But it is Indianapolis and the dream of almost every driver and owner is to be sitting in Victory Lane with a celebratory bottle of milk.

The road to the winner's circle begins on Saturday.

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