NASCAR

This Week in Auto Racing May 20 - May 23

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by Steve Schwarz, Auto Racing Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - It will be a busy week for motorsports fans with every major series taking to the track in some form or another. At the top of the list will be a Saturday night All-Star shootout by the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series and Formula One's highlight event of the season over the streets of Monaco.

NASCAR

Nextel Cup

Nextel All-Star Challenge - Lowe's Motor Speedway - Concord, NC

Though only 11 races into the 36-race Nextel Cup season, NASCAR takes this week to schedule its All-Star race called the Nextel All-Star Challenge (formerly known as The Winston).

The fans and drivers really get into the fun which pits the winning drivers and teams over the past year in a short race under the lights. First prize for the night is over $1 million.

The All-Star Challenge will once again be formatted into three segments totaling 90 laps.

The first segment will be 40 laps, but unlike in past years, there will be no reduction in the field. At that point, the field will be inverted as it has every year since 1992. A random drawing will choose between six and 12 cars to be flip-flopped for the final two segments. The second segment will be 30 laps. The final 20-lap shootout should be the highlight of the evening with cars battling for the top prize and bragging rights.

The All-Star Event has been held every year since 1985, all of them at the Lowe's Motor Speedway with the exception of the 1986 edition held at Atlanta.

Eight times in its history, the All-Star winner has gone on to capture the series championship. The last to accomplish the feat was Jeff Gordon in 2001.

Gordon will again be one of the favorites along with series points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr . The rest of the field: Geoffrey Bodine , Ricky Craven , Bill Elliott , Kasey Kahne , Terry Labonte , Joe Nemechek , Brian Vickers , Richard Childress teammates Kevin Harvick and Robby Gordon , Penske teammates Ryan Newman and Rusty Wallace , Robert Yates Racing teammates Dale Jarrett and Elliott Sadler , Roush Racing's Greg Biffle , Kurt Busch , Mark Martin and Matt Kenseth , Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart , Jimmie Johnson and Michael Waltrip .

To this field will be added the winner of the Nextel Open preliminary race and a fan vote to add one more driver.

Busch

Goulds Pumps ITT Industries 200 - Nazareth Speedway - Nazareth, PA

Young Kyle Busch , off his first career Busch victory at Richmond, has assumed the points lead in the drivers championship. Along with Martin Truex Jr . the pair have exploded onto the Busch Series scene the likes of which have not been seen since Dale Earnhardt Jr . and Matt Kenseth jumped to the top of the charts in 1998.

Busch, the younger brother of Nextel Cup star Kurt Busch is just 19-years old. He ran six Craftsman Truck races in 2001 with two top-10s, before falling victim to NASCAR's age-limit rule which went into effect in 2002. Upon turning 18 in May of 2003, Busch made seven starts finishing second twice (Charlotte, Darlington).

Truex Jr., is a three-time NASCAR Busch North Series winner, who has three wins and seven top-10s in 11 races this year.

They both have solid leads over veterans David Green (3rd), Michael Waltrip (4th), Robby Gordon (5th) and Jason Keller (6th).

While Busch and Truex Jr. have started the season on fire, the man to beat at the Nazareth Speedway is defending Goulds Pumps champion Ron Hornaday Jr. Hornaday also won the Busch event in 2000 and a Craftsman race at the track in 1998.

"The track is so unique and every corner is different," said Hornaday Jr. "It is impossible to be perfect in every corner. You just have to have a good setup under the car. The rest is just knowing the track and hitting your marks. If you are hooked up, the track is three turns. If you car isn't handling, its seven turns and a real handful."

Hornaday Jr. is currently ninth in the points standings.

"This team has been really good lately, so I think we still are a factor," added the No.2 ACDelco Chevrolet driver.

A win at Nazareth, in the final Busch race at the one-mile oval, would go a long way in making him a challenger for the championship.

Craftsman

Infineon 200 - Lowe's Motor Speedway - Concord, NC

Over the first months of the 2004 season, the Craftsman Series has run just one race a month, but now that we have reached mid-May, the series returns to a more ambitious schedule.

Last week, three-time series champion Jack Sprague powered his way to the inaugural win at the Mansfield Motor Speedway besting short track specialist Dennis Setzer by 0.394 seconds.

The victory was Sprague's first of the season and 24th of his truck career. It was the Spring Lake, MI native's 11th short track win (third best all-time behind Hornaday Jr. and Mike Skinner ) and his fifth career win from the pole.

The series moves on to the Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, NC for the Infineon 200. It is just the second time that the trucks have run on the fast 1.5-mile tri-oval. Last year, Bill Lester won the pole and Ted Musgrave took the checkered flag.

Musgrave has struggled this year in comparison to 2003. After four races last year Musgrave had earned three top-fives and sat fourth in the championship. In 2004 he has yet to score a top-five (best finish - 8th at Atlanta) and is 12th overall.

Musgrave led 58 laps at Mansfield, but a necessary green flag pit stop kept him from logging a good result at the .44-mile bullring.

"We didn't expect the rest of the field to be able to go the distance without pitting again, but they were able to and that put us back at the end of the pack," said Musgrave.

"Any time you start a season with new people, like we have, it takes awhile to get everyone acclimated and into a rhythm. The season is so spread out at the beginning of the year; you can't get a rhythm or momentum going. We've been testing to help make improvements, and we feel we're starting to turn the corner.

A win in the Infineon 200 would be just the thing to raise morale and get the No.1 Ultra Motorsports Dodge back in the title chase.

FORMULA ONE

Monaco Grand Prix - Streets of Monaco - Monaco, Monte Carlo

The Monaco Grand Prix stands alongside other racing events such as the Daytona 500, 24 Hours of Lemans and Indianapolis 500 as one of the great events in motorsports.

However, despite its prestige, star-studded audience and long history that dates back to 1950, the race presents many challenges to the teams.

While it may be the height of glamour for the spectators, for the teams, the reality of working at Monaco is very different.

The nature of the 2.092-mile street circuit also makes it very hard to simulate during test sessions, resulting in it being one of the most unpredictable races.

It is a tricky track with plenty of slow-speed corners, forcing drivers to work hard throughout the 78-lap race.

However, despite such confining streets and very low average speeds, the cars still manage to reach speeds in excess of 175 m.p.h. This, coupled with the absence of gravel traps between the track and unforgiving steel barriers, leaves the drivers with no margin for error if they want to see the checkered flag.

"Monaco is the most difficult circuit on the calendar because of the nature of the street circuit and its surface. You're never more than a few inches from the barriers making overtaking a perilous task if not impossible," said three- time world champion Niki Lauda.

"Whatever else one thinks about it, the Monaco Grand Prix is just special," said Michael Schumacher. "Rushing round the track almost touching the barriers not only increases one's motivation, but is also a real challenge. The real peculiarity about it is that it is really narrow. There are some parts where you cannot even see the apex of a corner until you are actually on it and that adds to the excitement."

Even the slightest error here is punished," continued Michael. "Finding the limit on a road generally used for normal traffic, which is completely different to a usual race track, is always difficult. You also have to consider how much you can let the car slide, which it wants to do all the time. It is very exciting"

What isn't exciting is the 2004 F1 driver's championship. Through the Spanish Grand Prix, Schumacher has cruised to five consecutive relatively easy victories to open the season. In three of them his Ferrari teammate Rubens Barrichello finished second.

At Barcelona, the only questions about Ferrari concerned a broken exhaust, not the competition. Even while "babying" his Ferrari over the final few laps, the six-time champion managed to maintain his speed to the checkered flag.

During the more competitive 2003 season, it was Williams/BMW driver Juan Montoya who captured F1's glamour event. The victory was Williams' first on the streets of Monaco since Keke Rosberg saw the checkered flag in 1983. It marked a resurgence for the Williams team after a struggling beginning to the season. For the Columbian, it was the first of eight consecutive podium finishes. His teammate Ralf Schumacher added two wins and three podiums as the Williams team charged back into the championship race.

Champ Cars

Monterrey Grand Prix - Fundidora Park - Monterrey, Mexico

The Champ Car Series will finally return to the track after a month-long absence. When we last left the series, defending series champion Paul Tracy had gotten off to a good start by winning the Grand Prix of Long Beach.

Tracy took the checkered flag 5.681 seconds ahead of runner-up Bruno Junqueira for his 27th career win.

In the month since the race, Champ Car officials have tinkered with the qualifying rules.

Drivers will now be split into two groups determined by a random draw for Friday’s session with each group running for 15 minutes and no lap limitations on the drivers. After the two 15-minute sessions, the five fastest drivers in each session will move on to a final 15-minute segment to battle for the day's championship point.

The leader of the final Friday session would receive a championship point, but will not be guaranteed a front-row starting spot as was the case last season. The driver will however, be guaranteed a spot in the final session on Saturday.

Saturday will also see a different format with all 18 drivers participating in a 30-minute session. The top nine drivers plus the fastest driver from Friday - or the fastest 10 from the first session if Friday's leader is among them - will then participate in a Pole Shootout, in which each driver will get seven laps to attempt to earn the pole. All drivers in the Pole Shootout will have their times erased and will have their final qualifying positions determined by those seven laps. Final grid positions for drivers 11 and up will be set using the times from the first Saturday session.

INDYCARS

Bump Day - Indianapolis Motor Speedway - Indianapolis, IN

Bump Day at Indianapolis used to be one of the most exciting times in motorsports, but today is but a mere shell of its former self. At its peek, the tension over the last few minutes of qualifying was exquisite.

With many more drivers and cars than were allowed in the field, drivers would struggle just to make the race. The slowest of the 33 drivers would be "on the bubble" - meaning if a driver posted a fast time, he would be the man knocked out of the race.

As the minutes dwindled to a precious few, a desperate driver would sit sweating on the pit road wall, or sometimes he would even get in his backup car to be prepared to re-qualify.

At exactly six o'clock local time the gun would go off and a cheer would ring out for those who had earned their way in this most prestigious event.

But we live in vastly different times.

With finding sponsors and cars made difficult by a struggling economy, it is now hard just filling the 33-car field.

Through the first two days of qualifying, only 26 drivers have posted official qualifying runs. They range from Buddy Rice's 222.024 m.p.h. pole winning speed to Larry Foyt 's 213.277 m.p.h.

If on Sunday we have at least seven drivers posting qualifying runs, then Mr. Foyt will be "on the bubble." But that looks unlikely as only a handful of cars appear to be available for the race.

Greg Ray is one of those drivers still on the outside looking in. The 1999 IndyCar champion and 2000 Indy 500 pole winner did not attempt to qualify over the first two days. The No.13 G Force/Honda of Access Motorsports went through technical inspection on pit road for the first time last Sunday, but owner- driver Ray did not make a qualifying run.

"It is not my goal for this team to merely get through the next day, the next week, or through the end of the month," Ray said. "Focusing on the long-term health of this program and the lack of track time is absolutely affecting our immediate preparations for this year's Indy 500."

Ray has five career wins and 13 poles since joining the IRL in 1997. He figures to be one of the few drivers to go out on Sunday along with P.J. Jones , son of 1963 Indianapolis 500 winner Parnelli Jones.

Jones will attempt to make his first Indy 500 start. He was injured during a crash for Team Menard in practice for the 2002 Indianapolis 500 and never attempted to qualify. He is a veteran of CART, IMSA sports car, NASCAR and USAC competition. He made 58 CART starts with a best finish of second in 1999 at Nazareth, PA.

There are others, however, quality drivers, who are still out there looking to catch a ride. Whether they find a seat behind the wheel will determine if the day will be like the exciting tension-filled days of the past or just another over-hyped afternoon.

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