This Week in Auto Racing May 22 - May 25

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=== This Week in Auto Racing May 22 - May 25 === by Steve Schwarz, Auto Racing Editor Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - With all due respect to the Daytona 500, Sunday is the biggest and best day in American motorsports. The day begins with the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing" - the Indianapolis 500 and concludes around midnight with Winston Cup's longest race of the season - the Coca-Cola 600. IRL Indianapolis 500 - Indianapolis Motor Speedway - Indianapolis, IN Three in a row! Its never been done in the 92-year history of the Indianapolis 500. Pole sitter Helio Castroneves has a chance to change all that on Sunday afternoon. In May of 2001, Castroneves led the final 52 laps en route to a 1.7373 victory over his Penske Racing teammate Gil de Ferran to become the eighth rookie to win at Indianapolis. Last year, the Brazilian became the first repeat winner in 31 years after beating back a challenge (both on the track and in appeals court) of Paul Tracy and Team Kool Green. In doing so he became just the fifth driver to win back-to-back races at Indy. Wilbur Shaw (1939-40), Mauri Rose (1947-48), Bill Vukovich (1953-54) and Al Unser (1970-71) are the other drivers to repeat at the "500". But history does not bode well for Castroneves based on their finishes after winning back-to- back races. Of the four, only Al Unser finished in the top-10 in the next race when he came in second to Mark Donohue in 1972 (Shaw - 18th in 1941, Rose - 13th in 1949, and Vukovich - 25th in 1955). The Castroneves storyline, however, is not the only interesting plot evolving out of the 2003 Indianapolis 500. The 87th running of the "500" will be the 14th and last one as a driver for Michael Andretti. The Andretti name has been synonymous with racing and in particular at Indianapolis. Father Mario drove in 29 "500s" winning once (1969) and finishing in the top-10 11 times. Mario's youngest son Jeff Andretti competed three times and , son of Mario's twin brother Aldo, raced in seven "500" events. Michael Andretti started racing at Indy in 1984 and holds the career mark for most laps led by a driver who has not won the race (398). The son of Mario has five top-five finishes, including a second to Rick Mears in 1991. Andretti announced in February that this year's race at Indy would be his final as a driver and that he would become a full-time IndyCar owner after his final lap of the "Brickyard". "I know I've made the right choice to buy this team, and I also know that to be truly successful at team ownership, you have to be willing to give 110- percent to the job," Andretti said. "I've decided that I want to be a team owner full-time. But first there's still a little piece of unfinished business I want to take care of on the racetrack." That unfinished business, of course, is winning the Indianapolis 500. On Sunday, Michael will have 200 laps to fulfill his dream and complete a great career with a storybook finish. Andretti will start in the fifth row, having qualified 13th fastest in the field of 33 drivers. NASCAR Winston Cup Coca-Cola 600 - Lowe's Motor Speedway - Concord, NC While the Indianapolis 500 may get all the headlines, the Coca-Cola 600 is one of the most important races on the Winston Cup schedule. Its the longest race of the season. Its held in front of family, friends and because most teams are headquartered in and around Charlotte - team management and owners. For that and more than 5 million other reasons, ($5,396,853 purse), drivers are usually at their best in this race. Leading those at the top of their game are three relatively young competitors who have snatched control of the championship from the veterans Winston Cup drivers that we usually think about (Jeff Gordon, , , ). Points leader has been at the top of the charts since the fourth week of the season. The No.17 Roush Racing Ford driver has finished out of the top-10 just twice all season after earning a series-leading five wins in 2002. Second in points is fan favorite . Once known only for his restrictor-place racing efforts at Daytona and Talladega, "Junior" has matured into a championship caliber driver. After a slow start to his season, Earnhardt Jr. has charged back with a vengeance and six top-3 finishes in the last nine events has pushed the son of seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt from 38th to second place. Third place in the championship belongs to another Roush Racing driver, . Of the top-3 drivers in the title chase, he is the most dangerous. When he is good, he is very, very good. In the last 16 events dating back to the 2002 Old Dominion 500, Busch has posted five wins and three seconds. Unfortunately, for the Las Vegas, NV native, when he is bad he usually finishes well back in the pack (three finishes of 28th or worse in 2003). It is only this inconsistency (not unusual for a 24-year-old) that is keeping him from a championship. Others still in the championship hunt are four-time Winston Cup champion and three-time Coca-Cola 600 winner Gordon (fourth overall), his teammate (sixth) and 2000 Winston Cup champion (fifth), who has finished second in three consecutive events. Despite all these "name" drivers, the big story of the day might end up being that of this year's "Ironman" . Gordon, who started his career in open-wheel racing, is running the "Memorial Day Double," - 500 miles at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and then 600 more miles around the 1.5-mile Lowe's Motor Speedway. And that doesn't include the 550 miles that he will fly to get from Indiana to North Carolina. has the talent and the cars to win either or both races. At Indy, Gordon will drive an Andretti/Green Racing Honda that he put on the front row (average speed 230.205 m.p.h.) during last week's pole qualifying session. He has come close to winning at the "Brickyard" in the past. He finished eighth in 2002, led 22 laps in 2001, finished sixth in 2000 and led 33 laps in 1999 before running out of fuel on the last lap and finishing fourth. After being so close over the last four years, 2003 could be his year. The race at Indianapolis begins at 12 p.m. (et). A normal race, without any rain delays or major crash cleanups, takes a little over three hours. Should Gordon win Indy, that would leave him a little over two hours to celebrate in Victory Lane and then fly the 550 miles to Charlotte for the "600". Gordon is currently 13th in the Winston Cup standings, but his No.31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet has been one of the strongest cars all season. He could certainly compete for the win at Charlotte. The best finish of any driver competing in the "Memorial Day Double" was turned in by 2002 Winston Cup champion . In 2001, Stewart ran sixth at Indy and followed with a third-place finish in the stock car event. He is the only driver to finish all 1,100 miles. Besides Gordon and Stewart, the only other driver to attempt the "Double" was in 1994. When asked why he subjected himself to such an exhausting day of racing, Gordon replied, "I like Winston Cup racing and I'm going to be in Winston Cup racing, but I love the Indianapolis 500." Busch Carquest Auto Parts 300 - Lowe's Motor Speedway - Concord, NC When the Busch Series takes to the 1.5-mile Lowe's Motor Speedway on Saturday, the Busch Series regulars will probably have to take a back seat to the Winston Cup regulars entered in the race. "Buschwhackers" as they are known have won nine of 12 Busch events this season. In fact its worse than that, since the three Busch driver wins have come at Busch "stand alone events" where few, if any, Winston Cup regulars have run because they were racing at a different track. At this week's Carquest Auto Parts 250, two-time winners and are scheduled to participate. Also on the entry list are Winston Cup points leader (one win), (one win), , defending champion , , and . For the Busch Series points leader , second-place and last week's winner Jr.(third), their goal should be to finish in the top-10. However, no matter how exciting and competitive the Busch race is, it will just be a small appetizer for Sunday's auto racing feast.

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