"Tragedy, troubles and turmoil trail NASCAR

As Indianapolis comes to terms with the exchange of the U.S. Grand Prix for a MotoGP race in 2008, the racing capitol directs its attention to stock cars. Fresh from a rare week off, NASCAR rolls into town for the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard July 27-29.

When NASCAR returns to the famed oval, it hopes to refocus attention on the racing action rather than all the off-track news that has been making bigger headlines. This year has seen more than its share of unconventional stories, with several unexpected comings and goings: Juan Pablo Montoya’s arrival from Formula One, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s departure from DEI, Toyota’s tortured entry into NASCAR, Jeff Gordon’s return to the top of the charts and the launch of the unpopular Car of Tomorrow.

Ironically, the introduction of the Car of Tomorrow has been an uncomfortable tryst that has done little to address the disparity between the haves and have-nots. It has been equally unsuccessful in earning anything more than grudging acceptance by drivers and teams.

Drivers and teams are also coming to terms with NASCAR’s new tough love policy that has resulted in unprecedented fines and suspensions, starting with Michael Waltrip Racing, Evernham Motorsports and Roush Fenway Racing at the season-opening Daytona 500. NASCAR has drawn a new no-tolerance line on cheating.

Waltrip has failed to qualify for all but two races since the first, indicative of Toyota’s teething problems. Dave Blaney put his Bill Davis Racing Toyota on pole and Brian Vickers took Team Red Bull to a top-five finish, but the first-year manufacturer clearly has work ahead.

Another embattled rookie is A.J. Allmendinger, open-wheel expat now driving for Team Red Bull — when he can qualify his Toyota. In contrast, Ganassi Racing rookie Montoya has adapted his trademark on-the-ragged-edge driving style to the bumpin’ and bangin’ NASCAR tradition, parlaying his road course experience into a win at Sonoma and giving cause for celebration to newfound Hispanic fans worldwide. As the only driver to race in all three kinds of races held at the Speedway, Montoya resurrects memories of a guy named Andretti who drove everything on wheels to great success.

But the season belongs to Hendrick Motorsports. Despite penalties, teammates Gordon and Jimmie Johnson rule the top of the points standings. Even Casey Mears got his first win this year (Coca-Cola 600). Hendrick is positioned to continue capturing headlines next year when Earnhardt Jr. replaces Kyle Busch. With his future settled, perhaps Earnhardt Jr. can concentrate on taking his DEI machine to victory circle at least once this year as a parting gift to his step-mom and team owner, Theresa Earnhardt.

Other contenders for on-track success include the Richard Childress drivers, Jeff Burton, Daytona 500 winner Kevin Harvick and Clint Boyer. Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart, when not battling each other, have consistently fought off the competition. After scoring his first win of the season in the pre-break race at Chicagoland Speedway, Stewart brings momentum to his favorite track. Also in the hunt, despite early problems, are Roush Fenway Racing drivers Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards, DEI’s Martin Truex Jr. and Penske Racing’s Ryan Newman. Some surprising performers to watch include Robby Gordon and part-timer Mark Martin.

Allstate 400 The Brickyard

July 27-29 (practice on Friday; qualifying on Saturday; race on Sunday)

Tickets: online at www.indianapolismotorspeedway.com or by calling the Indianapolis Motor Speedway ticket office at 317-492-6700 or 800-822-INDY



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