This Week in Auto Racing March 30 - April 1

This Week in Auto Racing March 30 - April 1

This Week in Auto Racing March 30 - April 1
March 27th, 2007

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The first race with NASCAR's Car of Tomorrow" received mixed reviews but the teams will use it again this week. In the IndyCar Series it's already time for some teams to step up after Dan Wheldon and Target Chip Ganassi threw down the gauntlet last week at Homestead.

NASCAR

Nextel Cup

Goody's Cool Orange 500 - Martinsville Speedway - Martinsville, VA

The 2007 Food City 500 was full of surprises. The two best cars on the track, driven by Joe Gibbs Racing's Tony Stewart (led race-high 257 laps) and Denny Hamlin (led 177 laps) both finished outside the top-12.

The race was won by Kyle Busch not only because he was the next best car on the track, but because the two cars behind him drove a clean race down the stretch. At Bristol that is ALWAYS a surprise.

As the laps dwindled, Busch's Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon was in second place. So Busch knew he would get a fair shake from the four-time series champion. And on the final two laps Jeff Burton was on his rear bumper and Burton is well known for being a clean competitor.

Burton had two chances to use the "Bristol Bump" on Busch and both times elected to race him clean. It ultimately cost Burton the win and 20 points, but somewhere down the road when the positions are reversed he will be rewarded.

Points leader, Mark Martin, kept his promise of not racing despite a great start to his season that had him leading the championship. Martin spent the weekend watching his son Matt Martin race at Lake City in a Super Late Model Division event.

This week will be the second straight short track race on the smallest track in Nextel Cup - the 0.528-mile Martinsville Speedway. It will be the second consecutive event for the "Car of Tomorrow," but unlike Bristol the teams haven't tested on this flat half mile.

For the most part, the drivers were not happy with the COT. They felt they couldn't get the car to turn in the corners and it made for a generally tough weekend.

"I said that I wanted to go out and win this race so I could tell everybody how terrible this thing is to drive," said Busch. "It just doesn't turn...For me it's just not very much fun to drive. It's hard to race around on the track with other competitors because it doesn't have a lot of maneuverability. I can't stand to drive them."

Even Martin, who watched the race on television, wasn't a fan. "I thought the COT handled poorly enough that the guys actually didn't run over each other because they didn't have good control of their car," he said. "It was a cleaner race than what we normally see because the cars were so hard to control, they weren't able to get in there and mix it up."

"The current car drives better, it's got more downforce, it's got more grip, it has better feel," Gordon said. "So if you compare (it) to that car, you're not going to like it."

The same should hold true for Martinsville where the ability to turn and conserve brakes is paramount.

Gordon has always done well there accumulating five poles and seven wins at Martinsville, including a sweep in 2005. Jimmie Johnson has evidently watched and learned from Gordon because his average finish at Martinsville is 7.20 with a pole and two wins in just 10 starts.

Stewart, who dominated last week before a fuel pump cable broke to knock him out of contention, also does very well on the Virginia half mile. The No.20 owns two wins, three poles and nine top-10s.

With no preseason testing at Martinsville using the COT, expect the multi-car teams to excel just because they can try more different setups and discuss the best way to attack the track with the limited track time available.

Look for the strong cars at Bristol to be right back up there at Martinsville, meaning expect Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports to challenge once again for the win.

Craftsman

Kroger 250 - Martinsville Speedway - Martinsville, VA

While Toyota has struggled just to make races in the Nextel Cup Series, here in the Craftsman Truck Series they have been dominating for some time.

In last year's final standings, Toyota-powered cars grabbed the top six positions and 12 of 25 wins. That was despite Nextel Cup great Mark Martin beginning the 2006 truck season with two consecutive wins on the way to a series-high six wins for himself and Ford.

But in 2007 Martin has only raced once (finishing 23rd in California) and Toyota has won all three events. Jack Sprague won the opener in Daytona and Mike Skinner has won two straight - all in Toyotas. The Japanese manufacturer has collected 13 top-10s in the first three events.

Now its on to Martinsville and the flat 0.528-mile short track. David Starr won last year's race in the No.15 Toyota, edging Ted Musgrave by 0.942 seconds. The race was marred by a record 16 caution flags, the last of which set up an eight-lap shootout between Starr and Musgrave. Starr jumped out quickly to a six-length lead and Musgrave could never challenge him down the stretch.

"They could have given me 100 restarts and I couldn't have caught Starr," said Musgrave after the race.

Starr will be in the No.10 Ford this time instead of a Toyota so he will have his work cut out for him. To date, Starr is tied for 23rd overall and his best finish is a 20th at Daytona.

"I have faith in Dennis (Connor - crew chief) and the guys and we'll get it figured out," said Starr after another disappointing finish in Atlanta (22nd). "If anything we are all trying too hard but I'll take that any day over a group that didn't care about what they were doing."

He will be hard pressed to stay up with points leader Skinner (550 points) or the other Toyota-powered cars that sit near the top of the standings. Defending champion Todd Bodine (481) is second in the No.30 Germain Toyota and is followed by Ron Hornaday Jr. (451) in a Chevrolet and the Toyotas of Sprague (449) and Musgrave (440).

Skinner has not won in Martinsville since 1996, but he has finished in the top-10 in the spring race the last three years. A third consecutive win would make him the only driver in series history to win three consecutive races on two separate occasions. He first accomplished the feat in 1996 with wins at Tucson, Denver and Topeka.

Martinsville is one of four tracks that has hosted the series in each season (also The Milwaukee Mile, O'Reilly Raceway Park and Phoenix International Raceway). In the 16 truck races held at Martinsville since 1995, only Dennis Setzer is a multiple winner having gotten to Victory Lane in 2002 and 2003.

INDYCARS

Honda GP of St. Petersburg - Streets of St. Petersburg - St. Petersburg, FL

The performance by Dan Wheldon and Target Chip Ganassi Racing last weekend at the Homestead-Miami Speedway was so good that all the other teams should be sweating profusely while preparing for this week's race.

Wheldon didn't just win the race, he demolished the competition. It was a "Michael Schumacher-like" effort. It began on Saturday when he beat Sam Hornish Jr. for the pole.

Then on Sunday he dominated the XM Satellite Radio Indy 300 as easily as Schumacher and Ferrari used to dominate Formula One. He didn't do anything spectacular, he was simply faster than the competition and over the entire 200 laps neither he nor his team made any "major" mistakes. True, he stalled his Dallara-Honda on pit road one time, but it took him just 14 laps to regain the race lead.

In all Wheldon led 179 of 200 laps and won by a whopping 6.4993 seconds. And that was his teammate he beat so badly. The closest competition outside the Ganassi Racing family was Sam Hornish Jr., who was more than 17 seconds back.

Now its on to the street course in St. Petersburg where Helio Castroneves is the defending Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg winner. It was one of the few races that Wheldon didn't do well in last year. His 16th-place finish, due to an accident on lap 57, was one of only two races where he finished outside the top-10.

Assuming that Target Chip Ganassi Racing's effort will not wane, the question now is how will Penske Racing and Andretti Green Racing improve to Ganassi's level?

Hornish Jr. was at least competitive throughout the race, but his teammate Castroneves was nowhere this weekend. He qualified seventh and for most of the race hovered in the bottom half of the top-10.

Of more concern was the performance, or lack of it, from AGR.

Tony Kanaan and Dario Franchitti were respectable, but the two youngsters Danica Patrick and Marco Andretti could not show any of their talents.

Andretti parked his car after just 53 laps with "mechanical" issues.

"I can't tell you what's wrong," said Andretti after stepping out of the car. "It was undriveable, I've never been so scared in my life in an IndyCar."

Patrick was a backmarker for most of the night until a brake problem sent her veering into the inside pit-road wall on lap 154.

Both Penske and AGR will need to step up their performances this Sunday before they fall too far behind what is, in week one at least, a Ganassi juggernaut.

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