This Week in Auto Racing May 11 - May 13

This Week in Auto Racing May 11 - May 13

This Week in Auto Racing May 11 - May 13
May 9th, 2007

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Its a very busy time on the track with NASCAR in full swing, IndyCars beginning their month-long stay at Indianapolis and Formula One returning to the track in Spain.

NASCAR

Nextel Cup

Dodge Avenger 500 - Darlington Raceway - Darlington, SC

Through 10 races and the season belongs to one team and in particular two of it's drivers - Nextel Cup Series points leader Jeff Gordon and 2006 Nextel Cup Champion Jimmie Johnson.

Gordon has put together a spectacular first 10 races and owns a 211-point lead over Johnson. Gordon's start, two wins and nine top-10s is one of the best starts since NASCAR went to the current points system in 1975. His 1691 points would put him just behind Cale Yarborough's 1977 season when the Hall-of-Fame driver posted five wins and nine top-10s. Yarborough's season would equate to 1775 points by today's scoring standards (he earned 1725 points in 1977).

All that being said, if the "Chase for the Nextel Cup" were to begin today, Gordon would not be the series leader. Johnson's four wins would move the No.48 Lowe's Chevrolet driver to the head of the class. He would begin the "Chase" with 20 more points than Gordon. His four wins and seven top-10s puts him in second place at the moment.

Together Gordon and Johnson have six wins and 16 top-10s for owner Rick Hendrick and Hendrick Motorsports. But they are not the only drivers for Hendrick Motorsports. A third driver, Kyle Busch, stands sixth overall and has also made a trip to Victory Lane (Bristol). The No.5 Chevy driver adds six more top-10s to the Hendrick Motorsports total. The fourth and weakest member of the Hendrick Motorsports family, Casey Mears, adds one more top-10 to the grand total of 23 top-10s.

Hendrick Motorsports also supplies engines to other Chevrolet teams who have accumulated a number of top-10s.

Hendrick Motorsports also raced well at Darlington in 2006, so trying to catch them this week might be problematic. In last year's spring Darlington race, won by Greg Biffle, Gordon, Johnson and Busch finished second, fourth and seventh, respectively.

While the Hendrick Motorsports team has been running on "all cylinders," Biffle and Roush Fenway Racing have been struggling, at least by Jack Roush standards. Matt Kenseth has been solid, sitting third overall, but the team has no other drivers in the top-10. This is the same team that placed five drivers in the "Chase" just a couple of years ago.

In that season (2005), Biffle finished second overall and in a tie with first- year teammate Carl Edwards. Edwards, looking like a hottest thing in NASCAR two years ago, sits 11th overall, but has no wins and just two top-10s. Other Roush drivers Jamie McMurray, David Ragan and Biffle all sit outside looking in at the "Chase."

With the regular season nearing its halfway point its time for Roush Racing to step up and be counted. For that matter the same can be said for every team except Hendrick, Joe Gibbs Racing and Richard Childress Racing.

The JGR team has done everything right except win. Stewart has been very strong for most of the season, but some mechanical failures and some bad luck have left him winless. Still, "Smoke" is in position to make the "Chase" and fight for a third title. But Stewart wants more than just be in contention, he wants to win races and his bad "racing luck" has him struggling to keep his cool at times resulting in trouble with other drivers and NASCAR officials. Stewart's teammate, Denny Hamlin, has also looked very good and despite his failure to win sits fourth in the championship and appearing to be a championship contender.

RCR has also been solid with drivers Kevin Harvick (2007 Daytona 500 winner), Jeff Burton (one win) and Clint Bowyer.

As the season nears the Nextel Cup All-Star Challenge, its traditional mid- season celebration, someone better find out how to compete on a weekly basis with Hendrick Motorsports otherwise its going to be a very long season for a lot of teams and their loyal fans.

Busch

Diamond Hill Plywood 200 - Darlington Raceway - Darlington, SC

While there have been seven different winners in the series, there is no championship race at this points. Through 11 events, Carl Edwards holds a stunning 402-point lead over last year's record-setting winner Kevin Harvick. He has an even bigger lead over the first full-time Busch Series competitor - Dave Blaney. His margin there is 510 points and climbing.

Blaney is the one Toyota-powered driver who has made it work at this level. He has four top-10s to help him secure his third place in the standings.

Edwards figures to post a solid result this week where he finished eighth last year behind winner Denny Hamlin. Last year's race was dominated by "Buschwhackers" who collected the top nine positions.

Hamlin came out in first courtesy of a quick pit stop by his Joe Gibbs Racing crew on lap 115. He was followed by Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray, Greg Biffle and Mark Martin. Hamlin still led the field to the restart with 27 laps to go, but a Reed Sorenson spin out one lap later led to three cautions in a row. Some big names were part of the interruptions included those of: Edwards, Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman. As Hamlin maintained or expanded his margin slightly on the restart, one last caution flag flew with seven laps to go for a crash between brothers Tim and Jay Sauter.

When things finally got back under way there were just two laps to go and Hamlin pulled away from Kenseth. Hamlin comfortably crossed the finish line followed by Kenseth, McMurray, Martin and Biffle in a single-file line.

Darlington is a hard enough track to race on, but when Nextel Cup drivers compete against the younger, less experienced Busch Series drivers, the results are usually like we saw last year with the veteran drivers in complete control. Expect another year of the same.

INDYCARS

Indianapolis Pole Day - Indianapolis Motor Speedway - Indianapolis, IN

It may be the biggest IndyCar race of the season, even the biggest race of any kind this year, but the Indianapolis 500 will be dominated by the same drivers who have been in control all season.

Penske Racing will put Helio Castroneves and defending champion Sam Hornish Jr. in position to win. Target Chip Ganassi Racing will have Dan Wheldon and Scott Dixon vying with the two Penske drivers for the win. And Michael Andretti will have Andretti Green Racing working as hard as possible to stay close to the two super teams.

The first step in winning the 2007 Indianapolis 500 is pole qualifying. The pole will be determined on Saturday although qualifying will continue for three more sessions.

Qualifying doesn't always equate to winning, but putting up a good performance under the pressure of the four-lap format and in front of millions of fans does announce one's intention to be a factor in the race.

In 2006, Hornish Jr. won the pole and the race. It was his first win and Roger Penske's 14th Indy 500 victory, but it wasn't an easy one.

Dan Wheldon was the early leader and seemed in control of the race. Under a record-setting 96-degree sun, Wheldon held leads as big as 13 seconds through 50 laps. At the mid-point of the 200-lap event, Wheldon's lead had slimmed to under one second, but he was still the man to beat. Wheldon's Target Chip Ganassi teammate Scott Dixon took the lead on lap 125 and Hornish Jr.. also made a move around Wheldon. Dixon slid back as both Hornish Jr. and Wheldon retook the top spots a few laps later.

Green-flag pit stops beginning on lap 146 set up a dramatic finish. On Hornish Jr.'s pit stop, he pulled away from the fuel man before the fuel nozzle was fully removed breaking the fuel line. The lengthy stop left him in seventh place. Worse, IndyCar officials penalized him with a "drive-thru" penalty for leaving his pit box.

The penalty would take away almost any chance for Hornish Jr. and owner Penske to win the race. He had just one hope, to refuel just before the race restarted and go to the checkered flag without stopping again.

Wheldon resumed his race leadership as the field went back to green on lap 162. with teammate Dixon just behind but both would have to make one more stop. When everything got sorted out, Michael Andretti was the race leader with Dixon, Hornish Jr. and Wheldon just behind.

The green flag dropped with four laps to go. Michael Andretti led into the first corner, but his son Marco swooped past him on the outside for the lead. Hornish Jr. also got past Michael Andretti and on lap 198 took a shot in turn three for the lead. But Marco got to the corner first and Hornish Jr. fell back about six lengths.

"I thought that it was over when I didn't get by him in (turn) three," said Hornish Jr.

The two-time IndyCar Series champion gathered up his Penske Honda and made one last effort. He closed onto Marco Andretti bumper as they entered the final two turns. Marco was still ahead as they came out of turn four and could see the finish line and the last "yard of bricks."

Hornish Jr. made one last move on the inside and got alongside Marco Andretti as they neared the checkered flag. Hornish Jr. edged Marco to the finish line and earned his first Indy 500 victory.

The fun begins this Saturday with pole qualifying.

FORMULA ONE


Spanish Grand Prix - Circuit de Catalunya - Barcelona, Spain

After an extended break, the Formula One Series returns to action this weekend with the first of the European races at the Circuit de Catalunya for the Spanish Grand Prix.

When we last left the track, Felipe Massa was winning and dominating the Bahrain GP. He started on the pole and won by 2.3 seconds over Lewis Hamilton. Kimi Raikkonen finished third and Fernando Alonso fifth to throw the championship into complete chaos. Through three events, the championship lead is a three-way tie between two-time World Champion Alonso, Raikkonen and rookie Hamilton. Add in Massa just five points behind and the race is more wide open than it has been since before the "Michael Schumacher era" began.

Now its on to the Spanish Grand Prix where Alonso will be both the hometown fan favorite, the defending champion and the betting favorite. The Spaniard delighted the fans in 2006 winning easily by 18.503 seconds en route to his first win in front of the home fans.

Alonso set a torrid early pace in his Renault and after a dozen laps held more than 10 seconds over Schumacher. After a round of green-flag pit stops, Alonso was still the pace setter. Alonso made his final pit stop on lap 40 leaving Schumacher with a 10 second lead, nice, but not nearly enough to keep him in the lead after his final stop.

The German came in on lap 46 giving the lead back to Alonso and sending a roar throughout the stands as they realized the dream of a Spaniard winning the Spanish Grand Prix was within sight. Alonso continued to click off laps in the one minute, 17-second bracket, better than Schumacher could muster. Only a mechanical failure or a huge mistake would halt Alonso. His margin was 15.7 seconds with 10 laps remaining. With no mistakes by Alonso, the final 10 laps were a celebration for Alonso and his fans as he took the checkered flag well in front of his rival.

"The race in Bahrain was not great for me," the 25-year-old Alonso said, "But we had a strong test at this track earlier this week and we got to understand how the car performs at the Circuit de Catalunya and the changes to the layout."

That's bad news for the competition because a motivated Alonso, in his new McLaren, is tough to beat.

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