This Week in Auto Racing June 15 - June 17

This Week in Auto Racing June 15 - June 17

This Week in Auto Racing June 15 - June 17
June 12th, 2007

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Another big racing weekend headlined by Nextel Cup's race at MIS and Formula One's United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis.

NASCAR

Nextel Cup

Citizens Bank 400 - Michigan International Speedway - Brooklyn, MI

Sometimes, its just "your" year. For Jeff Gordon, 2007 seems as if everything is working out perfectly.

Gordon leads the Nextel Cup points standings by a whopping 242 points over Matt Kenseth and 247 over Denny Hamlin. But it's the way he has gotten there that indicates it a "special" year.

Not only has the No.24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet been good, but they have gotten every break in the books.

Two examples of their "racing luck" were at Darlington and last week in Pocono.

At Darlington, Gordon was running well, but with 35 laps to go his engine was blowing so much steam that he seemed destined to have an engine failure before the checkered flag. Somehow he didn't and he beat teammate Jimmie Johnson to the finish.

"I thought there is no way we're going to make it," said Gordon afterwards. "I've never seen gauges look like that and the engine make it to the end, that's a testament to Hendrick Motorsports and their engine department."

Last Sunday, Gordon and crew chief Steve Letarte made the right move at the right time. They stayed on the track out when everyone else pitted on lap 66. They pitted out of sequence on lap 83 and had enough fuel to go until lap 114 before they would need to pit again. The rains came on lap 105 and Gordon was a winner for the 79th time in his career.

Things are going so well for Gordon, I expect the birth of his first child, due around the time of the road-course event at Infineon, will be perfectly timed so that he will be able to race on the weekend.

"I have never appreciated things in life and my good fortune more than I am right now," Gordon said. "When you have that chemistry and positive energy surrounding you, I think good things happen. I don't think things happen because you're lucky. You put yourself in position to make things happen."

Even if Gordon misses one race when Ingrid gives birth, the four-time Nextel Cup champion will still be in control. He already owns four wins putting him in a tie with Johnson when the "Chase" gets underway. And with a 242-point lead he can miss a race and still come back as the points leader (maximum points earned in one race is 195).

With 14 races completed and 12 to go until the "Chase" begins, the race for the final spots in the playoffs couldn't be much closer.

Mark Martin currently holds down the 12th and final position, but he has consistently said he will not change his part-time schedule to make the "Chase." That makes Ryan Newman the "de facto" holder of the final spot.

Newman has been on a roll of late, winning three consecutive poles and finishing second at both Dover and Pocono. He is 685 points behind Gordon.

Behind Newman is Dale Earnhardt Jr. (-33) and Jamie McMurray (-77).

Drivers holding the ninth through 11 positions are also not a "lock" and will be points racing over these final dozen races. Kevin Harvick in ninth, is just 117 points ahead of "Junior." Kyle Busch and the suddenly formidable Martin Truex Jr. have even less of a hold on their "Chase" positions.

So the race for the "Chase" should be great summer fare. It starts this weekend on the high-speed two-mile Michigan International Speedway.

Don't miss it or you'll be sorry you did.

Busch

Meijer 300 - Kentucky Speedway - Sparta, KY

How do you build a 662-point lead in just 15 events? Ask Carl Edwards.

The driver of the No.60 Roush Fenway Ford has done it by winning four times and finishing in the top-five an incredible 11 times. It also helps that second-place Kevin Harvick, the defending series champion, has missed three races.

Harvick has competed well in the events he has run, winning once and collecting 10 top-10s, but he has not been the force he was in 2006.

Behind Edwards and Harvick are full-timers, Dave Blaney, David Reutimann and Regan Smith. But none of them has a win and Smith has the most top-10s of the trio with just five.

Last year's race in Kentucky saw the arrival of David Gilliland. His win over J.J. Yeley "announced" his arrival and directly led to his getting a full-time Nextel Cup ride with Robert Yates Racing.

Driving an un-sponsored car, Gilliland was fourth with 40 laps remaining. But Yeley was running away and hiding and his lead was 4.783 second with 29 laps to go. Two laps later it was more than five seconds and only the appearance of a caution flag could halt his march towards Victory Lane.

Meanwhile, Gilliland slipped past Denny Hamlin and Mike Wallace and the youngster found himself just one car away from his first Busch Series win. He was putting down the fastest times and slowly cutting into Yeley's huge five- second margin.

Sixteen laps remaining and the worst news Yeley could hear, a caution flag, came out.

Yeley, Gilliland and the remainder of the top-five stayed out and it was a horse race again. Gilliland made his move underneath Yeley with 10 laps to go, running his fastest lap of the race. Shortly after he completed the pass, a final caution flag left him with just six laps to hold the lead for his first win.

Yeley was faster through turns one and two, but Gilliland was quicker through three and four and he managed to maintain a three-length lead as they took the white flag. The final lap was a nervous one for his crew, but Gilliland had no problems as he took the checkered flag.

"It's a dream come true, I've waited my whole life for this," said Gilliland after the race.

Gilliland is still living the dream, driving in both the Nextel Cup Series and the Busch Series.

Craftsman

Michigan 200 - Michigan International Speedway - Brooklyn, MI

Last year, Johnny Benson produced in front of his hometown fans, edging Mark Martin by 0.112 seconds. The Grand Rapids, MI native went on to win another race the following week and a total of four times in a nine-week span to challenge Todd Bodine for the 2006 crown.

Benson will need another kick-start in 2007 as he is currently mired in eighth place, 417 points behind leader Mike Skinner.

"I am very excited about Michigan. It is my home track on the NASCAR side and it is a great place to race," Benson said on NASCAR.com. "This is where we turned things around last year and I am hoping to do it again. We have had some unfortunate luck the last few weeks, even though our truck has been incredibly fast."

Skinner has been on a roll since the season began. The No.5 Toyota Tundra driver has been winning poles and races at an incredible pace.

His streak of five consecutive pole wins was stopped last week when Bodine squeaked past him by just 0.081 seconds on Friday. Skinner owns a record 38 poles in 138 truck series starts, eight more than Jack Sprague. He also holds the series record of eight straight poles which he set in 1995.

But NASCAR doesn't reward points for poles, only race results and Skinner has been pretty good there too.

In nine events, Skinner's worst finish is an eighth-place result in Charlotte. He also earned three wins to build his championship lead. Skinner leads the series in points (1,543), winnings ($328,475), laps led (526), top-10s (9), and driver rating (123.9)

The lead is just 82 points because Ron Hornaday Jr. has also been on a roll lately. The driver of Kevin Harvick Inc.'s No.33 Chevrolet has eight top-10s in nine starts and has won two of the last four events.

Defending series champion Bodine grabbed the win last week at Texas and is third in the title chase, but 181 points back. It remains to be seen if he can get back into the race.

The event will mark Terry Cook's 250th truck start. He ranks No.3 all-time behind Rick Crawford and Sprague, each of whom has appeared in 256 races.

Qualifying is set for Saturday morning and the race will drop the green flag at 4 p.m. that afternoon.

FORMULA ONE

United States Grand Prix - Indianapolis Motor Speedway - Indianapolis, IN

Lewis Carl Hamilton was named after the great track and field athlete Carl Lewis. By the time Hamilton's career is completed, people will think it was the other way around.

Hamilton, in just his sixth event in the Formula One Series, is breaking records.

The British driver is the first rookie to ever lead the standings. He has done it with the ease, confidence and skill of a driver with many years of experience. In the six races, we have still yet to see the young 22-year-old make a mistake.

Through six events, and his worse finish is a third-place in his maiden voyage in Melbourne. He followed that up with four consecutive runner-up finishes before winning last week in Montreal.

In the Canadian GP he was virtually perfect. He won the pole, beat his McLaren Mercedes teammate Fernando Alonso to the first turn, and never was headed. Twice he built leads of more than 10 seconds and despite four appearances for the Safety Car, he cruised to the first of what likely will be many F1 wins.

His victory was the first for a black driver in Formula One, but he is much more than that. He is a great driver already and yet still humble enough to know he has a lot more to learn. That is a rare combination for an athlete these days.

"I am just privileged to be in Formula One," said Hamilton. "Ten years ago, I could not have imagined being here and now I am here with the best drivers in the world, it is amazing.

"I'm still a rookie. I am learning every day, every time I arrive at the track. The whole season I will feel like a rookie."

A rookie who holds an eight-point lead over the two-time World Champion.

Alonso seems stunned at how good his new teammate is and it may be affecting his driving. In Montreal, the normally unflappable Spaniard made a seemingly desperate move on the first turn of the first lap.

Starting alongside Hamilton, Alonso tried to go too deep into the first turn to get ahead of Hamilton. He ran through the turn, slid in front of Hamilton coming out of turn two and after regaining control settled in behind Nick Heidfeld in third place. It was the move a rookie would make, or a driver who feels threatened.

On lap 19 Alonso made another mistake in turn one allowing Felipe Massa to take over the third spot. Later, on lap 29 Alonso was penalized for pitting at the wrong time (he was out of fuel and had no choice) and would finish seventh.

"I think this was a strange race with the Safety Car being deployed so many times which worked to Lewis' advantage today and my disadvantage," said Alonso, who also added, "Whilst it was a difficult race for me I'm pleased for the team and Lewis that we were able to secure some important points and Lewis winning his first race."

It seemed to be a half-hearted congratulations, particularly when combined with these other comments:

"From the first moment, I wasn't completely comfortable," said Alonso on Spain's Cadena Ser radio. "I am in an English team, with an English teammate, who is doing brilliantly. We knew all the support and help would go his way. It is something I understand."

And these comments came just a couple of weeks after McLaren told Hamilton not to try and overtake Alonso at Monaco.

Now it's on to Indianapolis. Alonso has never won there while it will be the first try for Hamilton.

Ferrari has won this race five consecutive times and six out of the last seven, but that was all Michael Schumacher. Their lineup this year is Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa. The team was not really competitive in Montreal, Nick Heidfeld and Alex Wurz finished second and third while Raikkonen scored the team's only points for a fifth-place finish. Massa was disqualified for exiting pit lane during a red light.

But Indy has always been good to Ferrari and they will probably put up a big effort this week. Still, if Hamilton continues to be flawless, look for McLaren's first victory at Indianapolis since Alain Prost won in 1991.

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Re: This Week in Auto Racing June 15 - June 17

Auto racing glance
June 13, 2007


Site: Brooklyn, Mich.

Schedule: Friday, qualifying (Speed Channel, 3 p.m.); Sunday, race (TNT, 12:30 p.m.).

Track: Michigan International Speedway (D-shaped oval, 2 miles, 18-degree banking in turns).

Race distance: 400 miles, 200 laps.

Last race: With his brakes failing and rain falling, Jeff Gordon held off a charging Ryan Newman to win at Pocono Raceway and give Hendrick Motorsports its 10th win in the last 12 Nextel Cup races. The race was delayed three hours by rain, starting close to the time the race usually ends. Gordon won for the fourth time in the last seven races to go along with Victory Lane celebrations at Phoenix, Talladega and Darlington.

Last year: Kasey Kahne won from the pole again, helped this time by a timely caution flag and a downpour that ended the 3M Performance 400 at Michigan International Speedway 71 laps early.

Fast facts: Gordon and Jimmie Johnson both have a series-leading four victories this season. ... Newman is mired in a 59-race winless drought, but he does have back-to-back second-place finishes and five top-10 placings in his last six starts. ... Kurt Busch was docked 100 driver points Friday, fined $100,000 and placed on probation until the end of the year for reckless driving and endangering one of Tony Stewart's crew members on pit road. ... Jack Roush has nine career victories at Michigan, second all-time to the Wood Brothers (11). Roush racers Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle each have two wins at the track. .. Carl Edwards is expected to make his 100th career Cup start this weekend at the site of his first career victory (2004). ... Terry Labonte will come out of retirement long enough to replace team owner and driver Michael Waltrip behind the wheel for the two Cup road races this season. Labonte retired from Cup races near the end of last season, but Michael Waltrip Racing announced Tuesday he will drive the team's No. 55 Toyota Camry at Infineon Raceway on June 24 and at Watkins Glen on Aug. 12.

Next race: Toyota/Save Mart 350, June 24, Sonoma, Calif.


Site: Sparta, Ky.

Schedule: Saturday, qualifying (ESPN2, 5 p.m.), race (ESPN2, 8 p.m.).

Track: Kentucky Speedway (oval, 1.5 miles, 14-degree banking in turns).

Race distance: 300 miles, 200 laps.

Last race: Series leader Carl Edwards passed Matt Kenseth with 13 laps left and won the Dover 200 under caution for his third victory of the season. Denny Hamlin, the pole-sitter, finished second and Scott Wimmer was third.

Last year: David Gilliland became the first non-Nextel Cup driver to win a Busch race in 2006, passing J.J. Yeley with 10 laps to go and holding on to take the Meijer 300.

Fast facts: Edwards has 12 career Busch wins and 11 top-10 finishes this season. He's 472 points ahead of Kevin Harvick. ... There has never been a repeat winner or pole-sitter through the first six Busch events at Kentucky. ... Travis Kvapil was a late substitute last weekend for Jon Wood in the No. 47 Ford after Wood complained of headaches in Friday's practice. Kvapil finished 31st. Developmental driver Kelly Bires will replace Wood this weekend.

Next race: At&T 250, June 23, West Allis, Wis.


Site: Brooklyn, Mich.

Schedule: Saturday, qualifying, 11 a.m., race (Speed Channel, 2:30 p.m.).

Track: Michigan International Speedway (D-shaped oval, 2 miles, 18-degree banking in turns).

Race distance: 200 miles, 100 laps.

Last race: Todd Bodine beat Mike Skinner to the checkered flag again at Texas, holding on to win after another green-white-checker finish in the Sam's Town 400. Bodine edged Skinner by 0.188 seconds for his 11th victory in the series, the first since Bodine made a last-lap pass and beat Skinner by 0.116 seconds last June at Texas in the closet finish at the 1 1/2-mile track. They also finished 1-2 at Texas in November 2005.

Last year: Johnny Benson finally broke through with a victory in the truck series, holding off a challenge from Mark Martin in a two-lap overtime shootout at Michigan International Speedway. The race was scheduled to end on lap 100, but the late caution set up the dramatic two-lap, green-white-checker finish that began on lap 101. Martin did what he could, but Benson easily held off the No. 6 Ford F-150, winning by 0.112 seconds - about two truck lengths.

Fast facts: Skinner maintained an 82-point lead over Ron Hornaday in the standings, but had his streak of six consecutive poles snapped by Bodine last weekend. ... Terry Cook is expected to become the third driver in series history to compete in 250 career races this weekend. Rick Crawford and Jack Sprague share the record of 256 starts. ... Benson has four wins since his Michigan victory last year, but none this season.

Next race: Toyota Tundra Milwaukee 200, June 22, West Allis, Wis.


Site: Indianapolis

Schedule: Saturday, qualifying, (Speed Channel, 11 a.m.); Sunday, race (FOX, 1 p.m.).

Track: Indianapolis Motor Speedway (road course, 2.606 miles, 13 turns).

Race distance: 190.238 miles, 73 laps.

Last race: Rookie Lewis Hamilton won the Canadian Grand Prix, the first victory for a black driver in Formula One. In a race filled with caution flags, the 22-year-old Englishman won in his sixth F1 start and now has six consecutive top-three finishes to take the series points lead.

Last year: Michael Schumacher won the U.S. Grand Prix for the fifth time. Schumacher became the first driver in any series to win five races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Schumacher, who led 42 of the 73 laps, was followed across the finish line by Felipe Massa - 7.9 seconds later - for a 1-2 Ferrari finish. Fernando Alonso was never in contention and wound up fifth.

Fast facts: The 2005 event was marred when seven teams boycotted the race in a tire safety dispute. Schumacher won his first race of that season, two days after his brother Ralf crashed during a practice session while driving on the questionable Michelin tires. ... Alonso will try to rebound from a tough afternoon in Montreal. He made a mistake on the start when he drove off the course in Turn 1 and was later hit with a penalty for pitting too soon during one of the full-course cautions. He made two other off-course excursions before being passed two laps from the finish and finishing seventh. ... Robert Kubica was released from the hospital Monday, one day after a frightening crash at the Canadian Grand Prix left him with a slight concussion and sprained ankle. Kubica's car flew head-on into a wall during the 27th lap after coming into contact with Jarno Trulli's car. Kubica hopes to be behind the wheel this weekend.

Next race: French Grand Prix, July 1, Magny Cours

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Earnhardt feeling relief after big decision.
June 15, 2007

Relief.

That was the overwhelming emotion Dale Earnhardt Jr. felt after he decided earlier this week to join Hendrick Motorsports in 2008.

It was a tough few weeks for Junior after he announced in May that he would be leaving Dale Earnhardt Inc., the team founded by his late father, to seek a ride with a team that could help him win more races and the NASCAR Nextel Cup championship he covets.

This week, on his XM Satellite radio show, ``Dale Jr. Unrestricted,'' Earnhardt said, ``Everybody knew that my contract was coming up, and I had a hundred people in my ear telling me 'This is what you ought to do,' or 'Would you ever think about leaving (Dale Earnhardt Inc.), think about this.'' You know, I had a hundred different people telling me a hundred different things.''

He said one thing that made his decision easier was the way team owner Rick Hendrick treated the situation as Earnhardt agonized over which way to go.

``One of the things I think a lot of people would be surprised by - Rick said, 'Hey, I just want you to be happy. Whatever decision you make, I want to help you make it.'

``That stood out to me. I already knew that was the kind of guy he was, but he never once tried to persuade me, or tried to sell anything to me, or try to talk me into anything. He basically just left it up to me. He wanted me to make the choice that I wanted to make. And that meant a lot.''

Hendrick, a longtime family friend, has also been a longtime supporter of the younger Earnhardt.

``If I would have decided to do something with another owner, he would have helped me do it,'' Earnhardt said. ``He told me I will help you wherever I need to help you. I want you, as a person, to be happy.

``He's known me for so long and that's the kind of guy he is. It's rare, not so much in the sport, but it's rare today in this world, when you have people like that (who) really are genuine.''


OH, BABY: Jeff Gordon's wife, Ingrid, is expecting their first child, a daughter, the week after the road race at Sonoma, Calif., on June 24. But, since first babies rarely arrive when expected, the Hendrick team has a contingency plan.

Mark Martin would be the substitute driver in case Gordon is called away by the blessed event.

Of course, Gordon, a five-time Sonoma winner, the defending race champion and the current Cup points leader, would rather not miss the race. But, even if he does, chances are it would not hurt his chances of winning a fifth Nextel Cup title - especially with the current Chase for the championship format.

The top 12 drivers after the first 26 races are eligible to race for the title over the final 10 events of the season. This year, a new gimmick has the 12 drivers seeded, with each one getting an extra 10 points for each race victory at the start of the Chase.

Gordon and teammate Jimmie Johnson each have a series-leading four victories so far this season.

``I don't think Jeff wants to miss a race and I don't believe he'll need to,'' Johnson said. ``But in his position, it's a little easier for him to consider (skipping Sonoma).

``Yes, (the Chase format) does take some pressure off of you. From time to time we're not racing for the championship from week one on. You're racing for 12th for the first 26 and from then on you worry about the championship, so it is a little more forgiving.''


FUN OUTING: Longtime NASCAR star Mark Martin will try something different next month, making his Daytona Prototype debut in the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series in Newton, Iowa.

Driving a limited schedule in Nextel Cup this year, Martin has the time to try something new.

He will co-drive a Lexus Riley with Shane Lewis in the July 13 race under the lights at the new track designed by former NASCAR champion Rusty Wallace, who retired from racing at the end of 2005.

``I've heard good things about Iowa Speedway and know it's Rusty Wallace's pride and joy,'' Martin said. ``I'm looking forward to driving the Daytona Prototype for the first time and I'm also very excited to see and race at Iowa Speedway.

``Co-driving with Shane will be fun. I know he can get the job done; he will be a big asset in helping me get comfortable in the car during our test sessions. I love road racing and sports car racing. I just need to get used to the car, and with the help of (team owner) Steve Southard, I feel that won't take very long.''


STAT OF THE WEEK: Two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart is winless and frustrated after the first 14 races of 2007, although he is sixth in the season points.

But, while Stewart has 29 career wins, only four have come before the month of June. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver generally heats up when the weather gets hot.

Stewart has scored four wins in June, along with three second-place finishes, eight top-threes and 10 top-fives.

Typically for Stewart, he kick-started his 2005 run to the championship with a second-place finish at Michigan in June, followed the next week by a win - his first of that season - on the road course at Sonoma. Before he was through that season, he had five victories and finished the year with 19 top-10 finishes in the final 22 races.

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