Danica Patrick remains a big story wherever she races, but she’s still looking for a podium finish, let alone a victory in the IndyCar Series. Her new team could help her make history Sunday. Patrick became a household name after almost winning the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie in 2005 when she finished fourth. For the first time in history, a woman had a legitimate shot at winning the biggest open-wheel race in America. Almost everyone thought the day was coming soon when a woman would win a major racing event. Two years later, we’re still waiting. Patrick’s sophomore season didn’t live up to expectations for her or anyone else, so she signed with Andretti Green Racing knowing expectations would grow. The transition hasn’t been easy. Her best finish in the first four races this year is seventh at Kansas City last month. Patrick says she is learning there are many things she didn’t know and she’s learning there’s a reason, beyond money, why the top teams are better than the others. A lot of things have changed for Patrick. Now she’s with a top team in her third season and it’s time to win!!
Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch gave Penske Racing a grip on the front row for the Coca-Cola 600 and hope to end Penske’s drought at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. Newman won his 39th career pole Thursday with a lap at 185.312 mph. Busch, showing no ill effects after getting tangled up with brother Kyle Busch in a wreck during last weekend’s All-Star race, qualified second at 185.065. Roger Penske has won 14 Indianapolis 500s as a car owner, and Penske driver Helio Castroneves will be on the pole Sunday, but Penske has never won a race at Charlotte. Elliott Sadler qualified third, followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth. Denny Hamlin was sixth, followed by Ricky Rudd, Dave Blaney, Bobby Labonte and David Stremme, giving Dodge five of the top 10 qualifiers. With the race a 100 miles longer than any other NASCAR competition, the pole Sunday night has less significance. With 49 drivers entered, six missed the race. That included Michael Waltrip, who failed to qualify for his 11th straight race after wrecking during his second qualifying lap.
The annual Nextel All-Star Challenge has produced some exciting racing over the years, but calling it an all-star event is a bit of stretch. The 2007 race automatically includes Dale Jarrett, Casey Mears, Brian Vickers and Bobby Labonte, four guys who aren’t exactly all-star quality this season. Hey, Michael Waltrip actually won this thing once. Ouch! Sorry, Michael! And failing to guarantee a spot for Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards and Jamie McMurray, three drivers who would make the Chase if it started today, also misses the “all-star” concept. Eighteen drivers have a spot in the event this year based on a long list of criteria: winners from 2006 and 2007 (drivers or car if the driver changed teams), past Cup champions and past all-star winners over the past 10 years. The 1-2 finishers from the Nextel Open qualifying race (40 laps over two 20-lap segments) also make it. One lucky driver gets voted in by the fans, but he has to finish on the lead lap in the Open. Excuse me while I go take a couple of Tylenol (the official pain reliever of NASCAR) to deaden my headache from explaining all that mess. It’s easy to see why the casual fan doesn’t really understand how this thing works, but once you get past the constantly shifting and convoluted rules, the on-track action usually is a heck of a show.
The Nextel Cup season is starting to look a whole lot like the NBA. The San Antonio Spurs (Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and occasionally Kyle Busch) hang around the lead for three quarters while the Phoenix Suns (Denny Hamlin or Tony Stewart) look poised for victory. Then the Spurs (Gordon this week) take control in the fourth quarter to win like they seemingly always do. Meanwhile, the Washington Wizards (everybody else in the field) scratch their heads and wonder what it’s going to take to break up these teams while LeBron James (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) continues to sell more souvenirs than anybody in the league. Nice analogy, huh?
Gordon held off lap leader Denny Hamlin with steam literally spewing out from under his hood to win for the third time in the past four weeks and give Hendrick Motorsports its eighth win in the past nine races, including all five Car of Tomorrow events. Teammate Jimmy Johnson finished third, the seventh time HMS has had two cars in the top three. Earnhardt, NASCAR’s most popular driver, finished eighth to cap off a week in which he announced he would leave the company his father built to start the biggest free agent frenzy the sport has ever seen. Next week, NASCAR heads to the Lowes Motor Speedway for the NEXTEL All-Star Challenge featuring Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and 21 other drivers.
Clint Bowyer took care of one goal Friday with his first Nextel Cup pole. He hopes to accomplish an even bigger one Saturday night. Bowyer’s lap at 164.987 mph earned him the top starting position for the Dodge Avenger 500 at Darlington Raceway. Two-time defending race champion Greg Biffle was second at 164.878 mph, followed by Jamie McMurray and Carl Edwards. It also gave him a place in next winter’s Bud Shootout at Daytona International Speedway. His first Nextel Cup victory would put Bowyer in the NASCAR Nextel All-Star Challenge.