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Another Feather-Foot 400? And, man, Indy in the summer is darned hot: may be time to change things up here

  Carl Edwards: Will he stay or will he go? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   Hey, let's run this race at night under the lights.
   On Labor Day weekend, Sunday night, next season -- as the kickoff event for the championship playoffs.  
   Man, it's hot here, and it's going to be hot all weekend, right up through Sunday afternoon's Brickyard 400

   The hottest story here:
   First, everyone is awaiting some official word from Carl Edwards, the Sprint Cup tour's points leader, about his 2012 plans.
   Intense speculation has him leaving Jack Roush's Ford camp and moving to Joe Gibbs' Toyota operation, to run a Home Depot sponsored car, with a contract – to hear tell about it -- that could be the biggest, richest sponsorship in NASCAR history. Edwards hasn't said anything on the record except to ask people to "respect" his "privacy" in the negotiations.
   At one point a few days ago, it was looking like Edwards might well have something to announce here, one way or the other.
   Now though there is speculation he may not want to say anything until the championship playoffs kick off in early September.
   The uncertainty, or lack of clarity, will hang over Edwards and the Roush operation until something definitive is announced.
   Soooo…..let's look at Sunday's 400 itself.

  Juan Pablo Montoya certainly knows all the fast ways around Indianapolis Motor Speedway....but Jimmie Johnson says he's tired of Montoya pushing him around: 'He's out of Mulligans.' (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   If two cars are better than one, and two cars are better than three-or-more, in a draft on a fast, smooth track….well, Indianapolis Motor Speedway is smooth and fast.
    And, though certainly not as high-banked as now-smooth Daytona, could this place be ripe for some more of that 'tandem-drafting' seen this season?
   We can only hope for something out of the ordinary in this summer's Brickyard, which has over the past few years become one of the most boring races on the NASCAR tour.
   Track position.
   Gas mileage.
   Pit road speeding penalties…..
   Maybe, with so many star crew chiefs getting axed over the past two weeks, pit strategy won't be quite so pro forma in Sunday's 400.
   Then again, if these Goodyears are as durable as the ones used around the stock car tour this season…well, gas mileage is gas mileage and the better the better.
    More feather-foot racing?
   Great, that's all this sport needs, another gas mileage race. It seems like just about every race since Charlotte in May (remember all those guys running out of gas in the final miles) has been a gas mileage race.
    Oh, for those golden days of lead-foot action, donuts on doors.
    But it hasn't been like that here in years, if ever.

   Indy: hallowed ground... but NASCAR racing has been rather boring here lately (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    And how in the world ESPN, now taking over the tour for its half of the season, will find drama here….well, Allen Bestwick, the network's new point man, may have his work cut out.
    While reflecting on those days of yore, remember when ESPN was a spunky up-and-comer in the TV world, trying to make a name for itself?
    Now ESPN has become a giant, bloated sports machine, with more announcers and egos than any three sports really need, and way too much money to throw at these things. And whose crazy idea was it to make all those guys dress up in suits-and-ties anyway? Someone who's never been to North Wilkesboro Speedway, for sure. (Richard Petty recalls the day at that legendary track when drivers had to drive around some fans who had, in a fit of fighting, spilled onto the track. Or so the legend goes….)
    But that part of the ESPN story, that's for another day.
    ESPN men and women (tip of the hat to Nicole Briscoe for breaking the 'blonde' mode) have been warming up for these final 17 Cup races of the season by working the Nationwide series since February, so they should hit the ground running here
    However…..to be blunt, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, as hallowed racing ground as it is, simply doesn't do justice to this branch of the sport.
    Flat, 90-degree corners…maybe NASCAR should allow crew chiefs some leeway in the cars they bring here.
    Shifting perhaps?
    Hey, it can work at Pocono, which once was considered a good test for this track, and a good indicator of what to expect here.
    Anything to shake up things at this place.


   Has marriage mellowed Kyle Busch? You be the judge (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

      And what to expect here?

   -- Kyle Busch of course. The best pure driver in the sport right now.
   -- Jimmie Johnson is an easy pick. He's won three of the last five Brickyards. And Johnson did a yeoman's job in pulling out a fifth at Loudon, on a very ragged day: "I was just driving my guts out, man. Anything that could have gone wrong did.
   "It started out with a bad qualifying effort on Friday, and we paid the price for that on pit road and in track position at the start.
   "Then we had some issues on pit road.  
   "And then Juan Pablo Montoya -- I don't think the three times he's wrecked me it's been intentional, but he's out of Mulligans. I've had enough of 'Oh, I'm sorry, and you're spun out.' It's happened way too often."
   To those who griped about how hard it is to pass cars at New Hampshire, note that Johnson got that fifth the hard way, by actually passing cars.
   Something to be considered here.

    -- Teammate Jeff Gordon is a four-time winner. But he's been way too erratic this season. Is it Gordon or crew chief Alan Gustafson?
    -- Denny Hamlin has had locks on Pocono and Michigan, two tracks that should be good indicators. But Hamlin too has had more bad days than good. Just getting back on line to make a championship run should be his game plan.

    -- Some might consider Montoya a good pick, recalling his brilliant 2009 run (until foiled by that pit road speeding penalty). But team owner Chip Ganassi just axed veteran crew chief Brian Pattie, which makes Montoya here an iffy call.

    -- And it's Indy, which means keep an eye on Roger Penske's guys. That's Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski, and they've both been hot and fast since Busch's Richmond blowup in May. Kurt Busch is doing some of the best work of his career; Keselowski, who won at Kansas City, has become perhaps the sport's most outgoing and engaging personality this season, though it's only his second full-time.

   -- Last summer's winner Jamie McMurray? Been a tough season for him so far, and it probably won't change here.

   -- Kevin Harvick, winner here in 2009 and a three-time winner this season already, is a big game player. 
   But something just doesn't seem quite right at the moment in the Richard Childress camp. Childress just fired Jeff Burton's crew chief Todd Berrier; Clint Bowyer hasn't done as well as expected this season, and that anticipated 'revenge' performance at Loudon (for last fall's controversy) never caught fire. Paul Menard, on the other hand, may be due a breakthrough; he and crew chief Slugger Labbe have been lurking in the shadows much of the season. And if Labbe makes the right calls…..



  Wonder if Tony Stewart will again climb the fence at Indy if he again wins the Brickyard 400? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   -- However, there's the sense that this 400 might be Tony Stewart's.
   Goodness knows, he's due.
   He lives right down the road. He's loved Indianapolis for years, since his own Indy-car days. He's won here twice. And you go interview him post-race after a Brickyard loss….and be prepared to duck.
   All those details about why Stewart axed veteran competition director Bobby Hutchens out of the clear blue last month, in a blindside move, have yet to come out, and Hutchens himself is still missing in action somewhere. Stewart himself snaps when asked when he'll sign a new competition director. Have the team's problems been a Hutchens issue, a Stewart issue, a sponsorship issue, a Hendrick engineering issue? All good questions.
    But last time out, at New Hampshire, Stewart and teammate Ryan Newman were the class of the field, qualified on the front row and finished one-two, Newman winning….albeit in a gas mileage finish.
    And that track has flat, tight corners too….
    So if Kyle Busch and crew chief Dave Rogers bring another 'bad' car to the track, like they apparently did at Loudon, N.H., maybe Stewart can have another field day. Was it that 'bad' car that pushed Busch to overdrive and blow the right front? Another good question.
   Stewart, as he showed at Sonoma a few weeks ago, is getting feisty again. After the New Hampshire 301, Smoke was griping about a newcomer: "I'm wondering how long Andy Lally is going to take before he starts figuring this stuff out and getting the hell out of the way. We'll move him out of the way…we proved that."
    Whoa! When you see Tony coming, better get a good grip.
    With Newman's reputation as Mr. Friday, the Stewart-Newman package here should be easily measured in qualifying….which doesn't come until 2:10 p.m. Saturday afternoon for some reason. (Not to throw the track promoters under the bus, but the Cup weekend here the past several years has been somewhat suspect in fan appeal.)
     Note: 14 different pole winners in the 17 400s, though only two have gone on to win the 400 too.
     Between now and Saturday?
     Rock 'n roll, baby!
     Yes, it's looking like NASCAR weekends are becoming major concert events. Maybe a good promotional move, but still curious.
     First, the de rigueur hauler parade (though after you've seen the Vegas parade, all the rest pale), Thursday evening.
     To liven this one up, the Speedway is adding five hours of live bands, The Toy Factory, KJ, and the Jester Kings.
    And crew chief Chad Knaus will be hosting live pit crew tryouts, to pick the men going over the wall for Jimmie Johnson here Sunday.
    No, that's just a joke….though Johnson himself probably doesn't find it amusing. Johnson wasn't amused with his pit work at New Hampshire, and hopes things are better here, on this very tight and treacherous pit road.

   ESPN's Nicole Brisco: Centerstage for NASCAR's second half. Is she a heavyweight? (Photo: ESPN)




    Some idle musings, on a hot, muggy Indiana afternoon:

  -- NASCAR's Nationwide series continues to be little more than Sprint Cup Lite.
   Carl Edwards won the Nashville stand-alone event last weekend….that's Carl Edwards like the Carl Edwards atop the Sprint Cup standings.
   With Cup stars dominating the sport's Triple-A series, how are newcomers supposed to develop and be developed?
   Not to mention the economics of it all, with Cup teams footing the bills.
   NASCAR execs have been mulling over the Nationwide image problem for at least six years now, with little to show for the pondering. They dropped Mexico City; and NASCAR's Montreal game plan is still suspect.
   Here's an idea:
   Rebadge the Nationwide tour aimed directly at 18-29 year-olds. No one over 30 in the fields. 
   Insist Detroit use muscle-car templates. Mustang, Camaro, Charger….
   Use hard targeted ads and marketing.
   And, taking a page from the Bowman Gray Stadium playbook, pump up crowds with free tickets for women once a month or so. If a 'Girls Free Saturday' promotion doesn't draw a crowd.....

  -- With the rush to repave tracks by the France family's International Speedway Corp., why not California's Auto Club Speedway too?
   Its 14-degree banking has created some of the most boring, single-file racing on the stock car tour.
   The track is a copy of the two-mile Michigan track, which is banked a perfect 18 degrees, and the two-mile Texas World Speedway track, which is banked an awesome 22 degrees.
   California's 14-degree corners were apparently designed to make for good Indy-car racing. And who won this year's Indy-car race there? Oh, that's right, there wasn't one.
   The best Indy-car racing, in fact, is at Texas Motor Speedway -- a 1-1/2-mile track banked 24 degrees in the corners.
   Is anybody down in NASCAR headquarters paying attention?
   If NASCAR is interested in making a go of it in the Los Angeles market (which some may well be asking, after the sanctioning body made the very odd decision to drop one of the two Cup weekends in the country's second-largest market), somebody in Daytona needs to be making something happen.
    By getting up off the billfold and changing the banking of that Los Angeles track and giving California fans some real action out there.
    And then put that second Cup weekend back on the calendar.

   -- OBTW: If NASCAR officials are so gung-ho about their 'diversity' programs, why hasn't the President of the United States been invited to a major NASCAR event?


  There's more to winning the Brickyard than just kissing the bricks, as Tony Stewart explains to Ms Sprint Cup (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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