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Kevin Harvick says he's still scratching his head over Kyle Busch's handshake...and what to make of this $3M Sprint Showdown?

 NASCAR's big guns, reviewing the state of the sport. Brian France (R), Mike Helton (C), and Steve Phelps (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern


   Richard Petty's two drivers, Marcos Ambrose and AJ Allmendinger, led the day by hooking up in a 199.411 mph two-car draft during Thursday evening's rain-delayed practice session for Saturday night's Coke Zero 400.
   And Roger Penske's two-some, Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski, weren't far behind.
   Heavy rain washed the track much of the day, but NASCAR managed to get in 45 minutes of Nationwide practice and 45 minutes of Sprint Cup practice.
   Teams used the brief time to work on the two-car drafting that has become the hot ticket here on the smooth new asphalt, particularly the tricky part of swapping spots. Drivers' teammates were pretty much proforma: such as Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson.
   However drivers have radio frequencies of a dozen or so other drivers on their dash, if they need to find another drafting partner.
   Fords, as in February, looked strong; the new FR9 engine has superlative cooling, which helps in these drafts, where the trailing car gets little cooling air.
   Among the notable aspects of Thursday's Cup drafting -- all four Richard Childress cars working smoothly together.
   Danica Patrick and the rest of the Nationwide field are to qualify at 2:10 p.m. ET Friday, and Cup teams are to qualify at 4:10 p.m. Earnhardt Jr. was on the Daytona 500 pole in February.

   Remember that handshake post-race at Sonoma Sunday, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick, so hot at each other lately?
   Well, apparently it was a move – good PR – by Busch to try to defuse the situation.
   Unfortunately, though Harvick seemingly isn't biting.

   So, uh, Kevin, shaking hands, and you're both 'good to go' now?
   "I wouldn't call it good to go on that," Harvick said here Thursday. "I mean we raced together for a lap and a half.
   "I was as confused about all that as everybody else."
   Still, Busch made the move. And the picture was intriguing.

    Meanwhile Kurt Busch confirmed that there has been a big reason why his wife Eva hasn't been at the track lately. They're getting a divorce.
    The NASCAR media usually doesn't get that involved in a driver's personal life; the Michael Waltrip and Buffy Waltrip situation wasn't discussed really until Michael wrote about it in his book.
   Busch indicated he was upset with some of the media for raising the issue, even though at Sonoma last weekend he was clearly hanging with someone new:
   "There's been a lot going on behind the scenes. 
    "Obviously when you win, people want to take you down, and that's happened this week. I've got some notes and things that I've put together… and all I really want to say about that is that drivers sometimes have a beef with certain media members or different ones of the print or broadcast media.  Things are reported, generally speaking….
    "The majority of our journalists are hard-working, responsible individuals, who, like us, are trying to do their jobs the best way that they can.  I appreciate that. 
     "I also appreciate the fact until now the media has been extremely professional in respect to my personal situation with Eva. 
     "And although all those in the NASCAR community have been aware for some time now that we're no longer together, and that we are legally separated…
     "It's been tough. 
     "The upcoming weeks we'll work toward formally terminating our marriage. 
     "We do so with the most respect for one another, and we'll always be friends.
      "There are things going on at the personal level…There are things personal with the team that's been well documented. 
      "Performance on the track is always the best antidote for putting all that aside. 
      "I think the way we've handled the situation…we're really good at respecting one another.  I'm happy that I'm an athlete in a sport that really cares about writing about our sport versus writing about our personal lives. 
     "The other sports get into the professionals' lives in a very personal way. And I'm glad I'm in the NASCAR world to work with you guys and to respect that as well."



Kurt Busch and new friend Patricia Driscoll, at Sonoma
(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

NASCAR is three races into the six-race part of the season with TNT's coverage. And the cable network reports the three races have averaged a bit over five million viewers each, up seven percent over last season's six events. The average TNT rating this summer has been 3.1, with the Sonoma race Sunday scoring a 3.2; that's up a sizeable 17 percent from last year. TNT reports 5.2 million viewers.

    In the wake of some bad news hitting the sport the past two weeks, losing sponsorships, NASCAR held an informal meeting with some of the media here Thursday, with Steve Phelps and Brett Jewkes condensing the lengthy presentation they've been giving to various NASCAR teams.
   Generally Phelps and Jewkes said that lengthy surveys have shown that newcomers to the sport are not necessarily leaving the track with a highly positive impressive, and that those new fans may need some help in better understanding the sport. They also pointed to long-range plans to attract younger fans.
    The 18-34 male demographic has been targeted by both TV and sponsors as crucial, and NASCAR, after losing some of that demographic in 2010, has stepped up its marketing to that demo this season, with better results.
   Denny Hamlin:  "We've been a part of the same meetings. I think everybody has the same goal in mind….
    "Things change. Perspective of younger audiences change. Everybody wants that 18-34 demographic.
   "You want to keep the current fans and the old school fans happy too.
    "It is a fine balance. It is hard to juggle all the pieces and figure out how it works.
    "There are just a lot of things that have changed….
    "There is no way, as a sport, that we can have the same strategy we have had for 50 or 60 years. It is just not going to work.
    "They (NASCAR) are doing a lot of work to try and make it better.
     "And that is really all you can ask for-- to have everybody pulling the same direction.
     "They have been very open as to what they want to do. If it doesn't work, it's not from a lack of effort."


Remember the old Winston Million?
    The guy who won three of the 'Big Four' NASCAR Cup events in a single season would make $1 million.
    Bill Elliott did it in 1985.
    Now it looks like Sprint and NASCAR might be planning a similar promotion, to help bolster TV ratings and fight off the late-summer blahs.
    According to reports the promotion would be dubbed 'The Sprint Summer Showdown,' and it would pay the winning driver $1 million.
    To win the money a driver would have to win either Indy's Brickyard 400, the August Pocono race, Watkins Glen, Michigan's August race, or the Bristol night race – and then also win the Labor Day weekend Atlanta race. That means those five (or fewer) race winners would be battling each other for the $1 million at Atlanta.
    Looking at the political side of such a promotion: Indianapolis and Pocono are each independently owned, Watkins Glena and Michigan are owned by the France family's International Speedway Corp., and Bristol and Atlanta are owned by Bruton Smith.
   Clearly the promotion would be a major boost for Smith and the Atlanta track. Atlanta was cut from two Cup races to one this season because of attendance issues.
   The late July-August stretch of the long NASCAR schedule is typically sluggish. The last few years it's been part of 'the race to the chase,' meaning it includes the last few races that lead up to the Sept. 10 playoff cutoff event at Richmond. The top 10 drivers in points coming out of Richmond will make the playoffs, plus the top two others who have won a race and are also in the top-20 in points. How much drama that new points system may actually generate during that stretch of the season is unclear.

    Kentucky Speedway says it has sold out the 107,000 grandstand tickets for the July 9th 400, the first Sprint Cup event at the Cincinnati area track.       
    However infield and 'standing room' tickets are still available.

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