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Brian Vickers and teammate Scott Speed make it a Team Red Bull front row for Saturday's Chicago 400

  Brian Vickers, NASCAR's next big star (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   JOLIET, Ill.
   Craig Rust, the new boss of the France family's Chicagoland Speedway, says he's reviewing everything here, since taking over the job less than a month ago, in a sudden shakeup of management at this nine-year-old track, just west of Chicago itself.
   And this night racing scenario – Saturday night's 400, and Thursday night's pole qualifying – could be one of the first things under review.
   Maybe 2,000 people were in the stands Thursday evening to watch Team Red Bull – Brian Vickers and Scott Speed – take the front row for the first race of the second half of the Sprint Cup season in this the nation's third-largest market.
   That was embarrassing enough, particularly coming just days after Daytona's Saturday night Coke 400 pulled in dismal TV ratings, off nearly 20 percent from last year.
   Saturday night racing, which has been an odd, and controversial, part of NASCAR racing for several years now, in what some see as a poor gambit for prime time TV, may be something whose time has finally gone from this sport. Saturday night is the weakest night of the week for TV ratings in general, and with summer weather here generally balmy 75 degrees in the afternoons in July, any advantage of night racing, at 60 degrees, seems iffy at best.
   But that's all for Rust to decide.
  For the moment Vickers and Speed, who crashed two weeks ago at Loudon – in a teammates not playing well together scenario – are on the front row for Saturday's 8 p.m. EDT (7 p.m. CDT) start, with Chevy's Jimmie Johnson right behind them, and Daytona's angriest young man, Kyle Busch, right behind them too.
  The story behind the story -- Team Red Bull, headed by Jay Frye, is trying to renew its Toyota contract or sign a contract with Chevrolet's Rick Hendrick. It's unclear which way the operation might go.
  Toyota has reportedly been disenchanted with Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz' reluctance to spend money on TV ads and marketing, preferring instead to spend money on extreme sports and let the sport itself carry the marketing.
  Whether GM's Chevrolet division, currently in bankruptcy, would be willing or even able to add the two-car operation to its already large stable is unclear. And if GM were to add these two teams, would it be at the expense of two other current GM Chevrolet NASCAR operations.
   The betting man would almost have to pick Busch, based on his high-strung driving style and his still very clear anger at Tony Stewart for the hard crash the final moments Saturday night at Daytona.
   However the Brian Vickers factor may be underrated. The kid from Thomasville, N.C., has been a comer for three years now, and he's been so close to make that big breakthrough for so long that it's almost inevitable.
   Ryan Pemberton, Vickers' crew chief, seems on track to make something happen, and it could be here.
   Vickers said "We unloaded a great package, but we were lacking a component, and that was drive-off (the corners).
   "Ryan got in the truck with engineers and really worked some stuff out on the simulator.  We decided to go a different direction to help the drive-off, and, man, they nailed it.
    "Absolutely I'm very frustrated to not be in victory lane.  Obviously sitting on poles was one of our goals; winning races was the other.
    "We've had the cars, during the race, to win, we just haven't had all the pieces come together. 
   "To win a NASCAR race is very difficult; it takes a lot of talent, almost zero mistakes through 400, 500 or 600 miles, and also some luck. 
     "There have been races this year we've lost with a car to win, due to our own mistakes -- whether it be on pit road, the driver, or engine.
    "Most of them we've lost due to someone else's mistakes or bad luck. 
    "We had a car to win at Charlotte, and a couple guys gambled, who didn't run well all day -- they stayed out (instead of pitting), and the rain came and they won."



   Brian Vickers listens to crew chief Ryan Pemberton (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


Toyota upset because

Toyota upset because Mateschitz prefers to let the sport itself carry the marketing? Among NASCAR's many problems is that it is hideously overmarketed - NASCAR this, NASCAR that, NASCAR this other product; "NASCAR, how bad have you got it?" is the dumbest marketing slogan in years, and seeing pop singers etc. mouthing that slogan did nothing for the sport. What they've done is they're marketing the brand instead of putting out the best possible competitive product.

So Mateschitz actually has a point - let the competitive product itself carry the marketing; make the product itself leave people wanting to buy it. That's how racing grew in the three decades before 2000, and for all of its own brand-badging of products, it's still how the NFL carries its marketing - the games are the marketing; people aren't mourning Steve McNair's death because of product placements, they're mourning because he was an excellent player and teammate.

As for Chevrolet and Mateschitz' racecars, if this team is added to Chevy's fleet, it will mark the end of any factory help for Ganassi and perhaps a further reduction for RCR - it is obvious in how poorly they are running (aside from Montoya's surprising points position, which speaks more of survival than muscle) that Ganassi and RCR are getting shortchanged as it is from GM. I'm increasingly of the view that neither Ganassi nor RCR will even be fielding racecars in four years.

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