Chip Ganassi (L) has an Indy ace in Juan Pablo Montoya (R). Can they avenge last summer's bitter loss? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
THE NASCAR NOTEBOOK
Earl Brooks, one of NASCAR's 'good guy' drivers back in the days when independent owner-drivers dominated stock car racing and when the sport was a heck of a lot more fun and laid back, has died at 80.
The Lynchburg, Va., driver, who ran in 262 Cup races from 1962 through 1977, when the sport's top series was known as Grand National, was a solid journeyman driver, and perhaps best remembered for helping Wendell Scott on the tour during the racially turbulent 1960s.
Just what to make of NASCAR-on-TV has become almost a cottage industry the last few years, first with the sudden surge in national popularity, then with the unexpected drop in ratings the past two seasons.
And what to make of NASCAR's Nationwide series on TV is also problematic: the sport's AAA tour records consistent ratings of slightly over 1.0 each week of the season, regardless of Danica or no-Danica.
Saturday night's wild finish at St. Louis' Gateway track followed that script...but let's see what the ratings are for this Saturday night's Edwards-Keselowski encore show at ORP, just up the road from Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
ESPN2 reports its telecast of the St. Louis race pulled a final national household coverage rating of 1.3 -- an increase of 18 percent over the 1.1 rating for last year's event. ESPN says that means an average of 1,832,107 viewers watched the Carl Edwards-Brad Keselowski battle.
A footnote perhaps to Edwards' latest controversy: he will now be a weekly regular on ESPN's post-race coverage on SportsCenter.
Wednesday Night Thunder?
While NASCAR has Fox and ABC/ESPN and Turner-TNT carrying its premier races, the Indy Racing League – still struggling to regain national high profile -- is only on cable newcomer Versus.
Versus, perhaps best known for its month-long July coverage of the Tour de France and Lance Armstrong and the current Alberto Contador-vs-Andy Scheck duel for the biking crown, bills itself as 'the fastest growing sports cable network.'
And Versus is now picking up NASCAR's Modified tour, in a nine-race series of broadcasts beginning with the July 31st event at Riverhead (NY) Raceway, which will be taped for broadcast Aug. 4th.
The weekly Modified events will be carried at 7 pm on Wednesdays, an interesting twist.
Credit NASCAR's George Silbermann for helping put the deal together. Silbermann is in charge of reshaping and rebuilding NASCAR's grassroots operations.
Also on TV tap: the Aug. 7th Bowman Gray Stadium race, to be broadcast Aug. 18th.
Versus last fall carried a weekly 30-minute series on the Sprint Cup playoffs.
This fall Versus will launch a weekly series on some of NASCAR up-and-coming drivers.
VERSUS NASCAR Modified Schedule
Venue Race Date TV Date (&Re-Air Date)
Riverhead Raceway July 31 Aug. 4, 7 pm Aug. 8, 11 pm
Stafford Motor Speedway Aug. 6 Aug. 11, 7 pm Aug. 15, 11 pm
Bowman Gray Stadium Aug. 7 Aug. 18, 7 pm Aug. 22, 11 pm
Thompson International Speedway Aug. 12 Aug. 25, 7 pm Aug. 29, 12 am
Caraway Speedway Aug. 28 Sept. 1, 7 pm Sept. 5, 11 pm
Langley Speedway Sept. 4 Sept. 8, 7 pm Sept. 12, 11 pm
Tri-County Motor Speedway Sept. 15 Sept. 29, 7 pm Oct. 3, 11 pm
Stafford Motor Speedway Oct. 3 Oct. 6, 7 pm Oct. 10, 11 pm
Thompson International Speedway Oct. 17 Oct. 20, 7 pm Oct. 24, 11 pm
Wednesday Night Thunder! Madhouse Racing on Versus (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Teammate Jimmie Johnson isn't the only four-time on Rick Hendrick's roster. And Jeff Gordon, looking for his fifth Brickyard 400 win here Sunday, should be a good pick in Sunday's feature.
Gordon, then taking advantage of that late flat tire that doomed Ernie Irvan, won the first Brickyard 400 here, what seems now ages ago, 1994.
Gordon has been strong this season but still winless in over a year.
"But look where we're at in the points," Gordon, second, just 103 points behind tour leader Kevin Harvick, says.
"This is a big event; we know that. We know we're capable of winning.
"And it's definitely getting down to crunch-time for us getting in the chase: But it's not just about where we're at in points now, we need those bonus points to really prove to ourselves and everyone else that we can compete for this championship."
For a man who should be frustrated with all those near-misses, Gordon is staying upbeat.
Still he concedes letting those near-wins slip away has hurt: "Texas was disappointing because we got caught up in the wreck.
"But the two that really stand out to me are Vegas and Phoenix. Even though I didn't feel we had a dominating performance at Phoenix, we were in position. We were leading the race with two tires. I just didn't get a good restart. I don't feel we should have lost that race.
"In Vegas: hey, that's a tough call for your crew chief -- two tires or four. You know other guys are going to try to do the opposite of what you do.
"Those are a little frustrating. But I'm really proud of the top-fives we've put together.
"I'd like to get back to being more dominant. We need to lead more laps. That's what's going to get us back into victory lane. We're just so close..."
However this flat, fast, square-shaped track isn't easy to deal with. The draft is there, yes, at these lightning speeds. But getting inside someone and completing the pass, well, that's a tall order....though the way this season has been going, the man on the outside of such a move may well get a little nervous.
So there aren't really any fluke winners here?
Maybe some surprises – Tony Stewart's loss late....Ernie Irvan's loss late...Juan Pablo Montoya's loss late...
Only Ricky Rudd, in his unexpected 1997 victory, was really an upset. Gas mileage gambles sometimes pay off.
"Track position has always been crucial, and great horsepower (for the long straights)," Gordon says.
"But lately the way we've learned how to aerodynamically get the attitude on the car and seal off the air all the way around the car, to really maximize the downforce and the grip through the corners.....some guys are doing it with soft springs, some guys are doing it with big springs. There are a lot of different ways to make your car go fast.
"It's a one-groove track, always has been.
"But you used to be able to get up on a guy, catch the draft on the straight, get a run on him to where you could make some moves, make some things happen.
"These days it just doesn't seem to be the case."
So the 400 may once again come down to mistakes – the men who make them, and the men who avoid them.
Indianapolis has always been an unforgiving track. Don't run out of gas. Don't use too much camber and eat up the tires. Don't speed on pit road....
"You got to have a fast car...and you can't make mistakes," Gordon says. "Juan Pablo last year had a great car, the car to beat. But one little mistake took him out of it.
"At the Brickyard, to win, get yourself in position, have a fast car, then not make mistakes.
"But because of the history of the track, because of the prestige of the race, that forces people to push as hard as they possibly can...which a lot of times can force you into making mistakes."
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Earl Brooks: one of NASCAR's classic journeyman racers...back when Charlotte Motor Speedway's frontstretch looked like this (Photo: Charlotte Motor Speedway)