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Carl Edwards returns to Atlanta...as one of the heavy favorites. But what's this Kyle Busch-Todd Bodine thing?

 Carl Edwards: a Sunday favorite at Atlanta Motor Speedway (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern

   The hottest driver in NASCAR?
   Carl Edwards.
   And no wonder Edwards, even though still winless this season, is one of Sunday's favorites.
   Edwards says his first NASCAR Cup tour win – here – turned his whole career around, and says he loves the track so much he'd like to race here three times a month.
   Tires, Edwards says, will almost certainly be a factor, again. Fresh tires provide such an advantage that Edwards says he expects Cup drivers to stop for new rubber every chance they get, even right up till only six or eight laps to go.
   Paul Menard (Edwards' teammate), Jamie McMurray and Ryan Newman did the Goodyear test here in mid-June. Goodyear has tested at this track after nearly every race the last few years, in part because this track's asphalt is so worn that it is highly abrasive, in part because some teams tend to go over the limit in setting 'camber' (the angle the tire sits on the track), in order to make the car turn better.
    "This track is very, very abrasive," Jeff Gordon says. "It wears tires very quickly.
    "You are taking a real gamble by staying out there (and not stopping for new tires).
    "The only thing that can work in your favor (by not stopping) is if it is going to be a green-white-checkered and the caution comes out.
    "Otherwise, if you stay out on tires, you are going to get beat. I just don't think there is anyway around it.
    "This is a place you almost absolutely have to have tires. I don't think it is a gamble worth taking by staying out.
    "Maybe, maybe, if you only have one or two laps on the tires, you might (gamble). But even then, I think you are a disadvantage to guys that come out on sticker tires.
    "When you take off, the brand-new tires are just able to run wide open through (turns) one and two, and just about wide open through three and four coming to the first lap....and that is just such a huge advantage."



  This weekend Jeff Gordon is driving 'Papa's Car' (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

  Edwards says "It's a long race, and the tire is going to make it a complex and difficult race for the driver and the crew chief.  I think that strategy and the way you drive the car is going to be huge -- and that's really fun when it's more in your hands."
   Hmmmm. Further explanation?
   "I'll try to explain it the best I can: When you drive down in the corner here, there's a certain amount of grip you're looking for. 
   "You expect to drive down in the corner and have the car grip a certain amount.
    "What's happening here is that on the entry and exit of the corner, the tires feel really slick. 
    "The car has to be really 'compressed' in the center of the corner to make a bunch of grip....so it becomes difficult to drive, because it's like ice. 
    "You're sliding and sliding, until you get the car compressed in the corner and then it turns. 
    "I don't know what causes that.  I don't think my crew chief knows what causes that. So we've been struggling with it. 
     "In the race you'll see guys go in a little too hard and miss the line, and the car just takes off sliding. 
      "It's just hard to drive -- and I think that makes for great racing.  I like that style of racing.  I like that type of tire. 
     "It's neat when you drive down in the corner and you've got to pitch the car sideways and wait for it to grip."
    That's not the only aspect of tires here to keep an eye on.
    How long do tires show grip before they start to fall off in speed?
   "In the Cup race everybody is going get tires.
     "At the end of the Cup race, the decision to take tires -- two tires or four tires -- I think there will be people taking tires all the way up to six or eight laps to go. 
    "So the race could be really dynamic at the end."


  Jeff Burton: Looking for his first championship (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Jeff Burton agrees that racing at this track is fun. In fact most drivers pick this as one of their favorite tracks....which makes NASCAR's decision to cut the track's annual March race all the more surprising.
    Burton: "I made a comment here last year during the race 'Are you sure we're not in Rockingham?'
   "The place was so slick. The speed fell off so much...which is why it's fun.
    "The cars move around a lot here. There's a lot of rear movement in the car. It's a very, very difficult race track.
    "And this race track has a bigger personality split from qualifying to racing than anywhere we go. Qualifying is so fast -- crazy fast. And then you get 20 laps into the race and you're like 'My god, you cannot believe how slow it gets.'
    "To me that's what's fun about it.
    "That's why you see -- at this track more than anywhere else -- you'll see a car that was really running well and all of a sudden he's not running well anymore. And you'll see a car that wasn't running well and all of a sudden he is running well.
    "Because the track is so slick, small changes make a big difference in how the car drives.
     "But I think it's fun like that."
Indy-car's new boss Randy Bernard: getting no support from the France family's International Speedway Corp. in 2011. And just why? Don't these ISC tracks need more than just NASCAR events to survive? What's really at play here? Maybe more than meets the eye (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    The Indy Racing League's 2011 schedule should be coming out in a week or so, and it looks like the France family's International Speedway Corp. (ISC) will not host any Indy-car races next season. And that has provoked some questions – why?
   According to one analysis: "It's probably part of the $20 million to $30 million in cost savings the ISC has to come up with.  They promised $20 million to $30 million in cost savings, on only $660 million of revenue, so they need to make dramatic and deep cuts.
    "One has to wonder what about the future of Grand-Am races at ISC properties.
    "With only the usual layoffs, the ISC can't hit the cost savings.  And The Street will spank the stock price if the ISC doesn't hit the mark."
    The IRL charges track promoters about $1.5 million to bring the show to town.
    In contrast NASCAR charges promoters only about $800,000 for Nationwide races. And the crowds are typically a little better.
     Richmond International Raceway, Michigan International Speedway, Chicagoland Speedway, California (Auto Club) Speedway, Watkins Glen, Homestead-Miami, Phoenix International Raceway, and Kansas Speedway – all ISC tracks – have hosted Indy-car races in recent years. But none of those are expected to be on the 2011 schedule.
     For several years the IRL was subsidized by Indianapolis Motor Speedway; that track's long-time boss, Tony George, created the IRL in 1996, to regain control of the open-wheel branch of the sport, which had been dominated for years by team owners. However last summer George was ousted from command of IMS, and he declined to keep the reins of the IRL.
   Now it's up to new IRL boss Randy Bernard keep the IRL going. Bernhard has pushed to add IRL races at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Phoenix, and he just signed a new IRL event for 2011 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. New Hampshire and Las Vegas are owned by Bruton Smith's Speedway Motorsports.
   The IRL has been dominated by two team owners, Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi, and tour rivals have had trouble getting major sponsors. IRL teams, up till the last year or so, were subsidized themselves by the Indy track; but that subsidy has been cut.
    Tracks too have had trouble making money with Indy-cars. Richmond, for example, dropped the IRL after a boring, no-passing event and after losing some major sponsors.
    While Bernard talked optimistically about some IRL-NASCAR Sprint Cup doubleheaders in June, NASCAR's Brian France curtly rejected any such moves.
    Friday night's showdown in victory lane at Kentucky Speedway was good drama: winner Todd Bodine criticizing Kyle Busch for 'dirty' driving during the event, for an incident in which Bodine was sent spinning. Bodine rallied for the win and then criticized Busch on TV in victory lane. Busch was watching that on TV in his hauler, and then Busch calmly walked over to victory lane to confront Bodine.
   "He wasn't happy that I called him out on TV," Bodine told ESPN's Ray Dunlap.
    "It's a shame....he's such a good kid, and when you get him away from this racing atmosphere and he's off just being Kyle, he's a good kid. He's a lot of fun; I've been there with him.
    "But you put him behind the wheel and he thinks he owns the racetrack. And he doesn't cut anybody a break.
    "If this was an isolated incident, I'd let it slide, I wouldn't worry about it. But he drives that way in every division, every week...."
    Busch's take on 'dirty driving': "I thought that was kind of low...but that's how Bodine is.  The Germains (Who own Bodine's Truck team) are great people and I have the utmost respect for them.  Bob (Germain) gave me a lift down here (Friday night). I appreciate that. 
    "It was just a matter of hard racing I thought.  He didn’t want me racing him that hard. 
    "Maybe next time I'll lift."
    Note the humor.
   Busch said "He drove it off into turn three so far that he didn’t stick and tried to slide up in front of me. I stayed in the gas, kept my foot in it, and went around him on the outside, two lanes off the wall.  That's not somewhere you're supposed to be. 
    "You have to keep going. You can't just give a guy the space.  Aero is so important at Kentucky; when you get behind somebody it's hard to pass them. 
    "We saw that with Bodine -- He got behind me and stayed with me for a while and couldn’t get by me and then just kind of fell off a little bit. 
   "We had the better truck so I didn’t want to give him a chance to get out front.
    "Knowing we still had another pit stop to go, you do all you can to try to stay out front."
    It was Bodine's use of the phrase 'dirty driving' that aggravated Busch most: "I don't feel I'm a dirty racer. I feel l like I'm a hard racer, and an aggressive one. 
    "I wouldn't call it dirty.  Dirty is when you run into the back of somebody down the back straightaway and put them in the fence."

    The private buyout of Burger King has raised questions about that company's NASCAR sponsorship. Do the new owners like stock car racing?
   That question could be critical for Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman, who have a considerable sponsorship stake through Burger King.

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   Now when was the last time a pink car won a NASCAR race? Is Jeff Gordon trying to beat those odds? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

This, from the email hotline:

"So it looks like Speedway Motorsports' Bruton Smith, hosting a number of Indy-car races at his own tracks is saying that he can make money with Indy-cars, while Lesa France Kennedy, head of the France family's ISC, is saying she doesn't think she can turn a profit with Indy-cars?
"I've wondered that too. SMI is known to be far better at managing costs than the ISC at a corporate and business unit level, so than may be the difference. So the margins may be a little more acceptable, or potentially profitable.
"Unlike the ISC, which is opting to let facilities go dark for
another weekend, SMI may be willing to make a go of it - if the T&Cs (terms and conditions) are right.
"Given the current climate -- where SMI needs race dates and the IRL
needs venues -- the sanction fees may have been relaxed or back-loaded on a long-term deal.
"But also SMI, generally, is a better creative promoter than the ISC.
"The ISC ain't Penske-bad, but not aspiring to Bill Veeck levels like SMI either.
"That shows an effort is being made.
"Example: Richmond Raceway versus Dover (though Dover of course is not an SMI property). Being on the (Maryland) Eastern Shore, I drove up to Harrisburg (Pa.) last weekend, and I have seen dozens of billboards, ticket brochures, and series and car sponsorship promos around for the Sept. 26th race at Dover (Harrisburg is about 125 miles from Dover). For Richmond (next week's NASCAR tour stop) all I have heard is a moderate flight of radio ads on D.C. radio.
"I know one has to measure the cost of acquisition....but there is the old saying "One has to spend money to make money."
"And let's not forget Bruton has a cash cow out there in Sonoma. It
used to be one of three busiest tracks in the country. Sonoma, like
Sebring (Florida) and Firebird (Phoenix), was in use 350 days a year. So that adds to the SMI coffers.

Basic Track Finances

A week ago at Concord, the ProCup series had few fans even though admission was free. That doesn't make sense as a business plan.

Yesterday at North Wilkesboro, an estimated 15,000 (maybe more like 5,000) people watched the debut PASS series race at $20 a head. That is $100K to $300K gross revenue including a healthy back gate. Any ISC racetrack must draw that to even open the gates.

But to upgrade the old Wilkesboro facility to modern ISC standards of safety, access and appearance would be prohibitive. It will take more than just another 1000 gallons of RJR red paint.

Yet there were likely more grandstand people at Wilkesboro for those four hours than at Daytona for the 24 Hours.

At some point, the ISC tracks have transcended into mega racing plants that cannot host an event without massive staffing just to guard the gates and keep the grass cut. A stand-alone IRL or even truck event can't bring a big enough crowd to support a local short track, let alone a super speedway.

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