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NASCAR 2011? What's really going on behind the scenes? And who's the best road racer in the sport?

  The best road racer in NASCAR? Well, it ought to be F1 star Juan Pablo Montoya, here dodging some of last summer's rain at the Glen...but he says these NASCAR stockers are just dogs out on tracks like the Glen, compared to those Grand Prix machines. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   Okay, let's try to wipe last week's controversies from the page and -- hoping NASCAR executives learned an expensive PR lesson -- try to start anew here, at the sport's fastest road course, the legendary Glen, where new boss Michael Printup has just finished a major safety renovation project near the 'boot' part of the course, needed following last summer's savage crash.

   First, let's debate the possibilities for the Sprint Cup tour's 2011 schedule, for one:
   Kentucky Speedway seems certain to be on that calendar, probably late June or early July, depending on NASCAR wants to position Chicago. And track owner Bruton Smith appears to be pulling that March Cup date from Atlanta to make room for the Cincinnati-market track.
   That announcement is set for Tuesday.
   Kansas too is set to get a second Cup event in 2011, possibly with the France family pulling the February race from California's Auto Club Speedway to make room for it, probably with a mid-April race date, replacing Phoenix, which seems set to move earlier in the year, either to the second race of the season or the fourth race.
   All that seems pretty much set.
   What doesn't appear set, and what could still be up for debate, is what to do about the final race of the season, currently at the Frances' Homestead-Miami track.
   Smith has been pushing hard to have that finale moved to Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where it would logically tie in with annual post-season awards banquet. And Las Vegas city officials seem to be offering a $5 million bonus to get that second Cup weekend.

   And the preferred line through this corner at Watkins Glen is? Tony Stewart (14) and Kyle Busch battle it out in the 2009 tour event (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   There are some reports that Smith might be willing to cut a Cup date from New Hampshire Motor Speedway and move it to Vegas. Smith himself at Loudon last month hemmed and hawed over that, in repeated questioning about his commitment to two Cup dates at NHMS, and Smith never really would say one way or the other.
   Loudon, of course, is the sport's Boston-market outpost, about an hour north. And NASCAR doesn't have much else in the Northeast, except the Glen and Pocono.
   Some who say they have seen the 2011 TV schedule insist Homestead will remain the tour finale in 2011....though 2012 they say is still very much up in the air.
   One issue is that Homestead has had trouble selling its finale weekend in late November, and if that track had to come back three months later and try to sell another Cup race, without that hook, it might have even more trouble.
   That would seem to leave Phoenix as the only other possibility for that Feb. 27th weekend, following the Daytona 500....which in turn would leave the March 13th weekend, currently held by Atlanta, up for debate.
   How much of all this is really settled yet in Daytona and Charlotte isn't clear. NASCAR CEO Brian France has offered few solid hints, saying this of the schedule changes for 2011: "There will be some changes. Some pretty impactful changes in our schedule that will be good for NASCAR fans. Some good, interesting changes to the schedule, on how fans get to the events."
   Here's what Smith said about 2011 at Loudon in late June: http://bit.ly/cHaH5p


  Jeff Gordon, with daughter Ella, was once the man to beat on NASCAR's road courses, but it's been a while he saw victory lane (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Second, let's debate who's the best road racer in stock car racing today?
   Well, at this particularly course, up in the picturesque Finger Lakes of northern New York, the answer would seem rather clear: Tony Stewart, who has won five of the last eight races here, including last August's sprint.
   Stewart also has a pair of wins at Sonoma, in 2001 and 2005, and a second (to Kasey Kahne) in 2009. He finished ninth there this season.
   Marcos Ambrose, who exploded onto the NASCAR scene in 2009, nearly winning here and nearly winning at Sonoma, may have a bid in too, after his strong run at Sonoma in June, until he stalled his engine under yellow.
   However Ambrose has just announced he's leaving the team at the end of the year, and aside from Sonoma he's had a mediocre year.
   In the Ford camp Greg Biffle is the best, his crew chief Greg Erwin says, though Kasey Kahne has been a surprise lately.


  Gotta love Robby Gordon's creativity....but don't think this monster will get through NASCAR tech...(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   Jimmie Johnson finally got on the board at Sonoma, after Ambrose' problems. But Johnson has been having a rash of issues lately: Since winning Loudon, he's finished 31st, 25th, 22nd and 10th -- and that 10th at Pocono may come back to haunt him, because Kurt Busch, who hit the wall hard after a late-race bump by Johnson, is about as mad as he's ever been, according those who have talked with him. If Kevin Harvick has to watch over his shoulder at Joey Logano when the playoffs begin in a couple of weeks, Johnson might have to be looking over his shoulder at Kurt Busch.
   The best road racer in NASCAR?
   Once that was pretty easy to answer -- Jeff Gordon.
   But Gordon hasn't won at the Glen since 2001 and his last Sonoma win was 2006. Last summer he got caught up in the bad crash that forced redesign of one of the corners.
   Robby Gordon may be a good long-shot here, considering he may be the best pure road racer in the sport and he nearly won at Sonoma two months ago. Robby won both Sonoma and the Glen in 2003. But Gordon's season has so far been marred by sponsorship issues; he didn't even run at Pocono, and his sponsor here is TBD.
   The best road racer in the sport?
   Another man who might like to make that claim is Kyle Busch.
   Yes, he didn't fare well at Sonoma in June, getting caught up in an early crash. But last summer here Busch finished fourth, and in 2008 he not only won NASCAR's Mexico City Nationwide event but won both Cup races at Sonoma and the Glen -- raising just a few eyebrows.
   Busch has also raised a few eyebrows this summer on the Cup tour...for a different reason.
   After starting the year strong, leading a bunch of laps and winning Richmond and Dover in May and running second at Pocono in June, Busch seems to have hit a dry spell. Or maybe rivals have simply finally caught up to the Joe Gibbs guys. Teammate Denny Hamlin, who had a string of five wins in 10 starts at one point, seems to have fallen off too.
   During that early-season stretch Busch logged five top-3s and lead 626 laps, and pretty much looked like he was well on track to another great season.
   Whatever happened in the weeks after that June Pocono run, Busch on Sundays has been rather mediocre: 20th, 39th, 11th, 40th, 17th, 8th (Indianapolis), and 23rd. And over those two months he's led just 69 laps.
   Maybe Busch can turn things around here.
   "I think I really hit it (on road courses) in '07, when I was still at Hendrick," Busch says. He finished eighth that June at Sonoma. "Then at Watkins Glen, I was running fifth or fourth, just passed Jeff Gordon, and that's when my track bar broke and I went six laps down fixing that -- but got all the 'Lucky Dogs' to get back on the lead lap, and finished 12th.
    "I took that experience over to Gibbs, and we swept both races in '08.
     "I feel I'm a relatively good road racer, though it took me a little bit to get used to it -- to figure out how hard to charge the corners, or how hard not to charge the corners, and different braking techniques."
   Meanwhile, on the good news front:

   Pocono's TV ratings are in, and ESPN's broadcast pulled a 4.4 final national household coverage rating, making it cable's highest-rated and most-viewed event this season. It drew 6.2 million viewers.
   And ESPN2's Nationwide race at Iowa last Saturday night pulled a 1.4 (1.8 million viewers), up slightly from last year. That means four of the last five Nationwide races have pulled higher ratings versus last year.

  Meet the new boss at Pocono: Brian Igdalsky  (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Pocono's Brandon Igdalsky, the 34-year-old grandson of track owners Rose and Doc Mattioli, and now track president for two years, is the point man for the New York City-marketing track, and he's got some big plans -- not only making those safety repairs, like asphalt where there's infield grass near the racing surface, and SAFER soft walls on the inside, instead dirt-back guardrail, and a catchfence where Kasey Kahne nearly went out into the woods in a June crash, but also perhaps even bringing an Indy-car race back to the track. That would of course mean repaving the 2-1/2-mile facility.
   Laying infield asphalt, Jimmie Johnson says should be a priority at every NASCAR track: "I don't think grass has any purpose inside the walls of a race track anymore. There's no friction to slow down the car, and then you just hammer the wall."
   Some are surprised that NASCAR officials haven't pressed the track for this move long before. Davey Allison's near-fatal 1992 crash showed the need then for asphalt, which Daytona itself put down in such dangerous areas years ago.


   Gets a Jack Roush tryout at Rockingham....is a Nationwide ride in her future? (Photo: Alli Owens)

   -- Alli Owens just had a two-day Nationwide tryout, along with six other drivers, for car owner Jack Roush at Rockingham, both the 'Little Rock' half-mile and the big track.
   Owens, the 21-year-old Daytona Beach racer who has focused a lot of her efforts on the business side of the sport, has been running ARCA on a somewhat limited schedule since 2008. Most notably she was on the front row for the Daytona ARCA race last year -- with her hair streaked with pink, as part of cancer awareness promotion.
   Roush has long been known for a strong feeder system, with Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth all coming up through the ranks for him.
   And Roush's sometimes annual Gong Show -- tryouts like this, in which drivers are not only judged on how well they handle the car but how well they handle the media -- was once even a TV series -- 'Driver X.'
   However the past two years, as sponsorships overall dried up, this sport's diversity and development programs have suffered.
    "It's one thing to be invited to something like this, but another if you pay attention and take this opportunity as a tremendous learning experience," Owens says. "I learned a world of knowledge about NASCAR Sprint Cup racing. I'm thankful for the opportunity. I left the track a better driver than when I arrived."
   Ford has long been known as strong on driver development for women racers, under the guidance of Lyn. St. James.
   Roush himself was in the running last year to sign Danica Patrick but took a flyer.

  Now this is what we'd like to see Sunday: Blue skies....and a dicey battle, here Tony Stewart vs Kyle Busch (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

  -- Next week marks the 21st anniversary of the death of Tim Richmond, once one of the brightest stars in the sport, and certainly one of the most outrageous, and outrageously talented -- even Dale Earnhardt himself gave a big nod in that direction after their epic 1986 battles.
   And Richmond will be featured in an ESPN documentary this fall (Oct. 19).
   Richmond was a natural in this sport, and he was certainly a headliner, on and off the track. One famous incident occurred at Daytona when he and David Pearson got into it, Pearson nearing the end of his career, Richmond at the beginning: 'Get out of my way, old man,' Richmond snapped at Pearson...who promptly decked him.
   Richmond died at just 34.
   -- NASCAR is pushing the positive this summer, and Freightliner's decision to extend its sponsorship contract through 2015 is being promoted as a good story in this tight economy.
   Freightliner (a division of Daimler Trucks) sponsors a 'run smart hauler challenge,' in which NASCAR truckers are run through a timed skills course, at Las Vegas, Talladega, Chicago, Kansas and Texas.

  -- And on the humorous side of life, this just in from the Onion Sports Network:
      (Please note that this is humor.)
    "NEW YORK—In a move designed to bring their business closer to its core values, top NASCAR officials announced Monday that from now on, rather than racing to determine a winner, advertising-bedecked cars would slowly circle the track in a noncompetitive marketing parade set to begin with next year's Daytona 500. "Declining revenue made us take a closer look at the sport, and we found that many fans couldn't even see the logos and graphics on cars when all that high-speed racing was taking place," NASCAR president Mike Helton said. "Now that we've eliminated the competitive aspect, we're also free to give our fans what they've been asking for: new advertising on the track, flashier ads applied during pit stops, and a safer, more relaxing marketing environment overall."

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   These guys were really getting after it at Sonoma. Didn't know they could go three-wide in those corners...and come out the other side...(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

The Continuing Convergence Of Controversies

Pocono saw the convergence of controversies and it's continuing at The Glen.

1 - If Fontana loses a race, I'm surprised given the importance NASCAR has put into that demographic even though it is the worst for pro sports other than the Lakers - the TV numbers marketers cite have always been grossly deceptive; there simply is no real fanbase for racing, football, or hockey, and baseball is doing only okay.

2 - Why Vegas would deserve a second date when it's a transient demographic and not a sports market (no matter what importance is assigned them, bettors do not constitute a fanbase) whereas New Hampshire is one of the sport's more durable demographics is another of those absurdities one gets from Bruton Smith.

3 - Over the last 20-plus years the myth that paved runoff areas a la Daytona, Michigan, and Talladega are really safer than grass infields should have been exposed by such melees as Matt Kenseth's Talladega tumble. The issues at Pocono and elsewhere are speed issues, not pavement versus grass issues. The trap speeds for Pocono are at 200 and the sport long ago saw that anything about 190 is beyond all reason and even 190 is shaky as far as being a top allowable speed. The Trucks were noticeably slower down the straights at Pocono than the cars and it didn't hurt them at all.

4 - Sorry, but I need to see real fight in Alli Owens before I can take her seriously as a racer.

Instead jockeying tracks and

Instead jockeying tracks and races, how 'bout getting rid of both? Cut back all together. In comparison to Formula One, right now, there on a 2-week shutdown on EVERYTHING. Call it a "summer's time out". The manufacturers have closed up shop. Everyone is on a 2-week vacation, with racing to resume at Belgium Grand Prix @ Spa on August 29. If you never seen a race at Spa, you're in for a treat. Just to watch the F1 racers come through the historic & treacherous Eau Rouge corner at speed is amazing. Get up early Mike! 7:30am EST, SPEED TV.

I generally love to watch the road course races cause usually...a road course ringer...has a chance to win vs the regulars. There has been some close-but-no-cigars victory races too, like Marcus Ambrose at Sonoma as well as Jerry Nadeau, running outta gas there. Ron Fellows, Wally Dallenbach, Scott Pruett and others all had top quality racers but just didn't have the luck to get them into victory lane. I have my money on Marcus Ambrose to win the Glen this year, but watch out for Boris Said. This is the first time that I can remember that he's in a quality ride #83 vs a hand-me-down from Roush or others. There should be NO excuses this time. Stats wise, Tony Stewart should win at the Glen but there are some really good road course drivers that haven't done well this year but may excel here like Mark Martin & Juan Pablo Montoya. It's gonna be a great race. I just wish NASCAR allow rain tires there as a backup. The tires proved well in Montreal in the N'wide Series race.

Although Tim Richmond is gone, despite the nature of his death, you had to like his charisma. The one things these NASCAR drivers today don't show. Charisma. Personality. Maybe they have it outside the track, in private. But at the track, TR let it all hung out and was winning too.

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