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Tweaking the All-Star race...and considering Reutimann, Kyle Busch, Friday's WOO...and the 'new' NASCAR

  Wonder what it would take to get Michael in a NASCAR stocker.....(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   It's almost the start of the 'second-half' of the NASCAR regular season, and how will Round 13 of this 26-race chase to the playoffs go, Sunday's 600 miles at Charlotte Motor Speedway?
   Some idle musings awaiting the next round of action at Bruton Smith's place, where Coke 600 quals are set for 7:10 p.m. ET Thursday:

   -- How to tweak that All-Star race? Well, the final 10 laps are no worry. But that first 50-lapper is a snoozer. How about putting a 100-point bonus on the winner?

   -- Wonder what David Reutimann will do this 600. He won last year's rain-shortened race with a cool call by crew chief Rodney Childers – not to pit.
  "When Rodney told me to stay out instead of coming in to pit, I was thinking he was out of his freaking mind," Reutimann says.
    "Then as the rain kept coming, and we were standing there on pit road, I thought 'This might just work out in our favor.'
    "Now I know to just keep my mouth shut and drive and let Rodney make those calls.
     "I wish we would have won the race without the rain, because no one wants their first win to come in a rain-shortened event. But it's also not like I'm the first guy to ever win a rain-shortened race. I know Joey Logano probably feels the same way about his win at New Hampshire. But a win is a win, and we'll take them where we can get them."
    That's the only tour victory for Michael Waltrip's operation. This season Reutimann's best finishes are fifths at Dover and Daytona; he's averaging 20th.


  David Reutimann, 2009: singing in the rain (Photo: Harold Hinson)

   -- Which Kyle Busch will show up for Sunday's Coke 600, the 'old' Kyle Busch, or the 'new' Kyle Busch?
   Is there really a 'new' Kyle Busch? After last Saturday's brush with the wall late while trying to pass teammate Denny Hamlin for the All-Star win, the angry, temperamental 'old' Kyle re-emerged, ranting and raving, then storming off into the night. Emotions are good in this sport; it is an emotional sport, especially after you slap the wall. But Busch this season is supposed to be all about 'championship.' Remember, that's why he dumped crew chief Steve Addington last fall and put Dave Rogers on the pit box. And championships are usually about being cool in the clutch. Since Hamlin may be one of his chief rivals for the title, Busch, and Hamlin too, will have to settle this thing quickly.
   But then Kyle Busch does have a few legitimate gripes here, not just Saturday's loss, but that loss in last year's 600 too: "I was close last year, leading all the laps...and then getting the thing called by rain just after we had pitted.
   "The year before that, we were really fast here. I think we ran third. 
    "It's my favorite race track....the longest race of the year, it's a grueling event, a tiresome race. But for me, racing everything I can every weekend, I seem to knock that out of there."
   Indeed Kyle Busch not only has emotions and talent and daring-do and physical fitness going for him, he just seems almost a gluten for more time at the wheel. Is he running in that World of Outlaws Friday night show across the street here? That would be worth watching – Busch in on of those winged, 800-horsepower, open-wheel sprint cars.  (The 'other' Friday night show here will be in downtown Charlotte -- Speed Street (Third and Tryon, right around the corner from NASCAR's new Hall of Fame  http://bit.ly/azpARy ), part of a three-day street festival, produced by Jay Howard, who handles many of the NASCAR world's pizzazz events.)


  Hey, if Kyle Busch is so darned good, let's see him run one of these things against Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne (Photo: Harold Hinson)

   -- Why is CMS 'dark' on Friday nights? Well, filling the void, the World of Outlaws runs across the street. Still, it does seem Charlotte and Daytona both could tighten up their 'speedweeks' schedules.
   A number of teams are opening their shops this week to 600 fans.
   Chip Ganassi will host a Thursday morning session, with Juan Pablo Montoya and Jamie McMurray. Jack Roush will open house Thursday too at his Concord shop. Brian Ickler, who will be making his Roush debut this weekend in Saturday's Nationwide race, will be there along with teammates Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Colin Braun (11:15 am – noon).  Richard Petty will have his open house also Thursday.
   Brian Vickers, Casey Mears and Scott Speed, of Team Red Bull will host their thing in downtown Charlotte, at the Epicentre, Friday afternoon.
   Rick Hendrick and Michael Waltrip had their open house Wednesday evening.



  Remember North Wilkesboro, 1972? A lot of water under the bridge for Junior Johnson and Richard Petty since that fateful afternoon...(Photo: Harold Hinson)


-- One year precisely after NASCAR's dramatic 'townhall meetings' with drivers and team owners, how has the sport change?  Well, those double-file restarts (put into effect last June) have really shaken things up for the drivers, and improved the action.
   Or maybe it was ABC's surprising January call to switch (dump/drop?) the NASCAR championship playoffs to cable ESPN....
   After all the point of the chase in the first place was to give then-TV-partner NBC some ammunition in the fall to use in battle against the National Football League.
   Was that a slap in the face to the sport, a wake-up call? Or should we be looking at ESPN as really the best place for NASCAR?
  Whichever, NASCAR executives in early January and February jumped to attention, that's for sure.
   "Boys, have at it," was suddenly the key phrase, which NASCAR has backed up by only wrist-slapping those deliberately wrecking rivals.
   Three green-white-checker finishes? Wow, that was put in the rule book at Daytona almost overnight, certainly livening things up.
   And NASCAR dumped 'the wing,' after some two years of complaints by purists, and brought back the venerable flat-blade rear spoiler – which, perhaps ironically, perhaps not, has coincided with a sudden change in the sport's dynamics, with Joe Gibbs' guys winning five of the first seven Cup races with the old spoiler, while Jimmie Johnson, who dominated during the wing era, has hit some potholes, like that spinout late in the All-Star.


  Showtime in downtown Charlotte: All the action isn't on the track (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   -- The latest on Jay Frye's Team Red Bull, without Brian Vickers at the wheel: Swedish driver Mattias Ekström tested Vickers' Sonoma car at Virginia International Raceway Tuesday. Ekstrom has never driven a NASCAR stocker, and just what this test might mean is unclear. "I was really surprised how the car drove," the little-known-in-America driver said. "Everyone had told me that it would be very special, and it was quite nice.
   "The first hour of the test I was fighting the car a lot, just getting used to the power, the weight, and the fact that the car has little aero (downforce). All things that are very different for me.
    "A few hours into the test I felt a lot more comfortable in the car."

 Kyle Busch: love him or hate him, you've got to admit he puts on a heck of a show (Photo: Harold Hinson)

  -- Where's Brad Keselowski? Since the Atlanta flap, he's been patiently, quietly logging top-16 finishes nearly every week. And Carl Edwards? Five top-10s, though still no wins.

   -- Remember Pete Rondeau? He was the guy Dale Earnhardt Jr. had as crew chief for a while back in 2005, at DEI....only to be dropped suddenly that May, after lackluster runs by Earnhardt.  Since then, Earnhardt has won only three times, at Chicago in 2005 with Steve Hmiel as crew chief, at Richmond in 2006 with Tony Eury Jr., and at Michigan in 2008 with Eury Jr.
    Now Rondeau, after spending the last four years at Richard Petty/Gillett-Evernham Motorsports, has signed on as Regan Smith's new crew chief.

   -- More Earnhardt:
    Lance McGrew, who is now starting his second year running Earnhardt's team, says the 600 is all about making a good transition from the heat of the day to the cool of the night: "If you are spectacular during the day, then chances are you're not at night.
    "It's having a good balance, making the right pit calls at the right time, and keeping the track position when you need to.
    "It's staying ahead of the racetrack...and that is very difficult."
    Indeed, Charlotte Motor Speedway is notoriously heat sensitive.

   -- It almost went unnoticed last weekend during the All-Star shindigs, but another third-generation Earnhardt – 21-year-old Taylor, the daughter of Teresa and the late Dale Sr. – stepped into the spotlight. Part of the Wheaties' promotion, Taylor showed herself to be a quite promising spokesman....for whoever she wants. Maybe even DEI, if that operation ever gets back on its feet. It's hard to realize that just two years ago Teresa Earnhardt was running a four-team operation, with all four in the top-35.

   -- What's Humpy Wheeler doing? For more than 30 years Wheeler was the face – zany at times, yes – of this track. Then he was apparently abruptly ousted in some still unclear maneuvering during 600 week in 2008.
  For a while there was thought he might get the call to take over Indianapolis Motor Speedway after Tony George was ousted in June 2009.


  The greatest promoter in NASCAR history just vanishes from the stage? Humpy Wheeler will host a book signing in Cornelius Thursday evening, and spinning yarns.... (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

  -- The Indy 500: Oh, and yes there is the Indianapolis 500 this weekend too....though when the crowd starts booing Danica Patrick, as it just did, that's not good news for that branch of the sport. The Indy 500 crowd will be watch, almost as closely as the 600 crowd. And TV ratings too. The Indy 500 is the key part of the 16-race Indy Racing League series; but the IRL, despite some very good drivers and good events at times (especially at Texas), hasn't made it back up to NASCAR's level, not by a long-shot. The IRL may need some shaking up...just a look at the tour stops: Sao Paulo Brazil, St. Petersburg FL, Birmingham AL, Long Beach, Kansas, Indy, Texas, Iowa, Watkins Glen, Toronto, Edmonton, Mid-Ohio, Sonoma, Chicagoland, Kentucky, Motegi Japan, Homestead FL. One problem with the IRL, aside from national name-recognition of its stars, is that two team owners, Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi, dominate.
   -- Was Martin Truex Jr.'s All-Star performance – second, and closing on winner Kurt Busch at the end – the mark of a turning point?
  "The last few weeks we seemed to be getting better and better," he says, with a nod toward new crew chief Pat Tryson and their new team, out of Michael Waltrip's shops. "We thought we were going to be real good coming here, so it wasn't unexpected.  It wasn't like we just came out of the blue and won the Showdown.  We've been competitive...but momentum is a big thing in this sport.  You see it all the time."

   Meanwhile, back in the trenches:
   Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, and Carl Edwards continue trudging toward the playoffs, and it's hard to tell if they're just playing it all very conservatively or really having problems. They're solid in the point standings, third, seventh and 10th. However they've not been very spectacular on race day.
   Biffle says the 600 "takes a lot of patience.  It's such a long race, and it requires a totally different mind set.
   "It's like two races -- the first is survival, the second half is making sure the car will handle well into the night."
   Edwards, one of the most physically fit drivers, says the 600 "is one of my favorites, just because it's grueling, and it tests man and machine both. 
   "The track changes so much throughout the race that it's really a fun challenge for everybody."

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  The Blue Deuce looked pretty good in Saturday's All-Star....but Kurt Busch admits he's worried about the team's lack of consistency this season and says he doesn't know what to expect in Sunday's Coke 600 (Photo: Harold Hinson)

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