Commentary

Indy spectacle not the only must-see show on Sunday

We know there's a big race happening Sunday at Indy, but there's a pretty good show on tap in Charlotte, too, writes David Newton.

Updated: May 24, 2008, 7:07 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

CONCORD, N.C. -- The eyes of the motorsports world are on Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home of the famous Yard of Bricks and Gasoline Alley, where Jim Nabors brings thousands to tears singing "Back Home in Indiana" and the winner drinks from a bottle of milk instead of champagne.

And rightfully so.

This is the first Indy 500 since the merger of the Champ Car World Series and Indy Racing League, the first since Danica Patrick last month became the first female to win in the IndyCar Series.
[+] EnlargeJuan Pablo Montoya
AP Photo/Al BehrmanJuan Pablo Montyoa won the Indy 500 in 2000, but Sunday he'll be driving the No. 42 in the Coke 600.

The momentum is there.

But don't forget there's a little ol' stock car race just outside of Charlotte, N.C., on Sunday as well.

You know, the Sprint Cup Series that claims to have 75 million fans compared to the IRL's 36 million, the series that this season has drawn six times the television rating as the IRL and beat the Indy 500 in ratings last season despite a down year in viewership.

It's the series that was so popular that former Indianapolis 500 winners Sam Hornish Jr., Juan Pablo Montoya and Dario Franchitti made the move to join it.

So there's no panic in the garage at Lowe's Motor Speedway, no feeling that NASCAR's reign as king of racing on American soil will be threatened by what happens 625 miles away.

"I don't know who's on the pole [at Indy], to be honest," said Casey Mears, the defending 600 champion and nephew of four-time Indy 500 champ Rick Mears.

"I'm just worried if my car is too lose or too tight, to be honest."

Again, rightfully so.

If NASCAR wants to keep its position on the racing food chain, it has to improve the quality of its show. The Cup guys can't afford to have a lot more events like last week's All-Star race, which was so uneventful that one might argue watching paint dry had more entertainment value.

From that perspective, there is somewhat of a panic. Drivers and crew chiefs agree the new car is more than a handful and that something has to be done to improve it.

They say it's tough to pass. It's tough to race side by side. It's tough to turn.

They say there's not enough downforce. Not enough side force.

That turned into an All-Star race in which bumping and banging and passing is the name of the game into a cautionless test session.

"I think you're going to see the same thing [in the 600]," pole-sitter and points leader Kyle Busch said.

The car was so bad in the All-Star race that Dale Earnhardt Jr. called it bipolar.

[+] EnlargeCasey Mears
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeDefending Coke 600 champ Casey Mears, the nephew of four-time Indy 500 winner Rick Mears: "I don't know who's on the pole [at Indy], to be honest. I'm just worried if my car is too lose or too tight. ..."

"In 25 laps my car went from really, really tight to way, way loose," NASCAR's most popular driver said. "I mean, in 20 laps really. That's a huge swing for a car to make.

"We've just got to figure out how to get the car to stay more consistent over a long period of time. Fifty laps straight I need the car to drive pretty much the same. My car was very moody the other night."

Teams will have long periods of time to work on consistency in NASCAR's longest race. It won't be 25-lap sprints, as the All-Star race was.

"It was amazing to me that in the All-Star race we didn't have a caution and we didn't have any wrecks," said Carl Edwards, who has won three times this season on intermediate tracks such as LMS. "The 25-lap runs kind of made it hard to see a lot of passing and racing because for 25 laps you can drive these things white-knuckle, and clean air meant a lot.

"You didn't see guys really searching for other lines. The 600 you'll see a different race because the long runs will get guys running the top and bottom."

There also will be 43 cars on the track, compared to 22 in the All-Star race.

"What will enhance the racing are more cars on the racetrack to where everybody is in traffic," Greg Biffle said. "Right now, you put one car out in clean air, yeah, he has an advantage.

"But you put 43 cars on that racetrack and you get more than a 30-lap run, you're gonna be in traffic the whole night and that's gonna kind of be the equaling factor for all the cars to try and see some racing."

Regardless, four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon expects it to be a "long, long night."

"This car definitely is a challenge," he said. "And it's making it tougher on all the drivers and all the teams. Some guys seem to have it figured out better than others. And for those guys, it looks easy.

"For the other guys that don't, it's a constant work in progress. You've just got to fight hard throughout the whole night. And like I said, there are different strategies as to how you can finish good at this race. But the most important thing is having a good enough car to be on the lead lap and staying out of trouble and surviving all night."

Many believe this will be a fuel-mileage race as it was a year ago. All agree track position is key.

"Yep, it's pretty obvious," Biffle said. "That's what it's boiled down to be."

You don't hear such complaints in Indianapolis. They're simply happy to be racing there, happy to have the squabbles that almost destroyed the series in the rearview mirror.

"It's definitely in their best interest to be together now like they are," said Mears, who plans to watch as much of the race as possible. "But they can be successful and NASCAR not lose anything."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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