DEI's open seat is focus of rumor mill
Now the focus turns to the other top available talent, and a Dale Earnhardt Inc. official said they were in hot pursuit of one particular driver for the No. 15 Chevrolet.
Richie Gilmore, vice president of DEI, refused to name the driver, but dropped several hints saying he was currently in the Nextel Cup series, was younger than 30, marketable, and fast in Saturday's practice sessions.
Casey Mears led the field in practice, but said afterward he was "99.9 percent sure" he would be back at Chip Ganassi Racing next season. Ganassi holds an option on next year for Mears that does not have to be exercised until next month.
Scott Riggs was second fastest in practice, but said he had not spoken to DEI. Plus, at 34 years old, he doesn't meet Gilmore's criteria. Brian Vickers was fourth, but appears to be close to signing an extension at Hendrick Motorsports.
Gilmore refused to give any other information, other than ruling out Matt Kenseth. Saying Kenseth would "probably be our first choice of a teammate for Junior," Gilmore said Kenseth has expressed interest in staying at Roush Racing when his contract expires.
What few hints Gilmore gave out sent ripples through the garage, which is always filled with gossip and speculation at this time of year as drivers and car owners negotiate new deals. The DEI ride became available when Michael Waltrip decided last month not to sign a new contract.
NAPA, the sponsor of that car, could choose to leave DEI and go with Waltrip to his next team. But Gilmore indicated the team would stay if DEI could sign the driver they are eyeing.
Should they fail to get him, then DEI will essentially fold the team. Gilmore said Busch Series driver Paul Menard would drive seven Cup events next season, then move up full-time in 2007.
Meanwhile, Evernham would not reveal the terms of his extension with Kahne, but the deal is believed to go through 2010. The duo was freed to negotiate last week when a U.S. District Court judge in Detroit issued a summary judgment in favor of Kahne in a breach of contract lawsuit brought by Ford Motor Co.
The court agreed that Kahne was not liable for ending his relationship with Ford to sign with Evernham last year.
Kahne was NASCAR's top rookie last season and scored his first career victory in May at Richmond.
What's in a name?
Tony Stewart believes in tradition, especially when it comes to his beloved Indianapolis Motor Speedway. So when track officials signed an official sponsor that changed the name of the NASCAR race from the Brickyard 400 to the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard, he was less than happy.
"I'm furious about it, to be honest," Stewart said. "It would be like saying the McDonald's 500 instead of the Daytona 500. I don't understand what they were thinking.
"There is one thing in breaking some traditions, but to commercialize everything, I think they could have done it different. I think they could have said the Brickyard 400 presented by whoever it is. But we don't make the rules, and I guess it's not our pockets we're worried about filling."
Indy's decision to sell the name of the race now leaves the Daytona 500 as the lone event without corporate sponsorship. The Indianapolis 500, the track's crown jewel event, is not changing.
No one seemed to be pleased with the name change for the NASCAR event, but some drivers didn't appear to be bothered by it.
"We're still at the Brickyard, right?" Jimmie Johnson said. "It's all corporate dollars and we all have to do what we can to put food on the table."
Chevrolet officials were scrambling this week after the 2006 version of the Monte Carlo did not perform as expected in its first on-track test.
Joe Gibbs Racing took the car to Atlanta Motor Speedway this week and everyone was surprised when it struggled during the test. So GM Racing director Pat Suhy spent much of his time at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this weekend, meeting with NASCAR officials to discuss what they should do.
Suhy said GM will test the car again. NASCAR officials have not yet approved the car for competition.
"I think everyone was a little overconfident and got a little complacent and didn't pay attention to the details when building this car," Suhy said.
Mears on top
Casey Mears scored the biggest achievement of his short Nextel Cup career last season when he won the pole for the race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Mears, the nephew of four-time Indy 500 winner Rick Mears, didn't realize the significance of it until after he left the track for the weekend.
"It didn't soak in until I left this place," he said. "Then I realized how special and cool it really was to bring that Mears name to the top of the board again."
Mears and his No. 41 Dodge were briefly back on top of the board again Saturday when he was the fastest car in practice.
Still searching for his first career Cup win, Mears was hopeful he could get it Sunday at Indy.
"Everyone asks me what it would be like to win here and I really don't know what to say," he said. "It would be awesome to win here period. If it was my first win, that would be incredible."
Robby Gordon will be waiting for updates on good friend Paul Tracy, who is testing a Nextel Cup car next week for Richard Childress Racing. If the test at Michigan International Speedway goes well, Childress will give Tracy a car for the race there later this month.
"He's a terrific driver and I think he wants to see if he can do it, if he likes it and if he even wants to do it," Gordon said. "I think the goal for him and the advice I would give him is 'Don't crash and do the best job you can.' " `
Tracy, a star of the Champ Car Series, has been flirting with NASCAR for several years. Finally given permission by his open-wheel boss to give it a try, he and Childress came to this agreement. Although it seems the natural fit would be to give Tracy his first tryout on a road course, Childress said Michigan would be better.
"You can't really learn anything on a road course. We know he can drive on those tracks," Childress said. "Michigan is the right place for him because he has a lot of experience there. We'll see how it goes in the test and take it from there."
If Tracy does well and makes the jump to NASCAR, he'll have to adjust to a dramatically different schedule: Champ Car races just 14 events this season, while NASCAR has 36 races a year.
Plus, Champ Car tends to race in large cities and has events this season in South Korea, Australia and Mexico City. NASCAR is only in the United States and most of its events are in smaller towns.
"I've talked to him about that and tried to explain to him it's a lot different than what he's used to," Childress said. "I think he might be surprised the first time he goes to a place like Darlington, S.C."
Gordon, who drove three seasons for Childress, said that was the perfect team for Tracy.
"He's going to need good teammates and a good owner to make the adjustment and to learn to deal with the demands and the hectic schedule," Gordon said. "That's the team for him to do it with."
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press
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