Bruce Martin
Monday September 1st, 2008

DETROIT -- One of the biggest complaints about Brian Barnhart is that the IndyCar President, Competition Division, is usually "all bark and no bite" when it comes to enforcing penalties, that he often warns drivers against the sins of blocking but rarely penalizes offending drivers.

That changed in Sunday's Detroit Indy Grand Prix as Barnhart took a big bite out of Helio Castroneves' bid for a second straight victory.

Castroneves and Justin Wilson were engaged in quite a battle when the green flag waved on Lap 69, but when it became obvious that Castroneves was blocking, Barnhart ordered Castroneves behind Wilson on the 72nd lap.

What some found curious was that Barnhart made the call with Castroneves in a battle with Scott Dixon for the season title. There is a term in basketball when late in the game the officials let the outcome be "determined on the court" and often "swallow the whistle," overlooking some physical contact rather than calling a foul. But Barnhart had no choice.

"You can't officiate based on points or who's involved or what position they hold," Barnhart said. "You have to do it out of fairness and competition."

Tim Cindric is president of Team Penske and calls the shots for Castroneves, while team owner Roger Penske calls the pit strategy for Ryan Briscoe. Cindric is a master at understanding the rule book and objecting when he feels his team is right, and he was dumbfounded by the decision that helped Wilson win the race while Castroneves finished second.

"Hey, I just want to know what the situation is before we start," Cindric said. "We haven't seen that before. ... We're disappointed with second place when you are running for a championship."

Cindric said there is no reason to appeal the call -- they just have to accept it and move on to the final race of the season at Chicagoland, trailing Dixon by 30 points.

"Consistency is the only thing I ask for," Castroneves said. "I've been in this series since 2002 and we never had a situation like this. We always have a warning and then if you do it again, then you are going to be penalized.

"All of a sudden, I didn't get any warning. It was, 'Move over. You're going to get black-flagged.' It was uncalled for. I know that Brian Barnhart is trying to put pressure on and make everyone disciplined, but two races to go for the championship, I don't think it's the right thing to do."

It could have been a day when Scott Dixon wrapped up the second IndyCar Series championship of his career. Instead, he left Detroit feeling like anything but a champion after finishing fifth.

Not to worry, an eighth-place finish or better in the final race of the season (this weekend at Chicagoland) will give the New Zealander his first IndyCar championship since 2003. Even knowing that didn't make him any happier about Sunday's outcome.

Dixon was foiled by a pit strategy that had him come into the pits after leading the first 18 laps. The yellow flag waved after teammate Dan Wheldon and Jaime Camara crashed in the ninth turn.

It seemed like a smart move by Target/Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull, who calls Dixon's pit strategy. But when Castroneves and the other contenders decided to stay on the track, it left Dixon stuck on that fuel strategy.

"I didn't decide it," Dixon said of the strategy.

One of the admirable qualities about Dixon is his sincerity. He is perhaps the most sincere and honest drivers in the IndyCar Series, which means he always gives an answer from his heart rather than taking the safe, political approach.

And while his assessment about Sunday's pit strategy may not have been supportive of the team, he admitted his thoughts after the race were clouded by frustration.

"No, it's not calls or anything," Dixon said. "We win as a team; we lose as a team. But I think, you know, my anger or whatever is just from frustration.

"I think we clearly had the quickest car today. Nobody was going to touch us, and still we ended up fifth. So I think that's disappointing. I think that's what makes it tough to deal with. So for the moment, we weren't the quickest car. We maybe had a top 5, at best, in the 6th position. But I think when you lose like that, it's very tough."

When Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch got into their post-race spat at Bristol two weeks ago, it was a perfect opportunity for NASCAR to cash in on the publicity as race fans love a good feud. But instead of letting the two drivers air their grievances in a public way, NASCAR put both drivers on probation.

Are you kidding me?

At the beginning of the season, NASCAR officials said they were going to ease up on restrictions of drivers showing a little emotion after a highly-charged incident on the race track. They basically looked the other way after Tony Stewart popped Kurt Busch after the two were involved in a crash in the season's first "official" practice session for the Budweiser Shootout, using the line,"What happened in the trailer stays in the trailer."

But for some reason NASCAR felt it was necessary to put Kyle Busch and Edwards on probation after the two were involved in some on-track altercations on the cool down lap at Bristol, which resulted in nothing more than a minor spinout by Busch.

Had this happened on pit road following the race, NASCAR would have been more than justified because crew members and officials on pit road would be at risk. But on the Bristol backstretch, it was nothing more than a show of emotion that created a little water cooler talk.

By having its two main drivers on probation for six weeks, NASCAR has told them not to do anything else out of line. If either one does, he runs the risk of stronger penalties, which could cost his team a shot at the championship.

If that were to happen, what would NASCAR do next? Put them on "double secret probation?" Where's Dean Wormer of Farber College and Animal House fame when you need him?

As John Belushi would say, "Seven years of college down the drain."

"I thought the penalties were kind of strong," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "It was exciting but I don't think they deserved to be put on probation."

Instead of penalizing these two drivers, NASCAR should have given them a bonus for all the publicity the series received last week, giving fans some raw meat to chew on at a crucial point of the season as "The Chase for the Championship" begins in two weeks.

Twice in Sunday night's Sprint Cup race, a caution period had to be called after a caution light fell to the ground and landed on the track. The first instance came early in the race. Luckily, no cars were around when it happened. After crews repaired the damaged light, a piece came flying off, narrowly missing Juan Pablo Montoya's Dodge.

When the track previously known as California Speedway opened in 1997, it was a palace owned and operated by Penske Speedways. But after International Speedway Corporation (ISC) took over in 2000, what is now called Auto Club Speedway is no longer the glistening jewel that it once was.

Earlier this year, the speedway built a "marquee" overlooking Interstate 10 as a way to attract more attention to its facility. A better idea would have been to make sure all the caution lights were properly attached. And while at it, clean up the toilets in the restrooms.

For a track that likes to bill itself as "NASCAR goes to Hollywood," this facility is beginning to look more like the back lot.

"I own the car." -- Michael Andretti on the starting grid of the Detroit Indy Grand Prix when an overzealous Detroit Police officer was attempting to clear the grid, even though the command to start engines was still 10 minutes away.

"We would actually call him The Old Man on our team because he does have twice the amount of starts that I do and I probably have twice the amount of starts that Clint [Bowyer] does. Like Dale [Jarrett] said, it is hard to have a roast on Jeff because he is such an even keeled type of person across the board in competition and everyday life. He has brought a lot to our race team." -- Kevin Harvick on Jeff Burton's 500th NASCAR Cup start.

"First of all, I am too stupid to get to 500 starts. That is a long time. I will be doing something else." -- Clint Bowyer on RCR teammate Jeff Burton's 500th start.

"I don't know what the extra five laps are for. What the heck? They don't get it, you know what I mean? They've messed up the Winston and the All-Star race and they're messing up the Shootout. They ought to line us up and make us run 10 laps. They want us to run around there for 25 laps first, like a 25-lap segment, that would be cool. But 10 laps to go, all or nothing. That's what the fans want. That's what the drivers want. That last segment being 50 laps, I mean, we're all just going to sit there for 30 [laps]. I just don't get it. They don't get it. I don't understand. I don't know what the focus group is they're talking to; to get these kind of formats. It's frustrating because I want to like those races. I don't want to dread them and right now I'm dreading running them because the formats aren't fun." -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the changes to the Budweiser Shootout.

"We're friends, man. I even joke around with guys with myself that Carl is 'BFF Carl.' We're best friends. I don't believe it's a rivalry. I believe that we can still be friends and stuff like that and have that relationship on the race track. I might text him later and we'll go and get some 'In-N-Out Burger'. Oh wait; he doesn't eat that stuff probably. I don't know, maybe salads." -- Kyle Busch on his rivalry with Carl Edwards.

None other than Jimmie Johnson, who dominated Sunday night's Sprint Cup race at Fontana, leading 237 laps of the 250-lap race for his third victory of the season.

More importantly, it sent a signal that the two-time defending Sprint Cup champion is more than capable of winning a third Cup title in a row.

"To win this Chase, you're going to have to fight for wins every week, and every pit stop is going to count, because you're going to have at least the No. 18 (Busch) and the No. 99 (Edwards) to have to deal with, and I would expect a few others to have their stuff in order.

"More than anything, I'm happy to close the deal. It's very, very rare to have a car that dominant. In most cases, you end up doing something stupid, and I'm guilty of that in the past so it was nice to close the deal and lead all those laps and win the race."

Kevin Harvick has made plenty of his competitors mad on the race track, but a prank to teammate Jeff Burton actually made the elder statesman of Richard Childress Racing upset with Harvick.

According to Harvick, Burton has this fetish about his shoes, so one day "we took his shoes one day, I took them. We made up a fake eBay auction. We put them on eBay. He was pretty mad that someone had stolen his shoes out of his locker and he was head huntin' for the person that stole his shoes and wanted them pretty much fired, I think is a polite way to put it.

"We stole his shoes and took them over to [Matt] Kenseth's motorhome. Matt put them on [his feet] and we took pictures of them and then put this thing up on eBay, we had control of it the whole time. Little did he know that we were the ones that stole his shoes."

While NASCAR determines the final six of the 12 drivers that will compete in "The Chase for the Championship" in Saturday night's Chevy Rock and Roll 400 at Richmond the IndyCar Series will actually determine its champion Sunday at Chicagoland.

With six victories, including the 92nd Indianapolis 500, Scott Dixon is deserving of his second IndyCar title and his first since 2003. But Helio Castroneves has pushed it to the final race of the season and trails by 30 points.

Chicago is a great place to wrap up a series championship, although that will change after this season when IndyCar will end its 2009 season at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Another great thing about this weekend? A chance to watch the Chicago White Sox -- you know, the team that actually won the World Series three years ago and not the overblown fairy tale known as the Chicago Cubs.

While Cubs fans are too busy yakking away on their cell phones during the game, White Sox fans actually watch the baseball game, cheer when their team does well and criticizes them when they play poorly.

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