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Patrick eyeing NASCAR as George saga unfolds in IndyCar

WEST ALLIS, Wisconsin -- A Hulman-George family feud may provide IndyCar star Danica Patrick with the nudge she needs to jump to NASCAR.

Patrick was asked about that scenario by SI.com at the Milwaukee Mile on Saturday and said stability of the racing series will factor into her decision.

She is in the final year of her contract with Andretti Green Racing and has said she will look at any and all options, including a jump to NASCAR.

That option didn't diminish last week as reports of strife within the Hulman-George family surfaced. Never mind that Tony George's position as Indianapolis Motor Speedway CEO seems safe for now; the turmoil raised some concerns.

"That's kind of an interesting question," Patrick said. "What you want in a league is stability and upward momentum. I have no idea what that is right now. There seems to be conflicting answers and ideas on what is really happening."

Patrick has hired IMG to represent her as she negotiates her next contract. While her heart may be in IndyCar, her agent may see bigger opportunities -- financially and in terms of exposure -- in stock cars.

"All I'm really concerned about is the structure and the stability of the group I'm racing for," Patrick said. "Whether Tony George comes or goes, I think [the real concern is whether the] stability is there throughout the season, no matter what has happened. If that is the case, I don't think it will completely influence my decision. But I have to factor in everything."

Patrick finished fifth in Sunday's ABC Supply/A.J. Foyt Indy 225 at the Milwaukee Mile, her fourth-straight top-five finish. She is now fourth in IndyCar Series points, 22 behind leader Scott Dixon, and has established herself as one of the leading contenders for this year's series championship.

"It was a solid day," said Patrick, who finished third at the Indy 500 -- the highest finish ever for a female driver. "It was another top five. All of our finishes except for the season opener are top fives, and I presume that one would have been a top five as well. We really are becoming a championship contender. I really thought we had a good shot at winning [today], but those cars in front of me were really strong."

Helio Castroneves finished 11th, a week after becoming the ninth driver to win the Indianapolis 500, and said he believes Patrick has improved dramatically and should be considered a threat for the title as the season heads into June.

"I always said and have been outspoken about Danica in terms that she is a good driver," Castroneves said. "So if she is in the top five in points, no question she is doing a fantastic job. She deserves it. She has been driving very well. I think everybody in the top five is a contender."

Dixon's victory on Sunday was his 18th career IndyCar Series win. It put him four points ahead of Ryan Briscoe and Dario Franchitti, who are tied with 157 points apiece. Patrick is fourth with 139 points as the series heads to Texas Motor Speedway for Saturday night's race.

"There are so many good competitors," Dixon said. "They can pop up at any point. I think she could definitely be a factor, especially with a lot of ovals that we have left on the schedule. But there are a good six, seven, eight people that could win this championship and she is one of them."

Patrick's emergence as a legitimate contender rather than a novelty act could be coming at a perfect time for her to cash in on her new contract. The series certainly doesn't want to lose its most recognizable face.

IndyCar Series team owners drafted a letter to Mari Hulman George, the Chairman of the Board of IMS and the actual owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, urging her to keep her son as CEO of both IMS and the Indy Racing League.

"During the past week there have been many rumors and innuendos about our CEO Tony George," the statement read. "We, the IndyCar team owners, want to express our full support to Tony. As an innovator and leader of our sport, he continually strives to help and improve IndyCar racing, and for that we are exceptionally grateful."

The only team not listed is Vision Racing, which is owned by Tony George.

Mike Hull is the managing director of Target/Chip Ganassi Racing and has been on both sides of the IndyCar split. That team remained loyal to CART from 1996 to 2002 before joining the Indy Racing League in 2003.

"We support IndyCar racing," Hull said. "Tony George represents the brand that we represent. He has always represented the brand whole-heartedly and so has the Hulman-George family. I think they have a great responsibility to their lineage to continue to do that and on our side we need to do the same."

With tough economic times keeping sponsors from spending money in professional sports, including IndyCar, Hull admits this is yet another challenge the series has to face.

"Sponsors who are knowledgeable understand the nature of what we do and understand the value of what we do by having IndyCar racing as part of their brand," Hull said. "Target and IndyCar racing create a positive and synonymous brand to the general public, to the racing public, and Target will support the program as they always have and understand where we are going."

While Hull represents the upper level of IndyCar Series teams, Keith Wiggins of HVM Racing spoke on behalf of the smaller teams that are trying to survive in IndyCar.

Wiggins believes if the family splits up the IRL from IMS, then the laws of unintended consequences could have a dramatic negative impact on both businesses.

"The two help support each other and give it some security, but like any other business it has to stand on its own, as well," Wiggins said. "We have to focus on what we do, the return we get, the package we offer people, the value for their money and the sport we do and the direction it's going. I don't think that will have a big effect on this."

Terry Angstadt is the IndyCar Series president, and once worked across the street at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He continues to move forward, despite the uncertainty that exists with George's situation on the family board.

"I would be the first to say -- and it would give me a bit of a crutch if there was any significant impact or feedback to the League -- It's big news in Indianapolis and I'm not trying to downplay it, but we still have lots of momentum and don't see that as any type of deterrent at all," Angstadt said. "This is not slowing us down for one minute. We have so many opportunities to where we take our product. It has zero impact."

While Angstadt tries to put a positive spin on his situation, he realizes that ultimately George's fate lies with the family.

Kyle Busch takes particular delight in criticizing Dale Earnhardt Jr., especially since Busch was the driver let go by team owner Rick Hendrick to make room for Earnhardt when he left DEI.

Since that time, however, Busch has become arguably the best driver in the sport while Earnhardt has struggled. But after Busch made some critical comments about Earnhardt Friday at Dover, Junior confronted him before Sunday morning's drivers' meeting at Dover.

Earnhardt left his seat and walked across the room and sat down in the row in front of Busch and began engaging him in conversation. According to reports, the two spoke for less than two minutes, after which Earnhardt stood up and walked back to his seat. Immediately after, Busch turned to his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Joey Logano, who was seated alongside him, with a smirk on Busch's face.

"You got to make the most popular driver in the sport competitive, so you got to do what you got to do, I guess," Busch said Friday. [Earnhardt] is the one who brought that crew chief on. He's the one who pulled so hard to bring [Tony] Eury Jr. in. It looked like it was working there in the beginning and it hasn't worked since the summer of last year, really. Whatever makes them better, I guess.

"To be honest with you, besides that, [Lance McGrew] has got his hands full having to deal with what's going on, and if Junior doesn't run well then he's going to be the problem again. It's never Junior -- it's always the crew chief."

Earnhardt tried to shrug off Busch's comments on Friday, but apparently the words continued to sting him, which led to the impromptu conversation on Sunday.

When someone tried to ask Earnhardt after the race about what he said to Busch, a Hendrick PR representative intervened and said he would not allow his driver to comment on Busch.

But on Friday, Earnhardt said, "That doesn't really surprise me what Kyle [Busch] says. He's always had a chip on his shoulder for me. I expect anytime he gets an opportunity to throw a jab in there he's going to do it. That's just his personality. We're working toward trying to figure out how we can make our deal work and that has nothing to do with Kyle. We'll see how this weekend goes and then move forward next week."

Tony Stewart may have come up short in his bid for his first official Cup victory since becoming an owner/driver, but he has taken over the lead in the Sprint Cup standings.

Stewart leads Jeff Gordon by 46 points heading into next weekend's Pocono contest. It's the first time an owner/driver has led the standings since the late Alan Kulwicki at the end of the 1992 season, Nov. 15, 1992.

"Everybody respected Alan because he was an owner/driver and what he was able to accomplish," Stewart said. "But I think it was a little bit before I was really a die-hard NASCAR guy. I was still Sprint Car and midget racing at that point and wasn't able to keep up because we were racing the same days Cup was racing. It's a pretty cool moment to have your organization mentioned with his organization.

It was about a year ago when Stewart decided he would end his successful relationship with team owner Joe Gibbs to join forces with Haas Racing. Some of Stewart's critics thought he was crazy.

But Stewart has proven he's not only one of the best drivers in racing; he also has hired the right people to build a championship-contending organization.

"We're excited about it," Stewart said. "It's been a dream season for us up to this point, and you hope that you don't wake up tomorrow and all of a sudden realize that we're just getting ready to go to Daytona or something and it's all been a dream to this point.

"It's something that we probably all lost bets up to this point that we would be this far along. But it's a good bet to lose."

"Every time I have something to talk about Helio Castroneves does something." -- IndyCar Series driver Paul Tracy, whose post-qualifying media interview was interrupted by Helio Castroneves' crash in qualifications.

"I'm afraid that he might smack me with a hammer. He is one of the guys that came to me after my second Indy 500 win and said, `I can't say much it was a pretty darn good job.' Records are made to be broken and if it is meant to be, it is meant to be. I'm just waiting for the right time." -- Helio Castroneves when asked what Indy 500 legend A.J. Foyt might say if a Brazilian became the first five-time winner of the Indianapolis 500

"It's definitely a monster. To me, when I think of this track and how I would compare it to a monster, it's just extremely fast. It has a ton of grip. Obviously the banking is very high. So you're carrying a lot of speed and it really takes the breath out of you to put up a qualifying lap here, especially, but then to run the race and run 400 miles here, it's long and tough and treacherous. You've got to basically be a monster in the car to drive this track. You just really have to grab that steering wheel and get after it and get after it hard and be intense inside the race car to really put up a good lap. It's a fun race track, but it gets your attention." -- Jeff Gordon on Dover.

After a month in Indianapolis for the Indy 500 followed by a side-trip to Milwaukee for Sunday's IndyCar race, a trip home is long overdue. But that won't last long as it's time to hop on a plane and fly to Texas for Saturday night's IndyCar race under the lights at Texas Motor Speedway, where the sparks will fly.

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