Brant James
Tuesday July 27th, 2010

NASCAR Power Rankings

There's just something about Indianapolis that fires the news cycle. Chip Ganassi achieved a historic Triple Crown. Jamie McMurray became a legend, while teammate Juan Pablo Montoya just missed again. And 16th and Georgetown might have been reclaimed by ghosts of motorsports past. Have a comment? Send to siwriters@simail.com. You can also follow me on Twitter at twitter.com/brantjames

1Chip Ganassi, history-maker
Chip Ganassi, history-maker
Two years ago, his Sprint Cup team was bleeding sponsors and shedding drivers. One year ago his merger with Dale Earnhardt Inc. seemed more like a mutual bailout than a forward-angled business proposition. Chip Ganassi has emerged brilliantly, becoming the first to win a Daytona 500, Indianapolis 500 and Brickyard 400 in the same year. He was in a fraction of a second from adding a Rolex 24 Grand Am victory this year also. Call it the Chip Slam.
 
2The big-game hunter
The big-game hunter
Jamie McMurray was tinkering with a go-kart under a tent outside the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla., this winter, impressive but overdressed in his new black Bass Pro Shops fire suit. The 34-year-old spoke with great anticipation of his reunion with Ganassi, who had given him his first full Sprint Cup ride in 2003. Both had grown as professionals since McMurray left for what seemed a dream opportunity at ultra-successful Roush Fenway in 2006, he said. Ganassi's new merger with DEI had made the team far stronger than his first campaign there. It all sounded good, but this was still a driver with three Cup wins in 258 races since 2002, at that point, and one who had squandered an opportunity at Roush. Then there was the realization that a return to Ganassi was one of very few opportunities available to him in the offseason. It was another marriage of convenience, or so it seemed. Turns out McMurray had it right. If nothing, he possessed a knack for being a big-moment driver, notching wins at Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400, claiming the moment that seemed so tailored for Ganassi's other driver, Juan Pablo Montoya.
 
3Mark Martin's future
Mark Martin's future
The 51-year-old Sprint Cup veteran insists he will fulfill the final year of his contract with Hendrick Motorsports and drive the No. 5 Chevrolet next season. He's blistered the media for speculation otherwise, even as owner Rick Hendrick seeks a spot for Kasey Kahne, who will take over the No. 5 in 2012 but is in limbo for 2011. Now Kahne's former team owner and current ESPN analyst Ray Evernham speculates Martin will step down and cede way. Hendrick said this weekend that he couldn't say anything because the situation is so fluid.
 
4Indy cars redux
Indy cars redux
Tony George threw open the gates to Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1994 and NASCAR drove right through and right over open wheel racing -- which he was about to split by creating the breakaway Indy Racing League -- to fortify its position as the nation's most popular form of motorsports. George used the flow of revenues from burgeoning NASCAR crowds to bolster his business ventures, including propping up the IRL. Still, many open wheel zealots would never forgive him for allowing stock cars to sully the yard of bricks and surrender the regimen's high, if only imagined, perch.

Nearly two decades later, with open-wheel racing attempting to make a comeback as a unified series, and NASCAR attempting to wean itself from the excesses lost to a sluggish economy, IndyCar might have taken back the castle. Granted, the speedway does not release attendance figures, but the crowd for the Indianapolis 500 this May might have been almost double the crowd of the Brickyard 400 on Sunday. NASCAR estimated a crowd of 140,000, while other observers estimated it closer to 100,000. If accurate, 140,000 fans is an impressive turnout, but looked bleak spread over a 257,000-seat venue, especially in comparison to the good old days. NASCAR estimates had the seats virtually filled as recently as three years ago. NASCAR continues to dominate in almost every measurable category against open wheel racing, but it appears the daredevils have reclaimed their old turf. With IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard (pictured) conceding his sport lost 15-to-20 million fans to NASCAR in the 1990s, but vowing to bring them home, maybe a little creative tension is a good thing between the series. And like everything else, it starts in Indianapolis.
 
5Sam Hornish Jr.'s future
Sam Hornish Jr.'s future
In 2006, the future three-time Indy Racing League champion chased down Marco Andretti in the final millimeters to win a thrilling Indianapolis 500 and crown one of the greatest careers ever by an American open wheel driver. Later that year he would begin his NASCAR apprenticeship. Two years later he made a full-time switch to Sprint Cup, where he has languished, by his standards, to the point where he doesn't seem confident in even returning to the Penske organization he idolized as a child. Hornish Jr. was spun in the opening lap and finished 30th on Sunday in his third attempt to become the first driver to win at Indianapolis in an open wheel and stock car. He considers NASCAR unfinished business and seems ill at ease with the feeling of returning to the IndyCar series, though it would be a gift to both he and open wheel racing. Dario Franchitti survived the inevitable insinuations about NASCAR being too difficult for open wheel drivers and returned to win Indy and a second championship. Hornish Jr., 31, should return home while there is still time.
 
6Indianapolis Motor Speedway, one vindictive track
Indianapolis Motor Speedway, one vindictive track
Race tracks are made of steel and asphalt, possess no emotions, hold no grudges. But the emotions we project upon these places and the experiences we have at these venues breathe life into them. Indy, therefore, is still angry with Montoya for taking its greatest prize, the Borg-Warner Trophy, in his first Indianapolis 500 in 2000, and continues to extract tribute. After dominating in 2009 and being undone by a speeding penalty, he led a race-high 86 laps but was scuttled by a crucial four-tire stop that dropped him in traffic and made his No. 42 Chevrolet hard to handle. He later crashed. Perhaps now they're square. Mario Andretti might beg to differ. So might Tony Stewart..
 
7IZOD IndyCar Series security chief Charles Burns
IZOD IndyCar Series security chief Charles Burns
Helio Castroneves (pictured) was irate and seeking any league official he could accost after being black-flagged out of an apparent victory at Edmonton on Sunday. League president of competition and race steward Brian Barnhart was not readily available and Burns, omnipresent with his sunglasses and you-better-not-be-breaking-the-rules demeanor, happened to toddle up with Penske Racing president Tim Cindric. Burns seemed amused when Castroneves took two handfuls of his stylish IZOD officials shirt for emphasis before Cindric pulled him away. Lost in the fray of the apparently by-the-book, but heavy-handed Barnhart call was Castroneves' total lack of self-control, for which he later apologized. He should hope IndyCar officials are more reasoned when they decide whether to make an example of him, again.
 
8Milka Duno
Milka Duno
The IZOD IndyCar Series placed Duno on probation through the end of the year for failing to meet the competitive standards of the series. Commendable move. But, will she suddenly be spurred to more speed and deftness of car-control? Contesting her first full IndyCar season with Dale Coyne, she has often skipped qualifying to start from the rear but was more than six seconds off the pace at Edmonton this weekend. The Venezuelan's long-standing sponsor relationship with state oil giant Citgo has provided sports cars, IndyCars and stock cars throughout her career, sometimes to the chagrin of her counterparts. Some of that is certainly spurred by jealousy, but some by fear of her unpredictability on-track, which is much more of an issue in high-speed open wheel cars than it was in the Grand Am Series. Series CEO Bernard told Autosport.com "I don't want to run any sponsor out of the paddock, but we must give our fans a credible series." Perhaps Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez would make things easier on the ethanol-powered series by actually following through on that threatened oil embargo of the United States.
 
9Karma police
Karma police
NASCAR has begun fining drivers for making disparaging remarks about the series that might damage the brand, according to the Associated Press. The series has always made it clear that NASCAR is management, drivers and owners are labor and can leave if they please. Those laborers will, of course, stay because NASCAR makes them rich. It will be interesting, though, to see how a fan base that idolizes big-talkers and overt personalities will reconcile the further mind-erasing of their heroes.
 
10Sprint Cup schedule changes
Sprint Cup schedule changes
NASCAR chairman Brian France promised "impactful" changes as the 2011 schedule nears completion. Impact would be of great help as fans, sponsors and media debate/lament/parse the "NASCAR's dead" narrative that, rightly or not, continues to gain momentum.

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