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The decline of the Brickyard and more racing notes

INDIANAPOLIS -- When NASCAR arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Inaugural Brickyard 400 on Aug. 6, 1994, it was an event of epic proportions.

Not only was it the first time since 1918 that a race other than the Indianapolis 500 had been staged on the "hallowed grounds," but also the event helped launch NASCAR on its meteoric rise to national acceptance.

Sure, the 1979 Daytona 500 is regarded as the race that brought NASCAR into the national consciousness. But the first NASCAR race at Indianapolis proved that stock cars were just as worthy of racing at Indy as "the cars and stars" of the IndyCar racing.

The race was a huge success. Ticket demand was so high that it was estimated the first race could have been sold-out two-times over. In true NASCAR fashion, a young Jeff Gordon -- who spent his formative racing years in nearby Pittsboro, Ind. -- won the race for his second career victory. It helped make him a true legend and helped the Brickyard attain iconic status, leading some to predict that it would be bigger than the Daytona 500. With the late Dale Earnhardt winning in 1995 and Dale Jarrett in 1996, it was a race where the "big names" of the sport would triumph.

But 15 years later, the AllState 400 at the Brickyard is no longer the "earth-stopping" event that it once was. Last year's race had as many as 50,000 empty seats at the massive Indianapolis Motor Speedway. These weren't simply scattered empty seats throughout the facility but large gaps in the North Tower Terrace, Turn 3 and both the north and south chute areas.

And as Sunday's AllState 400 at the Brickyard looms closer, that trend is expected to continue in the face of a horrible economy with gasoline prices around $4.25 a gallon in the Midwest.

"Any time the economy takes a downturn, entertainment dollars become affected," says Joe Chitwood III, the president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. "Motorsports is more expensive to participate in because of the travel and the days of activity with the hotels. [The economy] affects the [racing] customer more than it does those who follow a stick and ball sport. That works against us."

But the 400 itself has become "just another race" because of several other factors:

1. THE ADVENT OF THE CHASE

About the only race not affected by The Chase in terms of stature is the season-opening Daytona 500. In other words, The Brickyard has become race No. 20 of a 26-race preseason to making the 12-driver Chase field.

"If there is one thing that probably is a change is all racers want to win the race but they look at their place in the standings and want to make The Chase as much as winning the race," Chitwood said. "That doesn't lend itself to the most compelling product because racing safe is different than racing to win.

"Should we go back? I don't know. You can argue those things all day long, but I do get a different sense as far as winning this event."

2. MIDWEST TRACKS

When the Brickyard was held for the first time in 1994, Michigan International Speedway was the only track located in the Midwest. Now, Indianapolis is surrounded by Chicagoland Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Michigan with Kentucky Speedway just a short drive southeast of Indianapolis. So if a race fan in the Midwest wants to attend a NASCAR race, there are plenty of options instead of going to the Speedway.

3. NO BIG OPEN TEST AT THE BRICKYARD IN THE LAST TWO YEARS

This is very important for promoting an upcoming event. The last two years, Indianapolis has been the site of a tire test, not an open test.

"If there is one thing we would love to have back is that open test," Chitwood said. "It gave the teams an opportunity to work on their setups and have a more competitive event. They only send one car per manufacturer. It's not like seeing 30 cars out there on a two-day test. I would love to see that open test session come back."

4. NASCAR DOESN'T TREAT THIS RACE ANY DIFFERENTLY FROM A PROMOTIONAL ASPECT

During the second year of the Nextel sponsorship, there was talk between the sponsor and NASCAR regarding "The Majors." The program would put extra promotional efforts for Daytona, Indy and the Bristol night race. But when the Sprint All-Star Race and the 400 at Daytona were not considered "Majors," the program wasn't implemented.

5. DRIVERS WHO DON'T RUN NASCAR HAVE STOPPED TRYING THE BRICKYARD

A.J. Foyt, Danny Sullivan, Geoff Brabham and even H.B. Bailey attempted to run the Brickyard 400. But with the state of the economy and the out of sight engineering emphasis in NASCAR, that is no longer feasible.

6. LET'S FACE IT; THE RACE IS DULL

There is better racing on Interstate 465. The only thing compelling about this race is the venue, not the action.

The track isn't suited for stock cars because the fans can't see the whole track. It's flat and the field spreads out. The Indianapolis 500 has a combination of speed, danger, fearlessness and tradition that makes it one of the most unique and exhilarating events in sports.

That's not to diminish the fact that the drivers who win the AllState 400 are among the most accomplished in NASCAR and usually contend for and win the title that year. A driver has to earn a victory at Indianapolis. There are no flukes. Even Ricky Rudd's victory in 1997 went to a driver who was named to NASCAR's 50 Greatest Drivers list in 1998.

The same can't be said for the Daytona 500, where the nature of restrictor-plate racing can make Michael Waltrip a two-time winner or where unheralded Derrike Cope can pull off the upset, like he did in 1990 when Dale Earnhardt had a flat tire in the third turn on the final lap.

So in that regard, Sunday's race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is more than "just another race."

By now you already know that a good, old-fashioned quarrel broke out on pit lane on Saturday morning involving none other than IndyCar star Danica Patrick and Venezuelan female driver Milka Duno.

Controversy has seemingly plagued Patrick since her April 20 victory in Japan made her the first female driver ever to win a race in a major closed-course racing series.

"I'm on the hot seat when I do something and when other people do something or say something," Patrick said. "It's the line that I walk. It's because I am popular, which is a good thing, so I just to keep that in mind.

"You have to walk a fine line all the time. There are two sides to it. I'm either popular and the things I do have positive and negative repercussions and are looked at, or I'm not popular and nobody notices what I do at all. I'd rather be popular and have people know what I do and be a little careful."

The most recent incident started when Patrick had difficulty passing Duno's car when she would not move out of the racing lane to let the faster car by. When Patrick finally got by, she drifted towards Duno's car in a sign of frustration.

After practice was over, Patrick walked down the pits, but on the other side of the pit wall, unlike her march down pit lane in an aborted attempt to confront Ryan Briscoe in this year's Indianapolis 500.

"You have no idea what you are doing out there; you're going to get someone hurt," Patrick said to Duno as a friend of Duno's shot video of the confrontation.

That's when Duno threw a towel at Patrick, who screamed, "What are you doing?"

Duno then said, "If you are going to act that way, you can go. I saw you. I saw you" and then threw the towel at Patrick again.

Patrick then exclaimed, "What the Hell? It's not my fault that you are slow. You are giving everybody a hard time out there."

When one of Duno's crew members interceded, Patrick said, "I just want to talk to her about it. It's happened three times this weekend."

Duno again ordered Patrick out of her pit and said, "You can pass cars because you are fast, yes? Then you could pass me with no problem."

Patrick then said, "When you are in the [bleeping] corner and you turn down, all I want to know is did you see me?"

Duno stormed off and Patrick said, "Brian Barnhart [IndyCar president of competition] is going to talk to you and can take care of this. I don't give a [bleep]."

After Patrick qualified a disappointing 20th in Saturday's qualifications she retreated to her motorhome where she took a nap. Duno returned to her team transporter and did not back off her confrontational attack on Patrick.

"What happened is she [Patrick] came in a bad way with bad words and I'm not going to talk with somebody that comes in like that," Duno said. "If she wants to find my worst side, she is going to find it. She came in a very bad way. She has pushed guys before because she knows a guy can't push back. But with me, forget about it. If she wants to find my worst side she is going to find it. It's not good for her to find that."

That is tough talk from a tough driver who would start last in the 26-car field and finish 23rd in Sunday's race.

"She came to me and said she couldn't pass me," Duno said. "I said she was faster, she could pass me in any corner. Don't pretend I'm going to move when they come. I keep my line and try to do the same. I am not blocking. I'm here to race and I'm not blocking. This is my way.

"With me, forget it. I am very, very explosive if you find my bad side. I don't like drama, I don't like shows, and I don't like this situation. We are here to have a good time and have a good race. When she started on a road course, she was very slow. She wasn't good on road course. I am here for work. I'm not complaining about that."

Several hours after the incident, Patrick spoke about her confrontation with Duno.

"I just had a few issues with her out on the track and I wanted to clear it up a little bit," Patrick said. "The last one in particular I wanted to know if she saw me because it didn't seem that she did. I wanted to know what the situation was."

When asked if she expected a towel in the face, Patrick gave a long pause and said, "No."

"Ideally no one would have ever found out we did it, but at that point in time, it's kind of hard to locate people when you get away from the car," Patrick explained. "I stayed behind the wall and wanted to ask what happened. I did not go down pit lane. I just had a question. That was it.

"Unfortunately, things that happen involving me tend to evolve. It really wasn't a big deal. That's it."

Patrick finished 12th in Sunday's race and was happy to just go racing rather than talk about Duno.

As far as she is concerned, Patrick has said her last word to Duno on Saturday's incident.

"Nope, I didn't talk to her. I did a little interview for the top of the show [ABC race telecast] and said I went down to ask her if she knew I was there and that was it," Patrick said. "I've never spoke to her before and I didn't know what to expect."

The response she got was certainly unexpected.

This year's AllState 400 at the Brickyard was supposed to be a triumphant return for two of the past three winners of the Indianapolis 500.

But for 2006 Indy 500 winner Sam Hornish, Jr. and 2007 winner Dario Franchitti, the 2008 NASCAR Sprint Cup season has given them little reason to celebrate a return to the scene of their greatest racing accomplishment.

Hornish has had a rather unspectacular rookie season for Penske Racing in the No. 77 Dodge Charger. Although he has shown flashes of potential, such as a solid run in the season-opening Daytona 500 and running second at Michigan in June before crashing near the end of the race, his season has been marked by low finishes and crashes.

When Hornish drove an IndyCar, he made difficult things on the track look easy. In NASCAR, Hornish makes easy things look difficult.

But the three-time IndyCar Series champion is determined to make it work in NASCAR as he returns to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for his first race since the 2007 Indy 500.

"It took me a while before I felt like I could win races and championships over there, too," Hornish said. "And everything I did before I went to the IndyCar Series was in preparation to be an IndyCar driver. It was in preparation to be there, and then coming over here, I had probably 15 races of preparation to come over here and be a stock car driver. I was real happy with what I was able to do but if I knew at some point in time I was going to be here, you probably would have went a different road.

"You would have run late models and ASA, ARCA and Camping World and ran a couple of year of Nationwide in preparation to be here. And I felt if I had done that I probably would have been doing a little bit better at this point in time but that wasn't the road I took."

By the time Hornish and team owner Roger Penske made the decision to bolt IndyCar for NASCAR, the driver was already an established American racing star.

But that brilliant career has been tempered by his stock car struggles.

"The decision to come over here was made later on in my career," Hornish said. "I'm still learning and that's the tough thing is that it's going to take a little bit of time. These cars are so much different, the things that you can tune on them to make them handle, make them do what you want them to do is a lot different.

"I can't tell the guys the same thing that I did to the IndyCar to make that run faster. It just doesn't work."

At least Hornish will get a chance to compete in the Brickyard, unlike Franchitti, whose ride was shut down at the end of June by team owner Chip Ganassi when proper sponsorship for the No. 40 Dodge could not be secured.

That leaves the 2007 IndyCar Series champion and Indy 500 winner running in selected Nationwide Series races while he attempts to determine his future as a race car driver.

"I don't know yet," Franchitti said at Chicagoland Speedway on July 10. "[I don't know what the options are going to look like until certainly after tomorrow. The phone's been ringing, which has been nice, from all kinds of different places. We'll see what happens.

"I was thinking about that the other day, and when I made the decision to leave IndyCar it was because I felt I had run my course. I didn't feel I was going to have that, I don't know what the right word, determination maybe to get back in the car again this year. I really felt it was time to do something else. Had I not come to NASCAR, I would have done something else apart from IndyCar. I loved my time and the championship. I really enjoyed it. Obviously last year was a great year, but it was time to do something different. This has been a bonus, really."

Franchitti has even reached out to talk to other Cup team owners in an effort to stay in stock cars but realizes he may ultimately move to sports car racing. But as far as he is concerned, his IndyCar days are over.

"We are starting to look around, starting to talk," Franchitti said. "But really nothing is going to happen until I speak to Chip and see what his position is, see what his plan is for the future and see if it's something that I'm interested in, then I can make a decision.

"I certainly owe Chip that much and then we'll go from there. I had so much luck last year in IndyCar that I really felt at times I couldn't do any wrong. Luck has a way of balancing out. I'll have to have a long, hard thought process about getting back in an Indy car because, like I say, I loved my time there. I really enjoyed it but I was ready at the end of last year to do something else.

"But never say never. I might decide that's something I want to do again but I really don't know right now. It would be a shame to waste everything that I've learned in six months and the progress that I've made."

"I have to say I never thought I would ever see Paul Tracy drive for Tony George. I wonder if Tracy is going to put a 'Crap Wagon' decal on his car."

-- Former IndyCar driver Bryan Herta on the irony of Tracy driving an IndyCar for George in this Saturday's Rexall Edmonton Indy.

(It was George who made the final ruling in the disputed finish of the 2002 Indianapolis 500, preserving the victory for Helio Castroneves when it was ruled that Tracy had passed Castroneves at the end of the race after the caution light had been turned on. Tracy believes he won that year's Indy 500, even listing his greatest achievement as "Winning the 2002 Indianapolis 500" in the following year's CART Media Guide and referred to IndyCar as "Crap Wagon.")

"Well, I think the last time I set foot in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was the day I was told I had no Indy 500 trophy, and that was the last time I've actually been to the track. So a lot of water has passed under that bridge for me. And moving on. I was over it the next week, winning at Milwaukee and a lot of time has passed since then. I've been able to win a championship and do a lot of other great things in my career. Now the series is one. And with that merger, there have been some people that have been left to the side. But I think it's I don't want to speak for Tony, but I think it's his intention that he wants to have the best of both sides competing and just had to wait for the opportunity for that to happen."

-- Paul Tracy on his return to IndyCar racing.

"There is little question that last time Paul left here he left feeling great disappointment and that was many years ago. It had been many years since he was here. It's been many years since he's been back. We welcome him back and are happy he's here and happy to be a part of giving him the opportunity to participate this year.

"This whole year has been about looking forward. We spent a great deal of time over the past 10 or 12 years looking backward. And this whole season has been about looking forward. And this hopefully will create an opportunity for Derrick and Paul to reestablish themselves in IndyCar racing, in open wheel racing for the future. And I think that as has been touched on, more than any time in recent memory, this sport is as competitive as it's ever been. But more than anything my hope is that it can maybe lead to something else later this year. And if not, next season."

-- Vision Racing team owner and IndyCar CEO Tony George on Paul Tracy's return.

"It's like you're swimming, you're swimming, you're never going to get there because the current is so strong. You just have to be patient. Once you fall back, like where we were, between fifth and sixth, and everybody's pretty much on the same strategy, we just keep like hoping for those guys go a little bit faster, that you can open up strategy. When you pit, those guys have different strategy, you can come back in front of them. Unfortunately, that opportunity sometimes is very hard to happen. We just have to sit and wait."

-- Helio Castroneves after finishing second to teammate Ryan Briscoe in Sunday's Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio.

"I wouldn't say it's huge fun trying to keep tabs on where people are, people that you're chasing for a championship. But that's the deal about it. And it's not all about going out and winning races; it's about having consistency, finishing races, you know, making the maximum of every situation."

-- Scott Dixon after finishing third in Sunday's Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio.

Obviously the AllState 400 at the Brickyard is the headline race of the weekend as NASCAR makes its annual visit to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This will be the first Brickyard contested with the new car, so it will be interesting to see if this brand of vehicle can stage a better race on the flat track than in the past. Because many of the Brickyard's top drivers are struggling with the setup on the new car, expect to see a new driver in victory lane on Sunday afternoon.

My pick is Kyle Busch. The last time Toyota won at the Speedway was the 2003 Indianapolis 500 with Gil de Ferran.

Also, the IndyCar Series goes north of the border to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada for the Rexall Indy Edmonton. The race will be held on an airport street course, making it fast and competitive. Turnout for this race could be huge. When Champ Car raced at Edmonton, the three-day spectator attendance was well over 200,000.

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