What a difference a year makes

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EDMONTON, Alberta --There are 1,823 miles between Indianapolis and this prairie city, where streaks of summer sunlight remain until 11:30 p.m. But on Sunday, there was more than just passing interest among the IndyCar Series community with Sunday's AllState 400 at the Brickyard NASCAR race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

A bad race and a small crowd at the Speedway could adversely affect the bottom line of the Indy Racing League -- which is owned by the IMS Corporation and sanctions the IndyCar Series. So while IndyCar teams were preparing for Sunday's Rexall Edmonton Indy, four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rick Mears, three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves and Australia's Will Power, the driver who would go on to win Sunday's Edmonton race, took a break in the Team Penske motor home office to watch the Brickyard.

After last year's Goodyear tire disaster, in which tires were blowing up after six to eight laps, Sunday's race turned into a normal Brickyard affair, with long periods of green flag racing. And while Sunday's crowd was the smallest in the 16-race history of NASCAR at Indianapolis, it could have been a lot worse. NASCAR announced a crowd of 180,000 fans, and though Indianapolis Motor Speedway officials do not announce crowd figures, it was much better than the gloom and doom forecasts detractors feared.

There's been plenty of criticism in this column blasting Goodyear for the shoddy tire it brought to last year's race and NASCAR for its continued arrogance that created an environment for such a debacle to happen. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was spared any criticism about the track surface for the simple reason that the current diamond-ground surface has been used since 2004 and had not presented a problem for neither the cars in the Indianapolis 500 before last year, nor for the heavier NASCAR stock cars. Also, the Michelin tire situation in the '05 United States Grand Prix, where 14 of the eight cars in the race pulled into pit lane and refused to participate in the race, was for a sidewall loading issue, not for tires wearing through to the cord in less than 10 laps.

Nobody is going to get blasted this year, however, except for the media members at Indianapolis who complained about the return of boring racing. After last year's fiasco, "boring racing" was a dramatic improvement.

So it's time to pass out equal amounts of praise to the entities that stepped up and made sure Sunday's AllState 400 at the Brickyard was a success.

NASCAR deserves praise for addressing this issue head-on. Last year, vice president of competition Robin Pemberton vowed that "this would never happen again," and he went to great lengths to ensure that.

Despite NASCAR's ban on teams testing at race tracks that host Sprint Cup, Nationwide, Camping World Truck Series and other NASCAR events, officials worked with Goodyear to make sure there was plenty of tire testing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Moreover, Goodyear provided a suitable racing tire for the abrasive surface after conducting seven tire tests at Indianapolis, beginning last fall and continuing through the summer months.

It was a slow process as some of the tire compounds showed only slight improvement. But steadily, reports would filter back that the tires were lasting 17 laps, then lasting a bit longer, until, finally, there was a tire compound that would last for an entire fuel stint of 30-35 laps.

"Last year was a bad situation," said crew chief Chad Knaus, who visited victory lane at the Speedway for the second year in a row after Jimmie Johnson won Sunday's race. "I think everybody needs to realize that everybody put a big finger on Goodyear, saying that was their fault last year. Ultimately, it wasn't. The testing was limited last year. We actually came up and did the test for them. There was rain. So it wasn't a very good test for them to try to bring a car up here and get the thing going.

"I think they were put behind a big eight ball coming up here. To come up here cold turkey, expect them to develop and have a tire prepared to race at a track like this, as coarse as the surface is, make it all happen, it wasn't fair to them."

And this year?

"Unfortunately, Goodyear made a tire a little bit too good and we didn't have much falloff," said Knaus. "There again, it's kind of something happens at this racetrack, race position is so important, so key. Once you get behind somebody, it's very, very difficult to pass someone. That's one thing I was happy about our car today, we were actually able to pass people. Catch people on the racetrack and then pass them."

That's high praise from one of NASCAR's great mechanical minds to say that the Goodyear tires were actually "too good," but that's exactly what had to be done. There was no way to risk the tire compound, because one blowout would have been one too many at the Brickyard this year.

Now that NASCAR and Goodyear have proven that they can stage a race at the Speedway without any further debacles, IMS officials can continue to work on promoting the NASCAR race and attempting to lure fans back to the Brickyard. It was clear to see all the way from Edmonton that predictions of the Brickyard's demise were greatly exaggerated.

NASCAR missed out on a huge story when it nailed Juan Pablo Montoya with a speeding ticket on his final pit stop. Montoya dominated Sunday's race and was set to become the first driver to win both the Indianapolis 500 and the AllState 400 at the Brickyard. But rules are rules. Montoya's trip down pit road clicked off at a tenth-of-a-mile-per-hour over 60 mph.

Crew chief Brian Pattie said there is no point in discussing the issue with NASCAR because the pit road speed indicator is electronic and not open to human error. "It's not like the old days, where everybody is doing handheld [stopwatches]. It's black and white," said Pattie. "It is what it is. They did their job. Now we go back and do ours. We have six more [races until the Chase]."

Felix Sabates, a partner with team owner Chip Ganassi on Montoya's team, wanted to see the proof that his driver was speeding. "You can imagine we lead most of the race and with 25 laps to go they penalize us," he said. "I don't know if he was speeding or not. NASCAR said that he was. And they have the pictures of it, so I just want them to show it to me after the race, and if they show it to me that he was speeding, I'll be happy with that."

As for Montoya, the race was reminiscent of his Indy 500 victory in '00, when the then-CART champion from 1999 came to the Speedway and whipped the field of IRL regulars. "It actually reminded me of the last time I led here; it was kind of easy, to be honest. I was cruising," Montoya said. "The car was stupid fast."

Given the circumstances, perhaps it was too stupid fast.

Imagine this. Fifty-year-old Mark Martin could have won at the 100-year-old track.

Once Montoya was penalized, pole winner Martin was in the lead and set to make history by becoming the oldest driver to win a race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But his Chevrolet simply couldn't catch and pass Hendrick Motorsports teammate Johnson.

"You can't win if you wreck," Martin said. "I was driving as fast as I could without wrecking, man.

"You can say what you want, but I've had some days this year. That's not the way to approach me. It's been my day this year, all year. I'd love to have won the race. But I'm very grateful to have had a chance at it. I got beat. I didn't get her done. But I gave it my heart. So did my race team. I'm grateful for it.

"It's better than 42nd, man."

Although he gave up the lead to Johnson with NASCAR's new "side-by-side restart." Martin still likes the rule and believes it did what it was intended to do.

"I think the restarts did their job again today," Martin said. "They changed the outcome. I think the only way you are going to make it exciting at the end of the day is change the outcome, that way you have to watch. You don't know what's going to happen. You never know when there's going to be a caution or a 'green-white-checkered'.

"When you have that, it doesn't matter which lane you choose, when you stack the other driver next to you, anything can happen anywhere back in there, as you saw at Chicago. That rule is for the fans. You're going to win some and lose some on it."

The fact that Felipe Massa is still alive today is a testament to his racing helmet and the medical crews at the Hungarian Grand Prix. When a spring off Rubens Barrichello's car flew through the air and drilled Massa in the head during Saturday's qualifications, it fractured his skull and sent his Ferrari into a high-speed crash in the tire barrier. Surgery was successful and Massa is now in stable condition.

A racing helmet is one of the most important safety features a race driver has, but not even a helmet can provide full protection when a large piece of debris the size of a spring hits a driver in the head.

It's uncertain if or when Massa will return to racing, but Ferrari has to find a replacement for the upcoming races. One driver who won't fill in is retired seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher, who, despite filling in as Ferrari's test driver, intends to stay retired.

"Not really. I mean I think it's great for them, and that guy is so talented. The team is so good, but we're competitors. We want to be the ones up there getting the wins. I'm proud of Hendrick Motorsports and I'm proud of those guys. But satisfaction is not exactly how I would describe it." -- Jeff Gordon when asked if he was "happy to see Jimmie Johnson win" at the Brickyard.

While NASCAR sticks to the flat tracks with another trip to Pocono Raceway, it's back to the ovals for the IndyCar Series as it heads to Kentucky Speedway. This is the first oval track race since Richmond at the end of June and the only oval during a five-race stretch in the IndyCar schedule. As for Pocono, this race always ends up as a fuel mileage contest.