Earnhardt savvy, if not silent, on tricks of trade

ON MOTOR SPORTS

April 04, 2004|By SANDRA McKEE

Dale Earnhardt Jr. can't keep a secret, but he's still a pretty smart stock car driver.

He was having tire trouble and was in danger of going a lap down at Bristol Motor Speedway on March 28. He then intentionally spun his car to bring out the caution he needed to make a pit stop.

He'd no sooner done it before blabbing about it on his team's radio, and afterward said to the media, "What was I going to do, let them lap me?"

NASCAR responded in the name of integrity and docked him $10,000 and 25 points in the Nextel Cup points standings. The loss of the points is supposed to be significant because of the new system that sets up The Chase to the Championship over the last 10 races. Drivers have to be in the Top 10 or within 400 points of the leader to be in the running.

But don't feel too sorry for Earnhardt. Despite the penalty, he might have outfoxed NASCAR president Mike Helton.

Earnhardt finished 11th in the Food City 500. Had he been lapped and forced to stop for tires under green, he would have lost at least two laps. With less than 70 to go, his finish certainly would have been a lot worse. Ricky Craven finished one lap down in 22nd place. Tony Stewart lost two laps and was 24th.

If not for the spin, Earnhardt, third in points before the penalty and third in points after it, may well have taken a big tumble in the standings.

Pretty smart, it says here.

New spark for new series

The newly organized Champ Car World Series got a boost last week when RuSPORT, owned by Carl Russo, decided to "stretch" its capabilities to add a second car for Michel Jourdain Jr.

Russo will be in his first season in the Champ Car Series, having moved his team over from Toyota Atlantic, where his driver, A.J. Allmendinger, won last season's championship. He had no intention of fielding two cars, but then Jourdain and his Mexican department store sponsor became available.

Jourdain, a two-time race winner last season, was searching for a team because he decided not to move to the Indy Racing League with team owners Bobby Rahal and David Letterman.

"It was a really hard decision to make, but this is where I want to be," said Jourdain, 27. "These are the races I want to win. I'm here. I want to win them. I decided to stay here because this is what I thought was best for me and my career."

The Rahal move was a big blow to CCWS, which had just announced an ambitious schedule. With the loss of the Rahal teams, it seemed unlikely Champ Car organizers would be able to field enough cars for the season opener in Long Beach, Calif., April 18.

But with last week's announcement the car count is up to 17 and Long Beach is still a go.

Kenseth stays focused

When NASCAR changed its points system at the end of last season, it was partly done to make sure it doesn't have another Cup champion with just one win. The implications irritated Matt Kenseth, who had just clinched his first title with the one win that so bothered the sport's sanctioning body.

But Kenseth hasn't been pouting. Instead, he has been stepping on what used to be called "the foot-feed." Six races into the season he has two wins and three other Top 10 finishes.

And yes, he leads the Nextel Cup points race going into the Samsung/RadioShack 500 at Texas Motor Speedway today.

"It was good to come out and do that," he said in typical understatement.

Running in the family

Marco Andretti, the 16-year-old son of Michael Andretti and grandson of Mario Andretti, clinched his second Skip Barber Formula Dodge Southern Region Race Series championship last weekend. The latest Andretti to race, Marco won 10 races in 14 starts.

Tripling their chances

Rahal/Letterman will field three cars in the Indy 500 next month. In the seat of one will be second-year driver Roger Yasukawa. As a rookie Yasukawa finished 10th at Indy in 2003. Now, he said, his goal is to win.

"I think that's my ultimate goal," Yasukawa said. "It would be big. In terms of the IndyCar Series in Japan, I think they're still looking for a Japanese hero - someone who can win races. No one has done that yet. Hopefully I can be the first one to do that."

What would it mean if he did?

"If anything, I know I'll have a job for the rest of my life," he said, smiling. "Maybe they'll make me president of Honda."

Cup sponsorship costly

Major sponsorships in the Nextel Cup Series are getting harder and harder to find, what with costs climbing toward $20 million a year. Driver Jeff Burton is still looking for a full-time sponsor, despite being a proven winner with 17 wins and driving for champion car owner Jack Roush.

That being the case, owners have had to look in unusual places for sponsors. Burton has had a series of single-race sponsors this season, including the NBA All-Star Game at the Daytona 500. Now comes word Dave Blaney, who has run in just two of this season's races, will be back full time in a Bill Davis-owned car sponsored by Batesville Speedway in Locust Grove, Ark.

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