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Cup Race Has Been a Crawl

NASCAR’s Nextel Cup Chase for the Championship, a 10-race playoff for the top 10 drivers after 26 races, reaches the halfway point Saturday night at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C.

The results of Brian France’s first major change after taking over leadership of NASCAR from his father, Bill France Jr., won’t be known until next month. But there already have been some unsettling repercussions. And controversy.

The stated purpose of changing from a 36-race points series to the 10-race shootout was to get “more people to follow NASCAR in the fall,” when baseball playoffs and football hog the spotlight.

There never was a question of on-site attendance. The tracks were sold out with 100,000 to 200,000 spectators every weekend, so that wouldn’t change. What France and his staff really wanted was an increase in their TV ratings. It hasn’t happened.

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Ratings are down from 2003, but NBC officials point out that comparisons are not fair because the first two races coincided with hurricanes sweeping the Southeast, the heart of NASCAR.

Even so, there is a perception that the playoff drivers are not going all out for victory, but are more interested in staying out of trouble, finishing in the top five or 10, and collecting points. The kiss of death in only 10 races is to fall out and finish 30th or worse, as Jeremy Mayfield and Ryan Newman have done twice.

Mark Martin, fifth in points in his 17th Cup season driving for Jack Roush, announced Thursday that he planned to retire after the 2005 season. Four times a series runner-up, Martin’s chances of winning the Cup this year were hurt when he finished 20th last Sunday.

Consistency, as it was last year when Matt Kenseth won the old-style points race despite having won only one race, is still paying off. Kurt Busch, the leader after four races, won the playoff opener at New Hampshire, then finished 5-5-6 in the next three. He leads Dale Earnhardt Jr. (3-9-1-9 in four races) by 29 points and four-time champion Jeff Gordon (7-3-19-13) by 79.

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The play-it-safe syndrome was apparent last Sunday at Kansas City, Kan., where the first three, and six of the top 10, including winner Joe Nemechek, were not in the championship chase.

“The boys in the championship chase have more to lose than we do,” Nemechek said. “We’re on the offense, they’re on defense.”

For controversy, NASCAR fined Earnhardt 25 points for using a vulgarity in the excitement over his win at Dover, Del., a move that at the time dropped him from first to second behind Busch. In announcing the fine, officials said it was necessary because two other drivers earlier in the season had been docked similar points for ill-timed remarks.

However, when Johnny Sauter and Ron Hornaday were fined 25 points, it was over a 36-race season. Earnhardt’s was in a 10-race season, a much stiffer penalty.

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Speaking of Nemechek and his victory, it was part of a very successful weekend for Army sports.

After the West Point Cadets started things by beating Cincinnati on Saturday, ending a 19-game football losing streak, the spotlight shifted to motor sports.

Tony Schumacher not only won Sunday’s rain-delayed Lucas Oil Nationals finals in his U.S. Army top-fuel dragster at Reading, Pa., he also clinched the National Hot Rod Assn.'s Powerade series championship.

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At the same event, Angelle Savoie beat teammate Antron Brown in a duel of U.S. Army pro stock bikes.

And in Kansas City, Nemechek became the only driver outside the top 10 to win during the chase.

“I am so proud to represent the Army,” said the 41-year-old veteran from Lakeland, Fla. “I have the best sponsor in the garage. I want to thank all the troops in the states and overseas. I hope we made them proud. I’ve always said that they deserve to have their car in Victory Lane.”

It was the first Nextel Cup win for the Army-sponsored car.

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Southland Scene

With 2003 winner Scott Brant retired, there will be a new champion crowned at the 36th annual U.S. National Speedway championships Saturday night at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa.

Six former winners, Mike Faria of Reno, Bobby Schwartz of Costa Mesa, Chris Manchester of San Clemente, Alan Christian of Reno, Charlie Venegas of San Bernardino and Bart Bast of Foresthill, will be among the 20 starters in the head-to-head shootout. Ryan Fisher of Norco and Billy Janniro of Vallejo, who have been racing in Europe, have returned to seek national honors.

Favored are Schwartz and Faria, both 47. Schwartz won his first U.S. title in 1986, Faria in 1990. Racing will start at 7:30 p.m. on the 190-yard oval, the shortest -- and the oldest -- speedway track in the country.

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One of the tightest races in local sprint car history continues Saturday night at the tiny Ventura Raceway oval when Rip Williams, Damion Gardner and Mike Kirby battle for supremacy in the Valvoline USAC/CRA series. Gardner’s win in the Jeff Bagley Classic last week at Perris moved him within 73 points of Williams, with Kirby only five more back.

Irwindale Speedway will run the Western World Figure 8 championship Saturday night.... Round 6 of the AMA Supermoto championship, a series that combines elements of road racing, flat track and motocross, will be held Sunday at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.... Mesa Marin Raceway in Bakersfield will hold its 27th annual October Classic this weekend with a potpourri of NASCAR and pro truck events. The Ford Motorcraft 150 for Southwest series cars is set for Saturday night, with a Grand National West and a 125-lap late model race on Sunday.... There is no racing at Perris Auto Speedway because the Southern California Fair is opening on the Lake Perris Fairgrounds.

Passings

Cactus Jack Turner, who survived three spectacular flips in consecutive Indianapolis 500s in the 1960s, died Sept. 12 in Renton, Wash. He was 84. His best finish was 11th in 1957, driving the Bardahl Special.

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This Week

NASCAR NEXTEL CUP

UAW-GM Quality 500

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* When: Saturday, Channel 4, 4 p.m.

* Where: Lowe’s Motor Speedway (quad-oval, 1.5 miles, 24 degrees banking in turns); Concord, N.C.

* Race distance: 500 miles, 334 laps.

NASCAR BUSCH

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The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie 300

* When: Today, TNT, 5 p.m.

* Where: Lowe’s Motor Speedway.

* Race distance: 300 miles, 200 laps.

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NASCAR Craftsman Trucks

Silverado 350K

* When: Today, qualifying, 12:15 p.m.; Saturday, race (Speed Channel, 11 a.m.).

* Where: Texas Motor Speedway (quad-oval, 1.5 miles, 24 degrees banking in turns), Fort Worth.

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* Race distance: 219 miles, 146 laps.

INDY RACING LEAGUE

Chevy 500

* When: Today, qualifying, 2:30 p.m.; Sunday, race (Channel 7, 9:30 a.m.).

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* Where: Texas Motor Speedway.

* Race distance: 300 miles, 200 laps.


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