Has NASCAR’S Nextel Cup racing turned into a motorized version of professional wrestling, complete with throwing things at rivals, flipping off one another and using foul language on live television?
These things, besides ramming one another with 3,400-pound racing machines during caution periods, stole the spotlight from a dramatic late-race shootout between Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart at Loudon, N.H., Sunday in the opening round of the “Chase for the Championship.”
NASCAR handed out some slap-on-the-wrist fines and penalties to three drivers and President Mike Helton said, “Such unsafe and inappropriate behavior has to stop.”
Secretly, however, the folks in the boardroom back at Daytona Beach, Fla., must have been chortling as Robby Gordon and Michael Waltrip played destruction derby and Kasey Kahne whacked Kyle Busch under caution.
They may even have cheered when Gordon slammed his helmet into the side of Waltrip’s Chevy, or when Waltrip gave the finger to Gordon, or even when Gordon described Waltrip in barnyard terminology.
With three of NASCAR’s most popular drivers, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Kahne, outside the elite 10 racing for the $5-million champion’s bonus, the chase needed some spice to draw viewers to TV and steal sports page space from the NFL.
According to Mark Martin, his wife, Arlene, says the Loudon race had it.
“My wife is a great indicator,” Martin said on a conference call. “She’s not the biggest fan in the world but she said that was the greatest race she’d seen all year because of all that stuff.”
The fines levied are little more than tip money to the drivers. Gordon, who was docked $35,000, has earned $1.8 million this year. Kahne certainly can afford $25,000 and Waltrip $10,000 when both have collected more than $3 million to this point.
Gordon apologized for his actions on Monday and, in an act of contrition, offered to auction his helmet to raise money for Harrah’s Employee Relief Fund, which was set up after Hurricane Katrina’s devastation.
NASCAR’s public relations staff couldn’t wait to capitalize on the affair, sending out releases. Unmentioned was that Harrah’s is Gordon’s major sponsor.
The downside, besides presenting supposedly professional drivers as a bunch of hotheads, is that such incidents could alter the big-money race among the 10 qualifiers.
Defending champion Kurt Busch may have suffered a serious blow when he was involved in a second-lap crash with Scott Riggs that led to acrimony, but no penalties. Busch finished 35th, 142 points behind Stewart with nine races to go.
“There are some guys you can race with, and guys you can’t,” Busch said. “He doesn’t know where he is most of the time.”
The incident was similar to one last year at Loudon where Stewart and Jeremy Mayfield were all but eliminated from the big prize after being caught up in a crash with Robby Gordon and Greg Biffle.
Prospects are high for more of the same Sunday in the MBNA 400 at Dover, Del.
Five former champions will be among the 20 riders competing for the U.S. National Speedway championships Saturday night on the Orange County Fair and Expo Center track in Costa Mesa.
Three-time winner Mike Faria of Reno and two-time champion Bobby Schwartz of Costa Mesa, who first won in 1986, will be joined by Chris Manchester of San Clemente, Charlie Venegas of San Bernardino and Bart Bast of Foresthill.
Costa Mesa’s 90-yard oval is the smallest speedway track in the world and has been the site of the U.S. Nationals continually since 1969. The championships will have 23 four-lap heats. For more details, call (949) 492-9933.
Championship Off Road Racing, or CORR, a made-for-TV closed-course series for seven years in the Midwest, will make its California debut the next two weekends at the Otay Ranch near Chula Vista.
The Nissan Nationals will close the CORR season Saturday and Sunday, and Oct. 1-2.
Unlike SCORE, which conducts distance races in the desert, the CORR schedule consists of 15- to 20-minute heats over a closed course. There will be eight classes of competition, including desert trucks and unlimited buggies, with grandstand seating for 24,000. The finals will pay a record off-road racing purse of $332,000.
The event has brought a number of drivers from other disciplines to try their luck on the rough-road circuit. Among them are Jeremy McGrath, seven-time supercross champion; Boris Said, versatile sports car veteran; and Roberto Guerrero, former Indy car driver.
U.S. Auto Club midgets will return to Orange Show Speedway in San Bernardino for the first time since 1999 when the western series races on the quarter-mile paved oval Saturday night. Robby Flock, seeking a fifth series championship and his 51st victory, leads Jerome Rodela by 45 points.
The Villa Roma 125, an invitational race for late model stock cars, will headline Irwindale Speedway’s Saturday night program. A 100-lap race will be followed by a 25-lap shootout.... Five divisions will provide a smorgasbord of racing Saturday night at Perris Auto Speedway.
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*--* NASCAR NEXTEL CUP MBNA 400
* When: Today, qualifying (Speed Channel, 12:30 p.m.); Sunday, race (TNT, 10 a.m.).
* Where: Dover Downs International Speedway (oval, 1 mile, 24 degrees banking in turns); Dover, Del.
* Race distance: 400 miles, 400 laps.
* 2004 winner: Ryan Newman.
* Next race: UAW-Ford 500, Oct. 2, Talladega, Ala.
*--* NASCAR BUSCH Dover 200
* When: Today, qualifying (Speed Channel, 11 a.m.); Saturday, race (TNT, 10 a.m.).
* Where: Dover Downs International Speedway.
* Race distance: 200 miles, 200 laps.
* 2004 winner: Martin Truex Jr.
* Next race: United Way 300, Oct. 8, Kansas City, Kan.
*--* NASCAR CRAFTSMAN TRUCKS Las Vegas 350
* When: Saturday, qualifying, 3 p.m.; race (Speed Channel, 6 p.m.).
* Where: Las Vegas Motor Speedway (tri-oval 1.5 miles, 12 degrees banking in turns).
* Race distance: 219 miles, 146 laps.
* 2004 winner: Shane Hmiel.
* Next race: Kroger 200, Oct. 22, Martinsville, Va.
*--* CHAMP CAR WORLD SERIES Champ Car 400
* When: Today, qualifying, 4:30 p.m.; Saturday, race, 8:30 p.m. (Sunday, Speed Channel, 12:30 p.m.).
* Where: Las Vegas Motor Speed-
* Race distance: 249 miles, 166 laps.
* 2004 winner: Sebastien Bourdais.
* Next race: Grand Prix of Ansan, Oct. 16, Seoul.
*--* FORMULA ONE Brazilian Grand Prix
* When: Saturday, qualifying (Speed Channel, 9 a.m.); Sunday, race (Speed Channel, 9:30 a.m.).
* Where: Interlagos, Jose Carlos Pace (road course, 2.671 miles); Sao Paulo.
* Race distance: 189.641 miles, 71 laps.
* 2004 winner: Juan Pablo Montoya.
* Next race: Japanese Grand Prix, Oct. 9, Suzuka.
*--* INDY RACING LEAGUE Watkins Glen Indy Grand Prix
* When: Saturday, qualifying, 10 a.m.; Sunday, race (Channel 7, 12:30 p.m.).
* Where: Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International (permanent road course, 3.4 miles, 11 turns).
* Race distance: 204 miles, 60 laps.
* 2004 winner: Inaugural race.
* Next race: Toyota Indy 400, Oct. 16, Fontana.
*--* NHRA O’Reilly Fall Nationals
* When: Postponed to Oct. 6-9 because of Hurricane Rita.
* Where: Ennis, Texas.
* Next event: Ameriquest Nationals, Oct. 2, Joilet, Ill.