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A Sharp Left Turn

Times Staff Writer

The race to join NASCAR’s 10-driver Chase for the Nextel Cup is nearing its climax this weekend as the sport’s premier series returns to the California Speedway.

But for NASCAR itself, this year’s championship battle is serving as a prologue for sweeping changes in 2007 that will usher in the next era for stock car racing.

There will be new types of cars, more diversity among drivers and different television coverage. A Japanese car company will compete in the series for the first time. The format for the Chase for the Nextel Cup could even be tweaked. And, as usual, several drivers will have switched teams.

All of the changes are likely to further increase NASCAR’s already strong popularity with both fans and corporate sponsors, analysts say.

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“It looks like NASCAR is poised yet again for another period of what you have to think is going to be accelerated growth,” said Ardy Arani, president of Championship Group/Atlanta, a sports marketing firm.

“Anything that broadens the audience base, in size or makeup, also makes it easier for any type of corporate sponsor to look at NASCAR as a marketing vehicle,” he said.

First, though, the pressure is nearing the boiling point for those drivers and teams hoping to make this year’s title chase.

The top 10 drivers in points after 26 of the series’ 36 races are allowed to compete for the championship over the final 10 events.

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The Sony HD 500 race at the two-mile California Speedway in Fontana on Sunday night is the critical next-to-last race to determine who makes the chase. The field will be locked in after the 26th race next week at Richmond International Raceway in Virginia.

Only points leader Jimmie Johnson and second-place Matt Kenseth have a lock on making the chase after Kenseth won the Sharpie 500 at the Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee last Saturday night.

Everyone else is either trying to stay in the top 10 -- including fan favorites Mark Martin, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- or climb into the top tier.

When they get to Fontana, “there will be a lot riding on that race,” said Kasey Kahne, the Evernham Motorsports driver who’s among those struggling to make the chase. “It’s on your mind, for sure. But California has always been a good track for us.”

The Cup series competes at the California Speedway twice a year, and when the series returns here next February, there will be several changes in the works.

Among them:

* Toyota will join Chevrolet, Ford and Dodge in the Cup series, the first time a Japanese automaker has competed at NASCAR’s top level.

At least three teams will drive the Toyota Camry, including a new team formed by Cup driver Michael Waltrip. The team also will have veteran Dale Jarrett, a Ford driver who will end his tenure with Robert Yates Racing after this year.

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Another Cup driver, Brian Vickers of Hendrick Motorsports, also plans to switch next year to a new Toyota team formed by Red Bull Racing. Jeremy Mayfield and Dave Blaney also will drive Toyotas for Bill Davis Racing.

* Juan Pablo Montoya, a veteran driver in open-wheel racing, will enter the Cup series, joining the Dodge team of Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates.

Montoya won the CART championship as a rookie in 1999, won the Indianapolis 500 in 2000 and then moved to Formula One, where he is a seven-time winner. He’s expected to bring an international following to NASCAR, and to expand the sport’s reach among Spanish-speaking fans.

Others might follow Montoya’s lead. Canadian Jacques Villeneuve, another Formula One driver and former Indy 500 winner, has said he’s pondering a jump to NASCAR.

“That a hard-core Formula One, open-wheel racer like Villeneuve would even make a statement like that is a watershed event,” Arani said. “Five years ago, it would have been a joke for a Formula One driver to say that.

“NASCAR, at least in terms of the dialogue among racers, is now seen as having parity as one of the major racing series in the world,” he said.

* NASCAR will launch a new eight-year TV contact in 2007 with Fox, ABC, ESPN and TNT sharing the Cup series’ 36 races.

It will be the first time that ABC and ESPN, both owned by Walt Disney Co., have televised NASCAR since 2000, and there is speculation that ESPN also might develop a daily program devoted to NASCAR.

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The new contract will boost the sport’s annual TV income by about 40%, to $555 million a year, underlining how NASCAR “is becoming more popular and more valuable as a sports property in the months and years to come,” said Dean Bonham, chief executive of the Bonham Group, another sports marketing firm.

* NASCAR will begin phasing in the “car of tomorrow,” a universal design meant to increase driver safety and decrease operating costs for the teams that now must build different cars for different tracks.

The car is slightly wider, taller and of shorter length than today’s models, and it edges the driver back from points of impact that could prove harmful. For fans, the car’s most noticeable feature might be its rear wing. NASCAR hopes the common design also will make racing more competitive.

The car of tomorrow will debut next March at Bristol. It’s scheduled to be used, mostly on short tracks, in 16 of next year’s 36 races, and completely phased in over the next three years.

* There might be changes in the Chase for the Cup, which is essentially NASCAR’s version of a postseason playoff.

Some analysts have said it’s unfair for a driver such as Kahne, who is tied for the most wins this year with four, to be at risk of missing the chase. Others are concerned that the sport’s most popular drivers, such as Earnhardt, could be lame ducks for the title chase in the final 10 races.

NASCAR Chief Executive Brian France said in June that the sanctioning body was looking at possible ways “to make [the chase] a little bit better,” though he declined to provide specific proposals. But he cautioned: “There won’t be dramatic changes because the basic format is working well.”

* Finally, even the series’ name is expected to change. Nextel has been acquired by Sprint and the Nextel Cup name is expected to give way to one that more closely reflects Sprint.

All the changes are meant to ensure the sport’s long-term success for at least the next decade, France said.

“What our group wants to do is not rest on [the past],” he said. The goal is “to make sure the next generation of fans gets the same close finishes we’ve seen this year, [and] gets the same balanced playing field where new teams can come in and compete and make a difference.

“I believe we’re the only ones in motor sports that are thinking that far out.”

Bonham agreed, saying France’s team “is among the, if not the most, dynamic governing bodies in the world of sports.

”... When you do see the amount of change NASCAR is making, it’s also rare that you don’t see a misstep along the way,” he added, pointing to the sport’s continued strong attendance, TV viewership and sponsorship spending. “By all accounts, they’re making all the right changes.”

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

SONY HD 500

California Speedway, Fontana

Significance: After Sunday, one race remains before the field is set for the Chase for the Championship.

Race begins:

Sunday, 5 p.m.

Channel 4.

250 laps, 500 miles on the D-shaped oval.

2005 champion:

Kyle Busch won after starting the race in the 25th spot.


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