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Biggest NASCAR Storylines to Watch Ahead of Sprint Cup Series at Charlotte

Bob MargolisContributor IIMay 19, 2014

Biggest NASCAR Storylines to Watch Ahead of Sprint Cup Series at Charlotte

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    NASCAR builds a cozy two-week break in the middle of May for its Sprint Cup teams to spend some time at home, sleeping in their own beds and getting to play with their kids. Think of it as an extended homestand in Major League Baseball.

    Although the teams get to spend time at home, there’s still work to be done, including two races—the first was the All-Star Race, which is already in the books. Last Saturday, Jamie McMurray took home a $1 million check in that one.

    Now comes the payback for spending two weeks at home.

    It’s called the Coca-Cola 600. It’s NASCAR’s longest race, and at 600 miles (that’s 400 laps around Charlotte Motor Speedway), it’s an endurance race for stock cars.

    Before things get started on Thursday, the focus will be on the stories being talked about by the people in the grandstands and the garage, including rumors of a fourth Joe Gibbs Racing team, a possible defection by Petty Motorsports and questions about Tony Stewart’s performance in the All-Star Race.

Kahne Questions Track Conditions During All-Star Race

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    USA TODAY Sports

    During last weekend’s Sprint All-Star Race, Kasey Kahne appeared to be the car to beat, winning two of the first three 20-lap segments. Then, during the final segment, Kahne pancaked his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet SS against the outside wall. At first, it looked like the veteran driver made an error, misjudging his line in the corner. After the race, Kahne told a different story to Dustin Long with Motor Racing Network.

    "NASCAR just didn't clean the track,'' Kahne told Long in the garage after the race. "They cleaned it after that session. (Ryan) Newman hit it harder than I did. I hit it right behind him. We're trying to race. These short runs, you've got to go, go, go and the track is not capable. I don't mean to point too many fingers. That's not our deal, that's their deal.''

    NASCAR officials were quick to respond, saying they cleaned the track according to protocol and were satisfied with its condition based upon reports from the pace car and the lack of any reports by crew chiefs, who would have been alerted to any track issues by their respective drivers.

    Track conditions will be critical in this weekend’s Coke 600 as drivers will be on longer runs than were seen during the All-Star Race. The buildup of small bits of rubber (marbles) will be a far bigger issue this weekend than last.

    NASCAR usually does a laudable job of maintaining excellent racing conditions, often using the jet dryer to blow excessive rubber and small pieces of debris completely off of the track surface during extended caution flag laps.

    There have been no other reports of poor track conditions caused by oil or other debris from last weekend’s race. Did Kahne make a mistake and try to blame it on NASCAR? You be the judge.

Stewart Continues His Comeback Tour with a Quiet All-Star Race

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    Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    Three-time Cup champion Stewart delivered another forgettable drive in Saturday night’s All-Star Race, finishing a respectable, but under-the-radar 12th place.

    It's been a season filled with forgettable races for the team owner.

    His team’s post-race media release described Stewart as having "a relatively quiet night" during the All-Star Race. 

    “I never had the confidence to really hustle it because the back of the car never felt like it was planted into the racetrack,” said Stewart, who won the 2009 Sprint All-Star Race.

    It sounds odd to hear Stewart talk about having his confidence shaken by a loose race car. It could be that he’s still in recovery mode from his serious racing accident last summer, and while he prefers to complete his convalescence behind the wheel of a race car, are we seeing Smoke at 100 percent yet?

    Or are he and crew chief Chad Johnston still trying to speak the same language?

    Either way, Stewart appears to be having "a relatively quiet season" while his Stewart-Haas Racing teammates are garnering all the world's attention.

    Maybe that's just the way Stewart wants it to be.

Gibbs Rumored 4th Team

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    USA TODAY Sports

    This past weekend was the first appearance of the perennial rumor about Joe Gibbs Racing adding a fourth car to the stable.

    Lee Spencer of Motorsport.com doesn’t cite any official sources, but in the past, Spencer, who is a well-connected veteran motorsports journalist, is often right on the money.

    When asked about the possibility of an additional car, coach Gibbs addressed the subject, using the same vague references he has used in the past when the topic would come up.

    “So many times when the top guys come up, everybody in the sport kind of looks at it,” said Gibbs. “There’s a couple of guys this year – that are on their last (contract) year, so it kind of happens.”

    Carl Edwards is the apparent driver for a fourth (and as of yet unconfirmed) car, a move that would be a huge step for him. Despite his win at Bristol in March, and given that he has been competitive, Edwards' car isn’t as good as the Fords of Team Penske. Roush Fenway Racing (RFR) might win him a race or two, but at the moment, the equipment isn’t ready for prime time in the Chase.

    Other drivers, like Edwards’ teammate Greg Biffle, have been connected to this phantom fourth JGR car. However, if it would materialize, Edwards certainly has the inside track.

    Two years ago, similar rumors had circulated about Matt Kenseth, who at the time, was driving for Roush Fenway Racing. Most observers dismissed the rumors as nonsense, because team owner Jack Roush, when asked about Kenseth, insisted that the Wisconsin-native would be a lifer with RFR.

    Those puffs of smoke about Kenseth turned into a full-on fire, and although Kenseth didn’t officially announce he had signed with JGR, it was common knowledge midway through the 2012 season that he had done so. Kenseth’s move to the No. 20 car set off a game of musical chairs that saw Joey Logano move to the No. 22 car and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. move into the seat vacated by Kenseth.

Can Ganassi's Teams Make Magic on Sunday

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    Chip Ganassi (c) seen with his drivers Jamie McMurray (l) and Marino Franchitti at the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona February 2014.
    Chip Ganassi (c) seen with his drivers Jamie McMurray (l) and Marino Franchitti at the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona February 2014.Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    Kurt Busch isn’t the only person who’ll be thinking “double duty” on Sunday.

    Team owner Chip Ganassi has said to this writer that he’d like to be the first team owner to win the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on the same day.

    It’s not been done before, but if there’s an organization that can do it, Ganassi’s is the one that can.

    Unfortunately, he’ll start at a bit of a disadvantage at Indy. His cars didn’t qualify well. They’ll be starting from the fourth, sixth and ninth rows.

    It’s an unusual start for the Ganassi cars, but it’s expected that they’ll be competitive on race day.

    In Charlotte, Ganassi might have better luck with his stock cars cars, driven by McMurray and rookie Kyle Larson. Both were fast during the All-Star weekend and, obviously, with McMurray winning the All-Star Race, he goes into this weekend as one of the favorites.

    Ganassi teams have won multiple championships in a variety of different racing series as well as nearly every major motorsports event in North America, including the Indianapolis 500, the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 500 and the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona.

    It's a safe bet that both Ganassi teams, IndyCar and NASCAR, will be in the thick of things on Sunday. Two years ago, Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon qualified 16th and 15th at Indy and then finished one-two, respectively.

Is Richard Petty Motorsports in Play?

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    And what should we make of the reports that Richard Petty met with Toyota executives recently, apparently to discuss the possibility of having The King’s NASCAR team switch from Ford to Toyota.

    Motorsport.com's Spencer reports that the meeting took place in Richmond some weeks ago, but that the sticking point would be engines.

    An updated story, also on Motorsport.com, offers that there could be a good fit for The King’s organization, Richard Petty Motorsports (RPM), with Richard Childress, similar to the kind of alliance that RCR has with Furniture Row and JTG Daugherty.

    Well, the bottom line on all this speculation, and at this time it is all speculation, is that the Petty cars, driven by Marcos Ambrose and Aric Almirola, are running better than ever, using the same equipment both Team Penske and Roush Fenway Racing are using (supposedly).

    RPM is running about as well as Team Penske, taking into account the drivers, and certainly they’re running better than RFR, also taking into account the drivers at that organization.

    Why would Petty want to make a change now, when his organization is moving forward? Plus, if Ambrose bolts for Australia, as is mentioned in the Motorsport.com article, a change of manufacturer would make RPM less attractive to recruiting a quality driver to replace Ambrose.

    Talk all you will, King. Explore the possibilities, as the commercial says. But if you’re looking to keep your organization moving forward, stick with Jamie Allison and the folks at Ford who’ve taken very good care of the Petty legacy over the past several years.

Kurt Busch Double Duty

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    USA TODAY Sports

    “The No. 1 thing I can’t prepare for is when they drop the green flag at Indy to be ready for when the draft happens. When 33 of us get sucked down in there, into Turn 1. Being able to experience that. Push all that aside and focus on the race and the task at hand.”

    That was Kurt Busch on a teleconference before he began his journey this month, talking about being able to experience the start of the Indianapolis 500.

    On Monday, Busch unfortunately got to experience the feeling of hitting the wall in Turn 2 at nearly 220 mph.

    There’s an old saying about IndyCar drivers: There are the drivers who haven’t hit the wall, and then there’s the drivers who have.

    Busch has got the hitting-the-wall part out of the way.

    According to Open Wheel Now reporter Matt Weaver, who talked to both Juan Pablo Montoya and Josef Newgarden, both of whom were behind Busch when the incident occurred, it appears that Busch let his instincts as a stock car driver get him into trouble by overcorrecting when his car was understeering.

    The IndyStar reports that Busch's Andretti Autosport team will repair the car and have it ready for Carburetion Day on Friday. And you can bet that Busch himself will be ready.

    He’ll learn from his mistakes, and it’s likely he’ll not make the same mistake again. His IndyCar experience has been zero. His courage? That is at 100 percent.

    Like him or not, you’ve got to root for Busch on Sunday to complete all 1,100 miles. 

    It will be history in the making, and you'll have a front-row seat.

    To follow Busch's progress this week and throughout the Indianapolis 500 race weekend, there is a website set up for fans.

    KurtBuschTheDouble contains an interactive map, videos and an opportunity to donate to Busch's favorite cause The Armed Forces Foundation, who will be represented on his IndyCar on race day.

Are NASCAR's Elite Racing for the Glory or for the Dollars?

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    Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    During her pre-race media availability last week, Danica Patrick responded to a reporter’s question about what she might do in her race car for $1 million.

    Bits and piece of what she said have been used in several columns, including this one from Reid Spencer that appeared in Autoweek.

    In case you’ve not read her answer, unedited, in its entirety:

    When you’re in the car, you’re not thinking about the fact that I need to pass for a million dollars. If it was about money, I don’t think that would be enough for any of us. It’s about heart and it’s about doing your best and it’s about making the most of the night. So, that’s what’s running through your head is passing the car in front of you. Now, more than anything since it’s not really about money more than anything; it’s just a one-off race, so the results don’t necessarily matter unless you win, so you might as well go for it. For me, that’s what my attitude is toward it. Now if you win a million dollars, that’s great. But if you win the race, you probably already have a million dollars. So, it’s icing on the cake. Now if it was like $5 million, it might make you think. I’ll pass for $5 million.

    Her attitude about winning $1 million, to Mr. or Ms. Joe or Joan NASCAR fan, comes across in a way that makes her sound like a prima donna. Of course, there are also NASCAR fans who think she is a prima donna.

    That’s not the point here. The point is, now we know what Ms. Patrick would do for $5 million.

    And while I expect that many of her peers would shake their heads upon reading her remarks, they would love to be making the kind of dollars Patrick makes off of her merchandising sales, which was a huge attraction for team owner Stewart in signing Patrick.

    Just having a monetary value placed upon winning in the context of this conversation speaks volumes as to Patrick’s motivation for racing in NASCAR.

    You don’t have to read between the lines to figure that out.

NASCAR's Longest and Toughest Race

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    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    It starts in daylight and ends nearly into morning of the next day.

    It’s 400 laps around one of NASCAR’s fastest race tracks, where bad things can happen, almost too quickly to react to them.

    The Coca-Cola 600 was designed to be NASCAR’s answer to the Indianapolis 500, except NASCAR would go 100 miles more. Originally run in early June, it wasn’t until 1974 that the race was run on the same day as the Indy 500.

    The two races have little in common, except that they are a crown jewel to each of their respective racing series. To win at Indy means your face is immortalized on the winner’s trophy. When you win at Charlotte, you get a decent-sized winner’s check, a wonderful trophy and the satisfaction that you not only outlasted your peers, you did it in style, by beating them to the checkered flag.

    That’s the real reason why real racers race. To get to the checkered flag first. To be the winner, no matter what it pays or how big or small the trophy is. You are the winner. You did it better than everyone else.

    That’s what motivates real race car drivers.

     

    *All quotes in this slideshow are taken from official NASCAR, team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.

    Follow me on Twitter: @BobMargolis

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