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Monday, June 28, 2010

Opinion: Two Sanctioning Bodies at a Crossroads

You’d think it impossible, but the IZOD IndyCar Series nearly upstaged NASCAR’s best and brightest this past weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway without even staging a race. And although they didn’t quite pull it off, they certainly did their damnedest.

For one, Danica Patrick made her much-discussed return to the Nationwide Series. That wasn’t too successful, as an early-race accident put her off of the lead lap for the final 190 out of 200 laps, rendering her goal of a top-15 impossible. But Patrick did begin to grasp some things by the end of the event, and did manage to score her best career stock car finish (let’s ignore the fact that it was 30th).

The next day, the sport’s top names – CEO Randy Bernard, top driver Dario Franchitti, and SMI CEO/track mogul Bruton Smith (the man whose purchase of NHMS has greatly upgraded the facility) joined track promoter Jerry Gappens and New Hampshire governor John Lynch to announce next year’s return of the series to Loudon.

The press conference lasted nearly 30 minutes, and touched on topics from NHMS’ potential loss of a Sprint Cup race date (especially if the IndyCar event is a great success) to other potential additions to next year’s IndyCar schedule, especially other SMI tracks like Las Vegas, Atlanta, and Charlotte.

Dario wheeled his No. 10 Target Dallara-Honda out on the track for a few hot laps in between the national anthem and starting command for the Cup race, and although TNT’s cameras didn’t catch it, thousands of longtime NHMS ticketholders sure did. IndyCar has come a long way from where it was in 1998, the final year that NHMS hosted an open-wheel event, which was won by Tony Stewart (before he was Tony Stewart).

Granted, NASCAR sure gave IndyCar some help in the interest department as the race soldiered on. The massive gap between cautions, over 200 laps, had some taking to their Twitter accounts and praying for debris cautions. But in perhaps the greatest proof ever of the theory of relativity, the race that seemed to drag on was actually on pace to tie or eclipse the record for fastest race ever at NHMS until Juan Pablo Montoya crashed out.

All the discussion over the past few weeks about drivers lacking respect for one another vanished. Listening to Stewart apologize for getting into Kurt Busch in the media center, in a last lap battle that Busch called “fun” no less, suggested that such arguments had lost some of their bite.

And all of the hype surrounding Joe Gibbs Racing over the past month or so vanished as Kyle Busch fell back at the end, Denny Hamlin spent time off the lead lap, and defending race winner Joey Logano was nowhere to be found. Meanwhile, those who wondered if Jimmie Johnson had finally lost a step were treated to a nice helping of their own words as he fought back from a poor early pit stop for the victory.

This brings NASCAR back to Daytona for its Independence Day spectacular, and at a perfect time – as the series begins to limp from the loss of new and interesting storylines, and the re-emergence of the same old song and dance up front.

IndyCar, on the other hand, heads into the second half of its season at Watkins Glen with more momentum than it’s ever had since reunification in 2008. Promoters are fighting to put their events on its schedule, chassis manufacturers are fighting to put their cars on track for 2012, and best of all, the drivers are fighting for three distinct championships, with all still very up in the air.

Next weekend’s events will be very interesting to see where momentum takes both niches of motorsport. Will NASCAR produce a story for the ages coming out of Daytona, or will IndyCar continue to nibble away at the big picture and increase its market share? We can only watch and find out.

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