Archive for Sunday, June 20, 2004

NASCAR hoping for routine race in Michigan

June 20, 2004

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— NASCAR president Mike Helton would give plenty to see a nice, simple race today at Michigan International Speedway.

Two weeks of mistakes, confusion and too many laps under the caution flag have left the stock car sanctioning organization in dire need of a problem-free weekend.

"We can only hope that happens. It would be good for everybody," Helton said Saturday between the final practice sessions for the DHL 400.

"I think the ideal situation is for us to get through a couple of races with no strange occurrences in them. But, more importantly, if something that we've not seen yet occurs, our reaction to it needs to be solid and as good as it can be."

Helton has been put in the uncomfortable position of having to apologize for gaffes by NASCAR officials at Dover and Pocono the past two weeks.

Most of the problems have stemmed from NASCAR's efforts to figure out a fail-safe way to freeze the field when the caution flag comes out.

Until last fall, the drivers were allowed to race back to the flagstand, a dangerous practice, but considerably easier to score.

The last two races have been marred by extended caution periods as officials scrambled to get the cars in the proper order on the track before waving the green flag.

"We're not changing anything this week," Helton said. "But, at the same time, we continue to look at the things we can do, particularly in procedures related to not racing back to the yellow and the chain of things that have occurred because of that move.

"We are looking very hard at how to simplify those things to where NASCAR, the competitors and the fans can understand it."

Jeff Gordon, who will start from the pole in today's race, said he thought NASCAR had just gotten caught by circumstances.

"There are so many factors and things that can go wrong during a race," the four-time series champion said. "NASCAR has done a phenomenal job on things for many years. They're under a big microscope, and they've made some big mistakes."

One of those mistakes came at Pocono when Gordon's teammate Jimmie Johnson was caught off guard when the NASCAR flagman on pit road mistakenly opened the service lane a lap too soon during a caution period.

NASCAR had explained its new pitting procedures to the drivers in a meeting before the race, and Johnson, who was leading, stayed on track while drivers behind him saw the green flag and pitted.

That cost Johnson considerable track position, but he eventually overcame the mistake and won the race -- saving NASCAR further embarrassment.

Gordon met with Helton and NASCAR garage boss John Darby on Friday to discuss the situation and offer a few ideas.

"They made the change on Sunday of the process of green and red flags coming onto pit road, and it was an easy mistake to make," Gordon said. "Now, it's much clearer, and I don't think you're going to worry about the same thing happening."

Being at Michigan also could help NASCAR's situation. The wide, high-banked two-mile oval is a track that stretches out the field and produces a minimum number of cautions.

But there are no guarantees. Last June's race, won by Kurt Busch, was something of an aberration, with nine cautions tying the track record set in 1981.

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Barrichello tops Schumacher: Michael Schumacher set the target midway through Saturday's U.S. Grand Prix qualifying at Indianapolis. Rubens Barrichello tore past it in a flash.

Barrichello made up a 0.2-second deficit over the final two-thirds of Indianapolis' 2.605-mile road course, beating Schumacher's qualifying time by 0.177 seconds to claim the pole for today's race.

The run also came as a relief to Barrichello, a Brazilian best known as Ferrari's other driver. He earned the 10th pole of his career and his first since October in Japan with a time of 1 minute, 10.223 seconds.

Three had a chance to supplant Schumacher. Japan's Takuma Sato finished in 1:10.601, and England's Jenson Button completed his lap in 1:10.820. Sato and Button, teammates for BAR Honda, will start third and fourth in Row 2 -- just behind the two Ferrari teammates.

"I'm starting on a good place, and there's going to be a lot of people cheering, especially the Brazilians," Barrichello said.

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Busch wins Busch event: Kyle Busch took the lead with two laps to go and won the Meijer 300 at Kentucky Speedway in Sparta, Ky., for his third Busch Series win of the year.

Busch, the younger brother of Nextel Cup driver Kurt Busch, started from the back of the 43-car field after wrecking his car in practice. Busch ducked under Greg Biffle for the lead with two laps left and won by 1.274 seconds. Mike Bliss finished third, followed by Ron Hornaday Jr. and Jason Keller. Busch remained second in the series points race behind Martin Truex Jr., but closed the gap from 40 to 10 points. Truex finished sixth.

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Bourdais takes Grand Prix pole: Sebastien Bourdais had plenty left a week after racing 24 hours in Le Mans to earn the pole for the Champ Car Grand Prix of Portland, Ore.

Bourdais took advantage of last week's break in the Champ Car series to return to his native France and race in the Le Mans endurance event. Showing little sign of fatigue, he posted a fast lap of 59.229 seconds at an average speed of 119.678 mph.

He leaped over teammate Bruno Junqueira, who won the provisional pole Friday, to earn the top spot for today's race.

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Sorenson claims ARCA race: Reed Sorenson pulled away from the field late in Saturday's caution-filled ARCA race, capturing his first stock-car victory at Brooklyn, Mich.

Thirty-eight of the 100 laps in the Flagstar 200 were run under caution at the two-mile oval of Michigan International Speedway. That kept Sorenson's winning speed to 112.518 mph. But the green flag remained out for the final 25 laps, and the 18-year-old Sorenson, a product of team owner Chip Ganassi's racing development program, pulled away. He beat second-place finisher Matt Hagans by 6.399 seconds -- nearly a quarter of a lap.

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Hamilton wins truck race: Bobby Hamilton took the lead with eight laps left and held off Shane Hmiel by 0.423 seconds to win the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series' O'Reilly 200 at Millington, Tenn.

Hmiel, a first-time series starter on the 0.75-mile Memphis Motorsports Park track, lost a half-second lead when Rick Crawford's 187th-lap spin brought out a caution flag.

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