Memorial Day Auto Racing: Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600

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Race car driver Danica Patrick talks with Comcast's Ivan Carter about the upcoming Indianapolis 500. Video by Comcast SportsNet

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Tarik El-Bashir and Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 22, 2009; 11:00 AM

Memorial Day is always one of the biggest auto racing weekends of the year, with the Indianapolis 500, the great American race, highlight a weekend that also includes NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte.

Washington Post staff writers Tarik El-Bashir and Liz Clarke were online on Friday, May 22 to chat about the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600, as well as Jeremy Mayfield's positive drug test and all the latest in auto racing news.

Read more: Complete auto racing coverage

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Liz Clarke: Greetings from Charlotte and NASCAR land! This is Liz. I think Tarik said hellp from Indy, but we are both having technical glitches. so bear with us.

Let's try to chat! and thanks for the questions, Liz

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Arlington, Va.: How much progress is the Indy 500 making in restoring its stature as the preeminent race in the world? The past half dozen of years have been intriguing and competitive races and there seems to be some stability within its drivers/personalities, which has to help. Does any of this translate to anyone other than the avid motor sports fans?

Tarik El-Bashir: If the traffic getting into the track this morning was any indication, I can personally attest to the fact that there are more fans here for the final day of practice than in recent years.

I'm hearing ticket sales are strong, so the interest is there from fans, even in a down economy. But I'm also hearing that corporate America has pulled back a bit. Sponsor dollars are harder to come by and suite sales are down.

But from a fan standpoint, there's more reason to tune in than in past years. There's a strong group of young drivers with famous last names like Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal. Danicamania is full effect. The top teams are closer than ever in terms of competitiveness.

Looking forward to another thrilling race.

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Alexandria, Va.: Liz-

What's your early take on Tony Stewart's career as a driver/co-owner? Will he be more competitive as the season goes along? What do you think his chances will be in the Chase (if he gets there). He's so fun to watch because he competes like an animal!

Liz Clarke: Love this question and totally agree that Tony has a fierce competitive streak that is too rare in NASCAR these days!

his first few months as an owner/driver have far exceeded expectations--certainly mine. He took a huge gamble in leaving Joe Gibbs racing, where he had won 2 championships, to take over 50 percent ownership of a struggling team. Other drivers have been humbled and bankrupted by trying to own a team and drive, too.

While Tony has been a brat at times, he really knows racing. and he has hired some terrific people to help him get the 2-car team going, especially Boby Hutchens, formerly of Richard Childress Racing. His employes adore him; so does fellow drievr Ryan Newman, another Indiana boy.

Tony's win in the all-star race was huge. He's riding great momentum. And stunningly, all the petulance and churlishness seem to have gone away. I can't believe Im writing this, but Tony seems at peace.

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Alexandria, Va.: I know it's not super popular in the states, but can I mention that the pinnacle of racing events is also this weekend - the Monaco Grand Prix.

Formula 1 is really interesting, what with a new team and a driver who spent time at the back and yet is winning like mad this year. Not to mention Sebastian Vettel who is, in my opinion, the next Schumacher.

(And those who say girls don't like racing - I am one.)

Liz Clarke: Go, girl! Indeed we are remiss in not sending a shout-out to F-1, which starts Sunday's racing activity in Monaco. How I wish The Post had a reporter there to join us in this chat! Tarik, I volunteer!

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Arlington, Va.: If you were a betting man (or woman), who would you put your money on in this weekend's Indy 500? Does anything have an appreciable edge outside of the opening qualifying order?

Tarik El-Bashir: The obvious favorites have to be the Penkse drivers, Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe. They've been fast all month, they're backed by the most experienced and successful team, and they're starting up front.

But if were a betting man -- and I'm not -- I would take a hard look at Graham Rahal (who has the family name and a fast car), Scott Dixon (last year's champ) and Tony Kanaan (he's got to breakthrough at some point, right?).

I also wouldn't count out Dario Franchitti.

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Burke, Va.: Toughest NASCAR racetrack is ...? I ask because I've got no idea. Where does Charlotte rank on the list. And what makes them hard or easy?

Liz Clarke: Darlington (SC) is the toughest. In fact, it calls itself "The Track Too Tough to Tame." Corny, but true.

It's a handful for racers because it's an odd egg. Truly. It's an irregular shape, laid out by a guy on a bulldozer rather than an engineer with a blueprint. No two corners are the same. So when the car handless well in one, it's a invariably balky in another. You have to run up close to the wall for a fast lap. truly, so close maybe in index finger would fit between the car's right side and the track's concrete. and the concrete walls have a way of jumping out and biting the car--hence the "darlington stripe" on every car's right side by the end of the race.

Charlotte isn't hard, but it's beloved because it's close to home. Turn 4 can be a bit tricky. has long had mysterious bumps. But it's wide enough to race comfortabaly; the banking is just ride for a comforatable side. the pits stalls are roomy enough to avoic calamity. It's an enjoyable ride. That said, 600 miles on it is insanely mind-numbing--for drivers and spectators alike.

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Looking for an underdog: Give me a dark horse here in Indianapolis. Who could sneak up on the field and steal this thing?

Tarik El-Bashir: I'll give you two: KV Racing drivers Mario Moraes and Paul Tracy.

Practice started about 20 minutes ago, and Moraes is the second fastest driver on the track behind Helio Castroneves. Tracy is the eighth quickest.

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Upperville, Va.: Ms. Clarke,

Your article today forgot the road course at Summit Point, West Va.

The big race of the weekend is the F1 race on the streets of Monte Carlo. World wide viewing audience is in the billions compared to the Indy 500 and the Coke 600.

And remember real race car drivers turn both right and left, go clockwise and counter clockwise and drive in the rain.

washingtonpost.com: Do the Local Motion (Washington Post, May 22)

Liz Clarke: Excellent points. All of them. regarding today's story and photos and video on local tracks, we knew we woudlnt have time to list them all. And surely i didnt intent to slight any track. We had room to mention 8 tracks in the chart, so i tried my best to pick a mix (4 dragways; 4 ovals, dirt and asphalt) located in varied spots from DC.

I left out a lot of tracks, you're right. But I hope people find a weekend to at least try out the one closest to them this summer.

And yes--Monaco is inndeed the glamour-puss of Memorial Day weekend. If I could, I would surely bag NASCAR for F1 this weekend. Charlotte is a nice city; i lived here 5 years. But I'd pick Monaco and the chance to watch red ferraris if money were no object!

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Alexandria, Va.: When will we see Joey Logano racing with the big boys? Is he ready yet? Can he possibly live up to the hype? Couldn't that really hold back his career?

Liz Clarke: Mmmmm. you are asking exactly what I have been wondering of late.

No driver wants to start his NASCAR career in crummy equipment that limits or obscures hsi true ability. That said, there's a ton of pressure when everyone knows yo've landed in the BEST equipment. Fans are waiting, impatiently, to see what you can do. Look at Dale Jr; he hasnt done much since moving to Hendrick and is getting shown up by his 3 peers weekly. Imagine being in that spot and being 19 (i think that's Logano's age; he could be 18..?)

Anyway, Logano has surely been hurt by the ban on testing this year. it was a great move for cost-saving; but it has been tough on guys with limited or no experience on many of these tracks.

All of this opportunity and pressure could ste him back; it has done so in the case of other young drivers. But I think Coach Joe Gibbs is really wise about protecting and nurturing young athletes. he knows the dynamics, so I think Joey will be fine....

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Why Doesn't Scott Speed: Just stick to IRL. Couldn't he have a really successful future if he was racing there, as opposed to Formula 1 or NASCAR? Why the push?

Tarik El-Bashir: Couldn't agree with you more. After struggling in F1, the logical choice would have been for Speed to keep driving the types of cars that launched his career. Instead, the lure of NASCAR and 3,500-lbs. stock cars was too hard to pass up.

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Helio's comet: Is this Helio's year again? Don't you think he's due? And does he have a real shot at winning the IRL title?

Tarik El-Bashir: Helio is most certainly due for a series title, especially after what he's been through over the past year. He's got the car, the team and the experience to do it.

And he said yesterday that he's more focused and determined than ever after beating those tax evasion charges. I'll have a story on Helio in Sunday's paper.

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Lets Go Racin!: Hey Liz-

Loved the local racing piece. For your money, if you had to pick one race to be at in the local area, which one would it be? And why?

washingtonpost.com: Do the Local Motion (Washington Post, May 22)

Liz Clarke: You are so kind. thanks so much. I loved working on that story, and I thought the photos and video and map were awesome! I had no hand in those, of course.

I have hardly visited every track within an easy drive of DC, so anything I say is on shaky ground.

But to give you my most honest thoughts: I prefer ovals to dragstrips. Drag racing, to me, is more about cars and power (as opposed to personalities. And a little of that (cars and power) goes a long way with me. That said, the people in the sport are incredibly kind and welcoming to all. And I love the idea that regualr men and women can race their own cars. That is very cool. if I had a son or nephew, I would definitely take him to a drag way -- but with ear protection. It is too loud for little ears.

I've never been to Williams Grove in PA, but I know of its history and happen to love dirt-track racing. so I'd love ot go there. Locally, I think the setting and vibe at Odl Dominion is awesome. The Whelen series (Sat nights) races the NASCAR cars that the Cup series used to run--with no stupid wings or splitters. I forgot how pretty those cars' lines were. And I hitnk 3/8 mile is a perfect distanc. you can see everything. and again, the food is great and the people--from the owners, to track announcer, to fans--are SO nice. It's a great way to spend $10 and a summer evening!

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Washington, D.C.: Sorry, Tarik, I can't resist: Who makes more excuses when they don't win: Danica or Crosby?

Tarik El-Bashir: Funny you should ask me that. I'm writing a story for tomorrow's paper about Danica and her effort to be more chill behind the wheel and throw fewer tantrums when things don't go well.

Here's a quote from the interview with Danica: "I always used to feel that I had to prove to people that I cared by being mad. I had to let you know that I wasn't okay with [finishing] 10th by being angry and not looking happy. I can't prove to everybody. It's a real waste of energy and it makes me unapproachable as well. I hear so much that people thing I'm so tough. I'm not! If you catch me away from the track, I'm so different."

But then she added: "If I get taken out of the lead on the last lap of the race, you're going to see it again. Because that will make me mad. But I'm not wasting every other moment trying to prove to people or put on a tough face."

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What do you do for 600 miles?: To keep yourself from losing it. I mean, covering a 600-mile race can't be easy, either. What do you do to stay sharp in there. Red Bull?

Liz Clarke: Red Bull is an option, for sure. I always start the day with a few Sunday newspapers, which keep me happily occupied through the endless pre-race festitivites (and rain delays, red flags).

I try to spend time in the garage in the afternoon (as a reporter, to beat traffic, you arrive as many as 5 hours before the race starts, so there is time to kill even before the endless race starts:-) I usually attend the mandatory drivers' meeting to see if anyone asks a compelling question, account for the drivers and crew chiefs.

Once the race starts I am transfixed for the first 50 laps. It gets tedious after that. So i usually start writing my story, which must be filed at the buzzer, basically, and looking up every so often to make sure i know what's going on.

It is too too long for my tastes. and I think given the reality of our limited gas supply, it's also in poor taste in a symbolic sense. I think NASCAR could be a bit more of a responsible citizen by cutting its race lengths and sparing fans and drivers alike the tedium.

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Washington, D.C.: What do other drivers think of Danica Patrick? I know there was hostility there in the past. Is some still around?

Tarik El-Bashir: I don't think there's nearly as much hostility toward Danica as there was in the past.

Early on in her career, some of the more established drivers got bent out of shape over the attention she received despite having accomplished little in the IRL. But she's gained the respect of her competitors in recent seasons by proving that she's not just a pretty face; she also can drive.

The other drivers also realize that her popularity drives the popularity of the sport, and in turn, benefits them, too. Danica is good for open wheel racing, and the other drivers --like her or not -- now recognize that fact.

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Danicamania: Hey Tarik-

Ok, the obligatory question: Does Danica have a real chance? What does she need to do to win this thing?

Thanks much

Tarik El-Bashir: I think she does have a chance this year. She told me yesterday that the fastest car she's ever had here was the one she drove to a historic fourth place in her rookie season.

That said, her No. 7 Andretti-Green car has been pretty good this month. Not great, but solid. She's counting on the intangibles like experience, good pit stops and her improved communication with her team to push her to the front on Sunday.

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Washington, D.C.: Can you explain the Jeremy Mayfield situation? How could use of an antihistamine have triggered a positive test? Is there anything that he could have done that would make that a plausible excuse?

Liz Clarke: This is a really complicated issue, but I'm glad you asked.

Before we spectulate on what Jeremy took or didnt take, let's revisit NASCAR's drug-testing policy, unveiled last September. It is unprecedented in its breadth and vagueness in all of sports and the workplace, as far as I know. It would never have been permitted in any sport in which athletes are treated with even a modicum of respect.

In short, NASCAR now administers random drug tests to its drivers but has NOT said what drugs are banned or what quantity is banned. NASCAR tests for over-the-counter meds, as well as recreational drugs. NASCAR has said they will consider a "positive test" one that detected use of over-the-counter meds such as allergy pills, cold meds, etc because a certain amount of that could affect driving.

Well, I cant imagine my livelihood depending on a random test in which I didnt know what was being tested and how much would trigger it.

if the drivers had an association or union, analagous to NFL, MLB or NBA players union, this never would have been approved.

Also, NASCAR has, in the past, falsified a drug test to kick a certain driver out of the sport (see Tim Richmond). So NASCAR's credibility on these matters, to me, is nominal at best.

Therefore, Jeremy could have taken Claritin, as he claims -- or he could have taking something illegal. Who knows?

I am not a litigious person, but I hope this goes to court. NASCAR has over-reached with this policy, if you ask me. ...

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Sacramento, Calif.: Do you think that F1's talk about unifying all its motor sizes comes in some response to the competitive parity in the IRL? Is it possible that the world's most popular racing league is learning something from America?

Tarik El-Bashir: Even if that were the case, Formula 1 would never admit to it. But they've clearly got to do something. As much as I enjoy the technical aspect of F1 -- there's nothing like the sound of those engines screaming -- the product itself isn't worth watching in my opinion.

I still wake up early Sunday morning and tune in, but it's hard to stay enthusiastic for the entire two hours because there is so little drama (and passing) on the track.

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The Busch Brothers:: Are unstoppable, right? How good can Kyle Busch be? And should he be a prohibitive favorite by the time we get to this year's Chase for the Cup?

Liz Clarke: Kyle Busch, the younger of the brothers, has really posted awesome results. He is fast, fearless (and arrogant). And he's reveling in each win with Gibbs after being canned by Hendrick Motorsports last year (i would have fired him too, btw, for leaving the track after crashign out of a race when his team was still making repairs.)

Anyway, Kyle should be a favorite when Chase-time rolls around. He pouted his way through last year's Chase after 1 or 2 bad races. maybe he has matured, but I doubt it. there is no doubting his talent, though.

His older brother Kurt has struggled of late, but I think it's largely becasue Penske Racing got off to a slow start figuring out the newly designed race car. he's a talented guy, and he has become more likeable with age.

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F1 in USA: What are the odds of getting another American F1 race? And if so, what kind of time frame might it arrive in?

Tarik El-Bashir: I don't see that happening. Interest in the Indy Grand Prix had begun to wane even before the Great Tire Debacle of 2005.

Unfortunately, I think F1 will always be a lot like Premier League soccer. The rest of the world loves it, and we just don't get it.

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McLean, Va.: I grew up devoted to the Indy 500, and I was a big fan of the CART series from the '70s through mid-90's (one of my favorite memories is attending the 1991 season-ending CART race at Laguna Seca -- I had scored a paddock pass and got to chat with Bobby Rahal!).

With the rift in U.S. open-wheel racing now healed (for lack of a better word), is there any chance of it regaining at least a shred of what it once had? Other than Danica Patrick, are there any open-wheel drivers capable of winning over fans the way that past drivers like Bobby Rahal, Rick Mears, Danny Sullivan, and the Andretti and Unser clans did?

Tarik El-Bashir: Unfortunately, I think the damage has been done. The split hurt open wheel racing at a time when it could least afford to suffer a big hit -- just as NASCAR's rise really started to gain momentum.

That said, the IRL and Indy 500 have seen a resurgence in recent seasons. The reunificantion has helped some, so has the emergence of talented young drivers with recognizable names like Andretti and Rahal.

But will open wheel racing ever reign supreme as it once did? I don't think so.

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More Joe Gibbs!: Liz! What can we expect from Joe Gibbs Racing in the future? Is it all Sliced Bread (Logano) or nothing? Or is there a larger structural plan? And what happened to the one African American racer they were sponsoring? I heard his funding got cut!

Liz Clarke: I'm so happy to try this one. Let's start with the last question.

Silver Spring native Marc Davis, the African American driver you're speaking off, was a Gibbs developmental driver for 3 years before leaving the team this winter when informed Gibbs coudlnt get funding to move him up to Nationwide series. I'm writing about Marc for tomorrow's Post, so I hope you'll read. In short, Marc, just 18, now owns his own team, found sponsorship and is here trying to qualify for Saturday's Nationwide race.

As for JGR overall, I know they wanted to add a 4th Cup team/driver but put plans on hold becasue of recession.Good call, I think. They have great sponsors--Home Depot, Fed Ex, M&Ms--and are best serve by shoring up those relationships.

The move to Toyota seems ot have been good, as Toyota has made them its flagship team. With Chevy, there weren't the top dog (see Hendrick Motorsports).

I do think Denny Hamlin is talented. I would not have hired Kyle Busch becasue of his personality, but Kyle has made Gibbs look very smart with his results.

JGR is in good shape, as far as I can tell. They dont' overspend mindlessly, like owners in sports (see Dan Snyder). And they treat their employees well and are rewarded with loyalty in return. those are always virtues in my book; but especially smart in a recession.

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Indianapolis, Ind.: What would happen if Milka Duno or Sarah Fisher won the Indy 500 before Danica? Would that create a storm of some sort? What would it do for the sport and for Danica's career in itself?

Tarik El-Bashir: Having watched all three of them over the years in various forms of racing, I simply cannot imagine that happening. Nothing against Duno and Fisher, but Danica has more talent then both of them, she's got a better car and has a top team backing her.

I don't think a win by Duno or Fisher -- as unlikely as that is -- would have the impact of Patrick winning. Even casual sports fans are familiar with Patrick.

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Anonymous: What is the long term impact of the downturn in the economy, particularly the viability of the US automakers, to NASCAR? Are cost saving measures, like the Car of Tomorrow, too little too late, and will any additional spec solutions be acceptable to its fans?

washingtonpost.com: Video: Jeff Gordon Discusses NASCAR and the Economy (Washington Post, Atkinson & Co.)

Steering Through Tough Times (Washington Post, Feb 12)

Liz Clarke: Great topic. The idea that the Car of Tomorrow would represent a cost-savings was a travesty. At best it was naive; at worst, a hoax.

What is saving a bit of money is the ban on testing during the season.

On the plus side, NASCAR has had full fields of cars at every race this season. I think 48 tried making the 43-car cut for Sunday's race, which is good.

But attendance is down. Way down. My hotel, just 10 miles from the track, is not even full--shocking for a Charlotte race weekend. I have never seen this in 19 years of covering this on and off. Hardly any fans showed for qualifying last night, which used ot be an EVENT, drawing at least 30-40,000.

Fans are hurting, there is no denying. And NASCAR has hurt the product, with its redeisgned car.

As for US automakers, if they have one marketing dime left, they will spend it on nascar. it does work for them. and the decision to let Toyota compete looks brilliant; they are the only solvent carmaker in the sport!

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Liz Clarke: Tarik has had to run for an interview, and I must turn to writing.

I thoroughly enjoyed this dual-chat; i bet Tarik did, too. So I hope we can do it again sometime.

Thanks for the terrific questions. And I sorry we didnt get to all.

Enjoy the weekend of races -- and the Memorial Day barbecues.

Liz

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