Plenty of controversy in NASCAR

It seems that controversy is going to be the watchword for NASCAR this season. After all the drama at Daytona, we had Ron Hornaday punting Mark Martin out of the lead on a late restart in the Craftsman Truck race at Fontana.

Then last weekend we witnessed Juan Pablo Montoya proving that he has learned to be a stock car driver, taking out Ganassi teammate Scott Pruett with an overoptimistic pass during the Busch race in Mexico City. Montoya went on to record his first stock car victory, while an unhappy Pruett recovered to finish fifth.

What lies in store today in Las Vegas? With the new, faster high banks and a cast-iron Goodyear tire, there will be lots of interesting action to watch. Tony Stewart was particularly critical of the new hard tire, designed to slow the speeds which NASCAR deemed too fast at the revamped track. Stewart, in a post-qualifying interview, excoriated Goodyear for building, in his opinion, the worst tire ever.

My guess is that Tony won't be getting a Goodyear endorsement contract any time soon. In the final analysis, the tires made the cars extremely difficult to drive but didn't slow the speeds that much.

NASCAR decided to have Goodyear build the harder tire after testing on the new 20 degree banking resulted in speeds in the high 180 mile per hour range, up considerably from the low 170 mph laps on the old 12 degree banks. Friday's qualifying speeds were in the mid-180s, only 4-5 mph off the "dangerous" testing speeds. To further guard against tire failures, NASCAR has mandated the small 13 gallon fuel cell for the Las Vegas race, necessitating more frequent pit stops and tire changes.

One of our local racing stars will be on hand for the festivities at Las Vegas this weekend. 600 Racing West will stage a Legends race immediately following the Nextel Cup event on Sunday, and Mackena Bell will be in it, showing her stuff for the fans and the NASCAR teams. Bell also has a part-time Late Model ride this season and is looking for sponsorship to expand that schedule. In addition she is angling for a Midget ride for next year's Chili Bowl classic, racing against Tony Stewart and other legends of Motorsports.

For those who prefer open-wheel racing, the Formula 1 season begins next weekend with the Australian Grand Prix. It's going to look a bit different than previous seasons.

Most notable will be the absence of seven-time World Champion Michael Schumacher, who has been replaced at Ferrari by Kimi Raikkonen. Fernando Alonso, who won the Championship the past two seasons for Renault, has taken over Raikkonen's seat at McLaren.

American Scott Speed will stay at Toro Rosso, although the issue was in doubt until just recently. And there will be two rookies who bear watching; Lewis Hamilton, the first black F1 pilot, will team with Alonso at McLaren, and Heikki Kovalainen joins the Renault team. And will someone please tell me why all Finnish F1 drivers have double Ks in their names?

A couple of other noticeable changes can be found in the new "Earth Car" look for the Honda team. The car will be denuded of the usual sponsorship logos, instead espousing an ecological theme.

And a new team with an old name joins the circus this year. The Spyker F1 effort is a marketing program for the Spyker super road car, named for a Dutch car company of a century ago. The former Jordan team will use Ferrari engines and drivers are Christiian Albers and rookie Adrian Sutil.

Of course, the biggest change for 2007 is the fact that there is now only one tire manufacturer in F1, Bridgestone. However, just to keep things on the tire front interesting, the series has borrowed a page from the Champ Car book and has added a softer compound "option" tire rule.

Both compounds must be used by each team at each race, and the softer tires will be visually different. F1 will not use the red sidewalls as was done in Champ Car, but will instead utilize a large white circle on the sidewall, which will be visible for fans to determine who is using which tire.

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