All eyes are on Junior |

All eyes are on Junior

Roger Diez
Nevada Appeal Motorsports Columnist

I was browsing through E-Bay the other day, and came across an interesting item up for bid: Racing driver with extensive NASCAR experience; comes with huge fan base, recognizable family name; bidding starts at $10 million per year, exclusive of merchandising opportunities. Delivery to race shop included. Contact Driver 8 to place bid.

But seriously, folks, the other shoe finally dropped at Dale Earnhardt Incorporated last week when the ongoing questions of “will he or won’t he leave”, and “will she or won’t she give him control of the company” were finally answered . . . sort of. At least we now know that Theresa Earnhardt decided that arguably the most marketable driver in NASCAR wasn’t worth 51 percent of the company, and that Dale Jr. decided to hit the road for the 2008 season. What we don’t yet know is where Junior will end up next year.

If race fans have anything to say about it, he will be driving the famous No. 3 car for Richard Childress Racing (as 70 percent of respondents to a SPEED TV fan poll voted). The Hendrick and Gibbs teams have also been rumored to be on Junior’s short list, but he has not yet publicly committed to any team. Childress was emphatic in his denials of TV reports that Junior has already committed to his team, and Junior said he’s going to take his time.

“I feel like we won’t really have contact with owners and get to setting up those discussions for a week or two,” he said. “I need to kind of take a little time to clear my head and get in that mode. That’s just the way I’m going to do it.”

Of course, with the brouhaha surrounding the Earnhardt announcement, the motorsports press seems to have forgotten about another minor item taking place this weekend, pole qualifying for the Indianapolis 500. Thirty years ago, a story about a NASCAR driver changing teams would have warranted about two lines in the few newspaper sports sections that carried any racing news whatsoever, and TV wouldn’t have even bothered.

But Indy Pole Day was second only to the race itself in the motorsports press back in the day. There was as much tradition involved in Indy as in other major sporting events like the Kentucky Derby or the World Series. Sadly, since the split in open-wheel racing some ten years ago, both the prestige and the tradition of Indy have waned.

Those of us who remember the “good old days” cherish memories of Bump Day, when it really was a nail-biter. And first day qualifiers, no matter how many there were, were locked into their pole day starting spots unless they subsequently got bumped.

But the rules have changed, and here’s how the Indy 500 field will be set for 2007. In keeping with tradition, qualifying times are still based on a four-lap run, with the speed determined by the average of all four laps. A team can wave off a qualifying attempt at any time in the run if the speed seems inadequate, and try again later.

Non-traditionally, first day qualifiers are not automatically in the field. Once positions 1 through 11 have been established, cars can be bumped by faster runs, but only the fastest 11 qualifiers are set on Pole Day. This is apparently an attempt to re-establish the drama of the old Bump Day, when there were enough cars in the field to make it exciting.

On the second day of qualifying (today, if Saturday wasn’t rained out), positions 12 through 22 will be set using the same procedure. Next Saturday will see the remainder of the 33 car field set, with final bumping (if any) taking place next Sunday on Bump Day. During this exercise, any run that is faster than the slowest qualifier in the field will bump that car, no matter which day it qualified.

Due to column deadlines, I’m writing this before Pole Day is over, so you’ll have to look at the Skinny page to see who qualified where.

The race itself will be broadcast for the first time in High Definition, at 9 a.m. on ABC. I might have to check out HDTV prices at Costco between now and then.