Indy/Darlington Observations

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INDIANAPOLIS – Thoughts, observations and a few questions following the first weekend of qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 and the running of the rain-delayed Dodge Avenger 500 at Darlington Raceway:

Indianapolis

• In a quick poll among the media at Indy, only two people picked Helio Castroneves to win the pole. Even though he has won the Indy 500 twice and also had sat on the pole before, Castroneves came into this year's race completely overshadowed by teammate Sam Hornish Jr., who won the race last year from the pole.

It won't be a surprise if the extremely talented Brazilian scores his third Indy win this year.

• I wouldn't have wanted to be in the post-qualifying debriefing with Chip Ganassi after his two drivers – Scott Dixon and former 500 winner Dan Wheldon – dominated every practice session before falling completely off the pace on Pole Day.

Dixon's fourth-place starting position is a bit face-saving, but Wheldon's qualifying run, which put the Brit sixth, has to be a real embarrassment for a Ganassi organization which everyone expected to dominate both qualifying and the race. Maybe they are saving it all for race day?

• Someone passed around a photo of the Indy grandstands full of people for the 1977 Pole Day. Crowds then were estimated at over 100,000. Saturday's Pole Day crowd might have been 20,000.

Times have changed, but with the way the speedway runs two weekends of qualifying, you might think time had stood still. Keeping two weekends of qualifying isn't going to bring those crowds back, but condensing qualifying into one weekend and then running the race the following weekend will.

• If I could rule the world for a day, one of the first things I would do is move the Coca-Cola 600 to Memorial Day Monday so that Robby Gordon and Tony Stewart could race in both the Indy 500 and at Charlotte. I'm willing to bet that if they had the opportunity, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne and a half-dozen other NASCAR stars would join them.

Here's a prediction: When Stewart's current contract with Joe Gibbs Racing ends, he'll retire from NASCAR, start an IndyCar team and race in the Indy 500 in 2010.

• Although I haven't been a big fan of Danica Patrick in the past, I'm beginning to change my opinion – especially after hearing that Michael Andretti said she had come to his team almost as a rookie, having learned little or nothing about car setup while at Rahal Letterman Racing.

And I'll bet that if Patrick had been able to make another qualifying attempt on Saturday (she was next in line when qualifying ended), she would have been on the front row.

Of course, with all that being said, I'm still not convinced she ever will win an IndyCar race, according to what I was once told by a current IndyCar driver – a big-name one at that.

• Word in the garage is that John Andretti has struck a deal with Panther Racing for a ride in the Indy 500. I hope so. It would be a welcome sight to see Andretti back in an Indy car.

• I had hoped to see Max Papis back at Indy, but his schedule didn't permit him a chance to find a ride this year.

• And where are the Champ Car drivers this year? Where are Indy vets Sebastien Bourdais and Bruno Junquiera? And why didn't Bobby Rahal put his son Graham in a car?

Darlington

• Kudos to NASCAR for breaking tradition by calling the race early on Saturday night and deciding to run it on Mother's Day Sunday, traditionally an off day for the series.

• Jeff Gordon and Steve Letarte are beginning to make it look easy, aren't they?

• I was surprised that even though the race wasn't all that exciting, it wasn't the wreck-fest that I and many others predicted it would be.

• Roger Penske had a good weekend. He put Castroneves on the Indy 500 pole and his two Cup cars finished in the top 15 at Darlington.

However, I'm still thinking that Ryan Newman is auditioning for a ride in 2008.

When I asked Penske why his NASCAR teams have struggled over the past several years, he admitted that the level of competition in NASCAR is the highest of any motorsport in the world, and that anyone who thinks otherwise is totally wrong.

• What happened to David Stremme's great start to the season? He now has fallen to 22nd in points.

• Kyle Busch also took a huge hit in driver points, falling five places to 11th. Could this be his "character-building" season?

• While walking through the garage at Indy, I was reminded by an old friend that Toyota only dominated open wheel racing when it had no real competition. And although the manufacturer has spent billions (that's with a "B") of dollars in Formula One, Toyota has yet to score a victory there.

• Doesn't the COT make Mark Martin look like a fish out of water?

• Sterling Marlin scored his best finish (13th) since last fall at Charlotte. Never underestimate the skills of a veteran at Darlington.

• Denny Hamlin just keeps getting better and better with every race.

Postscript

Even though there was a second day of qualifying happening at Indy, television sets inside the media center at the speedway were tuned to the Nextel Cup race.

And despite last-minute qualifying efforts being attempted just outside the windows of the media center, all eyes inside were glued to the TV during those final thrilling laps at Darlington.

What does that tell you?