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Tight Chase battle seems to vindicate France

BRANT JAMES
Published September 7, 2004

This is the scenario CEO Brian France was trying to sell a skeptical NASCAR community: that the new playoff-style Chase for the Championship would pique not only fan but team interest.

It's playing out perfectly for France. A Nextel Cup championship chase that under the previous system would have been reduced to four or five drivers, maybe, is within grasp of up to 15 at the final regular-season race Saturday in Richmond. It doesn't hurt for the NASCAR marketing department that its most popular drivers - Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon - have guaranteed playoff spots.

With Saturday's race the final chance for teams to secure top-10 spots and a berth in the 10-race shootout for the championship, nine drivers will have their season decided on the .750-mile short track.

When Elliott Sadler secured a playoff spot and locked in at least sixth place by winning at California Speedway on Sunday, he left Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne and Mark Martin to hold on to top 10 spots, but Jamie McMurray is within 25 points of the final transfer spot, with Bobby Labonte (36 points back), Dale Jarrett (43), Jeremy Mayfield (55) and Kevin Harvick (56) all statistically viable.

There are hints in past performances that the standings could be shaken up as much as cars are sure to be in the Richmond bull ring. Labonte has an average finishing position of 3.6 in his past three Richmond starts. Jarrett has two wins at Richmond but just one top five in this race the past three years. Busch, a wizard on the Bristol half-mile track, has one top 10 and has used provisionals twice to get into his 10 Richmond races.

DETAILS: Indy Racing League senior vice president of operations Brian Barnhart said he, promoter Barry Green and assistants will convene soon to determine the length of the April 3 St. Petersburg Grand Prix. A 190-mile event was contested on the 1.806-mile course by CART in February 2003.

Barnhart said many factors - pit strategy, fuel economy, size of fuel cells, the desired number of pit stops, television windows, needs of support races and car speeds - will affect the figure.

"But with all that," he said, "you're going to be looking at something in the neighborhood of 200 miles."

F1-WANNABE: Safety Harbor's Justin Larson failed to earn one of the three spots in the Red Bull Driver Search competition at Sebring International Raceway last week. The contest assembled 22 drivers, either scouted or qualified through kart competitions, then paced them through a three-day test for the right to enter a Formula One development program in Europe.

Michael Andretti, the last American given a full-time F1 ride (he was fired midway through his first season in 1993), said the wealth of racing opportunities in the United States is likely to forever hinder the development of F1 drivers in this country.

"In Europe and Brazil all they focus on is F1," said Andretti, who returned to the United States in 1994 and raced 19 seasons, 17 in CART. "Over here we have NASCAR, before that CART, and now it's (the IRL).

"A lot of talent ends up staying here and they don't make the jump. I think we have enough talent in America to definitely be competitive over there. (But) because of these series over here, this is where they end up parking themselves."

Scott Speed, the 2002 Red Bull program winner, became the first American to win a European junior circuit when he captured the Formula Renault Eurocup last weekend.

NO GO: Andretti said he doubts North American open-wheel racing will ever be reunited, with the IRL and Champ Car merging. So it's time, he said, for the IRL to chop into Champ Car's base of street/road racing in Canada and Mexico. "(Champ Car) didn't want it to happen," he said. "We had meetings and CART just doesn't want to get together. So, they have their own agenda and they're going off and doing their thing. We don't understand what they're doing, and I don't think they do either. So it's time for the IRL to go off and do its own thing. I think doing this race will help the IRL even extend its lead over CART in open-wheel racing."

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