St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Top 10 Autos stories of 2005

By BRANT JAMES, Times Staff Writer
Published November 26, 2005

1. DANICA PATRICK MANIA: The Indy Racing League decided early in the season to play off the plucky 23-year-old Patrick as a promotional tool and it got what it wanted hundreds of times over. Personable and spunky, unapologetic if her good looks helped make her someone sponsors would put in an IndyCar, the third full-time female driver in league history went from a curiosity to a sensation when she started burning up the speed charts in the weeks before the Indianapolis 500. Media exposure snowballed in the long lead-up to the open-wheel classic and she justified it despite some rookie mistakes. Her qualifying position (fourth), finish (fourth) and 19 laps led were all bests among the five females to race the 500. Suddenly, her image was everywhere. Patrick merchandise began out-selling that of veteran, winning drivers. (And some were not happy, evidenced by an Andretti Green boycott of a Milwaukee autograph signing where Patrick had her own table.) By year's end she had earned three poles and two top-fives and finished 12th in points to be named league rookie of the year.

2. SILLIEST SEASON EVER: The last four or so months of a NASCAR season are a succession of rumored driver changes, actual driver changes and manic tweaking for the next season. After a couple years of relative calm, Silly Season 2005 spawned major weirdness. A sample: after four-time series champion Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. failed to make the Chase, both teams changed crew chiefs, with long-time Hendrick Motorsports employee Steve Letarte going to Gordon and Tony Eury Jr. rejoining his cousin after crew chiefing Michael Waltrip for most of the season. Gordon's former crew chief, Robbie Loomis, stayed on as an adviser but joined Petty Enterprises as executive vice president of race operations for next season. NASCAR announced an upcoming limit on the number of cars a single team-owner can field - four - sending Nextel Cup's only five-car owner, Jack Roush, into a froth. Defending series champion Kurt Busch, under contract with Roush through 2006, announced he had signed with Penske Racing South for 2007 and wanted out a year early; Jamie McMurray signed to join Roush in 2007 and asked Chip Ganassi for his release; after two months of haggling both got their wish. Busch will replace the retired Rusty Wallace in the No. 2 Dodge and McMurray will replace Busch in a renumbered Ford; Waltrip announced he'll leave Dale Earnhardt Inc. for Bill Davis Racing; Sterling Marlin, ousted by Ganassi, signed with MB2 Motorsports to replace Scott Riggs, who left for Evernham Motorsports; Bobby Labonte left Joe Gibbs Racing for Petty; Ricky Rudd, 49, announced his retirement after 31 years; Ken Schrader, 50, left BAM to replace Rudd with the Wood Brothers. 3. GORDON, EARNHARDT FAIL TO MAKE CHASE: Brian France said it didn't matter, spun it as a testament to the quality of Nextel Cup's level of competition. Ditto Mike Helton and every other NASCAR executive when queried about the sport's two most popular drivers failing to make the 10-race playoffs. But deep down, the league CEO and president, respectively, had to worry just a little. Yes, the Chase survived, but mainly because Tony Stewart provided the plotline. There was no doubt the Chase lacked a little zip in the season-ender at Homestead without NASCAR's most prominent pair in contention. 4. JUNIOR SWAP: Not to worry, they all said. Dale Earnhardt Inc. director of motorsports Richie Gilmore saw the shuffling of crews and swapping of cars between Earnhardt Jr.'s No. 8 Chevrolet and Waltrip's No. 15 teams as a way to shake up a stagnant working relationship that all implied was holding back their marquee driver and moneymaker. Earnhardt said it was a way to salvage a relationship with his cousin and former car chief, Tony Eury Jr., before business pushed them further apart. And, Earnhardt said the staid Pete Rondeau was the kind of authority figure he needed to set him straight. Long story short: 11 races, no wins, five top-10s, but 0 for Daytona and Talladega, so Rondeau was out, replaced by team technical director Steve Hmiel. Then Eury - reassigned as Waltrip's crew chief - returned to crew chief the No. 8. 5. WHELDON WINS, AND WINS, AND WINS: The hometown St. Petersburg Grand Prix, Indianapolis 500 and a first IRL title all landed in the win column of St. Petersburg resident Dan Wheldon. There are good years, there are dream years, and then there's Wheldon's year. He started the season with a win at Homestead and seemed to like kissing trophy presenter Tara Reid so much, he kept battling his way onto the podium, running off to a league-record six wins in 17 races. The 27-year-old Brit was a ready-made promotional tool for Grand Prix of St. Petersburg organizers at Andretti Green Promotions when he moved to town a year ago, and he scripted a PR-perfect conclusion with a late pass to win the Indy Racing League's first street race. 6. TONY STEWART WINS SECOND NEXTEL CUP TITLE: He didn't win a race in the Chase for the Championship, but there was no doubt who the dominant driver was this season. When Stewart took control at midseason, much credit was given to a test session at Michigan, but he said a lot of his success had to do with inner peace. He's living in Columbus, Ind., in the house where he grew up, with a better relationship with his father and more at ease with the demands success and fame bring. Stewart won back his crew members and seemed to enjoy this title. It was not that way in 2002, when his first NASCAR championship was marred by numerous on- and off-track incidents, such as pushing a photographer after winning the pole but finishing 12th in the Brickyard 400. This time, Stewart's dream season included a first win at Indianapolis, then again the next week at Watkins Glen for five in seven weeks. He lost the points lead for just one week and he hoisted the Nextel Cup trophy at Homestead-Miami Speedway, beating Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards by 35 points. 7. BOURDAIS WINS SECOND CHAMP CAR TITLE: Though maddeningly consistent - if you're Paul Tracy - 26-year-old Frenchman and new St. Petersburg resident Sebastien Bourdais was frustrated near midseason. He had won just once and had seen other races slip away either because of mechanical failures or incidents not of his doing. He led in points, but remained frustrated. Then Bourdais won at Edmonton and four times in the final six races to capture his second straight title. 8. KURT BUSCH'S CHASE WITH THE DEMONS: The 2004 series champion thought his title defense had gone about as badly as possible when he entered the 10-race playoffs embroiled in a legal wrangle as he tried to leave Roush Racing a year early to join Penske Racing South. Then he crashed three laps into the first playoff race at New Hampshire, and his bid to go out with a flourish fizzled quickly. Then came Phoenix. Busch was stopped by police on suspicion of drunken driving near the track - tests later showed he was well under the level where the law presumes impairment. His verbal abusiveness with officers (after being cited for criminal reckless driving) and history of boorish behavior prompted the team to suspend him for the final two races. 9. U.S. GRAND PRIX FIASCO: Formula One racing in the United States barely had a pulse before the botched events of this summer, but Michelin's failure to bring adequate tires to Indy was embarrassing as six cars crossed the finish line under a barrage of boos. The seven Michelin-using teams, which withdrew after the formation lap, were acquitted by the FIA of bringing the sport into "disrepute"' for their decision not to race with inadequate tires. Michelin had pressed officials to insert a chicane to reduce speeds at a critical part of the course. Fans, the few who were left, were irate during the podium ceremony, but eventually got their money back. 10. OPEN WHEEL UPHEAVAL: The fissure between open wheel racing's two North American protagonists - the Indy Racing League and Champ Car - might have deepened with the IRL's decision to race its first three non-oval events in its 10-year history. Co-opting some of Champ Car's game by racing on streets (St. Petersburg) and two road courses (Sonoma and Watkins Glen), and reportedly making an offer to buy out the series, the IRL and CEO Tony George appeared to be making another attempt to kill off its rival. Yes, Champ Car had to cancel a first-ever event in South Korea, but otherwise held its own with an interesting points battle. The IRL, meanwhile, is losing long-time engine manufacturer Chevrolet, with struggling Toyota soon to follow. In addition, the league hacked much of the west coast - notably the Los Angeles market - off a 2006 schedule that has three fewer races.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.