The way things went Wednesday in the opening practice for the Brickyard 400, it appears Fords are the cars to beat - again.
Led by defending race champion Dale Jarrett, Ford drivers had four of the top five practice laps at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
That showing gave Chevy drivers more ammunition in their continuing complaint to NASCAR that Ford has an aerodynamic advantage.
Jarrett, coming off a victory two weeks ago at Pocono, led the way with a lap of 178.980 mph, followed by teammate Ernie Irvan at 177.943. Wally Dallenbach Jr. was third in a Chevy Monte Carlo at 177.144, with Thunderbird drivers Ted Musgrave and Lake Speed close behind at 176.908 and 176.706.
Chevrolets driven by Steve Grissom and rookie Robby Gordon were next at 176.478 and 176.460. All seven were faster than the track qualifying record of 176.419 set last year by Jeff Gordon. Records can be set only in qualifying or the race.
“If you ask me if there’s an advantage, I’ll tell you yes,” said Gordon, whose Chevy was only 33rd at 173.728.
Gordon, whose seven victories in 18 starts this season are the only wins for Chevy, said, “Even though we finished second at Pocono, the Fords were outdriving us down the straightaways and corners.
“What more can we do?” asked the winner of the inaugural Brickyard race in 1994 and the man who has won the last two Brickyard poles.
“I was surprised to see a quarter of an inch (lowering of the rear spoiler) given to Ford after we won The Winston (in May),” Gordon said. “Since then, I think they’ve had a pretty big edge. Prior to that, things were pretty level.”
Meanwhile, all 51 cars entered this week got onto the 2-1/2-mile oval Wednesday, turning 1,261 laps.
Despite all that action, the only crashes of the day came near the end of the five-hour session.
Mike Skinner, who leads the rookie standings, hit the wall coming off the third turn. He backed his Chevy into the concrete barrier. The session actually ended a few minutes early when Speed brought out a red flag by bouncing off the fourth-turn wall. Neither driver was injured.
Qualifying for the 400-mile race begins today,
Brickyard tops Earnhardt’s list
Dale Earnhardt isn’t a bit confused about the highlight of his illustrious career.
With 70 victories - fifth-best on the NASCAR list - and seven Winston Cup championships on his resume, Earnhardt could be forgiven should he not be able to identify a high point. Yet he doesn’t hesitate a bit.
“Since I haven’t won the biggest race in our series, the Daytona 500, this is the biggest victory of my career,” Earnhardt said Wednesday, referring to the 1995 Brickyard. “I’d like to win two or three more of them.”
Right now, however, Earnhardt would like to win any event on the schedule. He is mired in a 45-race losing streak - the worst drought of his career.
Because he is sixth in the series standings, Earnhardt is nothing more than an extreme long shot to win an unprecedented eighth Winston Cup title.
At Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Fords and Earnhardt’s fellow Chevy driver Jeff Gordon loom as the favorites. Earnhardt also was not a serious contender in 1996.
“Last year, we came here injured and couldn’t give 100 percent,” he said, alluding to a horrifying crash earlier that month at Talladega. “With broken bones we never had a chance.”
Wallace most consistent at Indy
The list of winners in three years of the Brickyard 400 reads like a who’s who of Winston Cup racing - Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt and Dale Jarrett.
But who has been the most consistent? Why, none other than the driver suffering through the most inconsistent seasons of all NASCAR stars - Rusty Wallace.
Wallace has finished fourth, second and seventh at Indy. That’s an average finish of 4.3. Earnhardt has an average finish of seventh to 14.7 for both Jarrett and Gordon.
“I guess that in the first three times here, we’ve done everything but win,” Wallace said. “Hopefully, the fourth time will be the charm for us.”
ARCA star moving up
Tim Steele is just that on the ARCA circuit, where he has won 31 percent of his career starts. This year, the driver from Coopersville, Mich., has five victories, seven top fives and nine top 10s in as many races.
This week, he will attempt to step up to the Winston Cup circuit, hoping to qualify during the next two days for the Brickyard 400.
“Our success over there is great, and I’m really proud of what we’ve accomplished,” said Steele, the defending ARCA champion. “But the competition over here is the toughest anywhere.”
Steele harbors no foolish expectations.
“If we make the field, you can come around our rig and you’d think that we’d won the pole … if we can be around at the finish, we’ll be doing cartwheels.”
Lynx Racing hires woman driver
Lynx Racing, committed to developing top drivers in open-wheel racing’s minor leagues, has signed its first woman driver - 18-year-old Sara Senske.
Senske joins Lynx Racing’s Road Scholar driver development program, which has had some success this season. Alex Barron and Memo Gidley, a pair of 27-year-olds, currently run first and third in the Toyota-Atlantic Series, and Buddy Rice, 21, leads the United States Formula Ford 2000 Championship.
Top PPG CART World Series rookie Patrick Carpentier is a graduate of the Lynx program.
“My dream is to be the first woman to win a CART PPG race and to open the door for other women to get into the sport,” Senske said.
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