Brickyard 400 needs a pick-me-up

Many racing experts doubt Sprint Cup points leader Carl Edwards, seen here after winning the NASCAR...

Many racing experts doubt Sprint Cup points leader Carl Edwards, seen here after winning the NASCAR Nationwide Series Federated Auto Parts 300 at Nashville Superspeedway last week, can hold off Jimmie Johnson for the 2011 championship. (Getty Images)

DEAN McNULTY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:00 PM ET

INDIANAPOLIS - The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is just past the half-way point of the 2011 season and all concerned — NASCAR bosses, team owners and drivers — have issues that need to be acted upon.

The first of those issues is facing them square on this week at the Brickyard 400 on the hallowed grounds of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

From the day it was first run in 1994, the Brickyard has outdistanced itself from all other NASCAR races, with the exception of the Daytona 500.

Combined with the Daytona 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the Brickyard is surely the third jewel in NASCAR’s triple crown of racing.

But going into Sunday’s race there is a malaise that has been growing in this mid-western city about stock car racing that started with the Goodyear tire fiasco back in 2008.

That was the race that officials needed to yellow flag every 10 laps or so because the tires were disintegrating.

Where once tickets to the Brickyard 400 were more valuable than Indy 500 tickets, this year’s edition of the race is likely to be the lowest attended in its history.

All kinds of solutions have been offered up — from making it a night race by lighting the 2.5 mile oval to putting up a $2 million purse to the winner.

A better suggestion might be to figure out a way to make the actual race more interesting. With the current Sprint Cup car and rules, the race most often is a single-file, follow-the-leader deal that is enough to put even the most fervent fan into a self-induced coma.

Better minds than mine should be able to figure out a way to engineer these 900 horsepower monsters so that side-by-side racing is more than just a rumour at Indy.

Next on the list of things NASCAR has to deal with is the Jimmie Johnson phenomenon.

The No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team has won five consecutive Sprint Cup championships and a glance at the standings this week show Johnson just seven points behind current leader Carl Edwards and the No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing Ford team.

NASCAR has the well-deserved reputation of being pro-sports most proficient marketer so it had better come up with something to convince race fans that Johnson winning a sixth time is a good thing.

While live attendance has not slipped over last season and television ratings so far this season are up, NASCAR still is behind where it was before the Johnson juggernaut began collecting championship trophies at a rate that would make even the New York Yankees blush.

It would be easier, of course, if Johnson had a sparkling personality like his Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon or even a bad-boy persona like either Kyle Bush or Kevin Harvick.

All Johnson does week in and week out is be the best stock car driver in history, which is not a bad thing, but it is not putting, or keeping, bums in the seats.

Somebody down at NASCAR’s headquarters in Daytona should be able to come up with some sort of promotion to make Johnson’s march into auto racing history a talking point.

Remember when Michael Schumacher was making a mockery of Formula One records during his five-in-a-row world championships from 2000 to 2004 with Ferrari?

The FIA — as stodgy as that body was — marketed the feat so that even Schuey haters went to grands prix to watch him win.

Surely NASCAR can come up with a better plan.

Finally, there is the matter of the aforementioned Edwards.

The 31-year-old from Columbia, Missouri, looks like he could be the best bet to unseat Johnson from his perch this season.

Yet the fact that Edwards is still the most sought after free agent going into the final 16 races of the season is starting to become a distraction, even if both he and team owner Jack Roush offer up denials.

RFR needs to get Edwards’ signature on a new contract, or Edwards needs to find another team.

Already his name is being linked to both Joe Gibbs Racing and Stewart Haas Racing.

Letting this issue fester will hurt Edwards’ and NASCAR’s chances for putting a new face on the Sprint Cup championship trophy.

McMurray can't win

What a difference a year makes.

Last season Jamie McMurray came to the Brickyard 400 riding a tidal wave of success with the Ganassi racing oufit.

He had already won the Daytona 500 in the No. 1 Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Chevrolet and Dario Franchitti had won the Indianapolis 500 for Chip Ganassi Racing in the No. 10 Dallara Honda.

And McMurray left Indianapolis Motor Speedway with the Brickyard trophy in his back pocket, making it an unprecedented triple for his boss.

No such luck so far in 2011, however.

McMurray finished back in the pack at 18th at Daytona in February and Franchitti finished 12th at Indy in May when he ran short of fuel.

While Franchitti is in the hunt for another IZOD IndyCar championship, McMurray is a long shot even to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, having had three engine failures so far.

He sits 29th in points, 170 out of the 10th and final Chase slot.

Even he doesn’t see much hope on the horizon.

“Even winning one race, I don’t think you’d get the wild card because of the points you’d have to make up,” he said this week. “Maybe if you win a couple, you would have a shot at that. But honestly, I mean, our goal right now for the rest of the year is just to get our team back where it was at this time last year and hopefully to be more consistent in the races.”

dean.mcnulty@sunmedia.ca


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