The Frontstretch: Pace Laps: Andretti's Leap, Austin's Legitimacy, and Lucrative Legends by Frontstretch Staff -- Monday July 2, 2012

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Did you see all of the race action this weekend? Or, like a lot of busy fans, did you miss a late-night adventure, a Friday controversy, or a juicy piece of news? If you did, you’ve come to the right place! Each week, The Frontstretch will break down the racing, series by series, to bring you the biggest stories that you need to watch during the week ahead. Let our experts help you get up to speed for the coming week no matter what series you might have missed, all in this week’s edition of Pace Laps!

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Andretti Working to Complete NASCAR Deal Although nothing is written in stone, it appears that there could be a brand-new team in the Sprint Cup garage in 2013. Michael Andretti, whose Andretti Autosport is an IZOD IndyCar Series powerhouse (two Andretti drivers, Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe, are currently in the top 5 in points in that series), is strongly considering starting a NASCAR operation. Andretti would most likely bring at least one fully-sponsored ride to the table in the Cup Series, and that would be a welcome thing.

Andretti, who said he has tried to get a NASCAR deal in place for a few years, is still finalizing the plans. But one thing that fans can take to heart is that if Andretti does start a team, it will not be an underfunded start and park operation like some of the teams who have tried to break in recently have been. He won’t do it without proper backing. Although no deal has been officially announced, one possible angle for Andretti is to become the new Dodge factory team, replacing Penske racing, who will switch to Ford in 2013. Richard Petty Motorsports could also make the jump to Dodge, giving the two teams strength in numbers as they provide information to the manufacturer. Although Penske Racing has denied a sale of their engine building operation to Andretti, that doesn’t rule that deal out for the future, and it would be a good move for both sides since it provides Andretti with a ready-made program and Penske with an infusion of cash.

If Andretti can get the pieces in place, a new, competitive operation would be a welcome addition to the Cup Series, providing jobs from the driver’s seat on down. Keep an eye on this one; it could be a very good thing for NASCAR. –Amy Henderson

IZOD IndyCar Series: Safety Innovations at the Forefront INDYCAR prides itself on being at the forefront of driver safety. To that end, initiating a study on catch fencing is high on the list of Dr. Terry Trammel, INDYCAR orthopedic consultant, at the upcoming meeting of the FIA Institute for Motorsport Safety in France. The organization includes members of the motorsports medical community from around the world.

The DW12 chassis has made the IZOD IndyCar Series safer, but INDYCAR officials are not done yet as they prepare to tackle the safety of catch fencing. (Photo courtesy INDYCAR LAT USA)

The current system of fencing and support poles has come under scrutiny after a number of serious accidents, most recently the one that killed Dan Wheldon last year. Wheldon died of head injuries suffered after his car got launched into the fencing and his head struck a support pole. Trammel says ideas have included clear plating in front of the catch fence (similar to the plexiglass at the top of a hockey rink), hanging the fence more like a curtain, or connecting it to poles at the top and to the SAFER barrier at the bottom.

Trammel says initiating a study would give the opportunity to “come up with some better ideas about how to manage fencing to satisfy the need to keep the car and car parts out of the crowd and have a lesser potential for injuring the driver.”

INDYCAR has also announced improvements to the accelerometers drivers must wear in their earpieces to measure G forces they encounter during races. INDYCAR takes three G force axis measurements, which require three separate chips to measure, making the earpieces large and uncomfortable. INDYCAR director of engineering Jeff Horton says they have been seeking a solution to that problem since making the devices mandatory in 2005. Analog Devices, Inc. has come up with a new chip that will measure all three axes in one chip that is roughly the size of one of the old ones, meaning smaller earpieces and increased comfort for drivers. INDYCAR used the data from the driver chips as well as those mounted on the cars to design the new safer DW12 Dallara cars. –Toni Montgomery

NASCAR Nationwide Series: Questions Arise About Legitimacy of Austin Dillon’s First Win The euphoria surrounding Austin Dillon’s dominating first career win was over in barely an hour with the announcement that the No. 3 car failed post-race inspection for being too low in the rear-end. Suddenly, the focus was no longer on how the rookie driver took the points lead with a display that left everyone from the Cup regulars to his fellow title contenders looking outclassed and shell-shocked, but on just how much of an advantage that No. 3 car had during the race itself due to the low car height.

Any expected points penalty will strip the narrow lead that Dillon earned over Elliott Sadler following Friday’s race, and now leaves more questions than answers regarding just what was learned from 300 miles at Kentucky. Was Dillon ready that much better than the whole field, or did the No. 3 car really have an illegal advantage? It’s important to remember that Dillon’s car was significantly faster than the other RCR entries (Sadler was mired in traffic all night and finished in ninth, while Kevin Harvick was vocally disappointed with the performance of his No. 33 car despite finishing third), and was not challenged throughout the entire evening by any entry in the field.

The win will not be stripped; let’s make that clear. Past precedent says that the win will stand, and there’s no way that NASCAR will change that and take away Richard Childress’s grandson’s first victory. But points will be lost and suspensions are not out of the question. Suspensions or no suspensions, though, the reality is that losing points and getting their wrist slapped will have an impact on how the team approaches races, at least for the next few weeks. And there’s going to be a nagging image around this campaign for the rest of 2012 now. Is the No. 3 squad and the RCR camp on the up and up? Or is an operation that has made a reputation for decades on pushing the envelope seeing just how far they can go?

Friday’s Nationwide race went from a conclusive statement by Dillon and team to a question mark. Whether or not this changes their momentum or how they race remains to be seen. –Bryan Davis Keith

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: Last season, James Buescher and the No. 31 team showed they’re making major strides to better performance in the Truck Series, but Buescher is quickly making a case that his development in the Truck Series is just about done. Thursday night, Buescher scored his second dominating win in eight starts this year, and he’s well within the championship battle, just nine markers behind leader Timothy Peters. His nearly four-second margin of victory, a lead he managed to build each time he was out in front of the field, left him virtually untouchable throughout the race, and it’s not the first time.

If Buescher’s performance in the Truck Series isn’t enough, you need to look no further than his performance in the Nationwide Series. Prior to the 2012 season, Buescher had made 34 starts spread out from 2008 to 2011, and he had just five top 10s and one top-5 finish. Compare that with this season, where the 22-year-old has 12 starts, one win, two top 5s, and seven top 10s. Clearly, Buescher has shown his improvement and could easily be on his way to running full time in Nationwide in 2013. And while the loss of such a talented driver in the series is hard to handle, the move could open up the No. 31 truck for another young competitor looking to make their NASCAR dream a reality. –Beth Lunkenheimer

Grand-Am: Mazda First to Commit to New GX Class In early June of this year, Grand-Am announced a new class for 2013, the GX class. This class is meant to focus on alternative energies. We now know that the first manufacturer to run the GX class will be Mazda. The manufacturer will be running their new Skyactiv-D clean diesel engines. The engine will be a 2,2 liter/4 cylinder. While Mazda has not released specs related to the time to get from zero to 60 or top speed, the car will be running a 14:1 low compression ratio. That alone should keep the cars competitive, maybe even among the GT class. Add to the fact that it’s a diesel engine and they may beat out GT in fuel mileage alone. Mazda has always been known to build some of the lightest cars in the series; however, somehow the heavier Camaros and Ferraris seem to run faster. But that may change with the GX series, as Mazda plans to add a new two stage turbocharger, and set the cars up at a 5,200 redline mark. Obviously it won’t be until next season when we’ll fully realize the benefits on the lower compression ratio or just how much better the fuel mileage will be, however, it will be interesting to see how the GX class compares to the GT class as far as performance and strategy. -Rick Lunkenheimer

Short Tracks: Charlotte Motor Speedway Set for $100,000 Legends Show Short Tracks – There are a handful of short track races that have large purses throughout the racing season. The Dream at Eldora pays $100,000 to win. The Virginia is for Racing Lovers 300 at Martinsville pays $25,000 to the winner. The Snowball Derby pays $22,500 to the first person across the finish line. In the world of Legend car racing, though, there is only one race that pays any serious money: the Big Money 100-and it is taking place on Tuesday.

Legend car racing started at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and it continues to be a focal point for the track every summer. Two years ago, track owner Bruton Smith came up with the idea of having a million-dollar purse for a Legend car race. Drivers came from all of the corners of the world to compete, and Daniel Hemric went home with $250,000 for winning the race. Last year, the speedway knocked the purse down but still set it at an impressive $100,000, with Kyle Plott taking home $25,000 for the win.

Monday will be the start of the action at Charlotte with qualifying and heat races followed by Tuesday’s continued heat races and the Big Money feature at the end of the night. Fans can see the action for $10 with kids under 13 free. The action will be hot and heavy for two full days, culminating in the big race and a huge fireworks display. If you can, come out to Charlotte Motor Speedway to see one of the biggest races in short track racing all year. You might want to remember the name of the winner. -Mike Neff

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Contact Amy Henderson

Recent articles from Amy Henderson:

Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Announces Partnership with Cessna, Textron
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