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Did You Notice? Charlotte Indy Double Duty, A Boring 600 & Retiring With Dignity

Did You Notice? Bruton Smith’s $20 million offer for 2011 and beyond to any driver who wins both the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 in the same day? That’s opened up a whole other can of worms and stirred the pot for a handful of drivers anxious to get their hands on that money.

In what would likely be a public relations boon for both series, you’d like to think all parties involved would work together to make this happen. But which drivers would actually bite at the chance to make history? Considering the difficulty the IndyCar guys have had jumping into the stock car level, you’d have to think the NASCAR boys would have a better shot of pulling it off. Here’s five I’d love to see in double duty next year:

1) Kyle Busch. Remember the old U.S. Formula 1 team? They had themselves a little man-crush on Busch, thinking he’d be the perfect choice to bring that international series its first true American contender in decades.

“I’ve watched him a lot and have massive respect for him,” former U.S. F1 sports director Peter Windsor said. “I believe Kyle can win a world championship in Formula 1. I think he’s got exactly the right talent, the right approach.”

“It’s definitely something I wouldn’t shoot down,” Busch added back when the courtship heated up in ‘09. “If I could win a championship (in NASCAR) in the next two or three years, then I wouldn’t mind going doing (F1) for a few years and coming back.”

Considering the potential interest there, you’d have to assume the Indy 500 is high on the list of things for Busch to try, too. Getting a ride there compared to the country club F1 series is a piece of cake; the question is, would no experience behind the wheel doom him, even on an oval? Personally, I don’t think that hurts him too much, and the years of handling double-duty with Nationwide and Trucks will only help condition the veteran for 1,100 miles in a day.

Potential roadblock: Joe Gibbs. He never was all that warm and fuzzy with Tony Stewart running the 500, with contract language blocking Stewart’s last attempt behind the wheel of an AJ Foyt car in ’04. JGR lets Busch do whatever he wants now… but that’s behind the wheel of either cars they control in Nationwide or a Truck Series that likely won’t leave him hurt.

2) Juan Pablo Montoya. Already an Indy 500 winner, Montoya has yet to win his first oval race on the NASCAR side. In fact, he hasn’t even led a lap at Charlotte in his Cup career. So you’d think stock cars would be the hardest place for him to break through; but at the same time, teammate Jamie McMurray’s past success at CMS (he earned his first Cup victory there in 2002) combined with an improving Earnhardt Ganassi program make a strong double-duty effort more possible than you think.

Potential roadblock: Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti. Sure, Montoya holds a big advantage in driving for a NASCAR team that doubles as an IndyCar juggernaut. But will Ganassi’s two teammates be all that thrilled about playing second fiddle to a guy that’s only coming in for one race? They’ve got a championship to win, and well-established crews that will serve to be Montoya’s biggest challengers on race day. Being the third-best car out there within the same stable defeats the purpose, and you wonder if Montoya would ever be the number one priority if he took the chance.

3) AJ Allmendinger. I know it’s a bit of an oddball choice, but the ‘Dinger has run well at Charlotte and could be a darkhorse pick for the 600 under the right circumstances. In the meantime, haven’t you just been the least bit curious as to how the former Champ Car star would do in a merged IndyCar world? This was a guy who looked poised for open-wheel stardom until a series of circumstances left him Red Bull’s protégé. Considering his car owner has already partnered to form an Indy effort twice, you’d have to assume a two-car operation with him and John Andretti isn’t out of the question… right? It’d be a challenge worthy of the King.

Potential roadblock: Open-wheel experience on ovals. Remember, when the ‘Dinger landed in Champ Car it had made the move to almost exclusively road and street courses. None of his five career wins came on the bullrings, and it’s unknown how quickly he’d be able to adapt to the 2.5-mile behemoth of Indy in open-wheel.

4) Tony Stewart. The former IRL champ claims he’s done running Indy. But now approaching his 40th birthday, the two-time NASCAR champ has won just about everything in stock cars and doesn’t have anything left to prove. How great would it be to see him make a “no guts, no glory” attempt at a race he’s always dreamed of winning? No one’s ever captured both the Indy 500 and the Brickyard 400, and you better believe with Montoya knocking on that door… Stewart would love to open it first.

Potential roadblock: Team ownership. You’d think that would make it easy for Stewart, since there’s no official contract prohibiting the challenge. But with two cars, potentially three on the horizon for 2011, he’s become so entrenched in the ownership role, running Eldora and other off-track endeavors his schedule is stretched to the max. One of those guys where you’d have to think he’d need to take the whole month of May off stock cars (sans Charlotte) to give it a fair shot.

5) Mark Martin. Would it happen? Probably not. But this man has accomplished so much for the gray-haired crowd, wouldn’t it be great to see him go part-time in NASCAR, be an owner/driver and attempt a Hendrick-supported Indy 500 effort on the side? It’s so crazy I’d call it impossible; but then again, no one ever thought Martin would still be driving, either.

Potential roadblock: Age. Not that it’s ever stopped Martin before, but the oldest 500 winner was Al Unser at 47 years, 360 days. Martin would be 52 in 2011.

Did You Notice? That in the wake of teams coming out of the woodwork for the Indy 500, we don’t have the same rush of random car owners going after one of the sport’s crown jewels in Charlotte. Years ago, the 600 used to attract one of the biggest entry lists of the year, with unsponsored teams able to use their “home base” to cut costs and take a chance at making the race. Old promoter Humpy Wheeler used to concoct outrageous deals that would put anyone from female racer Janet Guthrie – who was busy wheeling Indy before Danica Patrick was even born – to short-track ace Dick Trickle, to former IndyCar star Johnny Rutherford in rides for the big race. Those huge fields made qualifying as nerve-wracking as bubble day itself, with full-time teams missing the show while battling against these part-time programs attracting fan interest.

But the decaying economic conditions for NASCAR have made part-timers all but extinct. Charlotte is now just another race on the calendar, with 47 teams on the entry list and only Bill Elliott’s Wood Brothers Ford the intriguing part-time competitor in the field. Gone are any hardscrabble, part-time efforts capable of putting together rides to service the IndyCar superstars who might be interested in Bruton Smith’s $20 million challenge next year, and heavyweight promoter Wheeler left the speedway long ago.

Meanwhile, across the way at Indy bubble day was the most meaningful one we’ve seen this decade. Big names like Tony Kanaan nearly missed the field, while ones like Paul Tracy actually did. Add in a little Danica drama, and momentum for that race remains at an all-time high, although it remains to be seen whether the ratings will actually match it.

Compare that to the sleepiness surrounding Charlotte, and it’s just the latest wake-up call that NASCAR needs to do something to raise the importance of its “crown jewel” races once again. We’ve talked about restarting the former Winston Million program; what about offering a 100-point bonus to winners at the Daytona 500, Coke 600, Darlington and Indianapolis? Something, anything would be better than the way in which the former World 600 is now little more than just another Cup race.

Did You Notice? That in the midst of Bobby Labonte’s recent struggles with TRG, one of several legends fumbling to the end of long, distinguished careers, I’m coming to appreciate one particular driver more and more…

Rusty Wallace.

Think about it. Of all the great drivers who have officially retired the past decade (Martin doesn’t count: seriously, did he ever really retire?) Wallace is the only one to not only stick to his guns but end his career with a truly noteworthy season, making the Chase while finishing inside the top 10 in Cup points. Let’s compare that to the rough endings of the some of the sport’s other major stars:

Ward Burton: Went the final five years of his career without a top-five finish.

Bill Elliott: Seemed to do the right thing after semi-retiring on the heels of a ninth-place points finish in 2003, complete with a win and 12 top 10s. But after seven years of part-time work, he’s begun to enter the “hanging around too long” pantheon after 80 starts have yielded just a single top 10.

Dale Jarrett: Retired in 2008 after failing to qualify a dozen times and not scoring a top-10 finish in 41 attempts with Michael Waltrip Racing.

Terry Labonte: Since scaling back to a part-time career after 2004, he’s got just one top-five and two top-10 finishes in 50 starts. Also, went winless with no top fives and slipped to 26th in points during that final full-time year.

Sterling Marlin: Never scored a top-five finish again after losing his ride in the No. 40 Coors Light Dodge at the end of the 2005 season. By 2009, he was running a seven-race schedule of start-and-parks for James Finch just to make some extra cash.

Ricky Rudd: Retired the first time in 2005, then came back only to get hurt, fail to finish in the top five and end up 33rd in the standings for Yates Racing in ’07.

Darrell Waltrip: Retired in 2000 after two years without a top-10 finish, failing to qualify a dozen times during that stretch.

The list can go on and on. That means for me, Wallace’s already vaunted Cup career resume earns a new level of respect. He understood the right time to cut and run, unlike 90% of the veterans whose passion overwhelms their decision making in the wake of declining performance.

Now, the trick is for he and Bobby Labonte to sit down and have a good talk. Maybe during the ESPN portion of the schedule?

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