Gaining on NASCAR

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CONCORD, N.C. --- For years, especially since Indy-car racing imploded with the split between IRL and CART in 1996, stock car racing has enjoyed a lofty existence as the premier form of motorsports in the U.S.

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Tony Kanaan, of Brazil, leads teammate Danica Patrick through the first turn during practice for the Indianapolis 500 auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Friday, May 9, 2008.  Associated Press
Associated Press
Tony Kanaan, of Brazil, leads teammate Danica Patrick through the first turn during practice for the Indianapolis 500 auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Friday, May 9, 2008.

Now that Indy-car racing has solved its differences -- and created some NASCAR-like story lines in the process -- many are wondering how long stock cars will continue to get a free pass with the fans.

IRL and CART now are one. In the past two months, the open-wheeled series has enjoyed a revival of sorts with victories by 19 year-old Graham Rahal and Danica Patrick, the first woman to win an Indy-car race. That gives Sunday's Indianapolis 500 the momentum it enjoyed as the leading player in motorsports 20 years ago.

At the same time, NASCAR is gearing up for the Coca-Cola 600 at the Lowe's Motor Speedway. The stock car race has beaten the Indianapolis 500 in the ratings the past seven years, but this year's race may prove to be a challenge.

Saturday night's all-star race at Lowe's was a competitive flop. The race was staged in four segments and the lead car in all four segments claimed easy wins -- all by 100 yards or more.

The lack of passing up front, combined with a new and improved Indianapolis lineup, has some observers thinking Indy cars may be in position to pass NASCAR -- at least this Sunday.

"The one thing, over the years, it has gotten diluted. It was diluted a little bit in my eyes just like it was in everybody's eyes and it is very exciting to see those two series get back together," said Casey Mears, the Coca-Cola 600 defending champion whose uncle, Rick Mears, won at Indianapolis four times.

"To see a full (33-car) field and to see how many cars are there for the month of May is very exciting. It definitely makes it a lot more appealing."

NASCAR is still working through its new Car of Tomorrow. The winged racer has proven to be safer than a traditional stock car, but it hasn't led to competitive racing on intermediate racetracks. Fans watching last week's all-star race are worried Sunday's 200-lap main event will produce the same follow-the-leader format.

NASCAR also expected to get a bump from a recent influx of Indy-car drivers. Juan Pablo Montoya, Sam Hornish Jr., Dario Franchitti, Patrick Carpentier and Jacques Villeneuve all traded their open-wheeled cockpits for stock cars in the past two years.

They've combined to win the Indianapolis 500 five times but have struggled in NASCAR. Montoya won on a road course last year and is 16th in the current driver standings. The others are ranked no higher than 34th.

Car owners Chip Ganassi and Roger Penske can enjoy the best of both worlds. They'll have cars at both events Sunday.

Ganassi, whose Indy-car teams will start first and second, will spend Sunday at Indianapolis. So will Penske.

"What you are seeing today, with the Car of Tomorrow, I think it's more of a cookie cutter thing," Ganassi said. "It's a tall order at the top level of the sport here to compete week in and week out. It's very, very competitive.

"It's not your grandfather's race team anymore."

With no free passes.

Reach Don Coble at don.coble@morris.com

COCA-COLA 600


(RACE NO. 12 OF 36)


WHERE: Lowe's Motor Speedway; Concord, N.C.


WHEN: 5:30 p.m. Sunday


TRACK DIMENSIONS: 1.5-mile quad-oval with 24-degree banking


BROADCAST: Television -- 5 p.m. Fox-Ch. 54; Radio -- 4:30 p.m., Performance Racing Network, Sirius Satellite Radio 128


LAST YEAR'S WINNER: Casey Mears

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