White-knuckle frustration as usual

Jane Miller

Nerves are always on edge when the Nextel Cup drivers come to Talladega. Having the fall race as part of the Chase for the Championship ups the ante.

But today's race, the first Car of Tomorrow restrictor plate race, adds an extra element of anxiety for the entire field, who discovered some unexpected trouble during Friday's two practice sessions.

Yes, drivers have cried 'wolf' at plate tracks before and then, thankfully, the race has gone off without incident. But all drivers now are fretting about their vision being restricted in these cars, and with the draft and the high speeds, the danger element just increased.

'I think not being able to see ahead of the car in front of you is gonna be the biggest change from the driver's perspective,' said Carl Edwards. 'I told my spotter, Jason Hedlesky, ‘You've got to tell me what's going on in front of me,' because if I'm behind a guy, it's like you just get this big blind zone that's bigger than it ever was before. You can't see anything in front of them, so that's pretty interesting and a little bit scary.'

NASCAR officials also are going to be cracking down on bump-drafting like never before today, so expect the usual white-knuckle, frustration-filled race.

SHUTOUT:

Talladega is one of four tracks at which Tony Stewart hasn't won, though he has finished second there six times.

The other three: California, Darlington and Las Vegas.

SPONSORSHIP DEAL for CAT:

Caterpillar Inc. will become an official sponsor of the NHRA beginning in 2008.

The multi-year deal comes on the heels of the company's sponsorship of Rod Fuller's Top Fuel car with David Powers Motorsports.

The aim with the NHRA sponsorship is the same as with the car's — recruiting technicians. Caterpillar will have recruiting displays at all 23 events and participate in the NHRA's Youth and Education Services program.

SETTING THE FIELD:

NHRA's Countdown to the Championship cuts to four in Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock after today's event at Richmond, Va. The Bike field has already been trimmed.

The top four in Top Fuel are Larry Dixon, Rod Fuller, Tony Schumacher and Brandon Bernstein. Bob Vandergriff Jr. is 21 points behind Bernstein.

In Funny Car, the top four is Tony Pedregon, Robert Hight, Jack Beckman and John Force, who obviously is now out of contention. That moves Ron Capps into fourth with his teammate, Gary Scelzi, just two points behind him.

In Pro Stock, Dave Connolly and Greg Anderson have already clinched spots in the next round. Allen Johnson and Jeg Coughlin complete the current top four with Jason Line 18 points behind Coughlin.

STEPPING OUT:

Steven Wallace will step out of his Rusty Wallace, Inc., Busch car at the series' next race at Charlotte so that Reed Sorenson can provide additional input to the team.

Rusty Wallace said the driver switch is a one-shot deal and that Steven Wallace will be in the car for the rest of this season and next.

'2007 has been a year of ups and downs for us,' Rusty Wallace said. 'On one hand, we've won two poles and had some fast cars, but on the other, some of our performances just haven't been up to our high standards. This team is used to running up front consistently and will settle for nothing less.'

SENDING A MESSAGE:

For fans who want to send get-well wishes to John Force, his longtime sponsor, Castrol, is providing an e-mail link for that purpose. It is getwelljohn@bp.com.

The company also will be providing banners for fans to sign at the racetrack to send their well-wishes.

SCHEDULE CHANGE:

The 2008 season at Gateway International Raceway in Madison is two-thirds the same as last year but the Craftsman Truck race will have a new date.

Rather than Labor Day weekend, as it was this year, the Trucks will race at GIR a week later, on Sept. 6.

The NHRA remains the first weekend of May (2-4) and the Nationwide Series is July 19, again an off weekend for the Sprint Cup Series (all these name changes!).

SUPER JOB:

Scott Speed and Dario Franchitti both survived their stock car debuts pretty much unscathed Friday in the ARCA race.

Franchitti got sent to the back at the start and never really got up front, finishing 17th, but Speed ran with the leaders all day and finished seventh.

'It was incredible,' said Speed, who was in his first-ever oval race. 'There was so much going on. It's such a contrast to what I've been used to my whole life.

SOPHOMORE SEASON:

Racing brothers Derek and Nick Neville of Mackinaw are nearing the end of their second season in the ASA Late Model North Division.

After a slow start, both drivers are now in the top 10 in points, with 19-year-old Nick in sixth and 21-year-old Derek in ninth.

The pair raced this weekend at LaCrosse Fairgrounds Speedway in West Salem, Wis., then finish the season the weekend of Nov. 3 at Nashville.

Jane Miller is the Journal Star motorsports columnist. Write her at 1 News Plaza, Peoria, IL 61643, call (309) 686-3207 or e-mail jmiller@pjstar.com.?