Off-track action has been as hot as races this week

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 29, 2005

Off the track action heated up this week in Charlotte. The majority of the teams are headquartered in the Charlotte area and, because the teams will be racing there for two consecutive weeks, the moving and shaking always intensifies this time of year.

In what was the world’s worst kept secret, Pete Rondeau was replaced this week as Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s crew chief.

Even though he sits in eleventh place in the championship standings, Junior’s performance has been disappointing so far this season. Steve Hmiel, who won a lot of races as Mark Martin’s crew chief in the 90s, hopes to inject new energy into this team.

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Hmiel was serving as the Technical Director for DEI and as Junior’s spotter on race day when the call came from Teresa Earnhardt and Richie Gilmore, DEI’s Vice President, to get back into the pits

Dale Jarrett will also have a new crew chief calling the shots. Mike Ford resigned and Billy Wilburn will take over the lead and try to turn Jarrett’s season around. Jarrett is in an 81-race winless streak and the team is looking for any combination to get back into victory lane. It’s interesting to note that Wilburn will be the seventh crew chief to work with Jarrett since Todd Parrott left the team after the 2002 season. Jarrett has won one race in that span, while Parrott in now leading Elliott Sadler’s team and sits in the fourth spot in the standings.

The driver that appeared to be the hot free agent this year has taken himself off the market. Greg Biffle’s contract with Roush Racing was set to expire at the end of the year. Biffle signed a multi-year extension with Roush this week and will continue driving the number 16 car.

There had been speculation that Roger Penske was looking at Biffle to take over the Miller Lite car and Robert Yates was considering Biffle for his planned third entry next season.

This Sunday night is the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway.

The longest race of the year, it is a test of endurance of both the driver and the car. A win at this race is considered one of the top prizes among the Nextel Cup schedule.

Normally, the drivers have not qualified when I write this, but qualifying was held on Thursday night.

Surprise! Ryan Newman won the pole and broke the track record in doing it. Newman is by far the best qualifier on the circuit and has started an unbelievable 24 percent of his career races from the pole.

Two of the regular Cup competitors did not qualify for this race. Bobby Hamilton, Jr. and Jason Leffler could not turn a fast enough lap to make the show. Leffler looks to be on shaky ground with Joe Gibbs Racing and FedEx. Don’t be surprised to see a driver change for that ride in the not too distant future.

I picked Jimmie Johnson to win the All-Star race last week and even though he came up a little short, I am picking him again this week to win the race. He has won three of the last four points races at Charlotte and he will visit victory lane again this week.

Sadler and Jamie McMurray should also have very strong showings in this marathon of a race.

The race coverage begins at 5 p.m. on Fox and the green flag should drop sometime around 5:45 p.m. Enjoy the race, enjoy the holiday weekend, and keep in mind why we celebrate Memorial Day.

Jeff Findley is the publisher of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald in Ahoskie, N.C. His racing column appears in newspapers across the Southeast. He can be

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