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Rick Benjamin

Getting set for the first weekend of Indy qualifying under a brand-new rules structure…and I expect it to produce some of the best qualifying action at the Speedway in years. Locking in just 11 cars each of the first three days, devoting the final day to bumping only, and allowing cars to remain eligible throughout the two weekends all should contribute to a good bit more qualifying drama than has been the case for some time.

I'm among those surprised that Danica Patrick is at the top of the speed charts after Thursday's practice sessions. While her talent is considerable, until a few weeks ago not many were taking her seriously as a potential Indy polesitter, or as a potential IRL winner. Now, though, off her run at Motegi and her performance thus far this month, it's fair to think she's made huge gains as a driver and could be poised to deliver on her tremendous promise. I would respectfully disagree with the views of some of my colleagues who think having a woman run up front in a major series should no longer be news. A pole or a win by Patrick….or any other female driver….will be huge news. That's not to say there haven't been capable women drivers over the years. But to become the first to win a major event since Shirley Muldowney's salad days in the NHRA would be a gigantic accomplishment. I'm not so sure that honor won't go to Katherine Legge, she of the maiden-voyage Toyota Atlantic win at Long Beach last month. But Danica appears to be a pole threat, and this weekend could be her opportunity to reach the top rung of the sport.

NASCAR of course continues prime-time racing at Richmond, one of my favorite tracks.
The track's size, shape, banking, and fan atmosphere make it one of the great places in the sport. A win at Richmond in anything is quite an accomplishment, and Saturday's show should be typically terrific. This time around my money's on Tony Stewart, who's long overdue for another win and who is an acknowledged master of RIR's banks.

We're preparing for our first trip across the border this Champ Car season in just a couple of days. Round Two of this year's championship is again set for Fundidora Park in Monterrey, Mexico next Sunday, and it should be outstanding. It's a very fast, racy course, where the Newman-Haas twins dominated last season. Both Sebastien Bourdais and Bruno Junquiera face a good bit of pressure to make the field this weekend at Indy solidly, so there'll be no Bump Day worries while they're tending to business in Mexico. Given NH's outstanding preparation, I suspect they'll sleep relatively peacefully in Monterrey. Our coverage is on SPEED, Sunday night at 11:00PM Eastern, with Qualifying coverage Saturday at 8:30PM Eastern.

The grid, it appears, will be bolstered by the return of Michel Jourdain in a third PKV car. One hopes Michel will also be able to run at least at Mexico City in November. While Champ Car is more than tough enough to discourage anyone from attempting a one-off without significant testing, Michel is at home at Fundidora Park and is extremely capable. PKV will no doubt supply him with quality equipment and a top-five isn't out of the question, given the energy Jourdain and Mario Dominguez will get from performing in front of their countrymen.

As great as these events will be, I'd be remiss if I didn't tell you that the best race I've seen anywhere this season came last Friday night at Ace Speedway, in tiny Altamahaw, North Carolina. The Hooters Pro Cup South tour made its annual stop there, and while passing is always at a premium on this low-banked four-tenths mile oval, there was plenty of action last Friday night. The BFG oval-track radials Pro Cup now employs provide more than enough grip and staying power to allow passing on the outside, and Jody Lavender used all he had to prevail at the stripe over veteran Jay Fogleman. Lavender led his first career HPC laps on his run to the win, and wrecked after the checkers…and the best part is, both he and Jay applauded each other after the race. No fights on pit road, no trash-talk, just hard racing between two guys who respect each other. Hope you can check it out, Saturday night at 9 EDT on SPEED.

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