Junior's win just latest big story of year

Racing dramas might seem to be gone with the wind after Dale Earnhardt Jr. won a points-paying race Sunday.

It doesn't matter that Earnhardt's victory after 76 winless efforts came with an assist from his team's fuel strategy -- or that he kept breaking a rule by passing the pace car at Michigan International Speedway as he coasted by it a few times during the last caution period while saving fuel.

Rest easy, Junior Nation. He won. Period.

His victory is the latest major accomplishment halfway through the year to cut into columnists' fodder.

The first came late in February when the Indy Racing League took over American open-wheel racing after the Champ Car World Series crashed and burned.

Then Kyle Busch goes out in the fourth Sprint Cup race of the season and gives Toyota its first Cup victory.

Danica Patrick becomes the first woman to win an IndyCar race on April 20.

Ashley Force becomes the first woman to win an NHRA Funny Car title a week later.

Three weeks after Force's feat, Melanie Troxel becomes the first woman to claim titles in NHRA's nitro classes when she wins a Funny Car title.

John Force completes his comeback from a horrific crash in October by winning the Funny Car trophy June 1.

Most of those milestones will contend for the year's top story. And it isn't even July.

What's left for us to contemplate or jinx?

Here are a few story lines to follow:

• SMI'S NEW FAVORITE -- The ongoing soap opera with the greatest effect on Las Vegas is Speedway Motorsports' pending purchase of Kentucky Speedway. If the sale goes through, SMI will put its top effort on getting that track a Cup race before it secures a second annual Cup race for Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

NASCAR says it has no interest in adding a Cup race at Kentucky. The track's current owner, Jerry Carrol, vows to continue his antitrust lawsuit against NASCAR for not considering the track -- which sold out 70,000 seats for Saturday's Nationwide Series race -- worthy of Cup consideration.

SMI founder and Grand Poobah Bruton Smith could leverage Carrol to drop the lawsuit, which would curry favor with privately owned NASCAR, which doesn't want its financial records in open court.

• NITRO MADNESS -- Top Fuel and Funny Car teams rely on nitromethane to fuel the fastest race cars on the planet.

Drag racing is dependent on getting the highly combustible fuel from China, which is temporarily curbing its production to ease pollution for the Summer Olympics in August.

Relying on the country that has given us toys tainted with lead and poisonous pet food isn't the most secure feeling for fans of 300 mph race cars.

The price for a 42-gallon drum of nitro jumped from $1,000 to $1,400 in one day two weeks ago, and NHRA has banned testing for nitro teams at its tracks to conserve the fuel.

A couple of years ago, a 55-gallon barrel cost about $650.

But it's not the cost as much as it is the supply.

NHRA must stockpile a one-year supply of nitro. The burden is on it to secure the future of the sport.

This is more than a drama. This is a horror story.

• EMPTY SEATS -- Although television ratings are up over last year's Cup races, attendance seems to be down.

Media estimates put Sunday's Michigan crowd around 125,000, which is 35,000 below capacity. Ticket sales were down by nearly 10,000 for the March race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and attendance seems to have dipped at many races.

The sagging economy and ever-increasing gasoline prices are making it harder for dedicated NASCAR fans to travel to races.

Whew, what a season so far.

But the year's top-story award remains an open race.

Jeff Wolf's motor sports column is published Friday. He can be reached at 383-0247 or jwolf@reviewjournal.com. Visit Wolf's motor sports blog at lvrj.com/blogs/heavypedal/ throughout the week.