Wheeler absent from Charlotte's 50th anniversary

CONCORD, N.C. -- As Lowe's Motor Speedway celebrates its 50th anniversary this weekend, the man who ran the track for more than three decades is attending the Indianapolis 500 instead.

There's no end in sight to Humpy Wheeler's feud with his old boss, track owner Bruton Smith.

"I thought after 33 years there that they would ask me to be there to be part of the celebration," Wheeler said by phone Saturday from Indianapolis. "When they decided not to, I didn't get bent out of shape. I wasn't surprised. I thought about going fishing, but the people up here invited me.

"I certainly miss being at Charlotte and I'm going to miss seeing the drivers and the fans. You get to know a lot of people."

Smith's reasoning for Wheeler's absence Saturday was that, "We don't send invitations to anybody." Smith then claimed their relationship turned sour last spring when Wheeler asked for a $5 million severance as they discussed his impending retirement.

"I think that his attitude changed when we said, 'No, we can't," Smith said.

Wheeler claimed a severance deal is common.

"I wanted a severance agreement which is pretty much what you do after someone has been there as long as I have," Wheeler said. "I don't remember the amount or it being anywhere near like that. I ended up not getting any severance pay at all."

Smith said Wheeler is getting paid $13,500 a month as part of his retirement agreement, which includes $1,000 a month as a consultant even though "we weren't going to consult with him about anything." Smith said he also gave Wheeler a $560,000 check in November 2007 as a gift after selling a piece of property.

"I made Humpy a lot of money," Smith said. "Humpy's net worth is about $26 million now. I'm very proud of that. What else do you need?"

The feud comes after the two men helped create one of the top tracks in the country. Wheeler has been lauded as a leader in motorsports marketing, from introducing night racing at a superspeedway to orchestrating elaborate pre-race shows.

But Wheeler claimed after he told Smith of his retirement plans, Smith wanted to quickly replace him. It led to Wheeler announcing his retirement before last year's Coca-Cola 600, a week earlier than Smith wanted.

Wheeler said he hasn't spoken to Smith since.

"It was sad to see it end that way because we have done a lot of good things together," Wheeler said. "We had a good team going there for a long time."


ELLIOTT'S MILESTONE: When Bill Elliott first started in what's now the Sprint Cup in 1976, he and his family struggled to pay the entry fee.

Now 33 years, 44 wins, one Cup championship and a couple of cool nicknames later, Elliott is preparing to make his 800th career start on Sunday in NASCAR's top series.

"Looking at the whole deal it seems like yesterday with all that's happened," the 53-year-old Elliott said. "And to come here and go through the cars of the early years to all the changes they made and to what we're driving today, it's been a pretty wild ride."

The Dawsonville, Ga., native ran his first schedule in 1983 after Harry Melling gave him funding. He won 11 races in 1985, including a bonus that earned him the nickname "Million Dollar Bill."

He soon was called "Awesome Bill from Dawsonville" as he won the Cup title in 1988. He remained consistent -- and one of NASCAR's most popular drivers -- after a move to Junior Johnson's race team.

Elliott last ran a full schedule in 2003, but has raced part-time for several teams. He'll make Sunday's start in the No. 21 Ford for Wood Brothers.

"We started with just a bunch of guys back in Dawsonville, Ga., and nobody expected anything out of us," Elliott said. "We built that into not only a winning race team, but won a championship. That's what I keep saying. People really don't give us, especially (brother) Ernie and the family, enough credit for what we achieved out of that deal."

Elliott, who hasn't said when he'll step out of the car for good, still has something left. He qualified 10th for Sunday's Coca-Cola 600, the best performance by a Ford.

"I love to drive it and to me it's so much fun to run with Len and Eddie (Wood). They do such a good job," Elliott said. "They don't put a lot of pressure on you and we come and have a good time."


MONTOYA'S TURNAROUND: A year ago, Juan Pablo Montoya was upset after his second crew chief change. The week ended with a 30th place finish at the Coca-Cola 600.

For a driver who has raced in the Indianapolis 500 and the Formula One's Monaco Grand Prix on Memorial Day weekend, it was a low point in the Colombian driver's shift to NASCAR.

Now Montoya and new crew chief Brian Pattie are on solid ground, and Montoya will start ninth on Sunday, believing he has a chance at making the season-ending Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. He's currently 14th in the standings.

"I think if you look at where we were last year, we were actually not that bad in points when the crew chief started to change. But our car was nowhere near where we are right now," Montoya said. "Also I think the performance of the car and the company moved a long way. We're running Chevys now and that's huge. I think the whole thing has been really good for us."

As for the other races on Sunday, Montoya hopes one of car owner Chip Ganassi's teams wins at Indy, and he doesn't plan to watch much of the Formula One race.

"Monaco is normally hard to pass. Monaco is impossible," Montoya said. "So if the guy gets through the first corner and doesn't hit anything and has clean pit stops, he's probably going to win the race."


LUG NUTS: Red Bull Racing is close to finalizing a contract extension with Brian Vickers, who is in the final season of a three-year contract. Both sides hold an option on next season that has to be exercised by June 1. ... Normally one of the toughest tickets in racing, Bristol Motor Speedway announced a rare move of putting individual tickets for the August night race on sale June 9. The track has sold out 54 consecutive races, but the recession has put the streak in jeopardy. ... Denny Hamlin had the fastest lap in Saturday's practice session.