Speedway boss Tony George wanted new faces. Eddie Cheever wanted to run cars on the cheap. On Sunday, they ran into each other in Victory Lane at the Indy 500. This is not necessarily a good thing.

Cheever owned the car that won the race. He set it up, drove it, signed the lease for the garage, wheeled in the toolboxes, put the posters on the wall and paid the caterer, too. He did everything, in fact, except wash, wax and vacuum the space behind the driver's seat. No wonder he was so exhausted."The driver's side is a lot simpler than the owner's side. And having to do them both at the same time," Cheever said, "takes a lot of energy."

A lot of nerve, too.

Cheever's operation runs hand to gas tank. He spent the six weeks leading up to the Indy 500 worried less about making his two-car entry competitive than how he was going to pay for it. With barely a week left, he was still searching for a sugar daddy. Then, a company called Rachel's Potato Chips put up enough cash to get Cheever out of a crunch. What put him there, he recalled ruefully Sunday, was a late pullout by a financial services company endorsed by NFL star-racing fanatic Dan Marino.

"We had a verbal commitment," Cheever said matter-of-factly. "They decided to go into NASCAR instead."

If Sunday was any indication, more and more racing fans will follow suit soon.

What seemed impossible only a few years ago is fast becoming fact. Since Speedway owner George and the drivers and owners of the Championship Auto Racing Teams circuit parted company two years ago, NASCAR has gained on both of them the same way Cheever methodically ran down Buddy Lazier and left him sucking fumes.

Stock-car racing is more popular than Indy-car racing, more popular than ever and widening the gap. NASCAR's Daytona 500 has had higher TV ratings than the Indy 500 for the past two years (although the 1997 numbers were skewed because rain pushed Indy back to a Tuesday.)

No matter what kind of spin Cheever and George put on Sunday's events, nothing dramatic enough happened to reverse the trend. On the contrary; victories by journeymen like Cheever practically guarantee it will continue.

"We've got a lot of momentum," George said. "We've been blessed with some close racing."

That is not a coincidence.

The first example of close racing came on the very first lap. No sooner had the green flag dropped than Cheever, starting in 17th place, got loose just in front of J.J. Yeley, one of eight rookies starting the race. Both cars spun, neither got knocked out of the race, but the tone for the day was set.

There was only one accident of note, but a dozen yellow flags ensured that 50 of the 200 laps were run under caution, and by an unofficial count there were more than a few knuckle-headed maneuvers by drivers still learning their way around the most storied oval in the sport.

No matter how much tradition is played up, the best drivers in the world don't come here anymore. Neither do the owners with the deepest pockets. And so, what goes on at the Speedway feels like replacement racing. Like baseball a few years back, the backdrop looks major league, but the people playing in front of it do not.

Cheever was one of the earliest advocates of the Indy Racing League, the rival circuit George created to battle CART. He remains one of its staunchest defenders. After his victory, he came into the interview room and sat on a stage alone, because he was both owner and driver for the winning team. The last time that happened was A.J. Foyt in 1977.

"There is some exceptional talent out there that wouldn't have had a chance," Cheever said. "This gives us a level playing field."

Then, a moment later, he added wistfully, "And there are so many other good stories out there."

No doubt. Wins by underfunded, under-equipped underdogs are fine, but they have become the norm at Indy. Buddy Lazier fought through incredible back pain to win in 1996, the first year CART stayed away, but the fact is he hadn't accomplished anything worth remembering in his three previous starts. Last year's winner, Arie Luyendyk, won Indy for the first time in 1990, but part of his motivation for joining the IRL was that he wasn't considered good enough any more on the CART circuit to keep a regular ride. Now comes Cheever.

He was the Indy rookie of the year in 1990, but there is no way to know whether he finally fulfilled that potential or just prevailed over a few dozen drivers of the second rank.

"We are, by definition, America's premier open-wheel oval racing series," Cheever crowed.

If that's so, the sport is in trouble.