Monday, March 27, 2017

Larson breaks through, continues hot streak

When it came to discussing the potential of Kyle Larson, one theme tended to dominate before the 2017 season began.

Larson seemed full of promise, but couldn't master the art of closing out a victory when given the opportunity.

All has turned 180 degrees now, especially after what happened Sunday at Auto Club Speedway.

Larson not only led 110 laps, but found his way through the insanity of four late restarts and won the Auto Club 400. Not only was it Larson's second career win, but his fourth straight top-2 finish. 

Sure, he's only halfway to Kevin Harvick's mark of eight straight set just two years ago, but it's the way Larson raced for the whole weekend -- he won the XFINITY race, too -- that got everyone's attention. 

The driver of the No. 42 Target Chevy for Chip Ganassi Racing wasn't committed to riding along the wall at the wide 2-mile oval. Larson made the adjustments when he needed to and found a way to get back to the front after taking four tires during what turned to be the third of four cautions that happened over the final 22 laps.

Once Larson came down off the wall, it was all he needed to close the deal. The No. 42 got away cleanly on the race's final restart and rode the momentum all the way to Victory Lane, his first since Michigan -- a similar wide 2-mile track -- last August.

Larson has become the fifth different winner from the fifth different race team to earn a checkered flag so far this season. There's a shock behind Larson's win that doesn't have anything to do with him.

The engines for the Ganassi cars are supplied by Team Hendrick, the very same organization that has yet to reach Victory Lane.

Heck, Joe Gibbs Racing hasn't won, either.

How bad is it for NASCAR's two best race teams? Chase Elliott is the highest in the standings, tied for second in points with Brad Keselowski. Kasey Kahne is the next best Hendrick driver in 13th, Jimmie Johnson is 17th and Dale Earnhardt Jr. is 21st.

Among the Gibbs crew, Kyle Busch is 10th, Denny Hamlin is 12th, rookie Daniel Suarez is 19th (although he has back-to-back seventh-place runs the last two weeks) and Matt Kenseth is 25th.

That's not good, but it doesn't necessarily reflect a changing of the guard.

For Larson to push his run of top-2 finishes a little higher up the ladder, he'll have to look at Johnson in his rear-view as much as he can. Johnson has nine wins at Martinsville, but hasn't finished better than ninth (Phoenix) in the first five weeks.

It's all in good time at this point, but we're still in a state of flux where change will be happening radically up and down the standings. Larson has full control of things right now, but the season has only just begun.

Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @TommyZee81 or email tominator19@yahoo.com.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Hello, Newman! Drought ends at Phoenix

He hadn't won in more than three full seasons -- 127 races total. Ryan Newman wasn't about to do anything conventional when a golden opportunity to break the drought fell into his lap.

Crew chief Luke Lambert made the call -- no tires instead of two. When Newman stayed on the track, it proved to be the move that ended the frustration and put his Richard Childress Racing No. 31 Chevrolet in Victory Lane at the Camping World 500 at Phoenix International Raceway. The win was Newman's first since the Brickyard 400 in 2013, and it was made possible when Joey Logano -- of all people -- blew a tire with six laps to go.

After all the talk of the post-race "fight" at Las Vegas between Logano and Kyle Busch during the week, Logano's mishap was the catalyst that led to Busch coming to pit road while Newman stayed out.

In the end, Newman had enough left in his tires to hold off Kyle Larson and put an end to the long winless drought on a day under blazing sunshine with temperatures in the mid-90s.

The irony of it all was dripping as much as Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s ice pack was inside his car on the 1-mile oval.

Four weeks in, and we've had four pretty amazing finishes. Who needs the NCAA Tournament when a) most brackets were already ruined after Villanova's stunning loss to Wisconsin on Saturday and b) the win by Newman may have topped what's found on the Casey Affleck dramatics scale.

If'you saw Affleck's Oscar-winning performance in "Manchester By The Sea," you know exactly what I'm talking about.

But with that said, Newman's win only adds to what's been a pretty amazing beginning to this NASCAR season. Even with Martin Truex Jr.'s stage sweep to the win at Las Vegas, the racing has been far from ordinary.

-Kurt Busch won Daytona on the last lap. First driver ever in the race's 59 years.
-Brad Keselowski won at Atlanta when Kevin Harvick's pit-road speeding penalty cost him.
-Truex won at Vegas when he regained the lead with two laps to go after Keselowski ran into a problem with the No. 2 Miller Lite Ford.
-And then there was Newman, who took a chance that paid off in one of the more unlikely race wins in recent memory.

And that, in a nutshell, is why it will always be worth watching -- from beginning to end.

Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @TommyZee81 or email tominator19@yahoo.com.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Not always easy to be in right spot

As everyone is aware by now -- unless they hid under a rock all weekend -- there was a pretty tremendous race weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Not only did the SMI track sign on for a second Monster Energy Cup Series date starting next season, but the finish of the Kobalt 400 was a good precursor of what's to come.

Martin Truex Jr. won the race, the first for Toyota on the young 2017 season. He swept all three stages -- the first driver to so under NASCAR's new scoring format -- and it wasn't looking likely as the laps wound down.

The No. 78 Bass Pro Shops car was passed by Brad Keselowski at lap 244, but fortune smiled down on Truex when Keselowski lost his momentum and the lead just two laps short of the finish.

Truex beat Kyle Larson by just over 1.6 seconds, but the real excitement came afterward when Kyle Busch took out his frustration for spinning out as he battled with Joey Logano for fourth place on the final lap.

Before Truex could finish wheeling his car -- which had steam pouring out of it -- into Victory Lane, Busch made a beeline for Logano's pit and tried to take a few good swings at him. None connected before Logano's pit crew pulled Busch away and several NASCAR officials finished the job.

My friend and fellow reporter Jeff Gluck was in the right place at the right time and got 50 seconds of video of the fight that TV wasn't able to show. According to conversations I heard later, the video was viewed 1 million times on YouTube within nine hours.

As of today (2 pm Mountain time), that number has grown to nearly 1.9 million. While it's good to be around for something that went viral, there's something else that I chose to focus on.

Martin Truex Jr. won the Kobalt 400. He almost didn't. That's got to be worth something, even if it ended up flying just under the radar in the big picture and collection of story lines.

And after further review, I'm pleased with how everything turned out. You, the reader, not only knew who won, but knew of the unlikely sidebar of the "fight" between Kyle Busch and Joey Logano.

My pictures weren't half-bad, either.

It's just like Brad Keselowski said after his finish in Las Vegas. You have to stick around until the end because you just never know what's going to happen.

Even if more than one thing happens at the exact same time.

Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @TommyZee81 or email tominator19@yahoo.com.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Truex Jr. catches break, wins Kobalt 400

Martin Truex Jr. knew the feeling. Cruising toward a win, bad luck – whether from late caution flags or a challenger with a better car – seemed to always find a way to leave him stranded without the winner’s trophy.

On a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, good fortune smiled down on the driver of the No. 78 Bass Pro Shops Toyota.

Truex surged to the lead when Brad Keselowski lost his momentum with two laps to go and won the Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas. It was Toyota’s first win of the 2017 season and Truex was the first driver to sweep all three stages in a race under  NASCAR’s new scoring format.

“We had such a good car all day long and it felt like it slipped away from us there,” said Truex, who lost the lead to Keselowski on lap 244. “We got a little bit lucky with him having an issue and got the win. We’ve been on the other side of those things plenty of times and it definitely feels good to take advantage of someone else’s issue for once and go to Victory Lane.”

The winning sequence was set up following the longest green-flag run of the day at 86 laps when Danica Patrick’s car lost the engine at lap 253, setting off an impressive trail of smoke along the front stretch that bathed the grandstands. Keselowski, who won the pole and started with Truex Jr. on the front row, had no idea what happened with his car at the finish.

“It wouldn't turn and I lost brakes, so that’s a pretty good indicator,” said Keselowski, who was looking for his third win at Las Vegas in the last four years, but ended up fifth. “That’s racing, and that’s why you watch until the end and you never know what’s going to happen.”

Kyle Larson finished second for the second time on the weekend, beating out Chase Elliott and coming through with points for a second- and third-place run in the first two stages.

“The ends of the stages were really exciting because of the way the cautions fell and different pit strategies,” Larson said. “Hopefully we can keep the top-fives rolling and maybe get a win or two shortly.”

Adding to the finish, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano got into a brawl on pit road after the pair made contact on the final lap in a battle for fourth place. While Logano claimed fourth, Busch spun out and finished 22nd, the last car on the lead lap. Busch also left pit road with a cut on his forehead after he was separated from Logano by his adversary’s pit crew.

After two straight wins to open the season, Logano and Keselowski were the highest-finishing Fords on the day. Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney, Jamie McMurray, Matt Kenseth and Clint Bowyer completed the top 10.

The race had six cautions for 34 laps, and the winning average speed was l36.032 mph. There were 14 lead changes among six drivers. Truex (150) and Keselowski (89) combined to lead 239 of the 267 laps.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Logano loves Las Vegas, wins Boyd Gaming 300

As he faced a stiff challenge from Kyle Larson, Joey Logano was almost baffled as to how to keep fellow driver Kyle Larson behind him during Saturday's XFINITY Series Boyd Gaming 300 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
After four restarts over the final 32 laps, Logano won the chess match and ended up with the checkered flag.
The Penske Racing driver led 106 of 200 laps and held off Larson by .602 seconds on a warm afternoon at the 1.5-mile oval. It was Logano's first win in his very first XFINITY race at LVMS and third straight win in the No. 12 Ford Fusion since Watkins Glen last season.
"It was hard to figure out what to do and what lane to pick for the restarts," Logano said. "We had a fast car and we were able to unload with a lot of speed. It's good to see the Penske cars coming back on the XFINITY side."
Logano led one lap off a restart in the early part of the 200-lap race, but didn't take control until his pit crew got him off pit road at the end of Stage 2. Larson was able to regain the lead briefly at lap 145, but Logano got back out in front one lap later and was able to hold on.
"Joey and I were pretty equal, but clean air was big," Larson said. "I had good restarts and almost cleared him, but he had the momentum in the end."
That momentum was well-earned, and Logano's crew chief, Brian Wilson, said past experience made the difference when the pressure picked up in the closing laps.
"For me, I was relying what had worked the past couple of times going in the high lane," Wilson said. "It's always tough. You have to look at who's pushing, what's been working, who's gonna be inside. We were fortunate because Joey's the best at restarts."
Logano, clearly in celebration mode, shrugged off his crew chief's praise with a chuckle.
"You wouldn't have said that if we didn't win today," he joked.
Larson was fourth after Stage 2, but lost several positions when he pitted for fuel.
"That was the change in our race," he said.
Defending race champion Kyle Busch, last week's winner at Atlanta, led the first 48 laps and barely held off Larson to win Stage 1, but finished seventh.
Justin Allgaier was the highest-finishing XFINITY regular, and he ended up fourth behind Daniel Suarez. Austin Dillon, Bubba Wallace, Elliott Sadler, Ryan Reed and Brad Keselowski completed the top 10.
The winning average speed was 118.525 mph, and there were nine cautions for 44 laps.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Keselowski picks up where he left off, wins Vegas pole

After winning his second Kobalt 400 in the last three seasons, Brad Keselowski may have found a formula to keep the success going strong.

The defending race winner earned the pole for this year's Kobalt 400 on Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, blitzing through multiple corners at more than 200 mph before finishing in 27.881 seconds, a final speed of 193.680 mph.

Following his win at Atlanta last week, Keselowski said his first pole at Las Vegas came despite struggling to get his No. 2 Miller Lite Ford cleanly through turns 1 and 2.

"Every time I looked at the track, cars that were fast through 1 and 2 weren't in 3 and 4. We were the opposite," Keselowski said. "Matt Yocum asked me in the telecast what the key was here, and I told him you had to have a good 1 and 2. Boy, did I lie to him.

"It wasn't meant to be a lie, but we'll take it either way."

Keselowski said the success he's enjoyed of late at tracks like Las Vegas came together in the last five years.

"There are certain tracks that you go to where things kind of happen immediately, you understand the track, and you're good there," he said. "Vegas was this way where it took three or four times and takes having a good car and saying 'oh, that's how it should be.' You get trends, so to speak, learn the track nuances, and what you really need."

Truex, who beat Ryan Blaney by .007 seconds (193.458 mph) to join Keselowski on the front row for Sunday's race, said the lesser downforce has made a difference in the racing along with the presence of new Furniture Row Racing teammate Erik Jones, who qualified eighth.

"We qualified P2 with missing a little bit," he said. "I'm optimistic with the speed in our race cars. Two weeks is kind of hard to judge.

"Going to two cars has been seamless from my perspective. I don't feel we lost in any areas. (Crew chief) Chris (Gayle) and Erik have come out of the box strong, not making mistakes, being consistent and keeping speeds. For a brand-new team, rookie driver, rookie crew chief, that's been impressive. The two-team deal is working as good as we probably hoped it could."

After Blaney, the rest of the top 12 were Matt Kenseth, Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, Kasey Kahne, Jones, Kyle Busch, Jamie McMurray, Daniel Suarez and Chase Elliott.

The cars of Truex, Jones and Kahne failed pre-qualifying inspection template station twice and lost 15 minutes of practice time. Jones' car also failed the weights and measures station three times and lost his pit selection for Sunday's race.

The Kobalt 400 will run two 80-lap stages and a 107-lap finish. The green flag drops just after 3:30 pm Eastern (12:30 Pacific) and airs live on Fox with radio coverage on Performance Racing Network.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Second race at Las Vegas signed, sealed, delivered

The moment was at least six years in the making, but the pride radiated across the faces of those from Las Vegas Motor Speedway who gathered for a major announcement one week ago at the Cashman Center.

With the help of a sponsorship agreement with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA), the 1.5-mile oval will have a second NASCAR race weekend, starting with the 2018 season. The agreement will bring fans an opportunity to see one of the races in the fall as part of the 10-race Monster Energy Cup playoffs.
“This is something that’s been a long time in the making,” said Speedway Motorsports president Marcus Smith. “The support NASCAR receives from Las Vegas is phenomenal. Race fans have spoken very loudly, and they want a second race.”
To accommodate the change, SMI will remove the fall race weekend from its track at New Hampshire Motor Speedway as well as the stand-alone XFINITY and Camping World Truck Series races from Kentucky Speedway.
The combination of moves will create a pair of tripleheader weekends at Las Vegas, the only NASCAR track to hold the distinction.
“It means everything having grown up here, watching the track being built, winning championships at the Bullring, then winning in NASCAR,” said 2015 Sprint Cup champion Kyle Busch, who was in attendance with older brother and fellow driver Kurt Busch. “Congratulations go out to the city, but most importantly, to the race fans.”
One side benefit the newly-formed tripleheader weekends gives Kyle Busch is the chance to race in the Truck Series. That race has run as a standalone in the fall during the Cup race at Dover.
“This is a fantastic day,” Kurt Busch added. “This town has a big sports atmosphere, and it takes a lot of people to pull it all together.”
Las Vegas Motor Speedway President Chris Powell said he won’t have to hear one of the two most frequently asked questions he’s heard over the last few years with the scheduling announcement.
“I’m always asked ‘is this job fun?’ and ‘when are you going to get a second race,’” he said. “The NHL is here. The NFL wants to be here, and we have two National League MVPs (Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant) who are from here. This will have an impact long into the future.”
That impact will be felt by XFINITY Series driver Brendan Gaughan, whose father, Michael, owns the South Point Hotel and Casino.
“It’s not lost on my family how important this is,” Gaughan said. “The fans are the winners. If you have a choice to go to any track in the country, there’s no other place. It’s a perfect fit.”
While nothing is finalized yet for how the races will be scheduled, Powell called it “likely” that both weekends will feature the Truck Series race Friday, XFINITY on Saturday, and Monster Energy Cup Series on Sunday.