Thursday, July 30, 2015

Does Truex Jr. have shot at Pocono sweep?

When NASCAR raced at Pocono Raceway eight weeks ago, Martin Truex Jr. was a total beast in the No. 78 Furniture Row Chevrolet. He led 97 of the 160 laps and earned the third win of his Sprint Cup career.
Since then, Truex has slid backward. Although he was third at Michigan the week after his win, the 78 finished 42nd at Sonoma and 38th at Daytona to go with 17th at Kentucky and 12th at New Hampshire.
But the small sign of a rebound returned at Indianapolis last weekend, where Truex finished fourth. So that sets up the logical question for math geeks like me.
Can Truex get the sweep as they head to Pocono for the second run of the season at NASCAR's most unique track?
Sure, it's doable, but sweeps at the triangle -- they've been racing twice a year at Pocono since 1982 -- don't happen very often. Jimmie Johnson (2004), Denny Hamlin (2006) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2014) are the most recent to pull it off. It can happen again with Truex, but don't bank on it unless we get a perfect storm of these elements coming together:
-Chevrolet has won the last six Pocono races. Joey Logano was the last non-Chevy to reach Victory Lane when he won in the No. 20 Toyota from the pole for Joe Gibbs Racing in the June race in 2012.
-In the last decade at Pocono (21 races total), six winners have started from the pole: Hamlin (twice - his 2006 sweep), Kasey Kahne (June 2008), Tony Stewart (June 2009), Logano and Johnson (June 2013).
-In the same time frame, seven have started from well outside the top 10 and won, including Carl Edwards (29th in June 2005) and Jeff Gordon (27th in August 2012).
Edwards holds the Pocono record as the driver who came from the furthest back in the field to win.
Even with the possibilities for Truex, we can't ignore the elephant in the room, and it's clearly Kyle Busch, who is an interplanetary marvel with his Superman-like comeback.
Nine starts, four wins, three in a row.
Busch was ninth in June and didn't lead a lap. He got as high as fourth at lap 130, but faded back.
Can Rowdy extend his hot streak? The math says it's not likely. In 21 career Pocono starts, Busch has only four top-5 finishes -- none since August 2011 -- and an average finish of 18.3.
Then again, we didn't think he'd be on the roll he's on to get Chase-eligible coming in. Right now (breathe, haters...breathe!) Busch still has to erase a 23-point deficit on 30th-place Justin Allgaier. The last of the deficit could be wiped out this weekend. Or a big-time slip-up could happen.
Busch lost his engine at this race a year ago and finished 42nd. He was 43rd -- dead last -- at Michigan after a wreck in June.
Truex, meanwhile, didn't have much success at Pocono prior to his win in June. In 18 previous starts, he led a total of 11 laps and finished in the top 5 twice. Not good.
If you're picking your fantasy racing team for this weekend, here's some simple advice before qualifying happens tomorrow.
Save yourself the headache. Choose someone else in the field
Tom Zulewski welcomes followers and comments on Twitter @Tomzsports. He'll be a guest on the NASCAR Happy Hour Garage this weekend at

Monday, July 27, 2015

High-drag race package was drag at Indy

Let’s get the essential preliminaries out of the way first. Kyle Busch dominated at the Brickyard. He swept the weekend with a last-lap pass that beat Ryan Blaney and gave him the XFINITY Series victory in the Lilly Diabetes 250, then raised the restart to an art form over the closing laps as he won the Jeff Kyle 400.
Busch has four wins in the last five weeks and became the first driver to win three straight races since Jimmie Johnson did it in 2007 on the way to his second of six Sprint Cup titles.
But after the essential, well-deserved platitudes for Busch – who may bust my previous prediction of making the top 30 in points by Bristol on Aug. 22 a lot sooner now – there was a deeper issue for those who raced and those who watched.
The new high-drag race package for Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a drag on the joy and the emotion of what’s supposed to be the second-most popular race of the Sprint Cup season.
Look no further than the closing laps for the best case why. Despite the field’s best efforts, no one could complete a pass on anyone who was in the lead. A total of six drivers led at Indianapolis on Sunday.
The more clean air the driver had, the better the car behaved. Less clean air, the only real passing zones were at the exits of the corners. It’s back to the drawing board – not only for the tech geeks in NASCAR, but for the non-fans of the driver of the No. 18.
Busch is a Rembrandt when it comes to restarts. When the win was on the line, he proved it to perfection Sunday. But if you read the Facebook posts from various pages discussing his win, the respect is nowhere close to being there, not even in begrudging form.
“NASCAR handed him another one,” cried one poster.
“NASCAR will make sure he gets (in the Chase), one way or another,” howled a second.
And there’s this gem that’s so ridiculous, you can’t help but laugh.
“Anybody who says Kyle Busch is doing a good job is in denial. He's getting a lot of help from NASCAR, that's why nobody's coming to the races.”
The stands looked pretty empty at Indy, but suffering a broken leg and fractured bone in a foot and trying to heal from it as fast as possible doesn’t matter, I guess.
It certainly does to Busch. Through all the pain, all the physical therapy, all the weeks watching David Ragan run as the relief driver of the M&Ms Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing, getting back to doing what he loved was all that mattered.
News flash: Busch returned to the 18 in the space of exactly three months. He raced in the All-Star Showdown at Charlotte Motor Speedway, then raced for points for the first time in Cup in 2015 at the Coca-Cola 600.
To borrow a line from one Sprint Cup sponsor, that’s freaky fast. Even freaky faster, Busch was in Victory Lane at Sonoma just five races later.
And the momentum hasn’t stopped.
Bottom line here: Even with this seriously on-fire streak, Busch is still not in the top 30 in points. Bad news for those who’d rather not be a fan of the 18: All of the winning is cutting up the deficit like a machete through a tire. With six races still to run before the Chase, Busch is only 23 points behind Justin Allgaier, who sits in the cutoff spot.
And like it or not, Busch will make the top 30 and could very easily do it after this weekend’s race at Pocono.
I am not a fan of particular drivers, but I am a fan of a good story. Busch’s run of success is one of the best stories we’ve seen in NASCAR in a long, long time.
It’s time for those who choose to hate to embrace and respect what we’re seeing or find something else to spend the emotion on.
Tom Zulewski is passionate about auto racing and welcomes new followers and comments on Twitter @Tomzsports.

Pocono Raceway (2.5-mile tri-oval), Long Pond, Pa.
SPRINT CUP: Windows 10 400, Sunday, 1:30 p.m. ET/10:30 a.m. PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 400 miles, 160 laps.
2014 champion: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Pocono Mountains 150, Saturday, 1 p.m. ET/10 a.m. PT, Fox Sports 1. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 150 miles, 60 laps
2014 champion: Austin Dillon
XFINITY SERIES: US Cellular 250 presented by New Holland, Iowa Speedway (.875-mile oval), Newton, Iowa, Saturday, 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 250 laps, 218.75 miles
2014 champion: Brad Keselowski.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Stat book at the Brickyard

With Carl Edwards on the pole for Sunday's Crown Royal presents the Jeff Kyle 400 at the Brickyard -- his second in a row -- the statistical gurus (mainly just me, but that's OK) have decided to go to work. Here are some highlights to get a sense of Edwards' chances for another victory in 2015, Kyle Busch's charge up the points chart, and other miscellaneous stuff from Indianapolis Motor Speedway:
--This is the 22nd edition of NASCAR's trip to the place where the Indy 500 still carries the day. In his final start, Indiana native son (at least from age 15 on) Jeff Gordon is the defending champ and looking for his sixth Brickyard win.
None of Gordon's five previous Indy wins have been from the pole, and he started 27th for his 2001 Indy triumph. That's the furthest through the field a race winner has come from, and he'll start 19th on Sunday.
--Only three Brickyard winners have won from the pole: Kevin Harvick (2003), Jimmie Johnson (2008) and Ryan Newman (2013).
--Johnson won the Brickyard 400 in three of his championship seasons -- 2006, 2008 and 2009. From 1998 through 2001, the Brickyard 400 winner went on to win the Winston Cup title: Jeff Gordon (1998, 2001), Dale Jarrett (1999) and Bobby Labonte (2000).
--For all of his other successes at Indianapolis, Roger Penske has never won a Brickyard 400 as an owner. Joey Logano starts from second Sunday, but Brad Keselowski goes off 31st.
--Should Logano win, he'll join Jimmie Johnson (2006) and Jamie McMurray (2010) as the only Sprint Cup drivers to win the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 in the same season.
--Problem for Logano, though...a Chevrolet has won the last 12 Brickyard 400s. Bill Elliott was the last non-Chevy driver in Victory Lane at Indy in 2002. The last Ford to win was Dale Jarrett in 1999.
--If you're thinking the new higher-drag rules package will mess with passing for the lead, it could produce a few more than normal. The record for fewest lead changes is nine, and it's happened three times -- 2000, 2004 and 2009. There were 26 lead changes in the 2008 Brickyard 400, but that one featured the tire disaster from Goodyear, so take it for what it's worth.
Since 2008, the caution count has been three, six, five, five, three and four, so that can be considered progress. We'll see if it produces a formula for winning racing that keeps eyes watching.
Tom Zulewski has covered everything in motor sports from World of Outlaws to NASCAR and the American LeMans Series in an 18-year journalism career. Follow him on Twitter @Tomzsports.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Digging dirt, kissing bricks and crunching numbers

It's only Wednesday, but another race week is upon us. For the third year in a row, the Camping World Truck Series heads to Tony Stewart's race track in the tiny town of Rossburg, Ohio to sling some dirt in the 1-800CarCash MudSummer Classic tonight at Eldora Speedway.
Before we go further, I got curious and wanted to find out exactly where in the world Eldora Speedway is located. As you look at the map provided here, you'll see it's pretty centrally located. Fans still have to drive to get there, but it's not necessarily a budget buster for those who live in Indianapolis, Columbus, or even Toledo and Cincinnati.
For those who want to see the race on TV, it begins at 9 p.m. Eastern, 7 p.m. where I live in Utah, and 6 p.m., Pacific (pre-race show hits the air 30 minutes earlier). Fox Sports 1 has the broadcast along with a story on how the whole evening will go. If you're thinking the show will be long, fear not. The track is only a half-mile around, but be prepared to witness a lot of heat racing to set the field.
Prediction: If everything's not wrapped up by midnight, it's a built-in excuse to call in sick to work Thursday. Just keep the ticket stub and/or parking pass in hiding.
Recent history at Eldora has shown that a good time and great racing are in store. Austin Dillon won the inaugural race before a packed house two years ago, and Darrell "Bubba" Wallace Jr. is the defending champ. Last year's race went the full 150 laps, but the 2013 event needed three overtime laps to settle things.
Wallace's win was by a full five seconds over Ron Hornaday, but had the added element of seven caution flags that slowed the winning speed to 50.195 mph. Dillon was faster by 17 mph and 21 minutes of real time.
The weather forecast calls for no rain with comfortable temperatures in the low 60s by race's end. As for me, I'll be making sure to give it a look to see if Tyler Reddick or Erik Jones can close the gap on series leader Matt Crafton, who's only looking for his third straight championship.
Then we head to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where the XFINITY and Sprint Cup cars will race for the Lilly Diabetes 250 on Saturday and the Crown Royal presents the Jeff Kyle 400 at the Brickyard on Sunday afternoon.
Storylines should be plentiful. Jeff Gordon is looking for his sixth and final Brickyard win. Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus are in the final year of their contracts at Hendrick Motorsports. And Kyle Busch is still on the march toward the Chase, needing to gain just 57 points over the final seven races to make the cutoff.
On the Gordon front, he's in reasonably decent shape despite going winless on the year. As they stand heading to Indy, the legend who claims Indiana as one of his home states ranks second out of the five non-winners who would make the Chase.
We're counting Kyle Busch among the Chasers because it's not a question of if he makes it, but when. And my feeling is it'll be well before they get to Richmond.
So sorry, Aric Almirola. You may have the final Chase spot right now, but the need for a win is urgent at this point.
Gordon is only a point behind Jamie McMurray, but 45 ahead of Paul Menard, the one who would be on the bubble if Kyle Busch barges his way into the top 30.
Prediction: Busch will be safely in the top 30 by the time they finish at Bristol on Aug. 22. That's how good he is right now.
As for Jimmie Johnson, he's going to retire as a Hendrick driver. No question, 48 fans. Please step away from the ledge. The guy has six championships, after all, and leads everyone with four wins this season.
Not so sure about Knaus, though. He's been with Johnson since Day 1, and the results are spectacular, with 74 career wins in 490 starts. That's one every 6.6 times they hit the race track.
Gordon didn't have Ray Evernham on the pit box when he won his fourth title in 2001 (Robbie Loomis was there). Wins usually do the talking in racing -- better attraction for sponsors that way -- but if money comes along that leads to a better opportunity, those in the know are the only ones who know what's best.
And it's best for the speculation to stay quiet for a while. It's healthier that way.
Tom Zulewski has covered motor sports in many forms through an 18-year career in journalism. Please read and share this post and follow him on Twitter @Tomzsports.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Kyle Busch's script getting sweeter by the win

When the 2015 season began, Kyle Busch didn’t have the most promising outlook. His injury in the season-opening XFINITY race at Daytona International Speedway was well-documented, and his return to the track was uncertain.
But those who prognosticate – like sports writers and broadcasters – can’t gauge what’s inside a racer’s heart. And Kyle Busch’s heart is beating loud and proud these days.
For the third time in four weeks, the younger of the Busch brothers reached Victory Lane, taking the checkered flag Sunday afternoon in the 5-Hour Energy 301 on a hot, humid day at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
The stretch is impressive in itself, but the big picture of Busch’s 2015 season blows it up to a dramatic script the best directors of Hollywood couldn’t dream up if they tried.
After working for three months to heal from injuries to his right leg and left foot at Daytona, Busch returned in time to run the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. In the space of just eight race weekends, Busch has blown everyone away.
Before his return, NASCAR granted Busch a waiver for the Chase, but it came with two logical and very fair conditions. He had to be in the top 30 in points and win a race.
It took Busch all of five races to meet the first requirement when he won at Sonoma Raceway on June 28. Little did we know how much that performance would start a snowball of momentum.
Following a 17th-place showing in his return to Daytona, Busch has continued a meteoric rise up the charts on a clear mission to make it into the 16-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup.
There are still seven races to go before the cutoff happens Sept. 12, but the last piece of the puzzle is clearly in sight. Busch is 33rd in points, 58 behind David Gilliand, who sits in 30th. The mission is still difficult, but clearly not impossible.
Over the course of the next seven weeks, Busch will be racing for the second time at Pocono (Aug. 2) and Michigan (Aug. 16). He was ninth at Pocono on June 7, but finished 43rd the following weekend.
Needless to say, Busch can’t afford a repeat of his first Michigan trip if he wants to make the Chase. With the run he’s on right now, that bad performance is a non-existent memory and those who would slow him down may need to get out of his way.
Between all the speculation, prognostication and stat keeping, it’s still not a stone-cold lock that Busch will be in the 10-race Chase. Considering what he’s endured and what it took to get back to this point, there’s a driven focus in Busch that’s undeniable and pretty amazing.
Love him or hate him, Kyle Busch has won 32 Sprint Cup races in 12 years, but hasn’t been higher than fourth in points. Any thoughts of joining big brother Kurt Busch (2004) as a champion are nowhere in focus at this point, but if Kyle can get in the Chase, the potential for a truly special achievement is waiting on the horizon.
We, as fans and reporter types, should embrace and appreciate it.
Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @Tomzsports.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway (2.5-mile superspeedway), Speedway, Indiana
SPRINT CUP: Crown Royal Presents the Jeff Kyle 400 at the Brickyard, Sunday, 3:30 p.m. ET/12:30 p.m. PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90
Race distance: 400 miles, 160 laps.
2014 champion: Jeff Gordon
XFINITY SERIES: Lilly Diabetes 250, Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET/12:30 p.m. PT, NBC. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90.
Race distance: 250 miles, 100 laps.
2014 champion: Ty Dillon
CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: 1-800CarCash MudSummer Classic, Eldora Speedway (.500-mile dirt oval), Rossburg, Ohio, Wednesday, 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT, Fox Sports 1. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 150 laps, 75 miles.
2014 champion: Darrell Wallace Jr.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Trophies and the NASCAR drivers who love them

Among the things I've noticed in having covered motor sports over the last 18 years, NASCAR Sprint Cup winners get some pretty awesome trophies for their wins.
At Sonoma Raceway, for instance, the victor of the Toyota/SaveMart 350 gets to drink from a goblet filled with wine. Here's a pic of what it looks like that I took when Martin Truex Jr. won there in 2013:

The main part of Sonoma's trophy, true to the spirit of its location, is an oak barrel motif with a wine bottle around it. Seeing wine in a trophy may be a little too obvious to some, but it can happen anywhere. Richard Childress owns a vineyard in his native North Carolina in addition to his race team, so there you go.
But as we go down the list, the mix of things race winners get in Victory Lane is pretty outstanding.
Let's start with Sunday's 5-Hour Energy 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Yes, the winner gets to hold a live lobster as part of the celebration. Here's last year's July winner, Brad Keselowski, with his crabby crustacean (pun almost intended!):

And as we move on through some of the other notable trophies, I have to stop at one of my favorites after 11 years. Before Kobalt Tools took over as the title sponsor of the Sprint Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the winner used to receive a boxer-style belt. Seemed appropriate after the 267-lap endurance test he had to endure.
But with Kobalt's arrival, the winner gets to hold a very cool oversized wrench in Victory Lane.
Unique, special, and something worth keeping in the trophy case for the grandkids to see.
Martinsville Speedway has its own special trophy, and it takes preparation to take it home. For 51 years, the race winner has received a grandfather clock made by Ridgeway Clocks. The company, appropriately enough, is based only a few miles from the "paper clip." In 2009, the clock, which stands about 7 feet tall (a good half-foot higher than me, even!), was valued at around $10,000. Here's a piece that tells the story behind how the clocks became trophies, written in 2013.
Here's a random thought: Jimmie Johnson has won eight grandfather clocks from Martinsville. Where in heaven's name does he keep them all?
Of course, there are other legendary trophies every Cup driver strives to win, especially the Harley J. Earl Trophy that goes to the Daytona 500 champ. It's no grandfather clock, but it's just as priceless.
I saw Keselowski ringing the bell for his win at Auto Club Speedway in March. And of course, there was the absolutely hysterical presence of SpongeBob on the race that had his name at Kansas Speedway back in May. Couldn't resist closing this post with a shot of Jimmie Johnson and that trophy:

So there you go. Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief, once said trophies were one of the big things that drove his team's competitive fire (OK, the paychecks aren't bad, either...seriously!). With the collection that's out there now, from the traditional to the new, they're a big part of why NASCAR always has my attention.
Tom Zulewski has covered motor sports in many forms, from World of Outlaws to NASCAR, the NHRA and American LeMans Series, through an 18-year journalism career. Follow him on Twitter @Tomzsports.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Tony Stewart not about to retire

Racers are a driven bunch, and that line isn't necessarily intended to be funny in the case of Tony Stewart. At 44 years old, the questions are starting to circulate and whispers are growing louder.
Is one of NASCAR's few multiple-time champions on the downhill s;ide to the end of his career? The answer will be up some pretty heavy debate in the days and weeks to come.
At the top of the ledger, Stewart has been through things that would crush the spirit and drive of mere mortals like us non-racer types. First there was the broken leg after Stewart's wreck in a Sprint car in 2013 that caused him to miss the final 15 races of the season.
Then there was the tragedy of the incident at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in upstate New York on Aug. 9, 2014, where Stewart struck and killed Kevin Ward Jr. during a race caution. Stewart was exonerated from any criminal wrongdoing by a grand jury, but he clearly has not been the same since.
The stats clearly show it.
Since his last win at Dover in the spring race of 2013, Stewart has missed 18 races, earned only three top-5 finishes (none this year) and eight top-10s (one this year at Bristol, where he finished sixth).
Sure, Stewart has the added duty of team ownership on the resume, but that's old news now. He's used to the multitasking.
Stewart is also on his 10th year of owning Eldora Speedway, a dirt track located in Rossburg, Ohio, and the Camping World Truck Series will be there for the third straight year next Wednesday night in the 1-800CarCash MudSummer Classic.
No matter how full the plate is, no matter how much Stewart has put into the sport, the time always comes where stepping out of the car is the best course of action for future health and success.
Stewart has three Sprint Cup championships on his resume (2002, 2005, 2011) to go with 48 career wins. That's first-ballot worthy for the Hall of Fame when the time comes, no doubt.
But to see the Indiana native run like he's running right now is rough to watch. Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch are the class of the Stewart-Haas Racing garage, and Danica Patrick is marketing gold for the team as well.
Jeff Gordon will be 44 in August. He's in his final year of full-time racing. Kenny Wallace announced Tuesday he'll make his final NASCAR start in the No. 20 XFINITY car for Joe Gibbs Racing on Aug. 1 at Iowa Speedway.
Wallace made 344 starts in 18 years in Sprint Cup (1991-2008), 546 in the No. 2 series (not including the upcoming start at Iowa), and 13 more in the Camping World Truck Series. That's 903 in total, and that's huge.
Racers are happiest strapped into race cars and turning laps at break-neck speeds. Whenever the time comes to walk away, the pushback between ego, pride and general uncertainty seem like they could go on forever.
And that's exactly where the mindset of Tony Stewart is at this point in his life. Patience isn't a virtue for a racer, but it's necessary for the fans. Only he will know when it's time to go.
Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @Tomzsports.

Monday, July 13, 2015

When worlds collide: Danica not happy with Dale Jr.

If anyone were surveyed, NASCAR fan or not, and asked who were the most popular drivers in the Sprint Cup series, the large majority would say Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Danica Patrick.
During Saturday night's Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway, Danica was left with harsh feelings after the No. 88 got into the back of the No. 10 on lap 137. There was so much pent-up frustration from Patrick that she was still angry later in the race, as this video suggests.
The introduction of less downforce may have been a hit among most drivers, but don't tell that to Patrick. She finished 34th at Kentucky, two laps down, but Earnhardt wasn't that much better as he came home in 21st.
There won't really be a lot of fallout from what happened between Danica and Dale Jr. once they strap in for this weekend's race at New Hampshire, but there's a valuable lesson to be learned here. There was plenty of fury from Patrick when she got taken out like she did. Junior told his race team that he "didn't have any brakes," but the incident happened near the wall.
When it's a racing deal, parts and pieces between driver and machine don't always work together properly. Cooler heads will recognize what happened and it's time to move on. The fan bases can duke it out on social media all they want, but it won't change the outcome.
Amid the favorable reaction to the racing at Kentucky, though, along came NASCAR Chairman Brian France, who appeared on SiriusXM Speedway Monday afternoon and almost came across with a Donnie Downer type of statement.
France wants "more drafting and pack racing."
Uhh...OK. From a piece written by Dustin Long of NBC Sports, the lower downforce package used at Kentucky increased green-flag passing by 132 percent. France had this to say to SiriusXM's Dave Moody:
“What we’re really looking for is how tight is the racing?’’ France said. “How many lead changes are there? How much passing through the field is going on? How many more teams are competitive by a given package? What accomplishes those goals the best? That’s how we go about sorting it out."
From the stat sheet Saturday, there were 13 lead changes among eight different drivers. In last year's Quaker State 400, there were 12 lead changes among only three drivers, and the pair who finished 1-2 -- Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano -- led for 230 of the 267 laps.
I'd certainly call that progress. The real impact of the new rules will come in time.
Tom Zulewski is an 18-year veteran of journalism and has covered many forms of motor sports throughout his career. Follow him on Twitter @Tomzsports.

In another wild week, Kyle Busch wins again

As if the last-lap wreck that sent Austin Dillon hurtling into the catch fence at Daytona last weekend wasn’t enough, there was more insanity at Kentucky Speedway to come. Mother Nature had her hand in things, raining down in monsoonal fashion Thursday and Friday to keep anything on four wheels off the 1.5-mile oval south of Cincinnati for as long as possible.
When the Camping World Truck Series raced in the UNOH 225 on Thursday night, another driver had a close encounter with a catch fence. Ben Kennedy didn’t have quite the wild ride Dillon did – more of a slide along the SAFER barrier after making contact – but it was enough for NASCAR to call the race early with five laps remaining in the 150-lap event won by Matt Crafton.
Friday night’s XFINITY Series race, the Kentucky 300, had a great finish as Brad Keselowski held off Erik Jones and Kyle Busch over the final eight laps to pick up the win.
With all the rain that had fallen before Saturday night’s Quaker State 400 Sprint Cup race, the lack of practice time due to the weather definitely hurt. Qualifying was cancelled for the second straight week, leaving lesser-known drivers like Ryan Blaney – who had a car that was described as “bullet-fast” by some drivers – shut out due to the rule book.
Translation: Part-time teams know rain is an evil four-letter word, especially when a spot in the race has to be earned on the track.
When the Quaker State 400 started, the worst of the weather finally went away and Kyle Busch continued his charge toward a Chase berth with his second victory in three weeks.
Busch’s story gets more and more amazing by the week. The guy only broke bones in both legs because of a crash at Daytona before the Cup season even started, returned less than four months later, and already has two wins.
But from the “not so fast” department, all the winning in the world won’t mean a thing in terms of making the Chase unless Busch somehow finishes in the top 30 in points by the time the Federated Auto Parts 400 is run at Richmond International Raceway on Sept. 12.
That means no more mulligans will be granted with only eight races left before the top 16 drivers are set. As things stand right now, Busch is still 87 points behind Cole Whitt, who sits in 30th place.
One of the big deals from Kentucky came with the introduction of NASCAR’s new rules package that takes downforce away from the cars. Judging from the reaction by drivers after the race, it’s a hit that will hit its stride at multiple tracks. Success on a mile-and-a-half oval is one thing, but the truer test will come at places like Michigan and Indianapolis, where the package will be tried out next.
If things work out there, we may have a winning formula for fans and drivers alike.
It’s not realistic to expect passes for the lead to happen four-wide over the course of every single lap, but drivers who can adapt the best along with their race teams stand the best chance of being in contention for the win at the end.
And good competition throughout the race is a big reason why fans watch the sport in the first place.

Tom Zulewski is passionate about auto racing and has covered everything from winged Sprint cars on dirt tracks to NASCAR, the NHRA and American LeMans Series over an 18-year career in journalism. Follow him on Twitter @Tomzsports.

New Hampshire Motor Speedway (1.058-mile oval), Loudon, New Hampshire
SPRINT CUP: New Hampshire 301, Sunday, 1:30 p.m. ET/ 10:30 a.m. PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local PRN affiliate.
Race distance; 301 laps, 318.458 miles.
2014 champion: Brad Keselowski.
XFINITY SERIES: Lakes Region 200, Saturday, 4 p.m. ET/1 p.m. PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local PRN affiliate.
Race distance: 200 laps, 211.6 miles
2014 champion: Brad Keselowski.
CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Returns July 22 for the 1-800CarCash Mud Summer Classic at Eldora Speedway, Rossburg, Ohio.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Earnhardt's popularity even shinier now

Sure, it was almost 3 a.m. when the Coke Zero 400 finally finished early Monday morning at Daytona International Speedway. Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his second July race at the World Center of Racing, but any form of celebration was the last thing on his mind.
As cars were wrecking behind him coming to the finish line, the No. 3 driven by Austin Dillon went airborne and turned the catch fence into tattered, twisted and mangled steel.
The in-car audio spoken by Earnhardt and spotter T.J. Majors ended up being a statement to why fans have voted him NASCAR's most popular driver for more than a decade. If you heard it live during the late-night broadcast or caught up with it on social media after a good night's sleep, there was real, legitimate emotional impact.
But don't just take it from me. Give a listen to what Junior had to say after the race when he spoke to NBC. If you weren't a fan of the No. 88 before, you should be now. There's an undeniable maturation that's happened to Dale Earnhardt Jr., and what happened at Daytona is another important step in the process.
He's engaged to Amy Reimann. He's got six wins in the last 53 races after needing more than 10 years to get his previous six. And he's second in points with nine races left until the Chase.
Yup, it's good to be Junior right about now. Not just for the racing, but for the person he's become.
Daddy Dale is certainly showing his approval from heaven.
One striking thing that came from the Daytona wreck involved the pit crew for the No. 88. Every last one of them ran out to Dillon's upside-down car to make sure he was OK.
NASCAR mandated that only the safety crews were allowed on the track after the Tony Stewart-Kevin Ward incident from last August, but other than a stern lecture (probably) from the powers that be, no penalties will be forthcoming.
And there shouldn't be, either. A racer's humanity means there will always be concern for their own whenever a life goes flashing before their eyes.
Thank goodness this one was only a flash.
Tom Zulewski believes Dale Earnhardt Jr. will find championship karma as the 2015 season unfolds. Feel free to share this post and follow him on Twitter @Tomzsports.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Dillon wreck adds to Daytona lore

It seems convenient, almost to a fault, that the last-lap wreck at the Coke Zero 400 could be blamed on the late hour. It was almost 3 a.m. when Austin Dillon went for a terrifying ride into the catch fence at the end of the front stretch.
Remarkably, Dillon walked away after landing on the roof of his No. 3 Chevrolet, and no fans were seriously hurt. 
For Dale Earnhardt Jr., thoughts of celebrating his second win of 2015 were quickly subdued when he saw what was happening in his rear view mirror. There was good reason.
After the crash involving Kyle Larson happened at the 2013 Daytona Nationwide race that saw 30 fans injured by flying debris from the No. 42, Sunday night's wreck was on that level.
Even with the late hour, everyone was able to thank their lucky stars things didn't turn out worse than they did.
It's scary enough when 3,400 pounds of driver and machine get airborne at 200 mph, but the perfect picture that left the most lasting positive memory came when Earnhardt's pit crew was first to reach Dillon to see if he was OK. 
After what happened Feb. 18, 2001, the motivation to do whatever was necessary to keep everyone safe is as strong as ever.
Restrictor plate racing is a fact of life at Daytona these days. Speed is what drives everyone, but speed without safety is asking for trouble.
Dale Earnhardt is up on heaven's best race track right now. NASCAR has to keep moving forward to improve safety so no one has to report on another racing accident that takes a driver's life for a long time to come.
The families of Dan Wheldon, Adam Petty, Eric Medlen and Scott Kalitta can certainly relate.
Tom Zulewski has covered racing in many forms over an 18-year writing career. Follow him on Twitter @Tomzsports.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

After a long night, NBC Sports makes strong return

When Rick Allen came through my hometown of Cedar City, Utah with the Kyle Petty Charity Ride in May, he documented parts of the eight-day journey for NBC Sports Network as part of its daily “NASCAR America” news show. Fast forward two months, and a big-time broadcasting goal came to life.
After 12 years as the lead voice of the Camping World Truck Series races on Fox, Allen made his debut with NBC Sports for its official return to NASCAR coverage Saturday and Sunday at Daytona International Speedway. Allen worked alongside 21-time Sprint Cup race winner Jeff Burton and former crew chief Steve Letarte.
For both the Subway Firecracker 250 Xfinity Series race and the Sprint Cup Coke Zero 400, the debut was marked by rain delays. While the Xfinity race was pushed back by only an hour, the Cup race was delayed by nearly four hours.
From the viewer's perspective, I was glad with what I saw. There were fresh voices you don't normally hear from -- one production graphic mentioned 23 different driver interviews happened during the Sunday night rain delay, from Kevin Harvick to Casey Mears to Ward and Jeb Burton along with a surprise visit to the fans by Joey Logano.
In the grand scheme of filling time with any rain delay, it requires all parties working together to corral driver interviews. Between the Countdown to Green studio of Krista Voda, Kyle Petty and Dale Jarrett, the main booth of Allen, Burton and Letarte, and pit reporters Mike Massaro, Dave Burns, Marty Snider and Kelli Stavast, they gave fans a chance to hear drivers they wouldn’t normally otherwise hear from.
Throughout the weekend, the excitement for a return that was nine years in the making -- NBC last covered NASCAR in 2006 -- was palpable, but didn't come across to excess. The moment was celebrated, but stories were told, including some funny ones that brought a smile to my face.
Voda asked Harvick in the Countdown studio Sunday about what he was getting his 3-year-old son, Keelan, for his birthday. Harvick answered, but Harvick’s wife, DeLana, took to Twitter and called him out.
“Did you really think Keelan wouldn’t be watching?” the tweet said with hash tag “surprised ruined.”
Rutledge Wood had one of his best moments in the broadcast during the Sunday delay, a great feature on one of the original Daytona ticket takers, a woman who had the nickname “Lightning.” 
Due to the very late start -- around 9:45 p.m., Mountain time -- I had to leave my location (no cable at home) and listen to the Coke Zero 400 on the radio. After this weekend's start, I'll be looking forward to hearing Allen, Petty and the rest of the NBC team bring the rest of the NASCAR season to us,. though.
After all, anyone who takes the time to make a stop to say hello to folks in a small town in Utah is someone to remember.
Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @Tomzsports.

Kentucky Speedway (1.5-mile superspeedway), Sparta, Kentucky
SPRINT CUP: Quaker State 400 presented by Advance Auto Parts, Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET/4:30 p,m. PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or local PRN affiliate.
Race distance; 400.5 miles, 267 laps.
2014 champion: Brad Keselowski
XFINITY SERIES: XFINITY July Kentucky Race, Friday, 7:30 p.m. ET/4:30 p.m. PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or local PRN affiliate.
Race distance: 300 miles, 200 laps.
2014 champion: Kevin Harvick
CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: UNOH 225, Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET/4:30 p.m. PT, Fox Sports 1. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or local MRN affiliate.
Race distance: 225 miles, 150 laps.
2014 champion: Kyle Busch