Sunday, August 30, 2015

Chase push resumes, stress returns

It's been a few days since I've posted anything here, but there's no time like now to get caught up.
The first order of business is to congratulate this weekend's race winners, who all did their thing on road courses. In the XFINITY race Saturday at Road America, Paul Menard won the fuel-mileage gamble, holding off everyone in a final four-lap shootout to win the Road America 180. Four laps may not seem like a huge deal, but the fuel had to last for more than 16 total miles across 14 turns.
Somehow, Menard made it work and won in his home state. Who needs an off weekend when you can sleep in your own bed in addition to doing what you love? A win-win all the way around.
One downer: Park City's Michael Self was the leader at the race's final restart, but faded to 11th. Still his best run in only his fourth XFINITY start.
On Sunday, the Camping World Truck Series headed north of the border to Bowmanville, Ontario and Erik Jones won the Chevy Silverado 250, beating Matt Crafton by 1.665 seconds and claiming the points lead by three over the two-time defending series champion.
Tyler Reddick, who was the points leader at the start of the day, finished 19th and fell to third.
And despite their heavy hearts after last week's death of Justin Wilson, the IndyCar Series had one heck of a great race at Sonoma Raceway as Scott Dixon won the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma to claim the championship.
Dixon basically stole the title from Juan Pablo Montoya, who ran into difficulty early when he hit Penske Racing teammate Will Power and couldn't recover in time.
Montoya needed to finish fifth to clinch. He ended up sixth. Dixon won the title by having three race wins on the year to Montoya's two.
Meanwhile, the Sprint Cup Series drivers scattered everywhere and enjoyed the final off week of the 2015 season. As the series heads to Darlington for the first of the two remaining races before the Chase field is set, five drivers are still sitting on the proverbial bubble.
As the standings sit at this point, the bubble is slowly becoming a solid rock for Jamie McMurray, Ryan Newman, Menard, Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer. The separation Bowyer enjoys, as discussed in a previous post, is 35 points over Aric Almirola and 37 over Kasey Kahne.
With only the Bojangles Southern 500 and the Federated Auto Parts 400 left to run, the drivers on the outside of the Chase field may need to go after one thing.
A win, and only a win, may be what matters. Points racing is a non-existent phrase in the vocabulary.
After Almirola and Kahne, the rest are so far behind, they may need a road map to find Victory Lane.
Here are the front five drivers not in the Chase and just how much hope they really have of making the playoff: Points behind are in relation to Bowyer:
-Almirola (-35): Hasn't won since the rain-delayed affair at Daytona last July and has exactly one top-5 finish since then, a fifth at Dover in May. It's win or else for the 43, I'm afraid.
-Kahne (-37): Won at Atlanta last year to make the Chase. Sorry to say, but that race was replaced by Darlington, where his average finish in 12 career starts is 16th.
Kahne's best finish of the year was fourth at both Phoenix and Dover. Since an eighth-place finish at Sonoma eight races ago, his best run has been 15th. Like Almirola, it's win or get to testing for 2016.
The remaining drivers in this group are clearly in win-or-else mode.
-Greg Biffle (-83): The Biff hasn't won since Michigan in June of 2013. Over the last 80 races, he's been as high as a runner-up just twice. Not good, and not optimistic he'll snap out of the funk.
-Austin Dillon (-91): Love him or hate him, Dillon is in only his second full-time year in Cup. He put a scare into everyone at Michigan two weeks ago as he led 19 laps -- most in his career to date -- before finishing fourth.
-Kyle Larson (-104): The Northern California native impressed in his rookie season, with eight top-5 finishes, but has only one in his sophomore year, a third at Dover in May. Over the last 10 races, his highest finish was 9th at Indianapolis.
Time to collect the parting gifts and get ready for 2016.
But for the rest of us, it's easy to nitpick on our favorite driver's chances, but winning will absolutely change everything.
Followers and comments are more than welcome on Twitter @Tomzsports.
Darlington Raceway (1.366-mile egg-shaped oval), Darlington, S.C.
-SPRINT CUP: Bojangles Southern 500, Sunday, 7 p.m. ET/4 p.m. PT, NBC. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 501.3 miles, 367 laps.
2014 champion: Kevin Harvick
-XFINITY SERIES: VFW Sport Clips Help a Hero 200, Saturday, 3:30 p.m ET/12:30 p.m. PT, NBC. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 200.8 miles, 147 laps.
2014 champion: Chase Elliott
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Off until Sept. 18 for the American Ethanol E15 225 at Chicagoland Speedway.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Another gun incident, and the world just shrugs

As I finished my work day a few hours ago, my Facebook news feed had several posts on the story of a killing in Roanoke, Virginia, that was nothing short of senseless.
And I could only bow my head, say a prayer, and shed a few more tears.
The deaths of 24-year-old Alison Parker, a reporter for CBS affiliate WDBJ-TV, and her cameraman, 27-year-old Adam Ward, were simply doing their jobs on a live shot during the station's morning news at around 6:45 a.m. Eastern time. A man identified as 41-year-old Vester Lee Flanagan, who was a former employee at WDBJ, walked up to only a few feet away and shot Parker, Ward, and the woman she was interviewing, 61-year-old Vicki Gardner, and opened fire.
Gardner was shot in the back, but multiple reports are saying she is out of surgery and in stable condition.
A few hours later, police caught up with Flanagan on Interstate 66 in a Chevy Sonic he had rented from the Roanoke Airport. The car ran into a ditch and Flanagan was found with life-threatening injuries from a gunshot wound. He later died. Here is a link to the story as reported by Roanoke station WWBT.
All the publicity Flanagan, who used the stage name Bryce Williams when he worked at WDBJ, deserves from this morning's tragedy is the following. He was fired by the station two years ago and one story mentioned how local police had to be called to escort Flanagan from the building.
That's just a small glimpse into the man. As a proud journalist for the last 18 years of my life -- and many more to come -- it saddens me to think that I may have to start looking over my shoulder a little more in the days ahead.
One incident shouldn't paint such a broad brush, but journalists, whether they work in print or broadcast, have to be out in the community often. Most people they come in contact with are warm and accepting.
But there's always one bad apple who makes an appearance when it's least expected. When it involves a gun, it certainly changes everything, and usually for the worse.
I am proud of what I do, my fellow fans of auto racing. Not everyone can write a 500- to 600-word game story on a tight deadline and have it make sense. Not everyone can put themselves in front of a camera and speak clearly on a topic in two minutes or less (usually), especially when it's done live.
Life is hard enough as it is without having to worry about who's lurking around the next corner with a gun and bad intentions.
Back in April, a CareerCast survey of 200 jobs listed newspaper reporter as the worst job of 2015. Broadcaster wasn't very much further up the ladder, coming in at No. 196. I've been on both sides of those careers and I firmly believe I'm in the best occupation around.
I have been around a lot of great stories in nearly two decades. I've covered everything from high-school football overtime classics, the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the MLB postseason (both in Oakland and San Francisco), and NASCAR, among many others.
No one with a gun can, or should, let the good feelings of great stories, and being able to tell them, get in the way.
We will return to your regularly scheduled news and views on auto racing next time.
Followers and comments welcome on Twitter @Tomzsports.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Rest in peace, Justin Wilson

A little less than four years ago, I was able to cover the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. For the first time, the track planned on running a combined event weekend with the IndyCar Series racing its season finale the next day.
Little did I know that day -- Oct. 16, 2011 -- would last only 10 laps before Dan Wheldon passed away at age 33 from injuries sustained in a vicious wreck in Turn 2.
That was a very sad day. I cried openly when I saw the news back at the office, and may have turned into a blubbering baby had I been at LVMS to witness and write about what happened in person.
On Monday night, nearly four years later, IndyCar lost another great driver as Justin Wilson died after suffering a head injury brought on during the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway a little more than 24 hours earlier.
Wilson was just 37 years old.
Staring at the screen, I can't find many words to express the sadness I'm feeling for this loss. Wilson was struck in the head by what multiple accounts say was the nose cone from the car of Sage Karam, who was leading the 200-lap race at the time.
When Wheldon died, his car was basically flung head-on into a metal post that supported the catch fence in Turn 2. That race was not completed, and the feeling of emptiness was palpable.
The only difference with Wilson's death was the timing. He was in the wrong place at the worst possible time, trailing Karam as the debris from his wreck came flying off with just 20 laps remaining.
Like Wheldon four years before him, Wilson wasn't racing full-time in the IndyCar Series this season. He was in his sixth race of 2015. So very sadly, the 174th start of Wilson's career was his last.
My reporting colleague Brant James of USA Today wrote a very humbling reminder in his column on what really makes a race car driver do what he does, even as the dangers lurk around every curve, every elevation change, and every turn of a lap.
"This isn’t about 'they died doing what they loved.' It’s about reconciling feelings over a game so intoxicating to those who so badly want to be a part of it, and so cruel to those who care about them.
And it’s about the memories that make days like today even sadder."
Wheldon left behind his wife, Susie, and two young sons -- Sebastian, now six years old, and Oliver, who is four.
Wilson leaves behind his wife, Julia, and two young daughters -- 7-year-old Jane and 5-year-old Jessica.
IndyCar's final race of the 2015 season, the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, will go on as scheduled Sunday afternoon. The championship celebration will happen in San Francisco a week from today.
And like this tweet from F1 Grid says perfectly, both Wilson and Wheldon will stop to join the fun from their pit-road paddock in heaven.
Godspeed, Justin. Thank you for living without fear and racing without limits. We all can learn something from your legacy.
Followers and comments are welcome on Twitter @Tomzsports.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

A Bristol race worth the noise

This post begins with a bit of a disclaimer. With nearly two decades of journalism work, I've learned that the only cheering worth doing is cheering for a good story.
The Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on Saturday gave me plenty of reasons to cheer. I can say without shame that the duel between Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick over the closing laps had me screaming out loud with every pass attempt by the 4 car.
When the last attempt for the lead didn't stick, Logano got the separation he needed and held off Harvick to win the Bristol night race for the second year in a row.
And I'm still catching my breath more than an hour after the race ended.
The best story of the night came with (gasp) a Joe Gibbs Racing driver getting nowhere near Victory Lane. After his win at Michigan, Matt Kenseth lost an engine at lap 110 and finished 42nd.
Even with the disappointment, Kenseth delivered one of the funniest quotes of the night, if not the season on if there was any warning about the engine in his No. 20 Toyota:
“They never warn you. It would be cool if they would send you a text or something."
Ahh, NASCAR drivers can deliver the comedy when it's required, and that is good.
Kyle Busch led 192 laps, but didn't win. He rallied from a loose wheel, fell two laps down, got both back, including one earned the old-fashioned way with a pass of the leader. In the end, a pit-road speeding penalty at lap 432 was Busch's final downfall.
He still finished eighth and has a 46-point cushion over 31st-place Cole Whitt. I'll say it right now -- with two races left until the Chase, Kyle Busch can begin planning his championship push.
Whether he does anything with it is still to be determined.
Carl Edwards led 74 laps, but could only manage a 7th-place finish.
And pole-sitter Denny Hamlin was out front for 54 laps on the way to coming in third.
Among the other random thoughts from the "World's Fastest Half-Mile:"
-With the distractions of the impending shutdown of Michael Waltrip Racing, Clint Bowyer had a tremendous run. The No. 15 5-Hour Energy Toyota challenged for the lead on several occasions, but finished fifth and improved his chances at getting in the Chase.
Bowyer is still the last driver on the bubble, but his cushion on Aric Almirola improved to 35 points, a gain of 12 that will be key down the stretch.
There's not much room to wiggle, but staying as close to mistake-free as possible at Darlington and Richmond will be a big key to close the deal.
-Jeff Gordon got near the front for a while over the final half of his final Bristol race, but finished four laps down in 20th.
At this point, he's comfortably in the Chase, but a zero in the win column can't be an option.
-Will we have a Ryan Newman sequel? In his 500th career start, Newman finished 10th and is second among the five non-winners who would be in the Chase.
Heck, Paul Menard is an even more engaging possibility. Menard was 24th at Bristol and still hasn't been anywhere near the top 10 since finishing eighth at the Michigan race in June.
Menard's average finish since Michigan 1 is 15.8, yet he's only nine points behind his Richard Childress Racing teammate AND two ahead of Gordon.
Go figure.
-Thank goodness we have a week off. Time to process everything for the stretch drive, but we'll enjoy the Truck and Nationwide Series races in the meantime.
Speaking of the trucks, if you're not a Ryan Blaney fan, here's one huge reason why you should be.
When the Xfinity Series raced at Indianapolis, Blaney was two corners away from a win, but got passed by Kyle Busch and finished second.
The following week at Iowa would have made Taylor Swift smile. Blaney shook off that disappointment with a dominating effort at the U.S. Cellular 250, leading 252 laps (two more than the actual distance due to a green-white-checker finish) and picking up the win.
On the truck side, Blaney got bit by the Busch nightmare, finishing second -- again -- by .157 seconds.
And in another Groundhog Day moment, Blaney turned that misfortune around and found a way to win the UNOH 200 at Bristol on Wednesday despite -- get this -- falling back as far as 21st by lap 50 and not even sniffing the top 10 in the running order consistently until there were 50 laps to go.
Somehow, even after a 46-minute red flag for rain that came with 34 laps left, Blaney evened the score again and beat Busch. His final margin was .512 seconds.
Now you know why cheering for good storylines can work.
Followers and comments are welcome on Twitter @Tomzsports.
-XFINITY SERIES: Road America 180 Fired Up By Johnsonville, Road America (4.04-mile road course), Elkhart Lake, Wis., Saturday, 3 p.m. ET/Noon PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 182.16 miles, 45 laps.
2014 champion: Brendan Gaughan
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Chevy Silverado 250, Canadian Tire Motorsports Park (2.5-mile road course), Bowmanville, Ontario, Sunday, 1:30 p.m. ET/10:30 a.m. PT, Fox Sports 1. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 250 kilometers (157.4 miles), 64 laps.
2014 champion: Ryan Blaney.

No surprise here...JGR rules again at Bristol

The race may not be happening for a few more hours (about nine at the time of this posting), but it's Bristol, baby. Not just any other race, but the Irwin Tools Night Race held qualifying late Friday afternoon.
And in a repeat of last week -- with a slight tweak on the names -- Joe Gibbs Racing drivers will occupy the top three spots at the "World's Fastest Half-Mile."
Denny Hamlin won the pole for Bristol with a lightning-quick run of 131.407 mph, just in front of teammate Kyle Busch, who ran his No. 18 Skittles Toyota around Bristol at 131.263 mph. Carl Edwards will go off third after posting a qualifying speed of 130.655 mph.
Matt Kenseth, last week's winner from the pole at Michigan, qualified a little further back in 13th.
The top three in qualifying from a week ago were Kenseth, Hamlin and Edwards, with Busch finishing sixth.
Got the idea? Better do it now because the Gibbs cars are on a major roll and will be in the title conversation throughout the Chase.
As for those who were in the big news of the week, soon-to-be free agents David Ragan qualified fourth and Clint Bowyer qualified ninth. With the dissolution of Michael Waltrip Racing effective at season's end, the duo is basically in full-on audition mode.
While the racing will probably be the complete opposite of the snoozefest that happened at Michigan, the same fact of life applies for Bristol. If you start near the front, chances are good you'll end up there, too.
Among the last 10 races, the only disturbance in the winning force happened when Kyle Busch came from 19th in the spring race of 2010. Since then, no race winner has started from worse than 12th.
And since my local paper didn't publish it (again), here is your lineup for tonight's Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol. Enjoy.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Michael Waltrip Racing spins into oblivion

The "Shot Heard 'Round the World" was one of Major League Baseball's iconic moments. Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca gives up a three-run homer to Bobby Thomson, and the words were screamed into the public consciousness by New York Giants radio man Russ Hodges.
"The Giants Win the Pennant! The Giants Win the Pennant!"
That was in 1951. Fast forward nearly 62 years later, and the antithesis of that moment in NASCAR was spoken something like this:
"Got something wrong with your arm? Itch it!"
Clint Bowyer was the man who heard those words from the spotter's stand on a warm September night at Richmond International Raceway and ignited the mother of all stunning controversies that ended up with tragic consequences for everyone involved.
As of Wednesday, the two-year saga of Michael Waltrip Racing ended sadly with Bowyer announcing his departure from the team at the end of this season. The exit means MWR will not field any Sprint Cup teams on a full-time basis in 2016.
The biggest reason why came on that night at Richmond. It should have never come to this point.
To review: Bowyer spins with seven laps to go, basically untouched. The third member of MWR that season was Brian Vickers. He pitted after Bowyer's spin and knocked Jeff Gordon back just enough in the final running order to deny him a Chase berth.
Martin Truex Jr. got in on a tiebreaker, but the berth was taken away by NASCAR and given to Gordon. MWR was fined $300,000, all three drivers were docked 50 championship points before the Chase reset, and saddest of all, NAPA, which had been with Michael Waltrip as far back as 2001, pulled its sponsorship from the team.
No money coming in means no chance to compete effectively on or off the race track. 
Waltrip didn't have a stellar career as a NASCAR driver, but he did win the Daytona 500 twice -- in 2001 and 2003. Only 10 of his fellow racers can make that claim in their careers.
As a race team owner, he was in a world of hurt from the jet fuel controversy at Daytona (ironically) in 2007. All three of the team's cars were found to have used an "illegal oxygenate fuel additive" to increase the cars' performance.
When the dust settled, Waltrip, David Reutimann and Dale Jarrett were all docked 100 points. That was small potatoes in comparison to Spingate.
If the sponsors go away, the speed demons don't get to play anymore. It's a cruel reality for which Michael Waltrip has only himself to blame.
Follow Tom Zulewski and add your comments on Twitter @Tomzsports.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Danica hits "nature" trail with newest sponsor

As I listened to the radio on the way home from work Monday afternoon, SiriusXM host Dave Moody said something that was half-funny, half "what the heck is going on here?"
Moody declared, somewhat tongue-in-cheek as it turned out, that "The Morning Drive" would be the newest primary sponsor on the hood of Patrick's No. 10 car for 2016.
Once I got my reality check through a Facebook friend, the big reveal came Tuesday morning, and it didn't involve SiriusXM. Patrick's newest sponsor, replacing GoDaddy, is Nature's Bakery. They'll be on the car for 28 races starting in 2016.
How many of you have ever heard of the company? Bought a product from them? I know I haven't, so I had to look them up.
Nature's Bakery makes gluten-free and stone-ground whole wheat fig bars in flavors like raspberry, blueberry, lemon, peach apricot and apple cinnamon. Fox Sports NASCAR writer Tom Jensen wrote on his Facebook page that the company has only 420 employees, yet here they are as a primary sponsor on the biggest stage in all of motor sports.
The price tag for getting your brand on the hood of a Sprint Cup car can easily go into eight figures. Nature's Bakery is growing -- it's available at two of my town's larger grocers -- and founder Dave Marson knows the risk of putting its name behind a driver who's averaging finish of 22nd every race is a big one.
“You know what? You don’t get anywhere in life taking a little bit of risk,” Marson said.
Jensen summed up his reaction nicely, saying "It takes guts to make a move like that. But that's what life is all about: Go big or go home, and have the audacity to dream bigger dreams."
Danica made GoDaddy a bunch of money when that company sponsored the 10 for Stewart-Haas Racing. This time around, it will be a celebration of nature's goodness, and Patrick, who also announced she signed an extension with Stewart-Haas, embraces healthy in her yoga and other aspects of her lifestyle.
But as intriguing as this new partnership is, it makes me wonder two things. When will the TV ads start turning up, and how much will winning matter?
In 105 career Sprint Cup starts, Patrick is still looking for a top-5 finish. She has a pair of top-10 runs this season -- seventh at Martinsville and ninth at Bristol, where the Irwin Tools Night Race happens on Saturday -- and six for her career.
That's it. And a relatively unknown company is making a big-time commitment that being on the No. 10 for most of 2016 will be worth it.
Once the car fades to the middle of the pack, the answer to that question will come. It probably won't be pretty, either.
Follow Tom Zulewski and comment on Twitter @Tomzsports.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Chase stress hits overdrive for some

On a bright, beautiful Sunday afternoon at Michigan International Speedway, the Pure Michigan 400 was as much about the continuing dominance of the Joe Gibbs Racing cars as it was about those who were fighting for their lives to be eligible to be in the Chase for the 2015 Sprint Cup title.
We didn’t have a change at the top. Matt Kenseth was dominant on the 2-mile oval, leading 146 of 200 laps and cruising to his third win of the season.
But what we saw toward the lower parts of the pack at Michigan was how some drivers saw their collars get just a little bit tighter after running into trouble on the track.
Among the casualties was Clint Bowyer. As if he didn’t have enough distraction with the Michael Waltrip Racing team situation hanging like a dark cloud over his head, the affable Kansas native got together with Ryan Newman at lap 127, hitting the inside wall after a spin at Turn 4. The damage done was more than enough to force the No. 15 5-Hour Energy Toyota into a 41st-place finish.
From a somewhat comfortable cushion as the 16th and last driver who would be in the Chase field, Bowyer saw a 50-point margin over Aric Almirola get sliced by more than half. With Almirola finishing 14th on Sunday, he gained a renewed sense of hope and closed the gap to just 23 points with still three races left to run.
As we’ve discussed with Kyle Busch – more on him shortly – there are no more mulligans left for anyone. It’s go time.
Adding to the pressure for Bowyer, Kasey Kahne saw a 15th-place finish turn into something more like a victory. He moved within 26 points of the last spot in the Chase field.
How good was Sunday’s result for Kahne? The No. 5 car had an average finish of 31st in the last six races, including 43rd at Pocono and 42nd at Watkins Glen.
Yet thanks to one competitor’s misfortune at Michigan, Kahne still has hope over the final three races before the Chase begins.
And then there’s Kyle Busch, who turned the misfortune of starting from the rear of the field (40th) after a Saturday practice crash into an 11th-place finish Sunday. He moved up a spot in the standings to 29th and increased his cushion on 31st from six to 23 points.
Even though Busch is weaving his way up the standings faster than a sprinter on a jet ski, there’s still one tiny part of the skeptical side of my brain that says the Las Vegas native won’t be able to keep up the pace.
So far, he’s proven everyone wrong, but any misstep – a wreck, pit road speeding penalty, blown engine, worn tire – could set all the momentum back into the mud.
And more importantly, anyone without a win in the top 30 who gets to Victory Lane over the next three races could spoil everything. Austin Dillon put a scare into some camps Sunday, leading 19 laps before finishing fourth.
But whatever happens from Bristol to Darlington to Richmond, the only guarantee is the final run to the Chase will require good working running shoes.
-The XFINITY series hit the second of three straight road courses Saturday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course near Columbus, and Regan Smith scored his ideal payback after his dustup with Ty Dillon, bumping Alex Tagliani out of the way in the closing laps and winning the Nationwide Children's Hospital 200.
Best lesson from the moment: Instead of letting the frustration of past injustice tear him up inside, Smith did what he had to do to get his car to the checkered flag first. Dillon was still a factor late, finishing third, but any gain on those at the top of the standings is a good gain.
Smith is fourth in the standings and trails Chase Elliott by 26 points, while Dillon is one point further up the line in second place.
-And from the "I should have paid attention" department: Kyle Busch denied Ryan Blaney another victory, this time in Saturday's Camping World Truck Series race at Michigan. The final margin was only .157 seconds, but it was an encore that probably felt like light years away to Blaney.
The kid shook off his disappointment of Indianapolis and won at Iowa. With the series hitting Bristol in rapid-fire fashion Wednesday night, it gives Blaney the ideal scenario. If he's on the entry list, don't be surprised if the young man finds a way to get himself back in the winning groove once more.
Followers and comments are welcome on Twitter @Tomzsports.
Bristol Motor Speedway (.533-mile oval), Bristol, Tenn.
-SPRINT CUP: Irwin Tools Night Race, Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET/4:30 p.m, PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local PRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 500 laps, 266.5 miles
2014 champion: Joey Logano
-XFINITY SERIES: Food City 300, Friday, 7:30 p.m. ET/4:30 p.m. PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local PRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 300 laps, 159.9 miles.
2014 champion: Ryan Blaney
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: UNOH 200 presented by ZLoop, Wednesday, 8:30 p.m. ET/5:30 p.m. PT, Fox Sports 1. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 200 laps, 106.6 miles
2014 champion: Brad Keselowski

Saturday, August 15, 2015

JGR qualifies top three spots at Michigan

Normally over the course of the last two months, I've offered mainly full-length posts discussing whatever's on my mind about NASCAR. Today, mainly because I didn't see anything published on this in my local paper this morning, it's time for a simpler tack.
Three of the four Joe Gibbs Racing cars ruled qualifying for Sunday's Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway. Matt Kenseth won the pole, Denny Hamlin will start second and Carl Edwards will go off from the No. 3 position.
As for the fourth car, Kyle Busch didn't fare too badly himself. He will start sixth.
And with Sunday's race, the comparison of speed with the high-drag rules package comes into play. Right now, the only marker we can go on is qualifying speed from when they last raced at Michigan two months ago.
Kasey Kahne was the pole winner on the 2-mile oval at MIS in June with a speed of nearly 202 mph (201.992). Kenseth's pole run came in at 197.488, so that's about 4.5 mph lost. The real test of understanding how the cars will behave when it counts doesn't come until all 43 are on the track Sunday afternoon. 
With more room to race at Michigan, the feeling I have is a bit more confident than what I saw from Indianapolis. Getting to a lead car is one thing, finishing off the pass will be something worth watching, especially if it works.
Here is the official race lineup for Sunday's Pure Michigan 400...
Stats to watch for: Toyota has four wins at Michigan, but none since Kyle Busch in the August race in 2011. More importantly, the race winner can come from just about anywhere in the field.
In the last 10 races in the Irish Hills, the average starting position of the one who's ended up in Victory Lane is 11.7. Kurt Busch qualified 24th when he won in the rain in June, too.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Who's got best shot at Chase?

With all the talk of Kyle Busch's run from physical therapy to the top 30 in points, it obscured the drivers who are trying to get into the mix for the Chase themselves.
Four wins for Busch in seven weeks certainly can't be ignored, but I'm on the lookout for those who are in desperation mode with only four races to run until the top 16 start the Chase to the 2015 Sprint Cup.
Right now, there are five spots open for those with the big doughnut in the win column. Busch is in the Chase, but he's only six points to the good. As we discussed here after the 18 made the field with a runner-up run at Watkins Glen, things can change in a heartbeat.
Busch was 43rd at Michigan in June, but won at Indianapolis with the new high-drag rules package in the cars. With the package set to go for the 2-mile oval in the Irish Hills west of Detroit -- more air ducts are being mandated to counter the heat issues drivers had to deal with previously -- we're officially in go mode.
And since Busch isn't in the most secure position for the Chase, it only adds to the tension for the non-winners making their runs.
Here's a look at the group in positions 12 through 16 who would fill the field via the current standings:
-Jamie McMurray (23 points ahead of 16th): Has only one top-5 run at Michigan, but finished seventh when they raced there in June. Since then, his best finish has been 11th at Sonoma and was 40th at the Glen. Definitely the wrong time to slump, and he may be secretly looking to put a hex on Busch so he slips back out of the top 30 by Richmond.
Hey, a driver can dream.
-Denny Hamlin (+19): Was 11th in the rain at Michigan and followed up with top-5 runs in three of four races (third at Daytona and Kentucky, fifth at Indianapolis), but has finished 22nd and 27th in the last two weeks.
Hamlin does have two wins at Michigan, but an average finish of 22.1 since the June race in 2011.
-Paul Menard (+10): A serious longshot to make the Chase on a win. The Richard Childress Racing driver has led one lap all year, and that makes Ryan Newman's run from last year look like Richard Petty.
Just to clarify that point: Newman led 41 laps, yet missed the championship by a half-second.
Menard was eighth at Michigan in June, but hasn't been in the top 10 since.
-Jeff Gordon (+8): The four-time champ has been shut out of the win column only three times, but it would be depressing if he missed the Chase in his final season.
Gordon has four top 10s in the last six weeks, but the two that weren't were a 42nd at Indy and 41st last week at Watkins Glen. He is the defending champ of this weekend's race.
-Ryan Newman (+1): As discussed previously, Newman isn't a master of leading laps, and you need them if you want to be in Victory Lane. This year's total: 19, none since Kentucky.
Newman's last win was at the 2013 Brickyard 400. He led 45 laps that day and hasn't come remotely close to that number since.
-Clint Bowyer (the man on the bubble): As long as no non-winner sees Victory Lane in the next four weeks, he'll be fine.
Bowyer has rebounded with three straight top 10s since a 34th at Loudon. With Carl Edwards already in the win column, his next closest challenger for that last Chase spot is Aric Almirola, but he's 50 points behind.
Almirola isn't alone in the fight to get into the Chase. Anyone inside the top 30 not named Kyle Busch can change their fate by getting to Victory Lane at Michigan, Bristol, Darlington or Richmond.
Once the field is set, it's all about surviving and advancing. Time to bring it on.
Tom Zulewski has covered many forms of motor sports in his 18-year career in journalism. Followers and comments are welcome on Twitter @Tomzsports.

Monday, August 10, 2015

NASCAR loses true "giant" with Baker's passing

When it came to Buddy Baker, my biggest recollection of him came through his hosting duties on "Late Shift" and "Tradin' Paint" on SiriusXM's NASCAR Radio channel.
Oh, sure...he was a great racer in his day, but as I got word of his passing from lung cancer today at age 74, Buddy was so much more to everyone he met.
His nickname was a huge part of who he was -- the "gentle giant." At 6-foot-6 (hey, that's how tall I am, so I relate well), the moniker fit mainly off the track.
On the track, he was more of a raging bull not to be messed with.
Baker had exactly 700 starts in a Winston Cup career that lasted from 1959 to 1992. He won 19 times, including the 1980 Daytona 500. In some of the more memorable words from Baker brought out on the feeling, he initially seemed to have a hard time processing the moment.
Once it sunk in, though, he let out a yell from his Oldsmobile that could probably be heard from the track to Jacksonville.
Heck, I think Buddy Baker was Dale Earnhardt before Earnhardt was Earnhardt. Baker won the 500 on his 16th try, and even more incredible, it was only the second time he finished a 500 on the lead lap.

But that's how Baker was behind the wheel. Mash the pedal to the floor, and if the parts and pieces held out, that made the finish all the better.
In a sport where racers push themselves to the edge for the sake of perfect speed, Baker was at peace when he announced he was leaving SiriusXM on July 7. Little did we know that one day short of five weeks later, Baker would pass away from the disease.
They say only God knows when it's time to go. In Baker's case, it was almost as fast as a lap around Daytona.
True to Baker's attitude, sadness for his passing wasn't an option.
"Do not shed a tear. Give me a smile when you say my name," Baker was quoted as saying on "Late Shift" on the night of July 7.
When you leave this world having done all you possibly could, it gave Baker a peace we all can strive for.
Rest in peace, Gentle Giant. May heaven give you free track access for life.
Tom Zulewski welcomes comments and new Twitter followers @Tomzsports.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Logano rules the Glen, Busch hits top 30

For the second straight week, Joey Logano found himself in the middle of a fuel-mileage battle on the road course at Watkins Glen International. Unlike last week, where he ran out of gas while leading, Logano was the beneficiary when the driver he was chasing saw his fuel cell expire before the finish line.
When Kevin Harvick couldn’t get through the final two turns of the final lap at speed, Logano drove by him and earned his second win of the season in the Cheez-It 355 as well as first for Penske Racing on the 2.45-mile track in the Finger Lakes region of western New York.
Logano’s win set a new standard at the Glen as he started from 16th. It ranked as the second-deepest starting position only to Steve Park, who qualified 18th before winning the Global Crossing at the Glen in 2000.
Logano became the seventh different driver with multiple wins in 2015 – the Daytona 500 was the other win for the 22 – but that wasn’t the full story of the race. With Kyle Busch coming home second, he officially arrived in the top 30 in points and would now be eligible for the Chase.
Notice we said “would” here, and it’s with good reason. Busch may have completed NASCAR’s last requirement to join the field that will run for the 2015 Sprint Cup championship, but there are two big problems still to overcome.
First, Busch is in 30th place, but only six points in front of Cole Whitt. That’s far from a secure margin with only four races left to run. He gained 19 points with his effort Sunday.
Second, the series hits Michigan International Speedway this weekend for the Pure Michigan 400. When they last raced there in June, Busch crashed after only 52 laps and finished 43rd.
If there’s one screw-up between now and Richmond on Sept. 12, Busch will be right back where he started from, on the outside looking in. There are no more mulligans left.
And don’t think for a moment the five drivers with zeroes in the win column who would fill out the Chase field if it started today – Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman and Clint Bowyer – aren’t going to go after checkered flags themselves.
Should we get a non-winner or two in the next four race weeks, it will only add to the pressure for Busch to keep pace. Last year, only three non-winners made the Chase field and one – Newman – came within a half-second of winning the title.
With Busch’s arrival in the top 30, it bumped Aric Almirola off the Chase grid. Anything can, and probably will, happen between now and Richmond, so stay tuned.
-The XFINITY race from Watkins Glen had some interesting emotion at the finish. While Logano got his weekend off to a fine start with a win at the Zippo 200, there were fireworks afterwards as Regan Smith confronted Ty Dillon for an on-track incident that pushed him down to a 20th-place finish after he qualified 8th.
When asked about what happened by MRN Radio's Steve Post, Smith said three simple words. 
"He dumped me."
Then Smith got into what amounted to only a shoving match combined with a few angry stares. Dillon ended up fifth and sits tied for second in the standings with Chase Elliott while Smith slipped to 33 points behind the pair.
That's how much a difference one incident can make. With the series running on road courses in the next two races, it's going to be interesting to see when payback comes.
-As for Park City's Michael Self, his second XFINITY race had nearly the same fate as the first. Self qualified 21st, but lost his transmission after only 33 of the 82 laps. He finished 37th.
Tom Zulewski welcomes new followers and comments on Twitter @Tomzsports.
Michigan International Speedway (2-mile superspeedway), Brooklyn, Michigan
-SPRINT CUP: Pure Michigan 400, Sunday, 2:30 p.m. ET/11:30 a.m. PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 400 miles, 200 laps.
2014 champion: Jeff Gordon
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Careers for Veterans 200 presented by Cooper Standard and Brad Keselowski's Checkered Flag Foundation, Saturday, 1 p.m. ET/10 a.m. PT, Fox Sports 1. Radio SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 200 miles, 100 laps.
2014 champion: Johnny Sauter
-XFINITY SERIES: Nationwide Children's Hospital 200 at Mid-Ohio, Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course (2.4-mile road course), Lexington, Ohio, Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET/12:30 p.m. PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 216 miles, 90 laps.
2014 champion: Chris Buescher.

Friday, August 7, 2015

One year later, Stewart still struggling

When the Watkins Glen race weekend came into view in 2014, Tony Stewart's struggles were no great mystery. The three-time Sprint Cup champ was still trying to find his racing mojo after injuries from a Sprint Car accident cost him a major chunk of the 2013 season.

After the Zippo 200 was run, Stewart had something happen that likely brought his Sprint car racing days to a sad end.

It will be the one-year milestone tomorrow of the accident where Stewart struck and killed Kevin Ward Jr. at Canandaigua Motorsports Park. One of the lasting memories I had of that night was how I struggled getting to sleep mainly because social media offered every reaction under the sun over what happened.

Many of them thought Stewart's life should have been over. Call him a murderer, lock him up and throw away the key, cried the keyboard lynch mob. I wrote about it at this link.

Thankfully, those who would speak on the keyboard didn't have the final say.

A grand jury in Ontario County declined to press any criminal charges on Stewart. Life moved on, Smoke returned to the No. 14 three weeks after the tragedy at Atlanta, but he has not been -- and never will be -- the same since.

Emotionally, the sarcasm and fire is at a slow boil. Mentally, the focus comes and goes. Competitively, Stewart hasn't won since the May race at Dover in 2013.

And now he's got another wrench of emotional ugliness to deal with. In what can only be described in the court of public opinion as a shameless money grab, the family of Kevin Ward Jr. has filed a wrongful death civil suit against Stewart.

Specific dollar figures haven't been cited in the suit, but Ward's parents said this in a statement published in USA Today:

“Our hope is that this lawsuit will hold Tony Stewart responsible for killing our son and show him there are real consequences when someone recklessly takes another person’s life.”

Within the link included above the quote, a copy of the 14-page lawsuit is presented. One thing is clear from reading it, at least in my opinion: the case is reopening old emotional wounds for everyone involved.

No one on either side has offered any sort of comment on the matter, but if I could offer the best piece of personal advice, it's simple.

Read about the case at your own risk, Stewart fan or not. Anything to do with winning or racing is secondary at this point until this lawsuit is resolved.

Tom Zulewski is passionate about racing and has written and talked about it through an 18-year journalism career. He welcomes comments and new Twitter followers @Tomzsports.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Random goodness from the Glen

With Sunday's Cheez-It 355 at the Glen fast approaching, it's that time of the week again. Here are some nuggets of news and other assorted bits of knowledge to help you get ready.

-Hard to believe, but it was at this track one year ago where Tony Stewart's life was basically turned upside down after he struck Kevin Ward in a Sprint car accident at Canandaigua, N.Y. Ward passed away from his injuries.
Stewart hasn't been the same since he returned to the race track. No wins, confidence that comes and goes. It's a rough thing to watch.
But there's a tiny bit of hope starting to emerge of Stewart's potential return to his old self. He's qualified well in back-to-back efforts and finished ninth at Pocono last weekend. It will be his first full race back at the Glen since last year's accident - he qualified, but stepped out of the car after the Ward incident - and all eyes will be on Stewart to see how ready he is to race there.
Stewart has finished outside the top 10 only four times in 14 career starts at the Glen. Even with the likely distractions, a win there will put him back in his happy place once and for all.

-For racing on NASCAR's last road course of 2015, it's almost imperative to qualify toward the front. Since Robby Gordon won from 14th in 2003, only one driver has won from outside the top 10. Stewart came from 13th to Victory Lane in 2009.
None of the other winners in the last 12 Glen races have started worse than seventh.

-The last pole winner to win at the Glen was Kyle Busch in 2008. He's also the last driver who swept both road course races (Sonoma) in a Sprint Cup season.

-In three of Tony Stewart's five wins at Watkins Glen (2004, 2005, 2007), qualifying was rained out. Rain isn't in the forecast for Saturday when qualifying happens, but there's a 40 percent chance of the wet stuff Sunday.
For the first time, though, NASCAR is planning to run a Cup race on rain tires should the need arise. That's going to be interesting to watch.

-Kyle Busch update: Even with a 21st-place out-of-gas run at Pocono, Busch is only 13 points behind in the race to get to the top 30 and guarantee a Chase spot.
He was fortunate to be up front when his fuel cell ran dry, but there's no room for error now with only five races to go until the cutoff. Any finish in the high 20s or worse between now and Richmond (Busch was 43rd after wrecking at Michigan in June) will be bad news.

-Unlike at Sonoma, where Busch broke a streak of 10 different race winners there in June, Watkins Glen seems to reward the winning feeling often. Stewart won four of six races at one stretch between 2004 and 2009, and Marcos Ambrose went back-to-back in 2011 and 2012.

Plenty of intrigue awaits this weekend. Save me a seat for all the madness.

Tom Zulewski has been writing about racing throughout his 18-year career in journalism. He thanks you for reading this blog and invites all followers to offer opinion and follow on Twitter @Tomzsports.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Fuel-mileage gambles backfire at Pocono

When it comes to NASCAR racing at any of the three national series, discussion of fuel mileage makes most people who don’t have an engineering background cringe.
They’ll cry that watching the cars go around a race track for an extended period of time gets boring after awhile, or “it’s just cars turning left and going around in circles all day.”
Those who saw the Windows 10 400 on Sunday afternoon at Pocono Raceway and believe in the power of logical thinking got a tension-filled finish as the race leaders tried to travel the final 92.5 miles (37 laps on the 2.5-mile triangle track) on a single tank of gas.
Something that should be noted here: a typical tank in a NASCAR Sprint Cup car holds around 18.5 gallons of fuel and averages around 4.5 miles per gallon.
Joey Logano tried to make it. His tank on the No. 22 Ford ran dry with three laps left.
So that opened the door for Kyle Busch, who was only going for his fourth win in a row. He fell a very long straightaway short of the finish line before his fuel cell expired.
Martin Truex Jr. was going for the season sweep of the Pocono races. He never got to the front as his tank burned the last drops of gas before the white-flag lap.
Matt Kenseth, who had never won at Pocono before, let alone in a fuel-mileage fight to the finish, captured the best of both worlds and picked up his second victory of the season.
In the big picture that is the final run to the Chase, Busch’s fuel-mileage gamble didn’t put him into the top 30 in points, but it didn’t push him two steps backward, either. With only five more races to run before the Chase field gets locked down, Busch actually gained some ground, but still needs 13 more points to meet the last condition and get into the run for the title.
In the final finishing order, Truex Jr. was 19th, Logano 20th and Busch 21st. From racing for the win, that’s how badly any gamble on fuel mileage can hurt.
For those who were a little more prudent on fuel – the final 63 laps were run under green – the rewards were great. In addition to Kenseth, who finished a comfortable nine seconds ahead of Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Greg Biffle completed one of the more unlikely top-5 runs they’ve had in a long while.
Biffle sat 14th in the running order with 10 laps to go, Gordon was 16th and Dale Jr. was 17th. For Biffle, it was just his second top-5 run of the entire year and first since a runner-up to Carl Edwards at the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte in May.
That’s how fast things can change. One driver’s heartbreak is another one’s nirvana, or so the saying goes.
For Kyle Busch, though, Sunday’s disappointment is only a minor bump in the road. As the series hits the road course at Watkins Glen next weekend, Busch already has two wins there (2008, 2013) and an average finish of 11.3 in 10 career starts.
He’s also the last driver to sweep the road course races (Sonoma), having done the double in 2008.
As the final five races to the Chase unfold, keep your eyes open the rest of the way. You just never know where the next roll of the automotive dice will lead.
-Among the cooler developments of the race weekend, Saturday's XFINITY Series race was nothing short of awesome, especially for how the win unfolded.
Ryan Blaney should have won last week at Indianapolis, but made one measly mistake that was just enough for Kyle Busch to slide by him on the final lap and get the victory. With Busch and the rest of the Cup regulars staying away, Blaney didn't have it easy in the stretch run at Rusty Wallace's 7/8-mile oval.
The 22 had to survive four restarts over the final 24 laps, but Blaney held off a charging Brendan Gaughan early and Regan Smith late to earn his first win of 2015. Blaney led 252 laps -- two more than the original advertised race distance -- and it was just barely good enough.
Let that effort be a lesson to all of us. If you make mistakes, you get back up, dust yourself off, and come back better than you were before.
One other note to update everyone on, since the Utah papers did not do so: Michael Self, who makes his home in Park City, made his XFINITY debut at Iowa on Saturday night. After qualifying 19th, he was running really well and staying on the lead lap in the 01 for Nebraska Transport Company in a Chevrolet, but made contact with the wall at lap 145 and ended up 32nd.
Tom Zulewski has covered multiple forms of auto racing in his 18 years as a sports journalist. Readers from wherever they are in the world can join the merry band of Twitter followers @Tomzsports.
Watkins Glen International (2.45-mile road course), Watkins Glen, N.Y.
SPRINT CUP: Cheez-It 355 at the Glen, Sunday, 2 p.m. ET/11 a.m. PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 355 kilometers (220.5 miles), 90 laps
2014 champion: A.J. Allmendinger
XFINITY SERIES: Zippo 200 at the Glen, Saturday, 3 p.m. ET/Noon PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 200.9 miles, 82 laps.
2014 champion: Marcos Ambrose.
CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Off until Aug. 15 for the Careers for Veterans 200 Presented By Cooper Standard and Brad Keselowski's Checkered Flag Foundation at Michigan International Speedway.