Sunday, October 25, 2015

Logano sweeps Contender races amid controversy

As the 500 unfolded Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, there were more than enough good storylines to get and keep fan interest.

We knew four more drivers would see their Sprint Cup title dreams come crashing to an end. We knew the so-called Big One could happen at any time with all of the inches-apart, three- and four-wide pack racing that happens on NASCAR’s biggest track that measures 2.66 miles around.
At first, there was the serious prospect that the 188-lap race would be run completely caution-free, but that thought was dashed when Justin Allgaier lost his engine at lap 132. When the only other yellow flag flew, all insanity broke loose.
And Halloween is still a few days away. Then again, what followed in the closing laps was crazy and chaotic all by itself.
That is, before defending champion Kevin Harvick got involved.
The race’s second caution came out at lap 185 when Jamie McMurray lost his engine and forced a green-white-checkered finish, the only attempt NASCAR would allow. As USA Today motor sports writer Jeff Gluck wrote, the finish became “simply a colossal embarrassment.”
It all started when, on the first restart attempt, an 11-car group at the middle of the pack got tangled before the leaders crossed the starting line.
On the second try at the first restart, Harvick, who had an engine that was basically on its last legs, turned into Trevor Bayne and caused a wreck that handed the victory to Logano over Dale Earnhardt Jr., completing a sweep of the three Contender round races.
At a track where son and his late father combined for 16 wins, including Junior’s most recent one in May, the fans in attendance were none too pleased – along with several drivers – at the end result.
With the field frozen at the point of the wreck, Harvick finished 15th to keep his chances to repeat alive. Harvick finished six points ahead of Ryan Newman, who was eliminated at Talladega along with Kenseth, Dale Jr. and Denny Hamlin.
Kenseth, Hamlin, and Bayne did plenty to express their disgust at the outcome.
“What a joke we have a car with no motor wreck the field to end the race,” Hamlin tweeted afterward. “Complete crap. Sorry to anyone who spent $ coming to this circus.”
Kenseth doesn’t do Twitter, but he had plenty to say about Harvick’s intent.
“He clipped him and caused a wreck because he knew he’d make the (next round of the) Chase that way,” Kenseth said in the USA Today story.
The winner of five races in 2015 told USA Today’s Mike Hembree the closing laps “wasn’t really racing to be honest with you. It was just a bunch of games going on.”
Bayne added his thoughts this way: “That’s a crappy way for Harvick to have to get in the Chase, is to wreck somebody -- what I believe to be on purpose.”
NASCAR didn’t think so, at least not yet, following a video review by officials.
“We don’t see anything there that is suspect so far,” NASCAR vice chairman Mike Helton said.
Enter those fantastic key words: So far. Could there be more to come on this? Will any new evidence come to light that restores some happy vibes to a race that turned memorable for nothing but ugly reasons?
As the Chase heads to the final round over the next three weeks at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix, only fortune tellers may know for sure.
Followers and comments welcome on Twitter @Tomzsports.
Martinsville Speedway (.526-mile oval), Martinsville, Virginia
-SPRINT CUP: Goody's Headache Relief Shot 500 powered by Kroger, Sunday, 1:15 p.m. ET/10:15 a.m. PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 500 laps, 263 miles.
2014 champion: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Kroger 200, 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: 200 laps, 105.2 miles.
2014 champion: Darrell Wallace Jr.
-XFINITY SERIES: Off until Nov. 7 for the O'Reilly Auto Parts Challenge at Texas Motor Speedway.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Logano takes out Kenseth, wins at Kansas

He didn’t have anything to lose after his win last week at Charlotte, but Joey Logano wasn’t about to lie down for anyone as he raced for another victory in the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway on Sunday.
Matt Kenseth, in desperate search of anything resembling a shred of momentum and title-chasing hopes, found out what that meant in the closing laps around the 1.5-mile oval.

Logano pulled off the bump-and-run on Kenseth with five laps to go to take the lead and held on in a green-white-checkered finish to pick up his second straight win and give the remaining drivers in the Contender round of the Chase plenty to think about with the next elimination on deck Oct. 25 at Talladega Superspeedway.
The proof is clearly in the points. After Logano, only seven more drivers will keep championship hope alive, and second through 10th place is separated by a total of 20 points.
That will make Talladega – already an unpredictable wild-card when the Chase isn’t involved – a viewing and racing experience that will border on downright insane.
With Kansas in the rear-view mirror, Martin Truex Jr. would be the last driver to advance to the Eliminator round of the Chase. He has a six-point cushion on Kyle Busch and is eight points ahead of Ryan Newman.
And on the flip side of the coin, Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. may want to get advice from Kevin Harvick on how to win when their backs are clearly against the wall.
Kenseth may have gone from leading 153 of the 267 laps to finishing a decent 14th, but it wasn’t nearly good enough to counter last week’s 42nd-place showing at Charlotte. He’s in 12th, 35 points behind Truex Jr.
Directly in front of Kenseth sits Dale Jr. at 31 points behind the cutoff. He may have won the GEICO 500 at Talladega in May, but there’s no amount of looking at past film that can be done to figure out a way to win again. This race, the 500, is all about keeping the car in one piece and making moves toward the front at the right times. Those who do will continue on in the Chase, while the rest will be left to lament what might have been.
For those who love drag racing, the NHRA Toyota Nationals is on deck Oct. 29 to Nov. 1 at the Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. It’s the penultimate stop of the season to determine the 2015 champions in the four professional classes – Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock car and Pro Stock motorcycle.
After the weekend’s action finished up at Texas Motorplex outside of Dallas, three champions could potentially be crowned in two weeks. In Top Fuel, Antron Brown enjoys a 132-point cushion over Tony Schumacher and in Pro Stock, defending champion Erica Enders-Stevens leads Greg Anderson by 154.
Enders-Stevens is not only closing in on another championship, she has ruled the day at Las Vegas with three straight event victories and an 18-round winning streak. At 20 points per round win to go with additional bonuses for qualifying position and setting new track records, don’t be surprised if Enders-Stevens exits Las Vegas with her second golden Wally championship trophy.
Brown may have the inside track on his second title in the last four seasons (2012), but Schumacher has a history of stealing thunder in shocking fashion as his eight championships in the category, including 2014, will attest.
Funny Car and Pro Stock Motorcycle will have title fights that go down to the wire when the series hits the season finale at Pomona, Calif. on Nov. 12. Del Worsham, who won at Las Vegas last fall, also won at Texas over Jack Beckman in the final and increased his lead to 38 points.
In PSM, Andrew Hines probably breathed a sigh of relief after teammate Eddie Krawiec lost to Jerry Savoie in the final round at Texas. The end result means Hines, in search of a second straight championship, kept a 21-point lead heading to Las Vegas.
Jason Line (2012 in Pro Stock) and John Force (2013 in Funny Car) have won NHRA championship Wally trophies in the Countdown era at Las Vegas. If the current battles are any indication, it’s worth making the trek south in two weeks to see who may be next.
Followers and comments welcome on Twitter @Tomzsports.
Talladega Superspeedway (2.66-mile D-shaped oval), Talladega, Ala.
-SPRINT CUP: 500, 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: 500 miles, 188 laps
2014 champion: Brad Keselowski
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Fred's 250 presented by Coca-Cola, Saturday, 1 p.m. ET/10 a.m. PT, Fox. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 250 miles, 94 laps.
2014 champion: Timothy Peters.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Logano seizes day at Charlotte, advances in Chase

After all the rain that hit the area Saturday night, I got ready for the first day race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in a very long time with one big expectation.
When the crew has to throw out all previous plans for the car and start over, all bets are off as to who has the best car. A completely different condition -- night to day...literally -- brought that feeling to the forefront of everyone's consciousness.

Joey Logano and his crew got the adjustments right and dominated the field to win the Bank of America 500 on Sunday afternoon to become the first to get the free pass to the Eliminator round, better known as the Elite Eight.
Logano and his crew were certainly elite in winning for the first time at Charlotte. The No. 22 was so good, Logano led 227 of the 334 laps. Only two other drivers led laps in double figures.
Matt Kenseth started from the pole and led 72 laps, but couldn't figure out how to avoid Ryan Newman and ended up 42nd. Sam Hornish Jr. led 22 laps, but most were during green-flag pit stop cycles as he finished 17th.
Knowing another four drivers will be denied their shot at the 2015 Sprint Cup title after Talladega in two weeks, Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were none too pleased about their problems at Charlotte.
And it all involved oil on the high side of the track.
Busch (via Twitter): "You now, can’t pass anybody – single-lane race track and then you put oil on the top lane to try to make anything happen and then you put yourself in the fence, so thanks to NASCAR for cleaning that up, but just every single year it keeps going the same way.”
Busch finished 20th.
Dale Jr. backed up Busch's claims as strongly as he could, cleaned up a bit for publication:?
"We hit fluid and flew into the freakin' wall hard. That's not speed dry. I hit the wall, I know I hit oil.
"We all hit the wall. There was oil down there. It wasn't speedy dry. I've raced this (stuff) for 20-some years I know what oil is"
It's only one race, but at the same time, the pressure of trying to not only get through Talladega with the car in one piece in addition to quite possibly needing a victory to keep championship hope alive kicks up the pressure to the boiling point.
That is, for everyone except Logano. He can enjoy the racing experience at NASCAR's biggest, baddest track, even if his No. 22 Ford Fusion whacks a wall along the way.
That's the beauty of the Chase, though. One bad day can get turned around in a heartbeat, as Kevin Harvick certainly knows.
And as the Chase field dwindles to a precious few, winning will matter that much more over the next six weeks.
Followers and comments welcome on Twitter @Tomzsports. He'll have discussion this week on the upcoming NHRA Toyota Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Kansas Speedway (1.5-mile D-shaped oval), Kansas City, Kansas
-SPRINT CUP: Hollywood Casino 400, Sunday, 2:15 p.m. ET/11:15 a.m. PT, NBC. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN affiliate.
Race distance: 400.5 miles, 267 laps.
2014 champion: Joey Logano
-XFINITY SERIES: Kansas Lottery 300, Saturday, 4 p.m. ET/1 p.m. PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN affiliate.
Race distance: 300 miles, 200 laps.
2014 champion: Kyle Busch
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Off until Oct. 24 for the Fred's 250 powered by Coca-Cola at Talladega Superspeedway.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Kenseth wins Charlotte pole, JGR strong again

As the Contender round of the Chase begins, qualifying happened Thursday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway for the final Saturday night race of the season, the Bank of America 500.
Once again, the Joe Gibbs cars were all strong and will start up front, led by Matt Kenseth on the pole. Kyle Busch -- who still hasn't won a Chase race since his rookie year in 2005 -- joins him onthe front row, Denny Hamlin starts fifth and Carl Edwards goes off from eighth.
Among the other notables in the 12 who are still alive for the Sprint Cup title, Jeff Gordon has the toughest challenge as he will start 22nd. Race winners don't come from outside the top 10 very often at Charlotte, but Brad Keselowski won the fall race at CMS from 23rd two years ago.
In fact, four of the last 10 winners have started from 15th or worse, so it really can happen. Just don't put any money down on it.
Your link to the full field for the Bank of America 500 can be found here. Thank you for checking in.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Random thoughts on the Contenders

As we hit the mid-week lull in the land of gear boxes and post-race inspections that are shown for the whole world to see online, I can't help but wonder how good this round of the Chase will be. Kevin Harvick is master of this domain, as was showcased at Dover on Sunday.
Harvick may have done his post-race burnout a little too excessively (said only by those who couldn't catch him in the race), but he did what he absolutely had to do to keep his vision of repeating alive.
With Charlotte, Kansas and Talladega on deck, here are a few more random musings on the chances of the Contender 12.
-Harvick: With his win at Dover -- after going 0-for-29 previously -- the title is his to lose. It will not matter if he's on the outside looking in when we get to Talladega.
-Matt Kenseth: Joined teammate Denny Hamlin as the other race winners of the Challenger round. Was fourth at Charlotte, sixth at Kansas and 25th at Talladega the first time around. Started on pole at CMS. With Talladega being such a terrible crap shoot to begin with, it's not a stretch to say a win in the next two races will take the heat off.
-Denny Hamlin: Was eighth at Charlotte, ninth at Talladega, but 41st at Kansas. As long as he gets things figured out at Kansas, he'll be fine. A win may not be necessary for him to advance.
-Carl Edwards: Had his 400th career start to open the Chase at Chicago, finished second to Hamlin. Won at Charlotte, but was 20th at Kansas and 32nd at Talladega. Any sort of a repeat on Round 2 is most definitely not an option.
-Kyle Busch: For all the hype of his four wins and getting into the Chase despite missing nearly half of the regular season, Busch nearly fell flat on his face. Somehow, he was able to advance with a runner-up finish at Dover. The final margin: One point...and it was complicated by Harvick's victory.
Busch's races in Round 1: 9th, 37th, second.
The first time at the tracks in Round 2: Only an 11th-place run at Charlotte, which was his first points race after the injury. In Busch's career, he's won exactly one Chase race, and that was all the way back in his rookie year at Phoenix in 2005.
Winning may be the only option that gets him through to the Eliminator round.
-Kurt Busch: Was third, 19th and 17th in Round 1, which was good enough -- by two points -- to get him to the next round.
In the first pass at the Round 2 Chase tracks, Busch was 10th, eighth and 12th. As long as he's somewhere in the neighborhood this time, it'll get him through for an Eliminator shot.
-Joey Logano: Average finish in Challenger round was 6.3. Average at Contender tracks the first time through: 17th. Highlight was a 33rd at Talladega.
No matter how good Logano and teammate Brad Keselowski have been so far, NASCAR's biggest, baddest track will be a nightmare without a trip to Victory Lane before then.
Logano's average finish in the last 10 races (since Indianapolis) is 5.9, though, so it could be a wash.
-Martin Truex Jr.: Finishing order in Round 1 (Chicago, Loudon, Dover): 13th, 8th, 11th. Had issues with pre-race inspection at Dover that forced him to back of field, made a great rally to get through to Round 2.
He was solid at Contender tracks the first time around with two fifths (Charlotte, Talladega) sandwiched around a ninth at Kansas. As long as he stays out of trouble, a win will be a needed boost that carries Truex into the Eliminator round.
-Jeff Gordon: Still has a zero in the win column and 92 for his career, but the drive for a fifth championship is still very much alive. Was 14th, seventh and 12th in Round 1.
Like several of his fellow Chasers, Gordon had problems at Talladega in May and finished 31st. A win may be the only thing that gets him through.
-Brad Keselowski: Had decent, if not tremendous, first round of Chase, finishing eighth, 12th and 16th. Continuing the earlier theme, BK finished 22nd at Talladega the first time around.
Unless he has a win by then, look for the title dreams to end in this round.
-Ryan Newman: Still hasn't won a race since the 2013 Brickyard 400, but is still quietly very much in contention for another shot at the title.
Newman's Round 1 finishes: fourth, 10th and 19th. It got him through to the Contender round by a single point.
And here's more to give Newman Nation a little more hope: He was sixth, 10th and 7th at the Round 2 tracks the first time around.
Those who think a winless champion will happen need look no further than how Ryan Newman is performing. It's all about how you finish.
-Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Because Harvick won at Dover, Junior Nation didn't have to sweat. By virtue of his two wins, the 88 knocked out Jamie McMurray by winning a tiebreaker and moved on to Round 2 of the Chase.
Junior's Dover finish (3rd) basically saved him after runs of 12th at Chicago and 25th at Loudon. The 88 was solid at the next three Chase tracks the first time around with two thirds and a win at Talladega. All duplication at this point is most welcome.
And my picks for the next four to see their title dreams end: Truex Jr., Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch.
If I'm wrong, I'm wrong. I never claimed to be Nostradamus, and the way this Chase works is a big reason why.
Followers and comments are welcome on Twitter @Tomzsports.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Townley shocks world with truck win at Vegas

John Wes Townley had heard the critics. He didn’t lead laps very often, if at all, and fans gave him the derisive nickname “John Wrecks Weekly” for his alleged propensity for crashing at strange times.
In his fourth full-time year and his 87th career start overall in the Camping World Truck Series,

Townley was finally able to silence the negative vibes for good by winning the Rhino Linings 350 on Saturday night at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
When two-time defending series champion Matt Crafton was forced to pit for fuel with six laps to go in the 146-lap race, Townley made his fuel last just long enough as he beat runner-up Timothy Peters by 3.842 seconds. It was the 25-year-old Georgia native’s first career victory in the series and only his fourth top-5 finish.
“When I saw Crafton run out of fuel, I remember thinking this was my race to lose,” said Townley, who led the most laps (23) in any race of his career. “I was really, really trying to be conservative, and I don’t think I would have been able to be conservative if it hadn’t been for my spotter (Terry Cook). It was the hardest five laps of my life.”
Crafton, who had three runner-up and two third-place finishes among his previous seven trips to Las Vegas, took the lead at lap 101, but his fuel window fell short as he finished eighth. It was the beginning of a chaotic sequence in a fuel-mileage fight to the finish as points leader Erik Jones and Canadian Cameron Hayley (10th) also saw their fuel tanks run dry in the closing laps.
Jones finished behind Crafton in ninth and saw his lead shrink to four points with five races remaining in the 2015 season. Tyler Reddick, who won the season-opening race at Daytona and followed up with one at Dover in May, finished seventh and is 16 points behind the leaders.
In addition to his first win, Townley also had the best qualifying effort of his career at Las Vegas, joining Crafton on the outside of the front row with a speed of 175.758 mph around the 1.5-mile oval. Crew chief Mike Shelton said the fuel was good to the end for Townley as long as the race didn’t extend beyond the scheduled distance.
“We were a half-lap to the good on fuel,” Shelton said. “We were hearing the 88 (Crafton) and 13 (Hayley) were talking about pitting, and I didn’t know if they were serious or not. We kept the pressure on the 88, and once we heard he was pitting, we backed it down as a precautionary measure.”
Once Townley took the checkered flag, he was able to do a victory burnout near the fence at the start-finish line. It was an appropriate moment that gave him a sense of relief in addition to the elation.
“Looking back, there were a lot of hardships I had to overcome, hurdles I had to jump over,” Townley said. “It was building myself back up, and it was really tough at times. I’m so glad I stuck with it because it’s definitely been worth it.”
Townley said he’ll be running the XFINITY Series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Oct. 10 for Athenian Motorsports before returning to his 05 Zaxby’s Chevrolet truck at Talladega on Oct. 24.
After Peters, his Red Horse Racing teammate Ben Kennedy finished third. John Hunter Nemechek and Brandon Jones completed the top five.
The race had only three cautions for 19 laps, and the final 94 laps were run under green. … Austin Theriault suffered a compression fracture in his lower back after hitting the wall head-on in Turn 4 in a lap 15 wreck involving teammate Tyler Reddick. Theriault had to be airlifted to University Medical Center in Las Vegas for observation.
On the Cup side of the ledger, you just had a feeling something was going to give Sunday at Dover. With the first eliminations on the line at the AAA 400, Kevin Harvick was one of the four who knew a win would be a holy grail moment to preserve his chances of repeating as Sprint Cup champion.
For the third straight elimination round, Harvick got it done. After a dominating performance where he led 355 of the 400 laps, Harvick did exactly what he needed to do.
Just win, baby. It certainly kept hope alive and gave sponsor Outback Steakhouse another Monday of giving away free Bloomin' Onion appetizers with a meal purchase.
Last year at Phoenix, Harvick needed a win to advance. Done. 
At Homestead, he needed a win to win the title. Mission accomplished.
After going 0-for-29 in his previous trips to the Monster Mile, Harvick basically beat Miles at his own game and got to put him in his trophy case as a result.
Let's give credit where it's due, though. Harvick was runner-up to Jimmie Johnson at the May race, so the timing of this win couldn't have been more perfect.
While Harvick's win got him to the next round, it provided an added impact to those on the Chase bubble. Since Jamie McMurray and Dale Earnhardt Jr. ended up tied for the last transfer spot to the Contender round, the tie had to be settled.
The first tiebreaker is wins, and Earnhardt Jr. has two to none for McMurray. Because Harvick won, McMurray is eliminated.
The same thing would have happened if any of the other drivers who were outside the bubble -- Paul Menard, Clint Bowyer or Kyle Busch -- had won Sunday.
Busch managed to advance on points with his runner-up finish to Harvick, but just barely. The margin was exactly one point better than Dale Jr., who finished behind Busch in third. The one point came from Busch having led 19 laps at Dover.
But the clear shocker of the eliminations came as Jimmie Johnson finished 41st in his 500th career start. The reason wasn't so much for an accident on the track as it was for a simple parts failure.
When a rear axle seal broke early in the AAA 400, Johnson's chances for a title went away with it. By the time his crew completed the necessary repairs, Johnson was 37 laps down and couldn't recover.
Such are the highs and lows of NASCAR's playoff system. Even when you think everything's in working order, you always have to stay on guard against anything that could go wrong.
When championship dreams are at stake, one misstep could easily lead to major disappointment. One bold leap forward toward the front of the pack could lead to championship immortality.
Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @Tomzsports.
Charlotte Motor Speedway (1.5-mile D-shaped oval), Concord, N.C.
-SPRINT CUP: Bank of America 500, Saturday, 7 p.m. ET/4 p.m. PT, NBC. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local PRN affiliate.
Race distance: 501 miles, 334 laps.
2014 champion: Kevin Harvick
-XFINITY SERIES: Drive for the Cure 300 presented by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, Friday, 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local PRN affiliate.
Race distance: 300 miles, 200 laps.
2014 champion: Brad Keselowski.
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Off until Oct. 24 for the Fred's 250 presented by Coca-Cola at Talladega Superspeedway.