Monday, November 23, 2015

Busch wins crown, Gordon exits with class

An era ended in NASCAR racing Nov. 22. Jeff Gordon, the man of 93 Sprint Cup victories, four titles, and a whole lot of moments that helped the sport blow up in stature nationwide, was among the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
A fifth title was out there for the taking. All Gordon had to do was finish ahead of his three challengers – regardless of where they were in the running order – and close his career with the perfect ending.
Kyle Busch crashed the party and rewrote the script.
Despite missing nearly one-third of the season – 11 of the 36 races – Busch came through and won both the Ford EcoBoost 400 and his first NASCAR Sprint Cup crown. Adding to the history, it was the first Sprint Cup championship for Toyota Racing.
Oh, where to begin to figure out what it all means.
Gordon ended up sixth in his final race of a 22-year career, third among the final four that mattered behind Busch and Kevin Harvick. As he exited the No. 24 Axalta Chevrolet for the final time, there were plenty of hugs and smiles to go around.
Harvick was going for a championship repeat himself, but had no chance of catching Busch on the final restart with seven laps to go. That’s how good the 18 car was when it counted.
As for the fourth contender, Martin Truex Jr. gave it his all, but didn’t have nearly enough to challenge. He led some laps, but finished 12th in the final running order at Homestead.
So through all the controversy, all the craziness, and all the questions, how Busch pulled the feat off was nothing short of remarkable.
 First and most important, Busch had to heal from his nasty injury in the season-opening XFINITY race at Daytona. There was doubt about when he could return from broken bones in his leg and ankle for the longest time.
The rules for his return were simple and very fair. Win a race AND have enough points to get into the top 30 to qualify for the Chase.
Busch was back in time for the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway to kick the comeback in motion. Five races later, he met the first requirement, winning on the road course at Sonoma Raceway.
That was the easy part. Picking up enough points was to be much harder.
Funny how more winning helped accelerate the charge to the goal.
Busch’s win at Sonoma started a run of four victories in five weeks. He still didn’t have enough points to get in the top 30, but it certainly helped.
After his seventh-place run at Darlington, Busch was officially in the Chase.
In Year 2 of the 16-driver elimination format, I was genuinely skeptical about Busch’s Chase history, especially because he hadn’t won a race in the final 10 weeks of any season since his rookie year of 2005.
But it didn’t matter.
Other than a 37th at Loudon, Busch came through with finishes that mattered at the perfect times. His runs in the Eliminator round of Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix: fifth, fourth and fourth.
On the final Sunday of a crazy NASCAR season, Busch won when it counted and he has his own Sprint Cup trophy. With Kurt Busch’s title in 2004, Kyle cemented the second pair of brothers in NASCAR history as season champions, joining Terry (1984, 1996) and Bobby Labonte (2000).
Maybe being a new father made him mellower, but Busch’s performance in 2015 proved one thing. Staying focused on the journey and avoiding distractions makes the final destination that much sweeter.

Tom Zulewski will be writing one more column from Las Vegas at the Champion’s Week celebration to honor Kyle Busch on Dec. 4. Follow him on Twitter @Tomzsports.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Ford EcoBoost 400 race lineup

Happy race weekend, everyone. Nothing much to say here except the link for the starting order for Sunday's Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway can be found here. Starting positions for the Championship 4: 3rd, 5th, 11th and 13th. Check the link to see who will be where.

Now comes the hard part...saying a few prayers that we get a full 267 laps in. It would be the worst feeling ever if the season champion under the Chase bubble is decided by one race that didn't go the full distance.
Yes, it would be awful, but the rule is there. As long as the race goes halfway (134 laps in this case), it becomes official. But if NASCAR remembers how Daytona went down in July (the race didn't finish until almost 3 a.m. at the track), the fans are owed at least that much for all the chaos and craziness of the last four weeks.
I'll talk more about it once the weekend wraps up, but congratulations to Erik Jones for winning the Camping World Truck Series title at 19 years old. Props to Matt Crafton as well for winning his sixth race of 2015 despite being eliminated from a chance at the three-peat last week at Phoenix.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Random thoughts and notes heading to Homestead

In the five months since this blog was born, I've focused mostly on the racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series. As much as I wanted to avoid information overload, there are three different championships set to be decided starting Friday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

First up, as always, is the Camping World Truck Series Ford EcoBoost 200 (8 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1). Matt Crafton took himself out of the chase for a three-peat with a 23rd-place finish at Phoenix, his second bad run in four weeks (24th at Talladega). As a result, a five-win season will fall short of the big prize.
That means the race for the title is down to Erik Jones and Tyler Reddick, who fall short of Crafton in age combined (both drivers are 19, Crafton is 39), but not in experience. Jones has three wins on the season (Iowa, Canadian Tire, Texas 2), while Reddick has two (Daytona, Dover). It will take a pretty big collapse for Jones to surrender the crown as he enjoys a 19-point lead on Reddick heading to Friday night.
As long as Jones doesn't mess up and keeps his finish out of the 20s, he'll be the champ. Reddick has some seriously long odds. After finishing 23rd at Gateway 14 races ago, Jones has been in the top 10 ever since.
That's called getting it done.
On the XFINITY side Saturday for the Ford EcoBoost 300 (2:45 p.m. ET, NBC), the situation is similar for points leader Chris Buescher. All he has to do is stay clean and he'll unseat defending champion Chase Elliott.
Right now, Buescher's margin over Elliott is 18 points. The native Texan has two wins on the year (Iowa 1, Dover 1) and hasn't finished worse than 20th (Richmond 1) all season. Like Reddick, Elliott's odds of claiming his second series crown before heading to Jeff Gordon's No. 24 car at Hendrick Motorsports are very long.
Over the last 10 XFINITY races (Road America), Elliott's average finish is 8.5. That's impressive, but in the same stretch, Buescher's average is 7.4. For a Roush Fenway Racing camp that's been struggling on the Sprint Cup side for a couple of years, the effort by Buescher is a big-time feather in the cap and provides some hope for the future.
And on the NHRA side, the remaining series champions were crowned last weekend in Pomona, Calif. Del Worsham held off Jack Beckman to win the Funny Car title, and Andrew Hines grabbed the crown in Pro Stock Motorcycle.
Worsham's feat was historic in that he became only the third driver to win titles in both Funny Car and Top Fuel (Kenny Bernstein, Gary Scelzi). Worsham won the Top Fuel crown in 2011.
Hines clinched his crown by reaching the semifinals before teammate Eddie Krawiec beat him. Krawiec went on to beat Matt Smith in the final and win the event.
Followers and comments welcome on Twitter @Tomzsports.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Rain finalizes Championship Four

After trying for more than nine hours to finish the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 at Phoenix International Raceway on Sunday night, the rain ended up cutting the 312-lap race short and giving the victory to Dale Earnhardt Jr.
More importantly, the three drivers who will join Jeff Gordon and race for the 2015 Sprint Cup title next weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway were set. Joy was abundant in several camps, disappointment was strong in others.

Even though Mother Nature had the final say after 219 laps were completed on the 1-mile oval at Phoenix, the story lines for the championship battle in South Florida are already in abundance.
The biggest one of all belongs to Gordon. Stuck on four championships since 2001, the California-born driver, who came in sixth Sunday, was heading toward the twilight of a 22-year career looking like he’d finish with 92 career wins.
Then came Martinsville and Matt Kenseth’s knockout of Joey Logano. Gordon ended up being the unlikely beneficiary of the on-track feud and earned his chance at a fifth crown by winning the Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 two weeks ago.
Gordon’s 93rd checkered flag closed the books on an amazing career stat. The driver of the No. 24 for Hendrick Motorsports had only three winless seasons – his rookie year of 1993, 2008 and 2010. He won at Homestead in 2012.
Kevin Harvick had been invincible at Phoenix with four wins in a row, but the rain derailed his bid for another victory despite leading 143 of the 219 laps. His runner-up finish was good enough to keep his dream of repeating as champion alive as he topped the points for the Eliminator round.
When Harvick won his title a year ago, he won at Homestead. As long as he finishes ahead of his challengers, no matter where it is, he’ll hold the big trophy again.
The third driver in the Championship 4 took the most amazing road of them all. Kyle Busch was on the shelf for the first 11 races of the season, but met all of the requirements to get in the Chase, winning four times.
Busch still hasn’t won a Chase race since his rookie year of 2005, but that doesn’t matter now. He was steady throughout the three rounds and is on the edge of matching big brother Kurt with a Sprint Cup trophy.
Other than a 37th-place finish at New Hampshire, Busch was in the top 10 in six of eight Chase races, including fourth at Phoenix to finish two points behind Harvick. He has three top-10 finishes at Homestead in 10 career starts, but the average of the rest is 30.2.
The last member of the quartet that will run for the title is Martin Truex Jr., who is the lone driver of the little team that could, Furniture Row Racing out of Denver. Truex won at Pocono in June to make the Chase and advanced to Homestead by doing all necessary rain dances and beating out Carl Edwards by just five points for the last transfer spot.
Truex was consistent throughout each Chase round, with his worst run a 15th at Kansas.
As his longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex said on her Twitter account (@SherryPollex), it’s the stuff dreams are made of.
And big dreams are knocking on the door. One 267-lap race is left and has one goal. Finish ahead of your challengers, call yourself a Sprint Cup champion.
Followers and comments welcome on Twitter @Tomzsports.
Homestead-Miami Speedway (1.5-mile superspeedway), Homestead, Florida.
-SPRINT CUP: Ford EcoBoost 400, Sunday, 3 p.m. ET/Noon PT, NBC. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 400.5 miles, 267 laps.
2014 champion: Kevin Harvick
-XFINITY SERIES: Ford EcoBoost 300, Saturday, 2:45 p.m. ET/11:45 a.m. PT, NBC. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 300 miles, 200 laps
2014 champion: Matt Kenseth
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Ford EcoBoost 200, Friday, 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT, Fox Sports 1. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 201 miles, 134 laps.
2014 champion: Darrell Wallace Jr.
We'll take a look at the fight for the XFINITY and Camping World Truck Series titles in the next two posts, so be on the lookout.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Johnson keeps up roll, on point at Phoenix

As we get ready for the penultimate race of the 2015 NASCAR season, the black flag award goes to my local newspaper again. Upon opening today's sports section, there was no race lineup to be found anywhere.
And the sad part is there are only two races left to run. A champion is going to be crowned next weekend at Homestead.
For the race fan in all of us, a checkered flag goes to Jimmie Johnson for following up his run of success from last week at Texas with a pole run for the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 at Phoenix International/Jeff Gordon Raceway.
While Johnson looks for another win, those players looking to join Gordon to run for the title at Homestead all have good starting positions.
-Kurt Busch is in must-win mode. He'll start with Johnson on the outside front row.
-Carl Edwards is only seven points behind Martin Truex Jr., who holds the last transfer spot to Homestead. He'll start fourth Sunday.
-Truex Jr. is basically in control of his own destiny, which is a good feeling to have. He starts fifth at Phoenix.
-After missing out on a win last week at Texas despite leading nearly all the laps, Brad Keselowski is also in serious must-win mode. The Miller Lite Ford Fusion goes off from 18th on Sunday.
-Kevin Harvick is also in control of his fate and has the resume at Phoenix to come in with extreme confidence. He'll be looking for his fifth straight win at PIR and sixth in the last seven trips from the No. 8 starting spot.
-Kyle Busch still hasn't won a Chase race since 2005, but he's the clubhouse leader for Homestead as they head to Sunday. The No. 18 M&Ms Crispy Toyota starts 10th at Phoenix.
-And then there's Joey Logano, who's gone from one extreme to the other. After getting taken out by Matt Kenseth at Martinsville, bad karma bit him in the backside after a blown tire led to a 40th-place finish at Texas. Logano starts 14th at Phoenix and absolutely needs to win to get to Homestead.
Here's a link with how all 43 cars will line up for the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 on Sunday

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Johnson wins at Texas, shakes up Chase

After all the chaos from a crazy week of NASCAR discussion, from so-called “driver codes” to debate over Matt Kenseth’s two-race suspension, Sunday finally arrived and a key race happened at Texas Motor Speedway.
Brad Keselowski looked like he’d be a lock to join Jeff Gordon in the championship four at Homestead-Miami Speedway, leading 312 of 334 laps in the AAA Texas 500. There was one small problem at the end, though.

Jimmie Johnson made sure Keselowski didn’t lead the last one.
Johnson bided his time after a restart, survived several block attempts, and took the lead from Keselowski with four laps to go to win at Texas, his 75th Sprint Cup victory. The effects were felt far and wide for Keselowski, who now finds himself on the outside looking in instead of getting ready to race at Homestead for his second championship in four seasons.
Keselowski is 19 points behind Martin Truex Jr., who holds the last coveted transfer spot to be in the Championship 4. His Penske Racing teammate, Joey Logano – the man who initiated all the hubbub and discussion after getting wrecked by Kenseth at Martinsville last week – had a far worse day, blowing out a left-rear tire nine laps in, wrecking and finishing 40th.
With only next week’s race at Phoenix left to settle the quartet who will run for the championship, the mission is crystal-clear for Keselowski and Logano.
Win on the 1-mile oval in the desert or watch title aspirations disappear. And the odds of either one getting it at Phoenix are long, mainly because Kevin Harvick has won four in a row and five of the last six there.
As I sifted through the radio chatter, social media ranting, and general white noise over the Logano vs. Kenseth incident, two very large thoughts popped into my head.
First, there were still 47 laps left at Martinsville when Logano’s No. 22 car was deposited into the Turn 4 wall by Kenseth. Logano had led 207 laps up to that point, but Jeff Gordon had a strong car that was better on longer runs.
It was far from a lock that Logano would have gotten to Victory Lane if Kenseth didn’t get to him first, which he did.
Second, NASCAR’s punishment of Kenseth wasn’t surprising, yet left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. Logano took out Kenseth as both drivers were racing for a win at Kansas, and Kenseth was none too pleased, calling the 25-year-old a “liar” when Logano was quoted as saying he didn’t wreck him on purpose.
NASCAR chairman Brian France weighed in and said he didn’t see any problems with that incident, calling it “quintessential NASCAR” on the “SiriusXM Speedway” show the day after it happened.
Fast forward to Kenseth’s revenge, and the reactions from the big bosses did a flip-flop of sorts, depending on which side of the fence the fans felt was theirs to take.
But there was one major difference in Kenseth’s approach at Martinsville. He was nowhere near in contention for a victory, so NASCAR had no real choice but to hand down the punishment it did.
Kenseth had a right to feel the way he did after what happened at Kansas. He went from a realistic shot at a victory – something NASCAR put a premium on with the revised version of the Chase – to getting eliminated from contention at Talladega the following week.
But his takeout of Logano at Martinsville stepped far over the line of competition and moved into the “eye-for-an-eye” category.
You take me out? That’s fine. But I’ll make darn sure you don’t get a title shot yourself, no matter where I’m at in the running order.
Consequences be damned, I guess.
With Logano’s misfortune at Texas, it was the final capper to one of the sadder stories in recent NASCAR history. The sport has been losing fans at the track and on television, and wild-west style justice incidents haven’t helped.
It’s about time someone took a stand for sanity. Let’s hope history doesn’t repeat like this ever again.
Followers and comments welcome on Twitter @Tomzsports.
Phoenix International Raceway (1-mile oval), Avondale, Arizona.
-SPRINT CUP: Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500, Sunday, 2:30 p.m. ET/11:30 a.m. PT, NBC. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 500 kilometers (312 miles), 312 laps.
2014 champion: Kevin Harvick
-XFINITY SERIES: DAV 200, Saturday, 4 p.m. ET/1 p.m. PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 200 miles, 200 laps.
2014 champion: Brad Keselowski
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Lucas Oil 150, Friday, 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: 150 miles, 150 laps.
2014 champion: Erik Jones
Side note on the NCWTS race: Jones has his championship fate firmly in his own hands. He leads two-time defending champion Matt Crafton by 17 points and Tyler Reddick by 21 heading to Phoenix.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Keselowski on Texas pole, Logano near front

After all the hype and discussion from the controversy surrounding the dust-up between Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth at Martinsville last week, we can thankfully return our thoughts to racing.
And when the dust finally settled, Logano looks like he's clearly moved on. He's qualified fourth for Sunday's AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, and Penske Racing teammate Brad Keselowski is on the pole.
As for last week's winner (read: beneficiary of the Logano-Kenseth feud), Jeff Gordon starts 18th.
Here is your race lineup in full. Will Logano win? Even with the difficulty from last week, I think this is his best shot. As long as he wins, the fussing and fighting among NASCAR Nation will probably continue.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Kenseth suspension worth the effort?

We had to wait a bit longer than normal for NASCAR's penalty police to hand down the punishment for Matt Kenseth after his blatant, deliberate wreck of race leader Joey Logano on Sunday at Martinsville Speedway.
The verdict is in, and Kenseth has been sent to the sidelines for the next two races. No Texas. No Phoenix. A definite disruption in the force of what had been a pretty special playoff format that's leaving more questions behind with every incident, on-track or off.
It isn't hard to figure out why it happened. Three weeks ago at Kansas, Logano turned Kenseth sideways in the closing laps and won the race. Kenseth didn't advance after the Contender round and was seething over what happened.
Kenseth called Logano a "liar" at one point over description of the Kansas incident. On Sunday, the 2003 champion got his revenge.
But what was the real cost? According to the rules, Logano still has two more shots to advance to the four-driver championship fight at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He'll probably need a win at Texas or Phoenix, but he was going for four in a row before Kenseth got to him and took him for a ride into the wall at NASCAR's shortest track.
What's to stop Logano from getting right back on the bump and getting to Victory Lane again? Only one person -- Joey himself.
Some of my media brethren have written and discussed how NASCAR is starting to blur the dividing line between sport and entertainment. Kyle Petty called the Kenseth-Logano incident "a black eye" for the sport.
It was a punch that certainly wobbled the character a bit, but the fans are talking about it. Many vow to never return to buying tickets or watching the races on TV, but they certainly know how to vent on social media.
And there are just as many, if not more, who would give Kenseth a pat on the back in appreciation if they could. Yes, NASCAR had to hand down some sort of punishment over what happened. It would have been absolutely insane if they let him off with a fine and no suspension.
Unlike at Kansas, Kenseth was multiple laps down at Martinsville after getting tangled with Brad Keselowski, Logano's teammate. He had intent to take out Logano and did so. Justice served, racer style.
Here's one last thought. If "boys have at it" is the operating mantra for NASCAR, drivers need to quit complaining when incidents like the ones at Martinsville happen.
It may be the "wild, wild West," as Denny Hamlin described, but it beats the alternative.
If Logano can win either of the next two races and get his title shot again at Homestead, it will only prove one thing. Tough times don't last. Tough racers always do, and Logano can fit that bill perfectly in the days to come.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

A crazy day in motor sports

As I sit waiting for the NHRA Toyota Nationals to run the final rounds of the four pro classes at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the emotions ride all of the extremes, from celebration to confusion to occasional bouts of irritation.
The celebration is the easy part. For the first time in NHRA's Countdown era, Las Vegas has crowned two champions a full race early. If there's one word to describe what Erica Enders-Stevens has done, the choice is easy.

Simply amazing. Oh, wait...that's two words, but a lot more superlatives would be just as appropriate.
When fans of straight-line racing talk about the greats of the NHRA, Shirley Muldowney is one of the first women who come to mind. She won three Top Fuel titles in 1977, 1980 and 1982.
Even better and a bit more recent, Angelle Sampey ruled Pro Stock Motorcycle three straight years, from 2000 to 2002.
What Enders-Stevens has done takes special to another level.
When she broke through for her first Pro Stock car title last year, the 32-year-old Texan had to sit out two races during the Western Swing as her race team had difficulty securing sponsorship. In spite of that, she somehow found a way to get past Jason Line at the Pomona final and grab the Golden Wally trophy.
As she told me at the pre-race press lunch in Las Vegas on Thursday, finding sponsorship is still a challenge, but a full season at Elite Motorsports with multiple teammates has made a difference. Enders-Stevens has nine event wins on the season and has absolutely demoralized the competition at Las Vegas with four straight event wins to go with 22 round wins in a row.
When your season is only 24 races long, that's called serious world domination.
NASCAR's only big deal among female racers is Danica Patrick. She's a marketer's dream, but hasn't produced much in the way of winning on the track. Jennifer Jo Cobb hasn't gone much beyond the Camping World Truck Series and hasn't won, either.
But the NHRA has multiple ladies who've been successful in addition to Enders-Stevens, who has 21 career victories. Alexis DeJoria has three Funny Car career wins, Courtney Force has eight wins and some famous family in father and 16-time champion John Force, while sister Brittany has been to six final rounds in her budding career.
Living proof that when it comes to drag racing, the girl power is far greater.
And to put a bow on the madness, Jeff Gordon won't be shut out of the win column in his final season after all. It came with help from the Matt Kenseth-Joey Logano feud that officially reached the boiling point.
With 47 laps to go in the Goody's Headache Relief Shot 500 at Martinsville Speedway, Kenseth -- driving a car that was far from competitive -- ran down Logano and ran him into the wall, effectively ruining his day and a free pass for the 22 into the final at Homestead in three weeks.
But while the social media universe has thrown out every bit of ugliness known to man, there's one fact that can't be ignored. Unless NASCAR parks Kenseth for next week's race at Texas, the battle is far from over. It's become personal instead of professional, and that's a shame.
Followers and comments are welcome on Twitter @Tomzsports.
Texas Motor Speedway (1.5-mile D-shaped oval), Fort Worth, Texas
-SPRINT CUP: AAA Texas 500, Sunday, 2 p.m  ET/11 a.m. PT, NBC. Radio: SiriusXM channel 90 or your local PRN affiliate.
Race distance: 501 miles, 334 laps
2014 champion: Jimmie Johnson
-XFINITY SERIES: O'Reilly Auto Parts Challenge, 3:30 p.m. ET/12:30 p.m. PT, NBC. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local PRN affiliate.
Race distance: 300 miles, 200 laps
2014 champion: Kyle Busch
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Winstar World Casino 350, Friday, 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: 350 kilometers (219 miles), 146 laps.
2014 champion: Kyle Busch