Monday, November 14, 2016

And then there were 4...the Championship 4

With all apologies to the superhero bunch, the way NASCAR got its Fantastic Four after this weekend's racing at Phoenix International Raceway was certainly surprising.

In no particular order, here are a few thoughts on the whole darn thing...

-You just had to sit and shake your head over Matt Kenseth's misfortune. Here he was, a lap and a few 100 yards away from earning his spot to race for the title. Then Michael McDowell's tire decided to give out.

Once they restarted, Kenseth got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time when he tried to go to the low side as Alex Bowman -- Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s substitute driver in the No. 88 -- tried to grab the spot.

The end result: Kenseth spun and hopes for a shot at a second championship went out with his tattered No. 20 Toyota Camry.

When all was said and done after 12 extra laps, Joey Logano survived the second overtime round and took the checkered flag by just over a half-second in front of Kyle Busch. With his finish, Busch claimed the last spot in the foursome that will run for the title.

The final margin was six points better than teammate Denny Hamlin, who finished seventh and led four laps.

So after all the hype and worry for the non-fans, Joe Gibbs Racing managed to get two cars in the Championship 4. Busch gets to defend his title and Carl Edwards -- thanks to his win at Texas last week -- gets to make a bid to purge the nightmare of the 2011 title hunt from his soul.

There won't be any ties this time around. Finish in front of your challengers, hold the big trophy.

-Let's face facts here: We're all pretty much thankful that Cup driver participation will be limited in the XFINITY Series next season. After what happened for the inaugural Chase, it's easy to understand why.

For the fourth time in the six Chase races, a Cup regular won. For the 10th time in his 17 starts (half the schedule), Kyle Busch ended up in Victory Lane at the Ticket Galaxy 200.

It was Busch's third win in the last four races he's entered, and it was dominating as usual. He led 190 of the 200 laps at Phoenix and finished the year with 2,052 laps led out of a possible 2,995.

That's 69 percent of the total, folks. Is it any wonder why his presence was so reviled by the skeptics? Personally, it's hard to stomach a race when someone is so off-the-charts dominant.

Not quite like the days when the race winner won by laps, but it's pretty close.

Rant aside, the Championship Four for Homestead will be Elliott Sadler, Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones and Justin Allgaier. The group finished with nine of the 11 victories earned by series regulars. The other two were by part-timers in Justin Marks (Mid-Ohio) and Sam Hornish Jr. (Iowa 1).

With Allgaier in the mix for the title, we could very well finish with a champion that didn't win a race for the year. The odds are long, but it will leave a bad mark on the series if it happens.

-The Camping World Truck Series has drivers from four different race teams who will run for the title Friday night at Homestead. Johnny Sauter (GMS Racing), Matt Crafton (ThorSport), Christopher Bell (Kyle Busch Motorsports) and Timothy Peters (Red Horse Racing) are the ones who made it through the inaugural Chase for NASCAR's No. 3 series.

On the surface, Sauter could easily be pegged as the favorite following back-to-back wins at Martinsville and Texas. He added a runner-up effort at Phoenix, so serious momentum is on his side.

Matt Crafton -- Sauter's former teammate at ThorSport -- already has two truck titles on his resume and would move into second place on the all-time series list behind Ron Hornaday's four if he beats his challengers at Homestead.

Crafton was runner-up to Sauter at Texas and finished third at Phoenix. As he looks for title No. 3, it's not about racing for points now.

Christopher Bell kept KBM in the title hunt and made up for the loss of teammate and pre-Chase favorite William Byron. Byron's Chase hopes went up in smoke when he lost an engine and finished 27th at Phoenix.

And like the XFINITY Series, we could crown a champ who didn't win a race. Peters finished with four top-5s in the six Chase races, so that will serve him and Red Horse Racing well.

Will the champion be required to take the checkered flag to win the title? It's a mystery that will be fun to explore this weekend, particularly on the XFINITY and Truck side. Unknowns are good, but holding great big trophies will be much better.

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

THIS WEEK'S RACES
Homestead-Miami Speedway (1.5-mile D-shaped oval), Homestead, Florida.
-SPRINT CUP: Ford EcoBoost 400, Sunday, 2:30 p.m. ET/11:30 a.m. PT, NBC. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 400.5 miles, 267 laps.
2015 champion: Kyle Busch.
-XFINITY SERIES: Ford EcoBoost 300, 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: 300 miles, 200 laps.
2015 champion: Kyle Larson
-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.
2015 champion: Matt Crafton.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Edwards has shot at erasing bad memory

We all knew the drill. Fans of Carl Edwards knew it all too well.

In one of the best NASCAR Sprint Cup title fights ever witnessed, Edwards and Tony Stewart couldn't have been any closer as the season finale happened at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 20, 2011.

When they left Phoenix, Edwards had a three-point lead over Stewart. It was hanging by a thread, and Carl needed one more performance to hold the Sprint Cup championship trophy.
As things turned out, we got...a tie.

Wait. Ties happen, but you have to break them. So when all was said and done, Stewart's five Chase wins netted him his third championship. Edwards? He only had one.

And now, five years later to the very day, Edwards gets another shot, and it will be much different this time around.

With his win at the multi-hour rain-delayed AAA Texas 500 that finished 41 laps short of the full distance, Edwards has his chance to erase the sadness, the disappointment of his battle with Tony Stewart ending in a tie.

Unlike 2011, Edwards will have three drivers to worry about. Jimmie Johnson is already in, and two more will be joining them in the race for the 2016 Sprint Cup title.

Five years ago, there were mind games. Stewart said he wasn't worthy of being in the Chase when it began, but he went out and won the first two, then closed with three wins in the last four.

The duel between Smoke and Edwards was off the charts in competitive goodness. Here's how they finished in the final three weeks:
-Texas: Stewart won, Edwards second.
-Phoenix: Edwards second, Stewart third (Tony won extra bonus point for leading the most laps).
-Homestead: Stewart won, Edwards second. Stewart gets tiebreaker to crown him as champion.
Stewart will watch from his driver's seat as he races for the final time in the No. 14 for his own Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet. And it won't be complicated.

Just win, baby. That, or keep the other challengers behind you.

We have documented here that both Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch won at Homestead to claim the Sprint Cup as their own in this system of the Chase. Winning mattered in 2011, and it matters even more now.

But who will join Johnson and Edwards as the other members of the third Championship Four at Homestead? You'd think Harvick would find a way to get in with how much he's owned Phoenix of late -- six wins in the last eight trips with 994 laps led in the last five.

All good streaks must end sometime, but Harvick isn't one for following scripts. That's why he'll be dangerous.

And if we grouped the final four for Homestead right now, the battle is tighter than a car that won't turn anywhere at any track without serious steering wheel abuse.
With Johnson already locked in to Homestead, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch would be the last two who would race for the crown. Lurking around the next curve and eating at their rear bumpers, Matt Kenseth is one point behind and Denny Hamlin is two points back.

And all that talk about Joe Gibbs Racing making Homestead their own championship battle ground would be as shocking as what happened to Hillary Clinton last night.
Past performance is no guarantee for future results.

-On the XFINITY side, the Saturday night race at Phoenix will be one worth watching because it's anyone's guess who's worthy of the Championship Four.
Daniel Suarez, Elliot Sadler, Erik Jones and Blake Koch are in at the moment, but Justin Allgaier is within a point of Koch and Ryan Reed is only five points behind.

A win by a series regular will change everything, but we haven't had one since Suarez at Dover three weeks ago. Thank goodness for the rule changes that will limit Cup drivers' presence in these races starting next season.

-For the Camping World Truck Series, Johnny Sauter has come into this round of the inaugural Chase and stolen all of William Byron's thunder. Byron is still out in front, but the separation from him to Timothy Peters -- who is on the outside looking in -- is exactly five points.

Between Byron, Christopher Bell, Matt Crafton and Peters, it's conceivable any one of them could see their title dreams denied after Phoenix on Friday night.

Let's go racing, folks. The boogity is happening all on its own.

Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @TommyZee81 or @Tomzsports. Email him at tominator19@yahoo.com.

THIS WEEK'S RACES
Phoenix International Raceway (1-mile oval), Avondale, Arizona.
-SPRINT CUP: Can-Am 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.
2015 champion: Kyle Busch
-XFINITY SERIES: Ticket Galaxy 200, Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET/4:30 p.m. PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 200 miles, 200 laps.
2015 champion: Kyle Busch
-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.
2015 champion: Timothy Peters

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Mr. Johnson heads to Homestead

After two years of wondering what's wrong with Jimmie Johnson, we can safely say he's finally got this new Chase thing pretty much down pat.
At a track he's basically dominated in the past, Johnson grabbed another dose of Martinsville Speedway magic and earned his ninth career win Sunday in the Goody's Fast Relief 500 at the paper clip. Another grandfather clock -- the standard trophy the track awards to the race winner -- is nice, but a shot at his seventh championship likely has the driver of the No. 48 a little more excited this week.
Johnson can use the upcoming races at Texas and Phoenix to get himself mentally ready for the mission at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Unlike in years past, where he basically had to stay out of trouble and get a decent-enough finish to claim the checkered flag trophy, Johnson actually has to -- wait for it -- race hard come Nov. 20.
He'll only have three other drivers to worry about, but finishing ahead of them is the only way to guarantee he'll be alongside Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty with the most championships in NASCAR history.
The 41-year-old from El Cajon, Calif., now has 79 career wins, only four behind Cale Yarborough for sixth on the all-time list and five behind Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison. Elite company, indeed.
In his 15 full-time seasons in Sprint Cup, the fewest wins Johnson has had is two (2011). With his win at Martinsville, this is the third time the Hendrick Motorsports driver has had four checkered flags in a season (2005, 2014).
So how well will Jimmie really need to do at Homestead? He's finished ninth in each of the last three races there. Not bad, but both Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch won to make sure they secured the championship.
Johnson hasn't so much as led a lap at Homestead since 2012. Take it for what it's worth, but it's clearly go time this time around.
There are still two races left in the final round before the Championship 4, but Johnson has dealt a big blow to all four Joe Gibbs Racing cars in their Chase for the title. Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch finished third, fourth and fifth at Martinsville, but Joey Logano is lurking as another potential party spoiler after he finished ninth.
Then again, winning matters, and Carl Edwards -- even though he finished 36th after wrecking Sunday -- still has a shot.
He needs a win, but it's still a shot. Same goes for Harvick and Kurt Busch.
Edwards won at Texas in April. Harvick has won six of the last eight at Phoenix and led 994 laps in the last five trips there.
Strap yourself in for the last two races before we set the final four. Nothing is over until the guy in the flag stand says it is.
Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @TommyZee81 or @Tomzsports. Email him at tominator19@yahoo.com.
THIS WEEK'S RACES
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.
2015 champion: Jimmie Johnson
-XFINITY SERIES: O'Reilly Auto Parts Challenge, Saturday, 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.
2015 champion: Brad Keselowski
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Longhorn 350, Friday, 8:30 p.m. ET/5:30 p.m. PT, Fox Sports 1. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN affiliate.
Race distance; 350 kilometers (219 miles), 146 laps.
2015 champion: Erik Jones.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Cruz Pedregon's wild ride

As the first round of Funny Car eliminations unfolded in the NHRA Toyota Nationals at the Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday, Cruz Pedregon wasn’t really going anywhere. No chance at the championship, just going out and giving his best to win rounds.
Pedregon would have no idea what he was up against when he faced Robert Hight.
While Hight had issues of his own as he smoked the tires at the starting line, Pedregon’s Snap-on Tools car inexplicably decided to become airborne.
At about 300 feet, the car turned into a motorcycle and popped its entire front end into a “wheelie” position. Somehow, the back tires held on to the ground until after Pedregon crossed the finish line to earn the round win.
Pedregon was OK afterwards, but there were moments where his life certainly flashed before his eyes as the front end of his car lifted toward the Las Vegas sky.
“I was thinking two thoughts,” Pedregon said. “Maybe this is what it’s like to go to the other side … it’s quiet, it’s blue, it’s pretty, silent, peaceful, then I thought I might be doing a wheel stand right now.
“Then I was thinking I hope I don’t land pointed in the wrong direction.”
Fortunately, he didn’t. Pedregon landed straight and safely, but the wheelie bar broke on the car and he couldn’t continue in spite of winning the round.
NHRA rules don’t allow drivers to use backup cars if the primary one wrecks.
“I’m just happy I didn’t get into Robert’s lane and I’m sitting here talking about it,” Pedregon said. “As much as I love these cars and I love racing, they go fast and things can happen in a hurry.”
The total run in a Funny Car is four seconds and less. That’s lightning-quick time to react when things happen.
Afterwards, Pedregon walked along the return road to salute the fans and let him know he came out of the moment in one piece and still standing. They responded with a standing ovation.
“These cars are built right, but I wanted the fans to know I was OK,” Pedregon said. “The car stood longer than the Wright brothers first flew in the air. I had to think about what might happen for 600, 700 feet. Even though it was a few seconds, I was thinking ‘please, land right.’”
For those of us who witnessed it at the track, the moment was a thrill we’ll never forget.
Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @TommyZee81 or @Tomzsports. Email him at tominator19@yahoo.com.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Round of 8 set...where did the competition go?

The Sprint Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday was a typical Chase race -- Halloween theme not withstanding. We knew there would be four more drivers eliminated, and some of them ended up being serious surprises.
Brad Keselowski looked like he drove for all he was worth. The No. 2 led 90 of the 188 laps, but didn't count on the engine collapsing under the weight of the Chase and the expectations that come with it.
The car didn't perform, so BK's dreams of a second Sprint Cup went away with it. He finished 38th.
Martin Truex Jr. -- he of the on-fire mode with two wins in the first round (Chicago, Dover) -- never had a chance to advance when his engine quit at lap 41.
Any thought of contention vanished after that as Truex would finish 40th.
Such is life in the Chase. Some go all out, others just stay out and survive. All four Joe Gibbs Racing cars did what they had to do and moved one step closer to turning Homestead-Miami Speedway into their own backyard brawl.
Denny Hamlin was the best finisher at Talladega, and his third-place run was just barely good enough to grab the final transfer spot to the round of 8. He ended up tied with Austin Dillon (who finished ninth) and won out on the basis of his Talladega finish. Dillon's best of the second round was a sixth at Kansas, so his dreams are done,
Matt Kenseth had more than enough cushion to advance and did so in spite of finishing 28th on Sunday. He was 10 points ahead of Dillon and Hamlin.
Kyle Busch was even worse in 30th, but he was good enough to get by as well. His final margin came in at plus-6.
And Carl Edwards -- still without Twitter -- was sandwiched between his teammates in 29th. He was four points clear in the end and will continue his quest for the crown.
As things shook out, NASCAR did not penalize any of the JGR cars for the "100 percent effort" rule. Apparently, they did enough and earned their participation pass to the Round of 8.
-What in the world is Kevin Harvick thinking? Post-race pictures from Talladega appeared to show him going after teammate Kurt Busch following their runs Sunday. Harvick already had his win at Kansas to get him through to the next round, and Busch ended up fourth, good enough to finish second in the standings, one point behind Jimmie Johnson.
But apparently Harvick had an issue with a post-race bump Busch gave him on track. It carried over to pit road, and let's just say things will be interesting going forward.
Harvick and Busch are the only other multiple drivers for one team in the Round of 8. Joey Logano -- Sunday's race winner -- and Jimmie Johnson are on their own as they go after the title.
Onward and upward.
-As for the other race of the weekend at Talladega, the Camping World Truck Series had its first elimination of two drivers after the Fred's 250. There were no surprises.
Non-Chaser Grant Enfinger won the race, and Timothy Peters was the highest-finishing Chaser in third. Daniel Hemric and John Hunter Nemechek were in must-win mode, but didn't come close.
Hemric finished 11th whilie Nemechek lost an engine after just 13 laps and ended up dead last in 32nd.
William Byron was the only Chaser to win a race in the Round of 8 (New Hampshire), and he'll be joined by teammate Christopher Bell (Kyle Busch Motorsports), Peters, Ben Kennedy, Johnny Sauter and Matt Crafton.
Crafton already has two championships on his resume in the truck series, but he knows full well getting No. 3 in the bag will be a wholly different experience.
Will he need to win to advance to Homestead? It will be nice, but pushing too much onto the plate too soon can backfire.
Just ask Keselowski and Truex on the Cup side what that's like. It's certainly not pretty, but that's why this system works.
Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @TommyZee81 or @Tomzsports. Email tominator19@yahoo.com. He'll be heading to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the NHRA Toyota Nationals final eliminations this Sunday.
THIS WEEK'S RACES
Martinsville Speedway (.526-mile oval), Martinsville, Virginia.
-SPRINT CUP: Goody's Fast Relief 500, Sunday, 1 p.m. ET/10 a.m. PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 500 laps, 263 miles.
2015 champion: Jeff Gordon
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Alpha Energy Solutions 200, Saturday, 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
2015 champion: Matt Crafton
-XFINITY SERIES: Off until Nov. 5 for the O'Reilly Auto Parts Challenge at Texas Motor Speedway.

Monday, October 17, 2016

While we were away...

Yeah, it's been two weeks since something's been posted on this blog. Between my high-school class reunion and real-life, gotta-get-paid-somehow responsibility (such a concept...I know), I've been a total slacker around here for you, the race fan. That sucks.
Time to get the car out of the garage from its repairs and get back in the game. Here's what I missed.
On the Sprint Cup side of the ledger, the Round of 12 opened with Jimmie Johnson -- you remember him, right? Mr. Six-time Champ? -- winning at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the Bank of America 500, which became a daytime race due to the Hurricane Matthew rainout.
Johnson won for the 78th time in his career and earned his spot in the Round of 8 for the first time. In his quest to join Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt with title No. 7, the "new" Chase has been his undoing in the last two years.
In 2014, Johnson was 40th at Kansas, 17th at Charlotte, and 24th at Talladega and was gone in Round 2.
Last year, Johnson was gone after the opening round thanks to a 41st-place finish at Dover.
There are no worries now. So far, with the Chase halfway done, Johnson has been 12th, eighth, seventh, first at Charlotte (for the first time since the 2014 Coca-Cola 600) and fourth at Kansas.
Everything will start from zero at Martinsville next weekend, but there seems to be a sense that Johnson has finally gotten his Chase groove back. Be watchful of him the rest of the way.
Kevin Harvick is the second driver to join Johnson in the "semifinal" round of the Chase after he held on to win at Kansas.
In the weirdest of coincidence, both Johnson and Harvick qualified 11th and came away with victories. If it happens again Sunday at Talladega, we can say Halloween came a full week early because NASCAR's biggest track carries enough weirdness in it already.
Among those on the bubble, Joey Logano and Austin Dillon are in a flat-footed tie for the final transfer spot. Denny Hamlin is only six points behind and Brad Keselowski sits seven off the pace.
Will any of them break through and advance? I can honestly say I have no idea.
Logano, Hamlin and Keselowski all have wins at Talladega. If Dillon breaks through, the ghost of Dale Sr. will certainly rejoice.
And as for Chase Elliott, it's Victory Lane or bust. He's 25 points behind.
For the XFINITY Series, they're on a three-week break with the Chase field already down to the Round of 8.
The first two races had actual series regulars earn victories -- Elliott Sadler at Kentucky and Daniel Suarez at Dover -- but Cup regulars have won the last two since. Logano ruled Charlotte and Kyle Busch (yawn) dominated again at Kansas.
For the season, the owner of 85 wins in the No. 2 series has nine this season in 16 starts. Here are some more stats that have fans up in arms and thumbing their noses at Saturday races.
Busch has started from the pole in seven of the nine races he's won in 2016. He's led a mind-blowing 67 percent of the laps he's run -- 1,862 out of a possible 2,795.
In total, Sprint Cup regulars have won 19 of the 30 XFINITY races on the season.
While it's nice that no Cup regulars will be allowed to compete in the season finale at Homestead, NASCAR is taking a much harder look at how it can limit the number of XFINITY and Camping World Truck Series races they can compete in starting in 2017.
As NASCAR vice president Steve O'Donnell said on SiriusXM radio Monday, "We’ve heard the fans … They like seeing those drivers come up through the ranks and it’s our job to make sure that Xfinity is the name where names are made."
It's about time it's being addressed. O'Donnell added an announcement on any potential changes is still to come.
Kansas was the first race of the Round of 8 in the XFINITY Chase, and Sadler and Suarez are tied for the top spot. We'll talk about the rest of the field in greater depth after they run at Texas.
The Camping World Truck Series has been idle since Tyler Reddick denied BK Racing teammate Daniel Hemric and won at Las Vegas. Heading to Talladega, Hemric is in absolute must-win mode as he sits 15 points behind Johnny Sauter for the last transfer spot to the Round of 6.
John Hunter Nemechek is tied with Hemric, but the task isn't quite as daunting as it may seem. The distance to fourth-place Ben Kennedy is only 18 points, and it's 25 to second-place Christopher Bell.
The right moves will make all the difference. The wrong ones will lead to the end of a championship dream.
Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @TommyZee81 or @Tomzsports. Email tominator19@yahoo.com.
THIS WEEK'S RACES
Talladega Superspeedway (2.66-mile D-shaped oval), Talladega, Alabama
-SPRINT CUP: Alabama 500, Sunday, 2 p.m. ET/11 a.m. PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 500 miles, 188 laps.
2015 champion: Joey Logano
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Fred's 250 powered 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.
2015 champion: Timothy Peters.
-XFINITY SERIES: Off until Nov. 5 for the O'Reilly Auto Parts Challenge at Texas Motor Speedway.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Reddick rules roost, wins Trucks race at Vegas

It had been 16 months since 20-year-old Tyler Reddick found his way to Victory Lane in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. As the calendar turned to October at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, it took holding off a teammate with championship dreams to make sure the winning feeling could finally return.
Reddick led 70 laps and kept Brad Keselowski Racing teammate Daniel Hemric at bay to win the DC Solar 350 on the 1.5-mile oval, his first since Dover last May. Hemric, who was looking for a victory to push himself into the next round of the inaugural Chase, finished second, 1.4 seconds behind.
“We really didn’t qualify like I thought we were going to,” said Reddick, who started 16th and got to the front for the first time at Lap 33. “The wind was moving around quite a bit and gusting the wrong way for us. … It wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.”
Reddick lost the lead briefly to Cole Custer – another non-Chase driver – after the race’s third and final restart at Lap 99, but quickly regained it and stayed on the point for the final 44 laps. Crew chief Doug Randolph said the 1-2 showing for Reddick and Hemric was invaluable.
“It was a big boost for our organization,” Randolph said. “We haven’t gotten the finishes we’ve wanted all year, but both trucks have run very well and led laps. The wins and top-5s haven’t quite been there, but Tyler and his whole team just don’t give up.”
Reddick failed to qualify for the Chase, but it never showed as the No. 29 truck got a clutch effort from the pit crew that was fastest in the field throughout the night.
“The pit crew really shined tonight and got us good pit stops for track position,” Reddick said. “Even when they struggled, they bounced back. They knew they were going to do really good, had the confidence, and performed well.”
Between Reddick and Hemric, the pair combined to lead 108 of the 146 laps. With one race left before the first elimination happens at Talladega Superspeedway on Oct. 22, Hemric is tied with John Hunter Nemechek, 15 points behind Johnny Sauter, who holds the final transfer spot into the next Chase round.
Custer, Ben Kennedy and points leader William Byron – who won the opening race of the Chase at New Hampshire last week and has six victories on the season – completed the top five.
NOTES: Of the race’s three cautions, two were used as a result of the 20-minute caution clock expiring. The winner’s average speed was 143.163 mph. … Reddick came from the second-deepest starting position to win a Camping World Truck Series race at Las Vegas. Shane Hmiel started from 21st when he won in 2004. … Timothy Peters won the pole and Matt Crafton started outside on the front row after qualifying held earlier in the day as temperatures hit the low 90s. Crafton ended up eighth and Peters finished ninth. … Among the drivers in the Chase, Nemechek was the worst finisher in 16th.
Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @TommyZee81 or @Tomzsports. Email him at tominator19@yahoo.com.

Truex wins again, first four eliminated

After all the rain fell at Dover International Speedway over the course of the weekend, the first elimination race of the 2016 Chase had the look and feel of ... mystery.
With a green track, it didn't give off a clear advantage to one particular team, especially with limited practice time.
When the Sprint Cup race -- the Citizen Soldier 400 -- rolled around, Martin Truex Jr. sounded off loud and clear his championship aspirations.
Truex won for the second time in his career at his "home" track -- he calls Mayetta, N.J. home -- and won for the second time in the first round of the Chase.
The results speak volumes how the one-car team with the Joe Gibbs Racing technical alliance is planning on being a major factor.
In picking up his fourth win of the year (matching Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch at the top of the charts), Truex led 187 laps, including 106 of the final 114.
Chase time is definitely winning time, and Truex is getting pretty good at giving himself a chance as a title contender. Last year, he won at Pocono and stayed consistent to reach the Championship Four. As we head to Round 2 this week, who knows how many more races the 78 will win?
We're heading to Charlotte Motor Speedway, where Truex absolutely demoralized the rest of the field, leading 392 of the 400 laps to win the Coca-Cola 600. It's 100 miles less this time around, but there's no reason to think a repeat performance -- or something very close -- isn't in the cards again.
And with the third Chase race in the books, the first four who had title hopes saw them come to an end. We nearly had a stunning development along the way.
Kevin Harvick, who won the first elimination-style Chase in its debut two years ago, was nearly eliminated after Dover. He had early issues in the No. 4, went to the garage for repairs, and ended up 37th, 46 laps down. It was his second-worst finish of the season and third in the 30s since July (39th at Daytona 2 and 32nd at Watkins Glen, but both of those were with crashes).
When the brake dust finally settled, Harvick ended up as the 12th and last driver to advance to the second round. The final margin: One measly point in front of Tony Stewart, who was 13th at Dover. Crew chief Rodney Childers and the No. 4 team know it does matter how much you get in by, as long as you get in.
The feeling ended up even worse for Kyle Larson and the No. 42 Target Chevrolet team. He had the final transfer spot by five points heading to Sunday, but ended up two points outside after finishing 25th.
Jamie McMurray was done early at Dover as he lost an engine and finished 40th, while Chris Buescher went as expected, finishing 23rd as the fourth driver eliminated.
Among the surprise advancers was Austin Dillon, who started the day tied with McMurray but turned in an eighth-place finish at the Monster Mile to end up 11th for the round, 10 points in front of Harvick.
Now everything resets once more and the next cutoff at Talladega awaits.
-After being delayed to Sunday due to heavy rains, Daniel Suarez cruised to the victory at the XFINITY Drive Sober 200 at Dover, joining Elliott Sadler in the second round of the Chase.
Four drivers will be eliminated from the first Chase in NASCAR's No. 2 series, and it's anyone's guess who will hang on. From fourth-place Brendan Gaughan to 10th-place Erik Jones, the separation between seven drivers is exactly 15 points.
Heck, even Ryan Sieg has a realistic shot from 11th. He's only 10 points behind Brennan Poole, who has the last transfer spot at the moment.
Some will be desperate for a win, others will be in search of ways to survive and advance. That's why the Chase has been, and will always be, worth watching.
Tom Zulewski will post a separate entry on the Camping World Truck Series race from Las Vegas later today. Follow him on Twitter @Tomzsports or @TommyZee81 and email tominator19@yahoo.com.
NEXT WEEK'S RACES
Charlotte Motor Speedway (1.5-mile D-shaped oval), Concord, North Carolina.
-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.
2015 champion: Joey Logano
-XFINITY SERIES: Drive for the Cure 300, 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.
2015 champion: Austin Dillon.
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Off until Oct. 22 for the Fred's 250 powered by Coca-Cola at Talladega Superspeedway.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Harvick rules Loudon, takes pressure off

He needed to work some magic at Dover a year ago to get to the second round of the Chase, but Kevin Harvick won't have to worry this time around.
Harvick didn't lead a lot of laps at the Magic Mile, but he held on and held off Matt Kenseth to win the Bad Boy Off Road 300 on Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and earn his ticket into the second round of the Chase.
After a 20th-place finish at Chicagoland Speedway in last week's Chase opener, Harvick made sure there wouldn't be a repeat of last year's New Hampshire race, where he ran out of fuel while leading in the late stages.
Harvick pulled a win out of the fire at Dover and advanced back then. He won't need to worry about it this time around.
The driver of the No. 4 that had ditech.com on the hood qualified 19th and didn't get to the front until lap 232 during a green-flag pit stop cycle. But when the race's sixth and last caution came out at lap 292 when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Reed Sorenson got together, Harvick didn't miss his opportunity.
With Matt Kenseth alongside, Harvick timed his restart to perfection and led the final six circuits around the 1.058-mile track, denying Kenseth his third straight Cup win at Loudon.
And the lobster was probably extra-tasty for him, especially with title hopes still alive.
As for the rest of the standings, it's time to get into survival mode with the first elimination of four lurking at the Monster Mile at Dover next week.
Kyle Larson, who finished 10th on Sunday, has the final transfer spot. His cushion is slim and he has company knocking hard on the door. Austin Dillon (16th) and Jamie McMurray (19th) are only five points behind heading to Dover.
Heck, even Tony Stewart -- who was the first car a lap down in 23rd -- still has a shot. He's only 11 points off the pace.
We know it's not the most relevant thing to point it out, but hey, it's fun to mention. Here's how those on the edge did at Dover on May 15th.
-Larson finished second after qualifying 23rd. He led 85 laps in the AAA Drive for Autism 400, but Kenseth won.
-McMurray was five laps down in 21st.
-Dillon was involved in an accident at lap 185 and finished 33rd.
-Stewart had suspension issues and ended up 34th.
And as we suspected -- and probably just about everyone else did, too -- when the Chase started, it's win or else for Chris Buescher. He's 30 points behind Larson.
In the historic first Chase races of the lower series, the XFINITY VisitMyrtleBeach.com 300 at Kentucky Speedway was a surprising, entertaining affair that Elliott Sadler found a way to win.
The radio broadcast on Performance Racing Network mentioned Sadler was none too pleased he didn't receive any extra bonuses for being the points leader in the regular season -- he was 59 ahead of second-place Daniel Suarez -- so he took out his frustration in the best way possible.
Sadler only led 11 laps, but held on to beat Suarez by just .243 seconds and advance to the second round.
From starting six points behind Erik Jones -- who had four wins to Sadler's two in the regular season -- Sadler can relax and go all-out now at Dover and Charlotte to add to the momentum.
Jones, despite leading 100 laps, got caught up in a wreck with Ty Dillon at lap 189 and went from the penthouse to a 28th-place finish. He's on the outside looking in as they head to Dover, but only three points behind Blake Koch, who was 11th at Kentucky.
For its first official Chase race, the Camping World Truck Series showed us why William Byron should be taken seriously as a likely holder of the championship trophy at Homestead in November. The driver for Kyle Busch Motorsports led 161 of the 175 laps and held off teammate Christopher Bell by less than a half-second to win the UNOH 175 at New Hampshire. It was Byron's sixth victory of the year.
As for the rest of the Chasers, the separation after Loudon is paper-thin. Matt Crafton was third behind Byron and Bell and is second in points. Add in Bell, John Hunter Nemechek, Timothy Peters, Johnny Sauter and Ben Kennedy, and the whole group -- second through seventh -- is separated by just 11 points total.
Only Daniel Hemric is in must-win mode now after he finished 28th due to an early-race spin and brake issues. Two drivers will be eliminated after Talladega on Oct. 22.
But in between comes my favorite truck race of the year. The DC Solar 350 is coming to Las Vegas on Saturday night, and if Matt Crafton can break his hex that we discussed here last week, it will push him to the second round and end a big-time hex that's going on its ninth season.
In case you missed it, Crafton has finished second three times (2009, 2011, 2012) and third twice (2008, 2014) at Las Vegas. He won the pole a year ago, but finished eighth.
All the more reason to get your tickets and get down there for the race.
Tom Zulewski will be reporting live from the DC Solar 350 at Las Vegas. Follow him on Twitter @TommyZee81 or @Tomzsports. Email also welcome to tominator19@yahoo.com.
NEXT WEEK'S RACES
Dover International Speedway (1-mile oval), Dover, Delaware.
-SPRINT CUP: Citizen Soldier 400, Sunday, 2 p.m. ET/11 a.m. PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 400 miles, 400 laps.
2015 champion: Kevin Harvick
-XFINITY SERIES: Drive Sober 300, Saturday, 3 p.m. ET/Noon PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 200 miles, 200 laps.
2015 champion: Regan Smith
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: DC Solar 350, Las Vegas Motor Speedway (1.5-mile, D-shaped oval), Saturday, 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.
2015 champion: John Wes Townley.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Truex Jr. wins again, everybody in high gear to Chase

As the Chase for the Sprint Cup, 2016 edition, got under way Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, the first shot in the title hunt came from none other than ... Martin Truex Jr.
Yeah, Jimmie Johnson has ruled this time of year in the past. Kyle Busch is the defending champion, but he doesn't do much when title time comes around until it's the right time to do it.
But they didn't come close to what Truex did at Chicago. The No. 78 found another gear, rallied late, and won the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400. Truex won for the third time this season and got a fairly huge break when a post-race laser inspection station failure was small enough to stay away from an "encumbered victory." 
Translation: Everyone on the 78 team can breathe again knowing they're safely through to the round of 12.,
Among the other highlights: Johnson led the most laps at Chicago (118), but ended up 12th. With the first of three races done in the opening round, Tony Stewart (16th) has the last transfer spot, a point ahead of Austin Dillon, who came in 13th, and Kevin Harvick, who was a lap down in 20th.
Michigan 2 race winner Kyle Larson was the first car a lap down in 18th, and he's two points behind Stewart.
As for Chris Buescher, he's holding up the rear, 12 points behind Stewart, after finishing 28th.
With Race No. 2 of the first round of the Cup Chase on deck, the fields are officially set for the first Chase battles in the XFINITY and Camping World Truck Series. Here's a quick summary of who's in the running for the title.
XFINITY
1. Erik Jones. Four wins: Bristol 1, Dover, Iowa 2, Chicago.
He may be heading to Furniture Row's second Cup team in 2017, but Jones has every intention of making a last splash before he leaves. Already has a six-point cushion on the field.
2. Elliott Sadler. Two wins: Talladega, Darlington
Leads all Chasers in the field with 23 top-10 finishes and comfortably led the points for the regular season. He'll be going deep as a serious title contender.
3. Daniel Suarez. One win: Michigan
Take away his win where he led 62 laps, and the second-year Joe Gibbs Racing driver has led a combined 23 circuits in the other 25 races. Because he has to endure seeing Kyle Busch on track whenever the mood hits, that stat can be forgiven.
And now, the rest with best finish listed.
4. Justin Allgaier: Second at Talladega, Daytona 2, Bristol 2.
In the 10 races to the Chase, Allgaier's worst run was 11th at Darlington and his average finish was 6.0. He's a dark horse worth watching.
5. Ty Dillon: Second at Richmond 1, Iowa 1 and 2.
Crashed at Bristol 2, but wasn't in any real danger of missing Chase. Has averaged a 10th-place finish since then (four races). Will need to pick it up to contend.
6. Brendan Gaughan: Second at Road America.
A win on the road course would have been nice for his standing, but Gaughan has to do better on the 1.5-mile tracks to have a title shot. Five of the seven Chase races will be run from that distance, and his average finish has been 11th in six other tries this season.
7, Brennan Poole: Third at Talladega and Road America.
The Talladega finish was Poole's first top-5 of the year, but it came in the eighth race. With only seven races in the Chase, he has to get going after finishing 21st at Chicago.
8. Brandon Jones: Sixth at Las Vegas
He's the only driver other than Blake Koch without a top-5 run in the regular season. Gotta get at least one to be considered a contender.
9. Darrell Wallace Jr.: Second at Dover
Bubba hasn't been very strong of late. He hasn't finished on the lead lap in six of the last 10 races and was two laps down at Chicagoland while finishing 20th.
10. Ryan Reed: Fifth at Road America
The native of Bakersfield, California has a sixth, ninth and 10th on his season resume. Everything else is 11th or worse.
11. Ryan Sieg: Third at Daytona 2.
Sieg's only other top-10 showing was 10th at Texas. Moving on...
12. Blake Koch: Eighth at Richmond, Bristol 2.
Add in a ninth in the season opener at Daytona, and you have Koch's season in a nutshell. Next?
CAMPING WORLD TRUCKS
1. William Byron. Five wins: Kansas, Texas, Iowa, Kentucky, Pocono
Byron doesn't turn 19 years old until Nov. 29. He drives for Kyle Busch Motorsports. That's all you need to know.
Other than engine issues at Atlanta (32nd) and a crash at Chicago (30th), Byron has been outside the top 10 only three other times. Prime contender for the title.
2. John Hunter Nemechek. Two wins: Atlanta, Canadian Tire.
The win on the road course near Toronto on Sept. 4 gave Nemechek a few more enemies than he would have liked. Voted the most popular driver in the series last season, Nemechek shoved Cole Custer to the grass on the final lap, and the pair crossed the finish line together off the track.
The result: Custer isn't in the Chase and the debate over Nemechek's move will be talked about all the way to Homestead.
3. Matt Crafton. Two wins: Dover, Charlotte.
Crafton went back-to-back with his wins this season and is the only repeat champion (2012, 2013) in Truck Series history. Bigger question: Can he break his hex at Las Vegas, which is the second race of the first round in the inaugural Chase?
His average finish there in the last seven visits is 5.1, including three seconds and two thirds. A win Oct. 1, after all the ThorSport race shop went through with a fire in June, will be a big motivator for title No. 3.
4. Johnny Sauter. One win: Daytona.
After three races where he finished 28th, 32nd and 16rh following the Daytona win, Sauter has been outside the top 10 just once -- a 13th at Eldora.
5. Christopher Bell. One win: Gateway.
Teammate to William Byron, Bell crashed at Michigan and finished 24th, but rebounded nicely with a fifth at Canadian Tire and fourth at Chicago. He'll need those kinds of efforts to advance.
6. Ben Kennedy. One win: Bristol
The son of ISC boss Lesa France Kennedy, the 24-year-old's only other top-5 run was a fourth at Texas. The series returns there Nov. 4, and the Red Horse Racing driver will be a contender for the title if he can get out of the first round.
7. Daniel Hemric: Second at Chicagoland.
Beyond his showing Friday, Hemric has six (!!) third-place runs on his season to date. Keep that up, and he'll be fine, even without a win.
8. Timothy Peters: Second at Michigan
The second driver for Red Horse Racing has covered each of the top five positions without a win. Peters was third at Atlanta, fourth at Pocono and fifth at Martinsville. He hasn't finished on the lead lap just once all season -- 34 laps down in 27th at Eldora.
Enjoy the rest of the Chase and may your favorite driver fare well enough to hold the big trophy at Homestead.
Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @Tomzsports or @TommyZee81. Email him at tominator19@yahoo.com.
THIS WEEK'S RACES
New Hampshire Motor Speedway (1.058-mile oval), Loudon, New Hampshire.
-SPRINT CUP: New England 300, Sunday, 2 p.m. ET/11 a.m. PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local PRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 300 laps, 317.4 miles.
2015 champion: Matt Kenseth
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: UNOH 175, Saturday, 1 p.m., Fox Sports 1. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local PRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 175 laps, 185.15 miles.
-XFINITY SERIES: VisitMyrtleBeach.com 300, Kentucky Speedway (1.5-mile D-shaped oval), Saturday, 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local PRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 300 miles, 200 laps.
2015 champion: Ryan Blaney.

Monday, September 12, 2016

It's time for another Chase

After 26 races and what seemed like 26 million different story lines that ebbed and flowed faster than the stock market, NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup is officially on to determine the 2016 champion.
And for the first time in recent memory, in spite of dominance in the Toyota camp, it can be said that at least nine drivers could garner a realistic chance at holding the waved checkered flag trophy at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.
With exactly 10 races left in the season, here are a few good thoughts on the field, who will be talked about as they stand right now heading to Chicagoland Speedway. Please be kind and remember ... no wagering.
-Brad Keselowski: Four wins ... Las Vegas, Talladega, Daytona 2, Kentucky.
The 2012 champion hasn't been totally dominant in his wins this season, having led the most laps only at the Coke Zero 400 (115 of 160). Somehow, BK finds a way to get himself to the front at the times he's supposed to be there.
The No. 2 has no DNFs, and that will be a big key as the Chase moves forward. Don't put too much stock in the win at Talladega, though. When they go there again in six weeks, the fight for survival will be in high gear.
Prediction: Round of 8 
-Kyle Busch: Four wins ... Martinsville, Texas, Kansas, Indianapolis
Our defending champion is one of three drivers to win consecutive races, but the Toyota camp as a whole (read: Joe Gibbs Racing) finished with 13 wins in the regular season. There's no reason to believe Kyle won't be up there again.
Prediction: Championship Four...again.
-Denny Hamlin: Three wins ... Daytona 1, Watkins Glen, Richmond 2
He may have fallen just short in leading the most laps to Martin Truex Jr. (193-189), but Hamlin sent himself off to the Chase with huge momentum after his win at Richmond on Saturday night. Not only is he alone in third place, but the JGR driver is best in qualifying among the Chasers (average: 5.9). 
Remember, though: Starting well is one thing. Finishing well is totally different. Hamlin has a golden chance to prove himself as championship material here.
Prediction: Championship Four
-Kevin Harvick: Two wins ... Phoenix, Bristol 2
There are issues on this team with the pit crew -- he led 214 laps at Darlington, but had to rally back after a bad stop just to finish second -- but the 2014 champion hasn't let that deter him too much. 
Harvick's average finish is 8.5, best among the Chase field. Brad Keselowski is the only other driver in single digits (9.7). It will serve him well.
Prediction: Championship Four. Someone has to spoil the Toyota party, and Harvick is capable.
-Carl Edwards: Two wins ... Bristol 1, Richmond 1
The driver of the No. 19 Arris Toyota led the most laps in each of his wins, but they won't be returning to either track in the Chase. Those wins completed a three-week stretch where Edwards led the bulk of his laps on the season -- 551 of 742.
In the 10 races to the Chase, his average finish is 16.9, including 32nd at Richmond on Saturday. 
Prediction: Round of 8
-Martin Truex Jr.: Two wins ... Charlotte, Darlington
The No. 78 became part of the Toyota camp in 2016, and the difference has been clear in the first multi-win season of Truex Jr.'s career. We won't forget his other-worldly showing at Charlotte, and they return there to start the second round of the Chase.
Don't expect him to repeat that, but momentum is on the side of the 78 camp with a third at Richmond that nicely followed up the Darlington victory.
Prediction: Championship Four
-Jimmie Johnson: Two wins ... Atlanta, Auto Club
Since his wins that moved him past Dale Earnhardt on the all-time career list with 77, Johnson has fallen on seriously hard times. In the race to the Chase, Johnson not only has four finishes of 33rd or worse, but he finished last (40th at Watkins Glen) for the first time in his Cup career.
Over the last 10 races, the 48 is averaging a finish of 19.5. Title No. 7 will be waiting at least one more year.
Prediction: Round of 12
-Matt Kenseth: Two wins ... Dover, Loudon
Even though he's been part of a wildly successful season at JGR, Kenseth hasn't done much since his Loudon victory. Despite qualifying well at both Bristol 2 and Richmond 2, the finishes have been 37th and 38th, respectively. For the season, he's 13th out of the 16 Chasers in average finish (15.4).
With a return trip to both of his wins on tap, he'll need repeat performances just to keep going.
Prediction: Round of 8
-Joey Logano: One win ... Michigan 1
The second driver of the Penske camp hasn't been overly spectacular, but delivered solid finishes in the stretch drive. Logano has been consistent, finishing 10th in three of the last four races, sandwiched around a fifth at Darlington.
That's the kind of momentum that advances drivers through the Chase.
Prediction: Round of 8
-Kurt Busch: One win ... Pocono 1
The driver of the No. 41 for Stewart-Haas Racing hasn't been running well since his Pocono win. Busch the Elder has just one top-5 run since then (fourth at Kentucky), and his average finish is 16.5. It's made worse with crashes at Bristol 2 (38th) and Darlington (34th) in the last four weeks.
Prediction: Round of 12
-Kyle Larson: One win ... Michigan 2
Once he finally got his first career win three weeks ago, Larson has followed up with a third at Darlington and second at Richmond. He's led laps in all three (101 total) and it's a building block for good things ahead.
Prediction: Round of 12
-Tony Stewart: One win ... Sonoma
In his final season as a full-time driver, Stewart left all of us with a beautiful memory when he won for the third time in Northern California. Two passes on the final lap in a duel with Hamlin doesn't normally happen there.
Stewart's stuck on 49 career wins. I'm sorry to say he's not going to make 50 or get a shot at title No. 4, not with three finishes in the 30s in the last four weeks.
Prediction: Round of 16
-Chris Buescher: One win ... Pocono 2
Let's get him out of the way. Buescher deserves hearty congratulations for making the Chase field.
He has a fifth at Bristol 2 on his season resume, but runs like the last three -- 35th at Michigan, 17th at Darlington and 24th at Richmond 2 will not advance him very far. He's with the big boys now.
Prediction: Round of 16
-Austin Dillon: No wins
In his third season as a full-time Cup driver, Dillon is starting to come into his own. He has four top-5 runs on the season, the most in his career. That includes a career-best third at Talladega and fourth at Martinsville, which will both be run in the Chase.
Prediction: Round of 12 with potential to go one more as long as the top-10s are there.
-Jamie McMurray: No wins
He has only one top-5 all year, but it was a fourth at Talladega. McMurray has won there before, but will need to go rounds to get a shot at a deeper run.
His last three races: Eighth, 15th, seventh. 
Prediction: Round of 16
And finally...
Chase Elliott: No wins
The heralded rookie started the year with a bang by winning the pole for the Daytona 500, but wrecked early and finished 37th. 
Elliott's problem: He's way too hard on himself at times, and it's shown up on track. In the 10 races to the Chase, his average finish is 20.4 with four coming 31st or worse.
He's only a rookie, though. He'll get much better.
Prediction: Round of 16.
Next week, we'll look at the XFINITY and Trucks Chase fields.
NEXT WEEK'S RACES
Chicagoland Speedway (1.5-mile D-shaped oval), Joliet, Illinois
-SPRINT CUP: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 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: 400.5 miles, 267 laps.
2015 champion: Denny Hamlin
-XFINITY SERIES: Drive for Safety 300, Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET/12:30 p.m. PT, NBC. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 300 miles, 200 laps.
2015 champion: Kyle Busch
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: American Ethanol E15 225, 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: 225 miles, 150 laps,
2015 champion: John Hunter Nemechek.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Truex conquers Darlington, drama builds for Chase

On a NASCAR weekend where just about everything went 1970s retro – from the drivers to their cars to the guys in the NBC broadcast booth – Darlington Raceway gave us a Southern 500 on Labor Day eve that proved the modern drama of today is only just beginning.
First things first: Martin Truex Jr. joined the two-win club with a great finishing run that held off Kevin Harvick over the final 15 laps. After the heartbreaking near-miss at Daytona in the 500, he’s only won the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte in a dominating performance (392 of 400 laps led) and tamed the track that only calls itself “Too Tough to Tame.”
Not only is Truex a multi-time winner in a season for the first time in his career, but he’s the sixth Cup driver with two victories. It was a finish that left Harvick – who led a race-high 214 laps – just a wee bit perturbed at the end, and the blame went straight to his pit crew.
Slow stops on pit road tend to do that to a driver. Case in point: With 85 laps to go in the 367-lap race, Harvick came in leading, but a 16.6-second stop pushed him all the way back to 12th.
“Did we just lose this race?” Harvick asked on his team radio, as reported by FoxSports.com.
He did, but Harvick rallied back to give himself a chance, closing within six-tenths of a second for his fourth runner-up finish of the season, including to Truex Jr. at Charlotte. The 2014 Cup champion also has three fourth-place runs and and three fifth-place efforts.
That’s a total of 12 top-5 runs for the No. 4 car in 25 races. You can rest assured he’d much rather pad the winning number than any of the others.
And as they head to Richmond on Sept. 10 for the final race before the Chase begins, there are still just three open spots remaining. Jamie McMurray, who finished 15th at Darlington, was a victim of his own late-race pit-road mistake and is on the bubble at only seven points in front of Ryan Newman.
As for the 13th driver with a victory, Chris Buescher managed to improve his position as he looks to seal the deal after 400 laps at Richmond. He finished 17th at Darlington and added four points to his cushion over David Ragan.
Buescher – the winner at the rain-shortened Pocono race last month – is still 30th, but in front by 11 points. He knows that margin won’t be easy to maintain. When they raced at Richmond in April, Buescher finished 34th and Ragan came in 23rd.
A tie will obviously benefit Buescher by virtue of his earlier victory, but anything worse means Newman can still slip into the Chase even if he doesn’t earn eight more points than McMurray.
Going down the other series, there was some serious controversy in the Camping World Truck Series Chevy Silverado 250 at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park near Toronto. On the final lap, John Hunter Nemechek got into a major battle of beating and banging with Cole Custer.
It got so bad, the pair ended up crossing the finish line on the grass and not on the track. After a review, Nemechek was awarded his second win of the season and denied Custer a win that would have given him a Chase spot.
Custer was so mad, he went after Nemechek and gave him a flying tackle before team members and officials quickly separated the pair. The 18-year-old vented to reporters afterwards.
“I was expecting it, kinda, because he’s raced a lot of people like that but it’s just a shame because it was a great chance to get into the Chase and he took it away from us,” Custer said in a NASCAR Wire Service story.
In spite of the frustration, Custer gets one more shot for a win at Chicagoland Speedway in two weeks to make the Chase. At the moment, Timothy Peters and Daniel Hemric are the two non-winners who are in the eight-driver field to determine the 2016 title.
And on the XFINITY Series side, Elliott Sadler beat Denny Hamlin and scored his second win of the season to solidify his Chase position. With 12 drivers in that field, there are two races left – at Richmond and Chicagoland – before the run to their championship begins.
At this point, nine non-winners are in on points, and Ryan Sieg is on the bubble. He has an 18-point cushion on Dakoda Armstrong.
With all that going on, it’s time to get the belts tight and start thinking about what championship glory lies ahead.
Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @Tomzsports or email tominator19@yahoo.com.
NEXT WEEK'S RACES
Richmond International Raceway (.75-mile oval), Richmond, Virginia.
-SPRINT CUP: Federated Auto Parts 400, Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET/4:30 p.m. PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 400 laps, 300 miles.
2015 champion: Matt Kenseth
-XFINITY SERIES: Virginia 529 College Savings 250, Friday, 7:30 p.m. ET/4:30 p.m. PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 250 laps, 187.5 miles.
2015 champion: Chase Elliott
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Off until Sept. 16 for the American Ethanol E15 225 at Chicagoland Speedway.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

First-time winner's hat trick caps great race weekend

The Race to the Chase may be winding down, but the racing that happened at Michigan International Speedway and Road America in Wisconsin provided a huge jolt of excitement for race fans everywhere.
The biggest moment of the weekend came in the Pure Michigan 400 on Sunday. Sitting on the outside of the Chase picture and knowing it was a clear sense of desperation mode, Kyle Larson helped his boss, Chip Ganassi, break a 99-race winless streak by taking the checkered flag ahead of Chase Elliott and elevating himself firmly into the championship playoff.
Larson looked like he’d finish runner-up as Elliott led from lap 169, but a caution for debris from Michael Annett’s car gave the driver of the No. 42 Target Chevrolet the break he needed. Larson got the jump ahead of Elliott on the race’s final restart with 10 laps left and pulled away for his first career win.
While Larson’s victory cut the remaining eligible spots for the non-winners down to three with two weekends left, there’s a small sliver of hope remaining for Ryan Newman, who was bumped off the 16th position.
Two pieces of good news are in play. While Newman finished 17th at Michigan, he trails new bubble driver Jamie McMurray by only 15 points. It’s not an insurmountable margin, but will need to be made up in noticeable chunks.
However, there’s the matter of Chris Buescher’s efforts for Newman’s team to consider. Buescher is still in the Chase, but lost a decent chunk of his cushion on David Ragan after finishing 35th at Michigan. His margin is just seven points heading to Throwback Weekend at Darlington next week.
Of course, it all changes again if someone like Elliott, Austin Dillon or McMurray can find their way to Victory Lane. Or maybe someone else like Kasey Kahne or Ryan Blaney will have their breakthrough. With all the retro paint schemes to look forward to, it’s all the more reason to tune in.
The other series had their own bits of craziness provided by two drivers who aren’t Chase eligible, but knew how to bring the dramatics at the right times.
In the Michigan Camping World Truck Series race – the Careers for Veterans 200 – Brett Moffitt seized the moment when he slid by Timothy Peters and William Byron on the high side of the track to steal the first victory of his career right out from under both drivers.
The best part of the moment: Moffitt was driving a one-off deal as Peters’ teammate with Red Horse Racing and only led the final lap. It was the first lap Moffitt has led in his entire career, which covers 45 starts between Cup (38), XFINITY (one) and trucks (six).
As for the Chase in the trucks, six of eight drivers have claimed their spots, with Peters and Daniel Hemric in as the non-winners. Cameron Hayley is the first off the bubble at 47 points behind Peters – well more than a full race – so it’s clearly go time at either Canadian Tire Motorsports Park or Chicagoland Speedway if he wants to get in the field.
In the XFINITY race, the Road America 180, Michael McDowell led more than half the laps and held off Brendan Gaughan by a half-second in an overtime finish. Not only did it deny Gaughan a chance to become the fourth driver to qualify for the Chase, but McDowell – who raced on another one-off deal for Richard Childress Racing – earned his first career victory in 298 starts between Cup (202), XFINITY (94) and trucks (two).
With efforts like those and the championship pressure creeping into another gear, fans should be looking forward to what’s next. I know I am.
Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @Tomzsports or email tominator19@yahoo.com.
NEXT WEEK'S RACES
Darlington Raceway (1.366-mile egg-shaped oval), Darlington, South Carolina.
-SPRINT CUP: Bojangles Southern 500, Sunday, 6 p.m. ET/3 p.m. PT, NBC. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 500 miles, 367 laps.
2015 champion: Carl Edwards
-XFINITY SERIES: VFW Sport Clips Help A Hero 200, Saturday, 3 p.m. ET/Noon PT, NBC. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 200.8 miles, 147 laps.
2015 champion: Denny Hamlin
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Chevy Silverado 250, Canadian Tire Motorsports Park (2.459-mile road course), Bowmanville, Ontario, Saturday, 2:30 p.m. ET/11:30 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.
2015 champion: Erik Jones.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Harvick finds way to win at Bristol – 24 hours later

Rain delays are an occasional fact of life race track owners have to deal with, although it hasn’t been nearly as prevalent in NASCAR in the 2016 season.
With this weekend’s Bass Pro Shops/NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway, that notion was completely thrown out the window.
Rain messed with the track enough to stop the 500-lap battle after only 48 trips around the “World’s Fastest Half-Mile” on Saturday. Then came the attempt to restart the race the next day, and more rain added to the waiting game.
Finally, nearly 24 hours after the scheduled start, the Bristol Night-Turned-To-Day-Turned-To-Late-Afternoon-Early-Evening Race saw Kevin Harvick make the trip to Victory Lane, his second of the season.
And the wait for those who stayed at the track and eventually found it on TV (CNBC, after originally being set for NBC Sports Network) was more than worth it.
Before we settle in with what Harvick did, there were enough surprises in the final finishing order to give the skeptics less reason to be picky. The first one came with the runner-up effort from Ricky Stenhouse Jr., by far the best of his career.
Stenhouse delivered a top-5 run for just the sixth time in 135 career starts and matched what he did in the Bristol spring race in 2014. In the greatest of ironies, he started 25th, and none other than Harvick was just in front of him on the grid.
There were the usual suspects from the Joe Gibbs Racing camp who were high in the final order. Denny Hamlin made up two laps, led 19, and finished third. Pole sitter Carl Edwards led 31 laps and finished sixth.
But shocker No. 2 of the race came as Kyle Busch led 256 laps, but a broken suspension part and the appearance of Justin Allgaier’s No. 46 car at the worst possible time – lap 359 – led to a 39th-place finish. It only added to the frustration at Bristol for the defending Sprint Cup champion.
“We’ve been having parts failures here, so something we’ve got to address and fix,” Busch said in a NASCAR Wire Service story. “I’m really tired of losing races here with parts falling apart, so they’ll hear about it on Tuesday.”
Busch wasn’t happy with Allgaier and his spotter, either.
“I’ve been wrecking for half a lap and they just come on through and clean us out,” he said. “That’s stupid, so I don’t know – frustrating day. Let’s go home.”
The stat book shows Busch’s frustration with Bristol pretty clearly, in spite of his five Cup wins there. Since the last one in the spring race of 2011, his average finish over the 10-race span is 21.5, and he’s been 29th or worse in four of his last five races at BMS.
Once Busch found himself out of contention, Harvick led 104 of the final 153 laps (128 in total) and became the fifth driver in the two-win club in 2016, joining Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Edwards and Hamlin.
But the most impressive story in a non-winning role came from Chris Buescher. He fell back to mid-pack through the early portion of the race at Bristol, but somehow ended up finishing fifth. It was just as good as Matt DiBenedetto’s sixth-place run in the spring, but this one carries a little more impact for Buescher because he zoomed past David Ragan into the top 30 in points, where he is eligible for the Chase.
Buescher’s cushion isn’t quite secure with three races remaining until the Chase, but a 13-point edge is a pretty good foundation to build on. It also gave drivers like Kyle Larson and Trevor Bayne more reason to worry.
With Buescher in the Chase as the 12th driver with a win, that leaves Ryan Newman as the last of the four non-winners who would advance. His lead is at 35 points over Bayne, while Larson is tied with Kasey Kahne, 39 off the pace.
That’s basically a full race with three challenging tracks left: Michigan (a 2-mile party of speed), Darlington (two unpredictable ends), and Richmond (go or go home). A win will change things for the better, and it may be the only option they have left.
Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @Tomzsports or email tominator19@yahoo.com.
NEXT WEEK'S RACES
Michigan International Speedway (2-mile oval), Brooklyn, Michigan
-SPRINT CUP: Pure Michigan 400, Sunday, 2 p.m. ET/11 a.m. PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 400 miles, 200 laps.
2015 champion: Matt Kenseth
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Careers for Veterans 200, 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.
2015 champion: Kyle Busch.
-XFINITY SERIES: Road America 180, Road America (4.048-mile road course), Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, Saturday, 3 p.m. ET/Noon PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 182.2 miles, 45 laps.
2015 champion: Paul Menard

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

And now, the fun really begins

As we hit the stretch drive for NASCAR's Chase across all three national series, there are story lines that have potential to intrigue, shock, awe, and occasionally infuriate. The push begins with the Camping World Truck Series UNOH 200 at Bristol tomorrow night, so now's as good a time as any to break it all down.
On the Sprint Cup side, chaos reigns supreme. Right now, there are 12 drivers who have won a race, but one is still on the outside looking in because he's not in the top 30 in points. As they head to the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol on Saturday, Chris Buescher sits just three points away from getting in and potentially putting serious pressure on drivers like Kyle Larson and Trevor Bayne. 
Since Buescher is where he is, Larson is in the Chase with the last of the 16 spots. He's eight points in front of Bayne. Whenever Buescher -- last year's XFINITY champion -- gets past David Ragan and into the top 30, that opens up an ugly can of trouble for Larson.
Don't put it past Buescher that he'll make the top 30. Even with his struggles at Watkins Glen, he still chopped three points off the deficit. Buescher was 21st at Bristol in the spring race while Ragan was 39th. The night race at the "World's Fastest Half-Mile" is a different animal, and the track will have a polished lower groove that should prove interesting.
When Buescher reaches the top 30, that will put Jamie McMurray in as the last driver in the Chase field. He's got a somewhat comfortable 30-point cushion on Larson.
As for the XFINITY Series, their racing has been Kyle Busch and everyone else, but there are some -- not a lot, but some -- drivers who have asserted themselves as Chase contenders when they start at Kentucky Speedway next month.
Heading to Bristol, points leader Elliott Sadler (one win), Daniel Suarez (1) and Erik Jones (3) would be locked into the 12-driver field. Not 100 percent sure on this, but Justin Marks' win at Mid-Ohio should also make him eligible, but he's only started 12 races. Clarification is welcome.
That said, Ryan Sieg would be the final Chase qualifier if Marks' win counts, and Blake Koch would be in if that's not the case. Five races are left to run until the cutoff.
On the Truck Series side, five drivers -- William Byron (five wins), Matt Crafton (two), Johnny Sauter, Christopher Bell and John Hunter Nemechek (one each) -- have grabbed Chase spots, and only three remain open with four races left. Right now, the non-winner Chase spots would be filled by Timothy Peters, Daniel Hemric and Cameron Hayley.
Hayley, who hails from Canada, is tied with Ben Kennedy in points, but he has a runner-up finish on his resume while Kennedy's best was fourth.
XFINITY will eliminate four drivers from title contention after the race at Charlotte in October, then set the Championship Four after Phoenix. The Truck Series will eliminate two drivers after Talladega, then the final four will be locked in after Phoenix.
For the trucks, the Rhino Linings 350 will be the second race of the opening Chase round Oct. 1. It will be intriguing to see how that race sets up the chances for those in survival mode heading to NASCAR's craziest track.
Then again, racing is always worth watching. With the Chase figuring in across all three series, it will only add to the fun.
Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @Tomzsports or email tominator19@yahoo.com.
THIS WEEK'S RACES
Bristol Motor Speedway (.533-mile oval), Bristol, Tenn.
-SPRINT CUP: Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race, Saturday, 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local PRN affiliate.
Race distance: 500 laps, 266.5 miles
2015 champion: Joey Logano
-XFINITY SERIES: Food City 300, Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET/4:30 p.m. PT, USA Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local PRN affiliate.
Race distance: 300 laps, 159.9 miles
2015 champion: Kyle Busch.
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: UNOH 200, Wednesday, 8:30 p.m. ET/5:30 p.m. PT, Fox Sports 1. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local PRN affiliate.
Race distance: 200 laps, 106.6 miles.
2015 champion: Ryan Blaney.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Hamlin comes through chaos, wins at Glen

For race fans who found a way to watch NASCAR’s second and final road course race of the 2016 season, the Cheez-It 355 at the Glen – the 2.45-mile, 10-turn bit of mayhem that was Watkins Glen – the trip over to USA Network was well worth the time.
After all, NBC’s Olympic coverage was only in its second day, so all the good stuff from Rio hasn’t happened yet, right?
Let’s grab a grip on our collective steering wheels for a minute. The 90-lap tilt at the Glen had plenty of prize-fight punch and enough twists and turns that made slipping away from swimming qualifiers an easy choice.
In the end, Denny Hamlin kept himself free from the trouble and put himself in Victory Lane for the second time this season, first since the memorable run past Martin Truex Jr. at the Daytona 500.
There were plenty of potential pitfalls Hamlin had to dodge along the way, including seven of the race’s eight cautions that happened over the final 40 laps. Two yellow flags came inside 10 to go, and the field couldn’t complete a full lap each time, including a seven-car wreck that collected Chris Buescher and David Ragan.
Oh, yes. Even guys well back in the field were part of the race drama, as we’ll discuss in a moment.
As for those who were up front most of the way, Brad Keselowski had the lead from Lap 54 until Hamlin took it away on a restart at Lap 81. With Martin Truex Jr. trying to pressure Hamlin at the front, Keselowski got into the No. 78 Toyota and sent him into a spin.
Keselowski’s Penske Racing teammate, Joey Logano, took advantage of the fracas and finished second, while Keselowski finished third, which was where he started at the white-flag lap. Truex somehow held on to his sanity and ended up seventh.
With no new addition to the race winners list, Kyle Larson may be the one thanking his good-luck charms he still has his spot in the Chase with four races left. Larson – who qualified on the outside pole – got tangled up with A.J. Allmendinger in the late-race chaos and finished 29th.
Larson’s cushion: Eight points over Trevor Bayne, but only three in front of Buescher, and it could have been worse.
Buescher, who won last week at Pocono, had a golden opportunity to slip into the top 30 and become eligible for the Chase, but lost it when he was in the wrong place at the wrong time only five laps shy of the finish.
Helped by a 17-minute red flag, Buescher’s crew on the No. 34 Ford worked furiously and got him back on track to finish 30th, one of three cars one lap down. Ragan wasn’t as fortunate, ending up seven laps down in 33rd.
As we head to Bristol in two weeks, Buescher still has to make up three points to get into the top 30 and get into the Chase. Once he gets in, that will leave only four non-winner spots left to claim.
After Bayne, Kasey Kahne – who is closing in on the two-year anniversary of his last win – is 11 points behind Larson. The sad part for all three drivers is once Buescher becomes Chase-eligible, that leaves them with a huge climb. Jamie McMurray is the next driver in front of Larson in the standings, and he’s up by 30 points.
With the high drama of two excellent road-course races in the rear-view mirror for another year, the final off week of the season couldn’t have come at a better time. Those with championship aspirations know that the final four races before the Chase will make or break their seasons.
We’ll definitely need some time to make sense of it all.
Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @Tomzsports or email tominator19@yahoo.com.
NEXT WEEK'S RACES
-XFINITY SERIES: Mid-Ohio 200, Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course (2.258-mile road course), Lexington, Ohio, Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET/12:30 p.m. PT, USA Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 203.2 miles, 90 laps.
2015 champion: Regan Smith
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Off until Aug. 17 for the UNOH 200 at Bristol Motor Speedway.
-SPRINT CUP: Off until Aug. 20 for the Bass Pro Shops/NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Buescher’s win shakes things up in race to Chase

Over the last two NASCAR Sprint Cup seasons, we’ve had medical waivers granted to two of the sport’s biggest stars after they endured lengthy recovery periods.
They had two basic stipulations to become eligible for the Chase. Win a race and get to the top 30 in points by the Richmond cutoff.
Now we have a whole new scenario to deal with, thanks mainly to Mother Nature.
Chris Buescher, racing for the underfunded Front Row Motorsports team, won Monday’s rain-delayed Pennsylvania 400 at Pocono Raceway that was called 22 laps short of the finish after fog enveloped the 2.5-mile tri-oval track.
Talk about a truly lucky break. Buescher, the 2015 XFINITY series champion, grabbed the lead at lap 124 after a cycle of green-flag pit stops, and the caution came out nine laps later for the weather issues.
Five laps after that, the race was officially called and Buescher was awarded the victory, his first as a Sprint Cup driver.
In terms of the Chase standings, the win was nice – even if it wasn’t done in a full race, which doesn’t matter at all – but Buescher isn’t in just yet.
With five races left to run until the top 16 are set, Buescher sits 31st, but only six points behind David Ragan. In the greatest of ironies, Ragan has the only other win earned by Front Row Motorsports when he went to Victory Lane at Talladega in 2013.
Seems like it should be a piece of cake to make up the deficit, right? That’s true, but the remaining tracks between now and Chicagoland are more than challenging.
Next week, the series hits the road course at Watkins Glen in upstate New York. That track featured a wicked wreck by Brad Keselowski in a test session last week and offers a ton of unpredictability, rain or shine.
After the season’s final off week, they’ll head for Bristol on Aug. 20 for the Saturday night race. We know the history there and the beating and banging that goes on.
Then the final three races before the Chase happen at Michigan (2-mile), Darlington (1.36 miles with two ends as different as night and day), then the ¾-mile at Richmond.
Buescher has been running at the finish in 17 of the 21 races this season, but Monday’s win was his first top 10 with the first laps he’s led (12). Prior to today’s win, his best finishes were 14th at Indianapolis last week and 18th at Dover.
As for Ragan, who drives for BK Racing along with Matt DiBenedetto, he’s been inside the top 20 just twice all season – 16th at Daytona last month and 17th at Dover.
Right now, Kyle Larson is the driver who’s sweating serious bullets on the Chase bubble, the last of five who don’t have a win but would still get to run for the 2016 title.
Adding to the stress, even if Buescher slips into the top 30, there’s no guarantee someone else higher in the points won’t earn a win in the next five races.
We could get Kasey Kahne, the seemingly forgotten one at Hendrick Motorsports. He hasn’t been to Victory Lane since Atlanta in 2014, 69 races ago. Trevor Bayne still has only the 2011 Daytona 500 on the resume, but he was fifth at the Bristol spring race.
Buescher also beat two more highly-touted rookie drivers to the win column. Chase Elliott would be in the running for the title at this moment, but he’s only 25 points clear of Larson. Ryan Blaney finished 11th at Pocono, his best since he was 10th there in June.
Elliott has been in a major slump since he was runner-up at Michigan. In the six races since, his average finish is 27.6. Blaney, who is tied with Bayne and 28 points behind Larson, was 35th at Kentucky and 36th at Indianapolis.
We may see some serious movement in the standings between now and Sept. 10. Everything could flatten out and become predictable, too.
Only one thing is certain. We’ll be watching, speculating and keeping the tinfoil conspiracy hats tucked away in our anxiety closets.
Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @Tomzsports and email tominator19@yahoo.com.
NEXT WEEK’S RACES
Watkins Glen International (2.45-mile, 10-turn road course), Watkins Glen, N.Y.
-SPRINT CUP: Cheez-It 355 at the Glen, Sunday, 2:30 p.m. ET/11:30 a.m. PT, USA Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 220.5 miles, 90 laps.
2015 champion: Joey Logano
-XFINITY SERIES: Zippo 200, Saturday, 2 p.m. ET/11 a.m. PT, CNBC. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 200.9 miles, 82 laps.
2015 champion: Joey Logano
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Off until Aug. 17 for the UNOH 200 at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Like it or not, Kyle Busch owns Brickyard

As social media lit up following Kyle Busch’s latest dose of domination over the weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the usual, hackneyed howls of disgust from his non-fans sounded a little louder than normal.
“This is getting ridiculous, seeing one driver dominate the whole race,” cried one Facebook post.
“If a NASCAR record falls in an empty forest, did it really happen,” Indianapolis Star columnist Gregg Doyel mused on his page.
With what Busch did in winning both the XFINITY Lilly Diabetes 250 and Crown Royal Combat Wounded Coalition for Veterans 400 and the canyons of empty seats, one thing certainly led to another.
As we discussed here last week, Kyle Busch is dominating NASCAR’s Saturday series and isn’t eligible to run for its championship. Busch won for the seventh time in 11 races and 83rd in his career. It clearly wasn’t close.
With the Dash for Cash feature in place, Busch led all 20 laps of his heat race, then went out and led 62 of 63 laps in the main. Sure, there were three overtime laps, but when you’re as good as Busch is on restarts, it’s like the field is Charlie Brown and he’s Lucy yanking the football away at the last possible moment.
It was the same deal for the Cup race. Busch had to work through 10 overtime laps, but it didn’t matter. He led 149 of the 170 laps around Indy’s 2.5-mile oval and won for the second straight year.
Busch has also won the XFINITY race at Indy three times in the last four years.
Even with the dominance of one driver, there are likely more reasons than just the racing as to why no one – or so it seemed in the massive facility that is Indianapolis Motor Speedway – bothered to show up and watch.
At the top of the list, it was ridiculously hot at the track. At the time of the green flag – around 3:19 p.m. local – it was 95 degrees with 71 percent humidity. In weather terms, that means it felt like it was around 103.
No matter how you slice it, staying cool was hard to do while sitting through 170 laps for nearly three and a half hours. If you were able to last until the end, thank the high-quality cooler for what you got to witness after the checkered flag.
Jeff Gordon returned for the first of two races in relief of the still-recovering Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 Axalta Chevrolet. He qualified 21st and finished 13th, then got back in the car and drove one more goodbye lap with none other than Tony Stewart, who finished 11th in his final Brickyard 400.
Gordon has kissed the bricks at Indy five times. Stewart has done it twice, along with some good fence climbing. The pair has combined for seven Winston/Sprint Cup championships – four for Gordon, three for Stewart.
And both are in retirement mode with a catch. Like Gordon is doing, Stewart is open to substituting in a pinch if one of his drivers can’t go due to injury.
“We will talk about it at some point, but I am definitely open to that scenario,” Stewart said in a press release put out by Chevy Racing. “if it were to happen down the road and we needed somebody, I would be open to doing what Jeff is doing this weekend.”
The old guard may be changing – we still don’t know when Earnhardt will be back – but it’s a cool thing when they get the chance to go out on high-quality terms.
As for the future, those who do the winning aren’t really going to care about the haters. It’s time for those who aren’t fans of a Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart to strap in, sit back and embrace what’s coming.
It’s going to be awesome.
Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @Tomzsports and email tominator19@yahoo.com.
NEXT WEEK'S RACES
Pocono Raceway (2.5-mile tri-oval), Long Pond, Pa.
-SPRINT CUP: Pennsylvania 400, Sunday, 1:30 p.m. ET/10:30 a.m. PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 400 miles, 160 laps.
2015 champion: Matt Kenseth.
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Pocono Mountains 150, Saturday, 1 p.m. ET/10 a.m. PT, Fox Sports 1. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 150 miles, 60 laps.
2015 champion: Kyle Busch.
-XFINITY SERIES: US Cellular 250, Iowa Speedway (.875-mile oval), Newton, Iowa, Saturday, 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 250 laps, 218.75 miles.
2015 champion: Ryan Blaney.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Kenseth cruises to second win of season

There was a lot of buildup leading into the New Hampshire 301 on Sunday. Brad Keselowski had won the last two races and was starting in the top 10. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was noticeably absent due to medical issues.
Matt Kenseth stole the spotlight when it counted and enjoyed some lobster for the second straight time by winning on the relatively flat oval at New Hampshire Motor Speedway that runs just over one mile around.
The race didn’t have the most exciting feel as Kyle Busch (133) and Martin Truex Jr. (123) took turns at the front of the field. With only 301 laps to go around – hence the name – that left Kenseth to take control and grab hold of his second win of 2016 (Dover).
After a brief time in the lead before a debris caution at lap 265, Kenseth didn’t take long to get back to the front and earn his 38th career victory. The driver of the No. 20 Dollar General Toyota Camry slugged his way through four cautions in the final 37 laps and led for the last 31.
(UPDATE: ESPN.com reported that Kenseth's car failed post-race inspection. Penalties will likely come by Wednesday after the No. 20 is evaluated at the R&D Center).
Once Kenseth found his way to the front, it was all about who would finish second. To the surprise of some, Tony Stewart was the one who did what he had to do to help strengthen his spot in the Chase with a runner-up effort, his second straight top-5 after wrecking at Daytona.
A final shot at a fourth Sprint Cup championship is getting more likely for Stewart by the race. He sits 28th in points with seven races to go until the cutoff and is 67 ahead of Brian Scott.
Among the other newsworthy items of the weekend:
Earnhardt – who has only been the most popular driver for the last 13 seasons – did not run at New Hampshire due to concussion-like symptoms. It was a big blow for a driver who could not only use a win, but is barely hanging on to a spot in the Chase.
Through Race 19, Junior is hanging on for dear life. He’s the 16th and final driver in the field with only a 14-point cushion over Trevor Bayne.
While Alex Bowman was Earnhardt’s replacement in the No. 88 Chevrolet this week – he qualified 20th and finished 26th as the last car on the lead lap – all signs are pointing to Jeff Gordon coming out of retirement to fill in next week at Indianapolis Motor Speedway if Junior isn’t cleared to race.
Hendrick Motorsports general manager Doug Duchardt said in a USA Today story that a final decision on whether Gordon will run at the Brickyard 400 – a race he won five times, the last in 2014 – will be made by Wednesday.
No one at HMS is saying that Earnhardt’s concussion problem is career-threatening, but there’s no timetable for when he’ll return. The whole of the racing community may already be up in arms over Junior missing New Hampshire, but to treat it as a sky-is-falling scenario is just plain wrong.
Saturday’s XFINITY race was another exercise in the continuing world domination of Kyle Busch. Not only did the driver of the NOS Energy No. 18 Toyota win for the sixth time on the season, he did it in just his 10th race.
Busch led 190 of the 200 laps and earned the 82nd win of his career in NASCAR’s No. 2 series.
Consider these stats and you’ll appreciate just how mind-boggling Busch’s achievements are.
He’s run in only 321 XFINITY/Busch races over his career. It translates into a win every 3.9 times he gets in the car.
Busch’s finishes in 2016: Six wins, three seconds, one fourth. He’s been in front for 1,298 of a possible 1,692 laps, a staggering 76.7 percent of the time.
On the upcoming schedule, Busch will run at Indianapolis in the Lilly Diabetes 250, then at Watkins Glen two weeks later. Good news: After that race, he’ll chill on Saturdays until Richmond in September.
For the debut of the XFINITY Series Chase, only three regulars – Erik Jones (two), Daniel Suarez and Elliott Sadler – will be in the 12-driver field based on their victories earned. That speaks loudly to how high a standard Kyle Busch has set.
It’s only impossible for those who don’t try.
Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @Tomzsports and email tominator19@yahoo.com.
NEXT WEEK'S RACES
Indianapolis Motor Speedway (2.5-mile oval).
-SPRINT CUP: Crown Royal Presents the Combat Wounded Coalition 400, Sunday, 3 p.m. ET/Noon PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 and the IMS Radio Network.
Race distance: 400 miles, 160 laps.
2015 champion: Kyle Busch
-XFINITY SERIES: Lilly Diabetes 250, Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET/12:30 p.m. PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 and the IMS Radio Network.
Race distance: 250 miles, 100 laps.
2015 champion: Kyle Busch.
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Aspen Dental Eldora Dirt Derby, Eldora Speedway (.500-mile dirt oval), Rossburg, Ohio, Wednesday, 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT, Fox Sports 1. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 150 laps, 75 miles.
2015 champion: Christopher Bell.