Sunday, March 20, 2016

Johnson win caps crazy California weekend

When it came to racing on the wide 2-mile oval at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., it didn’t draw many rave reviews in the early years.
On a typically warm, sun-splashed day in Southern California, a native son made the most of a late opportunity and gave the fans in attendance another Sprint Cup race worth talking about.
Jimmie Johnson, who grew up down the road in El Cajon, got by Kevin Harvick on the final two-lap overtime restart to win the Auto Club 400 on March 20. Johnson became the first two-time winner of 2016 and moved past Dale Earnhardt into seventh place with his 77th career victory.
Johnson’s good fortune may not have happened if it weren’t for Kyle Busch’s No. 18 car blowing a tire to bring out the race’s sixth and final caution at lap 198, only two short of the scheduled distance. Harvick led 142 laps on the day, but Denny Hamlin won the race off pit road as the lead-lap cars came in to replace tires.
On the restart, Johnson momentarily fell behind Hamlin, but gave Harvick a push to the front before maneuvering to the inside of the No. 4 and pulling away for the win. It was Johnson’s sixth win at Auto Club in 22 starts at the track.
And it all came on a day when Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet was adorned with a Superman logo in honor of the upcoming “Batman vs. Superman” movie. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Johnson’s teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, drove the Batman car at Auto Club and finished 11th.
Johnson’s fire suit was emblazoned with the hallmark red “S” with yellow trim across the chest, but he felt like the whole team could have easily worn the distinction with just as much pride.
“Yeah, it's fun to have a paint-out like this on the race car,” Johnson said in his post-race interview. “We had the Madagascar 3 movie and won with it, had these goofy wigs that we wore.  Everybody was waiting for a chance to pull out a cape if we won here.
“All the wins are special, but when you have props and a cause like this, it takes it to the next level.”
Harvick, who was looking for his second straight win, lamented his ending misfortune.
"We weren’t very good on restarts for four or five laps, unless we were all by ourselves," said Harvick in a NASCAR Wire Service story. "The No. 48 was able to hang with us, and we just weren’t able to drive it in like I needed to, just didn’t have the front tires turning and the back wouldn’t grip.”
With Earnhardt now in the rear-view mirror on the wins list, Johnson knows the march up the ladder toward the likes of the now-retired Jeff Gordon with 93 victories, David Pearson’s 105 and Richard Petty’s untouchable 200 won’t be easy.
“There are no guarantees about when you're going to win and have success,” Johnson said. “I've been very, very fortunate to win 77 of these things, which blows my mind by itself.
“It's easy to look at trends and say we win X a year, but at some point that stops, that stops for everybody. I don't know when that point is for me.  I certainly hope it's not soon.”
Since he started his full-time Sprint Cup career in 2002, Johnson has won at least twice in every season – 15 years in a row and counting. As long as his health holds up and the racing is still fun, don’t be surprised if the debate heats up on not only if, but when Johnson – who doesn’t turn 41 until September – passes Gordon and joins Pearson and Petty in the century club.
The six-time champion picked up his 77th win in his 512th career start, an average of once every 6.6 times Johnson gets in the car. With success like that, only the foolish and cynical would have reason to doubt that he can take his true place among the greats of the sport when all is said and done.
Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @Tomzsports.
All series are off March 27 for Easter.
Martinsville Speedway (.526-mile short track oval), Martinsville, Va.
-SPRINT CUP: STP 500, April 3, 1 p.m. ET/10 a.m. PT, Fox Sports 1 (check local listings). Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN affiliate.
Race distance: 500 laps, 263 miles.
2015 champion: Denny Hamlin.
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Alpha Energy Solutions 250, April 2, 2:30 p.m. ET/11:30 a.m. PT, Fox Sports 1. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN affiliate.
Race distance: 250 laps, 131.5 miles.
2015 champion: Joey Logano
-XFINITY SERIES: Off until April 8 for the O'Reilly Auto Parts 300 at Texas Motor Speedway.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Harvick rules at PIR by mere inches

Kevin Harvick didn’t have the greatest of qualifying efforts at Phoenix International Raceway in the Good Sam 500 on March 13. Even with five wins in his previous six visits to the 1-mile oval, the task of coming to the front from the middle of the field was formidable.

For Harvick, the challenge turned out to be a piece of cake, even with having to survive a heart-wrenching finish.
Harvick led 139 of the 312 laps and outmaneuvered Carl Edwards at the finish line to win for the sixth time in the last eight races at Phoenix and become the fourth different race winner in the 2016 season.
And even though Harvick – who qualified 18th – and Edwards were two of only four drivers who led laps all day, the second photo-finish in the first four races of the season had everyone talking afterwards. It came courtesy of a two-lap shootout after Kasey Kahne wrecked at lap 308, four short of the finish.
Harvick got a jump off the restart, but Edwards got his No. 19 Toyota down to the low side of the track on the white-flag lap. Edwards gave Harvick a shove up the hill, but when the No. 4 car bumped back, it was enough to get the victory – by just one-hundredth of a second.
“Fun finish,” said Harvick, who won for the eighth time in his career at PIR. “I think as drivers and as a sport, that's really the benefit -- one of the benefits of the low downforce package and the tire situation.”
The driver of the Jimmy John’s Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing didn’t lead for the first time until lap 169, but he held on to it for all but six of the remaining circuits. When the last of the race’s five caution flags came out, it gave Edwards the chance he was looking for after finishing 18th at Las Vegas last week.
“Just a lot of fun,” Edwards said of the finish. “I really wish it would have worked out a little bit differently, but it's a good race. I ran into (Harvick) about as hard as I thought I could without wrecking him, and it ended up being a drag race.”
With the low-downforce package providing more than enough brain drains for crew chiefs and drivers alike, Harvick knows the process of figuring it all out hasn’t even begun to take shape with the season only four weeks old.
“It's a totally different mentality in practice right now,” Harvick said. “It's not about how fast you go, it's really about how long can you go fast and trying to get the falloff in the car to stay where it needs to be.”
On a warm, sunny afternoon in the desert, Harvick and the No. 4 crew got everything figured out just in time and just enough.
Among the 10 closest race finishes in NASCAR history, Harvick has now been involved in two of them. He beat Jeff Gordon by .006 to win at Atlanta Motor Speedway on March 11, 2001.
Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @Tomzsports.
Auto Club Speedway (2-mile superspeedway), Fontana, California
-SPRINT CUP: Auto Club 400, Sunday, 3:30 p.m. ET/12:30 p.m. PT, Fox (check listings). Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN affiliate.
Race distance: 400 miles, 200 laps
2015 champion: Brad Keselowski
-XFINITY SERIES: 300, Saturday, 4 p.m. ET/1 p.m. PT, Fox Sports 1. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN affiliate.
Race distance: 300 miles, 150 laps.
2015 champion: Kevin Harvick
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Off until April 2 at Martinsville Speedway.
Side note: Other than Daytona, when he was basically told not to compete, Kyle Busch has been otherworldly in his dominance at Atlanta, Las Vegas and Phoenix.
He hasn't just won all three, but he's crushed the field and made them eat brake dust for dinner.
How good is the driver with 79 wins in 314 starts in NASCAR's No. 2 series? This good...
Out of 563 laps run in the last three weeks, Busch has led 493. That's 87.6 percent of the total.
Between Las Vegas and Phoenix, the ratio is 374 out of 400, or 93.5 percent.
In past posts here, I've argued how all the winning Busch has done in XFINITY and trucks hasn't meant squat without a Cup championship. Now that the Cup trophy is in the case, Busch is making the track his own personal playground.
While those who don't care for Busch are crying sour grapes, it's a tired, stale act. Instead of complaining about things like limiting how often Cup guys can run in the lower series, it's about time we appreciate what Busch is doing.
In order to be the best, you have to beat the best. Everyone in the XFINITY garage recognizes that. It's about time the fans do the same.
Another item I have to confess here: I had a three-way viewing/listening experience Sunday between the NCAA Tournament selection show on my computer, an additional Facebook tab, and the race from Phoenix on my SiriusXM app.
The early ratings showed NASCAR came within an eyelash of beating the selection show for viewing audience, 3.7 to 3.6. CBS tried to expand to two hours for the first time. It was a dull, lifeless experience.
Not so from the finish at Phoenix. The excitement came when it mattered, and it's continued a trend of great finishes through the first four weeks.
As long as the racing keeps going like it has been, interest in NASCAR will continue to grow in 2016. Maybe not back to the level it was at the turn of the millenium, but at least on an upward trend. 

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Keselowski rallies, wins at Las Vegas

LAS VEGAS – Brad Keselowski hadn’t seen Victory Lane for a long time. Complicating the moment just a little bit more, his Penske Racing teammate was holding up his progress as the pair worked on chasing down Kyle Busch.

Once the No. 2 Miller Lite Ford Fusion got past Joey Logano and into clean air,, the drought would finally come to an end.
Keselowski got past Kyle Busch with just six laps remaining and held on to win the Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday, a day  that had a little bit of everything in the weather department – from rain to gusty winds to a sandstorm.
Not only was it the first win for the Penske Racing driver since last year at Auto Club Speedway, but it was his second in the last three years at LVMS that locked him into the 2016 Chase.
“We’re thrilled to be locked into the Chase this early in the season,” Keselowski said. “It’s a tremendous feeling for our team, and I wouldn’t trade my guys on pit road. They were a large part of our success this week.”
Things looked bleak for Keselowski as Kyle Busch, who had won the previous day’s XFINITY Series Boyd Gaming 300 in dominating fashion, looked to be heading for a weekend sweep when he took the lead from Logano with 44 laps to go.
But when the race’s sixth and final caution came out at lap 226, Busch took only left-side tires on his pit stop. Keselowski took four and once he got past his teammate into second place, the race to the finish was on.
With Busch struggling with a vibration on the right front tire of his No. 18 M&Ms Toyota Camry, it wouldn’t take long for Keselowski to take control.
“I knew when I was watching, as soon as I passed Joey, I focused on the 18,” said Keselowski, who had a momentary setback when he received a pit-road speeding penalty at lap 180.. “When I saw his car, the way it was sliding and the line he was running, I knew after that first lap we could win the race.”
Paul Wolfe, Keselowski’s crew chief, added, “At that point, listening to Kyle, he pretty much used up everything he had. I can't say it was probably much of a fight getting by him.”
For Keselowski, the second race with the new low-downforce package was even better than the first – a ninth-place effort at Atlanta.
“I think you saw, because of the new rules package, the cars fell off a lot at the end of a run and you really had to drive them sideways,” Keselowski said. “Took a lot of balance as a driver, a lot of precise footwork and accuracy with where you put your car and how you place it.
“This shouldn’t be easy. This is the Sprint Cup Series. These cars should be very hard to drive. At the end of the run, they were a challenge. It’s nice to be a part of that.”
Logano was not only second in the race, but second to Jimmie Johnson in laps led with 70. Like his teammate, Logano gave the new package rave reviews.
“I’ve never seen the leader really check out and go away,” Logano said. “It was pretty cool to be able to see some more racing.”
Johnson, Kyle Busch and Austin Dillon rounded out the top five finishers. Ryan Blaney was the highest-finishing rookie in sixth. The start of the race was delayed for about 25 minutes due to rain, and a sandstorm forced a shorter delay in the later stages.
Followers welcome on Twitter @Tomzsports.
Phoenix International Raceway (1-mile oval), Avondale, Arizona.
-SPRINT CUP: Good Sam 500, Sunday, 3:30 p.m. ET/12:30 p.m. PT, Fox (check listings). Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 500 kilometers (312 miles), 312 laps.
2015 champion: Kevin Harvick.
-XFINITY SERIES: Axalta Faster, Tougher, Brighter 200, Saturday, 2:30 p.m. ET/11:30 a.m. PT, Fox  (check listings). Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 200 miles, 200 laps.
2015 champion: Joey Logano
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Off until April 2 at Martinsville Speedway.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Kyle Busch gets first XFINITY win at Vegas

Prior to Saturday afternoon, Kyle Busch had never visited Victory Lane in any XFINITY Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. With 77 career wins in NASCAR’s No. 2 series already in place on the resume, it would only be a matter of time.
After 11 prior misses, Busch put his foot down and delivered another dominating effort.
The Las Vegas native led all but one of the 200 laps and held off hard-charging teammate Daniel Suarez down the stretch to win the Boyd Gaming 300 on a windy, cloudy day at LVMS. Busch won his 78th XFINITY race in just his 313th start.
“Today was pretty special to finally get a win in the hometown and check that one off the list,” said Busch, who was runner-up in his two previous starts at Vegas. “I’m really excited to be able to accomplish that.”
Busch qualified on the pole earlier in the day with a speed of 182.698 mph, just ahead of Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Erik Jones – who overcame two pit-road speeding penalties to finish third – and Suarez. He wasted little time staying out front and only fell out of the lead during the race’s initial green-flag pit stop at lap 55.
“I think you saw this coming toward the end of last year when you look at JGR as a whole, how we started running on the XFINITY side,” crew chief Chris Gayle said. “It’s a big tribute to all the guys at the shop and all the work that was started last year, how it’s come over. It’s a lot of work by a lot of guys to make it happen.”
Suarez had a top-five car through most of the race and was able to chop off most of Busch’s lead after a red-flag period of 19 minutes at lap 138 for a wreck that involved Darrell Wallace, Cody Ware and Justin Marks in Turn 2. When the race resumed five laps later, the need to save fuel hit high gear.
“The fuel was a concern before the red flag,” Gayle said. “We didn’t know how close we were until we pitted on the last green-flag stop. At that point, after the red flag was lifted, the priority was keeping the lead. You never know how the cautions are going to fall.”
As it turned out, the red flag was the third and final caution of the race. Suarez closed within six-tenths of a second inside of 15 laps to go, but Busch had more than enough in his tank to close the deal and get the hometown win.
“Certainly there’s been a lot more following through the garage area after the (Cup) championship,” Busch said. “Typically this isn’t much different than the others. I know I didn’t make many friends when I was winning in the Bullring days, either.”
Suarez added: “It’s fun to drive fast race cars like that. Everyone worked hard the whole winter, and now it’s paying off slowly. It took me a while to figure out how to be fast with a loose race car.”
Chase Elliott and Austin Dillon completed the top five. Only 11 cars finished on the lead lap and the winning average speed was 145.415 mph.
Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @Tomzsports.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Kurt Busch wins pole at Las Vegas

Las Vegas may be home to Kurt Busch, but his hometown track was just as welcoming in qualifying for the Kobalt 400 on Friday.
For the second straight week, Busch won the pole at Las Vegas Motor Speedway after turning in a speed of 196.328 mph and time of 27.505 seconds in the final round of qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup race. Busch broke the track record in the opening round, kicking up the speed to 196.378 mph and lowering the time to 27.498.
Even with the success, Busch nearly missed out on having a shot at the pole during the second round of three-round qualifying.
“I overdrove the car in Turn 2 in the second round,” said Busch, who also won the pole at LVMS in 2010. “We had to do an extra run, and it made for an extra pressure-cooker situation. All in all, you just have to play it cool and rely on your team members.
“The way the session unfolded for us, we were in perfect position by the time we got to Round 3.”
With only five minutes available to make the best possible lap in the final round, Busch made his count, beating Joey Logano by nearly seven-hundredths of a second. Logano ran his lap around the 1.5-mile oval in 27.572 seconds and 195.851 mph.
“Two poles in a row is reason to celebrate,” Busch said. “It symbolizes our hard work during the offseason to come out of the box and sit on two poles at two mile-and-a-halves right away.”
Logano rebounded from a 26th-place qualifying run at Atlanta last week, the first with NASCAR’s new low-downforce package. The driver of the No. 22 Shell Pennzoil Ford Fusion said any falloff with the tires is to be determined when the 267-lap race gets under way Sunday.
“We saw some falloff yesterday when we were in race trim,” Logano said. “Today we never came out of qualifying trim. It was one lap, one lap, one lap.
“I think there will be more (tire) falloff than there was last year. It won’t be huge like last week, but there will be some, for sure.”
Matt Kenseth, a three-time race winner at Las Vegas, just missed passing Logano’s time, but still qualified third with a 27.582 at 195.780. Logano’s Penske Racing teammate, Brad Keselowski, will join Kenseth in Row 2 after qualifying fourth (27.598,195.666).
“We had a pretty decent day, just didn’t have enough at the end,” said Keselowski, looking for his second Vegas win in three years (2014). “I tried too hard to get the last little bit of pickup, and it wasn’t quite there.”
Austin Dillon and defending Kobalt 400 race winner Kevin Harvick will make up the third row. Aric Almirola, Kasey Kahne, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Jimmie Johnson and A.J. Allmendinger completed the top 12 starters.
Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @Tomzsports..