Monday, May 30, 2016

Best race day delivers excitement to savor

When Memorial Day weekend approaches, any race fan worth their salt recognizes there will be a lot to look forward to from the moment they wake up to the last lap of the last race is run.
It was no different for me Sunday in the Holy Grail trilogy of speed. This is how I grabbed hold of the action – at least as much of it as possible.
The opening installment of the best racing day of the year came from overseas as Formula 1 raced the Grand Prix of Monaco. I’ll admit I wasn’t always a fan of the series, but the stature of Monaco got me hooked a couple of years ago.
Due to the starting time – NBC came on the air at 5:30 a.m. – I didn’t wake up until the race was 22 laps in. As things turned out, there wasn’t much that was missed.
The 78-lap race that draws celebrities in abundance – there was a shot of tennis star Caroline Wozniacki during the broadcast and Justin Bieber celebrated with winner Lewis Hamilton on the podium – had to deal with rain at the start as the field ran behind the safety car for the first seven laps.
One of the big things to note about Formula 1 racing: there are no rain delays. Teams had to get creative with their use of tires as the weather improved, and it played a big part in Hamilton’s win.
The bigger reason: pole winner Daniel Ricciardo’s race team wasn’t prepared with the right tires when he came in for a pit stop at lap 31, allowing Hamilton to keep the lead. The Mercedes driver nearly lost it when he overshot a chicane on the course, but put a block up on Ricciardo just in time and legally – after a review by race stewards.
It turned out to be Ricciardo’s last real shot as Hamilton went on to win the race by a little over seven seconds.
And if you’re thinking that F1 racing isn’t worth caring about, take note of two things. Gene Haas -- co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing – has branched out with his own team featuring Roman Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez, and the series will race at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas in October.
After a one-hour break, it was time to celebrate a major American milestone with the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500. There was major pomp and circumstance, and it was on display throughout the pre-race show.
When the green flag flew, it brought an amazing race for the ages. Problems on pit road took out key contenders, fuel mileage gambles didn’t work for others.
And Alexander Rossi ended up drinking the milk in Victory Lane, the first rookie to win at Indy since Helio Castroneves did it in 2001. He barely had enough fuel at the end and looked genuinely shocked by the time the safety crew towed him in for the celebration.
There were also 54 lead changes, adding to the magic moments witnessed live by an estimated crowd of 350,000 people.
The final dose of memories to savor came from Martin Truex Jr., who won the Coca-Cola 600 Sprint Cup race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in almost absurdly dominating fashion.
Truex was so good under the lights, he led 392 of the 400 laps around the 1.5-mile track. The 588 total miles led set a new NASCAR record and was wildly entertaining to watch.
A few weeks ago, I documented how Truex had been snakebit throughout his career in races where he led more than 100 laps but didn’t win at the end. On Sunday night, Truex Jr. absolutely demolished the demons of failed races past and secured his spot in the 2016 Chase in tidy fashion.
To truly appreciate what the win meant, search for clips of his Victory Lane interview with Fox Sports' Matt Yocum. The hug he received from girlfriend and cancer survivor Sherry Pollex was as true and genuine as they come.
The Coca-Cola 600 had only four cautions and was run in well under four hours (3:44) with an average speed of more than 160 mph.
And in the end, race fans all around the world were left full, content and happy.
Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @Tomzsports.
Pocono Raceway (2.5-mile tri-oval), Long Pond, Pa.
-SPRINT CUP: Axalta "We Paint Winners" 400, Sunday, 1 p.m. ET/10 a.m. PT, Fox Sports 1. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 400 miles, 160 laps.
2015 champion: Martin Truex Jr.
-XFINITY SERIES: Pocono Green 250, Saturday, 1 p.m. ET/10 a.m. PT, Fox. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 250 miles, 100 laps.
2015 champion: Inaugural event.
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Off until June 10 for the Rattlesnake 400 at Texas Motor Speedway.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Kenseth survives three-way battle at Dover

With all of the success enjoyed by the other drivers at Joe Gibbs Racing, Matt Kenseth may have felt like a fifth wheel. Bad breaks and bad luck seemed to follow him everywhere in 2016.
In the season’s first 11 races, Kenseth’s three teammates – Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin – won six of them. The driver of the No. 20 car could only manage a pair of seventh-place finishes at Phoenix and Richmond.
But after a turn-the-corner moment with a fourth at Kansas last week, Kenseth finally joined the JGR victory party, capturing his first and the race team’s seventh win of 2016 by winning the AAA 400 Drive for Autism at Dover International Speedway.
And the opportunity came with the help of a good break, for a change. Kenseth was able to take the lead just before a Matt DiBenedetto spin at lap 354, and when an 18-car pileup happened off the restart five laps later, it set up a fight to the finish that made for riveting viewing.
First, there was Kyle Larson. The driver of the No. 42 Target Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi had his shot over the final five laps and even got to Kenseth’s bumper a few times. There would be no bump-and-run.
"I had gotten close to his bumper a couple times," Larson said to NASCAR Wire Service. "I may have even got into him once. I didn't want to do anything dirty. I respect Matt Kenseth a lot. He's definitely, in my eyes, the cleanest racer out there. He always races me with respect. I try to do the same with him.”
But Kenseth ended up as the one in Victory Lane, earning his 37th Cup win and tying Kyle Busch and Bobby Isaac for 19th on the career list. Lesson for Larson: being a nice guy is one thing, but it doesn’t get you race wins.
Rookie Chase Elliott was also in the mix. The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet finished third, best of his career so far. Elliott got by Larson for second with 20 laps to go, but had to give up the position three laps later due to difficulty with lap traffic.
They call Dover the Monster Mile, and everything that happened – from the big late-race wreck (are we sure that wasn’t Talladega?) to the riveting three-way fight to the finish – gave more credence to the nickname.
Every little thing that can help put fans back in the seats is certainly worth it, and the AAA 400 Drive for Autism played a valuable part in making progress toward that goal.
Normally, I don’t spend any time talking about Formula 1 racing here, but from what I saw on my device as I crawled out of bed Sunday morning was a beautiful attention-getter.
The Pirelli Grand Prix of Spain from Barcelona was won by Max Verstappen. Of course, you’re asking “who’s he?” Right?
Verstappen is basically an 18-year-old kid from Belgium who went out and made history, becoming the youngest Formula 1 race winner ever at 18 years, 228 days. Sebastian Vettel was the previous record holder at 21 years, 73 days.
If that doesn’t make you say “whoa,” please check for a pulse.
Verstappen led 30 laps, including the last 23 where he survived a shootout over the 2.89-mile Catalunya course with none other than Kimi Raikkonen (20 career wins, 2007 season champion) bearing down on him. Like Larson, Raikkonen got close but never could complete a pass for the lead.
Verstappen got the win in his 24th start in F1. It was the first time he’s led laps.
If you don’t have the NBC Sports Live Extra app on your device, find a way to watch the replay of the Spanish Grand Prix. It’ll make you believe anything really is possible.
Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @Tomzsports and email
Charlotte Motor Speedway (1.5-mile D-shaped oval), Concord, N.C.
-SPRINT CUP: Sprint Showdown, Friday, 7 p.m. ET/4 p.m. PT, Fox Sports 1. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
2015 champion: Clint Bowyer
NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race, Saturday, 7 p.m. ET/4 p.m. PT, Fox Sports 1. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
2015 champion: Denny Hamlin
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: North Carolina Education Lottery 200, Thursday, 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: 201 miles, 134 laps.
2015 champion: Kasey Kahne
-XFINITY SERIES: Off until May 28 for the HiSense 300 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Kyle Busch kicks Kansas off winless list

When it came to a list of his favorite tracks to race, Kansas Speedway likely didn’t rank very high for Kyle Busch.
The numbers didn’t lie, either. His average finish was 19th. In 16 prior starts on the 1.5-mile oval, Busch had no wins and led a grand total of 87 laps out of more than 4,200 raced at the track.
All of the bad vibes changed to the good in one fortunate swoop as Busch crossed the finish line first Saturday night at the 400. Not only did Kyle cross Kansas off his winless list – leaving only Pocono and Charlotte yet to conquer – he did the bulk of his work late in the race. Of the 69 laps he led, 37 came during the final stages.
Busch was able to seize the opportunity when Martin Truex Jr., who led a race-high 172 laps but finished 14th, was forced to return to pit road at lap 215 due to a loose wheel. The bad break was the result of a bolt that broke and didn’t allow the tire to mount on a prior green-flag stop that happened three laps earlier.
From there, Busch only had to get by two more restarts. The second one came with 19 laps to go after teammate Denny Hamlin tried a risky three-wide move that took out Kyle Larson, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano along with him.
Busch, who led from lap 231 to the finish, held off Kevin Harvick and earned his third win of 2016. It was Busch’s 37th career Cup win and came five days after he celebrated his 31st birthday.
When you’re going well, all can seem awesome with the world. In direct contrast, everything probably felt like a bad trip through a Walking Dead episode to Martin Truex Jr.
For the eighth time in his Sprint Cup career, Truex led more than 100 laps. For the seventh time, he didn’t win the race. The only time Truex pulled off the feat was his first career Sprint Cup win at his “home” track, Dover International Speedway, in 2007.
Among the seven times of plus-100 in the laps led without winning, it’s happened to Truex at Kansas twice. In the eeriest of coincidence, Truex led 173 laps in the spring race in 2012 and finished second.
Texas Motor Speedway is also on the twice-bitten track list for Truex. In this year’s spring race, he led 141 laps and finished sixth. In the 2013 spring race, he led 142 laps and finished second.
If that’s not bad luck, Truex wouldn’t have any luck at all.
But the native of Mayetta, New Jersey does have three career wins. I had the privilege of witnessing his triumph in the 2013 Toyota/SaveMart 350 at Sonoma Raceway. As the laps were winding down, I was flashing back to places like Kansas and Texas, where something bad seemed to always come into play.
Yes, I doubted Truex would hang on.
On that June day three years ago, the bad breaks stayed away. When the checkered flag came out for Truex, it ended a wait of nearly six years between victories.
And one thing I’ll never forget from that weekend was how his car owner, Michael Waltrip, said directly to my face without cockiness or pretense at a press preview luncheon in San Francisco that his guy, Martin Truex Jr., would win on Sunday.
He’s got Toyota equipment to drive again after a two-year absence, so the potential for another victory is there. As long as the gremlins stay away, anything is possible at any given moment.
Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @Tomzsports and email at
Dover International Speedway (1-mile oval), Dover, Delaware.
-SPRINT CUP: AAA 400 Drive for Autism, Sunday, 1 p.m. ET/10 a.m. PT, Fox Sports 1. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 400 miles, 400 laps.
2015 champion: Jimmie Johnson
-XFINITY SERIES: Ollie's Bargain Outlet 200, Saturday, 2 p.m. ET/11 a.m. PT, Fox. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affliate.
Race distance: 200 miles, 200 laps.
2015 champion: Chris Buescher
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Dover 200, Friday, 5:30 p.m. ET/2:30 p.m. PT, Fox Sports 1. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 200 miles, 200 laps.
2015 champion: Tyler Reddick

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Understanding Talladega can be challenge

When the time comes for the 10th race of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season, it means a trip to the biggest track in Talladega Superspeedway.
For those who make the trek to the huge 2.66-mile oval that features pre-race parties, restrictor plates, packs of cars inches apart and wrecks that would make Los Angeles freeway drivers look like masters of safety, the visuals are crazy and indescribably entertaining.
The Sunday running of the Geico 500 was no different. He who keeps his race car away from the most trouble usually wins.
By the time 188 laps were run, Brad Keselowski came through with the help of two big pushes off the race’s final restart with two laps left that secured his fourth career victory at Talladega and second of 2016 (Las Vegas).
But it was what happened during the race itself that made Talladega a hair-pulling, maddening, and ultimately entertaining exercise.
Buoyed by the threat of rain that ultimately stayed away, drivers worked the steering wheel with much more urgency than normal in the early stages of the race. There wasn’t just one “big one” (a term that’s become an overused cliché), but three major wrecks that left plenty of sheet metal bent out of whack and egos bruised and battered at the end.
Big One Part One came at lap 96 – just past halfway – when Chris Buescher did three barrel rolls as his No. 34 car got caught in a seven-car wreck that involved Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards, among others.
Big One Deux happened at lap 161 and involved 21 cars. It was triggered when Kurt Busch got his car into Johnson’s bumper in the wrong place. Mistake made, carnage ensued.
When Johnson got turned, he hit Paul Menard, and more than half the field couldn’t escape damage.
But the capper of the crash trilogy came just 20 laps later. Matt Kenseth, who had led 39 laps, got the worst of it and let Joey Logano know about it afterwards. As it turned out, the feud from Martinsville last fall was reignited with the incident.
In the end, Keselowski emerged as the winner with another wreck involving seven more cars happening behind him and runner-up Kyle Busch. In total, only 28 of the 40 cars were running in the final finishing order, 21 on the lead lap.
That’s a fact of life at Talladega. Craziness can happen at any moment and lead changes are found in abundance, which makes the racing entertaining and not for those who don’t like the thrill of speed. There were 37 lead changes among 17 drivers at the Geico 500.
And if that wasn’t insane enough, the finish of Saturday’s Sparks Energy 300 XFINITY race got everyone talking just as loudly.
On the final lap, Logano and Elliott Sadler were dueling for the win when Logano got turned as he tried to block with the finish line in sight.
As Logano’s car plowed nose-first into the SAFER barrier, Brennan Poole thought he got by and got himself a victory.
But when the tape was reviewed, Sadler was awarded the win. The video shown on social media sites had the clear answer, showing the moment when the yellow caution light came on and how Sadler was ahead of the field.
It wasn’t the cleanest way to win, but it didn’t change the outcome. The right call was made, no matter who got angry.
And it all came on NASCAR’s biggest, baddest and most infuriating track. That’s why it’s a weekend that’s always worth looking forward to for any race fan.
Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @Tomzsports and email him at
Kansas Speedway (1.5-mile oval), Kansas City, Kansas
-SPRINT CUP: 400, Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET/4:30 p.m. PT, Fox Sports 1. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN affiliate.
Race distance: 400.5 miles, 267 laps.
2015 champion: Jimmie Johnson
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Toyota Tundra 250, 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: 250.5 miles, 167 laps.
2015 champion: Matt Crafton
-XFINITY SERIES: Off until May 14 at Dover International Speedway.