Sunday, June 26, 2016

At long last, Stewart breaks winless drought at Sonoma

Since I began my career in sports writing nearly 20 years ago, one of the bigger lessons I was taught was when it comes to being a good reporter, you simply have to keep cheering out of the words you put on a page.
With what went down at Sonoma Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., on Sunday, it was next to impossible to jump up and down like a kid about to be let loose in a candy store.
For all the heartaches, all the bad luck, all the stress and pain, Tony Stewart finally grabbed a dose of nirvana at a track he’s more than familiar with.
Stewart got a break when a well-timed pit stop put him in front, then he worked a final restart to perfection and had to hold off a hard-charging Denny Hamlin to win the Toyota/SaveMart 350. It was Stewart’s eighth road-course win (third at Sonoma) and 49th career Sprint Cup win, but it meant so much more than an average race day.
The last time Stewart won came at Dover on June 2, 2013. Three years and 24 days later – a stretch of 84 races – Stewart found his way back to Victory Lane.
And if you can’t appreciate how it unfolded, please go back and check yourself for a pulse, heart or soul.
At lap 83, Stewart and his No. 14 Chevrolet sat in 17th place. Five laps later, the race’s fourth and final caution came out. All of a sudden, Stewart found himself in front of the field.
He didn’t let it go over the final 22 laps, including one precarious restart and two bump-and-run exchanges with Hamlin in the final three turns.
Just like Kyle Busch before him one year ago, Stewart – despite missing the first eight races – has met the first requirement for making the 2016 Chase. One checkered flag in the win column.
Now comes the harder part. Stewart still needs to get to the top 30 in points, but he’s closer than you think.
With 10 races to go until the Chase, Stewart is 32nd in points, but only nine behind Brian Scott and three behind Regan Smith. Since he returned eight races ago, Stewart had struggled with only one top-10 and three straight early exits.
But after a seventh-place run at Michigan two weeks ago, it had the feeling of a turn-the-corner moment for the entire Stewart-Haas Racing organization.
When the checkered flag flew, the picture captured by the Fox cameras of Stewart’s father, Nelson, wiping away tears showed you just how special the breakthrough moment was. Stewart led laps only one other time on the 2016 season at Kansas, but ended up 12th.
In the bigger picture, Stewart may have the win, but he can’t afford to backslide into finishes he endured at places like Dover (34th), Charlotte (24th) and Pocono (34th) if he wants one last shot at a fourth Sprint Cup title.
Smoke is also one win away from becoming the 13th driver in NASCAR history to reach 50 career wins. After what he’s been through since his last one, from the broken leg that cost him 15 races in 2013 to the tragic accident involving Kevin Ward and missing the first eight races this year due to a non-racing injury, Tony Stewart has definitely risen from the ashes.
Stewart said he wasn’t having much fun driving a Sprint Cup car to the media on Friday. What a difference a little luck can make to improve the feeling.
Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @Tomzsports.
Daytona International Speedway (2.5-mile D-shaped oval), Daytona Beach, Fla.
-SPRINT CUP: Coke Zero 400, Saturday, 7:45 p.m. ET/4:45 p.m. PT, NBC. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 400 miles, 160 laps.
2015 champion: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
-XFINITY SERIES: Subway Firecracker 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 miles, 100 laps.
2015 champion: Austin Dillon.
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Off until July 7 for the Kentucky 225 at Kentucky Speedway.
Side note: At least John Wes Townley and Spencer Gallagher can go to their neutral corners after their little wrestling match at Gateway that happened with five laps to go Saturday night. It's all raw emotion, though, and it definitely got everyone talking.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Logano rules youth movement at Michigan

Joey Logano won six races in 2015, nearly made the final four for a second time, and had an all-around successful year.
As for Logano’s start to 2016, the wins were just a bit harder to come by. The newest incarnation of a lower-downforce package was a catalyst to end his drought.
Asserting his dominance on restarts to hold off all challengers, Logano cruised to the win in the Firekeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway on June 12, leading 138 of the 200 laps. He became the 10th different driver to win a race on the season and punched his ticket to the Chase.
And if anyone had doubts about the future of NASCAR, they needed to look at who ran up front at MIS. After the 26-year-old Logano, Chase Elliott (20) and Kyle Larson (23) combined to become the youngest top three finishers – average age: 23 – in a Sprint Cup race since 1951.
While the young ones were ruling the front of the field, some of the veterans weren’t nearly as fortunate, including Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch.
For the fourth race in a row, Busch finished 30th or worse. His No. 18 M&Ms Toyota lost the engine on lap 52 and he finished dead last in 40th. Earnhardt Jr. was the next car out of the race after his No. 88 collided with Chris Buescher at lap 62.
Adding insult to the injury, Buescher was able to have the damage repaired to his No. 34 and he went on to finish 20th.
As the series heads to the second off week of the year, the debate can officially begin on who will break through and change their zero in the win column to get into the Chase.
Here’s a stat to note: In the first two seasons with the new eliminator-style format, there were 13 and 11 drivers, respectively, who got into the Chase by winning a race in the first 26. So far in Year 3, there are some notable names still searching for that elusive checkered flag.
Earnhardt Jr. headlines the list. After three wins in 2015, Junior has been shaky of late. Although he has four runner-up efforts, the average finish for the 88 since Texas has been 16th and he’s led just 53 laps on the year.
Elliott is as close to having a breakthrough in the win column as any Cup rookie in a long, long time. The runner-up finish at Michigan was the best of his 15-race career and he’s had 11 top-10 runs.
After crashing at Las Vegas and ending up 38th, Elliott’s average finish since then has been 7.1. He should be Rookie of the Year in a stone-cold lock, although Ryan Blaney has potential to give him a run for his money.
Austin Dillon – love him or hate him – shook off three weeks of bad runs and grabbed an eighth-place finish at Michigan. He’ll need to put at least three weeks of solid runs together to stay in Chase contention.
As for Blaney, he would be the 16th and final Chase qualifier if it started today. Cliché aside, the Wood Brothers driver has seen mistakes at the worst times cost him shots at wins.
Blaney does have four top-10s in the last six races, but with the first of two road course races coming up at Sonoma Raceway in two weeks, the pressure to perform is officially on.
For all the remaining drivers with championship dreams, the race to the Chase begins right now.
Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @Tomzsports.
Iowa Speedway (.875-mile oval), Newton, Iowa)
-XFINITY SERIES: American Ethanol E15 250, Sunday, 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: 250 laps, 218.75 miles
2015 champion: Chris Buescher
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Speediatrics 200, 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: 200 laps, 175 miles
2015 champion: Erik. Jones.
-SPRINT CUP: Off until June 26 for the Toyota/SaveMart 350 at Sonoma Raceway, Sonoma, Calif.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Kurt Busch conquers Pocono, ends drought

Considering it had been nearly a year -- 34 races, to be precise -- since Kurt Busch last saw Victory Lane, an extra 24 hours certainly didn't make the feeling any less sweeter when he took the checkered flag Monday in the Axalta We Paint Winners 400 at Pocono Raceway.
Even with a substitute crew chief in Johnny Klausmeier on his pit box, Busch got the right read on his fuel mileage, led the final 32 laps, and held off Dale Earnhardt Jr. for his first Cup win since last year's first Michigan race.
Not a bad way to put yourself back in the Chase and become the ninth different race winner of the 2016 season.
And when it came to the fuel mileage, which can be an issue on the 2.5-mile triangle track, Busch was genuinely surprised when told how much he needed to save.
"I was like 'whoa. How many laps shy are we?'" Busch said in the post-race media center interview. "They said two. These are really long straightaways at Pocono and you have to manage fuel as well as maintaining lap time."
In the end, Busch had enough fuel to not only earn his 28th Sprint Cup win by just over a second over Earnhardt Jr., but he completed the burnout with enough fuel left to park the car in Victory Lane.
With the second half of the "regular season" officially under way -- only 12 races left until the Chase -- we may be on pace to have a similar number of Chase qualifiers as we did last year (13). 
Kyle Busch may be leading the way with three wins already in defense of his championship, but there's always something new and entertaining to make you pull your hair out about the guy. Seems that a debris caution that came out while the No. 18 was leading at lap 89 was reason to bark on his radio that NASCAR was favoring rookie Chase Elliott.
Elliott assumed the lead during the pit stops and held it for the next 29 laps, but finished fourth. Busch's day took a rapid turn downhill when he got together with Ryan Newman and hit the Turn 1 wall. He would head to the garage and end up 31st.
Of course, anything other than first is never good enough for Kyle, but that's fine. Passion is good. Accepting disappointment and moving forward is much better.
In the final stat analysis, there weren't a lot of lead changes to talk about, but the racing is getting better when Pocono handles four- and five-wide racing with a few hearts that skip extra beats and leave fans wondering where the moves came from.
We'll still have our angry moments as we move forward -- see Brad Keselowski's issue with a comment Fox analyst Jeff Gordon made on his team's pit road penalty during the broadcast -- but they don't need to stick around any longer than necessary.
After all, the next race is right around the corner.
Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @Tomzsports or email
Michigan International Speedway (2-mile oval), Brooklyn, Michigan.
-SPRINT CUP: Firekeepers Casino 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, 200 laps.
2015 champion: Kurt Busch.
-XFINITY SERIES: Menards 250 presented by Valvoline, Saturday, 1:30 p.m. ET/10:30 a.m. PT, Fox Sports 1. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90.
Race distance: 250 miles, 125 laps.
2015 champion: Kyle Busch
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Rattlesnake 400, Texas Motor Speedway (1.5-mile D-shaped oval), Fort Worth, Texas, Friday, 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT, Fox Sports 1. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local MRN Radio affiliate.
Race distance: 400 kilometers (250.5 miles), 167 laps.
2015 champion: Matt Crafton.