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
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: 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
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.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Earnhardt Jr. concussion issues leave reasons for concern

A mid-July race during the long NASCAR Sprint Cup season may have a lot of news value attached, but a definite exception was made when a major item broke Thursday afternoon.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. – who has only been the most popular driver for the last decade – announced he will not be running at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sunday due to concussion-like symptoms. It’s a big blow for a driver who could not only use a win, but is barely hanging on to a spot in the Chase with just seven races left until the field is set.
In a statement released by Hendrick Motorsports, the driver of the No. 88 Axalta Chevrolet wasn’t cleared by his doctors following an evaluation. Alex Bowman, who will ride in the car this weekend, was 13th in the first practice at New Hampshire and qualified 20th for Sunday’s race.
But for Junior Nation, it’s a shock to the system to not see their guy behind the wheel. Then again, there’s a greater long-term issue at stake.
Earnhardt has had a history with concussions. He took a couple of bad hits at Michigan and Daytona earlier this season, and he admitted he wasn’t feeling right at Kentucky last week, where he qualified and finished 13th.
“I wasn't feeling great the week going into Kentucky and thought it was possibly severe allergies,” Earnhardt said in a statement provided by the team. “I saw a family doctor and was given medication for allergies and a sinus infection. When that didn't help, I decided to dig a little deeper. Because of my symptoms and my history with concussions, and after my recent wrecks at Michigan and Daytona, I reached out and met with a neurological specialist. After further evaluation, they felt it was best for me to sit out.
“I'm disappointed about missing New Hampshire this weekend. I'm looking forward to treatment with the goal of getting back in the race car when the doctors say I'm ready.”
Adding to the mystery, there is no timetable for Earnhardt Jr.’s return. If he can’t go when the series heads to Indianapolis next week for the Brickyard 400, the team announced a shocking bit of news.
None other than five-time Brickyard and four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon could come out of retirement to drive the 88. According to a USA Today story, Hendrick Motorsports general manager Doug Duchardt said a final decision on Gordon running at Indy would likely come by Wednesday.
As for anything beyond next week, it’s all speculation, so the discussion stops here.
Adding to the intrigue, should Gordon return to the track and race – something he didn’t rule out when he announced his retirement, although this potential Cup run is certainly a stunner – it would push his eligibility for the NASCAR Hall of Fame back a year, which would put him in the same class as Tony Stewart.
Two legends with seven Cup titles between them certainly makes the selection process easier for those who have the power to vote, but there’s something a bit more important at play here.
Earnhardt Jr. has already stated he’ll donate his brain after he dies to help with studies for CTE. No one can say if this injury is career-threatening, but concussions can’t be taken lightly anymore.
By their very nature, NASCAR drivers would much rather be in the car first. The stories of how much they risked to return from injuries are too numerous to document here, although Ricky Rudd taping open his eyelids is one story that immediately comes to my mind.
Concussions are an entirely different matter, though. Earnhardt Jr. will be 42 years old in October. He’s getting married after the season ends.
Popularity and success behind the wheel may be one thing, but it all means nothing in the end if concussions get in the way of life after racing.
Get well first, Junior. Your fans will be there all the way.
Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @Tomzsports or email

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Keselowski outplays, outlasts at Kentucky

As if there wasn’t already enough change going on for NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers at Kentucky Speedway, they had a freshly repaved racing surface heaped into their collective mental notebooks.
By the time they raced 267 laps at the Quaker State 400 on Saturday night, a familiar sight ended up in Victory Lane and proved that fuel mileage isn’t the easiest art form to master.
Brad Keselowski certainly found a way, stretching out his fuel to the absolute maximum and barely holding off Carl Edwards at the line to earn his second win in a row and fourth of the 2016 season.
And when we say barely, the No. 2 Miller Lite Ford Fusion got to the line only .175 seconds in front of Edwards’ No. 19 Toyota. With the field trying to stretch fuel up to five laps – 7.5 miles total – beyond the normal fuel window, it was telling when Keselowski couldn’t do the celebratory burnout and needed a push from the tow truck to the Victory Lane celebration.
Trust us when we say it wasn’t a problem, especially if you’re a fan of the Michigan native and 2012 champion. Keselowski has won three of the six Cup races at Kentucky, and with the new lower-downforce package on the cars, it was a load of work from start to finish.
To set the stage, the race’s last pit stop came at lap 196, and the restart was four laps later. That meant those who pitted were right at the top end of the fuel window, 67 laps.
In total, that meant Keselowski and his challengers were trying to stretch the fuel over more than 100 miles (Kentucky Speedway is a 1.5-mile oval). As most of the leaders put on two tires, the NBC voices in the booth thought none of them put enough fuel in to get safely to the end.
Somehow, Keselowski made his fuel work, even having enough to hold off Edwards, who was on his back bumper through most of the white-flag lap.
As the saying of a certain long-running reality show goes, Keselowski outplayed, outwitted and outlasted everyone. After getting Cup win No. 100 for Team Penske, it didn’t take long to get No. 101.
With the season now officially at halfway and only eight races remaining until the Chase, there are still 11 race winners and five open slots available for those still in search of the elusive checkered flag.
Among them, Tony Stewart was impressive in his 600th career start. He didn’t lead laps, but kept moving forward from his 22nd starting position and ended up fifth. The three-time champion is still 30th in points, but 31 clear of Brian Scott.
Rookie Ryan Blaney’s hopes took a bit of a hit as he got into a wreck with fellow rookie Chase Elliott and ended up 35th. He sits 24 points behind Jamie McMurray.
The other three drivers who have Chase spots at the moment are, in order: Ryan Newman (who ended up third at Kentucky), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (13th) and Austin Dillon (16th).
There are no more mile-and-a-half tracks left until the Chase starts, so the time to get the mental and physical adjustments made is now. Short track like Bristol, intermediate like New Hampshire, road course like Watkins Glen, superspeedway like Pocono and Indy, it doesn’t matter. Those who would be ready to run for a title need their A-game on point from this point forward.
And a little thank you to the gods of Gasoline Alley will certainly help. Brad Keselowski knows that feeling.
Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @Tomzsports or email
New Hampshire Motor Speedway (1.058-mile oval), Loudon, N.H.
-SPRINT CUP: New Hampshire 301, Sunday, 1:30 p.m. ET/10:30 a.m. PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local PRN affiliate.
Race distance: 318.45 miles, 301 laps.
2015 champion: Kyle Busch
-XFINITY SERIES: AutoLotto 200, Saturday, 4 p.m. ET/1 p.m. PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local PRN affiliate.
Race distance: 211.6 miles, 200 laps.
2015 champion: Denny Hamlin.
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Off until July 20 for the Aspen Dental Eldora Dirt Derby at Eldora Speedway.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Keselowski gets breakthrough win at Daytona

For Brad Keselowski, restrictor-plate racing at NASCAR’s two main tracks has been a mixed bag of success. More like polar opposites, in fact.
At Talladega Superspeedway, Keselowski earned his first career Sprint Cup win in 2009 and has added three more since. At Daytona, he had managed only three top-10 finishes in 14 prior starts.
Everything changed for the better on a night when the rain stayed away.
Keselowski was finally able to answer any and all challenges as he won the Coke Zero 400 on Saturday night on the 2.5-mile oval. It’s not the 500, but it certainly doesn’t matter, especially when it gave team owner Roger Penske his 100th win in the Sprint Cup Series.
The driver of the No. 2 Ford Fusion was so good, he led 115 of the 161 laps, almost three times as many as in his previous Daytona starts combined (38). What likely helped was his ability to stay away from trouble.
More than half the field – 22 of the 40 cars – got involved in a huge pileup at lap 90. Keselowski, who qualified fifth, was in front at the time and stayed there. Not only that, it was just the second time he started inside the top 10.
In the 2012 July race, BK qualified ninth and finished eighth. Considering his average finish in 14 prior trips was 22.1, it’s no coincidence that starting near the front makes a difference when any mistake, no matter how small, can take out a lot of cars.
Case in point was the Lap 90 mishap. Jamie McMurray got loose as Jimmie Johnson closed in, made contact with teammate Kyle Larson, and ignited the chain reaction.
Such is the fact of life at Daytona and Talladega. Restrictor plates keep the field in big packs, and any politeness the drivers may have had in the earlier stages of the race goes away when it’s go time.
The perfect symbol of what the big wreck does came when Brian Scott’s No. 44 car ended up on top of the hood of Kevin Harvick’s No. 4 for a short period of time. Better that than in the fence like Austin Dillon at last year’s rain-delayed Coke Zero 400, but we digress.
“You really think it’s going to happen from Lap 1,” said Harvick in a NASCAR Wire Service story. “It’s hard to make ground, so you have to be pretty aggressive when you start making ground.”
There are now nine races to go until the Chase field is set. Tony Stewart, who won a week ago at Sonoma Raceway to end a three-year drought, wrecked with 11 laps left and finished 26th. In spite of the bad break, Smoke is officially in the top 30 in points and eligible for his last title shot.
Stewart is only three points in front of Scott, and as we said last week, backsliding isn’t an option. The No. 14 car got as high as fifth by lap 140, but couldn’t hold on to the momentum.
As for the race broadcast, NBC Sports took over the coverage for its second season of work. Let’s just say they need to shake the rust off a little bit.
We get there is a need for commercials on a broadcast. What we don’t need is commercial breaks that don’t allow the storylines to truly develop.
According to the web site, there was 47 minutes of commercial time out of 190 minutes that were measured during the Coke Zero 400. Race fans didn’t get to see nearly a full quarter of the race so the advertisers could make their money.
In total, there were 124 commercials, up from 96 last year. That’s way too much.
It’s another part of a big puzzle as to why NASCAR is struggling to regain the foothold it had on the fan base through the early part of the last decade. Fans aren’t buying seats at tracks with the voracity they once did, and when they can’t see the good parts of a race on TV, it only adds to the problems.
New drivers like Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney are giving fans hope for a brighter future for the sport. It’s time for the broadcast partners – TV or radio – to ensure it remains vibrant for generations to come.
Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @Tomzsports or email
Kentucky Speedway (1.5-mile oval), Sparta, Kentucky.
-SPRINT CUP: Quaker State 400, Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET/4:30 p.m. PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local PRN affiliate.
Race distance: 400.5 miles, 267 laps.
2015 champion: Kyle Busch
-XFINITY SERIES: Alsco 300, Friday, 8:30 p.m. ET/5:30 p.m. PT, NBC Sports Network. Radio: SiriusXM Channel 90 or your local PRN affiliate.
Race distance: 300 miles, 200 laps.
2015 champion: Brad Keselowski
-CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Buckle Up in Your Truck 225, 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: 225 miles, 150 laps.
2015 champion: Matt Crafton.