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
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
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
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
-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
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.