Wednesday, June 7, 2017

As Jimmie keeps winning, greatness keeps growing

When the closing laps of Sunday's Drive for Autism AAA 400 were unfolding at Dover International Speedway, I wasn't buying anything Jimmie Johnson was selling as he looked for his 11th victory at the Monster Mile.

Johnson qualified 14th, but had to go to the rear of the field at the start for a rear gear change.

It didn't matter.

The man moving like a rocket up the career wins list made his way through the field with precision, timing, and smart pit stops. Johnson led briefly for the first time at lap 329, but gave it up during a caution for a Regan Smith wreck two laps later.

When a caution came out for David Ragan with just two laps to go, Kyle Larson was in trouble. Despite leading 241 laps and looking like it would be his day, Larson got outfoxed by Johnson on the final restart.

And by a margin of about 50 feet -- on the backstretch past the overtime line -- Johnson was declared the winner when the rest of the field couldn't negotiate through the mess created by the speedy-dry.

Yes, it was Johnson's 83rd career victory. Yes, it ties him with Cale Yarborough for sixth on the wins list.

But it was also an absolute gift made possible by the ever-changing NASCAR rule book.

In our world of social media, where everyone has an opinion and shares it at the drop of a hat, the anguish over Johnson's win came out loud and clear.

It should just stop, right now. Mainly because it's getting way too old.

I witnessed a couple of Johnson's wins from the media center that feel similar in context to what happened Sunday. You be the judge.

-In 2010, Jeff Gordon looked like Kyle Larson at Las Vegas. Johnson went on a four-tire strategy on the final pit stop and took the lead with 17 laps to go and won for the fourth time at LVMS. Gordon led 219 laps, but finished third.

-Later that same season, Johnson was trailing Marcos Ambrose, but a caution with seven laps to go changed everything in what was a battle of fuel mileage.

When Ambrose stopped his car to keep fuel in it, the move backfired and cost him six spots. He tried to reclaim his position, but NASCAR wouldn't allow it.

Johnson got by Robby Gordon on the final restart and earned his first road-course victory.

So there it is. Some of Johnson's wins have been fortunate. Others have come from his crew using brain power.

And it doesn't matter what system is in place. Johnson just does whatever is necessary to keep on winning.

With 83 wins in the can, you can't help but wonder how high Johnson can go. We aren't even to halfway in this season, and he's on pace to keep up his five-win average for the sixth year in a row.

That's right. In the last 193 races -- five years plus 13 races of this season -- Johnson has put the No. 48 in Victory Lane 28 times. We are witnessing greatness.

Change the scoring system, change the rules on what crews can and can't do to the cars, it does not matter. Jimmie Johnson is on a mission and doesn't turn 42 until September.

He only needs two more wins to pass Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison. That would only leave Jeff Gordon's 93 and David Pearson's 105.

Sorry, but Richard Petty's 200 is permanently untouchable. Joining the King and Pearson in the century club is not, however. The numbers Johnson is still putting up are proving it's possible.

So instead of hating, I choose to congratulate. Well done, Jimmie.

Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @TommyZee81 or email

Monday, May 29, 2017

When will Kyle Busch grow up?

It was a long day of great racing Sunday between the Monaco Grand Prix -- Ferrari's first win in 16 years behind Sebastian Vettel -- Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola.

It was great to see Kimi Raikkonen make headway as Vettel's teammate, leading some laps early before finishing second. It left my heart in my throat at times when Takuma Sato and Helio Castroneves duked it out at 230 mph in the closing laps for the win at Indy.

And my heart sank when I saw Kyle Busch's reactions to finishing second at a very late hour in the 600. Maybe it's living by the Ricky Bobby mantra of "second place is the first loser." Maybe he needed a nap.

But if you judge how Busch felt finishing second based on how abruptly his media availability ended at Charlotte Motor Speedway, you'd have thought the sky was falling on him.

Of course, it wasn't. It was short, bitter and painful to watch him spit on everyone again.

If we had a paid translator, he'd probably interpret what Kyle said Sunday night like this:

"Waah! I lost again. I need a blankie."

Maybe not quite like that, but you get the point. Same garbage, different day.

Please stop and look at this objectively for a minute. In what was a complete 180-degree opposite of Busch, Castroneves had some emotion in his voice when he was interviewed on the grid after finishing second to Sato, but answered the questions to the ABC cameras with dignity and class.

No "nothing surprises me anymore" and tossing the microphone aside crap. Just salute the guy who beat you to the line, smile as best you can, and move on to next week.

That's Helio. He's got a resume as impressive as Kyle's, and will join the four-win club at Indianapolis -- which still has only three drivers -- sooner than later.

We're only one-third of the way through the 2017 season. Who knew Richard Childress Racing drivers would have more wins (two) than Joe Gibbs (none)? Certainly not me.

Also of note: Dillon led exactly two laps all night, the most important ones. Jimmie Johnson's fuel cell ran dry at lap 398, and Dillon made sure the No. 3 would return to Victory Lane for the first time since Dale Earnhardt put it there in 2000.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. took to Twitter later Sunday night and defended Busch's reaction to the loss, saying drivers need to be allowed to let more of their individuality out.

Point taken, but what's so hard for Busch to recognize that his fans have a right to understand what happened and what went wrong straight from the source? The conspiracy theories are certainly making the rounds on social media today.

And all the while, Kyle Busch will be back.

Let's get this last point out of the way. Busch will be in Victory Lane before the end of this season, probably more than once. He'll bow to the fans from the door of his 18 car on the track, then celebrate his win like nothing else ever happened.

Being a gracious winner is one thing. For Kyle Busch, lessons in how to lose with at least a tiny degreee of grace may officially be a lost cause.

Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @TlommyZee81 ore email

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Jimmie wins again and other news nuggets

Nothing like an off week to mess with the blogging clock, but it's time to get back into the groove.

Not only did we return to the racing grind after a rainy weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway, but we had breaking news flying all over the place that will have big impacts on NASCAR for a long time to come.

The opening of this post is easy and a bit ho-hum. After all was said and done and the rain finally decided to stay away, Jimmie Johnson was his winning self again Monday at Bristol. He rolled to the win at the Food City 500, his second in a row and 82nd of his amazing career.

The scoring system doesn't matter. The racing surface doesn't matter. Mother Nature's cruel twists don't matter, either. Johnson just keeps on going.

After rain washed out qualifying, Johnson had to start 11th, a place where race winners at Bristol don't usually come from.

Again, it didn't matter.

Kyle Larson led the first 202 laps. Johnson didn't lead for the first time until lap 394. The 48 only fell out of the lead off pit road twice the rest of the way, but Johnson overtook Kevin Harvick with 21 laps to go and pulled away from a battle for second place between Clint Bowyer and Harvick that Bowyer eventually won.

But in the bigger picture, the only thing that may stop Johnson's assault on the record books is Johnson's health, both mental and physical. Over the last five years (2012 through 2016), the 41-year-old is consistent in his checkered flags won -- five, six, four, five and five.

At the rate he's going, we may be talking about Johnson joining Richard Petty and David Pearson in the 100-win club by 2020. In his 16 full-time seasons in NASCAR's top series, the El Cajon, California native has never had less than two wins a year.

And he only did that once, in 2011.

I've seen several social media postings from a lot of fans who can't stand what Johnson's done in his career. But the bottom line is when he hangs up the helmet, he'll be clearly penciled in among the greatest NASCAR drivers of all time.

Before we could really digest Johnson's win, the bigger bombshell came Tuesday when Dale Earnhardt Jr., the man who's only been voted NASCAR's Most Popular Driver 14 years running, shocked us all by announcing his retirement Tuesday.

It was a jaw-dropping moment for most of the fan base, but the whole sport will be impacted by his move.

Considering how it all came together, it's not surprising.

For those who may have been hiding in a cave, Earnhardt had to sit out the second half of the 2016 season to heal from a concussion. It stunk for all of us, but he did his time and returned to full health in time for the start of this season.

While there haven't been any additional effects from the concussion, Junior Nation hasn't had a whole lot to cheer about through the first eight races.

After finishing fifth at Texas two weeks ago -- the best run for the 88 so far -- an early crash took Earnhardt out at Bristol and he finished 38th. He's 24th in points, averaging a 24th-place finish, and has led eight laps, all at the Daytona 500.

That's gotta give pause to any driver, no matter how healthy he is. If you're not competitive, it's time for a reassessment of everything.

Junior will be 43 in October. He just got married. He has his health back, and I'm sure he wants to keep it and go out on his own terms.

That's certainly not a bad thing. It's awful for the fans, but the sport will survive.

We've had several retirements from big names over the last three seasons. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, and now Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The total excellence on the resumes is stellar. Gordon had 93 wins with four championships, Stewart had 49 with three titles, Edwards won 28 times and Junior has 26 to date.

That's 196 victories and seven titles to leave the sport. They can't stay forever.

When legends like Cale Yarborough, Donnie Allison and Richard Petty stepped out of their cars, the world didn't collapse. We still had our races, and the popularity went south for a time before a new crop of drivers came in and went to work.

We're in a similar cycle right now, like it or not. In a sport where it's not normally an option, time and patience will be of the essence so the next crop of stars can leave their mark on the hearts and souls of the most passionate fans in all of sports.

Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @TommyZee81 or email

Monday, April 10, 2017

As Miller says goodbye, a piece of me goes with him

The following disclaimer is for those of you expecting me to take another trip around the world of racing. What I'm about to share here contains no mention of racing or racers whatsoever.

With that said, please stay and read the following tribute. My heart needs this moment because I'm all about more than just cars that go around in circles at insanely fast speeds.

I'm also about writing (hence this blog), plus the joy of broadcasting as well.

It was a sad time for me this weekend as legendary Los Angeles Kings play-by-play man Bob Miller hung up his headset after 44 amazing seasons and two Stanley Cups (2012, 2014). While most sports fans with any degree of knowledge may have seen Miller as the third wheel of voices for Los Angeles teams behind the late Chick Hearn (NBA's Lakers) and Vin Scully (Dodgers), his approach and style was basic, strong, and to the point.

First it was Scully that said goodbye last year, now Miller. The more things change, the more we need to celebrate what's left behind. In case you missed it (and you probably did), Miller got to call an overtime winner that helped the Kings beat the Chicago Blackhawks in the home finale Saturday night.

For me, I have more than just Miller's voice on TV (and radio in simulcast in the earlier stages of his career) to thank. Bob Miller also taught me the challenges and joys of calling games of any sort through Sportscaster Camps of America, which was a two-day workshop I attended in Los Angeles in 1990 and 1991.

Yeah, I'm getting up there, too.

He was gracious, friendly, and always helpful. And I turned that knowledge into working as a print journalist. Funny how life works.

To that same end, my career as one of the ink-stained wretches took me to covering the San Jose Sharks for four years in the early 2000s. Miller received the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award from the Hockey Hall of Fame for his excellence in 2000, and I had the privilege of sitting down with him for an interview that I published as a tribute in the Vallejo (Calif.) Times-Herald the following season.

I can remember carrying several copies of the printed column I wrote and I did the handoff from our press perch at HP Pavilion to then-Kings PR man Mike Altieri (I could be wrong on the name). He had to pass them on because Miller wasn't able to attend that day's game against the Sharks due to prior family commitments.

I got a thank-you e-mail from Miller himself a few days after. He did my heart good, even if I went into print journalism instead of broadcasting.

That's part of why Sunday was a sad day. I choose to celebrate Bob Miller's excellence as a broadcaster, but more importantly as an all-around outstanding human being.

Miller is living proof that as long as you're living your dreams, you're guaranteed to never work a day in your life.

Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @TommyZee81 or email

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Johnson rules Texas again

As things unfolded Sunday afternoon at Texas Motor Speedway for the O'Reilly Auto Parts 500, there were enough unknowns brought on by a new pavement and reconfiguration that would even baffle Sherlock Holmes.

Even with all the wonder and worry about how the drivers would handle the new surface, Jimmie Johnson proved there's no substitute for experience.

Johnson earned another six-shooter and cowboy hat after his impressive performance in winning at Texas. Not only was it his seventh victory at the track, but it was the 81st of his amazing career.

The legend is growing, probably along with the love-hate relationship most race fans have. It's clear when the numbers get broken down how special Johnson is right now in NASCAR history.

-He has 81 wins in 550 career starts. That's one every 6.8 times Johnson gets in a race car. 

-He hasn't won less than twice in any of his 17 seasons in Cup. His last five years have had five, six, four, five and five checkered flags.

At this rate, it's likely Johnson will pass Cale Yarborough (83), Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison (both 84) before the end of 2017. That only leaves Jeff Gordon's 93, David Pearson's 105, and Richard Petty's untouchable 200 on the career wins list.

Oh, and Johnson doesn't turn 42 years old until September. Depending on how his health holds out, joining Pearson and Petty in the century win club may be a serious talking point within the next five years.

Right now, Johnson is averaging five wins per year, so you do the math.

And the winningest active driver behind Johnson right now? Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch have 38 victories through Sunday's race at Texas. That's how much he's head and shoulders above everyone else.

Call him vanilla, call him too corporate for your taste, but just don't call Jimmie Johnson late to Victory Lane. When his career is all said and done, it'll be one every fan -- hater or not -- can step back and appreciate.

Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @TommyZee81 or email

Monday, April 3, 2017

Gray makes history with NHRA win at Vegas

In a slight departure (OK...a big one) from what normally gets done around these parts of the blogosphere, it's time for me to clean out my notebook from the NHRA's DENSO Nationals stop that happened Sunday at the Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

For starters, the hot-rod, straight-line fans got a moment to savor when Tanner Gray became the youngest winner in NHRA history.

And the crowd asked..."how young is he?"

Tanner Gray is 17 years old. He's still two weeks shy of his 18th birthday (April 15), and he went out and piloted his Pro Stock car to one of the more awesome race victories in recent memory.

I've been covering drag racing since 2006, so that gives you a bit of an idea.

Gray didn't beat just anyone along the way after qualifying fifth for the final eliminations on the warmest day of the race weekend. He got by Summit Racing teammates Greg Anderson (quarterfinals) and Jason Line (semifinals) -- who are 1-2 in the current Pro Stock standings -- to get his chance at history.

Thanks to a near-perfect reaction time off the starting line (.010), Gray denied Bo Butner his first career win on a hole shot (Gray crossed in 6.681 to Butner's 6.678 with a .088 RT) and made history as the youngest winner of the NHRA Wally trophy.

Against Anderson in Round 2, Gray's reaction time was even better at .001.

The amazing part through all the excitement: Gray still has two more months of online course work before he graduates from high school.

Such is a racer's life. When you make a dream come true at that young an age, it only gets better from here. Well done.

-As for Sunday's Monster Energy Cup race at Martinsville, the STP 500 gave NASCAR's new stage-racing format another huge boost for the excitement level.

Case in point came at the end of Stage 2. With Kyle Busch leading, he was caught in race traffic as Ricky Stenhouse Jr. battled to stay ahead and on the lead lap.

When Stenhouse nudged Busch up the track -- not enough to cause a problem other than the one that blew up in Busch's brain -- it was the gift Chase Elliott ran with to take the Stage 2 win and the playoff point that goes with it.

Afterward, Busch sounded off. We shouldn't have expected anything less.

Busch claimed he was trying to be nice to Stenhouse.

“I actually was rolling into Turn 3 and was kind of going higher out of my way in order to let (Stenhouse) back by and give him the lap,’’ Busch said in an story written by Dustin Long. “That was my intent. He just drove through me. Cost me my spot to (Elliott). I was hoping I could run off the corner side by side with (Stenhouse) and keep (Elliott) at bay and keep my nose in front of his and be able to score the segment. I was trying to be the nice guy but nice guys don’t finish first.’’

Stenhouse's take on the matter from the same story:

“I got sponsors, fans and a team to take care of,’’ he said. “I had to stay on the lead lap. That was a turning point in the race. If (Busch) laps (Dillon) and then we’re stuck a lap down, it could ruin our race. I drove as hard as I could, and it paid off for us.

“(It was) nothing to get him back for. Cars were hard to drive. We had a lot of laps on the tires. I saw he was going to try to get on the outside of (Dillon) and that’s where was good in (turns) 3 and 4. So I ran in there with him. I was just going to give him a nudge and make sure he didn’t get by (Dillon). I didn’t mean to give up the win there for him in that stage.’’

Thanks to his approach, Stenhouse finished 10th and earned a stage point.

Proving that the lost opportunity is already in Busch's head, he not only lost the race win to Brad Keselowski -- who became the first driver to earn a second win this season -- but isn't excited about the near future.

Joe Gibbs Racing has won three of the last 30 races in NASCAR's Chase/playoff, but this year's race to the title is still 21 races away.

Tell us how you really feel come September, Kyle. Maybe everything will be great by then.

Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @TommyZee81 or email

Monday, March 27, 2017

Larson breaks through, continues hot streak

When it came to discussing the potential of Kyle Larson, one theme tended to dominate before the 2017 season began.

Larson seemed full of promise, but couldn't master the art of closing out a victory when given the opportunity.

All has turned 180 degrees now, especially after what happened Sunday at Auto Club Speedway.

Larson not only led 110 laps, but found his way through the insanity of four late restarts and won the Auto Club 400. Not only was it Larson's second career win, but his fourth straight top-2 finish. 

Sure, he's only halfway to Kevin Harvick's mark of eight straight set just two years ago, but it's the way Larson raced for the whole weekend -- he won the XFINITY race, too -- that got everyone's attention. 

The driver of the No. 42 Target Chevy for Chip Ganassi Racing wasn't committed to riding along the wall at the wide 2-mile oval. Larson made the adjustments when he needed to and found a way to get back to the front after taking four tires during what turned to be the third of four cautions that happened over the final 22 laps.

Once Larson came down off the wall, it was all he needed to close the deal. The No. 42 got away cleanly on the race's final restart and rode the momentum all the way to Victory Lane, his first since Michigan -- a similar wide 2-mile track -- last August.

Larson has become the fifth different winner from the fifth different race team to earn a checkered flag so far this season. There's a shock behind Larson's win that doesn't have anything to do with him.

The engines for the Ganassi cars are supplied by Team Hendrick, the very same organization that has yet to reach Victory Lane.

Heck, Joe Gibbs Racing hasn't won, either.

How bad is it for NASCAR's two best race teams? Chase Elliott is the highest in the standings, tied for second in points with Brad Keselowski. Kasey Kahne is the next best Hendrick driver in 13th, Jimmie Johnson is 17th and Dale Earnhardt Jr. is 21st.

Among the Gibbs crew, Kyle Busch is 10th, Denny Hamlin is 12th, rookie Daniel Suarez is 19th (although he has back-to-back seventh-place runs the last two weeks) and Matt Kenseth is 25th.

That's not good, but it doesn't necessarily reflect a changing of the guard.

For Larson to push his run of top-2 finishes a little higher up the ladder, he'll have to look at Johnson in his rear-view as much as he can. Johnson has nine wins at Martinsville, but hasn't finished better than ninth (Phoenix) in the first five weeks.

It's all in good time at this point, but we're still in a state of flux where change will be happening radically up and down the standings. Larson has full control of things right now, but the season has only just begun.

Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @TommyZee81 or email

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Hello, Newman! Drought ends at Phoenix

He hadn't won in more than three full seasons -- 127 races total. Ryan Newman wasn't about to do anything conventional when a golden opportunity to break the drought fell into his lap.

Crew chief Luke Lambert made the call -- no tires instead of two. When Newman stayed on the track, it proved to be the move that ended the frustration and put his Richard Childress Racing No. 31 Chevrolet in Victory Lane at the Camping World 500 at Phoenix International Raceway. The win was Newman's first since the Brickyard 400 in 2013, and it was made possible when Joey Logano -- of all people -- blew a tire with six laps to go.

After all the talk of the post-race "fight" at Las Vegas between Logano and Kyle Busch during the week, Logano's mishap was the catalyst that led to Busch coming to pit road while Newman stayed out.

In the end, Newman had enough left in his tires to hold off Kyle Larson and put an end to the long winless drought on a day under blazing sunshine with temperatures in the mid-90s.

The irony of it all was dripping as much as Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s ice pack was inside his car on the 1-mile oval.

Four weeks in, and we've had four pretty amazing finishes. Who needs the NCAA Tournament when a) most brackets were already ruined after Villanova's stunning loss to Wisconsin on Saturday and b) the win by Newman may have topped what's found on the Casey Affleck dramatics scale.

If'you saw Affleck's Oscar-winning performance in "Manchester By The Sea," you know exactly what I'm talking about.

But with that said, Newman's win only adds to what's been a pretty amazing beginning to this NASCAR season. Even with Martin Truex Jr.'s stage sweep to the win at Las Vegas, the racing has been far from ordinary.

-Kurt Busch won Daytona on the last lap. First driver ever in the race's 59 years.
-Brad Keselowski won at Atlanta when Kevin Harvick's pit-road speeding penalty cost him.
-Truex won at Vegas when he regained the lead with two laps to go after Keselowski ran into a problem with the No. 2 Miller Lite Ford.
-And then there was Newman, who took a chance that paid off in one of the more unlikely race wins in recent memory.

And that, in a nutshell, is why it will always be worth watching -- from beginning to end.

Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @TommyZee81 or email

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Not always easy to be in right spot

As everyone is aware by now -- unless they hid under a rock all weekend -- there was a pretty tremendous race weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Not only did the SMI track sign on for a second Monster Energy Cup Series date starting next season, but the finish of the Kobalt 400 was a good precursor of what's to come.

Martin Truex Jr. won the race, the first for Toyota on the young 2017 season. He swept all three stages -- the first driver to so under NASCAR's new scoring format -- and it wasn't looking likely as the laps wound down.

The No. 78 Bass Pro Shops car was passed by Brad Keselowski at lap 244, but fortune smiled down on Truex when Keselowski lost his momentum and the lead just two laps short of the finish.

Truex beat Kyle Larson by just over 1.6 seconds, but the real excitement came afterward when Kyle Busch took out his frustration for spinning out as he battled with Joey Logano for fourth place on the final lap.

Before Truex could finish wheeling his car -- which had steam pouring out of it -- into Victory Lane, Busch made a beeline for Logano's pit and tried to take a few good swings at him. None connected before Logano's pit crew pulled Busch away and several NASCAR officials finished the job.

My friend and fellow reporter Jeff Gluck was in the right place at the right time and got 50 seconds of video of the fight that TV wasn't able to show. According to conversations I heard later, the video was viewed 1 million times on YouTube within nine hours.

As of today (2 pm Mountain time), that number has grown to nearly 1.9 million. While it's good to be around for something that went viral, there's something else that I chose to focus on.

Martin Truex Jr. won the Kobalt 400. He almost didn't. That's got to be worth something, even if it ended up flying just under the radar in the big picture and collection of story lines.

And after further review, I'm pleased with how everything turned out. You, the reader, not only knew who won, but knew of the unlikely sidebar of the "fight" between Kyle Busch and Joey Logano.

My pictures weren't half-bad, either.

It's just like Brad Keselowski said after his finish in Las Vegas. You have to stick around until the end because you just never know what's going to happen.

Even if more than one thing happens at the exact same time.

Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @TommyZee81 or email

Monday, March 13, 2017

Truex Jr. catches break, wins Kobalt 400

Martin Truex Jr. knew the feeling. Cruising toward a win, bad luck – whether from late caution flags or a challenger with a better car – seemed to always find a way to leave him stranded without the winner’s trophy.

On a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, good fortune smiled down on the driver of the No. 78 Bass Pro Shops Toyota.

Truex surged to the lead when Brad Keselowski lost his momentum with two laps to go and won the Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas. It was Toyota’s first win of the 2017 season and Truex was the first driver to sweep all three stages in a race under  NASCAR’s new scoring format.

“We had such a good car all day long and it felt like it slipped away from us there,” said Truex, who lost the lead to Keselowski on lap 244. “We got a little bit lucky with him having an issue and got the win. We’ve been on the other side of those things plenty of times and it definitely feels good to take advantage of someone else’s issue for once and go to Victory Lane.”

The winning sequence was set up following the longest green-flag run of the day at 86 laps when Danica Patrick’s car lost the engine at lap 253, setting off an impressive trail of smoke along the front stretch that bathed the grandstands. Keselowski, who won the pole and started with Truex Jr. on the front row, had no idea what happened with his car at the finish.

“It wouldn't turn and I lost brakes, so that’s a pretty good indicator,” said Keselowski, who was looking for his third win at Las Vegas in the last four years, but ended up fifth. “That’s racing, and that’s why you watch until the end and you never know what’s going to happen.”

Kyle Larson finished second for the second time on the weekend, beating out Chase Elliott and coming through with points for a second- and third-place run in the first two stages.

“The ends of the stages were really exciting because of the way the cautions fell and different pit strategies,” Larson said. “Hopefully we can keep the top-fives rolling and maybe get a win or two shortly.”

Adding to the finish, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano got into a brawl on pit road after the pair made contact on the final lap in a battle for fourth place. While Logano claimed fourth, Busch spun out and finished 22nd, the last car on the lead lap. Busch also left pit road with a cut on his forehead after he was separated from Logano by his adversary’s pit crew.

After two straight wins to open the season, Logano and Keselowski were the highest-finishing Fords on the day. Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney, Jamie McMurray, Matt Kenseth and Clint Bowyer completed the top 10.

The race had six cautions for 34 laps, and the winning average speed was l36.032 mph. There were 14 lead changes among six drivers. Truex (150) and Keselowski (89) combined to lead 239 of the 267 laps.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Logano loves Las Vegas, wins Boyd Gaming 300

As he faced a stiff challenge from Kyle Larson, Joey Logano was almost baffled as to how to keep fellow driver Kyle Larson behind him during Saturday's XFINITY Series Boyd Gaming 300 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
After four restarts over the final 32 laps, Logano won the chess match and ended up with the checkered flag.
The Penske Racing driver led 106 of 200 laps and held off Larson by .602 seconds on a warm afternoon at the 1.5-mile oval. It was Logano's first win in his very first XFINITY race at LVMS and third straight win in the No. 12 Ford Fusion since Watkins Glen last season.
"It was hard to figure out what to do and what lane to pick for the restarts," Logano said. "We had a fast car and we were able to unload with a lot of speed. It's good to see the Penske cars coming back on the XFINITY side."
Logano led one lap off a restart in the early part of the 200-lap race, but didn't take control until his pit crew got him off pit road at the end of Stage 2. Larson was able to regain the lead briefly at lap 145, but Logano got back out in front one lap later and was able to hold on.
"Joey and I were pretty equal, but clean air was big," Larson said. "I had good restarts and almost cleared him, but he had the momentum in the end."
That momentum was well-earned, and Logano's crew chief, Brian Wilson, said past experience made the difference when the pressure picked up in the closing laps.
"For me, I was relying what had worked the past couple of times going in the high lane," Wilson said. "It's always tough. You have to look at who's pushing, what's been working, who's gonna be inside. We were fortunate because Joey's the best at restarts."
Logano, clearly in celebration mode, shrugged off his crew chief's praise with a chuckle.
"You wouldn't have said that if we didn't win today," he joked.
Larson was fourth after Stage 2, but lost several positions when he pitted for fuel.
"That was the change in our race," he said.
Defending race champion Kyle Busch, last week's winner at Atlanta, led the first 48 laps and barely held off Larson to win Stage 1, but finished seventh.
Justin Allgaier was the highest-finishing XFINITY regular, and he ended up fourth behind Daniel Suarez. Austin Dillon, Bubba Wallace, Elliott Sadler, Ryan Reed and Brad Keselowski completed the top 10.
The winning average speed was 118.525 mph, and there were nine cautions for 44 laps.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Keselowski picks up where he left off, wins Vegas pole

After winning his second Kobalt 400 in the last three seasons, Brad Keselowski may have found a formula to keep the success going strong.

The defending race winner earned the pole for this year's Kobalt 400 on Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, blitzing through multiple corners at more than 200 mph before finishing in 27.881 seconds, a final speed of 193.680 mph.

Following his win at Atlanta last week, Keselowski said his first pole at Las Vegas came despite struggling to get his No. 2 Miller Lite Ford cleanly through turns 1 and 2.

"Every time I looked at the track, cars that were fast through 1 and 2 weren't in 3 and 4. We were the opposite," Keselowski said. "Matt Yocum asked me in the telecast what the key was here, and I told him you had to have a good 1 and 2. Boy, did I lie to him.

"It wasn't meant to be a lie, but we'll take it either way."

Keselowski said the success he's enjoyed of late at tracks like Las Vegas came together in the last five years.

"There are certain tracks that you go to where things kind of happen immediately, you understand the track, and you're good there," he said. "Vegas was this way where it took three or four times and takes having a good car and saying 'oh, that's how it should be.' You get trends, so to speak, learn the track nuances, and what you really need."

Truex, who beat Ryan Blaney by .007 seconds (193.458 mph) to join Keselowski on the front row for Sunday's race, said the lesser downforce has made a difference in the racing along with the presence of new Furniture Row Racing teammate Erik Jones, who qualified eighth.

"We qualified P2 with missing a little bit," he said. "I'm optimistic with the speed in our race cars. Two weeks is kind of hard to judge.

"Going to two cars has been seamless from my perspective. I don't feel we lost in any areas. (Crew chief) Chris (Gayle) and Erik have come out of the box strong, not making mistakes, being consistent and keeping speeds. For a brand-new team, rookie driver, rookie crew chief, that's been impressive. The two-team deal is working as good as we probably hoped it could."

After Blaney, the rest of the top 12 were Matt Kenseth, Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, Kasey Kahne, Jones, Kyle Busch, Jamie McMurray, Daniel Suarez and Chase Elliott.

The cars of Truex, Jones and Kahne failed pre-qualifying inspection template station twice and lost 15 minutes of practice time. Jones' car also failed the weights and measures station three times and lost his pit selection for Sunday's race.

The Kobalt 400 will run two 80-lap stages and a 107-lap finish. The green flag drops just after 3:30 pm Eastern (12:30 Pacific) and airs live on Fox with radio coverage on Performance Racing Network.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Second race at Las Vegas signed, sealed, delivered

The moment was at least six years in the making, but the pride radiated across the faces of those from Las Vegas Motor Speedway who gathered for a major announcement one week ago at the Cashman Center.

With the help of a sponsorship agreement with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA), the 1.5-mile oval will have a second NASCAR race weekend, starting with the 2018 season. The agreement will bring fans an opportunity to see one of the races in the fall as part of the 10-race Monster Energy Cup playoffs.
“This is something that’s been a long time in the making,” said Speedway Motorsports president Marcus Smith. “The support NASCAR receives from Las Vegas is phenomenal. Race fans have spoken very loudly, and they want a second race.”
To accommodate the change, SMI will remove the fall race weekend from its track at New Hampshire Motor Speedway as well as the stand-alone XFINITY and Camping World Truck Series races from Kentucky Speedway.
The combination of moves will create a pair of tripleheader weekends at Las Vegas, the only NASCAR track to hold the distinction.
“It means everything having grown up here, watching the track being built, winning championships at the Bullring, then winning in NASCAR,” said 2015 Sprint Cup champion Kyle Busch, who was in attendance with older brother and fellow driver Kurt Busch. “Congratulations go out to the city, but most importantly, to the race fans.”
One side benefit the newly-formed tripleheader weekends gives Kyle Busch is the chance to race in the Truck Series. That race has run as a standalone in the fall during the Cup race at Dover.
“This is a fantastic day,” Kurt Busch added. “This town has a big sports atmosphere, and it takes a lot of people to pull it all together.”
Las Vegas Motor Speedway President Chris Powell said he won’t have to hear one of the two most frequently asked questions he’s heard over the last few years with the scheduling announcement.
“I’m always asked ‘is this job fun?’ and ‘when are you going to get a second race,’” he said. “The NHL is here. The NFL wants to be here, and we have two National League MVPs (Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant) who are from here. This will have an impact long into the future.”
That impact will be felt by XFINITY Series driver Brendan Gaughan, whose father, Michael, owns the South Point Hotel and Casino.
“It’s not lost on my family how important this is,” Gaughan said. “The fans are the winners. If you have a choice to go to any track in the country, there’s no other place. It’s a perfect fit.”
While nothing is finalized yet for how the races will be scheduled, Powell called it “likely” that both weekends will feature the Truck Series race Friday, XFINITY on Saturday, and Monster Energy Cup Series on Sunday.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Keselowski wins Atlanta, Harvick's lead foot hurts

For all the complaining Kevin Harvick did about his pit crew last season -- they allegedly cost him shots at several wins -- the 2014 Sprint Cup champion got his own dose of unfortunately bad karma Sunday afternoon at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Despite leading 292 of the first 311 laps -- including the first two stages with the 20-point bonus -- Harvick got a bad case of lead foot at the worst time, getting called for a pit-road speeding penalty with 12 laps to go. Brad Keselowski pounced on the break, drove underneath Kyle Larson with six laps remaining, and went on to win the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500.

Right place, right time for the second week in a row. Keselowski has some mojo on his side as Ford made it 2-for-2 in the win column. The Penske Racing driver is the defending champion of the Kobalt 400, which happens next Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway,

File this in the memory bank: Stages for the Boyd Gaming 300 end at lap 45 and 90, leaving 110 to the finish. For the Kobalt 400, the breaks happen at laps 80 and 160, leaving 107 for the race to the checkered flag.

There's also major news brewing in Las Vegas, which we'll discuss in just a moment.

Among the other highlights from Atlanta:

Kyle Busch won another XFINITY race. Yay. It was the 87th of his career in NASCAR's No. 2 series, and about the only thing different was how it was done.

Busch led the first seven laps after qualifying on the pole, but didn't lead again until the final 19 of the Rinnai 250. It's slightly out of the ordinary -- think total domination from the start -- but it's another win, just the same.

And the highest-finishing XFINITY regular was Elliott Sadler, who came in fifth. After Ryan Reed's win at Daytona, the regulars are 1-for-2 in the win column. If we can get past last year's total of 11, at least there will be some progress made.

Statistical downer of note: the top four in the running order at Atlanta were all Cup regulars -- Busch, Keselowski, Larson and Harvick. They combined to lead all of the 163 laps between them.

For the first time in the stage-racing system, one driver carried the day and swept his way to the checkered flag. Christopher Bell -- a series regular -- led 99 of 130 laps and won the Active Pest Control 200 on Saturday.

His boss and car owner, Kyle Busch (yes...him. Again.), led 25 laps, but finished 26th. That left only two other drivers who spent time in front. Grant Enfinger led four laps and runner-up Matt Crafton led two.

And now for the breaking news coming out of Las Vegas. Insert your own theme music for this segment here...

Remember all the past big talk that came with little action on the possibilities of a second Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race date at LVMS? Well, hang on to this. Everything is starting to come together.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported Friday that the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) is planning to hold a meeting with the 14-member board of directors Wednesday to consider a seven-year sponsorship at $2.5 million per year  add a "fall race" at the 1.5-mile oval.

And the best part is that when it's finalized with the LVCVA and NASCAR, the sponsorship would take full effect starting with the 2018 season.

In all likelihood, that means one track could lose a race date. Currently, 13 tracks have two race dates, and four -- Bristol, Charlotte, New Hampshire and Texas -- are owned by Speedway Motorsports, Inc., which owns Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The big question comes in where a second race would fit in the fall. Call this a gut-instinct guess, but with LVMS already hosting a Camping World Truck Series race every October (Cup runs at Dover), that could be the ideal connection that makes the most sense.

Then again, I'm not Nostradamus, by any wild stretch of your imagination.

An even bigger question comes from the big picture, and that's whether or not two races at Vegas will work over the long haul. Auto Club Speedway tried it for several years, with its second date happening Labor Day weekend.

That turned out to be a big mistake, mainly since that time of year produces the warmest temperatures in Fontana, part of the inland part of Southern California where the 2-mile oval is located. Auto Club eventually dropped the second date, and it's made a difference in the quality of the events.

But never mind takes from me. Here's what Kevin Harvick, the 2016 Kobalt 400 winner, said on the matter of a second race date at Vegas in multiple stories, including and

"I love Vegas and I think it's a great sponsor," Harvick said. "I think it would be good. But sometimes you can turn one great (race) into two mediocres. That's just something you have to be careful of and look at and really evaluate.

"Vegas is a great place to race. I enjoy going there. If it did wind up with a second race, I would be fine with that, but I would be cautious to look at a California-type situation where you have one great event that we had there and when we had two, it wasn't so great."

Any good thing worth doing is worth doing well, and Las Vegas can make two NASCAR Cup dates work. Once it's set, only the ticket-buying public will know if it was the right thing to do.

Tom Zulewski would be at a second Las Vegas NASCAR Cup weekend in a heartbeat and hopes it happens. Follow him on Twitter @TommyZee81 or email

Monday, February 27, 2017

As the Gear Box opens, the racing has turned

Before we begin our first official entry of the 2017 season, I owe you, the readers of this blog, an apology.

I've wondered to myself if this blog was worth continuing. Everyone's about needing numbers to show how their audience has grown, and I've spent the offseason wondering if what I've written here was good enough going against the tidal wave of blogs and material from other NASCAR-themed outlets.

At the end of the day, I figured why not continue? With all the changes that happened with NASCAR in the offseason -- new title sponsor, new points system that rewards racing from the drop of the green flag -- it would be a disservice if I just pulled the plug.

Besides, my hometown paper stopped caring about NASCAR three years ago even though there are multiple events worth covering within a two-hour drive to the south in Las Vegas.

Someone's got to pick up the slack, right? Might as well be me, so let's get this season started.

-With the first full weekend of the new "stage racing" format in the books from Daytona, we can safely say there were a lot of things that opened some eyes, got some heads scratching and made the people say "whoa."

The biggest shocker of all came in Sunday's Daytona 500. For the first time in the race's 59 years, the winner led only one lap -- the most important one.

In his 17th try, Kurt Busch made his move at the right time and held off Ryan Blaney to win his first Daytona 500. Busch didn't get to Dale Earnhardt's mark of 20, but how it all came together was a mind-bending moment.

First, there was the stage racing, where points were earned by the top 10 (from 10 down to one) in the running order after lap 60 and again at lap 120. Kyle Busch was at the head of the field after Stage 1, and Kevin Harvick was on top after Stage 2.

Nice for them. 10 bonus points already in the bag. So where did they finish? Kyle cut a tire and ended up 38th, while Harvick got caught up in one of the multitude of wrecks and came home 22nd.

Thanks to his stage efforts (second after Stage 1, leading after Stage 2), Harvick earned 19 additional points and leaves Daytona fourth in the standings.

But here's where it's going to take some time to figure it all out: Harvick actually has 42 points -- 15 for his finish, 19 for his stage finishes, but the other eight points escape me. If you are reading and can answer at my Twitter handle or email that will appear at the end of this column, it is much appreciated.

And Kurt Busch has 56 points with this math breakdown -- 40 for first place, 5 for race win, 8 for third place after Stage 2. Three points missing.

By the time we get through Atlanta, I should have it all figured out. I hope.

-In the XFINITY and Camping World Truck races, it was more of the same. Drivers who won the first two stages were nowhere near the front at the end.

At the Powershares QQQ 300, Elliott Sadler was in front after both early stages, but finished 24th. The 20 points for the stage wins gave him the magic bullet all the way up to third in the overall points.

Race winner Ryan Reed -- who earned his second Daytona victory -- earned seven extra points for being fourth after Stage 2. He's got a nine-point cushion over Las Vegas native Brendan Gaughan, who finished fifth.

-On the trucks side, Johnny Sauter was one lap from sweeping all three stages Friday night, but got caught in a 12-car pileup and finished 15th, one lap down.

Sauter's 20 bonus points pushed him to second in the points, but rookie Kaz Grala bagged his first victory and is on top of the standings.

And to think...there are 35 more weekends of this to make sense of it all. I'll be here doing my best to sort it all out,

Tom Zulewski will be at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the 13th consecutive year covering the Boyd Gaming 300 and Kobalt 400 in two weeks. Follow him on Twitter @TommyZee81 or email