Denny Hamlin’s return to Victory Lane ends drought for JGR
By Rick Minter
A season-long losing streak for Joe Gibbs Racing finally came to an end on Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway as Denny Hamlin took the lead from teammate Matt Kenseth with 34 laps remaining and sped away from Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. to win the Overton’s 301.
It was Hamlin’s first win in NASCAR’s elite Monster Energy Cup Series since last September at Richmond and JGR’s first since Carl Edwards won at Texas last November.
Hamlin said Sunday’s win came on a day in which his No. 11 Toyota wasn’t as fast as the No. 78 Toyota of Truex or the No. 42 Chevrolet driven by Larson. Hamlin was in a backup car Sunday after crashing his primary in practice on Friday, but there were no such errors on Sunday.
“We executed nicely, made no mistakes and capitalized when other guys faltered a little bit, and just [did] everything right to win the race,” Hamlin said in his winner’s interview.
Hamlin now has 30 career Cup wins, three of them at New Hampshire. He said his latest win came after a surge in performance in recent weeks. He finished fourth in three of the four races leading into New Hampshire.
“We’ve been treating every week as if it’s a playoff race and giving it all we’ve got,” he said. “We’ve been steadily getting better as the summer has gone on, and we need to continue to stay on that trend of getting better.”
Hamlin said the victory is a big relief because it all but assures him of one of the 16 playoff berths. But there’s also more speed to be found before the final 10 races that will decide the championship.
“I’m not going to think that [Sunday’s win] fixed everything,” he said. “I still think that we have some work to do to be guys that contend for a win every single week.
“We’re getting there. We really, really are getting there. But we still have some work to do.
“Today was just a bonus. We got some bonus points. It was a good points day overall, and we got another victory. All good things, but really when it comes to Monday, we’ll go to work on our next race track.”
Overall, it was a good day for the Gibbs team. Matt Kenseth, who is leaving the team’s No. 20 at season’s end, finished fourth, despite getting just two fresh tires on his final pit stop while most of his challengers got four.
Rookie Daniel Suarez finished sixth, and Kyle Busch appeared to have a car capable of winning, but after leading 95 laps he was nabbed twice for speeding on pit road and finished 12th.
Team owner Joe Gibbs said he was proud of his entire organization for turning its fortunes around.
“We got off to a slow start this year, and I think the thing I’d like to say most about our entire group there, nobody ever would point fingers or anything,” he said. “Everybody would just say: ‘We’ve got to go to work.’
“I think our guys back home working on the cars took it the same way, and I think everybody has been working extremely hard, and I’m hoping what’s happening now is we’re starting to hit our stride and get better and better down the stretch.
“That would be a big deal for us.”
Larson, the runner-up, had a strong performance after having to start the race from the rear of the pack. He was the fastest qualifier on Friday, but his time was disallowed for an unapproved modification to the rear spoiler on his car.
It was his seventh second-place finish of the season and the second time in a row that he finished second after starting in the rear.
Larson said the intense focus on his car by series officials is a sign that his car is a fast one.
“It means everybody is paying attention to us,” he said. “This is my fourth year, and I’ve never been in the position to where NASCAR and other teams are paying so much attention to our race car.
“That’s a compliment to everybody at our race shop.”
Martin Truex Jr. & Co. hold Cup racing clinic at Kentucky Speedway
By Rick Minter
As their dominating win at Kentucky Speedway on Saturday night showed, driver Martin Truex Jr., crew chief Cole Pearn and the entire No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team are finding success in ways that few folks in NASCAR thought possible.
The team is based in Denver, Colorado, far from the NASCAR mecca just north of Charlotte, North Carolina.
For years, the conventional thinking was that a team couldn’t be a top-tier organization unless it was located in the Charlotte area.
Before then, organizations like the Wood Brothers, from Stuart, Virginia, and the Elliott Brothers from Dawsonville, Georgia, dominated racing with teams based in their respective hometowns. But eventually, both moved to Charlotte to be nearer a good supply of mechanical talent and racing technology.
Furniture Row owner Barney Visser decided to go back to the original Wood/Elliott model and keep his team near his hometown.
So far, it’s working, despite the obvious problems caused by geography — like the long road trips required by the team hauler and the quick turnarounds needed to prepare cars for upcoming races.
Pearn said there are obstacles to be overcome, but there also are opportunities to capitalize on the situation.
“It’s difficult at times,” he said in the winner’s interview at Kentucky. “I feel like a lot of times we’re hanging on by a thread, but it’s just the way it is.
“We’ve got a group out there … we’ve been together for a while, and we’ve been through the lows and we’ve sucked, and we’ve had those moments where it’s tested all of us.
“But when you stick together and you’re all out there, you’re not worrying about somebody running down the street to go to a different place for a better deal. It just breeds a lot of chemistry. It breeds family, actually. … “When you get everybody committed and a group of people like that committed to the same goal, it’s a unique opportunity for sure.”
The biggest challenge, crew chief Pearn said, is getting cars to the tracks on time, since their trip is often several days longer than for most teams in Charlotte.
“Our Mondays and Tuesdays are pretty much ‘hair on fire’ most weeks,” he said. “So it’s amazing sometimes, I feel like, [that] we make it to the race track, but when we do, we’re generally good.”
Then there’s the blossoming of Truex, who appeared to be out of good career options at his previous team, Michael Waltrip Racing, when he lost his sponsor at the end of the 2013 season.
It’s been a big turnaround for Truex, as the driver himself acknowledged.
“Five years ago, I thought my career was over,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate to have an awesome bunch of people around me from top to bottom, and honestly, this team I’m with now, it was my only option at one point, and I thought: ‘Oh, man, we’ll see what we can do with it,’ and here we are.”
Saturday’s win, Truex’s third of the season and 10th of his career, came on a night in which he had the dominant car, winning the first two stages and surviving a late-race restart with far older tires than his challengers.
Truex led a race-high 152 laps and was ahead by a 15-second margin, just half a lap away from the white flag, when Kurt Busch’s blown rear gear set up an overtime finish.
Truex stayed on the track and kept the lead despite having more than 50 laps on his tires. His challengers, including Kyle Busch, teammate Erik Jones and Kyle Larson stopped for fresh rubber. But on the restart, Truex used a bump by Larson to take the lead and sped away. He was comfortably ahead when another caution ended the race at that point.
“I was surprised that once we got clear down into Turn One that I could actually pull away from those guys,” Truex said. “I thought I was going to have my hands full trying to hold them off, even if we did get to Turn One with the lead, but fortunately we were able to hold them off, so that was pretty awesome.”
Larson took the runner-up spot over Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. comes out on top at Daytona
By Rick Minter
There have been lots of NASCAR drivers who have gotten a single win at Talladega Superspeedway and never won again. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won’t be in that group as he backed up his May victory at Talladega with another in Saturday’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway.
Stenhouse, who drives the No. 17 Ford for Roush Fenway Racing, in a race that saw a record 14 caution periods that eliminated many of the early favorites, including pole-sitter Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Stenhouse started sixth and took the lead for good on the backstretch during an overtime run to the finish, drafting past race leader David Ragan and motoring away unchallenged to the checkered flag.
Clint Bowyer finished second for the second straight week ahead of Paul Menard and Michael McDowell, who scored the first top-five finish of his Cup career.
Stenhouse, 29, is emerging as one of the better racers at Daytona and Talladega, the two tracks where engines are restricted to slow speeds and where races are won by aggressive driving in large packs of cars. Of the 11 top-five finishes in his Cup career, five have come at these two tracks.
Runner-up Bowyer agreed in the post-race interviews at Daytona that Stenhouse has become a good restrictor-plate racer and has a fast car.
“Let’s face it, you get down to the end of that thing and look who the fastest car was,” Bowyer said, pointing out that Stenhouse qualified sixth at Daytona and was still running at the end after other faster cars had dropped out. “He’s the fastest car right then. He did a good job getting it to the front, and she set sail.
“He does a good job of blocking. He’s learned a lot. He’s become a good plate racer.”
Stenhouse was driving a new car, one that was built after he kept his Talladega car for posterity’s sake. The new one was just as fast, or faster, than the Talladega winner.
“All race I felt like I was really having to lift a lot [off the throttle] to keep from running over the cars in front of us,” Stenhouse said. “So I felt really strong about our car.”
For a time in the final laps, it looked as if David Ragan, driving the underdog No. 38 Ford for Front Row Motorsports, might pull off an upset. He led the field to the start of overtime, but when he moved high on the backstretch to block Ty Dillon, he left the bottom lane open for Stenhouse, who pounced in a hurry.
“David [Ragan] just didn’t get down quick enough,” Stenhouse said. “Looks are deceiving. When you’re looking in your mirror, you can really see the cars on the outside really good and it’s tough to see the cars on the inside.
“We just got a run at the right time, and he moved up at the perfect time for us to get to the inside and keep the lead from there.”
Stenhouse said he was surprised his car was as fast as it was given the fact that he’d made significant contact with the No. 42 of Kyle Larson as Larson sailed into the air during an earlier crash on the frontstretch.
“I think we got some rubber on the front bumper from his tires spinning,” Stenhouse said of the incident with Larson. “Everything just worked out just right for us right there.”
Kyle Larson puts it all together in FireKeepers Casino 400
By Rick Minter
After six second-place finishes and one win this season, some in the sport questioned whether Kyle Larson was racing as aggressively as he needed to be to realize his full potential.
On Sunday in the FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway, Larson surged forward at the end, taking the lead from Kyle Busch on a restart with 15 laps remaining, then held off all comers to get his second win of the season, his second in a row at Michigan and his third in a row when it comes to 2-mile tracks. His earlier win this season was at the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.
Larson won Sunday’s race in a manner that seems to suit his personality. He didn’t rough up anyone; he simply outdrove them in the same manner that Mark Martin, Terry Labonte, Bill Elliott and other Hall of Famers did back in the day.
Larson’s emergence as both the Series points leader and a strong contender for the championship has come at a time when the NASCAR world is trying to figure out which young drivers will rise up to replace the retiring Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the recently retired Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart.
Larson said that while some might say NASCAR as a whole is in a tough spot with its marquee drivers fading away, he sees the changing of the guard in a different light.
“I keep saying that NASCAR is in a great, great spot,” Larson, 24, said in the winner’s interview at Michigan. “Even with Dale Jr. retiring this year, I think it’s a huge opportunity for our sport.
“Dale Jr. has probably three-quarters of our fan base. You might lose a few thousand of his fans that might disappear. The rest of them are going to pick new drivers. I think new rivalries are going to be built. It’s going to bring some excitement back to the race track.”
Already this season, newcomers Ryan Blaney and Austin Dillon have won races, and Chase Elliott, Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones are in top-notch equipment and poised to win as well. And there are others like Joey Logano, who has been around the Cup circuit for 10 years and won 18 races, but is still just 27 years old.
“I’m happy that I seem to be head of that youth movement right now,” Larson said. “So many drivers in great equipment right now that are running up front. It’s just a great time for NASCAR. I think everybody is kind of nervous about where it’s going to be, but I think a lot of us, our fan bases are going to grow as well as NASCAR’s fan base.”
Larson, who started from the pole at Michigan and led the most laps with 96, still didn’t appear to have the winning combination until the final laps.
“The 78 [Martin Truex Jr.] was by far the class of the field, I thought,” Larson said. “I know I led a lot of laps. Seemed like whenever he wanted to get the lead, he hit a nitro button and would cruise up to the lead, then check out. He was the class of the field. … I thought we were probably a third- or fourth-place car. To come out a winner, it makes it that much more exciting.”
Chase Elliott finished second for the third straight time in Cup races at Michigan. He was followed by Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Jamie McMurray.
Elliott, who is fifth in the points standings on the strength of five top-five and nine top-10 finishes this year, said he felt like his No. 24 was faster than he thought it would be prior to Sunday’s 400-miler.
“The way we struggled Friday and Saturday [in practice], felt like we overachieved from what we thought we were going to have coming into the race,” he said, adding that the pit crew of his No. 24 Chevy did an excellent job. “I can’t express how nice that was to come in and gain two or three spots. It was unreal. Hope we can keep some of that moving forward.”
Elliott said his car just wasn’t handling quite well enough to beat Larson, who used the advantageous outside lane to bolt forward on a couple of late restarts to put himself in position to win.
“I tried to keep [Larson] behind me,” Elliott said. “Our car kind of fired off a little bit snug, just had to wait a little while to get freed up.
“He took advantage of that and went on to win. Happy for him. Had a fast car, did a good job, executed his race well.”
Austin Dillon drives the No. 3 to victory in Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte
By Rick Minter
A successful fuel-mileage gamble by Austin Dillon’s team propelled him to victory in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway and put the iconic No. 3 Chevrolet in Victory Lane in NASCAR’s elite series for the first time since Oct. 15, 2000, at Talladega Superspeedway, when the late Dale Earnhardt scored his 76th and final victory.
Dillon, the 27-year-old grandson of team owner Richard Childress, is in his fourth full season in the Cup circuit. Childress, who also owned the No. 3 when it was driven by Earnhardt — and earlier when he drove it himself — did not use that number from the time Earnhardt died until his grandson joined the Cup circuit.
“I’m so proud,” Childress said in the winners’ interview. “Having my grandson [winning in the 3] just made it that much more special. I know Dale is up there smiling down because he would want this win. He’d want to see it with Austin.”
Childress maintained for years that it would have to be a special situation to return the No. 3 to the track. His grandson chose that number when he first started racing Legends cars and has used it throughout his climb up the NASCAR ladder.
Sunday night’s win was the culmination of a long journey for Childress and Dillon.
“Can you believe this, the Coke 600, Austin Dillon, the 3?” Childress said. “When I looked up and saw the 3 on top of the board, I was standing there doing an interview, that’s when I got emotional. It’s so special to see that 3 in winner’s circle again.”
Dillon said he was glad to be able to build on what his grandfather and Earnhardt had done.
“To be able to deliver a number that is legendary and has stats that are untouchable, just to add to those numbers … that [Childress] and his best friend were able to create, it’s very special,” Dillon said. “And to all those fans that have supported it, too, ’cause there’s always haters out there. There’s a lot of support, too.
“There’s a great support system. To deliver this to them, the people that are proud to see that No. 3 out on the track, it feels amazing.”
For much of Sunday’s 600-miler, which was interrupted for an hour and a half because of rain, Dillon and the rest of the field were chasing the No. 78 Toyota of Martin Truex Jr., who led a race-high 233 laps. But as the laps wound down, and the race ran without a caution flag, several teams elected to stay on the track and attempt to stretch their fuel to the finish, while Truex and most of the leaders stopped for fuel and tires.
While Truex and Kyle Busch were charging through the pack in a hurry, Dillon and race leader Jimmie Johnson were running slower, and saving fuel.
Johnson led until Lap 398 of 400, but ran dry, opening the door for Dillon to take the lead. Behind them, Busch passed Truex to take second place, but wound up .835 seconds behind Dillon at the finish. Truex finished third ahead of Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin.
Truex has led 756 laps in the past three Coke 600s, but won just one — last year’s race.
“That’s two out of the last three years that we lost this race on fuel mileage,” he said. “Same thing two years ago. But we got the win last year.”
He acknowledged that he didn’t have the speed he needed at the end of this year’s race.
“We just missed it a little bit tonight on our last adjustment,” Truex said. “I think if not for that, we probably could have gotten [Dillon]. And then lapped traffic is just so tough here. There are a few guys out there that you don’t ever know where they’re going to be when you get to the corner and it cost you so much time trying to pass them. Ultimately, that’s what got us.”
Dillon’s fuel strategy was devised by his crew chief, Justin Alexander, who took over the crew chief job the week before the 600. He said the fuel strategy wasn’t that much of a gamble.
“We had a good car all race,” he said. “We ran top 10 all race. Austin did a heck of a job, the whole team did.
We were right there in position on that last stop when the caution came out. We were two or three laps short, just right in that window where you have the option to stretch it, but there’s a risk with that. You give up a little track position early on trying to stretch it on fuel.
“We got good fuel mileage all day. It really didn’t make much sense to do anything but that. He didn’t really have to back off that much. We didn’t give up that many spots on the race track doing it. I think we were around 10th when we started saving.”
Martin Truex Jr. closes out Go Bowling 400 win at Kansas Speedway
By Rick Minter
For the past several seasons, Martin Truex Jr. appeared to have a jinx on him when it came to the spring race at Kansas Speedway.
But on Saturday night in the Go Bowling 400, Truex made all the right moves and came away with his first-ever win at Kansas, his second victory of the season and the ninth of his career.
Truex led 104 laps, including the final 19, to get the win over Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Blaney and Kyle Busch.
That reversal of fortune came after last season, when he started on the pole and led 172 laps before a broken bolt hung between the wheel and hub during a pit stop and dropped him out of contention.
The year before that, he was poised to win until a late caution flag foiled his run. When he stayed on the track, his challengers, including eventual winner Jimmie Johnson, stopped for fresh rubber and drove away from him on the restart. In 2012, he led 173 laps before finishing second to Denny Hamlin.
This year, he motored away from Blaney on a restart with 19 laps to go, then prevailed on four more restarts to take the victory.
Truex said in his winner’s interview that the earlier failures made this win seem much sweeter.
“It does, I’m not going to lie to you,” he said. “As a racer, you don’t forget. You don’t forget those days that one got away or you screwed up and gave one away or anything like that. You never forget those things.
“Definitely last year was probably the biggest heartbreaker to have the craziest thing happen that you could ever imagine — an eight-second lead just gone.”
This time it was young Blaney — in position to claim his first Cup victory on the same weekend he won his first pole — who didn’t have enough speed at the end to take the win.
“[Saturday night] we did everything right,” Truex said. “When the pressure was on, when the money was on the line, we made the right moves, and everything worked out.”
Keselowski came back from two laps down to take the runner-up spot. He had to pit under the green flag to have a loose wheel replaced and was also penalized on that stop for driving through too many pit stalls.
He said he never really got a chance to show the speed of his No. 2 Ford.
“Every time we started to pass cars and cycle up to the front, we had some kind of issue, which was a real bummer to not be able to showcase the strength that we had,” he said. “Toward the end, we were able to get some runs and make the most of it. …
“If it would have just played out normal, I think we might have had a shot at [Truex].”
Third-finishing Harvick also had to overcome a mid-race setback. He made a pit stop at Lap 135 under green due to a vibration and lost a lap.
“We came back through the field,” he said. “It just didn’t line up for us there at the end.”
Early success has rocketed Erik Jones’ career into the fast lane
By Rick Minter
Whenever the subject of future NASCAR stars comes up, Erik Jones’ name is one that is frequently mentioned, along with Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney.
Jones, who will turn 21 on May 30, first came to the attention of the NASCAR world thanks to Kyle Busch, who lost the 2012 Snowball Derby to a then-16-year-old Jones. Busch then helped Jones get hooked up with Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota. (The Derby, run at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida, each December, is considered the most prestigious asphalt short-track race in America.)
Jones responded by winning seven races and the 2015 title in the Camping World Truck Series — and seven more races in the Xfinity Series, including one at Texas Motor Speedway two weeks ago. This fast start to his career earned him a ride in the Cup Series in a second car fielded by Furniture Row Racing, the Denver-based Toyota team that has an alliance with Gibbs.
Seven races into his rookie Cup team, Jones, who drives the No. 77 Toyota Camry, has one top-10 finish and is 14th in the standings. His teammate, Martin Truex Jr., has a win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, three other top-10s and sits third in the standings.
So far, the Furniture Row team appears to be sailing along, even as the four drivers from the parent team, Joe Gibbs Racing, are winless for the season. Kyle Busch, in seventh place, is the only Gibbs driver in the top 10 in the points standings. The other three drivers are all behind Jones in the standings, with Denny Hamlin in 15th, Matt Kenseth at 22nd and Daniel Suarez at 23rd.
While most Cup Series drivers enjoyed the week off prior to Easter, Jones and four others — Ryan Newman, Danica Patrick, Alex Bowman and Joey Logano — were testing at Daytona International Speedway.
While in Daytona, Jones spoke with reporters about his season to date, saying he’s learning a lot and is pretty pleased with the speed his team has shown.
“I would say, performance-wise, other than last week at Texas [he finished 22nd], I’ve been really happy with where we’ve run,” Jones said. “We’ve run consistently in the top 10 at Phoenix, Fontana, Atlanta, but we just didn’t get the finishes we deserved.
“I think at Fontana and Phoenix we really had top-five cars, but things just didn’t play out at the end. Either way I look at it, we’ve done as good a job as we can, and we brought fast race cars to the track. We’re just learning more about how to execute, how to close these races out, and how to get the finishes we feel like we are capable of.”
Jones said being fast hasn’t been a problem for him and rookie crew chief, Chris Gayle. The challenge, he said, is in putting together a complete race without making rookie mistakes along the way.
“Driving the cars and getting the speed out of the cars hasn’t been too big of a deal,” he said. “It’s been more of a matter of everything else: the execution of getting on and off pit road, pit stops, strategy, everything that plays into these races.
“We’re learning more about that as a team. … We have a lot of guys on the team that are first-year Cup guys, so we’re all learning together and trying to figure it out more and more as we go.”
Jones said he’s looking forward to several of the upcoming races on the schedule, including this weekend’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, Tennessee.
“Bristol is a track I feel pretty good about, as well as when we get to Charlotte next month,” he said. “There are a lot of tracks I really enjoy. Dover is one I really enjoy going to, and it’s coming up here next month, as well.
“There are a few tracks I have marked off that we’ve always been fast in the Xfinity Series, and tracks I’ve always felt pretty comfortable on.”
Jones said that despite the fact that he, Elliott and Blaney are often mentioned together as young guns of the sport, he really hasn’t communicated much with either of them, both of whom are now in their sophomore years in NASCAR’s elite divisions.
“I have to be honest with you, I don’t hang out with the other drivers too much,” he said. “I kind of do my own thing. I show up at the race track to do my job, and that’s kind of always how it’s been.
“I’ve always lived by the mentality that you bring your friends to the race track with you.”
Lady Luck favors Truex Jr. in Las Vegas on Sunday
By Rick Minter
The finish of Sunday’s Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway showed that racing luck seems to have a way of finding balance.
Martin Truex Jr., who has a history of leading lots of laps only to have something happen late in a race to keep him out of Victory Lane, got lucky and won the race.
Brad Keselowski, who’d been lucky at Atlanta Motor Speedway the week before and won a race that Kevin Harvick had dominated, saw luck work against him when a part broke on his No. 2 Ford just as he was pulling away from Truex with just two laps left to run.
“It was a gift,” Truex said as he climbed from his No. 78 Toyota in Victory Lane.
Keselowski, in his post-race comments, was philosophical about his change in fortune from the week before.
“It’s frustrating, but you put yourself in position to win, and good things will happen,” said Keselowski, who started from the pole at Las Vegas, led 89 laps and had the fastest car at the end before a part in his suspension gave out. “That happened to us last week [at Atlanta] and didn’t happen this week [at Vegas], so you just pick up the pieces and move on.
“Luckily, they’re really big pieces. We’ve got a lot to be proud of.”
Truex, who led 150 of 267 laps and won both of the first two stages of the race, was glad to see his fortunes change, at least for one Sunday. In recent seasons, Truex has been known for having fast cars but often little to show for it. Despite a career-best four wins in 2016, there were six other Cup races in which he led more than 100 laps but failed to win.
That, Truex said, made Sunday’s lucky break at Las Vegas even sweeter.
“We finally got some [good luck],” he said. “We definitely had our share of races where we’ve dominated and gave one away, and it looked like today was going to be another one of those.
“The runs just didn’t work out the way we needed them. We were struggling on the really long runs. We had to run that last set of tires on that last caution longer than we did all race long. I was out of control and Brad [Keselowski] was really good on the long run.
“I hate that he had problems. He was strong, and we weren’t going to do anything with him, but then he lost the brakes or something. A little bit of a gift, but we have given some away, so it feels good to come out on the good end for once.”
Truex’s win, the eighth of his career, was the first of 2017 for manufacturer Toyota.
The Cup circuit’s younger drivers had another good outing. Kyle Larson finished second ahead of Chase Elliott, who also had another good finish. Sophomore driver Ryan Blaney, runner-up in the Daytona 500, was seventh at Las Vegas.
Larson has been on the cusp of victory in all three races this season. He was leading with a lap to go in the Daytona 500 but ran out of fuel, and was again leading at Atlanta before losing the top spot to Brad Keselowski with seven laps to go and finishing second.
Elliott was leading at Daytona with three laps remaining and fell back. He then finished fifth at Atlanta and third at Vegas.
Heading into this weekend’s race at Phoenix Raceway, Keselowski leads the Cup standings by one point over Larson, while Elliott is in third place, three points out of the lead.
Suarez planning to make the most of rare opportunity
By Rick Minter/Universal Uclick
In a NASCAR world where rookies often get great rides in top cars, Daniel Suarez is getting one of the rarest of opportunities. The 25-year-old Monterrey, Mexico, native and NASCAR’s reigning Xfinity Series champion, is moving to the Monster Energy Cup Series as a raw rookie, but will be driving for one of the best teams in the business.
He’ll take over the No. 19 Toyota team at Joe Gibbs Racing, the team that Carl Edwards left at the end of last season. Edwards was in position to win the 2016 championship with 10 laps remaining in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but lost his chance at the title when he collided with Joey Logano on a late restart.
Now that team, led by veteran crew chief Dave Rogers, will prepare the No. 19 for Suarez.
Despite never having run a Cup race, Suarez has tallied 68 Xfinity races and 27 more in the Camping World Truck Series over the past three seasons, with three Xfinity wins and one in trucks. He joins a team headed by Rogers, who has led his drivers to 18 Cup wins, 85 top-five and 132 top-10 finishes and 20 poles.
Suarez said that while there is pressure in moving to a proven team like the No. 19, it also takes a lot of pressure off of him.
“It does give me a lot of confidence to know that I’m with a team that is capable of winning races and championships,” Suarez said. “Hopefully we can improve throughout the year and get to a point where we can be competitive to win races.”
Suarez has three veteran teammates — Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin — to help him as well as Edwards.
“I think we have the potential to work together more once the season starts,” Suarez said of his Gibbs teammates. “They have been very helpful. Carl, even though he’s not going to be racing, I will be talking with him pretty often.”
In his move from racing in the NASCAR Mexico Series, where he had 10 wins in 58 starts, to racing in the U.S., Suarez has been backed by ARRIS, a company based in Suwanee, Georgia, that manufacturers the equipment used by cable operators to provide services to homes and businesses.
Last week, ARRIS, which also sponsored Edwards, announced that it was increasing its primary sponsorship of the No. 19 team from 17 to 22 races this year.
“Daniel represents the future of racing, and we’re looking forward to joining him on the podium in his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season,” Ron Coppock, executive vice president of global marketing and customer operations at ARRIS, said in a team release.
Logano punches Championship Round ticket with late surge Sunday at Phoenix
By Rick Minter
Joey Logano, knocked out of a chance to compete for the 2015 Sprint Cup championship because of a crash with Matt Kenseth at Martinsville, will race for the title this year after winning a race at Phoenix on Sunday that, ironically, saw Kenseth eliminated due to a crash.
Kenseth had taken the lead late in the Can-Am 500 after taking just two tires on his final pit stop. He was well ahead of second-running Alex Bowman when a crash by Michael McDowell set up an overtime finish.
On the first restart, Kenseth took the initial lead, while Bowman, driving the No. 88 in place of Dale Earnhardt Jr., didn’t get up to speed immediately.
Then, as Kenseth entered Turn One in the lead, he pulled to the bottom of the track and made contact with Bowman, who had recovered and was coming fast on the inside groove. Kenseth spun out of contention for a Chase berth, and Logano inherited the lead.
Logano then motored away from fellow Chase driver Kyle Busch to get the win, while Busch held on for second place to secure the fourth and final spot on points in next Sunday’s Championship Round at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The highest finisher among the Championship 4 drivers — Logano, Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards — will be the 2016 Sprint Cup champion.
Johnson, Edwards and Logano advanced because of their wins in the Round of 8, and Logano said his victory on Sunday was as big or bigger than any of his 16 previous Cup victories.
“This isn’t just a race,” he said. “This is a championship.
“We raced [Phoenix] like it was Homestead because we had to, and what an amazing feeling to be able to succeed under that amount of pressure and to have a race team that is truly better under pressure.
“I couldn’t be more proud of that, and to have the opportunity to have the pressure on us.”
He said his Phoenix win puts him in a good frame of mind heading into Homestead, unlike in 2014, when he left Phoenix feeling nervous about the finale.
“This is not that feeling,” he said. “This is that feeling that ‘Hey, we’ve got confidence. I know we can do it.’ … I don’t feel like it’s a long shot like it was last time. It was my first time there, I’m racing for a championship. ‘Oh my God, what’s going to happen?’ This time I feel like we’ve been here before.”
Among those who won’t be there for the championship round are Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin, all of whom failed to advance despite finishing in the top seven at Phoenix.
Sunday’s race also was a showcase of the talents of the 23-year-old Bowman, who started on the pole and led a race-high 194 laps before fading to sixth at the finish after the contact with Kenseth.
Bowman, who has spent most of his time in the Cup series driving back-marker cars, said there’s a big difference in what he’s been driving and a top-flight car like the No. 88.
“I think I’ve had four Cup races [at Phoenix], and I don’t even know if I’ve finished inside the top 30 in any of them,” Bowman said. “Then I came here with Hendrick Motorsports and led almost 200 laps.
“There are a lot of guys in the garage that can get the job done and run up front; they just don’t get the opportunity to show it.
“I’m just thankful that I was given the opportunity to show it [Sunday]. Our race car was really good all day. Best car on long runs by far. It was just a lot of fun.”
So far, Bowman has no firm plans for 2017.
“I’m still waiting for the right opportunity to come along,” he said in a media session prior to Sunday’s race. “There’s nothing that has really fit that has come along. I’ll still probably have my day job at Hendrick Motorsports driving the simulator.
“We’ll go from there.”
The rain giveth: Carl Edwards on top at soggy Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway
By Rick Minter/ Universal Uclick
Carl Edwards and his No. 19 team at Joe Gibbs Racing pulled off a dramatic win in the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, and with it earned a chance to race for the Sprint Cup championship in two weeks at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Edwards and his team arrived at Texas at the bottom of the Chase standings, 32 points out of the lead and needing a win to advance to the Championship Round at Homestead.
Although there’s one more race in the Round of 8 — this Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway — Texas represented Edwards’ best chance to get the victory he needed to advance to the title round. Edwards now has four wins on the 1.5-mile oval near Fort Worth.
As the laps wound down in a race pushed from afternoon to evening because of rain, Edwards found himself running second to Martin Truex Jr. with more rain on the radar.
During a caution period at Lap 258 of the race’s scheduled 334, Edwards’ crew serviced his car in just 11 seconds, sending him back onto the track with a race lead that he would not relinquish.
The expected rains arrived 35 laps later, and Edwards was declared the winner, securing his advancement to the Championship Round under rules that give a winner in the current Chase round an automatic berth in the following round.
“It doesn’t get bigger than this,” Edwards said. “My goal is to win the championship, and what this 19 team wanted was an opportunity to do that, and now we have it.
“This was a great little gauntlet to run and we made it through, and now we go do it at Homestead.”
Ironically, last year at Phoenix, a late-race rain kept Edwards from being able to advance to the championship.
“That was bad, and this is good,” Edwards said. “Just like anything, you have to take what happens in racing and in life and take it and have fun with it, and we did that [Sunday].
“Whatever happened was going to have to be OK, but this is great.”
Behind Edwards and Jimmie Johnson, who also is set to compete for the title at Homestead due to his win at Martinsville Speedway last weekend, the standings are extremely close.
Joey Logano’s runner-up finish puts him third in the standings, but he’s just two points ahead of Denny Hamlin, who is now fifth in the standings and needs to move up one spot to be among the final four who will compete for the title.
Harvick, the 2014 champion, can advance to the final round at Homestead with a win at Phoenix, where he leads all drivers with eight Cup victories, including six in the past eight races. But Cup races are hard to win, and he will have to contend with Austin Dillon, who was angry at Texas after wrecking his No. 3 Chevrolet following slight contact with Harvick.
Dillon’s crew chief, Slugger Labbe, told Dillon over the team’s radio: “Write down that number. We are going to Phoenix and [Harvick] is going to need a win and we don’t.”
Dillon later said in response: “I don’t know. I am just here to win races, and that is all that matters to me.”
Harvick said Labbe was off-base with his comment.
“Slugger says a lot of things that he shouldn’t,” Harvick said. “All in all, there was no intent there, and I like racing with Austin.”
Flawless pit stops get Truex to Southern 500 Victory Lane
BY RICK MINTER
It’s a fact that the fastest car doesn’t always win the race. That was the case in Sunday night’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, where Kevin Harvick led a whopping 214 of 367 laps in the Southern 500, but wound up a runner-up to Martin Truex Jr., who led just 28 laps, but whose total included the final 16.
The race also proved once again that it takes a total team effort to win, as Truex’s pit crew was nearly flawless all night, while Harvick’s team had three slow stops, which cost him numerous positions each time.
Afterward, Truex thanked his crew for their efforts, which came a week after a tough day on pit road at Michigan International Speedway kept him from contending for the win there.
“Really proud of my team, obviously, for all they do for me, and just can’t believe we won here at Darlington,” he said. “It’s awesome.”
Harvick was sharply critical of his pit crew, and expressed his fear that unless the performance improves, he won’t be a championship contender when the Chase for the Sprint Cup kicks off after next Saturday’s race at Richmond International Raceway.
“The guys in the garage and at the shop continue to do a great job, and we continue to give it away on pit road,” Harvick said in a brief post-race media session at Darlington. “Pretty much summed up the night. Just the dominant car and just three bad pit stops on pit road.”
Harvick, whose team swapped crews with teammate Tony Stewart for the 2014 Chase after some mistake-plagued regular-season races, said his No. 4 team appears to have chronic problems.
“We have championship cars, and we’re just mediocre on pit road,” he said. “It’s kind of been that way for a few years, and they’ve moved some things around, but it just seems like it’s just week after week after week.”
He said offering encouragement on his part is not the answer to the team’s problems.
“Those guys get paid a lot of money to perform on pit road, and cheerleading hasn’t really been working,” he said. “You’ve got to get after it on pit road and do your job.”
Truex, who, like Harvick, has had fast cars at many races this season, only to lose for one reason or another, was relishing a win in the sport’s oldest superspeedway race. His latest victory comes after he won the Coca-Cola 600 earlier this year, which, with the Southern 500, is one of the original Triple Crown races. He came within inches of winning the third, the Daytona 500, back in February.
Back in the day, only David Pearson and the late LeeRoy Yarbrough were able to win the Triple Crown races in a single season.
“Just to be mentioned with those two names is unbelievable enough,” Truex said. “I can’t believe that I was about a foot from doing it is incredible. There are just so many things about this year that have been special, and that’s one of them.”
Kyle Larson, who got his first Cup win at Michigan the week before Darlington, seemed to be riding a wave of momentum.
He was in position to win the Xfinity Series race, but spun as he entered pit road. In Sunday’s 500, he led 45 laps before finishing a solid third, ahead of Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano.
Larson said afterward that he’s looking forward to the Chase and feels he will be a contender for the championship.
“It was good to be a contender two weeks in a row,” he said.
The finishing order at Darlington also tightened the battle for the three remaining berths in the Chase, as 13 drivers have claimed a spot due to their race wins. Only Pocono Raceway winner Chris Buescher isn’t locked into a berth, as he must still finish Saturday’s race at Richmond among the top 30 in the driver standings.
The three winless drivers now holding points positions that would get them a Chase berth are Chase Elliott, Austin Dillon and Jamie McMurray.
Ryan Newman, the first driver on the outside looking in, finished eighth at Darlington and closed the gap on his closest rival, Jamie McMurray, to 7 points. McMurray came back from a late, unscheduled pit stop to tighten loose lug nuts to score a 15th-place finish. Dillon, who is 16 points ahead of McMurray, was 12th at Darlington, while Elliott, who is 24 points ahead of Newman, was 10th at Darlington.
Newman’s status could change, as his car failed post-race inspection at Darlington, which could cost him points.
Bryan Clauson dies from injuries in crash at Belleville
By Rick Minter
Bryan Clauson, one of the most versatile — and successful — drivers in all forms of motorsports, died Sunday from injuries suffered in a crash at the Belleville Midget Nationals on the Belleville High Banks in Belleville, Kansas.
Video of the crash shows that Clauson was leading the race Saturday night when he encountered lapped traffic. Contact with a lapped car sent Clauson’s car into a series of flips, and just as he came to a stop, he was struck by an oncoming car.
He was transported to a local hospital, and died the next day. He was 27 years old.
Clauson, who primarily drove open-wheeled dirt cars, also raced in NASCAR. In 2007 and 2008, he ran a total of 26 Xfinity Series races, with a best finish of fifth at Kentucky Speedway. He also won an ARCA race at Gateway International in 2007. Clauson also drove in three Indianapolis 500s, and led three laps of this year’s 100th running of the race.
The Noblesville, Indiana, resident had won 27 races this season, the most recent coming last week in a midget race in Beloit, Kansas.
He was a two-time national champion of USAC’s Midget and Sprint Car divisions and was the 2014 Chili Bowl winner.
NASCAR issued the following statement on Clauson’s passing: “NASCAR extends its sincere condolences to the family and friends of Bryan Clauson, a passionate competitor whose love for racing fueled his unmatched, positive spirit. He was a dear friend to many in the racing community, and he was loved and respected by all who knew him. He touched the lives of so many in our motorsports family, and his warm presence and relentless enthusiasm will be missed.”