Truex Jr. wins first race in the Chase; will now advance to second round
By Rick Minter
For much of the latter stages of Sunday’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400 at Chicagoland Speedway, it looked as if Chase Elliott would get his first Sprint Cup win in the first race of the 2016 Chase.
But a late caution for a blown tire by Michael McDowell wiped out Elliott’s lead and gave Martin Truex Jr. the break he needed to seize the lead and capture the win.
When the caution flew with seven laps remaining and set up an overtime finish, Elliott, Truex and most of the leaders headed to pit road for fresh rubber, with Ryan Blaney, Kasey Kahne and Carl Edwards remaining on the track and assuming the top three positions. Truex beat Elliott out of the pits and lined up fourth, with Elliott fifth.
When the green flag was displayed, Truex took off in the outside lane and quickly passed Blaney to take the lead. Joey Logano came from sixth place to take second, over Elliott, Blaney and Brad Keselowski.
Under the Chase rules, Truex’s win assures that he will advance to the second round, which begins after two more races, at New Hampshire and Dover.
Truex, who also won earlier this year at Charlotte and Darlington, said in his winner’s interview that he believes he can add a championship to his resume this year.
“Without a doubt, it’s the best team I’ve ever had,” he said. “It’s the best position I’ve ever been in. I really feel like we have what it takes to win this championship.”
He said his Furniture Row team’s alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing, which provides the team with cars and technology, is one of the keys to his success.
“I felt like we had the same thing last year, but we didn’t have the race cars,” he said. “We didn’t have the speed we have now. That’s really taken us to another level.”
It took more than a fast car to get in position to win last Sunday. Truex had to recover from an early flat tire that put him a lap down. But he rejoined the lead pack during a caution flag at Lap 121 for a spin by Brian Scott.
“On one hand, the bad luck was going to bite us, and on the other, we had a lot of time to battle back,” Truex said. “We’re lucky it happened early, and we were able to have an awesome race car all day.”
Many of his fellow Chase drivers weren’t as fortunate, among them Elliott, who didn’t have time to recover from losing a critical spot to Truex on the final pit stop.
“That’s just part of it,” Elliott said of the turn of events that took away what appeared to be a likely victory. “You’ve got to expect it and be able to embrace it and move forward. I feel like we did a good job controlling the things that we could control today. We played the cards we were dealt, and came up short.”
Elliott wasn’t the only Chase contender who left Chicago disappointed. Kevin Harvick fell a lap down during an early pit stop and never got it back. Jimmie Johnson led a race-high 118 laps, but sped on pit road late in the race and took himself out of contention for the win.
A flat tire relegated Kyle Larson to an 18th-place finish, while Chris Buescher finished 28th to drop to 16th — the lowest position in the Chase standings.
After the race, NASCAR officials announced that the cars driven by Truex and Johnson did not pass post-race inspection, but series officials told reporters that the infractions were not deemed serious enough to warrant a penalty that would keep Truex from using his win to advance to the Chase’s second round. Both could lose points, which could affect Johnson’s bid to advance to the next round.
Tony Stewart keeps making steps toward Chase berth
By Rick Minter
Saturday’s Coke Zero 400 marked Tony Stewart’s final Sprint Cup race at Daytona International Speedway, and likely his final race there in any kind of vehicle.
He left the track with a record that is topped only by the late Dale Earnhardt.
Including Sprint Cup points-paying races, non-points races, Xfinity Series and IROC events, Stewart has 19 Daytona victories — second on the all-time list to Earnhardt’s 34.
Stewart has been the most successful in the Coke Zero 400, winning that race in 2005, 2006, 2009 and 2012. It seemed for a time last Saturday night like he might add a fifth 400 win.
After riding at the back of the pack for most of it, Stewart drove his way into the top 10 late in the race, only to spin in Turn One with 10 laps to go.
That left him with a 26th place finish, which, while disappointing, allows him to move into 30th place in the points standings. If he can stay above that threshold for the next nine races, he will participate in the Chase for the Sprint Cup in his final season.
Stewart was at ease throughout the race, even singing — albeit off-key — into his two-way radio. He was calm even after the wreck, shouldering the blame for his late spin.
“I just overcorrected for it and drove it into the fence,” said Stewart, who became eligible for a Chase berth via his win at Sonoma Raceway two weeks ago. “So, definitely my fault. I don’t know why I got loose, but I got loose going into (Turn) One.”
Kyle Busch nabs his first victory at Kansas Speedway
By Rick Minter
There were times in his career when Kyle Busch considered Kansas Speedway to be one of his worst tracks. From 2004 to 2013, he had a best finish of seventh, and only one other top 10, with eight finishes outside the top 20.
With his win last Saturday in the GoBowling 400, Busch has completed a turnaround at the speedway.
His fortunes began to improve back in the fall of 2014. He finished third then, followed by a fifth last fall. (He missed last year’s spring race at Kansas due to a broken leg.)
Last Saturday night, Busch and the rest of the field spent the first two thirds of the race chasing Martin Truex Jr., who started from the pole and led 172 laps before a problem on a green-flag pit stop at Lap 212 of 267 forced another stop and put him out of contention.
When that round of green-flag pit stops was over, Busch had inherited the lead, then led the final 37 laps to get the victory, his series-leading third of the season and the 37th of his Cup career.
He ran the last 56 laps on the same set of tires, even as his challengers stopped for fresh rubber. Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth, with 22 fewer laps on their tires, gave Busch his toughest competition in the closing laps. But Busch pulled away from Kenseth on the next-to-last restart and then beat Harvick on the final restart. Harvick settled for second over Kurt Busch, Kenseth and Ryan Blaney.
Busch said in his winner’s interview that having never won before at Kansas, he was wondering whether he was making the right moves as he tried to hold on with older tires in the latter stages of the race.
“I was trying to take care of my tires and make sure I wasn’t slipping ’em and overheating ’em,” he said. “But Kenseth was catching me. I was like: OK, I got to go. I got to find some speed.’
“I wasn’t able to find any. At that moment, I’m wondering: What am I doing wrong? What am I doing different from the previous run? And why am I in this position?’
“Fortunately, those couple of restarts that I got, I just had a chance to regroup, resettle in and get my car back underneath me. That was the key for us.”
With the win at Kansas, there now are just two tracks on the circuit, Charlotte and Pocono, where Busch has not won a Cup race. He said he’s eager to address that.
“Every single week, every single year, everything’s a challenge,” he said. “We do this for many reasons. But for me, it’s just the challenge of being able to go out there and to continue to try to thrive and be good at what we do, to win championships, win races.
“It’s certainly been some tough roads along the way here at Kansas, but it’s certainly nice to win this one. I look forward to hopefully knock off some more this year at Charlotte and Pocono to complete the list.”
On the other hand, Truex must be wondering what he has to do to win at Kansas. Last year in the spring race he had the fastest car, but on the final pit stop, his crew elected to go with only fuel while his challengers took fresh tires. That saw him drop to ninth. This year, it was a broken bolt in the braking system that did him in.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Truex said of the moment he realized he had a problem with his No. 78 Toyota. “Went around (Turns) One and Two and I was like, ‘Wheel loose.’
“I kept telling myself that maybe it’s not me, maybe it’s just shaking because it has tape on it or something stupid. It was loose and I knew it right away. Frustrating, but that’s how it goes.”
But he still tried to focus on the positives of a weekend that saw him run the fastest from the opening of practice until the final pit stop of the race.
“We’re going to win races for sure,” he said. “If we keep bringing cars like that, we’re going to win some. It’s frustrating when you’ve had it happen so many times in your career.”
Sprint Cup drivers praise results of new aero package
By Rick Minter
After five straight weekends of racing, NASCAR’s Sprint Cup drivers and teams got a weekend off for Easter before getting back to work this week at Martinsville Speedway.
The season so far has seen generally more competitive racing, due in large part to a lower-downforce aerodynamic package being used at most tracks this year. There’s a great contest underway for Rookie of the Year. Jimmie Johnson has won two races and moved into seventh place on the circuit’s all-time win list. And there are other compelling stories as well.
The new aero package features among other things a shorter rear spoiler (3.5 inches versus the earlier 6) and a shorter splitter edge on the front (one-quarter inch instead of 2 inches).
Drivers one after another have had nothing but praise for the new rules, with their only other comments being that NASCAR needs to lower the downforce even more, so that more of a car’s performance will depend on the driver’s input instead of an engineer’s tweaks to the car.
“I’m really happy that NASCAR has made the steps they have,” Carl Edwards said in a media session at Auto Club Speedway. “You’re seeing the results on the race track. It is more fun to drive. This package is just simply more fun. The driver has more of an influence. The tires fall off a little more. There’s more passing. I watched guys last week really driving the race cars.”
Edwards, who grew up racing sideways on dirt tracks around his native Missouri, said others with little dirt background are adapting well, too.
“Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. was, I mean, just loose steering and it looked like he was running on dirt out there the whole time,” Edwards said of Earnhardt’s driving at Phoenix. “That’s fun. Me, personally, I like that type of racing. So, yeah, that’s good.”
Edwards said, in somewhat of a surprise, that he of all people still hasn’t gotten a good grip on the new package, despite finishing second by inches to Kevin Harvick at Phoenix.
“I just don’t have a feel for it yet,” he said. “I thought we actually surprised ourselves a little bit, how well we ran at Phoenix.”
The Rookie of the Year contest so far is living up to the pre-season hype, as the top two rookies, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney, are engaged in a seesaw battle for the lead. Blaney led heading into the most recent race, at Auto Club Speedway, but had a flat tire and hit the wall late in the race and lost the top spot to Elliott, who finished a season-best sixth. Blaney also has a best finish of sixth, at Las Vegas, and the two are tied for 16th in Cup points heading into Martinsville, with Elliott holding the edge in rookie standings, as his second-best finish of eighth trumps Blaney’s second best of 10th.
The rookie battle is especially interesting to veterans of the Sprint Cup garage who have known the two drivers all their lives. Elliott’s father, Bill, drove for the Wood Brothers, who now field cars for Blaney, whose father, Dave, was a Cup driver as well.
“I’ve known Ryan and Chase since they were little boys,” said Eddie Wood, co-owner of the No. 21 Ford that Blaney drives. “Seeing them race for Rookie of the Year is a lot of fun. It looks like it’s going to be a great battle between them from week to week.”
Also in the running for the rookie title are Brian Scott, who is 14 points out of the rookie lead, and Chris Buescher, who is 16 back.
Jimmie Johnson already has two wins this season, at Atlanta and Auto Club Speedway. The first, at Atlanta, tied him with the late Dale Earnhardt for seventh on the all-time win list at 76. The Auto Club victory put him ahead of Earnhardt.
The Auto Club victory also continued a recent trend in which Kevin Harvick finished second to Johnson.
Since Harvick moved from Richard Childress Racing to the No. 4 Chevrolet at Stewart-Haas Racing at the start of 2014, he’s finished second 20 times — six times in 2014, 13 last year and once so far this year. Eight of those runner-up finishes have come in races won by Johnson.
As the circuit heads back to Martinsville Speedway this weekend, there likely will be much discussion of the race there last fall and the crash that saw Matt Kenseth intentionally wreck Joey Logano in retaliation for an earlier incident at Kansas Speedway.
Kenseth, who won six races in 2015, was suspended for two races as a result. Logano did not receive a penalty, but the incident cost him a chance to compete for the championship after having won five races.
Both Logano and Kenseth say they’ve put those troubles behind them, but neither has returned to his form of 2015.
Logano has fared better so far this season. He’s currently sixth in the standings with a best finish of second, at Las Vegas, and an average finish of 8.4. Kenseth is 15th in the standings, with a best finish of seventh at Phoenix and an average finish of 19.2.
BK Racing names David Ragan as driver of No. 23 Toyota
By Rick Minter
David Ragan is one of just 24 active Sprint Cup drivers who have ever won a Cup race, and one of just 19 with multiple wins.
But when it came to the 2016 season, he was one of the last — if not the last — to secure a full-time ride.
Last week, just days before drivers begin arriving in Daytona for the season-opening Speedweeks, Ragan was announced as the driver of the No. 23 Toyota at BK Racing.
Ragan, who has wins at Daytona and Talladega, started his career at Roush Fenway Racing, but lost his sponsor, UPS, and his ride in the No. 6 Ford before he won in July 2011, at Daytona — an accomplishment that might have saved his job had it come earlier in the year.
He moved to the underfunded Front Row Motorsports and won at Talladega in 2013, but again, sponsor issues kept him from being assured of a full-time ride for 2015. That turned out to be a blessing of sorts, as it put him in position to fill in for the injured Kyle Busch at Joe Gibbs Racing, where he ran nine races in 2015. From there, he moved to the No. 55 at Michael Waltrip Racing, taking the seat vacated by Brian Vickers, who was forced to step aside because of health issues.
But MWR was not the place to be at the end of 2015, as the team shuttered its doors. Then, throughout the winter, Ragan’s name was mentioned when various rides were up for grabs, but until last week, he was without concrete plans for the season.
Still, he said he never lost confidence that he would wind up back in the Cup series this year.
“Things seem to develop a lot slower this year,” Ragan said, adding that he attributes that to the effort to create a franchise system for NASCAR team owners, a process that has dragged on longer than most would have expected.
NASCAR chairman Brian France said during the sport’s media tour that the charter system is coming, even if it has taken longer than NASCAR officials and the team owners expected.
Ragan said he spent his time during the off-season talking to team owners and potential sponsors. “I tried to stay in the loop,” he said. “I didn’t know how it would all shake out, but I was confident I would be in the Cup series.”
The BK Racing team is not among the sport’s elite, but Ragan said the team is putting the pieces in place to improve its performance. The team has purchased cars from MWR and hired some of its displaced personnel. BK Racing also fields the No. 83 for Matt DiBenedetto.
“BK Racing has lots of potential,” Ragan said. “It’s obviously one of the smaller teams, but it has a good agreement with Toyota, and it has put a lot of pieces to the puzzle in place.”
Ragan said that he expected to be a top-15 to top-20 finisher most weeks this season, but there are six to 10 races he looks upon as winnable for his team — such as the races at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, where the use of restrictor plates to slow speeds also make nearly every driver in the field a potential winner. And he figures the short tracks, where aerodynamics and horsepower aren’t as important, also provide him with opportunities to shine.
“We had some good runs at those tracks last year in the same MWR cars that we will be running this year,” he said.
Off the track, Ragan and his wife, Jacqueline, are expecting their second child, which they’ve learned will be another girl. She’s due in March.
Gordon owns the night at Sprint Cup awards banquet
By Rick Minter
The annual Sprint Cup awards banquet often features a parade of drivers reciting a list of people they want to thank for helping them land among NASCAR’s elite that year. This year’s ceremony was different, and much more emotional.
For starters, it was the last official act as a driver for the retiring Jeff Gordon, who will no doubt be a first-ballot Hall of Famer once he’s eligible.
And this year’s champion, Kyle Busch, had much to be thankful for besides his good fortune on the track. His list of thank-yous started with the doctors who mended his bones broken in a crash at Daytona.
“One day, I went from being able to win races, to the next where I was just thinking about how I was going to be able to walk into the delivery room with (wife) Samantha to be a part of the birth of our son, Brexton,” Busch said. “I can’t thank Dr. Todd McCall and Dr. Bob Anderson for putting me back together as well as they did.”
Busch concluded his remarks by thanking his wife, who many credit with helping him shed his bad-boy image and become the kind of driver who can contend for championships on a regular basis.
Martin Truex Jr. was another who had more than racing on his mind in Vegas. He earned a speaking part at the awards ceremony by contending for the championship all the way to Homestead, and did it just a year after he had a miserable season on the track as his girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, battled ovarian cancer.
Even though he didn’t win the championship, the night belonged to Gordon, and it started with a surprise appearance by actor Tom Cruise, who introduced Gordon, and in doing so said his presence would be missed on the track.
“We are happy for him, but sad to see him go,” Cruise said during the televised ceremony. “When you’re treated to excellence every week for 23 years, well, that’s not something that you let go of easily.
“[Gordon] brought joy to millions, used his immense and deserved popularity for the betterment of the world both at home and abroad,” Cruise continued. “Transcendence … Few reach it. He did. And although many of us want to say we’ll miss you, what we really mean is we thank you.”
NASCAR chairman Brian France presented Gordon with the Bill France Award of Excellence, which is reserved for very special occasions.
The events of the night left Gordon with moist eyes and a bit choked up at times, especially when he thanked his car owner, Rick Hendrick.
“Rick and Linda Hendrick, thank you so much,” he said. “Thank you so much for choosing me as your driver. I’m so proud to say I drove for one car owner, the best car owner, my entire Sprint Cup career.”
Gordon thanked others as well, from fellow drivers to crew members to media types to fans, including those fans who took some time to warm up to him.
“I got off to a bit of a rocky start with the fans,” he said. “There were some cheers, but then there were some boos, but you accepted me, you supported me so much over the years, and this year you rewarded me so much.”
And speaking to everyone in the room, he ended his remarks by saying: “Thank you guys. It’s been so special. Thank you, thank you.”
Kenseth dominates at Michigan, earns third Cup win
By Rick Minter
Matt Kenseth and his No. 20 team from Joe Gibbs Racing put on one of the more dominant performances of the season last Sunday in the Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway. Kenseth started from the pole and led 146 of 200 laps, including the final 25, to get his third win of the season and the fifth for his team owner in the past six Sprint Cup races.
Kenseth’s toughest challenge came from sophomore Cup driver Austin Dillon in the No. 3 Chevrolet fielded by his grandfather, Richard Childress. Dillon had to start from the rear after an engine change, but charged to the front and challenged Kenseth for the lead before finishing a career-best fourth.
Points leader Kevin Harvick finished second for the ninth time this season. Martin Truex Jr. finished third.
Kenseth’s teammates Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards finished fifth and sixth, respectively, while the fourth member of the team, Kyle Busch, finished 11th in a backup car after he crashed his primary vehicle in practice. Busch moved to 29th in the standings, 23 points ahead of Cole Whitt in 31st place, which is important because Busch must be in the top 30 after three more races to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
For team owner Joe Gibbs, the past few months have been unlike any in his NASCAR career.
“Thinking back over the years, I can’t remember where we’ve kind of had a stretch like this over these last 10 weeks … and so you really want to enjoy those,” he said in the winner’s interview at Michigan. “They’re hard to get, and pro sports — I think that’s the reason why we all love it so much. We don’t know what’s going to happen from week to week.”
Gibbs also pointed out that fortunes can change in a hurry.
“The thing that amazes me sometimes is the quick turn, where you go the other way, and so we’ve just got to keep working hard,” he said, adding that getting Busch eligible to join his three teammates in the championship-deciding, 10-race Chase is a top priority. “We need to keep him up in points.”
The quick turn-around in racing fortunes that Gibbs mentioned could be used to describe the emergence of Dillon in recent weeks.
Since his grandfather shuffled crew chiefs at Richard Childress Racing eight races ago, pairing Slugger Labbe with Dillon, the youngster has posted some of his best career finishes, including a seventh at Daytona despite a frightening wreck after the checkered flag, and an eighth at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
In his post-race interview, Dillon agreed that his performance has improved since Labbe joined his team.
“That was pretty big, and I’ve just been really focused,” Dillon said. He pointed out that it takes time to learn how to win as one moves up the NASCAR ladder.
“From the Trucks and Xfinity, it takes a little while once you start having fast cars and running up front to learn how to race with these guys,” he said, adding that he gained valuable experience by racing Kenseth for the lead. “I feel like I learned a lot. Matt took me to school a few times.”
Kenseth said Dillon did a good job, especially on a late-race restart when he surged into the lead at one point. But in the end, he said, Dillon’s Chevy was no match for his Toyota.
“They gave me such a good car this weekend,” he said. “We didn’t really have a weak point.”
For Kenseth’s crew chief, Jason Ratcliff, it was a weekend he will never forget.
“These are days that everyone in this sport dreams about — days like this, obviously,” he said. “They don’t happen very often, so we’ll definitely cherish this one forever.”
Joey Logano dominates at Watkins Glen in both Sprint Cup and Xfinity Series races, sweeps weekend
By Rick Minter
Before this past weekend’s NASCAR races at Watkins Glen, Joey Logano wasn’t looked at as one of the sport’s top road racers. Going into the weekend, his best finishes in Sprint Cup races on road courses were a pair of fifth-places — at Sonoma, California, earlier this year, and at Watkins Glen in 2011. His best road-course run in the Xfinity Series was a runner-up finish at Watkins Glen in 2010.
But last weekend saw him get his first major road course victory, in dominant fashion, winning Saturday’s Zippo 200 Xfinity Series race at The Glen. He followed that up on Sunday with a victory in the Cheez-It 355 Sprint Cup race at the venerable track.
In winning the Cup race, Logano led only the final lap — and not much of it — to overtake Kevin Harvick, who ran out of fuel.
Kyle Busch finished second, ahead of Harvick, Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch.
For Logano and Kyle Busch, it was a reversal of fortunes from the week before at Pocono Raceway, where they both ran out of fuel while leading in the closing stages. And for third-finishing Kenseth, who won at Pocono, it was the second straight week that he excelled on a track that had confounded him in the past.
For Logano, it was his second Cup win of the season, the 10th of his career and the first Cup win at The Glen for his employer, Team Penske, which has won more races overall — including victories in several sports car divisions — at Watkins Glen than at any other track where the company has competed.
It’s also the first time that Logano has swept a NASCAR weekend.
“I didn’t really think a road course would be the time that we would be able to sweep the weekend,” Logano said, explaining that he had a dominant car on Saturday and a winning strategy from crew chief Todd Gordon on Sunday.
Gordon’s pit strategy put Logano in position to charge hard in the closing laps while the leader, Harvick, was trying to stretch his fuel.
“Our team just executed perfectly,” Logano said.
Logano said that as he struggled on road courses early in his career, he never gave up trying to figure them out.
“I remember the first time I came [to Watkins Glen] and I was so frustrated because I didn’t know how to go fast,” he said.
In the bigger picture, with four races left to run before the start of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Logano’s crew chief said he believes his team is better than it was at this point a year ago.
“We’ve got more top-5s, more top-10s, more poles, the same number of wins we had at this point last year,” Gordon said. “I think team chemistry and continuity is at a level that we’ve not been at. We continue to grow that and we’re knocking on the door. We’re building momentum at the right time.”
Kyle Busch gets his biggest career win in the Brickyard 400, gives Toyota its first Indy victory
By Rick Minter
Kyle Busch’s amazing comeback continued at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last Sunday, as he scored the biggest win of his career.
Busch motored past both Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano in the closing stages of the Brickyard 400 to claim his first Cup victory at the speedway many consider to be the most historic in the world.
Logano finished second, ahead of Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin.
It was Busch’s third straight Cup victory, and his fourth win in the past five races. It also was the first-ever Brickyard win for his manufacturer, Toyota.
Despite his remarkable run of late, Busch needs to erase a 23-point deficit to 30th-place Justin Allgaier in the points standings to be eligible for the championship-deciding Chase for the Sprint Cup, which begins after six more races.
To earn a spot in the Chase, Busch needs to finish in the top 30 in the standings after the 26-race regular season ends. He has the wins he needs, and NASCAR has waived the requirement that he enter all of the regular-season races after missing the first 11 while recovering from his Daytona injuries.
But Chase implications were taking a back seat to the joy of the moment for Busch at Indianapolis on Sunday evening.
“To come home with a victory here at the Brickyard 400 — there’s nothing else like it,” he said. “It’s probably the biggest one of my career so far, and hopefully there’s more wins here at the Brickyard and bigger wins in the series yet for me.”
Busch said he considers NASCAR’s top four races to be the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400, the Coca-Cola 600 and the Southern 500. He won the Southern 500 in 2008, while the other two majors have eluded him so far.
But among his 33 career Cup victories are some that are extra-special to him.
“I’ve won my hometown race, which is a big race for me — the Las Vegas race,” he said. “I’ve also won the Bristol night race, I’ve swept Bristol, so there’s a lot of great things that have happened for me in my career, but this one (at Indy) checks off probably the one that’s No. 2 on the races-to-win list, but there’s still that elusive championship as well that we want to achieve.”
Many continue to be amazed at Busch’s ability to quickly adapt to changes in NASCAR rules. In 2007 at Bristol Motor Speedway, he won the first-ever race in the Car of Tomorrow. And in the past three weeks, he’s won with three different aerodynamics packages.
He won Kentucky with a rules package that featured a smaller spoiler on the rear of the cars, which was intended to produce less downforce.
His New Hampshire win the week before Indy came under the rules used for most Cup races this season, and his latest win came in the debut of a high-drag package designed to promote more passing at the front of the field.
Busch’s crew chief, Adam Stevens, who is in his rookie season, said neither he nor Busch could have been as successful the past three weeks without the support of the entire Joe Gibbs Racing team.
“I think it has a lot less to do with myself or my individual race team as much as it has to do with the entirety of Joe Gibbs Racing,” Stevens said. “These cars don’t go fast because of one person.
“You can’t underestimate the hard work and the dedication of the folks back at the shop that make these cars go fast.”
Team owner Joe Gibbs calls Kyle’s Busch’s Sprint Cup victory at New Hampshire ‘a great sports story’
By Rick Minter
Years from now, when people look back at the 2015 NASCAR season, and the sports season in general, one of the bigger stories likely will be the comeback of Kyle Busch.
Recovering from injuries suffered in the season-opening Xfinity Series race at Daytona, Busch missed the next 11 races. Then he returned to his No. 18 Toyota at Joe Gibbs Racing, and five races later, got a win on the road course at Sonoma, California.
Many wondered if Busch would even be able to compete in that race, given the fact that his injuries would be a hindrance on such a demanding track.
He rebounded from an early wreck at Daytona to salvage a 17th-place finish, won the following week at Kentucky, and followed that with a win last Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
His team owner, longtime NFL coach Joe Gibbs, said the performance Busch has put on since returning to NASCAR racing is a great moment in sports history.
“I said before when we won Sonoma with Kyle — it was a great sports story,” Gibbs said in the winner’s interview at New Hampshire. “I think this only adds to it.”
Gibbs said Busch has been working hard and preparing himself since he left the hospital in Daytona. He also said Busch’s three wins in the past four races show that he’s an elite athlete.
“There are only a few that are really, really special in a sport,” he said. “I think Kyle is one of those in racing, because he has an unusual ability, but also has a real fire and a passion for what he does. That kind of comes through. I think it showed up over these last five weeks.”
At New Hampshire, Busch put himself in position to win with some bold driving after he made an unscheduled pit stop under the green flag at Lap 244 for what he thought was a flat tire. He returned to the track a lap down, but began a furious charge to unlap himself.
Using a daring maneuver down the frontstretch, Busch motored by both race leader Kevin Harvick and second-running Brad Keselowski to get back on the lead lap, just before the caution flag flew on Lap 251.
When Harvick, Keselowski and the rest of the leaders made their pit stops, Busch was left in front with a lead he never relinquished. Keselowski finished second, ahead of Harvick, Joey Logano and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“I didn’t want to waste too much time with them,” Busch said of the move that won the race for him. “I just kind of bulldozed my way through there. …”
The win moved Busch closer to the 30th spot in the standings, which he must reach before the end of the 26-race regular season to be eligible to compete in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. He’s now just 58 points behind David Gilliland, who occupies the 30th spot, with seven races left in the regular season.
“That’s manageable,” Busch’s crew chief, Adam Stevens, said of the deficit. “That is certainly within the capabilities of the team.”
New aero package for Quaker State 400 helps Kyle Busch chase down Joey Logano for the victory
By Rick Minter
Kyle Busch entered Saturday’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway in need of points to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, which begins after eight more races.
He wound up scoring the maximum 48 points after leading the most laps — 163 of 267 — and winning the race. That allowed him to move from 37th to 35th in the standings, and more importantly, shave his deficit to 30th-place Cole Whitt from 128 points to 87.
Busch, who missed the first 11 races of the season due to injuries suffered in the season-opening Xfinity Series race at Daytona International Speedway, now has two wins in the past three Sprint Cup races.
His win at Kentucky came at what is statistically his best track, but he had to do it under a drastically different rules package that is intended to facilitate better racing at the head of the pack.
The new rules package was a big winner as well, as there were numerous passes for the lead under the green flag, including some late-race lead swapping between Busch and eventual runner-up, Joey Logano.
Where in many recent races, the aerodynamics gave a great advantage to the leader in a situation like Busch and Logano found themselves in at Kentucky in the closing laps, the Kentucky finish saw Busch chase down Logano, swap the lead with him several times, then pull away for the victory.
“I think the aero package lended itself to options for us drivers to be able to move around and try different things,” Busch said. “When I got to Logano there late in the going, I knew he was going to come up and block my lane and take my air.
“But when he did, it wasn’t as bad as it has been with … the other aero package, where you just stall out, and that guy can basically manipulate whatever you’re going to do.”
Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing team and Logano’s Team Penske seemed to adapt to the Kentucky aero rules much more quickly than their competitors.
Logano said he thought the new rules were an improvement.
“I felt like we can enter [the corners] behind each other, and the effect of being behind a car wasn’t as big, so I think that’s good,” he said. “You’re never going to get rid of it completely — we’re going too fast. But I think, directionally, it was correct.”
Logano’s teammate, Brad Keselowski, led 62 laps and seemed to have a car capable of running with Busch, but he wasn’t able to recover from a couple of slow pit stops, and finished sixth.
Busch’s JGR teammates Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth finished third, fourth and fifth, respectively — the first time the four-driver contingent has all finished in the top 5.
Hamlin, who had to make an unscheduled pit stop early in the race and was penalized for speeding on pit road, did as much passing as any driver in the field, as he had to come from two laps down at one point. He was supportive of the new package as well.
“You’re going to hear both sides of this story,” he said. “You’re going to hear guys in the front say they like it, guys in the back say they don’t.
“But I came from two laps down, I passed a ton of cars throughout the day. And there was a pass for the lead inside of 20 laps to go. Can’t really complain a whole lot about that.”
Edwards also liked the feel of the new aero package.
“I cannot say enough positive things about this direction NASCAR is going with less downforce,” he said. “If you give Goodyear a little bit of time to work on a tire, take away another 700, 1,000 pounds of downforce, we’re going to be racing.”
The new rules seemed to somewhat confound the Hendrick Motorsports contingent. Jeff Gordon was the best of that group, with a seventh-place finish, with Jimmie Johnson ninth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. 21st and Kasey Kahne 27th.
Gordon said that since Kentucky is such a challenging race track, he didn’t get a really good feel for the new rules, which likely will be used at upcoming intermediate-length tracks, although that is not yet certain.
“Basically, the cars just drove really bad right from the beginning …” Gordon said. “I think we have to give it a try somewhere else. … We’ve got to get the right tires on it. … I’m glad we tried it, did a little more work. I’m looking forward to trying it again.”
Johnson’s gamble propels him to Victory Lane at Kansas
By Rick Minter
On a race track with a casino next door, Jimmie Johnson took a late-race gamble on pit strategy and won the big jackpot.
Johnson, who won the rain-delayed SpongeBob SquarePants 400 at Kansas Speedway, didn’t have the fastest car in the race, or even the best handling car. In fact, he spun in the early going.
But when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. spun to bring out the caution flag with 12 laps to go, Johnson saw an opportunity to take a chance. When race leader Kevin Harvick, laps-led leader Martin Truex Jr. and others headed to pit road for fuel, Johnson stayed on the track. He inherited the lead, with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon remaining on the track behind him.
Harvick got fuel and two tires, while Truex opted for fuel only.
The final six-lap run to the checkered flag saw track position come into play. Johnson drove away to the lead, while Harvick, who restarted sixth, was unable to overtake him, despite racing his way to second place. On intermediate-length tracks like Kansas Speedway, track position is very important, because the aerodynamic forces created by the lead car make it very difficult for the trailing car to overtake it.
And Johnson made the most of the advantage he had from being out front.
“He wasn’t that strong,” Harvick said of Johnson. “He was just trying to run right in front of our car, so for those first few laps when you’re pushing like that, it really takes the air off the front of the car, and it gets the chatter in the front end and it snaps around. But that was the strategy they took, and it worked out for them.”
Harvick said he knows that pit-strategy gambles don’t always work. For instance, had the race gone into overtime, Johnson would have run out of fuel, since he ran his tank dry during his post-race burnout.
“I’ve been on the other side of this deal, where the cars aren’t running good and you don’t have a chance to win,” Harvick said. “We won a championship on pit calls and tires, and everything fell our way. We’ve had a lot of things go our way, and we’ve had a lot of things work.”
For Johnson, the decision to forgo the final pit stop was made easier by the new points system. With two wins already heading in to Kansas, he’s assured a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, so a bad finish at Kansas wouldn’t affect his chances of competing for a seventh Sprint Cup championship, as the points are reset at the start of the season-ending Chase.
Johnson also said the decision to stay on the track was mostly his.
“I could tell (crew chief Chad Knaus) was having a hard time making the decision,” Johnson said. “We have two wins, we are locked in the Chase, and we are here to win a race — let’s gamble.
“A few more laps — I think (Harvick) would have had me. He was awfully strong. We had just enough time to get to Victory Lane.”
The win was the 73rd of Johnson’s career and his third at Kansas. It was also his 200th career top-5 finish and his 300th top-10.
Truex, who finished ninth and remains second in the standings, said that after leading a race-high 95 laps in his No. 78 Chevrolet, it was disappointing to fall to ninth, even though it gives him 10 top-10s in the 11 races run this season.
His biggest regret was not taking on fresh rubber during his final pit stop.
“We should have either stayed out or took new tires,” Truex said. “We probably did the worst thing you could have done there, with just … getting gas only, because everybody else … ate us up on the restart.”
But Truex said he and his team aren’t going to let the disappointment affect them going forward.
“Cole (Pearn, crew chief) got put in a bad spot there at the end,” Truex said. “I told him to keep his confidence up, because he has done a good job all year long. We are going to get one. We just have to keep digging.”
Earnhardt finished third, ahead of Jeff Gordon and pole-sitter Joey Logano, who had to overcome two pit-road penalties that caused him to restart from the rear of the pack. The first was assessed when a crew member went over the wall too soon, and the second came because Logano drove on to pit road while it was still closed.
“Passing all those cars was fun, but the rest of it — we just did a terrible job of executing this race,” Logano said. “We made mistake after mistake.
“We all just have to raise our game a little bit and understand why we made mistakes and clean it up going forward.”
Jimmie Johnson takes record fifth checkered flag at Texas Motor Speedway
By Rick Minter
After an uncharacteristically poor performance in the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup, Jimmie Johnson appears to be back in the form that has seen him win 72 races and six championships since joining the Sprint Cup circuit full time in 2001.
In last Saturday’s Duck Commander 500, Johnson led a race-high 128 of 334 laps and held off defending series champion Kevin Harvick to claim his second victory of the season. It was his fifth career win at Texas — a series record — and his first in the spring race there.
Johnson had to work for the lead at the end, as a caution flag at Lap 310 allowed several drivers, including Jamie McMurray, to take two tires on the ensuing pit stops, and return to the track ahead of Johnson and Harvick, who had the two fastest cars for most of the race.
McMurray led for seven laps, but his tires gave out as Johnson, Harvick and Joey Logano ran him down.
Johnson took the lead for good, passing Harvick and McMurray at the same time with 14 laps to go.
“Unfortunately, the 4 [Harvick] was having some trouble getting by the 1 [McMurray], and they slid up high through [Turns] Three and Four and left the bottom wide open for me,” Johnson said. “I thought I’d at least get the 4 car, and when I came off of Turn Four, I was alongside the 1, and I thought, ‘Man, we’re going to get them both here.’ So that worked out well.”
Still, the outcome was in doubt, as both Logano and Harvick appeared to have cars fast enough to overtake Johnson.
Logano’s bid for the win ended when Harvick bumped him out of the way, then Harvick’s own chances for victory were dashed when he bounced his No. 4 Chevrolet off the wall with two laps to go. Harvick’s stumble allowed Dale Earnhardt Jr. to briefly take the runner-up spot, but Harvick reclaimed it to finish second, ahead of Earnhardt, Logano and Brad Keselowski.
Johnson’s other win this season came at Atlanta Motor Speedway, which, like Texas, has a worn, bumpy asphalt surface that suits his driving style and the skills of his No. 48 team.
“I think the tracks with high wear, bumps, all those types of things, have just always been a good surface for the 48,” he said.
“The spring race has always been tough results” wise, but we’ve had fast cars, and in the fall we come here and get the finish we hope for. It’s nice to get one done in the spring. I think the surface fits my style, fits … what our team does together. Our cars just perform well on those tracks.”
Harvick, who scored his fourth runner-up finish of the season and remains atop the points standings, said his car was good enough to win, but got tied up racing with McMurray and Logano, which hurt him in his bid to overtake Johnson.
“Just lost a little bit of time and tried to make too much of it up in too many chunks, and about spun out and got in the fence trying to make up ground,” he said.
Earnhardt said he was proud of the way his team, led by rookie crew chief Greg Ives, performed throughout the race.
“We made some good adjustments,” he said. “We seemed to have a good pattern of what was working for us, and I think by the end of the race, we had our car as good as we had it all night, so that’s a good job on the crew chief when the car is the best on the last run.”