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.”
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.”