Distributed by The Sports Xchange
SONOMA, Calif. -- As proficient as Kyle Larson has been on high-banked ovals, you might be tempted to discount his chances of getting his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory on a road course.
Then there's his lack of experience at venues like Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen International. Interestingly, Larson credits his dirt-track background with the ability to get a quick handle on road courses.
"I don't have hardly any road course experience," Larson acknowledged on Friday at Sonoma. "My first road course race was (at Road America) in 2013 when I ran Xfinity full-time. Then I have done the Rolex 24 now three times and then just the few road course races we get to run in the Sprint Cup and Xfinity Series. I'm getting more experience, but still I probably ran a little over 10 road course races in my life.
"But I like them because you can feel the car kind of move around a lot more. You can feel the suspension, so it feels more similar to kind of a dirt track. I don't know if it's the dirt track, but just sprint cars and stuff the suspension moves around a lot and you can feel the balance of the car. On this stuff you can, too, where on the ovals our cars are so stiff and rigid you can't really feel a whole lot with them.
"I think that's why I can feel the car little bit better and these tracks get really slick and you have to hit your marks every lap, which is something I feel like I'm okay at."
Friday's opening Sprint Cup practice did nothing to disprove Larson's assertion. The driver of the No. 42 Chip Ganassi racing Chevrolet topped the speed chart at 95.141 mph. That's not particularly surprising, given that Larson set the track record of 1 minute 14.186 seconds (96.568 mph) during the first round of knockout qualifying last year.
In his two previous Cup starts at the 1.99-mile road course, Larson has qualified third and fourth but hasn't brought home comparable finishes (28th and 15th).
Nonetheless, he is willing to contemplate a possible breakthrough victory at the track.
"It would be awesome," said Larson, who grew up in Elk Grove, Calif., roughly 90 minutes from Sonoma Raceway. "We've been close a couple of times this year now. If I was able to get it in my home state here, close to home, that would be awesome."
NEW RACE MANAGEMENT SYSTEM IS MAJOR STEP
Microsoft and NASCAR have worked in concert to develop a race management system that will consolidate six different aspects of race-day data into a single-screen interface, providing one platform for data management using Windows 10 and Microsoft Azure.
The system, which is being rolled out this weekend at Sonoma Raceway, will revolutionize the way NASCAR runs races, both in terms of the inspection process and data analytics.
"NASCAR has really put an emphasis, especially over the last 18 months, on new technology," NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O'Donnell said Friday morning during a press briefing at Sonoma.
"(It involves) how we can bring things more quickly to the fans, really put them inside the driver's seat, but equally as important, how we can work together to be more efficient from a governing standpoint, especially when it comes to race control.
"We're really proud to have partnered with Microsoft, obviously a global leader in technology. What they've been able to do for us in a really short 18-month time span is incredible.
From the single-screen interface, officials can follow the positions of every car in the field using a layout of the track, or they can isolate individual cars or groups of cars by category (top 10 or lead lap, for example). Data for the individual cars also is available, as are video captures of pit stops and potential pit road penalties.
The partnership with Microsoft will even help inform NASCAR with respect to new rules decisions.
"For us, this is not only about being more efficient and transparent at the race track but improving each week when we go back and building our team off of this platform and learning together," O'Donnell said.
In addition, the new platform could accompany a move toward more real-time data acquisition with respect to the cars themselves.
"It's still something we're looking at," O'Donnell said. "With the digital dash and with all the data that's capable, we're in a lot of discussions with the race teams right now of what we should share with everyone and what might be or might not be a competitive advantage-and then really kind of containing costs.
"You look across at F1 and the enormous amount of money that's spent on data and telemetry. We can learn from that, but we want to do it and manage it in a smart way and get what fans want to see out to them, but also to try to contain the arms race that you see on all the potential data that's out there."
GATEWAY MOTORSPORTS PARK SPEARHEADS REBIRTH OF LOCAL PLAY AREA
Gateway Motorsports Park, which is hosting Saturday's Drivin' for Linemen 200 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race (at 8:30 p.m. ET on FS1), has been instrumental in the revitalization of nearby Kinder Park, a local play area for children that hasn't been updated since the 1950s.
Gateway owner Curtis Francois had mentioned to Illinois State Representative Jay Hoffman that he wanted to find a way to give back to the community. Hoffman suggested Kinder Park in neighboring Fairmont City, a town of approximately 3,000 residents that features the largest per-capita Hispanic population in the Metro St. Louis Area.
"Children of all economic backgrounds need fun, safe, exciting places to play," Francois said. "When I learned about Kinder Park, I called a few business associates and asked for their support. They jumped in, willing and ready to assist with this need, and here we are today ready to get this playground rebuilt."
All told, more than $100,000 has been praised to complete the project. Construction will begin in the next few weeks, with plans to open the park in the fall.
"We are proud to see Gateway Motorsports Park continue to play a leading role in their community and in motorsports with this important project," said Jim Cassidy, NASCAR senior vice president of racing operations. "The people in the St. Louis region are incredible motorsports fans, and this initiative is a win for the entire community."
Tony Stewart and Ernie Irvan were inducted into Sonoma Raceway's Wall of Fame on Friday afternoon. "Any time you get inducted into anything it's a huge honor," Stewart said. This has always been one of my favorite race tracks. To be on their Wall of Fame means something to me."...
Dale Earnhardt Jr. posted the fastest lap of the day in the second NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice, running 95.298 mph in qualifying trim. Earnhardt was fourth fastest in opening practice. His only top five in 16 Sonoma starts came in 2014, when he finished third...
Kyle Busch's No. 18 Toyota had a too-close encounter with a jackrabbit during second practice. The rabbit lost. "That thing came out of nowhere," said Busch, who exhorted the rabbit to continue across the track -- to no avail. "He stopped, and we looked eye-to-eye, and then it was over."
Because of the relative paucity of road courses in any of NASCAR's major traveling series, the odds often change at the Sonoma Raceway, one of the most technically challenging circuits in America and the world.
Entering the third year of the new "win to get in" format of the Chase, the road courses at Sonoma and Watkins Glen International continue to loom as game changers simply because they are so different.
The biggest upset on a road course was A.J. Allmendinger's win at Watkins Glen in 2014, which elevated him to the Chase for the first and only time. This year offers two more chances for Allmendinger and other unlikely candidates to make it in.
In addition to the JTG Daugherty Racing drive, the leading candidates to pull off an upset at Sonoma are Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne. Each has won at Sonoma, but both are currently in career doldrums.
The pressure is really on Stewart, who has announced his retirement at the end of the season. He needs a victory to qualify for the Chase and also a bump in points. He enters the California race 45 points out of 30th place after missing the first eight races this year with his back injury.
Even if he wins one of the remaining 11 races, Stewart must finish in the Top 30 to qualify for the Chase.
Stewart, who has been more competitive in recent outings with the Stewart-Haas Racing Chevy, has two wins at Sonoma and last won there in 2005. His best finishes since then were second in 2009 and 2012. Last year, he finished 12th.
One thing in Stewart's favor is that SHR teammates Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch have been consistently fast at Sonoma, meaning he can crib setup notes if necessary.
Kahne, riding a 62-race losing streak, has not won a race since 2014, despite driving for the powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports team. The driver has struggled with the chassis setups that have evolved at Hendrick, primarily with corner entry.
But at Sonoma, where he won for Richard Petty Motorsports in 2009, Kahne has usually fared well. He has four Top 10 finishes since his victory, including a Top 10 in the last three races at Hendrick.
The new charter system has cut down on the number of "guest drivers" in the Sprint Cup, who are known as "ringers" on the road courses, because they are usually road racing experts. This year, only Go FAS Racing hired an expert in the form of former IndyCar driver Patrick Carpentier.
The French-Canadian made his mark in stock cars on the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal, where he won the pole at the first Xfinity Series there. He then had a cup of coffee with Gillett Evernham Motorsports in 2008. Alas, driving for Go FAS, where Jeffrey Earnhardt has been a mainstay, Carpentier is not much of a threat to win.
In addition to Allmendinger, who led last year at Sonoma before an engine issue killed his chances, another dark horse is Jamie McMurray. He drives for Chip Ganassi's team, which has won at Sonoma with Juan Pablo Montoya.
McMurray led 22 laps last year and finished third. His teammate Kyle Larson, who is 23 points out of the 16th place needed to qualify for the Chase, can only hope to possibly improve his standing. Larson has no Top 10 finishes in his first two Sprint Cup races at Sonoma.
Other drivers who need to have a consistent race to maintain their points positions include Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has no wins and only two Top 10 finishes at Sonoma. Ever since his Corvette caught on fire after a morning warm-up crash at Sonoma before an IMSA race, Earnhardt Jr. has been less than fond of the tight confines of twisty Sonoma.
Austin Dillon continues to look like a Chase candidate because of consistency and points. Currently 12th in points, Dillon has no Top 10 finishes in his two previous starts at Sonoma and will be looking to have a good points day.
What about the rookies? Either Chase Elliott or Ryan Blaney might surprise with a decent showing. Elliott, who will run the K&N Pro Series race at Sonoma as a tuneup, and Blaney will be racing at the California track for the first time in a major touring series.
But both drivers have won on the Canadian Tire Motorsports Park road course in Canada in the Camping World Truck Series. And each has Top 10 finishes in the Xfinity Series at Road America.
If there's a race to look for an upset in this year's run to the Chase, Sonoma Raceway would be the place.
TV: Sunday, June 26, 3 p.m. ET – Fox Sports 1 (Radio: Performance Racing Network/SiriusXM Channel 90).
THEN AND NOW: After a weekend off, the Sprint Cup Series resumes with the first of two road course races of the season. … Joey Logano won the most recent race, the June 12th FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway. Logano dominated the event, leading 138 of 200 laps. Rookie Chase Elliott had a career-best finish of second place in the event, followed by Kyle Larson, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick. … Kyle Busch won last year's race at Sonoma. He's hoping to have a similar finish this Sunday, which would also snap a streak where he's racked up four consecutive finishes of 30th or worse with a last place showing (40th position) at Michigan. … There have been seven different winners in the last seven races at Sonoma: Kasey Kahne (2009), Jimmie Johnson (2010), Kurt Busch (2011), Clint Bowyer (2012), Martin Truex Jr. (2013), Carl Edwards (2014) and Kyle Busch (2015). … Ernie Irvan and Tony Stewart will be inducted into Sonoma Raceway's Walk of Fame this weekend. … Sunday's race will be the final telecast of the season for Fox Sports. NBC and NBCSN take over the remaining 20 race telecasts of the season starting with the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona on July 2. … Kevin Harvick continues to lead the Sprint Cup point standings with 526 points. Kurt Busch is second (496), followed by Brad Keselowski (480), Carl Edwards (472), Joey Logano (455), Chase Elliott (453), Jimmie Johnson (441), Martin Truex Jr. (433), Kyle Busch (417) and Matt Kenseth (409).
NASCAR XFINITY SERIES: The series is off this weekend.
THEN AND NOW: Sam Hornish Jr. won last Sunday's race at Iowa. It was Hornish's first race since last year's Sprint Cup season finale at Homestead-Miami. Hornish filled in for the injured Matt Tifft. It was Hornish's second win at Iowa in three years. … Winners of the first 14 Xfinity Series races this season have been Chase Elliott (Daytona), Kyle Busch (Atlanta, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Texas), Austin Dillon (Fontana), Erik Jones (Bristol and Dover), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Richmond), Elliott Sadler (Talladega), Denny Hamlin (Charlotte), Kyle Larson (Pocono), Daniel Suarez (Michigan) and Hornish (Iowa). … Daniel Suarez (490 points) remains in the lead in the Xfinity Series point standings. Elliott Sadler (469) is second, followed by Ty Dillon (455), Justin Allgaier (422), Brandon Jones (417), Brendan Gaughan (412), Erik Jones (411), Brennan Poole (407), Darrell Wallace Jr. (373) and Ryan Reed (331).
NASCAR CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: DRIVIN' FOR LINEMAN 200 (SPEEDIATRICS 200 (160 laps, 200 miles), Gateway Motorsports Park; Iowa Speedway; Madison, Illinois (suburb of St. Louis, Missouri).
TV: Saturday, June 25, 8:30 p.m. ET – Fox Sports 1 (Radio: Motor Racing Network/SiriusXM Channel 90).
THEN AND NOW: This will be the 16th time the Camping World Truck Series has raced at Gateway Motorsports Park. Cole Custer won last year's race there. Darrell Wallace Jr. won there in 2014. There has been just one driver to win more than once at Gateway: Ted Musgrave won twice there. … Rookie driver William Byron earned his second consecutive win and third of the season last weekend at Iowa Speedway. … ThorSport Racing didn't win at Iowa, but it was a very successful day nonetheless, with three of its four drivers finishing in the top eight. That was a significant achievement considering that the team's shop in Sandusky, Ohio suffer extensive damage in a fire in the early hours of Monday, June 13. … Winners thus far this season have been Johnny Sauter (Daytona), John Hunter Nemechek (Atlanta), Kyle Busch (Martinsville), William Byron (Kansas, Michigan and Iowa) and Matt Crafton (Dover, Charlotte). … Crafton remains atop the Truck point standings after Iowa with 219 points, followed by William Byron (208), Timothy Peters (198), Daniel Hemric (186), Tyler Reddick (182), John Hunter Nemechek (175), Johnny Sauter (174), Ben Kennedy (168), Spencer Gallagher (165) and Cameron Hayley (158).
VERIZON INDYCAR SERIES: KOHLER GRAND PRIX (50 laps, 202.4 miles around a 4.048-mile, 14-turn road course), Road America; Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.
TV: Sunday, June 26, 1:15 p.m. ET – NBCSN.
THEN AND NOW: While this will be the 26th Indy car race at Road America, it will be the first since 2007. Sebastien Bourdais, who won that race (when the event was under Champ Car World Series sanction), will be in Sunday's race field. … The Firestone 600 race at Texas Motor Speedway, which was suspended on June 19 due to rain, will resume on Lap 72 on Saturday, August 27. James Hinchcliffe will be scored the leader, followed by Ryan Hunter-Reay and Mikhail Aleshin. The race will then complete its originally scheduled 248-lap distance – provided rain doesn't play a factor once again. … Josef Newgarden, who suffered a fractured right clavicle and small fracture in his right hand in a wicked wreck on Lap 42 of the abbreviated race at Texas on June 19, is on the driver entry list for Sunday's race. Newgarden was expected to miss several races, with journeyman driver J.R. Hildebrand slated to replace him, but it appears Newgarden won't miss any races if he indeed competes in Sunday's event. … This season's race winners thus far are: Juan Pablo Montoya (St. Petersburg), Scott Dixon (Phoenix), Simon Pagenaud (Long Beach, Birmingham and Grand Prix of Indianapolis), Alexander Rossi (Indianapolis 500), Sebastien Bourdais (Belle Isle 1) and Will Power (Belle Isle 2). … Simon Pagenaud (357 points) continues to maintain a commanding lead in the Verizon IndyCar Series points standings. Defending series champion Scott Dixon is second (277), followed by Helio Castroneves (271), Josef Newgarden (259), Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi (242), Carlos Munoz (242), Will Power (240), Tony Kanaan (240), Juan Pablo Montoya (233) and Charlie Kimball (227).
NATIONAL HOT ROD ASSOCIATION MELLO YELLO DRAG RACING SERIES: SUMMIT RACING EQUIPMENT NHRA NATIONALS, June 24-26, Summit Motorsports Park; Norwalk, Ohio.
TV: Final eliminations, Sunday, June 26, 11 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. ET (live) and again at 6:30 p.m. – 9:30 p.m. ET (taped), Fox Sports 1.
THEN AND NOW: The NHRA returns to Bristol Dragway's Thunder Valley for this weekend's event. … Richie Crampton (Top Fuel), Matt Hagan (Funny Car) and Erica Enders (Pro Stock) are defending winners of this event. … Last weekend's winners at the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol Dragway in Bristol, Tennessee were Shawn Langdon (Top Fuel), Tommy Johnson Jr. (Funny Car) and Jason Line (Pro Stock), who won his sixth race of the season. … In the NHRA point standings, Doug Kalitta leads Top Fuel (926 points), followed by 2015 series champ Antron Brown (873), Steve Torrence (846), Brittany Force (754) and Tony Schumacher (675). … In Funny Car, Ron Capps leads (841 points), followed by Jack Beckman (786), Courtney Force (741), Matt Hagan (710) and 2015 Funny Car season champ Del Worsham (701). … In Pro Stock, Jason Line continues to lead the standings (1,263 points), followed by teammate Greg Anderson (1,170), Bo Butner (758), Allen Johnson (668) and Drew Skillman (625). Defending two-time series champ Erica Enders (373) continues to struggle, dropping from 10th to 11th place after Bristol and is now a massive 825 points behind Line. … In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Eddie Krawiec leads the standings with 436 points, followed by Jerry Savoie (310), Angelle Sampey (297), 2015 series champ Andrew Hines (290) and Chip Ellis is fifth (269).
Hornish Jr. substituted for injured Matt Tifft in a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and won the Xfinity Series race handily on an off weekend for the Sprint Cup. The irony is that Hornish, Jr., who is without a full-time ride in 2016, had been enjoying more time with his family when he got the call from the Gibbs team to race on Father's Day.
The 35-year-old driver responded by leading 183 of the 250 laps. He was joined by his wife Crystal, two daughters and his son in Victory Lane. "First time that my kids have ever been here when I've won a race, so that means everything to me," he said.
It was not surprising that the Gibbs team gave him a call once Tifft became unavailable due to a back injury. Hornish Jr. won the Iowa race last year for the Gibbs team, where he had eight Xfinity starts. He now has four wins in 111 starts in NASCAR's understudy series.
In a the midst of a major league career that dates back to the 2000 season of the Indy Racing League, Hornish Jr. decided not to take just any offer after he was let go by Richard Petty Motorsports from his Sprint Cup ride following the 2015 season. He told himself, "If I get the right opportunity, I'll go out there and I'll prove it was the right thing to do to wait." Let it be duly noted that the driver insisting on waiting out his career setback is from Defiance, Ohio.
Stock car racing has been a rough road for Hornish Jr. An enthusiastic motorcycle rider, he's had a difficult time maintaining his career balance. After three IndyCar championships and a 2006 victory in the Indy 500, Hornish Jr. became one of those Indy car drivers who transferred to the Sprint Cup and came up empty. In 167 starts, he has only three Top 5 finishes and no victories.
It's not as if Hornish Jr., who is an engaging and level-headed guy, has not had good equipment. He spent four seasons with Roger Penske's powerhouse -- where he won the Indy 500 and one of his three IndyCar titles. Last year, Hornish, Jr. drove full-time in the Sprint Cup for Petty, but led only two races and recorded just three Top 10s. It's probably as much a puzzle to his team owners as it is to Hornish Jr. as to why his Sprint Cup career hasn't gone better.
In retrospect, team owner Penske likely moved Hornish to NASCAR, because he's better on ovals than road courses, which have gradually become a dominant part of the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule. While things never quite jelled in the Sprint Cup, the Xfinity Series has been a slightly different tale for Hornish, Jr. He nearly won the championship driving for Penske Racing in 2013, his final season with the team after crossing over from Indy cars in 2008.
This year's layoff didn't seem to hurt on Sunday.
"I got a good idea of what it takes to be fast around here to keep the tires underneath it," he said. But the downtime and winning comeback left him very emotional in the post-race celebration. "I just can't believe it," he said. "You always wait for when you have a car that's this good for something to happen -- run over a piece of debris or whatever. I love coming here to Iowa -- the fans."
It was an interesting run to the finish as Hornish, Jr. held off Ty Dillon of Richard Childress Racing and Brad Keselowski in a Penske Racing Ford -- despite two restarts after cautions.
There are those who complain that Sprint Cup drivers, or ex-Sprint Cup drivers like Hornish, Jr., should not be able to compete in the Xfinity Series, given their wealth of experience. The concern is putting minor leaguers up against major leaguers, which too often prevents the up-and-coming drivers from winning races, establishing their own success stories, or taking home more purse money.
While it's fair to say defending Sprint Cup champion Kyle Busch has worn out his welcome in the Xfinity Series, there is an element of wealth sharing. Last week at Michigan, when Gibbs driver Daniel Suarez ran down Busch in the closing laps and won, it stamped the Mexican driver as a bona fide candidate to compete in the Sprint Cup.
In Iowa, the 24-year-old Dillon, an Xfinity regular, may have lost the war, but won the battle against Brad Keselowski in the fight for second. How he lost to Hornish, Jr. and how he beat Keselowski on the 0.875-mile track will be valuable lessons for Dillon once he advances to the Sprint Cup full-time.
"We had good speed at the top," said Dillon, who has substituted for Tony Stewart this year and runs a limited schedule with the Circle-Sport-Leavine Family Racing. "It just didn't work out." That's because Dillon elected to slow down in the high groove when he hit traffic instead of diving to the bottom. He might have lost a tenth of a second by running low. But when he got balked in the high line, he lost considerably more time and momentum. The good news was that Chevy driver Dillon was able to use the high line to hold off the oncoming Keselowski.
"I thought we were a little bit better than (Dillon's car)," said Keselowski. "But I just couldn't get by him."
For Hornish Jr., the needle now goes back to zero.
But for one Father's Day, at least, he was the guy who couldn't be beat.
"I was so nervous on Friday getting into the car, thinking 'I'm going to make a mistake.' Man, to go out there and win the way we did, I just can't say anything more about it."
For the next 400 miles, which included quite a few hits of the wall in addition to Logano's near miss, every driver was a low downforce rider at some point, sailing out of control.
"I went down into Turn 1 the first lap and I thought I was King Kong," said Logano, who led the field at the start after winning the pole. "I drove down in there and about crashed. That didn't work out so well. So I learned a lot from that one. It's just the cars are out of control. No doubt, they are out of control crazy."
At 215 mph corner entry speeds, drivers had to back off by 40 mph to get through the wide open corners of the D-shaped Michigan International Speedway. If they got a tow in the draft down the front straight, drivers carried an even bigger head of steam into Turn 1.
All of this was courtesy of a tiny rear spoiler and a shorter front splitter that radically reduced the downforce drivers could rely on at corner entry. The same set-up added speeds on the straights due to low drag. Plus, teams could not "skew" the cars with the rear tire and wheel set-ups, which reduced sideforce on the quarter panels in the corners.
These rules comprised an experimental package that will help NASCAR officials decide on how to further reduce downforce. Thus continues a process that began last year at three tracks where experimental packages were used. The resulting low downforce rules used at the outset of the 2016 season have generated some excellent racing. Are these new low, low downforce rules going to be as effective?
That depended on who you asked. At least seven drivers hit the wall as a result of losing control themselves or as a result of getting hit by a driver who had lost control, all of which Logano referred to as "natural cautions." So if crashing confirms drivers are on the ragged edge, it must be a good system, right?
Not if you asked Dale Earnhardt Jr. He was knocked out of the race after contact from the Ford of Chris Buescher, who lost control of his front end in Turn 2.
"It's not a whole lot different than the other package," Earnhardt said. "I think we talk about packages too much."
Others who found the wall included Jeffrey Earnhardt (twice), Regan Smith and Ryan Blaney. Martin Truex, Jr., who led 392 laps in Charlotte, spun after a close encounter with the Chevy of Clint Bowyer, damaging the bodywork of his Toyota enough to take him out of contention after leading 10 laps. Jimmie Johnson was bashed by Trevor Bayne's slip-sliding Ford, which put his Hendrick Motorsports Chevy into the SAFER barriers.
If nothing else, the low, low downforce put a premium on three things: car preparation by teams, drivers adjusting to circumstances and midrace adjustments. Those elements comprise the sport's bedrock. So why not keep pursuing more of the same?
One element of pause concerns the winner. Including the Sprint All-Star Race, Logano has now won both experimental races. Logano ran first or second virtually the entire Michigan race. His Penske Racing teammate Brad Keselowski, who finished second in the All-Star race, came home fourth at Michigan. This raises the specter of what happened in Charlotte's 600-mile race, where one driver dominated the proceedings after figuring out the rules package.
The majority of the drivers seem to like the way NASCAR is headed. Tony Stewart, who finished seventh and ran in the Top 10 for all but for a brief mid-race interlude, was one of the believers.
"Today we got to drive the cars," said Stewart, who posted one of his best showings since returning from his back injury. "We got to make a difference in the car and manipulate things. That is what we have all been wanting."
Stewart then "mocked" the old set-ups provided by engineers that had cars practically on rails in the corners, making it difficult to pass.
"We are not running Mach 12 around here in the middle of the corner," he said. "I don't know what everybody else is going to say, but I thought it was pretty good."
Stewart, like many others, said NASCAR was headed in the right direction. This was in sharp contrast to last August in Michigan, when the sanctioning body experimented with a high downforce package, which slowed cars on the straights due to drag, but sustained lap times due to cornering speeds. That approach was soon abandoned.
Keselowski called for more attention to be paid to sideforce -- perhaps because his Penske team has the absence of "skew" figured out and he sees an advantage for his team if NASCAR subtracts more sideforce. Keselowski liked the idea that some drivers were crashing -- perhaps because that helps eliminate some of the competition for Penske.
"They are hard to drive and that causes accidents. I don't think that is a bad thing," he said. "It just means everybody is on the edge. You could really see that."
Unfortunately, a lot of empty seats were visible at the oval closest to Detroit and the surrounding auto manufacturing environs. The absent fans missed a lot of good racing, albeit a lot of it was for position behind the leaders.
The top three finishers -- Logano, runner-up Chase Elliott and third-placed Kyle Larson -- seemed unfazed by the experimental rules. While Logano was running first or second place, the other two were in the Top 5 throughout.
Rookie Elliott, who lost his bid for his first career victory when he missed a shift while leading on a re-start with 48 laps to go, led 35 laps en route to his best career finish for Hendrick Motorsports. Elliott's bid was further hampered by a fueling problem on his final pit stop.
So some things stayed the same. The clean air at the front was a real luxury. Execution was critical lest another driver step into the void. And pit crews played decisive roles.
All three of the front runners were gunning for their first victory of the year -- as well as the first ever for Elliott and Larson. The Top 5 did not include a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, none of which ran particularly well under low, low downforce. If nothing else, the one-race experiment helped create an opportunity for a different winner, which now includes 10 drivers with Logano's ascension to the Chase.
Michigan International Speedway
Sunday, June 12, 2016
1. (1) Joey Logano, Ford, 200.
2. (10) Chase Elliott #, Chevrolet, 200.
3. (7) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 200.
4. (15) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 200.
5. (29) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 200.
6. (11) Carl Edwards, Toyota, 200.
7. (3) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet, 200.
8. (8) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 200.
9. (14) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 200.
10. (17) Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 200.
11. (6) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 200.
12. (2) Martin Truex Jr, Toyota, 200.
13. (23) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 200.
14. (19) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 200.
15. (13) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 200.
16. (16) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 200.
17. (5) * Ryan Blaney #, Ford, 200.
18. (32) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 200.
19. (18) Greg Biffle, Ford, 200.
20. (22) Chris Buescher #, Ford, 200.
21. (25) Danica Patrick, Chevrolet, 200.
22. (35) David Ragan, Toyota, 200.
23. (34) Clint Bowyer, Chevrolet, 200.
24. (21) Ty Dillon(i), Chevrolet, 200.
25. (28) Landon Cassill, Ford, 200.
26. (30) Aric Almirola, Ford, 200.
27. (36) * Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, 200.
28. (39) Michael Annett, Chevrolet, 200.
29. (12) Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Ford, 199.
30. (37) * Josh Wise, Chevrolet, 197.
31. (40) * Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 194.
32. (24) Casey Mears, Chevrolet, 189.
33. (4) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, Accident, 188.
34. (31) Matt DiBenedetto, Toyota, Accident, 185.
35. (33) Regan Smith, Chevrolet, 179.
36. (26) Brian Scott #, Ford, Accident, 154.
37. (38) Jeffrey Earnhardt #, Ford, Accident, 101.
38. (20) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, Accident, 62.
39. (27) Dale Earnhardt Jr, Chevrolet, Accident, 61.
40. (9) Kyle Busch, Toyota, Engine, 52.
Average Speed of Race Winner: 134.241 mph.
Time of Race: 02 Hrs, 58 Mins, 47 Secs. Margin of Victory: 0.889 Seconds.
Caution Flags: 9 for 46 laps.
Lead Changes: 14 among 8 drivers.
Lap Leaders: J. Logano 0; M. Truex Jr 1-10; J. Logano 11-40; B. Keselowski 41-47; J. Logano 48-93; K. Larson 94; R. Newman 95; B. Keselowski 96-98; J. Johnson 99-102; P. Menard 103; J. Logano 104-116; C. Elliott # 117-148; J. Logano 149; C. Elliott # 150-152; J. Logano 153-200.
Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): J. Logano 5 times for 138 laps; C. Elliott # 2 times for 35 laps; B. Keselowski 2 times for 10 laps; M. Truex Jr 1 time for 10 laps; J. Johnson 1 time for 4 laps; P. Menard 1 time for 1 lap; R. Newman 1 time for 1 lap; K. Larson 1 time for 1 lap.
Top 16 in Points: K. Harvick -- 526; Kurt Busch -- 496; B. Keselowski -- 480; C. Edwards -- 472; J. Logano -- 455; C. Elliott # -- 453; J. Johnson -- 441; M. Truex Jr -- 433; Kyle Busch -- 417; M. Kenseth -- 409; D. Earnhardt Jr -- 383; A. Dillon -- 381; D. Hamlin -- 380; J. McMurray -- 374; R. Newman -- 369; *. Blaney # -- 364.
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
BROOKLYN, Mich. -- To say 2016 has been a feast-or-famine year for Kyle Busch would be a colossal understatement.
And lately it's been all famine.
Just past the 50 lap mark of Sunday's FireKeepers 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Michigan International Speedway, the engine in Busch's No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota gave up the ghost, spewing fire from underneath the chassis and filling the driver's compartment with smoke.
Busch unpinned his window net, drove his car to the garage and exited the race in 40th place, the first driver out.
That marked the fourth straight event in which Busch has finished 30th or worse and the sixth time in 15 races he has run 25th or worse.
On the other hand, Busch has finished in the top four on nine occasions and has three victories to his credit, most in the series so far this year.
"Just been feeling the motor kind of going south for about 30 laps or so and it finally let go," Busch said of Sunday's failure. "At least there was plenty of warning, and I knew it was going to get hot in there, and it certainly did once it let go and it was on fire. It's just been a dismal month, just haven't been able to hit anything and get good finishes going.
"Our car has been really fast and (crew chief) Adam (Stevens) and the guys have been doing a great job getting us good stuff to the race track, but it just wasn't our day today... We started out the season good and strong and had some top fives and such, so it was a good foundation for us to build off of. We'd like to be able to get our luck turned around and get back to finishing races where we know we can."
Earnhardt an early casualty of close racing
With NASCAR's new lower-downforce aerodynamic package in place for Sunday's race at Michigan, drivers went three-wide at their own peril, often with disastrous results.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Chevrolet was the middle car in a three-wide sandwich on the backstretch when Chris Buescher's Ford got loose, whacked the left rear of Earnhardt's car and knocked it into the side of AJ Allmendinger's Chevy.
Buescher was the only driver able to continue, as Allmendinger and Earnhardt wen to the garage in 38th and 39th place, respectively.
"We were in the middle there, and the No. 34 (Buescher) ran into the left-rear quarter panel and knocked us in the fence," Earnhardt said after the wreck. "He must have just lost the nose of his car. I hate it, but you try to take care of each other out there. We all try to race hard, and I wish he would have taken better care of us.
"He just lost the car and hit the quarter panel. It happens, though. I'm angry, but I won't be too upset about it later. It's frustrating right now because we had a good car, and I was happy with the way the car drove. We had good speed -- we just needed to continue to work on getting our track position and we were doing that. We won't get a chance to get the finish I think we could have got today."
But Earnhardt has a knack for finding the silver lining in any situation. With the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series getting a week off this coming week, Earnhardt posted the following on his Twitter account:
"The car was good today and getting faster. Easy top 10. Haven't been wrecked in a while but that is part of racing. Vacation starts early."
NASCAR pleased with performance of new aero package
The new lower-downforce aerodynamic package under evaluation for 2017 got its first test in a points race at Michigan, and NASCAR officials liked what they saw in the 400-miler.
"It was definitely different than we've seen here before, a lot of action on the restarts, a lot of movement there," said Scott Miller, NASCAR's senior vice president of competition. "Obviously, we all watched it get strung out a little bit, which we weren't hoping for longer into the runs.
"I think we saw a lot of things that we liked, some other things that may need a little bit of reevaluating, but I think overall, for such a big move in downforce, that it was a really pretty successful day and something that we can build on."
If the new configuration, or a variation thereof, is adopted for next year, Goodyear will have time to build a tire designed for the new package and the track.
"I think we probably need to come back to a bit more work on the tires, which these tires have not been tuned to this package, so we'll work with our Goodyear folks," said Gene Stefanyshyn, NASCAR senior vice president, innovation and racing development. "Probably a bit handicapped by the entry speeds being pretty high (reaching roughly 218 mph), so still that creates some aero effects, so that's something we'll look at.
"But again, this has been planned as a two to three step process. We're off to Kentucky tomorrow (for an organizational test on Monday and Tuesday), and then we'll be on the track at Kentucky (July 9) -- shorter track, lower speeds and all that, so we'll see how that all comes together."
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
BROOKLYN, Mich. -- For more than a third of active NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers, there will be no rest for the weary.
One driver from each Cup organization is eligible to participate in a test of newly repaved Kentucky Speedway on Monday and Tuesday. The test is a continuation of NASCAR's proving-out process for a new lower-downforce competition package earmarked for 2017.
Last year, as the sanctioning body solidified the rules for 2016, races at Kentucky and Darlington were used as benchmarks for the progression toward lower downforce for the Cup cars. This year, in selected events, NASCAR is taking an additional 500 pounds of downforce and 125 pounds of sideforce away from the cars by chopping the size of the spoiler, reducing the surface area of the splitter, tapering the rear deck lid fin and eliminating rear axle offset.
The new package was scheduled for use in the Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte in May, this weekend at Michigan and the July 9 event at Kentucky.
It's important to note, though, that the Kentucky Speedway used as a proving ground last year bears little resemblance to the Kentucky Speedway drivers will visit on Monday and Tuesday. Not only does the track have a new racing surface, but the configuration of the track also has changed, with additional banking that creates two distinct sets of corners, a la Darlington.
And then there's the asphalt itself, which is a departure from the type of surface used in other recent repaves.
"We have a way of measuring the roughness of the track," says Gene Stefanyshyn, NASCAR's senior vice president, innovation and racing development. "When I talk about the roughness of the track, I'm not talking about the big bumps. I'm talking about the actual very minute analysis of the asphalt itself, and we measure it in micrometers from crest to trough, and the aggregate that they use on this track is much coarser than traditionally.
"There was a time that people were paving with asphalt to make the track last a long time, like I-75 or something like that, and I think there's a significant amount of evidence now to suggest that that's probably not the right type of surface for racing. It doesn't promote tire wear. It's very, very high grip ... so what we've done here is they've come together or created a very coarse aggregate."
Accordingly, the new surface also presents a new challenge for Goodyear, which has to build a tire to accommodate both the lower-downforce package and coarser asphalt that exacerbates tire fall-off.
The 14 drivers currently scheduled to participate in the organizational test at Kentucky are: Jamie McMurray (No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet), Kevin Harvick (No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet), Kasey Kahne (No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet), Greg Biffle (No. 16 Roush Fenway Racing Ford), Kyle Busch (No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota), Ryan Blaney (No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford), Joey Logano (No. 22 Team Penske Ford), Paul Menard (No. 27 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet), Chris Buescher (No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford), Aric Almirola (No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford), Michael Annett (No. 46 HScott Motorsports Chevrolet), AJ Allmendinger (No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet), Martin Truex Jr. (No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota) and Matt DiBenedetto (No. 83 BK Racing Toyota).
WHEN IT RAINS, BUSCH POURS IT ON
Call him Rain Man.
Remarkably, six of Kurt Busch's 28 NASCAR Sprint Cup victories have come in races that were either shortened or postponed by rain.
In 2002, he won a rain-shortened event in Atlanta. In 2007, he won at Michigan on a Tuesday, when the race was postponed for two days by rain -- and then delayed for an hour from its rescheduled 10 a.m. start by fog.
In 2008, Busch won a rain-shortened race at Loudon. Both his 2015 victories came in events affected by weather -- in a race at Richmond postponed by rain from Saturday to Sunday and in a rain-shortened event at Michigan.
Earlier this week, Busch got his 28th NASCAR Sprint Cup victory in a race moved to Monday because of rain at Pocono.
So is it just coincidence, or does Busch have a knack for maintaining his focus in uncertain weather conditions?
"There are quite a few rain-delayed wins that I have -- and with all the different teams I've been with, with Roush and Penske and Stewart-Haas," Busch told the NASCAR Wire Service. "I don't know. I watched 'Rain Man' a couple of months ago and I should have practiced up on some of my quotes.
"The rain is definitely something you have to be patient with. It's something you can't predict. ... So you have to be ready at all moments, whenever they're going to drop the green, and try to stay as levelheaded and focused as possible whenever we get to go. You can't challenge Mother Nature. It feels good to be able to be ready, to be prepared, and to have a team behind you to go out there and perform at any moment."
Hendrick-powered cars turned in the top three 10-consecutive-lap average speeds in Saturday's first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice session at Michigan International Speedway. Jimmie Johnson paced the field at (195.394 mph), followed by Kevin Harvick (195.256 mph) and Tony Stewart (194.638 mph). That bodes well in particular for Stewart, who will start a season-best third in Sunday's FireKeepers 400. And it's not bad news for Harvick, who will have to come from 29th after two of his hot laps in the opening round of knockout qualifying on Friday were interrupted by cautions. ... Track temperatures clearly make a difference at Michigan. In cooler conditions in Saturday's first practice, Carl Edwards topped the speed chart at 197.770 mph. When the track warmed up for a second session at noon, Austin Dillon posted the fastest lap at 194.301 mph.
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
BROOKLYN, Mich. -- After two frustrating weeks of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series qualifying, Joey Logano learned the drill.
Posting the fastest speeds in both the second and final rounds of Friday's knockout time trials at Michigan International Speedway, Logano won the pole for Sunday's FireKeepers 400 (1 p.m. ET on FS1) at the two-mile track.
In the previous two weekends at Charlotte and Pocono, Logano led the first two rounds of qualifying but failed to close the deal in the decisive third round. On Friday, he was on top when it counted, giving Logano his second pole of the season, his second at Michigan and the 16th of his career.
"It's about time," said Logano, who toured the speedway at 199.557 mph in the final round to beat second-place qualifier Martin Truex Jr. (199.016 mph). "The last couple ones have stung a lot. We won the first two rounds and came in second in the last one.
"So we figured it out. We won the same amount of rounds, but the right one, the one that counts."
Tony Stewart (198.950 mph) took the third starting spot, his best effort of the season after returning from injury. Denny Hamlin (198.774 mph), who edged Logano for the fastest lap in the first round, qualified fourth, followed by Rookie of the Year candidate Ryan Blaney (198.588 mph).
With a new lower-downforce aerodynamic package in use for the Sprint Cup cars this weekend, NASCAR delayed the start of qualifying for 15 minutes because roughly two-thirds of the field had difficulty getting through inspection.
Truex was the last to clear inspection, but the recent Coca-Cola 600 winner didn't let that snafu affect his performance.
"We had to work hard on it today and had trouble getting through tech," Truex said. "Our first run was pretty bad, our second run was better and our third run was pretty good. ... We came out with a good result, so it was good.
"We just keep digging and never give up -- front-row starting spot is pretty decent."
Kevin Harvick was the victim of two untimely cautions in the 20-minute first round, the first for debris and the second for David Ragan's wreck in Turn 3. Both yellows interrupted hot laps for the 2014 series champion, who failed to advance to the second round and will start Sunday's race in 29th.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., last week's Pocono runner-up, likewise failed to make the second round and will start 27th.
Stewart had the strongest Chevrolet in the field and the only one in the top five.
"I'm glad that was the last time I had to do that today," Stewart said. "It felt really good. We were really loose in practice, and (crew chief) Mike (Bugarewicz) did a great job in the break there of making some big changes to get us caught up.
"It got my confidence back there and made me feel like I finally had the right rear (tire) in the track there. Now we can hustle a little bit."
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
BROOKLYN, Mich. -- After Friday's opening 85-minute NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice session at Michigan International Speedway, there was strong consensus among drivers as to the lower-downforce aerodynamic package in place for Sunday's FireKeepers 400 (1 p.m. ET on FS1).
In a word, the new configuration was "challenging."
That's exactly what it was supposed to be.
"Speeds are blazing fast down the straightaway but quite a bit slower in the corner, and that has been interesting," 2012 series champion Brad Keselowski said. "It's a nice change of pace. We are all kind of learning together how that will affect the racing. I don't think anyone will have an answer until they drop the green flag on Sunday.
"I really feel good about it. It's fun to drive. You enter the corner at almost 220 mph, and you turn left, and the front goes, and the back doesn't always go with it. That's quite a feeling, for sure."
NASCAR first employed this aerodynamic package in the May 21 Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte. The package, which features a smaller spoiler, smaller splitter side pieces and tapered rear deck lid fin, along with the elimination of rear-end skew, also will be used in the July 9 event at newly repaved Kentucky Speedway. Ultimately, these races will help NASCAR solidify its rules for 2017.
"This is just another step toward creating closer competition and great racing that the fans and the media and everybody wants to see," said Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition. "We want to see that really bad, and I think this direction has been something that's been embraced by the drivers.
"And actually, we've worked together with them to land here and try this for this year as a potential way to move forward with closer competition."
NASCAR, RISE announce campaign to promote sports equality
NASCAR and the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE) announced Friday a new campaign to promote diversity, inclusion and equality within and outside of sports.
A public service announcement (PSA) featuring NASCAR drivers Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano, Aric Almirola, Kyle Larson and Darrell Wallace Jr. encourages fans to take the pledge to end racism at RISEtoWin.org.
The PSA will air during NASCAR national series races this weekend on Fox Sports 1, culminating with Sunday's FireKeepers Casino 400 Sprint Cup Series event at Michigan International Speedway.
"This is important for me to be a part of, mainly because the NASCAR diversity program meant so much for me to get where I am at today," Almirola said at Michigan International Speedway. "In sport and in life, everyone needs some sort of break to make it where they are at today. For me, that was my break, the fact that Joe Gibbs Racing and Reggie White along with NASCAR got involved and created a diversity program.
"I sent in a resume, and because of the fact that my family was from Cuba -- and my background and heritage -- it gave me an opportunity, and that was the opportunity that got me to move from Florida to North Carolina and go drive a race car for a living.
To have that opportunity has been very special and very meaningful for my career."
NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France is a founding board member of RISE, an organization created by Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross.
Groundhog Day comes late to Michigan
An unexpected interloper delayed Friday's first NASCAR Xfinity Series practice for 10 minutes.
The sudden appearance of a groundhog on the racetrack forced officials to halt the session while track workers at MIS attempted to capture the misplaced critter.
At first, a small plastic trash can was used to corral the groundhog, but the animal escaped and scurried away, eluding pursuers. Finally, track workers resorted to a larger trash can to catch the groundhog and remove it from the asphalt.
MIS officials announced the groundhog had been taken to a 65-acre tract of land owned by the Speedway and known as the Phelps property.
There was no confirmation that the groundhog had seen his shadow during the on-track excursion.
Would Earnhardt Sr. have taken the chance that the wheel would not fall off at the high-speed, 2.5-mile California oval in order to win his first championship? The question never got answered. NASCAR officials called the Rod Osterlund team's Chevy back to the pits for a stop-and-go penalty for running over the jack exiting the pits. That gave crew chief Doug Richert and the pit crew a chance to get all the lug nuts on and tight.
Flash forward 36 years and drivers trying to make this year's Chase were often forced to make the same decision early in the season. Stay out with a wheel vibrating from missing or loose lug nuts or give up track position to return to the pits?
After criticism from Tony Stewart, NASCAR finally fixed the problem – before any wheels had disengaged – by requiring five lug nuts to be secured to each wheel. Most teams were trying to get by with four, often resulting in a loose wheel if one lug nut was not secure.
Since the rule change started at the tenth round at Talladega, several crew chiefs have been fined the mandatory penalty for a first infraction of $20,000 and suspended for one race. Also, Carl Edwards was knocked out of the running for a $1 million winner's purse at the Sprint All-Star Race when his car was discovered to have a loose lug nut.
At last week's race at Pocono two crew chiefs were missing in favor of substitutes – Tony Gibson, who directs the entries of Stewart-Haas Racing driven by Kurt Busch, and Randall Burnett, who directs A.J. Allmendinger's cars at JTG/Daugherty Racing.
Previously, Adam Stevens, who directs Kyle Busch's entries at Joe Gibbs Racing, was given a one-race suspension, which dampened considerably the post-race victory celebration in Kansas. Busch's winning car had four tight lug nuts on one wheel with a fifth lug held on by glue and tape. It didn't pass the minimum torque test.
After the Pocono race, Kyle Larson's crew chief, Chad Johnson, was suspended for Sunday's race at the Michigan International Speedway due to a lug nut violation in post-race inspection. Penalties will escalate, said the NASCAR rule memo released in April, if there are repeated infractions by one crew. If a wheel falls off during a race, the crew chief will be given a four-race suspension.
In retrospect, the sanctioning body put teams into a safety dilemma by allowing them to choose how many lug nuts were used. And it added little to the drama when drivers were constantly radioing to their pit crews about wheel vibrations from only three of four lug nuts being secure.
Given Stewart's recent bouts with injuries – none in a Sprint Cup car – one can understand his concern as a car owner and driver about safety. But at bottom, his cry of foul, which cost him a $35,000 fine, was also likely designed to try to slow the juggernaut of the Gibbs team. In the eyes of many, JGR was making the most of the open lug nut choice during pit stops, particularly at the end of races.
Are we in a better place now?
There are far fewer drivers calling in with wheel vibrations, which is better for the over-all conduct of races and safety. Even absent an official for each pit stall, the Pit Road Officiating video can observe wheel and tire exchanges on the right side, which helps enforce the rule. The left side wheels are the last to be exchanged in a four-tire stop, so sometimes drivers can get out of the pits with just four lug nuts without being detected and without a wheel vibration if they're all tight.
Did NASCAR overreact with the rule change? The potential of a crew chief suspension would appear to put some bite into the enforcement, even if Gibson's team and driver Kurt Busch won at Pocono without him as engineer John Klausmeier made the calls. If races are won and lost on chassis changes over the course of the race, then it's usually a serious penalty to have a substitute leader working with a driver to make those changes – even if the regular crew chief is engaged during the race by radio and telephone communication.
Can teams still fudge on lug nuts during the course of a race and before the last pit stop? Probably – as long as four lug nuts are tight such as those on Busch's Toyota in Kansas, which ran an entire final stint without a problem.
The key element is that drivers are no longer forced to debate themselves about wheel vibrations. If they have one, there's no longer any decision about "toughing it out" and taking the risk. Once a driver notifies the team by radio of the problem, then he or she might as well pit to check it out before NASCAR makes that call with the threat of a further penalty to follow.
There may not have been any wheels disengaging in the first nine races absent a lug nut rule, but it's far less likely to happen now. As yet, no driver has been taken out of contention by a mid-race call from NASCAR to head back to the pit road to check on the lug nuts – in a justified circumstance or in a "blown call."
Meanwhile, the juggernaut of Joe Gibbs Racing continues to be the dominant team of the 2016 season.
TV: Sunday, June 12, 1 p.m. ET -- Fox Sports 1 (Radio: Motor Racing Network/SiriusXM Channel 90).
THEN AND NOW: This will be the 94th Sprint Cup race to be held at the high-speed two-mile oval. Kurt Busch, who won the rain-delayed race at Pocono on Monday, is the defending champion of this race, while Matt Kenseth won last summer's race there. Busch's win makes him the ninth different race winner in the Sprint Cup Series through the first 14 races this season. ... Greg Biffle has perhaps his best chance at a win thus far this season. He has won four times at MIS over the years for Roush Fenway Racing. ... Kevin Harvick continues to lead the Sprint Cup point standings with 490 points. Kurt Busch is second (465), followed by Brad Keselowski (442), Carl Edwards (437), Kyle Busch (416), Jimmie Johnson (415), Chase Elliott (413), Joey Logano (410), Martin Truex Jr. (403) and Matt Kenseth (382).
NASCAR XFINITY SERIES: MENARDS 250 (125 laps, 250 miles), Michigan International Speedway; Brooklyn, Mich.
TV: Saturday, June 11, 1:30 p.m. ET -- Fox Sports 1 (Radio: Motor Racing Network/SiriusXM Channel 90).
THEN AND NOW: Saturday will mark the 25th time the Xfinity Series has raced at Michigan. ... Kyle Busch won this race last year. ... NASCAR announced Wednesday that it has changed the starting times for two races in the first-ever upcoming Chase in the Xfinity Series. The Kansas Lottery 500 at Kansas Speedway will be held on Oct. 15 and air on NBC at 3 p.m. ET, while the Xfinity Series Chase race at Phoenix International Raceway will be held on Nov. 12 at 7:30 p.m. ET and will air on NBCSN. ... Kyle Larson, who is still seeking his first career Sprint Cup win, won last weekend's rain-shortened inaugural Xfinity Series race at Pocono. ... Winners of the first 12 Xfinity Series races this season have been Chase Elliott (Daytona), Kyle Busch (Atlanta, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Texas), Austin Dillon (Fontana), Erik Jones (Bristol and Dover), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Richmond), Elliott Sadler (Talladega), Denny Hamlin (Charlotte) and Larson (Pocono). ... Daniel Suarez (408 points) remains in the lead in the Xfinity Series point standings. Elliott Sadler (397) is second, followed by Ty Dillon (390), Brendan Gaughan (363), Erik Jones (359), Brandon Jones (357), Justin Allgaier (355), Brennan Poole (343), Darrell Wallace Jr. (308) and Ryan Reed (274).
NASCAR CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: RATTLESNAKE 400 (167 laps, 250.5 miles), Texas Motor Speedway; Fort Worth, Texas.
TV: Friday, June 10, 9 p.m. ET -- Fox Sports 1 (Radio: Motor Racing Network/SiriusXM Channel 90).
THEN AND NOW: The Camping World Truck Series resumes action after a nearly three-week hiatus this Friday at Texas Motor Speedway as part of the Verizon IndyCar Series race weekend there. ... This will be the 37th time the Trucks have raced at Texas. Matt Crafton won this race last year for the second straight year, while Erik Jones won last year's fall race there en route to winning the Truck Series championship. ... Two-time Truck Series champion Matt Crafton comes into Friday's race riding a two-race winning streak (Dover and Charlotte). ... Winners thus far this season have been Johnny Sauter (Daytona), John Hunter Nemechek (Atlanta), Kyle Busch (Martinsville), William Byron (Kansas) and Crafton (Dover, Charlotte). ... With the Charlotte win, Crafton moved into sole possession of first place in the Camping World Truck Series. He has gained six places in the last two races, both wins for the veteran driver. Crafton has 161 points, followed by Timothy Peters (149), Daniel Hemric (144), Spencer Gallagher (139), William Byron (135), Ryan Truex (129), John Hunter Nemechek (127), Tyler Reddick (125), Christopher Bell (124) and Johnny Sauter (120).
VERIZON INDYCAR SERIES: FIRESTONE 600 (248 laps, 372 miles), Texas Motor Speedway; Fort Worth, Texas.
TV: Saturday, June 11, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN.
THEN AND NOW: This marks the 28th time the IndyCar Series has competed on the 1.5-mile high-speed Texas track. ... Scott Dixon is defending champion of this race. Dixon also won at Texas in 2008. ... The winners in last weekend's unique two-race street course event (Saturday/Sunday) at Belle Isle in Detroit were Sebastien Bourdais and Will Power. ... This season's race winners thus far are: Juan Pablo Montoya (St. Petersburg), Scott Dixon (Phoenix), Simon Pagenaud (Long Beach, Birmingham and Grand Prix of Indianapolis), Alexander Rossi (Indianapolis 500), Bourdais (Belle Isle 1) and Power (Belle Isle 2). ... Simon Pagenaud (357 points) continues to maintain a commanding lead in the Verizon IndyCar Series points standings. Defending series champion Scott Dixon is second (277), followed by Helio Castroneves (271), Josef Newgarden (259), Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi (242), Carlos Munoz (242), Will Power (240), Tony Kanaan (240), Juan Pablo Montoya (233) and Charlie Kimball (227).
NATIONAL HOT ROD ASSOCIATION MELLO YELLO DRAG RACING SERIES: NHRA SUMMERNATIONALS, Old Bridge Township Raceway Park; Englishtown, N.J.
TV: Final eliminations, Sunday, June 12, 4:30-7:30 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1.
THEN AND NOW: The NHRA returns to one of its most popular venues for this weekend's SummerNationals, which is the second in a four-week stretch of consecutive races. ... Defending winners from last year's event at Englishtown are Antron Brown (a New Jersey native) in Top Fuel, Matt Hagan in Funny Car, Greg Anderson in Pro Stock and Jerry Savoie in Pro Stock Motorcycle. ... Winners this past weekend at Epping, N.H., were Antron Brown (Top Fuel), Ron Capps (Funny Car) and Greg Anderson (Pro Stock). ... In the NHRA point standings, Doug Kalitta leads Top Fuel (785 points), followed by defending series champ Antron Brown (739), Steve Torrence (658), Brittany Force (623) and Tony Schumacher (483). ... In Funny Car, Courtney Force remains No. 1 (654 points), followed by Jack Beckman (639), Ron Capps (632), Tim Wilkerson (608) and defending Funny Car series champ Del Worsham (558). Sixteen-time Funny Car champ John Force improved from ninth to eighth (527). ... In Pro Stock, Jason Line continues to lead the standings (1,026 points), followed by teammate Greg Anderson (937), Bo Butner (680), Allen Johnson (559) and Drew Skillman (497). Skillman parted ways with Elite Motorsports prior to last weekend's race at New Hampshire and is now racing for Gray Motorsports. ... Defending two-time series champ Erica Enders (373) slipped back from eighth to ninth place, and is now 653 points behind Line. ... In Pro Stock Motorcycle, which resumes competition this weekend at Englishtown, Eddie Krawiec leads the standings with 353 points, followed by defending series champ Andrew Hines (233), Hector Arana (207), Jerry Savoie (204) and Chip Ellis (193).
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
LONG POND, Pa. -- You can forgive a rookie for a little impatience when his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory is within his grasp.
But Sunoco Rookie of the Year leader Chase Elliott wasn't ready to forgive himself after a fourth-place finish in the Axalta "We Paint Winners" 400 on Monday at Pocono Raceway.
After a restart with 33 laps left, Elliott was battling Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the lead, but as the drivers fought for position through the Tunnel Turn, Kurt Busch surged past both Hendrick cars and held the top spot until the checkered flag.
Ultimately, Elliott lost the third spot to Brad Keselowski, and even though he scored his fifth top five of the season, the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet was subdued in his post-race comments.
"Yeah, just definitely really proud of our team and the work that everybody at Hendrick has put in," said Elliott, who led a race-high 51 laps. "I felt like we had four really fast cars today. I hope that's a good sign for races to come. We certainly had I feel like one of our best days of the year, personally.
" ... For us to be able to contend and lead laps all day and have a car that could fight for the lead the majority of the day, I thought was great. Obviously, I made a big mistake there behind Dale in the tunnel after that restart. I wish I had been a little more patient and given ourselves a better chance, but you live and you learn."
EARNHARDT OVERACHIEVES FOR RUNNER-UP FINISH
Approximately halfway through the final green-flag run on Monday at Pocono Raceway, crew chief Greg Ives radioed to driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. "The 41 (leader Kurt Busch) needs to save (fuel) to make it. We do not. Go get him!"
But over the closing laps, the handling of Earnhardt's car tightened up, and he was unable to track down Busch, even though the eventual race winner was in fuel-conservation mode.
Earnhardt thought he could have been more effective in keeping Busch behind him after the final restart.
"I should have been able to hold that No. 41 (Busch) off on that final restart," Earnhardt said. "Me and the No. 24 (Chase Elliott) were racing pretty hard, and it gave the No. 41 the opportunity to get a run on us.
"I should have been able to defend that a little bit better. If I could have gotten in front of him, I don't think he would have gotten by us."
But Earnhardt also acknowledged his runner-up finish might have been better than the car deserved.
"We certainly finished better than we should have," he said. "Our car wasn't quite a second-place car. We started off really tight and really slow, probably about a 15th-place car.
"Greg and the guys made a lot of changes and made the car better. Don't really know exactly how much better we got it compared to the competition, but we certainly made it more competitive."
RESTARTS FOIL KENSETH'S WINNING CHANCES
Matt Kenseth's No. 20 Toyota was fast enough to lead 31 laps in the Axalta "We Paint Winners" 400 at Pocono Raceway.
The problem was that Kenseth couldn’t keep the lead when the race restarted. Given that the race featured 10 cautions for 40 laps, restarts became a major issue for the Joe Gibbs Racing driver.
"We had a great race car," said Kenseth, whose seventh-place finish was the best among the Toyotas. "Just had really, really poor restarts, and if I did have a good restart, then there was somebody getting checked up in front of me and I'd lose more spots.
"I just gave them all up on restarts. Honestly, I think we had a car that could challenge for the win. I just couldn't figure out how to get to Turn 1… Once I got to Turn 1 and got rolling, I thought we were really competitive, but disappointing finish for how fast our car was, for sure."
Perhaps, there was there fuel in the roll cage. Maybe his Stewart-Haas Racing Chevy had a larger gas tank. Busch might have even channeled Alexander Rossi, last week's winner of the Indy 500, who went four laps farther than his nearest competitor to triumph on fuel mileage.
In the end, it appeared more like a game of liar's poker. And you don't expect that from a rookie crew chief. But that's how it appeared to go for Busch and John Klausmeier, an interim crew chief substituting for Tony Gibson.
Klausmeier told Busch he was two laps short on fuel during the last green flag stint. But that didn't stop Busch from gunning into the lead from the second row on the final re-start with 33 laps to go.
The three cars and teams behind him might have assumed Busch was short on fuel, having intercepted the radio transmission.
So when Busch slowed at the front, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski and Chase Elliott all slowed behind him on a Pocono International Raceway track known for running drivers out of fuel on the 2.5-mile last lap and never making it back to the start-finish.
Like Busch, the trailing cars had concerns about making it. But they were poised to move up if Busch faltered -- which didn't happen.
In fact, Busch did a major burnout before driving to Victory Lane, then made sure to parallel park perfectly by reversing and pulling forward again.
"It's tough to balance everything," a remarkably poised Busch said after climbing out. "We had a fast car and an interim crew chief. The way the fuel mileage played out, I didn't know if we would have enough fuel."
On an afternoon when crunching fuel mileage numbers was the order of the day -- after many contenders crunched the walls and their sheet metal -- it was not such a bad idea to have the team engineer calling the shots.
Klausmeier normally plays that second-in-command role for Gibson. But the latter was suspended for this one race after officials discovered a lug nut violation in Charlotte.
Usually, drafting behind another car is the best way to save fuel. But Busch took advantage of Elliott's bid for the lead in the Tunnel Turn on the final re-start to pass the Hendrick Motorsports Chevy on the outside.
Elliott's bid also slowed leader Earnhardt Jr., enabling Busch to grab the lead underneath on the front straight.
"Me and (Elliott) was racing pretty hard and it gave (Busch) the opportunity to get a run on us," said Earnhardt, Jr. "I should have been able to defend that a little bit better. If I could have got in front of him, I don't think he would have got by us."
From there, it was clean air for Busch, who began lifting early for the turns at the tri-cornered track and dipping the clutch on corner entry.
Known as a "roval" where driver shift from third to fourth gears and back on each lap, Busch also started short shifting, which uses fewer RPM.
"I was like, 'Whoa! How many laps shy are we?" Busch said of the radio call from Klausmeier. "They said two. These are really long straightaways at Pocono and you have to manage saving fuel as well as maintaining lap time. So many thoughts can go through your head, but I just stuck with the checklist (for saving fuel)."
The Pocono race marks the beginning of "the second half" of the regular season. Coming into the event with 13 races down and 13 to go until the start of the Chase, drivers looking to score a victory looked toward the unique confines of Pocono to make it happen.
Maybe there is something to a Chase format that rewards risk taking.
The three leading Chevy drivers were in position to make the Chase on points, but a stagnant final lap due to a shortfall on fuel would have cost winner Busch, runner-up Earnhardt Jr. and fourth-placed Elliott dearly in points, not to mention momentum for the Chase.
They weren't alone in the risk-taking. Re-starts on NASCAR's longest and widest front straight looked like the Oklahoma Land Rush. Cars spread five-wide before funneling into Turn 1’s narrow two-lane elbow.
Among those desperate to make the Chase is Tony Stewart, who ran in the Top 10 and made one of his best showings before a three-wide scenario exiting Turn 1 became a disaster and sent his Chevy into the wall due to an aero flurry.
Not only did Stewart, who missed the season's first eight races, lose ground on his bid to finish 30th or better in the points to qualify for the Chase. He lost what appeared to be his best shot at a victory thus far this year.
Stewart ran as high as sixth place and spent most of the race in the Top 10. On the lap he crashed, Stewart re-started in ninth place. What's worse, he collected teammate Danica Patrick's Chevy, which had brake trouble, in the incident.
This from a team that also produced the winning car.
While the victory by Busch, who was second in the points coming into the race, virtually guarantees him a spot in the Chase, Stewart's hopes now look forlorn.
On the eve of the race and shortly before the death of Muhammad Ali, Earnhardt Jr. had all but predicted a victory for his team at either Pocono, where he won last year, or next week's race in Michigan. He fell short, but the early calls for the demise of the Hendrick Motorsports team look more than premature.
The team had three cars in the top six, including Kasey Kahne's Chevy. Jimmie Johnson re-started fifth when he brought out the day's last caution with an almost near-brilliant save at the exit of Turn 1.
It was a tough day for the presumed dominant teams of Joe Gibbs Racing and Penske Racing.
Brad Keselowski, who finished third, was penalized for his jackman altering his Ford's bodywork during a pit stop before coming back to third. Joey Logano had his rear bumper hammered by an angry Ryan Newman in traffic before bouncing back to fifth following bodywork repairs.
The Gibbs team's Kyle Busch found the wall during one of the free-for-all restarts, and Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards just couldn't find their way to the front with their Toyotas.
So who says the Chase format isn't fun? On a track made green by rain and without much practice due to rain earlier in the weekend, the Triangle Scramble made it a four-team championship race.
Long Pond, Pennsylvania
Monday, June 06, 2016
1. (9) Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 160.
2. (8) Dale Earnhardt Jr, Chevrolet, 160.
3. (1) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 160.
4. (13) Chase Elliott #, Chevrolet, 160.
5. (2) Joey Logano, Ford, 160.
6. (11) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 160.
7. (3) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 160.
8. (5) Carl Edwards, Toyota, 160.
9. (4) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 160.
10. (14) * Ryan Blaney #, Ford, 160.
11. (21) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 160.
12. (22) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 160.
13. (24) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 160.
14. (10) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 160.
15. (25) Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Ford, 160.
16. (32) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 160.
17. (26) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 160.
18. (23) Clint Bowyer, Chevrolet, 160.
19. (17) Martin Truex Jr, Toyota, 160.
20. (16) Aric Almirola, Ford, 160.
21. (28) Ty Dillon(i), Chevrolet, 160.
22. (35) Regan Smith, Chevrolet, 160.
23. (34) David Ragan, Toyota, 160.
24. (29) Casey Mears, Chevrolet, 160.
25. (18) Chris Buescher #, Ford, 159.
26. (15) Greg Biffle, Ford, 159.
27. (38) * Josh Wise, Chevrolet, 159.
28. (40) * Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 159.
29. (39) Jeb Burton(i), Ford, 158.
30. (37) * Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, Rear Gear, 155.
31. (12) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 150.
32. (33) Danica Patrick, Chevrolet, 145.
33. (20) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 135.
34. (6) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet, 131.
35. (7) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, Accident, 125.
36. (31) Landon Cassill, Ford, 121.
37. (19) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, Accident, 117.
38. (36) Michael Annett, Chevrolet, Accident, 102.
39. (30) Brian Scott #, Ford, 81.
40. (27) Matt DiBenedetto, Toyota, Accident, 57.
Average Speed of Race Winner: 125.49 mph.
Time of Race: 03 Hrs, 11 Mins, 15 Secs. Margin of Victory: 1.126 Seconds.
Caution Flags: 10 for 40 laps.
Lead Changes: 14 among 10 drivers.
Lap Leaders: 0; J. Logano 1-17; K. Larson 18-25; M. Kenseth 26-53; K. Harvick 54-62; M. Kenseth 63-65; C. Elliott # 66-86; Kyle Busch 87-89; C. Elliott # 90-118; A. Allmendinger 119-120; T. Dillon(i) 121-123; D. Earnhardt Jr 124-126; C. Elliott # 127; D. Earnhardt Jr 128; Kurt Busch 129-160.
Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): C. Elliott # 3 times for 51 laps; Kurt Busch 1 time for 32 laps; M. Kenseth 2 times for 31 laps; J. Logano 1 time for 17 laps; K. Harvick 1 time for 9 laps; K. Larson 1 time for 8 laps; D. Earnhardt Jr 2 times for 4 laps; T. Dillon(i) 1 time for 3 laps; Kyle Busch 1 time for 3 laps; A. Allmendinger 1 time for 2 laps.
Top 16 in Points: K. Harvick - 490; Kurt Busch - 465; B. Keselowski - 442; C. Edwards - 437; Kyle Busch - 416; J. Johnson - 415; C. Elliott # - 413; J. Logano - 410; M. Truex Jr - 403; M. Kenseth - 382; D. Earnhardt Jr - 381; D. Hamlin - 372; A. Dillon - 348; J. Mcmurray - 342; *. Blaney # - 340; R. Newman - 338.
NASCAR made repeated attempts to dry the race track between rain showers when visibility allowed Sunday until the determination was made that the day's weather would not improve and daylight hours became limited at the unlit track.
When the race gets underway, Team Penske teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano will start on the front row, with Keselowski on the pole for the first time in 2016.
"It was a really solid effort for Team Penske to get 1-2," Keselowski said. "That is really hard to do. I can tell you that. We had great speed, obviously."
Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick share the second row on the starting grid.
Kyle Busch and Kurt Busch posted the fastest lap times in the one complete practice session, held Saturday. Kyle Busch turned in the fastest lap, clocked at 50.876 seconds/176.901 mph. He also was among the Sprint Cup drivers who got extra track time on Saturday by competing in the NASCAR Xfinity Series race.
NOTES: Three drivers -- Greg Biffle, Kurt Busch and A.J. Allmendinger -- are without their regular crew chiefs at Pocono Raceway because of rules infractions committed the previous race weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C. ... The Axalta 400 features a new tire compound for Pocono, and the race is the first at the track for the latest low-downforce aerodynamic package. Compounding those unknowns, weather issues throughout the weekend limited practice time. ... Matt Kenseth was the most recent winner at Pocono, winning at the track in August 2015. Martin Truex Jr., who dominated and won last weekend's race at Charlotte, was last year's Axalta 400 winner. ... Kyle Larson won the rain-shortened NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Pocono on Saturday, leading 27 of the 53 completed laps.
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
LONG POND, Pa. -- If you're looking for the next first-time winner in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Chase Elliott just might be your best bet.
The numbers don't lie. The Sunoco Rookie of the Year points leader has recorded nine top-10 finishes in the first 13 races of the 2016 season, matching Jimmie Johnson's 2002 rookie performance in that statistical category.
As Johnson did in his rookie year, Elliott won the pole for the season-opening Daytona 500. And like Johnson, Elliott won a second pole in the first 13 races. The difference? By race 13, Johnson had two victories to his credit.
Driving the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet that was the exclusive province of four-time champion Jeff Gordon for 23 years, Elliott is still looking for his first win, but he feels the team is close to a breakthrough.
"Obviously, there are so many good cars each week," Elliott said during media interviews in advance of Sunday's Axalta "We Paint Winners" 400 (1 p.m. ET on FS1). "It's not easy anywhere you go. As I've said, I feel like I have a team and a group of guys that are capable of winning if I do my part for them. I truly believe that. When I come to the race track each weekend, I really have the strong belief that our team can win. I think that's something that's important for all of us to believe.
"And if we didn't believe that, we might as well stay home. That's the mind-set we have coming into each race weekend, regardless of where it is. And that's our mind-set here (at Pocono Raceway), just as it is everywhere else. We're working hard at it. If I could tell the future, I'd tell you. But, we're going to give it our best effort to do that and if we do, great. If we don't, it sure won't be for a lack of effort."
TRUEX JR. ON TOP OF HIS GAME
Before last week's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Martin Truex Jr.'s 2016 season could have been summed up with a lyric from the blues standard "Born Under a Bad Sign."
"If it wasn't for bad luck, I wouldn't have no luck at all," could well have been Truex's theme for the current campaign.
He lost the Daytona 500 to Denny Hamlin by six inches. He led 141 laps at Texas and finished sixth. He won the pole and led 172 of 267 laps at Kansas, only to have a pit road snafu drop him to 14th at the finish.
But Truex's luck changed at Charlotte, where he turned in one of the most dominating performances in the history of NASCAR racing, leading an event- and track-record 392 laps and a single-race record 588 miles.
All told Truex has led a career-high 809 laps this season—18.8 percent of the 4,303 laps he's completed.
And though Truex is quick to credit his Furniture Row team and the organization's move to a factory-supported role with Toyota, the driver of the No. 78 Camry deserves plenty of credit, too.
"I'd have to give most of the credit to the team," Truex said on Friday at Pocono Raceway, where he is the defending winner of the Axalta "We Paint Winners" 400. "I'm different. I'm doing things different. I feel different. I feel like I'm a better driver than I've ever been, but unless you have a great team and all the things around you it takes to be competitive at this level against these drivers against these teams ... you've got to have it all.
"We just have to stay focused, and I think we know what it takes now. My guys are really, really smart about focusing on the right things, the right areas, giving me the information I need to be a better driver, so just got to keep focused and make sure we're ready when the last 10 races start this year."
Though Truex qualified 17th on Friday, failing to advance to the final round of knockout time trials, he was fourth fastest in race trim during final NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice on Saturday.
The Busch brothers topped the speed chart in Saturday's final practice for the Axalta 400. Kyle Busch posted the fastest lap of the session, covering the 2.5-mile distance in 50.876 seconds (176.901 mph). Kurt Busch was close behind at 176.800 mph. ... Dale Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Greg Ives worked on their car throughout practice but finished the session 17th on the speed chart at 174.795 mph. Pole winner Brad Keselowski was sixth fastest at 175.792 mph.
Long Pond, Pa.
Friday, June 3, 2016
1. (2) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 181.726 mph.
2. (22) Joey Logano, Ford, 181.400 mph.
3. (20) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 181.316 mph.
4. (4) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 181.192 mph.
5. (19) Carl Edwards, Toyota, 180.759 mph.
6. (14) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet, 180.563 mph.
7. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 180.047 mph.
8. (88) Dale Earnhardt Jr, Chevrolet, 179.605 mph.
9. (41) Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 179.472 mph.
10. (11) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 179.451 mph.
11. (5) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 178.941 mph.
12. (18) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 178.827 mph.
13. (24) Chase Elliott #, Chevrolet, 179.444 mph.
14. (21) Ryan Blaney #, Ford, 179.379 mph.
15. (16) Greg Biffle, Ford, 179.151 mph.
16. (43) Aric Almirola, Ford, 178.980 mph.
17. (78) Martin Truex Jr, Toyota, 178.763 mph.
18. (34) Chris Buescher #, Ford, 178.391 mph.
19. (3) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 178.370 mph.
20. (27) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 178.363 mph.
21. (42) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 178.235 mph.
22. (31) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 178.140 mph.
23. (15) Clint Bowyer, Chevrolet, 178.123 mph.
24. (6) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 178.108 mph.
25. (17) Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Ford, 177.267 mph.
26. (1) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 177.207 mph.
27. (83) Matt DiBenedetto, Toyota, 177.204 mph.
28. (95) Ty Dillon(i), Chevrolet, 176.974 mph.
29. (13) Casey Mears, Chevrolet, 176.929 mph.
30. (44) Brian Scott #, Ford, 176.640 mph.
31. (38) Landon Cassill, Ford, 176.450 mph.
32. (47) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 176.298 mph.
33. (10) Danica Patrick, Chevrolet, 175.709 mph.
34. (23) David Ragan, Toyota, 175.466 mph.
35. (7) Regan Smith, Chevrolet, 174.659 mph.
36. (46) Michael Annett, Chevrolet, 173.157 mph.
37. (55) Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, 173.117 mph.
38. (30) Josh Wise, Chevrolet, 169.157 mph.
39. (32) Jeb Burton(i), Ford, 166.664 mph.
40. (98) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 164.087 mph.
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
LONG POND, Pa. -- Going out late in a light rain in the final round of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series knockout qualifying at Pocono Raceway, Brad Keselowski edged Team Penske teammate Joey Logano for the top starting spot in Sunday's Axalta "We Paint Winners" 400 (1 p.m. ET on FS1).
For the second straight week, Logano paced each of the first two rounds but came up barely short on his money lap.
Keselowski toured the 2.5-mile triangular speedway in 49.525 seconds (181.726 mph) to edge Logano (181.400 mph) by .089 seconds. Keselowski won his first Coors Light Pole Award of the season, his first at Pocono and the 12th of his career.
For Keselowski, speed in qualifying typically translates to a strong performance in race trim. The driver of the No. 2 Ford has finished in the top 10 each of the last nine times he has won a Sprint Cup pole. Seven of those finishes were fourth or better, with two victories.
"I don't think of us as a team that is a qualifying-focused team," Keselowski said. "In general, we work on things that pay off in the race and not qualifying. So when we have speed in qualifying, that's usually a sign of how strong we are in race trim.
"Of course, I can't confirm that today, because I didn't get any race trim practice (because of inclement weather). But I would say that's some of our tendency."
Logano knew where he lost the pole position to his teammate—in Turn 1.
"I was trying to get a little bit more in that last round, which we all did," Logano said. "I just hit the track a little bit with the splitter, and it bounced me up the race track about a lane, and I ended up running a lane up all the way through that corner.
"I know that's every bit of a tenth (of a second). I'm sure when I go back on TV or compare laps, the data together with Brad's, I'm sure that's where it all is. I felt like (Turns) 2 and 3 were really good. I felt like we made up something, but I was surprised it was even as fast as it was. That just shows the speed in the car."
Matt Kenseth (181.316 mph) qualified third, followed by Kevin Harvick (181.192 mph) and Carl Edwards (180.759 mph). Tony Stewart will start sixth and Jimmie Johnson seventh.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who advanced to the final round of a non-restrictor-plate knockout qualifying session for the first time this season, claimed the eighth spot on the grid for Sunday’s race.
NOTE: It was a banner day for Team Penske. Not only did the Sprint Cup cars sweep the front row at Pocono, but Penske cars will start 1-2-3 in the first race of an IndyCar doubleheader on Saturday at Belle Isle in Detroit.
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
LONG POND, Pa. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. is used to the questions.
Every time his on-track performance falls off–for whatever reason—everyone, it seems, wants to know why.
The media session on Friday at Pocono was no exception.
After three second-place finishes in the first eight NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races of the season, Earnhardt has failed to crack the top 10 in five subsequent events and has slipped from sixth to 13th in the standings.
Accordingly, it was no surprise a couple of variations of the question, "What's wrong?" came up.
"I've been racing in this series a long time, and I've been asked that question dozens and dozens of times, like, 'Where do you need to improve?' No matter what team I was racing for, no matter what year is was. Even if you knew you wouldn't tell. I mean you can't say, 'Them guys in the body shop, they need to get going.'
"You're not going to throw anybody under the bus. The majority of the time you don't know. The majority of the time, there's no way to really put your finger on the exact area where you're getting beat. You look at a car in the garage area, you look across at the guy that is really running well, and his car doesn't look ... nothing stands out."
Accordingly, it's extremely difficult for one team to spot the source of another team's advantage.
This year, for instance, the Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Toyotas have established-season dominance, leaving their rivals to speculate about the source of their speed.
"You're looking at everything they're doing," Earnhardt said of the competition. "You watch a guy real close all weekend make changes and go through the process of the whole weekend, and nothing really stands out. Their body doesn't look better than my body. Their motor can't be better than my motor.
"It's just a combination of dozens of things, doing everything right, preparing and working hard. Somebody's got to win and somebody's got to lose. You're not always going to be the fastest guy. You just keep coming up to the race track and showing up and trying to find that advantage that no one else has."
Earnhardt hopes that process will start in the Axalta 'We Paint Winners' 400 at Pocono on Sunday (1 p.m. ET on FS1), where the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet has scored eight top 10s in his last 10 starts, including a sweep of both races at the Tricky Triangle in 2014.
"This is a track where I really enjoy racing at and have had some good success here of late," Earnhardt said. "It seems to be a track where we've been pretty consistent each time we show up. And the car felt pretty good in the (rain-shortened) first practice, even though we only got a few laps there.
"But, it was pretty much in the ballpark as far as the balance goes. Hopefully, we'll get some good practice (Saturday) so we can see what the rest of the field has got and kind of understand exactly where we are in comparison to everyone else and go from there."
KESELOWSKI FAVORS AERO CHANGES USED IN ALL-STAR RACE
If it were up to Team Penske driver Brad Keselowski, he wouldn't wait any longer for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series to incorporate the aerodynamic changes used in the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race into the Sprint Cup competition package.
In particular, Keselowski favors removing the "skew" or rear axle offset that is allowed under current rules, but probably won't be permitted in the 2017 configuration.
"I am 100 percent of the belief that the All-Star rules package as it pertains to some of the really technical items that control the skew on the car should immediately be implemented everywhere," Keselowski said on Friday at Pocono Raceway. "I know there are a lot of technical terms in those updates that are may be hard to understand, but I think the basic explanation is that those updates or rules updates are meant to take aerodynamic performance away from the car.
"That's exactly what the skew does. It adds five or 10-percent aero potential in the car and in doing so dramatically increases the wake behind the car when you have more skew -- and taking it out reduces the wake. It is kind of similar between the difference between following a car on the freeway and following a truck. That is the easiest explanation."
Keselowski felt a noticeable difference between the All-Star package, which will be used on a test basis in upcoming Sprint Cup races at Michigan and Kentucky, and the current 2016 configuration, which was used a week later in the Coca-Cola 600.
"The difference I felt between the two races was that the aerodynamic wake that you can't see, because it is air, was smaller and more forgiving in the All-Star race," Keselowski said. "And I think that's why you saw the racing you did in that race and not so much in the 600.
"I think we have a really strong direction. It's great that we were able to run those two races back to back on the same track to get that comparison and hopefully everyone else in the sport can agree on that. ... I'm a big-time supporter of continuing to take the aerodynamics away from the car to increase the ability to pass in the race."
JEB BURTON HAPPY FOR SPRINT CUP OPPORTUNITY
In the wake of sponsorship issues that have curtailed his NASCAR XFINITY Series appearances for Richard Petty Motorsports, Jeb Burton is happy for a one-race opportunity to help establish a baseline for the No. 32 GoFas Racing Ford, which has been driven this year by Jeffrey Earnhardt.
Beyond this weekend at Pocono, however, future rides for Burton are uncertain.
"Getting back over here on the Cup side will be fun," Burton said on Friday at Pocono. "I thank GoFas Racing for giving me the opportunity to come out here and try to improve their program a little bit.
"Right now, this is all I'm going to do. I'll run here, and I'm not sure what the rest of the season holds for me."
The driver is still as popular as ever, but that creates a lot of fan backlash when the team, directed by crew chief Greg Ives, hits the skids.
For now, Ives' job at Hendrick Motorsports appears to be safe, despite the recent outcry from Earnhardt Nation. Given Ives' record, it would be a shame to let fans call the shots at this point in the season. Looking back, Jimmie Johnson and Crew Chief Chad Knaus were at odds early in their careers before going on to win six Sprint Cup championships for Hendrick Motorsports.
For now, NASCAR's most popular driver has hit a rough patch that has included a garden variety of setbacks on the track. Then Earnhardt Jr. singled out a lack of speed prior to the All-Star Race in Charlotte, citing the need for better communication with Ives prior to races and during races.
He finished third in the All-Star race, then fell to next-to-last on the lead lap in the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte on Sunday. But Earnhardt, Jr.'s post-race comments indicated that he and his crew chief are working overtime on the issue of communication. The driver said his car had the speed versus others during the early portions of the marathon race. The effort, he said, was sundered by the track's narrow groove at night that took away the driver's preferred high line and by the bad luck of getting caught on pit road when a debris flag waved.
"The car didn't show the gains we all wanted to see," he said on his Dirty Mo Racing podcast, "but there's some gains and I am confident we're heading in the right direction."
The Coca-Cola 600 effort did not start well. Once again, the No. 88 Chevy was behind on speed in the opening session. "We weren't good when we unloaded and we never really got better, not good enough to make the next round (of qualifying) I guess," said Earnhardt, Jr. "Qualifying has been rough on us all year and we showed up pretty far off. Just real hard to get it dialed in there."
After qualifying 25th, Ives spent the evening at Earnhardt, Jr.'s house and stayed until midnight to work on better communication with his driver. That was one of the changes that the driver wanted to see. "Me and Greg have re-confirmed our commitment to each other," said Earnhardt, Jr. adding that they "are doing what we need to do to get better."
Hanging in the balance is a return to the Chase. During the five-race rough patch that started at Richmond, Earnhardt, Jr. has not been a contender to win – even at the Talladega Superspeedway – and has fallen from fourth in the points to 13th. With 13 races remaining, he's in the territory where anything can happen to those trying to fill the final positions of the 16-driver postseason on points.
Compared to his rookie teammate Chase Elliott, Earnhardt Jr. – who has scored three second-place finishes this year in Atlanta, Texas and Bristol – has fewer Top 10 finishes. Elliott has eight and Earnhardt, Jr. five. Teammate Jimmie Johnson has led seven of the 13 races en route to two victories. Elliott has led in four races and Earnhardt, Jr. has led in just two races for a total of 49 laps.
Team owner Rick Hendrick has changed Earnhardt Jr.'s crew chief in mid-season previously, but Ives' record with the team makes that seem unlikely. Ives has been nothing but a winner since first joining Hendrick Motorsports as a mechanic on the cars of Jeff Gordon. He was the engineer on the cars of Johnson during his streak of five straight championships in 2006 through 2010. In his debut season as a crew chief for the JR Motorsports team, he guided Regan Smith to two victories and the team was third in the Xfinity Series championship. When Elliott won the Xfinity title as a rookie with three victories in 2014, it was Ives calling the shots on the war wagon.
Last year, Ives led Earnhardt, Jr.'s squad to three victories and narrowly missed advancing to he semi-final round in the Chase during the crazy finish at Talladega.
The garden variety of problems this year include Earnhardt Jr.'s strange spin in the draft at Talladega – followed by a second accident where he was taken out by another driver's error. In Kansas, a loose lug nut cost the team track position at the end of the race and what might have been a Top 10 finish. Earnhardt, Jr. was involved in another accident at Dover. He finished third in the All-Star Race, but when the team unloaded for the 600 five days later, the speed was off.
Previously, Earnhardt, Jr. felt that if the team fell behind it could always salvage a Top 10. But the recent dominance of Martin Truex, Jr. at Charlotte, he said, shows the Hendrick teams are behind. "Whenever someone kind of finds a couple tenths on the field or an advantage that no one else has, such as (Truex, Jr.) or the way the (Joe) Gibbs (Racing) cars have run since the beginning of the year, I'm confident that Hendrick Motorsports has enough guys to science it out and understand where their speed is," he said during a tire test this week at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
"The good thing about it is, in the garage secrets don't last for long because it's such a small area and everybody is working on top of each other," he continued. "When you figure out someone's idea, you have enough smart people to take that idea and make it your own and improve it. If you look at the season when Brad Keselowski won the championship, Hendrick cars were dominating the whole year. We had an advantage on the competition all the way up to the Chase. Brad and those guys figured out some of the things we had going on, they took it in-house and they beat us. I think the same thing kind of happened with the Gibbs cars last year."
It's not as if Ives isn't pushing the envelope and trying to incorporate new developments on the No. 88 Chevys. The team has failed inspection at four races this season and lost its pit stall selection prior to the 600, which is the standard penalty after four warnings from NASCAR.
Earnhardt, Jr., said he's looking forward to this summer's racing, particularly at the tracks he likes upcoming on the schedule – the Pocono International Raceway on Sunday and the Michigan International Speedway the following week.
But there's no doubt the pressure is on for him and his crew chief if they expect to make the Chase a second straight year together.
TV: Sunday, June 5, 1 pm ET – Fox Sports 1 (Radio: Motor Racing Network/SiriusXM Channel 90).
THEN AND NOW: This will be the 77th Sprint Cup race to be held at the so-called "Tricky Triangle," a 2.5-mile tri-oval. Martin Truex Jr., who won Sunday night's Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, is the defending winner of Sunday's race at Pocono. Matt Kenseth won last summer's race there, as well. … Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has yet to reach Victory Lane this season, has high hopes for Pocono. He won both races there in 2014. … Kevin Harvick continues to lead the Sprint Cup point standings with 457 points. Kurt Busch is second (421), followed by Jimmie Johnson (409), Kyle Busch (405), Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski (both with 404 points each), Martin Truex Jr. (381), Chase Elliott (374), Joey Logano (373) and Matt Kenseth (347).
NASCAR XFINITY SERIES: POCONO GREEN 250 (100 laps, 250 miles), Pocono Raceway; Long Pond, Pennsylvania.
TV: Saturday, June 4, 1 pm ET – Fox (Radio: Motor Racing Network/SiriusXM Channel 90).
THEN AND NOW: Saturday will mark the first time the Xfinity Series has ever raced on the "Tricky Triangle" at Pocono. … News on Wednesday broke that Richard Petty Motorsports has suspended its Xfinity Series program, effective immediately, due to sponsorship payment issues. However the team said it will attempt to find additional funding to eventually bring the car back on-track. In the meantime, driver Jeb Burton, son of former NASCAR driver Ward Burton, will compete in Sunday's Sprint Cup race for GoFas Racing, in partnership with RPM. In 11 Xfinity starts this season, Burton had just one top-10 finish, a 10th place showing at Atlanta. He also was 11th this past weekend at Charlotte, his second-best finish. All told, Burton had one top-10 and eight other top-20 finishes. … Denny Hamlin roared from behind to win last weekend’s Hisense 4K TV 300 at Charlotte. … Winners of the first 11 Xfinity Series races this season have been Chase Elliott (Daytona), Kyle Busch (Atlanta, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Texas), Austin Dillon (Fontana), Erik Jones (Bristol and Dover), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Richmond), Elliott Sadler (Talladega) and Hamlin (Charlotte). … Daniel Suarez (376 points) regained the standings lead in the Xfinity Series at Charlotte. Elliott Sadler (362) dropped from first to second, followed by Justin Allgaier (353), Ty Dillon (352), Brendan Gaughan (336), Brandon Jones (324), Erik Jones (320), Brennan Poole (314), Darrell Wallace Jr. (283) and Ryan Reed (266).
NASCAR CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: The series is off until Friday, June 10 (Rattlesnake 400 at Texas Motor Speedway).
THEN AND NOW: Two-time Truck Series champion Matt Crafton won his second race in a row, following up his win at Dover three weeks ago with another triumph in the most recent Truck race, nearly two weeks ago, at Charlotte. … Winners thus far this season have been Johnny Sauter (Daytona), John Hunter Nemechek (Atlanta), Kyle Busch (Martinsville), William Byron (Kansas) and Crafton (Dover, Charlotte). … With the Charlotte win, Crafton moved into sole possession of first place in the Camping World Truck Series. He has gained six places in the last two races, both wins for the veteran driver. Crafton has 161 points, followed by Timothy Peters (149), Daniel Hemric (144), Spencer Gallagher (139), William Byron (135), Ryan Truex (129), John Hunter Nemechek (127), Tyler Reddick (125), Christopher Bell (124) and Johnny Sauter (120).
VERIZON INDYCAR SERIES: CHEVROLET DUAL IN DETROIT, The Raceway at Belle Isle; Detroit, Michigan.
TV: Chevrolet Dual Race 1 -- Saturday, June 4, 3:30 pm ET, ABC; Chevrolet Dual Race 2 – Sunday, June 5, 3:30 pm ET, ABC.
THEN AND NOW: This weekend marks the 20th and 21st time Belle Isle has hosted open-wheel racing, first with the former CART/Champ Car Series, and more recently, the last nine races in the Verizon IndyCar Series. … Carlos Munoz earned his first career IndyCar victory in last year's first Dual at Belle Isle. The following day, Sebastien Bourdais won the second Dual race. … Alexander Rossi was a surprise winner in Sunday's milestone 100th running of the Indianapolis 500. It not only was Rossi's first career IndyCar win, it was also just the sixth start for the rookie in the series. … Simon Pagenaud saw his three-race win streak end at Indianapolis, finishing 19th. It was Pagenaud's worst finish of the season after finishing first (three races) or second (two other races) in the first five races of the season. … This year's winners thus far are: Juan Pablo Montoya (St. Petersburg), Scott Dixon (Phoenix), Pagenaud (Long Beach, Birmingham and Grand Prix of Indianapolis) and Rossi (Indy 500). … Montoya became only the third driver in Indy 500 history to win the previous year and then finished last in the subsequent race. Montoya crashed about one-third of the way through Sunday's race and plummeted in the standings from third to 10th place. … Even with his finish at Indy, Pagenaud (292 points) remains in the lead in the Verizon IndyCar Series points standings. Defending series champion Scott Dixon is second (235), followed by Helio Castroneves (224), Josef Newgarden (211), Indy 500 pole sitter James Hinchcliffe (205), Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi (203), Carlos Munoz (199), Tony Kanaan (192), Charlie Kimball (189) and Montoya (187).
NATIONAL HOT ROD ASSOCIATION MELLO YELLO DRAG RACING SERIES: NHRA NEW ENGLAND NATIONALS, New England Dragway; Epping, New Hampshire.
TV: Live qualifying, Saturday, June 4, 2:30-3:30 pm ET, Fox Sports 1; Final eliminations, Sunday, June 5, 4-7 pm ET, Fox Sports 1.
THEN AND NOW: After having last weekend off, the NHRA national event tour resumes this weekend in New Hampshire. … Tony Schumacher (Top Fuel), John Force (Funny Car) and Greg Anderson (Pro Stock) are the defending race winners at New England. … After it was feared she had Stage 2 lung cancer that would require removal of her right lung, legendary three-time Top Fuel champion Shirley Muldowney underwent surgery last Wednesday only to find that she had just an infected tumor on her lung, but not cancer. As a result, surgeons only removed the tumor and not the entire lung. Muldowney is back home recovering and hopes to make her first public appearance at the NHRA national event in Denver in July (22-24). … In the NHRA point standings, Doug Kalitta leads Top Fuel (710 points), followed by defending series champ Antron Brown (615), Brittany Force (580), Steve Torrence (557) and Clay Millican (440). … In Funny Car, Courtney Force remains No. 1 (601 points), followed by Jack Beckman (589), Tim Wilkerson (554), Matt Hagan (511) and Robert Hight (510). Defending Funny Car champ Del Worsham remains in seventh place (485), while 16-time Funny Car champ John Force dropped from seventh to ninth (448). … In Pro Stock, Jason Line continues to lead the standings (942 points), followed by teammate Greg Anderson (816), Bo Butner (614), Allen Johnson (465) an Drew Skillman (465). Defending two-time series champ Erica Enders (341) climbed from ninth to eighth place, but is now 601 points behind Line. … In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Eddie Krawiec leads the standings with 353 points, followed by defending series champ Andrew Hines (233), Hector Arana (207), Jerry Savoie (204) and Chip Ellis (193).
That was the conclusion from America's biggest day of racing on Sunday, when the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 were staged back-to-back in Indianapolis and Charlotte.
The 100th running of the Indy 500 drew well over 300,000 fans after the Indianapolis Motor Speedway cut off ticket sales to its vast infield and declared the event a sellout. The race itself saw 54 lead changes and a stunning, suspenseful finish won by rookie Alexander Rossi, America's next great hope in open-wheel racing.
In Charlotte, where attendance topped 100,000, there couldn't have been a worse time to stage one of NASCAR's most boring races ever -- unless you were a Martin Truex Jr. fan. The driver for Furniture Row Racing led 588 of the 600 miles. Jimmie Johnson grabbed the lead for all of 100 feet once at the start/finish line to get the only pass of Truex under green that didn't involve pit stops.
It will be interesting to see how TV ratings work out. Even though Charlotte has the better time slot of an evening event, Indy could well come out on top. Whether that means the Indy Racing League can begin to compete with NASCAR for the role of America's preferred racing series is another open question mark.
But there's no doubt the feud that took place between Indy car team owners and the owners of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is finally over for fans. It was the split between CART and the Indy Racing League that enabled NASCAR to steal a march on open-wheel racing for the last 20 years.
The sellout at Indy was the first capacity crowd since the 1996 race at the privately owned track where permanent seating is estimated at 260,000. That was the last race before Speedway co-owner Tony George launched the IRL, setting off a feud that lasted 10 years with Indy car team owners and twice that long with fans of the Indy 500.
For Truex, who missed winning the Daytona 500 by scant inches, the long wait to win a major race is over. After losing last year's Charlotte marathon to Carl Edwards in the closing stages on fuel mileage, Truex won for the first time this year absent any surprise at the finish.
"For a guy like me to win a race like this is a big deal," he said Sunday night.
It was also the first victory for Furniture Row Racing since switching from Chevrolet to Toyota and becoming an affiliated team with Joe Gibbs Racing. Including the near miss at Daytona, coming into Charlotte the Furniture Row team sustained its theme of close but no trophy. Truex had led 417 laps prior to the race before adding 392 to that total.
Were there times when he thought about his past record of missing the checkers?
"There were a few moments towards the end of the race where I was thinking, 'Please, I don't want a caution,'" Truex said. "But you're not really saying, 'What the hell is going to happen this time?' You're trying to stay positive and stay focused and do the things you need to do. But the last couple of laps is a little bit more difficult when you're getting close and you just want to see that white flag. And you kind of have a finger or two crossed on the steering wheel there trying to get to the end."
Near the conclusion of his post-race interview, the driver apologized briefly for stinking up the show. But it was clear that Truex, crew chief Cole Pearn and team owner Barney Visser enjoyed putting on a butt-whipping and turning the other teams into also-rans. Chevy driver Kevin Harvick finished second after overtaking Johnson, but didn't even get close to the rear bumper of the Toyota.
The only threat to Truex were Ryan Newman and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Each of them put up aggressive resistance to being lapped, the only thing enabling Harvick and Johnson to draw closer.
The full-bearded Visser, a low-key mountain-man type, is clearly his own man in a garage full of clean shaven team owners. But following criticism for switching from Chevy after initially building his team around the Detroit brand, he was clearly glad to see that first victory for the Japanese company.
"It was the most excited I've ever seen him," Truex said. "I'm pretty sure he even hugged me."
"You know, it's been kind of a steady progress," Visser said of his team's development.
Visser has now won with three drivers, including Regan Smith and Kurt Busch, and recorded victories in two of NASCAR's classic events, including the Southern 500 at Darlington.
"We started pretty much with nothing and now we're able to gradually attract drivers that could get up front and win," Visser said. "Kurt was big for us. He showed that our equipment was pretty good. And Martin obviously stepped in, and I think he's proven to the whole world now who he is. He's led a lot of laps this year. It's just been steady progress for us."
Visser, a relatively tough taskmaster, insists on the team's location in Denver near his business headquarters and far from NASCAR's Charlotte hub. After the Saturday night Sprint All-Star Race was delayed by rain, Pearn and his crew had only a day and a half to return to the shops and prepare for the Coca-Cola 600, where qualifying ran on Thursday.
The Furniture Row shops are located in a nondescript industrial park not far from downtown Denver just off of Interstate 70. Hundreds of thousands drive by daily without ever knowing the shop is there. The team once asked Visser about putting up a sign. He replied, "Would that make the car go any faster?"
By elevating Pearn to the role of crew chief last year from his job as an engineer and hiring Truex, Visser and his team general manager Joe Garone found the final two pieces of the puzzle to create a squad that is a race contender on a regular basis. Visser's deal with Toyota and Gibbs may be the missing pieces of the puzzle to a championship season after last year's fourth-place finish.
"We want to do better this year," Truex said. "Leading laps is great, but we need to keep winning some more and hopefully put ourselves in position to go for a title."
Sunday's race certainly looked like a championship-winning performance.
Charlotte Motor Speedway
Concord, North Carolina
Sunday, May 29, 2016
1. (1) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, 400.
2. (8) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 400.
3. (7) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 400.
4. (4) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 400.
5. (5) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 400.
6. (13) Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 400.
7. (27) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 400.
8. (12) Chase Elliott #, Chevrolet, 400.
9. (2) Joey Logano, Ford, 400.
10. (14) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 400.
11. (6) Greg Biffle, Ford, 400.
12. (28) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 400.
13. (24) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 400.
14. (25) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 400.
15. (3) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, 400.
16. (15) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 399.
17. (11) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 399.
18. (9) Carl Edwards, Toyota, 399.
19. (23) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 399.
20. (18) * Ryan Blaney #, Ford, 397.
21. (19) Danica Patrick, Chevrolet, 396.
22. (29) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 395.
23. (26) Clint Bowyer, Chevrolet, 395.
24. (21) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet, 395.
25. (10) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 395.
26. (20) Aric Almirola, Ford, 395.
27. (33) Landon Cassill, Ford, 395.
28. (31) Regan Smith, Chevrolet, 395.
29. (30) Brian Scott #, Ford, 394.
30. (17) Casey Mears, Chevrolet, 394.
31. (35) David Ragan, Toyota, 393.
32. (34) Matt DiBenedetto, Toyota, 393.
33. (16) Kyle Busch, Toyota, Accident, 392.
34. (32) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 391.
35. (36) * Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, 391.
36. (38) Michael Annett, Chevrolet, 390.
37. (22) Chris Buescher #, Ford, 388.
38. (37) * Josh Wise, Chevrolet, 387.
39. (39) Jeffrey Earnhardt #, Ford, 382.
40. (40) * Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, Clutch, 200.
Average Speed of Race Winner: 160.655 mph.
Time of Race: 3 Hrs, 44 Mins, 05 Secs. Margin of Victory: 2.572 Seconds.
Caution Flags: 4 for 19 laps.
Lead Changes: 9 among 4 drivers.
Lap Leaders: M. Truex Jr. 1-77; J. Johnson 78-79; M. Truex Jr. 80-164; J. Johnson 165; J. Logano 166; M. Truex Jr. 167-298; P. Menard 299-300; M. Truex Jr. 301-343; J. Johnson 344-345; M. Truex Jr. 346-400.
Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): M. Truex Jr. 5 times for 392 laps; J. Johnson 3 times for 5 laps; P. Menard 1 time for 2 laps; J. Logano 1 time for 1 lap.
Top 16 in Points: K. Harvick -- 457; Kurt Busch -- 421; J. Johnson -- 409; Kyle Busch -- 405; C. Edwards -- 404; B. Keselowski -- 404; M. Truex Jr. -- 381; C. Elliott # -- 374; J. Logano -- 373; M. Kenseth -- 347; D. Hamlin -- 345; A. Dillon -- 344; D. Earnhardt Jr. -- 341; J. Mcmurray -- 318; *. Blaney # -- 309; R. Newman -- 309.
Jimmie Johnson was second and Joey Logano third.
After starting on the pole, Truex dominated throughout the first half of the race. The only four laps he didn't lead came during green-flag cycles of pit stops, first just before lap 80 and again on lap 165. His 77 laps led before pitting under green on lap 78 set a record for most laps led by a single driver to start the Coca-Cola 600.
Truex had a lead of more than five seconds over Johnson before the green cycle began, but with stops completed, his lead dwindled to just over 2 1/2 seconds over new second-place runner Denny Hamlin because of a stop of over 16 seconds resulting from an issue with a left-side tire change.
When the yellow flag waved on lap 114, everyone headed for pit road again. That time around, pitting wasn't a problem for Truex. Instead, he had trouble on the restart. Johnson, who had retaken second by that point, got a nose out in front of Truex, but Truex quickly recovered to maintain his lead.
Johnson started the race from the seventh position, highest of any Chevrolet driver. After Logano and Hamlin battled for second in the opening laps, Johnson got up to third by lap 17. By lap 68, he was up to second.
Johnson lost second to Logano during the second cycle of green-flag stops, but on lap 190, he retook the position.
NOTES: Denny Hamlin won the Hisense 300 NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Saturday after leading 76 of the 206 laps. Fellow Sprint Cup Series drivers Austin Dillon and Joey Logano finished second and third, respectively. ... Logano won the Sprint All-Star Race, also at Charlotte, on May 21. Logano also won the most recent points-paying Sprint Cup race at CMS last October. ... Carl Edwards won the 2015 Coca-Cola 600. ... Jimmie Johnson is a four-time Coca-Cola 600 winner, most of any active driver. In all, he has seven wins at CMS. ... Charlotte Motor Speedway is one of two tracks on the schedule where reigning Sprint Cup champion Kyle Busch is winless. The other is Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pa.