Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Phoenix Raceway Reverts Back to Roots

This year is shaping up to be massive for the raceway that resides in the Valley of the Sun. In addition to being the new host of NASCAR’s Championship Weekend, president Julie Giese announced the track formerly known as ISM Raceway will be returning to it’s roots and be re-named Phoenix Raceway.

This news should come as a surprise, because when the Arizona-based track underwent it’s $178 million renovations, a multi-year deal was made with ISM Connect for the naming rights beginning in 2018. While specifics on the change back have not been revealed, Giese assured race fans this would in no way effect the vast amenities that are offered throughout the infield and around the track.

Overall, this is a great decision by Giese to re-brand the iconic West Coast track. ISM Raceway was the one of two tracks (the other being Auto Club Speedway) on the NASCAR Cup Series circuit that had a title sponsor for the track instead of it’s geographical location.

While this isn’t a huge deal to not have a title sponsor for the track, it will certainly help viewers at home (specifically, the ones watching the season finale at home with little or no NASCAR knowledge) realize that the action taking place on television is in Arizona. There’s no mistaking the unique LED cactus flag stand and the gorgeous desert backdrop surrounding the track, but in sports branding, identity is everything. This is a great marketing strategy that should expose Arizona-natives and those out of state to Phoenix Raceway.

Since the 1-mile speedway hosted it’s first NASCAR event in 1978 as Phoenix International Raceway, the track has undergone three different track titles (Jeff Gordon Raceway, ISM Raceway) – let’s hope Phoenix Raceway is here to stay.

EMAIL COLE AT: colecusumano88@gmail.com

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management to other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered and endorsement.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series Power Rankings

POWER RANKINGS: Auto Club 400

Power_Rankings_logo1

1. Kyle Larson (—)

Larson’s weekend sweep at Auto Club Speedway after three consecutive runner-ups in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series proved he’s the sport’s hottest driver. The Chip Ganassi Racing wheelman leads the points standings five races into the season.

2. Brad Keselowski (—)

Early trouble in Fontana wouldn’t keep Keselowski at bay on Sunday. After spinning through the frontstretch grass on Lap 4 and suffering damage to his No. 2 Ford, he rallied for a second-place result.

3. Martin Truex Jr. (+2)

Truex led 73 laps at the two-mile oval but finished fourth after not pitting late in the race. Still, the No. 78 team showed speed, with a Stage 2 victory.

4. Chase Elliott (-1)

The 21-year-old finished third in the first two stages but ended up 10th after 200 laps due to an ill-timed caution fumbling crew chief Alan Gustafson’s strategy. It won’t be long before Elliott finally visits Victory Lane, though — he’s in contention each week.

5. Joey Logano (-1)

Logano finished fifth, which is also his position in the standings. It’s only fitting the No. 22 driver is there for this week’s power rankings.

6. Kyle Busch (+1)

“Rowdy’s” eighth-place finish marked his second consecutive top-10 finish.

7. Ryan Blaney (+1)

The Wood Brothers Racing driver earned his third top-10 of 2017 by finishing ninth after starting 19th in Southern California.

8. Kevin Harvick (-2)

When the field stacked up on the start of Sunday’s event, Harvick got the worst of it. His No. 4 Ford suffered nose damage and cut a tire in Stage 1, forcing him to pit under green. He wound up 13th and was never a factor — a rarity for the 2014 series champion.

9. Jamie McMurray (+2)

The driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet continues to ride in the shadow of his CGR teammate, but McMurray earned 12 stage points and finished sixth.

10. Clint Bowyer (Not ranked last week)

Stewart-Haas Racing’s newest driver is “having fun again.” He finished third, marking his first top-five since August 2015.

11. Erik Jones (+4)

The Furniture Row Racing rookie posted his first career top-10 in Phoenix two weeks ago and finished 12th last weekend after a pit road penalty. He sits 15th in the standings, four spots above the next highest rookie, Daniel Suarez.

12. Denny Hamlin (+2)

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver said he had a “fifth or sixth-place” car at best but was shuffled back to 14th after electing to stay out on old tires for track position with nine laps to go.      

13. Ryan Newman (-4)

After his upset victory in Phoenix, Newman came back to reality. He finished 15th in Fontana, but the win locked him into the playoffs, which he failed to make last season.

14. Jimmie Johnson (-4)

It has not been an ideal start to 2017 for the seven-time champion. Johnson has one top-10 and has finished outside the top-15 three times.

15. Daniel Suarez (Not ranked last week)

Auto Club was essentially a repeat of Phoenix for the JGR rookie. The No. 19 Toyota was a top-15 car most of the race, yet ended up seventh when the checkered flag waved.

16. Kurt Busch (-3)

The West Coast swing was not good for this year’s Daytona 500 champion. Busch finished 30th in Las Vegas, 25th in Phoenix, and 24th in Fontana.

Dropping out of the top-16 rankings this week: Kasey Kahne (was 12th) and Matt Kenseth (was 15th).

EMAIL JOHN AT john.haverlin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @The5thJohnHav

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or staff. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Truex Watches Victory Slip Away due to Strategy Miscues

FONTANA, Calif. — Climbing from his Furniture Row Racing Toyota, Martin Truex Jr. was frustrated. It’s a feeling he knows having seen many races slip away.

On Sunday after leading 73 laps, the New Jersey native finished fourth in the Auto Club 400.

“We were right there all day long. I felt like [Kyle Larson, race winner] had everybody covered. It was just a matter of who got out front and got clean air,” Truex said. “Towards the end, we had a little trouble in the pits. We didn’t take tires, everybody else did, and we were at a big disadvantage those last couple restarts.”

Since 2015, the driver of the No. 78 has earned six of his eight career wins in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, including this year’s event at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. But he’s become notorious for dominating and not finishing the job.

In 2016, Truex led the most laps all season and 425 more than Kevin Harvick, but both had four victories. The year before, he led 567 laps (ranked seventh) but had only one win.

Sunday’s race, it seemed he had a dominant car, but came up short.

“We had a big disadvantage at the end, playing defense more than offense. We played offense all day, and I was able to run first or second most of the day,” Truex said. “At the end of the day, we had a disadvantage on tires, and that’s just the way it goes sometimes. Sometimes you make the call, and it’s right, and sometimes your call is wrong. We made the wrong one today, but to come home with a fourth after all that, definitely a good day for us.”

Truex is fourth in the points standings, and with a win, he’s all but locked into the postseason. He also won Stage 2 of the race, giving him a playoff point.

The next stop on the Cup Series schedule is Martinsville, where he started first last November and finished seventh after leading 147 laps.

EMAIL JOHN AT john.haverlin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @The5thJohnHav

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or staff. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

BOWYER: “We’re Getting Closer”

FONTANA, Calif. — Clint Bowyer earned his first top five in more than a year and a half with a third-place finish at Auto Club Speedway on Sunday.

Bowyer, 37, last had a top five at Bristol Motor Speedway in August 2015 with Michael Waltrip Racing. After the team had shut down, he signed a one-year deal with HScott Motorsports for 2016, which, like MWR, no longer competes in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, and had only three top 10s all year.

But now with Stewart-Haas Racing in team co-owner Tony Stewart’s former ride, he is resurrecting his career and has finished in the top 15 four times in the first five races of 2017.

“Having this crew behind you, this organization, the teamwork, it’s amazing just to be a part of it and part of my career,” Bowyer said. “Thank you to Gene Haas and Tony Stewart for giving me this opportunity. It means a lot to work with this team and have a lot of fun with [Mike Bugarewicz, crew chief] and all these guys.”

He also added his finish in the Auto Club 400 was a “momentum builder.” He was essentially the only SHR driver to have a good day as none of his teammates finished in the top 10.

“Obviously, we’re getting closer,” he added. “This is a good track for me. I wanted to win that damn thing, but to come home with a wild finish and everything that it was, we’ll take it.”

Bowyer earned 12 Stage points in the race and now sits 11th in the playoff standings. He’s failed to make NASCAR’s postseason twice since his runner-up finish in the 2012 championship with MWR.

The season is still young, but he’s smiling as much as ever and rightfully so — he’s with a team that won the Cup title in 2011 with Stewart behind the wheel.

EMAIL JOHN AT john.haverlin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @The5thJohnHav

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or staff. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Keselowski, Hamlin Have “Up-and-Down” Race After Shaky Start

FONTANA, Calif. — As 39 cars took the green flag for the Auto Club 400 on Sunday, things were immediately off to a shaky start.

Denny Hamlin, who started on the front row, didn’t get through the gears quickly enough and caused an accordion effect on the front of the field. Brad Keselowski got into Hamlin’s No. 11, with last week’s winner Ryan Newman and Kevin Harvick also getting a piece.

Keselowski’s problems continued on Lap 4 as he made contact with Jimmie Johnson coming out of Turn 4. As a result, he suffered a flat left rear tire after sliding through the frontstretch grass to bring out the first caution.

“I got hit there at the start, and then I got hit again,” Keselowski said. “The car was all torn up, and the guys worked to fix it. We were only able to partially fix it with the yellows at the start, and when they finally got it as much repaired as we could, we were a lot more competitive and just slowly picked our way through the field.”

The driver of the No. 2 driver rebounded for a second-place finish as late-race cautions, and diverse strategies played into his favor.

“Up and down day for sure — a lot of adversity,” he said. “But we were able to overcome that, and I think that’s what great teams do.”

Hamlin’s day finished as poorly as it began. On the final pit stop, the team chose track position over tires. That decision would yield a disappointing 14th place finish.

“Just a fifth or sixth-place car at best on the long runs. On the short runs, we struggled a little bit,” Hamlin said. As for the race’s start, he added, “[Keselowski] just got to the inside of me, he didn’t really get into the back of me. So really, I’ve got nothing there.”

Keselowski, with one victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway, sits third in the playoff standings. Hamlin led his first laps of 2017 and is 12th in the standings.

EMAIL JOHN AT john.haverlin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @The5thJohnHav

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or staff. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
XFINITY

Byron Earns Second Consecutive Top Five

FONTANA, Calif. — William Byron made contact with the outside wall of Auto Club Speedway a few times with his No. 9 Chevrolet, but still posted a fifth-place result — the best among NASCAR XFINITY Series regulars.

The JR Motorsports rookie has scored four top 10s in the first five races of 2017. After an engine failure at Phoenix International Raceway dashed his Camping World Truck Series title hopes last November, the 19-year-old driver has shot out of the gate without any sign of slowing down.

He won the pole at Phoenix last week and earned his first career XFINITY top five at the desert oval (finished fourth). In Saturday’s Service King 300, he made his Auto Club debut and said it was “a blast” to race on the 20-year racing surface.

“I’ve never been here. It’s pretty cool. You have a lot of options … you can run the apron in [Turns] 3 and 4, and there are three or four grooves in 1 and 2 as well,” Byron said. “It makes it a lot of fun for drivers and makes the hard work pay off in the race.”

He sits second in the standings, sandwiched between JRM teammates Elliott Sadler and Justin Allgaier, who visited Victory Lane at Phoenix. Sadler leads Byron by 17 points.

As a Truck Series rookie, Byron set a record by winning seven races with Kyle Busch Motorsports. This year, he’s facing tougher competition with Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regulars racing in the XFINITY Series, but like many other series regulars, he embraces the challenge.

“It helps a lot because you can’t just make mistakes you could if you were just facing the regulars,” Byron said. “It’s not that we wouldn’t all be racing really hard, it’s just that Cup guys are on it every lap.

“It’s about getting good restarts and making sure you do all things right and don’t make any mistakes.”

The next track on the schedule is the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway, which was where Byron notched his second truck win last year. In the two previous 1.5-mile XFINITY races (Atlanta and Las Vegas), he finished seventh and 14th, respectively.

EMAIL JOHN AT john.haverlin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @The5thJohnHav

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or staff. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
XFINITY

Mears on 2017 Debut: “It Was Fun Being Back”

FONTANA, Calif. — Casey Mears made his first start of the 2017 NASCAR season on Saturday at Auto Club Speedway, finishing 14th in the Service King 300.

Mears, running a 12-race schedule for Biagi-DenBeste Racing in the XFINITY Series, started 19th and immediately caught the attention of the broadcast booth, as he jumped eight positions in the first 10 laps of Stage 1.

Did four months out of the racecar amp the Bakersfield, California native up enough to navigate through the field as quick as he did?

“I don’t know,” Mears told POPULAR SPEED. “Maybe everyone was just not ready to go, and I was? It was weird … I just kind of shot all the way up through there.”

He lost a few positions as the opening stage winded down, but his No. 98 Geico Military Ford was flirting in the top 15 virtually the entire race.

“I just did what I normally do on restarts, and I just happened to go by everybody,” Mears said. “But we were too tight also. That’s probably why guys were loose to start, and we shot up through … then we lost some positions towards the end of that run.”

The 300-mile event marked his first XFINITY start in seven years. His last race in the series came at Phoenix International Raceway in April 2010, where he finished 31st for Braun Racing.

He also gave the No. 98, which is usually driven by Aric Almirola, its best finish of the season after the team sat out last week’s race at Phoenix.

Mears ran full-time in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series with Germain Racing from August 2010 through 2016 but was replaced by Ty Dillon, who is competing for Rookie of the Year honors in the No. 13 Chevrolet.

“It was fun being back. We struggled a little in practice and got a little behind,” Mears said. “But in the race, just about halfway through, we started to get it really close, and the car got a lot better.”

His next start for Biagi-DenBeste will be at Texas Motor Speedway in two weeks, and Geico will continue to support him in his 11 remaining races.

EMAIL JOHN AT john.haverlin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @The5thJohnHav

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or staff. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
Commentary

RAPID REACTION: Auto Club Speedway

Once upon a time, Auto Club Speedway was on the “snoozer” list of NASCAR races.

It used to be all about track position and clean air. Not anymore.

Low downforce, low grip and big momentum told the story today. Teams lobbied for a package that would make the drivers drive the cars. Today was another showcase that it’s working.

Risk vs. Reward

Beginning with the 2015 season, NASCAR no longer mandated minimum front left and right tire pressures. While Goodyear still offers their recommendations, the teams are free to make their own determinations — and it’s usually track-specific

Low pressures allow more of the tire to adhere to the track and enhance the grip, but lessens the durability — that’s the price. The Busch brothers, Kyle Larson and Kasey Kahne were amongst those paid it today.

Kenseth’s Kalamities Kontine

It’s been rough start to the 2016 season for the 2003 Champion.

The “Silent Assassin” came up two corners short of winning the Daytona 500 and the stars haven’t aligned since. Historically, Auto Club Speedway has been good to Kenseth, who started 20th and showed up third at the halfway mark.

But an unscheduled pit stop and two pit road penalties squashed any chance of making today a rebound race with a 19th place finish. He’s probably looking forward to a week off before he heads to Martinsville where…. never mind.

Can You Hear Me Now?

Denny Hamlin kicked off 2016 as the Daytona 500 Champion, followed by two mediocre races and a third-place finish last week in Phoenix. Radio issues, a pit road penalty and a lot of beating and banging could have easily derailed his efforts, but they persevered to grab another top-three. And he didn’t tear an ACL.

Chasing the Leaders

Rookie of the Year contender, Chase Elliott, scored his third top-10 of the season. Surprising? Not really. At 20 years-old Elliott continues to prove that he belongs where he is. Today, making some bold moves, he hung around the top-10 and finished 6th.

There aren’t many rookies who graduate to NASCAR’s premier series, face the challenge of keeping up with good race craft and are expected to win. But Elliott is. And he will.

You Think Superman was Fast?

In the end, Jimmie Johnson wound up wearing the cape. But those who were faster than a speeding bullet were the over-the-wall gang for Martin Truex and the Furniture Row team. Sub-eleven-second stops turned heads on pit road and continually gained the team spots.

The secret sauce? Joe Gibbs Racing. The No. 78 team is taking advantage of their alliance and dipped into the pit crew pool to strengthen their performances. If not for the skirmish with Logano, Truex was off to a very solid day. His finishing positions continue to decline, but Cole Pearn and company likely have something up their sleeves.

The Best of the Rest

Ricky Stenhouse Jr nipped Elliott at the line for his fourth career top-five and his program continues to improve. A.J. Allmendinger finished 8th for a much-needed top-10. Brian Scott turned a 21st place starting position to a 12th place finish and Landon Cassill drove from Rancho Cucamonga (34th) to come home 16th.

 

 

Categories
Editorial

Weaver: On Debris Cautions at Auto Club Speedway

The most valuable asset to a sport is its integrity. If NASCAR loses its integrity, it has lost everything.

It is with that in mind, that those at the Charlotte and Daytona offices should take questions about what happened at the end of the Auto Club 400 very seriously.

Of course, I’m talking about the final 15 laps and the penultimate two cautions that ultimately decided the outcome of the race. Matt Kenseth was leading a race that very well could have become a fuel mileage race when the caution fell for debris with 15 laps to go.

Unfortunately, the debris was never shown on the television broadcast and Kenseth lost the lead when he broke an axle during the resulting pit stop.

A dominant Kurt Busch quickly took the lead on the restart and was a football field away from taking the white flag when yet another debris caution slowed the race, this one setting up a green-white-checkered finish.

And yet again, the debris was never shown.

On the final restart, Kurt Busch again took the lead and took the white flag when Greg Biffle crashed at the start-finish line. This time, NASCAR waited before calling for the yellow flag while Brad Keselowski, on much fresher tires, passed Busch for the lead.

Despite likely debris on the frontstretch, the tower allowed the race to continue to its extended conclusion.

It was dramatic. It was exciting. It was fun.

It was an entertaining romp fitting of a Hollywood script, and yes, it was an absolute blast to watch.

But it also left a ton of people, on pit road, inside the cockpits and those watching around the world scratching their heads about a wide number of competition issues to arise out of the ordeal.

After the second caution in question, Busch even came over the radio and simply said, “WWE” in reference to the scripted finishes and bombastic storylines that are orchestrated from its home offices in Stamford, Connecticut.

Make no mistake, I’m not accusing the sport of orchestrating anything. NASCAR officials say they don’t play favorites and Stock car racing in itself is way too combustible and unpredictable to try to ensure or prevent a specific outcome. (Wouldn’t Dale Earnhardt Jr. be a eight-time champion if NASCAR were in the business of rigging races?) However, it speaks volumes when competitors, both new and old, as well as a certain subset of the fan base insists that the status quo leaves one too many questions.

NASCAR has done a tremendous job of making itself more transparent to fans and participants in recent seasons. Most notably, the Sanctioning Body has instituted a scaled deterrent system intended to eliminate guesswork over what penalty a violation may invoke.

For this season, NASCAR rolled out its next-generation pit road video review system, designed to limit judgement calls. At the same time, NASCAR executives have aggressively pursued ways to bring fans closer to the penalty calling process while also working with the media to bring them closer to the tower and inspection process.

Based on those actions, NASCAR is aware of the need to be transparent and limit questions about its integrity, which is why the “phantom debris menace” must also be addressed in the coming months.

Perhaps the blame falls on the television partners more than the Sanctioning Body. After all, the directors and camera crew are ultimately responsible for what gets shown to the fans — both on television and in the grandstands via Sprint Vision and FanVision.

But they are partners and it is NASCAR that will ultimately take the public relations blow more than the broadcaster — and perhaps rightfully so — because at the end of the day, this is NASCAR’s television product.

And even if a second viewing of the finish shows a glaring piece of debris under green (see above), it’s vital to the health of the sport that it’s given ample coverage via replay just as a pass for the lead or additional race changing elements would be shown.

It’s just strange that in an age of automated pit road officiating, the racing surface cannot be monitored in the same way. Even odder is that in the era of transparent penalties that everyone invested in the sport doesn’t have a better idea of what debris is worth slowing the race and what isn’t.

Admittedly, every situation is different and race control has a split second to make a decision. That’s a tremendously difficult position to be in. But if the decision is to throw the caution, it needs to be made clear what is disrupting the flow of the event.

Leaving it a mystery, just leads to questions about the integrity of NASCAR and that’s the most dangerous question of them all.

EMAIL MATT AT matt.weaver@popularspeed.com

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Categories
News

Kurt Busch Fastest in Auto Club 400 Happy Hour

Kurt Busch remained untouchable at Auto Club Speedway topping the charts in the final practice session before Sunday’s Auto Club 400 in Fontana, California.

Busch was also fastest in the pair of practice sessions that preceded “Happy Hour” and won the pole at the 2-mile race track on Friday afternoon. He’s looking to become the first driver since Carl Edwards to sweep every session of a Sprint Cup weekend, including the all-important trip to Victory Lane.

Edwards achieved the feat in November 2010 at Phoenix International Raceway.

Busch at one point was clocked going over 205 mph on the bumpy California Speedway backstretch and clocked in with an average speed of 184.971 mph. Paul Menard was second fastest at 183.885 mph with Kevin Harvick, Casey Mears and Jimmie Johnson completing the top-5.

Busch and Harvick will start on the front row for the race itself (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX) with Harvick looking for three consecutive wins early in the season and his eighth straight finish of second or better. Richard Petty currently holds that record with 11 straight such finishes all the way back in 1974.

The complete speeds from final practice can be found below.

1 Kurt Busch … 184.971 mph
2 Paul Menard … 183.885
3 Kevin Harvick … 183.220
4 Casey Mears … 183.146
5 Jimmie Johnson … 182.992
6 Martin Truex Jr. … 182.783
7 Ryan Newman … 182.699
8 Joey Logano … 182.348
9 Brad Keselowski … 182.292
10 Dale Earnhardt Jr. … 182.099
11 Danica Patrick … 182.007
12 David Ragan … 181.713
13 Kasey Kahne … 181.644
14 Greg Biffle … 181.644
15 Matt Kenseth … 181.493
16 Kyle Larson … 181.433
17 Denny Hamlin … 181.420
18 Carl Edwards … 181.128
19 Austin Dillon … 181.018
20 Clint Bowyer … 180.591
21 AJ Allmendinger … 180.438
22 Jeff Gordon … 180.140
23 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. … 179.623
24 Brian Scott … 179.596 …
25 Aric Almirola … 179.395
26 Jamie McMurray … 179.185
27 Tony Stewart … 179.096
28 Justin Allgaier … 178.909
29 Sam Hornish Jr. … 178.620
30 Landon Cassill … 177.945
31 Alex Bowman … 177.857
32 Brett Moffitt … 177.721
33 Trevor Bayne … 177.624
34 Josh Wise … 177.279
35 Cole Whitt … 177.257
36 Chris Buescher … 177.048
37 Michael Annett … 176.791
38 JJ Yeley … 176.600
39 David Gilliland … 175.987
40 Jeb Burton … 175.966
41 Mike Bliss … 175.161