Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

OBSERVATIONS: Daytona 500

Although the races leading up to the Daytona 500 for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series lacked excitement at times, that was all out of the window on Sunday as there was drama at every turn en route to the end of the event.

Constantly running in a single file train became a common theme throughout the beginning of Speedweeks, resulting in races becoming boring. However, the first stage of the Daytona 500 saw drivers side-by-side the entire stretch of the way under green – except for four laps. 

Of course, battling for position means the chance for trouble intensifies, and that was seen on Sunday, as well. In the closing laps of the first stage, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. got sideways ahead of the field, saving it, but causing a bunch of other drivers to wreck behind him. The Roush Fenway Racing competitor’s actions were a result of lane changing to try and block Ryan Blaney for position.

Anytime you go for a block, you take the chance of getting wrecked – and here is an unfortunate case where others paid the price. But that’s the hands that the drivers are dealt with this package. The runs come quickly, and the only way to maintain position is to try and stop them. Otherwise, you’re at the back of the pack. This is just even poorer situation being that drivers not involved initially saw their days end here. 

It’s also interesting in the timing of the incident, being three laps left in the stage.

“It looked like everybody thought that was the finish of the Daytona 500 and it was really only lap 59 coming to 60,” Jimmie Johnson said. “Unfortunately, we lost our third car for the weekend.  It’s unfortunate it has turned out that way, but we will get this Lowe’s for Pro’s Chevy dialed in for Atlanta and go do it again.”

Martin Truex Jr. proved last season how critical stage points can be towards moving from round to round in the playoffs. Other drivers showed how a single point could mean qualifying for the post-season, or missing it entirely. With the knowledge learned from last year, could it be changing how people think moving forward? Something to watch when we go to Atlanta Motor Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and other races to come. 

But stage racing can’t be the main culprit for the accidents in the Daytona 500, as the next big wreck occurred with 18 laps left in the second stage. It could be dubbed another case of blocking between Brad Keselowski and Chase Elliott, but another element comes into play – the left rear corner of the car. As we seen in the Clash, you cannot ride someone’s left rear corner or you will turn them; Stenhouse turned a pair of people there. While trying to keep in line with the run that Elliott had on Blaney, Keselowski got to Elliott’s left rear corner and the wreck begins.

As this rhyme from Mike Joy says, “With this new aero package where the left rear is all the way to the ground, you don’t need to touch him to spin him around” meaning that if contact is made, it’s twice as bad. As we seen with the incident above, those earlier in the weekend, and another big wreck with three laps to go, as well. 

Jeff Gordon made the comment on NASCAR on FOX’s broadcast that the “cars are too unstable for moves like that” in relation to what happened. The drivers requested for the handling to be more back in their hands so they could have more control, rather than just locked down, stab the throttle and go. However, with all the wrecked cars from the events this weekend, there is a chance that perhaps they’ve gone a little too far. 

Although everything discussed so far was important, the big question after the Daytona 500 – was the move on the final lap fair between Austin Dillon and Aric Almirola?

You never want to see one driver hook another for the win. It’s the dirtiest form of driving, and takes out the strategy of out-battling the other for position. So certainly seeing Dillon give a bumper to Almirola, trigger an unfair victory for the Richard Childress Racing.

However, at the same time, Almirola was blocking and before the contact, he slid across the bumper of Dillon. As they say, you can take the chance of blocking, but know that there’s a possibility of getting turned. So you can’t totally fault Dillon here.

The only problem with Dillon’s actions are his reaction to what happened with his choice of wording. Speaking with Matt Yocum and FOX on the track post-race, he stated, “I did what I had to do there at the end. I hate it for the No. 10 (Aric Almirola) guys. We had a run, and I stayed in the gas. It is what it is here at Daytona.” He then went on to add in another interview, “I hate that for him, but Aric Almirola would have done the same thing if it were him in that position.”

There was still a whole other lane that Dillon could’ve moved down to, and how is he to know that Almirola would do the same thing? For his career, Almirola hasn’t shown the aggressiveness to equal a statement of that nature. When you make comments of this value, it allows people to question your character and choices, and how you choose to win. You may stand by it, but I can promise that some fans are not willing to accept drivers winning in this nature. In the weeks to follow, it’ll be interesting to see where Dillon’s popularity stands with the sport, given that it has been questioned already through the years in him being dubbed the “silver spoon” driver by Kevin Harvick. 

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

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

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Brad Keselowski Claims Dominant Victory in Advance Auto Parts Clash

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – For once, as he put it, Brad Keselowski didn’t “choke away” a chance at victory during Speedweeks at Daytona.

Just the opposite. Taking the lead on Lap 39 of the Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona International Speedway, Keselowski held it the rest of the way to win the exhibition kick-off race to the 2018 season, leading Team Penske to a 1-2-4 finish.

And Keselowski, who led 41 of the 75 laps, took the checkered flag with a large piece of debris on the nose of his No. 2 Ford Fusion, with the water temperature in the engine rising to dangerous levels.

“I was worried about the run (of cars behind him), but the car was way overheating there at the end, and I was more worried about it blowing up than anything else,” Keselowski said. “(Engine builder) Doug Yates and his guys did a good job giving me something real durable to take all that and keep digging.

“I’m really proud of the whole effort here. What a way to start Speedweeks, putting the Miller Lite Ford in Victory Lane. I’m really proud of my team… I felt like we were due today.”

Keselowski has five victories at Talladega, but his only other superspeedway win came in the July 2016 race at Daytona. During February, the 2012 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion was batting .000, making Sunday’s start to Speedweeks a special occasion.

“It means a lot,” Keselowski said. “I’ve never won anything here during Speedweeks, and I feel like I’ve choked them away, to be quite honest. You need one to break through. Hopefully, this is our breakthrough.”

Last year’s Clash winner, Joey Logano, finished second to his teammate, with Kurt Busch running third and Team Penske newbie Ryan Blaney fourth-with Ford drivers sweeping the top four positions.

Austin Dillon, who started from the pole, came home fifth in the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, avoiding a last-lap melee that started when contact from Kyle Larson’s Chevrolet turned Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 into the outside wall on the backstretch.

Johnson failed to finish the Clash for the seventh straight year.

After Keselowski grabbed the lead, the field gradually strung out to single file in the top lane, with smaller groups of cars unable to make significant runs on the bottom. On the final lap, however, Kurt Busch darted past Blaney, who had dropped to the inside in a last-ditch effort to win the race.

Behind the lead cars, Larson tagged Johnson and turned him into the wall, collecting the cars of Chase Elliott, Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne and defending series champion Martin Truex Jr. in the wreck.

Kurt Busch, the defending Daytona 500 winner, was pleased with his third-place result and what it might portend for his defense in the Great American Race.

“Project number one was to do all the laps so that we could understand more about our tires and our setup and the way that the car was going to handle,” Busch said. “Then step number two was to have fun. I had a blast.

“I wanted to make another move on the last lap but ran out of steam because the guys behind me got too wide. I couldn’t jump in there and go after the Penske guys. It’s a good day for Ford and good day for us and Billy Scott, my new crew chief. Now we’ll go back and debrief about our car.”

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

NASCAR Looking Good For 70, But Continued Improvement Important

Growing up, Kasey Kahne can still recall waking up early on Sunday mornings, making breakfast, and then sitting down to watch the NASCAR race that day, dreaming of one day being a racecar driver. 

“I feel like today there have to be kids out there still doing that same type of tying and just wanting to be part of the sport because it’s a great form of auto racing,” he said. “There is so much it offers to so many different people. I love every break that I’ve had in this sport and the opportunities that I’ve had to be part of it for so long. And again this year, it’s the same thing. I have a great opportunity. Yeah, I think NASCAR is awesome, and I’m glad that I’m part of it.”

With history on the mind, but yet having a focus on the future, the 2018 season will mark the 70th year of the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing – as it has become known, NASCAR. 

Over the course of time, there have some great historical moments that fans can still recount every detail of until this day, from wins and celebration to fights and controversy. On the flip side, it has not gone all smooth, with backlash and negativity amidst conversation at times. But while some things have come and gone, NASCAR has stuck around through it all.

With the 2018 season on the horizon, there are a lot of positives. The influx of young drivers brings hope for the future, along with tracks showing stability and attendance. The playoffs have also created a lot of discussion and drama, as evident by a crisp afternoon at Martinsville Speedway last October. The sanctioning body’s decisions have shown great strides, including stage racing in 2017.

Although a lot of people were skeptical about the mandated caution and breaking the event into three parts, it grew on fans and drivers alike over the year with the excitement generated, and strategy in hoping to score the additional points. 

Rusty Jarrett NKP

“I kind of like knowing that the caution is coming out in 10 more laps and that there’s going to be a pit stop and that there’s going to be another restart,” Jamie McMurray said. “I enjoy that as a fan. So, I hope people like that on Sunday. I think they’ve done a really good job with the double-file restarts. I think they’ve done a lot to keep somebody in-tuned longer.”

Overall, things are not looking too bad if you take a step back, and realize how fortunate everybody is.

“I think we have made a lot of good changes to the sport,” Kevin Harvick said. “As we create and keep creating a better model for the teams to hopefully achieve some financial stability with the things that they need to get the coast of everything into something that is sustainable, I think that is a good thing. It isn’t as big as it was in 2006, but it is also still really big. You are going to go to the Daytona 500 and still have 100,000 fans in the grandstands, and when they talk about attendance being down, there are still 80,000 people sitting up there.”

Of course, room for improvement is always there.

The television numbers could use some work in being lower than warranted, along with attendance at the tracks as some have cut down seats due to being empty multiple times. Sponsorship and cost have become a big question throughout the sport, as you don’t see a corporate company stepping up as often anymore to sponsor a full schedule, and other teams have been forced to shut their doors.

The schedule could always use some tweaking, as some races could be placed at a different time of year to help all the variables, and some tracks don’t necessarily need to have two dates either. There’s also the theory of possibly shortening some races, as four and a half hours can be too long to ask for someone’s attention with everything people can do nowadays. 

Brett Moist NKP

“I wish there were more people at the race that were involved and intrigued by it and wanted to be part of it,” Kahne said. “I wish we could get back to that for the excitement level, but I still think the racing is very good. It’s super competitive. As a driver, every week I’m thinking how can I get better, how can I help my team, and how can we be more competitive? That’s because of the sport. That brings you back. You want to win. You want to win at this level, and it’s because of the previous 70 years is why you want it so badly. I think there’s a lot of good things about it, but I’d love to see more people in the stands.”

If you want to see the improvement, moving forward though, one change needs to happen at the head of the room. 

“If I could make one change it would be that the leader of the sport (Brian France) is at the race track every weekend. That would be my change,” Brad Keselowski said. “It is important for any company that relies so heavily on outside partners to have a direct interface. This is such a big ship with so much going on week to week.”

To be able to make the best decisions necessary, knowing every single nick and cranny should be a requirement, so you understand how it will affect every level, from the fans and drivers to the teams and marketing partners. Also being there each week, it would allow those financially looking from the outside to understand that you have a hands-on approach, and they can trust you with their dollars. 

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

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

 

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

5 BIGGEST STORYLINES OF 2017: Sparking a Rivalry

From the Daytona 500 in February to the last checkered flag of the year at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November, the world of left turns – with an occasional right – keeps everybody on the edge of their seats. While the on-track action keeps eyes peeled on the asphalt, the discussion, and headlines generated away from the competition result in plenty of water cooler talk.

The 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season was no exception, as there were lots to talk about right from the beginning. As we close a chapter on another year, POPULAR SPEED is going to reflect upon the five most significant storylines in a series of articles.

The first of those touched upon was retirement, followed by the youth movement. But now, we bring you something that made headlines – sparking a rivalry.

While the crisp air made for a chilly afternoon for fans at Martinsville Speedway, the action on-track was full of intensity and heat, courtesy of two drivers – Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott.

With a spot in the final four of the playoffs on the line, the pair came to a head with contact between them seeing Elliott eliminated from the event, and losing another race victory in the late stages of an event. Arguably, the sophomore was frustrated, and also had words for Hamlin post-race on the backstretch.

The contact and words exchanged became a talking point for the next couple of weeks, with fans wondering whether Elliott would retaliate against Hamlin in the weeks to come, and whether either driver would make the final four of the playoffs. Everything came to a head once again at Phoenix Raceway when contact occured, taking Hamlin out of contention.

The contact resulted in critical comments in response from Hamlin.

“Each person has their own opinion of how they do things,” said Hamlin. “It just proves to people who thought I was the bad guy that he would do the exact same thing under the same circumstances. That’s part of racing. I got into him and he retaliates, so I’m in the garage and that’s the way it is.”

He’d go on further, giving off the idea that another chapter could still be written by stating the incident will change how the pair compete against each other in the future.

Whether you agreed with Elliott, fell in the middle, or agreed with Hamlin, all fans can recognize this – it gave us something to talk about. From fan wars across social media, to media commentary via TV shows and online articles, there were lots of opinions offered about what happened. Rather than being focused on penalties, races flat out being dominated and sometimes boring with a lack of passing, the discussion became riveting.

John K Harrelson / NKP

Hamlin and Elliott weren’t the only two contributing to the fun either, though. Kyle Busch had a fight with Joey Logano which included some blood being spread, before writing another chapter in his rivalry against Brad Keselowski that has been going on for at least 10 years now.

The pair feuded back and forth on Twitter in relation to Toyota possibly having an advantage, before more pointed comments were made in the final two weeks of the season.

“Sometimes you just don’t like a guy,” Busch said at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “Fact of the matter. I never ran into Matt Kenseth. I don’t think Matt Kenseth ever ran into me. There is a respect factor out there on the racetrack, and you can certainly do a better job sometimes when you’re around some of those guys that you may or may not necessarily like, but as once a wise man told me, I think it was Chase Elliott, I race those how they race me.”

Busch then went on to add during the NASCAR After the Lap discussion in Las Vegas that he wasn’t buying Keselowski a Christmas present because, “He’s already going to hell. So, it’s not like I gotta buy him a trip there.” 

Creating buzz for the sport and generating popularity comes with dominating media headlines. What better way to do that then with a bit of controversy and feuding?

NASCAR was built on that, as evident by the famous fight at the end of the 1979 Daytona 500, and fans who famously recall the Dale Earnhardt vs. Jeff Gordon debates which happened during the 90’s. Besides, when you look back to the playoffs over the years, what do you recall most about Gordon’s final season? The rivalry with Keselowski, and fight on pit road at Texas Motor Speedway.

While we’ve seen sparks lit and potential for feuds to grow and just dye off, we may be entering a time where one of them takes off and really gets fans talking on a weekly basis once again.

Though if you’re not talking about angry drivers, you were probably discussing something else – stage racing, which will be our next chapter.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

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

Categories
Trucks

A Look Back at Brad Keselowski Racing’s Success

It seemed only fitting that Brad Keselowski Racing would complete their tenure in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series in victory lane. After all, the team was very successful through the years.

Starting off with humble beginning in 2008, the organization quickly grew over the next couple of years, scoring their first win in 2012 with Ryan Blaney at Iowa Speedway. From there on, they were able to score another 10 victories with six different drivers. While they never won a championship, they did come close as from 2012 to this past season, they placed a truck in the top-six of the year-end standings, including a pair of runner-ups courtesy of Blaney and Tyler Reddick

Brad Keselowski has expressed the want to get back involved on the ownership side down the road. But as this door closes, here is a look back at those 11 victories.

2012 American Ethanol 200 at Iowa Speedway – Ryan Blaney

Leading a total of 50 laps, Blaney drove away from the field on a late-race restart with three laps to go to score the first ever victory for Brad Keselowski Racing. It also marked Blaney’s first career win in the truck series in just his third start.

2013 Pocono Mountains 125 at Pocono Raceway – Ryan Blaney

Just like he did in his first career win, Blaney drove away from the field late in the event to score his and BKR’s second victory.

John Harrelson | NKP

2014 UNOH 200 at Bristol Motor Speedway – Brad Keselowski

The boss got to pilot one of his own trucks to victory lane in dominating fashion, leading 119 of the 200 laps en route to the win.

2014 Chevrolet Silverado 250 at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park – Ryan Blaney

In an epic duo with German Quiroga, Blaney would edge him out by a bumper at the finish line for the victory after leading 34 of the 64 laps.

Matthew Thacker | NKP

2015 NextEra Energy Resources 250 at Daytona International Speedway – Tyler Reddick

After running 16 of the 22 events in 2014, Tyler Reddick was set to run his first full season of truck series competition in 2015, ready to chase after a championship for BKR. He began the year in the biggest way possible, pacing 46 laps en route to scoring the victory in the season opener at Daytona.

Nigel Kinrade | NKP

2015 Kroger 250 at Martinsville Speedway – Joey Logano

Already having made a name for himself in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Joey Logano would run a couple truck races each year for his Team Penske teammate Keselowski. This opportunity behind the wheel went well, as he dominated by leading 150 of the 258 laps.

2015 Lucas Oil 250 at Dover International Speedway – Tyler Reddick

With a late-race pass on Erik Jones, Tyler Reddick took the lead and drove away en route to his second career series victory.

John Harrelson | NKP

2015 UNOH 200 at Bristol Motor Speedway – Ryan Blaney

The 2015 season proved to be the most successful for BKR in the win column, as four of their 11 victories came over the course of that year. Blaney captured the fourth, leading 40 of the 202 laps at Bristol.

Russell Labonty | NKP

2016 DC Solar 350 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway – Tyler Reddick

Brad Keselowski Racing always seemed to be strong at the intermediates, and that showed at Las Vegas when Reddick led 70 of the 146 laps en route to victory.

2017 Chevrolet Silverado 250 at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park – Austin Cindric

In a pass that was debated for multiple weeks, Austin Cindric spun Kaz Grala in turn five, leading the rest of the way to score the victory.

Barry Cantrell | Harrelson Photography Inc.

2017 Ford EcoBoost 200 at Homestead-Miami Speedway – Chase Briscoe

While the focus was on the battle for the championship, Briscoe led 81 of the 134 laps en route to a dominating first career truck series victory.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

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

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

5 Keys to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Championship

In case you’re wondering which of the four Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship contenders has an advantage heading into Sunday’s season-ending Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the correct answer is this: No one has enough of an edge to be a legitimate favorite.

Here’s how it breaks down:  The Toyotas of Furniture Row Racing’s Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch of Joe Gibbs Racing have been slightly faster than the Fords of Kevin Harvick from Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski so far this weekend at Homestead.

The key word here is “slightly.”

In qualifying Friday, Truex qualified second behind pole-sitter Denny Hamlin, with Busch third, Keselowski sixth and Harvick ninth.

Practices on Saturday were even closer.

During the first session, Truex had the second-best 10 consecutive-lap average speed, again right behind Hamlin. Keselowski was right there, too, in third, just ahead of fourth-place Busch and Harvick in sixth.

Matthew T. Thacker | NKP

And in the final Happy Hour session, Busch was tops in best 10 consecutive-lap average speed, with Truex second, Harvick fourth and Keselowski sixth.

If any of the four has a huge speed advantage, they haven’t shown it yet.

So here’s what the race should come down to.

Strategy

The champion on Sunday will be the driver who finishes ahead of the other three title contenders. While the rest of the field will get stage points, the championship four drivers don’t. To win, one driver only will have to outrun his three rivals.

“Pit strategies and race strategies are going to be all over the place because we don’t care about stage points,” said Busch. “The rest of the field is going to care about stage points and things like that.”

Keep it off the wall

Matthew T. Thacker | NKP

Homestead in some ways is like Darlington used to be: The fast way is around the very top of the track, but it’s also the most treacherous, because it’s easy to scrape the wall and ruin your day. “Running the whole race without hitting the wall is gonna be a big challenge,” said Keselowski.

Several drivers tagged the wall in practice on Saturday, including Truex, who incurred only minor damage to his No. 78 Toyota.

Rubber meets the road

At Homestead, tire wear is huge, too, again, just like at Darlington.

“You just don’t want to be at the end of this race with less sets of tires than the guys that you’re racing with, the way that the tire strategy is,” said Harvick. “… Obviously, tire fall-off is something that we always talk about here, and I think this weekend it’s going to be magnified.”

Changing conditions

Matthew T. Thacker | NKP

Sunday’s race will begin in daylight and end in darkness. The four crew chiefs will be charged with properly adjusting the cars to keep up with the conditions.

“Trying to plan on finishing this race at night is part of what we’re trying to figure out,” Truex said after final practice on Saturday. “I think we changed enough and made enough adjustments today and we learned a lot. That gives us a lot to look at tonight and make the right decisions based off of that.”

The end

Since NASCAR adopted the winner-take-all format at Homestead in 2014, there has been a caution in the final 10 laps of the Ford EcoBoost 400 all three years. That means there’s a strong chance there will be another caution in the last 10 laps this time.

If there is, the race winner will be the driver who has the best final pit stop and the best final restart.

And it’s the end of the race that’s going to determine whether Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski or Martin Truex Jr. is crowned as the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series Nigel Kinrade Photography

FINAL FOUR Through the Eyes of NKP: Keselowski

The Final Four Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Championship contenders have all had an interesting journey en route to Homestead.

We are very fortunate to have the best photographers in the game capture every exciting moment.

Nigel Kinrade Photography (NKP), led by veteran photographer, Nigel Kinrade, boasts more than fifty years of combined experience. 

NKP is present at every event on the schedule for each of the three NASCAR National Touring Series and serve the major teams and sponsors of our sport.

Check out this video, from a few years back, that will offer some behind-the-scenes action with Nigel.

 

ISM Connect 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway | Rusty Jarrett NKP

 

Alabama 500 at Talladega Superspeedway | Rusty Jarrett NKP

 

Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway | Lesley Ann Miller NKP

 

Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway | Rusty Jarrett NKP

 

STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway |  John K Harrelson NKP

 

FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway |  Matthew T. Thacker NKP

 

Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway | Russell LaBounty NKP

 

FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway |  Matthew T. Thacker NKP

 

Pocono Green 250 at Pocono Raceway | Russell LaBounty NKP

 

Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway | Russell LaBounty | NKP

 

Camping World 500 at Phoenix Raceway |  Nigel Kinrade NKP

 

Apache Warrior 400 at Dover International Speedway |  Nigel Kinrade NKP

 

Overton’s 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway | Russell LaBounty NKP

 

Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway | Barry Cantrell NKP

 

Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway | Rusty Jarrett NKP

 

Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway | Matthew T. Thacker NKP

 

FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway | Nigel Kinrade NKP

 

Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway |  Nigel Kinrade NKP

 

Fold of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway | Nigel Kinrade NKP

 

Go Bowling 400 at Kansas Speedway | Russell LaBounty NKP

 

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

Categories
Commentary

5 Takeaways From Phoenix

Sunday’s Can-Am 500 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Phoenix Raceway was about as wild and emotional and affair as we’ve seen all year, a crazy roller coaster of ups and downs for drivers, teams and fans alike.

In the end, it was lame-duck Matt Kenseth, on his way out the door at Joe Gibbs Racing to make room for the younger and presumably less expensive Erik Jones, who drove his butt off to win over Chase Elliott, Martin Truex Jr. and the aforementioned Jones.

And the race set the championship field for next week, which will feature Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr. racing heads-up for a championship. Whoever has the best finish of the four will be the champion.

The Phoenix race demonstrated five key components to NASCAR racing that are some of the reasons it’s still so damned compelling to watch.

Plot lines

Talk about a ton of sub-plots: Which driver would be the last one to make it into the final four? It turned out to be Keselowski, but for most of the race it looked like he’d get knocked out. Would Chase Elliott rough up Denny Hamlin and finally win a race? Yes and no — Hamlin led a race-high 193 laps but Elliott ran him into the wall and out of the playoffs.

Elliott, meanwhile, got passed by Kenseth with 10 laps to go and wound up finishing second for the fourth time in nine playoff races.

Then there was Jimmie Johnson, who was racing for an eighth championship but got knocked out by a cut tire just before the end of the second stage. There were all sorts of plots and subplots all day long, and, yes, stage racing added to the intrigue.

Emotion

Kenseth is one of the coolest guys you’ll ever meet — smart, funny and one hell of a wheelman. And he had dark glasses on during his post-race interview as he fought through the emotions running through him. Don’t let anyone kid you: This meant the world to Kenseth and he drove like it. That was real emotion you saw in the post-race interviews.

“It couldn’t be any sweeter. I just don’t know how else to explain it, you know?” said Kenseth. “You always feel like you can get the job done, but, you know, if you’ve got a big enough sample size of numbers, numbers don’t really lie, so we needed to go out and get the job done and get us a win and we were able to do that today, so we’ve got one more race left and, like I said, great way to go out.”

And when asked about spraying team owner Joe Gibbs with champagne in Victory Lane, Kenseth quipped, “What’s he going to do, fire me?”

Revenge

In racing, you need a good guy and a bad guy. Depending on where your loyalties are, Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott each fit one of those roles. Elliott  was leading at Martinsville two weeks ago when Hamlin drilled him into the wall with two laps to go. At Phoenix, Elliott ran Hamlin up into the wall and a few laps later, Hamlin popped a tire and crashed, his playoff hopes over.

Interestingly, both men owned it in their post-race comments.

“Oh, well I’m going to race guys how they race me and keep a smile on my face regardless,” said Elliott. “I’m happy to race guys how they choose to race me and that’s the way I see it.”

“Each person has their own opinion of how they do things,” said Hamlin. “It just proves to people who thought I was the bad guy that he would do the exact same thing under the same circumstances. That’s part of racing. I got into him and he retaliates, so I’m in the garage and that’s the way it is.”

Redemption

Keselowski and the No. 2 Team Penske Ford were off the pace most of the day, failing to pick up any points in either of the first two stages. But Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe persisted, and at the end, the team gutted out a 16th-place finish, which was enough to advance them to the title race next week.

“This feels a little bit like Christmas,” said Keselowski. “Sometimes you need a little luck on your side. Today we had that. It wasn’t by any means where we wanted to run. We wanted to run up front and have a shot for the win. That wasn’t in the cards. We tried to run the smartest race we could and survive and it ended up paying off in the end.”  

Classiness

Elliott raced Hamlin physically, making contact with him on a couple of occasions. Elliott didn’t put the bumper to Kenseth, who he’d never had an issue with before. And, bummed out as he was that he didn’t win, Elliott walked down to Victory Lane to congratulate Kenseth on his win.

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NASCAR Cup Series

By The Numbers: How NASCAR’s Final Four Measure Up

Thirty-five races and nearly nine months after the Daytona 500 kicked off the the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, the final lineup of the four drivers who will compete for the series championship is at last set.

Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski will decide the championship next Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. All four drivers will enter the final race tied in points, and whichever one of the four has the best finish at Homestead will be the 2017 Cup champion.

It should be an epic battle.

Here’s how the final four combatants measure up:

Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing

After a frustrating start to the season, in which he led a lot of laps but didn’t win, Busch has come on strong, with three playoff race victories and five overall. In addition, Busch has 13 top-five and 20 top-10 finishes.

This year, Busch has won at Pocono Raceway, Bristol Motor Speedway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Dover International Speedway and Martinsville Speedway.

Busch won the finale at Homestead in 2015 to claim his first and so far only Cup championship. That said, his average finish there is 19.83, second worst of any Cup track for the Las Vegas native. In this year’s playoffs, Busch’s average finish is 12.22.

Kevin Harvick, Stewart-Haas Racing

The 2014 champion locked himself into Homestead with a clutch, late-race charge to victory at Texas Motor Speedway, when he ran down Martin Truex Jr. in the final 10 laps to win just his second race of the season.

Harvick’s first victory of 2017 came in June on the Sonoma Raceway road course in Northern California. Through the first 35 races of the year, Harvick has earned 12 top fives and 21 top 10s. In the playoffs this year, Harvick’s average finish is 10.89.

Known as a racer who is at his best in pressure situations, Harvick won the 2014 championship, the first contested with the final-four format at Homestead. In fact, to win the 2014 title, Harvick had to win the final two races of the year, which he did. Statistically, Homestead is Harvick’s best track. His average finish there is 6.94 and he has the 2014 victory and eight top-five finishes in 16 Homestead races.

Brad Keselowski, Team Penske

The 2012 Cup champion has had an up-and-down season, but he has performed well enough in the playoffs to make it to Homestead and that’s what really matters. Keselowski won early in the season at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Martinsville Speedway, but didn’t win again until last month, when he was victorious at Talladega Superspeedway.

On the year, Keselowski has 15 top fives and 20 top 10s in his No. 2 Team Penske Ford. His average playoff finish is 7.57.

This will be Keselowski’s first time as a member of the final four since NASCAR adopted the winner-take-all format in 2014. Homestead historically has not been a great track for him; his average finish there is 15.89, with a best finish of third.

Martin Truex Jr., Furniture Row Racing

After making the final four in 2015 and having a strong 2016 campaign, Truex has been the breakout star of 2017, winning the regular-season Cup championship. He leads the series in race victories (7), top fives (17), top 10s (24), playoff points (69) and laps led (2,175) and has led the points standings since race No. 18 at Kentucky Speedway.

Six of Truex’s seven victories have come at 1.5-mile tracks, the same distance as Homestead, and he’s won three playoff races. Truex swept at Kansas Speedway this year and won at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Kentucky, Watkins Glen International, Chicagoland Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway.

In 12 career starts at Homestead, Truex has an average finish of 12.23, with three top fives and seven top 10s. His average finish in the nine playoff races so far is 4.67.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Final Homestead Slot Still Up For Grabs

Five into one doesn’t go. You don’t need an advanced degree in mathematics to know that much.

Yet that’s the exact situation at Phoenix Raceway this weekend, where five drivers are competing for the final slot in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship race Nov. 19 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

By virtue of winning races earlier in this round of the playoffs Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick are already locked into the title battle, as is Martin Truex Jr., who has amassed enough points to get to Homestead.

Those three drivers are set.

The final spot?

That’s up for grabs and five hungry drivers want it.

Heading into Sunday’s Can-Am 500 at Phoenix, Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski is hanging on to fourth place, 19 points ahead of Denny Hamlin of Joe Gibbs Racing. Also in the mix are Ryan Blaney (-22), Chase Elliott (-49) and Jimmie Johnson (-51).

To make the final, Elliott or his Hendrick Motorsports teammate and seven-time Cup champion Johnson absolutely have to win on Sunday at Phoenix. No question about it.

A win at Phoenix would lock Blaney or Hamlin in, although either of those two drivers could advance if they have great races on Sunday and Keselowski has a problem.

But here’s where the plot thickens: Friday at Phoenix, Blaney put the Wood Brothers Racing Ford on the pole, with Hamlin qualifying second and Elliott fourth in the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. Keselowski, meanwhile, qualified 16th, worst of any of the eight playoff drivers and four spots behind Johnson.

So with three of the four guys needing to win qualifying in the top four spots and the guy on the bubble — Keselowski — qualifying poorly, Sunday figures to be a wide-open affair in the Arizona desert. And the drivers all know it.

“Our mindset coming into this weekend was really trying to win the race and sitting on the pole my mindset doesn’t change,” said Blaney, who this year made the playoffs for the first time. “I still want to go try to win the race, so that’s the mindset we’ve had all week and hopefully we can keep that and I think that’s our goal.”

“We’re knocking on the door,” said Hamlin, who has won at Phoenix before. “We’re fast. We’re doing everything we need to do to put pressure on the other guys and try to get a win. Our car is obviously fast enough, just got to tune it in (Saturday) and get this thing going for 500K (kilometers) or something like that.”

Faced with a must-win situation, Elliott might have the biggest challenge of all.

“Our task at hand is pretty simple, we have to win the race to move on next week, everybody in here knows that,” he said. “We know that and we are going to try to attack the weekend as best we can.  Hopefully, give ourselves a chance to do that Sunday afternoon and see what happens.”

As for the bubble driver, he’s curious about how the race will play out, too.

“Qualifying here hasn’t been my greatest here as of late, so we’ll just kind of do what we can for Sunday,” said Keselowski, the 2012 champion.

This much is for certain: The battle for the final Homestead slot is still very much up in the air and we won’t know until the checkered flag falls who’ll step up and grab it.