Categories
XFINITY

Dale Jr. Confident in Allgaier for Xfinity Series Finale

AVONDALE, Arizona — JR Motorsports driver, Justin Allgaier, captured his first NASCAR Xfinity Series win of the season in the Desert Diamond Casino West Valley 200 to secure a spot in the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The 33-year old led a race-high 85 laps and regained much needed momentum after besting “The Big Three” heavy-weights of Christopher Bell, Cole Custer and reigning series champion, Tyler Reddick, for his second career victory at ISM Raceway.

The Illinois-native may not have as glamorous statistics as his fellow-competitors battling for the 2019 title, but team owner and 15-time Most Popular Driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., has the utmost faith in his four-year driver of the No. 7 Chevy Camaro. The 10-year series veteran has successfully raced his way into the playoffs in every full-time season he’s raced in NASCAR’s lower division and Earnhardt feels this experience has aptly prepared him to bring JR Motorsports their third-consecutive championship.

“Obviously, his age and experience is very helpful,” Earnhardt exclusively told POPULAR SPEED following the event at ISM Raceway. “He’s been in a lot of situations that I think he can lean on to maintain his composure and poise in some pretty tough situations.”

In conjunction with experience in the Xfinity Series, the 44-year old team owner believes his driver has been able to capitalize and adapt throughout his career in certain mid-race situations. Earnhardt has had the luxury of watching Allgaier intently over the last two years after stepping down from full-time racing in the Cup Series and turning to broadcasting on NBC.

“Anything sets him apart (from Bell, Custer and Reddick) I think if you watch a lot of the races,” the team owner relayed. “The success that he has is based off of restarts – he’s really aggressive on restarts. He just takes advantage of the guys around him and he did that again today. When he won at Chicago (Speedway) a few year ago, he had a great restart there at the end to take the win away from the other guys. He technically rarely has the best car in the race, but makes up for it on restarts when he gets that opportunity.”

Earnhardt also broke his silence on the possibility of making history by becoming only the second owner in the Xfinity Series to capture three-consecutive titles.

“Anytime you can put your name in the record books for anything, it’s awesome,” the 15-time Most Popular Driver exclaimed. “We feel pretty lucky and blessed to already have a couple of titles and those didn’t come easy, this one won’t either. This is going to be a real, real hard battle down there. I think we’re lacking a little bit of speed compared to that guys, but it’s close. We’re going to need everything we can get and little luck too. That’s how it’s been the last couple of times. I don’t know that we showed up with the best car throughout the day at Homestead, but we were there at the end when it mattered and that’s what you got to do. I’d put Justin up against any of those guy to position us to be in that position at the end.”

Even more impressively – should Allgaier notch JR Motorsports a third championship – the trio of titles would come from three different driver, which has never been done before in the series.

Earnhardt’s driver will without a doubt be the underdog heading to Homestead, but Allgaier is carrying a hefty set of momentum into the Sunshine State after quite possibly the most important win of his career to date. Witness if Earnhardt and Allgaier can eclipse this monumental achievement in the Ford EcoBoost 300 series finale from Homestead-Miami Speedway at 3:30 p.m. Eastern Time on NBCSN.

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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

Chicagoland Defines Bowyer’s Resilience and Potential

Clint Bowyer has arguably been the fourth strongest competitor in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series this season.

While much of the attention has been placed on the “big three” contenders of Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, and Martin Truex Jr., Bowyer’s two victories and an average finish of 9.9 places him in the conversation.

The No. 14 team’s comeback performance Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway portrayed their strength at the halfway point of the season.

After leading 21 laps early in the Overton’s 400, three costly penalties under the first pit cycle trapped Bowyer two laps down.

However, a fast car and lucky break with how the cautions played out allowed him to return to the lead lap by the conclusion of Stage 2 and earn stage points for placing eighth.

Bowyer ultimately finished fifth in one of the most impressive come from behind performances of the season.

“The guys work very hard on making sure that they are pushing the envelope, which you have to do in this world and against this competition,” Bowyer said. “You have to push everything. Certainly pit road is a big part of that.”

When needing to gain ground on the top contenders who have shown tremendous speed throughout the year, pit road presents the opportunity to gain crucial time.

“You are splitting hairs out there on the race track down to the tenths of a second and you can gain seconds on pit road,” Bowyer said. “Obviously our pit road speed was just a little too fast.”

One mistake often derails a team’s day but facing three consecutive blunders is unheard of, and the ability to limit mistakes is what allows the most successful drivers to rise.

This sequence highlighted a shortcoming of Bowyer’s compared to the top three performers, but his response defined the No. 14 team’s resilience.

Leading early showed the caliber of the car on Sunday and being able to race back through the field further attested to its speed. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver likely would have been the one to beat throughout the day had it not been for the early penalties.

However, having to fight through the adversity and seeing their determination pay off with Bowyer’s sixth top-five of 2018 provided valuable confidence and momentum.  

July will be a very telling month regarding Bowyer’s ability to maintain pace with the big three.

He has proven capable of competing with them each week but now will look to top their performances.

A stellar July propelled two of the last three champions into their title run. Truex Jr. finished first at Kentucky and third at New Hampshire last season while Kyle Busch won all but one race this month in 2015.

Not all champions have fared as well in July, but strong races this month can establish the momentum that can carry a team through August and into the playoffs.

It’s a crucial time for Bowyer to contend closer with the top three drivers and put himself in a position to outduel them this fall.

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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 or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
XFINITY

Bowyer Looks Back to Form in XFINITY Chicagoland Race

Clint Bowyer made his first XFINITY Series start in four years on Saturday at Chicagoland Speedway, and topped the day off with a sixth-place finish.

Bowyer, the 37-year-old Sprint Cup Series veteran, drove the No. 88 Chevrolet for JR Motorsports at the mile-and-a-half track. He qualified seventh for the race, and it was arguably the best Bowyer has looked in any NASCAR race all year.

He ran in the top 10 throughout the 300-mile event and climbed to fourth in the final 30 laps. He led three of the 200 laps, which is as many as he has led in the last 31 Cup races dating back to Talladega in October 2015.

The 2016 season has been a struggle for Bowyer on the Cup side. He has only three top 10s and sits 28th in the points standings. Bowyer signed a one-year deal with HScott Motorsports to drive the No. 15 Chevrolet and in 2017 he will be in Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 14 Ford as soon-to-be-retired Tony Stewart’s replacement.

Bowyer ran one Camping World Truck Series race this season and scored a fifth-place result at Kansas Speedway in May driving the No. 24 for GMS Racing. It was his only top five across the three national series all year.

Bowyer’s last XFINITY race was at Daytona International Speedway in July 2012. He piloted the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing and finished 26th after being involved in an accident.

It was a feel-good day for Bowyer, who’s been in need of a strong performance all year. After the race, he tweeted:

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Categories
Commentary

RAPID REACTION: Late Caution Hands Truex Jr. Chicagoland Victory

Sunday’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400 at Chicagoland Speedway marked the first of 10 Sprint Cup Series races in the Chase for the Championship, and Furniture Row Racing’s Martin Truex Jr. earned his third win of the season.

Truex Jr. has been one of the fastest drivers all year and has won two of the last three races. His Denver-based team was riding high with confidence entering the playoffs and now the No. 78 Toyota has guaranteed its spot into the Round of 12, which starts at Charlotte Motor Speedway next month.

Rookies Denied

Twenty-year-old Chase Elliott was five laps away from winning his first career Cup race and advancing to the next round of the playoffs. Then the yellow flag waved when Michael McDowell suffered a flat tire, and his No. 95 Chevrolet smacked the outside wall. During the ensuing caution, Elliott led the field down pit road but came out second behind Truex, who would restart fourth.

Another rookie competitor Ryan Blaney gambled by staying out under caution, allowing his Wood Brothers Racing No. 21 Ford to inherit the lead. However, Truex on four fresh tires flew past Blaney for the lead with two laps to go, and he never looked back. Elliott finished third, and Blaney wound up fourth.

Hendrick Resurgence; Chasing Chase

Despite coming up without the win, Hendrick Motorsports should feel pleased with the speed it showed throughout the day. Jimmie Johnson led the most laps (118) but was penalized with less than 35 laps remaining for exiting pit road too fast during the last cycle of green-flag pit stops. Johnson, who admitted that “it was a top-five day” for the No. 48 team, finished a disappointing 12th place.

The No. 24 and No. 48 were back to their race-leading ways again at Chicagoland. Well actually, all four of the HMS cars were fast on Sunday, including Kasey Kahne in the No. 5 and Alex Bowman in the No. 88. Kahne has struggled almost all of 2016, but the last few weeks have been a little brighter for his team and earned a seventh-place result. Bowman, filling in for the sidelined Dale Earnhardt Jr., finished 10th — marking his first career top 10 in a Cup race.

(Not So) Freaky Fast

Kevin Harvick qualified fourth for the 400-mile event but had to start from the back of the field for unapproved body adjustments, along with Kyle Larson. He charged through the field quickly at the beginning of the race, climbing to eighth, but the No. 4 went a lap down during the first cycle of green flag stops. A caution came out at the wrong time for Harvick, and he fell a lap down, setting him up for a bad start to the Chase.

The Jimmy John’s Chevrolet finished 20th. In back-to-back years now, Harvick has had poor performances at Chicagoland. But if there’s one thing Harvick knows how to do, it’s winning with his back against the wall. He wrecked at Chicagoland in 2015 and then won in a must-win situation at Dover two weeks later. Don’t count out “Happy” just yet.

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Categories
News

Sprint Cup Qualifying Rainout Puts Defending Series Champ Harvick on Chicagoland Pole

By Reid Spencer (NASCAR Wire Service) JOLIET, Ill.—Kevin Harvick will start the 2015 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup from the same position he ended last year’s playoff—in the No. 1 spot.

When torrential rains at Chicagoland Speedway wiped out Friday’s time trials at the 1.5-mile track, Harvick earned the Coors Light Pole position for Sunday’s MyAFibRisk.com 400 (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN) by virtue of having posted the fastest lap during opening practice.

With heavy rains forecasted for the afternoon, most drivers focused on mock qualifying runs during practice, anticipating the field for the opening Chase race would be set according to practice speeds. Harvick was the only driver to top 188 mph in the opening session, running a lap at 188.317 mph.

Joey Logano, a Championship 4 competitor in 2014, will start on the outside of the front row, after running 187.911 mph in practice. With Brad Keselowski third quickest and Martin Truex Jr. fourth, Chase drivers claimed the top four starting spots and six of the top seven.

Ryan Newman will start sixth and Kyle Busch seventh in the 400-mile event.

“First off,” Harvick said, “I’m just most proud of my team for having a fast race car and coming to the track and having a plan and doing all the things that they did to pay attention to the weather and put a lot of emphasis on trying to lay a fast lap down, just like everybody else, to get a good starting position with the way that the weather was.”

Logano and his team spent the entire 85-minute practice session in qualifying trim, expecting time trials to be rained out.

“We looked at the forecast and knew there was a good chance of rain,” Logano said. “Any time that happens, you focus in on qualifying in practice a little bit more. We haven’t been in race trim yet… Really, I felt like it was qualifying during practice.

“We were really trying to top the chart, because we really felt like that was where we were going to start—at the end of practice.”

Harvick, on the other hand, started in race trim to get a feel for the track before he moved to a qualifying setup.

“We started in race trim because (Crew chief) Rodney (Childers) and I felt like this is one of those places… it’s a hard place to drive around because it’s so rough, and the timing and rhythm of the race track is something that, as a driver, you need to be able to get into that rhythm before you go into qualifying trim.”

Two Chase drivers who failed to post strong practice speeds—Clint Bowyer and Denny Hamlin—will start 26th and 29th, respectively, in Sunday’s race. Other Chasers secured spots on the grid as follows: Kurt Busch, ninth; Jeff Gordon, 10th; Jimmie Johnson, 11th; Matt Kenseth, 12th; Jamie McMurray, 13th; Carl Edwards, 14th; Paul Menard, 16th; and Dale Earnhardt Jr., 19th.

A major casualty of the cancellation was Ryan Blaney, who was ninth fastest in opening practice in the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford but will not start the race under rainout rules (because of fewer qualifying attempts this year). This is the third time this season Blaney has been knocked out of a race by rain.

Michael McDowell and Travis Kvapil also failed to make the 43-car field.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Qualifying – myAFibRisk.com 400
Chicagoland Speedway
Joliet, Illinois
Friday, September 18, 2015

1. (4) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 2015 Owners Points 5th.
2. (22) Joey Logano, Ford, 2015 Owners Points 4th.
3. (2) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 2015 Owners Points 9th.
4. (78) Martin Truex Jr., Chevrolet, 2015 Owners Points 10th.
5. (3) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 2015 Owners Points 21st.
6. (31) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 2015 Owners Points 14th.
7. (18) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 2015 Owners Points 2nd.
8. (5) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 2015 Owners Points 18th.
9. (41) Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 2015 Owners Points 7th.
10. (24) Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet, 2015 Owners Points 13th.
11. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 2015 Owners Points 1st.
12. (20) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 2015 Owners Points 3rd.
13. (1) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 2015 Owners Points 12th.
14. (19) Carl Edwards, Toyota, 2015 Owners Points 8th.
15. (47) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 2015 Owners Points 22nd.
16. (27) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 2015 Owners Points 15th.
17. (16) Greg Biffle, Ford, 2015 Owners Points 20th.
18. (42) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 2015 Owners Points 19th.
19. (88) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 2015 Owners Points 6th.
20. (43) Aric Almirola, Ford, 2015 Owners Points 17th.
21. (33) Brian Scott(i), Chevrolet, 2015 Owners Attempts 26 – 37th.
22. (9) Sam Hornish Jr., Ford, 2015 Owners Points 26th.
23. (14) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet, 2015 Owners Points 25th.
24. (13) Casey Mears, Chevrolet, 2015 Owners Points 23rd.
25. (10) Danica Patrick, Chevrolet, 2015 Owners Points 24th.
26. (15) Clint Bowyer, Toyota, 2015 Owners Points 16th.
27. (17) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Chevrolet, 2015 Owners Points 29th.
28. (55) David Ragan, Toyota, 2015 Owners Points 27th.
29. (11) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 2015 Owners Points 11th.
30. (6) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 2015 Owners Points 28th.
31. (51) Justin Allgaier, Chevrolet, 2015 Owners Points 30th.
32. (7) Alex Bowman, Chevrolet, 2015 Owners Points 35th.
33. (35) Cole Whitt, Ford, 2015 Owners Points 31st.
34. (26) JJ Yeley(i), Toyota, 2015 Owners Attempts 26 – 44th.
35. (38) David Gilliland, Ford, 2015 Owners Points 32nd.
36. (40) Landon Cassill(i), Chevrolet, 2015 Owners Points 33rd.
37. (46) Michael Annett, Chevrolet, 2015 Owners Attempts 26 – 38th.
38. (34) Brett Moffitt #, Ford, 2015 Owners Points 34th.
39. (83) Matt DiBenedetto #, Toyota, 2015 Owners Points 36th.
40. (32) Josh Wise, Ford, 2015 Owners Attempts 26 – 41st.
41. (23) Jeb Burton #, Toyota, 2015 Owners Attempts 26 – 39th.
42. (98) Reed Sorenson, Ford, 2015 Owners Attempts 26 – 40th.
43. (62) Timmy Hill(i), Chevrolet, 2015 Owners Attempts 26 – 46th.

3 drivers failed to qualify.

44. (21) Ryan Blaney(i), Ford, 2015 Owners Attempts 13.
45. (95) Michael McDowell, Ford, 2015 Owners Attempts 15.
46. (30) Travis Kvapil(i), Chevrolet, 2015 Owners Attempts 11.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Earnhardt Overcomes Struggles to Finish 11th

By Matt Weaver (JOLIET, Ill.) — Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 11th in the Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway on Sunday afternoon, overcoming a difficult weekend where he wasn’t happy with the performance of his car until the drop of the green flag.

While he felt satisfied with the outcome, Earnhardt believes he had at least a fifth-place car and would have finished closer to the front if not for a series of disappointing restarts.

“This has been a real tough weekend,” Earnhardt told reporters after the race. “I was really really concerned. We had a real bad (third practice session) and Steve (Letarte) and those guys worked all night, stayed up on the computer and looked over the notes and we ended up with a good car — a top-5 car.”

Fifth is exactly where Earnhardt ran for most of the second half of the race and restarted there on a reset with 17 laps to go. Earnhardt found himself on the inside line and lost positions when the lane backed up, allowing drivers with fresher tires to come up and challenge him for position.

The same thing once again happened on the final restart with seven laps remaining and Earnhardt fell outside of the top-10 as a result.

“Restarting on the inside in fifth was a little bit tough,” Earnhardt said. “The outside is where I wanted to be on restarts. The guys behind us got tires and we got beat by a couple of those guys. If you told me that we would have finished 11th this morning, I would have took it. We didn’t have a good car at all and it was one of the worst practices we’ve ever had all year.”

Earnhardt added that he felt like his team was capable of at least finishing in the top-12 at the next two races at both Dover and New Hampshire, thus advancing them to the next round where better tracks like Kansas, Talladega and Charlotte await.

The first thing that Earnhardt did upon climbing out of his car was check the championship standings via FanVision to ensure that he was still in the safe zone in regards to advancing after New Hampshire. He leaves Chicagoland fifth in the standings and 13 points over 13th place Ryan Newman.

“I just want to get through the first three races and put as much points as I can on those other guys,” Earnhardt said. “You want to gain as much ground over 13th as possible. I don’t want to wish bad luck on anybody but you want to look at the points just to access who did what, who is struggling and who had a bad day.

“Out of the four rounds, the first will be the easiest to advance but we don’t take anything for granted.”

Later in the day, Letarte added that he hadn’t seen the points but he felt confident that his team could advance purely on the merit of three top-15 finishes. He agreed with the assessment of his driver that they eventually ended up with a top-5 car but just got bit by restarts.

“Yeah, we had a top-5 car there at the end and the guys with tires just got us,” Letarte told Popular Speed. “We worked on the car all weekend and we tried a lot of different things. I’m proud of my team and I’m proud of Dale and I think we are in a good spot to advance with this run.”

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Path to Championship Unknown Under New Format

By Matt Weaver (JOLIET, Ill.) — On the eve of the inaugural race of the Chase Grid format at Chicagoland Speedway, it now appears as if there are more ways than ever before to win championships in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

Prior to the introduction of a playoff, drivers were tasked with consistency over 36 races to win the crown. Victories negated bad results but they were not a requisite to contend for the championship. Consider that @MattKenseth won the 2003 title with only a single victory and a 10.3 average finish, leading NASCAR to adopt a playoff format in the first place.

During the first decade of the Chase, victories were given extra weight and seeding for the playoffs were based on the number of trips to Victory Lane during the regular season. As a result, perennial winners, like @JimmieJohnson, held a major advantage entering the final 10 races of the season.

All told, the near-flawless Johnson and his 48 team won six of the 10 championships during the initial Chase era, mostly due to their ability to win in bulk, having scored 60 wins from 2003-to-2013. But Johnson was one of the first to admit this weekend that the new format could see a driver win the championship without winning a race in the Chase, if not altogether.

“The possibility is real,” Johnson said. “Against the way the whole premise of the Chase has been created and winning is so important, I feel that it’s good to have an opportunity to reward consistency. Let’s be honest: Everything about our sport revolves around consistency. Our races are marathons. We race (36) times a year, and to have it not be represented in our championship, I think would be wrong.”

To Johnson’s point, his teammate and four-time champion, @JeffGordonWeb says that perfection is no longer necessary in the Chase for the Championship.

“I think in the third round, you’re going to need to be near-perfect but you definitely don’t have to have 10 perfect races now,” Gordon said. “The third round and at Homestead, you’ll have to be at your absolute best. But the other ones? You can slip a little bit here and there if you’re strong enough to claw your way back.

“It’s definitely a different championship than we’ve seen in different years.”

The championship standings will reset after each round for the drivers that advance, meaning a team that just barely moves on would have an equal shot at again advancing as the top-seed from the bracket they just advanced from. As a result, it’s conceivable that a still winless Chaser, like Kenseth, could still top-10 himself into the championship race at Homestead and go all the way, a fact that he acknowledges.

“I still think this championship will require you to execute and be at the top of your game,” Kenseth said. “I feel like we need to win because of the momentum and confidence it will give us but also because that’s the key to advancing. So do we have to win? No. But we didn’t necessarily have to win before either.

The 2011 champion and number one seed in the Chase, Brad Keselowski, perhaps summed it up best.

“There are a lot of different ways you can win with this format,” he said. “I don’t think there’s one way you can win and I don’t think there’s one way you can lose. (Becoming champion without winning a race) is certainly one way you can win but it’s not the only way.”

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XFINITY

Daniel Suarez Excels in First Intermediate Start

By Michael Guzman (JOLIET, Ill.) — Daniel Suarez (@dnlsuarez) quietly defied the odds in just his second career Nationwide Series start, finishing 15th in his debut for RAB Racing on Saturday afternoon at Chicagoland Speedway.

The start was his first on an intermediate track and the NASCAR Drive for Diversity graduate and Joe Gibbs Racing development driver was audibly excited, but not shocked, that his first speedway experience went so well.

“I learned a lot, we learned a lot about the aero,” Suarez told Popular Speed on Saturday. “The car was pretty good and we were getting better. We were just okay on the short runs.The most important thing, and the goal today, was to just learn and get approval from NASCAR and I think we made it.”

Suarez qualified 18th and his 15th-place-finish marked the best finish by the No. 29 entry this season. Nevertheless, a late spell of cautions created a variety of strategies and dropped Suarez from as high as eighth towards the middle of the pack.

“It didn’t work out in the short run,” Suarez said. “In the long runs we were pretty decent. Maybe with new tires like some of the cars, maybe we could have been more aggressive on the restarts. But with old tires and some of the cars with new tires, it was kind of difficult.

“But as soon as we get 10 laps on the tires, we were equal to everyone. Maybe we missed (the setup), I don’t know, three, four spots over there, but it’s okay, we learned a lot. It’s a learning experience and we have to keep working.”

Suarez will now take to another intermediate track, running the ARCA Racing Series event at Kentucky next weekend for Venturini Motorsports as he continuing to prepare for his first full-time Nationwide Series season in 2015 with Joe Gibbs Racing.

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Uncategorized

Michael Waltrip Racing Hopes to Dance to the Front in Chase

By Michael Guzman (JOLIET, Ill.) — @ClintBowyer and @BrianLVickers may have missed the inaugural, win-centric Chase for the Sprint Cup, but the team’s namesake and quirky team owner Michael Waltrip (@mw55) says he isn’t worried about it.

Waltrip has plenty to worry about these days as he is set to dance in front of millions on Monday night as he makes his debut on Dancing with the Stars. The 51-year-old Kentucky native has certainly kept busy since stepping out of the NASCAR cockpit on a full-time basis in 2010, including becoming a best-selling author and driving a Ferrari in the World Endurance Championship.

The two-time Daytona 500 winner believes that his team will return to the level it had achieved prior to suffering a setback during the off-season. Even with NASCAR’s new playoff system presumably being wide open, Waltrip is glad this year played out the way it did.

“If we were in the Chase, I don’t think you’d be talking about us being champions, and that’s what the Chase is all about, being a champion.” Waltrip said on Friday. “So, we would have tiptoed into the Chase, but we know that over these next 10 weeks, we continue to improve our cars and continue to improve the engines, we can build momentum and race through these 10 races and win and be ready to be championship contenders in 2015.”

Much of MWR’s struggles have been attributed to the overall lack of power produced by Toyota Racing Development (TRD)’s engine package this year. Waltrip, though, was the first major team to feature Toyota support at the Sprint Cup level, and the team owner remains confident 2015 will see a significant rebound out of team and supplier.

“I’m so proud of Vickers and Bowyer for their constructive help towards what the engines feel like at specific points on the race track. This one has more power, well it doesn’t feel good at this RPM, it feels better at that.” Waltrip said. “We’re total partners and I wouldn’t be racing without them and we know we’re with the right manufacturer.

“We believe the will have the best engines in 2015 and beyond and we’re going to help them to continue to provide feedback so they can get there.”

The 2014 Chase may be treated as a large testing session for MWR, but the numbers have shown the team should not be counted out of victory lane contention due to a poor campaign this season. That started at Richmond last week, but Bowyer hopes the solid run will transfer to Chicago, where he has amassed seven top-10 finishes during the last eight races and ran sixth during Friday’s lone practice session.

“(Richmond) we finally executed like we needed to. Everything came together. We’ve had flashes of that throughout the year but Saturday it showed… “I’m happy with the way we performed at Richmond. That’s what this team is capable of.”

“This team has done a good job for our first year together” Vickers added. “We’re going to go out and try to win a championship next year, and there’s still 10 races left this year where we can win some races and get some top fives and top 10s. Everyone at MWR has done a really great job giving us some really great cars the last month or two, stepping up our downforce and car potential and its showing in our performance.”

Vickers may not yet be acclimated to his new team, but for Bowyer the standards and expectations are that much higher. Despite not having the yellow trim that signified he was championship eligible, he nonetheless still has the confidence of a winner and a contender.

“I wouldn’t say that we are ready to compete for a championship right now but we are going in the right direction and we will use the rest of this year to get a win and get ready for next year.”

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NASCAR Cup Series

What Underdogs? Allmendinger and Almirola Enter Chase with Swagger

By Matt Weaver — AJ Allmendinger and Aric Almirola posted their first-ever Sprint Cup Series victories this season with the added bonus that it also permitted them entry into the new-look Chase for the Championship. Now the challenge for the two decided underdogs is to make the transition from a potential one hit wonder to perhaps, a contender for the championship.

Out of the two, it appears that Almirola has the best chance to advance into the second round as his Richard Petty Motorsports team tested at Chicagoland Speedway while his over-the-wall crew received enhancements from the No. 9 team at RPM.

“We had a great test at Chicago,” Almirola said on Thursday during the annual Chase Media Day. “I felt like we took some of the things we learned here and applied them to Atlanta. We qualified seventh and finished ninth and that was a really solid run for us and a good day. That’s really all we need to do for the next three weeks.

“I feel like if we can kick off Chicago with a solid qualifying effort and a top-10 race and do the same the next two races, there’s no reason why we can’t advance.”

To aid his efforts, Almirola will compete in the Nationwide Series for the next three races for Biagi DenBeste Racing in the No. 98 entry often piloted by David Ragan. Almirola will remain in that car for the rest of the season as long as he remains eligible for the championship.

“The team and I feel like the extra time on the track will be beneficial,” Almirola said. “Whether I win or run 15th, that’s not what we’re looking at. What we’re looking for is to understand the tire data and understand what the track does. Most weekends, we run Happy Hour and then hit the track on Sunday with very little of an idea for what the tire did during the Nationwide race the day before.

“Now we’re going to have first-hand knowledge of where the track is going and how to plan our changes before the race.”

As for Allmendinger, he and the JTG-Daugherty Racing team just received a brand new chassis from their technical partners at Richard Childress Racing. RCR placed just one team (Ryan Newman, No. 31) into the Chase and that organization has increased their support of Allmendinger in the efforts to stack the deck.

“They’ve been so helpful from the start and now with them only having one car in the Chase, Richard (Childress) has been so kind to say ‘you know, we’re going to try and put as much effort as we can behind your car as well because it helps us if you run well too.’ I wouldn’t say it has changed the relationship, but I definitely feel like we’re part of their team too.”

While Allmendinger isn’t blind to the fact that the powerhouse teams will ultimately vie for the title, he scoffs at the notion that he isn’t a “contender.” After all, he qualified for the Chase just like the 15 other teams that comprise the first round.

“We’re contenders because we’re here,” Allmendinger said. “We’ve got a shot at it but I’m also not blind to the fact that if you put me against Jimmie Johnson, who the favorite would be. I understand.”

Adding insult to injury, several Las Vegas sport books didn’t even list Allmendinger and Almirola on their list of bets to win the 2014 Chase. Each of the top-14 drivers were all named, followed simply by “others.” Allmendinger says he laughed at the news but again understands the challenge that lies before him.

“I understand it,” Allmendinger said. “It’s part of it. Honestly, I relish this and I like being the underdog team. Tad (Geschickter) started this team in a barn in (1994) and we’ve always been an underdog. So I don’t take offense to it.

“I just kind of smile and say that I like being under the radar and hopefully we can go out, make some noise and make some guys mad by knocking them out of the Chase.”

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