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Commentary

Time to Make Punishment Fit the Crime? YES!

Denny Hamlin raced like a hero at Darlington Raceway over the weekend, scoring dramatic late-race victories in both the NASCAR XFINITY and Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races at the historic South Carolina track.

There’s just one problem: Both of his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas flunked post-race inspections, so Hamlin had both victories kinda, sorta taken away.

Hamlin’s two wins, like the one Joey Logano scored at Richmond in the spring were considered “encumbered,” which means they stand in the record book, but don’t count towards the playoffs. In Hamlin’s case, he loses the 5 playoff points he got for winning the race.

In Logano’s case, he’s probably not going to make NASCAR’s playoffs because he doesn’t have an unencumbered victory, like Hamlin does. Oh, and in case you’re keeping score at home, Logano’s Darlington XFINITY finish was also encumbered for Team Penske monkeying with the rear suspension on his Ford, the same exact infraction found on both of Hamlin’s Toyotas.

Both Hamlin and Logano received what NASCAR calls “L1” penalties, its most serious offense.

Well, guess what? It isn’t enough. NASCAR keeps handing out penalties, teams keep breaking the rules. It’s time to hit teams where it hurts.

We’ve reached the point where sterner measures are warranted. My suggestion? Any team caught with an L1 penalty doesn’t get to compete in the next race. It’s simple, clear and unambiguous.

Will that stop the shenanigans? Maybe, maybe not. But something clearly needs to be done and done soon or the problem is only going to get worse.

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News

Both of Hamlin’s Darlington Victories Encumbered

In a dramatic turn of events, both of Denny Hamlin’s race-winning Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas from Darlington Raceway were deemed illegal by NASCAR on Wednesday, as was Joey Logano’s second-place NASCAR XFINITY Series car.

Hamlin swept both the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race and the XFINITY race at Darlington over the weekend, but it turns out both cars had improper rear suspension modifications.

On the Cup side, crew chief Mike Wheeler was fined $50,000 and suspended from two races and the team has been assessed with the loss of 25 owner points and 25 driver points for the following violation: “Section 20.14.2 Rear Suspension I-4 f Truck Trailing Arm Spacers/Pinion Angle Shims. Spacers/pinion angle shims must conform to the following drawing: A-008- 01016d-16 REV. A. Notes: 6 The Truck trailing arm spacer / pinion angle shim mating surfaces must be planar and must be in complete contact with corresponding mating surfaces at all points and at all times. Race finish is encumbered per Section 12.10 Encumbered Race Finishes.”

Hamlin’s race-winning JGR XFINITY car was slapped with the same violation. Crew chief Eric Phillips was  fined $25,000 and suspended from two races. Team has been assessed with the loss of 25 owner points. No driver points were involved because Hamlin wasn’t racing for points in that series.

Also busted for the same infraction was Team Penske’s No. 22 XFINITY squad. Crew chief Greg Irwin got the identical penalties: $25,000 fine and a two-race suspension, with the team losing 25 owner points.

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Commentary

WAID’S WORLD: Richmond – Where We’ll Learn Who’s In And Who’s Out

There are many appealing things about Monster Series NASCAR Cup racing at the three-quarter mile Richmond Raceway, but perhaps the strongest of them comes with the September race, this year called the Federated Auto Parts 400.

It is the last race of NASCAR’s regular season, which means it offers the final chance for some competitors to move on to the 10-race playoff that begins a week later.

As you know, any driver that does not make the playoffs has no chance for a championship. It’s pretty much that way in all professional sports.

Several drivers are already playoff bound because they have won at least one race this season. Others aren’t quite as comfortable. They haven’t won but are nestled among the top 16 in points.

But they are vulnerable.

And there are others whose only chance to move ahead comes with a victory.

What lures many of us is to see how this will all play out. The race will reveal the final starting lineup of drivers for the playoffs – and there are innumerable ways for that to happen. That’s the hook.

One driver who won’t be feeling any pre-race tension is Martin Truex Jr.

Truex Jr. finished eighth in Darlington’s Bojangle’s’ Southern 500. However, he won two more stages and locked down the regular season title. He picked up two more playoff points by winning two stages of the race and the championship paid him 15 more points.

No matter what happens at Richmond, Truex Jr. will have at least 52 playoff points. No one else has more than 20 at the moment. And in each round he advances his points carry over until the championship event.

It’s been a breakout season for the Furniture Row driver and he’s a heavy favorite to contest for the title at Homestead.

He might have won at Darlington but could not hold off Denny Hamlin, who has fresher tires. Hamlin got around Truex Jr. with three laps to go. Truex Jr. also suffered a blown tire.

But in the end, so what?

“That was unfortunate,” Truex Jr. said. “But to lock up the regular season title is a huge accomplishment for us. We’ve come a long way in a short time and continue to climb.”

That might be an understatement.

The winless drivers who were playoff eligible going into Richmond are Chase Elliott, seventh in points, Matt Kenseth, eighth and Jamie McMurray, 10th. All of them are more than 90 points ahead of 17th-place Daniel Suarez.

Clint Bowyer experienced engine failure at Darlington and finished 40th. He has to win at Richmond in order to move on. So does Suarez, Joey Logano, Erik Jones, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and others.

Earnhardt Jr.’s last Darlington race wasn’t the fairy-tale ending his legion of fans hoped it would be. His Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet hasn’t been competitive all season.

“We have lost speed,” said the 14-time Most Popular Driver. “But I don’t want my guys to remember this season because we fought and fell apart and got negative and nasty and short with each other. 

“I want those guys to remember it, even if we don’t’ win, or have success, I want them to remember that we worked our guts out and we stayed at it to the very end. We fought hard to the finish.”

Richmond has the potential to provide high drama. If a driver who has already won triumphs, the guys currently in on points might be able to breathe easier.

If one of the winless drivers outside the points border wins, he’ll be a very happy fellow. It’s likely one now safely within the point range won’t be.

I think among the outsiders Logano has the best shot at victory. He won at Richmond in April but the victory became “encumbered” when he sustained a post-race penalty from NASCAR.

“Encumbered” means the win does not count.

There are numerous scenarios that could be played out at Richmond.

My opinion is that the most enticing of them all is for Earnhardt Jr. to win and make the playoffs in his last season as a full time Cup driver.

It’s not likely. Sounds like something right out of Hollywood, doesn’t it?

But, as the old saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction.

EMAIL STEVE AT steve.waid@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW STEVE ON TWITTER: @SteveWaid

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.

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News

Shell, Joey Logano Pitch in to Help Houston Flood Victims

With the devastation of Houston caused by Hurricane Harvey still fresh in everyone’s minds, the NASCAR community is pitching in to help victims recover from the record rainfall.

Shell, which sponsors the No. 22 Team Penske Ford driven by Joey Logano, has pledged a $1 million donation to the American Red Cross Hurricane Harvey disaster relief fund.

Logano himself will donate $25,000 to the American Red Cross and open a donation portal through the Joey Logano Foundation to collect funds on behalf of the American Red Cross for Hurricane Harvey disaster relief.  

The Red Cross is accepting donations here and people also can donate through the Joey Logano Foundation, where all proceeds donated for the next 30 days will go to the American Red Cross Hurricane Harvey disaster relief fund. Contributors can also text HARVEY to 90999 to donate $10.

A special logo for the American Red Cross will also be carried on the TV panel of the No. 22 Shell-Pennzoil Ford Fusion this weekend in the Bojangles’ Southern 500 race at Darlington and the team will run a Red Cross-inspired paint scheme at Richmond next week.

Others are supporting the cause, too.

Jimmie Johnson said his sponsor, Lowe’s, and Hendrick Motorsports were working to help the victims.

“They (Lowe’s) have store employees on the ground volunteering and doing everything they can, as they do in all disaster situations,” said Johnson. “They announced a day or two ago that they had donated I think $500,000 to the efforts down there. It’s amazing work on their behalf. I’ll end up in Houston at some point, and then from the Hendrick side we’re figuring out how we can get involved.”

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News

Joey Logano Takes Delivery of 216 mph Ford GT

The Ford GT is a world-class supercar designed to race and win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and other famous sports-car circuits around the world.

Priced at about $450,000, the sexy two-seater carries a 3.5-liter, twin-turbo engine that produces 647 horsepower and 550 lb.-ft. of torque.

What does that mean in terms of performance? How about this: zero to 60 mph in 2.9 seconds, a standing-start quarter-mile in 10.6 seconds and a blistering top speed of 216 mph. That’s enough to make your hair stand on end.

And judging by his Tuesday morning Twitter feed, it looks like Joey Logano of Team Penske has himself a new hot rod, courtesy of the folks at Ford Performance, who always look out for their Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers.

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Commentary

7 Takeaways From The Kyle Busch Sweep Show at Bristol

Kyle Busch crushed it at Bristol Motor Speedway, sweeping all three NASCAR National Touring Series races for the second time in his career, a feat no one else has ever done once.

Saturday night’s Bass Pro NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway was great fun, with first Busch and Kyle Larson and then Busch and Erik Jones putting on an excellent display of hard racing.

Here are seven takeaways from the 24th of 26 races in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series:

Oh, what a feeling

The top four finishers at Bristol all drove Toyotas: Kyle Busch, Erik Jones, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth. After winning just two of the first 17 races of the season, Toyotas have won five of the last seven, which proves how quickly things change in NASCAR. It’s also a reminded that could change again before the year is out.

Not making the playoffs

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Joey Logano aren’t going to make the NASCAR playoffs, and I doubt Clint Bowyer is, either. To win a race, most of the time you’ve got to lead laps and run up front with regularity.

In the last 14 races, Logano has only led once — 7 laps at Kentucky — and his best finish in the last four races was 13th at Bristol. He just hasn’t had much speed lately.

In the last eight races, Earnhardt’s best finish is 12th and his cars have consistently lacked speed, too.

Bowyer has run well lately, but his ceiling at short tracks and intermediate tracks seems to be around the top five.  Worse yet, Bowyer has led only 22 laps all year, less than one per race.

The crowd

It was great to see a solid crowd at Bristol Motor Speedway again. It maybe wasn’t what it was in the sport’s heyday, but was impressive nevertheless. Thanks, race fans, for coming to the show. You saw an excellent race.

Keeping up with the Jones

David Wilson, Toyota’s racing boss in the United States, told me at the spring Richmond race that Erik Jones would win a race before the year is out. I thought for sure that victory was going to come Saturday night, as Jones qualified on the pole, led a race-high 260 laps and finished second to Kyle Busch. Keep an eye on Jones — he’s an up-and-comer.

Busch’s broomstick

What can you say about Kyle Busch at Bristol Motor Speedway? He just owns that track, winning six Cup races, nine NASCAR XFINITY Series races and five more in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.

Busch deserves congratulations for an amazing accomplishment. That said, watching him race in the Truck Series is how I imagine watching LeBron James play against a junior college team would look like.

The King

I spoke briefly with Richard Petty before Saturday night’s race and it reminded me of how truly dominant he was in the day. Kyle Busch so far has won six Cup races at Bristol, which is very impressive. Now check this out: Petty won 15 races each at Martinsville and North Wilkesboro; 12 at Richmond, 11 at Rockingham, 10 at Daytona, nine at Nashville and seven each at Dover and Columbia (S.C.). No disrespect at all to Kyle, but Petty is and will always be The King, and for good reason.

The title fight

Anything is possible, but the way I see it, the 2017 champion will be one of four drivers: Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson or Jimmie Johnson. Collectively, the four have won half of the 24 Cup races run so far this year and 29 of 48 stages. These four are also the only four drivers with more than 15 playoff points.

Could a Brad Keselowski or a Kevin Harvick or a Denny Hamlin crash the championship party? Sure, they could. A lot can and will happen over the final 10 races. But if someone not named Johnson, Larson, Truex or Kyle Busch is the 2017 Cup champion, I will be well and truly shocked.

E-MAIL TOM AT tom.@jensen@popularspeed.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 or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Ford Teams Look to Recapture Michigan Magic

Once upon a time, Michigan International Speedway was Ford Motor Co.’s playground, and in today’s Pure Michigan 400 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race, the Blue Oval Boys will be looking to dominate again.

When the 2-mile MIS oval opened in 1969, Ford and Mercury cars won 12 of the first 15 Cup races up through 1976, when David Pearson and the Wood Brothers Racing team swept both events.

In 1985 and ’86, Bill Elliott won four straight in the powerhouse No. 9 Ford Thunderbirds fielded by Harry Melling.

Fords won the second MIS race of 1990 (Mark Martin), both ’91 races (Davey Allison and Dale Jarrett) and the first race of ’92, again with Allison.

Fords would go on to sweep at MIS again in 1994, ’96, ’97 and ’02.

The most recent Ford sweep at MIS came in 2013, with Greg Biffle and Joey Logano coming up big.

Will the Ford teams step up again today?

There’s a good chance they will.

Michigan native Brad Keselowski will start on the pole in his Team Penske Ford, flanked by teammate Joey Logano, with Kevin Harvick third in a Stewart-Haas Racing Ford.

For Keselowski, winning at MIS would be a dream come true,

“Any success you have at your home track is right there with having success in the biggest races of the year like Daytona for the 500 and the championship,” Keselowski said.  “It’s a big deal for any driver, not just myself.  Of course, this is my home track and to be able to have any kind of success here just really feels so darn good and I just hope we can keep it up this weekend.”

Logano, on the other hand, is in dire need of a victory in one of the next four races or else he’ll miss NASCAR’s playoffs.

“I love the pressure.  I’m all right with pressure.  It’s good,” said Logano.  “I’d rather be in, but the pressure part is OK.  You’ve got to get used to that, but that’s what this sport is, especially during the playoffs.  We just have to turn into playoff mode a little bit earlier than everybody else to get in, but so far so good.”

As far as challengers to the Fords today, there are several of the usual suspects to watch out for: Cup points leader Martin Truex Jr. and is dominant Furniture Row Racing Toyota, two-time defending Michigan winner Kyle Larson in a Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, and the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet of Chase Elliott, who has finished second in each of his three MIS starts.

Expect a wide-open race and, as always at Michigan, fuel mileage could factor into who wins.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

6 Storylines for Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400

If Bubba Wallace’s thrilling victory in Saturday’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Michigan International Speedway was any indication, Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400 ought to be a barnburner.

Wallace scored an emotional triumph in a four-way, last-lap shootout in the truck race and we very well could see similar drama when the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers do battle at MIS in the 23rd of 26 regular-season races.

Penske Power

So far the Team Penske Fords look like the cars to beat, as Brad Keselowski qualified on the pole and was fastest in Saturday’s final practice as well. His teammate, Joey Logano, qualified second and Ryan Blaney has been wicked fast all weekend in the Penske-affiliated Wood Brothers Racing Ford.

And there’s quite a subplot here: Keselowski, a Michigan native, desperately wants to win his first Cup race at his home track. And teammate Logano desperately needs to win to make the NASCAR playoffs. That could make for a tense afternoon.

Can Elliott break through?

Second-year driver Chase Elliott has competed in three Cup races here at MIS, finishing second in all three. Elliott will roll off from fifth place in the starting grid and he’s practiced well all weekend. With 63 career starts but no wins under his belt yet — and a razor-thin margin to stay playoff eligible — Elliott wants to win now.

Playoff implications

Drivers who’ve won races so far this year have filled 13 of the 16 Cup playoff spots already. Just 11 points separate the three drivers who are in the playoffs on points right now — Elliott, Jamie McMurray and Matt Kenseth.  And Clint Bowyer is just 28 points back of Kenseth.

A stumble by any of the three, or another first-time 2017 winner could drastically juggle the playoff standings with just three regular-season races left after Michigan. 

Earnhardt’s best shot?

Yes, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his massive fan base are both understandably unhappy with season so far. But Michigan might be his best chance at redemption. Earnhardt said he overdrove his qualifying lap on Friday, which means he’ll roll off 19th at the start.  Still, he was sixth in both practices on Saturday and should be competitive in the race. Who knows, maybe Earnhardt’s luck will finally turn in the right direction.

Truex keeps pressure on

With 34 playoff points already and another 15 set for when he win the regular-season points standings, Martin Truex Jr. is rapidly working his was way near a free pass to the championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November. Truex could well pick up another stage win or race win on Sunday. He was second fastest in the final Cup practice.

Larson goes for three-peat

In his still young Cup career, Kyle Larson has three race victories. The first one came in this race a year ago and the third one came at MIS in June. Larson, who will start ninth on Sunday, posted the fastest 10-consecutive lap average speed during the final Cup practice. And he’ll race in the A-Main at the Knoxville (Iowa) Nationals tonight.  Sunday at MIS, Larson will start ninth. Just don’t expect him to stay there for too long.

Categories
Commentary

Stage Racing Enhancing Road Course Strategy

When the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series competes at Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen International, strategy becomes a more integral part of the race compared to oval events.

Unlike most venues, drivers can pit under green flag conditions without losing a lap, and the timing of these stops becomes critical to determining which cars ultimately battle for the trophy.

The addition of stage racing in 2017 further emphasizes the importance of strategy. Much like at Sonoma in June, teams will enter Sunday’s I LOVE NEW YORK 355 at the Glen prepared with game plans crafted towards either succeeding in the first two stages or overall event.

Sonoma featured a distinct divide between those who performed and finished well in each stage compared to how the end of the race unfolded.

Kevin Harvick took the victory but didn’t place inside the top-10 in the first two stages. Despite this, he led the second-most laps and pulled away to his first win of the season.

Clint Bowyer only completed Stage 1 in the top-10 but triumphed at the end to earn his second runner-up of 2017.

Brad Keselowski finished third after pitting late in Stage 1, staying out for Stage 2, and gaining crucial track position that put him up front for the rest of the event.

Similar storylines will likely emerge out of Watkins Glen.

With five races until the Playoffs begin, drivers on the bubble without a win will need every point to assure their opportunity to compete for the championship.

They will have to balance chasing victory while not giving up many stage points as they develop a strategy for Sunday. Seeing how much Chase Elliott, Jamie McMurray, and Matt Kenseth gain will help further piece together the post-season picture.

However, those three competitors will need to keep an eye on drivers who are in a must-win situation to climb into the top-16.

Road courses often even the playing field and typically don’t favor the best-performing cars of the season, opening the door for drivers on the outside of the title picture, including previous Watkins Glen winners Joey Logano and A.J. Allmendinger.

Seeing whether those who have to win to secure a Playoff spot or a past winner this season prevails adds another compelling storyline to an already highly anticipated event.

Watkins Glen has produced many memorable moments in recent years including epic last lap battles that pitted experienced road racers Marcos Ambrose and Allmendinger against the best of the sport with Kyle Busch, Keselowski, and Denny Hamlin, delivering thrilling finishes.

Producing more dramatic moments is a major goal of stage racing. By introducing this style of competition to the always exciting road course, it can only enhance one of the wildest events of the season.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @HeyJasonSchultz

EMAIL JASON AT jason.schultz@popularspeed.com

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.

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Commentary

Expect the Unexpected Sunday at Watkins Glen

If Saturday’s two rounds of practice for the I Love NY 355 at the Glen Cup race at Watkins Glen International were any indication, Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race might be a very chaotic affair.

Brad Keselowski was fastest in final practice and the Toyota armada from Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing dominated the opening session. But lots of top drivers struggled on the day.

Among the drivers who crashed or spun in one of the sessions were seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, 2004 champ Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Danica Patrick, Corey LaJoie and Boris Said.

Add into that the fact that this race has had seven different winners in the last eight years, and Marcos Ambrose, the only repeat winner in that time, isn’t even in the field.

So on Sunday, expect the unexpected — chaos, crashes and fuel mileage all could factor into the outcome.

“There’s so many wrecks that happens on road courses, different strategy plays into the outcome,” said Denny Hamlin, who is on baby watch and may miss Sunday’s race if girlfriend Jordan Fish goes into labor.

Strategy also could play out in terms of fuel mileage.

“When you come to a track where the tires don’t wear out much and you don’t slow down much it definitely becomes a fuel mileage race,” said Joey Logano, who won here in 2015 and was second last year. “I think this race has come down to fuel mileage with everyone trying to pit when they can and not getting caught by the caution. Yeah, there will be a lot of strategy.”

And there will be crashes. There always are.

“We’re running pretty quick times here and so you hang a wheel off one corner and it becomes very tough,” said Hamlin, the defending winner of this event. “When you make a mistake it usually is pretty big.”

Johnson said he expects an aggressive race on Sunday.

“If you’re somebody that needs a win or who is desperate in points, you might have a bumper coming in your direction,” he said.

And that could mean some high drama, especially with drivers who need to win to make the playoffs.

“I anticipate it being very exciting here,” said Johnson, who is looking for his first win here. “The speeds are higher here versus Sonoma. So moving somebody out of the way is a bit trickier and I don’t think as common. But, it should be a very exciting race.”