Categories
Editorial

Fantasy Racing Preview: All In at Atlanta

Now that the Daytona 500 is in the rear view mirror, the real challenge of the 2015 Sprint Cup Season begins.

With this weekend’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, it marks not only the first downforce race of the season but also the new aero and engine packages as well. With 150 horsepower less to play with by way of a tapered spacer (i.e., restrictor plate), drivers will also be able to adjust the track bar from inside the cockpit – legally. With worn out asphalt and corner entry speeds still in the 200mph range, it should be an eventful race – particularly as temperatures struggle to reach 50 degrees on Sunday.

Contenders

While I used the excuse of restrictor plate races being crap shoots last week, this week is going to be a similar shot in the dark affair. Writing this in the midst of Thursday’s open test session, I would tend to lean towards proven Atlanta performers for any fantasy or wagering considerations. And those whose teams have a crew chief with an XFINITY Series background given the similarities between the Sprint Cup cars and those in their sister series given the new rules package designed to slow things down.

@JamieMcMurray paced the first session with a fast lap of 191.549mph, while @JeffGordonWeb was fastest in the second session, knocking off a lap of 188.424mph. Gordon made his series debut here in November of 1992 and would love to close out his career on a higher note than he did at Daytona last weekend. Gordon (who has a series-high five wins at AMS among full-time drivers) also had the fastest 10-lap average in session two, while @KevinHarvick took the fastest 10-lap honors in session one. It should also be noted that Harvick led 195 laps here last September before a series of late-race cautions and restarts saw him relegated to a 19th place finish.

Factor in the usual suspects from Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports obviously. They’re all in the top-10 in speed and as usual, solid picks at a 1.5-miler – or, in this case, 1.54 miles.

Pretenders

While they were fastest on race day last weekend sweeping Friday, Saturday and Sunday’s events in Daytona, those representing the Blue Oval camp may end up resembling the other moniker that Ford is teased with by their fellow competitors.

Daytona 500 champion @JoeyLogano was the fastest Ford in Thursday’s first practice session at 17th while @GBiffle was 12th fastest in session two. Even Brad @Keselowski, who is often dominant at downforce tracks in the XFINITY Series could only muster 21st on the speed charts despite running 81 laps in the second session.

Not to bash the Ford camp, but I’d look elsewhere for fantasy fodder this weekend.

While Smoke would love to turn things around here, I’m not sure even @TonyStewart’s stellar record at AMS, which includes three wins and an average finishing position of 12.7 will be a threat to win given his speeds of 20th and 25th in the two test sessions. @DanicaPatrick fans take heart; she was faster than her boss in both sessions at 19th and 14th. Despite a career-best sixth place finish here in September, she’s not a threat to win, so I’d hold off on selecting her in fantasy until a race or two at these high-speed/high-downforce tracks gives us some real race data to go off of.

While there’s no rain in the forecast for Sunday, I will be putting a damper on things for those who surprised last weekend in the closing craziness. While @DavidGilliland, @SamHornish and @MichaelAnnett put together surprisingly solid runs coming home 11th, 12th and 13th respectively, the party ends this weekend sadly,  and reality sets in.  Hornish might find some speed in practice over the weekend, but Annett and Gilliland were in the 30s during the test sessions on Thursday. They will likely get a lot of TV time however, as they will be lapped multiple times on Sunday given Atlanta’s penchant for long green-flag runs.

Unless you’re desperate for a cheap driver to fill a slot in a salary capped league or need one from a lower tier, don’t even bother – there are better choices out there still and better values to be found.

Dark Horse Favorites

@DavidRagan was pick last week as a fantasy bargain and worth throwing $5.00 on as a long shot to win. This weekend Ragan rolls into his home track with a legitimate chance to win for the first time since 2011, when he was behind the wheel of the No. 6 Roush Fenway Ford.

On Wednesday, it was announced he would replace @KyleBusch for the next six weeks in the No. 18 Toyotas for Joe Gibbs Racing. While Atlanta hasn’t been his best track historically (one top-10 finish in 2008 – eighth), it’s been quite lucrative for JGR over the years. Thursday he spent the afternoon getting comfortable in his new ride, placing 19th and 15th in the two practice sessions while the other JGR Toyotas were in the top-10. By Sunday, however, he should be up to speed and on pace with his teammates, and is a fantasy bargain for sure over the next few months.

While they may not be in contention for the win, keep @AJDinger and @CJMearsGang in mind; mid-teens speed in the second test session, they are bargains for salary capped fantasy leagues.

Coming to the Line … 

While this weekend’s race is still a toss-up, I do believe it will help set the tone for the first quarter of the season. It will take teams a few weeks to acclimate to the new rules packages, and there will be sure to be some stumbling blocks along the way. The two practice sessions did provide valuable insight and trends to watch for during the practice sessions this weekend, before you ultimately lock in your picks for Sunday’s race.

While Jamie McMurray was atop the speed charts in the first session, his teammate @KyleLarsonRacin was just a tick off in second. In the second session, Larson was fourth fastest and posted the 10th fastest 10-lap average. Atlanta is a multi-groove track, but with the 2015 spoiler reduction, downforce will not be what it once was. Mechanical grip will be at a premium and that No. 42 has a habit of finding the fast way around the high-side of the race track, even if it means using the wall for leverage.

While I think it’s a coin flip between Harvick and Larson, I’m going to lean towards youth this weekend, and give the nod to Kyle Larson celebrating his first Sprint Cup Series win.

EMAIL VITO AT vito.pugliese@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @vitopugliese

Categories
Editorial

Rolling the Dice at Daytona: Playing the Odds and Fantasy 500 Favorites

With Sunday’s running of the 57th annual Daytona 500, it not only marks the start of the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Season, but also numerous fantasy leagues and betting pools as well.

Whether you’re playing online, with your friends at the office or in Las Vegas for the weekend, you want to get things off on a good foot and not make a bad move in “The Superbowl of Stockcar Racing.” With that said, here is a quick handicap of this weekend’s action at the World Center of Racing:

Contenders

First off, let me preface this by saying this is the Daytona 500, it’s a restrictor plate race, so anything can happen. Remember @KurtBusch’s quip about picking Bingo balls during qualifying? It’s pretty much like that, including the bouncing around and smashing into each other once “The Big One” lights off and collects 15-20 cars.

As he always is at the plate tracks and during the Daytona 500 in particular, defending champion and two-time winner of The Great American Race, @DaleJr leads the pack currently with 9:1 odds at winning his third 500. Even during the lean years of 2009-2012, Earnhardt Jr. was always a factor, with runner-up finishes in 2010, 2012 and 2013. While he wasn’t really a factor in Saturday’s Sprint Unlimited, his performance in the Budweiser Duel Thursday night has him atop my list.

Coming from dead last to the lead, and then never really being seriously challenged from there, Earnhardt Jr. is looking to be the first back-to-back Daytona 500 winner since Sterling Marlin won in 1995 and 1996. The fastest car doesn’t always win, but if it keeps the nose and fenders intact this is the car to beat. If you dvr’d the race, check out the side-draft he pulls on @JamieMcMurray in the middle of Turn 4 with 28 laps to go – and then again on @MattKenseth to take the lead with 14 to go.

The No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet is a monster and Greg Ives stands to forever endear himself to Junior Nation this Sunday.

Drivers bringing 10:1 odds are @DennyHamlin, @KyleBusch, @JimmieJohnson and Kenseth. The latter two have a pair of wins a piece, Johnson winning in 2006 and 2013, while Kenseth won a rain-shortened Daytona 500 in 2009, and the rain/jet dryer-fire delayed 2012 event.

Busch and Hamlin have new crew chiefs – Hamlin paired with Busch’s former crew chief Dave Rogers, while Busch moved Adam Stevens up from the XFINITY Series. So far, the JGR Toyotas are almost as fast as the Hendrick Chevrolets at Daytona – almost.

Hamlin’s ride got a little dinged up in practice on Wednesday after making contact with @DanicaPatrick – and with whom he tangled again in the Budweiser Duel, evoking the furor of her karate chops afterwards. Of this group, I’m inclined to give the nod to Kenseth; he hasn’t won in over a year and even with his pair of Daytona 500 wins, is still probably the most underrated plate-racer in the series.

Making his final start in the Daytona 500 is three-time even winner @JeffGordonWeb. At 12:1 odds he’s definitely worth taking a look at, and within tiered fantasy leagues you really can’t afford not to have him in your mix as well. Gordon’s car is not quite as dominant as his teammates’ who won Thursday night, but knowing this is his last shot at winning his fourth Daytona 500, something tells me he’s saving something for Sunday.

What of his former protégé and front-row teammate Johnson? In typical 48 fashion, he came, he saw, he was stoked, and won another race with little fanfare – mainly because the media were huddled around Danica and Denny hashing things out. He’s a threat to win anywhere, anytime, so picking him isn’t exactly going out on a limb. Should something happen to the No. 88 in the next couple of practice sessions, the No. 48 then becomes the car to beat.

Pretenders

@ClintBowyer at 25:1 is gracious indeed in a backup car following his qualifying boondoggle with @ReedSorenson36. Bowyer is always good for a great interview and a sound bite, but with @BrianLVickers on the sidelines for the first few races, it’s up to he and team owner @MW55 to team up and take on the field come Sunday.

Speaking of Sorenson, how about a tip of the cap to the Team Xtreme Racing bunch for rebuilding a car that was wrecked just 72 hours earlier on Sunday during qualifying?

@KaseyKahne at 25:1 will be with crew chief Keith Rodden for their first ride together, and Kahne’s first race without Kenny Francis calling the shots. This coupled with his absolutely horrific luck would make me avoid him for the biggest race of the season. His teammates are all fast, but he doesn’t have JJ’s horseshoe, Gordon’s good fortune, or Junior’s beard.

Avoid like the plague with both your wallet and fantasy spend limits.

Dark Horse Favorites

@DavidRagan is the leader of this group, particularly after the back end of the Colonel’s bucket got buckled after contact sent him hurtling towards the pit road wall. He’s pulled off an upset before at Talladega in 2013 and had the 2011 Daytona 500 seemingly in hand before he jumped the final restart. Ragan is currently pulling 100:1 odds and is a low-cost fantasy pick as well.

The Fords are traditionally fast on the big tracks and while they didn’t have the pure speed as the Hendrick Chevrolets for the most part, it’s supposed to be 80-degrees on Sunday which will make handling a huge factor.

Speaking of the 2011 Daytona 500, the Wood Brothers new driver Ryan @Blaney impressed in his first start, bring the iconic No. 21 Motorcraft Ford home in sixth position. Can he repeat the feat of @TBayne6 in the 2011 Daytona 500? Probably not; that’s why he’s a dark horse. His 50:1 odds aren’t the most compelling but for fantasy players, he’s an inexpensive pick that could pay big dividends.

Coming to the Line … 

While he hasn’t made much noise during Speedweeks, I am going to go with Carl Edwards. Coincidentally, he’s my pick to win the Chase this year as well.

Why Carl? New drivers to Joe Gibbs Racing typically have a banner first year and Darian Grubb’s engineering background is akin to that of Bob Osborne, whom he had the most success with at Roush Fenway Racing. TRD was down on power at most tracks last year but seemed to close the gap at the plate tracks.

Hamlin won at Talladega and with a few cosmetic enhancements to the their Toyotas this year, the JGR Camrys look to be on par once again with the Chevrolets and Fords. Edwards is pulling 12:1 odds right now for the 500, and would be a smart pick for third and fourth races of the year at Las Vegas and Phoenix as well.

EMAIL VITO AT vito.pugliese@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @vitopugliese

Categories
Trucks

Crafton on Cruise Control While New Names Impress at PIR

By Vito Pugliese – With just two races remaining in the 2014 Camping World Truck Series, @Matt_Crafton appears to be inching closer to his second consecutive Truck Series title. Currently, Crafton holds a 23-point lead over @RyanBlaney22 heading into tonight’s Lucas Oil 150 at Phoenix International Raceway. Crafton has continued the formula from a year ago, running in the Top 10 virtually every weekend, avoiding wrecks, retaliation and mechanical pitfalls. If he can keep the fenders on it the next two Fridays and continue his current average finish of 12.0, he will most likely find himself with his second title in as many seasons.

Thursday’s practice sessions have also followed a familiar theme of the top three drivers in points setting the pace for the weekend. Following the first practice session Thursday, Blaney and Crafton were second and third quick respectively, with @BubbaWallace fastest in the Kyle Busch Motorsports No. 54. It is probably a cold consolation for Wallace, who saw his championship hopes come apart at Texas Motor Speedway last week — not unlike his engine. Wallace had lead 51 laps prior to engine failure, and being saddled with a DNF in 26th.

While we have typically focused on these three drivers the past few weeks when the championship battle was a bit tighter, this weekend there are a few new variables to the equation. Chief among these will be @Erik_Jones in the Kyle Busch Motorsports No. 51. This was the race where Jones earned his first win a year ago, and the return trip here coincides nicely with the announcement that he will be a full-time driver for 2015. Returning to KBM for the 15 season, he will also race in select events in the Xfinity (Nationwide) Series for Joe Gibbs Racing. Predictably, Jones was fastest in second practice, making him an odds-on favorite for Friday night.

@ColeCuster00, who scored his first win at Loudon in September, will be making his latest appearance since last competing at Martinsville in the Gene Haas 00. The 16-year old Custer held off Darrell Wallace, Jr. as well as veterans Matt Crafton and @JohnnySauter, in a frantic Green White Checker shootout. The win was a historic one, making him the youngest winner in NASCAR history, breaking the mark set by Erik Jones a year ago here. Loudon is a flat one-mile track that is a bit similar to Phoenix, albeit slightly different with the oblong layout. No matter to Custer, as he had the fastest ten-lap average in second practice Thursday, and third fastest overall behind Jones and Jeb Burton. Another driver of the sub-20 set, @TylerReddick will be in the No. 19 Brad Keselowski Racing Ford. Reddick has won the pole in two of the last three races and was seventh fastest in Thursday’s first session.

Bob Newberry’s NTS Motorsports group will be fielding a trio of trucks Friday night with @BrennanNewberry, Gray Gaulding and 2011 Truck Series champion @AustinDillon3. All three trucks appear to be contenders, with Newberry running fifth fastest in second practice on Thursday, with Dillon ninth and Gaulding 11th. While the Turner Scott Motorsports falling out was one of the bigger storylines of the past few months, the two survivors of that team seem to be up to speed this weekend. @BenKennedy31 in Steve Turner’s No. 31 was fourth fastest in second practice, as Ben Rhodes in the No. 32 Chevrolet for Harry Scott was 10th quick.

Fortunate were those who were fast in the practice sessions, as there were others who suffered greatly. A number of drivers brushed the wall during practice, some more so than others. German Quiroga’s No. 77 Red Horse Racing Toyota made contact with the wall and will have to go to a backup truck while Johnny Sauter in the No. 98 ThorSport Toyota suffered heavy damage to the right side of his Tundra, was able to make repairs in the garage and will not have to go to a backup. Sauter will be racing following the passing of his father Jim last Friday evening, racing patriarch of the Wisconsin motorsports family.

Qualifying will be televised on FOX Sports 1 at 4:30pm EST Friday, with race coverage starting on FOX Sports 1 at 8:00pm EST.

Follow @VitoPugliese on Twitter

Categories
Editorial

Gordon’s Response at Odds with His History

By Vito Pugliese – Now that we’ve had 24 hours to digest the melee that occurred on pit road between @JeffGordonWeb and Brad @Keselowski following Sunday night’s AAA 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, I think it’s necessary to nip any revisionist history in the bud before the 24 townsfolk assemble with pitchforks, sickles, and torches.

Having witnessed Gordon’s response to Keselowski trying to pass him on a restart with just three laps to go, I feel his comments and reactions carry with them a twinge of entitlement and selective memory. While many have been quick to seize on Keselowski’s aggressiveness in recent weeks (while running for a championship? The nerve!), as well as the aftermath of the Charlotte race, this should be seen as a completely separate incident, and one where the four-time champ got caught sleeping.

I understand why Gordon is upset. He was about to potentially win the race and lock himself into the title race at Homestead, but instead had his tire cut by a flared side skirt, sending him spinning a couple of corners later. Much has been made of his back problems this year, including having to get out of the car during a practice session for the Coca-Cola 600.

Gordon knows his window of opportunity is closing to complete the “Drive for Five,” which started after his last championship in 2001. What could have been a week spent to prepare for Homestead, now is going to be filled with stress and tension preparing for Phoenix, having to fend off seven drivers rather than three.

That said, with so much on the line, three laps to go is not the correct time to:

A) Pick the outside line which wasn’t working on restarts

B) Expect courtesy from drivers who need to win to have any hope of making it to Homestead

C) Throw a block to close off the hole on a car closing 10 mph faster

That bright white car that he allowed to gain position on him was one of those that needed to win the race to advance to the next round, following a disastrous Martinsville for the No. 2 Ford. Keselowski has been in this same frantic position since he blew a tire and knocked the wall down at Kansas a month ago, and has not had the luxury of trouble-free motoring that Gordon has largely enjoyed.

Desperate men do desperate things, and there’s nothing more dangerous than a man with nothing left to lose. Gordon was in a solid points position and had no need to try to block a car that much faster than him with only a couple of laps to go.

Speaking of brand awareness, note how during this calamity there were but a couple of Penske guys to assist Keselowski, while the No. 24 team were joined by members of the No. 5 and No. 27 Childress Chevrolet teams. They happily joined in, wildly throwing haymakers. While I have no problem with drivers going at it after a race, I think it’s a bit disingenuous to admonish someone from trying to avoid a fight when you show up with two and a half teams, while they’re parked to fulfill a media obligation. The team seemed all too ready to throw as well, as the video revealed that Gordon suffered his lumps at the hands of his own crew, who inadvertently face-raked him in the scrum.

While I and everyone else has the utmost respect for Gordon and what he has accomplished and done for this sport over the last 20 years … come on, dude. You practically patented “The Bump & Run” making it socially acceptable for use on the final lap, which historically has been used for great effect against – wait for it – the No. 2 car. Twice at Bristol – after Rusty Wallace had led 240 of 500 laps in 1997, and again in 2002, the No. 2 Team Penske Fords were denied victory after receiving a shot in the rear entering the corner by the No. 24. Back then, it was viewed much to the dismay of many longtime fans of the sport who viewed it as dirty pool.

Yes I know, it’s just short track racing; but why is that acceptable and trying to squeeze through a hole on a restart at a downforce track when the season on the line isn’t?

When Gordon was eligible for a $1 million bonus at Darlington in 1997, he door slammed @JeffBurton onto the apron in the closing laps to win the race and the bonus. His reasoning afterwards laughing into the camera was, “Jeff, buddy, it was for a million dollars, what’d you expect me to do?”

Too long ago? Gordon made an effort to retaliate against @MattKenseth in 2006 at Chicago, months after a late race incident at Bristol saw Gordon get turned in the closing laps.

More recently, Gordon performed a door-job of his own on @JimmieJohnson in 2010 at Texas of all places and led a season-long rift between the two.

With regards to @KevinHarvick and his pushing of Keselowski into the mix, followed by his explanation of him having to fight his own fights, was akin to a puppet master manipulating a pair of Nomex-clad marionette dolls for his own amusement. Harvick could well benefit from a penalty being assessed to Keselowski or Gordon as he is still eighth in points, just six points from fourth held by Gordon.

So who is right and who is wrong in this incident? Everybody and nobody. This is simply the result of an elimination-style championship format that we’ve never had before. Forget any nuanced strategy; this truly is go-for-broke every lap, and if you don’t, you may not get a chance to make it up at the next race. If that means a guy gets his fender wrinkled a little on a restart because he was slow on the get go, will that make hoisting a Sprint Cup Championship and that comically large check at Homestead in two weeks any more difficult?

About as likely as this feud being over by the time the green flag drops Sunday in Phoenix.

EMAIL VITO AT vito.pugliese@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @vitopugliese

Categories
Trucks

Three Amigos: Three to go for Truck Series Title Trio

By Vito Pugliese – Heading into Friday’s Win Star World Casino 350K at Texas Motor Speedway, the Camping World Truck Series Championship has seemingly become a three-way championship between three different teams and manufacturers.

While Matt Crafton has benefited from the misfortune that has befallen ThorSport teammate Johnny Sauter in recent weeks, it has done little to give him more breathing room in his quest for a second straight Truck Series Championship. While Sauter’s blown engine at Talladega and dust up with Timothy Peters at Martinsville has granted him a lead of 40 points over his teammate, as Ryan Blaney and Darrell Wallace Jr. continue to hound him.

Currently, Blaney is second in points just sixteen back, with Wallace just 26 points out, but gathering momentum with just three races remaining. Texas Motor Speedway was both kind and cruel to Blaney this past April. He led 45 laps (his most in any race this season) but fell to fourth at race end when fuel strategy did not play into the favor of him and crew chief Chad Kendrick. The BKR trucks never lack for speed at the fast downforce tracks like TMS; the No. 29 team put their F-150 on the pole at Las Vegas a month ago and did the same at Michigan back in August. In Thursday’s second round of practice, Blaney had the fastest ten consecutive lap average at 174.845; over 1.5mph faster than Kyle Busch, who was second quick.

Darrell Wallace, Jr. is having a career year in just his second full season of competition with Kyle Busch Motorsports. He’s won three races so far (Gateway, Eldora, Martinsville), and is riding a streak where he’s finished outside of the Top 10 just twice in the last ten races – those results being a 12th and an 11th. While he would likely need some assistance with Crafton and the No. 88 team to stub their toe and sacrifice a large chunk of points. He ran strong in April here, qualifying seventh and driving up as high as third before he too was felled by fuel woes. The No. 54 had to pit with just five laps to go for a splash of gas, falling to ninth by the time the checkered flag fell.

Crafton’s teammate Johnny Sauter may have seen his title hopes expire at the paperclip, but he is no slouch here and could quickly turn the table should the point leader find trouble. Sauter swept both races here in 2012 and finished seventh back in the spring. Perhaps more telling of his chances is how he’s performed on banked downforce tracks of late. He won the pole at Chicagoland Speedway last month and won the race at Michigan in late August. The latter was a fuel economy win, but he did lead a span of 21 laps late in the going. Michigan might be a half-mile longer than Texas, but both tracks can run virtually wide open if the balance is right, which seems to fit him just fine. This proved true in practice Thursday, as Sauter topped the charts in both the first and second sessions.

With all that said, what of Matt Crafton? In 27 starts he has 16 Top 10 finishes; in the last 11 races he’s finished worse than sixth on just two occasions. He won here back in April, starting on the front row and leading 118 laps for his second win of the season. Since then it’s been typical Crafton consistency over the last 12 races. He’s finished out of the Top 10 twice – 14th place results at Pocono and Talladega, the latter saw him running third coming out of Turn Four on the final lap. With three races to go and only a 16-point lead over Ryan Blaney, just riding around and aiming for a Top 10 won’t do. If anything, that strategy would put him in a precarious position come Homestead; a race where he should only need to finish in the Top 15 to claim his second title. Taking it easy however may mean having to race for the title should Blaney shave a few points off Friday night.

While the three-way title fight is of obvious importance, there are other entrants of note as well. Ron Hornaday, Jr. is making his final scheduled appearance Friday night; it might also end up being the final race of his career. With no deal in place for 2015 and this year’s opportunity that materialized at the 11th hour crumbling back in August, the 56-year old four-time champion finds himself in a precarious position with an uncertain future. Hornaday has three wins here, but his most memorable moment might from 2011, when he and Kyle Busch tangled, with Busch eventually hooking Hornaday head-on into the wall under caution. That move saw Busch parked for that weekend’s Sprint Cup race, and cost Hornaday a shot at a fifth series championship.

Race coverage begins Friday at 8:00pm on FOX Sports 1.

EMAIL VITO AT vito.pugliese@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @vitopugliese

Categories
Trucks

Truck Series Championship Goes Three-Wide into Martinsville

By Vito Pugliese – Normally when previewing the Camping World Truck Series race at Martinsville this time of year, the championship battle would be the focal point.

Following last weekend’s Fred’s 250 at Talladega, the battle that was a 19-point fight between ThorSport teammates @Matt_Crafton and @JohnnySauter expired about the same time the engine did in Sauter’s No. 98 Toyota on Lap 24. While Crafton lay in the back of the pack most of the day to avoid trouble, an ill-timed move exiting the fourth turn saw him fall from fourth to 14th in about one-quarter of a mile.

Such are the pitfalls of restrictor plate racing, but this weekend’s Kroger 200 at Martinsville should provide some solace for Crafton as the defending race winner from this past March. Martinsville has become one of Crafton’s best tracks in the series, having posted a win, a pole, four top-fives and nine top-10 finishes since 2008. That past success will prove useful as Crafton now finds himself contending with @RyanBlaney22 and @BubbaWallace with just four races remaining.

Heading into this weekend, Crafton leads Blaney by just 16 points and Wallace, Jr. by 28. Blaney was in the position to win last week at Talladega, restarting second with two laps to go. The No. 29 BKR Ford ending up fifth, while Wallace came home ninth in the KBM No. 54. Coincidentally, the last two trips to Martinsville have resulted in fifth place finishes for Blaney, while Wallace, Jr. has made Martinsville his signature track on the circuit.

In three starts here, Wallace has started second, third and a pole this spring, while finishes of fifth and second bookend his first career win here last falls. That win for Wallace was significant for career reasons, but also for the historical significance as well.

Wallace became the first African-American driver to win a NASCAR event since Wendell Scott in 1963. To commemorate Scott’s induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame next year, Wallace will be running a Wendell Scott throwback paint scheme Saturday. Given his record at the paperclip thus far, you can cite the No. 34 (for this weekend) Toyota as an odds-on favorite to contend for the win this weekend, and potentially narrow the championship standings even further. Any three of these drivers could find themselves thrust into the championship lead, or effectively out of the running for the title by the end of the afternoon.

Despite speeds that pale in comparison to Talladega, things happen quickly here; a harmless spin or contact that results in a flat tire can quickly find a driver two laps down. The race here in March was evidence of that in addition to events of the extreme. The final few laps saw drivers hooking others into the inside wall on the frontstretch, teammates clobbering each other, and guys falling out of their trucks upon exit. Last fall we saw @KevinHarvick lambasting the Dillon brothers on television, while his team hurled a sledgehammer at @TyDillon’s truck in pit road.

While a title hangs in the balance among these three drivers, that should not overshadow what should be a fun race to watch regardless of title implications. Martinsville is the oldest track that NASCAR competes at, a throwback itself which tends to bring out emotions usually not seen at some of the larger venues. There are no Cup drivers on the entry list this weekend, so expect the Truck Series regulars to have the added incentive of being able to contend for a win amongst themselves.

Qualifying will be at 10:00 a.m. EST on Saturday on FOX Sports 1, with race coverage starting at 1:00 p.m. EST.

EMAIL VITO AT vito.pugliese@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @vitopugliese

Categories
Trucks

Crafton Crafting Second Title on Eve of Wildcard

By Vito Pugliese – This weekend is nearly a national holiday amongst the NASCAR community, as whenever Talladega comes up on the schedule it is a cause for celebration.

Speaking of celebration, @Matt_Crafton is about to have one as he currently enjoys a 19 point lead over teammate @JohnnySauter following the last race at Las Vegas. He finished third and led four laps compared to Sauter’s 14th place finish one lap down. This is the largest lead that Crafton has enjoyed this season since he took the lead back in April at Kansas, the third race of the season.

While a 19 point lead may not seem like reason enough to start clearing off a spot for his second consecutive Truck Series championship trophy, it does allow for some margin for error (i.e., major wreck). Something the track is notorious for and turns trucks into lawn ornaments at the Earnhardt household.

Compare this to last season at this time where Crafton entered the race with a 41 point lead over @JamesBuescher. Crafton led 30 laps that day and was running third in tandem with Sauter with one lap to go. As they came through the tri-oval to the checkered flag, the requisite wreck broke out behind them that saw @KyleBusch and Darrell @BubbaWallace scattering while @MiguelPaludo ended up on his lid.

It  appeared that Crafton was going to push Sauter to a ThorSport 1-2 finish. @RossChastain in Brad Keselowski’s No. 19 made contact with @PKligerman, and the two shot up the track and hooked Crafton, just a couple hundred yards from the finish line.

Crafton ended up 11th, and while those nine points lost in the last few seconds of the race may not have made a difference last year. Such a confluence of events this year would loom large with just four races following Talladega.

A few fresh faces to watch for this weekend – among them most notably a rather ripe one in @RonHornaday Hornaday will be in the No. 9 for Bob Newberry – his team last year – coupled with Rheem – his sponsor this year. He continues to try to piece together the back half of a season that fell apart once Turner Scott Motorsports dissolved and his ride vanished. Despite having been fourth in points at the time, Hornaday was left with little recourse, even though sponsor Rheem was on board and committed for the year.

While Hornaday has never won at Talladega, he has plenty of experience here having competed in Trucks, Nationwide, and Cup Series races. He has a pair of runner-up finishes in 2008 and 2011, but finished 24th last year in Newberry’s No. 9 after being collected in a crash with seven laps to go.

@MilkaDuno – who won the pole here last year in an ARCA race will be in the No. 1 of Tracy Lowe with Michael Affarano in the #03. Cody Ware in the #005 (did they run out of numbers?) for his father Rick Ware of Rick Ware Racing fame. @RyanEllisRacing is in the No. 28 Chevy for Joe Rosenblum carrying the colors of the New York Fire Department. While Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota’s newest prodigy @dnlsuarez (Daniel Suarez) who has impressed this year finishing second in NASCAR’s Mexico-based championship series in the No. 35 Tundra for Kevin Cywinski.

Derek White will start the #50 in the Mark Beaver owned Silverado, @TJBell_Racing in the No. 56 Chevrolet for Raymond Terczak, Jr., while Clay Greenfield makes his start his No. 68 RAM as the only Mopar in the field. Chris Fontaine will be in the No. 84 Toyota of Jerry Brown will be making his second start of the season, the first being a 19th place effort at Daytona in February.

Coverage beings at 1:00 p.m. EST on FOX Sports 1 at 5:30 p.m. EST.

EMAIL VITO AT vito.pugliese@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @vitopugliese

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Busch Emerging from the Ether as Championship Favorite

By Vito Pugliese – “Park it behind the truck and take your whiny little ass to the bus!”

Such were the words crew chief Dave Rogers blasted to his driver @KyleBusch at Bristol, following a back and forth exchange with him trying to relay the handling ills of the No. 18 JGR Toyota following contact with the wall. While it was explained away as simply a misunderstanding brought about by the insane noise levels in the concrete cocoon and reciprocal radio traffic, it spoke to the underlying tension within the team that has been oozing to the surface regularly this season. It was also no surprise a couple of weeks ago when it was let known that there would be a crew chief shuffle at the end of the season at Joe Gibbs Racing, and that Rogers would not be back with Busch.

What has been a surprise however, is the performance of Kyle Busch in the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup.

The team began the year on a slow start, but played the new Chase rules properly and snagged a win early at Fontana, courtesy of new rubber and a late race restart – fending off a last lap challenge from rookie Kyle Larson in the process. From there on it has been a mishmash of middling performance, with mid-teens results being the norm, Busch’s biting sarcasm and blunt honesty following an early exit at Pocono in July. He attributed the No. 18 teams woes to, “something between the frame rails doesn’t seem to operate correctly right now” after a burned piston shortened the day.

In years past, Chase chatter usually had Busch as an odds-on favorite to contend for the championship, only to be undone by mechanical failures, superspeedway carnage, or meltdowns of Chernobyl proportions which saw the mercurial driver going double guns on a NASCAR official, refusing to answer a black flag while evoking the constitution (though it actually was the Bill of Rights), and being suspended after wrecking @RonHornaday in a Truck Series race.

The team shuffled their feet on their way into The Chase, and while many had identified the teams of @KevinHarvick, Brad @keselowski, @JoeyLogano, and the ten titles and seven Daytona 500 wins between Hendrick Teammates @JeffGordonWeb, @JimmieJohnson, and @DaleJr as title favorites, the No. 18 team was on the outset viewed as a team who got in on the strength of an early season win, but would be among the first to exit based on pure speed and past success – or lack thereof.

Fast forward to the Contender Round and suddenly the No. 18 team looks to have positioned themselves perfectly to advance not only to the next round – but roll into Homestead with a shot at winning it all. Winning a pole at Chicagoland and restarts that had Busch suddenly singing the praises of TRD’s torque revival under the hood of the M&M’s Camry, followed by top-10s at Loudon and Dover weren’t earth shattering, but were good enough to get ahead of those drivers who had trouble in the first three races. His finishes of seventh, eighth and tenth while trending downward were on tracks all drastically different from one another, and venues unique within the 10-race elimination format.

The biggest obstacle to overcome both performance wise and mentally was achieved last week, when Busch brought it home with a podium finish in third at Kansas Speedway – a track that has proved his undoing for the last five years. Last night’s pole performance at Charlotte with a hot lap of 197.390 followed a night of qualifying that saw brother Kurt post the fastest speed in qualifying at a 1.5-mile track in round two of knockout qualifying with a 198.771. While qualifying results can be misleading, running on used tires in conditions that were changing as temperatures dropped, show that the Toyotas newfound power coupled with the No. 18 team’s poise and communication bode well for this group in Saturday night’s Bank of America 500.

“We’re working on it and we’re getting better,” said Busch. I’ve been saying that if we get one piece of the puzzle each week at a time, and we’re going to be hard to beat. We’ll see if we’ve got it all.”

Should the improvement continue and result in a win – or even a top-five finish Saturday night, it will make next week’s race at Talladega – seen as the ultimate arbiter of who advances and who is eliminated by way of a 20 car pile-up – less of an issue. It will be a mere footnote of what could be the most unlikely of championships, and a fitting send-off as Rogers and Busch part ways at the end of 2014.

EMAIL VITO AT vito.pugliese@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER @vitopugliese

Categories
Trucks

It’s Sauter vs. Crafton vs. Blaney at Chicagoland

By Vito Pugliese – Friday Night’s Lucas Oil 225 at Chicagoland Speedway is the series sixth trip to the 1.5-mile track in Joliet, and the 15th race of the season.

Last year @KyleBusch held off Brad @Keselowski by just .338 seconds, as the two Cup contenders started off their Chase weekend with a battle in the lower-tiered division. Keselowski is not in the field for this weekend’s race, despite his trucks having won the last two events. Busch, however will be in the field, much to the chagrin of CWTS regulars. Busch has been the odds on truck to beat this season in races he’s entered, failing to win just twice in his seven starts – one of which was a fuel mileage fiasco at Michigan.

The series is coming off one of the greatest finishes of the year – if not the history of the Trucks – with a last lap/final corner battle between @gerspeed1 (German Quiroga) and @RyanBlaney22 at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park. The ironic stark contrast between the dust up with @ChaseElliott and @TyDillon that occurred the year before showcased the way racing used to be, prior to the bump and run – and more recently the dump and run. It was a race so well ran that nobody even noticed there weren’t any post-race confrontations or guy’s girlfriends slapping other drivers as there was the year before.

With all that great buzz coming two weeks ago, this should be cause for celebration, right? After all @JohnnySauter has just a slim seven point lead over @Matt_Crafton, 13 over Blaney, and just 48 markers ahead of fifth place Quiroga.

Well, not so fast.

This week’s field shows just 30 entrants, including the addition of 2011 champion @AustinDillon3 in Bob Newberry’s No. 20 Chevrolets, with a recently departed team’s sponsor on-board. The No. 30 Turner Scott Motorsports team of four-time series champion @RonHornaday has officially shut down, despite statements to the contrary from sponsor Rheem that they were happy with the arrangement and had fully funded the team.

The Truck Series has slowly been dwindling down on starters in recent weeks, a continued commentary regarding the health of the series and a red flag that something must be done to help spur both growth and interest in the division which has traditionally featured some of the best racing, heated battles and rivalries among NASCAR’s top three televised series.

Where Sprint Cup rightfully bills itself as the premier motorsports series in North America and the Nationwide Series has an amazing crop of young talent that will end up being the Cup Series contingent over the next decade, the Truck Series has slowly devolved into a dysfunctional hodge-podge of premier Cup drivers, up and coming development drivers, and journeymen of the sport who’s best days are behind them. This coupled with teams that struggle to last until halfway and bodywork that sometimes consists of spray painted duct tape, and stands that you could … well, drive a truck through, it’s an area that needs to be addressed quickly if full-weekend companion events are going to continue.

But do they really need to? Therein may lay the answer.

Friday’s race at Chicagoland takes place at 8:30pm. What else is going on at this time? Right, every high school football game in America. As much as we all love racing, let’s lower the ego and face the facts: Football is America’s national pastime come fall, especially on a Friday. Saturdays are dominated by college football, and Sundays are spent with the TV looking like a strobe light flipping between NFL, MLB and NASCAR.

During the summer, the Friday night races suffer viewership because, it’s Friday night and for those of us in the Midwest who had to endure -15 ambient air temperatures for four months, we have to savor every precious hour of sunlight and degree we can. That Busch stat I cited earlier doesn’t do much to encourage competition either.

The purses for finishing outside of the top-10 are a little light to say the least; the 15th place finisher at Bristol barley made $9,000. Factor in the cost of travel, tires, hotels, and personnel, and it’s not hard to see why there are but 30 trucks entered at a 1.5-mile track this weekend – even in a major media market on the eve of NASCAR’s playoffs.

Imagine if a couple of stops along the way included another road course or short track to elevate the racing action — and not just Busch’s retirement coffers.

I feel that NASCAR would do well to move the Truck Series to smaller regional tracks during the summer months to help gin up more interest and support with better racing and closer competition during the summer months, and tie in these companion events during The Chase come the fall.

No the Truck Series don’t need 43 car fields and a sell-out crowd; that’s not their model or the purpose. Improved scheduling around qualifying and practice, and packaging it around a more convenient television schedule would be of great benefit, as would returning to a short track – or road course – format where it helped develop its prior reputation and fan base.

Race coverage begins Friday evening at 8:30 p.m. EST on FOX Sports 1.

EMAIL VITO AT vito.pugliese@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @vitopugliese

Categories
Trucks

Ice Road Truckers: Series Heads North of The Border

By Vito Pugliese – The Camping World Truck Series heads north this weekend for its second trip to the track once known as Mosport, Canadian Tire Motorsports Park.

While road courses have become some of the most anticipated events in all three series in recent years, last year’s Truck Series race in Bowmanville, Ontario provided the most memorable race of the year. It was a throwback of sorts to what the series was founded on and known for. Last year’s event saw the race decided on the final turn of the last lap, as @ChaseElliott looked more Intimidator than Awesome Bill, as he laid a fender to @TyDillon, sending him into the tires as mentor @MaxPapis clobbered him as well. Papis had his issues after the race with Mike Skeen – and his girlfriend. As the who were jawing in the pits, Skeen’s girlfriend came up and slapped him in the face.

Sadly, neither Papis or Skeen (or his girlfriend) are on the entry list for this weekend.

There are a couple of drivers who are on the entry list that bear watching. Chief among them is Alex @Tagliani in Brad @Keselowski’s No. 19 BK Racing Ford. Coming off a win last weekend the team looks to make it two in a row, and Tagliani looks to build upon his performances earlier this year in the Penske Fords at Road America and Mid-Ohio. Tagliani charged from 23rd to second on the final restart, looking like something out of a NASCAR Thunder video game – with catch-up mode on.

The other road race ace that stands a legitimate shot at making some noise is Andrew Ranger in the No. 13 NDS Motorsports truck. Can a year old Ram compete with the other established teams? If Ranger’s past performances in NASCAR road course races in the Nationwide Series are any indication, then yes. A familiar face on the NASCAR Canadian Tire tour, his brief appearances with teams that don’t normally compete in the series usually see him qualifying up front and consistently in the top-15. Mechanical failures and other miscues are typically his undoing but with only 28 trucks on the grid vs. 43 in Nationwide, he stands a chance at being competitive on a track he has seven starts on in NASCAR’s Canadian Series.

Among those who will not be making the trek north is will be the No. 30 Turner Scott Motorsports truck driven by four-time series champion @RonHornaday. The team took an impromptu hiatus as of 3:00 P.M. Wednesday, however, the team trucks of @BenKennedy31 and recently retained @CameronNHaley will be in competition.

That particular entry of the fourth-place in points driver is owned by Steve Turner, who apparently had a bit of a falling out with principal Harry Scott Jr. The issue has devolved into a lawsuit filed by Scott, alleging mis-allocation of sponsorship revenue by Turner, and he is attempting to gain control of a receiver as reported by SportingNews, so the team so it can run the rest of the season.

For the team that has amassed 11 wins and the 2012 Truck Series championship, it is a bit of a black eye and a commentary on the state of the sport and motorsports in general. With only 28 trucks heading to what is one of the most anticipated events of the season – on par with Daytona, Talladega, and Eldora – it gives further credence to the owner’s contention that they need a bigger slice of the pie when it comes to the TV revenues. Even without Hornaday in the show, they field is still about seven trucks light from a full field, odd as well for an event that is ready made for a road course ringer to break through.

Qualifying will be 5:30 P.M. ET on Saturday with no planned television coverage. The race will be run on Sunday at 1:00 P.M. on FOX Sports 1.

EMAIL VITO AT vito.pugliese@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @vitopugliese