Equipped with an engineering degree from Purdue, he's had some very definite advice for crew chiefs when it came to how his cars were set up. On Sunday in Phoenix, Newman won his first race in nearly four years in NASCAR's Cup series by listening to his crew chief's advice.
Stay out of the pits and take the overtime restart on worn tires, said crew chief Luke Lambert. Ordinarily a tough guy to pass, hence his hard-nosed reputation, Newman's restart as the leader was so deft he didn't need to make his car a foot or two wider over the course of the final two laps.
After running no higher than sixth all day before the overtime restart, Newman pulled off the fourth straight surprise ending of the inaugural Monster Energy NASCAR Cup season with his first victory since July of 2013.
Originally, the idea of this year's stage racing was to make the middle of races that often run 500 miles or 500 kilometers, as in Phoenix, more interesting. Instead, the stage finishes have been remarkably predictable and the checkered-flag finishes more like the ending of a whodunit.
"What won the race is when he drove off in turn three on that final lap," said Newman's team owner Richard Childress, watching from atop one of his haulers in the infield and worrying about his driver's worn tires. "I thought, 'Man, if it sticks, it's going to be good. If it don't, it's going to be ugly.'"
Newman stuck the landing, enabling Childress's team to win its first race since 2013.
To borrow some of the vernacular from the collegiate ranks like "true freshman," this was the first true upset among this year's late-race turnarounds.
In Daytona, Kurt Busch led only the last lap -- but he had been knocking regularly on the door when it came to plate racing. Brad Keselowksi stole a march in Atlanta's closing laps, but he had four victories last year. Martin Truex came back to overtake Keselowski two laps from the finish in Las Vegas -- after leading the most laps. But Newman? Where have he and the Childress team been?
Richard Childress Racing has been slightly lost since Kevin Harvick departed for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. In the four seasons prior to Harvick's departure, the driver won 12 races at RCR. After arriving at SHR, Harvick again won 12 races -- and a championship -- over the course of three seasons.
Meanwhile, Newman -- who swapped seats with Harvick -- has not scored a victory since joining RCR until Sunday's round at Phoenix.
So go the fortunes of team chemistry. While Harvick joined a team that included former champions Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch at SHR, Newman arrived on a team where Childress's grandson, rookie Austin Dillon, and Paul Menard, who brings sponsorship from his family's business, were teammates.
Since then, Newman -- a runner-up to Harvick in the 2014 championship despite a winless season -- has been the only driver at RCR with more than one career Cup victory. The win Sunday was his 18th and first since winning the Brickyard 400 for Stewart's team in July 2013.
"There's a lot of guys in this sport that have never won," Newman said. "Going a long time without winning, you have confidence in your mind that you can do it. There's guys that go their whole career and never win, and good drivers.
"You just got to stay humble. This sport, you walk away from (a race), there's one guys that wins, 39 losers. You have to be humble walking into it that you're probably not going to win that day. Odds are against you."
Newman went on to suggest that the days of one driver dominating a track, such as Harvick has done at Phoenix, are over because of the new format. Harvick finished sixth and failed to lead a lap, although much of his difficulties could be traced to this year's new, lower downforce rules and the SHR team's switch from Chevy to Ford.
As in Las Vegas, the wild card was a driver having mechanical difficulties in the late stages -- possibly from racing harder earlier in races to win the stage points and playoff bonus points available.
In this case, it was Stage 1 winner Joey Logano blowing a tire and crashing out as a result of overheated brakes with six laps remaining. That also ruined the day for race leader Kyle Busch. After leading the most laps, the caution for Logano's incident meant Busch subsequently finished third behind the winning pit strategy of RCR.
It was an interesting irony that Newman won RCR's first race since Harvick was victorious at Phoenix in the fall race of 2013. But it was quite the deeper, darker irony that Logano once again managed to ruin Busch's day -- although it was more a matter of fate this time versus a fender in the door on the final lap at Las Vegas.
For those scoring at home, Busch could be acknowledged for the better follow-up to last week's fisticuff -- singular -- with Logano. (Busch's long arm made one, long-distance glancing contact, apparently.)
Prior to the race, Busch sarcastically declined to answer most questions about the Las Vegas incident before stating his belief that Logano hit his car on purpose to knock it into a spin. Logano came off as wimpy by sending Busch the computer traces of his throttle to prove he was merely trying to get around the bottom of the track instead of intentionally using Busch's car as a carom.
One wishes Logano would man up and just say something realistic and believable such as: "Yeah, maybe I was a little over-aggressive. But if a guy hits you to pass you, why should I be overly careful about contact while getting the position back?"
Perhaps Logano's less-than-believable account led one Twitter wag to suggest he send Busch computer data to explain why his tire exploded with six laps remaining to bring out that last caution that cost Busch so dearly.
Sunday, March 19, 2017
1. (22) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 314.
2. (4) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 314.
3. (9) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 314.
4. (21) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, 314.
5. (6) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 314.
6. (23) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 314.
7. (27) Daniel Suarez #, Toyota, 314.
8. (8) Erik Jones #, Toyota, 314.
9. (14) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 314.
10. (19) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 314.
11. (16) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, 314.
12. (7) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 314.
13. (13) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 314.
14. (3) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 314.
15. (5) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 314.
16. (15) Ty Dillon #, Chevrolet, 314.
17. (28) Aric Almirola, Ford, 314.
18. (17) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 314.
19. (24) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 314.
20. (10) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 314.
21. (18) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 314.
22. (26) Danica Patrick, Ford, 314.
23. (2) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 314.
24. (25) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 314.
25. (11) Kurt Busch, Ford, 314.
26. (20) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 314.
27. (33) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 314.
28. (29) Landon Cassill, Ford, 313.
29. (30) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 313.
30. (35) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 312.
31. (1) Joey Logano, Ford, Accident, 307.
32. (39) * Timmy Hill(i), Chevrolet, 307.
33. (37) * Derrike Cope, Chevrolet, 307.
34. (32) Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, Accident, 256.
35. (34) David Ragan, Ford, Accident, 204.
36. (36) Gray Gaulding #, Toyota, Accident, 201.
37. (12) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, Accident, 190.
38. (31) * Corey LaJoie #, Toyota, Accident, 115.
39. (38) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, Transmission, 9.
Average Speed of Race Winner: 104.271 mph.
Time of Race: 3 Hrs, 00 Mins, 41 Secs. Margin of Victory: 0.312 Seconds.
Caution Flags: 8 for 45 laps.
Lead Changes: 15 among 8 drivers.
Lap Leaders: J. Logano 1-29; R. Sorenson 30; J. Logano 31-78; Kurt Busch 79; J. Logano 80-84; C. Elliott 85-118; K. Larson 119; C. Elliott 120-121; K. Larson 122; C. Elliott 123-152; K. Larson 153; C. Elliott 154-193; Kyle Busch 194; C. Buescher 195; Kyle Busch 196-308; R. Newman 309-314.
Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): Kyle Busch 2 times for 114 laps; C. Elliott 4 times for 106 laps; J. Logano 3 times for 82 laps; R. Newman 1 time for 6 laps; K. Larson 3 times for 3 laps; R. Sorenson 1 time for 1 lap; C. Buescher 1 time for 1 lap; Kurt Busch 1 time for 1 lap.
Stage #1 Top Ten: 22,42,2,24,1,18,21,48,31,88
Stage #2 Top Ten: 24,42,18,48,2,1,77,21,11,4
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Kyle Larson can't imagine getting angry enough to take a swing at another driver -- because of the potential consequences.
Naturally enough, the fisticuffs between Kyle Busch, Joey Logano and their crew members made for animated conversation at Phoenix International Raceway -- site of Sunday's Camping World 500 (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX) -- after the chief combatants were summoned to a Friday morning, your-attendance-is-required meeting in the NASCAR transporter.
After Logano's Ford collided with Busch's Toyota on the final lap last Sunday at Las Vegas, Busch launched an overhand right at Logano on pit road and the melee followed.
Larson, on the other hand, can't see himself in a similar situation. Most sources list Larson as 5-foot-6, 130 pounds, but both those numbers may be generous.
"Look at how big I am," Larson said with a chuckle. "I can't do that. Joey has got probably about two feet longer reach on me, too. No, but, I'm not the fighting type. I don't think I've ever been mad enough that I have ever wanted to punch somebody, mainly probably because I'm scared that I am the one that is going to get beat up.
"No, I don't know. Maybe I'm small enough, too. ... I'm a lot smaller than most of the other drivers that maybe they will see the disadvantage while they are walking over to my car and won't punch me. But that was pretty exciting last week."
Ryan Blaney, likewise, said he doesn't have the temperament for fighting, but he could see himself getting angry enough to want to throw a punch.
"Yeah, anyone can get that upset," Blaney said. "The Pope can get that upset. It's human nature. Anyone can get that upset to do that. Whether you act on it or not, that's your own personal choice you make. It's just passionate racers.
"People have passion for certain things, and sometimes the passion gets the best of you."
TIRE ISSUE SENDS HAMLIN TO REAR FOR SUNDAY'S RACE
Denny Hamlin got "screwed" during the first round of Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series qualifying.
No, another competitor didn't impede Hamlin's progress on his run. Crew chief Mike Wheeler described what happened in a tweet on Friday night.
"Ran over a screw in Q1, came in 15 psi lower," Wheeler posted about the cut tire that resulted. "NASCAR no longer allows changes. Tried to pump up for Q2, but didn't work. Bummer. #startinglast"
During the offseason, NASCAR instituted a rule requiring drivers to start the race on their qualifying tires, and tires may be changed only in the case of a factory defect.
With the pumped-up tire, Hamlin nevertheless qualified 19th. Though he'll have to start from the back of the field in Sunday's Camping World 500 because of the tire change, he will retain the pit stall he earned with the 19th pick.
Hamlin tweeted that the rule "bit us big time. Run over something, get a flat, can't continue (although we tried) and have to start in the back for it."
Early in Saturday's first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series practice, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. scraped the outside wall at Phoenix International Raceway after his brakes failed. Unlike last week at Las Vegas, however, Stenhouse didn't have go to a backup car. His team changed the brakes and repaired the cosmetic damage before Stenhouse returned to the track. He was 23rd fastest in the session and improved to 20th on the speed chart during Happy Hour. ... Chase Elliott led Saturday's first practice session with a lap at 135.977 mph, followed by Joey Logano (135.466 mph), the polesitter for Sunday's Camping World 500. Kyle Larson was third fastest at 135.323 mph. With ambient temperatures reaching 95 degrees for the final practice, Logano paced the session at 134.736 mph, with Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch second and third, respectively.
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Apparently unfazed by last week's controversy at Las Vegas, Joey Logano won the pole for Sunday's Camping World 500 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Phoenix International raceway (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX).
In winning his first pole of the season, his first at Phoenix and the 18th of his career, Logano saved his best lap for the third and decisive round, streaking around the one-mile track in the Sonoran Desert at 137.321 mph.
Ryan Blaney (136.877 mph) was second fastest in the money round, posting the best qualifying effort of his young career.
"I woke up this morning thinking about my race car, and how we could end up sitting here (as the pole winner) at the end of the day," said Logano, whose day at the track started with a meeting with NASCAR officials and Kyle Busch after last Sunday's last-lap collision between the drivers spilled over into a fistfight on pit road.
"In between, do I have to think about other things? Yeah, obviously, we had a meeting today. There's a lot of, I guess, distractions that we don't typically have. So it's a matter of managing those distractions and keeping your head back in the right spot for when it's game time."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. qualified third and was on top of the board late in the third round until Blaney and Logano bettered his speed of 136.783 mph. Kyle Larson claimed the fourth starting spot, followed by Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Jamie McMurray.
A major point of emphasis for Blaney during the offseason was qualifying, which the driver thought wasn't as strong as it needed to be. Last week, Blaney was third in Las Vegas time trials. On Friday, he was one spot better.
"The last two weekends, we've shown really good speed in qualifying trim," Blaney said. "It's nice to have fast race cars. You've seen it the past two weeks. Our Wood Brothers car and the Penske group have been fast in qualifying trim.
"That's something to be proud of as the two organizations work well together. We just needed a little more to get there, but we were close."
NOTES: The pole was the second straight for Team Penske, with Brad Keselowski having secured the top starting spot at Las Vegas. Keselowski will roll off sixth on Sunday. ... Kevin Harvick's mastery of Phoenix didn't extend to Friday's qualifying session. The eight-time Phoenix winner will start 23rd after posting his worst qualifying effort since the fall race of 2011.
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Sporting dark sunglasses, Kyle Busch stepped out of the NASCAR transporter determined to do his best impression of former Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch, who scrupulously avoided making meaningful comments to reporters.
To five straight questions, Busch answered with some variation of the following: "Everything's great. Looking forward to getting back to the racetrack and back in my race car."
Everything wasn't so great for Busch last Sunday in Las Vegas, when, during a battle for third place, Joey Logano's Ford slid up the track into Busch's Toyota on the last lap of the Kobalt 400. Busch spun toward the inside wall and eventually finished 22nd.
Logano saved his car and came home fourth, only to have Busch launch a haymaker in his direction on pit road. When Logano's crew members jumped into the fray to protect their driver, Busch was taken to the pavement and wound up with a bloody cut to his forehead.
That's why NASCAR summoned both Busch and Logano to the hauler on Friday morning at Phoenix International Raceway, site of Sunday's Camping World 500 (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX), the fourth Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race of the season.
"It's an emotional sport," said Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer. "We still view that as two drivers racing hard for position. If that escalates beyond that to someone doing something intentional on the racetrack, we were very clear that we'll react.
"But we're moving on, and we want to see a great race here in Phoenix."
Logano has repeatedly acknowledged he made a mistake as he battled Busch for position, and at Busch's request he brought data to the meeting to prove his point.
"I told him that we obviously made contact on the back straightaway," Logano said. "I had a not very good entry (into turn 3) and had to slow down the car a lot to stay on the bottom and tried to make up some of that speed at the bottom of the racetrack and then I got loose.
"Once you get loose once, then I was on his door. You get loose again, and at that point that was it. That is my mistake. I tried to stay on the bottom, but my car didn't stay there.
"There could be six or seven different reasons why that happened, but the fact of the matter is I tried to stay on the bottom, I made a mistake and got up into him. I hate that it happened. I would take it back in a heartbeat.
"He asked for data when we talked on the phone (during the week), and I was able to bring that with me and present that and try to explain what was going on inside my race car. We try to move on from there."
How quickly Busch will move on remains to be seen, and his rote answers after Friday's meeting gave little insight as to his real feelings on the matter.
After rough start, Suarez returns to comfort zone
The start to the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season hasn’t gone the way Daniel Suarez would have hoped.
Pressed into service at NASCAR's highest level by the abrupt departure of Carl Edwards during the offseason, Suarez crashed out of the Daytona 500 in 29th place and finished 21st and 20th in the subsequent two races at Atlanta and Las Vegas.
This week, however, the 2016 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion returns to Phoenix International Raceway, where he has enjoyed unqualified success.
In four Xfinity races at PIR, Suarez has posted three top-fives. In two NASCAR Camping World Truck Series starts, he has a victory and a fourth-place run.
Accordingly, the Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate is enthused by the prospect of racing at Phoenix in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series for the first time. Suarez participated in an organized test at Phoenix on Jan. 31-Feb. 1.
Suarez also won at PIR in the NASCAR PEAK Mexico Series and posted two top 10s in three starts in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West.
"Overall, Phoenix is one of those places that doesn't matter which series I'm going in, I feel very comfortable," Suarez said. "It's a place that I feel like I have maybe the most experience of the NASCAR race tracks that we go on this year.
"It's always fun to come here and to race in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. It will be very helpful to have that test over a month ago. Hopefully, we can put something that we learn for today's practice, hopefully be strong for Sunday."
Xfinity drivers are ready to cash for cash
The first of four NASCAR Xfinity Series Dash 4 Cash races is set for Saturday at Phoenix International Raceway (4 p.m. ET on FOX), and the competition for the $100,000 prize incorporates this year's stage-based race structure.
With Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series veterans with more than five years' full-time experience in the series excluded from the event, Xfinity regulars are vying for two positions from each of the first two stages.
The highest two finishers from each stage among eligible drivers will compete in the third and final stage, with the highest finisher among the four earning the $100,000 Dash 4 Cash bonus.
If any one driver wins all four Dash 4 Cash bonuses -- at Phoenix, Bristol, Richmond and Dover -- that driver will collect an additional $600,000 for a total of $1 million.
"Obviously, the money is on the line and we want to be able to go and get that, but at the end of the day it is still a race, and with these stages, we still have some many points and playoff implications if you can win that," said Joe Gibbs Racing driver Matt Tifft.
"We definitely have a little bit more incentive to go out at the end of the race if we're in contention for that to be able to go and compete for the Dash 4 Cash prize."
The question is whether Fords will be considered the favorites as the season progresses? At this -- ahem -- stage, it does not appear wise to bet against them. The Ford engines built by Roush-Yates so far have had better fuel mileage, crucial in SHR driver Kurt Busch's win at Daytona. And Busch says he believes the Ford V-8s also have more power than last year's Chevy. Combine that with the chassis and aerodynamic development now shared by Team Penske with SHR and one has the makings of a powerhouse.
The combination of Penske and SHR is a much improved cry compared to the pre-existing alliance with Roush Racing. Having led 479 of the 792 laps in the first three races, the new combination of Ford teams has won two poles and two races and came within two laps of winning in Las Vegas. While Penske has yet to win a stage segment, Harvick has won three. In terms of points, five of the two teams' drivers are in the top 12.
Last year, the Roush team was so far behind on its computer simulation program it couldn't catch up. An increased emphasis on a tie-in with Penske didn't make much difference -- in part because the caliber of drivers at Roush was lacking by comparison.
"They (Roush Racing) weren't as competitive as we were," said team owner Roger Penske after his driver Brad Keselowski's victory in Atlanta. "But we knew coming in with Stewart-Haas that they were going to be guys that could set a bar for us. In fact, we built some chassis for them before Daytona, some center sections, and we had our cars in the wind tunnel and compared them. So we know what they have and they know what we have."
For the first eight years of its existence, SHR had a similar relationship to the Chevy team of Hendrick Motorsports that it now enjoys with Team Penske. During that time, SHR and Hendrick scored six Cup championships. (The other two went to Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing.) It's not too big of a stretch to expect that the new Ford combination could end Ford's championship drought, in place since Busch won the first postseason Chase in 2004.
Other new developments favor the Fords. The Toyota team of Joe Gibbs Racing lost championship-caliber driver Carl Edwards for one year at least and hurriedly promoted promising rookie Daniel Suarez. At the same time, the alliance with Furniture Row Racing has added another rookie to the lineup. Erik Jones is very likely to be brilliant, but will he begin to really shine in his first season?
At Hendrick Motorsports, defending champion Jimmie Johnson leads a lineup that now includes Dale Earnhardt Jr. once again and super sophomore Chase Elliott. Kasey Kahne is showing signs of breaking out of his doldrums after going winless since 2014. But can a relationship with Chip Ganassi Racing and drivers Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson pick up where the SHR team left off?
Things ebb and flow in NASCAR's premier series, where horsepower and handling advantages don't last long. If indeed there is a horsepower and fuel mileage gap, the Hendrick Motorsports engine builders are likely to close it. The Ganassi team now has technical guru Mark McArdle, who worked for Roush last year, on its side. Larson, called by Ganassi team general manager Max Jones "the most talented driver in the entire garage," is beginning to show signs of his early promise.
This all makes the Phoenix round significant. Whether in the stages or when the checkered flag falls, victories by Chevy or Toyota would help break the stride of the Ford teams. Given Martin Truex Jr.'s sweep of the stages and the race on the 1.5-mile oval in Las Vegas, that's not necessarily out of the realm of possibility -- despite the fact Logano won last fall's race at Phoenix, and prior to that Harvick won five out of six.
Harvick participated in the open test at Phoenix during the offseason, which helped his team in the transition to the Fords, said Crew Chief Rodney Childers. But Childers said he and his driver are not in position to just pick up where they left off with the Chevy entries. The key concern has been adapting to more aerodynamic downforce in the front of the Fords compared to the Impalas.
"I think the guys that didn't make any changes over the winter are probably in the best shape," said Childers. "Even though we were fast in Atlanta, I still don't feel like we're where we need to be. We've got a lot of things that we're just getting going and it seems like everybody on every (SHR) car is different right now, just because we're searching for what's right and what's wrong. So overall, we're just trying to figure everything out."
But when in doubt, Childers can consult with his counterparts at Team Penske as well as his own teammates. While not exactly a direct trade on all information, the alliance has been working well so far.
Kyle Busch came in swinging on the pit road. Joey Logano did his best to avoid the punches behind a protective barrier of his crewmen from Team Penske.
The two had tangled in Turn 4 on the final lap coming to the checkered flag and Busch got the worst of it Sunday in the Kobalt 400 -- in terms of dropping 18 positions after his spin and in the fight with the stand-in crewmen afterward.
Perhaps the better question concerns what was the point? Two drivers without any past major issues wrecked each other over fourth and fifth place. Maybe there is something to the new scoring system that rewards a regular-season points champion with a playoff berth and playoff bonus points.
The facts are that Busch nearly wrecked Logano going into Turn 3 on the last lap as each sought to avoid the faltering Ford of Brad Keselowski. Logano did not back off and did not avoid banking his Ford off Busch's Toyota to get through Turn 4.
Logano came home fourth behind winner Martin Truex Jr. and Busch went spinning, ending up on pit road and then chugging across the line as the last car on the lead lap in 22nd place.
The speculation is whether this same incident would have happened under last year's "win and you're in the Chase" system? The answer is most likely no.
Under the previous scheme, there wasn't much difference if a driver finished fourth or fifth in terms of either his paycheck or his prospects for winning a championship. For the first 26 races of the season, the main object was to win a race to gain entry into the Chase and to get three bonus points for each victory. If a victory wasn't to be had, there wasn't as much reason to fight for the remaining positions when it came to actually winning a championship.
This year, 61 playoff bonus points will be divided up among the top 10 finishers in the points at the end of the regular season. The regular-season champion will carry 15 bonus points through the first three rounds of the playoffs before the one-race finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The regular-season runner-up will receive 10 bonus points, the third-placed driver eight, etc. This provides a relatively big incentive to make every position count in each regular-season race, because it can have a direct bearing on making it to the final round at Homestead-Miami.
That's the reason Keselowski was trying to carry a car with serious front suspension problems to the checkered flag and why his slowing car created the fracas between fourth-placed Busch and Logano entering Turn 3.
NASCAR is on to something with the scoring system change. For one thing, it reassures fans that drivers are not just loafing around if they're having a bad day. It also recalls the bygone era when drivers -- and their fans -- could take some satisfaction in salvaging a decent points day in a race where they either missed the set-up, had mechanical issues or suffered from mistakes. It kept everybody's head in the game -- participants and fans alike.
The more radical change, known as stages, also came into play in Las Vegas. Due to the 1.5-mile track's relatively forgiving asphalt, more teams tried different tire strategies than on the worn asphalt of Atlanta. Although Truex Jr. also ended up winning the 10-point bonus for each of the two stages -- along with a playoff bonus point -- it wasn't for the lack of competitors trying two-tire strategies or skipping a trip down the pit road.
Truex Jr. eventually gave up the lead to Keselowski and the longer final run to the checkered flag, primarily due to his track bar adjuster breaking. With Truex Jr. unable to adjust his handling on longer runs, Keselowksi went to the front before his car suffered the suspension problem, enabling Truex to return to the lead with two laps remaining.
Without the pressure to race hard for the points in the first two stages, would the two front-running cars have held up better in the 107 laps of the final stage? In terms of the race for the overall victory, as well as the race for fourth place, it's possible to put a dramatic finish in Las Vegas down to the new system for determining the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup champion.
Teams may revert to some conventional wisdom when it comes to stage strategies as the season progresses. But even if the two opening stages so far have resulted in predictable caution periods instead of slam-bang affairs as happened between Busch and Logano, they will sustain an emphasis on the value of points as the season progresses.
Once into the postseason, the points and every position will still matter as drivers seek to keep advancing.
When it comes to spinning and then fighting, NASCAR is likely to seek to keep a lid on the emotions getting out of hand and turning into crashing fists. But will officials fine the instigator Busch by subtracting points?
As for the scoring on the fight, there's much that was familiar. The younger Busch has been backsliding toward the old days of volcanic anger as his 2015 championship season grows smaller in the rear view mirror. His flailing did not land a single blow.
Logano continued to talk a good game afterward with the media. But absent standing toe-to-toe with one's adversary, a good verbal game generally fails to pass muster.
So, this titanic struggle ended in a draw. Inglorious as it was, the fight bore no resemblance to the ultimate NASCAR fisticuffs in 1979, when brothers Allison and Cale Yarborough went after it in Turn 3 following the Daytona 500. That one launched the live television era in a big way.
But in its own way, the Las Vegas "fight" may have landed an historic punch. It could well mark a knockout of the old Chase approach and the beginning of a format that better connects with fans who want to be reminded the drivers bring some passion to their high-speed jobs.
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
LAS VEGAS -- Those looking for an in-depth understanding of NASCAR's stage-based competition format can take a lesson from Kyle Larson.
With his runner-up finish in Sunday's Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Larson posted his second straight second-place run in the young Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season.
Larson left Las Vegas second in the series standings, trailing Brad Keselowski by a point. Interestingly, Larson and Keselowski are the only two drivers who have scored points by finishing in the top 10 in each of the first two stages in all three races this season.
Keselowski won last week at Atlanta. Larson is seeking his first win of the year after securing his first career victory at Michigan last year.
Larson trailed Martin Truex Jr. to the finish line at Las Vegas as Joey Logano and Kyle Busch battled for third and eventually tried to settle their differences with fisticuffs on pit road, with Busch aiming a haymaker at Logano's head.
Larson was close enough to see the post-race action but was happy not to be involved.
"Yeah, no fist flying for me," Larson said. "That was exciting right there, but no, awesome day for our Target team. Second in the first stage, third in the second stage and then finished second in the race. I can't say enough about my team. I'm so proud of them. Our race cars are amazing right now. We're going to hopefully keep building on what we've got and keep challenging for wins, and they will come.
"Had a lot of fun today. Had a bad restart there after the second stage and lost a lot of track position but was able to get a good restart there on that last one. Brad, I think he was blowing up or something and (I) got lucky there and got second (when Keselowski had a mechanical problem late in the race). Back-to-back seconds -- we would like to have back-to-back wins, but this is pretty awesome."
Patrick's engine failure sets up late-rate pyrotechnics
With 16 laps left in Sunday's Kobalt 400, Brad Keselowski appeared headed for his second straight Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory.
Keselowski had a comfortable lead over Martin Truex Jr. until the engine in Danica Patrick's Ford exploded as she ran in front of Stewart-Haas teammate Kurt Busch.
"We just got the car to a place where I think we could have got a little more racy with it, especially if we would have caught some breaks, but then it just flattened out," Patrick said.
"I just rode around the top in case I blew up, but having a teammate behind me was not ideal for the timing of it, but unfortunately it happened. We'll just move on."
Patrick's incident injected a random element into the proceedings and altered the course of the race. A mechanical failure knocked Keselowski out of the lead and handed the win to Truex.
Joey Logano and Kyle Busch did their own version of slam dancing as they fought for third place in the final corner and later came to blows on pit road.
None of that likely would have happened if Patrick's engine hadn't blown.
Flat right front tire KOs Harvick
Kevin Harvick was steadily gaining ground from the 19th starting position in Sunday's race when the right front tire on his Ford exploded on Lap 69 and shredded the right front fender. He rode the wall from the end of the tri-oval to the apex of Turns 1 and 2.
His car was damaged beyond repair, and Harvick fell from the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series points lead to seventh in the standings.
"It started vibrating about four or five laps there before it blew out, and I was just trying to ride it to the end of the stage there," said Harvick, who was trying to nurse the car to the end of Stage 1 on Lap 80. "Obviously, it didn't make it. ...
"All in all, our Mobil 1 Annual Protection Ford was running good. We were just too loose right there. It's not like we were even tight, so it either just cut the tire, or came apart or melted the bead."
Harvick had won three of the four early stages in the previous two races combined but added just one point for a 38th-place finish at Las Vegas.
Las Vegas Motor Speedway
Las Vegas, Nevada
Sunday, March 12, 2017
1. (2) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, 267.
2. (5) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 267.
3. (12) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 267.
4. (6) Joey Logano, Ford, 267.
5. (1) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 267.
6. (15) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 267.
7. (3) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 267.
8. (10) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 267.
9. (4) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 267.
10. (13) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 267.
11. (16) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 267.
12. (7) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 267.
13. (20) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 267.
14. (30) Aric Almirola, Ford, 267.
15. (8) Erik Jones #, Toyota, 267.
16. (18) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 267.
17. (21) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 267.
18. (26) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 267.
19. (14) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 267.
20. (11) Daniel Suarez #, Toyota, 267.
21. (24) Ty Dillon #, Chevrolet, 267.
22. (9) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 267.
23. (25) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 266.
24. (23) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 266.
25. (22) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 266.
26. (31) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 265.
27. (27) Landon Cassill, Ford, 264.
28. (33) Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, 264.
29. (32) David Ragan, Ford, 264.
30. (17) Kurt Busch, Ford, 263.
31. (37) Reed Sorenson, Toyota, 262.
32. (36) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, 261.
33. (29) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, 261.
34. (35) Gray Gaulding #, Toyota, 260.
35. (38) * Derrike Cope #, Chevrolet, 254.
36. (28) Danica Patrick, Ford, Engine, 246.
37. (39) * Timmy Hill(i), Chevrolet, Suspension, 135.
38. (19) Kevin Harvick, Ford, Accident, 68.
39. (34) * Corey LaJoie #, Toyota, Accident, 16.
Average Speed of Race Winner: 136.032 mph.
Time of Race: 2 Hrs, 56 Mins, 39 Secs. Margin of Victory: 1.495 Seconds.
Caution Flags: 6 for 34 laps.
Lead Changes: 14 among 6 drivers.
Lap Leaders: B. Keselowski 1-19; M. Truex Jr. 20-24; B. Keselowski 25-70; J. Logano 71-75; M. Truex Jr. 76-124; B. Keselowski 125-126; T. Dillon # 127-128; M. McDowell 129-130; M. Truex Jr. 131-153; J. Johnson 154-156; M. Truex Jr. 157-211; J. Johnson 212-227; M. Truex Jr. 228-243; B. Keselowski 244-265; M. Truex Jr. 266-267.
Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): M. Truex Jr. 6 times for 150 laps; B. Keselowski 4 times for 89 laps; J. Johnson 2 times for 19 laps; J. Logano 1 time for 5 laps; T. Dillon # 1 time for 2 laps; M. McDowell 1 time for 2 laps.
Stage #1 Top Ten: 78,42,21,2,24,1,48,18,20,88
Stage #2 Top Ten: 78,2,42,24,22,21,88,1,31,48
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
LAS VEGAS -- Early in the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, Fords have dominated the headlines.
Kurt Busch won the season Daytona 500 in a Stewart-Haas Racing Ford. Brad Keselowski won the following week at Atlanta. Kevin Harvick has won three of the four preliminary stages contested under NASCAR's enhanced three-stage race format.
Harvick led 292 laps at Atlanta and dominated the race before a late pit road speeding penalty opened the door for Keselowski.
Coming to Sunday's Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX), Harvick, Busch and Keselowski were 1-2-3 in the series standings.
Keselowski backed that up with a pole-winning run at LVMS on Friday.
The performance of the Fords early this season is a radical departure from 2016, when the Toyotas of Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row were the dominant cars through the first half of the regular season.
Thus far in 2017, Kyle Busch won Stage 1 in the Daytona 500, Denny Hamlin won the second Can-Am Duel at Daytona, Matt Kenseth rallied from a lap down to finish third at Atlanta, and Martin Truex Jr. qualified on the outside of the front row on Friday at Las Vegas.
Otherwise, the highlight reel has been underwhelming for the Camrys, but Kyle Busch says there are mitigating circumstances for the spotty performance.
"I think there was a good run going for Erik Jones, actually, last week (14th at Atlanta)," Busch said. "He probably should have finished sixth to eighth, ninth maybe, somewhere in there. And you know, the 78 car (Truex) was running okay, as well, too. I don't know where the rest of our cars were running. Obviously, Matt (Kenseth) had a decent day. He was able to overcome a couple penalties and get back to where he needed to be. There's some strength there.
"For me in the 18 car, though, we're just lacking the ability to have the amount of front turn in the race car that I'm looking for because of this lack of downforce. They took a lot of front downforce away from the car (under 2017 rules), and apparently, I rely heavily on that being able to cut through the corners. We've got to get a little bit better aero platform going, balance wise, aero balance, as well, through the corners and figuring out how to do all of that through our setups in the race car."
Compounding the loss of roughly 500 pounds of downforce this year is Toyota's introduction of a new Camry race car. Not surprisingly, there have been some growing pains.
"I don't think that this was a surprise to anyone that the lower-downforce package was going to hinder anybody," Busch said. "We all knew it and expected it, and we worked on it through the offseason as best we could to get ready and prepare. But there's some other groups that maybe have done a better job of preparing for it than we have.
"We've just got to go to work on some fundamentals and some things that will get our race cars feeling better, feeling better alone, feeling better in traffic, being able to pass cars, having the speed that we need to have. It seems like we can have the speed for one or two laps. You know, we qualified pretty decent last week (third at Atlanta). ... We've just got to get better with the long haul."
NASCAR OPENS PIT ROAD TIMING LOOPS FOR LAS VEGAS PRACTICES
Last Sunday at Atlanta, Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers collectively were flagged for 13 pit road speeding penalties, with a late ticket to Kevin Harvick changing the entire tenor of the race.
Drivers had to deal with the addition of timing lines on pit road at Atlanta, creating scoring segments that were much smaller than those in play when the series visited the 1.54-mile track last year.
Similarly, for races this weekend at Las Vegas, drivers and crew chiefs are confronted with double the number of timing lines in place for last year's events. To allow teams to get familiar with the smaller segments, NASCAR opened the timing loops for Xfinity Series practice on Friday and both Monster Energy Series practices on Saturday.
During Saturday's first session, teams seemingly spent as much time huddled around computers showing the speeds in pit road sectors as they did congregating around the cars.
Ryan Blaney, who qualified third on Friday in the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford, was more concerned with getting in and out of his pit box cleanly than he was with speeding on pit road. That's why crew chief Jeremy Bullins chose pit stall No. 40, closest to the entrance to pit road.
"You always want to be able to get in and out of your box clean and not have to worry about going around cars or cars coming around you," said Blaney, who was sixth fastest in Saturday's first practice. "You can speed anywhere on pit road. Nowadays, your box really has a small role in playing with timing lines ever since they added a bunch of them.
"You just have to watch your speed, but it maybe helps a little bit coming in just so you can get in your box and reset, but then you have to focus on getting down all of pit road (without speeding)."
Blaney is not one to take chances by pushing the pit road speed limit (45 mph at Las Vegas with a tolerance up to 50 mph).
"I've got other things to worry about," Blaney said. "I know there's been a lot of talk about all the speeding penalties last week, but I've always been on the conservative side when it comes to that. I think giving up a little bit there is a lot more beneficial than having to come back down pit road, so I've always been on the conservative side of the pit road speed stuff.
"Now that I say that, I'll probably get a penalty (on Sunday), but it's not something I really worry about."
Chase Elliott was fastest in Saturday's first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series practice, turning his best lap in 28.197 seconds (191.510 mph). In relative terms, that lap was a quantum leap quicker than the 28.599-second circuit turned in by second-place Kyle Larson (188.818 mph). Elliott also showed excellent speed over a 10-lap run, posting the fastest average at 186.480 mph, a run that included his session-best circuit on Lap 2. ... In warmer conditions during a second practice that started at 11:30 a.m., Martin Truex Jr. topped the speed chart at 188.613 mph, with Elliott second fastest at 188.574 mph. Elliott's Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr., was third quickest in the session at 188.436 mph. Earnhardt struggled with the handling of his No. 88 Chevrolet in Saturday's first practice (running 17th) but made significant improvements in Happy Hour. ... With roughly 15 minutes left in final practice, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. scraped the outside wall near the apex of Turns 1 and 2 with his No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford and crinkled the right side of the car. After examining the primary car in the garage, Stenhouse's team rolled out a backup Ford. Stenhouse, who qualified 29th on Friday, will start from the rear in Sunday's Kobalt 400 with no laps on the backup car.
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
LAS VEGAS -- Brad Keselowski blew the first and second corners on his money lap in Friday's Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series qualifying at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Then he blew away the rest of the field.
Perhaps "blew away" is a bit of an exaggeration. Keselowski covered the 1.5 miles at 193.680 mph to edge Martin Truex Jr. (193.458 mph) for the top starting spot in Sunday's Kobalt 400 (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX) by .003 of a second.
The pole was Keselowski's first of the season, his first in nine attempts at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and the 13th of his career.
With most drivers in the final round stronger through the first two corners before tightening up in Turns 3 and 4, it is conceivable that missing 1 and 2 actually helped Keselowski's lap.
"I don't know what the answer is," said Keselowski, the defending winner at Las Vegas and last week's winner at Atlanta. "I'll have to look through a bunch of data, and the smart guys -- the engineers and crew chiefs -- will probably point some of that stuff out to me. But, yeah, every time I looked at the tracker, the cars that were fast in 1 and 2 weren't in 3 and 4, and we were the opposite.
"We were really good in 3 and 4 ... but we'll take it either way."
Ryan Blaney qualified third after setting the fastest lap of the day (194.147 mph) in the second of the three rounds. Matt Kenseth will start fourth, followed by Kyle Larson and Joey Logano.
Like Keselowski, Truex missed Turns 1 and 2 on the lap that counted but was strong through Turns 3 and 4 in securing his front-row starting spot.
"I felt like we had a pretty well-put-together lap, but it wasn't perfect," Truex said. "Not quite as good through Turns 1 and 2 with the bumps as I'd like to be, and it felt like we hit 3 and 4 good. I felt like the bumps in 1 and 2 got us.
"All in all, I felt like we just missed the pace a little bit. We were really strong in practice and thought (the track) would pick up quite a bit of speed tonight, and it didn't. That threw us a little bit of a curve and kind of hurt our setup. It was a good recovery. We made a lot of changes as qualifying went on and got better at the end. That's all you can ask for."
After a strong start to the season in Daytona and Atlanta, the Stewart-Haas Racing cars were sluggish in Friday's time trials, with none of the four advancing to the final round. Series leader Kevin Harvick will start 19th on Sunday, two spots behind Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch.
Clint Bowyer was the fastest of the SHR drivers, landing the 13th starting position after missing the final round by .001 of a second.
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
LAS VEGAS -- Nevermind that Kurt Busch has three Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victories at New Hampshire -- and none at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Busch, a Las Vegas native, was delighted with the Wednesday announcement that Las Vegas would get a second date in NASCAR's top series -- along with accompanying XFINITY and Camping World Truck Series races.
The second Las Vegas event, to be held on a yet-to-be-determined date in September starting in 2018, replaces the fall race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in NASCAR's 10-race playoff. Busch's enthusiasm for the additional Las Vegas date was tempered only slightly by the absence of New Hampshire in the playoff.
After all, the most recent of Busch's victories at the Magic Mile came in 2008.
"That's big, to have Trucks on Friday, Xfinity on Saturday, Monster Energy Cup Series on Sunday," Busch said in advance of Sunday's Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX).
"That's big. And then it's a playoff atmosphere in September. It will be a little warm, but we'll see how that plays out, but the way this city continues to grow around sports. ... There's an NHL team that's now here, the Raiders continue to flirt with coming down here. With the way that this town evolves, you see it as a win-win with the entertainment side and the sporting side.
"To lose a date at New Hampshire, I think that will really push the New Englanders out hard for their July race, and there will be much more support around their race then. I haven't won there in many years, so I'm OK with winning three times early in my career. I haven't won there as of late, so it doesn't matter."
The way Busch sees it, the addition of a fall race at Las Vegas also will amplify the importance of the spring event.
"Wherever the date is, you have to be ready for it, and now when you have a springtime race at a track such as Phoenix, Martinsville, Texas -- Vegas now fits in this category. All those races are that much more important in the spring because they are playoff races in the fall (at the same tracks)."
HARVICK takes it to the hoop? says Mutombo
Other than representing Mobil 1 in television commercials and in their respective professions, NASCAR driver Kevin Harvick and former NBA center Dikembe Mutombo have very little in common.
At an announcement on Thursday at the MGM Grand that official NASCAR partner Mobil 1 would serve as primary sponsor on each of Stewart-Haas Racing's four cars for one race this season -- including Harvick's No. 4 Ford this weekend at Las Vegas -- the 2014 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion joked that the 7-foot-2 Mutombo would have to use a roof hatch to get into a race car.
Mutombo conceded that NASCAR drivers are well-conditioned athletes, but he drew the line at a theoretical one-on-one basketball game against the driver.
"It's just better for him to sign the ball," Mutombo said, as Harvick put his autograph on a rack of basketballs. "That's as close as he's going to get to the basket."
Mutombo then wagged his finger.
"He would try to let one go, but he's going to get the finger, 'No, no, no -- not today,'" Mutombo quipped.
Not that Harvick wanted any part of a close encounter on the basketball court.
"The same thing goes for (him) driving the car," Harvick retorted. "I don't have anything to say. He should beat me very bad at basketball."
Shell/Pennzoil assumes entitlement of Las Vegas spring race
After announcing a long-term sponsorship renewal with Team Penske and driver Joey Logano two weeks ago at Daytona, Shell/Pennzoil continued to express its commitment to NASCAR racing with the announcement of a long-term entitlement for the spring race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, which will be named the Pennzoil 400 starting next year.
"I feel like the couple of times I've sat up here, there's been lots of good news and great announcements," Logano said at Friday's press conference. "Obviously, when a company is willing to invest through 2022 and beyond, it's a big deal for our whole sport -- not just for Las Vegas Motor Speedway, but for NASCAR and our industry.
"So I'm proud to be a part of that once again. This has been a great racetrack for us in the past. We're coming so close to winning. I think of Team Penske finishing 1-2 here last year (with Brad Keselowski winning the race and Logano running second). Maybe we can flip that around this year and put the Pennzoil car up front."
The announcement that the schedule in 2018 will have a second race in Las Vegas during the playoffs was not unusual. Once again, Speedway Motorsports owner Bruton Smith is moving a race date from one of his under-performing tracks - this time the New Hampshire Motor Speedway - to a venue where ticket sales are expected to be robust.
The unusual wrinkle is Smith's flagship facility in Charlotte moving its oval race to a road course that uses part of the banking and an infield circuit.
By announcing the realignment of next year's schedule, NASCAR officials confirmed they are in favor of these moves. It is hoped the promoter will get a boost from ticket sales -- which will reflect positively on the sanctioning body's premier Cup property -- and NASCAR's TV partner will get more excitement by adding a third road race to the schedule.
NASCAR fans enjoy the "town takeover" that occurs in Las Vegas when approximately 100,000 people show up for a race weekend and the opportunity for fantastic voyages down the other-worldly Strip.
It's a no-brainer that a similar number of fans will show up for a second Las Vegas event during the playoffs.
But a road race in one of the Southeast's longstanding high-banked ovals constitutes a radical departure. Given that road races invariably have fewer than 10 lead changes, it flies in the face of conventional wisdom that NASCAR fans prefer to see frequent lead changes on an oval under green flag conditions.
But it's hard to argue with the thinking of Smith and his son Marcus, who now runs the SMI empire on a day-to-day basis. First, the intermediate ovals such as Charlotte are seeing fewer and fewer lead changes due to well-engineered cars and a tightly configured rules package that lends itself to one team "hitting the jackpot" with its set-up. Last year's May race in Charlotte found Martin Truex Jr. leading all but 12 miles of a 600-mile race. Last weekend's race on Atlanta's 1.54-mile oval was dominated by Kevin Harvick, who led all but 33 laps.
Fans have been responding to road races and voicing an interest in seeing a road race in the playoffs. In addition to making for some dramatic TV, the road race at Watkins Glen constitutes one of the few sellouts on the current Cup schedule. It's difficult to tell if these ticket buyers are fans of the track and road racing, longtime NASCAR fans or new ones. In any case, road racing is one way for NASCAR to introduce a new perspective. As with this year's move to races with three stages, NASCAR has little to lose by altering its course to help bring back fans or create new ones.
Another key element of the switch to a road race was to maintain the number of intermediate ovals on the schedule during the playoffs. If the 1.5-mile Las Vegas oval was added to the existing schedule, without the switch to a road circuit in Charlotte, it would have meant six of the intermediate tracks - derisively referred to as "cookie cutters" -- out of the 10 playoff dates.
If the championship represents how well a driver performs on all types of NASCAR tracks, then the playoffs should reflect the variety of tracks on the overall schedule. The current 36-race Cup season has 12 of 36 on races in the 1.5-mile range, including Darlington's 1.366-mile oval. There are six traditional short-track events, six on 1.0-mile tracks, six on tracks of 2.0 miles or more run without restrictor plates, four on restrictor-plate tracks and two on road courses.
When it comes to the playoffs, currently there are five intermediate tracks, three 1.0-mile ovals, one traditional short track and one restrictor-plate race. The one glaring omission? A road circuit.
The last time two races were moved on the Cup schedule was in the 2011 season. The Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., lost one of its two dates to the Kansas Speedway -- home to NASCAR's sponsor Sprint at the time and also the site of a new gambling casino and hotel complex. Each of those two tracks is owned by the International Speedway Corp., which like NASCAR is owned by the France family. That same year, the Atlanta Motor Speedway lost one its two dates to the Kentucky Speedway in a move by Smith to bring a Cup date to a track in the Bluegrass State -- one located near the Fortune 500-laden corporate metropolis of Cincinnati across the Ohio River.
Both of those changes led to good attendance at the Kansas and Kentucky tracks. (By dropping to one date neither the Auto Club nor Atlanta experienced a bounce in attendance.)
Heading into Sunday's race in Las Vegas, a city that has come up with a $2.5 million sponsorship package to get the second race, the focus on the schedule change has been intense enough to overtake another significant realignment story. Ford has been running roughshod over Chevy and Toyota in laps led and victories in the season's first two races. The switch by Stewart-Haas Racing to Ford resulted in a Daytona 500 victory and all those laps led by Harvick in Atlanta before Team Penske Ford driver Brad Keselowski took the victory.
As with the need for a variety of tracks on the schedule, NASCAR needs a variety of manufacturers in victory lane. There's no panic yet in the Chevy and Toyota camps, but it's clear Ford has made a big leap forward with its realignment program that brought in SHR.
If the remaining intermediate oval races look anything like Atlanta, Ford could have one of its drivers hoisting the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series trophy at season's end for the first time since Kurt Busch won the inaugural "playoff" title in 2004. Sunday's race on a 1.5-mile track thus has more than the usual significance for an early-season encounter.
That's the way it went at the Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday in the second race of the season in NASCAR's premier Cup category. As in the season opener at Daytona, there was a surprise ending to this story. But until then, it was a race for second place.
The new stage format introduced this season was supposed to break up occasions where one driver and team blow up the show by blowing away the competition all day. Kevin Harvick apparently was uninformed about this strategizing by NASCAR and TV executives at the highest levels.
Harvick looked like he would be the first driver to sweep all three stages in the new format, which awards points for the leaders of the first two stages as well as at the finish. But after leading 292 laps, a penalty dropped the driver from Bakersfield, Calif., from first place to the tail end of the field with just 11 green flag laps remaining.
So for at least one race forget about the new stage format -- designed to help re-arrange fields over the course of a race. Instead, 11 drivers were penalized for speeding on the pit road on 13 occasions.
A cross-section of culprits got caught, including defending series champion Jimmie Johnson and former champion Matt Kenseth, each of whom was nabbed twice. It had the effect of jumbling the field all day and forcing some drivers with fast cars to spend much of the day racing back to the front.
Faster drivers charging from the rear to undo errors can be a spectacle in itself. But none suffered as much pain as Harvick. Even winning driver Brad Keselowski and his team owner Roger Penske expressed their condolences about fellow Ford driver Harvick's misfortune.
Until he tripped NASCAR's notoriously touchy computerized timing lines, Harvick was virtually unbeatable. Starting from the pole, his Stewart-Haas Racing Ford led all but 19 laps before getting pulled over. Even on re-starts, he quickly generated a gap against various drivers making a run for the front, who ended up dueling for second place as Harvick hugged the bottom line all the way around the 1.54-mile oval as if it was a long-lost lover.
Afterward, before team owner Tony Stewart draped a commiserating arm around him, Harvick calmly faced the music and the media -- shouldering the burden of a heartbreaking loss. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver known for outbursts and harsh words in the past on the radio during races when his pit crew makes mistakes was apologetic to his team this time.
"To make a petty mistake like I always preach against, that's what hurts so much," he said.
Adding to the misery was this incredible statistic. Harvick has led the most laps in Atlanta for the last four races -- a total of 734. But he hasn't won a single one of them. His only victory in Atlanta came behind the wheel of the Richard Childress Chevy shortly after replacing the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. in 2001.
Thanks to the stage format, Harvick, who hustled back to a ninth-place finish, emerged with 48 points versus the 53 earned by Keselowski, who survived an error by his Team Penske pit crew earlier to come back for the victory in the final run to the checkered flag. But where Harvick received two bonus playoff points for stage victories, Keselowski earned five bonus points for the overall win.
Once it was over, there were two big questions -- why was Harvick so fast? And why did so many drivers get nailed on the pit road?
Harvick said during the race that he was just applying the lessons he learned on Mesa Marin Raceway, the half-mile short track east of Bakersfield where he cut his racing teeth.
"I'm just going down and hooking the corner just like Mesa Marin," Harvick said over the radio during his domination. This despite the fact his pole-winning time of 190.398 mph was considerably faster than the lap speeds on his hometown oval, now replaced by a recreation facility.
Chase Elliott, the second-year Cup driver who finished fifth after fighting back from a speeding penalty in his Hendrick Motorsports Chevy, was asked why he runs the Atlanta track so well?
"I was teammates with Kevin Harvick here with JRM (JR Motorsports) in 2014 during my first trip here," said Elliott. "I learned a lot from him."
Elliott was one of those who got as close as the rear bumper of Harvick's Ford without being able to get by. "You know, I thought our car was as good as Kevin's car was," said Elliott. "I just think he did a little better job driving than I was doing."
As for the speeding penalties, in a system that measures speed from point to point, there were shorter pit road segments with timing lines at AMS than in the past. Drivers typically push the envelope as they drive through the segments, but learned the hard way about the new layout.
The drivers have to rely on their tachometers that measure RPM and a series of lights on their dashboards to stay below the pit road speed limit. (NASCAR does not permit teams to use speedometers.) The series of lights lead to a red light, alerting a driver if too fast, usually allowing time to back off before hitting the next timing line.
"You don't win by being in a comfort zone," said Keselowski. "These guys know that."
Keselowski beat Harvick out of the pits 60 laps from the finish -- only to have to return so his crew could tighten lug nuts. But that may have spooked Harvick, who was a bit too fast as he approached his stall on the final trip down the pit road.
"When you go back and think about the stop where Brad beat him out," said team owner Roger Penske. "I think that had him on a little bit of an edge there on that last (stop). ... That's why maybe he stepped on it a little bit more."
Keselowski counted himself glad to be leaving with the trophy. "I hate when I lose that way," said Keselowski. "When you win one that way, you take it and move on."
Atlanta Motor Speedway
Sunday, March 05, 2017
1. (5) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 325.
2. (8) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 325.
3. (16) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 325.
4. (29) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 325.
5. (11) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 325.
6. (6) Joey Logano, Ford, 325.
7. (13) Kurt Busch, Ford, 325.
8. (9) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, 325.
9. (1) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 325.
10. (7) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 325.
11. (25) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 325.
12. (15) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 325.
13. (4) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, 325.
14. (23) Erik Jones #, Toyota, 325.
15. (26) Ty Dillon #, Chevrolet, 325.
16. (3) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 325.
17. (24) Danica Patrick, Ford, 325.
18. (14) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 324.
19. (18) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 324.
20. (37) Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, 324.
21. (21) Daniel Suarez #, Toyota, 323.
22. (27) Landon Cassill, Ford, 323.
23. (34) David Ragan, Ford, 323.
24. (28) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 323.
25. (17) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 322.
26. (20) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 322.
27. (30) Aric Almirola, Ford, 321.
28. (22) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 321.
29. (36) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 320.
30. (12) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 320.
31. (33) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 320.
32. (19) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 319.
33. (35) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, 317.
34. (32) * Corey LaJoie #, Toyota, 313.
35. (2) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 309.
36. (38) * Derrike Cope, Chevrolet, 298.
37. (31) Gray Gaulding #, Toyota, Engine, 253.
38. (10) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, Rear End, 182.
39. (39) * Cody Ware, Chevrolet, Steering, 74.
Average Speed of Race Winner: 140.898 mph.
Time of Race: 3 Hrs, 33 Mins, 08 Secs. Margin of Victory: 0.564 Seconds.
Caution Flags: 6 for 32 laps.
Lead Changes: 9 among 5 drivers.
Lap Leaders: K. Harvick 1-36; R. Newman 37-39; K. Harvick 40-127; J. Johnson 128-129; B. Keselowski 130-141; K. Harvick 142-264; B. Keselowski 265-266; K. Harvick 267-311; K. Larson 312-318; B. Keselowski 319-325.
Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): K. Harvick 4 times for 292 laps; B. Keselowski 3 times for 21 laps; K. Larson 1 time for 7 laps; R. Newman 1 time for 3 laps; J. Johnson 1 time for 2 laps.
Stage #1 Top Ten: 4,2,24,78,22,31,17,11,42,48
Stage #2 Top Ten: 4,24,31,78,42,3,2,77,14,6
First, Chase Elliott's Chevy coughed and sputtered, then the Chevy of Kyle Larson did likewise and, finally, winner Kurt Busch's Ford was in front. All of this after pile-ups sent 15 cars to the garage.
Crashes are measured in g-loads, which meant plenty of energy was on display in the season opener for the newly renamed Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
It just wasn't the kind of energy anybody can drink or that gets drivers to the finish line. As in the crash-infused Camping World Truck Series race on Friday and the Xfinity Series race on Saturday, drivers were amped up and hyped up by the new format that awards points twice in preliminary stages before a final stage begins.
The checkers flew for only 25 cars running in part due to NASCAR's new Damaged Vehicle Policy, which limits repairs on the pit road and forces cars that need any additional work behind the wall into retirement. Mostly, cars went missing due to crashes resulting from over-exuberance and drivers lost in weird strategies as teams tried to "stage" pit stops to come out ahead in the first two stages.
Among those absent early was leader Dale Earnhardt Jr., who couldn't even avoid heavy contact while in first place when the almost-lapped Toyota of Kyle Busch spun in front of him. (As evidenced by the younger Busch's unsuccessful efforts to stay on the lead lap, the Toyota teams' new-fangled strategy of oddly-timed pit stops to win early stages backfired and ruined any chance of repeating last year's victory by Denny Hamlin under team tactics. At least the new format may have blown up plans for team drafting strategies in the future).
An exasperated defending series champion Jimmie Johnson, whose Chevy got sandwiched between the cars of Jamie McMurray and Trevor Bayne, crashed out 73 laps from the finish -- usually a relatively more sedate segment.
"The whole back straightaway two of them were trying to wreck me," Johnson said.
Even the spotters were worn out by contact. "He's hit everything but the snack bar today," said Tab Boyd, who spots for Joey Logano. This was in reference to pole starter Elliott's maneuvering in the draft.
The race was as much war zone as competition. The victorious Stewart-Haas Racing Ford had a right front corner held together by black tape and "did not have a single straight panel on it," said winner Kurt Busch while standing beside a car that epitomized rubbing is racing.
Is this any way to run a major league racing series? NASCAR officials and the executives at Fox Sports and NBC Sports, who came up with the three-stage plan, believe it is. While the TV execs pushed for ways to get fans to tune in longer to help rejuvenate ratings, it was NASCAR which devised the actual three-stage strategy, albeit after consultation with "influencers" in the garage.
So, this is it -- the new way forward, or perhaps a quick trip to the garage and retirement.
It was a "cleaner" race at the finish due to the absence of damaged vehicles, probably what the organizers and TV execs were seeking. One hopes they didn't anticipate the stages might actually cause more crashing.
Given that the Daytona 500 trophy is a career-maker and that restrictor plate racing encourages unavoidable contact, maybe Sunday's race was a one-off as drivers and teams got used to the new rules.
Perhaps the garage will not fill up so fast as the season progresses. On the other hand, all the different strategies at play in the push for stage points are likely to continue to create combinations of faster and slower cars running together, which is a recipe for wrecks.
It was a Daytona 500 for the relatively aged as it turned out. The final charge of Ryan Blaney, age 24, fell short following the abrupt departure from the lead of 21-year-old Elliott and 24-year-old Larson. All three ran out of gas before the older Busch, 38, won his first NASCAR crown jewel in his 17th season and after finishing second three times.
"I tell you, age and wisdom, they come together," said Kurt Busch. "Youth is wasted on the young. I've been through some different patches here or there, but to have a team that believes in me, that's the most important part. To have a wife that believes in me, and a family of course, all the way through all of this."
Busch's roughest patches came in 2015, when NASCAR suspended him just prior to the Daytona 500 after a family court in Delaware found that he probably committed domestic violence. But Delaware's attorney general decided not to prosecute and Busch's accuser, an ex-girlfriend, was later indicted on federal charges of fraud and tax evasion, which cast further doubt on her accusations.
Busch's Stewart-Haas Racing team and his sponsor, Monster Energy, stuck by him through this episode, and in January he married polo player and model Ashley Van Metre. Busch said it was his new bride who inspired him to ignore the fact his rear-view mirror broke free from one of its mounting points and was useless during the final tense 30 laps while hanging crookedly.
The mirror malfunction helps explains how Larson snuck past him for third place with three laps to go. But Busch then followed Larson past Martin Truex Jr. to take second before going into the lead -- for the first time in the race -- on the final lap.
The Kurt Busch or previous years, who struggled with anger issues, might have come unhinged after losing his mirror, since restrictor plate racing at Daytona is about mirror driving. Instead, Busch asked himself what Ashley would do?
"She laughs at stuff like this. I'm laughing at it, too." Busch said he reverted to his days of driving Dwarf cars as a teenager in Las Vegas, since they didn't have mirrors, and to what his father had taught him. "You go off intuition, off momentum, off sound of other cars."
Nobody was happier at the result than Tony Gibson, known as the "Old Man," who won his first Daytona 500 as a crew chief after 15 years of trying. The gruff Gibson, 52, was born at nearby Halifax Medical Center. He got his nickname for acting more like he was 62 for the last 10 seasons. But he hollered like a happy kid after the race.
If it's possible for a retired driver to win the Daytona 500, then Tony Stewart defied time by helping to get his SHR team to the Harley J. Earl trophy for the first time. Stewart won more than his share of races at Daytona, but never the vaunted 500.
"When you've grown up all your life as a race car driver you want to win it as a driver," said Stewart. "For every driver, there's a point where you step out of the car and you do something different. To have an opportunity to come back this year as an owner and still have the opportunity to be where we're at right now, I mean, that's a pretty exciting feeling."
The SHR team's new racing marriage and an arduous switch to Ford from Chevy during the off-season likely played a role. All the teams pitted for the last time on the same lap under caution, but it was the Ford V8s built by Roush Yates Engines that ran to the finish and took four of the top six positions.
Runner-up Blaney's Ford coughed but still came home second despite his rambunctious efforts that likely used up fuel as the laps wound down.
Given that NASCAR altered the format for the first time since the original Daytona 500 in 1959, it was a race for the ages, too. There is no looking back -- no rear-view mirror -- now that the three-stage format is in place for all of the sanctioning body's three major traveling series.
Time will tell if rubbing is racing has indeed turned into wrecking is racing and the survival of the least damaged.
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Returning to action from a concussion that sidelined him for the second half of the 2016 season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was leading Sunday's Daytona 500 at the halfway point, having passed Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson for the top spot on lap 97 of 200.
But both Earnhardt and Johnson were off-cycle on pit stops, and a trip to pit road was imminent. What Earnhardt needed was a caution.
What Earnhardt didn't need was to be part of the wreck that caused the yellow.
On Lap 105, Earnhardt was trailing a trio of Toyotas into Turn 3 when Kyle Busch spun as his right rear tire deflated. Earnhardt tried to steer around the wreck but clipped the rear of Busch's Toyota, severely damaging the right front suspension of Earnhardt's Chevrolet.
Earnhardt took the car to the garage and fell out of the race in 37th place, a disappointing end to a strong week that saw him qualify on the outside of the front row for the Great American Race and finish fifth in his Can-Am Duel on Thursday.
"I don't know what happened there with the No. 18 (Busch)," Earnhardt said of the crash that knocked him out of the race. "He just got turned around. I tried to get the wheel turned and get down the race track, but I lifted off the gas to miss it, and got on the splitter a little bit, and the car went straight. We jumped him, and got in the wall a little bit.
"Wasn't too hard of a hit. We thought we could get the car fixed and get back out there and see what we could do with the rest of the day and make up some spots maybe. But there was just too much damage. The radiator is pushed back. The toe is all messed up. The front suspension is knocked around pretty bad, so the upper A-frame is laid over on the motor. We just can't drive it like that."
The wreck, however, didn't diminish the positive feelings Earnhardt takes away from Daytona.
"I really enjoyed the whole week," he said. "We had a lot of fun. Everybody was looking forward to getting back to the race track. It meant a lot to me. And I'm just sorry we weren't able to deliver a better result today for all our fans and everybody that was looking forward to today. We had a great car. At least we went out leading the race.
"Luckily, the hit wasn't that hard, and we'll be able to get to Atlanta and compete again. It's going to be a fun season, and we've got pretty high spirits. This was not the result we wanted today, but like I said, it's been a great week."
Blaney has mixed feelings about runner-up finish
Given his running position with two laps left in Sunday's Daytona 500, Ryan Blaney was pleasantly surprised with his runner-up finish in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series' most prestigious race.
On the other hand, there was a tinge of disappointment at coming so close to a victory and falling .228 seconds short.
"We all got single-file with 15 (laps) to go, something like that," Blaney said. "I tried to make a move with 10 to go to see what would happen. No one really went with me. The 22 (Joey Logano) tried too. It really wasn't happening. I was kind of worried it was just going to end that way.
"Luckily, I got Joey behind me there down the frontstretch, and we were able to lay back to him and get a huge run into (Turn) 1. At the same moment, the 41 (race winner Kurt Busch) went to go pass the 42 (Kyle Larson), and it kept my run going, all the way up to second."
But second was also where the run stopped.
"It was a good way to start off the year," Blaney said. "Stinks to be so close. But I think that's good momentum for our team, to be good at the beginning of the day, get some damage and be able to rally for a good finish."
Waltrip finishes eighth in final Daytona 500
Michael Waltrip didn't have the fastest car in Sunday's Daytona 500, but he managed to avoid the prolific multicar wrecks that peppered the first 150 laps of the race.
And when he took the checkered flag, Waltrip was eighth in his 30th and final trip around Daytona International Speedway in NASCAR's most important race.
"Yeah, it's going to be a great memory to have a top 10," Waltrip said. "I had so many times I was in the middle of a crash and just missed it. So you do a good job, and you get lucky--both. At the end, I just lost the draft, and that's unfortunate, because I was able to weave my way past people.
"I had a really, really good handling car. I'm thankful that I survived, and I'm thankful for being able to run up front, and I'm happy about the finish. I'm ready for it to be my last one, so it's going to be a good one to remember it by."
Daytona International Speedway
Daytona Beach, Florida
Sunday, February 26, 2017
1. (8) Kurt Busch, Ford, 200.
2. (36) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 200.
3. (38) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 200.
4. (13) Aric Almirola, Ford, 200.
5. (33) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 200.
6. (15) Joey Logano, Ford, 200.
7. (26) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 200.
8. (30) Michael Waltrip, Toyota, 200.
9. (25) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 200.
10. (11) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 200.
11. (39) * Brendan Gaughan(i), Chevrolet, 200.
12. (16) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 200.
13. (35) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, 200.
14. (1) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 200.
15. (22) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 200.
16. (27) Landon Cassill, Ford, 199.
17. (4) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 199.
18. (17) Cole Whitt, Ford, 199.
19. (10) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 199.
20. (40) * Elliott Sadler(i), Chevrolet, 199.
21. (14) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 198.
22. (5) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 197.
23. (29) Joey Gase(i), Toyota, 196.
24. (31) * Corey LaJoie, Toyota, 193.
25. (20) David Ragan, Ford, 188.
26. (32) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, Accident, 145.
27. (7) Brad Keselowski, Ford, Accident, 143.
28. (3) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, Accident, 141.
29. (19) Daniel Suarez #, Toyota, Accident, 141.
30. (18) Ty Dillon #, Chevrolet, Accident, 140.
31. (23) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, Accident, 133.
32. (6) Clint Bowyer, Ford, Accident, 128.
33. (12) Danica Patrick, Ford, Accident, 128.
34. (24) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, Accident, 127.
35. (37) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, Accident, 127.
36. (28) * DJ Kennington, Toyota, Accident, 127.
37. (2) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, Accident, 106.
38. (21) Kyle Busch, Toyota, Accident, 103.
39. (34) Erik Jones #, Toyota, Accident, 103.
40. (9) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, Accident, 103.
Average Speed of Race Winner: 143.187 mph.
Time of Race: 3 Hrs, 29 Mins, 31 Secs. Margin of Victory: 0.228 Seconds.
Caution Flags: 8 for 40 laps.
Lead Changes: 37 among 18 drivers.
Lap Leaders: C. Elliott 1-5; J. McMurray 6-18; K. Harvick 19-22; C. Elliott 23-24; K. Harvick 25-29; B. Keselowski 30-31; K. Larson 32; K. Harvick 33-41; Kyle Busch 42; M. Truex Jr. 43; Kyle Busch 44-48; R. Blaney 49-50; Kyle Busch 51-62; A. Allmendinger 63-64; K. Larson 65-68; K. Harvick 69-72; K. Larson 73; K. Harvick 74-89; J. Johnson 90-96; D. Earnhardt Jr. 97-104; E. Sadler(i) 105-109; K. Harvick 110-121; J. Logano 122; K. Larson 123-125; C. Elliott 126; K. Kahne 127; C. Elliott 128-135; K. Kahne 136-141; A. Dillon 142-148; J. Logano 149-151; C. Whitt 152-154; A. Almirola 155-156; K. Larson 157-162; J. Logano 163-174; C. Elliott 175-197; M. Truex Jr. 198; K. Larson 199; Kurt Busch 200;.
Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): K. Harvick 6 times for 50 laps; C. Elliott 5 times for 39 laps; Kyle Busch 3 times for 18 laps; J. Logano 3 times for 16 laps; K. Larson 6 times for 16 laps; J. McMurray 1 time for 13 laps; D. Earnhardt Jr. 1 time for 8 laps; J. Johnson 1 time for 7 laps; K. Kahne 2 times for 7 laps; A. Dillon 1 time for 7 laps; E. Sadler(i) 1 time for 5 laps; C. Whitt 1 time for 3 laps; M. Truex Jr. 2 times for 2 laps; A. Almirola 1 time for 2 laps; A. Allmendinger 1 time for 2 laps; B. Keselowski 1 time for 2 laps; R. Blaney 1 time for 2 laps; Kurt Busch 1 time for 1 lap.
Stage #1 Top Ten: 18,4,21,2,88,42,1,11,48,10
Stage #2 Top Ten: 4,22,41,2,10,47,14,42,31,21
Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Erik Jones were on the end of the lead lap, just in front of Earnhardt, on lap 105 when Busch spun as a result of a flat right-rear tire and collected Kenseth, Jones, Earnhardt and Ty Dillon. As a result, Busch and Earnhardt retired from the race.
At least 16 cars, including those of Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson, Chris Buescher, Danica Patrick, Denny Hamlin, Trevor Bayne and Kevin Harvick, were involved in a wreck on lap 128 that was set off by contact between Johnson and Jamie McMurray that sent Johnson around.
Two more wrecks came in close succession, beginning when Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Trevor Bayne and Elliott Sadler spun and hit the inside retaining wall, trying to avoid Ryan Blaney, who had slowed to pit.
Upon the restart, 16 more cars piled up. With just over 50 laps remaining, only five cars lacked wreck damage -- the No. 3 of Austin Dillon, the No. 5 of Kasey Kahne, the No. 15 of Michael Waltrip, the No. 43 of Aric Almirola and the No. 47 of A.J. Allmendinger.
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Just because Tony Stewart has retired from Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series racing doesn't mean the co-owner of Stewart-Hass racing has lost his quick wit and sense of humor.
Stewart's penchant for repartee was in full evidence on Saturday morning when he answered questions from reporters during a Ford Performance press conference at Daytona International Speedway.
Before Stewart could get into his shtick, however, he had to take some good-natured ribbing from fellow Ford owners Roger Penske and Jack Roush.
Penske, known for his white button-down shirts, chided Stewart about the black shirt Smoke was wearing.
Roush recalled an instance where Stewart inadvertently wrecked one of his drivers, Carl Edwards, during a race at Pocono—when Stewart was trying to wreck Clint Bowyer.
"Is that the only time I did anything?" Stewart interjected after Roush offered his forgiveness. "If that’s it, I'm good with that. I appreciate it."
Notoriously late to most structured obligations, Stewart compared the relaxing life of a car owner to the harried life of a driver.
"I'll be honest, it's been kind of nice," Stewart said. "If I'm late to practice, nobody yells at me. If I leave practice early, nobody yells at me. And if I don't show up for practice at all, nobody yells at me. That side has been kind of nice.
"Really, the only drama I've had so far is Roger picking at me on the color of shirt I wear, and I guess Jack has kind of given me the pardon already, so it’s been a pretty good weekend so far. If all I've got to worry about is my shirt color, I've got it made right now."
Asked about the timeline for Stewart-Haas Racing's negotiations with Ford, Stewart took a playful shot at Ford executive Raj Nair.
"I can't remember the date, but Raj was sitting out front begging at the front door," Stewart quipped.
BUSY PRACTICE FOR DALE EARNHARDT JR.
In Saturday's final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series practice, Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran 30 laps at Daytona International Speedway, second only to the 36 posted by Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne.
The No. 88 team changed from a qualifying engine to the race engine after practice on Friday, a practice customary at the Daytona 500. But Earnhardt found his car less responsive with the new engine; in addition, the car developed a slight vibration that led to the team changing drive shafts in the car.
"We changed the motor and went to the race engine today, took the qualifying motor out last night," Earnhardt explained. "I thought our car was a little better yesterday in practice. In the pack, it would develop runs a little bit better. It just seemed like I had to get a little luckier today with what was happening behind me, where yesterday the car would do some things or develop some things kind of on its own.
"The thing about that is every time you get out there -- you might not even change anything -- it just depends on what kind of pack you get in, what kind of cars are around you, and your car's performance can change and kind of fool you a little bit. I'm just hoping that today was a little more laid back, not quite as many cars out there, not quite as active in the draft, and maybe that's why we didn't see our car respond like it did yesterday.”
The vibration was of particular concern.
"You worry about that, because any kind of thing that is out of balance is going to hurt that straight-line speed," Earnhardt said. "We tried to work on that and were able to fix it right there on that last run. It's just simple stuff like flipping drive shafts and things like that.
"You want to get all that out of there so you don't have any doubts about anything holding your car back. Otherwise, it's been really uneventful. We haven't had any issues or problems with the car mechanically, and nothing happened on the race track, so it looks like we are going to get this thing on the grid tomorrow and ready to go."
The change in drive shafts won't affect Earnhardt's second-place starting position on Sunday.
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- A new, sleek Camry race car isn't likely to change the Toyota teams' approach to the Daytona 500.
Neither is the success Fords had in breaking up the Toyota monopoly in last Saturday's Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona.
Last year, Camry drivers dominated the Great American Race, with Joe Gibbs Racing's Denny Hamlin edging Furniture Row's Martin Truex Jr. for the win by .010 seconds -- roughly six inches. Toyotas swept all three podium positions and put four cars in the top five.
But in the Clash, the Fords were able to side-draft the Toyotas and break apart a four-car chain. With help from Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano won the day in a Ford. But that won't prevent the Toyotas from trying a similar tactic in Sunday's Daytona 500.
"When you get going restrictor-plate racing, in particular here at Daytona, you're never sure what's going to happen," said team owner Joe Gibbs during a press conference that included Furniture Row Racing owner Barney Visser. "I can't tell you how many times going into the last lap, and I thought it was going to happen last year, we were in pretty good position, but it was real close.
"If Matt (Kenseth) had not been able to hang on to that car, it was going to be a wreck in front of the field. So rarely does it wind up going the way you want it to go, but last year it worked out great. I think the game plan for us this year would be similar.
"We'd love to have a chance to get together. We think with the fact that Barney has got his two cars, and we could get our four somehow to help each other, I think it would be great."
Instead of five cars in its factory-backed camp, Toyota now has six with the addition of Erik Jones to the Furniture Row roster. The expansion from one car to two required a substantial addition of personnel for the Denver, Colo.-based organization.
"For me, it's pretty much the same," Visser said. "I mean, it's the same shop. It's quite a few more people in the shop. (General manager) Joe Garone's life has gotten a whole lot busier, and it pretty much falls on him, but my life is pretty much as it was. The races are just going to be twice as exciting here."
Both JGR and Furniture Row have been instrumental in the refinement of the new Camry race car. Though it was introduced in concert with the race car at the North American Auto Show in Detroit in January, the production version of the Camry won't be available in showrooms until September.
"There was never a better opportunity to get it out, get it out to Daytona and actually get it onto the racetrack early," said Ed Laukes, vice president of marketing, performance and guest experience, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., of the January unveiling. "So we're really excited about having it out there. I think if you see the styling of it, you see how aggressive it is.
"It's probably the most aggressive styled Camry that we've ever had. The engineering crew is really doing a great job of taking the similarities of the styling cues from the production vehicle, keeping it on the race car, so we're pretty happy about it."
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- If there truly is strength in numbers, then Ford's presence in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series has grown in magnitude with the addition of Stewart-Haas Racing's four-car organization.
The benefit was immediately obvious.
Kevin Harvick of Stewart-Haas, driving a Ford in the heat of battle for the first time, helped former nemesis Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski break up a four-car Toyota train at the front of the field in last Saturday's Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona, the season-opening exhibition race in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
When Keselowski tangled with Toyota driver Denny Hamlin on the final lap, Logano was in position to collect the victory.
Team Penske owner Roger Penske, who fields the Fords driven by Logano and Keselowski, was quick to acknowledge the new partnership.
"Obviously, the win the other night was good, and I guess we've got to give Kevin a big thanks for helping us get that win, so the partnership has really paid off," Penske said Saturday during a press conference that also featured team owners Jack Roush and Tony Stewart, as well as Raj Nair, executive vice president of global product development and chief technology officer for Ford Motor Company.
As the 2017 season begins to unfold, teamwork has been the emphasis among the marquee Ford organizations of Roush Fenway Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske.
For one thing, they all get their engines from the same source—Roush Yates Engines, headed by premier engine builder Doug Yates.
"People ask me how do the Ford teams work together and, of course, the last thing I tell them, which is the most important thing, is that we race in the margins for things beyond the sheet metal and beyond the support that we get (from Ford) with the simulator and the simulation," Roush said.
"We've got to hold close to the vest the things that the drivers want to do within the cockpit by themselves, but the cooperation over wind tunnel and cooperation for rules with NASCAR, the cooperation on the engine things that Doug Yates benefits greatly from the input he gets back from the drivers, and I can’t be the only guy that's out there saying, 'Doug, we need to be thinking about this or we need to consider this other thing.'
"I appreciate all the support I get from Roger and his drivers. Roger initially thought he might be making a mistake by not doing his own engine thing. Are we doing OK with that, Roger?"
Replied Penske: "I think it's the best move we ever made."
Stewart-Haas had the biggest hill to climb during the offseason with the transition from Chevrolet to Ford.
"Everybody at SHR did a great job with the switch-over, and everyone at Ford Performance did an awesome job just helping with that transition," Stewart said.
"Like Jack and Roger already mentioned, the simulation, the wind tunnel, the simulator -- all those tools that we have available to us -– have really, really helped bridge that gap and shorten the learning curve for us.
"Coming down here to Daytona, it's been pretty nice up to this point to have four drivers that are really happy with their cars. We'll need to check about halfway through the race and see how happy they are, but, up to this point, they’re really, really excited. Kevin, Kurt (Busch), Clint (Bowyer), Danica (Patrick)—they’ve all been really, really happy and pleased with what we’ve got this year."
SHR, Roush and Penske aren't the only Ford teams on the track. The roster also includes the Wood Brothers, Richard Petty Motorsports and Front Row Motorsports.
Ford drivers have won four of the last eight Daytona 500s, and Nair believes 2017 presents another excellent opportunity.
"We're really looking forward to the weekend," Nair said. "We've done a lot of work in the offseason with the teams on the cars, but obviously we've got a few more bullets in our gun this year with the addition of Stewart-Haas, (along with) Penske, Roush-Fenway, RPM, Wood Brothers, Front Row.
"We're feeling pretty good about our chances on track this weekend."
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Roughly 30 minutes after Chevrolet unveiled the 2017 Camaro ZL 1 that will pace Sunday's Daytona 500 and announced four-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon as its driver, Chevy brass and team owners gathered in the Daytona International Speedway media center to field questions from reporters.
Owners Richard Childress, Chip Ganassi and Rick Hendrick joined Jim Campbell, Chevy's U.S. vice president of performance vehicles and motorsports, at the press session. One of the first topics to arise was the prospect of Jimmie Johnson winning a record-breaking eighth championship at NASCAR's highest level.
Johnson won his seventh title last year to tie Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt for most championships in the history of the series.
"I think Jimmie's in the prime of his career," said Hendrick, who fields the No. 48 Chevrolet Johnson drives. "The way he goes after things ... works out. (Crew chief) Chad (Knaus), their time together. He's been in the tough situations, in the tough moments.
"I think, to me, getting to seven was the challenge. If you could get to seven, then you've tied it. It's hard to explain. I think we took some of the pressure off just getting to seven, because now he can just race. If eight happens, great. I think he's got as good a shot as anybody out there. He knows how to race when it gets into the playoffs."
Childress has enjoyed a 48-year tenure with Chevrolet and was the car owner for six of Earnhardt's seven championships. But what excites him today is the wealth of young talent assembled in today's Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
"This driver group we're in today, you know, a lot of them are in their 40s," Childress said. "We're seeing some of them step aside. I think the sport today, with the young talent, with Chase Elliott, (Kyle) Larson, (Austin and Ty) Dillon, (Erik) Jones -- all this group of young talent -- I don't think, in my time, I've seen this much great young talent coming along in our sport in 50 years probably."
Ganassi was quick to second Childress' opinion.
"With the young talent coming along, I think you have a group of guys coming along that are going to put their signature on this sport," said Ganassi, who fields Monster Energy cars for Larson and Jamie McMurray. "I think, obviously, the sport's gone through some changes. We're looking at a new (race and playoff) format.
"Some of us older guys, when they talk about changing the format, we look at each other, ask questions. These young drivers, they go, 'OK.' It's kind of no big deal to those guys. I think that says a lot about how they approach it, how they look forward to it. So I think it's pretty bright when you have an attitude like that."
Interestingly, the V8 engine in the Camaro ZL 1 generates as much or more horsepower (650) than the restricted power plants in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series cars that will roll off pit road behind the formidable pace car.
"We were kidding with Jeff," Campbell said. "Actually, he was kidding with us. He may just stay out there and take an extra lap."
Chase Elliott won his qualifying race just as his father, Awesome Bill, did 17 years ago, and he will start the 500 from the pole as a contender to win it at the tender age of 21.
In the second qualifying race, it appeared Dale Earnhardt Jr., running his first race since sitting out the second half of the season last year due to concussion symptoms, might return in fine style and re-establish himself as one of the kings of Daytona. That would have been B-I-G in terms of a return to familiar drama and fan response. But then along came the Toyota of last year's Daytona 500 winner, Denny Hamlin, who unseated Earnhardt by drafting past while entering the final lap.
However, the biggest revival of tradition came when an unheralded racer from Canada named D.J. Kennington realized a life-long dream by driving his way into the starting field with a bold up-the-middle move in Turn 4 on the last lap of the second race. All this after rain canceled practice and he drove a NASCAR Cup car in the draft for the first time at Daytona when the green flag waved.
There was no family connection, no NASCAR backing designed to funnel new talent along, only a long-running sponsorship deal with a Castrol distributor in Canada and a car owner, Marty Gaunt, who believed in Kennington and had the same dream. There were also many days and nights on the short tracks of Canada, where Kennington won the championship sanctioned by NASCAR in 2010 and 2012. Basically, it's a minor league circuit in a country that prefers cars without fenders such as Formula 1.
On the last lap, spotter Robby Benton told Kennington that he needed to pass the car of Elliott Sadler to make it into the world's biggest stock car race.
"Do what you gotta do," Benton told him.
Kennington took the only available avenue and got into the Daytona 500 for the first time at the age of 39.
"I knew what I had to do," Kennington said. "I didn't know how to get there."
He chose the usually hazardous middle lane -- his only option -- and found himself rocketing ahead of Sadler by half a car length at the finish line.
"It's just an unbelievable for a small team like us," said Kennington, whose car was built by a handful of crew members at a shop borrowed from Benton. "Never being in one of these cars, never drafting out here before, it was a pretty big deal for me, a lot of learning."
It was the stuff of sports dreams, finally making it to the majors, the Final Four or the Super Bowl -- without any practice. And it was the sort of eight-day saga that only happens in Daytona's complicated qualifying format -- one that has largely gone missing in recent years.
Perhaps Kennington's story, which is bound to receive ample play prior to what's branded as "The Great American Race," is a harbinger for NASCAR, which is trying to beat slipping TV ratings and a decline in attendance. Without the complicated qualifying format, the drama of the Canadian's sudden arrival wouldn't have happened. He would have failed to qualify on speed without a second chance.
In effect, this year NASCAR will start including two qualifying races in each of its 36 races, a radical change that it hopes will generate more interest.
That alteration of tradition will begin on Sunday when the unprecedented new rules literally take the stage. The race will have two 60-lap stages, each paying championship points to the top 10 finishers, and then will finish with an 80-lap stage concluded by the checkered flag. The remaining 35 races will also be run in stages.
The idea is to generate more reasons for fans to watch a race that will have three contested runs to the flag stand instead of the traditional method of assigning points only at the final checkered flag. Those points could determine who makes the playoffs at year's end, a 10-race showdown that has been in place since 2004. Also, there are bonus playoff points at stake that could help determine who wins the championship playoffs.
The consensus is that the first two stages will generate a lot of different fuel and tire strategies, which will add elements of complication and intrigue to how the final run to the checkered flag turns out. The crew chiefs, rather than the drivers, will be the ones on the spot when it comes to choosing strategies on whether to try to win stages or get to the checkered flag first -- or both.
It is anticipated that drivers will be less on the spot and avoid contact at the finish of the first two stages -- saving the "have at it" contact for the end of races. In that light, there is not likely to be more than one slam-bang finish per race. The idea is to mix up strategies to generate more changes at the front as the race develops.
The Daytona 500 has always been NASCAR's biggest race from the day the first one in 1959 required a photo finish. Due to its location in the schedule after the Super Bowl and before March Madness begins and the major leagues get out of Florida and Arizona, the race has long generated excellent TV ratings -- even in Winter Olympics years. So perhaps the new format won't be tested until the teams get to Atlanta, then Las Vegas and beyond.
Short term, Kennington's result was a reminder that NASCAR, like any sport, is about characters whose stories resonate with fans and the media. NASCAR has plenty of compelling characters -- despite the recent losses of Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart to retirement and Carl Edwards to at least a one-year hiatus. Whether the new format does a better job of showcasing these high-speed athletes remains to be seen.
Daytona International Speedway
Daytona Beach, Florida
Thursday, February 23, 2017
1. (1) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 60.
2. (12) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 60.
3. (4) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 60.
4. (2) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 60.
5. (5) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 60.
6. (10) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 60.
7. (3) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, 60.
8. (13) Aric Almirola, Ford, 60.
9. (9) Joey Logano, Ford, 60.
10. (18) Cole Whitt, Ford, 60.
11. (8) Daniel Suarez #, Toyota, 60.
12. (6) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 60.
13. (7) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, 60.
14. (15) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 60.
15. (14) Landon Cassill, Ford, 60.
16. (16) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 60.
17. (20) Joey Gase(i), Toyota, 60.
18. (21) * Corey LaJoie, Toyota, 60.
19. (17) * Brendan Gaughan(i), Chevrolet, 60.
20. (11) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 59.
21. (19) * Reed Sorenson, Toyota, Accident, 48.
Average Speed of Race Winner: 160.095 mph.
Time of Race: 0 Hrs, 56 Mins, 13 Secs. Margin of Victory: 0.156 Seconds.
Caution Flags: 2 for 7 laps.
Lead Changes: 6 among 3 drivers.
Lap Leaders: C. Elliott 1; B. Keselowski 2-11; Kyle Busch 12; B. Keselowski 13-24; Kyle Busch 25-30; B. Keselowski 31-36; C. Elliott 37-60.
Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): B. Keselowski 3 times for 28 laps; C. Elliott 2 times for 25 laps; Kyle Busch 2 times for 7 laps.
Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Race -- Can-Am Duel at Daytona 2
Daytona International Speedway
Daytona Beach, Florida
Thursday, February 23, 2017
1. (3) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 60.
2. (2) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 60.
3. (11) Kurt Busch, Ford, 60.
4. (14) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 60.
5. (13) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 60.
6. (1) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 60.
7. (12) Danica Patrick, Ford, 60.
8. (5) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 60.
9. (8) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 60.
10. (6) Ty Dillon #, Chevrolet, 60.
11. (16) David Ragan, Ford, 60.
12. (15) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 60.
13. (7) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 60.
14. (4) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 60.
15. (19) * DJ Kennington, Toyota, 60.
16. (18) * Elliott Sadler(i), Chevrolet, 60.
17. (17) Michael Waltrip, Toyota, 60.
18. (20) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, 60.
19. (10) Erik Jones #, Toyota, 59.
20. (9) Ryan Blaney, Ford, Accident, 55.
21. (21) * Timmy Hill(i), Chevrolet, Engine, 29.
Average Speed of Race Winner: 156.977 mph.
Time of Race: 0 Hrs, 57 Mins, 20 Secs. Margin of Victory: 0.214 Seconds.
Caution Flags: 2 for 8 laps.
Lead Changes: 5 among 3 drivers.
Lap Leaders: D. Earnhardt Jr. 1-2; D. Hamlin 3-4; D. Earnhardt Jr. 5-27; R. Blaney 28-30; D. Earnhardt Jr. 31-58; D. Hamlin 59-60.
Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): D. Earnhardt Jr. 3 times for 53 laps; D. Hamlin 2 times for 4 laps; R. Blaney 1 time for 3 laps.