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Race Weekend Review - April 24, 2017

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Verizon IndyCar Honda Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park
Penske driver Newgarten wins after his teammate Power has a tire problem

April 23, 2017: The IndyCar race at Barber Motorsports Park road course was Penske driver Will Power’s to win. He had started from the pole and led most of the first 76 laps of the 90-lap race but the team’s telemetry told them that he had a tire losing inflation and they called him in for fresh tires. This dropped him to the back of the 19 cars still running on the lead lap and out of contention. Power did manage to regain a few of those lost positions, finishing in 14th place but, after his pit stop, the day belonged to the new guy in the Penske team – Josef Newgarden.

Newgarten had driven an excellent race and, starting from seventh place he had worked his way up into second and he was closing up on Power before he pitted for tires. This left him in he lad ahead of a determined Scott Dixon who looked to have an advantage over Newgarten. After Power make that pit stop, Dixon was a mere half-second behind Newgarten. He continued to stalk him but, despite expectation, he was not really able to close up that small gap – and, in the end, it seemed to be Newgarten who had the upper hand and he started to stretch out his lead slightly and hold it to the finish, finishing with a one-second lead over Dixon.

The 2016 champion Simon Pagenauld, another Penske driver, was third ahead of Helio Castroneves and Alexander Rossi. Oakville, Ontario’s James Hinchcliffe started the race sixth of the grid and ran a steady race to finish sixth.

Sebastian Bourdais, who is driving for Dale Coyne this year, finished in eighth place after starting 12th. This result combined with his win at St. Petersburg and second in Long Beach sees him continuing to lead in the championship points standings – but the better financed teams like Penske and Ganassi are beginning to show their muscle.

The next Verizon IndyCar Series race is Saturday, April 29 at Phoenix International Raceway.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway
Johnson wins late race showdown after Larson and Truex get speeding tickets

April 24, 2017: Jimmie Johnson led the final 21 laps of the rain-delayed 500-lap Food City 500 here at Bristol to take the win – this was his second win this season after he won last week in Texas. For the first 80 percent of the race he was running somewhere back behind the leaders but, on lap 394 as some of the early strong runners faded, he took the lead for the first time and he led 81 of the remaining laps from there to the checker. This kind of performance is enough to make the pundits start talking about yet another championship for Johnson even though, under NASCAR’s quirky rules, the championship title race has become a meaningless lottery – and perhaps even more so this year.

The race was run on the Monday after heavy rains on Sunday forced postponement. Monday’s weather was clear but the crowd was pretty sparse. Who knows what it would have been if the race had run Sunday as scheduled. The track management had put down a single-file band of extra-sticky ‘VHT’ compound and this was apparently intended to make the lower groove so much better than the higher lanes that everyone would be forced to run in the low groove single-file like in the old days – it seems that the old-timer fans prefer to see this kind of racing where the only way to pass is to bump and half-spin the car ahead. By Monday much of the VHT and the rubber build-up from Saturday’s Xfinity race had been washed away and it seemed as if the track’s plan had been undermined. In the race Monday, most cars started out running the lower groove as planned but, as the race went on and the track ‘rubbered-up’ a second high groove started working so that many cars were able to pass high and low, making for more passing opportunities.

Kyle Larson was the driver who seemed to be best at finding grip both high and low and, during the first half of the race, he seemed to be unbeatable. He started from the pole and led the first 202 laps. Even when he caught up to the tail of the field and started lapping cars – as happens pretty quickly here on the half-mile track – he seemed to be able to maintain his speed no matter whether he was passing high or low. By mid-race it seemed as if his car no longer had superior grip and others took the lead starting with Martin Truex who was the first to pass Larson and he led a total off 116 laps.

Even after Truex had been passed for the lead by Joey Logano, he remained competitive, staying up in the top five. When he pitted during the ninth caution (which came on lap 463) he beat all the others out of pit lane but he was busted for speeding and sent to the back of the field. This turned out to be the final caution and with so few laps left to run he had no chance to regain the lead and he had to settle for an eighth-place finish – pretty good, considering.

Larson’s story was similar. After the pit stops during the eight caution, which came on lap 422, he took advantage of his No. 1 pit stall position and shot straight out onto the pit lane exit road. But he was snake-bit by this. The path he took through the final timing segment was significantly shorter than the one the rest of the cars would take coming down the outside of the pit lane. The shorter distance translated into a higher calculated speed and he was penalized and sent to the back of the field.

He was charging back up through the field and he was up to 12th when that final caution flew. His crew chief gambled and put on only two tires, bringing him out in third place. However, on the restart, he was not able to match the pace of the others, who all had four fresh tires, and he dropped back to finish in sixth place – still a lot better than the 12th-place finish he probably would have had had they changed all four tires like the others.

Joey Logano had a strong performance throughout the race, leading a total of 72 laps. He had the lead as late as lap 465 but others started passing him and he took the final restart in fifth place – he then lost ground but he recovered to finish in fifth.

Clint Boyer finished second, 1.2 seconds back of Johnson, his best result since taking over Tony Stewart’s No. 14 car. Kevin Harvick was third and Matt Kenseth fourth. Larson won the first Stage and Truex the second.

The next Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race is Sunday, April 30 at Richmond International Raceway.

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NASCAR Xfinity Fitzgerald Glider Kits 300 at Bristol Motor Speedway
Erik Jones wins after dominant Larson falls back late in the race

April 22, 2017: Young Erik Jones who was such a winning driver in the Xfinity Series last year has moved up to the Cup series this year but, here at Bristol, he was of several Cup drivers who did double-duty in the Xfinity race. Kyle Larson, another Cup carpetbagger, dominated most of the race, leading 180 of the race’s 300 laps but an apparent tire problem late in the race dropped him back while Jones was able to overcome his own problems and win the race in the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Toyota.

Cup drivers also scored the second- and third-place finishes, Ryan Blaney bringing the Penske No. 22 Ford home second ahead of third-place Daniel Suárez in another Gibbs Toyota. Two Xfinity regulars – Elliott Sadler and Daniel Hemric – finished fourth and fifth.

Larson won the pole in the Saturday morning qualifying session and he held command of the race for the first 229 laps until the fifth caution flew. Larson went into the pits in the lead but Blaney beat him back out. In fact Brandon Jones (not Erik Jones), who had been running outside the top tem, took the restart ahead of Blaney because he had not pitted this time around. After several more laps behind the pace car, the green flew and Blaney passed Brandon Jones for the lead and Larson was shuffled back to sixth. Meanwhile Erik Jones had been given a penalty for speeding in pit lane and had been sent to the back of the field with just 65 short laps left in the race.

Blaney held the lead though the next two cautions but these yellows were working to Jones’ advantage. He was up to eighth place for the lap 278 restart after the seventh caution. This caution tuned in a red flag period to allow time for track cleanup – and this was to the advantage of people like Jones who now wodl have more green-flag laps to try to work their way back up towards the front. Meanwhile Larson seemed to have lost the pace he had had before – perhaps it was due to a tire problem or some other handling problem – but, given that it was so close to the end of the race he stayed out.

The eighth and penultimate yellow came with just 28 laps to go. Race leader Blaney lined up alongside Hemric for the restart but by now Jones was in the second row right behind him. On the restart, Jones took the lead while Blaney dropped back to fourth. Then William Byron spun bringing out the ninth and final caution on lap 293. Jones lined up alongside Suárez for the restart but Blaney was in the preferred high line behind Jones and when it went green he was able to charge forward to claim second behind race-winner Jones when the checkered flag flew only a couple of laps later.

Larson was the winner of the first stage which ended on lap 85 while Hemric won the second stage which ended on lap 170.

All three days of the weekend of racing were affected by rain. On Saturday, the race was waved yellow on lap 161 and then red for over an hour and a half due to rain – but, after that they were able to get going again and finish the full 300-lap distance.

The next NASCAR Xfinity Series race is at Richmond International Raceway on Saturday, April 29.         

Box Scores:

Box Score – IndyCar at Barber Motorsports Park
Box Score – NASCAR MENCS at Bristol Motor Speedway
Box Score – NASCAR Xfinity at Bristol Motor Speedway

Photo Credits:

IndyCar: Michael L. Levitt/LAT for Chevy Racing
NASCAR Xfinity: Sean Gardner/Getty Images/NASCAR

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