Denny Hamlin

Kyle Busch wins first NASCAR All-Star Race at Charlotte and $1 million

2 Comments

Scratch one more off Kyle Busch’s bucket list.

The 2015 NASCAR Cup champion won his first career NASCAR Cup race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, capturing Saturday’s Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race.

In his 12th All-Star Race, Busch led all of the 10 laps in the final stage to take home the $1 million winner’s check.

Kyle Larson, who won the first two stages of the four-stage event, finished second, followed by third stage winner Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch and Jamie McMurray.

Sixth through 10th were Kevin Harvick, Chase Elliott, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin.

MORE: Results, stats for the Monster Energy All-Star Race won by Kyle Busch

Busch becomes the fourth different first-time All-Star Race winner in the last four years, is the 16th different winner in the last 19 All-Star races and is the 23rd different winner in the event’s 33-year history.

And while it was an exhibition, non-points race, it was the first Cup win for any Joe Gibbs Racing driver in 2017.

“There’s reason to celebrate and to celebrate big,” Busch told Fox Sports 1. “We weren’t quite the fastest car, but we made the right changes and the right moves when it mattered most and got the most out of our night tonight and got here into victory lane.”

Keselowski was the only driver of the 10 that qualified for the final 10-lap winner-take-all stage to stay out on-track and not pit to start the final stage in the lead position. But Busch made quick work of Keselowski and streaked onward to victory.

Larson won the first two stages, leading all 40 combined laps. However, when Stage 3 began, Clint Bowyer and Ryan Blaney were at the front of the field, and Larson was third when the green flag fell.

Jimmie Johnson took the lead from Bowyer on Lap 42 and held on to win Stage 3, setting up the 10-driver final stage, which featured Larson, Johnson, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Jamie McMurray, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Chase Elliott and defending All-Star Race winner Joey Logano.

With so much money on the line, drivers were both aggressive and cautious from the opening green flag of the 70-lap event. There were no crashes in either of the first two 20-lap stages.

Late in Stage 3, Ryan Newman took his car to the garage after banging fenders with Denny Hamlin, who continued on.

In the All-Star Open that preceded the night’s main event, Bowyer and Ryan Blaney won the first two stages, while Daniel Suarez was the overall Open winner, putting all three drivers into the All-Star Race.

And Elliott was named as the winner of the fan vote, putting him into the 20th and final All-Star Race position.

HOW KYLE BUSCH WON: Patience, which isn’t always one of Busch’s strongest suits, was the key to his win. He did just well enough in the first three stages and then roared from third to the front of the field before even reaching Turn 1 in the final stage and remained in command the rest of the way.

WHO ELSE HAD A GOOD RACE: Larson had one of the best races of his career. Sure, he didn’t win, but his two stage wins and finishing second showed Larson likely will be a factor to deal with in next Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Matt Kenseth’s night ended after Stage 1 with an oil leak (finished 20th). Ryan Newman’s banging fenders with Denny Hamlin cost him a chance to race in the final stage (finished 19th). Dale Earnhardt Jr. fought a loose race car all race and finished 18th out of 20.

NOTABLE: Jimmie Johnson came into Saturday night as the only multiple All-Star race winner, with four wins in the last 18 All-Star races, but couldn’t hold off Kyle Busch in the final stage.

STAGE 1 RESULTS (Laps 1-20): Pole-sitter Kyle Larson led all 20 laps to win and earn an automatic berth in the final 10-lap, winner-take-all segment. Kyle Busch was second, followed by Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski.

STAGE 2 RESULTS (Laps 21-40): Kyle Larson continued to dominate, leading all 20 laps to win Stage 2. Jimmie Johnson was second, followed by Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch and Jamie McMurray.

STAGE 3 RESULTS (Laps 41-60): Jimmie Johnson took the lead on Lap 42 and held on to win the stage. Kevin Harvick was second, followed by Larson, Kurt Busch and Jamie McMurray.

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT: “I could see a million dollars (go) out the windshield. I just drove too hard.” – Third-place finisher Jimmie Johnson on being unable to hold off Kyle Busch on the final restart.

WHAT’S NEXT: The Coca-Cola 600, the longest race each season, takes place next Sunday, May 28, also at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Long: Aric Almirola’s greatest pain is not fulfilling his children’s wishes

1 Comment

CONCORD, N.C. — The pain in Aric Almirola’s back is nothing like the pain in his heart.

When he gingerly exited an airplane Sunday, a day after fracturing his T5 vertebrae at Kansas Speedway, he was greeted by his children. Four-year-old son Alex and 3-year-old daughter Abby wanted to hug their father.

“I couldn’t,’’ Almirola said in a soft voice.

They wanted him to pick them up.

“I couldn’t.’’

Hugs and lifts will be limited for while. Almirola is expected to need eight to 12 weeks to recover from the back injury he suffered last weekend. His car pounded Joey Logano’s Ford, sending the rear of Almirola’s Ford up about 6 feet before crashing back to the track.

Almirola moved haltingly Friday, sitting still as he talked because of the “excruicatingly painful’’ injury.

“There’s no way to relieve it,’’ Almirola said. “There’s no comfort. If I sit for too long, it hurts. If I stand up, it feels better for a few minutes and then it starts to hurt. If I lay down, it feels better for a few minutes and then it starts to hurt.

“I can’t really lay on my back because it puts pressure on my spine. I can’t lay for too long on my side because then my spine sags and it puts pressure on it. There’s just a constant ache.’’

For someone whose focus as a child was to be a racer — “racing was Plan A, Plan B and Plan C,’’ he said — sitting out of the car for so long will be difficult. But it won’t be as hard for the 33-year-old as it is for his two children.

They don’t understand daddy is hurt.

“I don’t have a Band-Aid on it. I don’t have blood or a scab, so visually they don’t understand I’ve got a broken bone in my back,’’ Almirola told NBC Sports.

Almirola said he felt a stabbing pain in his back when his car struck Logano’s and the pain intensified when the rear of Almirola’s car slammed the ground.

He felt such a burning sensation that he thought his back was on fire. That’s why he lowered the window net of his car. He wasn’t trying to signal that he was OK, he was trying to get out.

Almriola removed his steering wheel. When he threw it on top of the dash and extended his hands, the pain “took my breath away.’’

He soon saw that he wasn’t on the fire. The son of firefighter, he knew that with his back pain it was important to keep the spine stable. Safety officials cut him out of the car.

William Heisel, director of OrthoCarolina Motorsports, which is treating Almirola, said the driver’s injuries are worse than the compression fracture Denny Hamlin suffered in 2013 in a last-lap crash at Auto Club Speedway.

Heisel also said that Almirola’s injury has “outstanding healing potential.’’

The key is to be patient, Hamlin said. He missed four races because of his injury.

“After about two weeks I felt relatively normal,’’ Hamlin told NBC Sports. “There were certain positions in which I would sit that I would feel it and I knew that it wasn’t right, but I was aching to get in the car as quick as I could. I maybe rushed it a bit, but I feel like we waited until it was safe.

“That’s the frustrating part. Drivers don’t mind not getting in a car when they’re not feeling well, it’s when you feel fine that it hurts.’’

Almirola said he’ll wait as long as doctors want him to before climbing back into the car.

While he recovers, his kids will keep him company. And take care of him.

When daddy needs a water, Abby dutifully runs to the kitchen to retrieve a bottle. When daddy needs fresh ice packs for his back, Alex goes to the freezer to get those.

“We’ve got a pretty good system,’’ Almirola said. “They’re taking pretty good care of me.’’

But they are kids and it’s tough on them that daddy is hurt.

“I’ve been spending a lot of time on the couch,’’ Almirola said. “About our most quality time we’ve had over the last week is sitting on the couch and watching TV. They snuggle up next to me.’’

Those are special moments for Almirola.

“They have a way of making you feeling better for sure when they crawl up on the couch, show you they love you and care about you,’’ he said. “That lasts about five minutes and they’re ready to run around. Alex wants me to get down on the ground and play cars with him. Abby wants me to walk her baby stroller with her, chase them around the house or go out to the front yard and watch them ride their bikes.’’

But each time, his response is the same to them.

“Can’t do that.’’

 and on Facebook

Kyle Larson fastest in All-Star Race practice in Charlotte

Getty Images
Leave a comment

The only normal practice session for the Monster Energy All-Star Race was led by Kyle Larson.

The No. 42 Ford Chevrolet posted a top speed of 189.274 mph during the early afternoon session.

The top five was filled out by Kevin Harvick (189.095), Brad Keselowski (188.976), Kyle Busch (188.594) and Martin Truex Jr. (188.232).

Larson caused the only caution in the session when he spun early in Turn 4, but didn’t hit anything

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. recorded the most laps in the session with 46.

The practice session was followed by pit road practice for qualifying.

During it, Denny Hamlin got into wall in Turn 4. He will go to a backup car. Kyle Busch spun in the same turn, but did not hit anything.

“It was so weird,” Hamlin said of his accident. “I left pit road out of the garage. I went up through the gears through (turns) one and two, pulled up on the race track – the car just, it didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel right at all. I went into turn three a little bit hesitant to try to just see what was going on with the car and it just – it was backwards as soon as I let out of the gas. Really weird. Not really sure. It’s almost like the left-side air pressure is in the right. We put it back on our race-trim tires that we had practiced on so they should’ve been fine. I don’t know. It’s definitely something out of sorts.”

Click here for Cup practice report

Aric Almirola out at least eight to 12 weeks with back injury

2 Comments

CONCORD, N.C. — Aric Almirola could miss eight to 12 weeks recovering from the T5 compression fracture he suffered last Saturday in a crash at Kansas Speedway and will race when he is cleared by his doctors.

Regan Smith is substituting for Almirola in the No. 43 Ford this weekend in the Monster Energy Open. Richard Petty Motorsports did not announce Friday who will drive the No. 43 after this weekend.

“I’m not happy about that,” Almirola said of his time out of the car. “If I get back in the race car two weeks too soon, it’s just going to add two more starts in that column in the stat book. If I were to get in another similar accident and not be properly healed, you’re talking about potentially being paralyzed from the belly button down. I’m not going to risk that, I’ve got a lot of baseball to play with my son and I’d like to dance with my daughter someday at her wedding.”

RPM CEO Brian Moffitt said the team is still working with its partners to establish will drive the No. 43 following the weekend.

Next weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 will be the first Cup points race Almirola has not started since the October 2010 race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Almirola suffered his injury in a high-speed collision with the cars of Joey Logano and Danica Patrick during last weekend’s Go Bowling 400 at Kansas Speedway. The race was stopped for nearly 28 minutes so Almirola could be safely removed from the car and transported to a nearby hospital for observation. He was released the next morning.

“As far as the pain, it’s pretty bad,” Almirola said. Who described his pain level at “9.5” right after the wreck. Almirola said he hadn’t taken pain medication in 48 hours. He joked it was in order to “not look drunk” for the press conference.

Almirola said he does not know which part of the accident caused his injury.

After reviewing the wreck, Almirola said he was two seconds behind it when it began.

“In race car racer terms, that is a long way,” Almirola said, who had committed to the highest lane on the track right as the wreck began.

He braked and turned left to avoid it, got loose and ran through fluids from the wreck, which prevented him from slowing down.

“From that point, I felt I was on railroad tracks,” Almirola said. “There was nothing I could do, I was on ice.”

When he impacted Logano’s car, Almirola instantly felt pain, describing it as being stabbed by a knife. When the No. 43 landed back on all four tires, Almirola described the pain as if the knife was being “twisted up in my back.”

Almirola believes if Logano’s car had been three feet lower on the track, he would have hit him in the door and Lognao would have been “seriously injured.”

On Thursday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Almirola told him the springs in Almirola’s car were not in place when his car landed back on the track, making the impact harder.

“The springs didn’t actually fall out of the car and disappear, I think they came out of the spring bucket,” Almirola said. “When the car came back to the garage, the springs were not upright in the spring buckets. I’m not 100 percent sure and NASCAR has reviewed the video, the R&D center has and there’s nothing showing the springs physically held up the car upon impact with Joey’s car. When the came back down it violently hit on the left-side frame rail and the left side jack post. The R&D center shows that as well.”

Almirola said the energy from the impact of the six to seven-foot drop sent the energy into his back.

Almirola said safety teams did a “great job” in extracting him from his car, which required cutting off the top of the vehicle.

“They were very cautious and very careful,” Almirola said. “My dad is a fire fighter, so I’ve always grown up with someone of that mentality and understanding he is a fire fighter. I know the spine is nothing to mess around with. So if you have neck pain in an accident or back pain it’s extremely important to make sure you keep the spine stable. I knew right away I had a severe amount of back pain. An unbelievable amount.”

Almirola noted that he put down his window net as soon as the wreck was over. That was a result of seeing the fire coming from Patrick’s car and the pain in his back.

“I thought I was on fire,” Almirola said. “So I was panicking a little bit trying to get my window net down and steering wheel off to get out of the car. I got my window net down just based on pure adrenaline. I got my steering wheel off and when I went to throw my steering wheel off the dash and I extended arms out in front of me, that intensified the pain even more and it kind of took my breath away.”

Once he realized his car was not on fire, he waited for the safety crews to arrive.

During the week there was much talk about the publication and usage of photos showing Almirola being removed from the car in a neck brace.

The driver said he was “pretty pissed off” about the use of the pictures.

“I think that is extremely unprofessional,” Almirola said. “They have no medical expertise whatsoever. They had no idea what was wrong with me. They didn’t know if I was bleeding to death, they didn’t know if I was paralyzed. They didn’t know anything. But they used it as an opportunity to go and snap some pictures of me. They were literally three feet from the accident, hanging through the catchfence with their shutters running wide open the entire time. I’m pretty upset about that.

“I feel like it’s wrong. I have a wife and two kids who are sitting at home who have no real idea what’s going on. … They’re finding out more through looking at images online or during the race broadcast than our PR department or people at the race track getting back to them and I think that’s wrong. I was obviously in a very vulnerable situation and I’m disappointed to say the least.”

 and on Facebook

Toyota executive: Low downforce, not new car bodies, root of early season problems

(Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images
1 Comment

A Toyota Racing Development executive says the manufacturer “not sweating the numbers in terms of wins” after 11 races in the NASCAR Cup season.

David Wilson, president of TRD, also said NASCAR’s new low downforce package is more to blame for the lack of wins than Toyota’s new Camry bodies, which debuted a new nose design this season.

“Overall, we’re pleased with its performance,” Wilson said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s Tradin’ Paint. “I know when we came out of the gate a little slower than normal, human nature is you point to what’s different. ‘Well, they’ve got that new Camry.’ Honestly guys, that’s really not been the biggest contributor. I think adjusting to the lower downforce stuff; our aero program the past couple of years has been so strong and the amount of work we put into more downforce, more downforce, more downforce.”

Through 11 races, Toyota has two Cup wins, both coming with Furniture Row Racing’s Martin Truex Jr., at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and last Saturday at Kansas Speedway.

Toyota’s flagship team, Joe Gibbs Racing, hasn’t visited victory lane since last fall’s race at Texas Motor Speedway with Carl Edwards.

While Truex leads the series in stage wins with five, Joe Gibbs Racing only has four combined stage wins among its four drivers.

Also, all four drivers — Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Daniel Suarez — have combined for just seven top fives.

Wilson’s observation of the impact of the lower downforce package goes back to last season when the series tested a variation of this years’ lower downforce package in both Michigan races and at Kentucky Speedway.

In those races, JGR only recorded one top five (Carl Edwards, Kentucky) and four top 10s. Truex added a fifth for Furniture Row Racing. The Gibbs’ teams earned 46 top fives in all of 2016.

“When NASCAR cuts a thousand pounds or so off (the car), it kinds of eats into our competitive margin we spent so much time and energy building up,” Wilson said. “We’re working on a number of things. Mechanical grip, we need our cars to turn through the center of the corners a little bit better and just aero, not just downforce.”

Hamlin said two weeks ago at Richmond International Raceway that it would take more than a month for Joe Gibbs Racing’s problems to fixed.

“Some things are going to take a long time for us to get better at, but I’m very confident that when push comes to shove, we’re in September starting the (playoffs), we should be hopefully back where we were, if not better,” Hamlin said.

With the next points race a week away, there are only two Toyota teams in the top 10 in points. Truex is second, 44 points behind Kyle Larson. Busch is seventh, 150 points back. Denny Hamlin the next highest Toyota driver in 12th.

“We tend to get a little frustrated because we set the bar so high,” Wilson said. “Coming off the past two seasons, we have good cause to set that bar pretty high as we ran pretty darn well.

“What we have to keep in perspective, we’re leading a lot of laps. It’s one thing if we’re not bringing the wins home at the end of the day when we’re not leading laps. It’s another when we’re leading a lot of laps, we’e just not closing. We fall victim to whether it’s a pit miscue or just bad luck. We’re not sweating the numbers in terms of wins. We’ve won as many stages as any manufacturer. Just not enough of the third stage.”

The top Toyota teams of Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing – which are part of a technical alliance – have led 1, 367 laps. Truex (536) and Busch (521) lead the series.

“On the whole, we feel pretty good about where we are,” said of the Toyota program at the All-Star break. “This next stretch, we said to ourselves before Kansas, this is a very important part of the season because we’re going to hit these tracks where we’re going to come back during the playoffs.

“So Kansas, Charlotte, Dover and that’s going to be obviously important that we do well and are able to keep our performance high, because those are going to be somewhat predictive of our playoff performance.”

The Charlotte and Dover races have swapped spots on the schedule. Last year, Truex dominated and won the Coke 600 and Kenseth then won at Dover. Toyota didn’t visit victory lane again until New Hampshire with Kenseth, six races after Charlotte.

 and on Facebook.