Talladega Superspeedway

Even in victory, frustration prevailed for some with Joe Gibbs Racing at New Hampshire (VIDEO)

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For as much as Joe Gibbs Racing celebrated Denny Hamlin scoring the organization’s first Cup win of the season and Daniel Suarez tying his career high with a sixth-place finish Sunday at New Hampshire, there was much to lament.

Matt Kenseth saw his chances to win end with a questionable pit call late. Kyle Busch’s hopes of victory faded when he was caught speeding twice in the final 65 laps.

Without the missteps from Busch and Kenseth’s team, Hamlin likely doesn’t win.

That’s the type of season it has been for Busch, who has found numerous ways to lose Cup races, allowing five drivers to score their first win of the season.

Consider Busch’s season of frustration:

  • He pits from the lead during a late caution at Phoenix. Ryan Newman stays out and leads the final six laps — the only laps he leads — to win. Busch finishes third.
  • Ricky Stenhouse Jr. passes Busch on the final lap of overtime to win at Talladega. Busch finishes third.
  • Austin Dillon gambles on fuel to win the Coca-Cola 600. Busch finishes second and follows it with his mic drop in the media center.
  • Ryan Blaney passes Busch with 10 laps to go to win at Pocono. Busch, on older tires, falls back to ninth.
  • Busch starts on the front row for the final restart at Kentucky. He has two fresh left-side tires, while Martin Truex Jr., the leader, did not pit. Truex wins. Busch finishes fifth after starting on the pole
  • Busch leads 95 laps at New Hampshire but two late speeding penalties on pit road end his chances to win. He finishes 12th.

“This is another one I threw away for us,’’ Busch said on the radio to his team after the race Sunday.

Crew chief Adam Stevens replied: “We win as a team and lose as a team.’’

Busch is winless in his last 35 Cup races heading into this weekend’s event at Indianapolis Motor Speedway — site of his last Cup win.

There’s no doubt his car is fast enough to win. He’s led at least 95 laps in seven races since his Indy triumph a year ago but has yet to return to victory lane.

While Kenseth hasn’t had as many close calls, he can relate to miscues hurting him. He finished third at Atlanta despite two speeding penalties. He placed fourth at Bristol despite a speeding penalty.

Then came the pit call that cost Kenseth the win at New Hampshire and extended his winless drought to 36 races, a full season. When the caution came out on Lap 263, most of the lead field pitted. Kenseth led. Ratcliff called for a two-tire change. That got Kenseth off pit road first but the rest of the cars behind him took four tires. 

Kenseth restarted alongside Dale Earnhardt Jr., who did not pit. Kenseth took the lead after the restart but could not hold off Hamlin, who quickly passed with his four fresh tires. Kenseth never had a chance at the lead the rest of the 301-lap race and finished fourth.

“I let you down,’’ Ratcliff said on the radio after the race. “We should have won.’’

The Gibbs teams are getting closer to winning. Just as Hamlin forecasted in April at Richmond.

“I think we are slowly getting better, we’re gaining more knowledge trying to figure out what it is that we need to work on,’’ Hamlin said at the time. “I think we’ve identified some areas where we need to work. It’s not going to happen overnight, it’s not going to happen this week, it won’t happen in a month. 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 notes that even with his win at New Hampshire, more work remains.

“I think we’re there except for two cars,’’ Hamlin told NBC Sports on Sunday. “(Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Larson) are the only ones that continually beat us on speed. As far as the rest of the field, I feel we’re there on speed. Our teammate (Busch) has been like the third-fastest car and we’ve been the fourth consistently just about every week. We’re there where we need to be, but I still feel like for speed-wise, we need more to catch those two.’’

As the Gibbs cars contend for more wins, the difference will come down to execution and not making mistakes.

“There’s a lot of things we can do to be better,’’ Hamlin said. “We have a championship-caliber team. We just have to get our cars a little bit faster. I’m running laps out there as good as I feel that I can do. My car is doing everything that I need it to do but (Truex) is just faster.

“He’s running me down, and he’s passing and putting a straightaway on me. I’m thinking (crew chief Mike Wheeler) there’s nothing else I can give you. I don’t want to screw up our car and finish sixth. Just leave it where it is and hope those guys make mistakes.’’

Sunday, it was his teammates who made the mistakes and Hamlin took advantage.

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Brian Scott coming out of retirement to run 2 Xfinity races for RCR

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Brian Scott will come out of retirement to compete in two NASCAR Xfinity races for Richard Childress Racing, the team announced Monday.

Scott, who retired after last season to spend more time with his family in Idaho, will compete in the July 29 Xfinity race at Iowa Speedway and the Sept. 23 Xfinity race at Kentucky Speedway.

“I’m looking forward to climbing back into a RCR Chevrolet,” Scott said in a statement from the team. “Iowa and Kentucky were good tracks for our team. I have no doubt that with the advanced engineering and work they’ve put into their programs since then that we will be even stronger. These two races are all about having fun and, I hope, getting the No. 3 team to Victory Lane.”

Scott is winless in 208 career Xfintiy starts. He has 77 career top-10 finishes. He last raced in the series in 2015. Scott ran the full Cup season in 2016. He drove for RCR in the Xfinity Series from 2013-15 and finished as high as fourth in the points.

He made 53 Cup starts with a best finish of second in last fall’s race at Talladega Superspeedway.

Scott’s car will be sponsored by Daniel Defense.

“Everyone at RCR is pleased to have Brian Scott back in one of our cars, even if it’s only for a couple of races,” said Richard Childress, Chairman and CEO of RCR, in a statement. “He is a great friend of the company and did well for us in the past. We appreciate that he’s going to come out of retirement to drive our No. 3 Chevrolet. I have no doubt that once Brian is behind the wheel again, he will have the same desire to win that he’s had in the past.”

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Kligerman: Racing’s top series should smoke ’em if they got ’em

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If you’re trying to quit smoking, the best place you possibly could go is Las Vegas. Because of its nonexistent rules on indoor smoking, innocent bystanders partaking or walking through a casino floor will get the nicotine fix they need — secondhand

After a night out in Vegas, you’ll wake up with the same gravelly voice, dry throat, wheezing cough — signs you’re headed for an increased chance of the big “C.” But free of the self- and societal-imposed guilt from actually partaking in the indecent action of sucking nicotine into your lungs in smoke form.

You get all the benefits of nicotine without your partner being able to cash in on the inevitable bet you made with them to quit.

And it doesn’t get much better as you travel around Vegas throwing around “fun coupons” in the form of $100 bills. Because it doesn’t feel like real money, as it goes so fast, and the place unashamedly will find a vice or trick to take it.

As you lose your hundreds, you eventually will decide to change locations, so you’ll walk out of your casino-hotel and into what you hope is fresh air and gratuitous expanse. But what you really enter is a carefully designed maze that guides you along a path to the next establishment to take your hard-earned rubles.

The reason is the casinos know.

If they constantly keep you in the throes of gambling, if they encourage their customers to infect their fellow patrons with nicotine and cheers, even the  most stubborn will break down and eventually gamble or buy their high-priced cigarettes with a “courtesy fee” of $1 trillion.

It’s all carefully designed to break down your morals. It gets to the core of the human psyche. If everyone’s doing it, or you’re doing it without noticing, it’s only a matter of time before you’re inclined to give it a try.

Which brings me to auto racing.

Each weekend, the sport constantly vies for a piece of a shrinking attention span pie. And we don’t do ourselves any favors. We schedule races from two of the world’s top series on the same day and time — acting as if the other series doesn’t exist and a fan of one series couldn’t possibly be a fan of another.

For example, Oct. 23, 2016. The most well-known racing series in the world ran its only race in the United States on a Sunday afternoon directly in conflict with NASCAR at Talladega Superspeedway.

Making it almost impossible to watch both at the same time.

Sure, there are people who will say “it’s completely different fan bases” or “the schedules are bound to clash.” Which are valid points.

But the thing is, NASCAR and Formula One are the two biggest series in the world, and I am sure – at least, I hope — there was someone in either series saying, “Well, this was a mistake.”

Why?

Because Talladega is NASCAR’s best form of natural marketing. Forty cars inches apart at more than 200 MPH. It’s the kind of riveting, made-for-TV intensity that a marketing executive dreams of between meetings of words such as “synergy” and “engagement.”

Meanwhile, Formula One has only one chance each year to market itself to the world’s largest single economy.

And who would be the easiest targets? Certainly not Julia Sue watching Kardashian reruns hungover on her couch.

No, it would be the very people who will tune into Talladega. The same people who already are fans of a motorsport, or at least intrigued enough to watch a motorsport (and most likely hungover on their couches as well).

This year, the two series will clash again. This time, though, not against such a marquee event for NASCAR as Talladega. But it still will clash. And it’s a crying shame.

The thing is, there is an exception  —  Memorial Day weekend and specifically race day Sunday. Each year, three of the biggest races on the planet are scheduled perfectly apart. And I am sure it happened completely by chance, but like the tables in Vegas, even stark odds can prove to be a valuable learning experience.

As any ardent motorsports fan will tell you, the last Sunday in May, isn’t Christmas come early. It’s the last day of school, beginning of summer and infinite possibilities wrapped into one single day of entertainment.

For the seriously early Sunday riser, you can awake to watch Formula 2 from Monaco, before the prerace for the full-on Monaco Grand Prix, and eventually the full Monte Carlo bash itself.

And as the postrace champagne is drying and the yachts are full of sunburned billionaires, the telecast will come to a close. But no worries, as you immediately can shift to an entirely different form of open-wheel entertainment.

It comes in the form of the largest single-day sporting event in the world, the Indianapolis 500. Where 33 drivers will vie in-front of more than 250,000 in the grandstands and infield for the one of the biggest motorsports prizes in the world.

As the leftover mustard on your lunch plate dries to an almost brown color, and the winner of “The Greatest Spectacle In Racing” has the smell of sweat and milk on their overalls, the Indy 500 telecast will come to a close.

But no worries, as the Coca-Cola 600 will be up and running only a couple hours later. Where NASCAR’s finest will duke it out and test their physical and mental fitness in the longest race in NASCAR.

And just like that, with hardly anyone noticing, three of the biggest races in the world will have worked together just like the casinos in Vegas: Funneling you from one form of motorsport to the next.

So it makes me wonder, what if we did this more often?

Like the casinos that don’t let you escape the nicotine fix, we worked together to keep viewers watching burning rubber instead of making a choice.

Because as the casinos have learned. If there is no choice, you can’t help but do what they want.

Xfinity Series Spotlight: Blake Koch, from roof cleaner to NASCAR pole winner

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Blake Koch never set eyes on a NASCAR race until the 2007 Daytona 500.

That’s when the 21-year-old Florida native watched one of the most dramatic finishes in NASCAR history on TV, as Kevin Harvick edged Mark Martin by .02 seconds to win as Clint Bowyer slid down the frontstretch on his roof.

A year later, the young man who had grown up racing dirt bikes attended his first race, the Daytona 500. It ended far less dramatically.

“I remember sitting on the back straightaway in grandstands, pouring down rain,” Koch told NBC Sports. “Sitting there, not knowing if they were going to go green or not because I didn’t have a headset. I was just sitting there. We were with friends. They called the race and Matt Kenseth won. Then we sat in the parking lot for two hours. We couldn’t get out. … I did tell (my wife) we were going to do something different for parking the next time.”

Nine years later, the 31-year-old driver for Kaulig Racing earned his first NASCAR pole for the May 6 Xfinity race at Talladega Superspeedway. It came in his 189th start.

It was the first pole for Kaulig Racing, which competed in its inaugural season last year.

“Going through my mind was doing everything I possible could perfectly,” Koch said. “We ended up doing that and qualifying on the pole by a tenth. It was incredible, man. It was a cooler feeling than I thought it would be to get my first pole. Just how excited the team was. Man, at Talladega. That stat sticks with you for life. ‘I won the pole at Talladega.’ Everybody knows what Talladega is.”

The following Q&A has been edited and condensed.

(Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)

NBC Sports: What track would you have expected to get your first pole?

Koch: A short track, any short track, really. Phoenix, Richmond, Iowa, New Hampshire. I feel like we qualify really well at the short tracks. But you know what, we go to Michigan, we go to Pocono, we’re always in the final rounds there. I knew it would come, I just didn’t know where it’d come. I absolutely didn’t think it would come at Talladega for some reason. We really don’t focus that much on single-car speed or single-car runs. We always make my car drive good in the draft. We have good notes from it. The crazy thing, man, is my car drove even better in the pack then it ever had. I had the fastest car there by itself and in the pack, it’s the best car I’ve ever had. We just had a really good car and it’s a shame that thing got torn up. But it’ll be ready for 2018 Daytona.

NBC Sports: A few days ago on Twitter you posted a picture, which you said was from six years ago or so, of you on a rooftop watering it down. What’s the context of that picture?

Koch: It was the beginning of 2011. My mom sent that to me because it popped up on her Facebook, ‘6 years ago today.’ In 2011 I was racing in the Xfinity Series, but I still had to work four days a week because I wasn’t getting paid to race at that point. I still had to make my living off the track. Those are sacrifices you have to make to get into the sport. There’s not very many seats available in NASCAR. When an opportunity comes, you take it and make the most of it. Even if you don’t get paid for a little while. I owned a pressure washer business with my stepdad and it was called Eco Clean Pressure Washing.

What I did Monday through Thursday, we went to different houses and I climbed on the roofs and we pressure washed the roofs in Florida. Then hopped on a plane Thursday afternoon and fly to the racetrack. My mom basically posted it because she was proud of how far I’ve come in the last six years or so. It’s just a cool reminder. And I wanted to post it because I’m always impassioned no matter what I do and I gave it 100 percent, no matter if I’m in NASCAR or on top of roofs cleaning it. I take passion and pride in everything I do.

NBC Sports: When did you finally step away from power washing full-time?

Koch: When me and my wife decided to move up to North Carolina and really pursue NASCAR all in. You can’t just try a little bit to make it. You won’t make it. If we hadn’t of moved to North Carolina and fully committed, I wouldn’t have made it, man. If I had a plan B, I probably would have taken it a long time ago. So when we moved up here and my wife quit her job and we moved up here without our family I had no option than to work harder than everybody else try to take advantage of every opportunity I had, and I was able to start making money driving race cars, whether it was racing or start-and-parking or spotting, I used to drive my buddies’ motor home to the track. So whatever I had to do to make ends meet is basically what I did and that led me to just staying in the sport over the years to be in a position to meet Matt Kaulig, who really took my career to a whole new level to start Kaulig Racing and sponsor me with Leaf Gutter Protection.

NBC Sports: What was your first car?

Koch: My first car was a 1998 Ford F150. … My mom bought the truck because I grew up racing dirt bikes, so we needed a pickup truck to put the dirt bike in the back of it and go practice and go race. By the time I was 16, she didn’t want to drive a pickup truck anymore, so she wanted to buy a car and I … basically took over the truck payments and I drove that F-150 for a couple of years.

NBC Sports: If you had a day where you didn’t have to be at the track or shop, your family was busy and you had no other obligations, how would you spend your day?

Koch: Oh man, it depends where I live. If I lived in Florida, I would go out on a boat and go deep-sea fishing from sunrise to sunset, all day long. That is what I love to do if I have any free time, is to go fishing out in the ocean. If I lived in North Carolina, my family was out-of-town, I had nothing to do. I would probably go golf right now. I’d go work on getting better at golf. I’d probably spend half the day at GoPro Motorplex and the other half of the day on the gold course.

NBC Sports: If you were competing in the Cup race at Bristol, what would be your introduction song?

Koch: It would definitely be “Welcome to my House” by Flo Rida. I feel like that fits in the intro song at Bristol perfectly.

NBC Sports: What’s your attachment to that song?

Koch: I got to meet Flo Rida a couple of years ago through one of our mutual sponsors and that is just a catchy song, it’s fun. My son loves that song. It’s all about confidence. He’s all ‘welcome to my house. You guys are all in my house.’ I feel if you’re running a Cup race at Bristol and you wanted to win, that’s the attitude you’ve got to take.

NBC Sports: What’s the most fun race you’ve ever been a part of?

Koch: You know what was fun? When we could tandem draft at the super speedways. I know we’re never going to do it again and it was dangerous. It was at Talladega and we had other drivers’ radio frequencies in the car. I think this was 2011 or 2012. That was really fun when you could team up with your buddy or somebody you liked or somebody you chose to and have them push you through the field and talk to them at the same time. That was really, really cool and I was glad I was able to experience that because I might never be able to experience that again.

NBC Sports: What’s on your bucket list that’s not related to racing?

Koch: Me and my wife have talked about going to Hawaii for our 10-year anniversary. So I’d have to say going to Hawaii is a bucket list item that I can see happening in the near future. We’re going to work towards making it happen. Hawaii on the movies and everything you see looks like the coolest place ever. And I’m not one that really likes to sight see or go different places and experience different things, but for some reason I really want to go to Hawaii and check it out.

Previous Xfinity Spotlights

Justin Allgaier

Darrell Wallace Jr.

Michael Annett

Ryan Reed

Brandon Jones

Daniel Hemric

William Byron

Spencer Gallagher

Cole Custer

Ross Chastain

Elliott Sadler

Ben Kennedy

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NASCAR America: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. relives Talladega win with owner, crew chief

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It had been a long time since Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had won a NASCAR race.

He hadn’t been to victory lance since 2012 in the Xfinity Series. After 158 starts in the Cup Series, Stenhouse finally drove his No 17 Ford to a win at Talladega Superspeedway.

“I remember how it feels now. it feels really good, ” Stenhouse told NASCAR America.

Stenhouse, owner Jack Roush and crew chief Brian Pattie sat down with NASCAR America to recount their win on Sunday.

Stenhouse said his winning drive Sunday was the “hardest I’ve probably driven a race car, ever.”

Said Roush,”The closing laps of a restrictor-plate race is all about energy and momentum. It’s about having a spotter and/or a driver that on its own knows what decision to make and which lane to go with.”

With his spotter Mike Hermon, telling him when and where to defend on the last lap, Stenhouse became the widest car on the track as Kyle Busch and Jamie McMurray threw everything they had at him.

“It seemed like it took forever to get to the start-finish line off of (Turn 4),” Stenhouse said. “Which, Talladega it is different than other tracks in that it’s not dead center in the straightaway, it’s further down and man, I couldn’t believe we crossed it first.”

Watch the video for more of their thoughts on their big win.