Friday 5: Return of Sonoma’s Carousel will challenge Cup drivers

Leave a comment

A new wrinkle to Sonoma Raceway could make a significant impact in Sunday’s Cup race.

The addition of the Carousel — a half-mile section that includes a blind and sweeping left-hand turn — is a part of the track that no active Cup driver will have run a Cup car on until today. The Carousel was last used for Cup in 1997.

Martin Truex Jr. said in a media release this week that the addition of the carousel is a “game changer.”

Alex Bowman is among those drivers who have tested the course on a simulator and says “getting off the Carousel seemed tougher than I thought it would be. I think it’s going to be interesting.”

It won’t only be drivers who are challenged with the change to the track.

Previously, the track’s key areas were right-hand turns — Turn 4 that led to a straightaway, Turn 7 that provided a passing zone and Turn 11, the hairpin. Crew chiefs were focused on how the car handled in those and other right-hand turns and worried less about the left-hand turns on the course because they did not lead to such key passing zones.

Now, the Carousel adds a key left-hand turn and can set a driver up for a passing zone in Turn 7.

“The Carousel definitely changes things up for us, a little bit,” Paul Wolfe, crew chief for Brad Keselowski said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio this week. “The other important part about the Carousel, it appears that Turn 7 could potentially be a good passing zone, so kind of being somewhat good through the Carousel I think may be important as it leads to a potential passing zone.

“That Carousel corner is quite a bit different mindset of what you would typically work on at Sonoma, where you would ty to work for drive and maybe not as much lateral grip. The Carousel is going to call for more lateral grip. The things that you do for Turn 11, Turn 7 and Turn 4 like we typically work on, will be different then maybe what the car is asking for.”

2. Sonoma strategy

Another key decision for crew chiefs will be when to pit. The course is now 2.52 miles (it was 1.99 miles without the carousel). With the longer lap, the number of laps is now 90 (it was 110 laps last year). Even with fewer laps, the race will actually be longer this year (226.8 miles compared to 218.9 miles last year).

With the focus on pitting under green at the road course since a driver won’t lose a lap, many teams pitted shortly before the end of stage 1 and stage 2 last year. Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. both pitted from the lead before the end of a stage and finished 1-2 with Truex winning last year’s race.

Both did that because they already had wins and were focused on victories instead of acquiring stage points.

With only six winners this season, several playoff spots appear as if they will be determined by points. Will crew chiefs of winless drivers this season give up stage points to go for a victory or seek those stage points?

Denny Hamlin, who stayed out and won stage 2 of last year’s race finished 10th. Chase Elliott, who finished second in stage 2, placed fourth in the race. No other driver who finished in the top 10 in stage 2 finished better than eighth in the race.

So the question will be for many teams — do you want points or the chance at a win?

3. Is it time to run the boot at Watkins Glen?

It’s a question that often is asked but with Charlotte Motor Speedway going to the Roval for its October race and Sonoma Raceway bringing back the Carousel, is it time to consider a change at Watkins Glen? Or is it better to leave that track alone?

There are various issues to consider but one key one would be if adding the Boot would provide any additional passing zones. The belief is that with the Carousel at Sonoma, it will create another passing zone and give fans more excitement.

Kevin Harvick, who suggested to Speedway Motorsports Inc. President and CEO Marcus Smith that his company bring back the Carousel at Sonoma, also wonders about changes at Watkins Glen.

“I think Watkins Glen could do the same thing,” Harvick said earlier this month at Michigan International Speedway. “It seems like SMI is more aggressive in these types of situations with changing things up and trying new things and doing things more on the edge of not knowing what the outcome is going to be.”

It is worth pondering if adding the Boot and making a lap longer at Watkins Glen would be best for NASCAR.

4. Xfinity regulars get extra track time

Three Xfinity Series regulars will compete at Sonoma with that series off this weekend.

Justin Haley will make his second career Cup start this weekend, driving for Spire Motorsports.

Cole Custer and Noah Gragson will each compete in the K&N Pro Series West race at the track Saturday.

5. Enjoy it now … 

The Xfinity Series is off this weekend and then races 15 consecutive races before its next weekend off in October.

Chevrolet boss happy with three-race Cup winning streak but wants more

Leave a comment

Even with a three-race Cup winning streak, the head of Chevrolet’s NASCAR program wants more victories as the playoffs near.

Jim Campbell, vice president of performance and motorsports for Chevrolet, made the comments Wednesday on “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

In the last three races, Chevrolet has won with Alex Bowman (Chicagoland Speedway), Justin Haley (Daytona International Speedway) and Kurt Busch (Kentucky Speedway). Until that string, Chevrolet had won only once this year with Chase Elliott’s victory at Talladega Superspeedway.

Last year, Chevrolet had four Cup wins, its fewest victories in Cup since scoring three wins in 1982.

“We have really, really, I think, increased the collaboration (among Chevrolet teams) to another level, and I think we need to because we’ve got to put more wins on the board,” Campbell said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “The Chevy camp is used to putting 10, 12, 15 wins on the board a year. Right now we’re at four. We expect more of ourselves. I know the teams are looking for more wins and I’ll call it top-five finishes. Talladega was kind of a turbocharger for us to get everyone really working at the next level.”

Chevrolet won at Talladega after an increased effort to have its teams work together throughout the weekend and during the race. Chevrolet made the effort after seeing how successful Toyota and Ford teams were at Daytona and Talladega by working together. Until then, Chevrolet had allowed its teams and drivers to go their own way at those tracks.

“Over the years, Chevy results were pretty doggone strong without a massive work-together effort,” Campbell said during the radio interview. “I think we go back to ’16 and Toyota put together an effort to get some of the (Joe) Gibbs (Racing) guys working together and I think in the fall, the Ford camp was doing that. So, it was time, it was time that we just pulled ourselves together and really worked across all of our teams.”

With seven races left until the Cup playoffs begin, Chevrolet has three drivers set for the playoffs via wins: Elliott, Bowman and Busch. Chevrolet also has three competitors who would qualify for the 16-driver playoffs as of today via points with William Byron 12th in the standings, Kyle Larson 13th and Jimmie Johnson 15th.

Johnson’s position is tenuous. He is 10 points ahead of Ford’s Ryan Newman, who holds the first spot outside a playoff position.

“I look at the trajectory,” Campbell said of Chevrolet’s progress. “Are we on the trajectory up or are we flat or are we down? I would say the momentum is going up, but it’s all performance based. We’ve got to put wins on the board, more top 10s.”

 and on Facebook

AJ Allmendinger to drive in Watkins Glen Xfinity race for Kaulig Racing

Getty Images
Leave a comment

NASCAR On NBC analyst AJ Allmendinger will climb back behind the wheel for the August 3 NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Watkins Glen International.

Allmendinger will pilot the No. 10 Chevrolet for Kaulig Racing for the second time this season.

Allmendinger is a past winner at Watkins Glen, having won the 2014 Cup race there. He has 10 prior Cup starts at the upstate New York road course, with the win, three top-five and six top-10 finishes, plus one pole.

He also has competed in one Xfinity race at Watkins Glen, starting fourth and finishing second for GMS Racing last year.

It’s an honor to be able to compete for Kaulig Racing at one of my favorite tracks, Watkins Glen International,” Allmendinger said in a team release. “I’ve been fortunate enough to win there in the Cup Series and had a strong run finishing second last season in my only Xfinity start there.

Matt Kaulig, Chris Rice and all of the guys made Daytona so enjoyable and fun, I can’t wait to get to The Glen.”

Allmendinger raced for Kaulig Racing two weeks ago in the Circle K Firecracker 250 at Daytona International Speedway on July 5, leading 33 laps and finishing third before the car was disqualified for failing post-race inspection, leaving Allmendinger with a last-place finish in the 38-car field.

Allmendinger has three additional Xfinity road course races scheduled with Kaulig Racing this season: Mid-Ohio (August 10), Road America (August 24) and Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval race (September 28).

Follow @JerryBonkowski

NBC Sports Power Rankings: Kyle Busch back to No. 1, Kurt Busch to No. 3

Leave a comment

When it comes to this week’s NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings, all we can say is, “Oh brother” … as in siblings Kyle and Kurt Busch.

Younger brother Kyle once again regained the top spot in this week’s rankings, knocking Joey Logano from the No. 1 perch after Logano held it the last two weeks.

And after not being ranked in the top 10 last week, older bro Kurt rockets up the rankings to No. 3 by virtue of his come-from-behind win last Saturday at Kentucky Speedway.

Also making a big move is Erik Jones, who goes from unranked last week to No. 4 this week. By contrast, six drivers from last week’s rankings dropped out of this week’s tabulations.

Here’s how this week’s rankings shape up:

1. Kyle Busch (39 points): Tenacious performance at Kentucky puts him back atop the rankings. Last week: 2nd.

2. Joey Logano (36 points): Car wasn’t wide enough to block all those behind him on the final restart. In his last three races on a 1.5-mile speedway, he’s finished seventh (Kentucky), third (Chicagoland) and second (Charlotte). Last week: 1st.

3. Kurt Busch (32 points): What a difference a win makes. But Busch’s ranking isn’t a total surprise. He’s been knocking at the door all season. Had he not pitted at Daytona two weeks ago, he may be riding a two-race win streak now. Last week: Unranked.

4. Erik Jones (23 points): Returns to playoff territory and seems to have momentum for a finishing kick. Third-place finish was his fourth top 10 in the last five races on a 1.5-mile speedway. That includes a third at Kansas and Kentucky and a fourth at Texas. Last week: Unranked.

5. Denny Hamlin (22 points): His pit crew has been called for an uncontrolled tire violation five times this year, tying the series high. That’s unacceptable. Despite the penalty at Kentucky, Hamlin finished fifth. Last week: 7th.

6. Kyle Larson (20 points): Top 10s in three of last four races – including a second (Chicagoland) and fourth (Kentucky) – have solidified his standing for the playoffs. Last week: Unranked.

7. Ryan Newman (16 points): Is in full grind-it-out mode for solid finishes exactly when he needs them. Finished ninth at Kentucky after starting at the rear because his car failed inspection. While he fell out of a playoff spot, he’s only two points away after scoring his fourth top-10 finish in the last five races. Last week: 8th.

8. Cole Custer (9 points): Kentucky victory in the Xfinity Series was his series-high fifth win of the year. Last week: Unranked.

9. Clint Bowyer (7 points): Ends four-race tailspin but still needs to work on amassing stage points. Last week: Unranked.

10. Chris Buescher (5 points): If all the tracks on the circuit were 1.5-milers, he’d likely be ranked higher. All four of his top 10s this year have come at 1.5-mile tracks. He’s been sixth at Charlotte, ninth  at Atlanta and 10th at Kansas and Kentucky. Last week: Unranked.

Others receiving votes: Christopher Bell (4 points), Martin Truex Jr. (4 points), Tyler Ankrum (3 points).

Clint Bowyer looking for some of his old magic at the ‘Magic Mile’

Leave a comment

While the next race on the NASCAR Cup schedule is Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Clint Bowyer is already thinking four months and 17 races ahead to mid-November’s season-ending race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Winning a championship is the reason we are in this sport,” the Stewart-Haas Racing driver said in his weekly media release. “It’s why everyone puts in these long hours during a long season.

Winning a championship is what we dreamed about ever since we started racing. It was a great feeling to win the Xfinity title in 2008, and I can’t imagine the feeling of satisfaction you would get by winning a Cup title.”

But Bowyer also knows all too well that to make it to the four-driver, winner-take-all championship-deciding race in South Florida, he has a bit of work to firm up his position just to make the playoffs, which begin Sept. 15 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Clint Bowyer hopes to be smiling and partying after winning what would be his third career triumph this Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Photo: Stewart-Haas Racing.

Heading to New England, Bowyer is tied for 14th place with seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. They’re eight points ahead of 16th-ranked Erik Jones, who holds the final playoff spot. Ryan Newman, the first driver outside a playoff spot, is 10 points behind Bowyer and Johnson. Daniel Suarez is 12 points behind the duo.

A win would lock Bowyer into the playoffs. That’s why Sunday’s Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN) is so important to the Kansas native.

Of Bowyer’s 10 career Cup wins, two have been at New Hampshire’s “Magic Mile.” He won there in 2007 and 2010. He also has four top fives and nine top 10s in 25 career starts at that track.

I love New Hampshire,” Bowyer said. “That place just fits my driving style.

We don’t get up to that part of the country a lot, so it’s good to see the race fans there. They have so many tracks and they love their racing, from Modified to Late Models to our stuff. The support races they put on at New Hampshire are some of the best of the year. Man, do they like to party there.”

Bowyer will be partying himself if he can win Sunday’s race. Still, it’s not been a bad season for Bowyer to date, either. He has five top fives and four other top-10 finishes.

Bowyer is coming off a sixth-place finish at Kentucky last Saturday, a marked improvement from what he suffered through in three of the four previous races with finishes of 35th (Michigan), 37th (Chicagoland) and 34th (Daytona).

We dug ourselves a hole in June and we are trying to climb out of it,” Bowyer said. “We aren’t a 16th-place team. I know we are better than that.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski