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Road course domination hard to come by these days – unless you’re one of the ‘Big 3’

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It might be a total coincidence, but the drivers that make up the “Big 3” in Cup competition this season have one thing in common.

Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. enter this weekend’s race at Sonoma Raceway as the only active drivers to win at the track in the last five years.

They also are the only active drivers with multiple victories at either Sonoma or Watkins Glen International (the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval makes its debut on Sept. 30).

Busch leads the way with four wins, with two at Sonoma (2008, 2015) and WGI (2008, 2013).

“There are a lot of guys out there who have the road-racing background, who know a heck of a lot more about road racing and technique than we do,” Busch said in a media release. “It’s definitely something you have to work on. With rule changes and tire changes, it’s something you work on every year. There’s always change that you have to work on to be competitive.

“When I was a kid back in Las Vegas in Legends cars, that’s where I was able to learn about shifting and turning left and turning right. I had the natural instincts for it and won a couple of championships in the winter series we had out there. We actually went to Sonoma back then and ran the national championship races two years in a row and finished third both times, so I had a little bit of experience on road courses as I came up through the ranks.”

Truex and Harvick follow Busch with two wins each, but they didn’t join this exclusive club until last year.

Harvick won his first race at Sonoma, 11 years after his lone victory at WGI.

Truex then won at WGI, four years after he claimed his second career Cup win in 2013 at Sonoma.

“I love the challenge of road racing,” Truex said in a media release. “I grew up racing go-karts on road courses (in New Jersey) and fell in love with that quickly. The excitement level definitely goes up a few notches when we compete at a road course.”

Truex led a race-high 25 laps last year at Sonoma before falling out with engine problems.

“Sonoma is more like a short track,” Truex said. “It has a lot of slower speed corners and a lot of elevation changes. The worn out pavement causes tires to wear out fast. It’s almost like Darlington on a road course. You have to be disciplined at Sonoma. One little hiccup can knock you off the course and most likely out of the race.”

Outside the “Big 3” there are seven active drivers who have a single road course win.

Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and AJ Allmendinger have victories at Watkins Glen. Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne, Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer have won at Sonoma.

Gone are the days of Jeff Gordon (series-high nine road course wins) and Tony Stewart (eight wins, including five at WGI).

Why is it so hard for drivers to string together consistent success at road courses today? Why have there been nine different winners in the last nine Sonoma races?

Front Row Motorsports’ David Ragan shared his thoughts.

“I think the phrase of ‘just keep all four wheels on the track’ is a little outdated,” Ragan said in a media release. “I think the drivers have gotten so much better. You don’t have as many guys spinning out and making mistakes as we did 10 years ago. I feel like 25 guys are really good when we go to Sonoma. And when you see short track guys, like a Martin Truex or Kevin Harvick or Kyle Busch, they’re really good at Sonoma without having that road course background. I just think all the drivers have worked on their road racing skills.”

 

Driver lineup set for Charlotte road course tests in July

Photo: Dustin Long
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Charlotte Motor Speedway announced the driver lineup for the two days of testing that will take place in July on the track’s road course.

NASCAR created two separate test days. Tests will be July 10 and July 17. Both sessions will go from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET with a lunch break from noon to 1 p.m. ET.

The tests are open to the public.

The Cup series races on Charlotte’s road course Sept. 30 in the playoffs.

Scheduled to test on July 10

Martin Truex Jr.

Jimmie Johnson

Chase Elliott

Kevin Harvick

Clint Bowyer

Denny Hamlin

Daniel Suarez

Brad Keselowski

Paul Menard

Trevor Bayne

Jamie McMurray

Austin Dillon

Chris Buescher

Kasey Kahne

Michael McDowell

Gray Gaulding

Landon Cassill

B.J. McLeod

Scheduled to test on July 17

Kyle Busch

Erik Jones

Ryan Blaney

Joey Logano

Kyle Larson

Aric Almirola

Kurt Busch

Alex Bowman

William Byron

Bubba Wallace

Ryan Newman

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

AJ Allmendinger

Ty Dillon

Matt DiBenedetto

Corey LaJoie

David Ragan

Reed Sorenson

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Friday 5: How a few laps in March could impact the playoff race

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In a season that stretches from February to November, covers more than 13,000 miles and competes in 20 states, it often can be the moments easily overlooked that prove to be among the most important.

The race for points is becoming increasingly critical with only six winners — the fewest this deep into a season since 1996. If Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer continue to win (they’ve combined to win 13 of the first 15 races), that would mean several of the 16 playoff spots would be set by points.

If so, even the smallest moments could determine who makes the playoffs or how many playoff points, if any, a driver scores for finishing in the top 10 in the regular season, which ends Sept. 9 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Chase Elliott enters this off-weekend 14th in the playoff standings. He has a 31-point lead on what would be the final playoff position, held by Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman.

Even with the dominance of Harvick, Busch, Truex and Bowyer, it seems likely there will be at least two different winners before the postseason, meaning Elliott will need to climb higher in the points — if he’s not one of those winners — to secure a playoff spot.

Recall that he’s already lost 45 points this season because of penalties at Phoenix and Texas this season.

Then look back at the middle of that Phoenix race in March.

Elliott was fourth and in position to score seven points in the second stage until a late caution. He scored none.

Things changed for Elliott when Chris Buescher hit the wall to bring out the caution on Lap 147. The second stage ended at Lap 150. NASCAR cleared the track in time to run one green-flag lap before the stage ended.

Elliott pitted during that caution with many of the leaders, who were focused on positioning themselves to win the race instead of scoring stage points.

Six cars did not pit. That included Kurt Busch, who was behind Elliott in fifth, and Brad Keselowski, who was sixth.

Elliott restarted outside the top 10 and didn’t make it up there for the end of the stage. So seven points he looked to be in position to gain were gone. Elliott went on to finish third in the race.

Busch won that stage to earn a playoff point but would finish 10th in the race. Keselowski went on to finish 15th after finishing second in that stage.

One who gained points at Phoenix was Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

He is four points out of what would be the final playoff spot at this moment.

Stenhouse was running 20th before the caution for Buescher’s incident. Stenhouse did not pit and lined up third for the one-lap run to end the stage. He finished third, gaining eight points that he wouldn’t have scored had Buescher’s accident not happened.

It can be simple decisions — pit or not — that can play a big factor in how the season goes for some teams. Lose too many points and one could miss the playoffs. Steal points and that could help a team be eligible for a run to the championship.

That’s why the end of the second stage at Michigan was critical for drivers such as Elliott and Stenhouse, who do not have a win and are battling for a playoff spot.

Had a winless driver remained on track through the caution — Kasey Kahne stayed out but then pitted the lap before the restart when it appeared that rain wouldn’t be arriving soon — then such a driver could have taken a playoff spot. It would have meant one less playoff spot based on points.

That Bowyer, who was already set in the playoffs with his Martinsville win, triumphed at Michigan allowed those racing for a playoff spot to breathe easier.

But with two road courses to go (Sonoma and Watkins Glen), a restrictor-plate race (Daytona) and possibly two races with the All-Star Race rules package (likely Michigan and Indianapolis) left in the regular season, there’s the chance that there could be some different winners taking playoff spots.

That would make the race for points even tighter and every decision more important.

2. Grassroots racing

With the Cup Series off this weekend, some drivers are taking the chance to race at local tracks.

Kyle Busch finished third to Brian Campbell in the Money in the Bank Super Late Model race Monday at Berlin (Michigan) Raceway.

Kyle Larson is set to run in six days of the nine-day Ohio Sprint Speedweek with the Arctic Cat All Star Circuit of Champions, the series owned by Tony Stewart.

Kasey Kahne also is scheduled to run a few of the Ohio Sprint Speedweek races.

Ohio Sprint Speedweek begins tonight at Attica Raceway Park. Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, hosts the second night of the series on Saturday. The series then goes to Waynesfield Raceway on Sunday night before continuing the following week.

3. A new winner?

The Xfinity Series has had 12 different winners in the first 13 races heading into Sunday’s event at Iowa Speedway.

This weekend’s race will have three drivers who have won this year — Tyler Reddick at Daytona, Christopher Bell at Richmond and Justin Allgaier at Dover.

Ryan Preece, who won at Bristol, is not entered. Spencer Gallagher, who won at Talladega, remains under indefinite suspension for violating NASCAR’s Substance Abuse Policy. The other winners in the series are full-time Cup drivers.

The odds are in favor or another new winner this weekend in the Xfinity Series.

Points leader Elliott Sadler seeks to snap a 52-race winless streak, dating back to Kentucky in September 2016. Cole Custer is second in the points, and goes for his first win since last year’s season finale in Miami. Daniel Hemric, who is third in the points, seeks his first career series wins. Sunday will be his 47th Xfinity start.

4. No Cup drivers

Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race and Sunday’s Xfinity Series event at Iowa Speedway both will not have any Cup drivers entered.

This will be the fifth Xfinity race without a full-time Cup driver in it. Full-time Cup drivers were barred from the fourth Dash 4 Cash races and Iowa will be run with all the Cup drivers taking the weekend off from NASCAR.

5. Last break until …

After this weekend, Cup teams will have only one weekend off the rest of the season. Cup teams will race 21 of the next 22 weekends. The lone weekend off will be Aug. 19, the weekend between Michigan (Aug. 12) and Bristol (Aug. 26). The season ends Nov. 18 in Miami.

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Ryan: Untangling a caution flag with many layers at Michigan

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It was completely normal … and yet in another way, it also was wholly unprecedented.

In untangling what happened between the first and second stages Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, it’s best to start here: NASCAR officials believe they applied the letter of the law.

After leader Ryan Blaney took the yellow flag that began on Lap 58, there were two full laps remaining in Stage 1. NASCAR’s policy is that the pits are closed with two laps left in a stage in order to prevent strategy plays in which only half the field might complete a normal pit cycle (this was determined after consultation with teams to build guidelines for stage racing).

So on its face, the yellow flag was administered customarily when Matt Kenseth spun in Turn 4 on Lap 57 with three laps left in the first stage at Michigan.

But there were many layers to what transpired during the laps that bridged the first two stages Sunday, and the cascading events affected several cars with some repercussions that could be felt months later while also underscoring how a race’s rhythm can change in the era of stage racing, which NASCAR introduced last season.

In a Q&A format, here’s what went down at Michigan:

How and why did Kenseth get penalized?

Because he stopped when the pits were closed to change the flat tires on his No. 6 Ford. Kenseth fell two laps down while limping around the 2-mile oval to enter the pits and then exiting again as the stage finished under green.

The penalty for entering a closed pit is to restart at the end of the longest line. But Kenseth also was held a lap for taking the wavearound (getting a lap back under the yellow to start Stage 2) before serving the penalty, which is against the rules.

This, however, wasn’t listed on NASCAR’s official penalty report because it was viewed as a scoring correction. “He ended up getting a lap up on the field artificially, and we had to get that back,” Cup Series director Richard Buck said after the race.

Did NASCAR err during the caution sequence?

Yes, though only briefly.

Teams initially were informed that there would be a “quickie yellow,” i.e. a term that means the pits will be open as the caution period commences (the pits normally are closed for at least a lap after a yellow). Buck said the mistake was realized almost immediately, and the pits were closed before any cars reached the entrance.

Were the pits actually closed earlier than normal?

Technically, no.

As noted, NASCAR usually closes the pits with two laps remaining in a stage. That announcement is usually made on NASCAR’s radio channel when the leader crosses the line to begin the penultimate lap of the stage.

But in this case, the announcement that the pits were closed was made much earlier. Buck explained that this was because of a “dynamic situation” with the imminent end of a stage.

Though the caution didn’t officially begin until Lap 58, the yellow flag had waved (which freezes the field and establishes pace car speed) before the halfway point of Lap 57. Because there were still more than three laps remaining then in the stage, the announcement to close the pits was made nearly a lap earlier than typically.

But it also should be noted there are some crew chiefs who probably would regard NASCAR’s interpretation of “two laps to go” in this case as too liberal.

A stricter interpretation of “two laps to go” would mean when Lap 58 is completed (according to the Rule 10.9.1.1.b: “When the lead vehicle completes this designated lap, two laps prior to completing a Stage, except for the Final Stage, at the start/finish line, pit road will be closed.”).

So NASCAR kept the pits closed for the entirety of the Lap 58-59 caution. Couldn’t the caution have been extended through the beginning of Stage 2?

Yes. Officials waved the green on the final lap of Stage 1 because they wanted to end the stage at speed because points were on the line for the top 10.

“We’ll try every opportunity that we can to allow the top 10 to cross under heated competition at the start-finish line,” Buck said. “ And that’s why a lot of times you won’t see us put the yellow out (ending a stage) until the leader is on the back (straightaway). In the stage racing, there’s a lot of dynamics that go into it, and we feel that our checks and balances came into play, and everything came off the way we had explained and done it before in that type of situation.”

NASCAR has ended stages under caution several times before, though, most recently in the April 8 race at Texas Motor Speedway. With four laps remaining in the first stage, there was a heavy crash involving Martin Truex Jr. The ensuing yellow flag lasted nine laps, bridging the first and second stages.

How unusual is a two-lap caution at Michigan?

Fairly unusual.

This was the first two-lap yellow for an on-track incident at Michigan since 2012. In the past 35 years and 70 races at Michigan, this was the 11th two-lap caution. Such short cautions often result from lazy one-car spins, but Kenseth’s car suffered four blown tires and left a trail of sparks – both evidence that the track could have been cluttered.

It certainly would have been understandable if the caution lasted longer than two laps to ensure a full cleanup. In the June 18, 2017 race at Michigan, there was a controversial debris caution at Michigan that lasted five laps.

How unusual is a one-lap restart to end a stage?

It had happened five times in the previous 50 races since the advent of stage racing last season – but Michigan is the first instance in which the pits weren’t opened during the preceding yellow.

The first one-lap restart was in the June 11, 2017 race at Pocono Raceway after a crash involving Jimmie Johnson and Jamie McMurray with four laps remaining in Stage 2. The yellow lasted three laps.

There also was a one-lap restart Oct. 15, 2017 at Talladega after a caution for a one-car crash with four laps left in Stage 1 (the pits were opened). And a week later at Kansas Speedway after a one-car crash with four laps left in Stage 2 (the pits were opened).

This year, there have been one-lap restarts for the March 11 race at ISM Raceway (a one-car crash with four laps remaining in Stage 1; the pits were opened) and to end Stage 1 in the April race at Bristol Motor Speedway. That one-lap dash was preceded by a six-lap caution (including a red flag) in which the pits were opened.

Similar to Sunday at Michigan, inclement weather also had a major impact on the Bristol race (whose finish eventually was postponed to Monday).

How did the one-lap restart impact the Michigan race?

Significantly, because it’s a line-sensitive track, and the outside is the preferred groove on a restart. The disparity in restart grooves is common for most Cup races (as is well documented by the Motorsports Analytics site).

At Michigan, the outside line was preferred for restarts. When the green fell on Lap 60, Kurt Busch was on the inside in second (because Blaney chose the outside) and fell five spots on the restart lap, which is a loss of five points. Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch (who fell from seventh to 12th and consequently earned no stage points) also lost positions on the inside.

A few points here and there might not seem like much … until the end of the regular season when they will determine which drivers earn playoff berths and which playoff drivers receive larger playoff point bonuses.

Was Chase Elliott also penalized for pitting too soon at the end of Stage 1?

Yes, as was Bubba Wallace for stopping during the Lap 58-59 caution.

But Elliott’s penalty wasn’t as stiff as it could have been. Though he was sent to the rear (which should have meant starting outside the top 35) before the Lap 66 restart, Elliott restarted in 20th because several cars ahead elected to lay over for the green and give the right of way to the No. 9 Chevrolet (which likely had fresher tires than some of the cars that yielded).

Why is all this important?

Because it underscores the importance of consistent and fair officiating during an increasingly complex era in which governance and rules that are based partly on race strategy can create some highly unique circumstances that might ostensibly seem benign but actually can have a major effect on the results.

And it also raises a fair question: Could some of these parameters be streamlined in a manner that would make race procedures cleaner and easier for crew chiefs, drivers and officials?


Michigan was the second time this season (remember the lack of aggression at Richmond?) when nearly every crew chief played it safe rather than gamble for a checkered flag.

Feel free to blame the reliability of your weather apps as much as you’d like, but the inconvenient truth is that taking two tires – as inexplicably only race winner Clint Bowyer and crew chief Mike Bugarewicz chose to do – before what turned out to be the final restart wasn’t much of a gamble.

Paul Menard already had shown the way 40 laps earlier when he took the lead by staying on track under caution. With a No. 21 Ford that had average speed in the pack, Menard was able to turn much faster laps near the front and unburdened by turbulence.

Why wouldn’t more crew chiefs in the top 10 – particularly those whose drivers had wins (namely Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch) – take a gamble on two tires under threatening skies?

There’s a temptation to conclude that the rise of engineering principles on the pit box has been accompanied by an overreliance on data consumption that results in overthinking scenarios (though to be fair, Bugarewicz also has an engineering degree).

Perhaps too many crew chiefs are trying to apply physics to strategy instead of just relying on their guts.


There is a valid reason for being gun-shy, though: The playoff standings.

With the fewest number of winners (six) through 15 races since 1996, there figures to be as much sensitivity to points racing during the stretch run of the regular season. If Busch, Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. continue to amass victories, the top-15 teams will adjust accordingly with fewer golden-ticket wins available

But if you are a 25th-place team with no hope of cracking the playoff bubble in points by the end of the season, this logic doesn’t apply – particularly when the speed differential from first to 25th seems as large as it’s been in the recent past.

A miracle win is your only shot at a major playoff payday – and let’s remember it worked for Chris Buescher and Front Row Motorsports at Pocono two years ago.

So it’s puzzling again why Sunday’s ominous skies didn’t encourage more backmarker teams to attempt a Hail Mary.

Even by just clogging traffic and increasing the likelihood of a pileup, a quick caution on the restart still could have put an underdog in victory lane.


There were no postrace quotes provided from Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Matt Kenseth, but there also wasn’t much to say about Roush Fenway Racing’s performance.

Though Stenhouse qualified seventh, he finished 29th after a late crash and ran outside the top 10 much of the race. In the fourth race since his return, Kenseth started 19th and finished 33rd and wasn’t a factor before or after the spin.

In a test at Darlington Raceway last week, Kenseth told reporters Roush was making “baby steps” but was lagging behind the team’s pace of improvement. With an off week to regroup, and with Kenseth out of the car for Trevor Bayne at Sonoma Raceway and Daytona International Speedway, this could be a critical spot for Roush’s turnaround.

The most vexing question might be why the team has struggled so mightily while the Ford teams of Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske have excelled this season, crediting a change in NASCAR’s inspection process with optimizing their Fusions.


The success of the aero/horsepower combination in the Xfinity Series last weekend at Michigan makes it likely the rules package (which was a smash hit in the All-Star Race) will find its way into the Cup Series when the circuit returns Aug. 12 to Michigan.

But the momentum for using the package (which has stirred much debate) in the July 14 race at Kentucky Speedway seems to have stalled out after a decision appeared to be looming last week.

The playoffs are off the table for the package. So barring a sharp change in direction, it might be used only at Michigan and the Sept. 9 race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, both tracks where drivers could remain in the throttle for a full lap and increase the efficacy of the aero/horsepower package on enhancing passing opportunities.

Kyle Busch leads non-Ford drivers at Michigan in fourth

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Kyle Busch was the only driver not piloting a Ford to finish in the top eight Sunday at Michigan International Speedway.

Thanks to rain cutting the race short by 67 laps, Busch ran out of time have a say in the outcome of the FireKeepers Casino 400.

But with a fourth-place finish, Busch earned his best finish at the 2-mile track since five years ago (when  he also placed fourth).

The result came after he and two of his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates had to start from the rear due to issues with their splitters in prerace inspection. Busch had qualified third.

“The blue ovals were just tough today,” Busch said of the Fords. “They go down the straightaway really, really fast. We have a hard time keeping up with them there, but our car through the corner was really awesome. The M&M’s Camry was really good there after yesterday’s practice. I thought we had something for them and if it was going to be a little bit hotter and sunnier today, I felt like we were going to be really good. That just wasn’t the conditions for today, so chilly and cool and lots of grip and that was better for all those guys, but we gave it a hard fought fight and come home with what we could there.”

Busch, who leads the point standings through 15 races, wasn’t able to reach the top 10 in Stage 1 but placed fourth in Stage 2.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver thought he had the car to finish third until his brother Kurt Busch “blew my doors off” on the final short run before rain arrived.

Busch’s finish was his 10th top five this season.

“(Crew chief) Adam Stevens and myself and our team and our organization, we did our job, so all we can do is keep trying and keep getting better, keep trying to bring home a good fight,” Busch said. “It doesn’t matter how sharp your knife is. You ain’t going to beat a gun fight.”