Friday 5: ‘Chaotic’ qualifying is entertaining and shouldn’t change

Leave a comment

Last week’s Cup qualifying at Las Vegas Motor Speedway raised the question of is qualifying more about entertainment or sport?

It was fascinating to watch cars parked on pit road and drivers waiting for someone to go because nobody wanted to be the lead car. They all wanted to be in the draft.

While that took place, spotters counted down the time remaining in the session.

It became a game of who would blink first and take off.

When it was time to go, there was chaos. Cars darted around each other. In the final round, Joey Logano went four-wide on pit road. Ricky Stenhouse passed Logano on the inside and left pit road ahead of him.

“Is chaos a bad thing?” Logano asked NBC Sports’ Jerry Bonkowski this week. “I think that’s the question we have to ask ourselves. Is it chaos? Yes. Is it entertaining? Oh yeah, it’s entertaining, there’s a lot going on. So I don’t know if it’s wrong and we should be changing much.

“I think there’s a couple safety aspects we can add to pit road while we’re jockeying around for position and stuff like that. But as far as the entertainment value, will you get the lap in before the clock runs out, will you get a big enough draft, will they all go out for a second time and you get a big pack again, are they going to knock somebody out of the round? That’s good.

“I don’t know why we would change much of that, I think it’s OK. Yeah, it’s a little chaotic, it’s crazy and none of us has it figured out or scienced out the way we want to have it yet, but that’s competition, that’s just what it is.”

Logano is right. While there was a randomness to who won the pole at Las Vegas, qualifying was as entertaining as any session in recent years.

What happened last week was reminiscent of qualifying at Talladega in October 2014. NASCAR divided teams into two groups for the opening round and each had five minutes. The top 24 overall times advanced.

Most cars stayed on pit road until they hit their cutoff mark to complete two laps. Not everyone made it. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Justin Allgaier were among the cars that didn’t make it to the start/finish line before the session ended. Their fastest laps didn’t count. They both failed to qualify. It’s the only race Stenhouse has failed to make since his 2013 rookie Cup season.

These days, 36 chartered cars are guaranteed a starting spot. That prevents a situation Stenhouse experienced five years ago with a well-funded team.

But that doesn’t ease all the angst. Some competitors were frustrated at Las Vegas because the draft negates who has the fastest car. It’s all about being in the right place to draft and turn the quickest lap. Being in that position can be as much luck as skill.

What happens in qualifying can impact the race. Teams pick pit stalls based on their starting spot. A poor qualifying effort can lead to issues in the race.

Logano is aware of that. He qualified 27th at Atlanta and his team had limited options on where to pick their pit stall. Crew chief Todd Gordon chose a stall behind Alex Bowman’s pit and in front of Martin Truex Jr.’s pit.

Rarely do strong teams pit next to each other because they don’t want to have to go around a car to enter their stall or be blocked in by the car in front. Logano faced that situation at Atlanta. He lost more than 10 spots on each of his first two pit stops because he couldn’t get around Bowman’s car to exit his stall.

That leads back to the question of should qualifying be about entertainment or sport?

The decision today will be easy. The fastest car will be rewarded because teams are not expected to draft.

This issue that will come up again in the coming weeks, though, when the series heads to Auto Club Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway.

“Texas, I don’t know,” Logano said. “I think there’s going to be parts of the track that you want to draft and parts of the track when you’re going to want clean air. When you get to Turns 1 and 2, you’re going to want some air on the car to be able to get through the corner with as much wide open time as possible. That one’s a real question for me.

“I think Kansas is a no-brainer, you’re definitely going to be drafting. As for Fontana, it’ll be interesting. I think there’s going to be some drafting going on there, but I think it’ll be split up a little bit, kind of like the way Atlanta was, kinda 50-50.”

There’s no splitting this issue. It’s about entertainment. Let chaos reign in qualifying.

2. Second to Kyle Busch

For all the wins Kyle Busch has amassed in his NASCAR career, there is a recurring theme.

The runner-up to Busch in more than a third of the 197 races he’s won across Cup, Xfinity and the Gander Outdoors Truck Series has been one of five drivers.

Kyle Busch celebrating a NASCAR win has been a familiar sight through the years. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

The driver who has finished runner-up to Busch the most in those races is Kevin Harvick. He’s done so 18 times — five times in Cup, 10 times in Xfinity and three times in Trucks. The total equates to 9.1 percent of the time Busch has won a NASCAR race, Harvick has been second.

Carl Edwards is next on the list with 15 runner-up finishes to Busch. He’s followed by Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano with 13-runner-up finishes. Next is Kyle Larson, who has placed second to Busch eight times.

Combined, Harvick, Edwards, Keselowski, Logano and Larson have finished second to Busch in 67 of his 197 wins (34 percent).

They are among the 60 drivers who have placed second to Busch in a race he won. The list includes three NASCAR Hall of Fame members (Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and Ron Hornaday Jr.), two Indianapolis 500 winners (Sam Hornish Jr. and Juan Pablo Montoya) and drivers who have combined to win 48 NASCAR titles in either Cup, Xfinity or Trucks.

The list could grow this weekend. Busch is entered in both the Cup and Xfinity races at Phoenix.

Here is who has finished second to Busch in Cup, Xfinity and Trucks races and how often:

18 — Kevin Harvick

15 — Carl Edwards

13 — Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano

8 — Kyle Larson

7 — Todd Bodine, Matt Crafton

6 — Erik Jones, Johnny Sauter

5 — Greg Biffle, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Ron Hornaday Jr., Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart

4 — Jeff Burton, Austin Dillon

3 — Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Daniel Suarez, Martin Truex Jr.

2 — Mike Bliss, Terry Cook, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin, John Hunter Nemechek, Timothy Peters, David Reutimann, Elliott Sadler

1 — Justin Allgaier, AJ Allmendinger, Marcos Ambrose, Trevor Bayne, James Buescher, Kurt Busch, Colin Braun, Jeb Burton, Brendan Gaughan, David Gilliland, Jeff Gordon, Daniel Hemric, Sam Hornish Jr., Parker Kligerman, Jason Leffler, Sterling Marlin, Jamie McMurray, Casey Mears, Brett Moffitt, Juan Pablo Montoya, Ryan Newman, Nelson Piquet Jr., Ryan Preece, Brian Scott, Reed Sorenson, Brian Vickers, Bubba Wallace, Cole Whitt

3. Multiple surgeries

Tanner Thorson, who competed in 11 Gander Outdoors Truck Series races last season, is recovering after he was involved in a highway crash early Monday morning in Modesto, California.

The 2016 U.S. Auto Club national champion had surgery Monday night for a broken left arm, according to the USAC Racing. Thorson had surgery Wednesday on his broken right foot. He also suffered a cracked sternum, broken ribs and a punctured lung, according to USAC Racing. The organization said that Thorson’s family hopes the 22-year-old can return home soon.

According to a preliminary investigation by the California Highway Patrol, Thorson was driving a 2019 Ford pickup that was towing his sprint car when he approached slower moving traffic shortly before 4 a.m. PT. Thorson’s truck struck the rear of a vehicle. KCRA, an NBC affiliate in Sacramento, reported that vehicle was a milk truck.

The impact sent the milk truck into the next lane where it was hit by another vehicle and then came back across the road and was struck another car. The driver was uninjured. A passenger in the truck was transported from the scene with minor injuries, according to the California Highway Patrol. Thorson’s vehicle came to rest on the shoulder and caught fire.

4. First time in new garages at Phoenix

ISM Raceway at Phoenix debuted its new garages and layout when NASCAR raced there in November.

One person missing that weekend was Rodney Childers, crew chief for Kevin Harvick. NASCAR suspended Childers the final two races of last year as part of penalties imposed to the No. 4 team for failing inspection after its win at Texas. So Childers missed the new look at Phoenix – until this weekend.

Childers shared his excitement of being in Phoenix on Thursday night.

5. Remarkable record

Kevin Harvick has finished in the top five in half of the 32 Cup races he’s run at Phoenix. He has nine wins there. Jimmie Johnson has 15 top-five finishes in 31 Cup races there. He has four wins there.

Despite the dominance of the two, they have combined for one win (by Harvick) in the last five races at Phoenix. The other winners in the last five races at Phoenix are Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman and Joey Logano.

 and on Facebook

Jimmie Johnson intrigued with racing IndyCar, sports cars in the future

1 Comment

After his “mind-blowing” experience driving a Formula One car, Jimmie Johnson said he would be interested in competing in IndyCar and sports car races when he’s done driving NASCAR.

Johnson’s contract with Hendrick Motorsports expires after the 2020 season and he could try other forms of racing then.

“I’ve been approached many times for the Indy 500,” Johnson said Monday after driving a Formula One car as part of a ride swap with Fernando Alonso. “I’m not overly excited about those fast ovals, but I think with my status and relationships, I could put together some road course races in IndyCar.

“I’d look at anything. I’ve done sports car racing in the past. I’ve finished second in the Rolex 24. Would love to get back to doing that. Anything is open. I’m far from done. I want to keep driving and hopefully I can find some good opportunities.”

The 43-year-old Johnson knows age will slow him at some point but he says not yet. 

“Certainly age is a number and at some point it will start to fade on you, but I think most drivers deeper in their career, the workload that goes with it is what they don’t enjoy,” Johnson said. “For whatever reason, I like to work. From training and suffering, the longer the ride, the longer the run, the better I perform. I just really enjoy working. I don’t subscribe to that you get to a certain age and you can’t do it. I think you get to a certain age and it’s hard to stay motivated to put in the time and I don’t feel like I’m there yet.”

Three of the top four drivers in points in IndyCar last year were age 37 or older, led by 38-year-old series champion Scott Dixon. Tony Kanaan, who turns 44 on Dec. 31, will return to A.J. Foyt Racing for his 21st season of open-wheel racing in the U.S.

Johnson’s focus Monday was on driving a 2013 Formula One car around Bahrain International Circuit. Alonso drove one of Johnson’s Cup cars.

“The sensation of speed, clearly the speed is so high,” the seven-time Cup champion said. “The simulator was a really nice experience, great visual aid but to have the wind moving by and your sensation of speed and G-forces, it takes a little while to kind of absorb that and have the newness of that go away and focus on what you’re doing. I felt like every time I went out, my surroundings went slower and it was easier to piece together my braking points.

“Literally my first outing, my helmet was trying to leave my head, and I was staring at the microphone because my helmet was so high. I got my helmet under control and it was really my eyes trying to find their way far enough ahead and far enough around the turns. At the end, I really quit focusing on the braking markers themselves and was able to look at the apex (of the turns) and had an idea of when to hit the brakes and was able to put together some good laps. It was fun.”

Johnson said the experience could help him when NASCAR races on its road course events.

“Just the philosophy of how the use the car under brakes will be really good for me in the road course racing we will do,” he said. “I will start trying to get more out of the car on the straight line and then get off the brakes … and roll the car through the apex.”

Johnson admits “at the end of the day I got a way better swap experience than (Alonso) did. If we could come for a day or two, get our gearing dialed in, do some suspension changes, the proper tire, the (stock car) could have been quite a bit faster. I rode in a car with him at Abu Dhabi on hot laps and then again today and he should be a dirt racer. He loves to be sideways and smoking the tires.”

Johnson said he encouraged Alonso to drive a stock car on a NASCAR track to get the true experience of the car.

“When you can put them on a banked track, they really have the chance to shine,” Johnson said. “Dover, Bristol, even some of the banked mile-and-a-halves, really impressive. We’ll put a little pressure on him to do it. The way he likes to drive things I don’t see why he would say no.”

Johnson was asked if Alonso would do well on NASCAR’s road courses.

“Oh yeah,” Johnson said. “When you look at Juan (Pablo Montoya), when Juan was able to jump in a Cup car, he was fantastic on those tracks. In talking to Dario (Franchitti), in talking to Juan and Danica (Patrick), they don’t drive a car often with oversteer, so I assume that would be something (Alonso) wouldn’t like, but every time I looked he was dead sideways. Maybe he’s the perfect open-wheel driver to go to a stock car.”

Alonso said his focus for the first part of 2019 will be on the select races he will do, including the Indianapolis 500.

Asked if he could imagine what it would be like to drive a stock car at Daytona International Speedway with 39 other cars, Alonso said: “I told Jimmie before, it’s hard to imagine for me now after the feelings I had today with the very low grip and a lot of problems with traction how this car would feel on oval racing because they are no more traction demanding. That I think is a very different way to drive the car.”

Will Alonso jump in a stock car again?

“For now, it’s OK,” he said. “I have now a couple of weeks off but then immediately at the beginning of the year I will be very busy. I don’t want to put any extra tests or thoughts because I really need to charge the battery.”

Jimmie Johnson, Fernando Alonso to swap rides for a day

Getty Images
Leave a comment

FORT WORTH, Texas — A random meeting in January will lead to “the chance of a lifetime” for Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson and Formula 1 driver Fernando Alonso, who met in Charlotte in January during NASCAR’s Media Day, will drive each other’s race cars Nov. 26 at Bahrain.

“He mentioned something there and we just stayed in touch,” Johnson said of where the idea spawned.

This is more than Johnson just jumping into Alonso’s car. Johnson will tour the McLaren shop and test on the team’s simulator.

“We really want to have a full day to experience each other’s cars and mess around,” Johnson said Friday at Texas Motor Speedway.

Hendrick Motorsports shipped a car Oct. 9 to go by boat to Bahrain for Alonso to drive. Johnson said the team “packed the container with plenty of tires and equipment to let him run as long as he wants to get the full experience, and they’re offering that same thing to me.”

Johnson said the challenge was to find a place for them to run each other’s car. Originally, they looked at tracks in the U.S., including Indianapolis, Homestead-Miami and Charlotte but schedules didn’t work. Eventually, the idea to do it overseas after the NASCAR and Formula 1 seasons ended made the most sense.

To prepare, Johnson has done additional neck exercises because of the additional G-forces he’ll endure in Alonso’s car. It was a tip Johnson gained from Jeff Gordon, who drove Juan Pablo Montoya’s Formula 1 car in 2003 at Indianapolis.

“In talking with Gordon, he had the ability to run more laps in the setup that they had but his neck wouldn’t let him,” Johnson said. “Our cars, especially on the brakes, we do not create the Gs and we only have a couple of road courses a year, so our neck muscles are pretty far behind (F1 drivers).”

The last time a NASCAR driver and Formula 1 driver switched cars was 2011 with Tony Stewart and Lewis Hamilton at Watkins Glen International.

“It’s the ultimate car,” Johnson said of why he wants to try the F1 car. “To feel the downforce of one of those cars has always been in the back of my mind. I’ve always wanted to experience it.”

For those wondering, Johnson said he has no hint that Alonso is doing this to consider a future racing NASCAR. Alonso will leave F1 after this season. 

“I have seen plenty of chatter about that on social (media),” Johnson said of speculation of Alonso driving some in NASCAR. “He’s not led me to believe any of that. If I was in his shoes and had the opportunity to go drive an oval, I would have taken it if NASCAR was the destination for me. He wants to drive it on the road course. Maybe he has some road course ideas if he was to come. He has not led me to believe in any way shape or form there’s more than this.”

How much does starting position matter at Sonoma?

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Do you need to qualify on the pole, the front row or the even the top five to better your chances of winning a NASCAR race?

On a typical race weekend one would think that’s the case. Through 15 races this season, the winner has started in the top five eight times. Only four winners started 10th or worse.

But this isn’t a typical race weekend as the Cup Series heads to Sonoma Raceway for its first road course race of the season.

The series has held 29 races at the road course since 1989. In those 29 races, the winner started from the pole five times (17.2 percent).

That makes it the most prolific starting position at the track in terms of wins.

But a winner hasn’t come from the pole since 2004 when Jeff Gordon did it for a track-best third time.

The driver starting second has won three times, the last occurring in 2010 with Jimmie Johnson. Since that race, only one Sonoma winner – Carl Edwards (fourth) in 2014 – has started in the top five.

In the 13 races since Gordon last won from the pole, the race winner started in the top five three times.

The last three races saw the winner start 11th (Kyle Busch), 10th (Tony Stewart) and 12th (Kevin Harvick).

In contrast, the 14 races from 1992-2005 saw every race winner came from inside the top 10 and 11 from the top five.

What’s changed? Road course racing became much more aggressive with the transition to double fire restarts in 2009. The introduction of stage racing last year added another wrinkle to a type of racing that already saw aggressive pit strategy.

But Sonoma isn’t too kind to drivers starting in the back half of the field.

The deepest in the field that a race winner has started is 32nd, when Juan Pablo Montoya won in 2007. Only one other time has the winner come from outside the top 15, when Kyle Busch started 30th and won in 2008.

NASCAR America: Stolen pace cars, exploding jet dryers highlight NASCAR bizarreness

1 Comment

The pace car crash in the IndyCar race at the Raceway at Belle Isle in Detroit, Michigan last Sunday had many scratching their heads, but it sent NASCAR America scrambling for the tape to showcase some of the more bizarre moments in stock car racing.

“Mark (Reuss, Executive Vice President of Global Product Development at General Motors) said, ‘look, I’ve driven tons of stuff there.’ He just essentially said it just got away from me,” Rutledge Wood reported. “That, I understand. I’ve screwed up some stuff in a car before.

“But we realize that is not the most bizarre thing we’ve seen.”

The stolen pace car at Talladega Superspeedway in 1986 highlighted NASCAR America’s list.

“When (the pace car thief) pulled up and stopped at the roadblock, they sat there and played that game of chicken with the locks for a few minutes,” Earnhardt recalled. “Because they had the keys. They’d unlock it; he’d lock it back. They did that a couple of times”

See Also: Bump & Run: Most bizarre scenes at the track

Juan Pablo Montoya’s 2012 Daytona 500 accident with the jet dryer is absolutely unforgettable to anyone watching NASCAR at the time.

“Nobody knew what happened, because nobody was paying attention,” Dale Jarrett said. “We had no idea what had taken place.”

For more, watch the video above.