NASCAR America: NASCAR’s best finishes

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Where does the Overton’s 400 at Chicagoland Speedway fit among NASCAR’s best finishes?

Somewhere close to the top of the list, according to NASCAR America’s analysts. But it is not the only exciting finish seen in the past couple of decades.

Richard Petty and David Pearson’s accident coming to the finish line in the 1976 Daytona 500 ranks at the top.

“They both blamed each other for this wreck. Imagine that, things never change,” Jeff Burton said of the incident.

Pearson won over Petty.

The 2001 Cracker Barrel Old Country Store 500 featured a win by Kevin Harvick “in a photo finish over Jeff Gordon in a very emotional victory for everyone in NASCAR,” according to Parker Kligerman.

Burton described a race in which he watched the finish from the cockpit: the 2003 Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 at Darlington Raceway in which Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch wrecked as they took the checkers.

“These guys, off turn 4 at Darlington. Just unbelievable contact, side-by-side,” Burton said. “And they kept wrecking. The race is over and they’re still wrecking. What I love about this race is the same thing we saw this past week. Both of these guys recognized they were part of an unbelievable experience.”

Kyle Busch factored into the last lap of the 2012 Finger Lakes 355 at the Glen, but he would not be part of the race to the checkers. With oil on the track from a blown engine by Bobby Labonte, Brad Keselowski ran into the back of Busch and sent him spinning. Keselowski and Marcos Ambrose battled to the checkers with Ambrose scoring his second Cup win.

For more, watch the video above.

Follow Dan Beaver on Twitter.

NASCAR America: Chris Buescher, Matt DiBenedetto run well in the pack

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While most eyes are focused at the front of the pack, some incredible performances often go unnoticed outside of the top 10. On Tuesday, NASCAR America showcased three drivers who had outstanding runs in the Toyota/SaveMart 350 at Sonoma Raceway that might have otherwise gone unnoticed.

“I’m going to go with Chris Buescher and his 12th-place finish,” Landon Cassill said. “I thought he had a solid day. You know, his teammate is AJ Allmendinger … is an animal at these road courses, but Chris just put together a solid day and he’s a good driver at Sonoma. I worked with Chris when we both drove for Front Row Motorsports and I can tell you that I’m pretty sure he still holds the record in the Ford simulator for the fastest lap at Sonoma. … I used to use his car as a Chase car in the sim to help my laps at Sonoma.”

That was Buescher’s third consecutive top 20 on a road course and it comes on the heels of an 11th last August at Watkins Glen International.

Matt DiBenedetto has never been known as a road racer. In six previous starts on this type of track, he had never cracked the top 20 – until Sunday’s race at Sonoma when he scored a career-best 17th.

“My ‘Running with the Pack’ guy’s also not a road course guy: Matt DiBenedetto finished 17th at Sonoma after starting 30th and that is the ninth time in 16 races that he’s outperformed where he qualified,” Nate Ryan said. “I think that’s significant, I think that tells you how good GoFas Racing is, making the most of what they have.”

Dale Jarrett went a little deeper in the field.

“I’m going with somebody, who his team has only ran their seventh race at Sonoma and that’s our colleague Parker Kligerman. … He’s an outstanding road racer. He has that background, but he’s a good racer everywhere he goes. He ran inside the top 20 most of the day.”

For more, watch the video above.

NASCAR America: Better equipment, skilled drivers changed road racing

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The Toyota/SaveMart 350 at Sonoma Raceway is the first of three road course races on the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series calendar and the preparation involved in setting up these cars is much greater today than it has been in the past, according to NASCAR America analysts Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Dale Jarrett.

“I think the same emphasis is put in those two road course races and the cars that will be in those races,” Earnhardt said. “And now the Roval that will be at Charlotte – being a very important race in the playoffs – these road course racers are even more important.”

Man and machine need to be equal to the challenge.

“Not only is the emphasis more on the drivers to prepare and learn how to become road course racers, but there is a lot more emphasis on the cars too,” Earnhardt said. “All the cars are so much more similar and there is a lot more dedication to preparing the cars for these particular races. It’s almost like there is as much effort into putting a good road course car on the track as there is speedway cars – like Daytona and Talladega cars.”

Even the best driver cannot compete in equipment that is not up to the challenge and it took some outside expertise to raise NASCAR to the level of other marquee road racing series mechanically. Car owners like Jack Roush and road ringers like Boris Said contributed to the evolution of the racing discipline.

“The cars are so much better now than when we started,” Dale Jarrett said. “Whenever I got started in the Cup series fulltime in ’87, there were a couple of good road racers – and I think of Mark Martin, Ricky Rudd, Rusty Wallace … but Jack Roush brought something totally new into the sport a little later in the 80s and early 90s. … Their equipment was a little bit better because they understood road racing a little more. Now everybody has all that.”

Jarrett recalled what he believes might be one of the biggest upsets of his career. He won the pole for the 2001 Global Crossing at the Glen because he received a tip from Said, who told him he was not getting deep enough into the corners because his brakes were not good enough.

“You talk about road course ringers: Boris Said and Ron Fellows and some other guys coming in,” Jarrett said. “One of the things that helped them, they were better because they did it all the time, but they also would tell the teams they were going to drive for, ‘hey, there’s a lot better braking and other things out there that you can do.’ They came in and they had better equipment, which made them look even that much better than what we were.”

For more, watch the video above.

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.”

 

Road course racing about being ‘accurate’, ‘smooth’ and not breaking anything

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For the first time this season, the Cup Series will have to turn left and right this weekend.

The circuit heads to the West Coast, where the 12-turn, 1.99-mile Sonoma Raceway awaits.

After 15 races on ovals of varying designs, drivers will have to brush up on skills they mastered in other racing disciplines or skills they’re just now developing.

“My focus when I go to road courses is to not wheel hop, not spin out, not break anything,” Kyle Larson told NBC Sports. “But I seem to always do those things when I go there.”

Larson has only one top-10 finish (fourth at Watkins Glen in 2014) in four starts at each track.

“I never had any road course experience growing up, you know?” Larson said. “All my stuff was on dirt tracks and ovals, which was totally opposite, but in a way, those stock cars on a road course feel more similar to a sprint car on a dirt track to me than anything. … I feel like at road courses I can kind of feel the car a little bit better. I always qualify well at them. I don’t really race great for whatever reason.”

How do drivers get themselves in the mindset to turn right for the first time in a season?

Thanks to limits on testing, teams can use simulators and road course schools to give their drivers a boost.

That helps drivers like Bubba Wallace, who will make his Sonoma debut this weekend, and Alex Bowman, who makes his first road course start of any kind in Cup since 2015.

“I want to do everything I possibly can,” Bowman told NBC Sports. “So simulator, road course school, whatever I can get my hands on to be better.”

Bowman’s start will also come in an appropriate car.

“I’m excited to go road racing in a Hendricks Motorsports car,” Bowman said. “It’s going to be different. Last time I went road racing (with Tommy Baldwin Racing) we raced a superspeedway car. So it should be quite a bit of fun. A little bit more fun than that was.”

Wallace last competed on a road course in 2016 in the Xfinity Series at Watkins Glen and Mid-Ohio.

“I think the simulator will do,” Wallace told NBC Sports. “The simulator is good for putting the corners together. It is so hard to translate speed from a simulator, but then when we go to the actual road course for driving school the cars aren’t the same, the speeds aren’t the same so that is kind of tough as well.”

Fellow rookie William Byron will also make his first Cup start on a road course. In his championship campaign last season in Xfinity, Byron had finishes of 10th (Watkins Glen), 25th (wreck at Mid-Ohio) and sixth (Road America).

“I think road courses, you just try to be as accurate as you can,” Byron told NBC Sports. “It’s obviously a different skill set than it takes for an oval. So you have to adapt, and kind of grow your style at those places, but you don’t get to do it a lot. So I think the biggest thing there is being able to get through the gears and downshifts and everything successfully.”

What about veteran drivers who have already experienced the twist and turns and elevation changes at Sonoma?

Daniel Suarez, who will make his second Sonoma start in Cup, relies on his experiences from racing go-karts.

“One of the main things for me to think about was to be smooth and slow to actually (being) fast on the clock,” Suarez told NBC Sports. “That’s something very important. Sometimes you want to rush everything and to try to make things happen very quick and that’s when the car can do many things at the same time so you have to be smooth, aggressive, but everything at the right time so you can make some speed.”
Suarez and Bowman will get a little more track time this weekend. In addition to Aric Almirola and Erik Jones, they are entered into the K&N Pro Series West race at Sonoma. Suarez competed in the race last year.

After Sonoma, Cup will race at Watkins Glen on Aug. 5 and then it will hold its inaugural race on the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course on Sept. 30.

But three road courses isn’t enough for Wood Brothers Racing’s Paul Menard, who has one top five at Sonoma and an Xfinity win at Road America.

“I don’t think we have enough of them on our schedule,” Menard told NBC Sports. “The whole thing with road racing is you … have these braking zones and you have these points and you always try to push it to get a little bit more in a braking zone, try to get back to the gas sooner all the while trying to be smooth so you are not abusing your tires, your brakes, your transmission.

“It definitely puts it in the driver’s hands a little bit more which is cool for us.”