Alex Kennedy attempts Sprint Cup debut, will drive Jason Leffler’s car

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There may be a new name on the 43-car starting grid of Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 Sprint Cup race at Sonoma Raceway.

That is if New Mexico native Alex Kennedy manages to qualify the No. 19 MediaMaster/Dream Factory Toyota on the twisting 12-turn, 1.99-mile road course.

Driving for Humphrey Smith Racing, Kennedy, 21, hopes to make the 43-car field and potentially trade paint with some of the same drivers he’s watched while growing up, like Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

It will be an uphill battle for Kennedy to make the race, though. He’s competed in just 14 Nationwide Series races from 2010 to 2012 (he has not started a race in NNS this season), with his best finish being 15th in last year’s road course race at Montreal. Interestingly, nine of those 14 starts have been on road courses, including Road America and Watkins Glen.

Still, he has familiarity with Sonoma, having raced there at the age of 12 — can you believe it’s been almost a decade, Alex? — in several Legends Car races.

He also raced there twice in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series, including an 11th-place finish in 2008 — at the age of 16, no less.

Kennedy will have some added inspiration and motivation to make Sunday’s race: he’ll be driving the same car that the late Jason Leffler drove in the June 9 Sprint Cup race at Pocono. Leffler was tragically killed in a New Jersey dirt track accident three days later.

Like many of his racing counterparts, Kennedy’s Toyota will have a “Lefturn” decal on the right side door of his ride as a tribute to Leffler.

F1 2017 driver review: Max Verstappen

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Max Verstappen

Team: Red Bull Racing
Car No.: 33
Races: 20
Wins: 2
Podiums (excluding wins): 2
Pole Positions: 0
Fastest Laps: 1
Points: 168
Laps Led: 133
Championship Position: 6th

Max Verstappen rise as a once-in-a-generation talent continued through the 2017 Formula 1 season, even if reliability issues meant we were made to wait for his best form to arrive.

Verstappen stole the show in a wet-dry Chinese Grand Prix by charging from 16th to seventh in the opening lap before ultimately finishing third for Red Bull, yet he would not grace the podium again until the Malaysian Grand Prix at the start of October.

A combination of power unit problems and on-track clashes saw Verstappen retire from seven of the 12 races in the intermittent period, with incidents in Spain and Austria being avoidable.

Perhaps most embarrassing of all was his stoppage due to a power unit failure in front of a grandstand swathed in orange at the Belgian Grand Prix, a race tens of thousands of Dutch fans had attended to cheer Verstappen on.

But when Verstappen got things right, it was – as he frequently quoted – simply, simply lovely. There was plenty left in the tank, as proven by his sheer domination of the races in Malaysia and Mexico as he took the second and third wins of his career.

Perhaps even more impressive was Verstappen’s victory over Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo in the qualifying head-to-head battle this year, an area the Australian has traditionally been strong in. Verstappen outqualifed his teammate 13-7 – it wasn’t even close…

All in all, Verstappen once again proved that on his day, he is one of the finest talents to grace F1 in recent years. With the right car underneath him next year, a title fight is certainly possible and will be the target – but there is always room for improvement.

And that is the scary part: Verstappen is only going to get better and better.

Season High: Dominating in Malaysia after an early pass on Lewis Hamilton.

Season Low: Crashing out on Lap 1 in Austria.