Dirt, NASCAR, Eldora are big winners after Mudsummer Classic

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Occasionally, you just need to tip your cap to someone on a job well done.

In this case, a tip of the cap to two parties: NASCAR, for taking a chance on a dirt track race for the first time in 40 years, and to Eldora Speedway, its track president Roger Slack and track owner Tony Stewart.

It looked weird at first glance – the sight of these lumbering, overpowered and under-tired NASCAR Camping World Trucks attempting to “slide job” and ride loose around the top groove of the half-mile oval in Rossburg, Ohio.

But after just a few minutes and few laps, it looked massive, and it looked like a spectacle.

From the sold-out crowd, to the heat race format, to Norm Benning making the feature race after holding on in his last-chance qualifier, to the four-wide tribute start and salute to the fans, to the race itself. It looked like authentic racing without appearing contrived. It wasn’t a crash fest; it was fairly clean. It was three hours of racing action, but it was never three hours of tedium.

In fact, the only disappointment was that it seemed every time the leaders were approaching traffic, a caution flew for debris. Now in all cases, the big pieces of debris were shown, so you can put the “phantom debris caution” theory to rest on this occasion.

Kyle Larson drove the wheels off his truck but race winner Austin Dillon came through the field just as much, in fact more so than the widely accepted wunderkind who has been hailed by many as NASCAR’s next big thing.

The immediate cries on social media and in some reports was for “MORE DIRT RACING!” or something along those lines.

The challenge for NASCAR, and perhaps for other domestic forms of motorsport, is not to lose the unique nature of this first, one-off dirt track NASCAR experience.

Some of racing’s most iconic races are that way because they’re sparse. Because they’re unique. Monaco, Indianapolis and Le Mans are iconic; Kansas, Kentucky and Chicagoland are not.

Over-saturation of a certain kind of racing – the preponderance of 400-mile snooze fests on 1.5-mile ovals as an example – pretty much reduces those races to also-ran, can-miss status because there’s no differentiating one from another.

NASCAR’s most exciting races have tended to occur on slower tracks visited infrequently. Bristol and Martinsville, the two half-mile tracks, are among the most fun to watch, as are the two road course races at Sonoma and Watkins Glen. Eldora fits this bill to a T.

For NASCAR, perhaps one or two more dirt track races in a year could go a long way toward building up enough sustained season-long interest in dirt, but not overdoing it.

The easiest way to get “MORE DIRT RACING” from here is to simply visit your local short track and see the action there. They need the support.

But as for last night, it was an excellent dirt-digging, groundbreaking ceremony for a form of racing that seeks to make a resurgence in the minds and wallets of race fans.

Here’s a few extra takes on the race from AP/Dan Gelston, USA Today’s Jeff Gluck and Sporting News’ Bob Pockrass.

And here are tweets from Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson.

Gasly takes maiden Super Formula win at Twin Ring Motegi

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Red Bull junior driver Pierre Gasly strengthened his case for a Formula 1 seat in 2018 by taking his maiden victory in Japan’s Super Formula series on Sunday at Twin Ring Motegi.

Gasly, 21, was placed in Super Formula for 2017 after winning the GP2 Series title last year, and is vying for a seat with Red Bull B-team Toro Rosso in F1 next year.

The Frenchman started fourth at Twin Ring Motegi on Sunday, but was able to gain two places with a long opening stint before pitting and changing tires.

Toyota LMP1 racer Kamui Kobayashi enjoyed a comfortable buffer over the field, only for a slip up in his pit stop to cause him to drop far behind Gasly.

Gasly eased home to clinch his first victory in Super Formula for the Honda-powered Team Mugen, with Kobayashi left to settle for second place.

Formula E driver Felix Rosenqvist picked up his second podium finish of the season, taking third place ahead of Hiroaki Ishiura and Nick Cassidy.

Gasly is the leading Red Bull youngster pushing to step up to F1 in 2018, with Carlos Sainz Jr. and Daniil Kvyat currently occupying the seats at Toro Rosso.

Sainz has been linked with a move away for 2018 – relying another team will buy him out of his contract – while Kvyat’s future remains uncertain given his struggles with Toro Rosso.

Gasly could theoretically make his F1 debut this year should Kvyat pick up two more penalty points on his FIA super license between now and the United States Grand Prix in October, which would trigger a race ban.

Gasly’s next racing commitment in Super Formula comes at Autopolis on September 10.

Hunter-Reay released from hospital; not yet cleared to drive at Pocono

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Ryan Hunter-Reay has been released from a nearby hospital at Pocono Raceway after his accident in qualifying for Sunday’s ABC Supply 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBCSN) but has not yet been cleared to drive. He’ll be re-evaluated by INDYCAR Sunday morning.

The full release from INDYCAR and Andretti Autosport is below:

Verizon IndyCar Series driver Ryan Hunter-Reay was evaluated at Lehigh Valley Hospital – Cedar Crest in Allentown, Pennsylvania, on Saturday for injuries to his left hip and knee sustained in a crash in qualifying for the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway. Hunter-Reay was treated and released but has not been cleared to drive, pending a re-evaluation Sunday morning.

“During qualifying today, out of nowhere, the car stepped out on me,” Hunter-Reay said. “It was a bit of a wiggle, which I caught. The second time it happened, it came with no warning – which is a bit confusing. I hit my hip pretty bad as well as my knee, so the doctors thought it would be best to go in for further evaluation. After a CT scan and MRI, I am able to go and get a good night’s sleep. I’m sure I’ll wake up sore, but will hopefully be able to get back in the DHL machine tomorrow.

“I know the entire Andretti Autosport team worked hard to get the car put back together and with 500 miles, there is still a chance to win from the back of the field. I can’t thank the Holmatro Safety Team enough for their quick response along with the medical staff at INDYCAR, Pocono and Lehigh Valley Hospital – Cedar Crest. Also, thank you to the fans for reaching out with their support.”

IndyCar Paddock Pass: Pocono (VIDEO)

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NBCSN’s coverage of the Verizon IndyCar Series continues this weekend with the series trip to the “Tricky Triangle” for the ABC Supply 500 (Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

The NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass also continues for another episode from the three-turn oval, Pocono Raceway, in Long Pond, Pa.

NBCSN IndyCar pit reporter and Indy Lights analyst Anders Krohn checks in for the latest edition of the show, which you can see above.

On tap in this week’s episode are interviews with Team Penske teammates Josef Newgarden and Will Power, and Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay.

Hunter-Reay led first practice; however was involved in a heavy accident in qualifying later Saturday afternoon and transported to a nearby hospital.

His status is unclear for Sunday.

Newgarden leads the championship but had a tough qualifying run – he was only 14th Saturday afternoon – while Power was second among Chevrolets and starts fifth. He is the defending Pocono race winner.

You can see the episode above. Past IndyCar Paddock Pass episodes are below:


Chaves, Harding continue to shine at Pocono

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LONG POND, Pa. – In two previous starts in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, Gabby Chaves and Harding Racing have been shining stars, finishing ninth at the Indianapolis 500 and fifth at the Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway, avoiding several crashes and incidents in both races to do so, and advancing from 25th and 20th on the grid, respectively.

Returning to the series for this weekend’s ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway (Sunday 2:00 p.m. ET, NBCSN), the combination continues its remarkably strong form, qualifying eighth for Sunday’s race, third fastest of the Chevrolet runners.

And with the goal of turning the team into a full-time effort next year, Chaves and the team appear to be picking up right where they left off.

“We’re just here to improve our team, get it ready for next year,” Chaves told NBC Sports. “We’d like to go home with a great result of course, that’s always the aim. But I think the work we did throughout the practice improved the car enough to wear I was pretty comfortable at the end.”

Of course, even though the team is still very new to the world of racing (their first race was this year’s Indianapolis 500), it doesn’t stop Chaves from having lofty expectations.

“You always want to shoot for the win,” he asserted when asked about expectations for this weekend’s ABC Supply 500. “Obviously it’s never easy – with the limited time we have on track, it just makes it even harder on top of it. We’re always trying to keep our expectations high and do the best job we can to accomplish them.”

Gabby Chaves and Harding Racing have been very impressive out of the box. Photo: IndyCar

And perhaps Chaves is right to have big expectations given the team’s first two races. Ninth at Indianapolis and fifth at Texas are genuinely impressive results for the brand new team. And on the surface, they are a surprise, given the organization itself hadn’t run any races at any level prior to this year. But, Chaves explained that the people involved in the team are more than familiar with the sport and know how to build a successful operation.

“It’s just a matter of having the right people involved,” Chaves said of their early success. “Our team owner, Mike Harding, is very dedicated to making sure that we have the means to go out and hire the best people we can. It’s hard to do when the full-time teams have already got most of those guys, but there’s a few guys left out there who are very quality guys. Then that comes down to our team manager, Larry Curry, who has been able to track down these guys and give them a good offer to come on board with us. We’re just going to get better from here.”

Specifically, team manager Curry has been instrumental in recruiting talent and helping the team get ahead of the game, as Chaves explained.

“When it came down to our Indy deal, we started getting our car ready, and a little bit through his connections, we were able to get our mockup engine a little sooner, our body fit sooner – enough that we had the time to go out and test and do a shakedown run at Texas before Indy. It’s that type of experience and knowledge that Larry brings to the team that helps us out.”

NBCSN’s Robin Miller reported earlier this weekend in a piece for RACER.com that the team is ready for a full season in 2018, with Harding also telling the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network’s Jake Query that “100 percent number” Miller cited is closer to 95 percent.

Chaves stopped short of going that far, but feels confident that a full-season effort will come together.

“Obviously, our plans are still to go out and run the full season. I’d say every day we get closer and closer to that. I’d say it’s looking really good. I know (Robin Miller’s report) mentions 100% – I think we’re close to that. But, it’s not done until it’s done. So I’ll just keep focused on my job here this weekend.”

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