Ryan Newman, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Brian Vickers, David Stremme, Ken Schrader

Problems aplenty at Bristol for several Chase hopefuls

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On Saturday night, Bristol Motor Speedway’s usual chaos contributed to yet another dramatic shift in the Race to the Chase. In hindsight, you’re tempted to say to yourself, “As if it wouldn’t.”

Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr., and Ryan Newman – all of them trying to cement a spot in NASCAR’s ten-race postseason dash – suffered setbacks in the Volunteer State, as Busch was victimized by a wheel hub issue on his car and the other three were caught in a late-race crash.

Busch had started on the front row and led 54 laps early on, but his right-rear wheel came loose and he was forced to pit under green. After service, he was promptly tagged for speeding on pit road and then made contact with Josh Wise on the track that damaged his car and sent him back to the pits.

Eventually, he was forced to go behind the wall in order for his team to properly deal with the hub problem.

“We didn’t even pit yet, so we had a wheel start to vibrate loose at an odd time,” said Busch, who would make some progress and finish 31st, but fell back to 12th in the Sprint Cup standings at six points out of 10th position.

“I felt vibrations before, but we are leading the race walking the dog and our right-rear is falling off. It’s just kind of how you have to fight sometimes and overcome the obstacles that come your way.”

Even with that turn of events, Saturday’s Irwin Tools Night Race was playing out to be relatively cleaner than your typical 500-lap romp around the Bristol high banks. At least, until Lap 446.

On that lap, contact between Brian Vickers and Denny Hamlin caused a tire failure for the latter, who then slid up into traffic and started an eight-car incident that involved Keselowski, Truex and Newman.

Truex, who was unable to return to action and finished 35th, said he couldn’t see anything during the incident.

“They just started jamming up and I tried to follow the 29 [Kevin Harvick] through and [the hole] closed up,” he said in the TV broadcast. “We got smashed in the fence and hit a couple of times.

“…We just didn’t have enough gas at the end there and we had to pit, and once you get in the back here towards the end, they start wrecking and you’re an innocent victim.”

Truex wound up falling to 14th in the standings, but thanks to his win earlier this summer at Sonoma, he still maintains hold of a Wild Card spot despite being sidelined before the checkered flag. Newman, who finished 21st on Saturday, has managed to climb into the second Wild Card position.

As for the winless Keselowski, he’s dropped from eighth to 11th in the standings after a 30th-place result – and is now likely steeling himself for what will be a pressure-packed final two weeks of the regular season.

“If you’re not in [the Chase] right now, I don’t care if you’re running eighth or you’re running 13th, every team is worried and concerned – not just mine,” said Keselowski.

“I’m not gonna be out of the worried zone unless I make it or it’s over…We’ve tested at the next two tracks [Atlanta and Richmond] and we’re gonna be very competitive. I feel like this is gonna come down to the last lap at Richmond and I’m ready for that battle.”

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Ryan Hunter-Reay

Ryan Hunter-Reay
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MotorSportsTalk continues its look through the Verizon IndyCar Series field. Finishing sixth in 2015 after a late rally was Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2012 series champion and 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner.

Ryan Hunter-Reay, No. 28 Andretti Autosport Honda

  • 2014: 6th Place, 3 Wins, 1 Pole, 6 Podiums, 6 Top-5, 9 Top-10, 195 Laps Led, 10.2 Avg. Start, 10.9 Avg. Finish
  • 2015: 6th Place, 2 Wins, Best Start 3rd, 3 Podiums, 4 Top-5, 7 Top-10, 71 Laps Led, 12.2 Avg. Start, 10.4 Avg. Finish

The old adage “it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish” would probably be the best way to sum up Ryan Hunter-Reay’s 2015 season, which until the final quarter of season could best be described as a forgettable nightmare.

The first three races seemed somewhat OK, with eighth, seventh and fourth place grid spots. But none of the three produced a result of note; Hunter-Reay was also caught up in the three-car, late race accident at NOLA Motorsports Park and didn’t bank any good finish until a fifth place at Barber the end of April.

A tailspin followed. Hunter-Reay started between 14th and 21st every race between the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and Milwaukee – a stretch of eight races – and only had one top-10 finish in that stint, eighth at the rain-affected lottery that was Detroit race two. Some seasons are just ones you want to end and by Milwaukee it was obvious that Hunter-Reay was racing just to get to the end of the year, without things getting any worse.

Things finally came good with a typically good drive at Iowa and arguably one of the drives of his career, two races later at Pocono, to end with two wins and extend his streak of winning a race in each of his six seasons at Andretti Autosport. It was no coincidence, either, that Hunter-Reay’s uptick in form came with the return of the late Justin Wilson’s presence in a fourth car.

After Pocono, Hunter-Reay also drove well to finish second at Sonoma, and by that point he’d completed an incredible late-season turnaround to jump from 14th to sixth in points. But if asked, he’d probably admit this was his toughest season yet at Andretti and arguably his toughest overall since his 2009 season, when he was in-between full-time rides and saw out the year with Vision Racing and A.J. Foyt Enterprises.

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Helio Castroneves

Helio Castroneves
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MotorSportsTalk continues its look through the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series field with fifth-placed Helio Castroneves.

Helio Castroneves, No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet

  • 2014: 2nd Place, 1 Win, 3 Poles, 6 Podiums, 7 Top-5, 10 Top-10, 282 Laps Led, 5.7 Avg. Start, 9.3 Avg. Finish
  • 2015: 5th Place, Best Finish 2nd, 4 Poles, 5 Podiums, 6 Top-5, 9 Top-10, 198 Laps Led, 4.9 Avg. Start, 9.3 Avg. Finish

Much as you’d write about his fellow countryman and longtime friend and rival Tony Kanaan, age hasn’t slowed Helio Castroneves, but it’s instead fueled continued success. And while Castroneves went winless for only the second time (2011) in his illustrious 16-year career with Team Penske, he wasn’t down on performance.

Now 40, Castroneves continued to have several shining moments in 2015, which was particularly important to do to stand out against defending champion Will Power, this year’s primary title contender Juan Pablo Montoya and new driver Simon Pagenaud.

Castroneves scored four pole positions and boasted a 4.9 averaging starting position, second in the field to Power, which was very impressive to note. His run of form from Texas through Milwaukee, capturing three podiums in four races, was his best race stretch this season. Additional highlights included back-to-back runner-up results in the NOLA lottery and then on pure pace at Long Beach.

The month of May must though be viewed as a disappointment. Castroneves played a role in the first corner mess at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and got a points penalty (although the number was dropped) as a result. Then he endured another Indianapolis 500 where he was not the out-and-out fastest car in the Penske brigade. While Montoya and Power were dueling for the win and Pagenaud had speed to burn all month, Castroneves’ lone moment of note came with his accident in practice, which mercifully he emerged unscathed from.

As ever though, fifth in this field owed to his consistency and dogged determination to succeed. Castroneves has ended top-five in seven of the last eight seasons since the IRL/Champ Car merger in 2008 and if it wasn’t for Dixon’s top-three run hogging the headlines, we’d probably appreciate Castroneves even more so. As long as he’s continually competitive, he’s still worthy at Team Penske.