‘Dega winner McMurray leads wave of non-Chase drivers

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Jamie McMurray, who won today at Talladega Superspeedway, is not among those racing for the championship in this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup. But in a race that was labeled going in as the most critical event for those in post-season contention, McMurray and a group of non-Chase drivers stood up and mixed it up toward the front.

When the checkered flag fell in the Camping World RV Sales 500, six of the Top 10 finishers were not Chasers – McMurray, third-place Ricky Stenhouse Jr., fourth-place Paul Menard, sixth-place David Ragan (the winner this past May at ‘Dega), seventh-place David Gilliland, and eighth-place Martin Truex, Jr.

For rookie driver Stenhouse, today’s race marked the best result so far in his Sprint Cup career and continued what has been a noticeable improvement recently in his No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing team’s competitiveness.

“We struggled throughout the first half of the season, definitely more than I thought we should or definitely more than we wanted to,” he said. “We’ve learned a lot. I think we’re getting better as a team, and I’m learning a little bit more about what we need to do from practice to the race to make our car still fast throughout the race.  It’s been fun the last month or so, and we just need to keep it going.”

Menard was right behind Stenhouse in the final laps after running toward the Top 10 for much of the race. He was hoping a bottom line would eventually materialize to challenge the single-file pack of leaders on the high groove, but it never came through.

“My plan was to wait for somebody else to go to the bottom first and keeping track of where the 20 [Matt Kenseth], the 22 [Joey Logano] and those guys were, and I’d try to pull in front of them when they got to me,” Menard said about his plan.

“I wasn’t going to be the first guy to do that because I’ve done that before and been shuffled out pretty quick.  I was going to wait for somebody else to make the move first and try to piggy-back on.”

The Front Row Motorsports duo of Ragan and Gilliland, who finished first and second respectively at ‘Dega in the spring, weren’t quite able to duplicate their feat this afternoon. But a pair of Top-10s were still good results for the tandem, which will be returning to FRM next season.

Finally, Truex – who has been the subject of recent reports that link him to Furniture Row Racing’s No. 78 machine for next season – was able to pick up his second Top-10 finish in the last five races.

IndyCar 2017 driver review: Ed Carpenter

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MotorSportsTalk continues its annual review of the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers that raced in 2017. The 2017 season behind the wheel was better for Ed Carpenter than either of the last two years, but still wasn’t ideal results-wise in his six oval starts.

Ed Carpenter, No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet

  • 2016: 25th Place (5 Starts), Best Finish 18th, Best Start 5th, 0 Top-5, 0 Top-10, 1 Lap Led, 11.2 Avg. Start, 21.8 Avg. Finish
  • 2017: 22nd Place (6 Starts), Best Finish 7th, Best Start 2nd, 0 Top-5, 1 Top-10, 5 Laps Led, 11.3 Avg. Start, 12.3 Avg. Finish

Ed Carpenter’s 2017 season was largely one of frustration, both behind the wheel and as a team owner.

While a respectable turnaround in results occurred – Carpenter finished between seventh and 12th in five of his six oval races after a nightmare season of ending 18th or worse in each of his 2016 starts – this is still not what he sets out to strive for in the races he does. Lost opportunities loomed larger than any official result he or the Ed Carpenter Racing team achieved.

Carpenter and new teammate JR Hildebrand, in for the departed Josef Newgarden, dominated preseason testing in Phoenix but Hildebrand could only muster third in the race, Carpenter a season-best seventh. Then at Indianapolis, Carpenter (second) and Hildebrand (sixth) flew the flag for Chevrolet in qualifying and practice pace, but they fell to 11th and 16th on race day owing to a front-wing change and late-race penalty for passing before a restart.

Both drivers got collected in incidents at Texas. Hildebrand qualified and finished a season-best second in Iowa but that result came only after the ECR crew rebuilt his car from a crash in practice. Then Carpenter had a practice crash in Pocono and despite a rapid rebuild, they missed the clock to qualify by mere minutes and were unable to do so. Carpenter’s spin on a slick Gateway track at the start of the race sent him over Will Power’s nose assembly in one of the scarier looking incidents of the year, although fortunately he was OK.

In a similar refrain as we often write, it’s not that Carpenter’s lost his ability to drive and he remains one of the series’ savviest and smartest people in the paddock. There have been a lot of extenuating circumstances of late, and it almost felt as though this team had “empty nest” components. Since September, Carpenter has had to secure his team’s future with a move away from its Speedway, Ind. shop, line up Spencer Pigot for a full-time drive replacing Hildebrand in the No. 21 car, find a new road/street course driver in the No. 20 car, and manage both driving and owning himself.