Aric Almirola

Talladega Update: Johnson, Kenseth, Dale Jr. mixing it up

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As expected, the field has been constantly fluctuating today at Talladega Superspeedway in the Camping World RV Sales 500 – the sixth race of the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup.

With the field lined up by first practice speeds after the rainout of qualifying on Saturday afternoon, Aric Almirola and Jeff Burton led the grid to the green flag at NASCAR’s biggest track under sunny skies.

On Lap 3, the first caution of the day emerged as Tony Raines suffered an engine problem. Many drivers – including Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer – came down to pit road under the yellow to top off on fuel and make small adjustments to their cars.

The green came back out at Lap 8 with Almirola and Burton still leading the way. Burton’s train of cars on the high line propelled him to the lead shortly afterwards, with Chase leader Matt Kenseth following Burton into second position.

On Lap 11, the high line re-emerged for Kenseth, and with help from Kurt Busch and his Wonder Bread-themed homage to Talladega Nights, he pulled ahead of Burton on the low line for the point.

Greg Biffle and Joey Logano then rose up to mount a challenge against Kenseth as the race crossed the 25-lap mark. The leaders then settled into a single-file formation with two-lane racing continuing on toward the middle and rear of the pack.

Green flag stops began at Lap 41, with Kenseth abandoning the lead for service one lap later; Jimmie Johnson, one of Kenseth’s main rivals in the Chase, also pitted at Lap 42.

During the cycle, Kyle Busch was unable to cross over toward his pit box thanks to Jamie McMurray, forcing him to come back again to make his stop. Additionally, last week’s winner, Brad Keselowski, was hit with a drive-thru penalty for speeding on pit road.

When the cycle ended, the order shook out with Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. duking it out for the lead before Johnson assumed control and Earnhardt fell back slightly to around fourth.

On Lap 53, Denny Hamlin then took a brief turn at the front, with Johnson coming back to P1 on the next go-round. Earnhardt and Kenseth then came back to fight the No. 48.

The pack swallowed up Keselowski and put him a lap down at Lap 62. At this point, Johnson had fallen back and Kenseth had assumed the lead on the high line. He would then drop to the low line by Lap 65 to hold back Johnson and Denny Hamlin, while Earnhardt became the new lead car up top.

Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne were the next ones to fall one lap down around Lap 67, but with Hamlin directly behind him, Busch settled in as he tried to become the potential beneficiary for the free pass.

Shortly afterwards, Kenseth got hung out on the high line and fell out of the Top 10, allowing Johnson to take control. Once again, the leaders went into single-file formation ahead of another wave of stops.

Kenseth was able to cut his way back to the lead on the low line and was able to catch the draft from Johnson to return to the Top 5 close to Lap 80. On Lap 78, the long green-flag run ended with a multi-car incident on the frontstretch as Marcos Ambrose lost control of his car while moving to the high line and then skidded down the track and into the side of Juan Pablo Montoya.

With Kyle Busch earning the free pass as a result, the pits opened for the leaders. Earnhardt led the pack into pit road, but came out behind Johnson and Kenseth, who, like Earnhardt, took two tires.

The green came back out at Lap 84, and Earnhardt quickly stuck his nose to Johnson’s bumper, pushing him past Kenseth for the lead. But Kenseth would not go away and used the high line to pass Johnson back before dropping low to clear him.

He wouldn’t hold that lead for long as Johnson and Earnhardt teamed up yet again to pull ahead on the inside line by Lap 88. The two were still up toward the front at the halfway point, but Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola were starting to make noise against them on the inside…

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.