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…

F1 2017 driver review: Lance Stroll

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Team: Williams

Car No.: 18
Races: 20
Wins: 0
Podiums: 1
Best Finish: P3 (Azerbaijan)
Pole Positions: 0
Fastest Laps: 0
Points: 40
Championship Position: 13th

Lance Stroll’s arrival in Formula 1 at the start of the 2017 was a far from smooth one despite a significant private testing program being undertaken in the months leading up to his grand prix debut.

Even with older hand Felipe Massa at Williams, Stroll looked uneasy behind the wheel of the FW40 car through the opening run of races as he failed to reach the checkered flag in any of his first three starts.

The Canadian was left deflated after his first decent effort in Bahrain was cut short after a clash with Carlos Sainz Jr., calling it his “rock bottom” moment – but things would turn around on home soil.

Stroll produced a stunning fight through the field to take an excellent P9 in Canada, proving his talent seen in Formula 3 the previous year and shushing many of his critics.

Better would follow two weeks later in Baku when Stroll became the youngest rookie in F1 history to score a podium, dodging a crazy race to finish third. It would have been second had he not lost a drag race against Valtteri Bottas to the line.

Stroll’s form then fluctuated greatly. He was sublime on occasion, the best examples being Monza, when he started a remarkable P2 on the grid and ended as the top midfielder in P7, or Mexico where he took a brilliant sixth.

But there were too many weekends he was a little anonymous. Sure, Williams didn’t have the best car this year, but perhaps a little better was expected from Stroll.

2018 will be an even bigger challenge as he looks to the lead the team when a new teammate arrives – and at only 19, it is a lot to handle. Nevertheless, there are positive signs to be found; you just need to look for them a little.

Season High: Taking a shock podium in Baku after dodging chaos in front.

Season Low: A poor opening two races in Australia and China.