AAA Texas 500 - Practice

As Phoenix beckons, the Chase is now a two-horse race

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Barring some cataclysmic occurrence over the final two races of the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup, either Jimmie Johnson or Matt Kenseth will soon be adding another championship to their trophy cases.

Johnson’s commanding victory in today’s AAA Texas 500 and Kenseth’s fourth-place result would appear to have effectively finished off the hopes of Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon.

Harvick ran a quiet eighth – not nearly enough to do any damage against the top two contenders. Kyle Busch had a chance to win until a late-race penalty for speeding on pit road knocked him out of at least a Top-5 and sent him to a final outcome of 13th place.

Then there was Gordon, who suffered a tire failure and slammed the wall on Lap 74, effectively taking him out of the title conversation after he had just gotten back into it with his win one week ago at Martinsville. He would return to action late in the running, and finished 38th.

Harvick remains third in the standings, but is now 40 points behind Johnson, the new leader of the championship by seven points over Kenseth. Kyle Busch is now fourth at 52 points back, while Gordon tumbled all the way to sixth at 69 points back.

There’s no doubt now. With Phoenix International Raceway coming up next weekend and the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway just two weeks out, the Chase has, for all intents and purposes, come down to two combatants.

Last week, Johnson dubbed his duel with Kenseth and, then, Gordon as a “dogfight.” Today, he likened the championship to a cage match after beating the Texas field black and blue.

“I’ve been watching a lot of MMA fighting lately, and you’ll fall into a rhythm and think somebody’s got the fight won – and it doesn’t end that way,” Johnson said. “That’s how this is gonna be. Matt didn’t have the best day and he still finished fourth…This thing is going to go to the last lap at Homestead, and it’s going to come down to mistakes.

“I’m very excited about our performance and what we did here, and we’ll enjoy this. But there’s still two weeks of very hard racing left ahead of us.”

Kenseth almost made a critical mistake this afternoon, when he was penalized for a pit road speeding penalty around the race’s midway point. But he had plenty of time to make up for the gaffe and he just about did the job.

With his rally to fourth over the second half of the race, Kenseth made sure that the big punch Johnson threw today wasn’t a knockout. Now comes Phoenix, a place where both of them were competitive back in the spring (Johnson finished second to Carl Edwards, while Kenseth finished seventh).

“I thought overall, tonight was a pretty good night,” Kenseth said of his work today. “If I wouldn’t have messed up, maybe we could have ran second. We’ll just go there, hope we have the car to win, be aggressive, race hard, and hope we can get the finish.”

Two races. Two drivers. And stock car racing’s ultimate prize, hanging in the balance.

This is going to be fun.

Graham Rahal visits the Honda Classic (PHOTOS)

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Rahal for the putt. Photo courtesy Honda Racing
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In the buildup to the Verizon IndyCar Series’ season opener at St. Petersburg on March 12, a number of drivers are visiting other sporting events of note.

Graham Rahal has been one of the busiest. The driver of the No. 15 Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing made a pit stop at the Bridgestone Winter Classic in January and this week has been out to the Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

Anyway, 28-year-old Rahal is an avid PGA Tour follower and fan and when time allows, brushes off his own set of clubs for the event’s Honda Classic Cares Pro Am presented by Tire Kingdom. He’s also used golf as a fundraiser; he’s raised over $300,000 to benefit children’s charities (with the golf tournament he did around the Indy 500).

Rahal, who won the Pro Am twice in 2011 and 2012 and came second the next year with motorsports fan Rickie Fowler, himself one of the young stars on the PGA Tour, was only able to get in four holes this week owing to poor weather. But with a new putter that’s the same model as the one used by recent world number one player Jason Day, Rahal sank a rather impressive 40-foot putt. Rahal was playing in a group with Smylie Kaufman, and credited him for the advice.

A handful of photos from the event are below (courtesy Honda Racing):

Rahal with Rickie Fowler.
Rahal with Rickie Fowler.
Rahal with Smylie Kaufman.
Rahal with Smylie Kaufman.
Rahal with Daniel Berger, golfer and car enthusiast.
Rahal with Daniel Berger, golfer and car enthusiast.
Rahal with Emma Talley, LPGA Tour rising star and Crimson Tide alumna.
Rahal with Emma Talley, LPGA Tour rising star and Crimson Tide alumna.
Rahal tees off.
Rahal tees off.
Rahal with Shane and Wyatt Vince.
Rahal with Shane and Wyatt Vince.

Shell, Penske extension sees Shell back for Castroneves at Indy 500

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 18:  Helio Castroneves of Brazil, driver of the #3 Shell V-Power/Penzoil Ultra Team Penske Chevrolet, poses after qualifying for the 2013 Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 18, 2013 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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With Shell and Pennzoil having had a longterm business relationship with Team Penske, today’s long-term extension through 2022 and beyond also means Shell’s relationship on Penske’s Verizon IndyCar Series program continues.

Helio Castroneves’s No. 3 Chevrolet will be adorned in Shell V-Power NiTRO+ colors at the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil on May 28, with Shell and Pennzoil continuing as associate sponsors on all Team Penske cars in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and IndyCar.

Castroneves’ car has had either Shell or Pennzoil on his car each of the last six Indianapolis 500s dating to 2011, but has not yet won an Indianapolis 500 with Shell or Pennzoil as the primary sponsor. The Rick Mears tribute “Yelio Submarine” ran in both 2014 and 2016, with the 2014 race a particularly tough loss as Castroneves came second by a fraction to Ryan Hunter-Reay.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 17: Helio Castroneves appears at a Shell station on May 17, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images for MATTER)
INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 17: Helio Castroneves appears at a Shell station on May 17, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images for MATTER)

Castroneves has had Shell V-Power for the Indianapolis 500 in 2011, Shell V-Power/Pennzoil Ultra in 2012 and 2013 and Shell V-Power Nitro+ in 2015.

In those six races, Castroneves has finished 17th, 10th, sixth, second, seventh and 11th.

“It’s an iconic sponsor; a partner actually, to be honest,” Castroneves said during the announcement at Daytona International Speedway for the Daytona 500.

“Since I was a kid in Brazil, watching Formula 1 and IndyCar, now I’m the one to be wearing that patch in my suit.

“I’m really excited to be back for the Indy 500. We’ll be with Shell NiTRO+ V-Power. They’re always innovating and in the technical part.

“We’re going for our fourth win… we’ve been so close. We know we can make it happen. We have the equipment and teammates to make it happen. It’s an amazing organization, and I’m so thankful to be part of it.”

Castroneves is the longest tenured active member of Team Penske’s driver lineup in all its series as he heads into his 18th season with the team and 20th overall since joining IndyCar in 1998.

Full-season teammates are defending champion Simon Pagenaud, 2014 champion Will Power and new recruit Josef Newgarden, with two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Juan Pablo Montoya joining the field in a fifth car for the ‘500.

Commercial partners for Montoya’s car haven’t yet been announced but with Menards (Pagenaud), Verizon (Power) and likely Verizon (Newgarden) for the ‘500, it stands to reason another of Penske’s longterm sponsors will be present for Montoya.

Roger Penske, who turned 80 earlier this week, made a great and key point during the Daytona announcement; he noted that of his 38 sponsors for the race team, he has business relationships with 25 of them.

Sauber confirms Giovinazzi to deputize for Wehrlein at first test

MACAU, MACAO - NOVEMBER 17:  Double R Racing driver Antonio Giovinazzi of Italy in action during the Formula 3 event as part of the 60th Macau Grand Prix on November 17, 2013 in Macau, Macau.  (Photo by Victor Fraile/Getty Images)
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As expected, but not necessarily official until confirmed directly by Sauber F1 Team, Ferrari third driver Antonio Giovinazzi has been confirmed to fill in for Pascal Wehrlein at next week’s first test of the Formula 1 season at Circuit de Catalunya-Barcelona which runs from February 27-March 2. The second test, also in Barcelona, is March 7-10.

Sauber called Wehrlein’s injuries, reported as either neck or back injuries in other outlets, “back problems” and said further information will follow when available.

The team has not, as yet, confirmed its test plan of when Giovinazzi and Marcus Ericsson, who ran the team’s filming day earlier this week, will drive.

“We took the decision that Pascal will not be driving in the first test in Barcelona. We will monitor his medical progress and will then decide on the next steps,” Sauber team principal Monisha Kaltenborn said in a release.

Wehrlein had already confirmed his absence but the team hadn’t, yet. He will be on site though.

“It is a pity that I cannot be in the car during the first test days, but I will be in Barcelona in order to get familiar with the team’s procedures and also to follow the Sauber C36-Ferrari on track,” he said.

Giovinazzi, who made his first test with Ferrari at the tail end of last year, added, “I thank the Sauber F1 Team for making this real, and also Ferrari for allowing me to replace Pascal for test one in Barcelona.”

Williams announces deal with JCB manufacturing

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Photo: Williams Martini Racing
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Construction equipment manufacturer JCB has pegged a deal with Williams Martini Racing, to see the logo on the rear wing endplate of the Williams FW40 chassis, Felipe Massa and Lance Stroll’s helmets, and the full crew uniforms after the British Grand Prix.

Interestingly, the team’s release says this will be the first of “a number” following the signing of Stroll this season.

Company chairman Lord Bamford caught the racing bug in the early 1970s and, according to the team, the JCB Dieselmax car still holds the world diesel land speed record of 350.052mph, more than a decade after it was set on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, USA.

“I am an engineer and a manufacturer and designing and engineering innovative products is at the core of what JCB does,” Bamford said in the release.

“We frequently combine our engineering expertise with some of the best automotive technologies which means our machines are very fuel efficient and intuitive to operate. Our partnership with Williams Martini Racing builds on that innovative and technological link and our company’s long association with motorsport.”