Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth

Chase duel between Johnson, Kenseth continues at Phoenix

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Today, the weekend at Phoenix International Raceway begins for the Sprint Cup contingent, and that means the resumption of what has been a superb championship battle between Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth (pictured).

As I’ve mentioned this week, unless something completely out of the norm occurs, the Cup is coming down to these two men. And while anything can happen in racing, Johnson and Kenseth have been so consistent during this year’s Chase that it’s hard to imagine seeing one or both of them find trouble this Sunday at PIR.

But again, anything can happen. Just ask Johnson, who saw his seven-point lead over Brad Keselowski disappear last fall at PIR when he blew a tire and hit the wall with 77 laps remaining. Keselowski finished sixth, took a 20-point edge over Johnson, and went on to his first Cup championship in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

This weekend, Johnson holds, again, a seven-point lead over Kenseth after winning at Texas Motor Speedway last Sunday. But while Johnson has had success at PIR (four wins, 13 Top-5s in 20 starts), Kenseth has risen to the challenge time and again this post-season, putting up great results at places you wouldn’t expect like New Hampshire (win) and Martinsville (second).

With that in mind, the fact that Kenseth hasn’t won at PIR since 2002 means nothing. It would be no surprise to see him break that drought this weekend and set up a dramatic conclusion to the Chase in South Florida.

“Phoenix was my first down force race with this group and I thought we ran really well earlier this season,” he said this week, referring to a seventh-place finish he had at PIR in the spring. “…I’m really looking forward to getting back to Phoenix, especially after our success and Loudon and Martinsville this season, and I think that hopefully it will be a good track for us.

“The short flat tracks have been good to us this year and I’m hoping that they continue to be as we look ahead to this weekend.”

As for the potential spoilers outside Johnson and Kenseth, that list has to be topped by Kevin Harvick, who can definitely be in the mix for a win this Sunday; he’s triumphed three times at PIR, including last fall, an accomplishment overshadowed by the post-race antics between Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon.

Harvick is still alive in the championship, sitting third at 40 points behind Johnson. But at this point, it goes without saying that he’s going to need to win and also have Johnson and Kenseth falter somehow.

Don’t forget about Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Denny Hamlin, either. Edwards held off Johnson to win at PIR this past spring so he should be up for a good run. Earnhardt logged a Top-5 at PIR in March, and has been getting very close to a win lately. As for Hamlin, he has notched a win, a second, and a third in his last three PIR starts.

Today will see the Cup teams do a sole practice session (1:35-3:30 p.m. ET) before going into qualifying at 5:40 p.m. ET. Saturday will feature two practice sessions before Sunday’s Advocare 500 (312 laps, 312 miles), which should take the green flag around 3 p.m. ET that day.

Zach Veach confirmed with Belardi to start 2016 Indy Lights season

Photo: Belardi Auto Racing
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Two-year Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires series veteran Zach Veach will return to the series in 2016 following a year’s hiatus. At the moment, it’s for the start of the season only but with the intended plan of making it a full-season effort.

The young American joins the Belardi Auto Racing team, which he narrowly lost out to in his last full-time campaign in 2014 when he finished third in the points.

Veach, who turns 21 next month, is Brian Belardi’s first confirmed driver for the 2016 season. Perhaps one of the single most experienced drivers in the Mazda Road to Indy, Veach has been on all three rungs (Indy Lights, Pro Mazda, USF2000) since 2010 and spent 2015 as a color commentator for the IndyCar Radio Network.

He tested for the team last month at Sebring, and will have several other tests before the St. Petersburg season opening weekend March 11-13.

“I’m very thankful for this opportunity that Brian Belardi has given me,” Veach said. “After racing against his team for so many years, I’ve always had a ton of respect for him, his crew, and of course, his cars. Belardi Auto Racing competes to win championships and I would love to give them their second Indy Lights title.

“Right now, we only have a partial program in place, but with a great amount of effort on both sides. We will be doing everything possible to try to get funding together for an entire season, so we can put a championship fight in place. I look towards winter testing, and 2016, with a lot of hope and excitement.”

“We’re really happy to have Zach confirmed with us for next year, and we’ll work closely with him to make sure that we can get the funding we need to run him all season,” Belardi added.

“He’s a supreme talent both in and out of the car, and his initial test outings in the car were just as we expected.  Zach was on-pace very early in Sebring after familiarizing himself with the new Indy Lights car, and I know that we’ll challenge for race wins and the championship next year.”

ARCA releases 2016 schedule; Mobile out, Madison (Wisc.) returns

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The ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards will have only minor changes to the 2016 season, the sanctioning body said Wednesday after revealing next season’s schedule.

The biggest change is Mobile, Alabama is off the schedule, to be replaced by a return to Madison, Wisconsin.

As ARCA enters its 64th consecutive year of racing, the schedule will once again feature 20 races for the third consecutive year, starting at Daytona International Speedway on February 13 and ending on Oct. 14 at Kansas Speedway.

ARCA 2016 sked



All told, there will be nine races on short tracks, eight on superspeedways, two on dirt and one on a road course.

“We are pleased to announce our full and complete schedule,” ARCA President Ron Drager said. “We feel we have once again put together a schedule that highlights the diversity of the ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards. We are excited for the start of the new season.”

Other changes include:

* The annual Chicagoland Speedway race will be moved to Thursday night, Sept. 15, kicking off the opening weekend of NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.

* The road course race at New Jersey will be moved to Saturday, May 28, rather than its previous Sunday afternoon date.

* The annual dirt race at DuQuoin State Fairgrounds in Illinois will shift from an afternoon to an evening race.

* The series will mark milestone events with the 75th series event at Toledo Speedway and the 99th and 100th races at southern Indiana’s Salem Speedway.

* The series will have companion races with all three of NASCAR’s pro touring series, as well as one weekend as the undercard for the Verizon IndyCar Series race at Iowa Speedway in July.

* As for the return to Madison, Drager said, “It was important for us to schedule a race in the Menards market. Last year, we did not have a race in either Minnesota or Wisconsin and this year, we decided to go back. We are definitely looking forward to racing again at Madison and the upper Midwest.”

* The annual awards banquet takes place Dec. 12 in Indianapolis.

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Ecclestone has ‘no doubts’ Monza will remain on F1 calendar

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MILAN (AP) Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone is confident the Italian Grand Prix in Monza can find the needed cash to stay on the calendar.

Ecclestone tells the Gazzetta dello Sport, “We will find the right solution – I no longer have doubts – to provide a future for the Italian GP.”

No circuit has hosted more F1 racing than Monza, but officials at the track outside Milan have had trouble producing the estimated 25 million euros ($26.6 million) per year that Ecclestone seeks to keep the race in place after the current contract expires next year.

Ecclstone says, “Things have been cleared up and there is only one go between, (Angelo) Sticchi Damiani, the president of the Italian Automobile Club.”

The Italian GP next year is scheduled for Sept. 4.

Alternative engine solution rejected by F1 Commission

Nico Rosberg

Plans to introduce a new alternative, cheaper engine into Formula 1 for 2017 – hypothetically a 2.2-liter V6 similar to what is seen in IndyCar – will at least temporarily go on the backburner.

The F1 Commission has rejected the so called “alternative engine solution,” where several companies submitted proposals to be that alternative supplier.

“The F1 Commission voted not to pursue this option at this stage — however, it may be reassessed after the Power Unit manufacturers have presented their proposal to the Strategy Group,” the FIA said on Wednesday.

“The parties involved have agreed on a course to address several key areas relating to Power Unit supply in Formula One,” the statement added.

Meanwhile the statement outlined four things the current manufacturers – Mercedes, Ferrari, Renault and Honda – would be tasked with improving on the current 1.6-liter formula:

Those are:

  • a guarantee of supply to teams
  • the need to reduce the engines’ cost
  • simplification of the specification
  • “improved noise”

Further meetings between the manufacturers and the governing body are scheduled, including one this weekend at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix season finale.

As F1 heads into the final weekend of the season, political/paddock items such as Red Bull and Toro Rosso’s respective power unit futures, whether Renault’s takeover of Lotus will finally become official and what will happen with Manor’s team leadership stake – this marks Graeme Lowdon and John Booth’s final weekends although ex-McLaren man Dave Ryan has been hired as the team’s new racing director – are among the talking points.