Keselowski sees a chink in Johnson’s armor

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Shortly after his driver, Jimmie Johnson, won last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway, crew chief Chad Knaus said that Matt Kenseth – Johnson’s main rival for this year’s Sprint Cup championship – was a “more formidable” opponent than Brad Keselowski, who bested Johnson for the title last year.

For better or worse, Keselowski tends to be outspoken, so you had to believe the Penske Racing driver was going to respond to that. On Thursday, he did.

“It’s just one of those situations where it’s hard to really define what he was trying to say,” Keselowski said according to Bob Pockrass of The Sporting News. “I said I would give him the benefit of the doubt but that doesn’t mean I’m not listening…Maybe the emphasis should be put on respecting what Matt has done, not necessarily on disrespecting where I’m at.”

According to Pockrass, he then gave Kenseth a tip going into the resumption of his championship battle with Johnson this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway: Be aggressive and battle the No. 48 at every opportunity.

“That was one of our strengths last year [at Phoenix],” said Keselowski, who took the points lead at PIR last fall when Johnson blew out a tire and hit the wall late. “If I were going to give Matt a piece of advice, I’d say use the [expletive] out of him every time you get. Run him hard because that’s his weakness.”

For Johnson’s part, he admitted today at PIR that Keselowski and his No. 2 Penske team “were better than us for sure” last fall, but firmly disagreed with the assertion that he can’t handle on-track pressure.

“I guess we need to ask Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Denny Hamlin – who else have I raced for a championship? – Carl Edwards, a lot of those guys how we race,” he said. “We race hard. That is not a weakness of ours by any stretch.”

I have to agree with Johnson. From my perspective, Keselowski’s comments were made out of defending his accomplishment last year and to be fair, winning a Sprint Cup – and doing so over one of the most dominant drivers in the sport’s history, no less – is a big accomplishment. Maybe I’d bristle a little too if I were in his shoes and Knaus’ words hit my ears.

But you don’t win five Cup championships like Johnson has without having to go through some close battles on the track. After all, it’s not every day that you flat-out dust everybody like he did one week ago at Texas. That’s not the norm.

And the matter’s not for Johnson to worry about anyway. He’s got bigger things to deal with this weekend – like figuring out how to keep Kenseth in his rear view mirror.

NHRA shocker: Englishtown ceases drag racing operations, including NHRA Summernationals, effective immediately

Photo courtesy NHRA
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If put in baseball terms, Wednesday morning’s news from the NHRA is comparable to Yankee Stadium closing down for good.

One of the most popular and longest-running race tracks on the NHRA national event circuit — Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, New Jersey — announced in a statement that “it will no longer host any drag racing events at its facility, effective immediately. This includes the 49th Annual NHRA Summernationals, scheduled to take place this June.”

This is massive — and terrible news — for NHRA fans, particularly those on the East Coast, as the track more commonly known simply as “Englishtown” has long been a destination point for fans in the New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland area for decades. That not only includes NHRA national events, but also local bracket racing at the track.

Few details on the decision to stop all drag racing events are known. However, the track has long struggled being landlocked and unable to expand its runoff area for cars that have problems stopping under their own power. That is especially problematic for Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars, which are the most powerful cars in the sport and, due to the 10,000 horsepower they produce, often need longer stopping distances.

NHRA Funny Car driver Scott Kalitta was killed in a crash at Old Bridge Raceway on June 21, 2008, when his car was unable to stop in the runoff area and collided with a portable crane past the runoff area.

NHRA spokesperson Jessica Hatcher told NBC Sports in an email Wednesday morning that the sanctioning body will not look to find a replacement venue for Englishtown on the 2018 racing schedule.

As a result, the 2018 Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule will shrink from 24 to 23 going forward with Englishtown’s departure.

” ‘Stunned’ is the perfect word to describe how we are all feeling right now,” Hatcher said. “For 2018, we are focusing on the remaining 23 events and do not foresee any additional changes to the schedule.”

New NHRA president Glen Cromwell said in a media release, “NHRA drag racing events have been held at the track in Englishtown for almost 50 years. The Summernationals have played an important part of our heritage and we hope that fans in the area will try to make it to another of our events.

“Our focus remains on making the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series a memorable experience for our fans, racers, sponsors, partners and tracks.”

The nearest venues to Englishtown that will host NHRA events this season are Maple Grove Raceway outside Reading, Pennsylvania (105 miles west of Englishtown) and New England Dragway in Epping, New Hampshire (310 miles northeast).

The Napp family, which owns Old Bridge Township Raceway Park, issued a statement that the facility will remain open and continue business as usual going forward — with the exception of eliminating all drag racing events, both national and local.

“Old Bridge Township Raceway Park, the Napp family owned and operated business announced today a reorganization of the company’s business operations,” the statement said. “To achieve this goal, Raceway Park will no longer conduct quarter mile or eighth mile drag racing events effective immediately.

“Raceway Park will retain and use the ‘stadium’ portion of the facility including the VIP hospitality tower and grandstands and continue most of its operations including the spring and fall auto swap meets, numerous car shows, both motocross racing and practice, kart racing, as well as drifting, a full schedule of road course activities, mud runs, monster truck shows, musical concerts, & festival events and more. The long standing Old Bridge Township Airport, owned and operated by Raceway Park will also continue to operate as normal.”

From a driver’s perspective, veteran NHRA racer Shawn Langdon, who is switching from a long career in Top Fuel to Funny Car this season for Kalitta Motorsports, won in Top Fuel at Englishtown in 2013 and laments the decision to drop drag racing there.

“It really caught me by surprise because I had not heard a thing about that,” Langdon said. “It’s unfortunate because that place has such rich history and so many great things have come out of that race in the past. It was a track that meant a lot to the Kalitta family and with Scott. They always wanted to win one for Scott. We’d have loved to have the opportunity to go back to the track and win that race for Scott.”