History 300

A winless champion could be trouble for NASCAR Nationwide Series


The good news: a NASCAR Nationwide Series regular will win the 2013 series championship this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The bad news: the potential exists that champion could finish the 2013 season winless.

So long as Austin Dillon finishes ahead of Sam Hornish Jr. – the Richard Childress Racing prodigy leads Penske Racing’s Hornish by eight points entering Saturday’s Ford Ecoboost 300 – and doesn’t win, he’ll be the champion. To Dillon’s credit, that would give him titles in both Nationwide and the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series (2011).

NASCAR can spin it all it wants, as in “Dillon’s incredible consistency carried him to the title” or some such. But a winless champion would be the first all-time in any of NASCAR’s three top tiers, and a potential nightmare scenario from a marketing or PR standpoint.

After all, the Chase for the Sprint Cup was introduced a year after Matt Kenseth won a solitary race in 2003, building his lone title triumph on consistency rather than race wins and dominance.

Nationwide has, for better or worse, traditionally allowed the influx of Sprint Cup regulars to compete in its races. And while Cup drivers can’t register driver points, they can play major dividends in both the driver and owner championships.

The dominant teams entering this weekend are the No. 22 Penske Racing Ford and the No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota teams; Penske lead JGR by 4 owner points, 1256-1252. Both teams have 12 wins; Busch has all 12 for the 54 while four different drivers (Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, AJ Allmendinger, Ryan Blaney) have won in the 22. That’s a full 24 of 32 races thus far won by just these two cars (75 percent), and in total, 27 of 32 won by Cup regulars. Dillon’s and Hornish’s teams rank only third and fourth in the owner points, by contrast.

That’s a majority of the races where the 54 and the 22 have received the most ink, the most press, and the most coverage, instead of the series’ actual full-timers.

Knowing and learning how to win races should be part of a training ground, and so long as the Cup regulars continue to dominate the scoreboard, it’s always going to be difficult for Nationwide drivers to gain that skill before moving up.

Perhaps a “maximum race cap” gets introduced for Cup regulars, or the schedule itself designates only a certain number of races where Cup regulars will be eligible. That’s a topic for another day, though.

Still, it’s no coincidence that some of the most intriguing Nationwide races this year – Iowa and the road courses at Road America and Mid-Ohio, for instance – have featured less than a full handful of Cup regulars in the field. And all three were won by drivers not competing in Cup full-time.

You could properly see how well Dillon and Hornish fared against their Nationwide peers in those races compared to the majority, populated by Cup regulars, where all they really needed to do was finish “best in class” to keep building the points.

Hornish has finished second five times this year, and third four times. Of those nine races, the No. 22 Penske Racing Ford driven by Keselowski, Logano or Allmendinger has won five of them (Hornish finished second to the No. 22 three times, third twice). He finished best in class, but you could argue he left points on the table in ending behind the team car. Indeed, it’s more than 20 points that have gone begging as a result, and right now, those points would be pretty valuable heading into Homestead.

Sponsorship is the main reason Hornish doesn’t have a 2014 contract in place, although he plans to remain in NASCAR. But those missed winning opportunities have to loom large to potential suitors.

Perhaps Hornish overcomes the deficit this Saturday, and a win with Dillon outside the top five would do just that. For his and the series’ sake, it would be welcomed, to give him his second win of 2013. Or, Dillon could reduce the potential angst of a winless champ with a win of his own.

Either way, game on this Saturday.

Raikkonen learned “pretty much nothing” in Sochi practice

xxxx during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on October 9, 2015 in Sochi, Russia.
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Kimi Raikkonen made no secret of his frustration following practice for the Russian Grand Prix on Friday after losing the majority of the day’s running at the Sochi Autodrom.

A diesel spill on the track ahead of the first free practice session cost the field 30 minutes of running, while heavy rain made much of FP2 a fruitless exercise.

Speaking after Friday’s sessions, Raikkonen admitted that Ferrari had learned very little due to the conditions, but said that the team will try to make the best of the situation.

“Today the weather conditions were not very nice,” Raikkonen said. “We could not get much running and we learned pretty much nothing.

“The first practice was dry, but at the beginning of the session there was an issue with the tarmac surface and they had to wash it away. So we lost time and when we got to the track some parts were still wet.

“In the second session, the weather turned out to be a bit tricky and it rained most of the time. It’s one of those days you do absolutely nothing but that’s how it goes.

“It was not ideal today but it was the same for everybody. Hopefully tomorrow it will be dry, and we’ll see how the tires work. We’ll do our normal program and try to make the best out of it.”

Teammate Sebastian Vettel finished third in FP1 and second in FP2, but thinks he may struggle to find any rhythm ahead of qualifying on Saturday after losing most of today’s running.

“Today we did learn a few things, but nothing that we can really use for the weekend,” Vettel said. “The first impression of the car is good, but I can’t really say a lot more as we really didn’t get enough track action today.

“This morning we couldn’t drive much as some of the corners were covered with diesel fuel, and it took a while to clean it all up. In the afternoon it started raining, but tomorrow and Sunday it is supposed to be dry!

“In general, it won’t be easy to get into the right rhythm, as the track tomorrow will feel the same like yesterday – that is, green and with poor grip. Usually, you use the Friday to lay some rubber down, but that was not possible today.”

The Russian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and Live Extra this weekend. For full broadcast details, click here.

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Carlos Munoz

Carlos Munoz
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MotorSportsTalk continues its run through the driver-by-driver roster in this year’s Verizon IndyCar Series. Next up in 13th is Carlos Munoz, who fell back to earth a bit after winning Indianapolis 500, then series rookie-of-the-year honors in consecutive years.

Carlos Munoz, No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda

  • 2014: 8th Place, Best Finish 3rd, Best Start 3rd, 3 Podiums, 5 Top-5, 8 Top-10, 0 Laps Led, 10.5 Avg. Start, 12.6 Avg. Finish
  • 2015: 13th Place, 1 Win, Best Start 4th, 1 Podium, 3 Top-5, 7 Top-10, 25 Laps Led, 14.0 Avg. Start, 12.1 Avg. Finish

Munoz fell down to earth a little bit in his second full season in IndyCar, albeit not as badly as fellow 2014 rookie Jack Hawksworth, who’d switched teams and had a myriad of issues throughout the season. He won his first race in the rain at Detroit race one, which was well judged, but there were precious other highlights from the driver who has showcased “wow” potential in the past.

His qualifying fell off year-to-year and that was probably the single thing to pinpoint as to why the decline occurred, falling from eighth to 13th in points. What had been a 10.5 average in 2014 fell to 14th this year, and behind teammates Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay.

Ovals seemed his strongest type of circuit this year on the whole. Like teammate Justin Wilson, he’d been in position to score what would have been his third straight Indianapolis 500 top-five finish if a late splash of fuel wasn’t needed. Sixth at Texas from fourth on the grid marked his best overall weekend of the year, and fifth at Iowa and Pocono were also fairly good results.

But whereas Munoz picked his spots well last year and delivered a handful of podiums, his Detroit win marked his only podium visit this year. He didn’t really make much of an impression and was more anonymous than not over the course of the year. His future with Andretti is uncertain for 2016.