The Year in Motors, Part 2: NASCAR and NHRA

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As the off-season has gone by, MotorSportsTalk has produced multiple season reviews in various racing categories. Today marks the second part of our Year in Motors, and with that, here’s a quick rundown of the NASCAR and NHRA seasons.

NASCAR Sprint Cup

A competitive and sometimes controversial season ended with Jimmie Johnson returning to the top of the Sprint Cup Series. The Hendrick Motorsports driver claimed his sixth Cup championship with a ninth-place finish in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, enabling him to defeat title rival Matt Kenseth by 19 points after their exciting battle throughout the post-season Chase.

The Chase was nearly overshadowed by scandal that took place during the final regular season race of the year in September at Richmond International Raceway. In a bid to help Michael Waltrip Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. make the Chase, Clint Bowyer intentionally spun out in the final laps at RIR and Brian Vickers went to the pits after the race went back to green.

NASCAR ultimately decided MWR had attempted to manipulate the race and came down hard with penalties that knocked Truex out of the post-season. They then opted to add Jeff Gordon, one of the drivers affected by the Richmond incident, into the Chase as a 13th competitor. Eventually, MWR sponsor NAPA decided to leave the sport, which forced the team to relegate their third car to part-time status and caused Truex to find another ride at Furniture Row Racing.

This year was also notable for the debut of the Generation 6 cars, which were designed to improve racing especially on the intermediate tracks. However, while noticeably quicker than their predecessors, many races in 2013 still came down to track position. After a pair of tests at Charlotte this fall, NASCAR has produced a new aero package for the Gen 6 that’s slated to debut this coming March at Phoenix, the first race after the Daytona 500.

NASCAR Nationwide

Austin Dillon and Sam Hornish Jr. took their fight for the championship all the way to the finish at Homestead, but Dillon ultimately won out by a scant margin of three points over the former Indianapolis 500 winner. The triumph served as a prelude to grandfather/car owner Richard Childress’ announcement that Dillon would bring the iconic No. 3 back to Sprint Cup next season for Richard Childress Racing. As for Hornish, he is currently a free agent at this time.

The NNS also had a spirited race for the owner’s championship between Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 54 team and Penske Racing’s No. 22 team. Kyle Busch won 12 races for the No. 54, but Penske’s quartet of Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, A.J. Allmendinger and Ryan Blaney combined for 12 wins of their own – and it was Logano’s sixth-place finish at Homestead that enabled the Penske camp to win that particular title by one point.

Kyle Larson claimed Rookie of the Year honors after starting his NNS campaign with a devastating crash in the season opener at Daytona International Speedway; Larson was sent flying into the catch fence moments after contact was made by Regan Smith and Brad Keselowski while the field scrambled to the checkered flag. Debris from the incident injured more than 30 fans.

NASCAR Camping World Truck

Matt Crafton rode the consistency wave all the way to the CWTS driver’s championship, earning one win and 19 Top-10 finishes across 22 starts. He came up short, however, of giving his ThorSport Racing team the series’ owner’s title after taking late damage at Homestead. That opened the door for Kyle Busch Motorsports to take the owner’s crown after Busch won the race; KBM earned the championship on a tie-breaker with its No. 51 Truck winning seven times in 2013 compared to Crafton’s lone win for the Thorsport No. 88.

Also making a major impact was a bumper crop of young talent. There were five first-time winners in 2013, with Kyle Larson, Darrell Wallace Jr., Jeb Burton, Chase Elliott and Eric Jones all earning their inaugural series wins. And there were other memorable episodes too, from the post-race brouhaha at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park to the first-ever “Mudsummer Classic” on the dirt at Eldora Speedway.

NHRA

The face of the NHRA returned to championship glory in 2013, as John Force claimed his 16th career Funny Car class championship. Also adding another title to their respective mantles were Jeg Coughlin Jr. in Pro Stock (his fifth PS title) and Matt Smith in Pro Stock Motorcycle (his second PSM title). The lone first-time champion was Shawn Langdon, who broke through in Top Fuel after a season that saw him win the NHRA’s signature gathering, the U.S. Nationals.

And in case you missed our first part of the Year in Motors, here’s that as well.

Mercedes, Ferrari go conservative on Austrian GP tire picks

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Pirelli has confirmed all 20 Formula 1 drivers’ tire picks for next weekend’s Austrian Grand Prix at the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg, with most opting to stack up on ultra-softs.

As it does for every grand prix, Pirelli will bring three compounds to Austria next week, electing for the softest possible combination of ultra-soft, super-soft and soft tires.

In the regular pre-race release of each driver’s tire picks, Pirelli revealed that Force India, McLaren and Red Bull have gone down the most aggressive routes, stacking up on the ultra-soft tire.

Title contenders Mercedes and Ferrari have gone down a more conservative route, favoring additional sets of the super-soft compound.

Ferrari drivers Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen will take seven sets of ultra-softs to Spielberg, while Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas will have eight sets at their disposal through the weekend.

Graham Rahal survives Road America to finish eighth

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Graham Rahal and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing faced a roller coaster of a race during the Kohler Grand Prix at Road America on Sunday.

He was a rocket off the initial start, jumping from sixth on the grid up to fourth exiting turn 1, but was almost immediately ordered to surrender a position for blocking. He quickly slipped back to sixth, and then began plummeting down the order as he battled an oversteer condition that saw his car chew through its rear tires more quickly than others.

Forced to abandon the planned three-stop strategy, he and the No. 15 Gehl Honda team switched to a four-stop plan that saw him drop well outside the top ten at times.

However, they kept plugging away and rebounded nicely in the second half of the race to eventually finish in eighth. While he would have liked to finish higher up the order, Rahal knows that he and the team got everything they could out of it.

“The car was a handful today. I knew about five laps in that I didn’t have the pace for a three-stop strategy,” Rahal revealed post-race. “We tried as best we could to work with what we had during the race and overcome it. I would have obviously liked to have finished better, but eighth is about as good as we could do today. We struggled with a very loose race car all weekend and just couldn’t put a dent in the problem. We worked awfully hard but just missed it this weekend.”

The eighth-place finish keeps Rahal in the championship hunt. Rahal now sits seventh in the standings, 11 points behind fifth-place Josef Newgarden and 72 behind championship leader Scott Dixon.

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Ed Jones continues steady run with seventh at Road America

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Dale Coyne Racing’s Ed Jones has made waves in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season with a string of solid performances that belie his rookie status.

And Sunday’s Kohler Grand Prix at Road America was no different.

The 22-year-old battled an oversteering car most of the weekend at Road America, and had to navigate a little carnage late in the race as Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay both fell through the field with front wing problems.

However, Jones weathered all storms to finish an impressive seventh, his fifth finish inside the top 10 this year, and his best finish since his third place at the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade MotorOil.

“It was a really tough race,” Jones said of the effort. “We had a loose car yesterday. It was loose, but fast, for qualifying, and today again the car was really loose. I was hanging on the whole race, but the team had some good pit stops and we were able to move up.

“Obviously, the strategy was pretty similar to everyone else. Everyone was aggressive out there. It was hard racing but we came out with a seventh place and we moved up a little bit in the points.”

The seventh-place run sees Jones maintain his position in the top ten in the championship. He currently sits tenth in the standings, three points ahead of Chip Ganassi Racing’s Max Chilton.

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Vilander replaces Bird at AF Corse for Nurburgring WEC round

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AF Corse has confirmed that Toni Vilander will race the No. 71 Ferrari 488 GTE in next month’s FIA World Endurance Championship round at the Nürburgring in place of Sam Bird, who is tied up with Formula E commitments in New York.

Vilander currently races full-time in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship with Risi Competizione, and appeared at the 24 Hours of Le Mans two weeks ago.

The Finn won the WEC GT drivers’ title in 2014 and last raced full-time in the series in 2015, but will return at the Nürburgring in place of Bird, who confirmed on Monday that he would be prioritizing his Formula E commitments on the July 16 weekend.

Vilander is relishing the opportunity to race alongside Davide Rigon in the No. 71 Ferrari, and is eager to bounce back from an early retirement at Le Mans.

“I’m happy to be able to return to the FIA WEC with the 488 GTE of AF Corse team. This is my chance to cancel the disappointment of the 24 Hours of Le Mans as soon as possible,” Vilander said.

“Car number 71 is in the top places of the championship standings, and I will give all I have to achieve the best possible result at Nürburgring, to help Ferrari in the manufacturers’ championship and Davide Rigon in the drivers’ ranking.”