Samuel Deeds 400 At The Brickyard

Brad Keselowski ready to prove 2012 championship was not a fluke

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Brad Keselowski had a memorable season in 2012 and one he’d just as soon forget in 2013.

Such is the unpredictable nature of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing from one season to the next. While he was the talk of the sport after winning the Cup championship in 2012, after a disappointing 2013, Keselowski is bound and determined not to be perpetually known as a one-hit wonder going forward.

As in one-time champion – a.k.a. one and done.

“Not winning the championship is disappointing,” Keselowski said Wednesday during the third day of the four-day NASCAR Media Tour. “That’s my goal, I want to win the championship, I want to win races. If you’re looking at it in a whole season sense, to not win a championship is absolutely disappointing and it should be. And I don’t want anyone working on my team that’s not disappointed when you don’t win a championship.”

Keselowski and Team Penske have made numerous changes to bounce back from 2013 to a more successful 2014. They’ve done a wholesale facelift of the pit crew (only two members remain from 2012’s unit), added an “athletic director” to monitor the workouts of crew members, and have done considerable realignment within the mechanical department to minimize what were far too many broken parts and strategy missteps last season.

“You have to compare your success to your failures and try to understand the difference,” Keselowski said. “There wasn’t one (failure last season), there was a series across the board, and it’s our job to resurrect that and I think the approach has been so to do that.”

The differences between his championship season of 2012 and failing to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup in 2013 are stark.

In bringing Penske his first Cup championship in three decades of trying in 2012, Keselowski won five races, had 13 top five and 23 top 10 finishes in the 36-race schedule.

In 2013, however, he won just one race (and that didn’t come until the 31st event of the season, at Charlotte), had only nine top five and 16 top 10 showings. He also failed to make the Chase and defend his previous year’s title, eventually winding up as the highest finishing driver that didn’t make the Chase (14th place).

Still, that was little consolation to the driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Ford.

“We had situations out of our control that we didn’t execute on,” Keselowski said. “It seemed like at any given point of the year, we were this close, but not there. We had too many mechanical failures, we certainly addressed those. … We had too many issues on pit road and I had too many issues behind the wheel. If we (improve) any one of them, we feel we’re right where we need to be a championship contender.”

Team owner Roger Penske concurs.

“We’ve here to win the championship,” Penske said. “We’ve got some work to do. The competition has never been tougher. Our goal is to be at that head table in Las Vegas in 2014 (at the NASCAR Awards Banquet).

“(Last season was) a big disappointment. We knew we were better than we showed. We didn’t have the reliability with the pit crew, the car and the engine. To me, I think it’s a learning curve, I think it makes (Keselowski) better because he has to come back now and show people it wasn’t just a fluke in 2012.”

With Keselowski and Joey Logano (who finished eighth in the Chase last season when Keselowski faltered) as the team’s two representatives in the Sprint Cup Series and Ryan Blaney running a part-time schedule in the Nationwide Series, youth is definitely being served at Team Penske this season.

“As I look at 2014, consistency and continuity are key from the standpoint of our team,” Penske said. “And when I think of our drivers, I think of youth. You take our two Cup drivers and then you put Ryan Blaney in there and (the average age is) 24 years old. These drivers have the ability to win, they were winners in their series in 2013 and we expect a lot in 2014.”

And right at the top of the list of expecting a lot – especially from himself – is Keselowski.

“Last year, I feel like I ran some of the best races of my life, and in a lot of ways I was a better driver than I was in 2012,” Keselowski said. “But this is not an individual sport. You can very easily argue that the team side carried me for part of 2012, and vice-versa in 2013. It’s a team sport and it’s a collective evolving. It was our responsibility to get it done and we didn’t. But that doesn’t mean we don’t think we can. I think we can.

“It’s a new opportunity. We’re ready to get going here in 2014 and I do think we have a lot of continuity. We think we’re where we need to be to run for another championship. I feel like we’re reloaded.”

McLaren matched best ’16 result at COTA, 40 years to day after Hunt title

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 23: Fernando Alonso of Spain driving the (14) McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team McLaren MP4-31 Honda RA616H Hybrid turbo leads a line of cars including Esteban Gutierrez of Mexico driving the (21) Haas F1 Team Haas-Ferrari VF-16 Ferrari 059/5 turbo on track during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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October 23 is a key day in McLaren F1’s history.

Some 40 years ago, on October 23, 1976, James Hunt scored his dramatic first and only World Championship in the scintillating 1976 season in Fuji, as Niki Lauda retired early while Hunt scored just enough points to usurp “the rat” and win the title. The season, of course, served as the inspiration for Ron Howard’s Rush, which was released in 2013.

October 23, 2016 may go down as the day McLaren began to look like McLaren again in terms of results, as it matched its best result of the season with Fernando Alonso finishing fifth, and Jenson Button in ninth in what may have been his last United States Grand Prix in Austin.

Alonso charged from 12th on the grid up to fifth, with late passes on Felipe Massa and Carlos Sainz Jr. being particularly impressive, while Button made a strong start early from 19th to get near the top 10, and then benefited from other retirements to score points.

It’s tough that a 12-point day is considered a high-water mark for McLaren in 2016 terms, but this result in Austin has matched a similar fifth and ninth place for the two drivers in Monaco this year as McLaren’s best points haul of the season.

McLaren sits a clear sixth in the Constructor’s Championship on 74 points for the year. Williams is fifth with 130 while Scuderia Toro Rosso is seventh with 55. By contrast, McLaren only scored 27 points total last year, ending ninth in the Constructor’s Championship.

“It was good and interesting today, I enjoyed it, especially the final part of the race,” Alonso said in the team’s post-race release.

“Carlos [Sainz] was on a different strategy and different tyres to me and Felipe, which allowed us to close the gap.

“Our tires were in better condition than the Toro Rosso’s and we took advantage of that. The last couple of laps were very intense, as we had some extra speed so we tried hard to overtake. It was quite easy to overtake the Toro Rosso as they’re slow on the straights, so you just need to open the DRS. I was following Carlos for 45 laps and he drove very well, very consistently, zero mistakes – so we had a great battle.

“To get past the Williams today you needed to overtake them in different places, like tight, slow-speed corners, and quite forcefully, and it was tough but hopefully enjoyable for the fans.

“Our result today is nice for motivation, so I’m happy with fifth, but we gained a couple of positions because of other people going out, and our pace hasn’t been great all weekend here, so we need to understand the reasons for that.”

Button added the start was key for him to get into a points-scoring position.

“I’m pretty happy to get into the points after a frustrating day yesterday,” he said. “The start was a bit of a crazy mess – there was so much action. Starting 19th makes your race a little bit more difficult but I had a good first couple of laps which I really enjoyed. I made up a lot of places and then fought my way into the top 10, and then I fluffed up my second pit-stop a little bit where I lost a place to Checo [Perez], but I think he would have got past me anyway.”

Felipe Massa joins Race of Champions field in Miami

SUZUKA, JAPAN - OCTOBER 06: Felipe Massa of Brazil and Williams walks in the Paddock  during previews ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Japan at Suzuka Circuit on October 6, 2016 in Suzuka.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Although his Formula 1 career will be over in just three more races, Felipe Massa will continue in competition at next January’s Race of Champions held in Miami.

With 11 Grands Prix victories in a nearly 250-start career dating to 2002 (didn’t race in 2003 and was injured second half of 2009), Massa will hang up his helmet at the end of the year.

But the Brazilian joins countryman Tony Kanaan this year once again for the RoC – as he did in 2004 in Paris.

PARIS, FRANCE - DECEMBER 4:  Tony Kanaan and Felipe Massa of Brazil pose for photographers prior to the Race of Champions at the Stade de France on December 4, 2004 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Bryn Lennon Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE – DECEMBER 4: Tony Kanaan and Felipe Massa of Brazil pose for photographers prior to the Race of Champions at the Stade de France on December 4, 2004 in Paris, France. (Photo by Bryn Lennon Getty Images)

“It’s a fantastic pleasure for me to participate in the Race Of Champions for another year,” Massa said in a release. “The event is a big challenge and it’s a great idea to have a race with the best drivers from all the different motor sport categories. I look forward to meeting up with my old friend and fellow countryman Tony Kanaan. In 2004 in Paris we made up a very good combination: he beat Sébastien Loeb and I beat Michael Schumacher until we were both given penalties for touching the guard rails too much…

“The atmosphere is special at the Race Of Champions too: you’re in the middle of the grandstands so you can hear all the fans and they can see all the corners. It’s a great feeling and great enjoyment for everyone. Even better it’s in Miami, which is one of my favorite places and somewhere I’ve always enjoyed going for holidays. So it’s a perfect combination and I’m really looking forward to it, especially to starting my new life after retirement!”

The list of confirmed RoC drivers for Miami thus far is below:

  • Sebastian Vettel
  • Tom Kristensen
  • Juan Pablo Montoya
  • Tony Kanaan
  • Ryan Hunter-Reay
  • Kurt Busch
  • Travis Pastrana
  • Petter Solberg
  • Felipe Massa

How Max Verstappen became Formula 1’s ‘Boaty McBoatface’

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 22: Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing in the garage during qualifying for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Sunday’s United States Grand Prix in Austin will go down as a memorable race for a handful of reasons.

It may go down as the race that saw Lewis Hamilton begin a late surge that culminated in a fourth Formula 1 world championship. More likely, it will go down as a race that did wonders for the Circuit of The Americas as it broke its attendance record, exceeding all expectations with a little help from Taylor Swift.

While it will not be remembered as a classic grand prix, there were certainly periods of exciting on-track action and a number of impressive drives through the field. Fernando Alonso’s run to fifth for McLaren turned heads, while teammate Jenson Button rose from 19th to ninth. Perhaps the most impressive drive of all came from Carlos Sainz Jr. who, despite racing in a Toro Rosso with a year-old Ferrari engine, and despite the team’s own predictions having the Spaniard finishing 12th at best, wound up sixth.

And yet when we look back on the 2016 United States Grand Prix in years to come, none of those names will be listed as winning the ‘Driver of the Day’ award.

That honor went to Max Verstappen.

Verstappen drove a fair race. Or at least, half a fair race. Starting fourth, he slipped behind Kimi Raikkonen on the first lap to run fifth during the opening stint in Austin. Verstappen battled back past Raikkonen on Lap 13, and then closed up on the back of Nico Rosberg in third. The Dutchman told his team “I’m not here to finish fourth” when given the call to consider his pace, his tire wear causing concern for Red Bull. A radio mix-up meant Verstappen came into the pits on Lap 26 to find the Red Bull crew still hurrying to their positions, costing him masses of time. He did manage to take a place off Felipe Massa while fighting back, only to grind to a halt moments later when a gearbox issue arose while exiting Turn 11.

Max Verstappen passed two cars, fluffed a pit stop and took part in half a race before retiring. Any reasonable observer of Sunday’s race would know he was not the Driver of the Day.

Alas, when the votes were totted up from the public vote conducted on the official Formula 1 website, Verstappen came out on top for the third race in a row and the seventh time this season.

The new scheme launched at the beginning of the year has its merits. Formula One Management’s digital strategy has been massively impressive throughout 2016, with its Twitter account (@F1) in particular being livelier than ever and hugely engaging. The FOM archive is being put to good use with videos of classic moments in F1 history being shared on Twitter and Facebook regularly. The idea of a Driver of the Day vote was a step that looked to also give the fans something to engage with; a way to be heard.

At the start of the season, the Driver of the Day scheme was launched with a bump. Romain Grosjean won the voting for Australia, but it was Manor’s Rio Haryanto – a driver with enormous support in his native Indonesia – who had garnered the most votes. The result was given with the sidenote saying that multiple votes from the same source had been discounted.

Voting traditionally opened in the closing stages of a race, with the result being announced the next day, but this changed for Singapore. Voting now opened earlier and shut when the race finished, meaning a result could be given not long after the flag dropped. While being more immediate and encouraging fans to interact on Twitter mid-race, it also meant that the final result at the checkered flag could not be considered before voting.

So, that’s a backstory of how one F1’s rising stars has matched a memorable internet meme this year.

That is how Max Verstappen became F1’s ‘Boaty McBoatface.’

Boaty McBoatface rose to internet popularity earlier this year when the British Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) invited the general public to come up with a name for its new $244 million polar research ship. A regional BBC radio presenter suggested ‘Boaty McBoatface,’ which duly went on to get over 120,000 votes; four times that of any other submission.

In the end, the fine print of the competition rules meant the NERC could pick the winning entry. The vessel was therefore called the RRS Sir David Attenborough, named after one of the UK’s most beloved and influential naturalists and broadcasters. One of the accompanying remote controlled submarines on the ship did, however, get called ‘Boaty McBoatface,’ while Attenborough himself was subject to a petition with over 2,000 signatures calling for him to change his name to Sir Boaty McBoatface “in the interest of democracy and humor”.

The whole affair was very amusing, but it suggested that the public cannot really be trusted in some instances, particularly online. In the age of internet memes and trolling, it is all too frequent to see well-meaning contests such as this descend into banter.

The F1 Driver of the Day vote has gone the same way.

The fact is that votes such as these are designed for human beings who are perfect. They are rational, understanding, conscious and able to see things from multiple angles. That way, you get a set of results, with the ones that are most popular coming forward as the ‘most correct’ (in the case of Driver of the Day, at least).

But we’re not perfect human beings. Fans won’t vote for the driver who they thought performed best. They’ll most likely vote for their favorite. And as Spa showed in August, Verstappen is the favorite for a huge and growing number of fans. It’s the same reason Haryanto gained the most votes for the opening award in Australia.

It is a shame, because the Driver of the Day vote is a great move by F1 to increase fan interaction. It’s something fans have been clamoring for years to get. At all of the previous races, the results may have been a little dubious, but there was always a half-decent argument for the winner. In Austin, it was frankly farcical that Verstappen won the vote.

It also sparks the bigger question about fan involvement in deciding the future of F1. We’re approaching a crossroads on the direction that it will take following Liberty Media’s acquisition of the series, and many fans want a greater say in things. Interests such as lower ticket prices and more accessible viewing on TV are certainly key in helping F1 grow, but when it comes to bigger things such as regulatory change, can fans really expect to have a say?

It is imperative that the Driver of the Day vote continue and be made an important part of the race weekend. Much like there is for pole positions or fastest laps, a small award at the end of the year for the driver with the most Driver of the Day nods would be fitting. It would give fans the chance to get their voice heard.

A good way to make things more serious would be to create a shortlist of drivers that can then be voted for via the F1 website once the race has been completed. This does cause problems of its own, as only so many drivers can be included. Earlier this year, we conducted a few ‘Driver of the Day’ polls on Twitter via the @F1onNBCSports account, where you can only have a maximum of four options. Naturally, we got tweets back saying: “Why isn’t this driver on the list?” – simply, we’d picked the four best-fitting.

So while it would not be without issue, a shortlist system would work well. A good idea here could be taken from soccer coverage in the UK, where the man of the match award in some cup competitions is actually selected by one of the commentators. There are a number of pundits (and even ex-drivers) in the paddock who would be well-placed to pick four or five drivers who they thought impressed in the race. This list then gets put on the F1 website, where fans go and vote. The winner gets picked from there.

While it may not be a truly democratic process, the Driver of the Day would at least have some kind of credence and argument in his favor. It would give the vote more legitimacy, and we would avoid a situation like Verstappen winning the vote in Austin.

Or, indeed, a Boaty McBoatface.

Gray area: 3rd generation of NHRA Pro Stock family to debut in 2017

Photos courtesy of Geiger Global Media
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Like father, like son, like grandson.

First came Gray Family team patriarch Johnny Gray, who had a standout career in the NHRA Funny Car and Pro Stock ranks.

Then came his son, Shane, who took over the family’s Pro Stock car reins.

And now, Johnny’s grandson and Shane’s son, Tanner, will carry on the Gray family racing heritage in 2017.

The Gray family announced over the weekend that Shane will step out of the family’s Gray Motorsports Valvoline/Nova Services Pro Stock Chevrolet at the end of this season.

Exit Shane (at least for 2017), enter Tanner.

“I’m not driving next year,” Shane Gray said in a media release. “I’m going to let (Tanner) drive the car, and I’ll be there to support the team. I’ll be there for him and wherever he needs help.

“We’re very active in drag racing. He wants to drive the car, and I’m 100 percent cool with that. It’s always better for the dad to sit back and watch the kid than do it yourself. It’s just time to let him drive.”

Interestingly, Shane Gray is currently ranked fourth in the Pro Stock rankings with two races remaining in the NHRA Countdown to the Championship.

Shane Gray, who has four career Pro Stock wins, is only 134 points behind Pro Stock points leader Jason Line, 108 behind second-ranked Greg Anderson and just 20 points behind third-ranked Greg Nobile.

There are a combined 260 points available to be earned by any driver in the remaining two races on the schedule, this weekend in Las Vegas and the season finale Nov. 10-13 in Pomona, California.

If Line or Anderson slip in one or both of the races, Gray is still mathematically eligible to steal the championship away, which would be one heck of a way to go out.

Tanner has already begun preparing for his new role, having recently tested at Rockingham (NC) Dragway.

“I’ve been around it since I was 9 or 10 years old,” Tanner Gray, now 18, said. “I think it’s really cool to be able to do what they’ve done. We’ll see if we can win some championships one day. … I’m pretty excited for it.”

Tanner tested both his father’s Pro Stock car and crew chief Dave Connolly’s sportsman car to get a good feel for what his future holds. Having both his father and Connolly in his corner will put him that much further ahead of the game starting next season.

“I think I would’ve been lost if it wasn’t for Dave letting me drive his bracket car, just getting used to the speed and how the car reacts,” Tanner Gray said. “But driving his Cobalt helped a lot more and sped up the progression.”

The third-generation driver has driven a number of different types of race cars, from NHRA Junior Dragsters to Mini Sprints, Outlaw Karts, 360 Sprint Cars, Late Model Stock Cars and even go-karts.

But it’s NHRA that has won his heart and his future.

“We put Tanner in a race car when he was 12 years old,” Shane Gray said of his son. “I have 100 percent confidence in him.

“He’s already made some test laps. Tanner will be fine. We put him in the car, showed him how to do it and what he needed to do, and by the end of the day, we had him going down the race track.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski