Carl Edwards has been on an uphill climb all season. Sunday, he hit the top of the mountain. With plenty of others also vying for the same spot, now the question is how long he’ll stay there.
After starting off the season with his worst showing thus far in 2014, 17th place in the Daytona 500, Edwards has been in perpetual motion upward in the Sprint Cup standings.
Following Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway in suburban Los Angeles, and even though he finished 10th in the race, Edwards finds himself atop the Cup rankings.
Admittedly, Edwards’ lead is anything but secure, with four fellow drivers within seven points of his lead.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who led the Sprint Cup points first three weeks, climbed back up from third-place to second, just one point behind Edwards.
And Brad Keselowski, who led the points coming into Sunday’s race, dropped to third in the standings, but is just four points behind Edwards.
Let’s not forget Edwards’ former Roush Fenway Racing teammate, Matt Kenseth. He’s only seven points away in fifth place.
Even if you haven’t watched all of the first five races, you could readily see Edwards’ progress in his individual race finishes.
After Daytona, he finished eighth at Phoenix, fifth at Las Vegas, rallied late to win last Sunday at Bristol and then battled handling problems yet still came back to finish in the top 10 Sunday in Fontana.
Add that all up and Edwards has one win, two top-fives and four top-10s in the first five Cup races, equal to Jeff Gordon’s record thus far, and just behind the identical marks of one win, three top-five and three top-10s by Earnhardt and Keselowski.
Edwards is still seeking his first Sprint Cup championship. He almost won it in 2011, tying Tony Stewart in points, but losing in the first tie-breaker of overall wins (five wins for Stewart vs. just one for Edwards).
With his win at Bristol, Edwards is most of the way into the Chase, but not completely. The way NASCAR has structured the new Chase qualifying format, wins are of utmost importance. But if there are more than 16 winners in the first 26 races of the regular season, an early season winner like Edwards, Keselowski, Earnhardt, Kevin Harvick or even Sunday’s winner Kyle Busch could still come up short of the playoffs.
“There has been a lot of talk about it (among fellow drivers, media and fans),” Edwards said after his Bristol win. “I’ve been listening to the radio guys a lot and everybody is assuming that you win and you’re in, and that’s definitely not the case.
“We have 12 more races (two races before the Chase-qualifying cut-off race at Richmond in September) and all of a sudden it turns in to there are already 16 winners, but the first step is you have to win. I think we’re proving that right now. You’re going to have to have a win, I believe, to be in the Chase, so now that we’ve checked that box, we need to go get another win and then I think we’ll be guaranteed to be in it.”
The two-day Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy Test concluded on Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.
Combined times after the two days of running are below, with Nico Jamin (Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires) and Oliver Askew (Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires) remaining on top from Saturday to Sunday, and Darren Keane (Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda) supplanting Andres Gutierrez at the head of that field.
Previous notebooks are linked here (Friday, Saturday), with additional Sunday notes to follow.
Several drivers pulled double duty between series, namely Parker Thompson (Exclusive Autosport in Pro Mazda and USF2000), Carlos Cunha (Juncos Racing in Indy Lights and Pro Mazda) and Aaron Telitz (Team Pelfrey in Pro Mazda, RJB Motorsports in USF2000). Telitz (above) added a run in Pro Mazda in Team Pelfrey’s No. 82 car; the Wisconsinite has done a lot of the series’ testing for the new Pro Mazda Tatuus PM-18, and had hoped to run all three series. We’ll have more meanwhile on Thompson and Exclusive’s double in the days to come; the Michael Duncalfe-led team out of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan was one of three new Pro Mazda teams adding those cars to USF2000 efforts (Pabst Racing, BN Racing) this week.
There were a handful of drivers that changed cars or teams for Sunday’s second day of the test, primarily in USF2000. While Keane ran both days at Newman Wachs, the Brian Halahan-managed team ran David Osborne and Oscar DeLuzuriaga in the Nos. 37 and 38 cars, taking over from Jake Craig and Max Peichel. Osborne switched from Team Pelfrey, where he ran Saturday, and where Jacob Loomis ran Sunday. Justin Gordon ran a second Exclusive Autosport chassis, switching to the No. 90 on Sunday after running the No. 92 Saturday.
The PM-18 best lap set by Askew is more than three seconds faster than the series’ official track record (Pato O’Ward in 2016, at 1:22.8800, 105.941 mph). Askew’s best time of 1:19.8142 averages 110.010 mph around the 2.439-mile circuit. Neither the Indy Lights nor USF2000 cars eclipsed the existing lap records in those categories.
Drivers largely extolled the PM-18’s outright pace and potential with the horsepower upgrade, in what is a significant step forward for the series. “Following prototype testing of the new PM-18, I believed that we had a special race car and this weekend’s testing confirms that,” said Dan Andersen, Owner and CEO of Andersen Promotions. “Based on team and driver comments, this is a fantastic race car and I am very pleased with what Tatuus, Elite Engines and my team have assembled. It fits perfectly in between the USF-17 and the IL-15 in terms of lap times and, more importantly, it takes what a driver learns in the first step and introduces higher HP, higher grip and higher aero. This will be a great training car for years to come, and seeing our program now with three excellent and well-designed cars is very satisfying to me.”
Keane, one of the few veterans (relatively speaking) within USF2000 was plugged in this weekend as the only driver outside Pabst Racing to threaten the top of the timesheets. “It’s a good boost in confidence for me heading into next year. I am really happy with how everything is going with the team. They are a great group of guys and it’s just really good to see us improving and being where we want to be,” he said.
Rinus Veekay hailed the Indy Lights Dallara IL-15 Mazda this weekend in his first test there, although the talented Dutch teenager may well focus on Pro Mazda next season and shoot to win that championship, and continue his battle with Askew established in USF2000. “The car is very nice, quick,” noted VeeKay. “You can really feel the downforce and it was a pleasure to drive.”
The MRTI is done with official running for the year, but the $200,000 MRTI Scholarship Shootout remains in December at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, the former Firebird Raceway, outside Phoenix. The winner of that will get a ticket into USF2000 for the 2018 season.
Full MRTI spring training will take place at Homestead-Miami Speedway in February 2018, with undoubtedly a bevy of driver and team announcements to come over the following months.