Winless thus far in 2014, Matt Kenseth looks to repeat last year’s victory at Darlington this Saturday

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At this time last year, Matt Kenseth already had two wins in his back pocket, en route to a Sprint Cup Series-leading seven wins in the entire 2013 season.

But seven races into 2014 and Kenseth is still an oh-fer in the wins column.

He’s hoping to change that in Saturday’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

And he has reason for optimism: he is the defending winner of last year’s race there, finally breaking through after 19 tries of coming up short against the fabled “track too tough to tame.”

“I always feel like the Southern 500 is one of the biggest races of the year — certainly it was right up there towards the top of my list of tracks I wanted to win at that I never won at before last year,” Kenseth said in his weekly media release. “It was a really big win. It was exciting and it didn’t look like we were going to win. Kyle (Busch) had that problem late and we were able to sneak by him there with 10 (laps) to go or something like that. It was a big week for us and it was really, really cool to be able to finally win the Southern 500, for sure.”

“(It’s) certainly one of the most historic (races). … To be able to win here in any kind of race, any kind of car, any conditions and certainly the Southern 500 is, I think, special. I think you could ask anybody and that’s one that they would tell you that.”

This year’s race was changed from what had been a relatively new tradition – on Mother’s Day weekend – to mid-April.

“It doesn’t change how you’re going to drive it at all,” Kenseth said. “Conditions are a little hard to predict just because we only come here once a year — I don’t think anybody really tests or anything.

“With the weather forecast being decent, I can’t really remember the weather last May, but it’s supposed to be pretty warm the next couple days so I think that’s good. I think that will be good for the fans and I think that will probably be good for the racing and everything too. It’s not going to be too terribly cold at night.”

Like Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and others, Kenseth is one of several of Sprint Cup’s highest-profile drivers that still hasn’t won a race in 2014.

“I can’t say I’m totally shocked,” Kenseth said when asked about how there have been seven different winners in as many races to start the Cup season. “I think whenever you throw a pretty big rules change at everybody, some people are going to pick up on it sooner than others.

“I think it always spreads the field out a little bit because some guys are going to hit it and some guys are going to miss it, and I think that always creates passing and mixes the field up and makes the racing more interesting in my mind. I think that everybody every week is probably gaining on it and the field is going to get closer together as we keep rolling through the year here.

“It’s been interesting because there’s been a lot of different winners and been some guys that have won a lot that haven’t won yet.  It’s been an interesting year for sure.”

Ironically, in a season where the revamped Chase for the Sprint Cup format is predicted on wins, the top two leaders in the standings this week are drivers who have yet to win a race this season: Gordon and Kenseth.

“You just don’t really know how it’s going to turn out,” Kenseth said. “Is there going to be 10 winners?  Is there going to be 20 winners? I don’t know, the way it’s going. How important are your points going to be? I would think, history suggests that there’s going to be a few guys added by points that didn’t win. Certainly if that’s the case and you haven’t won yet, then the point standings are very important. Come September, you don’t really know how important they’re going to be.”

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DiZinno: Barber thoughts, musings, observations

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Having not been at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama this weekend at Barber Motorsports Park, the usual post-weekend column is a shorter one by my usual loquacious standards, and comprises some thoughts, musings and observations from both the open-wheel and sports car races held there:

INDYCAR

  • Josef Newgarden’s win in his third start for Team Penske was aided by Will Power’s bad luck and puncture, but it’s still a warning shot to the rest of the field because of how early it comes. Power, in a part-time role, didn’t win his first race for Penske until his fifth start, at Edmonton in 2009. Helio Castroneves scored his first win for Penske at Detroit in his seventh, at Detroit in 2000. Simon Pagenaud took the longest, in his 19th start at Long Beach last year. With the first win out of the way, more should follow, and quickly for the driver that’s highly touted and now just seven points out of the points lead after three races.
  • Scott Dixon and Simon Pagenaud are maximizing their results as best they can without winning. Neither driver has gotten the headlines they’ve deserved but they’re finishing smart from a championship perspective. And for good measure, they head to Phoenix next week having gone 1-2 there last year… although we expect a Dixon encore to be harder as the Honda aero kit is not expected to be as strong as Chevrolet’s on the short ovals.
  • By contrast, Will Power can’t buy a break. Here’s Power’s last 12 finishing positions in order, dating to Detroit race two, last year: 1, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 8, 20, 20, 19, 13, 14. In a series where finishing in the same positions or close is so hard given the competitive nature of the field, quite how Power has alternated a sublime stretch of first or seconds and then been hit by this recent run of five straight sub-13th place finishes is a damn statistical anomaly.
  • Dale Coyne Racing is human. The four top-10s in four combined starts for Dale Coyne Racing between Sebastien Bourdais and Ed Jones to start 2017 was impressive as hell, and also unsustainable. Coyne came down to Earth slightly with Bourdais rallying to a hard fought eighth place despite a weekend off pace by his desired standards, while Jones’ race was compromised on the first lap out of his control. Phoenix will be a tough test for these guys next week, and a pair of top-12 finishes would be excellent results there.
  • Fernando Alonso was everywhere. As could be expected, the Spaniard dominated the media landscape, broadcast booths and cameras on cellphones Sunday at Barber. With “Alonsobama” in the books, the balance between covering the excitement over his arrival – which is real, justified and awesome – and not overlooking the other full-timers and one-off entries will be something to monitor over the next month.
  • Other quick thoughts… Good on Alexander Rossi pulling a fifth place rabbit out of his hat after starting 18th, while it was tough going for James Hinchcliffe to lose a possible podium with an off-course excursion and drop to sixth. The fact both drivers could be disappointed with those results speaks volumes of how strong their teams are…. Mikhail Aleshin maintained his aggression with yet another hard battle today on the last lap, this time with Ryan Hunter-Reay. Some in the paddock rate the “Mad Russian” as overly worthy of that nickname and while Charlie Kimball got all the flack after Long Beach, it’s worth noting how many incidents Aleshin always seems to find himself in. Not that that’s a bad thing for a series in need of a “bad guy…” speaking of Kimball, good to see him survive the first lap without incident but it was hard to figure their off-sequence strategy late. They were always going to need another stop for fuel… tough end for Spencer Pigot to lose a potential top-10, while Zach Veach ticked the right boxes on debut… starting to worry Max Chilton has adopted a Harry Potter-esque “invisibility cloak” through three races.
Alonso was everywhere Sunday. Photo: IndyCar

MAZDA ROAD TO INDY

Oliver Askew had the broom out this weekend at Barber Motorsports Park. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • With three straight wins in USF2000, it’s fair to call Oliver Askew’s run of form an “Askew-king” on the rest of the field. The new Tatuus USF-17 chassis was meant to level the playing field and Cape Motorsports hasn’t had it all its own way; Team Pelfrey, Exclusive Autosport, Pabst Racing, Newman Wachs Racing and even DEForce Racing are showing signs of podium potential. But Askew has been next level good so far, both in terms of his raw pace in qualifying and racecraft and defending from the front. You can tell the coaching and integration working with JJRD, Inc. is paying dividends for one of open-wheel’s best prospects in years.
  • Even despite Askew’s dominance, the top-five have been consistent in USF2000. Askew, Team Pelfrey’s standout 14-year-old Kaylen Frederick, third-year driver Parker Thompson and Dutch rookie Rinus Van Kalmthout all have four top-five finishes in as many races. Only Robert Megennis (St. Pete winner), Luke Gabin and Toby Sowery (Benik debutante this weekend) have cracked the top-five beyond those four.
  • Seeing Andretti Autosport’s improvement in Indy Lights is excellent. For a team lost with the Dallara IL-15 Mazda two years ago and only able to occasionally punch above its weight last year with Dean Stoneman, what Andretti has done out of the gate has been very solid, thanks to its engineering strength. Colton Herta looks the real deal with a dominant win Sunday while Nico Jamin flaunted his unquestioned pace and racecraft on Saturday. The Frenchman has now won three races in just over a month, having also swept the first two LMP3 class races in IMSA Prototype Challenge presented by Mazda at Sebring in March (more on that series in a minute). Sophomore Dalton Kellett has been closer to the front and rookie Ryan Norman is showing signs of growth.
  • Another driver with a better start to 2017 is Carlin’s Neil Alberico. The Californian added a solid third and fourth weekend in Barber to his first career podium at St. Petersburg. Between working with engineer Geoff Fickling and driver coach Jack Harvey, it looks like Alberico’s nightmare rookie season is behind him.
  • Other quick thoughts… Kyle Kaiser raced smart this weekend with a pair of seconds, but he needs to find that last fraction more speed to get back to winning… Belardi Auto Racing came down to Earth a bit. Four top-fives in St. Petersburg ceded to just one for Aaron Telitz on Sunday, with fifth, and even that one felt a bit lucky. Santiago Urrutia can’t seem to catch a break on the first laps. Shelby Blackstock, to his credit, banked solid seventh and eighth places and has started nicely with four top-10 finishes in as many races… similarly Juncos rookie Nico Dapero has four quiet top-10s and no major mistakes…. DEForce did well to bank its first double top-10 in USF2000 race two as Kory Enders and Moises de la Vara were seventh and ninth in race two…. Pelfrey’s third driver, Ayla Agren, banked a pair of eighths in Barber but she still is fractionally behind her two younger and less experienced teammates…. Sowery, Darren Keane and Flinn Lazier impressed in their debut weekends, while Bayley Mickler had a tough go of it. Bruna Tomaselli also acquitted herself well in her step up to the new Tatuus USF-17.

SPORTS CARS

The Global MX-5 Cup field assembled, under INDYCAR sanction, for first time. Photo: MX-5 Cup
  • Patrick Gallagher swept the pair of Battery Tender Global MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires races. The veteran out of Thornville, Ohio executed well in both races and seized his opportunity for the McCumbee McAleer Racing team, in its No. 29 MX-5. Gallagher has won a season opener before, at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
  • It was a new weekend for MX-5 in a way, as the series made its debut under INDYCAR sanctioning and Andersen Promotions umbrellas. More than 30 cars competed during the weekend and despite a few heavy accidents, the series did put on its traditional form of close, wheel-to-wheel, bumper-to-bumper racing. There were a couple inevitable first-weekend hiccups and it took a bit of adjusting to hear IndyCar Radio venture into calling the oft-complex world of sports car racing, but they figure to come up to speed more on MX-5 as the year progresses.
  • Like Gallagher, another Mazda Road to Indy alum in Jake Eidson swept the weekend in IMSA’s Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama series. The talented driver and Haywood Scholarship recipient out of Littleton, Col. was racing with a special cause on his No. 24 Kelly-Moss Road and Race Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car, Racing for Children’s, which raises money for The Alabama Center for Childhood Cancer and Blood Disorders, along with other Children’s initiatives.
  • IMSA’s Prototype Challenge presented by Mazda races saw lanky star Kenton Koch win for P1 Motorsports in his series return in race one, while Andres Gutierrez took a win for Performance Tech Motorsports in race two within the LMP3 class. Kyle Masson continued his incredible start to 2017 with two more wins for Performance Tech in the MPC class, the former P Lites cars, which Koch drove to the series championship in 2015.
  • The busiest man on the ground this weekend might have been my colleague and friend Ryan Myrehn, who wound up shifting from not planning to attend to the race to getting a call-up for two sets of announcing calls. When Zach Veach got his IndyCar call, it left the aforementioned Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network needing to find its own fill-in and they found one in Michigan U.P. veteran-turned-Indianapolis resident Myrehn, who had done a one-off at Road America last year (coincidentally, a weekend when I called Veach’s Indy Lights win). Myrehn wasted no time in getting acclimated calling IndyCar and Indy Lights sessions for IndyCar Radio all weekend, then shifting back to his natural habitat of sports car racing with last-minute calls in the booth of the IMSA.TV web stream for the PC and GT3 Sunday races. Myrehn’s developed rapidly as a writer and podcast co-host for Sportscar365.com and he seized his opportunity on the ground this weekend from a radio standpoint.

IndyCar is back in action in just five days at Phoenix, while the Mazda Road to Indy is off until the IMS road course weekend in mid-May. MX-5’s next race is also at the IMS road course, but in mid-June with SVRA. For IMSA, Porsche runs next at COTA in early May and PC runs next at Watkins Glen in July.

Zach Veach ticks all the right boxes in Barber debut weekend

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On paper, starting and finishing 19th in one race is nothing impressive. Zach Veach’s weekend at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama was not something that can merely be categorized as “by the books,” though.

The 22-year-old rookie out of Stockdale, Ohio made all the right progression throughout his first full weekend in the Verizon IndyCar Series, a confidence booster that saw him improve methodically with each passing session and then finish all 90 laps in his race debut.

Veach was called up as an injury fill-in for JR Hildebrand, sidelined after sustaining a broken bone in his left hand on the last lap at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, to drive the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet on the notoriously difficult, physical Barber Motorsports Park circuit.

Despite starting a bit off the mark by current, entirely compressed IndyCar standards where a second usually covers the entire field, Veach closed the gap to the overall leader from 2.5 seconds in first practice to 2 in the second, and down to 1.7 by qualifying. Similarly, he closed on teammate Spencer Pigot in each session as well, from 1.5 off in first practice to 1.1 in the second, 0.8 in the third and just 0.5 in qualifying.

More to the point, he stayed out of trouble with no major mistakes on or off track, and his Ed Carpenter Racing team was smart to not run him in the treacherous rain and damp conditions in Sunday morning warmup. Hildebrand, too, took Veach under his wing playing mentor and coach in a weekend he didn’t expect to be sidelined – but was gracious as ever.

Veach ran as high as fourth in the race off-sequence on the first stint, and his only major faux pas was when he came back into the pits on a closed pit following a restart and took additional service. That netted him a drive-through and probably cost him about two spots, but it was hardly an egregious error.

“Overall, I’m pretty happy with our first Verizon IndyCar Series weekend,” said Veach, who was participating in his first IndyCar running since a single test day with ECR at Sonoma last September.

“For what it was coming in here on short notice and a limited amount of time to get familiar with the car, I’m really happy with the progress that we made. I couldn’t have done it without the help of JR Hildebrand and the entire crew at Ed Carpenter Racing.”

Although Veach co-drove in a two-plus hour IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship sports car race at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in 2015 in a JDC-Miller Motorsports Prototype Challenge car, he hadn’t run a race as long as this one on his own in his career. All the races he’d run in Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires races between Indy Lights, Pro Mazda and USF2000 since 2010 were an hour or less.

“Everyone here was so open to helping get me up to speed,” he said. “They helped me from Lap 1 all the way to the end of the race. This was the longest race I’ve ever done in my life and part of that was learning how to save fuel and doing my first real race pit stops. Overall, I’m pretty happy with how it went. Granted, I think we would have loved to have a little more speed, but with the amount of time I had in the car, to come home where we did I think says a lot!”

Veach now has a full race under his belt before he debuts at the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, in a third Chevrolet-powered entry for AJ Foyt Racing.

The Ed Carpenter Racing driver lineup will again be a story this week heading into Saturday’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Hildebrand is hoping to be cleared to drive but if not, it remains to be seen whether Veach will get another shot, or whether Pigot gets a call-up for what would be only his second oval start in an IndyCar. Team owner Carpenter is slated to make his first start of 2017 next weekend in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet. On Sunday, Pigot ran as high as fourth after starting 17th but had a spin off Turn 5 that cost him a likely second straight top-10 result, having run eighth most of his second stint.

Veach now joins the list of young guns with recent Indy Lights experience – Matthew Brabham, RC Enerson and Stefan Wilson among others – with only a handful of IndyCar starts under their belt awaiting a full-time shot, but can now say he is an IndyCar driver for life.

Pagenaud banks third straight top-five despite fuel saving frustration

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With finishes of second, fifth and third in the first three races of 2017, defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion Simon Pagenaud is off to a pretty good start.

Except that because of his unreal start to 2016 when he finished second twice and won in Round 3, it seems like far less by comparison.

Pagenaud finally put together his most complete start-to-finish weekend of the new year at Barber Motorsports Park in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, starting and finishing third in the No. 1 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet.

This result comes after a perhaps lucky 14th to second run in St. Petersburg and then a comeback from 21st and last to fifth in Long Beach two weeks ago.

The Frenchman made the most of the worst pit stall in pit lane this weekend, because after incurring that penalty for qualifying interference at Long Beach two weeks ago he’d be right at pit in and be compromised compared to those near pit out.

That made his team’s performance throughout the weekend all the better, even if Pagenaud was frustrated to be in fuel save mode for the final stint.

“It’s been a good weekend. We unfortunately carried a penalty from Long Beach. So starting every qualifying session, practice at the back of the pack puts you in a bad rhythm,” Pagenaud explained in the post-race press conference. “So I’m very happy we were able to transform that into good qualifying results, and also a good result in the end of the race.

“It was pretty eventful. At the start of the race, I feel like we were a little too aggressive with the racecar. We adjusted. At the end, I was really good. I saved quite a bit of fuel at the end to make it.

“It was frustrating, I got to say. I just wanted to go.”

The day was weirder for Pagenaud because he was the only one of the four Team Penske drivers who didn’t lead a lap. Eventual race winner Josef Newgarden led the final 14 laps en route to his first win with the team, while Will Power dominated with 60 laps led before his late race puncture resigned him to 14th. Helio Castroneves finished fourth and led two laps on a pit cycle.

Pagenaud never got higher than third, where he finished. He noted a difficulty in the tire wear at the start of the race, as rain washed all the rubber down from earlier in the weekend, comprising five different types of tire manufacturers over the six series racing at Barber.

“The rain was the biggest effect last night. It really cleaned off the track,” he said. “The first stint personally was very difficult for us, quite a bit of tire wear. Balance wasn’t what we expected. Then the track got better toward the end, and the tires hung on better, I think.

“Yeah, it was different to yesterday, for sure. A lot of less tire degradation. Last year felt like we had a lot more tire degradation, too.”

Even though his title defense has been overshadowed so far in 2017 by all three winners, Pagenaud’s still in a good spot through three races. Pagenaud and Scott Dixon are the only two drivers with three top-five finishes in every race so far this year.

Pagenaud sits fourth in points, 11 behind his old Peugeot LMP1 teammate Sebastien Bourdais who leads the championship, and just four off Newgarden, who took the headlines on Sunday with his first win for his new team.

Still, not a bad day for the guy who heading into the race, discovered how to speak “Southern.”

Marquez adds to COTA win streak while Vinales crashes out

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Death, taxes and Marc Marquez winning MotoGP’s annual trip to Circuit of The Americas in the spring seem to be things you can bank on.

The Spaniard won again on Sunday, his incredible fifth straight win at the Austin road course, in as many attempts. It’s also his 11th straight victory on United States soil.

The Repsol Honda rider took the victory with Movistar Yamaha’s Valentino Rossi in second and the second of the Honda riders, Dani Pedrosa, completing the podium. Rossi made it past Pedrosa for second despite an earlier slide off, but was 3.069 seconds adrift of Marquez.

Cal Crutchlow and Johann Zarco completed the top five.

Meanwhile, Rossi’s teammate Maverick Vinales meanwhile crashed out early, putting pause to his chances of a season-opening three-peat. He crashed out a Turn 18 and was OK after the incident, but has now lost the points lead.

Rossi’s up by six points, 56-50, over Vinales with Marquez third on 38 points.

A trip to Jerez on May 7 is next up as MotoGP races in Europe for the first time this year. The series has opened with three flyaway races to Qatar, Argentina and the U.S.