(Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Martin Truex Jr. hopes momentum continues at always-risky Talladega


Having won the outside pole, Martin Truex Jr. came into the season-opening Daytona 500 with arguably the best chance he’s ever had of winning the Great American Race.

Unfortunately for Truex, his best chance lasted just 30 laps into the 500’s 200 laps, ending dead last in the 43-car field.

“I felt I had my best opportunity of winning the Daytona 500,” Truex said. “That’s how good our Furniture Row/Denver Mattress Chevrolet was. Unfortunately we didn’t get to showcase our strength due to an oil pump failure.”

As NASCAR returns to restrictor plate racing for the second time this season in Sunday’s Aaron’s 499 Sprint Cup race at the massive 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway – the largest oval on the NASCAR circuit – Truex hopes fate will smile significantly more on him than it did at Daytona.

He has reason to be optimistic, coming off his best showing of the season last Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway when he finished 10th.

“After what we’ve been through finishing 10th in Richmond felt good,” Truex said. “I feel we’re in position as a team to continue the momentum.”

Momentum has been in relatively short supply thus far for Truex in 2014. After Daytona, Truex has had just the lone top-10 at Richmond and two other top-20 finishes (14th at Las Vegas, 18th at Texas).

While he’s with a new team in 2014, having left after four seasons with Michael Waltrip Racing after NAPA pulled its sponsorship from the team, Truex is coming off two of the strongest runs of his career at Talladega last season, finishing seventh in the spring race and eighth in the fall Chase for the Sprint Cup event.

But at the same time, what he did so well – prior to the oil pump failure, that is – at Daytona doesn’t really mean much at ‘Dega. While both facilities are restrictor plate racetracks, the similarities end there.

“When you go to Talladega it’s a whole new can of worms compared to Daytona because the track is so much wider,” Truex said. “There are more options as far as cars moving around at Talladega.

“Typically, Daytona is a two-wide, sometimes three-wide track where as Talladega is three-wide all the time and sometimes even four-or-five wide. There’s always a lot of side drafting going on at Talladega; these cars are very sensitive to that. The best choice of lane at Daytona is not necessary the best choice of lane at Talladega.”

While encouraged by his finish at Richmond, as well as his last two starts at ‘Dega (out of six career top-10s there), Truex is also cognizant that his average finish there is 21.2, not to mention he’s recorded nine DNFs (50 percent) in his 18 career Sprint Cup starts there.

Seven of those nine DNFs have been due to wrecks, many in Talladega’s infamous “big one,” multi-car crashes.

On the plus side, Truex has been involved in only one wreck in his last eight starts at Talladega – yet another good sign coming into this weekend.

But Truex isn’t taking anything to chance, either.

“You know there’s a good chance you’re going to crash at Talladega,” Truex said. “That’s the way it is and that’s the way it’s always been. There’s not really a whole lot of point thinking about it too much.”

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IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Helio Castroneves

Helio Castroneves
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MotorSportsTalk continues its look through the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series field with fifth-placed Helio Castroneves.

Helio Castroneves, No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet

  • 2014: 2nd Place, 1 Win, 3 Poles, 6 Podiums, 7 Top-5, 10 Top-10, 282 Laps Led, 5.7 Avg. Start, 9.3 Avg. Finish
  • 2015: 5th Place, Best Finish 2nd, 4 Poles, 5 Podiums, 6 Top-5, 9 Top-10, 198 Laps Led, 4.9 Avg. Start, 9.3 Avg. Finish

Much as you’d write about his fellow countryman and longtime friend and rival Tony Kanaan, age hasn’t slowed Helio Castroneves, but it’s instead fueled continued success. And while Castroneves went winless for only the second time (2011) in his illustrious 16-year career with Team Penske, he wasn’t down on performance.

Now 40, Castroneves continued to have several shining moments in 2015, which was particularly important to do to stand out against defending champion Will Power, this year’s primary title contender Juan Pablo Montoya and new driver Simon Pagenaud.

Castroneves scored four pole positions and boasted a 4.9 averaging starting position, second in the field to Power, which was very impressive to note. His run of form from Texas through Milwaukee, capturing three podiums in four races, was his best race stretch this season. Additional highlights included back-to-back runner-up results in the NOLA lottery and then on pure pace at Long Beach.

The month of May must though be viewed as a disappointment. Castroneves played a role in the first corner mess at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and got a points penalty (although the number was dropped) as a result. Then he endured another Indianapolis 500 where he was not the out-and-out fastest car in the Penske brigade. While Montoya and Power were dueling for the win and Pagenaud had speed to burn all month, Castroneves’ lone moment of note came with his accident in practice, which mercifully he emerged unscathed from.

As ever though, fifth in this field owed to his consistency and dogged determination to succeed. Castroneves has ended top-five in seven of the last eight seasons since the IRL/Champ Car merger in 2008 and if it wasn’t for Dixon’s top-three run hogging the headlines, we’d probably appreciate Castroneves even more so. As long as he’s continually competitive, he’s still worthy at Team Penske.

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Graham Rahal

Graham Rahal
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MotorSportsTalk continues its driver-by-driver review of the field in the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series.

Next up is fourth-placed Graham Rahal, who had a career year.

Graham Rahal, No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda

  • 2014: 19th Place, Best Finish 2nd, Best Start 4th, 1 Podium, 2 Top-5, 4 Top-10s, 28 Laps Led, 14.4 Avg. Start, 15.0 Avg. Finish
  • 2015: 4th Place, 2 Wins, Best Start 5th, 6 Podiums, 8 Top-5, 10 Top-10s, 76 Laps Led, 11.0 Avg Start, 8.5 Avg. Finish

Formula 1 fans will remember the miraculous, shock rise of Brawn GP, which didn’t even exist as a team until mere weeks before the 2009 Australian Grand Prix having risen from the demise of the former Honda factory team, and then promptly proceeded to stomp the field en route to winning both the Driver’s and Constructor’s World Championships that season.

It’s the best racing comparison in recent years – or perhaps any year – for what was done at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in 2015, courtesy of a career year from Graham Rahal, an instant chemistry renewal with the people father Bobby put in place, and the fact Bobby himself stepped back this year to allow his team’s key players to shine through.

Because quite simply, after finishes of 18th and 19th the last two seasons, no one in their right mind had Rahal winning races and contending for a championship this season.

It’s hard to say specifically which point was most important, because all played dividends. Bobby Rahal moved off the pit box, and actually missed a fair number of races this year, which allowed Graham and team manager Ricardo Nault to gel with Nault on the radio and pretty much running the team on the whole. Then there were the three key crewmember additions: Eddie Jones moving over to be lead engineer on the No. 15 car was clutch, as was Rahal getting the opportunity to reunite with Martin Pare and work for the first time with Mike Talbott. The addition of damper ace Stuart Kenworthy was not covered much this year, but undoubtedly a big help. Sponsor Steak ‘n Shake’s arrival also brought a wealth of attention.

And then there were the drives in the races themselves. Perhaps strangely, Rahal had a tough qualifying average – only 11th – but it was the best for a Honda driver this year. The strategy calls from RLL were damn near perfect all year and Rahal seized every opportunity at his disposal, be it his wins at Fontana and Mid-Ohio, his recovery at Iowa, and his numerous other podiums throughout the year. His charge to second at Barber stands out as one of the drives of the year.

Call Fontana lucky if you will, and he was fortunate to avoid a penalty for leaving with the fuel buckeye, but even so he still could have come back given where the race was at that point. And being on the receiving end of two ill-advised taps from Tristan Vautier and Sebastien Bourdais at Pocono and Sonoma, respectively, cost him huge results and huge points – the net effect of three races.

The single-car title charge was one of the stories of the year, even beyond Scott Dixon’s championship comeback and Juan Pablo Montoya’s consistent-until-Sonoma season. Rahal re-established his credentials on track if people had forgotten what he was capable of; additionally, he reaffirmed his status as one of racing’s best people with his work in the Justin Wilson memorial auction after that tragedy. It was truly a ’15 to remember for the driver of the No. 15 car.