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Michigan notebook: Penske closing gap on Hendrick, Logano thinking championship, Johnson gets shifty

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BROOKLYN, Mich. – What a difference, well, two months make.

Following the mid-June Sprint Cup race at Michigan International Speedway won by Jimmie Johnson, third-place finisher Brad Keselowski said he believed Hendrick Motorsports was about a year ahead on engine development and power than any other team or manufacturer.

Fast forward two months and it was Penske Racing teammate Joey Logano that finished third in Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400 at MIS.

And to hear Logano tell it, that nearly one-year margin has been closed quite a bit by – who else – Team Penske.

“Yeah, we’ve closed the gap,” Logano said. “I don’t think we’re a year behind. Do I think the Hendrick Chevys are the best motors out there right now? Yes, I do. But I think this racetrack caters to the Ford motor a little bit more than normal.

“We’re good on the high rpm stuff. Not slowing much in the corners. This is kind of our wheelhouse. Then for the Hendrick Chevys, it seems like the bottom end horsepower is where they got it. That’s not speed. That’s race-ability stuff, you’re able to get that spot on somebody off the corner.

“We’ve closed the gap, worked a lot on it. We’re coming. We’re coming. We’re just not there yet.”

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Logano has two wins this season, while Keselowski has three.

Do the math and that means Team Penske has collectively won five of the first 23 races this season.

We’ve already seen what Keselowski can do in a Penske car, having won the 2012 Sprint Cup championship.

Now, Logano feels it’s his turn. When asked what message he can take away and the lessons he’s learned thus far when it comes to his performance thus far in 2014, Logano was very blunt.

“That we can win a championship,” Logano said. “I really feel we can do that. That’s the message I want to put out there. I want to put out for my team that we’re strong enough to do that. I think we showed that today.

“We’re close. We’ve still got to keep working hard. We’ve got to find that next level here in three weeks now to be this strong in the Chase. But right now we’re in the hunt. We’re doing what we got to do.”

“…We like the momentum. That’s a good thing to go into the Chase with the momentum we’ve got. A lot of top-five, top-10 finishes. Moves us up in the points, but doesn’t matter unless you have wins.

“That’s why I raced so hard at the end, just to get that position. Almost got (race winner Jeff Gordon) back there again in turn one. Just wasn’t able to clear him. I got pulled back on the straightaway again.”

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While Gordon had an outstanding day, teammate Jimmie Johnson had an outstanding comeback.

Johnson somehow broke the shifter in his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet early in the race and had great difficulty trying to shift gears.

His team attempted several remedies for a temporary fix, finally settling on attaching a modified pair of vice grips to the shifter mechanism to allow Johnson the ability to change gears as needed.

The fix worked and Johnson was able to rally back from as far back as 35th to finish 10th, his best finish in the last six races this season.

“Granted, we put ourselves in a bad position with the shift lever breaking off and was able to rally back and get ourselves a good finish,” Johnson said. “It was unfortunate we didn’t get any further up in the field, but we still salvaged a lot today.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Johnson had a late race incident with Ryan Newman, and went over to talk with him after the race.

While Johnson is normally diplomatic when he talks about other drivers, such wasn’t exactly the case when a reporter asked Johnson what he said to Newman.

“Oh, it was just normal ‘Ryan Newman stuff,'” Johnson said. “Anybody who has watched this sport long enough or has been in a race car out there understand the frustration that comes along with racing Ryan. Just normal Ryan stuff.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Kyle Larson has been called a “hot foot” for his ability to wheel a race car, but things got hot in a different way for the Sprint Cup rookie in Sunday’s race.

Larson’s car hit the wall just before the midpoint of the 200-lap race and burst into fire.

Larson escaped the blaze and was uninjured from the wreck, but his car didn’t fare so well, being knocked out of the event as a result.

“I’m fine,” Larson said. “It’s just a shame we were up there in the points battle, so we have to work even harder now with our Target Chevy to try to get in the Chase.”

The real pain that Larson felt, however, was in the Race to the Chase standings. Coming into the event, he had all but qualified for the upcoming Chase for the Sprint Cup.

But with his early exit Sunday, Larson is now 21 points out of the top 16 drivers that will be eligible to make the 10-race Chase playoffs.

All is not lost for the likely Sprint Cup rookie of the year: he still has three races to get back in contention for the Chase.

There was a bit of irony with Larson’s wreck. NASCAR mandated Friday that all drivers must remain in their cars after a wreck unless the car is on fire.

Larson had no choice but to exit his burning vehicle, right about the same time that the safety team came to get him as well as extinguish the flames.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

What the heck has happened to Kyle Busch?

So much has been made of Jimmie Johnson finishing 28th or worse in four of the five races prior to Michigan. But Busch hasn’t had much better luck.

In his last seven races, Busch finished second in three of the first four races in that streak. But in the last three outings, he’s had terrible luck.

Busch wrecked on the third lap of Sunday’s race, finishing 39th, adding to the 40th he had last week at Watkins Glen and the 42nd he had the week before that at Pocono.

“I tried going to the top in (turns) three and four right away and I got loose all the way through,” Busch said. “Every time I touched the gas, it wanted to spin out and finally it was too much gas and not enough save and I wrecked.

“… I was really optimistic about our car there in the opening laps and we didn’t get to see what we were capable of.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Five more drivers officially clinched their berths in the upcoming Chase: Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Aric Almirola, Kurt Busch and last week’s race winner, AJ Allmendinger.

There is one caveat, however: each driver still must qualify for the three remaining races prior to the start of the Chase.

 

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Sprint car shocker: Steve ‘The King’ Kinser announces retirement

The legendary Steve "The King" Kinser announced his retirement from Sprint car racing Monday night.
(Official Twitter page of Knoxville Raceway)
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Sprint car fans knew it was eventually coming, but the timing of it still likely surprised many when legendary driver Steve “The King” Kinser announced Monday night that he was retiring.

What will likely be the last race of Kinser’s storied career came at Lebanon Valley Speedway in West Lebanon, New York, where he finished sixth in the main event.

In the following video, Kinser not only shocked the fans in attendance, but also clearly caught track public address announcer John Stanley completely off-guard with his revelation.

“We thought we’d make it one more time and I’m pretty sure this will be the last race I ever run right here tonight, the last race period,” Kinser said. “I hadn’t been running many (races) this year and was planning on quitting anyway.

“I’m never going to say never but I’m pretty positive I’m going to watch Kraig (his son, also a racer), go to races and have some fun.”

The 62-year-old resident of Bloomington, Indiana is a 20-time World of Outlaws champion (won a record 577 races in the series), as well as more recently a stalwart on the All Star Circuit of Champions sprint car series owned by NASCAR champion Tony Stewart.

It was a ASCoC event at Lebanon Valley where Kinser delivered his bombshell news, according to a report by National SpeedSport News.

The 12-time Knoxville Nationals champ, whose last full-time season in the WoO was in 2014, has been racing a limited schedule both last season and in 2016.

While his career has been primarily in Sprint cars, Kinser also raced in other series including five times in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series, raced in the 1997 Indianapolis 500 (finished 14th) and in the IROC and USAC series.

Naturally, the social media world was all atwitter – no pun intended – about Kinser’s bombshell announcement:

 

 

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Can Dixon, Kanaan, Castroneves still catch Pagenaud, Power for IndyCar crown?

Can Phoenix winner and defending IndyCar champ Scott Dixon, middle, catch Simon Pagenaud or Will Power for the IndyCar championship?
(Photos courtesy IndyCar)
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In Major League Baseball, the 4-5-6 batters are typically the meat of the batting order. It’s those three players that play one of the biggest parts in determining which team becomes the ultimate champion each season.

Now, 4-5-6 in the standings of the Verizon IndyCar Series is a bit of a different matter.

Sure, fourth-ranked Scott Dixon is a four-time IndyCar champ and Indianapolis 500 winner, fifth-ranked Helio Castroneves is a three-time Indy 500 winner, and sixth-ranked Tony Kanaan is both a series champion and Indy 500 winner.

That sounds like an IndyCar equivalent of baseball’s Murderer’s Row, right?

But following Monday’s weather-rescheduled ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway, the 4-5-6 drivers in the IndyCar Series rankings have three races left to hit nothing but home runs if they hope to throw a curveball into Simon Pagenaud’s and Will Power’s championship plans.

Six points separate the trio: Dixon has 386 points, 111 points short of Pagenaud (497 points, with Power a close second at 477 points). Castroneves has 384 (-113) and Kanaan has 380 (-117).

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Scott Dixon

And let’s not forget about Josef Newgarden, sitting third at 397 points, exactly 100 markers behind Pagenaud and 80 points in arrears to Power. But Newgarden will almost certainly drop out of realistic contention with a last-place finish looming at Texas Motor Speedway after he crashed out in June, and won’t be able to restart.

The respective finishes of Dixon (sixth), Kanaan (ninth) and Castroneves (19th) at Pocono also didn’t help their championship chances, because Power won. Pagenaud failed to finish but still looms far ahead.

Right now, a maximum of 211 points is up for grabs in the remaining three races. That breaks down to 50 points each to the winner at Texas and Watkins Glen, and double points (100) to the winner of the season finale at Sonoma.

There’s also one point for the pole winner in each of the final three races, although Carlos Munoz will get that point at Texas since he got the pole there back in June.

In addition, each of the three remaining races – as all others – awards one point if a driver leads at least one lap and two points to the driver who leads the most laps.

With his win Monday, Power earned almost the maximum amount of points at Pocono, capturing 51 of a possible 54. Pagenaud, who finished 18th, earned just 13 points, allowing Power to cut Pagenaud’s lead in the standings by 38 points, more than half of what it was coming into the race (58 points).

Dixon climbed one position, from fifth to fourth, with his Pocono finish. But he knows time is running to defend last year’s championship – particularly with this being the last year for him with Target sponsorship.

Here’s what Dixon had to say after Pocono:

“We started in the rear of the field and that didn’t help our cause with the Target team. We got held up in the second to last restart and some lapped cars didn’t go when they should have and that really cost us in terms of track position for sure. We clawed our way back into the mix but with so many good cars out there it was hard to get all the way to the front to contend.”

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Tony Kanaan

Kanaan slipped slightly in the standings from fifth to sixth after his Pocono finish.

Here’s what Kanaan had to say afterwards:

“We just couldn’t catch a break during the race. Every time we’d make a run toward the front, something would go wrong. We had a mechanical issue that was affecting the fuel system and that caused a lot of problems for us. Then we lost a piece of our rear bumper pod that caused that last yellow. It just wasn’t our day.”

Lastly, Castroneves had a performance Monday that he’d rather forget. While he started strong (fourth), he was involved in a scary pit road crash not of his doing when Alexander Rossi and Charlie Kimball made contact.

Rossi, this year’s Indianapolis 500 winner, bounced off Kimball’s car and ran over the top of Castroneves’ car as he was trying to leave his pit stall.

The tires on Rossi’s car made visible marks on the top of the cockpit of Castroneves’ car and then the car continued until it had climbed over and landed back on the pavement on all four wheels. Castroneves suffered a slight bruise to his right hand but was otherwise uninjured in the scary mishap.

But his hand isn’t the thing that really hurt. Castroneves’ resulting 19th place finish saw him drop from third to fifth in the standings. Given that he’s 117 points behind Pagenaud and 97 behind Power, his Team Penske teammate, Castroneves’ hopes for his elusive first career IndyCar championship are slim, indeed – unless perhaps he wins each of the next three races.

And that still may not be enough to win it all if Pagenaud and/or Power have strong finishes in at least two of those last three.

One thing’s for certain: neither Castroneves nor Dixon or Kanaan are giving up.

Here’s what Castroneves had to say about Monday’s race, the pit road incident, as well as moving on to Texas:

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Helio Castroneves

“Inside the car, I was actually more protected than what it looked like. Sometime people don’t realize the Verizon IndyCar Series are so much about safety and today is the proof of that.

“Very glad that nobody got hurt. It’s just a shame. The Hitachi Chevy was really having a good day and we just had another good pit stop when I was coming out of the pits.

“All of a sudden there was a car on top of me. It was a little strange to be honest. The Team Penske guys worked really hard to try and fix the car but there was a lot of damage.

“It’s certainly unfortunate because this will hurt us in the championship battle but our team will never give up. We’ll move on to Texas where, fortunately, we’ve had a lot of success.”

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Carpenter’s hope for oval resurgence once again goes round in circles

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(Photo courtesy of Chris Jones/IndyCar)
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Just when he was hoping for a dramatic improvement, Ed Carpenter’s season of discontent behind the wheel continues.

The owner of Ed Carpenter Racing had high hopes for a strong finish in Monday’s weather-rescheduled ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway.

Running his usual schedule of ovals only, Carpenter qualified a respectable 10th at Pocono and had a car that in practice looked like it could be a top-10 finisher in the actual race itself.

But for the third time in his four oval races this season (Phoenix, Indianapolis, Iowa and Pocono), Carpenter and his No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet came up short due to an unspecified mechanical issue that knocked him out of the race just 57 laps into the 200-lap event.

At Phoenix, Carpenter had his best qualifying effort of the season (fifth) and managed to complete 195 of 200 laps before crashing and finishing 21st.

In the Indianapolis 500, he started 20th and finished 31st in the 33-car field when an oxygen sensor went bad just two laps from the midpoint of the 200-lap race.

Carpenter had his best outing of the year at Iowa, finishing 18th. However, he finished just 284 of the race’s 300 laps with another mechanical issue occurring on a pit stop and a bunch of time lost. The gear cluster needed to be changed.

And then came Pocono on Monday, another outcome that left Carpenter disappointed.

“Ed Carpenter Racing has performed so awesome this year and the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka car can’t catch a break,” Carpenter said after Monday’s race. “I haven’t finished a full race this season.

“I made one mistake at Phoenix, but other than that we’ve just had things happen. Some of it shouldn’t have happened and could have been avoided, so there’s just a lot of frustration.”

Carpenter has one more oval race left on his schedule: this Saturday’s resumption of the rain-delayed race at Texas Motor Speedway.

“This is one of my last two races this year and I felt really good coming into (Monday),” Carpenter said of Pocono. “I’m not going to comment on what happened specifically, it won’t do any good to talk about it out in the open. It’s just frustrating.”

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Pocono is best superspeedway finish for Bourdais since IndyCar return

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Since returning to the Verizon IndyCar Series part-time in 2011 and full-time in 2013, French driver Sebastien Bourdais has four wins in 87 starts and eight podium finishes.

But in all of those starts, Bourdais had never scored a top-five on a superspeedway.

His best finish at the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway was seventh in 2014. His best finish on Fontana’s 2-miler was 12th in 2013.

And prior to Monday, his best finish at Pocono Raceway’s 2.5-mile “tricky triangle” was 16th (2013 and 2014).

But in Monday’s weather-delayed ABC Supply 500, Bourdais achieved a career-best performance on a superspeedway, as his No. 11 Team Hydroxycut KVSH Racing Chevrolet finished fifth.

Bourdais qualified 18th but was fourth-quickest in race trim in the final practice before Monday’s rescheduled race. While he started slow, he methodically worked his way up through the field until he cracked the top-10 on Lap 91 of the 200-lap, 500-mile event.

On Lap 177, Bourdais and his team gambled on their final pit stop. Instead of a full service stop, the team went with only fuel and not tires.

That moved Bourdais up to second place from seventh and his second win of 2016 (first was Belle Isle 1) appeared a strong possibility.

While the gamble worked in theory, it was foiled by a glitch in the computer blend line software, which erroneously placed Bourdais in third on the ensuing restart.

When the green flag fell, Bourdais had a slow restart and fell back two more spots to fifth. He briefly climbed back to forth, but eventual third-place finisher Ryan Hunter-Reay passed him, relegating Bourdais to where he’d ultimately finish: in fifth.

“It was a pretty good day for the Hydroxycut – KVSH Racing Team,” Bourdais said after the race. “We took some penalties with long pit stops to set the car up early on, but even though we were marginal on front grip we were running a pretty solid race.

“We passed Dixie (Scott Dixon), passed Kanaan (Tony), passed some Penskes, not the top one, but when you do that, things are going pretty good. Then you end up finishing fifth after there was some computer confusion about our position on the restart.”

Bourdais remains 14th in the IndyCar point standings, but Monday’s finish was his eighth top-10 showing in the first 13 races of the season.

“Overall, you have to consider that it was a great day,” Bourdais said of Pocono. “It was definitely our strongest showing on a super speedway.

“We learned something this weekend, something we have been missing. The crew did a really good job and the Hydroxycut Chevy machine was really strong. So I am really happy with the result.”

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