Denny Hamlin eyes Speedweeks trifecta with Daytona 500 win; 5 fail to make field

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Denny Hamlin staked his claim as the favorite to win Sunday’s Daytona 500 after capturing the second Budweiser Duel 150 Thursday at Daytona International Speedway, in addition to last Saturday’s triumph in the Sprint Unlimited.

Hamlin held off late charges by both Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch. Hamlin’s win put a decided Joe Gibbs Racing bookend on the evening, as teammate Matt Kenseth won the first of the two Duel races a couple of hours earlier.

“Just keep doing what we’re doing,” Hamlin said when asked what are his thoughts now going into Sunday’s race. “We’re on a roll obviously and we executed the race today great.”

Hamlin, who ended last season with a win at Homestead, is looking to become the first driver in Sprint Cup history to sweep all three major events of the season-opening Speedweeks: the Sprint Unlimited, one of the two Duels and cap it off with a win in the Great American Race.

But despite the success he’s had so far this year, Hamlin is not taking anything for granted, either.

“We still don’t have any more points than anyone at this point of the year, so we still have a lot of work to do,” Hamlin said.

With his runner-up showing in the second Duel Thursday night, Gordon will start sixth in Sunday’s main event, right behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne (fifth) and three spots ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr. (ninth).

“I think we snuck in there with a quiet, under the radar, very fast car that’s capable of winning this race,” Gordon said. “I like it that way. Let some of those other guys get all the attention and get that target on their back.”

Fellow HMS teammate and defending Daytona 500 winner Jimmie Johnson – who also hopes to begin his march to a record-tying seventh Sprint Cup championship on Sunday, as well – will start 32nd after running out of gas on the final lap of the second Duel and had his car hit by Jamie McMurray, triggering a multi-car wreck.

Kurt Busch will be the highest starting of the four Stewart-Haas Racing drivers in the 500, taking the green flag from the eighth spot.

Tony Stewart will start 21st, Danica Patrick 27th and Kevin Harvick, whose runner-up finish in Thursday’s first duel was disqualified for a track bar violation, will start 38th.

“It’s a great start for us,” Busch said. “Thanks to Gene Haas and Tony Stewart, it’s away we go. … We’re proud to be upfront in the Great American Race.”

Busch is still in pursuit of his first Daytona 500 victory. He came close in 2007, finishing second, pushing then-Penske Racing teammate Ryan Newman to the win.

Given how quickly he’s fit in at Stewart-Haas Racing, Busch feels at home in his new NASCAR address.

“It’s been everything I’ve hoped it to be,” Busch said. “This is a first-class organization built upon a championship foundation. It’s time to race. This is where you roll your sleeves up and where you lean on the communication of the team.”

When he was brought into the DIS media center after the second Duel, Busch was unaware that Harvick’s runner-up finish in the first Duel earlier in the evening had been disqualified after failing post-race inspection due having “exceeded the maximum split on the track bar,” according to NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp.

Busch tried to add some levity to the incident, saying with a laugh, “Oh, that’s not good. Maybe there was a 12-pack in the trunk.”

The younger Busch brother, Kyle, was not laughing, though, finishing 21st of 24 drivers in the second duel. Kyle Busch will ultimately start Sunday’s race from the 37th position, alongside Harvick, ironically enough.

Austin Dillon will lead the field to the green flag from the pole position in Sunday’s 500-mile season-opener, with Martin Truex Jr. alongside on the front row.

Kenseth and Hamlin will share Row 2, Kasey Kahne and Gordon on Row 3, Marcos Ambrose and Kurt Busch on Row 4 and Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Paul Menard will start from Row 5.

(Full starting grid at bottom of this story)

Five drivers failed to qualify for the race: Eric McClure, Ryan Truex, Joe Nemechek, Michael McDowell and Morgan Shepherd, who was attempting to make the field as the oldest driver to ever race in a 500 (Shepherd is 72).

Starting lineup for 56TH Daytona 500 on Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014:

Row 1

Austin Dillon, Martin Truex Jr.

Row 2

Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin

Row 3

Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon

Row 4

Marcos Ambrose, Kurt Busch

Row 5

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Paul Menard

Row 6

Josh Wise, Brian Scott

Row 7

Aric Almirola, Trevor Bayne

Row 8

AJ Allmendinger, Kyle Larson

Row 9

David Gilliland, Landon Cassill

Row 10

Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer

Row 11

Tony Stewart, Jamie McMurray

Row 12

Cole Whitt, Terry Labonte

Row 13

Greg Biffle, Bobby Labonte

Row 14

Danica Patrick, Casey Mears

Row 15

Alex Bowman, Carl Edwards

Row 16

Brian Vickers, Jimmie Johnson

Row 17

Brad Keselowski, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Row 18

Joey Logano, Michael Annett

Row 19

Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick

Row 20

Reed Sorenson, Justin Allgaier

Row 21

Parker Kligerman, Michael Waltrip

Row 22

David Ragan

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INDYCAR Preview – KOHLER Grand Prix

Photo: IndyCar
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One of the great road courses in the United States, Road America, plays host to the next round of the Verizon IndyCar Series – the KOHLER Grand Prix (Sunday June 24, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

A staple of IndyCar between 1982 and 2007, IndyCar returned to Road America amidst great fanfare in 2016. And the two visits since its return have not disappointed.

Will Power held off a hard-charging Tony Kanaan to win in 2016, while Graham Rahal survived a thrilling battle for third to round out the podium. And last year, Scott Dixon made an outstanding outside pass on Josef Newgarden in Turn 1 to take the lead on a late-race restart, and he held on to win from there – it was also his only victory of 2017.

And if the previous road and street courses are any indication, Sunday’s race could be another thriller on the 4.048-mile road course.

Major talking points ahead of the KOHLER Grand Prix are below.

The Rise of Dixon

Scott Dixon celebrates victory in the DXC Technology 600. Photo: IndyCar

The 2018 IndyCar season is beginning look a lot like a Scott Dixon year.

After a somewhat slow start to his season, Dixon caught fire in the month of May. He finished second at the INDYCAR Grand Prix, then third at the Indianapolis 500.

He followed that up with a ferocious first two weeks of June, winning Race 1 of the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit and finishing fourth in Race 2. He followed that up by dominating the second half of the DXC Technology 600 at Texas Motor Speedway to take his second win of the season, and his second in three races.

That stretch has put Dixon into the championship lead for the first time this season. And he is also the defending winner of the KOHLER Grand Prix, after passing then leader Josef Newgarden on a late-race restart, so he likely enters the weekend as the favorite.

“Obviously I’m happy with where the team has been running these past few weekends, but we’ve been there the whole season. We just haven’t shown the results for one reason or another,” Dixon explained. “While most had the weekend off, we had the opportunity to compete again at Le Mans, which is a very special deal. So now we’re back, and after a few short days at home, it’s Road America. We had a great car here last year picking up the win for the No. 9 team, and I’m hoping we can do it again this weekend with the PNC Bank car.”

Dixon won’t go nearly as far as to talk anything championship-related at the moment, but a fifth championship is most certainly possible.

Road America Could Become Very Tire-some

Tire strategy will likely be at the forefront in Road America. Photo: IndyCar

The primary “black” and alternate “red” Firestone tires have created genuinely intriguing racing in recent weeks.

The difference in grip levels between them saw Will Power and Robert Wickens engage in a fantastic and tactical mid-race duel at the INDYCAR Grand Prix, and it created a lot of drama across both races in Belle Isle, culminating in Ryan Hunter-Reay’s charge to victory in Race 2.

And last year’s KOHLER Grand Prix ultimately came down to tire strategy. The aforementioned Dixon passed Newgarden because he was on the alternate “red” tires, while Newgarden was on the primary “blacks” – Newgarden also took the lead earlier in the race using the same tactic, getting onto reds when other leaders were on blacks, which helped him pass Helio Castroneves for the lead.

It’s within reason to think this weekend at Road America will be more of the same.

Newgarden’s Season Slipping Away?

Josef Newgarden. Photo: IndyCar

Josef Newgarden entered the month of May on a hot streak, having won two of the opening four races to lead the championship as the series headed to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The wheels have metaphorically come off a bit since then. He finished 11th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix after spinning late in the race, eighth at the Indy 500, ninth and 15th in Detroit, and 13th at Texas Motor Speedway.

That stretch has dropped him from the championship lead to fifth in the standings, 68 points off Dixon for the title lead.

If he is to get himself back into title contention, he’ll need to get back on the podium this weekend. And fortunately for Newgarden, the Road America circuit ranks at the top of his personal favorites.

“I’m not shy on saying that Road America is probably my favorite track. I really love racing there. It’s a fun road course with a lot of great INDYCAR fans, so what’s not to love?” Newgarden asserted. “These cars with the new aero kit have been super exciting on road courses and this weekend will be no different. The entire No. 1 Verizon Chevy team and I are pumped to get on track there. I thought we were strong at Texas after not living up to our standards at Detroit, but we just ran out of luck. Myself and the entire team are ready to really come back strong to gain more points to continue our hunt for another championship.”

Misc.

  • Ryan Hunter-Reay is quietly beginning to put together a title-contending year. Outside of a 20th at Long Beach, and 18th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix, Hunter-Reay’s worst finish is fifth (three times), and he three podiums to his name, including his Detroit Race 2 victory. He sits 49 points behind Dixon, well within striking distance. This is about the time of the year when he started his title run back in 2012, which culminated in a series championship for him, and 2018 could be headed in that direction.
  • Graham Rahal sits sixth in the standings, 107 points back. His crash in Detroit Race 1 undoubtedly hurt his title chances, but he has been incredibly consistent outside of that, finishing inside the Top 10 at every other race. However, he’ll need some victories later in the year if he is to put himself back in the title picture.
  • Juncos Racing returns to the grid, with Alfonso Celis making his IndyCar debut. A standout and race winner in World Series Formula V8 3.5, he previously raced with Juncos in Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires at Barber Motorsports Park, where he finished seventh and eighth.

The Final Word…

From Robert Wickens, who made his IndyCar debut in Friday practice last year at Road America – he subbed for Mikhail Aleshin, who was delayed in arriving at Road America following the 24 Hours of Le Mans:

“I’m really looking forward to Road America. I think, in the last few races, we’ve shown our potential. We’ve shown that we’re quick. Now we need to try to get back on the podium. Road America is always a fun track, and it’s where I got my first taste of INDYCAR with SPM so I can’t wait to actually race the Lucas Oil car here.”

Here’s the IndyCar weekend schedule:

At-track schedule (all times local):

Friday, June 22
11:00-11:45 a.m. (12:00-12:45 p.m. ET) – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #1, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
3:15-4:15 p.m. (4:15-5:15 p.m. ET) – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #2, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)

Saturday, June 23
11:00-11:45 a.m. (12:00-12:45 p.m. ET) – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #3, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
3:00 p.m. (4:00 p.m. ET) – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (three rounds of knockout qualifying), NBCSN (5:30 p.m. same-day delay)

Sunday, June 24
11:30 a.m. (12:30 p.m. ET) – NBCSN on-air
12:05 p.m. (1:05 p.m. ET) – KOHLER Grand Prix (55 laps/220.77 miles), NBCSN (Live)

Here’s last year’s Top 10:

1. Scott Dixon
2. Josef Newgarden
3. Helio Castroneves
4. Simon Pagenaud
5. Will Power
6. Charlie Kimball
7. Ed Jones
8. Graham Rahal
9. Max Chilton
10. Mikhail Aleshin

Here’s last year’s Firestone Fast Six:

1. Helio Castroneves
2. Will Power
3. Josef Newgarden
4. Simon Pagenaud
5. Scott Dixon
6. Graham Rahal

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