Martinsville Update: Jimmie Johnson strong again at ‘paperclip’

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Eight-time Martinsville winner Jimmie Johnson is once again pacing the field after taking the lead just before halfway at the STP 500.

Pole sitter Kyle Busch led the opening lap, but the first caution of the day began just one lap later when Parker Kligerman crashed in an accordion-effect incident that left several drivers such as Martin Truex Jr., Austin Dillon, Justin Allgaier and Kasey Kahne with damage on their own cars.

The green returned at Lap 11, but six laps later on Lap 17, Kyle Busch was forced to give up the point to Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth, who quickly came up from sixth at the green flag. However, his time up front would not last as Johnson passed him for P1 on Lap 20.

Kenseth fell back multiple spots on the outside groove, while Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon (another eight-time winner at Martinsville) settled in the top two spots. Joey Logano would take second from Gordon, however, just before the competition caution at Lap 40.

Johnson would maintain the lead coming out of the pits, while Kahne, already in the back of the field, made slight contact with Brad Keselowski as he was coming into his box. Kurt Busch then clipped Keselowski’s car, leaving it with considerable front-end damage.

Eventually, it was decided that Keselowski needed to go to the garage and upon his return to action at Lap 77, he and Busch hounded each other repeatedly on the track.

While the former Cup champions tried to settle their dispute, Johnson maintained his grip on the race until Ricky Stenhouse Jr. wheel-hopped in Turn 1 and bounced off the wall, bringing out the caution at Lap 103.

Kenseth won the race off pit road and took the restart ahead of the field at Lap 109, but Logano took the lead from him shortly before the yellow emerged again on Lap 114. Travis Kvapil spun Michael Annett, who in turn got in the back of David Gilliland and turned him around. However, all three managed to avoid the wall.

Logano drove away on the restart at Lap 120, but was quickly reeled in by Johnson and on Lap 133, he passed Logano low to retake control of the race.

While holding the point, though, Greg Biffle began to make his presence felt and moved past Logano for second at Lap 151. Then on Lap 156, Biffle put the bumper to Johnson and pushed him out of the way in Turn 1 to take the lead.

Also impressing at this point were Marcos Ambrose and A.J. Allmendinger, who had moved into the Top 5. Ambrose (along with Aric Almirola) is looking to win for Richard Petty Motorsports, who are racing with heavy hearts after the passing of Lynda Petty earlier this week.

At Lap 170, Gilliland spun Casey Mears in Turn 1 to bring out another yellow, and in the ensuing pit stops, Ambrose was able to leapfrog Biffle for the lead. But Kenseth and Johnson once again showed their strength on the long run and on Lap 195, both of them were able to dust Ambrose for first and second respectively.

Five laps later, Dale Earnhardt Jr. got into the left rear of Jamie McMurray that caused him to lose his tire and spin hard into the Turn 2 wall to trigger the caution.

Kenseth kept the lead through pit stops, but Johnson promptly took it from him at Lap 213. On Lap 219, caution No. 7 ensued when rookie Alex Bowman spun and hit the wall in Turn 4.

Even with the short green run, the leaders returned to the pits for fresh tires while others such as Earnhardt, Allmendinger and Kurt Busch opted to stay out. Earnhardt wound up inheriting the lead, while Logano lined up fourth after winning the race out of the pits.

After going green again at Lap 226, debris slowed the field again at Lap 231 with Earnhardt, Allmendinger and Kurt Busch ahead of Johnson. But Johnson was quickly able to dispatch the trio to reclaim P1 at Lap 245.

Penske Acura duo of Ricky Taylor, Helio Castroneves win third straight

Ricky Taylor Helio Castroneves
IMSA
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Ricky Taylor and Helio Castroneves made it three consecutive victories in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, winning Sunday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course to close in on the points lead in the DPi class.

After Castroneves started on the pole position in No. 7 Acura, Taylor took the checkered flag by 0.607 seconds ahead of Felipe Nasr’s No. 31 Cadillac.

Aside from being three victories in a row for Castroneves and Taylor (who also won at Road America and Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta), it was the third consecutive victory for Team Penske at Mid-Ohio, which is the home racetrack for Acura.

Penske is in its final season with Acura, which announced this week that it’ll field DPi cars with Wayne Taylor Racing and Meyer Shank Racing next season.

“I’m just proud,” Taylor told NBC Sports reporter Dillon Welch. “Helio did an amazing job at the start, kept his cool. It’s not easy starting on the outside, but he settled in, picked people off and put us in a position to jump the 31 on a stop.

“Then I felt like we were the strongest car on track when we had new tires. It was a real team effort.”

Helio Castroneves picked up Ricky Taylor and carried him several yards down the pit lane in celebration.

Helio Castroneves carries Ricky Taylor away from their No. 7 Acura while celebrating their victory at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course (IMSA).

“This guy, I’m so proud of him,” said Castroneves, who will be returning to the NTT IndyCar Series next weekend. “The entire Team Penske, Acura, it’s a team, and today it was all about being cool.

“Last year, I had a little issue and lost my cool at the start of the race, and we threw the race away, so this time, if something happens, I know we’re going to come back, and here we are in victory circle.”

With three races remaining this season for the premier class, Castroneves and Taylor have moved to third in the standings, five points behind Renger van der Zande and Ryan Briscoe, who finished third in the No. 10 Cadillac at Mid-Ohio.

Ranked three points behind in second is Pipo Derani, who is Nasr’s teammate.

The championship race could have been tighter as Acura Penske driver Juan Pablo Montoya passed van der Zande for third after the cars banged together a few times with 10 minutes remaining.

But Montoya spun off course a few minutes later in Turn 1 and handed a podium finish back to the Wayne Taylor Racing car.

“Bashy, bashy right there,” van der Zande said. “Old school NASCAR racing, I guess. I’m not so used to that. He was very aggressive but also very very fast. It was a fantastic race for us.”

The final three races will be held at Road Atlanta, Laguna Seca and Sebring.

“It was a great third place with a lot of pressure from Montoya and Mazda and everyone really,” Briscoe said. “We’ll take the points and keep pushing. It’s so close. Can’t think too far ahead, but we’d love to get another win or two to finish out the season. There’s some really big races coming up, and this team tends to excel in the long races, so we’re looking forward to it.”

In other divisions at Mid-Ohio:

–Corvette Racing scored its first victory at the track in eight years as the No. 3 Corvette C8.R of Jordan Taylor and Antonio Garcia won from the pole position. Teammates Oliver Gavin and Tommy Milner finished second in a class that featured only four cars because of the pullout of Porsche.

It was the fourth victory this season for the No. 3 and the fifth for Corvette, which also is 1-2 in the points standings with the No. 3 ahead by 17 points.

“It was a perfect weekend for our Corvette,” Taylor told NBC Sports’ Parker Kligerman. “The car rolled off the truck really well. This was one of the tracks where we never tested at, so the preparation by the team really set us up well. … We’ve been so strong on pace and reliability.”

Said Garcia: “It’s a shame that Porsche is not here as we want them back for sure. It was a brilliant job by everyone. Jordan did a fantastic job all day long, getting on pole and then getting a solid lead even if there were a ton of yellows. The C8.R worked perfectly again today.”

–The No. 14 Lexus of AIM Vasser Sullivan won in the GTD class, moving drivers Aaron Telitz and Jack Hawksworth to the points lead. With four races remaining, Telitz trails the No. 86 Acura by two points, and Hawksworth is four points behind.