Denny Hamlin’s back on track with win at Talladega

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Denny Hamlin is the latest “wild card” to emerge victorious at NASCAR’s most unpredictable track.

Hamlin had earned just two Top-10 finishes in his first eight events of 2014, but today at Talladega Superspeedway, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver became the eighth driver so far to effectively clinch a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup by winning the Aaron’s 499 under caution.

Hamlin and Kevin Harvick had led the field to the green on the final restart with three laps left, but as the white flag was waving, jostling in the pack behind them led to Justin Allgaier getting spun out in the tri-oval.

A large piece of apparent bodywork from Allgaier’s car ended up landing in front of the start/finish line, causing NASCAR to throw the yellow as the field raced down the backstretch.

That sealed it for Hamlin, who earned his first career win at Talladega – and his first points race win on a restrictor-plate track – in his 300th career Sprint Cup start.

“We really just want to win races, regardless of the implications it [has] for the Chase,” said Hamlin, who won the exhibition Sprint Unlimited at Daytona that preceded his runner-up in the season-opening Daytona 500.

“It feels good to be back in Victory Lane in a points-paying event…My pit crew’s done an awesome job and picked me up spots every single week and they did again today.

“Strategically, we saw that things were getting heavy in the middle part of the race and those guys got in a wreck and we were able to avoid that, and just played our cards right. [Crew chief] Darian [Grubb] made the right strategy.”

The intensity cranked up a notch after a multi-car incident with 14 laps to go that had defending series champion Jimmie Johnson spin out and collect last spring’s Talladega winner, David Ragan, as well as Richmond winner Joey Logano, Kurt Busch, and Michael McDowell.

After Harvick used the pace car to get rid of trash that had stuck on his car’s grille under the subsequent caution, he and Hamlin were up front at the restart with eight laps to go.

But just two laps later, Carl Edwards (who had waved his hand out the window to indicate that his car was having a problem) spun upward into the path of Ryan Newman in Turn 1 to trigger another late yellow and set up the ultimately curtailed dash to the end.

Greg Biffle led a race-high 58 laps en route to a runner-up finish and his second Top-5 in the last three races. Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers gave Michael Waltrip Racing third and fourth in a solid day team-wise, and A.J. Allmendinger turned in an impressive fifth-place result.

Harvick faded to seventh behind Paul Menard, while Kasey Kahne, top rookie Kyle Larson, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. completed the Top 10.

Danica Patrick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. gave the ‘Dega Nation some thrills by leading at various points of the race, with Patrick becoming the first female driver ever to lead at Talladega

But ultimately, NASCAR’s most popular drivers were unable to escape the pack in the closing laps. Patrick wound up 22nd while Earnhardt finished 26th. They combined to lead 32 of the 188 laps (Earnhardt 26, Patrick 6).

NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES AT TALLADEGA
Aaron’s 499 – Unofficial Results
1. Denny Hamlin, led 12 laps
2. Greg Biffle, led 58 laps
3. Clint Bowyer
4. Brian Vickers, led 6 laps
5. AJ Allmendinger
6. Paul Menard, led 10 laps
7. Kevin Harvick, led 15 laps
8. Kasey Kahne
9. Kyle Larson
10. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
11. Landon Cassill, led 1 lap
12. Kyle Busch, led 1 lap
13. Aric Almirola
14. Casey Mears, led 3 laps
15. Austin Dillon
16. Michael Annett
17. Martin Truex Jr.
18. Ryan Newman, led 1 lap
19. Marcos Ambrose, led 3 laps
20. Josh Wise
21. Cole Whitt
22. Danica Patrick, led 6 laps
23. Jimmie Johnson, led 2 laps
24. Terry Labonte
25. Michael Waltrip
26. Dale Earnhardt Jr., led 26 laps
27. Justin Allgaier
28. Alex Bowman, Lap 187, Accident
29. Jamie McMurray, -1 lap
30. Carl Edwards, Lap 182, Accident, led 6 laps
31. Ryan Truex, Lap 182, Accident, -6 laps
32. Joey Logano, Lap 174, Accident, led 25 laps
33. Kurt Busch, Lap 174, Accident
34. Reed Sorenson, Lap 174, Accident, led 1 lap
35. David Ragan, Lap 174, Accident, led 1 lap
36. Michael McDowell, Lap 174, Accident, led 1 lap
37. Matt Kenseth, Lap 171, Running
38. Brad Keselowski, Lap 160, Running
39. Jeff Gordon, Lap 156, Running
40. David Gilliland, Lap 150, Engine
41. Trevor Bayne, Lap 136, Accident
42. Brian Scott, Lap 136, Accident
43. Tony Stewart, Lap 136, Accident

INDYCAR: Zach Veach ready for stronger second half of season

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If you hear Zach Veach humming or even singing The Beatles’ “Penny Lane” this weekend at Road America, there’s a jolly good reason for it, as they say in England.

Much like the way teammate Alexander Rossi has nicknamed his car “Baby Girl,” Veach has nicknamed his road and street course car “Penny Lane,” thanks in part to his girlfriend being a huge Beatles fan who has helped Veach also become a fan.

The Stockdale, Ohio native also has a nickname for his speedway car: “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.”

Veach has had a tough rookie season in the Verizon IndyCar Series. He comes into this weekend’s Kohler Grand Prix in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, ranked 15th in the standings with 147 points, but an already massive 210 points behind series leader Scott Dixon.

He could easily sing The Beatles’ “Help!”, given how the season has gone so far.

The 23-year-old Veach’s best finish – and only top-10 showing thus far in 2018 – has been fourth at Long Beach – in “Penny Lane” of course, a finish he hopes to equal, if not improve upon, Sunday in central Wisconsin.

He’s struggled since Long Beach, though, failing to finish higher than 12th in the following six races: 13th at Birmingham, 23rd in both the Indianapolis Grand Prix and Indy 500, 12th and 13th at Detroit’s Belle Isle and 16th at Texas.

He also finished 16th in each of the season’s first two races at St. Petersburg and Phoenix.

But Veach hopes to be singing another Beatles song on the 4.048-mile road course: “Twist and Shout” in hopes of having a strong finish on the twisting 14-turn kettle moraine course.

Zach Veach, driver of the #26 Relay Group 1001 Honda, practices for the DXC Technology 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 8, 2018. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

Veach has a good reason to be optimistic for success at Road America.

“Road America has actually been pretty good to us in USF 2000 and Indy Lights,” Veach said. “I think we have four or five podiums there. In 2016 (racing for Belard Auto Racing), we set the track record in Lights, won the first race and finished third in the second. I’m hoping that speed continues (in Sunday’s IndyCar race).”

While he acknowledges this season’s struggles thus far, Veach also knows he’s learning and improving.

“I think the biggest thing is the braking capabilities of the Indy car,” he said. “You’re going from steel rotors (in Lights) to carbon pads. Honestly, it feels like you can brake 150 feet deeper going into a corner with an Indy car, but at the same time, you’re also going into that corner 40 to 50 mph faster in an Indy car than in a Lights car.

“Our first year in Indy Lights wasn’t anything spectacular, and then we came back and almost won a championship. I think that’s just the way I go about things. I take inches at a time instead of miles, but I feel like we’re getting to that point where we need to be in IndyCar.”

Veach is no stranger to Andretti Autosport, having raced with the team from 2010 to 2014 and then signed a three-year contract to drive in the Verizon IndyCar Series last fall.

“To have the opportunity to race with Andretti is almost perfect for me as far as growth and development,” Veach said. “With the three teammates I have and the skill and experience they have, it’s allowed my learning curve to accelerate that much quicker.

“That’s the tough thing. It’s a rookie season and when I look back at it and look at numbers, you may say things didn’t look good at certain races. But when I look back at them, I say to myself where that’s when I did my best fuel save, or that’s when I figured out how to fix an issue with braking. There’s so much I’ve picked up.

“But I feel like these last two race weekends have been arguably the most comfortable I’ve felt. Detroit, I was looking so great for 12th and 13th, and Texas, racing from 16th to 3rd and then I made a mistake (finished 16th). I finally feel confident enough to say I can race these guys and can race them hard and the car is finally starting to feel small, if you want to say that, like I’m driving the car instead of being stuck behind somebody else.”

While he’s learned from all of his Andretti Autosport teammates — Rossi, Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay — Veach feels he is closest to fellow young driver, Rossi.

“We’re both on the younger side of the spectrum of our teammates,” Veach said of Rossi. “And he’s the newest guy learning IndyCar, so he got that experience a little sooner than the other guys as far as time.

“For me, I’m in much the same position he was in two years ago. He’s been real helpful in helping me get up to speed.”

With eight more races remaining in the season, Veach’s primary goal is to finish his first full IndyCar season in the top-10. He’s currently 66 points behind the 10th-ranked driver, teammate Marco Andretti.

“If we could be top-10 in the championship, that’d be great, that’s what we’re hoping for,” Veach said. “We want to try and be consistently in the top-10 in the second half (of the season) in race results, too. And if we could get some top-fives, that would be fantastic.

“We just have to keep improving on qualifying, which shows how well you understand the car and how you can get the most out of it. I feel our race speed has been good, but when you’re starting at or near the back, it’s hard to move forward.”

Even so, there’s still good reason for optimism for Veach.

“Andretti always gives its drivers some of the best cars, so at the end of the day, it comes down to you learning as much as you can and learning as much as you can get out of a race-winning car,” he said. “I’ve just been lucky. This is my sixth season with Andretti if you count the ladder series, and it always has felt like a family.”

And if he has a strong finish Sunday at Road America, don’t be surprised if Veach hums or sings another Beatles song, “I Feel Fine,” as he leaves the legendary road course.

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