Countdown to the 2014 Sprint Cup champion has begun


Wednesday’s Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship Media Day in suburban Miami marked the official kickoff for arguably the biggest race weekend not only of 2014, but also potentially in NASCAR history.

After 35 weeks of waiting, including a nine-race playoff run-up that saw 12 of the original 16 drivers that qualified for the Chase eliminated in one of the first three rounds, the stage is set for Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

While the biggest amount of attention is in South Florida, the excitement level spans the country, from Miami to Los Angeles, from New York to Dallas and everywhere in-between.

Barring any weather issues, what will take place on late Sunday afternoon when the green flag drops will be history in the making.

While we’ve had 65 prior NASCAR Grand National and Cup championships decided over the years, we’ve never reached this kind of level, where only four drivers will battle each other – as well as 39 other drivers who may become rolling roadblocks or impediments – for the sport’s biggest prize.

On top of it all, no matter which of the four finalists – Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman – winds up winning the crown, it will be a first-ever Cup championship for the victor.

The finale is reaching the kind of crescendo NASCAR chairman/CEO Brian France predicted, with increased TV ratings and at-track attendance.

Last Sunday’s penultimate race at Phoenix was sold out nearly a week before the green flag fell.

This Sunday’s championship race is a near-sellout for the first time in several years.

While there is still some criticism by a minority number of fans, it appears the majority have not only bought into the new format, but are excited to see how it ultimately plays out Sunday.

Granted, it’s not likely NASCAR expected that the majority of its biggest stars would not be eliminated prior to the biggest race of the season, drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr., four-time champ Jeff Gordon, six-time and defending champ Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Kurt and Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and others.

But at the same time, the four-driver field we see for Sunday’s race is about as diverse as you can find.

Harvick and Newman are the wily veterans who have waited 13 and 12 years respectively to get a crack at their first-ever title.

Then there’s Denny Hamlin, who is the only one of the four who has ever won at Homestead-Miami Speedway before – in fact, he’s won twice.

And then there’s the still young and precocious Joey Logano, who not only has enjoyed a breakout season in 2014, he’s lived up to all the predictions and hype bestowed upon him by a number of big names such as Mark Martin.

There’s also a revenge or redemption factor for several of the four drivers and their teams.

Hamlin is looking to avenge how he came apart in the heat of the 2010 championship battle, forcing him to eventually see a sports psychologist to deal with the loss.

Hamlin’s crew chief, Darian Grubb, is also likely looking to prove Stewart-Haas Racing wrong for releasing him even after he led Tony Stewart to five Chase wins and the eventual championship in 2011.

Harvick is looking to do with SHR what he ultimately decided wasn’t possible at his former team residence, Richard Childress Racing, for the previous 13 seasons.

And in an ironic twist, Newman is likely looking to show SHR the wrongness of its ways when it let him go last season, only to be replaced by Kurt Busch.

To his credit, even though Newman struggled at times during this year’s regular season, he’s become the Cinderella of the Chase. And in another irony, Newman could very well do for RCR what Harvick felt he’d never be able to accomplish if he stayed with the organization: to win a championship.

Logano has his own revenge factor: he was released after the 2012 season by Joe Gibbs Racing to make room for the incoming Matt Kenseth.

And so who is in this year’s final round? Kenseth was eliminated at Phoenix, but not Logano.

Fortunately for Logano, after being released by JGR, he landed at Penske Racing, which has turned him into a championship contender after being little more than an afterthought during his four-season tenure at JGR.

All four drivers have different ways of getting ready for and planning how to attack in Sunday’s race. Check out their thoughts from Wednesday’s Chase Media Day:

MORE: Calm before the storm: Chase finalists ready for Homestead

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Strong rebounds for Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi amid some disappointments in the Indy 500


INDIANAPOLIS – Alex Palou had not turned a wheel wrong the entire Month of May at the Indy 500 until Rinus VeeKay turned a wheel into the Chip Ganassi Racing pole-sitter leaving pit road on Lap 94.

“There is nothing I could have done there,” Palou told NBC Sports. “It’s OK, when it is my fault or the team’s fault because everybody makes mistakes. But when there is nothing, you could have done differently there, it feels bad and feels bad for the team.”

Marcus Ericsson was a master at utilizing the “Tail of the Dragon” move that breaks the draft of the car behind him in the closing laps to win last year’s Indianapolis 500. On Sunday, however, the last of three red flags in the final 16 laps of the race had the popular driver from Sweden breathing fire after Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden beat him at his own game on the final lap to win the Indianapolis 500.

Despite the two disappointments, team owner Chip Ganassi was seen on pit road fist-bumping a member on his four-car team in this year’s Indianapolis 500 after his drivers finished second, fourth, sixth and seventh in the tightly contested race.

Those are pretty good results, but at the Indianapolis 500, there is just one winner and 32 losers.

“There is only one winner, but it was a hell of a show,” three-time Indianapolis 500 winner and Chip Ganassi Racing consultant Dario Franchitti told NBC Sports. “Alex was very fast, and he got absolutely caught out in somebody else’s wreck. There was nothing he could have done, but he and the 10 car, great recovery.

“Great recovery by all four cars because at half distance, we were not looking very good.”

After 92 laps, the first caution flew for Sting Ray Robb of Dale Coyne Racing hitting the Turn 1 wall.

During pit stops on Lap 94, Palou had left his stall when the second-place car driven by VeeKay ran into him, putting Palou’s Honda into the wall. The car sustained a damaged front wing, but the Chip Ganassi crew was able to get him back in the race on the lead lap but in 28th position.

Palou ultimately would fight his way to a fourth-place finish in a race the popular Spaniard could have won. His displeasure with VeeKay, whom he sarcastically called “a legend” on his team radio after the incident, was evident.

“The benefit of being on pole is you can drive straight and avoid crashes, and he was able to crash us on the side on pit lane, which is pretty tough to do, but he managed it,” Palou told NBC Sports. “Hopefully next year we are not beside him. Hopefully, next year we have a little better luck.”

Palou started on the pole and led 36 laps, just three fewer than race leader Pato O’Ward of Arrow McLaren Racing.

“We started really well, was managing the fuel as we wanted, our car was pretty good,” Palou said. “Our car wasn’t great, we dropped to P4 or P5, but we still had some good stuff.

“On the pit stop, the 21 (VeeKay) managed to clip us. Nothing we could have done there. It was not my team’s fault or my fault.

“We had to drop to the end. I’m happy we made it back to P4. We needed 50 more laps to make it happen, but it could have been a lot worse after that contact.

“I learned a lot, running up front at the beginning and in mid-pack and then the back. I learned a lot.

“It feels amazing when you win it and not so good when things go wrong. We were a bit lucky with so many restarts at the end to make it back to P4 so I’m happy with that.”

Palou said the front wing had to be changed and the toe-in was a bit off, but he still had a fast car.

In fact, his Honda was the best car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway all month. His pole-winning four lap average speed of 234.217 miles per hour around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a record for this fabled race.

Palou looked good throughout the race, before he had to scratch and claw and race his way back to the top-five after he restarted 28th.

In the Indianapolis 500, however, the best car doesn’t always win.

“It’s two years in a row that we were leading the race at the beginning and had to drop to last,” Palou said. “Maybe next year, we will start in the middle of the field and go on to win the race.

“I know he didn’t do it on purpose. It’s better to let that pass someday.”

Palou said the wild racing at the end was because the downforce package used in Sunday’s race means the drivers have to be aggressive. The front two cars can battle for the victory, but cars back in fourth or fifth place can’t help determine the outcome of the race.

That is when the “Tail of the Dragon” comes into the play.

Franchitti helped celebrate Ericsson’s win in 2022 with his “Tail of the Dragon” zigzag move – something he never had to do in any of his three Indianapolis 500 victories because they all finished under caution.

In 2023, however, IndyCar Race Control wants to make every attempt to finish the race under green, without going past the scheduled distance like NASCAR’s overtime rule.

Instead of extra laps, they stop the race with a red flag, to create a potential green-flag finish condition.

“You do what you have to do to win within the rules, and it’s within the rules, so you do it,” Franchitti said. “The race is 200 laps and there is a balance.

“Marcus did a great job on that restart and so did Josef. It was just the timing of who was where and that was it.

“If you knew it was going to go red, you would have hung back on the lap before.

“Brilliant job by the whole Ganassi organization because it wasn’t looking very good at half-distance.

“Full marks to Josef Newgarden and Team Penske.”

Franchitti is highly impressed by how well Ericsson works with CGR engineer Brad Goldberg and how close this combination came to winning the Indianapolis 500 two-years-in-a-row.

It would have been the first back-to-back Indy 500 winner since Helio Castroneves in 2001 and 2002.

“Oh, he’s a badass,” Franchitti said Ericsson. “He proved it last year. He is so calm all day. What more do you need? As a driver, he’s fast and so calm.”

Ericsson is typically in good spirits and jovial.

He was stern and direct on pit road after the race.

“I did everything right, I did an awesome restart, caught Josef off-guard and pulled away,” Ericsson said on pit lane. “It’s hard to pull away a full lap and he got me back.

“I’m mostly disappointed with the way he ended. I don’t think it was fair and safe to do that restart straight out of the pits on cold tires for everyone.

“To me, it was not a good way to end that race.

“Congrats to Josef. He didn’t do anything wrong. He is a worthy champion, but it shouldn’t have ended like that.”

Palou also didn’t understand the last restart, which was a one-start showdown.

“I know that we want to finish under green,” Palou said. “Maybe the last restart I did, I didn’t understand. It didn’t benefit the CGR team.

“I’m not very supportive of the last one, but anyway.”

Dixon called the red flags “a bit sketchy.”

“The red flags have become a theme to the end of the race, but sometimes they can catch you out,” Dixon said. “I know Marcus is frustrated with it.

“All we ask for is consistency. I think they will do better next time.

“It’s a tough race. People will do anything they can to win it and with how these reds fall, you have to be in the right place at the right time. The problem is when they throw a Red or don’t throw a Red dictates how the race will end.

“It’s a bloody hard race to win. Congrats to Josef Newgarden and to Team Penske.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500