Race Weekend Central

Pace Laps: NASCAR’s Pole Prosperity, Thorsport Top Dog And Japanese Joy

Did you miss an event during this busy week in racing? How about a late-night press release, an important sponsorship rumor, or a juicy piece of news? If you did, you’ve come to the right place! Each week, The Frontstretch will break down the racing, series by series, to bring you the biggest stories that you need to watch going forward for the week ahead. Let our experts help you get up to speed, no matter what series you might have missed, all in this edition of Pace Laps!

Sprint Cup: It IS Where You Start – That’s Where You Finish Matt Kenseth’s dominating Cup victory at Kansas, leading 163 of 267 laps hardly came as a surprise. After all, the No. 20 team had already won Las Vegas, establishing themselves as a threat on intermediates and been in contention at virtually every race this year.

Matt Kenseth’s pole at Kansas turned into a Sunday victory – the third weekend in a row we’ve seen that happen in Sprint Cup.

But what was a big deal, on the stats sheet was the fact Kenseth breezed to victory from the pole. It was the third straight time that’s happened, piling on pole position triumphs from teammate Kyle Busch (Kansas) and current points leader Jimmie Johnson (Martinsville). Not since 1985, a three-race streak culminating in Bill Elliott’s Winston Million victory at Darlington have we had that qualifying success translate in the series.

Back then, it was a different era, with virtually half the cars holding the ability to win each week we have now. That makes the feat for all three drivers more impressive, considering they all earned an extra bonus point for leading the most laps in their respective event. In all, during this 2013 streak the pole sitters have led 680 of 1,101 total laps run, an astounding 61.7 percent clip. And if you look at the drivers leading the way overall this season? Kyle Busch, with two wins already has a league-leading 5.4 average start, followed by point leader Jimmie Johnson (9.4) and current points runner-up, along with Sunday’s second-place finisher Kasey Kahne (9.5).

It’s hard to make that a 100 percent indictment on NASCAR’s Gen-6 chassis. At Kansas, there was an ability to pass on restarts and during short runs; Brad Keselowski, in the closing laps made a spirited charge to sixth after falling a lap behind at one point. Any passing issues, once green-flag conditions unfolded were more due to high speeds, based on the track’s recent repaving along with a “rock hard” compound from Goodyear. But if NASCAR’s looking to prove this chassis results in more competition up front, keeping the leader from escaping into clean air and away from the field, well, these numbers aren’t the ones you bring up at Monday’s board meeting. The Gen-6 has showed tremendous progress in 2013, but realities like these show there’s a long way to go in its mission to ensure parity creeps all the way up to the most important position on the racetrack: first place. Tom Bowles

IndyCar Series: Breakthrough Win For Sato A Sign Of Things To Come? When it was announced over the offseason that Takuma Sato was teaming up with AJ Foyt to run the old legend’s No. 14 car for 2013, many followers of the IZOD IndyCar Series took on a collective look of puzzlement. Sato’s near-reckless on-track temperament would most certainly not mesh well with AJ’s stern, short-fused, no-nonsense management style, right?

Perhaps that still is the case, but for the time being, things are clicking at AJ Foyt Enterprises, and it all starts with Sato. The Japanese ace sits second in points, and for the first time in his IZOD IndyCar Series career, we can call him a winner. His Long Beach win on Sunday was pure domination, and it was emblematic of a driver that finally “gets it.” Sato long displayed this type of promise, but everything from overdriving, poor team chemistry, and flat-out bad luck prevented him from reaching full potential. For those reasons, getting over the hump had to be just that much sweeter, because for what seems like the first time in his entire racing career, everything finally went Takuma Sato’s way in a race. Heck, this whole season has gone Sato’s way, resulting in a history-making moment: the first Japanese-born IndyCar driver to win. With his country still recovering, from a deadly earthquake an emotional Sato had some heartfelt quotes that connected this day to the healing process in his home country.

But that healing process could also apply to himself, the organization, and the heights they could soon achieve. Yes, his team owner is still volatile, and Sato himself is still a loose cannon on-track, but things are clicking at AJ Foyt Enterprises, and when you have momentum, it can cure all ills. Sato and Co. have that in spades right now, and with the biggest race on the calendar just a little over a month away, it could take them to a milk-drinking moment both have been dreaming of for far too long. Matt Stallknecht

Nationwide Series: Series Vacation For Only Some The NASCAR Nationwide Series was off yet again this past weekend, but that didn’t necessarily mean all drivers stayed away from the track. Sam Hornish, Jr., Nelson Piquet, Jr. and Kyle Larson all tested their race cars at a few of the series’ tracks, with Hornish taking his Penske No. 12 to Mid-Ohio while the Turner Scott duo chose to make some laps at Darlington.

Hornish, the series points leader, had an additional task ahead of him: a start in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. He and fellow full-time Nationwide competitor Elliott Sadler made their season debuts Sunday at Kansas, Hornish piloting the familiar SKF No. 12 for Penske while Sadler trotted out a new fourth team for Joe Gibbs Racing, numbered 81 and sponsored by ALERT Energy Gum. Although both fared well in making the field, Hornish even qualifying a highly respectable fourth, the actual race wasn’t nearly so kind. Both crashed out of the event, in separate incidents en route to 37th and 40th-place finishes, respectively. Regan Smith, running for Phoenix Racing’s No. 51 did slightly better; he ran a lap down in 22nd.

Will all that extra activity, keeping their driving skills sharp help them out this Friday? That’s when the series returns to action this weekend at Richmond, with the top five drivers in the championship — Hornish, Regan Smith, Austin Dillon, Justin Allgaier, and Brian Scott — separated by a mere nine points. Kyle Busch, meanwhile, looks to win his fourth Nationwide race in a row, providing plenty of storylines ahead for many drivers who hope an off week of “practice” makes perfect. Kevin Rutherford

Camping World Truck Series: Thorsport Taking Series By Storm Saturday at Kansas was supposed to be about reigning champion James Buescher. The defending race winner, his No. 31 virtually dominated every practice session, won the pole and looked rock solid shortly after the drop of the green. No doubt, Kansas’ race organizers already had the trophy engraved in his name.

Truck Series competition better watch out – Kansas winner Matt Crafton of Thorsport is as fired up as he’s ever been.

So what happened? Simple: Thorsport stole it, right from under his nose. Here’s one better; if Buescher doesn’t watch it, they’ll be taking the reins on his championship title before we even get to early summer. Matt Crafton was masterful Saturday, seizing an opportunity on a late-race restart to edge out ahead in an SFP 250 that turned into a battle for survival. During the closing stages, the veteran experience of Crafton, along with teammate Johnny Sauter made a difference while many around them looked every bit as inexperienced as their twentysomething ages might suggest. Restarts, typically a nail-biting affair proved to be every bit their forte, handing Crafton just his third career victory in 298 series starts while Buescher faded back through traffic. He still does not have a top-5 finish, sitting sixth in points after four series starts. Thorsport? They have six, combined between Sauter and Crafton en route to the top two spots in series points.

Fired up, after a race victory performance Crafton spent his Media Center moments jumping in between thank yous, trash talking, and loudly proclaiming his team has turned around 2012 struggles while creating a championship contender outside the Charlotte, NC NASCAR hub.

“Everybody said it can’t be done,” he said of his longtime loyalty to a team that’s build its home base out in Sandusky, Ohio. “And we are making fools out of all the ones that said it can’t be done.”

I’ll tell you what; this team is making darn sure they accomplish it as quickly as possible. Sauter, a mere 12 points on top of Crafton took a Kansas truck that was junk, ill-handling from the start and brought it home fifth. What’s amazing is that’s the worst finish he has so far this season. Crafton, who’s got four top 10s himself has nearly been step for step on that pace.

CRAFTON: Opening Up On His Strong Start

Those types of boastful numbers, put together week after week is what earns you distance early in a division where championship catchup is hard to play. Already, third-place Jeb Burton, a rookie sits 25 points behind Sauter while Buescher is a full race’s worth of points behind. With some superb racetracks for Thorsport in the offing, including Charlotte – another track where Crafton has won – they’re threatening to make this year’s pursuit of the title a rare runaway with just four of 22 races complete. Tom Bowles

Editor’s Note: It was reported Sunday that Johnny Sauter’s fuel cell was confiscated by NASCAR during the Kansas inspection process. There’s no word on possible penalties, but points deductions for this type of thing have historically been applied in the past.

Short Tracks: Richmond’s Undercard Hardly Underwhelming Local short tracks, we love you; but this week, one of NASCAR’s big guns takes center stage. Some of the best short track racing of the season will take place this coming Thursday at Richmond International Raceway, little events getting a big chance to shine under the lights of this legendary 3/4-mile oval. The Denny Hamlin Short Track Showdown and K&N East Series will both run races Thursday night at RIR. While they won’t be shown live on television this year, the competition still promises to be outstanding. Richmond’s K&N event, won by Brett Moffitt last season is usually the best race on their schedule, hands down. Paired along with it, the Short Track Showdown, filled with All-Stars and promising youngsters almost always has a surprise development to make it memorable.

But don’t just take my word for it; for K&N, simply see the video. Last year’s edition saw cars three-wide coming out of Turn 4, to the checkered flag while the Showdown saw Ben Rhodes showcase his talents for the first time on a national stage, fending off Greg Edwards for the upset. So if you are heading to Richmond for the racing this weekend, you’d be well served to hit the track a day early to see the best side-by-side action of the whole weekend. The races on Thursday start with the K&N East division, at 7:00PM followed by the Short Track Showdown at roughly 8:30. In addition, there is a K&N autograph session at 3:00 PM; meet ‘n’ greet with some of the drivers who will one day soon be competing on Sundays. Mike Neff

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