ONE: Wine Country
After the Irish Hills of Michigan, next up on the Sprint Cup Series slate is a trip out west to beautiful Sonoma and wine country. One of the two road courses on the schedule — the other being Watkins Glen — the chance to turn left as well as right brings up a whole slew of new challenges.
For me, this is an extra special race because this is now my home track as after 13 years of living in New York City, I’ve recently moved to San Francisco. So I’m excited to go and this time it will just be as a fan and not a journalist (although I will still write on my experience.) I’ll be sitting with the one other NASCAR fan, and his father, from my office along with my wife so it should be a good time.
Most fans that I’ve spoken to either love or hate road courses. I — happily, given my new home — fall in the former category and if I had my druthers, I’d add a road course into the Chase, but that’s an argument for another day.
This time last year at Sonoma, Martin Truex, Jr. broke a six-year winless streak, leading the last 28 laps and 51 in total of the scheduled 110-lap distance. We’ve not seen a repeat winner since Jeff Gordon won three in a row (1998-2000) so while Truex will certainly be a candidate, he’ll have to go some to pick up what would be a huge victory for the single-car Furniture Row Racing team. I can’t wait for this one. Hope y’all enjoy it too.
TWO: Hard-Earned Top 5 for Kahne
With his three teammates accounting for the last five victories at the Cup level, you would be forgiven for dismissing Kasey Kahne’s fifth-place finish last Sunday — his second top 5 of what has been, for the most part, an abysmal season.
But the truth was it was anything but a routine finish for Kahne, who tangled with Kyle Larson just seven laps in, sustaining damage and going a lap down. It took most of the race — about an hour and a half as Kahne put it — but in the end he made it all the way back to a hard-earned fifth.
“[The critics] probably don’t all need to be silenced after one good run,” Kahne said post-race. “We were way too bad the first 14 or 15 races and hopefully this will get us going and we can get strong from here and make some points up and get in the Chase. That’s all we can really shoot for at this point.”
Kahne won at Sonoma back in 2009 and could do with another trip to victory lane this Sunday. That being said, despite his struggles — and certainly these are magnified when you look at how well his teammates are running — one win may be all he needs to vault himself into the Chase. Don’t rule him out. He knows how to get it done.
THREE: The Paul Menard Empire
What a weekend it was for Eau Claire, Wisc.’s own Paul Menard, who won the Nationwide race on Saturday and followed it up with an impressive third-place effort on Sunday. The win was Menard’s second ever in 184 attempts, with his only other win coming eight years and 98 races ago in June 2006 at the Milwaukee Mile, driving for Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Menard followed up his morale-boosting victory with a solid fourth place effort in the Cup race.
“We had a really consistent car all weekend,” Menard said. “I knew we had a Chevy capable of at least a top-10 finish. Slugger [Labbe] and the boys made a good call to stay out during that caution, which gave us the track position we needed.”
Sunday’s fine run was Menard’s 12th top-5 run in 11 years and 270 races, and he’s now just one more top 5 away from equaling his top 5s (three) and top 10s (nine) stat line from 2013. So things are improving, albeit at a relatively slow clip, for a driver some used to make fun of. And with that in mind, I’ll leave him the last word: “It’s definitely been a good Father’s Day weekend,” he said. “I had my daughter with me yesterday for the Nationwide Series victory and my father with me today.”
FOUR: The Sheriff Has a Bad Couple Weeks
Not since 2011 had Brian Vickers run a full season, so expectations coming into 2013 were perhaps tempered some by his time out at the top level of Cup racing. That said, Vickers did have a win last year — at New Hampshire Motor Speedway — in what was a very popular result in the garage. After 12 races this year Vickers sat in eighth place in the standings with two top 5s and five top 10s but in the past three weeks it’s been something of a horror show. At Dover, he finished dead last after his engine expired just 73 laps into the 400-lapper; Pocono was a ho-hum 19th place before another horrible finish at Michigan last Sunday (42nd) some 90 laps down after a first-lap wreck.
“It’s frustrating. I wish I knew,” said Vickers of his spin. “The car just came around going into [turn] three. I was trying to back the corner up and was taking it easy and just got loose and it just came around from me. I saved it all the way up to the wall and I thought I had it saved and ultimately it just came around and I lost it. I don’t know what happened. The car just came out from under me.”
The three poor results have dropped Vickers to 18thin the standings, but with the way this season is going all is far from lost just yet — even if it’s taken a downward turn.
FIVE: The World Cup
And finally this week, a quick word on soccer — or football as it’s rightfully known elsewhere, and I can say this as a Brit.
As most of you probably know there’s this little event going on right now called the World Cup. Now before you start to scoff, check out this article written a few days ago that suggests soccer is actually more popular than NASCAR in the U.S. Heresy to many reading this column, I realize, but from what I’ve seen there is much bigger support for soccer than most people might credit. Nearly 50 percent of the entire world’s population watched at least a minute of the last World Cup, and that makes it the most watched sport in the world. And following America’s epic 2-1 win against Ghana on Monday (the team that has knocked them out of the last two tournaments), you might just want to give it a try. With the way the competition is unfolding, you likely won’t be disappointed.