Race Weekend Central

Pace Laps: A 2nd Chance to Make a 1st Impression, Ending a Dry Spell

Sprint Cup Series: We all need a second chance sometimes – For 19-year-old Chase Elliott, Sunday afternoon at Richmond International raceway was his second-career Sprint Cup Series start – the first he will like to remember after a troublesome Martinsville debut in March.

Advancing to Round 2 of Coors Light qualifying on Friday afternoon, Elliott would be the second-highest driver in the successful Hendrick Motorsports team, lining up 16th for the Toyota Owners 400.

“We gave it a good effort and picked up our second time out but it wasn’t enough (to advance to the final 12-driver round),” Elliott said after qualifying. “Hopefully we can improve upon where we start and try to move forward.”

Competing in his first double-duty weekend, Elliott qualified seventh and finished fifth in Friday’s Xfinity Series race, stretching a streak of seven top 10s in a row.

The Sprint Cup race, originally scheduled to be a Saturday night race, was postponed by rain to become a Sunday afternoon show under the sun. Elliott and the No. 25 team showed impressive pace all throughout the day and even passed teammates Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. on multiple occasions.

A savvy avoidance of a lap 371 accident between Tony Stewart and Earnhardt Jr. would set Elliott up for a possible top-15 finish with the laps winding down. However, the No. 25 NAPA Chevrolet found speed in the longer green-flag runs, which proved to be a negative in the final 50 laps of the race, which had three cautions.

“Our car was pretty good late into a run, and like I said, they never come down to short runs,” Elliott said. “I think that was the biggest mistake I made today was just not making the right adjustments or not giving the right information to try to go fast on a short run.”

Nevertheless, it was not a massive injury to the team’s final result. Finishing 16th, the same position in which he started, Elliott had a very solid day on the Virginia short track.

“Lesson learned, and we’ll try to get better for the next one,” said Elliott who returns to Sprint Cup competition next on Memorial Day weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway.- Zach Catanzareti

Xfinity Series: Rising up to the Occasion at Richmond – In another race dominated by a Cup Series regular, Richmond provided little chance for the Xfinity Series regulars to outshine their counterparts on Friday evening. Denny Hamlin – coming off a neck injury at Bristol – led 248 of the 250 laps for Joe Gibbs Racing. For the second straight race, passing was at a minimum, which continues to be caused by a competition package that has experienced few changes over the past decade.

Ty Dillon extended his championship lead, finishing ninth for Richard Childress Racing. Entering Richmond, he was tied for the top spot with Roush Fenway Racing’s Chris Buescher. However, a lengthy evening provided Buescher with a 20th-place result, which is his worst performance on the year. His rough race gave reigning champion Elliott an opportunity to gain ground in the title hunt. Finishing fifth, Elliott took over the runner-up position in the standings, and sits a mere eight markers behind Dillon.

The underdogs were on it once again at Richmond as well. Coming off a runner-up finish at Bristol, Daniel Suarez ran inside the top 10 throughout the 250-lap race and finished sixth. Landon Cassill, who entered Richmond with a best finish of 17th on the year, earned his first top 10 of 2015 for JD Motorsports. Brennan Poole finished 13th in the No. 42 car, which increased his average finish to 14.4 in five starts. Jeremy Clements finished 14th for his self-owned team, which marks his second straight top 15. – Joseph Wolkin

IndyCar: A BATTLE OF AMERICAN TALENTS – There are a few theories that pundits in the INDYCAR world like to throw around for why the sport is in the dire straits it finds itself in in the current day and age. You all probably know what most of them are and have heard 17 different takes on them, so I’ll spare you the explanation for each one.

One of the more attractive theories for INDYCAR’s demise was the lack of talented homegrown American drivers. If that is indeed the case, then INDYCAR got a much needed jolt on Sunday.

Sunday’s race at Barber was unquestionably the most arresting and exciting race of the still-young 2015 season, and that is all because of two young American drivers: Josef Newgarden and Graham Rahal. Newgarden’s surprise performance coupled with Rahal’s furious late-race charge to battle for the win was exactly the kind of organic drama that this series has so desperately lacked in recent years, especially from American drivers. The race felt like a throwback to the old days, when titans of American motorsports with names like Foyt, Unser and Andretti fought hammer and tong on a weekly basis in North America’s premier racing series. The reality is that this series needs big-time American drivers to do well in order to capture the interest of an American audience. There’s really no way around that one, especially when the biggest names in American racing are in a rival series (NASCAR).

Granted, it’s not like Newgarden or Rahal are going to save INDYCAR, but that’s not the point. The point is that there was a palpable buzz after Sunday’s race, a welcome sign of a better future for the sport carried by American drivers who actually carry some relevance to the sport’s wider audience.

If nothing else, it was a start. – Matt Stallknecht

NHRA: Kalitta Strong and Byrnes Strong – Kalitta Motorsports showed their support for the larger motorsports family by carrying the #ByrnesStrong logo in support of NASCAR reporter Steve Byrnes on all of their cars at Royal Purple Raceway for the O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA SpringNationals at Royal Purple Raceway, and ended up carrying it all the way to a win in Top Fuel with driver Doug Kalitta.

Kalitta defeated rival driver Tony Schumacher in the finals with a 3.820-second, 324.98-mph pass to Schumacher’s 4.014 seconds, 225.60 mph. He also ran by Troy Buff, Larry Dixon and Spencer Massey on his way to the finals. It was a much needed shot in the arm for Kalitta and team, who have gotten off to a sluggish start on the season. It’s also the first time Kalitta has defeated Schumacher in a final round since 2003, a stretch during which they have met in the final round ten times.

“I’ve had a couple dry spells,” said Kalitta. “It’s one of those deals where you never know when you’re going to win one of these, so you have to appreciate the opportunity and appreciate these wins when you get them. It’s a good feeling. Tony’s a tough competitor, and here lately, we’ve had a tough time getting around him. Hopefully, this is a sign of things to come.”

Kalitta also played spoiler to another Don Schumacher Racing sweep with his defeat of Schumacher, who was hoping to join Funny Car teammate Ron Capps in hoisting the Wally.

Capps faced off in an all-DSR Funny Car final against teammate Jack Beckman and took the win with a 4.244-second, 258.32-mph pass when both drivers struggled with tire spin. He also defeated John Hale, Matt Hagan and Robert Hight en route to the final round. The seminfinal matchup with Hight proved to be a stellar race. Both drivers posted E.T.s of 4.084 seconds but the margin came down to one-thousandth of a second that Capps grabbed off the starting line, a distance of about seven inches at the finish line.

Erica Enders-Stevens scored her second consecutive victory in Pro Stock when she beat Chris McGaha who was making his first final round appearance. Enders-Stevens took the win with a pass of 6.571 seconds, 211.73 mph to McGaha’s 6.674 seconds, 207.91 mph. She also defeated Allen Johnson, Vincent Nobile and Jonathan Gray to make it to the final.

The “Busting Your Tail” award also goes to Enders-Stevens’s Elite Motorsports team. When a miss was heard in the engine during a warm-up in the pits prior to the seminfinal round, the team elected to change it in spite of the tight time frame. They completed the engine change in about 11 minutes, and had Enders-Stevens to the starting line on time. – Toni Montgomery

Short Tracks: Two races benefiting good causes took place in the Commonwealth of Virginia late in the week, and both featured a bit of controversy in the late stages. The eighth running of the Denny Hamlin Short Track Showdown at South Boston Speedway saw NASCAR Camping World Truck Series regular Timothy Peters escape with the victory after a fierce battle with numerous competitors in the closing laps. The race would not be decided until the final corner when JR Motorsports driver Josh Berry got into the back of multi-time NASCAR Whelen All-American Series national champion Lee Pulliam. Berry was penalized for the contact and Pulliam retaliated in the second turn following the checkered flag. During pre-race ceremonies a section of the .4-mile facility’s grandstand was dedicated to Hamlin, who was also competing in the race. In addition to Hamlin, the 36-car field included NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers David Ragan and Jeb Burton as well as defending NASCAR Xfinity Series champion Elliott. The race benefits the Denny Hamlin Foundation, which raises awareness for the specific needs of children with cystic fibrosis.

The following evening, Shenandoah Speedway had their inaugural Racing for Wishes 150, with proceeds going to the Greater Virginia Make-A-Wish Foundation. Tyler Ankrum made the trip north after finishing fifth at South Boston and was the class of the field, which included four-time NASCAR Whelen All-American Series national champion Philip Morris, for much of the race. Unfortunately, a five-car invert with 30 laps remaining and a mechanical issue derailed his hopes. Regional late model stock car regular Michael Hardin used a final green-white-checkered restart to gain the lead and a $6,000 win. The leader going into the restart, Keith Carpenter, spun the tires and claimed that Hardin jumped the start coming to the green flag. Runner-up, local favorite Brian Purdham, ran out of time marching to the front after being sent to the back for his involvement in an altercation for the lead a few laps earlier. – Aaron Creed

Sports Cars: Race Control is Playing Too Big a Role in Pirelli World Challenge – Good grief. The 2015 season is supposed to be a huge year for Pirelli World Challenge. Huge fields, a TV deal that puts races on TV a little quicker than in the past and competitive racing. So far, the street races have been half green, half yellow, while the races at permanent circuits have been decent. However, the level of penalization under new Chief Steward Brian Till has been out of whack.

Long Beach was marked by literally half the field being penalized. That’s not a joke. 40 cars raced in the GT, GT-A and GT Cup classes at Long Beach. 20 of them copped some combination of a points penalty, grid-spot penalty or fine for various infractions ranging from avoidable contact, improper starts, passing under the yellow, and in the case of Ryan Dalziel, unsportsmanlike conduct. Needless to say, everyone involved was hoping that Race Control would not need to make their presence known at Barber Park. Not so fast.

James Davison won the pole on Saturday and won from pole in his distinctive black and turquoise No. 33 Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3 for Always Evolving Racing. However, Davison’s No. 33 flunked post-race technical inspection. As a result, he was stripped of his points and lap times from the race. He did keep the seven points earned for winning the pole. As lap times set the field for Sunday’s Race No. 2, Davison had to start at the rear of the field. He was able to charge from there to finish 11th in the 50-minute race. GT drivers Michael Lewis and Christina Nielsen, along with GT Cup points leader Colin Thompson, were fined and given points penalties for the second week in a row as well. As of press time, no penalties from Sunday have been released, but based on the last couple of weeks, it’s inevitable. – Phil Allaway

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The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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