Race Weekend Central

Pace Laps: Hot Streaks, New Faces, Contenders & Jumping Series

Sprint Cup Series: “Slugger’s” New Assignment: Swing For The Fences To End Sophomore Slump – Swept under the rug during a week where NASCAR announced a new rules package is an important crew chief change at Richard Childress Racing. It’s a strange time at RCR, an organization whose trio of teams are so-so despite their satellite operation, Furniture Row Racing running circles around the competition with Martin Truex Jr. At the moment, two of RCR’s three teams would make the Chase – the No. 27 driven by Paul Menard and the No. 31 manned by Ryan Newman. But neither driver’s spot is secure, two winless cars struggling to find elite speed while recent charges by Kyle Larson, Clint Bowyer and other potential victors (Kyle Busch?) make their hold on the playoffs tenuous at best.

Notice I didn’t mention the name Austin Dillon. In fact, the elder Dillon brother has just one top-10 finish all year, a 10th at Bristol and sits outside of the Chase looking in, a distant 23rd in the season standings. The last straw came during the past two weeks, when the sophomore felt he had top-five equipment on Sunday only to slide a total of 13 spots from his starting position during each race, ending up with 19th and 20th-place finishes, respectively, and lagged behind younger brother Ty, a Cup Series rookie whose car isn’t even a full-time RCR operation yet (they’re running a partnership with Joe Falk over at the No. 33).

Consider that Dillon drives the vaunted No. 3, the prized team and number from which championships were born at RCR and oh, should we mention that he’s the owner’s grandson? It’s clear a change would be made, sooner rather than later, and you know it wasn’t coming from the driver’s seat. So Dale Earnhardt Sr.‘s former ride now is crew chiefed by Richard “Slugger” Labbe, hired as Dillon’s former head wrench and Gil Martin ships out to lead R&D. Can Labbe make a difference? Potentially. He’s won five times at the Cup level with three different drivers, maximizing their value as none of whom are making the Hall of Fame anytime soon (Michael Waltrip, Jeremy Mayfield, Menard). A longtime RCR employee, he’s got a good working knowledge of their chassis and specializes on both intermediate and restrictor-plate tracks. Those two, hand in hand are Dillon’s forte with two big opportunities ahead on the schedule. Daytona is where Dillon won the pole last February, briefly drawing attention to a rookie season that fell flat and Kentucky is where he’s won multiple times in the Xfinity Series.

Can Dillon turn a sophomore slump into a Chase bid? Probably not. But give Childress credit; while other teams are staying the course with their rocky seasons, likely missing the playoffs because of it this owner’s willing to swing for the fences. Truex proved they have the equipment; now, it’s up to Labbe and Dillon to rise to the occasion and get the job done. – Tom Bowles

Camping World Truck Series: Christopher Bell Earns Another Race – While much of the fuss throughout the race broadcast was over Erik Jones and how his luck might turn against him once again, it was another Kyle Busch Motorsports driver that stood out. Christopher Bell made his Truck Series debut at Iowa Speedway, and while many just expected him to play it safe and gain experience, the 2013 USAC champion did a bit more, mixing it up with championship contenders Matt Crafton and Tyler Reddick, among others. By the time the checkered flag flew, Bell had advanced from his 10th-place starting position to bring home a fifth-place finish for KBM.

“It was a remarkable night for me — really proud of all my Kyle Busch Motorsports (KBM) guys and I can’t thank Toyota Certified Used Vehicles enough for the opportunity,” Bell said in a team release. “Coming here I just had one expectation and goal and that was just to finish the race. I really didn’t know what to expect and to come out with a top five, I’m just thrilled about it. Obviously being in a KBM truck definitely puts on a lot of pressure on you because they’re expected to run good and they have really nice trucks. The truck was probably a little bit better than the driver tonight and I think Erik [Jones] proved that. I’m just really thankful to be here and hopefully this will lead to some more opportunities.”

And that’s exactly what a fifth-place finish should do for Bell. While he doesn’t have any other races currently scheduled, there’s no reason to believe that the 20-year-old won’t make at least one or two more starts with KBM this year. After all, the plan for the No. 51 this year was to split the seat time between team owner Busch, Matt Tifft and Daniel Suarez. You can bet if there are any openings, Bell will be one of the first names to pop up. But if that doesn’t happen, another team in the series would be wise to snatch him up quickly, because he is clearly talented enough to go a long way in NASCAR. – Beth Lunkenheimer

NHRA: Long Live the Queen – Greg Anderson made a case for himself as a Pro Stock championship contender the last few weeks, but Erica Enders-Stevens reminded everyone that she’s not ready to give up her spot as reigning Queen of the Pro Stock ranks just yet, scoring her class-high fourth victory of the year. The win moves Enders-Stevens back to the top spot in Pro Stock points as well.

Enders-Stevens defeated Chris McGaha with a pass at 6.685 seconds at 206.95 mph to McGaha’s 6.689 seconds, 207.46 mph. For McGaha, it was his second final round appearance of the season, although he came up short in the last one as well when he also faced off against Enders-Stevens.

Enders-Stevens also raced her way by John Gaydosh Jr., Jason Line and Shane Gray before facing off against McGaha.

It was an all Don Schumacher Racing final in Funny Car as teammates Matt Hagan and Ron Capps squared off against each other. Give this one to Hagan, who won with a 4.164 second, 303.23 mph pass to Capps’ 4.186 seconds, 307.02 mph. Hagan also had to face off against Jeff Diehl, Cruz Pedregon and Jack Beckman to get there. This was another battle with championship implications as the two are currently battling atop the Funny Car standings, with Hagan holding down the lead.

For Hagan, the win also held special meaning because the Christianburg, VA, native considers Bristol his home track, meaning his family, including his father David, were in attendance. This is his first win at Bristol.

“This is just such a special race for me, I’m two hours down the road and I have so many friends, so many family members out there,” he said. “My mom and dad came out, my wife brought my kids Colby and Penny so it is so, so special. I consider it my home track so it’s nice to be able to pull down for win lights and hold a Wally up at the end of the day.”

Larry Dixon has an odd streak of luck when it comes to racing on Father’s Day, winning six times on that particular holiday, and he found himself in the finals once again at Bristol, but second-year driver Richie Crampton wasn’t worried. Crampton’s confidence was not misplaced and he denied Dixon this time, scoring his third win of the season with a 3.884 second, 321.04 mph pass to Dixon’s 4.004 seconds, 250.41 mph. Crampton also beat Antron Brown, Shawn Langdon and Doug Kalitta en route to his final round matchup with Dixon. – Toni Montgomery

IndyCar: Indy Lights Draws F1 Stars – The Verizon IndyCar Series has a certain allure to it. From the legendary Indianapolis 500, to tight street courses in Toronto and Detroit, the series covers a variety of courses unseen in any other series, while holding some of the tightest racing in the process.

The schedule and racing have gone on to produce many great moments between the series current stars, but they’ve also caught the eye of a couple former Formula 1 drivers.

Max Chilton was the first this year to make the leap to IndyCar, joining the Mazda Road to Indy. Chilton, who piloted cars for Marussia F1 Team in F1 from 2013 through 2014, jumped on board with Carlin Motorsport in the Indy Lights Series. Driving the team’s No. 14, Chilton has earned six top-five finishes in eight starts, with a best finish of third at Birmingham and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

With Chilton running in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Nelson Piquet Jr. joined Carlin for last weekend’s Grand Prix of Toronto. Piquet, who competed in F1 for ING Renault F1 Team during 2008 and 2009, currently competes in Red Bull Global Rallycross and FIA Formula E, where he leads the points championship. Piquet has also raced in NASCAR, scoring a combined three victories in the Xfinity Series and Camping World Truck Series. Despite his success, Piquet struggled, crashing in both of the weekend’s races to finish in seventh and eighth. –  Aaron Bearden

Xfinity Series: Standalone Pays Off for NXS Regulars – It looked like Austin Dillon was going to dominate at Chicago all weekend. He might have, but the No. 33 car just didn’t have the speed to keep up with two of the young guns in racing. Jones’s late-race pass on Ryan Blaney was ultimately the winning move, and the No. 54 car was in Victory Lane for the second consecutive weekend.

Considering Jones missed a race and he has been driving two cars – the No. 20 primarily and the No. 54 when there is an opening for him – he has been handling the pressure rather well. He has been the quickest Joe Gibbs Racing driver on a weekly basis, and the 19-year-old is slowly turning into a favorite to win races in this division each week.

Chris Buescher extended his championship lead over Ty Dillon to 29 points. The Roush Fenway Racing driver came out of Chicago unscathed after a pit-road speeding penalty put him a lap down. However, taking advantage of the free pass, he got back on the lead lap and soared through the field late in the going to get yet another top five. Reigning champion Chase Elliott was on pace for a top 10, but got loose off turn 2, causing his No. 9 to spin and putting him a lap down. Elliott rebounded to get a top 15, but he took another tough hit in the standings.

With an off-weekend in sight, the series regulars are given the difficult task of preparing for Daytona. Regan Smith, Elliott, Brendan Gaughan, Elliott Sadler and the majority of the title contenders are still searching for their first wins of the year. Since anything can happen at the 2.5-mile tri-oval, expect one of these drivers to leave Daytona with a victory and momentum heading into the second half of the year. – Joseph Wolkin

Formula 1: Rosberg Rules at Red Bull Ring – Mercedes has now won the last 19 poles in F1, a feat that now sits second on the all-time list.  So to state that the Silver Arrow is a juggernaut at the present time would be no overstatement. When Lewis Hamilton earned the pole for the race at the Red Bull Ring, there was little surprise, even if he AND his teammate Nico Rosberg spun off the track during their flying lap in qualifying.

Prior to the race there had been speculation, or possibly hope, that Ferrari would be able to take the fight to Mercedes, and through the practices, and even qualifying, that looked like it might be a possibility. Then the race started.

Rosberg jumped out to the lead over Hamilton and that was that. Though Kimi Raikonnen‘s tangle with Fernando Alonso brought about a safety car on lap 1, there was little in the way of drama up front – especially after Hamilton was penalized for a pit-road exiting miscue. With Rosberg’s win, he closes the gap once again to his teammate to 10 points and is becoming the sand in the ointment to Hamilton running away with a second straight championship.

Of note, Felipe Massa was able to earn the third spot on the podium, holding off Sebastian Vettel as the race concluded. – Huston Ladner

Short Tracks: Weekly Roundup – A new era officially dawned on Sunday at Mansfield Speedway, the 1/2-mile Ohio facility that formerly hosted the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. Rebranded Spitzer Motor Speedway, three racing divisions of on-track racing took place for the first time in five years. Area veteran Jon Henes took home the win in the Midwest Supermodified Association 25-lap feature. The Economy Modifieds (E-Mods) had the biggest turnout of the afternoon with Bob Sibila Jr. besting the 19-car field.

Another track that reopened under new management in 2015 fell victim to rain on Saturday night after the remnants of Tropical Storm Bill came through. Pennsylvania’s Jennerstown Speedway had their grand reopening the weekend before in front of over 3,000 fans, but that event was also cut short due to precipitation. The twin 31-lap races for their late model division originally scheduled for Saturday will now take place on Saturday, July 4 and is expected to attract drivers from outside the area.

Earlier in the week before he swept the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series at Iowa Speedway and NASCAR Xfinity Series at Chicagoland Speedway races, Jones won in a super late model Tuesday night at Berlin Raceway in Michigan. The 251-lap ARCA CRA Super Series victory was an exceptional accomplishment for the rising star because it was in a backup car after wrecking the primary in practice the day before. Local driver Chris Koslek finished runner-up, while emerging NASCAR competitors John Hunter Nemechek, Elliott, and Ross Kenseth rounded out the top five. Bell additionally competed in a KBM car and finished seventh. – Aaron Creed

Sports Cars: No More SKYACTIV-Ds for Mazda in The Near Future? – The quietest announcements can spark big changes in motorsports. IMSA made a very quiet announcement on Friday that could signal a substantial change for SpeedSource’s Prototype effort.

On Friday, IMSA issued a Technical Bulletin that allows for the homolgation of a new engine for the Prototype class. That engine is a 2.0-liter turbocharged powerplant, likely a detuned version of the Mazda-badged AER engine that Dyson Racing formerly used in the American Le Mans Series prior to its merger with Grand-Am. This engine will run on unleaded racing fuel as opposed to the Iso-Butanol that the car used in ALMS.

For now, SpeedSource’s two cars are entered for this weekend’s Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen with the Diesel engines. However, the absence of one of the cars at Detroit now makes a lot more sense. In Detroit, team owner Sylvain Tremblay mentioned in an on-air interview that the other team was conducting a testing program. I guess we know what they were testing now. There have been no announcements as to when the gas

Opinions about the switch have focused on the notion that the 2017 ACO P2 regulations do not allow for diesel engines. That’s true. However, the current ones don’t allow them either. In fact, current ACO rules for P2 would technically frown upon the whole current SpeedSource setup (they’re effectively operating as a factory team for Mazda). The Mazda SKYACTIV-D cars are the only P2 cars currently racing with diesel engines. They are ineligible to race at Le Mans. Also, when the SKYACTIV-D program started in 2013 with the tube-frame Mazda6’s in Grand-Am’s GX-class, there were supposed to be SKYACTIV-D engined Mazda6’s for sale here in the United States to the general public. That never happened due to powerplant issues. While the SKYACTIV-D engines are sold in Europe, they never reached the States. It is not something that Mazda is necessarily trying to promote in the United States anymore. While I admire the drive to make the Diesels competitive, it appears that it is not really in Mazda’s interest to continue with the diesels. – 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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