Race Weekend Central

Pace Laps: Kevin Harvick Throws It All Away, Others Redeem Themselves

Sprint Cup SeriesHarvick’s Horror Story – New Hampshire Motor Speedway won’t be remembered so much for who won as who lost. Sure, Matt Kenseth continued a hot streak for Joe Gibbs Racing but we knew he was in solid position to make the next round of NASCAR’s Chase playoff anyway. Most of the racing up front at this 1-mile flat track was single file, follow-the-leader competition, as NASCAR’s 2015 rule package continued to prove why it’s headed for the trash can after Homestead.

No, this 300-lap race was defined not by its winner but by championship contenders putting themselves in peril as losers down the stretch. Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran out of fuel in the final laps, dropping him to 25th and 12th in the overall standings, just one point from possible elimination after Dover. Kyle Busch is that singular point behind Earnhardt after a blown tire and a bout with the SAFER barrier took his No. 18 Toyota behind the wall for several laps.

At least in both those cases, each driver can easily recover. A top-five finish by each one at the Monster Mile will get them inside the 12-driver field for the next round.

You can’t say the same for Kevin Harvick, though. NASCAR’s reigning champion has kept a game face but suffered through a season plus of self-induced mistakes at Stewart-Haas Racing. It’s a shame because after an ugly incident with Jimmie Johnson last week, Harvick and the No. 4 team came to New Hampshire with their backs against the wall – and delivered. They led 216 of 300 laps, were the dominant car and on raw speed appeared simply unbeatable. Yet a simple oversight – using the TV feed to determine when cars were near pit road under caution – doomed their chances with 88 laps left. Crew chief Rodney Childers made the call too late, trapping Harvick on track and forcing the team to stretch their car with old tires and fuel mileage over a final long green-flag run. It didn’t work out, just like at Watkins Glen a month ago, except this time Harvick had three laps left to run without gas instead of three seconds until the start/finish line to end the event.

That simple mistake for Harvick proved the difference between a dominating win and 21st place. Now, despite two wins, a league-leading 1,676 laps led and an eye-popping 15 top-three finishes, the season is a waste unless Harvick can pull a rabbit out of his hat and win Dover on Sunday. Two poor finishes have left the regular season point leader in position to be eliminated, not exalted as a potential back-to-back champion. Having never won at the Monster Mile before, Harvick’s going to need a miracle; instead, what we’ve seen is some overlooked mediocrity from his crew. You can cheer them on for putting their driver in position to win every week; however, going 2-for-15 on Victory Lane with those top-three opportunities combined this season, mixed with some ugly mistakes like we saw in the closing laps of New Hampshire is beginning to rub the shine off this once-special combination. As the New England Patriots of the NFL can tell you, there’s a big difference between a 19-0 undefeated season and an 18-1, oh-so-close pursuit of the big trophy that falls short. History remembers you differently, forever as a slate of successes become the asterisk of perpetual intellectual debate.

Harvick’s now positioned to lose that big trophy after round 1 and suddenly, a potential record-setting season looks littered with potential failures as a result. That’s the way the ball bounces in racing but how both Harvick and the team handle it moving forward could define not only this Sunday but the rest of the soon-to-be 40-year-old driver’s stellar career. It’s a crossroads moment for the veteran coming up; we’re about to see if he leads in this time of crisis or becomes part of the overall problem. – Tom Bowles

Xfinity Series: Blaney Redeems Himself on Late-Race Restart – It almost looked like it wouldn’t happen, but Ryan Blaney came back to win yet again on Saturday evening. The Team Penske driver led 81 laps at Kentucky, taking back the lead late in the going from Ty Dillon.

With no top-tier Cup drivers in the field, the NXS regulars had an opportunity to capitalize, and that they did. Chris Buescher now holds a 19-point gap over Dillon. Brandon Jones had an impressive performance in the No. 33 car as he prepares to run full-time for Richard Childress Racing in 2016. – Joseph Wolkin

Formula 1: Mercedes Returns to Form as Hamilton Cruises to Victory – Free practice 3 gave all the evidence needed to see that the Mercedes performance at Singapore was likely just a hiccup on an other wise stellar season. Qualifying proved the point, when Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton took the first two spots on the grid. So when Hamilton pipped his teammate Rosberg at the start of the race after the first turns, there was little in the way of surprise in watching Hamilton tie Ayrton Senna in wins at 41, as he led from lights to flag.

Rosberg who fell to fourth on the first lap managed to charge to second, but could never close the gap to challenge for the win. Sebastian Vettel, still a potential title threat, earned the third spot on the podium with a consistent drive but one that showed that Ferrari still hasn’t quite matched the speed of the Silver Arrows. Kimi Raikkonen finished fifth and was followed by Valterri Bottas.

The start of the race featured Daniel Ricciardo nailing the start and shooting a gap between cars only to make contact with Felipe Massa, sending both of them to the pits for repairs and essentially ending both of their days. Other than that incident, the race ran green and though there were battles on the track, nothing in the way of contact. Lapped traffic seemed to provide the biggest challenge for the leaders as the race moved toward its conclusion. – Huston Ladner

NHRA: Second Verse, Same As The First – Round two of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Countdown to the Championship is in the books, and for the Nitro divisions, it’s clear that a couple of drivers have dashed out to an early advantage. Antron Brown in Top Fuel and Del Worsham in Funny Car have started out in fine fashion by winning both of the first two playoff races.

Brown faced off against Dave Connolly, who was making his second final round appearance, and put down a pass of 3.721 seconds, 325.92 mph to beat Connolly’s 3.753 seconds, 328.94 mph. The two wins leave Brown with the points lead by 77 over second-place driver and teammate Tony Schumacher.

“We have to keep marching right now,” Brown said. “We had a 200-point lead in 2012 and almost lost the championship at the end. We’re off to an incredible start. Charlotte is usually our kryptonite, but we were able to get through there this year with a good start.”

He also defeated Terry McMillen, Shawn Langdon and Billy Torrence en route to the final round matchup with Connolly.

In Funny Car, Del Worsham and his Kalitta Motorsports team spent the regular season pretty much flying under the radar while Don Schumacher Racing and John Force Racing made all the headlines, but he’s made his presence known now that it counts. Worsham defeated Matt Hagan in the finals in spite of grenading his engine at the finish line, with a pass of 3.964 seconds, 320.13 mph to Hagan’s 3.983, 324.20 mph to take home his second consecutive Wally.

“It made a hard dart to the right, I had full input on the wheel to the left, and it went ‘ka-boom!’ right before I got to the finish line. It blew up, the dash came up, and fire went back there,” said Worsham. “Luckily, in today’s racing, the chutes deployed themselves and slowed it down right away.”

Worsham also took home a 20-point bonus by setting the new national elapsed time record in Funny Car at 3.899 in qualifying. He is atop the points by 90 over second-place Hagan. Worsham also raced his way past Tony Pedregon, Tim Wilkerson and Cruz Pedregon in earlier rounds.

Pro Stock saw a first time winner in Drew Skillman, who defeated his Elite Motorsports teammate Erica Enders-Stevens in his fourth final round appearance this year. Skillman made a winning pass of 6.529 seconds, 211.63 mph while Enders shook the tires in the finals.

“I lost the first three finals but I don’t know how you can get frustrated when you get to a pro category for the first time and have the kind of year we’re having,” said Skillman. “This is not normal. I’m just very excited to win this today. I have a great team.”

The rookie also defeated V. Gaines, Deric Kramer and Allen Johnson for the right to take on Enders-Stevens in the finals. Thanks to another final round appearance though, Enders still hold the points lead in the class though by 113 over Greg Anderson.

Pro Stock Motorcycle was a family affair, with Hector Arana Jr. facing off against his dad, Hector Arana, in the finals. Give this one to the younger generation as Junior goes 6.860 seconds, 196.50 mph to Senior’s 6.932 seconds, 195.03 mph to score his second win of the year. He now sits 34 points behind Andrew Hines in the Countdown standings. – Toni Montgomery

Camping World Truck Series: Erik Jones Disappointed in Seventh-Place Finish – When the checkered flag flew over the UNOH 175 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Erik Jones crossed the line seventh. The finish was enough to allow him to maintain the lead in the championship standings, but it was far from what the driver of the No. 4 Toyota wanted out of his race.

“We just missed it by a long ways. We didn’t get the finish we wanted, and we’ll just have to go back and make our Tundras a little bit better,” Jones said after Saturday’s race. “It’s just we can’t do that this late in the year – we can’t be that far off. We’ll just have to work on it and figure out what was wrong and how to be better here for the next six weeks.”

When walking away with a seventh-place finish brings about disappointment from a driver, it’s a sign of just how well he has been running all season. Really, he has little to worry about since Kyle Busch Motorsports has run so well in recent seasons, but the passion to lead laps and win races is part of the appeal of the rookie driver. The good news for Jones is that, despite the problems he perceived, he still maintains the championship lead.

As the weeks go on, the top three are really showing where they stand in this year’s championship battle. And while there is still plenty of racing to watch before crowning the champ, this trio has already shown that no matter who wins, all three of them deserve to be fighting the battle through Homestead. – Beth Lunkenheimer

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I mentioned this in a previous article. Harvick’s issues were brought on by himself. Not pitting after his incident in Chicago and not relinquishing his lead at New Hampshire to save enough fuel for a decent finish were all on him. If he would have allowed his humongous ego to take a little hit, the damages at Chicago and Loudon would have been minimal and a good finish this week would have gotten him to the next round. Now its win or spend the rest of the Chase trying to take out Johnson. Either way, his back to back championships are in jeopardy and he has no one to blame but himself.

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