Race Weekend Central

Pace Laps: Sprint Cup Underdogs Excelling, Truck Series Madness and Formula 1 Shockers

Sprint Cup: Underdogs Perform at the Paper Clip – From the drop of the flag to begin practice at Martinsville Speedway Friday, there were surprises near the front of the field.

Fortunately for NASCAR and the underdog teams, the early pace bled into both qualifying and the race as it was an entertaining show full of first-time winning hopefuls.

Firstly, was AJ Allmendinger, the brash and hip California native who drove his No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet to a second-place result. Though unable to reel in Kyle Busch for the trophy, the strong result stands as his first top-5 finish in Sprint Cup since his victory at Watkins Glen in 2014.

If anybody were to say two years ago that one of the story lines for the 2016 season is the possibility of Kyle Larson grabbing his first Cup win, they would’ve not believed you. However, the 23-year-old is still on the hunt for win No. 1, a hunt that came mighty close in Sunday’s STP 500 as he finished third for Chip Ganassi Racing.

By now, after four top 10s in six races, Austin Dillon is no longer a stranger to the front of the pack. The 25-year-old ties his career-best effort with a fourth-place result on Sunday.

Next is two underdog drivers in Stewart-Haas Racing equipment. Those drivers are Brian Vickers and Danica Patrick, who each spent time in the top 15, with Patrick grabbing a season-high 16th while Vickers finished seventh from the third starting spot. –Zach Catanzareti

XFINITY Series: Daniel Suarez Still Going Strong – Daniel Suarez is probably still thinking about his gut-wrenching loss at Auto Club Speedway two weeks ago. He briefly took the lead on the final lap after teammate Kyle Busch blew a tire, only to run out of fuel going down the backstretch and get passed by Busch. Neither of the Joe Gibbs Racing drivers wound up winning the race. Suarez missed out on an opportunity to secure his first XFINITY victory and lock himself into the Chase.

However, Suarez remains the XFINITY Series points leader and continues to ride a wave of momentum that began at the end of last year.  Going back to the fall 2015 race at Dover, the Mexico native has posted a top-10 finish in every event. It is a streak that would have carried Suarez to the championship last year if the Chase had been in place. Meanwhile, he and Elliott Sadler are the only drivers to sweep the top 10 in all five XFINITY races this year.

There is a long way to go this season, and the elimination-style Chase favors drivers who perform stronger at the end of the season than the beginning.  But Suarez is showing that he can post good results on a variety of tracks.  Though he awaits his first win, he continues to build a case as a legitimate championship contender. – Bryan Gable

Camping World Truck Series: Christopher Bell’s Bad Luck Continues – After a spectacular airborne wreck at Daytona and a hard crash in Atlanta thanks to a blown tire, it looked like Christopher Bell might finally make it out of a race without major damage to his truck. But it wasn’t meant to be when Bell got caught up in a late-race incident inside 10 laps to go. He was able to continue and managed a 19th-place finish.

Though he officially only has one DNF in the record books, Bell has wrecked in all three of his starts so far this season. Despite the season-opening wreck at Daytona, the driver of the No. 4 Toyota found himself 13th in the standings, without a major hole to dig out of, but tanked after a DNF the following week in Atlanta. Though he still remains 21st, Bell now finds himself tied with Travis Kvapil, who failed to qualify for Saturday’s race.

Perhaps the only good news for Bell so far this season is that his trucks have had speed to compete and win this season even though he hasn’t been able to close the deal. And of course there is the Chase this season, so making up that 44-point deficit isn’t the only answer for the rookie to make his own run for the championship this year. – Beth Lunkenheimer

Verizon IndyCar  Series: Graham Rahal Charges Through the Field

Much like he did in 2015, Graham Rahal overcame Honda’s poor qualifying speed with a brilliant drive through the field in Saturday’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix International Raceway.

Starting 19th, Rahal methodically worked his way through the field to finish fifth in the 250-lap IndyCar feature at Phoenix. Rahal’s 14-position rise on Saturday led all competitors.

If the result seems familiar for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, it’s because it is. Rahal rose from 13th or further on the grid to the top five an incredible five times in 2015. Saturday’s result ties the deepest starting position to yield a top five result for Rahal over the last two season – Rahal rose from 19th to the victory at Fontana in 2015.

NHRA: Some Sorely Needed Wins – It’s been a dismal year for the Don Schumacher Racing Top Fuel contingent, with none of the three cars making it out of the second round so far, but Antron Brown infused some hope into the program at the DENSO Spark Plugs NHRA Nationals this weekend by breaking through for the team’s first class win this year.

Brown took on Troy Buff, making his first appearance in the finals, and earned the Wally with a pass of 3.843 seconds, 314.68 mph to Buff’s 3.918 seconds, 307.58 mph.

“It’s huge, especially considering where we came from. We had a rough start to this year, and it’s just the way it goes sometimes,” said Brown. “This all has ade us learn more, and you grow more, and you’re able to get results like that after learning from when things aren’t going right.”

Brown denied Buff his first class win, but kept a streak going in the Nitro classes by being the fourth different Top Fuel winner through the first four events of the season. Brown also defeated Scott Palmer, Leah Pritchett, and Dave Connolly to progress to the finals.

The Funny Car class also held up its end of the deal, crowing a fourth different winner through four events in the person of Alexis DeJoria. DeJoria faced off against teammate Del Worsham in a final that guaranteed Kalitta Motorsports the win. She scored the win with a 3.968 second, 315.49 mph pass to Worsham’s 3.988 seconds, 323.58 mph. After a dismal 2015 in which her team went winless, DeJoria and company sorely needed this turn-around.

“This fourth trophy was definitely a difficult one,” said DeJoria. “It took a lot of risks to get here. We made consistent passes down the race track all four runs in qualifying and on race day as well. I don’t knowwhen the last time was that we did that. It’s incredible to be a part of this.”

DeJoria got to the finals the hard way, having to take out Tommy Johnson, Jr., Robert Hight, and John Force to make it to the faceoff with her teammate, who also happens to be the reigning Funny Car world champion.

In Pro Stock it continues to be the KB Racing show as Jason Line squared off against Bo Butner. Butner redlighted on the start, giving the automatic win to Line who put it away with a 6.712 second, 20.32 mph pass. Line also beat Matt Hartford, Chris McGaha, and Erica Enders in earlier round competition.

Line also made it to the final on Saturday in the K&N Horespower Challenge, the Pro Stock all-star event that was contested during qualifying on Saturday. He came up short of winning the double however, as he suffered mechanical issues. Instead it was his KB Racing teammate Greg Anderson who took home the bonus check. Toni Montgomery

Formula 1: Rosberg Wins Fifth in a RowNico Rosberg powered past pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton on the start and cruised to his fifth race win in a row.  Rosberg has won both races this season and now has 16 wins in F1.

Kimi Raikkonen earned second place with a steady driver and Hamilton followed him on the podium.  Raikkonen managed the strong finish in his Ferrari even though his teammate, Sebastian Vettel, lost his engine on the formation lap and did not start the race.  Hamilton started from the pole but Valterri Bottas banged into him at the start, dropping Hamilton through the field.  Though both drivers sustained damage, Bottas earned a pass-through penalty for the incident.

The race saw a fair amount of carbon fiber spilled onto the track as a number of drivers made contact.  In addition, a number of drivers either faced terminal issues, including Jolyon Palmer, Jenson Button, Esteban Gutierrez, and Carlos Sainz.

Romain Grosjean, driving for the first-year American team Haas-F1, backed up his sixth-place finish in Australia with a rather remarkable fifth-place.  Grosjean and his team used a contrarian tyre strategy, maximizing super softs for much of the race before switching to the soft tyres to finish out.  Taking points in the first two races is well above what many people expected for the team as begins competition, even as Gutierrez has yet to finish in 2016.

It should also be noted that Stoffel Vandoorne, filling in for the injured Fernando Alonso, earned a championship point by piloting his McLaren to the 10th spot.

For Rosberg, the win shows that to start the season he will be a true challenger to Hamilton for the title, while whatever gains made by Ferrari have been mitigated by reliability issues.  Daniel Ricciardo, with his fourth-place finish, moved to third in overall points and indicates that Red Bull, still with a Renault powerplant, has improved.

The next race on the calendar is the Chinese Grand Prix on April 17. Huston Ladner

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Haas , has certainly raised a few eyebrows this year. The association with Ferrari, much like the SHR/HMS relationship in Nascar, is probably due much of the credit.

The drive of the day though IMHO belonged to Paschal in the Manor who finished 13th. Gotta remember that this team closed its doors before the end of the 2014 season. So much stuff was sold that the cars wouldn’t even run at the first race last year because the computers had been wiped clean. Looking forward to nothing but improvement the rest of the year.

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