Speedway Digest Staff
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By the time Juan Pablo Montoya got the official word that he was out of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing's No. 42 Chevrolet at the end of the 2013 season, it was almost an anticlimax.
For months, Montoya had known the parting was coming, and he had already begun to explore other options.
"I think I knew from quite a while ago, to be honest with you," Montoya told reporters on Friday at Michigan International Speedway during a question-and-answer session behind the No. 42 transporter. "They (EGR) had an option earlier in the year and they didn't take it, so I kind of knew it was going to be something different next year, and that's it.
"They confirmed it this week, and that was it."
As to what the future holds, Montoya has only one requirement.
"The only thing I said already is I want to be in a winning car," he said. "Whatever else I do -- don't know what I'm going to do -- but I want to make sure I'm in a winning car."
What kind of winning car remains to be seen. The 2000 Indianapolis 500 champion, Montoya also has seven Formula One victories on his resume. A return to open-wheel racing isn't out of the question.
"I have talked to a lot of people -- put it that way," Montoya said. "I don't want to be specific about anybody. I know some people are interested, and I just want to make sure whatever I do, as I told you, (that) I have an opportunity to win races.
"I grew up winning, and I've won at everything. I won some races here, but I miss dominating."
During his media availability, however, Montoya did provide a couple of revealing clues. The first involved loyalty to a particular manufacturer.
"Apart from the relationship with (sponsor) Target, the relationship with Chevy is really important to me," he said.
The second was an indication that seven full seasons in NASCAR racing -- with just two road-course wins to show for his efforts - might be enough.
"I was committed to NASCAR, and when you're committed to NASCAR, you want to make sure your head is in NASCAR," said Montoya, who ran the second fastest lap in Friday's opening Sprint Cup practice (203.132 mph).
"My heart always has been in open wheel. I had a lot of fun in NASCAR -- and, you know, we will see."
Montoya's impending departure from Earnhardt Ganassi Racing leaves a desirable open seat for 2014. As the silly-season dominoes start to fall, the question becomes: Who will fill it?
It's no secret that owner Chip Ganassi has 21-year-old prodigy Kyle Larson signed to an eight-year contract. Whether Larson is ready to make the leap to full-time Cup racing after one season in the Nationwide Series is an open question.
It's also no secret that Kurt Busch had discussions with EGR long before the announcement of Montoya's departure. To Busch, the 2004 Cup champion, the landscape hasn't changed appreciably since the parting between Ganassi and Montoya became official.
"It hasn't changed anything," Busch said Friday at Michigan. "I'm good friends with Felix Sabates, and I know Chip real well, the whole gang -- (team manager) Max Jones, (EGR president) Jake Lauletta -- and they came up with that decision, not based off any of the talks I've had with them, but it is a potential opportunity. That's for sure."
Busch also is talking to his current team, Furniture Row Racing, about a possible extension, but his primary focus is on qualifying for the Chase for the Sprint Cup. With four races left before the Chase field is set at Richmond, Busch is 11th in the Cup standings, two points behind Martin Truex Jr. in 10th.
"The focus is making the Chase, and we have four weeks to go," said Busch, who threw out the first pitch at a Colorado Rockies game earlier this week. "We're in a great position. It's been neat to feel the energy of the team. We spent a week in Colorado meeting with Denver media, and they've adopted us as a fifth sports entity for that town. It's really neat. They talk Broncos, they talk Rockies, and now they're talking us.
"So it's cool to have talks with Furniture Row about what we can do in 2014 and beyond. The Ganassi thing came up, and other phone calls have happened. Nothing's been changed. We're just really focused on the Chase and what we can do in the next four weeks together."
Trevor Bayne’s first laps in the No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Fusion on Friday at Michigan International Speedway weren’t at all what he and the team were expecting.
His best lap in practice; at 196.732 miles per hour, was 34th on the speed chart and cause for concern for a team having to qualify on speed or miss a race at the home track of long-time backer Ford Motor Company.
Between the last lap of practice and Bayne’s one lap run against the clock, the Motorcraft/Quick Lane team found nearly five miles per hour. His lap at 201.337 mph was 18th fastest, putting him safely in a starting line-up topped by the Ford Fusion of Joey Logano.
Team co-owner Eddie Wood said he was proud of the work done by crew chief Donnie Wingo and the Motorcraft/Quick Lane crew.
“We really struggled in practice, but Donnie and the crew went to work, made a lot of changes to the car and made it much better,” Wood said. “We’re happy to be in the show, and I think the car will race well on Sunday.”
Wood was relieved to see Logano carry the day for Ford, especially at Michigan, the home track for the U.S. automakers.
“But I’m always glad to see a Ford on the pole, wherever we’re racing,” Wood said.
For Bayne, the dramatic pick-up in speed from practice to qualifying came as somewhat of a surprise.
“It kind of threw me off in practice because we were so bad,” he said. “We were really tight in the center [of the corners], hitting the splitter and not turning.”
“We went out for that [qualifying] lap and now I feel like I under-drove it because I didn’t expect it to turn that good. We got down in the corner and it never pushed and I never hit the splitter.”
Bayne, who will practice the No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Fusion Saturday morning then fly to Mid-Ohio to race the No. 6 Mustang in the Nationwide Series, said he’s more optimistic about his chances in Sunday’s race after seeing how much Wingo’s adjustments improved the handling of his car.
“We will be good in the race here if we can make adjustments like that,” he said.
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Joey Logano put down a track-record lap of 203.949 miles per hour Friday as the 16th qualifier. He had to wait out 28 other drivers trying to claim the pole position for Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway.
When the dust settled there was no “Catch 22” as Logano, in the No. 22 Shell Pennzoil Ford had the pole, the record, and the best seat in the house for the start of Sunday’s race.
Logano’s lap was the ninth-fastest pole-winning lap in NASCAR Sprint Cup history.
“I don’t know if that speed will hold up,” Logano said as he nervously watched those giving chase. “I think it should hang in the top-five, I hope.”
Kurt Busch qualified one spot ahead of Logano and thought his qualifying speed of 203.695 might hold up for the pole, but that hope was very short lived and Busch settled for the outside of the front row.
“I thought we had enough to get the pole but Logano hit it perfect,” Kurt Busch explained. “We’re really happy with the outside of the front row. It was an extremely fast pace. The track was really quick.”
Jimmie Johnson, the third fastest qualifier at 203.470, also wiped out the previous record of 203.241 mph established by Marcos Ambrose for the Quicken Loans 400 in 2012.
Drivers said that the track, repaved two years ago, will continue to get faster as it gets broken in and that three lanes will be available by the end of Sunday’s race.
A total of 25 drivers exceeded an average speed of 200 MPH as the fastest track in NASCAR keeps getting faster. A total of 13 drivers went over 200 MPH during qualifying last June.
In the first NASCAR Sprint Cup practice session Friday a total of 20 drivers surpassed the 200 mile-per-hour plateau, a prelude to what was to come. Johnson led the way at 203.355 mph.
If Friday’s practice times are any indication, the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series qualifying record at MIS will be broken many times over when official qualifying is contested Saturday morning. It is scheduled to begin at 9:35.
A total of nine drivers surpassed Joey Coulter’s record of 184.101 MPH that garnered the pole for the 2012 race. Darrell Wallace, Jr., paced the field with a practice speed of 185.634 mph in the first session.
Then along came Kyle Busch to post a quick lap of 187.578 mph in the second practice session as a total of 19 drivers surpassed Coulter’s mark.
Kyle Busch was ninth fastest in the first practice session but found more speed in the second session.
For the second year in a row MIS was named “Track of The Year” by the NASCAR Foundation for its charitable and community efforts in 2012. But what about on the inside, the actual track itself?
Maybe Jimmie Johnson is the last person to ask if for no other reason than the five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion and current points leader has never won at Michigan in 23 Cup race appearances.
But, no, Johnson holds no grudge against MIS.
“This track has always been high on the driver’s list,’’ he said. “I love coming here. This track has worked very well with myself and the young fans; we have a package that we do here with them and I go out and spend some time with the kids. So, I’m very proud of what this race track does with the fans.”
Austin Dillon, interim driver for Tony Stewart this weekend at MIS, will be making his third appearance with a different Sprint Cup team this season. Not a problem for the youngster who has also competed with Circle Sport Racing and Phoenix racing.
“I think it’s cool to be able to say that I’ve driven for multiple different people,” he explained Friday after qualifying 27th. “The great thing about it is that you learn a lot of running with different guys and learn how things are supposed to be done and what it really takes to be a team leader.”
NASCAR After The Lap Sponsored By Ford Motor Company And Coca-Cola Returns to Las Vegas For Fifth Consecutive Year
NASCAR® announced today NASCAR After The Lap sponsored by Ford and Coca-Cola will return to Las Vegas for the fifth consecutive year. NASCAR After the Lap has become a favorite event of both fans and drivers during NASCAR’s annual celebration of its season, NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion’s Week™. This year’s event will take place at the Pearl Palms Concert Theater inside the Palms Casino Hotel on Thursday, December 5 at 5 p.m. PT.
NASCAR fans are invited to "Buckle Up" when all 12 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers show off their distinctive personalities and interact with their loyal fan base. Impromptu questions and unexpected requests deliver memorable moments such as Denny Hamlin performing the "Dougie" on stage or a NASCAR produced Gangnam Style video that set the crowd abuzz and generated spirited conversation across social media.
"NASCAR After The Lap is an event unlike any other in sports that gives our fans the chance to see the drivers with their helmets off and their guard down," said Norris Scott, NASCAR vice president of partnership marketing. "Celebrating its fifth consecutive season, NASCAR After The Lap has evolved into one of the most talked about events of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion’s Week™ and provides two long-standing partners, Ford and Coca-Cola, a valuable platform to connect with our brand-loyal fan base."
Beginning today, NASCAR fans can enter the NASCAR After The Lap sweepstakes by visiting www.NASCARafterthelap.com up until November 17. This is the biggest giveaway ever for the NASCAR After The Lap sweepstakes, providing two winners an all-inclusive VIP trip for them and a guest to NASCAR After The Lap in Las Vegas and either one trip to the 2014 Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway or one trip to the 2014 Ford Ecoboost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. One lucky winner will also be taking home the ultimate grand prize – a 2014 Ford F-150 Tremor
"Over the last five years as event sponsor, Ford has enjoyed some remarkable and very unpredictable moments with our NASCAR drivers," said Tim Duerr, motorsports marketing manager for Ford Racing. "The NASCAR After The Lap Sweepstakes continues to provide Ford with a great avenue to engage with fans by offering them a chance to not only win a trip out to Las Vegas, but also an opportunity to go home with a brand-new 2014 Ford F150 Tremor. This sponsorship delivers results to Ford on many levels."
"As a long-time partner, Coca-Cola is proud to celebrate the 2013 season with the stars of NASCAR at this year’s NASCAR After The Lap," said Ben Reiling, director of motorsports for Coca-Cola North America Group. "In our fifth year as an event sponsor of NASCAR After The Lap, we are offering fans a stellar experience to interact directly with members of our Coca-Cola Racing Family and a chance to win a trip to our marquee event, the Coca-Cola 600. We’re looking forward to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion’s Week, it’s going to be a wild ride."
Tickets for the event will go on sale September 16 and are priced at $20 apiece. All ticket sale proceeds benefit The NASCAR Foundation™, a 501 (c) (3) non-profit that raises funds to support children’s charities and important causes throughout the nation. Fans can visit www.NASCARafterthelap.com to purchase tickets. For fans unable to attend NASCAR After The Lap, NASCAR.com will offer a live stream of the event.
There's something in Brendan Gaughan's back pocket. It's something every driver entered in Saturday's NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Michigan National Guard 200 (12:30 p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1) at Michigan International Speedway would like to have, too.
In July 2003, Gaughan led the final 21 laps in the truck series race at Michigan to post a convincing 11.477-second win over Ted Musgrave. He is the only driver entered in this weekend's race to have ever won a truck event at the two-mile track.
Over the past eight races, no driver has won at the track more than once. Barring any late entrants into the race that streak will increase to nine. Dennis Setzer won in 2005, followed by Johnny Benson (2006), Travis Kvapil (2007), Erik Darnell (2008), Colin Braun (2009), Aric Almirola (2010), Kevin Harvick (2011) and Nelson Piquet Jr. (2012).
Gaughan, who is sixth in the standings 75 points behind leader Matt Crafton, has one win and four top 10s in seven starts at Michigan. His lowest finish is 18th. He has an average finishing position of 8.9 and has finished on the lead lap in all but one start.
"Michigan is another one of those tracks that really fits my style. It's big, mean and fast," Gaughan said in response to a question about his thoughts on racing at the track. "Whoever has the best aero and motor package will do well at this race."
For the second week in a row the NASCAR Nationwide Series heads to a road course where anything can happen. This weekend, however, there's something a bit different.
On Saturday, the series makes its inaugural visit to the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, Ohio, for the Nationwide Children's Hospital 200 (2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). There is probably no driver more excited to visit the 2.4-mile track than Sam Hornish Jr., of Defiance, Ohio.
Not only is the track 2-1/2 hours east of his hometown, it's a track at which he's previously competed. In 2007, he finished 14th in an IndyCar Series event at Mid-Ohio. The following season he turned his focus to NASCAR.
Hornish currently is second in the standings, three points behind Austin Dillon. A win in front of his family and friends would mean more to the 34-year-old driver than a win at most any other track and would likely return him to the top of the standings, a position he held after each of the season's first seven races and most recently after last month's race at Chicagoland.
"We want to win, especially when we have a car that's capable of winning," Hornish said. "Looking ahead to this weekend, we know what we have to do."
In seven road-course races in the series, Hornish has five consecutive top-five finishes and two poles, including a fifth-place showing at Road America in June and a runner-up performance last weekend at The Glen. This season, Hornish has one victory and five second-place showings in which he was the highest finishing points-eligible series regular.
"It will be something special to win this race in my home state," he said.
Although Greg Biffle can't secure a spot in the 2013 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup in Sunday's Pure Michigan 400 (1 p.m. ET, ESPN) at Michigan International Speedway, a strong performance can go a long way in helping him reach the postseason as a championship contender.
Biffle currently is seeded ninth in the standings, 181 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson, who last weekend at Watkins Glen clinched a spot in the Chase. More precariously, however, Biffle sits only four markers in front of Kurt Busch in the 11th position.
To say Biffle is on the bubble would be an understatement.
An early-race accident or middle-of-the-road performance at Michigan could knock him from the top 10 -- and possibly even out of a provisional Wild Card position. Heading into the weekend, two-time race winner Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman, who has one win, hold these spots. Biffle currently maintains a 22-point advantage over Newman for the second Wild Card.
The good news for Biffle is that Michigan is one of his best tracks and he currently rides a two-race winning streak at the two-mile oval nestled in the Irish Hills an hour-and-a-half away from Detroit.
"I'm looking forward to Michigan; it would three in a row if I can pull off another win," Biffle said. "I feel like one more win would lock us into the Chase."
While Biffle can't secure a spot in the Chase with a victory at Michigan, it would put him in a great position to do so over the other three races remaining before the playoffs begin and could be the insurance he needs to claim a Wild Card spot if he does fall out of the top 10.
If Biffle is to find Victory Lane on Sunday, he'll need to rely more on his success at the track than how he's performed recently.
In 21 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series starts at Michigan, he has notched four wins, 10 top fives and 13 top 10s. He twice has had back-to-back victories there, winning in the August 2004 race and June 2005 race. He duplicated that feat this past June after posting his third victory at the track last August.
More impressive, however, is that in those 21 starts, Biffle has finished all 21 races, finished on the lead lap in 20 and led at least one lap in 15. His 110.0 Driver Rating is tops at the track. He also leads all active drivers in the following categories: most laps in the top 15 (2,862), best average running position (8.2), faster early in a run (179.520 mph), fastest late in a run (175.542 mph), fastest on restarts (174.076 mph) and fastest green-flag speed (177.096 mph).
Biffle's average finishing position at Michigan is 11.3, which is his second-best average among tracks (10.1 at Kansas Speedway).
In the seven races following his June win at Michigan, however, his performance has been inconsistent and not where it needs to be if he's to make a serious play for the NASCAR Sprint Cup title. He followed up his win with a strong eighth-place performance at Sonoma, but then finished 34th, 17th, 15th, 24th, 10th and 16th in subsequent races.
Not only has Biffle done well at Michigan, but his team, Roush Fenway Racing, has experienced great success there. Biffle's June victory was a series track record 13th for owner Jack Roush, whose headquarters lies less than 100 miles east in Livonia.
Despite their success, Biffle and his team know Sunday won't be a walk in the park and they'll arrive focused and ready to go for that illustrious three-peat.
"Even though we've won the last two races, we can't let our guard down," said Matt Puccia, Biffle's crew chief. "The competition has changed quite a bit over the last few months."