Speedway Digest Staff
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Four-for-four is a great day on the baseball diamond.
It’s an even better day on the race track. Just ask Brad Keselowski, who won his fourth straight NASCAR Nationwide Series race Saturday at Watkins Glen International.
Keselowski’s 1.418-second victory over Penske Racing teammate Sam Hornish Jr. in the Zippo 200 was his fourth in his last four NNS starts this season (though not in consecutive events) and the 24th of his career.
Brian Vickers ran third, followed by Regan Smith and Elliott Sadler. Hornish cut the series lead of 12th-place finisher Austin Dillon to three points as the drivers head for the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, the second straight road-course venue, next weekend.
Given the strength of his No. 22 Ford Mustangs, Keselowski feels he can win any time he gets behind the wheel, and Saturday’s result bore that out.
"You know they’re going to be fast, and it’s just a matter of getting through all the drama of the race weekend to try to persevere for a win," Keselowski said. "We did that today."
Keselowski also felt fortunate to hold off Hornish in the closing laps.
"I thought he was going to beat me," said Keselowski, who had never driven a road-course race until he came to NASCAR. "I’ll tell you what, he’s a hell of a road course racer… I made a couple of little mistakes. I thought he would get me, to be quite honest. I was just trying not to make any huge ones, and it all came together."
Hornish, the pole winner, got close to his Penske Racing teammate in the final five laps but, despite applying consistent pressure, never got close enough.
"I actually got him either (to) wheel-hop or lock up a little bit into (Turn) 1 a couple of times but just was never close enough to where I could take advantage of anything," Hornish said. "And then with about three laps to go, I got really sideways through the bus stop (inner loop)..
"It was a great day for the Penske organization, for sure—a 1-2. We’ve done quite a bit lately, and one of these times we’ll get turned around where I’m the leading end of it."
NASCAR called the fifth caution of the race on lap 58 because of debris in the inner loop, and that deprived frontrunners Joey Logano and Justin Allgaier of a 20-second advantage they held before the yellow, with pit stops looming for both drivers.
Allgaier brought his car to pit road under the caution, but Logano stayed out, needing another yellow to make it to the end of the race on fuel. After the restart on Lap 62, Logano led a three-car train of Penske Racing machines until both Keselowski and Hornish out-braked their teammate in Turn 1 on lap 66 to take over the top two positions.
With Logano saving fuel, Keselowski and Hornish streaked away to a lead of more than eight seconds and ran in that order to the finish. Logano ran out of gas on the final circuit at the 2.45-mile road course and finished 21st.
Note: Three drivers have won Nationwide races in five straight starts (though not in consecutive events): Ryan Newman, Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Keselowski will attempt to tie that mark when he races the No. 22 car Aug. 23 at Bristol… Kyle Busch wrecked in the first corner of the first lap and finished 24th, five laps down. As a result, Keselowski trimmed the lead of the No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota to five points over the No. 22 Ford in the owners’ standings. Both cars are raced by multiple drivers but are battling for the owners’ championship.
Sony Music Nashville singer Angie Johnson will perform the National Anthem prior to the Cheez-It™ 355 at The Glen on Sunday. Johnson, a U.S. Air Force staff sergeant, made it to the final round on Cee Lo Green’s team on “The Voice” after garnering the attention of 3.2-million viewers on YouTube her rendition of Adele’s “Rolling In The Deep.”
Johnson will also join Brad Davidson, president, Kellogg North America and Darcey Macken, president, Kellogg USA Sales to say the most famous words in motorsports, “Drivers, Start Your Engines,” after the final note of the Star-Spangled Banner.
Johnson transitioned to the Air National Guard after fulfilling her United States Air Force commitment as an intelligence analyst. She serves as a member of Sidewinder, a nine-member Top 40 band that is part of the Air National Guard Band of the Central States ensemble headquartered at the 131st Bomb Wing at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.
Sony Music Nashville signed Johnson to a recording contract in June 2012. She released her debut EP, Sing for You in May 2013. Following her Cheez-It™ 355 at The Glen performance, Johnson will perform in St. Louis, Nashville, Boston and Louisville.
Tony Stewart’s broken bones have sparked intense debate about the wisdom of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers indulging in extracurricular racing.
Stewart broke the tibia and fibula in his right leg during a Sprint Car accident Monday night in Iowa. After two surgeries, Stewart is recuperating in a North Carolina hospital and is sidelined indefinitely from his primary ride in Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 14 Chevrolet SS.
The accident almost certainly will cost Stewart a spot in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup and deprive him of the opportunity to battle for a fourth championship in the series. Conceivably, it could cost him the rest of the season.
Though much has been written that is critical of Stewart’s frequent racing outside the Cup series, consensus among racers in the NASCAR garage has been overwhelmingly supportive of the driver nicknamed "Smoke."
Jimmie Johnson, a five-time Cup champion, expressed the prevailing opinion Friday at Watkins Glen.
"I look at the coverage and opinions that are flying around, and it’s troubled me some to see people giving him a hard time about his decisions to race other vehicles," Johnson said. "We always praise him for his contributions to the motorsports world and his ability to drive and race anything and to own all these different types of vehicles.
"And then you look at the race tracks that he owns and his involvement with. The guy has done so much for our sport, and of course we don’t want to see him injured, but I’ve been disappointed that people have given him a hard time over it."
Ultimately, though, Stewart’s accident may give major sponsors more reason to try to restrict drivers from engaging in outside racing that could sideline them from their primary responsibilities.
"It might," Johnson acknowledged. "You have an opportunity to evaluate after you go through a situation like this and I’ll be interested, like all, to see what Tony’s sponsors say and then clearly, (Stewart-Haas co-owner) Gene Haas’s opinion on it all. But again, they knew the risks going into it on the front side.
"So, I wouldn’t expect a huge change and I really hope there wouldn’t be. On my side, my sponsor (Lowe’s) has been very supportive of other series that I’ve wanted to race, and it’s really been my decision to not race other events; just family time and to be around and to experience that stuff and not be racing all the time."
Johnson believes any shift in the attitude toward extracurricular racing may be confined to Stewart’s specific situation.
"I don’t think it’s going to change the environment for other drivers and sponsors, because we have an approval process that we’ve always had to go through," Johnson said. "I mean, this doesn’t open up something new that hasn’t been discussed or thought about amongst driver/owner contracts or driver/sponsor contracts.
"Any time we want to run another vehicle, we have to go through the process and get approval. So I don’t think it’s going to change that. Tony’s role might change a little bit. I hope it doesn’t, again. But that would be really just their team looking at it."
Marcos Ambrose is at home on a road course. There’s no argument there. All six of his NASCAR victories—two in Sprint Cup and four in Nationwide—have come on road courses, five of them at Watkins Glen.
On Sunday, Ambrose will try for his third straight Cup win at the Glen—as the pole winner. To establish his credentials in the full range of NASCAR racing, however, Ambrose must prove he can win on oval tracks, and that’s been more problematic.
"It’s a question we talk about a lot, that I can come to a road course and generally run top-10 every time we come, yet we go to ovals and we’re more hit-and-miss," Ambrose said. "The only way I can actually square that away in my mind is that, when you go oval racing, the setups of the cars are obviously very, very important. When you go road racing, it’s more about just getting the car even and not doing anything crazy.
"For me, I know when the car is sort of not feeling right (on a road course) that I can get it close, and then I’ll just do the rest. When I go oval racing, the cars are so twisted and contorted with their setups that if you miss it by a half-pound of tire pressure or 20 pounds of spring rate – or something like that – you can have a terrible day."
With an extensive background in V8 Supercars in his native Australia, Ambrose knows the precise feel he wants to have in a road course car.
"For me, when you go road racing, it’s not so much about setting the car up to the very edge,’ he said. "It’s more about just making it easy to drive, and then I’ll do the rest. So I guess that gives me some confidence, because I’ve been to these tracks several times and run well. I know what I need to feel and so I’m able to get there quickly, probably quicker than most."
Jeff Gordon was quick to cite another reason for Ambrose’s prowess at road racing.
"What makes him so good, not to mention his road racing experience over the years, is his aggressiveness," Gordon said. "He’s just so aggressive. While I think sometimes that holds him back on the ovals, it pays off big time here. That’s going to be tough to beat."
Gordon also likes Ambrose’s chances of a three-peat at Watkins Glen, a higher-speed venue than Sonoma, the more technical of the two road courses on the Sprint Cup circuit.
"I think it was interesting, because we were at Sonoma and he doesn’t do as well at Sonoma as he does here because this track, it loves aggressiveness," Gordon said. "Sonoma does not like aggressiveness. I think you’re going to see him be extremely fast this weekend. He was fast at Sonoma, but just the fall-off was pretty big there where here that’s not the case.
"I think he’s going to be very, very difficult to beat."
Marcos Ambrose took a giant step toward winning his third consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Watkins Glen International.
The only driver to exceed 128 mph in Saturday’s time trials at the 2.45-mile road course, Ambrose clocked a track-record 68.777 seconds (128.241 mph) to win his first Coors Light pole award at WGI and the third of his Cup career.
Ambrose, who has never finished worse than third in five races at the Glen, posted his record lap despite getting loose in the esses at the high-speed course. Clint Bowyer (127.958 mph) qualified second, followed by his Michael Waltrip Racing teammate, Martin Truex Jr. (127.462 mph).
AJ Allmendinger, driving the No. 47 Toyota for JTG/Daugherty Racing, grabbed the fourth starting spot at 127.433 mph, with Kyle Busch (127.400 mph) completing a parade of evenly matched Camrys behind Ambrose’s No. 9 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford.
All told, 10 drivers broke the qualifying mark of 127.020 mph set last year by Juan Pablo Montoya, but Ambrose was the clear class of the field after his crew made effective adjustments to his Fusion following a less-than-satisfying second practice session on Friday afternoon.
"It was a great lap--it wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t the cleanest lap I could have done, but it certainly carried a lot of momentum, and it was enough to get the job done," Ambrose said. "These new Gen-6 race cars are a lot faster around here, and the speeds are record speeds…
"I think this car really suits this race track. I think it’s more comfortable for the drivers to be aggressive… I’m looking forward to the race, and I think we have as good a chance as anybody to win and go three in a row."
Bowyer has become a road-course prodigy of late, winning at Sonoma last year and finishing fourth in his last outing at the Glen.
"These road courses have become something I look forward to--I never thought I’d say that," Bowyer said before confessing that his lap was fraught with tension. "Fear and being scared is a big part of that--just trying not to mess up, man. You’ve got one lap to get it all. Look how many opportunities you have to mess up out there."
Bowyer didn’t make a mistake in the road course qualifying format, which featured eight different groups, ordered from slowest to fastest from speeds in Friday’s first practice. Though drivers had an opportunity to run more than one lap, most opted not to because the fall-off in grip after one lap was so pronounced.
The Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets, which have been so dominant in the Cup series recently, had an off day in the time trials. Five-time champion and series leader Jimmie Johnson was the best of the lot in 18th, followed by Kasey Kahne (19th), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (25th) and Jeff Gordon (28th).
Subbing for injured Tony Stewart, Max Papis qualified 29th in the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Chevrolet SS. Sixth-place starter Jamie McMurray has the top Chevy on the grid.
Regan Smith didn’t want to sound like an ambulance chaser, and he wanted to make sure reporters understood that any discussion of a possible ride in Tony Stewart’s No. 14 car was purely hypothetical at this point.
But Smith acknowledged that a quality ride like Stewart’s car is an intriguing prospect. After losing his Cup job at Furniture Row Racing to Kurt Busch last year, Smith drove two races in relief of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was sidelined during the 2012 Chase because of a concussion sustained at Talladega.
"It’s a situation where I think any driver would relish that opportunity," Smith said of the prospect of subbing for Stewart. "It’s just unfortunate under the circumstances. I don’t think any of us--and, unfortunately, I had experience with this last year--none of us ever wish to get an opportunity because our competitors have an issue or get injured.
"First and foremost, we’re thinking about Tony and him getting better as soon as he can and his safety and health. But, outside of that, it’s going to be a great opportunity for somebody to hop into a fast race car and get a chance to showcase themselves. I certainly would be open to the possibilities of that."