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Race Weekend Review – July 15, 2018

Verizon IndyCar Honda Indy at Exhibition Place in Toronto
Dixon wins one for the Commonwealth; Canadians Wickens and Hinchcliffe third-fourth

Toronto, ON, July 14/18 (GRW): In the interview room after the race, everyone seemed happy. New Zealander Scott Dixon was happy that he had won, Frenchman Simon Pagenaud that he has finished in second place, the Canadian Robert Wickens that he had finished on the podium and fellow Canadian James Hinchcliffe that he had finished in fourth, just behind his teammate.

IndyCar podium resizeThe winners Pagenaud. Dixon, and Wickens on the podium (Chris Jones/IndyCar)

This win for Dixon had extended is lead in the points standings to a 62-point margin over Josef Newgarden and he was going on to Mid-Ohio next, a place where he had won five times before. Post-race, in the general euphoria over having two home town heros in the top four, Dixon was moved to point out that, as a member of the Commonwealth, this place was as close to a home track as he gets in the IndyCar series. Remarkably, among all the drivers who paraded in for the post-race interviews, not one was an American, despite this being an American series – and Toronto the only stop outside the now-great United States. It was a satisfying result for the mostly Canadian crowd, a crowd that filled the limited number of seats available at this temporary street circuit.

My notes from the race tell a bit of a different story. In the first third of the race, pole-sitter Newgarden was in command, leading easily ahead of Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Will Power, and Takuma Sato. The Canadian duo were running towards the back of the top ten. Had this race played out as a pure contest of racing prowess on the track and in strategy in the pit lane, there was no reason to expect the final results to have be much different from that – and a win for Newgarden.

But Toronto is a difficult street course with concrete barriers up against the side of the narrow track all the way around, some tight and tricky corners and a mixed bag of asphalt and slippery concrete patches making up the racing surface. Accidents do happen here and the result of a Toronto race is as much determined by the luck of drivers avoiding crashes while other are taken out as it is on their driving prowess.

This chance factor came into play on lap 27 of the 85-lap race when Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi had two separate encounters with the wall and had to pit for repairs. This brought out the first full-course yellow.

After four laps behind the pace car, with the cars’ tires cooling and picking up the rubber ‘marbles’, the track went green again. Catastrophe. Newgarden slid off into the wall even before he reached the green flag but he wobbled down the front stretch towards the first corner. Here five more of the front runners got tangled in a melee, nearly blocking the track – Power, Graham Rahal, Sebastian Bourdais, Rossi, Hunter-Reay, and Max Chiton – and the order of those who got through was shuffled up.

Needless to say, this completely changed the nature of the race. After a spin by Rene Binder a couple of laps later and another yellow flag reboot, the race order was now Dixon, Wickens, Pagenaud, Sato and Marco Andretti, with Hinchcliffe in seventh place fighting for position with Tony Kanaan who was just ahead.

Pagenaud, elbows out, forced his way past Wickens for second while Hinchcliffe had had an encounter with Sato in the ‘big one’ which slightly deranged his steering and made it tricky maintaining pace for the rest of the race. After that, the race went green the rest of the distance and the order stayed pretty much constant. Sato, who had been running in fifth place, dropped out after he hit the wall in Turn 11. Andretti continued in fourth place, splitting the two Canadians, Wickens and Hinchcliffe, but he had to pit for a splash of fuel with two laps to go and this let Hinchcliffe up into fourth behind his teammate. The green flag – and smiles all around.

There was a third Canadian in the race, Zachary Claman de Melo from Montreal, a rent-a-ride driver in a Dale Coyne car. He qualified 23rd and, after the carnage, he finished in 14th place. This will probably be his last outing in 2018.

After the race, life was good for the survivors who came into the media interview room – but should we really celebrate a race that takes place on such a venue that puts such a premium on mere survival. A day earlier, one of the deans of Indy car reporting, wrote a column favourably comparing the almost wreck-free Indy car race at Iowa the week before to the NASCAR ‘wreck-fest’ at Daytona - but was not the Toronto Indy car race another instance where the result was as much determined by luck in avoiding the ‘big one’ as at Daytona?

Who am I to rain on the parade when everyone in Toronto seemed to be so happy with the results. For my part, I can look forward to the next race, at Mid-Ohio, a proper road course with grassy run-off areas, albeit a narrow and twisty track which will test the drivers’ skills. Here, both Wickens and Hinchcliffe can have a chance to show their road-racing skills and realistically, hope for a win. Hinchcliffe continues to have his ‘sunny ways’ and he does now have a win this year, but it looks like the ‘rookie’ Wickens’ may continue to have better performances in the long run. Another year, he may well be a top championship contender, who knows?

Indy Car Wickens flag resizeWickens wraps himself in the Canadian flag (Chris Jones/IndyCar)

Wickens and Hinchcliffe embody the stereotype of the nice, polite Canadian – and who would not want to be represented by such well-behaved people. No doubt their popularity at home will go on and on. No question, the presence of two local heros who had the potential to win the race brought out a bigger crowd than normal and created a happy buzz among the assembled residents - and that warm feeling will likely translate over into continued success for the CNE venue given that both Wickens and Hinchcliffe look to being around for quite a while yet.

The next race will be at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on Sunday, July 29.

Click HERE for the results of the Honda Indy from Toronto.

MENCS TRUEX START resizeMartin Truex Jr., driver of the #78 Toyota, leads the field past the green flag to start the Quaker State 400. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images/NASCAR)

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway
Another one for a ‘big three’ driver – Truex takes a dominant win

Sparta, KY, July 14/18 (GRW): More and more the MENCS championship looks like winding up as a battle between this years’ big three – both Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick have five wins each while, Martin Truex, with his win here at Kentucky, has four wins on the season. NASCAR’s cockamamie championship rules are designed to keep us guessing right up to the final race, but it is hard to believe that anyone other than trio has a chance at winning the championship this year.

Truex started from the pole and he led 174 of the race’s 267 laps – including the final 44 laps to take the checker ahead of Ryan Blaney and Brad Keselowski. This two-three finish for the two Penske drivers may give hope that one of the three Penske drivers (including Joey Logano) may be able to break the big three stranglehold in the remaining races from now to the start of the playoffs.

Kyle Busch finished fourth ahead of Harvick in fifth, a sign that these two remain strong contenders despite not winning this race.

The race ran practically caution-free with only four cautions including the two at the end of the first two Stages. As he did last year, Truex won every Stage, the first two and the checker in this race.

Kurt Busch, who started from ninth on the grid, took the lead during the first round of green flag pit stops which extended over several laps. Once this series of pit stops was completed, Truex resumed the lead until the end of the first Stage. Things had barely gotten going again before there was another yellow when Alex Bowman had a tire fail, sending him into the outside wall. Truex continued to lead thought this mid-Stage pit stop cycle - -and he continued to lead until end of Stage 2 on lap 160. This time Keselowski, who had been running back outside the top ten, took on only two tires to everyone else’s four and this vaulted him into the lead ahead of Truex.

Keselowski seemed to have better speed out front in the clean air and he led for 37 laps before Truex was able to push past him to regain the lead. When the fourth and final caution flew on lap 208, Kurt Busch came out fo the pits in the lead and he led for 14 laps before the inevitable happened – Truex regained the lead and held on to the checker.

Perhaps it was not the most exciting race of the year but it must have been good for the Truex family.

Given NASCAR’s crazy ways of deciding the championship, it is hard to guess how things are going to work out. With just three drivers hogging most of the wins – and only four others with any wins at all -- it looks like a number of good drivers will make it into the playoff on points rather than on wins. And once the playoffs begin it is a new ball game.

The next MENCS race will be at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway next Sunday, July 22.

Click HERE for the results to this week’s Quaker State 400.

 NXS BELL HEMRIC resizeChristopher Bell, leads Daniel Hemric during the Alsco 300 (Jerry Markland/Getty Images/NASCAR)

NASCAR Xfinity Series Alsco 300 at Kentucky Speedway
Bell races from the back to the front to take the win

Sparta, KY, July 13/18 (GRW): Xfinity Series rookie Christopher Bell had to start from the back of the field after he spun in qualifying and had to replace his damaged tires. But he was able to overcome this handicap and a bad pit stop mid-race to claim the victory over Daniel Hemric. Kyle Busch, who had looked like the class of the field, had handing troubles in the second half of the race and he had to settle for third. Justin Allgaier and Cole Custer, who had started on pole, were fourth and fifth.

Despite starting at the back, by lap 94 of the 200-lap race, Bell was in the lead and he stayed in front for the next 41 laps. During the fifth yellow on lap 133 he had a slow pit stop and fell back out of the top ten but within a couple of green-flag laps he was back into the lead momentarily.

Then the sixth caution flew and Busch was the only one of the front-runners to pit. He had led 65 laps earlier in the race but he had fallen back to third and was complaining that his car was handling badly. This gamble to get the car adjusted paid off. He took the green in eighth place with 49 laps to go. After that he made rapid progress towards the front again – but as the remaining laps played out, he was only able to get up to third by the finish.

Meanwhile, Justin Allgaier held the lead from lap 152 to 183 as Bell came charging up through the field, taking the lead on lap 184, with just 16 laps to go. Hemric, who had led for eight laps earlier just before the sixth caution, closed right up on Bell in the closing laps but Bell held him off and finished 0.848 seconds ahead, while Busch was another few car lengths back in third.

GMS driver Spencer Gallagher returned to his seat in the No. 23 truck at this race after being suspended for a drug violation. He finished 20th.

This was the first win in the Xfinity Series for Bell. Last year, as a KBM driver, he won the truck series championship. This year, as a Joe Gibbs driver, this win earns him a for sure spot in the end-of-season championship playoffs. There are only two other drivers who are guaranteed a starting spot by virtue of a win – Allgaier and Tyler Reddick. Many of the wins have gone to Cup interlopers who are ineligible for this championship. Twelve Xfinity regulars will make it to the playoffs. Hence, it looks like a number of the playoff spots will go to drivers without a win who make their way in on points.

The next Xfinity race is at New Hampshire Motor Speedway next Saturday, July 21st.

Click HERE for the results of the Xfinity race from Kentucky.

 NCWTS RHODES KY resizeBen Rhodes celebrates winning the Buckle Up in Your Truck 225 (Daniel Shirey/Getty Images/NASCAR)

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Buckle Up in your Truck 225 at Kentucky Speedway
Decision to take no tires lifts Rhodes to the win over Friesen

Sparta, KY, July 12/18 (GRW): The race came down to the final round of green-flag pit stops. Stewart Friesen had been leading when he made his final stop on lap 123 of the 150-lap race. This handed the lead over to Ben Rhodes who had been close behind in second place. With just 27 laps left to run Rhodes’ crew chief opted for no fresh tires – and when the pit stop cycle played out, he was in the lead over Friesen and he held him off to the checker beating him by a margin of 0.922 seconds. Obviously, the tires Goodyear brought to Kentucky were long-lasting and the gamble on no tires on that last pit stop paid off for Rhodes and cost Friesen his best shot at a truck win so far this year.

Former series champion Matt Crafton finished in third place, his best finish so far this year save for his second at Dover. Brandon Jones, an Xfinity regular this year, was fourth and John Hunter Nemechek, another Xfinity driver, was fourth.

KBM driver Noah Gragson had started from the pole and led a total of 62 laps, winning Stage 2, but after that, he fell out of the top ten and he was only able to get back up to eighth place by the finish. He is already locked into the playoffs and he looks like being a championship contender

Friesen took the lead from Parker Kligerman on lap 86 and led for 35 laps until he was overtaken by Rhodes during the final pit stop cycle. Kligerman had jumped up in the lead during the pit stops at the end of Stage 2 but once he lost the lead, he fell back out of the top ten again and he finished in 27th place.

This win gives Rhodes a guaranteed entry into the season-end playoffs. Only four other truck series regulars have race wins which earn them admission to the playoffs – Johnny Sauter, Noah Gragson, Brett Moffitt and Justin Haley.

The next NCWTS race is on the dirt track at Eldora this Wednesday, June 18.

Click HERE for the results of the race at Kentucky Speedway.

PINTY RANGER TAGLIANI resizeNASCAR Pinty's at Toronto: Ranger leads Tagliani after the final restart (Credit: Matthew Manor/NASCAR)

NASCAR Pinty’s Grand Prix Of Toronto at Exhibition Place, Toronto
Ranger blasts past Tagliani on the final restart to take the race win

Toronto, ON, July 14/18 (GRW): Alex Tagliani started from the pole and he led the entire 35-lap race distance until a late caution flew on the final lap and extended the race into overtime. On that final restart, Andrew Ranger was alongside Tagliani – on the inside for the first corner. He passed Tagliani into that corner and emerged in the lead - a lead he was to hold for those final two overtime laps. Ranger’s year-long win drought had ended at the previous race at Chaudiere so this win made it two wins in a row for him.

Tagliani’s woes were doubled when J.F. Dumoulin, who was lined up behind Ranger for the restart came charging into the first corner and slammed into Tagliani’s car. It was bent up and the right-front tire was rubbing but he managed to gather things up enough to regain second place and finish ahead of Dumoulin.

Gary Klutt, who had started in sixth place drove a steady race to finish fourth ahead of L.P. Dumoulin and Marc-Antoine Camirand. Cole Powell who is new to this series this year and who made such an impressive run at Jukasa a few weeks earlier, struggled a bit here, starting and finishing in 12th place.

The race was punctuated by four cautions of little consequence to the results, except for the final one which cost Tagliani the win. That caution was brought out when Kevin Lacroix, who had been running in 12th place stopped on the track on lap 30 bringing out the yellow. It seemed to take forever for the track workers to wrangle this car off the track – and they even resorted to a short red flag period – presumably in hope that this would allow the race to be restarted and finished under red – but that tactic did not pay off and the race ran an extra two laps anyway.

All this moved jumbled up the championship points standings. Now, Ranger is tied for the lead with L.P. Dumoulin at 167 points. Marc-Antoine Camirand is third with 158 points and Cole Powell has dropped to fourth with 153 points. It is a long way to the end of the season and these points standings are sure to be shuffled more along the way.

The next Pinty’s Series race will be held at the Wyant Group Raceway near Saskatoon, SK, on Wednesday, July 25.

Click HERE for the results of the Pinty’s Grand Prix of Toronto.

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