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Race Weekend Review – March 29-31, 2018

Race Weekend Review – March 29-31, 2018

FIA Formula 1 Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix at the Bahrain International Circuit
Leclerc dazzles but Hamilton is the race winner

Bahrain, Mar 31/19 (GRW): It seemed like all this weekend it was going to be Ferrari’s day to win. In qualifying, young Charles Leclerc put his Ferrari on the pole – the youngest driver to ever do so – and his teammate Sebastian Vettel was second fastest, albeit 0.294 seconds slower. In the race, Leclerc was slow off the line but he soon recovered and passed Vettel for the race lead. After that he seemed to be in command as he set the fastest race lap and he pulled out a larger and larger lead over Vettel and the rest. Surely the race was his.

As the race went on and all the first round of pit stops had been made, Leclerc had an eight second lead over Vettel. Hamilton caught up to Vettel when he made his second pit stop for tires and when he pressured him and got past, Vettel spun his car in his attempt to regain second place – but Hamilton, now in second place behind Leclerc, was still nine seconds behind him.

Then, on lap 44 of the 57 lap race, Leclerc slowed, letting Hamilton close up a bit. Soon it was obvious that Leclerc had a problem and he could not maintain his former pace. Apparently the energy recovery MGU-H device was not harvesting energy on braking and the added power that this hybrid scheme was designed to provide was missing. There was nothing Leclerc could do but to ride it out and hope that he did not lose too many positions before the end of the race.

It only took four laps before Hamilton was past him and into the lead. The next two behind – Valtteri Bottas and Max Verstappen – had been well back – over 40 seconds – when Leclerc’s problem became apparent. Perhaps he would be able to eke enough speed out of his car to prevent falling into their clutches and dropping to fourth. Vettel was then in fifth place, some 70 seconds behind Leclerc.

On lap 54, Bottas went by into second place, dropping Leclerc to third – and Verstappen was close behind. But, just then the Safety Car was sent out. Both Renaults had come to a stop on the same lap in the same place and were sitting in dangerous positions. This froze the field and the race never went green again. Leclerc was able to continue at the pace car speed and he hung on to take the checker in third place ahead of Verstappen.

Vettel finished in fifth place ahead of Lando Norris who was sixth in his McLaren. As for ‘Team Canada’, the Racing Point cars finished in eighth with Sergio Perez and in 14th with Lance Stroll.

On the start, both Vettel and Bottas got past Leclerc, dropping his to third momentarily but he soon gathered himself up and got past Bottas into second place. It took him until lap six before he was able to get past his teammate to take over the lead. Behind them, Hamilton had passed Bottas into third. Verstappen had started in fifth and he continued to run there until he pitted – somewhat prematurely – for fresh tires on lap 11. Later we learned that he had had a slow puncture and this was an unplanned stop, Nevertheless, it set off a flurry of pit stops as the others came in to avoid the dreaded ‘undercut’.

After the pit stops the race order settled out with Leclerc back in the lead ahead of Hamilton, who had gained a position when Vettel pitted a lap after he did, Daniel Ricciardo in fourth by virtue of being on a one-stop tire strategy and not yet pitting, Bottas in fifth and then Verstappen in sixth.

Ricciardo could not match the pace of the front runners on his older tires (not to mention his less than competitive Renault bolide, and he started to fall back making the race order Leclerc, Vettel, Hamilton, Bottas and Verstappen.

Leclerc held his comfortable lead through the second round of pit stops but Bottas had dropped to fourth behind Vettel and Hamilton - Hamilton was now right up on Vettel’s tail and pressing hard. Hamilton had DRS available and he was trying to pass at every opportunity. At first Vettel was able to just hold him off but then Hamilton got alongside and past him. As he went past the Ferrari, it spun 180 degrees and Hamilton was away. Worse, Vettel had damaged a tire and he had to pit for a replacement - falling to sixth place behind Nico Hulkenberg – but he was soon past him into fifth place behind Verstappen.

After that, we had the drama of Leclerc’s MGU-H failure and the synchronised retirement of the two Renaults of Hulkenberg and Ricciardo which produced the race result.

After the race, Hamilton showed empathy towards Leclerc, going over to speak to him in the parc fermé and, when interviewed, saying that Leclerc was sure to win many races in the future.

PHOTO F1 PODIUMBahrain GP Podium: Bottas, Hamilton and Leclerc (Photo: Daimler AG)

“It was very tricky out there today and I had to give it everything I had,” said Hamilton. “We were very, very lucky to get this one-two, Ferrari outperformed us all weekend. Ultimately you want to have a real fight and want to pass someone because you're quicker, so it feels a bit weird and you can't quite believe your luck in these scenarios. I have been in similar situations and I know how it feels, but Charles did a great job all weekend long and has a beautiful, bright future ahead of him.”

Early in the race, Leclerc had set the fastest lap so he got the one point for that achievement. The points standings after Bahrain had Bottas leading with 44 points to Hamilton’s 43. Verstappen was third with 27, Leclerc fourth with 26 and Vettel fifth with 22 points.

Click here for the full results and points standings after the Bahrain GP.

The next F1 race will be the Chinese GP on April 14.

PHOTO MENCS TEXAS HAMLINDenny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Office Toyota, celebrates in victory lane after winning the O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway (Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images/NASCAR)

NASCAR MENCS O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway
Hamlin overcomes two penalties to take his second win of the year

Fort Worth, TX, Mar 31/19 (GRW): Denny Hamlin must have had the fastest car here today because, even though he was sent to the back of the field twice during the race for pit lane violations, he still came out the winner in the end. In a race which saw many 27 lead changes and turns of fate Hamlin was the victor by a 2.7-second margin over Clint Bowyer. Daniel Suarez was third, Erik Jones was fourth and Jimmie Johnson fifth. This was not the standard finishing order we are used to seeing these days – and it tells the tale that this was not a standard cookie-cutter race.

“Our car was really, really fast,” Hamlin said. “We obviously saw that. Once we got out front, we were able to pull away from the pack a little bit. Got a little bit loose when we were racing our teammates in the No. 18 (Kyle Busch) and the No. 20 (Erik Jones). So I wasn’t able to be as aggressive as I was earlier in the race. We had a super-fast car. That’s why we won.”

NASCAR has painted itself into a corner with their rules changes that slow the cars by increasing drag. This means that on a track like Texas, drafting is the only way to get top speed and with NASCAR’s group qualifying rules this throws it all up into the air. In the second and third rounds of qualifying, everyone waits for someone else to go out of the pits so they can latch on behind in their draft. Hence, nobody goes out until the last possible moment – and the result of this weird exercise is by no means a test of which car is fastest. Here Suarez ignored the conventional wisdom and he qualified in fourth place. When the rest went out in their big drafting pack for a single fast lap it was Jimmie Johnson on the pole ahead of William Byron and Chase Elliott. Who would have predicted that? The best that can be said is that, in a 500-mile race, the starting order has little to do with the race result.

Kyle Busch came into this race having won both supporting races here – the Gander Outdoors Truck race and the Xfinity Series race – and everyone was talking about his chances for the sweep, winning all three races on the weekend. As it turned out, Busch did lead the most laps, 66 of the race’s 334 laps. He might have been able to win the race and the sweep but, just after he passed Erik Jones for the lead on lap 264, his car jumped out on him strangely and, soon after he recovered from that hiccup, his car jumped out again . This time it scraped the wall,. He was able to continue but he was never able to make up enough ground to be a contender again. He had to settle for a tenth-place finish behind his brother Kurt.

It has been a long time since seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson has won a race – not since the spring race at Bristol two years ago – so people were excited to see this former champion win the pole for the race. In the race, he led the first 59 laps but after that he only led one more lap, lap 239 during a cycle of pit stops – but this was good enough to see him credited with the second-most laps led after Kyle Busch. Given the unusual nature of this race, it is too soon to say whether Johnson’s improved results from Texas will be duplicated as the season goes on.

The second place for Bowyer must have been gratifying given that he usually has to play second fiddle to his teammate Kevin Harvick (who finished eighth here). As for Suarez, when he was displaced from his ride at Joe Gibbs Racing to make way for Martin Truex some of us wondered if perhaps he might not find another good ride for this year. Stewart-Haas signed him on to replace Kurt Busch in the No. 41 car and his third place here has to feel like redemption – especially given that many of his family and friends had driven up here from Mexico to cheer him on. As for Jones, this is his fourth season in the Cup series; after coming in with such high expectations, he has only won once so far. With Christopher Bell waiting in the wings, his fourth place here may take some of the heat off him – and we may see more solid results from Jones going forward.

The way the Stages were set up for this race worked against what is their presumed intent – to create more interest by injecting more artificial cautions into the race. The problem is that, given that everyone knows when the end-of Stage cautions will fall, there are no surprises and they become part of the pre-race strategy. Before Stages, no one knew for sure when a caution might fall and this planning for the surprise factor was a major part of each team’s race strategy. Now it is just a routine that produces more meaningless laps behind the pace car.

However, here at Texas the first two Stages were each 85 laps or 128 miles in length – too long to go without making an earlier fuel stop. This created a situation like the ‘old days’ when a crew chief had to plan for a green-flag pit stop or a yellow-flag pit stop at some unpredictable point – and be ready for anything. In this race, stuff happened and the race played out like before – with cars pitting under green and the pit stops at the Stage ends being of little significance. No doubt, this old-style race strategy contributed to the many lead changes and to the somewhat unusual list of top-ten finishers. Having only come to take NASCAR racing seriously as of 1980, I feel like a newbie, but for my money the racing would be a lot better – and draw more hard-core fans if they forgot some of these recent gimmicks – starting with the Stages.

Click HERE for the full results of the MENCS race from Texas.

The Next MENCS race will be next Sunday, April 7 at the storied half-mile Bristol oval.

PHOTO NXS TMS Busch Race 033019 RESIZEKyle Busch, driver of the #18 iK9 Toyota, races during the My Bariatric Solutions 300 at Texas Motor Speedway (Credit: Sean Gardner/Getty Images/NASCAR)

Xfinity Series My Bariatric Solutions 300 at Texas Motor Speedway
Busch holds off Reddick for the win in Texas – his second win of the weekend

Fort Worth, TX, March 30/19 (GRW): For once, it looked like Kyle Busch might not win a race. His protege Christopher Bell started from the pole alongside Brandon Jones whole Busch was left starting back on the third row. In the first 191 laps of the 200-lap race he only led twice for a total of 24 laps while Bell held the lead for 127 laps. But, on the ninth and final caution which came with ten laps to go, Bell came out of the pits in third place behind Tyler Reddick and Busch. And then, on the restart, Busch shot out ahead of them into the lead and he was never challenged again in the remaining laps to the checker.

Reddick held off Bell to take second place with Bell third. Chase Briscoe, who had started in 15th place, was fourth ahead of Jeb Burton.

Afer leading the first part of the race, Bell was penalized for speeding in pit lane at the end of the first Stage and sent to the back of the field. After that, it took him until lap 99 before he regained the lead on the restart coming off the caution for Stage No. 2. Now it looked like he was going to take the win but that final pit stop cycle dropped him to third and he was unable to recover in the final ten laps.

In victory lane Busch’s son Brexton was wearing a toque with the number 95 on it. That No. 95 ostensibly represented Lightning McQueen’s number in the Disney movie ‘CARS’ but it might also have celebrated his father’s 95th win in the Xfinity series – increasing yet again his record number of wins in this series. This was his sixth start in the Xfinity Series this year and his fourth win. To this point in the season, he has made 14 starts in the three national NASCAR series and he has won nine times, an amazing 0.623 batting average.

“This Toyota Supra was awesome today,” Busch said. “It was really fast on the long run. I could just never get people away from me on the front side of a run to get settled into my rhythm and be able to go. We were just all over the place today. Certainly a fast race car once I could get rolling. Christopher Bell ran a great race, he should have won this thing today.”

On that final pit stop under yellow, Bell had come into the pits in the lead but he took on two tires while Busch only took fuel and he emerged as the race leader ahead of Reddick and Bell. And after that, Busch was in control for the final few laps.

“I was starting to struggle on that long run,” Bell said. “It was frustrating to be beat by guys with no tires, but that’s just how it goes at Texas.”

The two Penske Fords both had a bad day. Austin Cindric scraped the wall and had to pit for repairs, ending up in 11th place. Brad Keselowski had high hopes but his car qualified back in tenth place and, during the race, he was caught up in a crash which caused too much damage for him to continue.

Click HERE for the full results of the NXS race from TMS.

The next NXS race will be held next Saturday, April 6 at Bristol.

PHOTO NGOTS TMS Busch Checkered 032919Kyle Busch, driver of the #51 Cessna Toyota, takes the checkered flag to win the Vankor 350 at Texas Motor Speedway (Credit: Matt Sullivan/Getty Images/NASCAR) 

NASCAR Gander Outdoors Trucks Vankor 350 at Texas Motor Speedway
Kyle Busch makes it four-for four at Texas

Fort Worth, TX, Mar 29/19 (GRW): Here in Texas Kyle Busch continued his slash-and-burn march through the ranks of the truck series. This was his fourth start in a row and it was another win in his unbeaten winning streak. This gives him 55 wins in this series, a series where he has long since been the driver with the most wins. It seems as if the only relief the season-long truck competitors can look forward to is the fact that he is limited to just five truck starts all season – and that he cannot claim any championship points in this series. His fifth, and final, start is planned for the Charlotte race in May.

When the race started Busch was in the second row behind three series regulars, Grant Enfinger, defending champion Brett Moffitt, and rookie Sheldon Creed, last year’s ARCA champion. It only took five laps in the 147-lap race before Busch was leading the race. During the first 35-lap Stage, the race was interrupted by four cautions. During all this Busch and Moffitt traded the lead back-and-forth. During the fourth caution Busch pitted leaving Moffitt to take the restart alongside Enfinger but, when the green flew, Moffitt fell back and Enfinger took the lead and went on to claim the Stage #1 win a few laps later. Meanwhile Busch was down in eighth place behind the trucks which had not pitted before the end of the Stage.

Of course, those trucks which had pitted earlier cycled out in front when the others stopped under the Stage #1 yellow – with Busch back in the lead again. This Stage saw just one caution – which turned into a red flag – and it saw Busch holding the lead until the end of Stage #2.

Johnny Sauter took on no tires during this pit stop exchange and he came out of the pits leading Moffitt, Busch and Enfinger. Stewart Friesen, who had started in ninth place, took this green in seventh place but he was soon up into fourth place behind Busch, Moffitt and Ben Rhodes – Sauter having fallen back to seventh place.

On the restart Busch was ahead of Moffitt who took the lead once for eight laps before Busch reasserted himself. Meanwhile, Friesen was working his way forward and he was up to fourth place when the eight caution ended on lap 110. On this restart, Friesen pushed his way up to second place ahead of Moffitt but the pace was again slowed by the ninth –and final caution – on lap 118.

This final restart saw Friesen starting in the front row alongside Busch – but Busch had the preferred lower line and he took the lead with Moffitt pushing up into second place behind him. Moffitt made contact with Rhodes and he sustained a flat tire which forced him to pit for a replacement – dropping him out of contention as the laps counted down.

Now, with 20 laps left to go, Friesen had his best chance to overcome Busch. In the remaining laps, he closed right up behind him but he was never able to make the pass and he had to settle for a second-place finish yet again.

“Those guys were able to keep up with us just way too much throughout the night,” Busch said. “You know, it’s a better race that way when they’re able to keep up. That means we need to go to work and work harder in order to get ourselves faster.”

Friesen had had to start the race from the rear of the field after an engine change but he turned this race into his best finish of the year. “The last couple of laps were just mad,” Friesen said. “We were just tight. I just got loose underneath him. He gave me some room. Originally, I thought he was right there on my quarter. But he was doing what he had to do. After that, I was just tight. I thought we could have got him if we had got cleared.”

Sauter was third, Enfinger fourth and Matt Crafton fifth. Moffitt was scored in 19th place after pitting for the flat tire. Creed had a mechanical failure in his truck and, while he was able to return to the race, he finished in 22nd place, 14 laps down.

Click HERE for the full results of the NGOTS truck race from TMS.

The next NGOTS race will be held in a month’s time on May 3 at Dover.

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