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Race Weekend Review – April 6-7, 2019

Race Weekend Review – April 6-7, 2019

Monster Energy Cup Series Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway
Kyle Busch ‘snookers’ the opposition to take his third win so far this year

Bristol, TN, Apr 7/19 (GRW): if you were betting on the outcome of this race, you would not likely have picked Kyle Busch to be the race winner given that he had qualified down in 17th place on Friday. And then, on the first lap, he got caught up in a melee of crashing cars and his car sustained significant damage to the rear. Despite this setback and his not being the fastest car here, he managed to take the lead during the final caution on lap 479 of the 500-lap race by not pitting under yellow when most of the others did so. On the restart he was in the lead battling his brother Kurt – who had also not pitted – and they held off everyone else to take a one-two win for the brothers.

The race saw a total of 11 cautions for a total of 77 laps. In the early going, Ryan Blaney was able to lead for many laps, being scored for a most-laps-led status with 158 laps led but he never led a lap after 353, and he ended up in fourth place at the finish. His teammate Joey Logano led the next most laps, 146, and if everyone had pitted during that final caution he would most likely have been the race winner – but he had to settle for third behind the two Busch brothers.

For a while Clint Bowyer looked like being a contender. He started in the front row alongside Kyle Busch after the ninth caution ended on lap 422 but a cut tire soon put him into the wall and he was left trying to recover from that setback. The yellow saved him from going a lap down and he managed to take the checker in seventh place in the end.

MENCS BMS KyBuschVL1 040719Kyle Busch celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the Food City 500 (Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images/NASCAR)

Brad Keselowski led for 40 of the race’s 500 laps. On the final restart, which came on lap 487, he should have started in fifth place but the cars were jockeying for position, he misunderstood the officials instruction, and he was unable to start in the third row where they told him to go. NASCAR black-flagged him for not obeying their instructions. This effectively ended any hope he had for a top finish and he ended up credited with an 18th-place finish. My scoring has no official status but to me it looked like the No. 2 car was lined up correctly behind the No. 41 car ahead – but the next thing we knew Keselowski had given up that position and he was trying to find a place farther back. I cannot see why he would have done that unless he was confused by NASCAR’s instructions. Whatever the case, this result cannot be unwound after the fact, so Keselowski will have to live with it. Had this not happened, the three Penske entries might have finished three-four-five behind the two Busch brothers. As it turned out, Logano and Blaney were third and fourth – with Hamlin gaining six places in this final 14-lap run to finish fifth.

While I always take note of my estimate of the crowd size (expressed as the percentage of grandstand seats that are occupied) I seldom comment on this. There is no question that the fan attendance at the Cup races has fallen drastically in recent years and that many/most of the races have a lot of empty seats compared to a few years ago. And this is without taking into consideration the fact that some tracks – like Daytona, Charlotte, Atlanta and Michigan have taken down many sections of the grandstands that were erected in the glory days of big crowds. However, Bristol is worth comment. It used to be known for being always sold out. Not many years ago I talked to one of the small number of scalpers selling tickets outside the Spring race. The answer I got was that there were a few tickets available for the Spring race and there might even be a FEW tickets to be had from scalpers at the August night race which had the earned reputation of always being a complete sell-out. By contrast, at the Spring race today, half the grandstands were completely empty and the other half had a somewhat scattered collection of race fans, My generous estimate is that between 25 and 35 percent of the total number of seats were occupied – a far cry from the days of sell-out attendance here. Don’t even ask about the crowd for the Xfinity race on Saturday. Of course, one has to take into account the significant television audience as well but this trend of small race day crowds has to raise questions about the health of this sport.

Click HERE for the results of the MENCS race from Bristol.

The next MENCS race will be next Saturday night at the Richmond Raceway.

 NXS BMS CBellAddVL 040619Christopher Bell celebrates after winning the Alsco 300 at Bristol Motor Speedway. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images/NASCAR)

Xfinity Series Alsco 300 at Bristol Motor Speedway
Bell’s late-race charge takes him to the win

Bristol, TN, Apr 6/19 (GRW): Despite the generally high expectations for the Joe Gibbs’ teams lead driver, Christopher Bell, in the absence of Kyle Busch, Bell was disappointing in qualifying and he struggled for more than half of the race. However, late in the race, his car’s setup seemed to start working better and he took the lead on lap 203 of the 300-lap race. After that, he was able to race with Justin Allgaier and Brandon Jones for the lead. Allgaier fell out of the race with a brake issue on lap 227. Jones took the lead by not pitting during the fourth and final caution which came on lap 261 but a flat tire on lap 283 knocked him out of contention.

After that, Bell was in command for the final 18 laps, taking the checker a second ahead of Tyler Reddick. Cole Custer, who had started on the pole, was third, Chase Briscoe was fourth and John Hunter Nemechek was fifth.

This may not have been a dominant win for Bell but it was a second win this season (more than any other eleigible Xfinity driver) and that, combined with having the most Stage points, puts him in a comfortable position for the end-of-season playoffs. And we all know that the playoffs are the only thing that counts out of these ‘regular season’ results. This was the first of the four Dash4Cash Xfinity races, each of which pays $100,000 to the best placed eligible driver – so Bell took home the first bundle of bonus prize money.

Bristol is now a tricky race track. When they repaved it in 2007 they put in a ‘variable’ banking with a higher angle of banking near the top than down at the bottom. As a result, the top groove was faster than the bottom groove – so much so that everyone stuck in the top row and they all ran around in single file. Race fans were disappointed that the old Bristol style of multi-groove racing had been lost. Three years ago, they stated adding a traction compound (the so-called PJ1 which had been used at drag strips) to the lower groove in hopes of producing a two-groove track. It seems to have the effect of making everyone run the lower (sticky) groove early on and then migrate up to the higher groove as it gets ‘rubbered in’ and the traction compound gets worn away in the lower groove. At least it has created a situation in which cars race on a lower groove and on a higher groove which may allow for more passing during the race. The best thing that can be said of this ‘snake oil’ treatment is that it makes the race more unpredictable

As for Bell, he struggled with his car on the treated track surface and he was only able to qualify in eighth place. And then in the race, he was still unable to challenge the front runners. Near the end of Stage #2 (which ended on lap 170) he worked his way up into third place, a sign that his car was becoming more competitive as the race went on. After the pit stops he took the restart on the front row alongside Allgaier, and sixth laps later Allgaier had a brake problem which knocked him out of the race. This let Bell take the lead for the first time. After that, despite the fact that Jones had an apparent advantage as a result of not pitting during the final caution, Bell was in command for the rest of the race. Jones was able to lead for a while but, in the end, his worn tires failed and he had to pit under green – finishing two laps down in 14th place.

Going into the race, Custer seemed to be the strong favourite, having qualified a full tenth of a second faster than Reddick, but after leading the first 25 laps he never looked like much of a contender. In the final Stage he was helped by the problems that befell Allgaier and Jones and he was able to pull off a third-place finish. Allgaier led the most laps in the race, 138, while Reddick led for 61 laps. Once Bell got into the lead he led for 57 laps on his way to the race win.

Young Harrison Burton, Jeff Burton’s son, made his first start in the Xfinity Series. He ran in the top ten most of the day. He had a tire failure which brought out the fourth caution on lap 261 but he was able to recover well enough after that to finish in tenth place – an impressive result. He has raced in 20 truck series races to date and he looks set for greater things if room can be found for him in competition with all the other new faces competing for rides in the national NASCAR series.

Click HERE for the results of the Xfinity Series race from Bristol.

The next Xfinity Series race will be run next Friday night at Richmond.

 INDYCAR SATO WINNER BARBERINDYCAR race winner at Barber: Takuma Sato (Photo by Chris Owens)

NTT INDYCAR Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park
Near-flawless performance takes Sato to victory

Birmingham, AL, Apr 7/19 (Mark Robinson/INDYCAR): Takuma Sato drove flawlessly - almost - to win the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst and throw his name firmly into the NTT IndyCar Series championship conversation.

The Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver made Scott Dixon a Barber Motorsports Park bridesmaid for a record sixth time, beating the reigning series champion to the finish line by 2.3874 seconds. It was the fourth win of Sato's 10-year NTT IndyCar Series career, with the 42-year-old from Tokyo becoming the third different driver - each from a different team - to pull into victory lane in three races this season.

"This is because of the team, they did a fantastic effort," Sato said. "My car was superb! (On alternate) red tires, (primary) black tires, I didn't have to worry about it.

"It's probably the cleanest race I ever won. ... I think we come here with the hopes, always do, but honestly never really, really expected to be this much of a domination."

Starting from pole position after winning the NTT P1 Award the day before, Sato led 74 of 90 laps on the 17-turn, 2.3-mile permanent road course that hosted the NTT IndyCar Series for a 10th straight year. Track officials announced a healthy three-day weekend attendance of 82,889.

About the only time Sato turned a wheel wrong came with five laps to go, when his No. 30 Mi-Jack/Panasonic Honda went wide in Turn 8, going airborne briefly as it rattled through the grass. His car undamaged from the off-track excursion, Sato gathered himself and kept Dixon at bay to the checkered flag.

"Outside, (it) probably looked easy winning from the cruising and the pole position, but it wasn't really cruising," said Sato, the 2017 Indianapolis 500 winner. "So I was really pushing hard using push-to-pass on everything the last 10 laps. So it was tough, and I had a little moment into Turn 8. Anyway, it was not necessary to give the little bit sort of heart attack to the body."

The win was the 27th for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in its 27th year as an Indy car team. Co-owners Bobby Rahal, the three-time Indy car champion and 1986 Indy 500 winner, and David Letterman, the iconic late-night talk-show host, were on hand and overjoyed with the result.

Letterman and Rahal JGS 2019 BARBER 061475 1David Letterman and Bobby Rahal of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (Photo by Joe Skbinski)

"I'm really pleased for Takuma, he drove beautifully," Rahal said. "The team did a fabulous job, pit stops were great, strategy was great. But I honestly think Takuma was in a league of his own."

Dixon was thwarted again in his effort to win at Barber, finishing on the podium at the track for the eighth time. Still, the result was the 42nd second-place finish of his 19-year career, moving Dixon ahead of Helio Castroneves and alone behind only Mario Andretti's 56 career runner-up finishes.

"We've got to be happy with that," Dixon said. "It's always tough competition. We come here to win, but second place (was) great for points. ... Hopefully, we can try and get a win here one day."

Sebastien Bourdais successfully employed a two-pit-stop strategy to finish third in the No. 18 SealMaster Honda for Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan. It was the 57th podium finish for the four-time Indy car champion and his best showing in nine Barber races.

"Hats off to that Team SealMaster Honda crew, they really gave me a great car," Bourdais said. "I guess we were one of the rare teams to stick to the two-stop strategy. It means that Dale (Coyne, team co-owner) has a heck of a lot more faith in me than I have in myself, that's for sure.

"On Lap 18, I said, 'I don't think I can hang onto the car for another 10 laps,' and he was like, 'Well, you're committed now.' So, I wasn't quite sure about it, but it worked out and I finished third."

Sato had never finished better than eighth in nine previous races at Barber, but became the fifth driver to convert a pole position at the track into victory. He leapt 10 spots in the season standings into third place, 34 points behind leader Josef Newgarden. Dixon is second, 27 points behind Newgarden.

A three-time Barber winner, Newgarden struggled all weekend until the race. The 2017 NTT IndyCar Series champion drove his No. 2 Fitzgerald USA Team Penske Chevrolet from 16th starting position to finish fourth.

"We had a good car today, we just started too far back," Newgarden said. "That was kind of our story this weekend, couldn't really get going really enough ... so nice to get a fourth today and Chevy did a nice job getting us what we needed."

There was just one full-course caution to tie the track record for fewest in a race. Graham Rahal, Sato's teammate who started second in the No. 15 One Cure Honda, stopped on course on Lap 57 and Carlin's Max Chilton slid into a tire barrier shortly after while avoiding Tony Kanaan of AJ Foyt Racing as both attempted to enter pit lane.

Click HERE for the results of the IndyCar race from Barber Motorsports Park.

The next IndyCar race will be at Long Beach on Sunday, April 14.

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