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Race Weekend Review – September 28-29, 2019

Race Weekend Review – September 28-29, 2019

FIA Formula 1 VTB Russian Grand Prix at Sochi
• Mercedes finishes one-two after the Ferrari promise fizzles

Sochi, Russia, Sept 29/19 (GRW): The results sheet for the Russian Grand Prix shows the two Mercedes drivers, Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas, finishing one-two with Leclerc, the sole Ferrari finisher, in third place. This was far from the result expected before the race.

In qualifying, Leclerc won the pole for the fourth Grand Prix in a row while Sebastian Vettel was third quickest, splitting the Hamilton-Bottas duo.

At the start, the Ferraris were on medium tires and the Mercedes (to the surprise of many observers) were on soft tires. This allowed Vettel to spurt past Hamilton into second place behind Leclerc – and then he kept on going and took the lead by the third turn.

Apparently, this had been expected by the Ferrari team and they had discussed their strategy if this happened. That is, Vettel, who had gained the lead by being able to slipstream Leclerc at the start, would be expected to fall back and let Leclerc resume the race lead – and lead the two of them home to a one-two Ferrari victory.

Unfortunately for Leclerc, the first half of this clever strategy worked too well. Vettel had been able to shoot out into a substantial lead and it was unclear whether he had had to rely on Leclerc’s wake to gain this position. Hence, things fell into confusion. Vettel was reluctant to just hand over the lead to Leclerc when he was going so well – especially given the fact that Hamilton was very close behind Leclerc and swapping positions up front might bring Hamilton into the mix.

On lap 22 of the 53-lap race, Leclerc pitted and dropped to fourth behind Vettel, Hamilton and Bottas. Five laps later, Vettel pitted out of the lead and he came out in fourth place but then he slowed, reporting a lack of power from his ‘MGUK’ power management unit, and he pulled off the track and retired. This left Leclerc in third place about 20 seconds behind Hamilton.

Leclerc might have been able to salvage a win given the time Hamilton and Bottas would lose when they each made their single pit stop. However, Vettel’s parked car at the side of the course prompted the race officials to call for the virtual safety car – the worst possible turn of events for Leclerc. Now he was trapped in position, unable to close the gap (as he would have had there been Safety Car which would have bunched up all the cars) and the Mercedes were now able to pit under this Virtual Yellow and lose less time that the gap back to Leclerc. So they came out of their pit stops still running one-two ahead of Leclerc.

The rest of the race was a procession at the front with Hamilton and Bottas leading Leclerc the rest of the way to the checker. Leclerc made a few attempts to get past Bottas using his DRS boost but they did not succeed. Bottas took the flag four seconds behind Hamilton and Leclerc finished another second back of Bottas.

“Charles pitted, then I started catching Seb, and we were in a good position to offset and go long – even had the Safety Car not come out, it would have been a really good race,” said Hamilton. “Then everything fell our way, and after that it was a question of building the gap, saving the tires but also getting to the finish as smoothly as possible.”

For sure it was an upsetting day for the Ferrari fans and an especially upsetting day for Leclerc who, at the start of the race, fully expected that he was in line to score yet another win in his maiden year with Ferrari.

Max Verstappen had started from ninth on the grid due to a penalty for changing power unit parts. Before the race he predicted that he would be able to finish in fourth place – and his prediction proved true. His teammate Alexander Albon was required to start from the pit lane after they changed parts on his car while it was in parc ferme. He recovered nicely to finish fifth, right behind Verstappen (albeit 24 seconds back).

Carlos Sainz brought the Renault-engined McLaren home in sixth place. Earlier in the weekend it was announced that Mercedes would be supplying the power units for the McLaren team as of next year.

Click HERE for the results and points after the Russian Grand Prix.

This next F1 race will be the Japanese Grand Prix in two week’s time on October 13.

PHOTO CMS MENCS Elliott 092919Chase Elliott took the lead from Joey Logano on Lap 31 of the Bank of America ROVAL 400 (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series Bank of America ROVAL 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course
• Chaos ensues at Charlotte; Elliott wrecks but he takes the checker

Charlotte, NC, Sept 29/19 (GRW): The powers that be in NASCAR, worried about falling interest in their version of auto racing have been twisting in the wind trying to come up with novel gimmicks to entice the stock car fans back to the tracks. The ROVAL race at Charlotte has to be the worst manifestation of this seemingly futile quest.

First, it is the third race in a ten race ‘playoff’ which has such convoluted rules for determining the series champion that it seems hard to believe that many fans understand the complex twists and turns that lead to a ‘champion’ being declared. After this race, I doubt that many fans have any understanding of how remaining 12 playoff drivers will be awarded positions in the eliminations as they go forward. I assume that they do like I do – wait until the finale and watch to see which of the four remaining players finishes highest (actually wining the race is not required) and is thereby declared the season winner.

Anyone who has been following the races though the season so far knows that the championship should go on merit to Martin Truex, who has won six races so far, two more that either of his closest rivals Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. Beyond those three, the idea of declaring any other driver in the field the 2019 season champion is laughable. But the way NASCAR has this manipulated, any one of 16 drivers had a theoretical chance of being awarded the title, merit notwithstanding. After the Charlotte race, the are still 12 drivers who are presented as credible candidates to be named the best driver of 2019. What a joke!

Then, as if that was not enough, NASCAR and Bruton Smith have inflicted us with this so-called ‘ROVAL’ – and weird infield tangle of roads that they pretend is an actual road course. Now I have enjoyed watching IMSA sports cars race on the old road course here – which was a combination of the oval and some twisty roads in the infield – but this ROVAL is an abomination.

It seemed like the race could not run more than a few laps before a car spun or crashed into the barriers, bringing out a caution. In all, there were ten cautions in the 109-lap race, the last one turning into a red flag just when I thought the race was almost over.

Surely, race fans go to auto races to see the skill of the drivers and how the best driver can put on the best performance and win the race on merit. When you have a race on this twisted sister of a road course, there is a chance that every driver – no matter how skilled and no matter how well set-up is their car – will spin off or be penalized for cutting across a chicane. This apparent inability of NASCAR drivers to handle a tricky circuit like this or for the NASCAR teams to bring cars capable of negotiating the circuit without crashing off the course or into each other, makes the racing here a joke.

Now, I would point out, that at most of the other venues where the NASCAR teams race, the cars handle the race course’s configuration without crashing at every turn and the drivers, for the most part, look like they have the requisite skills to win races on speed not by surviving better than the others who have crashed in to each other.

NASCAR racing would be better if they eliminated the cockamamie playoff system for picking the series champion out of a hat; better that they revert to their old system of a season-long points race. And NASCAR racing would be far better if they gave up on this joke of race venue they call the ROVAL; either race here in its proper speedway configuration or go to a real road course like Watkins Glen or Sonoma.

As a side note, I would also mention that, in my opinion, the Stages concept is counter productive. A big part of the strategy in stock car racing is the contingency planning that has to be done to get ready for a caution which may come without warning at any time. The Stages make the timing of those two cautions totally predicable which completely negates this important aspect of race strategy. Let’s get rid of the Stages and go back to a single race, run over the advertised distance and let the cautions fall where they may.

By now, you may want to dismiss my comments as the ranting of a lone dissenter. However, I would point out, given that these changes were made to bring back the mammoth crowds of fans that used to come out not so many years ago, the attendance at this novelty act in Charlotte was as dismal as ever. They have removed about half of the seats this place had in its glory days – and, yet, less that half of this reduced seating was occupied for this ‘playoff’ race. If NASCAR’s formula of ‘playoffs’ to determine the champion and the demolition derby races to replace the fall race at Charlotte which was once a highlight of the NASCAR calendar can’t revive the crowd count any better than this, they need to do a drastic rethink of their ideas about how to attract fans back to their races.

Many people thought that when Brian France, who had been in charge when these weird ideas were imposed on the sport, left office under a cloud and was replaced by his uncle Jim France, that we would see a new era of sensible decisions which would get NASCAR back on track and going in the right direction. So far, we are still waiting for the light at the end of the tunnel.

Who won the race? The results are attached. Chase Elliott, who was in the lead at the time, crashed straight into the barriers at the first corner on an early restart. Brad Keselowski crashed out of last year’s race after a similar driving error. This time, given all the other chaos that had ensued, Elliott was able to regain the lead towards the end of the race and come home the race winner.

“Oh, my gosh, what a mistake, holy moly,” said Elliott. “You talk about messing something up, right here — don’t do that. What a day. Such a fast Camaro and honestly that was the only reason we were able to get back in it. I pretty well blew it and got the cautions at the right time and brought it home. … But I don’t think that I could have done anything more stupid, leading that race.”

Click HERE for the results of the MENCS race at Charlotte.

Here’s the rundown of the state of play of the playoffs: Sixteen drivers qualified for the first round of the playoffs. This Charlotte race was the third race in the first round and now the bottom four drivers on the list – Aric Almirola, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch and Erik Jones – will be dropped. This leaves Truex, Kevin Harvick, Keselowski, Elliott, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson, Clint Bowyer, Ryan Blaney, William Byron and Alex Bowman as the 12 who will move on to the second round of eliminations which starts with the Dover race next week. After the three races in the next Round of 12, the bottom four will be dropped and there will be another three-race Round of 8. After that, the bottom four will be dropped and the remaining four will go on to the finale at Homestead and whichever driver in this group of four finishes highest, will be declared the champion. Got it?

PHOTO CMS NXS DingerSticker 092819A J Allmendinger puts the Winner's Sticker on his car in Victory Lane after winning Drive for the Cure 250 (Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images) 

NASCAR Xfinity Series Drive for the Cure 250 at Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course
• Allmendinger drops in and wins

Charlotte, NC, Sept 28/19 (GRW): These days A.J. Allmendinger may be relegated to being an occasional driver but he turned a one-off ride here into a convincing race win – proving that he is not yet finished as a competitive race driver. On the restart which began the final Stage, he soon took the lead from Christopher Bell – and, after that, he led the rest of the way to the checker on lap 67, finishing two seconds ahead of Tyler Reddick.

Soon after Allmendinger had passed Bell for the lead, Chase Briscoe, who had led the first 21 laps of the race, went on the attack and he took a line through the backstretch chicane which left Bell no alternative but to go straight across the grass. This let Briscoe get ahead but then Bell nudged him into a spin – which forced Briscoe to pit, dropping him out of contention. Bell, for his part, was penalized for cutting the chicane and he was dropped to the back of the lead-lap cars. This left both of these former contenders for the win nowhere near the front as the laps counted down.

After another caution – the final one – Tyler Reddick got past Austin Cindric into second place. Cindric’s car now had a broken rear shock absorber and the handing was wonky. However, he was able to hang on well enough to finish in third place behind Reddick. Justin Allgaier came home fourth while Noah Gragson was fifth. With the exception of Allmendinger, these other four drivers are playoff drivers hoping to make it through to the next playoff round without being eliminated.

“I have to thank Tyler Reddick – he’s phenomenal,” said Allmendinger. “He told me when I got here I needed to get better on the road courses, because he out-qualified me in every race lately and even beat me in a couple. I knew with him behind me (for the last two restarts), I could be defensive on the right side and give myself an angle, and Tyler wouldn’t shove down in there. I appreciate that. I tried to change the restarts up enough each time, but you can only do so much. I knew once we got into clear air, this thing was good. In traffic, it was a struggle.”

Alex Labbe, a former Pinty’s Series champion who had been running here in the Xfinity Series last year and part-time this year, opted to skip the Pinty’s finale at Jukasa to race here. He finished in sixth place, his best-ever Xfinity Series finish in his 44 starts in this series.

Bell’s missed-chicane penalty and his retaliation against Briscoe cost both of them their expected good finishing positions. Briscoe finished ninth and Bell 12th. Given that Bell had already won the first race in this elimination round, he is sure to move on to the next round which starts after next week’s race at Dover. As for Briscoe, he is currently 35 points above the cutoff line, so his chances of making it beyond this first elimination round look good. The ‘big three’ of Bell, Cole Custer and Reddick are still one-two-three in the playoff points standings, so they have to remain the favourites to fight it out for the title at Homestead.

• Click HERE for the results of the Xfinity race at Charlotte.

The next race, at Dover, will be the third race of the first three-race elimination round in the Xfinity playoffs. It will be run next Saturday, October 5. After that race, the bottom four drivers while be dropped and the remaining eight will move on to the second round of three-races which begins with the race at Kansas on October 19.

 PHOTO PINTYS RANGER 2Andrew Ranger celebrates his third series title in the NASCAR Pinty's Series. (Matthew Murnaghan/NASCAR)

NASCAR Pinty’s Series Pinty's Fall Brawl at Jukasa Motor Speedway
• Taylor pips Hathaway on final lap; Ranger clinches title

Hagersville, ON, Sept 28/19 (GRW): As the laps counted down in the final quarter to the 200-lap race, Brett Taylor was challenging Jason Hathaway for the lead. Hathaway had been leading since lap 117 but Taylor had moved up to second place on the final caution which ended on lap 170. On the restart He started to close up on Hathaway and soon he was running almost side-by-side. Lap after lap he was able to get his nose alongside coming out of Turn 4 but he could not quite close the deal.

This cat-and-mouse side-by-side racing continued lap after lap up to the white flag. Then, on the final lap, Taylor was able to close the deal and he came out of the final turn ahead – and he took the checker as the race winner. This was the first Pinty’s win for the Calgary native.

Donald Theetge finished third. The two protagonists fighting it out for the series championship – Andrew Ranger and Kevin Lacroix – crossed the line in fourth and fifth positions. Given that Ranger had come into the race leading Lacroix in points, this finish confirmed him as the 2019 champion by 11 points over Lacroix. This was Ranger’s third Pinty’s championship; he had won it previously in 2007 and 2009.

“It’s a dream and I’m so happy for my crew,” Ranger said. “Everybody here works so hard and it’s fantastic to win our third championship. I knew that we were really fast, we knew we had to finish in front of him, and we did just that and won the championship.”

Although they were driving cars that were nominally different makes – Dodge for Taylor and Chevrolet for Hathaway – they were, in effect, teammates because both cars came from Hathaway’s shop. Nevertheless, Hathaway had always encouraged Taylor to give no quarter if they found themselves in a race against each other like this.

“[Jason] gave me enough room on the bottom to race him clean,” Taylor said. “I was super loose and every time I got to his door I had to back off cause I didn’t want to blow a tire. In the end, all I had to do was give him a little bit of a bump.”

• Click HERE for the results of the Pinty’s race at Jukasa.

This was the final Pinty’s race of the 2019 season.

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