Ryan Newman’s crew chief took a gamble worthy of Las Vegas on a late caution at Phoenix last Sunday. Newman was ordered to stay out on old tires for track position, and came up a winner. Joey Logano denied Kyle Busch a win for the second week in a row, as Logano’s flat tire brought out the caution when Busch had a commanding lead. Kyle’s pit stop put him fourth on the restart, and he couldn’t clear traffic in time to catch Newman. The No. 31 car’s victory broke a three and a half year drought for Richard Childress Racing, which hadn’t fielded a winner since Kevin Harvick in 2013. Speaking of Harvick, his sixth place finish and the fifth place of Brad Keselowski were declared “encumbered” by NASCAR following post-race inspection. Keselowski’s team will lose 35 driver and owner points, plus a $65,000 fine and three-race suspension for crew chief Paul Wolfe. Harvick’s crew chief Rodney Childers faces a $25,000 fine and a one-race suspension, plus loss of 10 driver and owner points for the team. Stewart-Haas Racing will appeal, so Childers will be on the pit box at Auto Club Speedway this weekend.
Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup race will complete NASCAR’s three-race “west coast swing.” The Auto Club Speedway two-mile oval is twice the size of last week’s Phoenix track, but in-car temperatures (which hit over 140 degrees last Sunday) should be much more comfortable for the drivers. Among former winners, the story is pretty much the same as we’ve seen at most tracks so far this season. Jimmie Johnson leads the field with six wins, most recently last March. Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth each have three victories — Busch’s last one in was in 2014, Kenseth’s in 2009. Harvick, Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski, and Kasey Kahne each have one trip to Auto Club victory circle on their résumé. Among non-winners there, keep an eye on Kyle Larson, who’s riding a string of three runner-up finishes, and is overdue for a win. Young Chase Elliott is also poised for a victory, as are Harvick, Kenseth and Denny Hamlin. So far this season the manufacturers’ win tally is Ford – 2; Toyota – 1; Chevrolet – 1.
On the other side of the world, Formula One opens its 2017 season in Melbourne, Australia. There are a lot of changes this year, including huge technical modifications to the cars and changes to team affiliations. Valtteri Bottas moves from Williams to join Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes, taking the seat vacated by 2016 champion Nico Rosberg, while Felipe Massa un-retires to return to the Williams team. His teammate will be a newcomer, 18-year-old Canadian driver Lance Stroll. Nico Hulkenberg leaves Force India to join Jolyon Palmer at Renault, while Esteban Ocon takes his old seat, moving from the now-defunct Manor team and teaming with Sergio Perez. And Kevin Magnussen joins Romain Grosjean at the sole American team, Haas F1. Based on Friday practice times, the new formula — which comprises wider cars, wider tires, more aero downforce, and higher power — has made no difference at the front of the grid. Mercedes still rules the roost on speed, followed by Ferrari and Red Bull. The rest of the field is fighting over fourth place. Mercedes’ Hamilton has already eclipsed the race record lap time set by Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari in 2004, with a time of 1:23.620. Times in the 1:22 or even high 1:21 range are anticipated in qualifying (which due to the time difference ran at 9:30 p.m. Friday, too late to include here). I look forward to an interesting race.
Finally, on a sad note we say goodbye to Pete Hamilton. Fans who are new to NASCAR may not recognize the name, but Hamilton achieved spectacular success in his brief career. He was NASCAR’s rookie of the year in the series’ top division in 1968, and went onto win the 1970 Daytona 500 and both Talladega races that year, driving a Petty Enterprises Plymouth Superbird. Godspeed, Pete.