Roger Diez: Big win for Stenhouse Jr.
Last Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400 lived up to its former title, the Firecracker 400. Neither front-row starter was around to see the checkered flag, as well as a number of other early contenders. In the end, Roush-Fenway Racing’s Ricky Stenhouse Jr. proved he’s the real deal when it comes to restrictor plate racing. Stenhouse won in overtime after a red flag for Kyle Larson’s short but exciting flight over the top of Stenhouse’s Ford late in the race. Clint Bowyer finished second for the second week in a row, and his No. 14 Ford is overdue for a win. Larson maintained his standing at the top of the points, while Martin Truex Jr. in second place leads in stage points accumulated. Joe Gibbs Racing is now 0 for 17 in the 2017 win column, and 10 Cup drivers have scored a clean win to qualify for the playoffs. With nine races to go in the “regular” season, we could conceivably have 19 winners, meaning a win isn’t necessarily a ticket to the show. Bowyer, Chase Elliott, Jamie McMurray, Kasey Kahne, and all four Gibbs cars could easily win races before the playoffs start.
This weekend, all three of NASCAR’s touring divisions are in action at the same track, the mile and a half Kentucky Speedway. By the time you read this, the Camping World Truck and Xfinity series races are history, and the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup contest will start today at 4:30 p.m.
The Cup cars have only been racing for six years at Kentucky, and two drivers have pretty much dominated the proceedings. Brad Keselowski is batting .500 at Kentucky, winning three out of his six starts there while Kyle Busch has won twice. Matt Kenseth, with a single victory, is the only other Kentucky winner in the Cup ranks. I look for strong performances from the Ford contingent tonight, and for Larson and Jimmie Johnson to pace the Chevy teams. Busch and Kenseth both know how to win here, so we could see the Gibbs guys break through for the first time this season.
The Verizon IndyCar series is back on an oval this weekend, the fast 7/8 mile bullring that’s Iowa Speedway. Expect to see some close, tight racing Sunday. So far this season not one driver or one team has dominated.
There have been eight winners in the first 10 races, with only Will Power and Graham Rahal winning twice. Winning teams include Penske, Ganassi, Andretti, Dale Coyne, Rahal Letterman Lanigan, and Schmidt-Peterson. The point standings are also tight, with the top six drivers within 72 points. With 50 points for a win, things could change quickly. Scott Dixon has 379 points, Simon Pagenaud 345, Helio Castroneves 342, Josef Newgarden 318 and Power 316.
Also in action this weekend, the Formula One circus visits the fast Red Bull Ring in Austria. With slightly more than 200 feet in elevation change and 10 turns, the track features four fairly long straights and two DRS zones, so speeds should be high. Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton is the only active driver to have won in Austria. Among the top three teams, Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen have finished second, Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas’ best is third, Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel’s top finish is fourth, and Daniel Ricciardo of Red Bull has finished no higher than fifth. As has been the case at nearly every track so far this season, we expect the cars to be much faster than last year’s models, and outright track records to be broken.
The NBC Sports Network has taken over coverage of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup series and the Xfinity series for the remainder of the season. We have a new booth crew and pit lane reporters, with Jeff Burton providing driver perspective, Steve LeTarte bringing his crew chief expertise, and Rick Allen with the play by play.