Roger Diez: Roger Penske gets birthday present to remember
Roger Penske, who recently turned 80, got two excellent belated birthday presents last weekend. Last Saturday night, Penske Chevrolet-powered cars finished 1-2 in the Verizon IndyCar race at the Phoenix oval, with Simon Pagenaud leading teammate Will Power to the checkered flag. Then on Sunday, Penske Fords finished 1-2 in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup race at Richmond. This time it was Joey Logano winning his first points race of the season ahead of teammate Brad Keselowski, who has two wins already in 2017. Sadly, NASCAR spoiled the Captain’s party by finding an illegal part on Logano’s car, resulting in an “encumbered” win. That means the win doesn’t qualify him for the playoffs, he doesn’t get the five playoff points, and crew chief Paul Wolfe is suspended for two races and fined $50,000. Hope your 81st will be happier, Roger.
This weekend, the NASCAR Cup and Xfinity series race at NASCAR’s longest track, the 2.66 mile Talladega Superspeedway. Talladega is a restrictor-plate track, noted for tight pack racing and the near-inevitable “big one.” Dale Earnhardt Jr. has the most Talladega victories among active drivers, with six. Keselowski has scored four wins at the superspeedway, and Logano, Jimmie Johnson, Jamie McMurray, and Clint Bowyer have each tasted victory there twice; Active drivers with single wins are Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, and David Ragan. In addition to these guys, there are a lot of eager non-winners who will be vying for victory when the green flag drops Sunday.
The tally of previous winners in Sunday’s Talladega field stands at 11, more than 25 percent of a 40-car field. Hopefully, we will see 40 cars, because that has not been the case for most of this season’s races. Only two previous races have had full fields, and just 38 cars took the green at Richmond last Sunday. The decline in car count, along with reduced ticket sales and lower TV ratings hints at trouble for NASCAR. It was only a few years ago 43 car fields were the norm, and not all entries qualified. Much TV airtime and printer’s ink were devoted to the plight of the “go or go homers” and the problem of “start and parkers.” Car counts still are nearly twice the size of IndyCar and Formula One grids combined, but it has to be a worrying trend for NASCAR management.
Speaking of field sizes, the Indy 500 also has struggled in recent years to come up with the race’s cutoff number of 33 cars. But fans filled the stadium with a sellout crowd last year for the 100th running of the classic race, and this year may draw some new fans who want to see two-time F1 World Champion Fernando Alonso attempting to win his first oval race. I watched Alonso’s test session on Wednesday as he came to grips with a different kind of race car and an unfamiliar type of track, and I wasn’t the only one who was impressed. Racing legend Mario Andretti commented Alonso drove like a 20-year Indy veteran. Earlier, he passed his rookie test with flying colors (only in Indy 500 parlance could a driver with Alonso’s experience be considered a “rookie”). And although single car testing is a different ballgame than running with other cars, I have no doubt Alonso will acquit himself very well when practice for the 500 begins May 15.
Unfortunately, Alonso didn’t fare so well in last Sunday’s VTB Russian Grand Prix, as his McLaren/Honda gave up the ghost before the start. But it was a good day for Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas, who jumped both Ferraris at the start and went onto score his first F1 victory in more than 80 tries. His teammate, three-time champion Lewis Hamilton, was hobbled with overheating problems and finished fourth, one place out of a podium position. I can’t remember the last time Hamilton failed to finish in the top three except for rare crashes and mechanical failures. Hopefully, Sunday’s result will not sour his relationship with his young teammate, rekindling the corrosive rivalry the team experienced the last couple of seasons.