Roger Diez: What happened in Vegas was wild
Last Sunday’s opening race of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup playoffs wasn’t supposed to be one of the “wild card” races, but it certainly turned out that way. The scheduled 267-lap affair ended on lap 272 in overtime after myriad cautions and a red flag. When the dust settled almost half the playoff field (seven drivers) finished the race in the bottom 20 positions. This puts four drivers in jeopardy of not transferring to the next round unless they win at Richmond or on the Charlotte “roval.” On the outside looking in after Vegas are Jimmie Johnson (-6 points), Chase Elliott (-9), Erik Jones (-19), and Denny Hamilin (-20). Brad Keselowski locked into the next round with his third consecutive win. Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. are in good shape due to playoff points amassed during the regular season, +65 and +63 above the cut line respectively. Kevin Harvick, the other “Big Three” member from the regular season, had a disastrous Vegas but is still fourth in the standings, 38 points to the good.
The Cup drivers race at Richmond tonight, and if the track shapes up like the previous two years, the top groove will come in early in the race. That’s good news for Kyle Larson, who loves running inches from the wall. Larson is still looking for his first win of 2018 despite a strong car and good finishes, including a second last Sunday in Vegas. So who among active drivers has visited victory lane in a night race at Richmond? Larson put his Ganassi Chevy in victory lane last fall, and Hamlin won in 2016. Keselowski took the checkers in 2014, Clint Bowyer won in 2012, Harvick in 2011, and Hamlin again in 2010 and 2009. Jimmie Johnson bested the field in 2008 and 2007, Harvick won in 2006, Kurt Busch in 2005, and Ryan Newman in 2004. My money’s on Larson for the repeat.
The IndyCar series wrapped the 2018 season at Sonoma’s twisty road course last Sunday, and Scott Dixon’s second-place finish clinched the fifth championship for the Ganassi Racing driver. Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay won the race while his teammate and championship contender Alexander Rossi never mounted a challenge to Dixon after a shunt with Marco Andretti at the start. Rossi had to pit for a new nose and eventually finished seventh, 57 points behind Dixon. It was the series’ last race at Sonoma, as they’ll wrap the 2019 season at Weathertech Raceway at Laguna Seca in Monterey.
In the only Formula One night race of the season, Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton dominated, setting a new track record to take the pole and leading the race all the way except for pit stops. Red Bull’s Max Verstappen elbowed his way into second place early on and held it, relegating championship contender Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari to third place. Hamilton now has an almost insurmountable lead of 40 points over Vettel in the championship battle with 6 races remaining in the season.
Finally, Dale Earnhardt Jr. took off his headset, put down his microphone, and jumped into a JR Motorsports Xfinity car last night to race in the GoBowling 250 at Richmond. As of this writing, no word on how he finished, but he’ll be back in the booth tonight for the Cup race, with a fresh perspective on “what it’s like out there.”