Roger Diez: Desperation time for NASCAR drivers
The state of Texas was the place to be for motorsports fans last weekend. NASCAR was racing at the Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth while Formula One competed at the Circuit of the Americas (COTA) in Austin. There was even a crossover, as Gene Haas, who owns teams in both series, brought a two-seater stock car for his F1 drivers to play with. Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean got some coaching from Haas’s NASCAR co-owner, Tony Stewart, who knows a little about stock car driving, before giving each other rides in the two-seater.
The playoff picture in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup series became much clearer in Texas last Sunday. Kevin Harvick started on the pole and scored his fourth win of the season, with Stewart-Haas teammates Aric Almirola and Daniel Suarez second and third. Harvick’s win punched his ticket to the season finale at Homestead. At the other end of the spectrum, Chase Elliot had his second disastrous race in a row, putting him 78 points below the cutoff line. Only a win at Phoenix Sunday will salvage his season. Denny Hamlin also had problems, leaving him 20 points below the cutoff line, three points better than Kyle Larson and Ryan Blaney. Those three have a mathematical chance of advancing on points, but Joey Logano or Kyle Busch will have to have a bad Phoenix race for that to happen.
Of the drivers below the line only Hamlin has won at Phoenix (now ISM Speedway), in 2012. Harvick has won there seven times, most of all active drivers, and Logano has won once. Busch has triumphed in the last two races there. But if a non-playoff driver wins, then two of the remaining six will qualify for Homestead on points. We’ll see some desperation Sunday. The race will air on NBC with coverage starting at 11:30 a.m.
Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas took the pole at COTA and passed teammate Lewis Hamilton after a pit stop late in the race to take the win as well. Mercedes finished 1-2 for the ninth time this season. Hamilton also clinched his sixth drivers’ championship, second only to Michael Schumacher’s seven titles. Bottas’ second place in the standings is also assured, but there’s a close race for the next three places. Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc is in third with 249 points, Red Bull driver Max Verstappen has 235, and Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari has 230. With two races to go, those positions could easily change. In the constructors’ championship battle, Mercedes has clinched, Ferrari is in second and can’t be caught, while Red Bull has clinched third place.
In other news, it has been a very good year for Roger Penske whether or not his driver, Joey Logano, wins the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup championship this year. A Penske driver, Josef Newgarden, won the IndyCar championship while another, Simon Pagenaud, won the Indy 500. Last month Penske received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and it was just announced that he has acquired the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the IndyCar series from longtime owners, the Hulman family. It will be interesting what changes Penske brings to both entities. He was one of the principals in the old Championship Auto Racing (CART) series before Tony George split open-wheel racing. Penske has graciously offered to let George and the rest of the Hulman family still participate in the IndyCar series. But “the Captain” will have to walk a tightrope between series ownership and running a three-car team in the series. I have no doubt that he has the experience and integrity to pull it off.