Roger Diez: Formula One circus comes to States
The Formula One circus made its annual visit to these shores last Sunday, with points leader Lewis Hamilton grabbing Austin’s Circuit of the America by the longhorns and wrestling it into submission. Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel seized the lead on the start over Hamilton’s Mercedes, but Hamilton soon chased him down and passed him easily. From there it was a Sunday afternoon cruise for the Brit with Vettel fading in his rearview mirrors. Behind Vettel fierce battles raged between the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen and Valtteri Bottas in the other Mercedes. A late pit stop put Bottas out of contention, but Red Bull’s Max Verstappen was on a tear, passing Raikkonen for third in the final corner. Alas, the stewards ruled he had left the course to make the pass, and the five-second penalty handed down made it a Ferrari two-three. The series goes into the Mexican Grand Prix this weekend with Hamilton firmly in charge of the championship chase, 66 points clear of Vettel with three races left to run.
Meanwhile a few hundred miles north, the final race of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup’s round of 12 was playing out. The big surprise was the elimination of top contender Kyle Larson, whose Chevy expired from a rare engine failure. Unfortunately it happened early in the race, because had Larson managed to score stage points he would probably have been able to advance. Truex once again proved his prowess on 1.5 mile tracks, easily fending off challenges to take his seventh victory of the season and sixth on a mile and a half oval.
Heading into Martinsville this weekend, the Monster Energy NACAR Cup playoff picture shows Truex with 27 points in hand over second place Kyle Busch. Brad Keselowski is third, 43 points back, followed by Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson, tied for fourth 52 points behind the leader. Denny Hamilin is 55 points in arrears, followed by the two youngsters in the field; Ryan Blaney at minus 60 points and Chase Elliot, 63 points down.
The next three races will determine which four drivers will advance to the championship round at Homestead; the Martinsville “paperclip” short track, the fast Texas mile and a half, and the one-mile flat Phoenix oval. Truex is all but unbeatable on 1.5 mile ovals and Harvick owns Phoenix, so look for those two to advance. Martinsville is a whole different story. The last seven races at the half-mile oval have seen seven winners. Eight active drivers have visited victory lane there, but only two have won more than once. Johnson is the undisputed king of Martinsville with nine wins, the most recent one last fall. And Hamlin has won five times, the last time in March 2015. Sunday’s race will most likely determine the third driver to make the championship round at Homestead, with the fourth spot going to the highest point scorer left standing. And this is where those playoff points become more precious than gold. So we will see hard racing for each stage, each position for the remainder of the season.
In other news, Richard Petty Motorsports has named the driver for its one-car effort for 2018. To nobody’s surprise, Darrell (Bubba) Wallace Jr. will be the new driver of the No. 43 Ford next season. Wallace performed brilliantly in four races this year, sitting in for the injured Aric Almirola. His best finish was 11th, an excellent result for a rookie in NASCAR’s toughest series. He improved every race, and the team is excited to help him continue that improvement through a full season. Wallace has won four times in the Camping World Truck series, and was fourth in points in the Xfinity series when Roush-Fenway pulled the plug mid-season due to sponsorship issues. He was a teammate of Carson City’s Mackena Bell in the K&N Pro Series East when both were in NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program.