Roger Diez: Full weekend on track for NASCAR
It’s been a rollercoaster week for NASCAR, both on and off the track. But it was an off-track situation that once again put the series into the national news. An apparent racially-based incident turned out to be something else, but not until the entire garage area walked the pit lane in support of Bubba Wallace. The FBI, called in by NASCAR, determined that the “noose” found in his garage was a knot tied in the rollup door’s pull-down rope and had been there since at least last fall. NASCAR’s statement on the incident read, in part, “We appreciate the FBI’s quick and thorough investigation and are thankful to learn that this was not an intentional, racist act against Bubba. We remain steadfast in our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all who love racing.” Of course, there’s still the Confederate flag issue for NASCAR to deal with, as demonstrators flew flags outside Talladega Speedway and overhead on an airplane-towed banner.
But when the green flag dropped (after yet another rain delay), all the pre-race drama was forgotten. And when the checkered flag flew in overtime as the single “big one” unfolded behind the leaders, Ryan Blaney nosed ahead of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. by .007 seconds, equaling his margin of victory over Ryan Newman last fall. He is the third Penske driver to win this year. Aric Almirola’s Stewart-Haas Ford slid across the line backward for third. The 5,000 spectators scattered around the stands cheered for both Blaney and for Wallace, who finished 14th.
This weekend is a full one for NASCAR, with a Gander truck race (9:30 a.m. on FS1) and NASCAR Cup race (12:30 p.m. on FOX) Saturday and an Xfinity race (9:30 a.m.) on Sunday along with a second Cup race (1 p.m.). All races are on the 2.5-mile tricky triangle of Pocono Raceway, with three entirely different corners and long, wide straightaways. It’s the track where Denny Hamlin first made his mark on the NASCAR Cup series, winning back-to-back races in 2006. Hamlin repeated this feat in 2009-2010 and won again last year. His five wins top all 11 active drivers who are Pocono winners. Jimmie Johnson and both Busch brothers have three victories each, and Martin Truex Jr. has two. One-time Pocono winners include Blaney, Chris Buescher, Matt Kenseth, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, and Ryan Newman. Oddly enough, Hamlin isn’t the oddsmakers’ favorite for Saturday’s Cup race. That honor goes to Kyle Busch, winless on the season, at 9-2 odds. Kevin Harvick and Truex Jr. are next at 7-1 with Hamlin, Keselowski, and Chase Elliott at 8-1. After Blaney at 10-1 and Logano at 11-1, the odds drop off pretty rapidly. But after his Talladega performance, Stenhouse Jr. might be a good dark horse bet at 100-1.
Fourth of July weekend will be a big one at Indianapolis. Not only is it NASCAR’s annual pilgrimage to the iconic track, but the NTT IndyCar series is also racing there. NASCAR will be racing Sunday for 400 miles on the big 2.5 mile oval while the Indy Cars will take to the 2.439-mile, 14 turn infield road course on Saturday.
Finally, a former Indy car champion is in serious condition in an Italian hospital. Alex Zanardi, the CART 1997-98 champion, was injured in a handbike race last weekend. Zanardi lost both legs in a horrific crash during a CART race in Germany in 2001 but came back to race in the German Touring Car series and the Rolex 24 at Daytona. He also won gold and silver medals in Paralympic handbike competition. He will remain in an induced coma until next week. Please keep him in your thoughts and prayers.