Roger Diez: Sweet redemption for Almirola
Last Sunday was sweet redemption for Aric Almirola, as he took the checkered flag at Talladega to advance to the round of eight in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup playoffs. Almirola, remember, almost had his first win for the No. 10 Stewart Haas Racing Ford at Daytona until Austin Dillon put him in the wall on the last lap. So the Talladega win was doubly sweet. Not so sweet was the L1 penalty issued to the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevy of Kyle Larson for violating NASCAR’s Damaged Vehicle Policy following an on-track incident. The team’s first appeal was denied, and a final appeal was to be heard after deadline for this space. If the penalty is upheld, the team faces a $25,000 fine for crew chief Chad Johnston, a one-race suspension for car chief David Bryant, and the loss of 10 owner and driver points. The loss of points puts Larson 36 below the cut line and in a “must win” position to advance to the next round.
The Talladega race was free of the usual drama, with no “big one” and only a few minor incidents. Almirola joins Chase Elliott as a lock for the next playoff round, with Kevin Harvick 63 points to the good and only having to take the green flag to lock in. Kyle Busch is pretty much a sure thing 46 points above the cut line, while Joey Logano is also fairly safe with 39 points in hand. Everybody behind them is in jeopardy, including Kurt Busch (+30), Clint Bowyer (+21), and Martin Truex Jr. (+18), especially if we have a new winner who’s currently below the cut line. Alex Bowman, 68 points in arrears, can only advance with a win.
In the crop of past Kansas winners among currently active drivers. Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick have each won three of the 25 races, while two time winners are Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano, and Matt Kenseth. Drivers who have visited victory circle once at Kansas are Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, and Brad Keselowski. Harvick and Truex have one the last four Kansas races with two each. While both are having good seasons, Truex’s performance has been off as of late, so the no. 78 Furniture Row Toyota needs a good result on Sunday.
If you’ve watched the news or the Weather Channel recently, you’ll know Austin, Texas, site of the U.S. Grand Prix, is having some serious weather issues. Most recent forecasts predict rain for qualifying Saturday, but cloudy on Sunday with temperatures in the mid-60s both days. The cool temps should produce good power and grip, but a wet track will negate those advantages in qualifying. Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, who has won the last four rounds of the series, could clinch the title in Austin if rival Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari finishes third or worse and Hamilton wins. If Hamilton takes second place, Vettel must finish fourth or better to stay alive, and sixth or better if Hamilton comes home third. Both drivers have won the championship four times, so one of them will come out of 2018 as a five-time winner. This will tie the record of the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio, who scored his five titles from 1951-57. The only driver to surpass that mark was Michael Schumacher, who won seven championships over the 10-year span from 1994-2004. Fangio won his five titles driving for Mercedes, Alfa Romeo, Maserati, and Ferrari while Schumacher won five times for Ferrari and twice for Benetton. All four of Vettel’s titles were with Red Bull, while Hamilton has won three times driving a Mercedes and once with McLaren.