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A smashing way to win in Nascar

After posting about a peculiar Formula Ford finish last week I didn’t think I’d be watching the same thing happening again quite so soon. This time around the oddness was courtesy of Nascar Nationwide from Iowa Speedway and our two protagonists are Ricky Stenhouse Jnr and Carl Edwards.

After some rough stuff earlier in the race the two Roush Fenway teammates were already spoiling for a fight. At the final restart Ricky Stenhouse pulled off some blinding moves to take the lead. While dueling hard with Edwards for the win Stenhouse resisted giving him a dose of payback as the team pleaded with each driver to keep calm after an evening of pushing and shoving. Once Stenhouse decisively took the top spot the Roush crews must have thought they had avoided trouble and it was time to celebrate a first and second place for the team, instead they were presented with two mangled Fords along with their winning trophies.

Coming into the final turn of the race Stenhouse’s engine blew spewing out oil and water as he glided in to the finish line. Like James Bond throwing off the bad guys, the engine blow inadvertently created sent Carl crashing into Ricky just as they crossed the line. Miraculously they still delivered a Roush one-two as Stenhouse was propelled over the line and into the wall while Edwards cruised back with a lot shorter race car than he had when he took the white flag. There was no car to present in victory lane, just its driver – the exciting Ricky Stenhouse Jnr. As his senior teammate and dance partner Carl Edwards says, this guy will be around the sport for a long time to come. But however many victories Ricky may take in the future surely none will out-weird this one.

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A smokin’ hot start to a race

Before each and every Nascar race we the fans are blessed with an often spirited rendition of the Star Spangled Banner before some Z-list celeb gives the command to “start your engines” and of course we are also treated to a local pastor reading a prayer. To European ears these pre-race rituals seem a little bizarre, though they add to the charm. On my visit to Daytona a Good Ol’ Boy sat within earshot declared at the end of the anthem, “every time I hear that song I get a lump in my throat” prompting those around him to nod sagely and give him some pats on the back. You have to see this passion to believe it, even if like me you struggle to feel it for yourself.

Like eating my annual sprout, at Christmas I’ll watch the Queen’s speech and my appetite for patriotic pageantry is abated for another 12 months, so you’ll excuse me if I struggle to keep a straight face when witnessing the manner in which US racing begins each and every week. Secretly I think most nationalities wish they were as proud of themselves as a great many Americans are. Sometimes even a sceptic such as myself can get into the spirit of things; the command to start the engines at the Indy 500 often brings tears to my eyes – skip to just over 5 minutes into this clip and watch how dramatic this moment can be, the TV direction is perfect. The sheer expectation of the spectacle ahead mingles in my mind with thoughts of all the drivers who have paid the ultimate price to be one of the 33 gladiators in the running at the Brickyard. As for Marvin Gaye singing the Star Spangled Banner, that is enough to make you crave a green card.

Last Saturday the Nascar Nationwide series was running in Nashville where Concrete Carl Edwards was the winning driver who took home the coveted Gibson guitar, but it wasn’t the Ford driver who got people talking. Instead it was Pastor Joe Nelms who stole the show with the hilarious invocation you can see above.

In a series with a car sponsored by Jesus a passionate prayer is not unusual, nor is thanking God for everything the France family has brought to us – but this appeal to a higher power was truly remarkable. I could scarcely believe my ears when I heard it on Saturday night, judging by the laughs from the crews and drivers it seems I wasn’t alone. Boogity, boogity, boogity – Amen!

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The man they love to hate

Kyle Busch racks up 100 wins

100 not out - Kyle rules, OK? (pic bristolmotorspeedway)

Over here in Europe far too many sneer at oval racing. If only more petrolheads from the Old World would go to see a Stock Car or Indycar race – stand next to the fence as 30 or 40 cars hurtle past at 200mph and all your preconceptions are shattered. They may only turn left, but give it a fair chance and you’ll witness bravery, precision and determination in abundance. There is so much talent in US racing and the points systems are often so confusing and contrived that it can be hard to spot the cream of the oval crop, but occasionally a driver emerges who shines through even to the untrained eye. Kyle Busch is just such a driver.

The driver of the number 18 machine has just clocked his 49th Nascar Nationwide win, tying Mark Martin’s all-time win record, after a thrilling finish at last night’s New Hampshire race. This is also his 100th race win in Nascar competition, which is half of King Richard Petty’s total. He is already a team owner too, it was Busch whom Kimi Raikonnen turned to when trying to find a fast ride for his Nascar debut this year. The man known as Shrub, Rowdy and Wild Thing has even had a little interest from a few people with vision in F1, although his chances with Toyota and USF1 both came to naught. All of that is great, but here’s the really impressive fact: Kyle is merely 26 years young.

You don’t need to know the astonishing stats to realise just how special Kyle is. There are few drivers in the world who can glue you to a TV screen like the younger Busch brother can. Kyle is forever saving slides, kissing walls, defining his own racing lines and overtaking where others fear to. On the super speedways he seems to be the only driver who can keep his head above water at restarts without a car pushing him in an era of two-car-tandems and non-stop bump-drafting. His road course game is solid and on the short tracks he hustles like few others can. If he was born in Rio or Kent he would surely be a superstar Grand Prix driver with the world at his feet. As it stands he is little known outside the US and A where he is just as famous for his tantrums as his triumphs. Out in cyberspace he is fast gaining the name of ‘Kryle’ due to his propensity for radioing in to his crew chief to tell him the car is un-drivable – shortly before he takes it to victory lane anyway.

Racing from 13 years old in Legends where he picked up 65 wins in only three seasons or so, Kyle made his debut in Nascar competition at sweet 16, leading in only his second start. Since then he has raced in all three of Nascar’s top-tier series often all on the same weekend. Last August at the fearsome bullring of Bristol Motor Speedway he became the first driver to win all three races at a Nascar meeting; he was also the first to win two in a weekend only the year before. Busch’s start-to-win ratio in Trucks is a staggering one win in every three starts where he is usually pitted against 40 or so other drivers in near-equal machinery.

So how does Rowdy Busch compare to the greats? Racing evolves so fast that it is always hard to compare eras. All of Richard Petty’s wins came at the top level yet Nascar had less strength-in-depth back then. The King took until he was 32 to clock his first 100 wins though he started his career three years later than Busch’s prodigious rise. In the fullness of time it may be that Dale Earnhardt is a closer match for Busch, at least in terms of sheer determination on a racetrack if not in personality. Wild Thing is already 24 wins ahead of The Intimidator although he’ll never overtake the great man in the popularity stakes. Having said that I remember a time when Dale divided the fans just as Kyle does today. Whether Busch will win wider affection is in his hands – if he drops his Rowdy image he may endear himself to more people even if it means we won’t be treated to him smashing up hand-made guitars or flipping the bird at race officials.

Now a married man he has proclaimed himself as “the new Kyle Busch” but he has still found himself on probation this season. Lewis Hamilton would sympathise I’m sure. This new Kyle Busch has already received a black eye at the fists of team owner Richard Childress earlier this season and even hit the European news for his citation for reckless driving after clocking 128mph in a 45mph zone when driving his company Lexus. Back at the track he still gets more than his fair share of boos from the crowd and sometimes has a few empties thrown in his direction.

Despite all this success and infamy Kyle is yet to claim a Sprint Cup title – which could be viewed as a bad reflection on the consistency of Joe Gibbs Racing and the lack of emphasis that the Nascar scoring system places on victory. However it does show starkly just how much talent is at work in modern stock car racing, in any other era he would surely have clocked up a title or two already as his older brother Kurt did back in 2004. It has taken until 2011 for the younger Busch to look like matching this feat. He currently leads the Sprint Cup standings deep into the 36 race season although The Chase has never been kind to him come season’s end. The Daytona 500 has also eluded him so far as he finds himself competing in an era where the super speedways are carnage-strewn lotteries. Few can tame restrictor plate tracks as The Intimidator once did, although Kyle has led the most laps at the 500 twice in his career so far.

So here’s to Kyle Busch. When it pays so well to win in the States then Europe may never know just where this kid rates amongst our heroes, but in Stock Cars he is already a genius of the finest kind – a flawed one. If 100 wins is half what The King managed then Kyle has just been crowned the Prince of Nascar. The throne awaits.

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Great racing wherever you look

Plato rolls, Conway wins and Nascar entertains (pic Rob Dunckley)

F1 provided the race of the weekend from where I was sitting, but there was so much good motorsport going on that it was hard to keep up with it all. We had a four-wide finish at Talladega, the closest World Rally ever, a new and truly heroic winner in Indycar and the BTCC boys bent some metal. If I don’t get a chance to watch Superbikes from Assen or my beloved Aussie V8s on a wet street track then I know there was a lot of rubber being burnt around the globe…

First up was Talladega with the Sprint Cup race that anybody could win which was taken by Jimmie Johnson, the winner of the previous five championships. It may not be the ideal result for the fans or the title race, but it was certainly spectacular as the leaders finished four-wide after the tandems we saw at Daytona returned. Clint Boywer was a mere two thousandths of a second behind the winner, but I still can’t truly enjoy the bump-drafting. Nationwide saw Kyle Busch get involved in the ‘big one’ before driving his battered machine back to the front just as the race was halted for yet another big wreck. If anything the relative unknowns in the ARCA race provided the best and cleanest racing at ‘Dega, their cars aren’t built to run the whole race nose-to-tail and the extra space between them made for some far more satisfying racing that saw Ty Dillon edging out Frank Kimmel at the flag.

Astoundingly the WRC was very nearly as close and every bit as thrilling in the dust of Jordan. Sebastian Ogier continued in his winning ways, beating Latvalla by a mere 0.2 seconds – the closest World Rally to date. The event was shortened  after political and logistical problems, but it was still remarkable to see a smaller gap between the leaders after two days rallying than we saw in F1 after a mere 15 minute qualifying segment. It seems that Ogier is the real deal.

Another young driver with a very bright future is Britain’s Mike Conway who scored his first Indycar win at the Long Beach Grand Prix last night. Most Indycar viewers will know Mike best for his bone-breaking Indy 500 shunt that could so easily have taken his career away just as it started. Now recovered and driving for Andretti Autosport he drove a sublime final few laps to blast his way up from sixth place at the final restart to the lead. Conway endured a troubled pit-stop and had to dodge the now-predictable crashes to take the fight to Ryan Briscoe’s Penske that led for so much of the day. Long Beach is one of the greatest street tracks in the world and Mike Conway knows a thing or two about racing around cities after taking wins at Monaco in GP2 and Macau in F3; he’s certainly in the right series for somebody who excels at racing inches from concrete walls.

The walls aren’t quite so close at Donington Park but the BTCC boys still managed to find them. The races were won by Matt Neal, Andrew Jordan and crowd-favourite Matt Jackson, but the talking points were the slew of accidents including a roll for champion Jason Plato.  The racing was good and luckily everybody survived their crashes with nothing more than financial damage, although Plato said he “tweaked his manhood” as his Chevy Cruze rolled three times. Amazingly the RML boys got Jason’s car going again for race three and he even managed to score good points with the roof still squashed! The Craner Curves are a fine place to watch a race and for those stood by Starkey’s Bar they will have witnessed Plato’s accident, a multi-car crash in race three and a fast shunt for Neate’s Ford Focus on the final lap of the day along with a scary ride down the hill for Rob Collard too.  Wish I was there.

I will be heading to a race next week as British F3 heads to Oulton Park, just down the road from here. The F3 season is already underway at Monza where Felipe Nasr won twice for Carlin and cemented his status as championship favourite. Rupert Svendsen-Cook took a win too but it’s Nasr who everybody will be focusing on when British F3 heads back to Britain.

The best junior category in 2011 looks set to be Formula Renault 3.5 where there is some serious talent on show, not least of all is Red Bull’s test driver Daniel Ricciardo. He was absent from round one at Arragon, so whoever emerged on top from the two races on Spanish soil would likely become his main challenger for the season. It was Lotus-affiliated American hot-shot Alexander Rossi who took a win in a spectacular race one, his racecraft was top drawer as he diced with Move and Wickens in a very entertaining battle. He followed it up with a second place in the Sunday race just behind Kevin Korjus – the youngest driver on the Renault grid and a very surprising victor. Expect a bunch of these guys to follow fellow Renault World Series graduates Vettel, Kubica and Kovalainen into F1 very soon, there is a rare amount of talent on that grid this year.

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Another fast-Seb, Danica’s milestone

 

Sebastian Ogier

Sebastian Ogier has the name, the car and the talent. (pic Edgar Gonzales)

Once again it was the USA that brought us most of the racing action this week, but the French provided the flair. Nascar was in action in Las Vegas, Grand Am had a thriller at Homestead and the WRC’s new breed were in Top Gear’s favourite country.

 

Carl Edwards did his somersault celebrations after taking the win in Sprint Cup at Las Vegas, but the Nationwide encounter had more talking points. The last lap saw reigning champion Brad Keselowski leading the way until a puncture sent him into the wall on the final lap gifting the win to 50-something hip hop aficionado Mark Martin.

 

Behind the thrilling events up front a little Nascar history was made by Danica Patrick. She took fourth, the highest for a woman at this level of stock car competition, in what was her most impressive drive to date in Nascar. This was a significant milestone, coupled with the last-gasp spills it means Nationwide in Vegas gets my race of the week.

 

Danica Patrick may have carved out a little piece of history, but the drive remained a solid rather than spectacular effort. To see elbows-out, white-knuckle action you had to head off the tarmac and onto the dust of Mexico or to the ice of the Stade de France.

 

The World Rally Championship with its new itty-bitty cars headed to Central America where a glance at the results wouldn’t tell you the whole story. Sebastian Loeb, one of greatest driving talents at work in the world today, took the win to add to his record-smashing tally, but the real star of the show was another Citroen-driving Frenchman called Sebastian. Winner of one WRC round already, Sebastian Ogier is being groomed to replace the master and he nearly got one over the champ as they tussled against each other until Ogier made a mistake on the final day.

 

The rest of the WRC field lagged minutes behind the two Sebastians despite the Frenchmen starting most stages in seemingly disadvantageous conditions. Sebastian Ogier nearly matched the performance of Loeb, which is enough to earn the young star twoworld’s racer of the week.

 

There was further French frivolity in the Stad de France where the Professor taught the class a lesson in ice dancing as Alain Prost won in the Andros Trophy. He seems to smile a lot more when he wins on ice than he ever did on tarmac, the Paris crowds were happy with the result too.

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Desert, island, reading

Nascar rides into the sunset

Nascar in the desert, Superbikes beside the seaside (pic stevelyon)

The World Superbike season got underway in underwhelming style and Nascar got back to a short-ish track after the drama of Daytona, but it was the boys of World Supersport who put on the best show and claimed my race of the week. Watch them put the ‘super’ in Supersport here.

Carlos Checa made World Superbikes look easy with two wins at Phillip Island, while Max Biaggi had a solid start to his title defence and Marco Melandri made his mark with a podium on his debut. The Superbikes were unusually mute as Ducati’s works absence barely registered, a red bike controlled nearly the whole weekend regardless, so it was left to Supersport to provide the entertainment. After a thrilling contest they nearly had to split the winner’s trophy in three as Scassa, Lowes and home-hero Brock Parkes crossed the line as one, Luca Scassa emerging the winner by a nose. Classic Phillip Island and the best action of the weekend even before the photo-finish.

Meanwhile in the desert Kyle Busch wanted to take home three trophies from Phoenix after a win in Trucks and a rare lights-to-flag victory in Nationwide before saddling up for the Sprint Cup encounter. He nearly scored his hat-trick, as he did at Bristol last year, but then Jeff Gordon popped up to spoil the party to take his first win since 2009. Meanwhile last week’s Daytona fairytale turned into a nightmare for Trevor Bayne as he kept bouncing off the wall all weekend.

Jeff Gordon may have stole the headlines but Kyle Busch rode out of town with the title of twoworlds’ racer of the week by leading hundreds of laps at PIR and coming within nine miles of completing another three-from-three until the number 24 gently shuffled him aside.

We’ve now got nearly a month to wait for the Grand Prix circus to start doing anything of interest. There was no gossip from the F1 world this week as the paddock has read Bernie’s and Briatore’s biographies rendering them speechless…

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What’s the point?

 

BSB riders give chase - new points systems are all the rage (pic MSV)

In the past you needed to be Watson the supercomputer to work out who scored what in a Nascar race, now the Sprint Cup has adopted a new points formula that should be easier to comprehend for those like myself whose brains freeze when faced with any more than a couple of digits. So it’s 43 points for the win, a solitary point for last and you can guess the rest. Throw in a point for leading a lap (always a great incentive for action) and another point for leading the most laps (always a well earned point) and there you have the new system. Simples.

So things are easier to follow, but the Sprint Cup is only claimed after the season’s ending series of 10 races known as The Chase. Played out on dull ‘cookie cutter’ tracks, the top 12 drivers have their points almost equalised and only these chosen few can race for the title. Not so simples.

Jimmie Johnson has claimed the last five straight Sprint Cups, timing his push to the top 12 perfectly every time while other stock car superstars are left fighting over the scraps. So can Jimmie still win under this new system? Of course he can, he’s the complete driver with a shrewd crew chief and the best team in the business, but at least we may see some more representative results for strong drivers who have missed the Chase in the past such as win-a-holic Kyle Busch or King of Concrete Carl Edwards.

Last year British Superbikes adopted their own Chase-style system, branded as The Showdown, that saw Riuchi Kionari taking the crown at a thrilling final round at Oulton Park. Nobody doubts the quality of the Japanese rider, so it’s certainly worked for the BSB and looks set to stay. It’s also a hell of a lot better than Bernie’s silly medals idea he keeps going on about ever since he took his little trip to Beijing with the Blairs back in 2008.

For what it’s worth I’m not a fan of a Chase format that freezes out riders and drivers. It’s nice to see a championship develop over the course of a season. But what do I know, I’m still stuck with the opinion that the only proper points in F1 are the top six.

The Chase seems fairly popular on the Nascar scene, so the current talking point is the weird scenario that the top three series are all being led by drivers who didn’t win during Speedweeks as it was part-time interlopers Waltrip, Stewart and Bayne who struck gold. Only giving points to regulars was a response to Sprint Cup drivers scooping the honours in feeder series, such as Brad Keselowski’s title success in Nationwide last year.

I think it’s a truly wonderful thing that Nascar has drivers guesting across its various formulas – it gave us a truly feel-good story with Trevor Bayne’s big win last Sunday. It provides feats to marvel at such as Kyle Busch winning more races in one year than you could count on your fingers and toes. Some of the greatest races on two wheels have been ridden by wildcards, I only wish that F1 would lighten up and allow a Rossi or a Loeb to join the grid once in a while.

Today Indycar announced a massive prize-fund for their Las Vegas season finale to encourage some series-swapping, a move in the right direction for the new management of the series. A cheque for $5 million will be given to any guest driver who claims the win; what price Mario dusting off his overalls? “Oh boy,” tweeted Marco Andretti, “if my grandfather finds this out we will be a 5 car team!”

The Nascar debate about guys who finished second and third leading the way is a moot point – it’s great that they have guest drivers competing in the first place. And the fact we can even have this discussion without picking up a calculator is a success for the simplified points system.

After Nascar hits the desert in Phoenix and Vegas over the next couple of weeks the charts will doubtless look a little cleaner and those sensitive souls who are troubled by the scoring anomalies thrown up by the thrilling events of Speedweeks will have forgotten the current odd look of the tables. However the memorable feats of Waltrip, Stewart and Bayne will be imprinted on the minds of the fans forever.

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