The Frontstretch: Pace Laps: Silly Season Starts, Engines A-Blowin, And A Classic To Be Sold? by Frontstretch Staff -- Monday June 25, 2012

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Did you see all of the race action this weekend? Or, like a lot of busy fans, did you miss a late-night adventure, a Friday controversy, or a juicy piece of news? If you did, you’ve come to the right place! Each week, The Frontstretch will break down the racing, series by series, to bring you the biggest stories that you need to watch during the week ahead. Let our experts help you get up to speed for the coming week no matter what series you might have missed, all in this week’s edition of Pace Laps!

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Is Silly Season about to explode? The rumor mill has been pretty quiet on the Sprint Cup front so far in 2012, but as summer heats up, will Silly Season get hot as well? According to The Washington Post, questions about Matt Kenseth’s future at Roush Fenway Racing are beginning to rear their heads as Kenseth’s current contract runs through the end of this year. It’s a contract year for both Martin Truex, Jr. and Joey Logano—and that’s just the beginning. Kurt Busch, AJ Allmendinger, David Ragan, Aric Almirola, and Regan Smith are also at the end of their contracts. Plus, Cup veteran Brian Vickers and Reed Sorenson are without full time rides this year, and there are several prospects waiting in the wings. Although some, like Logano and Truex, have improved their chances of resigning with their performance this year, there could be a lot of movement as soon as the first domino falls.

Martin Truex, Jr. is just one of several drivers in a contract year in 2012. Which domino will be the first to fall this Silly Season?

The Washington Post article mentions Penske Racing as a possible landing place for either Kenseth or an RFR development driver—most likely Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.—but possibly Trevor Bayne or even David Ragan, whom Roush has kept close at hand in a Ford even after closing his team in 2011 However, Penske has their own development driver in the wings in Sam Hornish, Jr., so even if Allmendinger does leave at season’s end, that leaves the team with more prospects than seats. Joe Gibbs Racing has considered adding a fourth car for several years, but the timing and sponsor would need to be there for that to happen—and the driver would be a question mark. Gibbs previously said that he’d consider Kurt Busch, but later said that was no longer a possibility after Busch’s recent suspension. Richard Childress Racing could add a fourth as well, but that’s had disastrous results for RCR in the past; if it happens in 2013, it will likely be a one-year deal to keep the seat warm for Austin Dillon. Furniture Row Racing is a possibility to add a second car. As soon as one driver or team makes a move, it’s game on; so watch this one carefully in the coming weeks. –Amy Henderson

Izod IndyCar Series: Engine rules causing teams stress This week, it was Tony Kanaan, E.J. Viso, Graham Rahal, and Simon Pagenaud. In Long Beach, it was every single one of the Chevrolet entries. Every week in the IZOD IndyCar Series, someone is taking a ten-spot starting grid penalty for unapproved engine changes. According to the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series rule book, teams must keep the same engine in a car for a minimum of 1,850 miles. Once a team hits that mileage, or mileage that would put them over 2,200 miles by the end of the advertised distance of the next race, they may change engines without penalty. They can also change them without penalty if they blow up during a race or if there is a problem deemed sufficient for a change mutually agreed upon by IndyCar and the manufacturer that was beyond the control of the team or manufacturer, like damage from bad fuel, an accident, an act of God (really, it says that).

So if a car blows up in testing or qualifying, or if a team has some sort of mechanical issue that they think might result in a blow-up during the race and make a change, they are subject to the starting grid penalty of ten positions from where the driver qualifies. Dario Franchitti noted that the engine in his car that blew up on the pace laps this week in Iowa was his Indy 500 engine, making it at least three races old. Is IndyCar simply asking too much of these teams in forcing them to run the same engines for so long (remember, these are 1,850 high speed brutal miles), especially given that they are a new configuration for 2012? Although that would seem to be the case, there are no immediate plans to change the rule, which was designed to save teams money. But as Franchitti’s hopes for a fifth title fade, and several teams are risking their finishing positions every week rather than risk Franchitti’s Iowa fate, perhaps it’s time for a rules change. –Toni Montgomery

NASCAR Nationwide Series: Road course produces more title questions than answers The first road race of the 2012 Nationwide campaign is in the books, and the results were anti-climactic. Although the points race tightened as a result of the event (Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finished 11th, his best finish in the last four races to gain back dome lost ground), it was more a battle of survival than a knockout punch for all three title contenders at the front of the field. Stenhouse played it safe all afternoon long en route to his 11th place finish, and he was candid in post-race remarks that his No. 6 team had some more testing to do before the road-race double whammy of Watkins Glen and Montreal in August.

As for Richard Childress Racing, a shot at a making a serious statement about the title disappeared both early and late in the race; Austin Dillon never had a chance in this race when he lost third gear in his transmission (Dillon finished 18th), while Elliott Sadler saw a top-5 finish evaporate with less than 15 to go when he got spun in traffic exiting turn 5.

What was learned? Stenhouse was right; his Ford operation has ground to make up on the tracks that go both right and left, and they’re going to need to make that ground up fast seeing as how there’s two more road courses on the schedule. Elliott Sadler is the most experienced road racer of the three current contenders, and he was awfully close to making a big jump this week before his late-race incident. And Austin Dillon remains the question mark. (Though on a side note: if Sam Hornish Jr. gets hot, watch out… the No. 12 car was a force to be reckoned with in the closing half of Saturday afternoon.)

The road to the 2012 title turns both right and left, and right now, just who will be able to navigate those twists and turns most successfully has yet to be determined. –Bryan Davis Keith

Grand-Am: Putting the Pressure on Ferarri The seventh event of the season saw Scott Pruett bring the No. 01 from the pole to victory lane after a nine-race winless streak going back to New Jersey in 2011. If not for Saturday’s victory, the Chip Ganassi Racing team would have gone more than nine races in the series without a win for the first time in their history. The team made a wise decision while under caution early in the race to pit for fuel, and although it may have put them back to third in the field at times, it worked out perfectly in the end by dropping them right into the lead when other cars had to make their green flag pit stops. Saturday’s victory only helped to further enhance the points lead of the Pruett / Rojas team. Was this their key to the 2012 trophy case?

Meanwhile, in GT, the No. 69 Ferrari driven by the team of Jeff Segal and Emil Assentato went onto to their eighth victory. After sitting on the pole, Assentato dropped back for a bit to conserve fuel. Knowing the Mazdas in the class had better fuel mileage, once Segal strapped in, he waited until just 30 minutes were left in the race to take the lead back on the front straightaway. This was the third win and fifth top-2 finish for the team in the last six races. As light as the Mazdas may be, however, Ferrari seems to be the dominant car in the series. Could we see more teams switching next year, or will the teams do what they can to be more competitive against the “Prancing Horse”? Keep watching, as teams will be making next year’s plans before this one is out. -Rick Lunkenheimer

Short Tracks: Bowman-Gray up for sale? Winston Salem State University plays their home football games at Bowman-Gray Stadium and has long been rumored to be purchasing the historic venue. Whether it is true or not, the word has always been that the school doesn’t like racing in the stadium and, if they were able to secure ownership, they would not renew the racing lease when it expired in 2030. Fortunately for racing fans, the North Carolina state government rejected a $7.5 million offer to purchase the facility, which has opened the door for another potential owner.

Richard Childress, who grew up in Forsyth County and cut his racing teeth at the Stadium, is reported to be in the picture as a potential purchaser of the longtime NASCAR venue. Childress would hopefully bring some much needed upgrades to the facility if he is able to garner the deed: the track still does not have automated timing and scoring and also has some serious drainage issues on the inside of the turns. Childress would undoubtedly be in the position to improve the infrastructure which would make the overall racing at the Stadium better.

The one other outside possibility of Childress purchasing the Stadium is that he could potentially help the school with building a new football stadium. If WSSU is able to play their home football games at a different venue, the racing season could be dramatically increased at the Stadium. Currently the racing schedule shuts down in the middle of August thanks to the football season starting for WSSU. The racing season could be extended for another two months if the football games could be relocated. Hopefully, a decision will be made soon about the future of the long standing NASCAR venue. Bowman-Gray is a classic, and the decisions made now will ensure its path for the foreseeable future. -Mike Neff

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Contact Amy Henderson

Recent articles from Amy Henderson:

Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Announces Partnership with Cessna, Textron
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Want to know more about Amy or see an archive of all of her articles? Check out her bio page for more information.