The Frontstretch: Pace Laps: Last Hurrahs for NASCAR Independents, Hoosiers, and Sam Hornish? by Frontstretch Staff -- Monday October 1, 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!

Sprint Cup: Talladega One Last Chance For Phoenix To Fly? For more than 20 years, James Finch has fought the good fight as a single-car, independent NASCAR team owner—with middling, often frustrating results. So this season, despite limited sponsorship, he made one special push to break out from the back end of NASCAR’s Cup Series garage, moving from respectable some of the time to potential Chase participant this September. A “lucky break” left the No. 51 car partnered with its biggest heavyweight yet behind the wheel; landing former Sprint Cup champion Kurt Busch, a driver hungry to prove himself after an unceremonious release from Roger Penske made it seem the sky was the limit.

Instead, just one week from now, this team could be headed towards that giant stock car graveyard in the sky. Busch, whose roller-coaster temper never changed in 2012 and at one point caused him a one-race suspension from the series, is poised to leave after a series of mechanical failures and poor performances never attracted a permanent primary sponsor. Jumping over to Furniture Row Racing, whose funding comes from ownership itself, his 2013 season comes with the added sense of security Phoenix’s patchwork equipment never provided. That leaves Finch in the lurch, with no free agent available matching that type of quality resume and the knowledge that, even with B-level Hendrick chassis and engines, his team can only go so far with the reality of NASCAR multi-car economics.

That’s why one of the few car owners left willing to battle the Gibbs, Penskes, and Roushes of the world without starting and parking announced recently he was folding for the 2013 season unless a major sponsor came forward. The move makes sense, considering the frustrating results this season (just one top-5 finish); why keep going when you can’t push forward even with A-quality talent at your disposal? So if Finch is telling the truth, and Busch is bolting effective after Sunday’s race at Talladega, that could mean Sunday becomes the 221st and final race for this team. It’s the perfect place to end it, the site of the team’s sole victory with Brad Keselowski’s shocking upset in April 2009. Busch, a strong restrictor plate racer will spend the day as a contender at a track where parity typically gives everyone a chance.

For the record, right now Phoenix is saying it’s business as usual for the rest of 2012. “We’re running the full season,” claimed crew chief Nick Harrison to NASCAR.com over the weekend. “It’s just a [matter of] who is going to drive.” Potential candidates run the gambit, with anyone from Regan Smith (who Busch is replacing) to recently reinstated AJ Allmendinger on the short list. But in that same breath, funding was mentioned as a way to earn the seat, a sign that perhaps a return to starting and parking could be on the agenda — especially should the team not be confident enough a driver can give them a chance to truly compete.

Either way, come second victory or disappointing defeat the clock is now ticking towards extinction for one of the sport’s longtime participants. What a big loss for a shrinking NASCAR community, one where the back of the garage is repeatedly waving the white flag rather than attempting to unseat the upper class elite—leaving fewer and fewer cars in the field of 43 willing to even complete the distance each week. Tom Bowles

Nationwide Series: Hornish Season Sliding Into 2013 Unemployment? With the lion’s share of the headlines going toward Elliott Sadler and his ever-building championship momentum, Sam Hornish Jr.‘s troubles continue to snowball. Despite sitting fourth in points and having made dramatic progress as a stock car driver over the course of the 2012 season, the longtime good soldier for Penske Racing is now facing a blank slate for 2013. Having already lost the No. 22 Cup ride to Joey Logano, despite an admirable performance filling in, Hornish has also been noted not to have a contract in hand for next year at the Nationwide level.

If nothing else has been learned in the 2012 slate of Nationwide racing, it’s that winning still means something. The two full-timers leading the series in wins are the two leading the points. Joey Logano’s still yet to prove much of anything on the Cup side, but with seven NNS victories this year he’s supplanted Kyle Busch as the most dominant ringer on the circuit. That statistic alone, despite a mediocre Cup season, could explain why he one-upped Penske Racing’s most veteran driver in any form of motorsports to score the team’s second Cup ride.

Hornish has made great strides as a driver, dramatic strides that have made the open-wheel convert a valid contender in stock car competition. But there’s been little flash and zero trophies to show for all that progress. For better or for worse, driver development isn’t enough for NNS regulars to accomplish anymore. Bryan Keith

Camping World Truck Series: Peters Clinging Hard To Title Contention Following his second win of the season at Bristol, Timothy Peters had finished 13th, 19th, and 21st in the three races leading up to Saturday night’s Smith’s 350 out in Las Vegas. It was a devastating series of performances for the once-title contender, dropping him back to third in the standings. And after leading 37 laps out in Sin City, another cardinal sin courtesy his Goodyear Eagles left Peters in more serious trouble: he was forced to make a green flag pit stop for a vibration that dropped him off the lead lap. But although the No. 17 team was down, Saturday night their ability to rally back from certain disaster reappeared. Showcasing the championship form shown early in the year, Lucky Dogs and hard competition led to salvaging a solid, eighth-place finish, on the lead lap for his 11th top 10 in 17 races.

After a bit of bad luck in the race in Las Vegas, Timothy Peters finished strong and earned a solid, eighth-place finish.

“Something happened with our tires on the first stop of the night and I was so loose I couldn’t hang onto it. We had to come in the pits and that cost us a lap,” Peters said. “But this Red Horse Racing team stayed calm as they always do and did a great job to put us back on the lead lap. I’m proud of the comeback we had tonight and after we went through, we will gladly take a top 10.”

It’s that never give up attitude that has helped Peters remain within striking distance of the championship leaders. And though he’s more than 20 markers out at this point, the driver of the No. 17 Toyota has a combined one win, four top 5s and ten top-10 finishes at the remaining tracks on the schedule. It’s enough to make him cling to life, ready to pounce should front-runners Ty Dillon and James Buescher make a mistake. If they don’t, the odds will still be long but you can bet the No. 17 team won’t give up until the checkered flag flies over the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Beth Lunkenheimer

IndyCar: 19 Is The Magic Number When It Comes To The 2013 Schedule Randy Bernard revealed the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series schedule on SPEED’s Wind Tunnel Sunday night. The opening leg of the schedule through the Indy 500 remains the same as 2012; however, once that Memorial Day Classic completes the middle and end of the season reflect a number of historic changes.

The first of those will be three doubleheader weekends, hosted by Belle Isle, Toronto, and Houston respectively. Bernard noted the doubleheader weekends will be made up of two complete racing events, one running on Saturday and the other on Sunday. He also noted that one would feature a rolling start and the other a standing start to highlight the diversity of the cars and drivers.

On the oval side of things, there will also be a date added at Pocono, the first appearance of Indy cars at the track since 1989. The race at the 2.5-mile, triangular-shaped track will be 400 miles and part of a Triple Crown of events, teaming up with Indy and the Fontana season finale. Any driver who sweeps that trio in a season will have a $1 million bonus, a little extra incentive for teams and fans to watch the action. There will be a $250,000 bonus for winning two of the three.

There are 19 total races on the 2013 schedule, as each doubleheader event counts as an individual race, while the addition of Pocono brings the oval count to six. The season finale, pushed back into October will once again take place at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana. Toni Montgomery

Grand Am: Season-Ending Drama At Lime Rock, the championship was never really all that much in doubt. In the Daytona Prototype class, Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas only needed to finish ninth to claim their third consecutive championship. This meant that they just had to avoid trouble, which they did by finishing seventh.

However, the races for the class wins were just excellent on Saturday. In Daytona Prototypes, Ricky Taylor had one of the fastest cars all day, but degrading Continental rubber late in the race allowed Antonio Garcia the opportunity to challenge. Garcia never could get alongside Taylor, but he hounded Taylor all the way to the finish, coming in just a third of a second behind.

In GT, Andy Lally looked like he had the race won. Under normal circumstances, no one could touch him. However, in the last few minutes of the race, Lally had to back off a little to save fuel, which allowed Stevenson Motorsports’ Robin Liddell to run him down. The two battled hard for the lead for multiple laps before Liddell got by with three minutes to go. It turns out that Lally’s Porsche was starved for gas, forcing a stop for an extra splash that wiped out any chance of a comeback. Liddell won, easily while Dion von Moltke drove the race’s lone Audi R8 that had been involved in at least two crashes on the day to a career-best second in class.

However, in the season finale of the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge’s Grand Sport class on Saturday, the title chase was very much on everyone’s minds. David Empringham and John Farano of BGB Motorsports (No. 83 Porsche 911) entered the race with a seven-point lead over the duo of Matt Plumb and Nick Longhi for Rum Bum Racing (No. 13 Porsche 911). Empringham and Farano simply had to finish third or better to win.

What happened in the race? Rum Bum pitted the No. 13 under a yellow 26 minutes in and swapped Longhi out for Plumb. That’s legal if Longhi were going to get back in the car. He didn’t; therefore, Longhi could not score points. From there, Plumb drove a masterful race to win.

Empringham and Farano drove a great race as well. In the final minutes, Empringham was in position to clinch the title. However, he got in a brutal battle with John Edwards to keep third place. The two had contact and ended up in the wet grass. Empringham recovered, but fell back to a sixth-place result.

Under normal circumstances, this would mean that Plumb would be the solo champion by three points. Not so fast. Rum Bum Racing entered Plumb as a driver in both his normal No. 13, plus the one-off No. 3 BMW M3 (this entry was the car that the team campaigned early in the season, but was set aside because “Mr. Bacardi (team owner) wanted a Porsche”). Now, there’s nothing illegal about that. However, there is a caveat to it being allowed in the rule book. Article I, Section 5.2 in Grand-Am’s Rule Book specifies how a driver entered in two cars can still earn drivers’ points. It states, “A driver may drive two cars in the same class provided he qualifies and starts one of the cars. This is the only car in which the driver will earn points.” Penalties for violation of this rule include the loss of potential driver points and prize money for said offending driver.

Plumb did not start the No. 13, and never set foot in the No. 3. As a result, Plumb’s driver points for Saturday were nullified and Empringham and Farano were given the title about an hour after the race ended.

“Championships are always hard to get and certainly John and I and our team worked really hard all year,” Empringham said after the announcement was made. “With three laps to go in the race, I knew I only had to be third and I had a bit of a wounded car and thought we could hang on, but we didn’t. Through a technicality, I guess you could say we’ve been handed it. I’m sure down the road I’ll be happy, but it’s kind of a strange situation.”

Yes, it’s a very unusual scenario that resulted in the championship being taken away from Plumb after such a sweet victory (that he will keep, minus the spoils). Rum Bum Racing will have to be content with the team championship going into in the off-season. Phil Allaway

Short Tracks: Hoosier Hero Passes On Fifty-five years ago, in an abandoned horse barn in Northern Indiana, Robert “Bob” Newton began recapping used street tires with softer compound caps for use on the short tracks around the Midwest. Building his own business around it, the company was named Hoosier in tribute to his racing roots in the state of Indiana. The purple color, designed in tribute to that race car that he drove on those same short tracks would quickly become one of the most well-known stickers plastered on tires all over the country.

The innovations eventually produced by Hoosier’s founder, the last company to compete against Goodyear on the Cup Series level will last forever. Sadly, the fragility of human life comes without that same option of immortality. This past Wednesday, Bob passed away at his home after dealing with the effects of a stroke he suffered last year. On the same day, Mike Boits, who also worked for Hoosier Racing Tire, succumbed to his battle against cancer. The short track racing community lost two visionaries and huge supporters on the same day.

Hoosier Tires, well-known today for their role in the ARCA Series, continue to be a staple on local race tracks as well, retaining their roots from when the company was founded. They have been an affordable option for local racers while maintaining a role as an active sponsor and supporter of race events and tracks across the country. Short track racing will never be the same thanks to Bob Newton, and it will also never be the same now that we’ve lost him. Godspeed, Bob, and thank you for all you did to increase the quality of stock car competition. Mike Neff

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grumpiestoldman
10/01/2012 01:40 PM
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As a KuBu fan, we’ll always be thankful for the help Phoenix gave Kurt. They need to pull back and focus on a few races a year like the Wood Brothers.
No contract for Hornish? After he jumped in to save the 22 in Cup? Penske really is a piece of work.

 

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Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

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