Frontstretch Staff · Monday March 4, 2013
Did you miss an event during this busy week in racing? How about a late-night press release, an important sponsorship rumor, 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 going forward for 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 edition of Pace Laps!
Sprint Cup: Ford’s Front Man Relevant Again For Carl Edwards, 2011’s title runner-up his 2012 couldn’t have gone any worse. Lose crew chief Bob Osborne, the only successful wrench he ever had? Check. Miss the Chase for the first time since 2006? Check. Lose veteran teammate Matt Kenseth to rival Joe Gibbs Racing, the very team that was trying to sign him before Ford stepped up to the plate? Check.
The final stats, for last season were truly staggering indeed for Edwards, whose long-term contract extension came paired with career lows in races led (five), top 5s (three), top 10s (13) and points finish (15th) for a full season in Cup. Who knew that with a financial windfall would come an actual “fall?” Add in five wrecks, all not of his own making since January testing started at Daytona and the season couldn’t have started off any worse. That’s why Sunday’s surprise victory, where Edwards led 122 laps and held off the sport’s five-time champion, Jimmie Johnson, in a green-white-checkered finish could not have come at a better time. In a sport where slumps can lead to self-doubt, a 70-race winless streak, for the second time in his career could have threatened to tear apart the psyche of the Blue Oval star had it continued.
“When you’re struggling,” he said Sunday. “It seems like time slows down, you’re working harder, you’re trying more, you’re questioning yourself more.  was one of the longest years of my life to work that hard and not get the victory.”
Now, after ending that career-tying drought for the second time, at the same track (Phoenix) Edwards has become, in the words of third-place finisher Denny Hamlin “relevant” again. Certainly, new crew chief Jimmy Fennig, one of the most experienced in the Cup garage deserves a ton of the credit. So does the pit crew, who churned stops out nearly a second, on average, better than the No. 48. But in racing, despite being a team sport the ones who don’t drive the car can only do so much. It was Edwards’ responsibility, in the face of a devastating start to step up and show, with Kenseth gone how much of a team leader he could be.
Certainly, there’s still a long way to go; in the last four years, Edwards has won in Cup just four times, zero of them in the “meat” of the season (races four through 33 on the Sprint Cup schedule). But for a driver looking to rebound, and a team facing Ford competition for the first time (note a green-white-checkered push from “teammate” at Penske Brad Keselowski) Roush Fenway Racing couldn’t have asked for any better from their “franchise player” this Sunday. Tom Bowles
IndyCar: A Familiar Face Getting A Famous Ride An 11th-place finish at Phoenix this Sunday, in a stock car isn’t the only thing AJ Allmendinger is smiling about these days. On February 19th, he ran laps in an open-wheel car for the first time since 2006 during a preseason test for the IZOD IndyCar Series at Sebring. Allmendinger tested a car for Team Penske at the invitation of its team owner, with the potential for a partial season in the series this year. Penske Racing president Tim Cindric said the April 7th race at Barber Motorsports Park would be a good event for Allmendinger and acknowledged the Indy 500 is also a possibility.
“My heart was beating fast and the first couple of runs, the car was definitely driving me,” said Allmendinger, who spent the last six years racing in NASCAR – including last season for owner Roger Penske before a drug-related suspension ended his employment. “I’m looking for the best opportunity. It slowly has come back to me. Everything feels real fast. A Cup car has more horsepower, but because of its weight that sensation of speed is a lot different. When you get in an IndyCar on a road course, it feels like it has 1,500 horsepower.”
So was the test strong enough ‘Dinger is thinking of a full-time conversion back to open-wheel, down the road? For now, he wouldn’t commit.
“I’m definitely happy to be here,” he said. “I’d love for it to lead to some races, especially Indy. I’m so grateful to the organization to give me this opportunity. From what I went through last year, to have Roger ask me to come here and drive one of his race cars ‘happy’ is an understatement [for how I feel].”
Meanwhile, driver JR Hildebrand turned heads when he arrived to a Chevrolet test at Sonoma Raceway on February 27th behind the wheel of a pink, 1962 Cadillac Coupe De Ville. Hildebrand already owns a 1966 Chevelle SS he received as a gift from team owner John Barnes for being named Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year in 2011 and a TransAm he’s working on restoring.
Hildebrand has always been a fan of early model year Cadillacs and decided to make this one his newest project car. He specifically looked for one that wasn’t completely restored so he could put his own finishing touches on it. It’s a great story, although the biggest question is… does he plan to leave it pink? Toni Montgomery
Nationwide: What’s Old Is New Again… And It Might Get Old Quick At Phoenix, the story coming out of the Nationwide race was not a last-lap crash, but the race winner. Kyle Busch, who didn’t visit Victory Lane in the series at all in 2012 while driving for his own team, dominated the Dollar General 200 Fueled by AmeriGas with Joe Gibbs Racing, leading 142 laps and only faltering when two pit road errors sent him to the rear of the field early on. It only took him a few dozen laps to get the point back.
Troubling as it may be to many, this dominance will likely be a familiar sight in 2013. Busch is running 25 total races in the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 54, a return to the organization with which he was almost unbeatable in this series during the late ’00s. Last season was a welcome respite from Busch domination for a lot of people, even though Joey Logano pretty much replaced him by excelling in Gibbs equipment. It seemed, during that year between the intriguing title battle, along with the emergence of youngsters like Austin Dillon the series was regaining some of its former flavor. But if Phoenix is any indication, with a strong performance by Busch, teammate Matt Kenseth and Brad Keselowski it looks like Nationwide regulars getting a foot in Victory Lane are going to have a hard time again in 2013.
All three will be formidable foes, whenever they jump behind the wheel of a car. Yet you can sense that jumping to the head of the class, topping on the list of obstacles for series regulars is now Busch, the Nationwide’s winningest driver who’s now equipped to run on all cylinders.
A hungry driver, top-tier equipment and a proven history of success? Nationwide Series competitors better watch out. Kevin Rutherford
Grand-Am: A Two-Year Drought Comes To An End Jon Fogarty and Alex Gurney brought GAINSCO / Bob Stallings Racing their first victory since Montreal, in 2011 by claiming Saturday’s inaugural Grand-Am of the Americas in Austin, Texas. The Dallas, TX-based team started on the pole but never led until the final seven laps of the race, when they took advantage of a broken suspension suffered by then-leader Brendon Hartley.
“It’s great to be back. We finished second quite a few times last year, and man, what a day! We pushed it so hard the whole way,” Gurney said. “It was an incredible battle at the end with [Ryan] Dalziel and [Scott] Pruett, and it feels amazing to hold them off. We had 500 GAINSCO guests today, and we created 500 new racing fans. They were all going crazy.”
Co-driver Jon Fogarty echoed Gurney’s thoughts on their return to Victory Lane.
“It’s great to win, obviously, but today couldn’t have been a better time with all the people here from GAINSCO,” Fogarty said. “Victories are always great, and beyond that, we just put ourselves in a great position for the points championship. Now, we have to keep it going.”
The duo, who took home a seventh-place finish in last season’s standings now find themselves just six points behind defending champions Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas. And while there are still ten more races this year, the GAINSCO / Bob Stallings Racing team have set themselves up in a great position to battle Pruett and Rojas for the title.
The Grand-Am Rolex Series is back on track again April 6th for the Porsche 250 at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama. Rick Lunkenheimer
Short Tracks: Chip Ganassi’s “Old Flame” Taking Center Stage Over The New One Earnhardt Ganassi development driver Kyle Larson has been shining the spotlight on many different forms of racing, thanks to his broad resume of series he competes in during a typical year. While Larson is obviously excelling everywhere, though he’s not the only driver around doing that. This weekend, Bryan Clauson put more trophies on his mantle from Canyon Speedway Park during the 6th Annual Copper on Dirt. Clauson swept the Midget features and won the first of the two Sprint Car ones. Still an up and coming star in racing, Clauson – who was once a Ganassi project himself, a limited Nationwide Series participant in 2007-08 before being released – has not been able to secure a full-time ride since.
That’s a shame, considering the talent Clauson has showed on the short track level. In the meantime, he’ll just keep racking up trophies, in both Midget and Sprint Car racing while pursuing that Nationwide / IRL opportunity. Canyon Speedway Park, especially is the type of place where he can do so, repeatedly. When R.J. Johnson beat Clauson in the Sprint Car feature on Saturday night, it was his first loss in ten starts at Canyon. Elsewhere, he has started the year finishing eighth in the Chili Bowl and already won races at Bubba Raceway Park and Canyon as he starts his defense of his 2012 National Sprint Car title. Clauson also won the USAC National Midget Championship in 2011 and 2010… and, sometime soon, he’ll also be competing for a NASCAR title in front of your television set. You’ll see… Mike Neff
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