_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: A Postseason Snapshot* After 26 long weeks, the field for the Chase for the Sprint Cup has been decided. Only one spot actually changed hands in Richmond, as Jeff Gordon passed Kyle Busch for twelfth place on the points chart and the final wild card. (Both Gordon and Busch had one win on the year, making points the deciding factor.) Now, as the series heads toward Chicago, the talk will inevitably turn towards that of title favorites among the twelve who make the final cut.
Although Tony Stewart’s title run last year proved that it’s not over until the checkered flag flies at Homestead, some drivers look stronger than others at this point. Denny Hamlin now has the points lead by virtue of his four wins, two of which have come in the last three weeks. But is Hamlin peaking just a few weeks too soon? Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson and defending champ Tony Stewart are just three points behind Hamlin and also sit one-two on the Chase wins tally, with 31 wins between them in 70 Chase races. Brad Keselowski is also tied with Johnson and Stewart and is a driver known for going on a tear. Can he do that when it really counts?
Next in the revamped standings are Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer, tied on points for fifth place (standings are determined by second place finishes if there is a tie in both points and wins). Just three markers behind them are Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Biffle, Earnhardt, and Kenseth have been among the top four in points for most of this season. That means they are consistently excellent. But as Carl Edwards proved last year, consistent excellence isn’t enough to win a title anymore; so their work is cut out for them.
Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex, Jr. are both winless this year. Although Truex has led laps in all of the last four races, neither has looked like they can dominate races they way they will need to in the Chase. Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon slide into the Chase via the wild cards, though they were also 11th and 12th in points after Richmond. Both have race wins, but both have also been wildly inconsistent at times this year. _Amy Henderson_
*IndyCar Series: A Test And A Near-Tragedy Overcome* IZOD IndyCar Series championship contenders Will Power and Ryan Hunter-Reay got their first feel for Auto Club Speedway this week, the next step in their battle for the number one spot. They were among eight drivers who tested at the speedway on September 6th as INDYCAR officials try to finalize the aero package for the season finale.
“This track will be great to race on; it is so wide and we’ll have room to drive,” Power said of his experiences. “During a 500-mile race, anything can happen and it will be very exciting for sure. We want the championship and will work with a 100 percent focus to get it. Now till the checkered flag falls, no slowing down.”
Competitor Hunter-Reay, who trails Power by 17 points, also took time to acquaint himself with the speedway.
“I haven’t driven around the track since 2003 in a Reynard and I can tell you the track has picked up some ‘character’ since then,” said Hunter-Reay, a former Champ Car driver. “But the race will be the same for all of us and I fully expect that the fans will see a fantastic race. We are chasing Will and want to keep hunting him to win the championship.”
Both drivers will return to test again along with 20 other teams and drivers on September 12.
In other news, another former open-wheel driver already brought home his championship. Former Indy car driver Alex Zanardi took two golds and a silver at the Paralympic games in London in handcycling events around the Brand’s Hatch circuit. Zanardi won the CART title in 1997 and 1998 for Target Chip Ganassi Racing. He lost both legs in a crash in a Champ car race in Germany in 2001.
Zanardi never let the injury stop him, though. He has competed successfully in the World Touring Car Championship, then turned to handcycling with a long list of successful accomplishments in each. _Toni Montgomery_
*Nationwide Series: Familiar Faces Stand Out In Championship Race* Thanks to Elliott Sadler’s spin, the Nationwide Series is now in a dead heat with eight races to go in the 2012 season. It’s a true heavyweight battle, with the power of Richard Childress Racing squaring off with a red-hot Roush Fenway Racing No. 6 team that hasn’t finished worst than second in the last three weeks. If nothing else, the Nos. 2 and 6 teams have each proven that the equipment is there for both of their respective driver.
That’s great news for race fans, for that means the drivers are really going to decide the closest points race the series has played host to since the memorable 2003 season saw Brian Vickers, Bobby Hamilton Jr., David Green and Scott Riggs all take their title fight to Homestead before it was decided. It truly is a contrast in styles; the raw, brash aggression of youngster Stenhouse versus the more methodical approach of the veteran Sadler. And it’s this two-horse race that will be taking center stage from here on.
Although Austin Dillon remains only 30 markers removed from the lead, it has become more evident throughout the summer that even with the same equipment as the No. 2 team, the No. 3 squad isn’t quite to where their teammate is off the truck every weekend. And as for Sam Hornish Jr., let his case be a clear reminder to all that this is a mental sport above all others. For Hornish, bad news surrounding his racing future (at least in the short-term, with Hornish failing to win the No. 22 Cup ride for 2013) proved a distraction heading into Friday’s race, and led to an otherwise innocuous run-in with Justin Allgaier being a subject of ire for a normally level-set driver.
At 30 and 50 markers back, Austin Dillon and Sam Hornish Jr. have now faded from the picture. Sadler vs. Stenhouse are back to being the show. Just like last year. _Bryan Davis Keith_
*Camping World Truck Series: Lofton Loving… Republicans?* Justin Lofton, who currently sits fifth in the championship standings has a reason to keep a close eye on the presidential election coming up in November. In fact, his future in the Camping World Truck Series could depend on it. The driver of the No. 6 Eddie Sharp Racing Chevrolet was in Trussville, Alabama on Friday to promote the series’ upcoming visit to Talladega Superspeedway in early October and had some intriguing news to report. According to “AL.com,”:http://www.al.com/sports/index.ssf/2012/09/nascar_truck_series_driver_jus.html Lofton has a verbal commitment from ESR for ten races; however, he could have a full season sponsorship if Mitt Romney is elected.
“If he wins, I’ll race the full season,” Lofton said. “If he loses, I’ll be digging.”
Although there’s no clear word on who that potential sponsor is, you can bet Lofton has a good reason to hope Romney wins the election. If not, he could join Dakoda Armstrong on the sidelines, who became the latest victim of sponsorship troubles on Friday when he was released from ThorSport Racing because the team was unable to secure enough financial backing to complete the season. Lofton’s stats, at least make it more likely he’ll avoid the same fate; the veteran scored his first career victory earlier this year at Charlotte and has 10 top-10 finishes in 14 starts. _Beth Lunkenheimer_
*Grand-Am: Champions Are Crowned As The “Two Series” Model Goes Down* Here we are folks: round twelve is in the books, leaving just one more race in this year’s championship. To throw in a little irony, the No. 99 car started its 99th race today, on the ninth day of the ninth month and qualified at 99.2 MPH. And in a somewhat unusual situation, we had not one but three Ferarri 458 Italia’s in the field. But when it comes to what cars finish up front, in the championship chase we had a case of “same old, same old” at the top of the charts. Jeff Segal brought the No. 69 Ferarri home in a second-place finish, more than enough to lock the team in as the 2012 GT championship winners with one race left. Over in DP, though the points lead has shrank to the top 5 fighting later this month for the championship. Antonio Garcia brought the No. 90 home to become the first team this year to achieve three wins.
On a different note, the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series threw everyone into a corkscrew on Wednesday at Daytona International Speedway by announcing the series would be merging with the American Le Mans Series in 2014. Branding and class structures are yet to be announced. Grand-Am founder Jim France will be the Chairman, and Dr. Don Panoz will serve as Vice Chairman. The new series is set to begin with the 52nd running of the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona, but at this moment, the only other confirmed tracks are Sebring International Raceway and Road Atlanta.
What’s next for the series? A little September vacation, as only one race remains on the schedule. Stay patient for the season finale, scheduled to run on September 29th at Lime Rock. _Rick Lunkenheimer_
*Short Tracks: A Superstar In The Making* There are plenty of drivers who come along in racing that are tagged as can’t miss stars. Some of them play out while others come and go with little more than a flash in the pan. Although the story is still being written, Kyle Larson is shaping up to the a can’t miss star in the world of auto racing for years to come.
As we’ve noted before, Larson has won races this year in Super Late Models, K&N East, Midgets, Sprints, 360 Sprints, 410 Sprints and Mini Outlaws. He’s not only won races in the United States but also in Australia and New Zealand. He’s inked a driver development contract with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates and he’s made two starts in the Camping World Truck Series ending up in the top 10 in both races.
This past weekend Larson once again showed his prowess at racing on dirt in different types of cars. On Wednesday, he ran a non-wing USAC Sprint car to the win at Silver Dollar Speedway in Chico, California. He then climbed into a 360 Winged Sprint and took the checkered flag first again. On Thursday, he ran a World of Outlaws 410 sprint to a win in the Dash and a second place finish to defending World of Outlaw Champion Donny Schatz in the feature. On Friday, he won his heat race and the Dash again in the World of Outlaw car before a disappointing 14th place finish in the feature. Saturday, for the second year in a row, Larson was the winner in the Gold Cup at Silver Dollar Speedway. For a part-time driver to show up and beat the full-time competitors two years in a row at Silver Dollar Speedway is an impressive feat. Larson followed up the victory by saying he looks forward to coming back in 2013 to try for the three-peat.
With Larson’s considerable skills and success, he could certainly be excused for having a level of cockiness and attitude. Although he is undoubtedly confident about his driving ability, he is as humble, unassuming man who appreciates every opportunity he is presented. Larson will undoubtedly find his way to the Cup series at some point in time and will almost certainly be victorious there as well, just like he has been everywhere else that he’s ever run. For those people looking for a driver to follow for the foreseeable future, they’d be hard pressed to find a better young man to follow than Kyle Larson. _Mike Neff_