Race Weekend Central

Pace Laps: Daytona Storylines That Won’t Go Away

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 Monday, 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, no matter what series you might have missed, all in this edition of Pace Laps!

Sprint Cup: Earnhardt, Schmearnhardt… Don’t Sleep On The Blue Oval Bunch Looking for Earnhardt coverage? See below; we have plenty of it. But don’t forget others competed at Daytona too and Ford, of all manufacturers has to be feeling pretty good about themselves with the start of the Cup season. Sure, the Toyotas of Joe Gibbs Racing seemed to dominate Speedweeks, and the Hendrick Chevrolets took top positions in the Daytona 500, but there’s reason for optimism. With (and should be noted all results are unofficial at press time) Brad Keselowski taking third, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr, seventh, Greg Biffle eighth, and Joey Logano eleventh, the Blue Oval looks like they might emerge from Daytona with some excellent pace under the hood.

Now, frequently teams have excelled at the restrictor-plate nuttiness that is Daytona, only to fall by the wayside, but fans have to imagine that Ford has put some effort into making a statement this year. P. Huston Ladner

BOWLES: The Impact Of Earnhardt’s Win

Are the Fords ready to rebound from a so-so 2013 season?
Are the Fords ready to rebound from a so-so 2013 season?

Are the Fords ready to rebound from a so-so 2013 season?

Nationwide: What a Difference a Year Makes — Last year, Regan Smith entered the final lap in position to win at Daytona in the Nationwide Series. He ended it 14th, his car in a pile of pieces and his heart broken in several more. It didn’t help that climbing out, his first view was of debris cluttering the grandstands, fans yelling for help and stretchers summoned to take out more than a dozen innocent victims.

“I think that he personally and privately beared some responsibility for his involvement in the crash,” said team owner Dale Earnhardt, Jr. “To have someone in the grandstands get hurt… that was one of the toughest things he went through as a driver.”

One year later, Smith came back with a clear goal in mind: put those demons behind them and start the year holding a trophy. Well, mission accomplished. NASCAR’s new drafting rules meant there were periods of single-file racing, but Smith had the horsepower and handling to push through. This time, he was the challenger, knowing when to make the move on Brad Keselowski off Turn 4 — and this time he ensured there would be no mistakes.

“Nobody felt worse than me Sunday morning [last year,]” Smith said. “I think we learned some stuff from that. In the right place in the right time.”

Now, Smith is in position to celebrate. In the midst of controversy over NASCAR rules, the driver has inched ahead early for a title race he led comfortably for much of last year before faltering down the stretch. Part of overcoming those issues is turning failures into success stories; if Smith can harness this momentum, that’s one big turnaround to knock off the checklist. Tom Bowles

BOWLES: NASCAR’s New Plate Race Problem
“BOWLES: Full Nationwide Series Race Recap/Analysis”:

Camping World Truck Series: Kyle’s Win Raises New Criticism Over Double/Triple Duty — For Kyle Busch, Friday night at Daytona was the pinnacle. Busch now holds trophies from ARCA, Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck races at the 2.5-mile superspeedway. The Truck race had long been a near-miss; in five previous starts, Busch had run second three times. To get over the hump this time, a perfect last-lap pass on Timothy Peters that gave us the eighth-closest margin of victory in series history was nothing less than thrilling for the Cup Series veteran.

It also angered many fans that Busch denied a full-timer (Timothy Peters) a hard-fought win. Once again, Busch, in their minds, had “stolen” the race from full-time competitors in the series, his 99th combined victory in Nationwide/Trucks even though he’s been running the big leagues (Cup) full-time since 2005. When pressed on the issue, Busch was quick to mix sarcasm, defensiveness and seriousness all in one comment to try and explain why he keeps dipping down into the sport’s lower divisions.

“People don’t like it,” he said. “I’m stealing candy from a baby. [But] ‘til the rules are changed or everybody else grows up and can beat me, then we’re racing, so… I have a Truck team for a reason. If I didn’t drive it in some races, it wouldn’t be in existence. Eric Phillips [crew chief] wouldn’t be employed at KBM. I’m going to enjoy watching [up-and-comer] Erik Jones race the truck when I’m not in it.”

Busch has made the same type of argument for years — up-and-comers can share a ride that, in essence, helps support the series — but NASCAR may be transitioning to the other side. Saturday, reports came in and were confirmed by Kelley Earnhardt Miller the sport is mulling options to limit the number of starts from Cup stars in lower series next season, or even to simply ban them altogether. So Busch’s dominance, set to resume this season in Trucks, may actually hurt him and some other Cup moonlighters over the long-term, finishing off an argument that’s been flaring up for well over a decade.

Good thing, then, that Busch took that Daytona trophy while he still could. The clock on his Truck career, in the midst of record-setting success, may have started ticking. Tom Bowles

BOWLES: Full Post-Race Analysis

Short Tracks: Suarez Starts Strong The K&N East series opened its season at New Smyrna Speedway for the first time in its history last Sunday night. Daniel Suarez held off a furious charge from Cameron Hayley over the last five laps of the race to score his second career K&N East series win. He followed that up by winning the K&N East portion of the Battle at the Beach held on the back straight at Daytona International Speedway. The back-to-back wins were the first to open a season for the K&N East series since Sean Caisse in 2006. Suarez is on a roll, having won the season finale of the NASCAR Mexico Toyota Series in 2013. Looking back a little further, Suarez has scored top-5 finishes in five of his last six regional touring series events.

The Battle at the Beach was another rousing success in 2014. The temporary track on the Superstretch at Daytona International Speedway saw incredibly competitive racing for 300 laps in both Whelen Modified action and K&N East Series competition. Unfortunately, this February will be the last occurrence of the Battle contested at Daytona International Speedway. The Superstretch grandstand is going to be dismantled starting in July of this season. There may very well be a Battle at the Beach in 2015; it just won’t take place at DIS. Mike Neff

Sports Cars: Sebring Success Just because there was an incredible amount of oval track racing at Daytona International Speedway, New Smyrna Speedway and Volusia Speedway Park doesn’t mean that nothing else of note was happening in Florida last weekend.

Approximately three hours away from Daytona International Speedway is Sebring International Raceway, a 3.7-mile circuit built on a World War II-era airfield. In a shade over two weeks, teams pull into the paddock to prepare for the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring, round two of the Tudor United SportsCar Championship and the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup.

In preparation for the 12-hour endurance event, there was a two-day open test last week. Over 40 teams descended on the course, which contains some of the bumpiest sections of race track in the country, to test their cars and benchmark themselves against the competition. For how big the Rolex 24 at Daytona is, it’s more of an outlier. Daytona’s road course configuration requires the least downforce of any track on the calendar. As a result, the Daytona Prototypes dominated the proceedings.

That is not necessarily so in Sebring. While the No. 5 Action Express Racing Chevrolet Corvette DP Evo shared by Sebastien Bourdais, Christian Fittipaldi and Joao Barbosa that won at Daytona did turn in the fastest laps of the test (the only team to break into the 1:52’s), they were alone amongst DP cars at the top of the chart. The No. 42 Morgan-Nissan entered by OAK Racing and driven by Olivier Pla, Gustavo Yacaman and Ho-Pin Tung actually topped the charts in two of the four sessions.

Overall, Action Express’ No. 5 was fastest with an advantage of nearly three-quarters of a second over the No. 42. The Spirit of Daytona No. 90 shared by Richard Westbrook, Michael Valiante and Mike Rockenfeller was third-quickest, followed by the No. 01 Ford Riley for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates and the No. 1 HPD ARX-03b for Extreme Speed Motorsports. In Prototype Challenge (PC), only four entries showed up to the test. The No. 25 entry from 8Star Motorsports shared by Tom Kimber-Smith, Robert LaRocca and Eric Lux was fastest with a lap of 1:55.940.

In GT Le Mans, Porsche North America (run by core Autosport) kept up the momentum from winning its class at the Rolex 24, turning in the fastest time in all four sessions. The No. 911 driven by Richard Lietz, Patrick Pilet and Nick Tandy was fastest with a 1:59.395, followed by the No. 912. Behind the factory Porsches was the No. 93 SRT Viper of Marc Goossens and Jonathan Bomarito, a full second off the pace.

GT Daytona saw a number of Balance of Performance changes after Daytona. These changes have definitely benefited the teams racing the new Porsche 911 GT America. In Daytona, the 911s were fairly quick in a straight line, but just couldn’t keep up in the infield. At Sebring, Porsches turned in the two fastest times, led by the No. 73 from Park Place Motorsports shared by Kevin Estre, Connor de Filippi and Patrick Lindsey with a lap of 2:04.289. The No. 22 Alex Job Racing entry of Cooper MacNeil, Leh Keen and Peter Frommenwiler was second, while a surprising third was the No. 94 Turner Motorsport BMW Z4 driven by Dane Cameron, Paul Dalla Lana and Markus Palttala.

IMSA released the entry list for the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring on Tuesday. It has 68 entries, the maximum allowed under IMSA rules. Entries break down to 18 Prototypes (10 DP’s, 7 P2’s, and the DeltaWing), 11 Prototype Challenge cars, 12 GT Le Mans entries and 27 GT Daytona cars. A notable omission is the No. 99 GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing Chevrolet Corvette DP Evo, which was completely destroyed in the huge crash with the No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari F458 Italia during the Rolex 24 at Daytona. The Risi Ferrari is entered in the race, and Matteo Malucelli, who was in the Ferrari when it was hit from behind by Memo Gidley, is listed on the roster. Phil Allaway

NHRA: A New Face In Victory Lane — Everyone loves a first-time winner. Alexis DeJoria scored her first final round Funny Car win at the CARQUEST Auto Parts NHRA Nationals in Phoenix this weekend in only the second time she’d made it to the final round. DeJoria, fourth-fastest qualifier on the weekend, beat Jeff Arend, Del Worsham and John Force en route to the finals where she faced off against John Force Racing’s Robert Hight. Hight, who had lane choice, held the slight advantage off the starting line but DeJoria passed him and began pulling away before he spun his tires. She went on to score the win with an elapsed time of 4.043 seconds (309.63 mph), which was her best of the weekend.

“When we won, I couldn’t believe it. I know we can do it, but it’s such a shock at the same time. It’s surreal. It’s really amazing. I don’t think I’m going to be able to sleep,” said DeJoria. “What a great feeling.”

In other series, Antron Brown took Top Fuel honors over Brittany Force, making her first appearance in a final elimination round. Brown took home the Wally with an elapsed time of 3.755 seconds (324.20 mph) to Force’s 3.793 seconds (322.04 mph). Allen Johnson scored the Pro Stock victory over Vieri “V” Gaines.

Meanwhile, Brown and DeJoria also qualified for the Traxxas Nitro Shootout, the NHRA version of the All-Star Race. That’ll take place as part of the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals, held Labor Day Weekend in Indianapolis. Toni Montgomery

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