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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Pace Laps: Hamlin’s Big Step, GMS Steps Up And ‘Off’ Weekends

Sprint Cup: Hamlin, Team Toyota Packs A Punch – The final laps of Daytona reminded me of the closing moments of a Great American Race here 19 years ago. In that one, Bill Elliott held the lead on the final restart only for the selflessness of three Hendrick Motorsports teammates to bond together and blow on by him. A final yellow flag cut the race short, but there was no getting by the 1-2-3 combination of Jeff Gordon, Terry Labonte and Ricky Craven.

With Joe Gibbs Racing, you clearly saw the same in the closing laps; they just had a “satellite” teammate of Martin Truex, Jr. lodged in between. The synergy those five cars showed made it impossible for anyone else – Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, Brian Vickers – to break through in the outside lane because of the sheer horsepower of those five Camrys sticking single file.

“When Joe Gibbs and [Furniture Row Racing, Martin Truex, Jr.’s owner] Barney Visser and ourselves had dinner,” Toyota Racing Development President David Wilson said. “I sensed there was a level of trust in each other. A shared value structure that could allow this collaboration to actually succeed.”

(Photo: Mike Neff)
Denny Hamlin’s victory in the Daytona 500 was the closest in the race’s history, as he defeated Martin Truex, Jr. by a mere 0.010 seconds. (Photo: Mike Neff)

So far, so good as the quintet allowed the last lap to basically be settled amongst themselves. For Hamlin, the winner, it’s not only a bid in the Chase as a reward, but checking off a large item on his bucket list. Despite 26 career victories entering Sunday, just one had come in NASCAR’s “major” events: the 2010 Southern 500 at Darlington.

“That was the biggest win of my career,” Hamlin said. “I want to get some of these accomplishments done because ultimately you’re defined by the big moments.”

With Wilson calling this win “the single biggest race in our company’s history,” I think this moment will do just fine for Hamlin’s resume. His win, the closest finish ever in the 500, will be defined by not only the margin of victory, but the way the Toyotas, leading 158 of 200 laps went out and took it to the competition.

If that’s the way Joe Gibbs Racing has the 2016 rules package figured out? Atlanta could be a very scary race for everyone else. – Tom Bowles

XFINITY: No Chase, No Problem for a Young Elliott – Restrictor plate racing has been the last thing that Chase Elliott looked forward to in the XFINITY Series. However, Daytona proved different this year for the Sprint Cup Series rookie. Piloting a car without the No. 9 on its sides for the first time in the XFINITY Series, the Georgia native came up on top in a wild finish at Daytona.

Holding off Joey Logano, Elliott was able to drive JR Motorsports’ self-described “star car” into Victory Lane. In his first XFINITY Series race with no pressure, he was able to lead 19 laps en route to the triumph as teammate Elliott Sadler made a desperate attempt to steal the win. However, he couldn’t get a big enough push from Darrell Wallace, Jr. on the last lap.
(Photo: Mike Neff)
Winning at Daytona, Chase Elliott now has five career wins in the XFINITY Series. Prior to Saturday’s race, he had just one top-10 finish in six restrictor plate races. (Photo: Mike Neff)
Entering Atlanta, Sadler holds the championship lead for the first time since June 2014. But in a rather uneventful event, the series regulars were able to hold on to compete for the win with the Cup drivers.
Blake Koch, competing in his first event for the newly former Kaulig Racing, finished ninth. Earning his first career top-10 finish across all of NASCAR’s top-three divisions, he left Daytona ecstatic with plenty of confidence moving forward. Additionally, rookie Brandon Jones finished seventh in his first superspeedway race.
A few drivers had some tough luck at Daytona, including Ryan Preece and Brennan Poole. Preece, running his first plate race, was running approximately 30th when he was collected in an incident with Bobby Gerhart and Anthony Kumpen. As for Poole, his luck went south while running in the top 5. With a faulty battery, he had to make an unscheduled green-flag pit stop, ruining his day, finishing 27th.  Joseph Wolkin
Truck Series: GMS Racing Flexes Its Muscle – When Johnny Sauter announced his move from Thorsport Racing to GMS for 2016, there were more than a few raised eyebrows. His old employer, Thorsport, was a proven championship program that was competing for one with Matt Crafton once again. GMS? They had just one victory, a one-off with Austin Dillon at New Hampshire last fall and have more career DNFs (15) as a company than top-5 finishes (14).
Yet Sauter saw something in owner Maurice Gallagher, as well as the organization itself. He felt it was the right place and the right time to join a team he thinks is taking the next step.
“I honestly believed that we could win,” he said Friday night.  “I really felt that way. The first time I went to the race shop down in Statesville there, it’s unbelievable. I mean, all the resources that are at our disposal, in-house chassis shop with Leavitt and in-house body stuff and all the guys at the shop, you know, that’s kind of a rare commodity in the Truck Series. You just don’t see that.”
 
Sauter has already put his money where his mouth is, going 1-for-1 with GMS after Friday night. The No. 21 Chevy was one of three strong GMS entries in the NextEra Energy Resources 250; teammate and reigning ARCA Series champion Grant Enfinger won the pole and Spencer Gallagher ran in the top 10 early. If not for accidents, both men would have easily joined Sauter within the top 5 of the final running order.
(Photo: Mike Neff)
Winning in his first race with GMS Racing, Johnny Sauter got off to a quick start with his new team after coming off his first winless year in the Truck Series since going full-time with Thorsport in 2009. (Photo: Mike Neff)
Yes, it’s still early and yes, Daytona is its own animal. But Sauter showed us quickly that GMS will be no slouch in 2016. Not only did they survive the Daytona Demolition Derby but the raw speed throughout Speedweeks? The expectation is for it to carry over to every track, every week. This team is looking to step it up in a big way.
P.S. – Thanks, NASCAR for the safety advancements that kept Christopher Bell’s flip to bumps and bruises … not a trip to the Emergency Room. – Tom Bowles

IndyCar: Andretti Autosport, Bryan Herta Autosport Announce 2016 Merger – Andretti Autosport announced on Feb. 18 that they and 2011 Indianapolis 500 champions Bryan Herta Autosport will join forces for the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season, working together to field a four-car effort.

With the merger, the Bryan Herta-owned No. 98 team will join the current three-car stable for Andretti, pairing two of IndyCar’s classic names.
“Bryan is a long-time friend, and I was happy to watch him build a successful Indy car team,” Andretti Autosport owner Michael Andretti said in a release. “Bringing Bryan and his crew into the family is a great opportunity for all parties to build an even stronger organization. Having Bryan’s experience is a welcome addition to the team. I’m honored to be able to carry on what he started and look forward to a competitive season.”
Herta will continue to stay involved with his No. 98 team, serving as a race strategist while assisting the overall effort.
“I couldn’t be more excited about this new chapter for Bryan Herta Autosport,” said Herta. “Michael has been a long-time friend, and we certainly know that Andretti Autosport was a big part of my career. When the opportunity came together for us to strengthen our organization and merge with one of the most successful teams and names in the sport, it was really a no brainer. I’m especially proud that what we’ve built with all the employees of BHA will remain intact and become part of the fabric of Andretti Autosport.”
The two organizations combine after a poor showing in 2015. Andretti placed only two drivers inside of the top 10 in points, with veteran Ryan Hunter-Reay’s sixth-place result leading the team, while BHA rode a consistent season from rookie Gabby Chaves to a 15th-place result. – Aaron Bearden
Sports Cars: Townsend Bell & Bill Sweedler Have No Luck At All – In last week’s edition of Pace Laps, we reported on Scott Tucker, the former owner of Level 5 Motorsports, being arrested by the FBI for illegal lending practices, among other things.  Level 5 Motorsports pulled out of IMSA after winning the GT-Daytona class in the season-opening Rolex 24 at Daytona. Tucker’s move put full season drivers Townsend Bell and Bill Sweedler out of a ride. Luckily for them, AIM Autosport took over the program and allowed them to finish the season.
They’re going to have to figure something out once again this season.  SportsCar365.com’s John Dagys is reporting that O’Gara Motorsport, the team that Bell and Sweedler were planning to race for full-time for this season, has closed down, putting the defending GT-Daytona champions (with Scuderia Corsa) out of a ride once again. O’Gara Motorsport, which had just entered the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship after competing full-time in Lamborghini Super Trofeo North America, is a division of O’Gara Coach Group, a Beverly Hills-based automotive group that specializes in high end vehicles. We’re talking Bugatti, Rolls Royce, Bentley and Aston Martin, in addition to Lamborghini.
By no means was the O’Gara entry off the pace in Daytona. Indeed, the No. 11 car turned in the fastest lap of the whole weekend in GT-Daytona. Richard Antinucci was one of the only drivers to dip into the 1:45’s during the race. Had they chosen to continue on, every indication was that O’Gara Motorsport would have been very competitive.  The news comes just days after IMSA released their full season entry list of 41 cars, in which O’Gara Motorsport’s No. 11 was on the list.
Bell and Sweedler are currently attempting to make alternative arrangements for the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring. Neither driver has publicly commented on the situation.  The duo will miss the open test scheduled for Thursday and Friday at Sebring International Raceway, but hope to have something worked out by March. – Phil Allaway
NHRA: Take a Weekend Off and Go Racing – What’s the best thing to do with an off-weekend if you are a drag racer? Go drag racing, of course. At least that’s what Eddie Krawiec and Phil Shuler did when they spent this weekend at Light Out 7. Instead of their usual NHRA obligations, the large event at South Georgia Motorsports Park is a much anticipated annual stop on the calendar on the ever-exploding drag radial scene, and for both, it was an opportunity to have some fun. Three-time Pro Stock Motorcycle champion Krawiec took an interest in this side of the sport several years ago, building his own drag radial racer. He debuted the car late last year and made his first trip as a racer to Lights Out, running in the X275 category. Krawiec made the cut in qualifying but went down in the first round of eliminations.

Shuler, who normally spends his weekend as co-crew chief for Shawn Langdon at Don Schumacher Racing, also happens to own one of the baddest radial racing cars on the planet, The Shadow, piloted by Stevie “Fast” Jackson. Shuler and Jackson went for the big money, competing in the anything goes Radial vs. The World category, worth $50,000 to the winner. Jackson entered eliminations as the fourth fastest qualifier and advanced all the way to the finals where he lost to Keith Berry on a holeshot. Toni Montgomery

Short Tracks: New Smyrna and Volusia Thrill Florida Fans – While the national spotlight was set on Daytona International Speedway, the true racing fans in Florida could be found at Volusia Speedway Park and New Smyrna Speedway.

Running as part of Florida’s Speedweeks, the World of Outlaws Late Model series closed out a wild Dirt Car Nationals with the closest finish of the week at Volusia, when Shane Clanton held off a hard-charging Scott Blomquist for the final victory of the week.

Behind them, Josh Richards finished third to claim the Big Gator, the trophy given to the best driver on the week.

While some were kicking up dirt at Volusia, the stars of asphalt short-track racing were squaring off in the New Smyrna World Series at nearby New Smyrna Speedway. After nine days of racing, it was Ty Majeski that reigned supreme.

Majeski left the field behind in the week-ending Bruce Gowland Memorial Super Late Model 100 to claim both the race victory and the Super Late Model championship for the 2016 New Smyrna World Series. – Aaron Bearden