Newman wins from the pole again

Newman wins from the pole again!

Ryan Newman pulled off a dominating run on Sunday in Pocono. He took this race from the pole position, led the most laps, and brought his #12 Dodge in for the win. This is his fourth win of the season, and surpasses Kurt Busch as the series win leader. Kurt Busch by contrast has 3 wins so far this season. This is also the fourth time Busch has finished the Brides Maid. Newman not only holds the win list with 4 victories, but his four wins are the sum total of wins for Dodge this season. Newman dominated early in the race, then faded back a bit after the first round of pit stops when he had to pit a little earlier than the rest of field. This eventually played into his effort to win, as he regained the lead late enough in the race, and held on.

It was everything Kurt Busch could do to catch up to the leader following the final set of pit stops. He was among the drivers to make a pit stop during that last yellow, and take on fuel & tires. That certainly helped him as he started working his was to the front during the closing laps, advancing past top ten drivers with each passing lap. He was able to catch Newman, but not able to pass him. He made a few challenges in the final few laps, but just didn’t have enough for him. He did manage to get Newman’s car to wiggle a little with a couple to go, but all that did was strengthen Newman’s resolve as he continued to hold Busch off.

Newman wins from the pole againNewman said “I had to use defensive measures to keep the air of his nose.” But hold him off he did, and logged in his 4th win of the season. Dale Earnhardt Jr had a strong run today too, and wound finishing in third place, with team mate Michael Waltrip right behind him in fourth place. Terry Labonte rounds out the top five finishers for Sundays race.

We mentioned on Saturday that this would come down to a fuel mileage race. It appears we weren’t wrong on that part, though the late race caution flags seemed to have removed that factor. But removing the fuel mileage factor with only a few to go really didn’t change much, as they pit strategy leading up to this had already played itself out.

Local driver Ricky Rudd made his 700th career start this week. However, all the hoopla involving this start met for an early end when he ran into problems with his engine. In the end he only finished 121 of the 200 lap race. Despite the troubles it was a major mile stone in his career.

And speaking of engines, we had a few of them spew this week. Both the Joe Gibb’s cars succumbed to engine failures, first out was defending series champion Tony Stewart. Bobby Labonte lasted less than 30 laps longer before his engine started to spew oil & smoke, eventually sending him spinning into the wall. Ricky Craven also suffered engine problems and finished the day early.

We also saw quite a few cars wreck, including Jeff Gordon, Casey Mears, Jeremy Mayfield, and Mark Martin. Derrike Cope completed only 66 laps, and Morgan Shepherd claimed to have handling problems after completing only 44 laps. As for Shepherd, if this is starting to look like a planned program to you, then you’re not alone!

Newman wins from the pole againAs for the series points, Matt Kenseth is still holding the lead, and has a very comfortable margin to boot. He’s managed to spread the gap to 232 points, and could literally sit out one race and still lead the series. This is a great margin to have, as it’s always possible that something could happen to him during one of these races and wind up with a DNF. It’s important to both him and car owner Jack Roush to maintain the lead in their bid for the championship. Consistency has been the key here, as he’s only won once race so far this season. He refuses to let complacency rule the day though, as he’s said numerous times that taking a conservative role usually leads to trouble.

That being said, we’re sure he’s backed away from certain situations in order to ensure he finishes the race with a fairly good position. He’s not dodging the bullet so to speak, but he’s not pushing it for everything it’s worth either. Winning the championship is far more important than winning a race, or trying to win too hard and winding up with a DNF instead.

As for the championship picture, it took a slight shake-up this week, as Jeff Gordon’s DNF didn’t help him in his bid for the championship. Gordon was second in the points leading into this event, and he’s a very potent driver to running that high on the championship leader board. But he fell to third this week, as Dale Earnhardt Jr moved up into second place. Jimmie Johnson and Bobby Labonte round out the top five in the standings.

Next week it’s on to the one of the most prestigious events of the season, the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This is a big event, with a big race purse. You’re going to see a lot of drivers come out of the woodwork for this one, as they attempt to make the show. Those that can even make a start here, will walk away with a comfortable purse even if they finish last.

The Indy Racing League

The Indy Racing League: the Next NASCAR

Yup, that’s right. I said it. I think the Indy Racing League is well on it’s way to competing with NASCAR for America’s top racing series. Right now, NASCAR is whooping all of its competitors, but with the shows being put on by the IRL, it’s only a matter of time before everybody catches on. The competition, the sponsorship, the tracks, the teams, the drivers, there is no way you can ignore the IRL.

The single biggest reason for me saying this, is the drama around last year’s final race. The IRL point leader, Sam Hornish Jr., came into the final race with a slim 12-point lead after taking the lead with a win the race one week earlier (at Chicagoland). The second place driver was two-time Indy 500 champ Helio Castroneves, a fan favorite who is also know as “Spider-man”, for his post-win celebrations. The difference between first and second in an IRL race is 12 points. And the race was to take place at the IndyCar version of Talladega and Daytona, Texas Motor Speedway.

The Indy Racing LeagueWith seven laps to go, Hornish pulled to the outside of leader Castroneves. First and second in the standings, battling for the win and the championship. Side-byside, lap after lap, Hornish and Castroneves battled. Sometimes another car would peek in the battle, but would fade in a lap or so. Hornish and Castoneves were still side-by-side as they came to take the white flag. As the drove into turn one, Castroneves got a little bit in front of Hornish, as he had the inside line. As they cam off of two, Hornish pulled back into the lead, albeit by a nose. They dove into three, and Castorneves’s nose peeked out front again. They came off of four, and Hornish ran higher then usual, jumping up the RPMs and pulling out the win and championship, by just a nose. Just incredibly exciting. Neither man could back off, as Hornish needed a win to guarantee the championship, and Castroneves needed a win to get the most points possible and to give himself the best chance to win the championship.

Only the week before did Hornish set the closest finish with a similar side-by-side duel with the legendary Al Unser Jr. Two consecutive races where the win was decided by inches. Hornish also worked a similar wonder early in the season at California, beating Jacques Lazier by less than a hundreth of a second. These are all tracks NASCAR goes to on their schedule, but they didn’t produce three finishes like these. It’s almost a travesty that NASCAR is the series getting all of the attention.

But, the IRL has made significant strides since the beginning of 2002. That was the time when Penske Racing announced it was jumping from the much older CART series to the IRL. That was a major shift in power in the Indy Car wars, as Penske was a CART mainstay, pretty much since the inception of the series. Penske drivers Gil de Ferran and Castroneves quickly started competing for the championship. It is a lot easier to go from road course to oval then oval to road course (but I still think that F1 drivers wouldn’t be able to hold their own in NASCAR). They immediately came in and challenged reigning champ Hornish. It almost looked like a Penske sweep of the top two spots. They claimed several wins in the early part of the season, including a Castroneves win in the Indianapolis 500. But Hornish went on a tear, and at Chicagoland, then point leader de Ferran crashed, injuring himself and giving the point lead to Hornhish. You know the rest.

The Indy Racing LeagueAfter 2002, several CART drivers jumped ship to the IRL. Michael Andretti, Tony Kanaan, Kenny Brack, Scott Dixon, Tora Takagi, and Dario Franchitti all jumped ship. With the exception of Brack, none of these drivers had ever competed in a full season in the IRL. Michael is the winningest driver in CART history, while Franchitti and Brack have competed for the championship in the past couple of years. In fact, de Ferran and Brack competed all year in 2001 for the championship, with the nod going to de Ferran after a late-year charge. Also, engine manufacturers Honda and Toyota jumped to the IRL as well, leaving only Ford to power CART vehicles. Not only that, the Twin Ring Motegi race track jumped ship as well, making last month’s race there the first time the IRL has raced outside the U.S. Motegi isn’t the first track to move to the IRL from CART. Last year, the IRL had it’s first race at Michigan International Speedway. CART no longer makes stops at Michigan.

Is the IRL the next NASCAR? It may be. If it continues to put on the kind of shows it has, the world can’t ignore it. While there are bad races (Gateway and Homestead don’t produce much good racing anywhere), the good definitley outweighs the bad. Watch out Mike Helton. Tony George is coming for you.

One last note: Big props to Homestead-Miami Speedway for taking steps to produce good racing. I am so excited now about this year’s Ford Championship Weekend, because this banking might produce close, side-by-side racing that all fans love. It might take a couple of years for grooves to develop, but hopefully 5 years down the road, Homestead-Miami Speedway will produce finishes closer than Darlington’s .002 finish.