Aaron Bearden: Now more than ever, Toyota’s title to lose

By Aaron Bearden

If there was ever a doubt about which manufacturer is the favorite to claim the NASCAR Cup Series championship, that was settled on Sunday at Kansas Speedway.

It’s Toyota, and by a noticeable margin.

Toyota lost one of its contenders in Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 when Matt Kenseth was eliminated after a late crash and a damaged vehicle policy violation. However, what the team lost with Kenseth was easily made up for with the unexpected elimination of Kyle Larson and the advancement of 2015 Cup Series champion Kyle Busch.

Larson, 25, had previously been Toyota’s biggest threat. The fourth-year Chip Ganassi Racing driver tallied four victories during the regular season.

It was also common knowledge Larson is among the best drivers in the Cup Series at Homestead-Miami Speedway — the site of the season finale. After two subpar runs in 2013 and ’14, Larson rode the high line to a top-five at Homestead in 2015 and dominated in 2016 before losing the race on the final restart to Jimmie Johnson.

With his Homestead prowess and strong regular season, Larson entered this year’s playoffs among the championship favorites for Homestead. All he had to do was get there.

That all went up in smoke on Lap 73 at Kansas, when Larson’s No. 42 Chevrolet blew its motor.

The result was similar to Martin Truex Jr.’s 2016 playoff run, when a dominant first round gave way to an early elimination after Furniture Row Racing encountered bad luck in the second round.

“Things happen,” Larson said. “You look at the past playoffs and the 78 had an engine issue last year and he was the best car all year. And then us, this year. So it’s disappointing.”

While Larson watched hopelessly from afar, Busch used strong runs in the day’s opening two stages to tally 16 critical stage points.

Those stage points ended up being enough for Busch to overcome Larson for the final playoff spot, even after being forced to take the wavearound after being trapped on pit road by a caution during a green-flag pit stop.

In fact, Busch also beat Jimmie Johnson — who struggled home in 11th after two crashes.

“Fortunately, our situation today was that we had to race guys that ended up crashing out,” Busch said. “Hate it for them. I would have liked to race it heads up and that might have been a different situation, but all in all we’ll take what was given to us today and we’ll live to see another day and fight again next week going to Martinsville.”

Then there’s Truex.

Sunday threw the kitchen sink at Truex and the No. 78 team. After starting on the pole, Truex was issued an early pass-through penalty for driving below the white apron line as the leader on a Lap 36 restart.

Truex fought back from that, only to be brought back to pit road on Lap 91 and trapped a lap down.

For most teams in the field, two consecutive setbacks would be a dealbreaker. But Truex bounced back with ease and won the race, completing the first-ever season sweep at Kansas Speedway. He also tallied his fourth straight win on a 1.5-mile oval in the same race that saw him lead his 2000th lap of the season.

Their Kansas trips complete, Truex and Busch head into the third round seeded first and second in the standings with 69 and 42 playoff points, respectively. Truex holds a 52-point edge — nearly a full race — on fifth-place Johnson, and Busch also maintains a hefty 25-point advantage.

Denny Hamlin also advanced to the third round, though he’s currently three points outside of the playoff bubble in sixth.

All told, Toyota holds three of the eight remaining postseason spots, tying them with Ford and giving them one more contender than Chevrolet.

More important, though, Toyota carries the most consistent speed of all three manufacturers.

Of the remaining playoff contenders, Toyota has tallied 13 of the group’s 21 total victories. The Toyota trio also all rest in the top four positions in average finish. Truex leads the field at 10.3, followed by Hamlin (11.4), Kevin Harvick (12.0) and Busch (12.1).

To his credit, Truex remained cautious in assessing his championship odds leaving Kansas.

“There’s no guarantee we’ll even get to Homestead yet,” Truex said. “One race at a time. You look at me like I’m crazy, but Larson was plus-29 today. He was (third) in points. He didn’t make it.

“I’ve been saying it all year. They all say I’m a lock because I’ve got so many playoff points, but I’m telling you, it’s not that simple. We’ve gotta go out there and perform. We can’t have an engine failure. We can’t go out and crash five laps in at Martinsville. We’ve gotta focus on one race at a time, do the best job we can do and try to keep the momentum going.”

 

No, a title isn’t certain.

But with Larson — the only driver that’s proven capable of contending with Toyota on a consistent basis — out, and two of the manufacturer’s three drivers sitting in the best position of anyone to advance to the title race, it’s hard to pick any manufacturer but Toyota to claim the first championship under the Monster Energy banner.

Formula One Diary: Sunday night

I’m following the American-owned Haas F1 Team through its weekend at the only Formula One race in America: The United States Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas in Austin. This post is the sixth in a series.

I’ve spent the past four days documenting some of the differences between Formula One and NASCAR while experiencing my first F1 event. At times, it seemed very foreign — not just the accents, but the racing itself.

But fear not: Sunday’s United States Grand Prix actually showed how similar F1 and NASCAR can be.

Don’t believe me? Check out these quotes below and see if you can tell which were from the NASCAR race in Kansas and which were from the F1 race in Austin:

1. “The rules have got to be consistent. You can’t apply them differently to different instances. That’s our frustration out of today.”

2. “The problem is, we all spend an awful lot of money going racing. You want it to be consistently refereed — professionally refereed. And when you get decisions like today, it’s difficult to understand where the consistency is.”

3. “Where do you draw the line? For fans and casual viewers, it needs to be clear.”

4. “Don’t say everyone else can run off the track anywhere you like and never give any penalties — then I do it, and you give me a penalty.”

5. “I don’t know what any of the rules are. Seems like we’ve got a lot of stuff that kind of gets changed so often I honestly can’t keep up with it.”

Think you know the answers? Let’s see how you did.

— The first four quotes were all from the F1 race. Red Bull team principal Christian Horner made the first three comments, and No. 4 was a comment Max Verstappen made to NBCSN.

— Quote No. 5 is what Matt Kenseth said after a penalty for too many men over the wall ended his championship hopes at Kansas.

So there you have it. It took until the last lap of the F1 race, but it finally felt like someone was speaking my language.

Rules are a funny thing in racing. The complaints often turn out to be about the application of the rules rather than the worthiness of them.

For example: Martin Truex Jr. was penalized on a restart early in the Kansas race for going below the white line. That lit up NASCAR Twitter for two reasons — first of all, that penalty is not called very often (if ever); second, Kevin Harvick — the car behind Truex — did the same thing, but was not penalized.

According to reporters at the track, the rule was discussed in the drivers meeting and it only applied to the front row, so NASCAR probably called it correctly. But that sort of thing drives fans absolutely crazy, because getting it right this time means they’ve missed it in the past.

If there’s going to be a rule, all fans really want is for each driver to be treated the same — every time.

A similar scenario happened on the last lap in Austin. Verstappen, an electrifying 20-year-old racer, chased down Kimi Raikkonen and made a sick pass in the second-to-last corner of the race to earn a podium finish.

The fans were thrilled, and Verstappen was understandably giddy with glee on the radio. It was a fantastic moment!

But it didn’t last long, because F1 officials — or “stewards,” as they call them here — decided Verstappen had not stayed within the “track limits.” He used the inside of the turn and “left the track” to make his pass, which resulted in a five-second penalty.

Raikkonen got third place instead.

Now, was the penalty called correctly? By the letter of the law, yes. But it was a head-scratcher, since fans immediately started posting images on social media of several other drivers using the inside of Turn 19 (as well as Turn 9) without any penalty.

Horner, the Red Bull exec, worried that since F1 is trying to gain fans in the U.S., the inconsistency of the penalty would be a turnoff.

“Formula One is still immature in this country; and it’s a big race,” he said. “With the lack of consistency in the decisions, I should think all the viewers and fans watching today should not understand why (Raikkonen) was on the podium and not Max today.”

Don’t worry, Christian. American race fans are already used to inconsistency.

Red Bull team principal Christian Horner, lower right, tells reporters about his view of an inconsistent call that cost Max Verstappen a podium finish.

Just look at two weeks ago in Charlotte, when Jimmie Johnson’s crew was allowed to fasten a lug nut while the car wasn’t inside the pit box — something NASCAR later acknowledged was a rule it hadn’t even informed all the teams about.

It’s no wonder, then, that situations like Truex’s black flag or Kenseth’s penalty — where he had too many crew members working on his car in a crash damage situation — appeared questionable.

Both were actually the right call. In Kenseth’s case, that’s the rule and has been all year, and it was just enforced during last week’s race at Talladega.

But fans are so used to inconsistent enforcement of the rules, they assumed the calls were incorrect.

NASCAR — and F1 as well, it turns out — doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt that it’s making the right call. That’s something both forms of motorsport should strive to fix.

Related:

Sunday morning diary on how to follow F1 as a new fan

— Saturday diary on the fan reception for Haas in Austin

—  Friday afternoon diary on Haas F1 Team’s growing pains

— Friday morning diary on the track walk and team dinner

— Thursday diary on media day

Formula One Diary: Sunday morning

I’m following the American-owned Haas F1 Team through its weekend at the only Formula One race in America: The United States Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas in Austin. This post is the fifth in a series.

 

I had the chance to chat with a group of Formula One fans at the tweetup this morning, and they gave me an education on the best way for casual fans to start getting more into F1.

First, you have to pick a driver or team from the top group — Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull — or you’ll likely never get the satisfaction of a win. Drivers from the top three teams have won all 16 races so far this season, with Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel combining to win 12 of those.

But then fans also need to choose a driver or team from the second group — which is why those people were attending a tweetup on what’s known as Haas Hill.

Though most of them were wearing the gear of their primary driver, the fans said they’ve chosen Haas F1 Team as their underdog pick — and they find that makes the sport more enjoyable.

That jives with what Haas team principal Guenther Steiner and team owner Gene Haas told me Sunday morning when I asked what new fans should know about Formula One.

“The top three teams are typically going to be one to two seconds a lap faster than the rest of the field — but the rest of the field is within a second,” Haas said. “So you can find a lot of excitement watching the cars in the back dice it up, because they’re trying to beat the cars in that group.

“You really have two different races going on here at the same time.”

Steiner said new F1 fans need to pay attention to what’s going on at the front of the field and who is going to be champion. But when they look further down the running order, the appreciation of the mid-pack battle can really add to the viewing experience.

“They need to look at who we race,” Steiner said. “We are not racing for the win, we are racing midfield. There is a big fight going on in the midfield — with Renault, with Toro Rosso, with Williams — which for a new team is quite surprising.

“In the last 20 years, all the new teams who came in are gone already. And all together, they made maybe three or four points (points are only awarded for top-10 finishes in F1). In two seasons, we’ve gotten more than 70 points — and we keep on going. So they should cheer for us.”

In addition, Haas said the pit strategies and tire strategies (there are several different compounds teams use in the race, which are distinguished by color) enhance the experience once fans figure out the complexities.

“If you can start to understand a little bit about that, the whole sport really becomes very interesting,” he said.

But ultimately, one of the biggest differences between F1 and NASCAR is the fastest car almost always wins. And the 10 fastest cars are often the top 10 finishers.

So every single position gained is an achievement against the best of the best, with teams and drivers who travel around the globe to compete at the highest level of motorsports.

“Nobody here gives you a break,” Haas said. “Nobody here would give you a helping hand when it comes to winning a race. So you know when you beat these people, they gave it their all and you gave it your all, and at the end of it, whoever finished ahead wasn’t something that was given to you. You had to earn it.”

Related:

Saturday diary on the fan reception for Haas in Austin

—  Friday afternoon diary on Haas F1 Team’s growing pains

— Friday morning diary on the track walk and team dinner

— Thursday diary on media day

Aaron Bearden: JR Motorsports inches closer to title shot

By Aaron Bearden

The JR Motorsports playoff trio of William Byron, Justin Allgaier and Elliott Sadler didn’t contend for the win at Kansas Speedway.

In fact, they didn’t even lead a lap.

But the group survived to tally top-10s, and based on their position in the standings, that’s all that matters.

“I think for us, survival is key to all of these playoff races,” Allgaier said of JRM. “It doesn’t matter if it’s the first playoff race or the last one.”

Byron, Allgaier and Sadler haven’t been the class of the Xfinity Series this year. That honor goes to the three Cup Series teams — Joe Gibbs Racing, Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske — who field teams in the lower series.

JRM’s five combined victories fall short of the 21 wins those other three organizations have combined to capture. However, while JRM hasn’t been the best organization overall this season, they’ve been the best of the tour’s class of series regulars.

Despite the strength of JGR, CGR and Penske, those teams have combined to field just two championship contenders (Brennan Poole and Matt Tifft) this season. Both drivers have enjoyed strong seasons and remain in the playoffs, but neither has managed to match JRM’s top trio.

Allgaier and Byron have combined to take five of the seven victories earned by playoff participants to date. The veteran Sadler has gone winless, but claimed the regular season championship. Michael Annett didn’t have the speed of his teammates, but also crept into the postseason on points before an early elimination.

The fruits of JRM’s efforts arrived as soon as the regular season ended and the sport’s newest championship gimmick — playoff points — took effect. And that’s been a different situation than in the Cup Series and Truck Series, where only a few drivers had sizable margin over the rest.

 

In the Xfinity Series, where Cup drivers and teams typically thrive, the overall lack of playoff points for the field meant JRM entered with a substantial organizational advantage.

Between wins and regular season bonus points, JRM came into the postseason with 72 of the 114 total playoff points. Byron, Allgaier and Sadler each arrived in the first round with 11 or more points on fourth-place Daniel Hemric. And because playoff points carry through each round, the trio held the same advantage going into Saturday’s Round 3 opener at Kansas Speedway.

Secure with their advantage, JRM simply survived in Kansas. JGR’s Erik Jones and Christopher Bell dominated the race up front, and Penske’s Ryan Blaney followed in third.

Behind them? Byron and Allgaier in fourth and fifth. Sadler followed in seventh, meaning JRM had the top three playoff drivers.

A perfect weekend it was not. But it was exactly what JRM needs to place all three of their remaining playoff contenders in the final four at Homestead.

Allgaier, Byron and Sadler hold point advantages of 33, 31, and 22, respectively, over fifth-place Tifft with two races remaining until Homestead. If they can match the Kansas performance two more times, the organization should head into the season finale with 75 percent of the remaining playoff field.

“Today we did our job,” Allgaier said. “We’ve gotta do that for two more races, and we’ll hopefully put ourselves in a great position to go to Homestead.”

Formula One Diary: Saturday

I’m following the American-owned Haas F1 Team through its weekend at the only Formula One race in America: The United States Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas in Austin. This post is the fourth in a series.

Inside a van with Haas F1 Team drivers Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen and development driver Santino Ferrucci, one of them has a discovery.

Whoever was in the van before them left an iPhone in the backseat.

Immediately, the drivers start trying to figure out if they can discover the owner. The phone isn’t password protected, so they learn the language is set to Spanish.

Another piece of evidence: It also has an image of Fernando Alonso on the lock screen — and Alonso is on the stage at the Saturday afternoon Fan Forum where they’re currently headed.

So it must be Alonso’s phone, Grosjean decides.

“It’s in Spanish, so there are not too many it could be,” Grosjean says. “Carlos (Sainz) or Fernando.”

“I don’t think Carlos has a picture of Fernando on his phone,” Ferrucci says with a laugh.

“You have a picture of me on your phone,” Grosjean cracks back.

Thinking he could prank his veteran F1 colleague, Grosjean begins to snap a series of obnoxious selfies with Magnussen and Ferrucci for Alonso to discover later.

The van pulls up to the backstage area of the amphitheater where the Fan Forum is being held, and Alonso is just finishing up. He walks toward the Haas drivers on the way to his vehicle.

But…it’s not his phone. It belongs to one of the women who work for McLaren, not the driver himself.

“Oops,” Grosjean says with a laugh, realizing he left a bunch of selfies on a stranger’s phone. “Enjoy.”

Romain Grosjean, right, and Santino Ferrucci, left, laugh with a McLaren employee after the woman received her phone that was left behind in a track van and discovered by the Haas F1 Team.

At the Fan Forum, the drivers — along with team owner Gene Haas and team principal Guenther Steiner — emerge onstage to loud cheers. They are America’s only Formula One team — the first in decades — so this is their chance to soak up some of the hometown love.

But that warm welcome turns out to be nothing compared to what’s waiting for them a few minutes later at a place called Haas Hill.

The vans, now with a police escort, pull up to an open fan area overlooking Turn 19. It’s the primary gathering spot for Haas F1 Team fans, and it literally has #HaasHill painted on the grass.

The drivers walk through a large crowd of people who are very happy to see them and step into a gazebo area with fans gathered on all sides. As fans wave flags, hold up Haas F1 Team scarves (some while chanting like at a soccer game) and yell out things like “THANK YOU, GENE,” the drivers and team executives sign autographs and pose for pictures.

Haas himself gets as big of an autograph crowd as the drivers, with the fans seemingly thrilled to get an up-close interaction with the man who gave American fans a home team to cheer for after so many years.

It’s odd to see Haas in this environment. At a NASCAR track, he’s just another team owner — even despite owning the cars of popular drivers at Stewart-Haas Racing.

But here? He practically gets the rock star treatment from fans.

Gene Haas signs for fans gathered on Haas Hill at Circuit of the Americas.

Then came the coolest part of the day for the drivers — who otherwise aren’t having a very enjoyable weekend on the track (they’ve combined for three spins and neither made it past the second round of qualifying).

As police cleared a path, the drivers walked down the grass to the bottom of Haas Hill for a pre-publicized photo opp. Think of it as one big team photo — with fans included as the team.

With a photographer on an elevated lift giving the OK, fans cheered loudly as they showed their support for the second-year team.

Personally, I was blown away and hadn’t expected to see that many people. I thought there might be a couple dozen Haas fans to greet the drivers, but there were hundreds.

Clearly, American F1 fans are all-in on the team — it’s just that outside F1, the team still hasn’t made much of a dent in the consciousness of the mainstream sports fan. Heck, they’re not even on the radar of many NASCAR fans — which seems to be a shame, given the American pride associated with NASCAR.

Back in the van, Ferrucci has a discovery: Another phone left behind by someone. This time, Grosjean can’t solve the mystery; it has British settings, so it could be anyone.

Ferrucci proceeds to take selfies anyway, having learned from his senior teammate.

Santino Ferrucci takes selfies with Romain Grosjean on a mystery phone after they discovered it in the backseat of a track van.

As it turns out, the owner is eventually found: A staff member with the Mercedes team that is currently dominating Formula One with Lewis Hamilton.

Given the Mercedes cars qualified first and third in advance of Sunday’s United States Grand Prix, perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea for the Haas drivers to give the phone back.

A ransom in exchange for technical information might have been a better idea.

Related:

—  Friday afternoon diary on Haas F1 Team’s growing pains

— Friday morning diary on the track walk and team dinner

— Thursday diary on media day

Formula One Diary: Friday afternoon

I’m following the American-owned Haas F1 Team through its weekend at the only Formula One race in America: The United States Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas in Austin. This post is the third in a series.

For an organization in only its second year, Haas F1 Team is doing quite well. Twice this season it has had double-points finishes — where both drivers finish in the top 10 — and that’s extremely rare for new teams in an ultra-competitive sport.

The paddock has noticed. Two-time world champion Fernando Alonso said Thursday that “what Haas has managed to do in the last two years is quite impressive.”

“Two consecutive years in a very demanding sport like F1, competing at a good level, is a great achievement,” Alonso said, also calling Haas’ success “a very good thing for the sport.”

But there are also growing pains for a young team, and one such instance was on display during a rough practice session on Friday afternoon.

In Formula One, teams are allowed to design fancy-looking pieces that help generate downforce. They are attached to the nose, the sides, the floor and even the rear to redirect the exhaust. Unlike NASCAR, there’s no template to measure such things, so creativity rules.

One such instance was a new design tweak Haas brought this weekend. As I mentioned in the Friday morning post, Haas made a big change to a piece of the car called bargeboards, and the enhancement had created some buzz amongst the media this weekend.

The thought was Haas’ design could help its cars perform better in the race. And while that still may be the case eventually, it’s not what happened in practice.

An up-close look at the new bargeboards. The piece to the right is what came loose.
After Romain Grosjean spun early in the second practice session, he told the team via radio it had a “massive, massive, massive” aero problem.

“I don’t think I can do anything,” he said. “(Another run) is not going to work. It’s pointless.”

So what was the issue? Well, after he came back into the garage, the team discovered part of the bargeboard actually fell off. One of the team members thought they saw it on TV sitting somewhere in Turn 20.

That meant the team had to spend valuable time replacing the brackets that held the bargeboards in place — not just on Grosjean’s car, but also Kevin Magnussen’s.

The team had to scramble during practice to replace the new bargeboard brackets, which required removing the nose of the car.
Grosjean said later it was unclear whether the bracket just couldn’t handle the additional load or if the bargeboard fell victim to one of the track’s many curbs. Either way, the team will need to come up with a solution to secure them better.
But that wasn’t even the most dramatic part of practice. After Grosjean spun out, Magnussen almost ran into the back of him while trying to pass later in the lap — and had to dart to the inside of a corner to avoid contact.

“Get out of the way, please!” Magnussen said on the team radio (though Grosjean couldn’t hear him).

“Extremely intelligent there from Kevin,” Grosjean said sarcastically.

Magnussen, who also spun out later in the session and flat-spotted his tires, said in an interview afterward the near-incident was just a “miscommunication.”

“There’s no problem there,” he said twice.

 

“It was a bit close, but that was fine,” Grosjean said in a separate interview, adding the two drivers didn’t discuss it. “Not a big deal.”

Ultimately, Grosjean finished the session in 20th — last — and Magnussen was 14th. Fortunately, there’s one more practice on Saturday before the all-important qualifying later that afternoon.

“Yeah, it wasn’t our best Friday,” Grosjean said.

Related:

Friday morning diary on the track walk and team dinner

— Thursday diary on media day