This Week in Auto Racing April 11 - 13
By Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor
The Sports Network
Darlington Raceway is the site of this weekend's NASCAR Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series races. IndyCar is out on the West Coast to run on the streets of Long Beach, Calif.
Sprint Cup Series
Bojangles' Southern 500 - Darlington Raceway - Darlington, S.C.
Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth finished 1-2, respectively, in the 2013 Sprint Cup Series point standings and combined for 13 wins during the 36-race season.
This season has begun with seven different winners in as many races. Surprisingly, Johnson and Kenseth have yet to drive into victory lane.
Last Monday, Joey Logano won at Texas -- a race delayed one day due to rain -- and joined Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Daytona 500), Kevin Harvick (Phoenix), Brad Keselowski (Las Vegas), Carl Edwards (Bristol), Kyle Busch (Fontana, Calif.) and Kurt Busch (Martinsville) as those drivers who have all but guaranteed themselves a position in this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Those who win during the 26-race regular season, which concludes on Sept. 6 at Richmond, get first dibs on spots in the expanded (16 drivers/teams) and revamped Chase format.
The current streak of different race winners is the longest to start a season since 2003 when there were nine different winners in the first nine races. The record is 10, set in 2000.
With NASCAR making radical changes to the Chase and some modifications to the Sprint Cup cars, it comes as no surprise to Kenseth the number of different winners to begin this season.
Jimmie Johnson has yet to reach Victory Lane this season.
"I can't say I'm totally shocked," Kenseth said. "I think whenever you throw a pretty big rules change at everybody some people are going to pick up on it sooner than others. I think it always spreads the field out a little bit, because some guys are going to hit it and some guys are going to miss it. I think that always creates passing and mixes the field up and makes the racing more interesting in my mind.
"I think that everybody every week is probably gaining on it, and the field is going to get closer together as we keep rolling through the year here. It's been interesting, because there has been a lot of different winners and been some guys that have won a lot that haven't won yet. It has been an interesting year for sure."
The series runs its eighth race of the season on Saturday night at Darlington Raceway. The Southern 500 at Darlington had been scheduled on the night before Mother's Day from 2005-13 but was switched to the second weekend in April this year. Kansas Speedway will host a night race for the first time on May 10, the day before Mother's Day.
Kenseth won last year's race at Darlington. His Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Kyle Busch, dominated the event by leading 265 of 367 laps, but Busch suffered a punctured right-rear tire in the closing laps, allowing Kenseth to pass him for the lead.
It was the first time Kenseth had won the famed Southern 500, a race that has been on the Cup Series schedule each year since 1950.
"It was a really big win," he said. "It was exciting, and it didn't look like we were going to win. Kyle had that problem late, and we were able to sneak by him there with 10 [laps] to go or something like that. It was a big week for us, and it was really, really cool to be able to finally win the Southern 500 for sure."
Johnson, the six-time and defending Sprint Cup champion, has three victories at Darlington, including two in the Southern 500 (2004 and '12). He also won a 400-mile race here in March of '04.
Two years ago, Johnson's win in the Southern 500 marked the 200th career victory for Hendrick Motorsports. HMS joined Petty Enterprises as the only teams with 200 or more victories in NASCAR's premier series.
"Darlington has been a great track for us over the years," Johnson said. "The most memorable was winning the 200th for Hendrick Motorsports a few years ago. From a track standpoint, Darlington has character, so track position and strategy will be pretty important. There is a ton of history and a great race for the fans to watch. It's a high speed track. It's one of my favorites."
Forty-four teams are on the entry list for the Bojangles' Southern 500.
VFW Sports Clips Help a Hero 200 - Darlington Raceway - Darlington, S.C.
After winning last Friday's race at Texas, Chase Elliott has established himself as a serious championship contender in the Nationwide Series in just his rookie season.
Elliott, the son of former NASCAR Cup Series champion Bill Elliott, became the second youngest driver to win a Nationwide race. He claimed his first victory in the series at the age of 18 years, 4 months and 7 days. Logano set the record as the youngest winner in Nationwide when he took the checkered flag in June 2008 at Kentucky. Logano was 18 years and 7 days old at the time.
Elliott's win at Texas allowed him to overtake Regan Smith, his JR Motorsports teammate, and Trevor Bayne for the top spot in the Nationwide point standings. He became the youngest points leader in series history.
"I definitely know it's early on in the year, and there's so much racing to be done," Elliott said. "Just got to make sure we keep our heads where they need to be and just got to make sure we keep on the right track and try to continue to get better because that's what our competition is doing right now."
Elliott began the season with a 15th-place finish at Daytona but has scored five straight top-10 finishes since then. He holds a two-point lead over Smith. Ty Dillon is third in the standings (-10), followed Elliott Sadler (-16) and Bayne (-18).
The series will run its seventh race of the season on Friday night at Darlington Raceway. This will be the first time Elliott competes in a NASCAR national touring event at this 1.366-mile, egg-shaped oval.
"I'm really excited about it," he said. "Darlington is still one of my favorite places to watch races at. It always seems to put on really good shows, and I'm looking forward to being there this weekend and being a part of that. I think it's going to be hopefully a lot of fun, and it's obviously a racetrack that's known for being a tough place."
While Bill Elliott won five Cup races at Darlington during his career, Chase Elliott struggles to remember his past times here as a spectator.
"Honestly, I can't tell you the last time I even saw the racetrack," he said. "I have absolutely no idea. It'll be, I guess, a new deal for me this weekend."
Forty teams are on the entry list for the VFW Sports Clips Help a Hero 200. Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Kyle Larson and Joey Logano are those Sprint Cup Series regulars scheduled to compete in this race.
VERIZON INDYCAR SERIES
Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach - Streets of Long Beach - Long Beach, Calif.
Takuma Sato has been looking forward to the Verizon IndyCar Series' annual trip to Long Beach for quite some time.
Last year in his first season with A.J. Foyt Racing, Sato scored his maiden victory in the series on the streets of Long Beach. He became the first Japanese-born driver to win an IndyCar race.
Starting fourth, Sato overtook Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2012 IndyCar champion, for second on lap 23 and then grabbed the lead seven laps later when then leader Will Power made his pit stop. Sato dominated the remainder of the 80- lap race. He held off Graham Rahal before a caution came on the penultimate lap for an incident involving Tony Kanaan. The race ended under caution.
"It was a very special day for me, so going back there, I feel good and confident," Sato said. "We should be able to show a strong performance again."
The 2014 season began two weeks ago in St. Petersburg, Fla. Sato started on the pole and finished seventh there. He led a total of 33 laps.
Long Beach, a 1.968-mile, 11-turn temporary street circuit, has hosted an open-wheel race for the past 30 years. From 1984-2003, this event was sanctioned by CART and then Champ Car from 2004-08. IndyCar has sanctioned it since 2009.
Sebastien Bourdais is the last driver to win back-to-back races at Long Beach, doing so from 2005-06. Al Unser Jr. scored four consecutive victories here from 1988-91 and then two in a row from 1994-95. Mario Andretti (1984-85), Alex Zanardi (1997-98) and Paul Tracy (2003-04) have also won at this track in consecutive years.
Can Sato be the next driver to do it?
"It will always be tough to win this race -- everything has to be perfect -- but why not?" he said. "We will certainly try our best and aim to win."
Will Power from Team Penske enters this race with a lot of momentum. Power started this season the same way he concluded the 2013 season -- winning races.
With Verizon as his team's sponsor as well as the new title sponsor of IndyCar this year, Power led 74 of 110 laps to win the St. Pete race. He ended the '13 season with victories in Houston and Fontana, Calif.
Power is a two-time race winner at Long Beach. He won here in 2008 (last-ever Champ Car race) and '12.
"It was an awesome feeling to win the first race of the Verizon IndyCar Series," Power said. "Now I want to win the first two races of the season. Long Beach is a ton of fun - a tough street circuit and a great place to showcase our sport. I've been fortunate to win there twice in my career. A third win would be huge for us there with all the history and prestige that is part of Long Beach."
Twenty-three teams are on the entry list for the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.