For sports car fans, this was the biggest weekend of the year, as the 74th edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans took place in France, featuring most of the world’s top high-performance car manufacturers pitted against each other for bragging rights. It drew 235,000 spectators, making it one of the planet’s biggest racing events. Here in the States, NASCAR’s Nextel Cup and Craftsman Truck series were hosting auto industry bigwigs and doing a little racing at Michigan International Raceway while the Busch Series had a standalone event at the excellent Kentucky Speedway featuring one of the biggest upsets in series history. The Champ Cars held forth at Portland International Raceway, with an upset victory of its own, while the NHRA ground-pounders did the business at the historic Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, N.J.
NASCAR: Kahne Wins Rain-Shortened Michigan Race
Kasey Kahne picked up his fourth win of the year in a rain-shortened race at Michigan International Raceway on Sunday, fighting his way back from a lap down after starting on the pole and battling for the lead early. The race started nearly an hour late due to showers, and was slowed three other times for rain. Heavy rain began to fall at approximately 4:00 local time, and NASCAR called the race official with 129 laps of the scheduled 200 completed.
Jeff Gordon rallied from last week’s hard crash at Pocono by passing Kahne for the lead early after starting second, holding the point for 50 of the race’s first 68 laps. Kahne fell out of the lead pack on Lap 47 when he was forced to pit because debris in his grille opening was causing his engine to overheat. He came back a lap down in 38th, but got the “lucky dog” pass to get back on the lead lap when the caution flew for rain on Lap 55. His team gained him approximately 15 positions by taking only two tires on a subsequent pit stop, and good car set-up and Kahne’s driving ability did the rest.
While Kahne was making his way back to the front, Greg Biffle, Brian Vickers and Carl Edwards took turns in the lead. When the eighth caution flew on Lap 110, rookie Reed Sorenson gambled on two tires and jumped from 11th to the lead, while Kahne just nipped Edwards coming out of the pits for fourth place. After the restart on Lap 114, Kahne wasted little time getting past the two-tired cars in front of him to take the lead on Lap 117, and Edwards chased him until the final caution for heavy rain flew at Lap 125. The race was called after four laps under yellow.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., driving a very cool retro paint scheme reminiscent of that used by his grandfather Ralph, led a couple of times and wound up third, ahead of Biffle and Sorenson. Points leader Jimmie Johnson, Casey Mears, Gordon, Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top 10.
Tony Stewart, still recuperating from a broken right scapula, crashed out again early in the race and wound up 41st but with seemingly no aggravation to his injury.
The series heads to wine country next weekend for its first road-course race of the year at Infineon (nee Sears Point) Raceway.
NASCAR Nextel Cup Top Five:
1) Kasey Kahne, No. 9 Evernham Motorsports Dodge Charger, 129 laps
2) Carl Edwards, No. 99 Roush Racing Ford Fusion, 129 laps
3) Dale Earnhardt Jr., No. 8 Dale Earnhardt Inc. Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS, 129 laps
4) Greg Biffle, No. 16 Roush Racing Ford Fusion, 129 laps
5) Reed Sorenson, No. 41 Chip Ganassi Racing Dodge Charger, 129 laps
Driver’s Championship: 1) Jimmie Johnson, 2295; 2) Matt Kenseth, 2221; 3) Kasey Kahne, 2051; 4) Dale Earnhardt Jr., 2020; 5) Mark Martin, 1989.
NASCAR Busch Series: Gilliland Shocks with Kentucky Victory
Relatively unknown David Gilliland and his start-up Clay Andrews Racing team scored one of the biggest upsets in the history of the NASCAR Busch Series by winning at Kentucky Speedway on Saturday night.
The 30-year-old California driver, the son of former Winston West champion Butch Gilliland, is a regular in the Winston West, Southwest Tour and AutoZone Elite Southwest Series. This was only his seventh Busch start, with his previous best series result a 29th-place finish at Texas earlier this season. His team is brand-new this year and running a partial schedule. He qualified fourth and ran with the leaders early, but fell back to 19th after his first pit stop. Gilliland battled his way back to the front, passed then-leader J.J. Yeley with 10 laps remaining and held on to take the stunning win, the first by a non-Nextel Cup regular thus far this season.
Yeley, who led the most laps (54), hung on for second ahead of his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin, Mike Wallace and Ashton Lewis. Points leader Kevin Harvick, Greg Biffle, David Reutimann, Paul Menard and rookie Stephen Leicht completed the top 10.
The race was almost marred by tragedy when journeyman driver Jeff Fuller had a vicious crash into the inside wall, unprotected by SAFER barriers, on Lap 29. Fuller was conscious, moving and talking to his crew when he was removed from the car and narrowly avoided what could have been devastating injuries. He was hospitalized with a broken wrist and finger and smoke inhalation, and was released on Sunday.
The series will headline a double-header with the Craftsman Truck Series at The Milwaukee Mile next weekend.
NASCAR Busch Series Top Five:
1) David Gilliland, No. 84 Clay Andrews Racing Chevrolet Monte Carlo, 200 laps
2) J.J. Yeley, No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolet Monte Carlo, 200 laps
3) Denny Hamlin, No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS, 200 laps
4) Mike Wallace, No. 1 James Finch Racing Dodge Charger, 200 laps
5) Ashton Lewis, No. 25 Team Rensi Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS, 200 laps
Driver’s Championship: 1) Kevin Harvick, 2541; 2) Carl Edwards, 2169; 3) Denny Hamlin, 2128; 4) Clint Bowyer, 2125; 5) Greg Biffle, 2035.