By John Gardner
The action was far-flung this past weekend on the motorsports front. NASCAR’s Nextel Cup and Craftsman Truck series were at Martinsville, Va.; the Champ Car World Series kicked off its season with the traditional street race in Long Beach, accompanied by the Trans-Am and Formula Atlantic series; the World Rally Championship traveled to New Zealand for their fourth event of the year; and the NHRA Powerade Drag Racing Series was encamped at the ultra-fast Houston Raceway Park.
NASCAR: Martinsville Melee
Four-time Nextel Cup champ Jeff Gordon came back from three laps down to win Sunday’s race at Martinsville Speedway, finishing 0.593sec ahead of Kasey Kahne to score his 71st series win and his sixth at the .526mi Virginia paperclip. It was his first win since the season-opening Daytona 500.
Mark Martin finished third, leading Penske teammates Ryan Newman and Rusty Wallace to the flag. Sterling Marlin, Ricky Rudd, Jimmie Johnson, Elliott Sadler and Joe Nemechek completed the top 10.
A number of worthy contenders fell by the wayside, including Jeremy Mayfield (speeding on pit road and then a flat tire), Rusty Wallace (speeding on pit road), Bobby Labonte (engine failure), Tony Stewart (broken wheel) and Kurt Busch (spun by Gordon and crashed). Gordon pitted on Lap 48 for a loose wheel and fell three laps down. He methodically worked his way back to the front, gaining two laps back thanks to the “Lucky Dog” rule and earning one on his own. He did apologize for taking Busch out, and probably could have won without that. Gordon got past Marlin (on 40-lap-older tires) on Lap 463 and never looked back, having to hold off a surging Kahne in the closing laps.
It was an emotional victory, recalling last fall’s visit to Martinsville when a Hendrick Motorsports plane crashed nearby, killing 10. After the race, Rick Hendrick said, "It was a hard day for everyone in our organization to come up here. For all those families back home who lost loved ones on that plane, what a nice tribute to them. I'm just proud of what this group did today."
The series moves on to Texas Motor Speedway next weekend.
NASCAR Nextel Cup Top Five:
1) Jeff Gordon, No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet Monte Carlo, 500 laps
2) Kasey Kahne, No. 9 Evernham Motorsports Dodge Charger, 500
3) Mark Martin, No. 6 Roush Racing Ford Taurus, 500
4) Ryan Newman, No. 12 Penske Racing Dodge Charger, 500
5) Rusty Wallace, No. 2 Penske Racing Dodge Charger, 500
Driver’s Championship: 1) Johnson, 977; 2) Greg Biffle, 817; 3) Sadler, 795; 4) Martin, 779; 5) Stewart, 774.
Craftsman Truck Series: BLab Clocks a Win
Bobby Labonte, who has suffered mightily in his Nextel Cup Series efforts this year, got a big confidence boost by winning the Craftsman Truck Series race at Martinsville on Saturday. Making one of a handful of one-off appearances in Morgan-Dollar Racing’s No. 47 Chevy, Labonte and crew chief Randy Goss eschewed any fancy pit and tire strategies and played it straight, and their two-stop strategy worked to perfection while others around them faltered while trying more creative strategies. In doing so, Labonte became only the 12th driver to post wins in all three of NASCAR’s major touring series and the first to do so at Martinsville.
Ricky Craven, driving Roush Racing’s No. 99 Ford, held off the No. 6 Kevin Harvick Racing Chevy of hard-charging Ron Hornaday to claim second at the finish, with Todd Bodine making a remarkable comeback in the closing laps to take fourth in the No. 66 Fiddleback Racing Toyota after a failed tire-strategy gamble cost him the lead. Chad Chaffin also had tire trouble in Germain/Arnold Racing’s No. 30 Toyota, giving up the lead to Labonte with 30 laps remaining and falling to fifth at the finish.
Rounding out the top 10 were Shane Hmiel, Ted Musgrave, Jimmy Spencer, Mike Skinner and Terry Cook. Although this was supposed to be Darrell Waltrip’s “last race,” he failed to make the cut in qualifying. He said that since he didn’t race, it can’t possibly be his “last” race, so look to see Ol’ D.W. on the track at least once more. In honor of his storied career, Martinsville president Clay Campbell awarded Waltrip one of the track’s signature grandfather-clock trophies (his 12th!), just like the one Labonte will be figuring out how to get home.
The series’ next stop is at Gateway International Raceway near St.
NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series Top Five:
1) Bobby Labonte, No. 47 Chevrolet Silverado, 250 laps
2) Ricky Craven, No. 99 Ford F-150, 250
3) Ron Hornaday, No. 6 Chevrolet Silverado, 250
4) Todd Bodine, No. 66 Toyota Tundra, 250
5) Chad Chaffin, No. 30 Toyota Tundra, 250
Driver’s Championship: 1) Bobby Hamilton, 633; 2) Craven, 614; 3) Ted Musgrave, 606; 4) Hornaday, 587; 5) Jimmy Spencer, 580.
Champ Car: Bourdais Bids Adieu to Field
Defending series champion Sebastian Bourdais took up where he left off last year at Sunday’s Grand Prix of Long Beach, coming from fourth on the grid and prevailing in a mano-a-mano duel with tough guy Paul Tracy before motoring off to a dominant win.
Polesitter Tracy lost the lead to Bourdais’ Newman-Haas teammate Bruno Junqueira on Lap 3, when Tracy inadvertently hit the pit-speed-limiter button. Tracy repassed on a restart following a Lap-11 caution with a dive-bomb move into Turn 1, leaving the order Tracy, Junqueira, Tracy’s teammate Mario Dominguez and Bourdais. Bourdais was the last of the top four to pit, and got lucky when the caution flag flew just as he hit the pit lane. He came out behind Tracy and, with the help of the softer, optional Bridgestone tires, pulled a classic Tracy pass in Turn 1 on the next lap.
From there the Frenchman never looked back and beat Tracy to the checkered flag by 4.137sec. Junqueira took third, and Justin Wilson made a late pass on Dominguez to take fourth. Completing the top 10 behind Dominguez were rookies Timo Glock and Ronnie Bremer, A.J. Allmendinger and former series champs Jimmy Vasser and Cristiano da Matta.
The series now has a six-week hiatus until the next event at Monterrey, Mexico on May 22.
Champ Car Grand Prix of Long Beach Top Five:
1) Sebastien Bourdais, No. 1 Newman/Haas Racing Lola/Cosworth, 81 laps
2) Paul Tracy, No. 3 Forsythe Championship Racing Lola/Cosworth, -4.137sec
3) Bruno Junquiera, No. 2 Newman/Haas Racing Lola/Cosworth, -5.446
4) Justin Wilson, No. 9 RuSport Lola/Cosworth, -6.270
5) Mario Dominguez, No. 7 Forsythe Championship Racing Lola/Cosworth, -7.917
Driver’s Championship: 1) Bourdais, 34; 2) Tracy, 29; 3) Junquiera, 27; 4) Wilson, 24; 5) Dominguez, 22.
In the supporting events, 14-year series veteran Randy Ruhlman captured his first Trans-Am Series victory, driving his Corvette to the win over the Jaguars of Greg Pickett and Mike Lewis. Pre-race favorites Paul Gentilozzi, Boris Said and Gentilozzi’s new shoe Klaus Graf all failed to finish. In the Toyota Atlantic Challenge race, 24-year-old Englishwoman Catherine Legge became the first female to win a race in a major open-wheel series since 1980. The series rookie, driving for the Polestar Racing Group, finished 0.507sec ahead of teammate Antoine Bessette with Charles Zwolsman finishing third after starting last. In Saturday’s Toyota Celebrity Race, Rhys Millen was the winner in the pro class, while Frankie Muniz was the top-finishing celebrity.
World Rally Championship: Loeb Fights Back
Citroen’s Sebastien Loeb dominated the Rally of New Zealand this weekend, scoring his second victory from four rounds this season on the fast gravel roads around Auckland. The defending series champ, coming off two disappointing outings in Sweden and Mexico after winning the season opener in Monaco, finished 49.8sec ahead of Peugeot’s Marcus Gronholm. Finishing third, another 18.9sec back, was Subaru’s Petter Solberg, who has won the other two events thus far this year. Loeb’s teammate Francois Duval and Gronholm’s teammate Markko Martin completed the top five.
Solberg, the 2003 series titlist, took the early lead on Friday’s first leg of the rally, but Loeb had wrested the top spot away after four of the day’s eight stages and checked out. His 0.8sec lead at that point grew to 23.8sec by the end of the first leg, and he was never challenged again.
Saturday’s second leg saw Loeb’s margin more than double to 51.6sec, and he drove to finish on Sunday’s third leg, losing just a couple of seconds overall to two-time (2000, 2002) series champ Gronholm. The final points-paying positions were claimed by Ford’s Toni Gardemeister (the Blue Oval’s only challenger after teammate Roman Kresta totalled his Focus in Thursday’s shakedown), Subaru’s impressive Aussie rookie Chris Atkinson, who won two stages on Leg 1, and Mitsubishi’s Gigi Galli. The championship has tightened up considerably, with only six points separating the top five. The series moves on to a new venue at Sardinia over the weekend of April 29 – May 1.
WRC Rally of New Zealand Top Five:
1) Sebatien Loeb, No. 1 Citroen Xsara, 3h24:51.6
2) Marcus Gronholm, No. 7 Peugeot 307, -49.8sec
3) Petter Solberg, No. 5 Subaru Impreza, -1:08.7
4) Francois Duval, No. 2 Citroen Xsara, -2:06.3
5) Markko Martin, No. 8 Peugeot 307, -3:09.1
Driver’s Championship: 1) Solberg, 26; 2) Loeb, 25; 3) Martin, 23; 4) Gronholm, 20; 4) Gardemeister, 20.
NHRA: Hot Times at Houston
The NHRA Powerade Drag Racing Series held court at Houston Raceway Park this weekend, and reconfirmed Houston’s reputation as one of the sport’s fastest venues.
Tony Schumacher set a national speed record of 335.32mph enroute to winning the Top Fuel final, his second of the season. He beat Cory McClenathan, 4.505/335.32 to 4.511/327.74.
In Funny Car, John Force’s new driver Robert Hight scored his first victory in only his fourth outing. A former Force mechanic who just happens to be the boss’ son-in-law, Hight dispatched Force in the semifinals before taking out Cruz Pedregon in the final, 4.786/326.16 to 4.818/321.12.
“Professor” Warren Johnson took his fellow Pro Stock competitors to school once again, helped by a fouled start in the final by Jason Line, to become the fourth winner in as many starts this year. Line’s red light was a moot point, anyway, given Johnson’s 6.714/205.01 to Line’s 6.735/204.29.
NHRA Final Round Results:
1) Tony Schumacher, U.S. Army Dragster, 4.505sec/335.32mph
2) Cory McClenathan, Carrier Boyz/Fram Airhog Dragster, 4.511sec/327.74mph
1) Robert Hight, AAA of Southern California Ford Mustang, 4.786sec/326.16mph
2) Cruz Pedregon, Advance Auto Parts Chevrolet Monte Carlo, 4.818sec/321.12mph
1) Warren Johnson, GM Performance Parts Pontiac Grand-Am, 6.714sec/205.01mph
2) Jason Line, KB Framers Pontiac Grand-Am, 6.735sec/204.29mph (red light)
Racing on TV This Week (all times ET):
6:00 pm, Speed: NASCAR Busch Series qualifying, Texas Motor Speedway
4:00 pm, Speed: NASCAR Nextel Cup qualifying, Texas Motor Speedway
8:00 pm, Speed: Crown Royal International Race of Champions, Round 2, Texas Motor Speedway (same day)
2:00 pm, Fox: NASCAR Busch Series race, Texas Motor Speedway
4:00 pm, Speed: SCCA Speed World Challenge Touring Series race, Road Atlanta
10:00 pm, espn2: NHRA Powerade Drag Racing Series qualifying, Las Vegas (same day)
12:30 pm, Fox: NASCAR Nextel Cup race, Texas Motor Speedway
1:00 pm, CBS: American Le Mans Series race, Road Atlanta
1:00 pm, Speed: SCCA Speed World Challenge GT Series race, Road Atlanta (same day)
2:00 pm. Speed: SCCA Trans-Am Series race, Long Beach (tape-delayed, 4/10)
7:00 pm, espn2: NHRA Powerade Drag Racing Series finals, Las Vegas (same day)