It was a busy weekend that was sadly overshadowed by tragedy. NASCAR’s Nextel Cup and Busch series were in action at the always-wild Bristol bullring, the IRL IndyCar Series had its season opener at Homestead, joined by the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series, and the World Rally Championship had its first European round in Spain. The racing was good, but two fatalities – one in the IRL and one in the WRC – put a damper on the excitement.
NASCAR: Kurt Busch Wins at Bristol
Kurt Busch, the 2004 Nextel Cup Series champion, captured his 15th career series win, and his first since switching from Roush Racing to Penske Racing, at Bristol Motor Speedway on Sunday. It was his fifth win at the high-banked half-mile.
Qualifying was rained out on Friday, and the grid was set by 2005 owners’ points. Busch started ninth and moved to third in the early laps, only to be sidelined by a cut tire and forced to work his way back through traffic. Defending series champ Tony Stewart started from pole and led the majority of laps, 245 of 500, but faded at the end and finished 12th. Busch passed Stewart for the lead on Lap 386 and led until one of 18 cautions came out on Lap 407. Matt Kenseth led off of pit road and held the lead until Lap 495, when he got trapped behind the lapped car of Dale Jarrett. Busch put the “ol’ bump and run” on former teammate Kenseth and took the lead, followed by Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon. Kenseth, running fifth, got into Gordon’s back bumper on the last lap, spinning the four-time champ back to 21st.
At the finish the order was Busch, Harvick, Kenseth, Carl Edwards and Bobby Labonte, with an excellent showing in the Petty Enterprises famed No. 43. Mark Martin, Greg Biffle, Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne completed the top 10.
Emotions were high following the race, and Kenseth, though mad at Kurt Busch, went over to Gordon to apologize immediately after getting out of his car. An angry Gordon shoved Kenseth in response, resulting in both being invited to chat with NASCAR officials. Don’t be surprised to see money and/or points penalties being levied come Tuesday.
All in all, a typical Bristol. The series moves on to another bullring, Martinsville Speedway, next weekend for more of the same.
NASCAR Nextel Cup Top Five:
1) Kurt Busch, No. 2 Penske Racing South Dodge Charger, 500 laps
2) Kevin Harvick, No. 29 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS, -0.180sec
3) Matt Kenseth, No. 17 Roush Racing Ford Fusion, -3.146sec
4) Carl Edwards, No. 99 Roush Racing Ford Fusion, -3.788sec
5) Bobby Labonte, No. 43 Petty Enterprises Dodge Charger, -4.182sec
Driver’s Championship: 1) Matt Kenseth, 782; 2) Kasey Kahne, 774; 3) Jimmie Johnson, 763; 4) Mark Martin, 750; 5) Kyle Busch, 677.
NASCAR Busch Series: Kyle Busch Perseveres at Bristol
Neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow, nor Kevin Harvick could stop Kyle Busch from his appointed rounds of the high-banked Bristol Motor Speedway half-mile on Saturday, where he claimed his first victory of the season and his seventh career Busch Series win.
The 300-lap race was delayed by 1hr19min for a snowstorm, which prompted a snowball fight between race teams and the fans in the massive Bristol grandstands. Harvick led 120 of the first 146 laps and seemed to have the car to beat, but he picked up a windshield tear-off on a rear tire and was forced to pit, thinking he had a flat. The stop dropped Harvick to 32nd and forced him into catch-up mode.
As the laps wound down, Carl Edwards gambled on tires to get track position, but the gamble failed as the tires wore out too soon and sent him backwards in the pack. Teammate Greg Biffle was in position to capitalize and looked like the man to beat as the race neared its end, but a loose wheel forced him to pit with 11 laps to go. That put Busch, who claimed to have been “just riding and saving my stuff for the end” out front ahead of the resurgent Harvick and Matt Kenseth.
Busch was able to fend off the challenges of Harvick, who faded in the last couple of laps and was barely able to beat Kenseth to the line. Denny Hamlin and Edwards finished fourth and fifth, with Scott Riggs, Ron Hornaday, Kenny Wallace, John Andretti and Johnny Sauter filling out the top 10.
The Busch Series gets next weekend off, and will be back in action at Texas Motor Speedway on April 8th.
NASCAR Busch Series Top Five:
1) Kyle Busch, No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet Monte Carlo, 300 laps
2) Kevin Harvick, No. 21 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS, -0.171sec
3) Matt Kenseth, No. 17 Roush Racing Ford Fusion, -0.368sec
4) Denny Hamlin, No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS, -1.160sec
5) Carl Edwards, No. 60 Roush Racing Ford Fusion, -2.527sec
Driver’s Championship: 1) Kevin Harvick, 952; 2) J.J. Yeley, 831; 3) Denny Hamlin, 814; 4) Clint Bowyer, 791; 5) Carl Edwards, 774.
IRL: Wheldon Wins Tragic Season Opener at Homestead
Defending IRL IndyCar Series and Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon was victorious in his first outing with Chip Ganassi Racing in the season opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday, taking the win with a thrilling last-lap pass on Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves, but the win was overshadowed by the tragic death of rookie Paul Dana in the morning’s final practice (see separate story).
Most of the race was dominated by Castroneves’ teammate Sam Hornish Jr., who started from pole alongside Castroneves. He led 145 of the first 160 laps, building up leads of nearly 6sec. Meanwhile, Castroneves pitted early to split the Penske team’s strategy. When Hornish made his pit stop on Lap 161, Tony Kanaan spun at the entrance to pit lane, bringing out a caution that trapped Hornish in fifth place.
Castroneves after the caution, with Wheldon hot on his heels and Hornish trying to work his way up through traffic to join in the fight. Wheldon pulled alongside Castroneves and the two ran wheel-to-wheel at nearly 215mph for the last 20 laps, with Wheldon pulling ahead a couple of times but never being able to complete the pass. He dropped back over the closing laps and made a final charge at the white flag, pulling alongside and getting his nose out in front to take the checkered flag first by a razor-thin 0.0147sec, the ninth-closest finish in series history. Castroneves had to settle for a frustrated second, followed by Hornish, Dario Franchitti and Wheldon’s teammate Scott Dixon. Kosuke Matsuura (-2 laps), Scott Sharp, Felipe Giaffone, Tomas Scheckter (-3 laps) and Eddie Cheever (-4 laps), making his return to the cockpit for the first time in three years, completed the top 10.
The original field of 20 cars was down to 16 when the race started, with the crash involving Dana and Ed Carpenter accounting for two, and the withdrawal of the two Rahal-Letterman team cars accounting for two more. The field was down to 12 by Lap 12, as Marco Andretti, Vitor Meira, Buddy Lazier and Bryan Herta all had early trouble, though Herta was eventually able to continue after losing 28 laps. Only 11 cars were running at the finish.
The series moves northwest across Florida this week, and will run on the street circuit at St. Petersburg next weekend.
IRL IndyCar Series Top Five:
1) Dan Wheldon, No. 10 Chip Ganassi Racing Dallara/Honda, 200 laps
2) Helio Castroneves, No. 3 Team Penske Dallara/Honda, -0.0147sec
3) Sam Hornish Jr., No. 6 Team Penske Dallara/Honda, -0.4744sec
4) Dario Franchitti, No. 27 Andretti-Green Racing Dallara/Honda, -0.9401sec
5) Scott Dixon, No. 9 Chip Ganassi Racing Dallara/Honda -1.1989sec
Driver’s Championship: 1) Dan Wheldon, 50; 2) Helio Castroneves, 40; Sam Hornish Jr., 38; 4) Dario Franchitti, 32; 5) Scott Dixon, 30.
WRC: Loeb Wins Again in Tragedy-Marred Spanish Rally
Two-time and defending World Rally Champion Sebastien Loeb claimed his second victory of the young season on Sunday, winning the Rally of Catalunya, his second win in a row. Loeb led a 1-2 sweep for the privateer Kronos Racing team, leading teammate Daniel Sordo home by 48.2sec.
Ford’s Marcus Gronholm led the event for the first five of six legs on Friday, but a turbo problem dropped him back to 10th and elevated Loeb to the lead. Loeb led a three-deep sweep for Kronos on Saturday, but teammate Xavier Pons went off the road and, seeing smoke, set off the fire extinguisher and effectively ended his day.
Meanwhile, Gronholm was fighting back and was back up to fourth at the end of Saturday. Gronholm got past privateer Alex Bengue on Sunday to claim the final podium position, 57.6sec behind Sordo. Bengue held on for fourth, followed by the Skoda Fabias of Jan Kopecky and Francois Duval. The works Subarus struggled throughout the event, claiming the final two points-paying positions for Petter Solberg and Stephane Sarrazin.
The event took a tragic turn on Friday when Jorg Bastuck, the navigator for Aaron Burkart in the Junior Class No. 54 OMV Citroen C2, was struck by the No. 53 Stobart VK Ford Fiesta of Barry Clark and Scott Martin, resulting in fatal injuries. Burkart and Bastuck had gone off-course on the second stage of the event, incurring wheel damage. Bastuck was changing the wheel when Clark’s Fiesta went off-course in the same spot, striking Bastuck. The rally organizers canceled the post-race podium celebrations as a mark of respect to Bastuck.
The series will be back in action in two weeks in Corsica for the Rally of France.
WRC Rally of Catalunya Top Five:
1) Sebastien Loeb/Daniel Elena, No. 1 Kronos Citroen Xsara WRC, 3h22:01.7
2) Daniel Sordo/Marc Marti, No. 15 Kronos Citroen Xsara, -48.2sec
3) Marcus Gronholm/Timo Rautiainen, No. 3 Ford Focus RS WRC 06, -1:45.8
4) Alex Bengue/Caroline Escudero, No. 19 Peugeot 307 WRC, -2:01.9
5) Jan Kopecky/Filip Schovanek, No. 21 Skoda Fabia WRC, -3:37.8
Driver’s Championship: 1) Sebastien Loeb, 36; 2) Marcus Gronholm, 27; 3) Daniel Sordo, 14; 4) Manfred Stohl, 11; 5) Petter Solberg, 10.
Grand-Am: Long/Rockenfeller Win at Homestead
The No. 23 Alex Job Racing/Emory Motorsports Porsche/Crawford of Patrick Long and Mike Rockenfeller won the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series race at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Saturday night, delivering on the promise it showed in the season opener at Daytona.
The No. 23 is a part-time effort, due to a baffling lack of sponsorship, but was totally dominant in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, clocking laps 1.5sec faster than its competitors before being sidelined with CV boot failures. It wasn’t quite as dominant at Homestead, maybe .4sec per lap faster, but it had a new challenger in the similar No. 39 Cheever Racing Porsche/Crawford of Christian Fittipaldi/Lucas Luhr. Those two cars were the class of the field, with the No. 01 Chip Ganassi Racing Lexus/Riley of Scott Pruett/Luis Diaz, which has won the last two races, looking like their closest competition.
Long and Rockenfeller waited a long time for their second pit stop, which assured them of fresher tires at the end. They had to work their way back through the field as the race wound down. Pruett and Diaz had optimized their strategy and were took the lead when Long pitted to hand over to Rockenfeller on Lap 70. Pruett led until Lap 89 of the 107-lap race, when Rockenfeller shot past in a three-wide gaggle of traffic. Pruett then had to hold off Luhr, who forced the issue on the last lap and banged his way past to claim second.
Pruett held on to claim the final podium spot, with the Ford/Crawfords of Memo Gidley/Michael McDowell and Rob Finlay/Michael Valiante completing the top five.
In the GT class, the No. 64 TRG Pontiac GTO.R of Kelly Collins/Paul Edwards passed the surprising new No. 70 SpeedSource Mazda RX-8 of Sylvain Tremblay/David Haskell with two laps remaining to claim the class win in 24th overall. The No. 72 Tafel Racing Porsche 911 GT3 Cup of Wolf Henzler/Robin Liddell was third in class.
The Daytona Prototypes will head west for their next event as the supporting event in the Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 8th, while the GT teams will rejoin the tour at Virginia International Raceway on April 23rd.
Grand-Am Rolex Series Top Five:
1) Patrick Long/Mike Rockenfeller, No. 23 Alex Job Racing/Emory Motorsports Porsche/Crawford, 107 laps
2) Christian Fittipaldi/Lucas Luhr, No. 39 Cheever Racing Porsche/Crawford, -4.883sec
3) Scott Pruett/Luis Diaz, No. 01 Chip Ganassi Racing Lexus/Riley, -5.051sec
4) Memo Gidley/Michael McDowell, No. 19 Finlay Motorsports Ford/Crawford, -9.408sec
5) Rob Finlay/Michael Valiante, No. 5 Essex Racing Ford/Crawford, -10.459sec