June 28, 2012

FANTASY: The Learning Process

Quaker State 400 Fantasy Preview

Kyle Busch took the checkered flag in last
year's inaugural Sprint Cup race. (Getty)
Last year's inaugural race at Kentucky Speedway certainly had some hiccups.  The issues with parking and traffic became industry-wide news, as many fans had a frustrating trip to the track and some didn't even make it in to the see the race.

As a sister track in a rural area, we can attest that you learn from your early experiences.  There's still the occasional fan that complains it takes too long to get out of the parking lot here at NHMS, but most fans are quick to remind them that with 100,000 people departing the same area, it does take some time.  In general, fans at "The Magic Mile" think that the traffic flow around the track moves in a timely fashion considering the circumstances.

After having hosted a race, Kentucky has had time to reflect on what didn't go well and make the necessary changes during the offseason.  Will everything go perfect?  No, probably not.  This is our 20th year of hosting Cup races at NHMS and we still have a thorough analysis of how we can improve the fan experience, especially in terms of traffic flow.

June 27, 2012

BUMP STOPS: Learning On The Go, Going One At A Time And Going All F1

It's Wednesday again. Time to take the ol' Mini Stock out of the garage and dust it off for a test spin around the cul-de-sac at the end of the street...

IF THERE WAS ever a stock car racing adage that was true, it was on display last Saturday night at Waterford Speedbowl when the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour returned after a six-year absence.

As the old saying goes, you've got to lose a bunch of races before you can learn how to win them.

Example A: Ryan Preece.

Example B: Doug Coby.

On paper, Preece very well could be running away with the Whelen Modified Tour championship himself after five races this season. He's been among the fastest cars in virtually every practice session, and he won three consecutive pole awards to open the season.

But Preece has won just once – at Monadnock Speedway – a place where track position is as vital to a driver's success as it is anywhere on the circuit.

Preece, of course, isn't running away with anything. In fact, it's Coby who is threatening to beat his Tour competition into the ground before the season even reaches its halfway mark. Coby picked up his third win of the young season atWaterford and now holds a comfortable 20-point lead in the standings over reigning champion Ron Silk and a 23-point advantage over Preece in third.

June 25, 2012

PODIUM FINISH: Week Ending June 24

Each Monday we take a look back at the week that was from around the region for the most impressive on-track performances.

It was a huge weekend of racing around the northeast, with touring shows and weekly events that provided some truly remarkable results – including several drivers that continued on impressive rolls over the first half of the season.

Without further ado, let's see who made The Podium this week:

1. Corey LaJoie, Concord, N.C.

LaJoie won his second NASCAR K&N Pro Series East race in the last three events, assuming command of the Visit Hampton VA 175 at Langley Speedway with 10 laps remaining Saturday night en route to victory. LaJoie previously picked up his first career series win three weeks earlier at Bowman Gray Stadium.

June 23, 2012

BOY WONDER: Doug Coby Continues Torrid Pace With Whelen Modified Tour Win At Waterford

WATERFORD, Conn. – Doug Coby used to wonder when he'd win a NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour race at Waterford Speedbowl, wonder if he'd ever enjoy the kind of dominant run that the likes of some of the sport's best had enjoyed in their careers.

With his third win in the last four races on Saturday night, Coby doesn't have to wonder anymore.

The Milford, Conn., driver dominated the Tour's return to the Speedbowl, leading a race-high 119 laps en route to the victory in the Mr. Rooter 161 after holding off Ryan Preece on a green-white-checkered restart.

“I've been trying to win at this track for a long time in a Tour car,” Coby said. “My first career win should have come (here) back in 2004... and that was one that got away. We were terrible in practice, so anyone who thinks, 'You guys are always fast, you're up front and you qualify good – we were really struggling today. (The team) put their heads together, came up with a setup for time trials, got us up front and this car was just flawless.

“This win is a win for them.”

Coby heads to the next event on the Whelen Modified Tour schedule – at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 14 – with the series points lead and three wins in the first five races of the season.

BACK ON TRACK: Ted Christopher Wins Pole In Mod Tour's Return To Waterford Speedbowl

WATERFORD, Conn. – There are plenty of unknowns heading into the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour's highly-anticipated return to the Waterford Speedbowl tonight, but one thing still remains the same – even after six years away from the track.

Ted Christopher is still proving to be the man to beat.

Christopher, the 1992 track champion, backed up his strong afternoon practice effort to win the Coors Light Pole Award for the Mr. Rooter 161. Christopher turned a 13.740-second lap around the .333-mile oval, just seven one-thousandths of a second better than Todd Szegedy, for an average pole-winning speed of 98.253 mph.

“I didn't think I'd run a (13.70), but it is what it is,” Christopher said. “When you put stickers on, you never know what you're going to get. It was real, real free – that usually is pretty fast, but it was probably just too not free enough where I wasn't going to spin out.”

The pole was the first of the season for Christopher, but it was the 24th of his career. He previously won a pole at Waterford and is one of four drivers in tonight's field with a Tour victory at the track.

PHOTO FINISH: The Whelen Modified Tour's Return To Waterford Speedbowl

The pit area was jammed on Saturday for the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour's return to Waterford Speedbowl. Teams were excited to be back after a six-year Tour hiatus from the seacoast oval.

PREECE RIGHT AT HOME: Fastest In Tour's Return To Waterford Speedbowl

WATERFORD, Conn. – Ryan Preece wasn't surprised to be the fastest car in practice at Waterford Speedbowl on Saturday afternoon. Truth is, nobody else should be, either.

Preece, who has won three poles in four NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour races this season, turned a quick-lap of 97.192 mph around the .333-mile oval in the one and only practice session for the Mr. Rooter 161. That sub-14-second lap was faster than the times posted by Eric Berndt, Keith Rocco, Bryon Chew and Jon McKennedy and stood up as the quickest overall in the hour-long session.

Preece's best lap time of 13.890 seconds in practice was 0.272 seconds off the track record set by Jerry Marquis in October of 2006 – the last time the track held a Modified Tour event.

“Like I've said, a monkey could drive it, this car is so good right now,” Preece said. “We'll see how qualifying goes. Hopefully, I don't mess it up.”

June 21, 2012

FANTASY: Thinking Outside the Oval

Toyota/Save Mart 350 Fantasy Preview

Marcos Ambrose's only Cup win came on a
road course last August at Watkins Glen. (Getty)
For those of you that missed the announcement, Infineon Raceway is no more.  Oh, there's still a road course that winds through the vineyards of the Sonoma Valley, it just no longer goes by the same name.

On June 1, the raceway's 10-year partnership with the Infineon company ended, and it is still in the rebranding process as it tries to find a track sponsor.  For the 2012 NASCAR race, it will simply go by "Sonoma."

That's good news for many of us that tend to refer to it by its location anyway.  Especially here at the sister track of New Hampshire Motor Speedway, we're more than used to going by location.  After all, barring a seismic shift in borderlines, New Hampshire is always going to be here.

June 20, 2012

BUMP STOPS: Big Win, Big Weekend And Boys Will Be Boys

It's Wednesday again. Time to roll the ol' Mini Stock out of the garage and dust it off for a test spin around the cul-de-sac at the end of the street...

WHAT WOULD AN auto racing column be without mentioning Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s win at Michigan International Speedway on Sunday?

It was good for NASCAR on a lot of levels, none bigger than likely cementing the sport's far-and-away most popular driver as a legitimate Chase for the Sprint Cup contender. It was so good that I floated the idea that maybe it was, well, too good...

Let's preface all of this by saying that I'm not a guy who believes in conspiracy theories. I'm just not that guy. But if ever the stars all aligned just right for a sport in dire need of a kick in the pants, this was the time.

Consider the following:
  • NASCAR's most popular driver mired in a four-year, 143-race winless streak heading into last weekend...
  • A fan base still clinging to memories of Dale Earnhardt Sr., who died more than 11 years ago...
  • A win for Dale Jr. on Father's Day, almost exactly four years to the day of his previous win...
  • A race event that was sullied by discussion of speeds at the newly repaved Michigan being “too fast”...
  • Severe left-side tire problems that prompted NASCAR and Goodyear to ship in an emergency batch of left-sides for all its Sprint Cup teams, necessitating an extra 75-minute practice session on Saturday evening...
  • Half-empty grandstands virtually all season long, continued criticism of television's coverage of races, and a dearth of caution flags (and subsequent restarts to generate excitement late in races)...
Of course it would be easy for a pinhead like me to joke, “Sure, it's obvious NASCAR fixed this one.” But the reality is that, like I said, I'm not into conspiracy theories. NASCAR has weathered too many comparisons to professional wrestling – you can thank Tony Stewart for that – and has tried to hard to ensure it's competition is held on fair and equal footing in the light of a decades-long culture of cheating and rule-bending on behalf of its teams.

June 19, 2012

Another Classic Weekend

Eric Wood (center) won the 89th Loudon
Classic.  Tyler Sweeney (left) was second;
Scott Greenwood (right) was third. (NHMS)
The Loudon Classic might not pack the New Hampshire Motor Speedway grandstands the way NASCAR can, but, for two-wheel enthusiasts, the weekend offers every bit as much as the stock cars.  The event routinely becomes the largest at the track outside of NASCAR.  This past weekend, the 89th edition of the longest running motorcycle event in America again served as an end to the historic Laconia Motorcycle Week.

This year's event reminded us that while things don't always change significantly from year-to-year, there's always a new story to the finish line in motorsports.  Last year's track champions, Eric Wood and Shaun Buffington, both won marquee races in their respective series, but both racers had to overcome a tough field to hold up the checkered.

The Loudon Road Race Series raced the official 89th Loudon Classic feature race on Saturday afternoon in the form of the Middleweight Grand Prix.  While Eric Wood is the reigning champion in that class, the No. 64 of Shane Narbonne tended to be the motorcycle to beat.

June 18, 2012

A Tribute to His Father

Dale Jr. made a long awaited return
to victory lane on Father's Day. (Getty)
Racing is a family sport.  From dads and moms to sisters and brothers to aunts, uncles and cousins, racing families run deep.

Any given weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway proves this.  One example is the Amsoil NELCAR Legends Tour where dads serve as crew chiefs for their son or daughter, and mothers, sisters and girlfriends take the reins for team publicity.  Whether it's videotaping the action, watching from the spotters stand or tweeting a picture of the car in the starting grid, the race is a family event.

They visited NHMS for races on both Mother's and Father's Day and celebrated the day with their parents.  However, there was one winner yesterday in America who didn't have the opportunity to celebrate the day with his dad.

PODIUM FINISH: Week Ending June 17

Each Monday we take a look back at the week that was from around the region.

Non-touring “open” shows were the theme of last weekend, with some performers really shining through in the extra-distance competitions around northern New England. Modifieds, Late Models and even Sportsman-type cars were all on the docket.

Without further ado, let's look at who made The Podium:

1. Matt Hirschman, Northampton, Pa.

Hirschman won the SBM 125 at Star Speedway on Saturday night, an open show for Tour-type Modifieds. Though Hirschman is no longer a regular fixture on the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour, he has been one tough customer to beat on the open circuit.

June 14, 2012

FANTASY: Doubling Up North

Quicken Loans 400 Fantasy Preview

Current points leader Matt Kenseth has found
his way to Michigan's Victory Lane before. (Getty)
We at New Hampshire Motor Speedway can appreciate this weekend's race at Michigan International Speedway.  Sure, the distance around the track is double that of our "Magic Mile," but isn't everything built twice as large in the Midwest?

Our main appreciation comes from the cold winters that go months without a wheel on the track.  While most of the warm weather places can go heat the track whenever they want, when we need the heat in winter, it comes in the form of a fireplace and some hot chocolate.

Ugh, let's not talk about that!  It's June!

I like the fact that we're pushing 80 today and I know that Michigan feels the same way.  That track also must appreciate that NASCAR visits twice a year to help celebrate the shorter summer, just as we love to see the Sprint Cup Series roll off the haulers in July and September.

June 13, 2012

BUMP STOPS: Pro Series, Parity And Pocono

It's Wednesday again. Time to roll the ol' Mini Stock out of the garage and dust it off for a test spin around the cul-de-sac at the end of the street...

WHEN YOU'VE BEEN in the racing industry for nearly 20 years, you see a lot of races – I mean, a LOT of races – on short tracks from Maine to Florida, from North Carolina to California.

No, I haven't been to every race track in the country. Not even every NASCAR Whelen All-American Series track in the United States, but I've seen short track races in weekly divisions for everything from Modifieds to Mini Stocks.

But last Saturday night's Pro Series 100 at Beech Ridge Motor Speedway for the track's Super Late Model division goes down as one of the best weekly division races I can ever remember seeing. There were multiple lead changes over the final 30 laps, cat-and-mouse games on late-race restarts, and the assorted beating and banging that makes Saturday night racing so popular.

David Oliver's win in the Pro Series100 was a well-earned one at that.

June 11, 2012

PODIUM FINISH: Week Ending June 10

Each Monday we take a look back at the week that was from around the region.

The weather finally broke after days of hard rains and intermittent showers in the northeast, and the change in weather produced some of the best racing of the season to date. From the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series to the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East, the were plenty of podium-worthy efforts.

Without further ado, let's look at who made this week's Podium:

1. Kyle Larson, Elk Grove, Calif.

The decorated USAC open-wheel racer earned the biggest stock car victory of his career on Saturday night at Gresham Motorsports Park, winning the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East Slack Auto Parts 150 for his first career win.

June 8, 2012

BUMP STOPS: First Time, Fine Time And Fun Times

It's Friday again. Time to take the ol' Mini Stock out of the garage and dust it off for a test spin around the cul-de-sac at the end of the street...

A LOT HAD been written and said about Corey LaJoie, the third-generation driver on the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East. LaJoie was the perpetual bridesmaid, always close-but-no-cigar when it came to visiting Victory Lane on one of NASCAR's top developmental series.

Last weekend at Bowman Gray Stadium, at the very same track where he recorded his first of three career second-place finishes, LaJoie finally broke through to score a dominant victory in the NASCAR Hall of Fame 150. A raucous celebration ensued, both in the track's grassy infield and on the frontstretch in the makeshift Victory Lane.

But as the hubbub subsided, LaJoie was both reflective and thankful for the opportunity not only to race in the series – but also be as competitive as he has in cars he largely prepares himself.

“I've been so close so many times, that it's kind of just one little step over the ladder because I know how bad it stinks whenever you can't get that 'W' when you get so close,” said LaJoie, son of two-time NASCAR Nationwide Series champion Randy LaJoie, a Norwalk, Conn., native. 

FANTASY: Adding a Hashtag

Pocono 400 presented by #NASCAR Fantasy Preview

Jimmie Johnson has looked comfortable everywhere,
including when wearing a Madagascar wig.  (Getty)
This weekend's race at Pocono marks a sign of the times.  NASCAR, or should I say #NASCAR, has made a push to be the social media leader among professional sports.  The Pocono 400 presented by #NASCAR will be the first of its kind as it officially brands the sport via Twitter by promoting the hashtag.

The sanctioning body announced last month that it has partnered with the social media giant to help bring fans unmatched communication during the race.  Twitter.com/#NASCAR has been set up to weed out the best of the best in-race tweets and is intended to improve fans' ability to communicate with one another.

The partnership begins at a perfect time for race fans as NASCAR's TV coverage switches from newtork-based FOX to cable-based TNT.  Many viewers lament the inability to watch the race once it shifts to cable, but the Twitter coverage will be a comparable substitute.  In fact, as we've committed to tweeting from @NHMS during every race, I've noticed that Twitter runs about a lap in front of the delayed broadcast feed, so fans will know what it going on before viewers do.

Aside from coming here to "The Magic Mile" for a race, it's hard to replace the visual aspect of watching the race on TV.  I'll concede that much.  However, the combination of the new Twitter coverage with solid radio broadcasts should keep fans engaged, even without the benefit of cable.

June 4, 2012

PODIUM FINISH: Week Ending June 3

Each Monday we take a look back at the week that was from around the region.

Not a lot of racing going on in the northeast over the weekend with the unrelenting rain, but there were some impressive performances nonetheless – including one very popular win at one of the oldest weekly short tracks in the entire country.

Without further ado, let's take a look at who made The Podium:

1. Corey LaJoie, Concord, N.C.

LaJoie won the NASCAR Hall of Fame 150 to score his first career NASCAR K&N Pro Series East victory on Saturday night at Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, N.C. – the first NASCAR-sanctioned weekly track in the United States.

June 2, 2012

HISTORY-MAKING PERFORMANCE: Corey LaJoie Wins At Bowman Gray For 1st Career K&N Pro Series Victory

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – Bowman Gray Stadium is full of history. On Saturday night, Corey LaJoie made a little of his own.

LaJoie made racing look easy on the plucky Bowman Gray Stadium track, leading 118 laps and holding off Darrell Wallace Jr. on a green-white-checkered restart to post his first career NASCAR K&N Pro Series East victory in the NASCAR Hall of Fame 150.

At NASCAR's first weekly track, opening in 1949 and boasting victories from some of the sport's greatest like Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Glen Wood, LaJoie became the 122nd feature winner in Bowman Gray history. And the son of two-time NASCAR Nationwide Series champion and Connecticut native Randy LaJoie did it by learning from a painful lesson one year earlier.

In the inaugural K&N Pro Series visit to Bowman Gray in 2011, LaJoie posted the first of his three career runner-up finishes in the series. It came after a chance in the outside lane on a GWC restart – a chance he couldn't capitalize on when Matt DiBenedetto held him off for the win.

He wasn't about to let the same thing happen again this time around.

“When that caution came out on that green-white-checkered, I was like, 'Oh, no. Same song and dance here,'” LaJoie said. “But I said, 'I'm going to be on the right side of this one,' and not the wrong side like last year.”

FIRST TIMER: Kyle Larson Wins First Career NASCAR K&N Pro Series East Pole

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – He's won in the World of Outlaws, USAC Sprints and Midgets, and he's been a finalist for the SPEED TV Performer of the Year alongside the likes of Tony Stewart, Dario Franchitti and Sebastian Vettel.

Until Saturday at Bowman Gray Stadium, Kyle Larson had never won a NASCAR K&N Pro Series East pole award.

Larson, 19, of Elk Grove, Calif., leapt to the top of the charts in qualifying for the NASCAR Hall of Fame 150 – the only driver to break the 14.7-second barrier – to win the 21 Means 21 Pole Award for at Bowman Gray Stadium. Bowman toured the track in 14.696 seconds (61.241 mph) to win the pole in just his fifth series start.

“I saw the whole season of 'Madhouse,' so I know what goes on here,” Larson said, referring to the History Channel reality series a couple of years ago featuring Modified racing at the unique quarter-mile track. “We were good in practice, but we were better on older tires so I think we'll be pretty good in the race.”

PRACTICE PERFECT: Chase Elliott Sweeps K&N Pro Series Sessions At Bowman Gray Stadium

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – What a difference a year makes.

Chase Elliott made his debut at the finicky Bowman Gray Stadium when the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East did last summer, a battery problem early on helping him sputter his way through a difficult learning curve on the circuit's trickiest circuit. This time around – at least so far – nothing's hindering Elliott's game.

Elliott swept the pair of practices for the NASCAR Hall of Fame 150 on Saturday afternoon, posting the fastest times in each session. Better yet, Elliott enjoyed a late draw for qualifying at 6:15 p.m. and will be the 18th of 22 cars to take time.

“It's going to be so hard (in qualifying),” the 16-year-old son of Bill Elliott said. “And we fought this last year, too, when you put on tires it's so slick... You just do the best with what you've got and really try to hit your marks.”

Elliott's fastest lap of the day was 14.359 seconds (62.678 mph) on the flat quarter-mile, a speed he posted on a mock qualifying run to close out final practice. He improved nearly two-tenths of a second over his top time from the first 45-minute session.

PHOTO FINISH: A Look At Bowman Gray Stadium

The NASCAR K&N Pro Series East invades the historic Bowman Gray Stadium for the NASCAR Hall of Fame 150 today. Here's a view of the behind-the-scenes activity from the day.

RACE DAY: K&N Pro Series At Bowman Gray

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – While the weather in New England today might not be very accommodating for racing, North Carolina has borrowed a bit of a coastal summer theme to accommodate the Granite Stripe here at Bowman Gray Stadium.

It's sunny and in the low-70s this morning, with a cool morning breeze, as the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East gets set to roll out the NASCAR Hall of Fame 150 tonight at The Madhouse.

X Team Racing's Matt DiBenedetto won the event a year ago, though as the organization has switched its operating philosophy for 2012, DiBenedetto is not here to defend his title from the series' inaugural visit to Bowman Gray. Corey LaJoie, last year's runner-up, is here – and he's here with a brand new No. 07 Ford for this event.

If LaJoie does win, it will mark his first career K&N Pro Series victory.

A field of 22 cars has entered the NASCAR Hall of Fame 150 on the tight, flat (talk about understatements...) quarter-mile at Bowman Gray. Among the entries of interest: Action sports star Travis Pastrana, Massachusetts drivers Eddie MacDonald and Dale Quarterley, series points leader Chase Elliott, and X Team Racing drivers Daniel Suarez and Carlos Iaconelli.

June 1, 2012

Knowledge is Respect

Along with NASCAR, Chad Walter (right) doesn't
think anyone should dislike ice cream. (NHMS)
I had dinner with a friend last week, and to put it simply he knows nothing about NASCAR.  When referencing auto racing, he did the ignorant air quotes symbol in referring to it as a "sport."

Having been someone that's made the conversion to an auto racing fan, I'm well aware why people are skeptical it is a sport and I'm positive that their skepticism is bread from ignorance.  Watch the Olympics this summer and justify how some of those activities are more sport than auto racing.  (Seriously, didn't archery go out of style with the Renaissance?)

Despite my firm stance that NASCAR is indeed a sport, every once in awhile, I come across something that truly makes me respect the athletic ability that goes into it.  I had one of those moments yesterday when I ate lunch with Chad Walter, who serves as a Penske Racing crew chief for Sam Hornish Jr. in the NASCAR Nationwide Series.