October 27, 2012

COMING UP (OH) SEVEN: LaJoie Steals Greenville Win

GREENVILLE, S.C. – Lucky Seven. Or, in this case, Lucky 07.

Corey LaJoie used a daring move in the final corner and then drove away from the ensuing carnage behind him to win the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East Kevin Whitaker Chevrolet 140 at Greenville Pickens Speedway Saturday night, taking over the series points lead with one race remaining.

“I just wanted to win a race,” said LaJoie, who missed the drivers' meeting on the race's original Labor Day weekend date and had to start 18th in the 22-car field. “You win the race, you get the most points.”

It was LaJoie's fifth victory of the season, making him the first driver to record five wins in a season since Joey Logano did it in 2007. He's the sixth driver in series history to win at least five times in a single year.

LaJoie was second – in the seriously disadvantaged outside lane – to Moffitt on a Lap 145 green-white-checkered restart. He used a bump and run move on Moffitt in the final corner to take the lead, while Moffitt collided with Darrell Wallace Jr. behind him to touch off a multi-car wreck on the frontstretch.

RETURN TRIP: Elliott Fastest In Practice At Greenville

GREENVILLE, S.C. – On a day where practice was devoted completely to race preparation, not many NASCAR K&N Pro Series East drivers at Greenville Pickens Speedway logged more laps than Chase Elliott.

More importantly, nobody posted a faster lap than the Hendrick Motorsports driver, as Elliott set fast time in final practice for the Kevin Whitaker Chevrolet 140 Saturday.

“Same old Greenville,” Elliott said after turning a quick time of 21.089 seconds (85.353 mph) around the flat half-mile.

“It doesn't really mean a whole lot – practice doesn't pay anything. But I think our car's pretty good, and I feel like we're better than we were when we were here just a few weeks ago, and that's an improvement.”

October 25, 2012

FANTASY: Chasing the Tail

Tums Fast Relief 500 Fantasy Preview

Jimmie Johnson edged Denny Hamlin back in
2009 for the win at Martinsville Speedway. (Getty)
Round ... and around ... and around ... and around.  If you like cars going in circles, this weekend's Tums Fast Relief 500 is for you!

Martinsville Speedway is the shortest of short tracks on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at just 0.526 miles.  While the race itself is listed as a "500," it's actually the shortest non-road course race of the season at 263 miles.  The number refers to the laps, not the miles.  As I said, if you like cars driving in lots and lots of circles, this is your race.

Bristol Motor Speedway also runs 500-lap races, so Martinsville doesn't stand alone on the podium in terms of most laps, but the races are vastly different.  Bristol has large banking and the cars roll around it like pinballs.  Martinsville is a flatter track with tighter, hairpin turns; it's almost like a small version of New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Its setup puts a lot of emphasis on driver ability.  Whereas Bristol involves a lot of traded paint and takes an answered prayer to avoid wrecks, Martinsville is much more about a driver's ability to make the most of the short straightaways and tight corners.  It's not impossible to pass, but it does take skill and timing to move up in the race.

October 19, 2012

BUMP STOPS: The (Right) Recipe For Winning A Title

It's Friday again. Time to dust off the ol' Mini Stock for a test drive around the cul-de-sac at the end of the street...

WHILE FANS OF NASCAR at the sport's highest level have clamored for years that a greater emphasis needs to be placed on winning, there aren't any such complaints in these parts. To wit: the title runs of ACT Late Model Tour champion Wayne Helliwell and NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour champ Doug Coby.

Both Helliwell and Coby took remarkably similar paths to their respective championships in 2012.

Helliwell won four of 10 ACT points races this season (.400 winning percentage), while Coby won five of 14 races (.357) on the Modified Tour. Helliwell posted Top-5 finishes in seven races and was in the Top-10 in nine of the 10 events on the schedule. Coby, meanwhile, scored eight Top-5 finishes and 11 Top-10s.

It's all about consistency, but more than that, it's about consistently being in contention for a trip to Victory Lane.

Almost as remarkably, Helliwell won the third and fourth races of the season to help build a lead at the top of the ACT standings, while Coby was similarly dominant in the first half of the year with a pair of wins at Stafford Motor Speedway and a win at Waterford Speedbowl all before the month of June had ended.

Perhaps it has to do with the relatively short schedules the two tours utilize – when compared against a 36-race NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season – where there is very little wiggle room for poor results. Brian Hoar nearly chased Helliwell down, literally, in the final race of the season before Helliwell won the Fall Foliage 200 at Airborne Speedway to lock up his first career ACT title. Hoar also won four races this season, and third-place finisher Austin Theriault won a race and never finished outside the Top-10 once.

When you've only got 10 races to accumulate points, you've got to make the most of every available weekend on the calendar.

October 18, 2012

FANTASY: Gambling at Kansas

Hollywood Casino 400 Fantasy Preview

Clint Bowyer (left), Denny Hamlin and Jeff Gordon
chat during Wednesday's test session at Kansas. (Getty)
Kansas Speedway looks like just another 1.5-mile tri-oval.  As a "cookie cutter," it's usually a place where you can predict the results based on the history of intermediate tracks of similar build.

However, the history books got wiped clean this summer when Kansas repaved the track and created variable banking.  Sure, it might still look the same from the outside, but on the actual track, drivers are saying that old notes might as well be used to spark campfires in the brisk Kansas evening.

"It's basically like going to a whole new race track," said two-time Kansas winner Jeff Gordon.  "This track went from being abrasive and wearing the tires out, to smooth and super-fast."

October 14, 2012

TWO FOR ONE: Doug Coby Wins Modified Tour Title; Bobby Santos Wins Season Finale At Thompson

THOMPSON, Conn. – Doug Coby did all that he had to do on Sunday at Thompson International Speedway, turning in a smart – if unspectacular – performance to finish sixth in the Sunoco-Town Fair Tire World Series 150 to clinch the 2012 NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour championship.

Ahead of him, Bobby Santos III took the lead with 21 laps remaining and held off Ryan Preece and Todd Szegedy to win his second consecutive race to close out the season in a victory that, coupled with Coby's championship, highlighted the efforts of two of the smaller teams on the Tour.

“I don't feel like I drive like a Modified driver.,” said Santos, the 2010 Whelen Modified Tour champion. “I feel I'm an open-wheel style driver, and I try to race really clean. The way this Modified racing is right now, you have to be really aggressive and you've got to use the nerf bars a little more. I hate doing it, but I did it a couple of times in today's race where I would normally never do that.

“But if you want to win in this series right now, the way it is, you have to race like that.”

Santos ran inside the Top-3 for most of the day, content to watch as Preece, Donny Lia and Todd Szegedy took turns at the point ahead of him. Victimized by the inside line on several restarts, he finally got the opportunity he'd been waiting for on a Lap 128 restart, scooting from fourth to the lead in the outside lane in just three laps' time.

October 13, 2012

LAST LAP: Berndt Wins Final Modified Tour Pole Of Season; Title Hopefuls Up Front

THOMPSON, Conn. – Eric Berndt may have surprised himself with the Coors Light Pole Award on Saturday afternoon, but there were few other surprises in qualifying for the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour season-ending Sunoco-Town Fair Tire 150 at Thompson International Speedway.

The three drivers mathematically eligible for the 2012 series championship, including point leader Doug Coby, will all start inside the Top-10 in the 32-car field on Sunday. Coby will start ninth, while Silk and Preece will line up alongside one another on the second row.

Coby, who owns a 17-point lead over Preece and an 18-point advantage over Silk, said he won't do anything differently than what he's done all season. He needs to finish 13 or better, no matter what the other two do, to clinch his first Whelen Modified Tour title.

“I'm going to let everybody go by a straightaway, ride around and then hope I don't get wrecked? No,” said Coby, who has won five of the first 13 races of the season. “I'm going to race with guys that I trust, and if there's guys that I don't trust, I'm going to try and stay away from them. I do that every race, anyway. You're not going to see me do anything different.”

TITLE TOWN: Whelen Modified Tour Championship Battle Down To The Wire At Thompson

THOMPSON, Conn. – And so, without the manufacturing of a Chase or without catastrophic bad luck on behalf of any single contender down the stretch, the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour is down to a three-way battle for the 2012 championship as the season enters its final weekend.

In its simplest terms, Doug Coby needs only to finish 13th or better – regardless of where Ryan Preece or Ron Silk finish – in the Sunoco-Town Fair Tire 150 at Thompson International Speedway on Sunday afternoon to win his first career championship. In three races this season at the .625-mile banked oval, Coby's best finish is third with an average finishing position of 13th.

Coby leads Preece by 17 points and Silk, the 2011 series champion, by 18.

“I'm looking forward to it,” Preece said after finishing second in the NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified Tour race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Thursday. “I really think we have a shot at winning this title, and I have a really good feeling about Sunday.”

It will not be easy for any of the three drivers – both because of their track record of performance as well as this race's own recent history.

Last season, Silk came into the event needing a modest finish to clinch his first career title. But an odd decision to pit under an early caution bit Silk, who was collected in an incident at the back of the back once the race got rolling again. He lost several laps making repairs in the pits, and needed several “Lucky Dog” passes to get back onto the lead lap.

Meanwhile, his closest championship pursuer Todd Szegedy ended up with a wrecked race car late in the caution-marred race that finally made the trophy Silk's own.

With 32 cars entered in the Sunoco-Town Fair Tire 150, there will not be an easy path to the title for any of the three drivers with a mathematical shot at the championship this season.

Coby threatened to run away with the championship in the middle of the season, reeling off seven straight Top-3 finishes, including four wins. But he hit a speed bump in a three-race stretch that produced consecutive finishes of 13th or worse to bunch the field back up.

If he does hold off Preece and Silk Sunday, he will likely be able to point to a win at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on September 22 as the race that essentially won the championship for the No. 52 team. It set the stage for a Top-10 run at Stafford Motor speedway two weeks ago and gave him some breathing room heading into this weekend.

“I've had a few bad weeks,” Coby said at New Hampshire, “and I've told everyone that we don't quit, we don't give up. I told everybody, my plan was run up front, because that's what this car does.”

Should Coby stumble at all, the game becomes wide open once again. Preece and Silk are separated from one another by just a single point – and both have been very good at Thompson. Preece has two poles at Thompson this season – three straight at the track dating back to last season – and three career runner-up finishes at the track. Silk has four of his nine career Whelen Modified Tour wins at Thompson.

Qualifying is set for 2:15 p.m. Saturday at Thompson, with the Sunoco-Town Fair Tire 150 at approximately 3:15 p.m. Sunday.

– TB

October 10, 2012

FANTASY: Banking on America

Bank of America 500 Fantasy Preview

EDITOR'S NOTE: Yahoo Fantasy lineups lock early this week due to Thursday qualifying.  It's recommended you pick your team before going to bed on Wednesday night.

To get back into the Chase, Gordon will need to burnout
at Charlotte for the first time since 2007. (Getty)
The fifth race in the Chase will be a defining moment in this year's championship.  Now that the scraps are all picked up from what was a wild, and frankly unnecessarily dangerous, wreck at Talladega, it's time to get back to normalcy in terms of racing.

I'm certainly a disappointed fantasy owner as three of my drivers, Clint Bowyer, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip all finished much farther back at 'Dega than where they sat when the pack saw the white flag.  However, I'm honestly more just thankful that everyone walked away from that wreck ... or rode on the side of a teammates car, as Jimmie Johnson did with Dale Jr.  It's clear that restictor plates aren't making these races safer and I hope that changes are made for the sake of everyone's well-being.

Enough on that, like the Chase drivers this week, it's time to move on from that demolition derby and get back to focusing on racing.  The Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway is a crucial apex in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

October 5, 2012

FANTASY: Wrecking the Season

Good Sam Road Side Assistance 500 Fantasy Preview

Talladega can look more like a junkyard than a speedway. (Getty)
There's really only one goal for the Chase drivers this weekend at Talladega Superspeedway: don't wreck.  This restrictor plate race is notorious for multiple "Big Ones," and if this past May's race is any indication, fans complaining about follow-the-leader action will be mute this weekend.

In May's Aaron's 499, only 24 of the 43 entered cars finished the race, the 24th of which was Tony Stewart.  Stewart finished four laps down after being involved in multiple wrecks and he famously went on a sarcastic rant about how not enough of the field wrecked out and NASCAR should try to do a figure-8 race to make sure fans got more excited.

At the end of the race, the status of 10 cars was listed as "Accident" and that didn't include Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman, whose engines blew up early in the race.  After 2011's love bug issue at restrictor plate tracks, the cars were redesigned with a smaller air intake into the engines.  This meant that they got hotter faster because the air couldn't get in when cars drafted one another.  Johnson and Newman found themselves victims of the new design.

October 2, 2012


50th annual People's United Milk Bowl pole winner Dave Pembroke, a former winner of the event, sits ready to begin practice on Sunday morning at Thunder Road International Speedbowl in Barre, Vt.

Continue reading for a look at the full photo gallery from (postponed) Milk Bowl weekend.