Maybe something changed between pit road and the press conference. Busch passed Martin Truex Jr. for second on the last lap. Had Dillon run out of fuel Busch would have gotten the first Cup Series points win of his career at the track.
Consider our Takeaways feature to be the home of our random and sometimes intelligent musings. Sometimes the post may have a theme. Sometimes it may just be a mess of unrelated thoughts. Make sure you tweet us your thoughts after the race or email your post-race rants via the link in the signature line below.
• Expect to hear a lot about how Richard Childress Racing has two wins in 2017 while Joe Gibbs Racing doesn’t have any.
Had the Coca-Cola 600 been a straight-up test of speed Sunday night, JGR’s Kyle Busch would have won. Busch passed quasi-teammate Martin Truex Jr. for second on the final lap and had the race gone 401 laps, Busch would have easily beaten Dillon to the finish line.
Instead, Busch had to settle for his fifth top-five of the season.
Joe Gibbs Racing is having a down season by the lofty standards its set over the past two seasons. But it’s still a damn good team. Busch is fifth in the points standings while Denny Hamlin is 11th and Matt Kenseth is 15th. Even rookie Daniel Suarez is inside the top 20 in 19th.
Meanwhile, Ryan Newman is RCR’s lone driver in the top 20 in points in 17th. Dillon is still outside the top 20 and Paul Menard doesn’t have a top 10 at a track not named Daytona or Talladega. Even with the wins it’s nearly impossible to argue that RCR has been a faster team than JGR.
The speed the JGR cars showed Sunday night was real too. Busch won the race’s first stage and Hamlin won stage three. Kenseth, who finished fourth, had a consistent top-10 car. He also won a year ago at Dover, the site of the next Cup Series race.
Yeah, JGR has gone the first third of the season without a win. But it’s still a better team than RCR and Roush Fenway Racing, another team who has a win in 2017. The wins aren’t far away.
• Landon Cassill hit the wall off turn 2 with three laps to go and pancaked the right side of his car. NASCAR, showing discretion it would not have exercised 200 laps earlier, declined to call a caution as Cassill drove his car to pit road.
At the time of Cassill’s wall-smack, Jimmie Johnson and Dillon were stretching their fuel ahead of Truex and Busch. A caution would have sent everyone to pit road and forced a two-lap shootout to decide the race instead of the nervewracking fuel-mileage race that was currently playing out in real time.
If Dillon and Johnson were jousting for the lead on the same pit sequence as the two cars behind it’s reasonable to wonder if NASCAR would have been a bit more cautious and thrown a caution. While the sanctioning body’s pragmatism in letting a race go to its natural conclusion can be refreshing, it can also be seen as another sign that caution standards are more up to the discretion of NASCAR officials than anything else.
The Coca-Cola 600 didn’t wait long to match the craziness. After something exploded out from Jeffrey Earnhardt’s car 21 laps to the race, debris was strewn all over the exit of turn 4. Chase Elliott ran into that debris, which apparently punched a hole in his engine. Elliott’s engine burst into flames and his car slowed abruptly on the track, leaving Brad Keselowski nowhere to go.
Keselowski piled into the back of Elliott as Truex and Johnson barely got by. Thankfully, all the drivers in the three aforementioned incidents were OK.
At least with Sunday’s race being in NASCAR’s home city, Elliott and Keselowski had a chance to get home and comfortable as their fellow competitors had to wait out a 100-minute rain delay in the middle of the race.
Dale Earnhardt’s number is back in victory lane for the first time since 2000.
Austin Dillon, driving the No. 3 that Earnhardt made famous for Richard Childress Racing, made his fuel tank last over the final 67 laps of the rain-delayed Coca-Cola 600 to win the first Cup Series race of his career.
Dillon was running second to Jimmie Johnson in the closing laps. Johnson was also trying to stretch his fuel tank but he ran out of gas with two laps to go. Dillon took over the lead and came pretty close to coasting across the finish line ahead of Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. Dillon’s car had to be pushed to victory lane because he didn’t have enough gas to drive it there.
Truex led 392 of 400 laps in 2016 and had the race’s dominant car again Sunday night, leading over 200 laps. He pitted with 33 laps to go and it looked like he would have the speed to run down Dillon and Johnson before the checkered flag.
He didn’t. As he closed to within 1.5 seconds of Dillon, Kyle Busch passed him on the outside on the final lap for second. Had Dillon run out of gas in the final two corners, Busch and Truex were poised to pounce. But he didn’t.
The 27-year-old entered Sunday’s race — delayed 100 minutes for rain with 257 laps to go — 22nd in the points standings and with a new crew chief. Justin Alexander, who began 2016 as teammate Paul Menard’s crew chief, became Dillon’s third crew chief in three-plus years before the 600 as the team parted ways with Slugger Labbe.
Dillon took over the No. 3 when he came to the Cup Series in 2014. When Kevin Harvick moved over to Stewart-Haas Racing, Childress promoted his grandson to Harvick’s car and changed the number from No. 29 back to No. 3. The team had used No. 29 ever since Earnhardt’s death in the 2001 Daytona 500.
Earnhardt’s last Cup Series win came in October of 2000 when he won at Talladega.
Dillon won the pole for the 2014 Daytona 500, his first Cup Series race in the No. 3, but hadn’t sniffed a win despite making the playoffs in 2016 on points.
He’s in with a win in 2017. It’s the second for RCR this season and both have come via fuel mileage. Ryan Newman stretched his fuel on a strategy play at Phoenix to get a win earlier this season.
The unreliability of Honda engines driven by Fernando Alonso in 2017 carried over to the Indianapolis 500.
The two-time Formula 1 champion proved why he’s one of the best drivers in the world during Sunday’s 500. He ran at the front of the field most of the day, passed cars in the draft with ease and led 27 laps. But his race ended with 21 laps to go because his Honda engine expired on the frontstretch.
“I came here basically to prove myself, to challenge myself,” Alonso said. “I know that I can be as quick as anyone in an F1 car. I didn’t know if I can be as quick as anyone in an IndyCar.
“It was nice to have this competitive feeling, even leading the Indy 500. One lap you put on the lead there, it was already a nice feeling. I was passing, watching the tower, saw the 29 on top of it. I was thinking at that moment if [McLaren CEO Zak Brown] or someone from the team was taking a picture, because I want that picture at home.”
Alonso started fifth and immediately fell back at the start of the race. But he started picking cars off one by one and worked his way to the lead on lap 37. He stayed at the front of the field most of the race.
But then the ominous signs for the Honda engine powering him started appearing. Teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay was forced to retire when his engine quit. Same for Honda-powered Charlie Kimball.
Alonso was able to enter the 2017 Indianapolis 500 because of how awful his McLaren Honda has been in Formula 1. He failed to finish the first three races of the season because of mechanical problems and didn’t even get to start the Russian Grand Prix after his car stopped working even before the race began.
Had Alonso been a contender for the Formula 1 title, he likely doesn’t skip the Monaco Grand Prix to try to win the Indy 500. But without a point to his name at the start of the season — a feat that wasn’t unexpected given Honda’s woes in 2016 — it was a no-brainer to head to Indy and try to win the fabled race.
He was fully capable of doing so. Alonso took to the track quickly through practice and qualifying. So quickly, that F1 champion Lewis Hamilton threw some shade towards IndyCar to L’Equipe. Via USA Today:
“I took a look at the qualifying results,” Hamilton chuckled, according to L’Equipe. “Fernando, in his first qualifying, came fifth. Does that say something about (the level) of Indy Car? Great drivers, if they can’t succeed in Formula One, look for titles in other races, but to see him come fifth against drivers who do this all year round is…interesting.”
While no one is arguing that IndyCar is at the same level as F1, the 500 is the first big oval race on the IndyCar calendar. And Alonso got the same practice time — plus rookie orientation — that other drivers got ahead of Sunday’s race.
And with a car that was one of the best in the field, it wasn’t unsurprising that Alonso was a threat. But it was a tad surprising just how well he worked the draft and was able to make passes entering Indianapolis’ treacherous 90-degree corners.
He was set to be a contender for the win … had his car gone the distance. It didn’t. He was seventh when his engine stopped working.
“Obviously when you are eighth, seventh, you know the last 20 laps were intense, but I was taking care a bit of the front tires in the first couple laps of that stint because I knew the race would be decided in the last six or seven laps.
“I think I had a little bit on the pocket before the engine blew up.”
No driver was hurt in a five-car pileup inside the race’s final 20 laps that started when James Davison and Oriol Servia made contact. And Buddy Lazier hit a wall with styrofoam padding in the middle when his car snapped around in turn 2 and made violent contact with the outside wall.
IndyCar can point to all three incidents as moments of safety pride. But each and every one could have been much, much worse had they unfolded slightly differently and a driver’s head sustained a direct impact with car parts or the wall.
The last two driver deaths in the IndyCar Series have come as a result of head injuries. Dan Wheldon was killed in 2011 when his car flew into the catchfence and his head hit a metal pole in turns 1 and 2 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
In 2015, Justin Wilson died after sustaining a serious head injury when his helmet was hit by a piece of debris from a wrecked car ahead of him at Pocono.
Both Wheldon and Wilson would have had far greater chances of survival had their heads not been exposed in the open-cockpit design that IndyCar has always employed. Each incident sparked discussion about solutions to protect drivers’ heads, but nothing came close to implementation.
Standing pat wasn’t acceptable after Wheldon and Wilson’s deaths and it still isn’t so now. While the series basks in the pride of an Indianapolis 500 with no serious driver injuries, IndyCar needs to take immediate action and find an enclosed cockpit solution for its cars as soon as possible.
The hypotheticals surrounding Dixon’s accident are the most dramatic evidence supporting an enclosed-cockpit solution. As Dixon’s car tumbled through the air it landed on its side on top of the turn 2 inside wall so violently that the engine was separated from the chassis Dixon occupied.
Had the rotation of Dixon’s car been just fractionally quicker, the roof of his car could have landed on the top of the wall, exposing his helmet to the concrete.
Lazier’s crash wasn’t nearly as visually terrifying as Dixon’s. His car snapped loose in turn 2 and smashed into the SAFER barrier on the outside of turn 2. SAFER — a wall with styrofoam blocks in the middle of two concrete and steel barriers, helps absorb energy from a crash and was first introduced at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
It’s undoubtedly saved many drivers from greater injury and likely limited Sebastien Bourdais to pelvic fractures and a hip fracture in his awful high-speed crash in 500 qualifying last week.
As Lazier’s car slid into the wall it created a field of debris for the cars behind him to navigate. The debris is a sign that the car is dissipating energy — a good thing for Lazier, who was taken to the hospital as a precaution because of pains in his chest area.
But that debris field creates a danger zone for the drivers behind the accident no matter how light the carbon fiber pieces that fly off the car really are. At 200 MPH, a fly can feel like a BB. Thankfully, none of the bouncing pieces of debris from Lazier’s car (that we know of) hit a driver in the helmet.
No one flipped over or went flying through the air in the five car crash instigated by contact between Davison and Servia. But a moment in the aftermath as Davison and Servia’s cars were sliding to a stop was just as vivid a reminder of the head dangers that IndyCar drivers face as Dixon’s crash was.
As Davison and Servia slid towards turn 2, the rear wing was ripped off of Davison’s car and sticking out at an angle. When Davison’s car approached Servia’s again near the outside wall, the protruding piece came within inches of hitting Servia square in the helmet.
The open-cockpit design has lasted as long as it has largely because of tradition. After 101 Indianapolis 500s without cars with a roof, a 102nd Indy 500 with cars featuring roofs would be a stark departure.
Other concerns include driver visibility. After years and years of driving without an enclosure, it would take a serious adjustment for many drivers. There are also worries about safety side effects. Could a driver effectively get out of a car that was on fire?
While the reasons listed above have at least a tiny sliver of merit to each, they’re all overridden by the practicality of a closed cockpit solution. Many traditions have proven to be ineffective as time marches on. Yeah, there’d be an adjustment, but drivers would quickly get used to closed cockpits.
And the IndyCar safety team is the best in North American motorsports. It was to Bourdais’ car 11 seconds after his qualifying accident. Its excellence diminishes the concerns like fire and overturned cars at the expense of blunt head trauma.
The current Dallara chassis — the DW12 named after Wheldon — is being discontinued at the end of the season in favor of a newer, sleeker car in 2018. That car, revealed earlier this spring, continues to have a traditional open-cockpit design.
While a canopy or some sort of shield shouldn’t wait until next season to make its debut, there’s still plenty of time for IndyCar and Dallara to find a closed-cockpit solution for its new car. Even as IndyCar continues to make great steps in the name of safety, it’s never going to go as far as it could to keep its drivers safe without finding a solution for its current cockpit design.
A driver with Formula 1 experience made it to victory lane in the 2017 Indianapolis 500. And it wasn’t Fernando Alonso.
Takuma Sato passed three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves with five laps to go to win the 101st Indianapolis 500. It’s the second-straight win for Andretti Autosport and the team’s third in four years.
Castroneves made a daring pass of Sato with seven laps to go on the outside entering turn 3 but Sato got him back entering turn 1 less than two laps later. It’s the second win of Sato’s IndyCar career and his first since 2013. He made 90 starts in Formula 1 from 2002-2008 before joining the IndyCar Series in 2010.
Honda cars dominated the race, especially the ones of Andretti. But the engine manufacturer’s speed came at a cost. Andretti’s Ryan Hunter-Reay had an engine failure and so did the Chip Ganassi Racing Honda of Charlie Kimball.
And then the engine malaise hit two-time Formula 1 champion and Andretti driver Alonso with 21 laps to go. Alonso, who might have had the fastest car while it was fully functioning, was running in the top 10 when his engine died on the frontstretch.
Polesitter Scott Dixon crashed out of the race early in a terrifying incident with Jay Howard. After Howard’s car slid into the wall it came down the track into Dixon’s path. The impact with Howard catapulted Dixon’s car into the air and into the inside wall. Thankfully, both drivers were able to get out of the cars and walk away.
The wreck between Dixon and Howard came in the first half of the race. The secondhalf was plagued by cautions thanks to multiple crashes and debris from cars making contact with each other on restarts. The biggest crash came on the race’s penultimate restart when contact between James Davison and Oriol Servia triggered an incident that also included Josef Newgarden, Will Power and James Hinchcliffe.
Indianapolis 500 polesitter Scott Dixon walked away from an absolutely terrifying crash in Sunday’s race after his car catapulted over the crashed car of Jay Howard’s and landed on top of the inside wall.
Howard’s car slid up and hit the outside wall and came down into the path of Dixon’s car.
Pascal Wehrlein’s car ended up on its side against the outside wall in turn 8 after contact from Jenson Button in the Formula 1 Monaco Grand Prix.
Wehrlein and Button were racing at the back of the pack throughout the whole race after they both pitted early. Button was on the inside of Wehrlein as the two went into Portier and there wasn’t room for both cars.
Here’s what it looked like from Wehrlein’s car. Thankfully the impact wasn’t as hard as it could have been and he was uninjured and walked away from the accident after the car was removed from the wall.
Wehrlein was given a five-second time penalty for an unsafe pit release when he pitted. Both he and Button had pitted at the same time and Wehrlein’s team let him go from the pit just as Button was driving past. Wehrlein cut Button off on the way out and forced Button to slow down to let him ahead.
Wehrlein missed the start of the F1 season because of a neck injury he sustained in a rollover accident in the Race of Champions in Miami.
Nature’s Bakery will sponsor four races for Stewart-Haas Racing drivers after the company and race team reached a settlement regarding their sponsorship dispute.
The company will sponsor two races for Danica Patrick and two races for Clint Bowyer. Nature’s Bakery and Stewart-Haas had been involved in a legal battle regarding what the company owed the team to be Patrick’s primary sponsor for the majority of the 2017 season.
“It’s gratifying to see a difficult situation get resolved in a professional manner that suits all parties,” SHR president Brett Frood said in a statement. “Together, we worked diligently to find an equitable solution to our collective challenges.”
The team said Nature’s Bakery owed over $30 million and the company had tried to rework payment plans to get the money. The company alleged that SHR took advantage of it and that Patrick’s deal with Six Star nutritional products was a conflict with the Nature’s Bakery sponsorship.
“I am a longtime motorsports fan and, particularly, a fan of NASCAR,” Nature’s Bakery founder Dave Marson said in the same statement. “Our partnership with Stewart-Haas Racing began with direct, open conversations and that foundation allowed us to reach this agreement.
The two races for each driver have not been determined. Both drivers have massive sponsorship gaps to fill this season. Bowyer has been sponsored by team co-owner Gene Haas’ machine tool company for numerous races in 2017.
Auburn officials really want to get a discussion going about realigning the divisions in the SEC.
Both Auburn coach Gus Malzahn and Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs have made comments about the conference’s East and West divisions following former Auburn coach Pat Dye’s ideas about changing the divisions. Thursday, Jacobs said the school was “open” to the possibility of moving to the East. From AL.com:
“It makes sense,” Jacobs said on WNSP-FM 105.5. “If we ever had the opportunity to geographically realign, it makes sense. It really makes sense for Missouri, because of the travel or other things like that.”
It also makes sense for the Big 12 to have 12 teams (it has 10) and for the Big Ten to have 10 teams (it has 14), but welcome to the college football landscape in 2017. Not everything makes sense.
When Missouri and Texas A&M joined the SEC before the 2012 football season, none of the SEC’s current teams switched divisions. The Aggies were added to the West while Missouri — located further to the east than A&M — was added to the East. Geographically, the spot should have gone to Auburn, which was the eastern-most West division team at the time.
If the SEC was to realign, expansion would have been the appropriate time to do it. That way both Missouri and A&M could have slotted into the West. The move has worked out pretty well for the (Missouri) Tigers, who won the SEC East in 2013 and 2014. After the 2013 season, Auburn beat Missouri in the SEC Championship Game.
But here we are five years later and, somewhat curiously, Auburn is still the only school publicly championing the idea. Maybe it’s because of the SEC West dominance by Alabama and coach Nick Saban. The Tide have won the division in five of the last six seasons.
Malzahn is right — there is a hell of a lot more to a move than simply swapping Missouri and Auburn. And that’s strictly from a football sense.
The SEC’s eight-game schedule includes six division games, an annual rivalry game with the same non-division opponent and a rotating game with a non-division opponent. Alabama’s rivalry game is against Tennessee and Auburn’s is against Georgia.
In an Auburn-to-the-East scenario the Georgia game becomes a division game and the Iron Bowl undoubtedly would become the annual East-West game for Alabama and Auburn. But while that would work out nicely for Auburn, it deprives Tennessee of a tradition and forces the SEC to establish a “rivalry” between the Volunteers and Missouri.
And given the current football climate in the conference, how are SEC East teams going to feel about Auburn replacing Missouri? The Tigers from Alabama are a better program than the Tigers from Missouri.
Auburn brought up the realignment idea a year ago. Malzahn said last spring that he expected it to be a discussion at the league’s meetings and there was never any summer traction about realignment. If we had to guess, we’d assume the same scenario will be repeated in 2017. But hey, it’s the Friday before Memorial Day weekend and Auburn apparently wants to give SEC fans something to discuss over drinks at the lake.