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Sunday, July 24, 2016

Saturday Indianapolis Notebook

Saturday Indianapolis Notebook

Notebook Items:
- Jeff Gordon: I forgot how hard this was
- Rick Hendrick hoping his teams can turn a corner at Indy
- Greg Biffle still fast despite heavy heart
- NASCAR, Chevy announce second diversity scholarship contest

July 23, 2016

By Reid Spencer
NASCAR Wire Service


SPEEDWAY, Ind. – For substitute driver Jeff Gordon, practice didn’t make perfect on Friday afternoon.

Instead, it reminded Gordon just how difficult driving a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series car can be.

In all fairness, Gordon has scant experience with the 2016 competition package, a version of which was used on a test basis only at Kentucky and Darlington last year in what was supposed to be Gordon’s final season in Sprint Cup.

But concussion-like symptoms have forced Dale Earnhardt Jr. out of the No. 88 Chevrolet and simultaneously pressed Gordon into unexpected service. To say the least, Gordon’s first lap at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, site of Sunday’s Crown Royal 400 (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN), was an eye-opener.

Gordon hadn’t driven a Cup car since the 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and he had less than three days to prepare after returning from vacation in France on Tuesday.

“Being out of the car that long and not really having a lot of experience with this package, it was a tall task, I’ll be honest,” Gordon said. “It was one of the most challenging days I’ve had in a race car to try to get comfortable, be consistent, have the speed and give good feedback.

“I mean, I still love this track and I’m glad that we are doing this this weekend, because I think that helps me have the confidence to be able to learn faster, but it’s tough. It was tough. That first run I was like ‘Wow, I forgot how hard of work this is.’”

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s exit from the No. 88 Chevrolet because of concussion-like symptoms couldn’t have come at a more inopportune time for Hendrick Motorsports.

The organization that dominated the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series for much of the first decade of the 21st century has fallen on hard times lately, as Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske have gained ascendancy in the sport.

Hendrick driver Jimmie Johnson won for the second time this season in the fifth race of the year, at his home track in Fontana, Calif., but Gibbs and Penske have combined to win 12 of the 14 races since then.

It’s true that Kurt Busch triumphed at Pocono and Tony Stewart at Sonoma in equipment supplied by Hendrick, but the flagship organization can count only Johnson’s two victories this season. Even before Earnhardt stepped out of his car for last week’s New Hampshire race, Chase Elliott in eighth place was the leading Hendrick driver in the Sprint Cup standings.

Johnson, a six-time champion and a perennial top-10 machine, has but one finish better than 12th in his last 10 races, and as a whole, the team have been plagued by an uncharacteristic spate of accidents.

“It seems like when it rains, it pours,” said team owner Rick Hendrick. “I think at Daytona (in July) we wrecked three or four cars. And then we went to Kentucky and wrecked again. We were in good shape in New Hampshire, but wrecked again…

“Our place looks like a salvage yard where all of the cars have been tore up. But that just makes us dig harder.”

Losing Earnhardt for an indefinite period of time hasn’t helped.

“You never like having a curveball,” Hendrick said. “This is kind of one of the toughest things you have to go through, (when) one of your star drivers can’t drive. And so, the encouraging news is that everybody just stepped-up and is working harder.

“We’re determined to work in every area from the engine to the chassis and aero and everything. And the teams are excited. It’s kind of our ‘refuse to lose’ belief. But we didn’t need this, for sure. We didn’t need the wrecks we’ve gone through.”

Earnhardt visited the Hendrick shop this past week, and Hendrick hopes that represents a turning point for the organization. Having four-time champion Jeff Gordon in the No. 88 car as a substitute for Earnhardt also is the best possible solution to an unwelcome problem.

“I think Junior, coming to the shop, was a big lift,” Hendrick acknowledged. “Jeff being here is a big lift. Hopefully, we’ll turn the corner here pretty quick.”

Roush Fenway Racing driver Greg Biffle comes to Indianapolis Motor Speedway riding a wave of three straight top-10 finishes but grieving for the loss of his father, Garland Jack Biffle, who passed away on Tuesday at age 75.

Being on track at the Brickyard, however, has helped Biffle keep his mind off his father’s passing.

“I think it’s a welcome distraction,” said Biffle, who believes he has another top-10 car based on his practice runs. “He was sick last week when I was in Loudon, so I was thinking a lot about his last weekend at the track. It’s a tough deal to go through. Everybody has either gone through it or are going to go through it. It’s not an easy process.

“I think the only thing I can say at the end of the day, and everybody always says the same thing, is that you just wish you had spent one more day with him, instead of going off and doing your own thing. I can go to the desert anytime I want, but I can’t go hang out with my dad anymore and go fish off the dock or something like that. That’s what I am going to miss the most. It’s hard.”

NASCAR and Chevrolet announced on Saturday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway the launch of the second annual NASCAR Chevrolet Diversity Scholarship Contest, continuing a long-standing commitment to Science, Technology, Engineering & Math (STEM) education and promoting opportunities for college students pursuing technology-related careers.

The contest challenges students to identify a technology or innovation within NASCAR and explain how STEM professionals came to its design in 90-second videos submitted via ; Four winners will receive a total of $20,000 in scholarships and a VIP experience at Texas Motor Speedway during the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup race on Nov. 6.

In what has quickly become an important component of NASCAR’s diversity and inclusion platform, the scholarship program helps both organizations attract young, diverse talent to the world of motorsports.

“STEM professionals are invaluable to our sport,” said Jim Cassidy, NASCAR senior vice president of racing operations. "We’re proud to partner again with Chevrolet in supporting talented students who we hope one day will play an important role in our industry.”

Video submissions will be judged on technical accuracy, creativity and production quality. Examples of science and technology in NASCAR include, but are not limited to: track banking and construction, race car design, SAFER barrier walls, drafting, gas mileage, tire wear, ethanol fuel, pit road officiating and solar energy.

"At General Motors, diversity is our strength and we seek unique perspectives to infuse new ideas into all we do--keeping us on the cutting edge of technological innovation," said Ken Barrett, Chief Diversity for General Motors.

"Attracting and employing the best and brightest STEM talent from around the world places GM and Chevy in the position to win in the marketplace and the race track."

To be eligible for the contest, students must be currently enrolled, at least part-time, in an accredited college or university within the United States, be between the ages of 18 and 25 at the time of entry and submit a YouTube link through the scholarship website. The deadline to enter is Oct. 15, 2016.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Indianapolis Notebook

  Indianapolis Notebook

Notebook Items:
- Kyle Busch spins in practice accident but avoids major damage
- Tony Stewart: Don't expect me to cry
- Short Strokes

July 22, 2016

By Reid Spencer
NASCAR Wire Service


SPEEDWAY, Ind. – Defending Crown Royal 400 race winner Kyle Busch narrowly avoided a major catastrophe during opening practice on Friday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in preparation for Sunday's race (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Closing fast on the No. 32 GoFas Racing Ford driven by Patrick Carpentier, Busch caught the car at the end of the short chute between Turns 1 and 2. Carpentier steered down the track, pinching Busch’s No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota on the apron.

Busch spun, as the right side of his Camry collided with Carpentier’s Ford, but Busch was able to steer his car away from the inside wall and avoided further damage.

Carpentier acknowledged he had failed to yield the racing line to a faster car.

“Kyle was a little bit further back down the (front) straightaway and I was like, ‘Do I lift to let him by?’” said Carpentier, whose car escaped unscathed. “He was still quite far away, but he closed in pretty quickly. 

“I didn’t think he was going to go in there, but it was my bad. I should have let him go in between both corners, but that’s why I went and apologized to him.”

Carpentier hasn’t competed in a NASCAR race on an oval track since 2011, and Busch didn’t appear particularly receptive when the Canadian driver paid a visit to the No. 18 garage stall to offer his mea culpa.

“He was not very talkative, but that’s to be expected,” Carpentier said. “I guess that’s racing, but it’s just sad that it happened in practice. I wish I would have let him by, but I just wanted to get some laps and some runs. 

“A couple of laps before I let Ryan Newman by in between (Turns) 1 and 2, and that went pretty well, and I should have done that with Kyle. Like I told him, ‘The next time, I’ll do it.’”

Three-time champion Tony Stewart is doing everything he can to keep his last NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway from becoming a sentimental journey.

Despite missing the first eight races of the season because of a back injury suffered during the offseason, Stewart now is comfortably in the top 30 in the series standings, and his unexpected victory at Sonoma in June almost certainly will earn him a berth in the Chase.

So forgive Stewart if he doesn’t get teary-eyed about his final run at the Brickyard. Smoke has more pressing issues on his mind. Stewart is going for his second victory of the season, his third at Indy and the 50th of his career.

“You guys are going to make a lot more out of this than what I’m going to make out of it this weekend,” Stewart told reporters on Friday. “I am literally just coming here in my mind like it’s just another race, and it’s another weekend here at Indy. I’m not doing all the sentimental crying stuff that you guys think I’m going to be doing.

“I’m going to race this weekend. I’m more focused. ... I’m probably more prepared for a Brickyard than I have been any other year. I feel like we had a really good tire test here. Felt like our car drove really well. I think they brought the same car back. If not, it’s another one that’s the same generation-type car.”

So don’t dwell on the retirement-tour angle this weekend. Stewart, who will leave the seat of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet at year’s end, isn’t buying it.

“You guys can ask me all about how I’m feeling, thinking, whatever, but you’re wasting my time and your time, because all I care about is driving that race car right now,” he said.

“It’s probably the most focused I’ve been getting ready for a race. It’s not amped up, or anything like that. I’m just really relaxed and focused and feel good going into it. That’s the way I need to do it.”

Jimmie Johnson led opening NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice with a lap at 184.185 mph. None the worse for wear after his spin in the first session, defending race winner Kyle Busch paced Happy Hour with a lap at 184.619 mph ... Jeff Gordon, subbing for ailing Dale Earnhardt Jr., was ninth quickest in opening practice at 179.376 mph. But with most drivers converting to qualifying trim in final practice, Gordon was 25th on the speed chart at 180.375 mph ... Danica Patrick, the only female driver to post a top-five finish in the Indianapolis 500, cracked the top 10 in Happy Hour. She was ninth fastest at 182.912 mph.

Friday, July 22, 2016

In a whirlwind week, Gordon prepared for his return to NASCAR action

In a whirlwind week, Gordon prepared for his return to NASCAR action

July 22, 2016

By Reid Spencer
NASCAR Wire Service

SPEEDWAY, Ind. – When Jeff Gordon saw the two-word text from Rick Hendrick, he knew he’d better sit down to call his former boss.

“Call me,” Hendrick texted to the four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, who was vacationing in the south of France.

“If I can scroll through my phone and look at the texts that I’ve gotten from Rick that said “Call me,” I can tell you that you sit down when you call him on those instances,” Gordon said on Friday morning at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

When Gordon heard the purpose of the call, that Hendrick wanted him to substitute for ailing Dale Earnhardt Jr. in Sunday’s Crown Royal 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN), his initial reaction was that Hendrick was joking.

“Rick said to me, ‘Are you coming to Indianapolis?’” Gordon recalled. “I said, ‘Yes, I am. I’m coming on Saturday.’ He said, ‘You’d better bring your uniform.’...

“Honestly, I didn’t even have to think twice about it. When Rick calls and has that confidence in me and asks me to step up and do something for the organization, whether it’s as a driver or other responsibilities ... after everything he’s done for me, the way the organization’s been there for me over the years—I certainly didn’t anticipate this.”

Even if concussion-like symptoms hadn’t sidelined Earnhardt from the No. 88 Chevrolet, Gordon would have been in a car at Indianapolis—as a celebrity pace car driver.

But the five-time Brickyard winner will put those plans on hold until next year, as he competes for the first time against the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet he drove for 23 years—a car now piloted by Sunoco Rookie of the Year leader Chase Elliott.

The nuts and bolts of putting Gordon into Earnhardt’s car didn’t constitute a turnkey operation. Fortunately, HMS had archived the seat and steering wheel Gordon had used in what was supposed to be his final Sprint Cup race, last year’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

But Gordon had never used a digital dashboard, which is the standard on Sprint Cup cars this year, so immediately after his return to the United States on Tuesday, he visited the Hendrick shop and began tweaking the array of gauges and lights on the digital dash.

Nor has Gordon driven the current competition package at Indianapolis. When the Sprint Cup series raced at the Brickyard last year, it was with an experimental high-drag package with a large spoiler, a configuration that was not incorporated into the 2016 rules.

So Gordon studied film and throttle traces from the 2014 event, which produced his fifth victory at Indy.

“I kind of like ’14—it was a good year,” Gordon said.

He conferred extensively with crew chief Greg Ives and team engineers. He studied GoPro video from a test at Indy that featured Elliott and Jimmie Johnson.

“Then I took that information and went to the simulator the next morning in Huntersville (N.C.) with GM (General Motors/Chevrolet), and they put those set-ups and this aero package in the car in the simulator, and I was able to drive it. ...

“They’ve advanced a lot. I thought that and I’ll be able to verify that (in Friday’s practice) that it was very close.  Much closer than in the past of the braking points, turn-in points, car handling, all those types of things. I’m hoping that really pays off for me.”

From NASCAR’s perspective, Gordon had to satisfy three requirements before he could return to a Sprint Cup car. He had to pass a physical, pass a drug test and have a current baseline impact test. Gordon satisfied all three requirements.

How long he’ll remain in the car remains an open question. Gordon is scheduled to drive Sunday at the Brickyard and a week later at Pocono. Beyond that, he preferred not to speculate. On Friday morning, Earnhardt posted encouraging news on his Twitter account, saying:

“Today is the 1st day in many that I sensed improvement. Seen small gains during my physical therapy as well. Light at the end of the tunnel.”

“Right now it’s through Pocono,” Gordon said. “We were very encouraged by Dale Jr.’s tweet today and comments and the way he is feeling and hope that continues to progress and that he is back as soon as possible. ...

“We just want him to be there when he is ready and when the doctors say he is ready. I will do whatever I need to do, but I’m also thinking ‘What is going to get the team the most points and give them the best opportunity to advance into the Chase?’ You’ve got the two sides, the owner and the driver side of (the Chase).”

Gordon also revealed on Friday that he had been approached about replacing injured Tony Stewart in this year’s Daytona 500 but had to decline because of his commitments as a booth analyst for FOX Sports.

But with the FOX portion of the season behind him, Gordon will make his 798th Sprint Cup start on Sunday, in a race he never dreamed he would drive.