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NASCAR

Heikkinen swoops in for Global RallyCross win to open weekend at NHMS

LOUDON – Toomas Heikkinen was out of options as the final lap of the Global RallyCross race was coming to a close yesterday. For nine laps, he had been unable to catch Tanner Foust. One turn remained on the New Hampshire Motor Speedway course, and after finishing it, Foust, the defending series champion, would be able to cruise down the short homestretch to his first win of the year.

The turn was a hairpin right. Foust’s car went left. It spun sideways, slid up the ramp and smashed into the guard barrier, allowing Heikkinen to take the lead in the final yards of the race and finish off a victory in the SuperCar event that no one saw coming, least of all the 22-year-old Finn.

“I was not expecting any mistakes,” said Heikkinen, who got his second win of the season and has the series lead with 21 points. “The last corner is so tight. … Tanner just made a little mistake, and I caught him.”

The final saw some big names run into problems, as defending Loudon champion Travis Pastrana had a flat tire early and Scott Speed and Bucky Lasek weren’t able to finish. But Foust, who’s won both of the GRC’s season titles, got off to a fast start and stretched his lead to over three seconds over Patrik Sandell and Heikkinen midway through the race.

Foust seemed to survive his biggest threat when he completed the mandatory joker lap, which takes the driver through an extra turn, barely ahead of Sandell. Sandell fell back when he took the joker lap on the ninth lap, leaving Heikkinen to attempt a mad dash to catch Foust on the final circuit.

It was a futile pursuit until Foust, who had run a perfect race for over nine-and-a-half laps, made his first mistake of the evening. He tried to stay right to take the inside away from Heikkinen but caught terrain weakened by afternoon rain, causing him to lose both traction and his grip on the lead.

“I played it safe, and I hit the brakes on the inside of the corner to protect the turn,” said Foust, who had to settle for fourth. “But it’s just gravel from all the rain dragging that mud out. As soon as I touched the brakes, I knew I was in for a pretty wild ride.”

Sandell and Brian Deegan also passed Foust for second and third, respectively.

In the SuperCar Lites race, the first-ever for the series, Joni Wiman withstood a fast start from Sebastian Eriksson, took the lead on the fifth lap and held on for the win. Eriksson was second, the only other car to make it to the final lap.

Catching a break?

He’s placing better than he has all year. But Sprint Cup driver Jamie McMurray doesn’t consider himself to be in the middle of a breakthrough.

If you ask him, he’s run well throughout the season. But now the fortune is turning, and the results are showing it.

“Every track we’ve been to this year, we’ve just had some bad luck where you run well 90 percent of the race and then a flat tire or something out of your control would happen and it would result in a poor finish,” said McMurray, who’s posted two straight top-10s heading into Sunday’s Camping World RV Sales 301. “For the most part, it’s just been about getting to the end. We’ve had a string of bad luck, and I’m hoping the next 10 weeks, we’re going to have a string of things just going our way.”

McMurray’s year began with stumble after stumble, and the Earnhardt-Ganassi driver was put in a hole early. There was a 32nd-place finish in the Daytona 500, and he’s had two other finishes of 30th or worse and six worse than 20th.

But McMurray knew the numbers didn’t tell the story. A 33rd-place finish at Dover happened due to debris in his radiator, one week after another radiator issue was the culprit behind a 19th-place finish at Charlotte. A displaced valve stem caused a flat tire at Sonoma, where he finished 25th. A tire blowout at Michigan moved him from the top 10 to 33rd. And the list goes on.

“It just seems like every week, something else was happening,” McMurray said.

Finally, the odds evened out. After winning the pole for that ill-fated Sonoma race, McMurray finished second at Kentucky, then took seventh at Daytona. He arrives at Loudon 17th in the Sprint Cup standings, but right in the middle of a tight pack of Chase for the Cup contenders and only 24 points away from 10th place and an automatic berth.

It’s a good shot, and McMurray likes his odds.

“I think all the guys on the team feel we’re a legitimate Chase contender. We’ve just run too well at all the races this year to not be one of those guys,” he said. “If we have gotten all our bad luck out of the way … we’ll be in the Chase or one of those guys fighting for it in Richmond.”

Quick hits

∎ Of the drivers in the top 10 in the Sprint Cup standings, only three haven’t won at NHMS. They are Carl Edwards (third), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (fifth) and Matt Kenseth (sixth).

∎ Danica Patrick on Sunday will become the first female to compete in a Sprint Cup race at NHMS. She’ll be running in her fourth race at Loudon overall, having run twice in the Nationwide Series and once in IndyCar.

∎ The last 10 races at NHMS have been won by different drivers. The streak stretches back to September 2007, when Clint Bowyer, who also won in September 2010, took first place.

(Drew Bonifant can be reached at 369-3340 or at abonifant@cmonitor.com, or via Twitter @dbonifant.)

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