Ryan: A day of fast cars but frayed emotions for Joe Gibbs Racing

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Kyle Busch flipped a thumbs up and a discordant message at team owner Joe Gibbs while briskly walking away from the pits Sunday at Martinsville Speedway.

“—ing great teammate,” Busch said.

Without acknowledgement, Gibbs stoically walked a few yards down the track’s pit lane to the No. 11 Toyota, where the object of Busch’s ire, Denny Hamlin, still was completing postrace interviews.

Was Joe Gibbs Racing – the epitome of harmonious cooperation a week earlier in rear-guard formation at Talladega Superspeedway – suddenly in need of smoothing out some fissures within a NASCAR fortress that largely was impenetrable in dominating much of the Sprint Cup season?

“I don’t think so,” Gibbs told NBC Sports. “I think they kind of handle stuff like that themselves, but, you know, our guys are all very competitive. You got three different sponsors, and everyone’s going hard. That’s part of being in a good situation and having good cars.

“I think all three of them are racing extremely hard, and I think probably all three of them were going for it as hard as they could. I think that can happen when you have three good cars.”

JGR had four great cars in the Goody’s Fast Relief 500, but it was understandable why the powerhouse with half of the remaining eight Chase for the Sprint Cup contenders left the 0.526-mile oval with an empty feeling.

Carl Edwards finished 36th after blowing a tire on his No. 19 Toyota just before a scheduled pit stop with 160 laps to go. Teammates Busch (fifth), Hamlin (third) and Matt Kenseth (fourth with a race-high 176 laps led) all earned top fives that were served with a whopping double-combination reality check.

There will be no scenario in which JGR’s dream regular season – 13 wins in 26 races — will end with the championship decided in an intrasquad battle within the walls of its Huntersville, N.C., headquarters.

That was ensured by the continued resurgence of Jimmie Johnson, who quickly is emerging as the JGR dream killer of the 2016 playoffs.

With his 79th career victory, the six-time series champion catapulted into the championship round of the playoffs and will have the opportunity to prevent another driver from advancing next week at Texas Motor Speedway, where he has won four consecutive times in the annual November race.

Whichever three cars – JGR or otherwise – that are title-eligible for the Nov. 20 finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway will have to contend with Johnson, who has a two-week jump-start on the competition and the history-making motivation of tying an all-time record with a seventh title.

Though JGR has yet to win in the Chase, the team seems undaunted by the prospect of wresting a title from Johnson’s grasp.

“I think anyone can be beat,” Hamlin said. “I wouldn’t deem anyone better than the rest.  I think that any car that makes it in, whether it be points or wins, is going to be tough to beat.

“It’s not deflating from my standpoint because we still had a very good showing.  Our cars all ran really, really well throughout the entire day.”

The first half of Sunday’s race did belong to JGR and Toyota ally Martin Truex Jr.

Camrys occupied the top four slots for long stretches and showed deference on restarts (with the first-place car taking the outside so the second-place car stayed on the preferred bottom line and allowed the leader down).

But after the final restart on Lap 387 of 500, it understandably turned into a scramble that engendered some ill will, namely from Busch.

“We worked so good together that we just gave the win to (Johnson) today,” he said, sardonically adding. “So, JGR all the way.”

Busch’s primary issue was that Hamlin had raced so hard against him and Kenseth that it ruined any chance of a Gibbs car catching Johnson while simultaneously clearing a path for runner-up Brad Keselowski to knife by in traffic.

“You had the slowest Gibbs car holding up the rest of the line, and all we did was let somebody else (Keselowski) from another organization pass us and go up there and chase down (Johnson),” Busch said. “That could have been either (Kenseth) or myself if it wasn’t for (Hamlin) holding the rest of us up.”

Laughing after being told Gibbs said he lets his drivers settle their differences (“That ain’t true. He gets right in the middle.”), Hamlin said he hadn’t talked to Busch after the race. He also was puzzled by his teammate’s anger.

“I may have held those guys up for a little bit of that final run but definitely don’t think I was holding anyone up at the end, for sure,” Hamlin said. “I had no idea why anyone was mad at me, to be honest with you. If somebody is mad at me, honestly I don’t know why.

“None of us were going to get (Johnson). That’s real talk there. Someone’s upset, I think it’s just because we all had a top‑three car during the end of the race, and we ended up three, four, five. That’s never happy.”

It’s hard to make everyone happy in a sport where “teammates” are racing tooth and nail for positions on every lap.

For JGR, it figures only to get harder from here.

NASCAR America: Tony Stewart on Stewart-Haas Racing, Danica Patrick’s future, Cole Custer (video)

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Tony Stewart was our special in-studio guest during Tuesday’s edition of NASCAR America.

The former three-time NASCAR Cup champ spent the entire hour with Carolyn Manno, Kyle Petty and Jeff Burton, giving his unique take on all things NASCAR.

Among the things Stewart talked about were:

The future of Stewart-Haas Racing: “We don’t know exactly who’s going to be in the 10 car, but we’re working on it. We’re excited about the partnership with Smithfield. The 41 car is still up in the air. We fully intend on having (Kurt Busch) there next year, but it’s dictated on sponsorship. We need to make sponsorship for that car before we commit to him next year.”

What will Danica Patrick do after she leaves SHR: “I see a lot of options, really. Danica is one of the few people that has the ability to stay in NASCAR if she wants, go back to IndyCar, or go road racing. There’s not a lot of drivers that have been released this year that have the option to go do so many things. It shows how versatile and talented she is, to have that many options. It’s a matter of  what does she want to do, where her heart and mind is and what does she want to do for the next five, 10, 15 years.”

The potential of SHR Xfinity Series driver Cole Custer: “I’m really proud of Cole. For the first two years I knew Cole, he never spoke to me. For about 75 percent of the time he was in front of me, he couldn’t look me in the eyes, that’s how shy of a kid he is. When he puts that helmet on, it’s amazing the transformation. This kid is a talented race car driver.”

Check out the full video above to get more of Stewart’s observations.

 

 

 

NASCAR America: Josef Newgarden celebrates IndyCar championship (video)

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On Tuesday’s NASCAR America, we checked in with the new king of IndyCar racing, 2017 season Verizon IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden.

Among the things the Knoxville, Tennessee native spoke about was the help he got in his amazing first season with Team Penske from all his teammates.

“My teammates were great, letting me just being part of that group right from the beginning and trying to contribute and help me learn so I could contribute and help us be stronger overall,” Newgarden said.

He also talked about the surge in U.S. drivers in the series, much like NASCAR is enjoying with several young drivers including another teammate, Ryan Blaney, who texted Newgarden at length to offer him congratulations and compared the youth movement in both racing series.

“We’ve got a lot of young talent that’s trying to show the way and prove themselves against the already proven people in the sport,” Newgarden said. “It’s a fascinating thing to watch.”

NASCAR America: Tony Stewart on state of NASCAR, stage racing and more (video)

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It was Tony Stewart Day at the NBC Sports Group headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut on Tuesday.

The former three-time NASCAR Cup champ made the rounds of the complex, starting in the morning with an appearance on the Dan Patrick Show, and wrapping up things with an hour-long visit on NASCAR America.

One of the first things Stewart talked about with Carolyn Manno, Kyle Petty and Jeff Burton was how busy he is in “retirement.” He may not be racing in the Cup series anymore, but he’s still plenty busy, including racing sprint cars, taking a bigger managerial role over the four Cup teams and one Xfinity team at Stewart-Haas Racing and even how he’s breeding white tail deer at his farm in Indiana.

“To be honest, I have more fun doing that (things like signing autographs and making appearances) now than when I was a driver,” Stewart said. “Now, walking through the garage, you’re still busy because you’ve got to get to where you go. The best part is you can kind of enjoy walking around more and have time to visit with people you don’t get a chance to see all the time.”

Stewart also sat down with the “Mayor” of NASCAR, NBC analyst Jeff Burton, to talk about the state of the sport. One thing that some may find surprising is that the old school Stewart likes some of the new things the sport has, including stage racing.

“I like the stage racing,” Stewart said. “It’s added something that’s unique, especially a third of the way through the race. Before, in the first half of the race, we didn’t worry so much about racing each other. … I like it, I think we’ve seen some unique strategies. … It’s been pretty exciting. I’m a big fan of the stage part.”

Stewart also talked with Burton about keeping up with technology, aerodynamics, track position, rules and more.

Check out the following video to hear Stewart out:

Brendan Gaughan among Xfinity playoff drivers unsure of 2018 plans

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CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — There’s seven races left in the NASCAR Xfinity season and Brendan Gaughan hasn’t “started thinking about it too much yet” if he’ll continue competing full-time next year.

That’s OK with Gaughan, who went on to say “I hope I’m still racing full-time.”

The 42-year-old driver for Richard Childress Racing is one of the 12 in the Xfinity playoffs, which begin at 8 p.m. ET Saturday at Kentucky Speedway on NBCSN.

“Normally we know what we’re doing by now,” Gaughan said Tuesday. “This year we probably don’t, which is a little odd for us. I told you last year, if I don’t come back, I’m happy. If I do come back, it’ll because I’m happy. It’s more just are we still having fun, are we still competitive? We’re in the playoffs, so we’re still competitive.”

Gaughan is in his fourth year with RCR since returning to the Xfinity Series full-time in 2014. He said he’s once again committed to competing in the four Cup Series restrictor-plate races next year for Beard Motorsports.

“When someone uses the word ‘retirement,’ people love to throw that out with me,” Gaughan said. “You can say that all you want. I will never be done racing. My father still races one race a year. We race because we love to race. If I don’t race full-time, I promise you’ll still find me behind the wheel.”

Gaughan’s No. 62 Chevrolet is one of five cars RCR has fielded this year, including the No. 21 driven by fellow playoff driver Daniel Hemric and the No. 33 of Brandon Jones.

“I have a feeling (Richard Childress) is not going to do five Xfinity cars probably ever again,” Gaughan said.

That possibility was further backed by Hemric, who said he’s not sure where he’ll be racing in 2018 following his rookie season.

“I don’t know how exactly it’s all going to shake out,” Hemric said. “Everybody’s constantly trying to evolve and make sure you’re making progress day-to-day and I can say that we’ve done that. It looks like I will be racing, I’m just not sure in what yet and where along those lines.”

Brennan Poole, who is nearing the end of his second full-time season with Chip Ganassi Racing, said he has some sort of indication of where he’ll be come February.

“So I don’t know what I’m going to do yet next year,” Poole said. “I have an idea of what I’m going to do. Really excited about my future and where I’m at. I’m in good spirits, I’m not worried about anything. Definitely just want to get through these playoffs and do a good job and prove that I’m capable of being a Sunday (Cup) guy.

Matt Tifft, Joe Gibbs Racing’s only full-time driver in the Xfinity Series and a rookie, also addressed his situation for 2018.

“You’re always trying to work on things for the future,” Tifft said. “We’re trying to figure those things out now. But at the same time, I’m absolutely trying to prove that I belong here. That first win is still looming. Everybody knows this sport is performance driven and I understand that. I know what we need to do. It’s just figuring out the ways of how to do that and how to get myself better. ”

When would the 21-year-old driver like to know what’s in store for him?

“I would have liked to yesterday,” Tifft said. “We’re working on that. It’ll all fall into place when it needs to. That’s not my main concern right now. My main concern is what’s coming up this weekend.”

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