Bump & Run: Don’t overlook these drivers

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There’s much to talk about just days before engines fire at Daytona International Speedway. But for all the conversations about enhancements to the points system, Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s return and Carl Edwards‘ departure, there are other key areas you might be missing.

Dale Jarrett and Kyle Petty, who will be on NASCAR America at 6 p.m. ET today on NBCSN, join Nate Ryan and Dustin Long to discuss drivers you might be overlooking and more in this week’s Bump & Run.

Who is one driver people might not be paying much attention to but should this year?

Dale Jarrett: Chase Elliott is not being talked about a lot this year, but I really expect a lot of him. I think that we’re looking at a two or three wins kind of season for him. I think that he showed that kind of potential. As we get closer to the playoffs, this will be someone who we just won’t be talking about will he make the playoffs, but what impact he’ll have. I really think that the things he was able to learn — and sometimes you learn a lot more by not closing the deal — I think that it was a great learning year, still a great year, as a rookie. I think he’s someone to pay attention to.

Kyle Petty: The driver I’m watching is Austin Dillon. I thought last year he made big progress. He became the RCR team leader on and off the track. He showed more maturity on and off the track. RCR needs to produce wins this year. I know they want to, but they are in a need-to situation to survive. I don’t believe people (fans) are paying attention to him because of RCR’s recent performance. I believe Austin will surprise people this year.’’

Nate Ryan: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. This is the fifth season in NASCAR’s premier series for the driver whom Jack Roush once said would be remembered as the greatest ever to run for Roush Fenway Racing. Stenhouse is five years’ removed from the promise of consecutive Xfinity Series championships. If he finishes outside the top 20 in points for a fourth straight year, it’s worth pondering what the future might hold (particularly given Roush’s seemingly tenuous sponsorship situation). Stenhouse previously was coveted by other powerhouse teams. If he can exhibit at least flashes of the potential he showed in Xfinity, it could help shore up his future prospects (even if they don’t include Roush).

Dustin Long: I’ll be watching Kyle Larson. He’s shown improvement and scored his first Cup win last year. The key is his team. Can it provide him the equipment to excel and put him in situations to take advantage of? With Stewart-Haas Racing now at Ford, there’s a chance for Chip Ganassi Racing to climb up to the No. 2 spot at Chevrolet behind Hendrick Motorsports. If this team steps up, Larson could score multiple wins.

How do you forecast the rookie of the year battle in the Cup Series?

Dale Jarrett: I think this comes down to two drivers who are both very talented. I think that Erik Jones may have got his thought process off a little bit and maybe cost him even a better chance at winning that Xfinity championship last year. I think he’s going to be an outstanding Cup driver. I really believe that he’ll put himself in position to win some races. Will he able to do that? We’ll have to see because it’s tough. He’s going to be racing basically a teammate, certainly a Toyota teammate in Daniel Suarez. You have to look at the teams they are with. Even though Jones’ deal is a new car with Furniture Row Racing, the experience he has surrounding him and the ability to work with everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing still will be a huge benefit. Suarez, I know he’s trying to grasp all of this. He’s such a talented young man. There will be a lot for him to learn, tracks, the different cars. It’s going to be a steeper learning curve for him, but I think he’ll give Jones a run for his money in that. I really believe at the and of the year that Erik Jones is the rookie of the year.

Kyle Petty: The rookie battle is up for grabs as far as I’m concerned. I know Erik Jones is a favorite and I believe last year he showed why. My concern is he’s driving a second car for a team that has just broken into that elite level of Cup racing. Can he and a startup new team help himself and Martin Truex Jr., or will his addition to the team as a whole take Furniture Row back a step? If that’s the case, advantage Daniel Suarez. He may not have had the year Erik did as a driver, but he won the Xfinity championship. Also he’s driving the 19 car that Carl Edwards was within a handful of laps of winning the Cup championship in. Driving for a team that’s “been there, done that” has its advantages! I’m a fan of Ty Dillon and believe talent-wise he stacks up against Erik and Daniel pretty evenly; equipment-wise, I’m taking a wait and see attitude.

Nate Ryan: Even though Daniel Suarez beat him for the Xfinity championship last year, the rookie of the year title is Erik Jones’ to lose. Jones is the most accomplished of the class and already has proven adept in Cup cars. He will be joining a formidable Furniture Row Racing team with a championship-caliber teammate in Martin Truex Jr. Suarez is in a Toyota of equal quality and made great strides last season, but his development will remain ongoing this year (just as it was in the 2015-16 Xfinity seasons). It might be a fair fight by the end of the season, but Jones will have the upper hand for at least the first half. Among the rest of the rookies, Ty Dillon will deliver respectable performances but won’t contend for top-15 finishes.

Dustin Long: I agree with my colleagues that Erik Jones is the favorite for all the reasons they’ve mentioned. That said, I’ll be interested to see how Daniel Suarez performs with the No. 19 team, noting what Kyle stated about that team’s experience and personnel. I think this could be among the more fascinating rookie races in recent years with Jones finishing with winning the crown.

Watch Dale Jarrett and Kyle Petty on NASCAR America today from 5:30 – 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Podcast: Front Row Motorsports explains how it improves with smaller budget, unique sponsor deals

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Running a Cup Series team is not a cheap endeavor.

One person who knows this is Jerry Freeze, the general manager of Front Row Motorsports.

Owned by Bob Jenkins, the two-car team runs the No. 34 of Michael McDowell and No. 38 of David Ragan and has a technical partnership with Roush Fenway Racing.

Freeze sat down with Nate Ryan on the NASCAR on NBC podcast to discuss how FRM works with smaller budgets and its unique business-to-business sponsorship deals through Jenkins’ trucking company, MDS Transport, and restaurant business, Charter Foods.

Freeze calls Love’s Travel Shops, which sponsors half the races on McDowell’s car, a “textbook example” of such a deal. Their partnership began in 2013.

“Bob owns a trucking company with about 300 over the road truck on the road,” Freeze said. “They’ve got to get fuel somewhere. That’s kind of how the Love’s Travel Shop deal started for us.”

Freeze describes it as a “slightly smaller scale” version of the relationship between Team Penske and Shell.

Unlike larger teams, Front Row doesn’t yet have an optical scanning station at its shop like the one cars are inspected with at the track.

“We went into it thinking, ‘We’ll never need to have one of those, NASCAR’s got one, we can go over there whenever we want,'” Freeze said.

The team also relies on the scanner located at Roush Fenway Racing. But it’s a challenge to take cars to Roush, with its shop in Concord, North Carolina, about an hour away from Front Row’s in Statesville.

Buying its own scanner is beginning to look like a “necessary evil” for Freeze, who said he’s heard it would cost $300,000.

“I think if you’re really going to try to optimize the car through each step of what you do, that might be the way to go,” Freeze said.

When it comes to becoming more competitive, Freeze and Jenkins have been encouraged to invest more resources and money into the team by moves NASCAR has made to lower costs, including requiring teams to use engines in multiple races, spec radiators and the controversial common pit guns.

“It put it in a place where, yeah, it’s still pretty tough for Front Row to get to, but it’s not as high as it use to be,” Freeze said of the engine rule. “With spec radiators, we were spending $9,000 for radiator in the past. Now a spec radiator is, I don’t know, a third of that.”

Freeze also addressed the future of one of the team’s three charters, which is leased to TriStar Motorsports this season.

“You can’t do that forever with the way the rules are set up,” Freeze said. “We’ll have to make a decision, either we’ve got to operate (it) ourselves or maybe we sell it to TriStar some day, I don’t know. … Even though we weren’t in a position to run three cars and we’re still not today, it’s kind of nice to have in your pocket just in case something came along that was just phenomenal and we needed one.”

Click on the embed above to hear the podcast. It also is available on Apple Podcasts, Google Play and Stitcher.

August Cup race at Michigan to be called Consumers Energy 400

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The Aug. 12 Cup Series race at Michigan International Speedway will be sponsored by Consumers Energy as part of a multi-year deal, the track announced Thursday.

Consumers Energy is Michigan’s largest energy provider, providing natural gas and/or electricity to 6.7 million of the state’s 10 million residents.

The company takes over for Pure Michigan, which sponsored the race from 2011-17.

“We are excited to expand our collaborative relationship with Consumers Energy,” said track president Rick Brenner in a press release. “We strive to work with Michigan-based companies like Consumers Energy who continue to give back to the community. We are looking forward to working together to provide our guests an awesome experience each August for many years to come.”

Consumers Energy will also sponsor the inaugural MIS Charity Dinner on June 9 and the track’s 50 Years of Racing Exhibit in the fan plaza for both of the track’s race weekends.

The MIS Charity Dinner, which benefits the Henry Ford Allegiance Health Foundation Patient Immediate Needs Fund and the MIS Cares Fund, will feature a strolling dinner, dessert and drink stations, live and silent auctions, music, a photo booth and more. The event will also feature a question and answer session with Dale Inman, Rusty Wallace and Leonard Wood.

 and on Facebook

Weekend schedule at Richmond for Cup, Xfinity

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NASCAR heads to its third short-track race of the season this weekend at Richmond Raceway.

Kyle Larson won the Cup race at Richmond last fall and Joey Logano won there last April.

Here is this weekend’s schedule at Richmond:

(All times Eastern)

FRIDAY, APRIL 20

7 a.m. — Xfinity garage opens

8 a.m. – 9 p.m. — Cup garage open

8 – 8:45 a.m. — Xfinity practice (No TV)

9:40 – 10:25 a.m. — Final Xfinity practice (Fox Sports 1)

11:05 – 11:55 a.m. — Cup practice (FS1, Motor Racing Network)

12:35 – 1:25 p.m. — Final Cup practice (FS1, MRN)

4:05 p.m. — Xfinity qualifying; multi-vehicle/three rounds (FS1)

5:10 p.m. — Xfinity driver/crew chief meeting

5:30 p.m. — Cup qualifying; multi-vehicle/three rounds (FS1, MRN)

6:30 p.m. — Xfinity driver introductions

7 p.m. — ToyotaCare 250 Xfinity race; 250 laps/187.5 miles (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

SATURDAY, APRIL 21

1 p.m. — Cup garage opens

4:30 p.m. — Driver/crew chief meeting

5:50 p.m. — Driver introductions

6:30 p.m. — Toyota Owners 400 Cup race; 400 laps/300 miles (Fox, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

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NASCAR America: Short tracks are Clint Bowyer’s favorites

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It was a question that needed to be asked, although the answer was not a surprise to anyone. What is Clint Bowyer’s favorite type of track?

“Short tracks are obviously my favorite,” Bowyer answered. “I think they’re probably everybody’s favorite. That’s what we grew up doing. That’s probably where we feel most comfortable.”

“I love back-to-back short track races because the drivers don’t have time to forget about who they’re mad at,” Steve Letarte interjected.

But Bowyer’s love of short tracks is not limited to Martinsville, where he snapped his long winless streak earlier this year. He is even more excited about coming to Richmond Raceway this week.

“I feel like Richmond is the perfect-sized race track.”

Bowyer went one step further, suggesting there is a way to add more tracks like Richmond to the schedule.

“I feel like, some of these mile-and-a-half tracks, we need to just use as parking lots and build Richmond in the infield,” Bowyer said.

For more of what Bowyer and Dale Earnhardt Jr. had to say about short track racing, watch the video above.