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Bump & Run: How concerned should Joe Gibbs Racing be with its start to season?

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Many say that the NASCAR season actually begins with the second race of the year because that race has the rules package that will be used throughout most of the season.

Atlanta certainly provided much to discuss.

Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte, who both will be on NASCAR America from 5:30 – 6:30 p.m. ET today on NBCSN, join Nate Ryan and Dustin Long in answering this week’s Bump & Run questions.

1. Joe Gibbs Racing did not have a car finish in the top 15 in the Daytona 500. Matt Kenseth placed third at Atlanta, the only Gibbs driver in the top 15. How concerned should Joe Gibbs Racing be with the way the season has started?

JEFF BURTON: I think very. Daytona doesn’t concern me because they all ran well. Atlanta concerns me because they didn’t show the speed and the pace that you’ve come to expect from them. I would be concerned. I think Vegas is really important. You can make the argument that there is no other track like Atlanta, it’s rough, the asphalt is worn out, the grip level is way low, the majority of mile-and-a-halves aren’t like that. If they go to Vegas and perform the way they performed at Atlanta, than that concern grows even more.

STEVE LETARTE: From a competition standpoint, we’ve really only run one race. Daytona is kind of a standalone. I thought Joe Gibbs and TRD had speed down there. Just didn’t work out between the accidents and the pit strategy. There are a lot of things they probably would go back and do differently, but I don’t think it would bring different cars. I think they had OK vehicles. They just didn’t execute.

When you look at Atlanta, Matt Kenseth had a little bit of speed, but Kyle Busch was a non-factor. I don’t think they’ve slowed down as much as everybody has caught up. RCR showed speed. Roush Fenway showed speed. Obviously, Stewart-Haas Racing had speed. I don’t think there is reason for concern, but I think that they kind of have what they have through the West Coast swing. Coming home from the West Coast, if they struggle to put cars in the top five, then I think at that point they will need to re-evaluate.

NATE RYAN: From an image/marketing standpoint, perhaps slightly concerned. The team is racing the 2018 Camry, which is on the racetrack six months ahead of being available in dealership showrooms. This was a major deal for Toyota Motor Corp., which trotted out the race car alongside the new street model in a heavily promoted appearance at the Detroit Auto Show in January. If the new model badly struggles through the first half of the Cup season, it might dampen the crossover potential and synergy with its production counterpart.

From a competition perspective, the team shouldn’t be too worried. In getting NASCAR approval, the new Camry hit its downforce targets on the first try. It’s too early to panic, but if things don’t go well at Las Vegas …

DUSTIN LONG: I would be. If you look back to late last season, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth combined to lead four laps in the last three races at 1.5-mile tracks (Atlanta this year and Miami and Texas last year). It was evident in last year’s playoffs that the Gibbs cars were not as dominant as they had been in the regular season and that trend appears to be continuing. The next three races (Las Vegas, Phoenix and Auto Club Speedway) should be very telling for JGR.

2. Kevin Harvick has scored 47 stage points. Only 12 drivers have scored as many or more total points than that. How important are stage points going to be this year?

JEFF BURTON: It’s going to be huge. The teams are starting to realize. Kevin Harvick is giving them the blueprint of how you perform during the race, it can really help you. To me, they are the case study. He hasn’t won a race yet but he has three playoff points because of that. Brad Keselowski has five playoff points and he’s got a win. Wins are still much more important, there’s no doubt about it, but how you run the race is going to impact the year a great deal.

Remember, you’re adding up these points all year long to determine how you seed the playoffs. In the first two races without a win, Kevin Harvick and his team have shown that leading laps and putting yourself in the right position is going to be really, really important. For those people who want every race to matter, that want the best drivers to accumulate points through the entire year, what we’re seeing is exactly what the idea was — to reward the teams that are running the best.

STEVE LETARTE: I think that Kevin Harvick is purely putting the blueprint on how valuable stages can be. If you compare him with seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who has only three stage points, you’re talking basically a race difference. There are a lot of playoff points that are being awarded that Jimmie Johnson isn’t getting. I think these stage points are going to be more valuable than anybody gives them credit for.

NATE RYAN: This is a good indicator that stage points will have a significant impact, which is a good thing. Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers compete at the maximum output on every lap, and it’s encouraging to see the excellence rewarded despite disappointing results in the final stages of the first two races.

DUSTIN LONG: Stage performances will be significant. Kevin Harvick’s three stage wins gives him three playoff points. Atlanta winner Brad Keselowski has five playoff points for his win. So by dominating in the middle of the race, Harvick is being rewarded and it could play a role in how far he goes in the playoffs. You never know when those points will come in handy as the season progresses.

3. What stood out to you about the first race with the lower downforce package?

JEFF BURTON: There’s still work to be done. I believe that this is a difficult thing to work with. The call for lower downforce has merit to it, but it’s more complicated than just say take downforce off the cars. There has to be a continued evolution, and I know there is, of the aero side vs. mechanical grip side of these race cars. I did not see on Sunday any advantage given to the car that is behind another car. Matter of fact, I was a little surprised when someone would poke up right behind another guy and they didn’t really affect the car they were trying to affect.

In the past, if you could get to the rear bumper of another guy, you could take the air off his spoiler and get him up the race track and mess him up. I didn’t see a lot of that Sunday. Ultimately, a downforce/grip combination has got to provide the guy that is following someone else some kind of an advantage in some kind of way.

When you go to a track that has really low grip and you’re already sliding around, maybe there is not that opportunity versus when you go to a track with more grip. I think this weekend at Vegas will be really interesting to watch how all that works, a track that still doesn’t have tons of grip but more than Atlanta. It will be interesting to see how that plays out this weekend.

STEVE LETARTE: Atlanta is a very difficult place to measure low downforce just because the surface is unique to racing at the Cup level. But I saw a lot of drivers out of control, which I think is good. I’m a fan, the drivers are the superstars of the sport. It’s no longer the cars. I want to see the stars perform. I want to see golfers play on the most difficult golf courses, and I want to see drivers drive in the most difficult circumstances. That’s what I saw.

I saw drivers that really struggled, even Kevin Harvick dominating the race didn’t look like he was out for a Sunday drive. I saw him fighting his vehicle, which is what I want to see. I think Las Vegas, with a little more grip, fast speeds through an entire run, will be a little bit better test to see how the competitors race around one another but there was nothing negative that I saw in Atlanta.

NATE RYAN: I still can’t get over how short the spoiler is, and a photo shared on social media triggered a wave of feedback that told me fans are awed by it as well.

DUSTIN LONG: It does take getting used to seeing such a short spoiler. It was entertaining to see the drivers battle their cars. What often is difficult for drivers can be entertaining for fans. Atlanta presents some unique challenges that drivers and teams aren’t going to face at other 1.5-mile tracks. I’m curious to see how this plays out at Las Vegas, Texas and Kansas in the coming weeks.

Watch Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte on NASCAR America today from 5:30 – 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Xfinity crew chief Chris Gabehart penalized $5,000 for loose lug nut at Indy

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NASCAR has issued one penalty resulting from last weekend’s races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Chris Gabehart, crew chief for the No. 20 Xfinity Series car of Joe Gibbs Racing, was fined $5,000 on Wednesday.

Gabehart was penalized for violating Sections 10.4 and 10.9 of the NASCAR Rule Book covering Tires and Wheels: Lug nut(s) not properly installed at the conclusion of the Lilly Diabetes 250.

There were no other penalties related to last weekend’s Xfinity or NASCAR Cup races in Indianapolis or the Camping World Truck Series race at Eldora Speedway.

Richard Childress Racing to announce plans for a third Cup team ‘at a later date’

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With Paul Menard and his family’s home improvement chain sponsorship on the move to Wood Brothers Racing for 2018, Richard Childress Racing has a major funding gap to address.

Menards has adorned the No. 27 Chevrolet for RCR for seven consecutive Cup seasons and is among the last full-season sponsors in NASCAR’s premier series. It assuredly is the most lucrative of RCR’s sponsorships.

Though the team is committed to fielding Chevys for Ryan Newman and Austin Dillon next season, the impending departure of Menard leaves questions about whether RCR will remain a three-car team in 2018.

In a statement Wednesday morning, team chairman and CEO Richard Childress said the team “will be announcing our plans for a third Cup team and our overall 2018 team lineup at a later date.”

Here’s the full statement from Childress:

Paul Menard and Menards, Inc. have had a partnership with RCR for seven years. Together, we have enjoyed a tremendous amount of success, including Paul’s emotional win at Indianapolis in 2011. He is a very talented driver and a good friend. Everyone at RCR wishes both Paul and Menards nothing but the best in the future.

Our entire RCR organization is 100 percent focused on getting all three of our Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series programs in the playoffs this year, and bringing another Cup championship to RCR in 2017.

We will be announcing our plans for a third Cup team and our overall 2018 team lineup at a later date.

 

Paul Menard will move to the Wood Brothers for 2018 season

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Paul Menard will join Wood Brothers Racing next season, the team announced Wednesday. He will replace Ryan Blaney, who will move after this season to run a third Cup car for Team Penske.

Menards will sponsor the car in 22 races. Additional sponsorship, including plans for long-time partner Motorcraft/Quick Lane, will be announced later. The technical alliance between Team Penske and the Wood Brothers will continue.

“It’s fantastic to have the ability to continue to race in the highest level of motorsports full-time and something we look forward to doing with Paul for years to come,” said co-owner Eddie Wood in a statement. “I know this will allow us to continue to perform as an organization and will give Paul a great opportunity to go out there and compete for wins. Paul is not only a great driver with a lot of experience in the Cup Series, but he’s great with partners, which is a big part of what we do these days. We are looking forward to finishing out this season with Ryan (Blaney), going for more wins and maybe even a championship, and continuing that with Paul in 2018.”

Said Menard: “I’ve really enjoyed my time in NASCAR and as a Cup Series driver, but to get the chance to drive the iconic No. 21 for the Wood Brothers is the coolest thing I’ve ever got a chance to do. I’m looking forward to working with the team, working with Roush Yates, Ford Performance and Team Penske to see what we can do. Ryan (Blaney) has done a fantastic job and is a constant threat to run up front. Hopefully, we can do the same thing and keep the momentum going into 2018 and beyond.”

Also, Menard will run a handful of Xfinity races for Team Penske next year.

Menard had been with Richard Childress Racing since 2011, scoring his lone Cup victory — the 2011 Brickyard 400 — with the organization.

Menard’s best finish in the points with the organization was 14th in 2015. He is 23rd in the points with no wins, two top fives and three top-10 finishes this season.

The move marks the fourth organization the 36-year-old Menard has raced full-time for in his Cup career. He drove for Dale Earnhardt Inc. from 2007-08, Yates Racing from 2009-10 and Childress since.

Car owner Richard Childress issued a statement:

“Paul Menard and Menards, Inc. have had a partnership with RCR for seven years. Together, we have enjoyed a tremendous amount of success, including Paul’s emotional win at Indianapolis in 2011. He is a very talented driver and a good friend. Everyone at RCR wishes both Paul and Menards nothing but the best in the future.
“Our entire RCR organization is 100 percent focused on getting all three of our Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series programs in the playoffs this year, and bringing another Cup championship to RCR in 2017.
“We will be announcing our plans for a third Cup team and our overall 2018 team lineup at a later date.”

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Ryan Blaney to join Team Penske in 2018

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Ryan Blaney will move to Team Penske and drive a third Cup car for that organization, the team announced Wednesday.

Blaney will drive the No. 12 Ford in 2018 and has signed a multi-year contract extension.

“For some time now, we have wanted to bring Ryan in to run a third car for us, but things just needed to make sense from a timing and business perspective,” said team owner Roger Penske.  “We have been working on making this a reality and 2018 is the right opportunity to make this move and return our organization to a three-car team. The benefits of having three full-time teams under our roof, along with the continued technical partnership with the Wood Bothers, will help us remain competitive in the ever-changing NASCAR landscape.”

MORE: Paul Menard to take over Wood Brothers ride in 2018

Blaney, who won at Pocono in June, is 12th in the standings. He has seven top-10 finishes in 20 starts this season.

“This is a huge opportunity for me and my career,” said Blaney, a third-generation driver from High Point, North Carolina, in a statement. “I’ve always enjoyed racing whatever car I was in and trying to win each and every race. I’ve had some great moments with both Team Penske and the Wood Brothers over the last few years. I know for a fact I wouldn’t be where I am today without Roger (Penske), Eddie and Len (Wood) and the opportunities their organizations have given me. I’m thrilled knowing that Brad (Keselowski) and Joey (Logano) are long-term teammates for me at Team Penske and Paul (Menard) will have input with our team now that he’s with the Wood Brothers organization. Hopefully we can go out there and win races and compete for championships year after year.”

The 23-year-old Blaney first signed with Team Penske in 2012. He has raced for Wood Brothers Racing, which is aligned with Team Penske, since 2015. He ran about half the 2015 season and has done the full season the past two years for the organization.

This marks the first time since 2010 that Team Penske has fielded three full-time entries. It did so that season with Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski and Sam Hornish Jr.

With adding a third car, Team Penske will need to acquire a charter for that car.

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