Bump & Run: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s start; Repercussions of Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s bump


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

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is 25th in the points and has not finished better than 14th in a race this season. While most figured it would take some time for him after missing half of last season, what kind of concern is there with how the No. 88 team has started the season?

Jeff Burton: My concern is that it seems to be a Hendrick problem as well. Chase Elliott, the way I see it, is by far the best-running Hendrick car. You have Chase and that team and the other three aren’t performing. That’s my larger concern. Where is the help coming from to get Junior and his team where they need to be? I think there’s real reason for concern. You look at where they are in points. You look at where they are running in the race. It hasn’t been good so far. Certainly got to find a way to be better. Everybody obviously wants to make the playoffs. Right now, their best shot is going to be pointing their way in or Daytona or Talladega. I haven’t seen anything that tells me they’re fast enough to win a race. Certainly time, but they’ve got to get going.

Steve Letarte: The goal, obviously, is to get off to a good start. The concern, more than about where they’re finishing, is how their speed stacks up. At Daytona, they had good speed. At Martinsville, they had good speed, but there have been some other tracks where they have been mired back there in maybe sixth to 15th. I don’t think there should be grave cause for concern at this point, but you never want to use your mulligans early. That’s what I look at. They’ve kind of used their mulligans early. Can he make the playoffs? It has yet to be seen over the course of the summer, but everyone with that type of resources are afforded a couple of hiccups, and I think this team has used most of those early in the season.

Nate Ryan: He ran well at the Daytona 500 before crashing, so he still could make the playoffs via Talladega Superspeedway and Daytona International Speedway. There naturally must be some concern, but the mitigating circumstances here (Dale Jr.’s return from a half-season layoff; Hendrick Motorsports still working to find its groove across the board) should quell some of the angst about an inauspicious beginning to 2017 for the No. 88 Chevrolet. Earnhardt qualified well at Phoenix Raceway and seemed to be improving at Martinsville Speedway before a wreck.

Dustin Long: Dale Earnhardt Jr. understands his predicament, saying in a video after the Martinsville race that he’s in “one hell of a hole” in points. Worse, he’s not shown the speed teammate Chase Elliott has or even Jimmie Johnson has on a consistent basis. The benefit is that there’s still many races left before the playoffs. He has some time, but this team needs to show more in the coming weeks, or the pressure will build.

Kyle Busch was not pleased about how Ricky Stenhouse Jr. moved him out of the way and cost him a stage victory — and a playoff point — at Martinsville. Busch said “Race car drivers are like elephants, they remember everything.’’ What should Stenhouse expect from Busch?

Jeff Burton: The same that he was willing to give Busch. There is no rule that says you can’t do what Stenhouse did, but there is a consequence. When you make that move, it can come with a price. It’s a huge difference being the free-pass car and being on the lead lap at Martinsville. It’s a big difference, huge difference from wherever he started to being the last car on the race track. Now you’re worried about getting lapped again. I understand why Stenhouse did what he did, and I also understand why Busch is upset about it. The thing that always interests me about things like that is that everybody is watching. It’s not just the driver that you moved out of the way, it’s all the other drivers watching, saying, ‘Stenhouse is willing to move him out of the way, so he would be willing to move me out of the way.’ There’s no rule. Drivers have to develop their own code of what they think what is acceptable, but then they have to be willing to live by that code when it happens to them.

Steve Letarte: I think if you are Stenhouse, as you race around him, you have to understand there’s going to be very little give and take. I think Ricky is one of the first drivers, and we’ll continue to see it, it’s going to redefine how you race the leader. That’s what happens when you have a guaranteed yellow. You know you’re coming to the yellow. That’s not a move Ricky Stenhouse makes in the middle of a green-flag run, but he knows he’s coming to the end of the stage, and he wants to save his lap. I think it’s healthy for NASCAR when Ricky Stenhouse puts himself and the effort of Roush Fenway ahead of racing with great etiquette. He even said that was a turning point in the race for him. I think he needs to understand that he now has set the bar of what is acceptable racing, so I wouldn’t expect a lot of room when racing Kyle.

Nate Ryan: He probably will expect a bump or worse the next time they are racing for position, and Stenhouse likely won’t be grousing about it. He understands that turnabout often is fair play in racing.

Dustin Long: He should expect what he gave Busch and likely more. The key is Busch won’t pay Stenhouse back until it hurts Stenhouse like Busch felt losing the stage and one playoff point could hurt him.

With six of 26 regular-season races complete (nearly a quarter of the regular season), what’s something that stands out to you that people might not be talking about as much?

Jeff Burton: I think that Daniel Suarez has been very quiet in being effective. I know coming off of Martinsville, where he had a terrible weekend, it’s easy to forget that. No one is really talking about Daniel Suarez and how he replaced Carl Edwards. He replaced one of the biggest names in the sport. Cup is way harder than Xfinity. In my world, those seventh-place finishes at Auto Club and Phoenix and even in the races prior to that, he sneakily was effective. I personally like rookies whom you kind of look up to at the end of the day and say, ‘Hey, he finished eighth. He finished 10th.’ I think he’s done a better job than the points say.

Steve Letarte: I think the major shift in young drivers. Kyle Larson is highlighting that class, but his unbelievable start has overshadowed some really good runs. Erik Jones has been very good. Ryan Blaney has been very good.

Nate Ryan: The performance of rookie Erik Jones. Some insiders probably would say he has been as impressive as Kyle Larson through the first six races of his first full season in Cup.

Dustin Long: Clint Bowyer has been Stewart-Haas Racing’s top finisher in three of the last four races. After his dreadful year last year with an underfunded team, Bowyer is being rewarded for his patience.

Watch Steve Letarte and Jeff Burton on NASCAR America today from 6 – 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Trevor Bayne on Charlotte Roval: ‘You have to be on your game’

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Rain washed out the second day of Goodyear tire testing Wednesday on Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval. Goodyear has tentatively scheduled May 1 as a make-up test date.

Trevor Bayne, Kyle Busch, Paul Menard and Kyle Larson took part in the test Tuesday.

“I just took some slow pace laps and got a feel for the race track,” Bayne said in a statement from Charlotte Motor Speedway. “I was nervous, but I wasn’t anxious because I was never going to go out there and make qualifying laps. We worked our pace in and our plan, we stuck to it. I felt really good by the end of the day.

“You have to be on your game, that’s for sure. You can’t really let your guard down anywhere. There’s no room to make mistakes. If you make a mistake, you’re going to pay for it pretty quickly. If you try to do something and it doesn’t work, you’ll pay the price. It’s going to be a survival race. … If you’re smart, you take care of your car and you don’t make mistakes, you’ll have a really good shot at the end for a good finish. I enjoyed it. It was a challenge for me – something new – and I enjoyed that part of it.”

Organizational tests at Charlotte will be in July. There will be two different sessions. Each team is allowed to test at one of the two sessions, which will be July 10 (rain date of July 11) and July 17 (rain date of July 18).

The Charlotte Roval hosts the final race of the first round of the Cup playoffs on Sept. 30 on NBC.

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NASCAR issues two fines for unsecured lug nuts at Auto Club Speedway

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NASCAR announced two crew chief fines for unsecured lug nuts last weekend at Auto Club Speedway.

Adam Stevens, crew chief on Kyle Busch‘s No. 18 Toyota, was fined $10,000 for one unsecured lug nut.

In the Xfinity Series, Eric Phillips, the crew chief for Ryan Preece‘s No. 18 Toyota, was fined $5,000 for an unsecured lug nut.

No other penalties were announced.

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Drivers to watch, favorite sports upsets

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN and begins to look forward to this weekend’s racing at Martinsville Speedway.

Marty Snider hosts with Dale Jarrett, Steve Letarte and Nate Ryan from the “Big Oak Table” in Charlotte.

What to expect from today’s show.

  • The same names have been dominating the headlines in the first five races in the 2018 season. We will take a look at some of the other drivers to be on the lookout for as the season rolls on.
  • One of NASCAR’s most historic tracks is up this weekend – Martinsville! We’ll check out some of the recent drama “The Paperclip” has provided ahead of the race.
  • In the spirit of March Madness, our panel will tell us about their most memorable sports moments, as well as some of NASCAR’s biggest upsets.
  • Plus, The Indianapolis 500 will have a new home in 2019. We’ll have all the details on NASCAR America.

If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

New year, new teams bring improvement for Matt Tifft, Brandon Jones

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It took until March 9 for Matt Tifft to realize it wasn’t 2017 anymore.

During a press conference at ISM Raceway, Tifft was not introduced as the driver of the No. 19 Toyota owned by Joe Gibbs Racing.

That honor went to the driver sitting to his left – Brandon Jones.

“I was like, ‘Oh wait, that’s not me,’” Tifft said that day.

On race days in the Xfinity Series, Tifft now pilots Richard Childress Racing’s No. 2 Chevrolet.

The end of the 2017 season and resulting offseason saw arguably the silliest of “Silly Seasons” in recent NASCAR history.

Drivers retired, got promotions, were forced to unceremoniously retire and in a few cases, swapped teams.

The last option was the case for Tifft and Jones.

Brandon Jones during the Xfinity race weekend at ISM Raceway (Getty Images).


Things did not go well last year for either driver.

Specifically Jones.

The 21-year-old driver calls his last 33 races with RCR “bizarre” and “confusing.”

It started with Jones on the pole for the season-opener at Daytona.

It ended with Jones 16th in the standings (he was 10th in 2016). He recorded no top fives, three top 10s and seven DNFs.

“It was definitely rough time, man,” Jones says. “It was just confusing because we had guys on the team and stuff that were top-of-the line guys and we put this team together and we were honestly having so much fun as a team that it almost took away from having bad luck and bad runs and stuff.”


“I had everything possible except for a blown motor that could have gone wrong,” Jones says. “It was just bizarre. Couldn’t ever catch a break. We kind of put that behind ourselves this year. Wanted to try and start fresh whenever I made the move to JGR.”


In the middle of 2017, Tifft had a conversation with Ben Kennedy, then one of the drivers rotating in and out of RCR’s No. 2 car.

Kennedy brought up his crew chief, Randall Burnett.

“I just lean on this guy because he’s got to much experience,” Kennedy said. Burnett was in his first season as an Xfinity crew chief. In 2016, he was crew chief for AJ Allmendinger in Cup after 10 years as a Chip Ganassi Racing engineer.

“That was way before I knew I was going to RCR,” Tifft told NBC Sports.

Matt Tifft drives the No. 2 Dollar Shave Club Chevrolet  at ISM Raceway on March 9. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

In October, the 21-year-old driver was announced as moving to RCR after one full-time season with JGR.

While his rotating cast of teammates won 12 of 33 races in 2017, Tifft came up empty. He earned just two top fives, at Mid-Ohio and Road America, and 13 top 10s.

Even without a win Tifft made the playoffs, where he placed in the top 10 in seven of the eight races. But was eliminated after the second round.

“I felt like we were competitive in the playoffs. That’s the time there I felt like we were starting to get there. But it took that long,” Tifft says. “I think I just had a hard time putting the races together and dealing with pressure and the ups and downs. I don’t think I knew exactly how to handle it. I think part of it was I didn’t know how to prepare for it, too.”

Tifft eventually found himself eating lunch at “one of the few restaurants” in Welcome, North Carolina, where RCR is headquartered.

With him was Burnett, who he had found out that day would be his crew chief in 2018.

“I felt like there was just a really good connection there as far as personalities and where he was at,” Tifft says. “This deal is so stressful that you’ve got to be able to have that trust in a relationship with your crew chief. Jimmie Johnson talks about it all the time. It really is a relationship. You’ve got to have that.”

Early on Tifft established a clear understanding with his car chief, Cam Strader.

“He said straight up, ‘Hey, we’re going to bust our tails to make sure that we’re bringing the best stuff for you but you make sure you focus on what you need to do, not only from a driver side of things, but also from a promotional side of things.,’” Tifft says. “If we’re out doing events and stuff and I can’t be at the shop that one day they understand because I want to make it clear to them if I’m not in the shop I’m doing something that’s productive for our race team.”

Blake Koch has a new role as a mentor to Matt Tifft. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)


Tifft is keeping his side of the deal with Strader.

Where race preparation was a weakness last season, Tifft isn’t just relying on resources provided by RCR to improve.

He’s getting a little help from “the hardest working” guy he knows in the garage – Blake Koch.

While Tifft and Jones landed safely during “Silly Season,” Koch found himself without a ride at the end of 2017, replaced at Kaulig Racing by Ryan Truex.

Now, through a mutual connection who manages drivers, he’s Tifft’s unofficial driver coach.

“It wasn’t like I was in a dire situation where I needed somebody like that,” Tifft says. “But I was just thinking back to when you start racing in go karts and late models and all that stuff, there’s usually a strong mentor piece or someone that’s looking out for you. I felt like I was going to have a very strong foundation there this year at RCR with having (Daniel) Hemric as a teammate and whoever’s rotating through the 3 car is going to be really strong I felt like. Anything I could do to try to step up my game and keep on accelerating that learning curve to where I can make our organization better by being a better teammate, just trying to give the best effort I could.”

Koch, who has 213 Xfinity starts since 2009, helps Tifft with his workouts, weekend prep and debriefs him after the race weekend.

“He’s very particular about every single thing I’m doing,” Tifft says. “From first lap on practice to coming up to speed in qualifying, your lines and techniques. … I think a lot of the fundamental stuff that you can improve on as a driver was something I felt I needed to get better at last year and I felt like I made that jump in the playoffs.”

Koch is even picky about “garage flow,” an effort to declutter Tifft’s mind at a track

“When you show up to a race track and you get in your car you shouldn’t have to wonder how the heck you get on the race track,” Koch says. “When you get to the race track, the only thing you should have to think about is hitting your marks and running in a perfect line and focusing on your task at hand, not the other small details that are just cluttering your mind.”

What’s been Koch’s emphasis through the first few weeks of their partnership?

Tifft points to being more efficient in passing.

For Koch, it’s all about restarts

“That was the main thing we focused on going into the year, let’s be the best at restarts,” Koch says. “I think five races in he’s had better restarts than he had in the entire year last year and that’s pretty important in our series right now with the stages, with track position being so important. I would say that’s the No. 1 improvement.”

Brandon Jones drives the No.19 Juniper Toyota, during the NASCAR Xfinity Series DC Solar 200 at ISM Raceway on March 10. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)


There’s not that much different in terms of resources when it comes to teams like RCR and JGR.

But Jones has found there’s a difference in how they’re used.

No more so than when it comes to simulator time.

Every Tuesday, he and teammate Christopher Bell spend the day in Toyota Racing Development’s simulator. Bell takes the morning shift and Jones takes over in the afternoon.

“We’re there and talking to each other and bouncing stuff off each other, what’s working and what didn’t,” Jones says. “That’s been a really big help for me this year. There were times last year where I was able to run a little bit on the simulator, but it wasn’t every single week and it wasn’t a set date. That’s been one of the things that’s been really cool about going to Toyota this year is just having a set date for their simulator every single week.”

Also, there’s data. So much data. The information proved to Jones that simply having better cars wasn’t the only reason the field was left chasing JGR the last few years.

“I think they were available to me at RCR, either I didn’t know to ask for it was they didn’t cram it down my throat kind of deal,” says Jones. “I get everything possible I can for a driver.”

Some of that info comes straight from the mouths of JGR’s Cup drivers.

“Even when it comes to talking to Kyle Busch or one of those guys on how they do pit stops, ‘Man, I do it way differently, but your way is more effective, so I’m going to work on doing it that way.’” Jones says. “It’s hard to know how to do all that stuff without ever being taught it. At the end of the day, some of it’s pretty obvious when they show it to you, but you would have never thought of doing stuff like that without seeing it.”


Whether it’s data, equipment or luck, Tifft and Jones’ first five races of 2018 are a marked improvement from last year.

Following Saturday’s race at Auto Club Speedway, Jones has two top 10s and he’s finished outside the top 15 once.

Last year, he didn’t have a top 10 until race 13. He’s also catching breaks he didn’t in 2017.

At Atlanta, he cut a tire and brushed the wall, but narrowly avoided being rammed by cars as he dove to pit road. He finished 17th.

At Phoenix, Jones “saw my life flash before my eyes” when he avoided a lapped car on the backstretch that didn’t have power steering. He placed 11th.

In Fontana, after a harmless spin in practice, he kept from wrecking with Kaz Grala at the checkered flag. He finished 13th.

“Just about everywhere we were pretty quick,” Jones says. “We’re very close. I think by the end of the year, we’re going to be very, very close if not right there with them. … We’ve got the long-run speed figured out. It’s more just trying to figure out how to get short-run speed out of me and how to qualify just a little better.”

Tifft has seen improvement every week. After finishing 19th at Daytona, he had finishes of 12th, 11th, seventh and then eighth in Fontana after starting 20th.

His first consecutive top 10s last year weren’t until races 11 and 12.

Even though they’ve swapped teams, Tifft doesn’t see Jones as his head-to-head competition, at least not yet.

“To be focused on one car and beating them is kind of stupid unless you’re in the Dash 4 Cash or the playoffs,” Tifft says. “It’s too early in the year to say we need to go out and beat the 19 car. You’d just drive yourself crazy for no reason.”

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