Ford teams continue to struggle for answers to speed, aero woes

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With eight wins in the first 19 Cup races this season – including three in the last six – you’d think Ford would be at the top of its game.

But such is not the case. While Toyota’s Martin Truex Jr. and Chevrolet’s Kyle Larson have been at or near the front often in recent races, Fords have dropped off in performance.

The two premier Ford teams, Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing, have both struggled for more speed and to overcome aerodynamic issues.

“Aero is definitely an area we’re struggling,” Dave Pericak, Director, Ford Performance, said Thursday at Eldora Speedway. “We’re definitely not struggling from an engine perspective and many other areas, but yeah, aero, for sure, and we’re working on it.”

Paul Wolfe, crew chief for Brad Keselowski, has watched his driver slip from third in the Cup standings to eighth in the last eight races. During that stretch, Keselowski has finished 30th or worse (crashes) four times, and had just two top fives.

“We’re not in the best spot we’d like to be in,” Wolfe admitted Thursday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Seems like the last couple months have definitely been a challenge and a little bit of a struggle for all of us at Team Penske, not just the No. 2 car.

“We’re really just trying to find out what to do to get some speed back in our cars. It seems like where we get the cars driving and the drivers are somewhat happy with what we call a raceable balance, we’re just off on speed at that point. We can get the cars to run a fast lap time, but the drivers say they’re just not drivable and can’t race that way. It’s been a challenge trying to get both right now, and for whatever reason, we seem to be off.”

MORE: Brad Keselowski says ‘poorly designed car’ makes it difficult ‘to put on a show’

Time is not a luxury Wolfe or anyone else at Team Penske has. Seven races remain until the playoffs.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” Wolfe said. “There’s not too many races here until Chicago comes around, so we’re trying to figure it out, that’s for sure.”

Wolfe’s Team Penske counterpart, Todd Gordon, faces an even greater sense of urgency with the No. 22 of Joey Logano. Even though Logano won at Richmond earlier this season, the victory doesn’t count toward playoff eligibility because his car failed inspection after the race.

As a result, Logano is not locked into the playoffs and is in a seemingly must-win situation to secure a playoff berth. Things have gone from bad to worse of late: since his encumbered win at Richmond, Logano has finished between 21st and 37th seven times, with just one top-five and one other top-10 (plus a 12th-place finish) in the other three events.

Logano has fallen from fifth to 13th in the NASCAR Cup standings.

Wolfe can empathize with the plight of Logano and Gordon.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us, but this sport over the years, there’s peaks and valleys,” Wolfe said. “We’re been on the good side and bad side before.

“We’re going to have confidence everyone at Team Penske and Ford will continue to work in the right direction and hopefully get our speed where we need it to contend for a championship later this year.”

A tale of two seasons in just 19 races

Fords enjoyed early season success, winning the season’s first two races at Daytona (Kurt Busch) and Atlanta (Keselowski).

Ford also won at Martinsville, Richmond and Talladega – and earned three more wins in the last six races, but those came on a road course (Sonoma), a restrictor-plate track (Daytona) and a triangle that is seemingly part superspeedway and part road course (Pocono).

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has two wins (Talladega and Daytona), as does Keselowski (Atlanta and Martinsville), while Kurt Busch (Daytona 500), Joey Logano (Richmond), Ryan Blaney (Pocono) and Harvick (Sonoma) all have one win each.

But check out some of the other recent Ford stats:

* At Michigan, in its corporate backyard, Ford had one car in the top five and led just two of the 200 laps.

* At Kentucky, Ford had no cars in the top five and led just seven laps.

* At New Hampshire last weekend, Ford had one car in the top five and led zero laps.

How did things fall off so quickly for Ford when it came to downforce and lack of speed? Wolfe has a theory.

“As the season went on, NASCAR started changing enforcement of some templates and some aero things, and for whatever reason, it seems like it affected the Fords maybe more than Toyota,” Wolfe said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Obviously, Toyota came out with a new car, they were slow getting going, but they definitely have it figured out and seem to have a little bit of an advantage right now.

“I feel like some of the rule changes on the aero side has really affected our cars a lot and trying to get them balanced out, back to where they were before some of those changes has been difficult for us.”

When Wolfe thinks he is starting to get a handle on things, other questions arise he told “The Morning Drive.”

“Is it more of a mechanical area that we’re missing with this package because of the aero shift?” Wolfe said. “Or the amount of downforce it is, is there something we’re missing mechanically with the platform of how we control our splitter or ride heights?

“Or is it just the fact those guys just have more downforce than us? Those are all the question marks and we don’t really have the answers right now. Maybe we can get out of our comfort zone and mindset of what has had success in the past and explore new things. We’ll continue to do that and pay attention to teams that are having success.”

Stewart-Haas Racing also has woes

Wolfe’s counterpart at Stewart-Haas Racing, Rodney Childers, crew chief for Kevin Harvick, admitted to “Tradin’ Paint” on Thursday that his team is pretty much in the same boat as Team Penske.

“I hate to even say it but I agree with (Wolfe),” Childers said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “On one side of me, I feel that we’re in trouble. I don’t know if we will get caught up to where we need to be.

“I feel l like it’s time that Ford is going to have to push hard and come up with a new body and do something to get us back in the ballgame from the downforce side of things.”

Childers would like to see NASCAR get more involved in the disparity he believes has developed between Ford, Toyota and Chevrolet.

“I think it’s time for NASCAR to take all the cars to the wind tunnel again and figure out where we’re all at,” Childers said. “If there are people that are way off, other teams, then we need to figure out how to make it more equal. You hate to get into that again.”

Even so, Childers remains confident in his team, given that Harvick is the highest-ranked Ford driver (fourth) in the Cup standings.

“The downforce stuff, we’re not way off,” he said. “I feel like we’ve kind of had the best Ford week after week here lately. We’re pushing hard and we’re not going to give up by any means and I think everybody will see that in our performance.

“But on the other hand I do feel like it has hurt us a little bit more and we just have to figure out how to dig through it.”

Ups and downs are cyclical

Childers also mentioned the irony that it wasn’t all that long ago that SHR and Harvick were being looked upon as the kings of performance (albeit in Chevrolets), much like Truex and Larson are today.

“I look back at the 2014 and 2015 seasons and everybody used to complain about us being the fastest car every week, leading all those laps and always have a shot at winning,” Childers said. “Looking back, I don’t even know if we understood then exactly what we were doing to be that much faster than everybody else.

“I think it’s the same way with (Truex and Larson) right now. They’ve done a good job, have their cars where they need them to be, their drivers are doing excellent jobs, the pit crews are doing a good job.”

But there’s still the bottom line.

“We have to get faster race cars,” Childers said. “Our pit crews have done excellent, Kevin’s done excellent, we just have to be faster when we unload off the haulers. Hopefully, we can get caught up a little bit.”

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Staff picks for tonight’s Cup race at Bristol

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Here’s a look at who the NBC Sports staff is picking to win tonight’s Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Nate Ryan

Matt Kenseth. If it is the last time, he goes out in style.

Dustin Long

Kyle Busch. Get the brooms out.

Daniel McFadin

Kyle Larson picks up win No. 4 on the season with his first Cup victory at track shorter than two miles.

Jerry Bonkowski

Joey Logano survives the typical Bristol mayhem to win and roll into the playoffs (provided this win isn’t encumbered like Richmond was).

Chase Elliott in ‘tight spot’ with three races left before playoffs

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Chase Elliott doesn’t know his exact spot or the exact number, but he knows his No. 24 team is “certainly in a tight spot” on the Cup Series playoff grid with three races left before the playoffs.

“You are never comfortable,” Elliott said Friday at Bristol Motor Speedway. “We are there towards the back. I don’t exactly know 100 percent where we are, but I know we are one of the last few spots of non-winners that are still in.”

The spot Elliott finds himself in ahead of tonight’s Bristol night race on NBC is 14th on the playoff grid. He’s 68 points above the cutoff spot for the 16-driver field that will make the playoffs.

Elliott sits above Jamie McMurray (+52) and Matt Kenseth (+31) as the only three winless drivers in the top 16.

“That is not a comfortable position to be in because there is always an opportunity for a guy on the outside to win a race and bump you back another position,” Elliott said. “It’s tight for sure where we are at. We feel like we need a victory to feel good about it. I mean, heck, we are not many from having a full playoff list of winners. So, yeah, no, we aren’t real comfortable with it just because in that position you are not really guaranteed anything.”

If Elliott wins tonight, in two weeks at Darlington or Sept. 9 at Richmond, it would be the first Cup win for the son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott. The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet is 64 races into his Cup career and has only visited victory lane in a Daytona 500 qualifying race earlier this year.

In the last two seasons, Kyle Larson, Chris Buescher, Austin Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Ryan Blaney have won their first Cup races.

This year, Elliott has six top fives through 23 races but none in the last six races.

“I don’t think it’s eating at us per se,” Elliott said. “I feel like we’re all in a good place mentally. I am. I think (crew chief) Alan (Gustafson) is. I think if we can get things rolling a little better and find some pace and find some consistency in running well each week, I think it’s easy to have everybody hyped-up and attitudes would be great when you’re running good. It’s the years and the weekends that you’re struggling to keep everybody’s morale high. I think Alan does a really good job of that.”

When it comes to gambling his way to a win or a good finish to solidify his points standing, Elliott says “a gamble is not so much a gamble anymore” when everyone is doing it.

“Now we see that every single weekend,” Elliott said. “Everybody knows all the tricks to track position and the pit strategy to move forward in a race or take a chance. Really the only time we see somebody have something weird work out for them is when a caution falls at the right time for them and none of us really know when that’s going to happen. So, I think we’re all gambling per se. We’re all just kind of doing it together instead of one person being on their own island.”

Right now, Elliott is one of three people on the island called “the bubble.”

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Cole Whitt’s crew chief working hurt at Bristol after car fell on him

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BRISTOL, Tennessee – Frankie Kerr, crew chief for the No. 72 driven by Cole Whitt, will be working hurt during tonight’s Cup Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

The TriStar Motorsports crew chief was injured Friday on pit road when Whitt’s car fell on him during practice.

The incident broke his right scapula and bruised his sternum and ribs, but the 56-year-old crew chief still will be on his team’s pit box for the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race (7:30 p.m ET on NBC).

There are no garage stalls at the 0.533-mile track, leaving teams to work on cars on pit road.

Whitt’s car was being placed on a jack stand when the accident occurred, Kerr told ESPN. Kerr was underneath the front of the car when it fell.

“It must not have been high enough, and they hit it again with the jack, and that’s when it fell over and the jack stand wasn’t in,” Kerr said “It landed on me and basically squeezed the air out of me.”

Kerr was taken to the hospital and released later in the day. In addition to some cuts, the front splitter of the car left a visible line on his body. Kerr’s right arm is in a sling today.

“It never entered my mind (to go home). I just won’t be able to help on the car as much,” Kerr said. “I’ll do what I can and call the race and go home and thank God we have a week off (next week).”

Exclusive: Dale Earnhardt Jr. evaluates his farewell tour so far, ‘I’ve signed twice as many autographs’

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BRISTOL, Tenn. – In his last Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has varied his line – and not just because of the new bottom-lane grip on the 0.533-mile oval.

When he leaves the track through the Turn 3 tunnel to walk to an adjacent motorhome lot, Earnhardt is making multiple stops along a fence where fans line up for driver autographs.

“Usually on a Bristol weekend, I’d walk that fence once, probably Saturday afternoon,” Earnhardt told NBCSports.com. “But this year we’re walked it every day that we’ve been here, and there’ll be different people there each day because they know that’s where there is a great opportunity to get an autograph.

“Typically if you went through there once, that was good enough for you and your peace of mind individually. But this particular year, we’ll walk it every day, just so that if that makes a bit of an impression. That’s what you want.”

The 14-time most popular driver said he gladly has signed twice as many autographs during his final full-time season in NASCAR’s premier series, which he is marking with an “Appreci88on” campaign that kicked off two months ago.

With among the largest crowds of the season expected for Saturday’s Bristol Night Race, sponsor Mountain Dew has a major trackside presence via the DEW HQ/Outdoors campaign aimed at celebrating Earnhardt’s final season and love of the outdoors. A RideWithJr.com contest also is aiming to put 100,000 fans’ names on Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevrolet for his last Monster Energy Cup Series start at Talladega Superspeedway in October.

Those initiatives, along with the track’s Thursday announcement of establishing an annual automotive scholarship in Earnhardt’s name for a high school student in the Bristol area, are what the Hendrick Motorsports driver deems the spirit of “Appreci88on” – honoring those who have supported him over the past two decades.

“I think that when the tracks are like ‘Man, thanks Dale!’ or they paint (stuff) in the infield … thank me, hell,” Earnhardt said. “Thank the fans. They’re the ones who bought your tickets, not me. I just came and drove and walked around and had fun.

“I really didn’t do a lot of legwork to make this fan base. It’s just being myself, and that came really easy.”

Earnhardt’s last lap around the circuit came under scrutiny recently when Kevin Harvick said on his SiriusXM Satellite Radio show that he was underwhelmed by the “vibe of Dale’s last year” as far as souvenir sales and tickets sold.

How does Earnhardt think the Appreci88n tour has gone?

Here’s what he told NBCSports.com in an interview inside his No. 88 hauler before qualifying Friday at Bristol Motor Speedway:

Q: With some questioning whether your farewell tour had garnered the traction that was anticipated, is it going as you’d hoped?

A: “It’s going as designed. We wanted as little attention on ourselves as possible and as much on the fans as possible. To (Harvick’s) point, I think if we were performing better, yeah, people would be coming out to see us run, cause they feel like, ‘Yeah, if we watch him, he might have a shot to win. I want to see him win.’ So he’s right about that. And I thought he was right about half the stuff he said, some of it was a little bit overboard.

“But our whole angle really wasn’t to put me on a pedestal and say, ‘Hey, it’s the last year! Come get some of this! Bow down!’ It was nothing like that. I’m not very comfortable with that anyway. The level of attention I get, I like to keep that at arm’s length anyway. But we felt like our mission, what would make me comfortable and the right thing to do would be to give the appreciation to who deserves it, and the fans were the obvious answer to me. That, to me, is going as planned.

“I think that half the people out there when they see ‘Appreci88on,’ they don’t really know for who. So we might could have done a little better job sort of spelling it out a little bit better for everyone. But yeah, the appreciation isn’t for me, it’s for Junior Nation.”

Q: How has it made you reflect on the fans you have?

A: “I know that a big chunk of it came with dad. I’ve never disagreed with the fact that my father’s success, his celebrity, certainly opened a ton of doors for me, got me a ton of race fans right out of the gate. And the story of being his son and racing, all that adds to it for sure.

“But I think we did a lot of things in the last 20 years to grow that fan base. Obviously I didn’t have this many fans when Dad died. We got a lot of fans, but we’ve grown it. I hear more people actually follow me who didn’t follow Dad or didn’t even know who Dad was. I don’t know how that happened. I don’t know why that happened. What I keep hearing from people is we’re genuine, honest and our message is always pretty clear and straightforward, relatable, guy you want to have a beer with. So for whatever reason, that’s worked.

“The appreciation, that’s why we went that direction. It’s unorthodox, and the message is a little cloudy because it’s not what people expect. People expect in your final year, you’re going to stand up on a pedestal and wait for everyone to throw flowers at you or something. That’s not really (it). I’ve had enough appreciation for 10 men.”

Q: So your final trip around the circuit was never about collecting rocking chairs and other retirement gifts, in other words?

A: “I can say honestly watching Jeff (Gordon) and Tony (Stewart) go through (their final seasons) helped me sort of go ‘Whoa.’ Because I think watching them go through theirs, they weren’t anticipating any of that stuff. And you’d talk to Jeff, and he’d go, ‘Yeah, I don’t know why I got these horses. I don’t know what to do with these.’ We had those two guys to watch and get prepared on our end that maybe we should go this other angle, and try to safeguard against some of that stuff. Because I don’t need stuff piling up over at the house, pictures and things. It’s nice, and I appreciate the idea behind it.

“But what this track did here and what Sonoma did, those are awesome! I mean, damn! That’s really going to make a difference, or you hope. It has a great chance to do something good for somebody, way better than some photo I’m going to stick on the damn top of my storage that I’m never going to hang anywhere.”

Q: So the criteria or measuring stick for success is different than others who might be looking at T-shirts or tickets sold?

A:”I don’t know how many T-shirts I would have sold had I retired last year, you know? I don’t know whether I agree 100%, and I don’t even know what the numbers are.”

Q: You haven’t looked at how well your stuff has sold this year, right?

A: “Hell no! I don’t even know who to ask. But I’ve heard that there wasn’t a big spike in attendance for Jeff and Tony, and I didn’t ask and it doesn’t matter. It’s not a competition. (Pause) But yeah, 100% if we’d run better, it would have been a lot rosier.”

Q: Is there anything else you can do for fans beyond producing better results?

A: “I haven’t counted, but I think I’ve signed twice as many autographs up to this point in the season than I usually sign, because that’s the theme. If we’re really showing appreciation, let’s spend a couple of more minutes over here and a couple more minutes over there. We’ve got some other ideas. We want to do some things in the offseason.

“Whatever we do, it’s going to be really hard to reach everybody. But we’ve thought about some things that we can do. Like Mark Martin has this fan day (at his dealership in Batesville, Arkansas), and it’s freaking awesome. I was looking at the results from that last year. It’s been going on for a while, and fans love it. They continue to come. They have a great experience. I’m thinking about something similar to that, that is an annual event that’s for them and just cater to them all day long, and they get an enjoyable experience.

“Dad had something similar to that. He had an open house at his dealership, which was his way to kind of say, ‘Hey fans, I’m going to be here all day. And I’ll be here from noon until fricking midnight. However long it takes to sign for everybody.’ And he would. He’d sign for seven to eight hours straight. We were sitting over there beside him going “Golly. When is this going to end?” And he would just go and go until everyone was happy. That was one day a year he went all out. So that’s something I’d be happy or comfortable doing, maybe put something together. I’ve talked to the Hall of Fame about doing something there maybe. Because that would bring a lot of folks to the Hall of Fame, and it’s local, so that would be kind of cool. That’s something we’ve been bouncing around.

“Aside from that, all you can do is try to interact with everybody at the racetrack. You take a little more time instead of bee lining from the car to the hauler or the haulers to the bus. You’re casual about it. Sign for everybody and try to get everybody you can at the racetrack and on race weekends. Because there’s a lot more people, I don’t know about the numbers in the grandstands, but damn sure there are a lot more people wanting autographs this year. Around the garage Friday and Saturday, it’s ramped way up.”

Q: And the vibe you get from your fans is that they like how things are going, all things considered?

A: “It seems like people are fine. Not everyone’s last year is going to be as successful as Jeff’s. I’ve looked at other drivers’ careers and their final seasons, and there are a lot of big names that didn’t have awesome years as they wound down. I knew that I was up against a pretty difficult challenge when I decided to come back. But I knew that the team was strong. If we could get it going, we’d get it going. We didn’t going, at least not yet, but we’re just weathering through it (laughs) trying not to damn self-destruct or explode or turn it into a bad thing.

“Racing can bring the worst out of you. Your worst personality, attitude. Your worst habits. Bristol is the track that’s worst for me. It makes me want to go (expletive) bonkers on everybody, and I know that ain’t going to get us nowhere and just get us pissed off. So I’m safeguarding against that a little bit. Hopefully get in the playoffs and come to a couple of tracks we ran good at early in the season (such as) Texas. See if we can’t get a couple of good runs.”