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Friday 5: Looking to the past to enhance NASCAR’s future

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As some of its most popular drivers retire, NASCAR has the chance to tap into their knowledge to help push the sport forward.

Question is if NASCAR will do so.

The sport is in the midst of a generational change in its driver lineup. Gone are Bobby Labonte, Jeff Burton, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth (at least for now). Likely to be gone in the near future are Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Jamie McMurray and Elliott Sadler — all drivers 40 or older.

Think about the wealth of knowledge they carry about the sport. Think about how NASCAR could benefit from their consultation. Both Burton and Gordon were a part of the group NASCAR assembled that created stage racing, so it’s clear their opinions matter.

Admittedly, some drivers will have other plans for their post-racing career and won’t have the time or interest to do so, but for those willing to help the sport, NASCAR needs to find a role for them. 

There’s plenty former drivers can do. They can help bridge gaps, provide a different perspective, be a listening board and an agent for change. 

Harvick has become more vocal in the last year about ways to improve ties to grassroots racing. He’s suggested that the Camping World Truck Series run more races at local short tracks and questioned why the K&N Pro Series West no longer competes at Phoenix and other big tracks.

“Sometimes we look at our sport from the top down instead of the bottom up,’’ Harvick said on his SiriusXM NASCAR Radio show “Happy Hours” this week. “At this grassroots level, that’s where all your hardcore fans live.’’

One doesn’t have to listen to Harvick long to hear his passion for short track racing. As a former Cup champion and host of a national radio show, his words carry weight. He also is one of action. Thursday night, he competed in the K&N West opener at Kern County Raceway in Harvick’s hometown of Bakersfield, California.

Even for all the behind-the-scenes work he’s done, Harvick still has to focus on his racing career and there will be times throughout the season he won’t be able to focus as much on such issues.

That’s where a retired driver can help. It’s becoming more difficult for former drivers to find a role in the sport. Ownership isn’t a viable option for many because it has become so expensive. There are only so many TV jobs available. Same with executive roles for teams.

If there isn’t a place in those areas, that’s where NASCAR should enter and provide a spot.

Could former Cup drivers play a role in strengthening the bonds between NASCAR and local tracks? It’s certainly worth a look. (Photo: Getty Images)

For all the work Harvick has done on grassroots, he could use help tightening the bonds between NASCAR and local racing. Burton, whose son, Harrison, has come up through such ranks, has seen the sport from many levels and could provide a way to work on such solutions. Earnhardt often has expressed an interest in short track racing and noted how he might just show up a track to race at some point. Short-track racing is a passion for Stewart. There are likely others who could also play a role in needed.

It’s not just grassroots racing these experienced racers could help.

A retired driver could serve as an adviser to the Drivers Council. Just as with any work-related group, a lot of good ideas can arise, but it can be difficult for those involved to take a deeper look into matters because of how busy they are. Gordon, Stewart and Earnhardt have served on the council before, although such experience shouldn’t preclude someone else, maybe someone such as Dale Jarrett or Burton or Labonte, from a role to make that group even more effective.

Whenever Sadler decides to no longer race, he is someone who could be looked at in some advisory role to help raise the Xfinity Series’ level should he want to do something like that. Sadler’s passion for the sport is evident, and his experience, even now, is invaluable for a series that gets younger each year.

One of the things NASCAR recently touted with Ben Kennedy moving into an executive role for the Camping World Truck Series is that he was coming from the driver’s seat and would lend a fresh perspective.

While NASCAR doesn’t have to hire every former driver, why not have some serve as consultants?

There are many of them out there. And there are enough issues in the sport where they could help.

2. Time’s a ticking A subtle change this season is that Friday Cup practice has been shortened at some tracks by as much as 35 minutes compared to last year.

The result is that teams spend less time in race trim — if any at all — in Friday practice because that is the only session before qualifying. That can make an impact.

“You don’t get that little bit of baseline,’’ Erik Jones told NBC Sports of not running in race setup on Friday. “We were able to take that baseline from Friday (last year) and then adjust from it from there for Saturday and maybe have a little bit better fire off. It makes the (simulator) more valuable and makes the team guys more valuable to unload well.’’

Erik Jones says less Friday practice time can prove challenging for young drivers, especially rookies. (Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Jones benefitted from the longer Friday practice sessions last year as a rookie. He often started in race setup to run multiple laps and get his braking and turning points set before his team switched to qualifying trim. But that was when teams often had 85 minutes for practice on Friday.

At Las Vegas, Friday’s practice was 30 minutes shorter than last year. Jones ran seven laps in practice this year compared to 16 a year ago.

At Phoenix, Friday’s practice was 35 minutes shorter than last year. Jones ran 10 practice laps this year compared to 16 a year ago.

Practice today at Auto Club Speedway is 35 minutes shorter than Friday’s session last year. The only concession is that the first practice Saturday will be five minutes longer than that session a year ago. Still, teams have 30 minutes less practice time for the weekend.

Jones can’t imagine the challenge Cup rookies William Byron and Darrell Wallace Jr. face with the shorter Friday sessions.

“You go to these tracks, and the Cup cars just drive so different,’’ Jones said. “You don’t really have a good idea of what you’re looking at. It’s just more valuable as a rookie to fire off in race trim and only take, hopefully, that one (qualifying) trim run you’re going to get from the time it’s going to take to switch over. There are times even now I struggle firing off in (qualifying) trim. It’s not an easy thing to do.’’

3. Which three-peat is better?

Kevin Harvick enters this weekend having won the past three races in a row.

Kyle Larson enters this weekend having won the past three races on 2-mile tracks.

Harvick’s streak was done in consecutive weekends at three different tracks – Atlanta, Las Vegas and ISM Raceway.

Larson’s streak was done at two different tracks — Michigan and Auto Club Speedway — but over a period of nearly five months.

Which streak is more impressive?

4. Fast start

Kurt Busch said before the year that a focus for the No. 41 team was stage points. With that in mind, it wasn’t surprising that crew chief Billy Scott kept Busch out during the caution just before the end of stage 2 at Phoenix last weekend. Busch won the stage but then started deep in the field.

After four races, only Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick has scored more stage points than Busch. Harvick has 53 stage points and Busch has 42. Busch had eight stage points at this time last year.

5. March Madness

With so much talk about the college basketball tournament, there’s a form of March Madness in NASCAR for many competitors.

In a way, Kevin Harvick’s hot start isn’t surprising. Seven of his 26 Cup victories since 2011 have come in March. No other month compares for him.

Harvick also can finish strong with five wins in November and four in October since 2011.

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Kurt Busch: Cup test at home track like ‘first day of school’

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Kurt Busch described the first day of NASCAR’s organizational test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway as the “first day at school” for the 2018 Cup season.

“You have a new group of guys and then there’s the same tendencies that come back into play like tire wear, engine temp,” Busch said Wednesday during a break in the test. “We’re working on pit road speed, which is a new way of doing things on our car. There’s the newness feeling that you’re working through, but it’s exciting.”

Busch was fourth on the speed chart Wednesday.

But the Stewart-Haas Racing driver doesn’t want his No. 41 team to fall into the trap of buying into any hype from the two-day test.

Because the next time the Cup Series arrives at the 1.5-mile track, it’ll be under different circumstances.

“I’m hopeful that we learn all the right things and we don’t jade ourselves in a direction that happens a lot in test sessions,” Busch. “A lot of times test sessions are cooler temperatures than when we race and track grip level is higher than when we race and you can easily get askew from what the real race day setup numbers are going to be.”

On Thursday, the projected high in Las Vegas was 72 degrees, according to wunderground.com. The first Cup race of the year at LVMS will be held March 4. According to accuweather, the historic average high for that day is 66 degrees.

But the newly added fall race, which will open the playoffs, is scheduled for Sept. 16. The historical average high for that day is 93 degrees.

Busch arrived in his hometown for the test after an offseason full of waiting for a new contract to be finalized with SHR and a change in crew chiefs for the defending Daytona 500 winner.

Billy Scott takes over for long-time crew chief Tony Gibson. Gibson now has a job overseeing car production at the SHR shop after spending the last three seasons working with Busch.

“It felt good to get the contract signed,” Busch said. “We had to go through some of the waiting period in what you would call free agency, but it wasn’t all that equivalent to such. It’s more about all the balls in the air with sponsorship, manufacturer, my agenda, the team’s agenda. It’s great to have that behind us. With Billy Scott, new crew chief, that was part of one of the things that I was looking to work on. Where’s the personnel going to fit in? Because I knew in my heart Tony Gibson … wanted to come off the road. We had to make sure we made all the right adjustments behind the scenes for that.”

Before the Cup Series returns to Las Vegas in just over a month, it begins the season at Daytona International Speedway with the Feb. 18 Daytona 500.

The 39-year-old driver will seek to become the first driver to win the Daytona 500 in back-to-back seasons since Sterling Marlin in 1994 and 1995.

“Definitely feeling the pressure for Daytona,” Busch said. “Family and friends have been asking me, ‘You won Daytona, do you feel less pressure?’ I feel more. I want to go back there and repeat and it hasn’t been done since the (mid) 90s with Sterling Marlin. That gives us that extra motivation to go there and win. Frankly, I don’t want to share any of the spoils that come with winning Daytona. I want to keep that for ourselves again.”

His win last year was his first points win on a restrictor-plate track. Entering his 18th full-time season in Cup, Busch is still looking for his first victory at his home track.

The March 4 race will mark Busch’s 17th Cup start in Las Vegas. But this year will be the first time he’s gotten two chances to win at it in one season.

“It’s never translated into home-field advantage, I’ve always struggled here in Vegas,” Busch said. “I’ve qualified well over the years but haven’t raced well.”

Busch has one top five at LVMS. That came in 2005 when he drove for Roush Fenway Racing. His average finish is 21.8.

“I’m looking to turn that around,” Busch said. “There’s no sense in having those fast laps at the beginning if you can’t back them up at the end of the race.”

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Friday 5: Questions about the upcoming Cup season

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Many places often celebrate Friday at 5 where the weekend begins. Although there’s no NASCAR Cup action this weekend, fans can still enjoy Friday 5 with a (fun) look at the upcoming season with these five questions.

1. What is the new driver/crew chief combination that is most intriguing?

Among the new driver/crew chief combinations this year:

Billy Scott with Kurt Busch at Stewart-Haas Racing

John Klausmeier with Aric Almirola at SHR

Matt Borland with Ty Dillon at Germain Racing

Greg Erwin with Paul Menard at the Wood Brothers

Travis Mack with Kasey Kahne at Leavine Family Racing

Greg Ives with Alex Bowman at Hendrick Motorsports

Darian Grubb with William Byron at Hendrick Motorsports

The one that intrigues the most is the Grubb/Byron pairing. Grubb won a championship with Tony Stewart in 2011, led Denny Hamlin to the title race in Homestead in 2014, worked with Carl Edwards in 2015 and won the 2006 Daytona 500 with Jimmie Johnson while serving as interim crew chief with Chad Knaus suspended.

Grubb has never worked with a rookie.

Byron is more than a rookie. The 20-year-old is viewed by many to be the future of Hendrick Motorsports. Grubb will play a key role in molding Byron and that’s an important responsibility. How Byron handles the highs and lows of the season will rest with Grubb. This will be worth watching closely.

2. How will Fords compete with the other manufacturers this season?

Chevrolet brings out the Camaro ZL1 this season. Toyota won 16 races with the updated Toyota Camry last year. Ford will have the oldest model among the three.

Brad Keselowski raised issues about Toyota’s success last year and NASCAR not keeping the manufactures closer. He sounded a warning about the 2018 season moments after the 2017 season finished in Homestead

“When that (Toyota) car rolled out at Daytona, and I think we all got to see it for the first time, I think there (were) two reactions: One, we couldn’t believe NASCAR approved it; and two, we were impressed by the design team over there,” Keselowski said. “I don’t think anyone ever had a shot this year the second that thing got put on the racetrack and approved. It kind of felt like Formula 1, where you had one car that made it through the gates heads and tails above everyone, and your hands are tied because you’re not allowed to do anything to the cars in those categories that NASCAR approves to really catch up.

“As to what will happen for 2018, you know, I don’t know. I would assume that Chevrolet will be allowed to design a car the same way that Toyota was for this one, but Ford doesn’t have any current plans for that. If that’s the case, we’re going to take a drubbing next year, so we’ll have to see.”

That’s the challenge Fords could face this season. Ford won 10 races last year, but only two of the final 19 races last year. Will that trend continue this season?

3. There were three first-time Cup winners in 2017. Will that number be equaled this season?

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ryan Blaney and Austin Dillon each scored their first career Cup victory last season.

Among the drivers seeking their first career Cup win this season: Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, Chase Elliott, William Byron, Alex Bowman, Ty Dillon and Darrell Wallace Jr. Those drivers represent Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Germain Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports.

It would seem a good bet that Elliott and at least one other driver on that list scores their first career Cup win this year. It’s possible there could be three first-time winners again.

4. For fun, who is your way-too-early final four picks at Homestead?

Let’s go with Kyle Larson, Martin Truex Jr., Chase Elliott and Kyle Busch.

5. For fun, in the way-too-early category, how many drivers who didn’t make the playoffs last year make it this year?

Let’s go with three. Thinking Joey Logano, Erik Jones and Alex Bowman.

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Here’s what is new in 2018 for Cup teams

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A new year brings many changes. Such is the case for NASCAR teams. Here’s a look at some of the key changes heading into the 2018 season for Cup teams that have announced drivers for this season.

(Drivers are listed in order of their car number with where they finished in the points last year)

No. 1 Jamie McMurray (12th in points in 2017)

What’s new: Chip Ganassi Racing announced Wednesday that Doug Duchardt has been hired to be the organization’s chief operating officer.

What’s the same: McMurray is back for a ninth season with the team in his second stint there. Matt McCall begins his fourth season with McMurray.

 

No. 2 Brad Keselowski (4th)

What’s new: Discount Tire moves over to be a primary sponsor of Keselowski’s car for 10 races.

What’s the same: Keselowski is back with crew chief Paul Wolfe for an eighth consecutive season.

 

No. 3 Austin Dillon (11th)

What’s new: He has only one teammate, Ryan Newman, at Richard Childress Racing, with the team cutting back to two cars for 2018.

What’s the same: Crew chief Justin Alexander is back after being paired with Dillon in May 2017.

 

No. 4 Kevin Harvick (3rd)

What’s new: Wife DeLana delivered the couple’s second child, a daughter in late December.

What’s the same: Crew chief Rodney Childers is back for a fifth season with Harvick. Since they’ve been together, they’ve won one championship, scored 14 victories and captured 13 poles.

 

No. 6 Trevor Bayne (22nd)

What’s new: AdvoCare is back but with a new paint scheme for this season. 

What’s the same: Matt Puccia is back as Bayne’s crew chief. They’ve been together since the 2016 season.

 

No. 9 Chase Elliott (5th)

What’s new: A new number for the son of Hall of Famer Bill Elliott.

What’s the same: Crew chief Alan Gustafson is back and Elliott, who enters his third Cup season, seeks his first career series win.

 

No. 10 Aric Almirola (29th)

What’s new: A new ride for Almirola, as he moves from Richard Petty Motorsports to Stewart-Haas Racing. That’s just among the many changes. Almirola also will have a new crew chief. John Klausmeier, who has been an engineer with the organization since 2009 and filled in as in interim crew chief previously, moves into that position for Almirola’s team. And a new look. Smithfield joins Almirola in the move, but its car will be black and white.

What’s the same: Even with the move, Almirola is driving a Ford again. 

 

No. 11 Denny Hamlin (6th)

What’s new: No major changes have been announced.

What’s the same: Crew chief Mike Wheeler is back for his third season with Hamlin. They’ve combined to win five races and three poles the previous two seasons.

 

No. 12 Ryan Blaney (9th)

What’s new: A new team. Blaney moves from the Wood Brothers to a third entry for Team Penske. He’ll be teammates to Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano. Team Penske purchased a charter from Roush Fenway Racing for Blaney’s car.

What’s the same: Crew chief Jeremy Bullins joins Blaney in the move from the Wood Brothers to Team Penske.

 

No. 13 Ty Dillon (24th)

What’s new: Crew chief Matt Borland joins the team from Richard Childress Racing.

What’s the same: Germain Racing remains aligned with Richard Childress Racing.

 

No. 14 Clint Bowyer (18th)

What’s new: No major changes have been announced.

What’s the same: Crew chief Mike Bugarewicz is paired with Bowyer for a second season in a row.

 

No. 17 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (13th)

What’s new: Stenhouse is no longer dating Danica Patrick

What’s the same: Crew chief Brian Pattie and Stenhouse are set to begin their second season together after winning two races and making the playoffs last season.

 

No. 18 Kyle Busch (2nd)

What’s new: No major changes have been announced.

What’s the same: This will be the fourth Cup season for crew chief Adam Stevens and Busch. They’ve won 14 races and 11 poles the past three seasons together.

 

No. 19 Daniel Suarez (20th)

What’s new: No major changes have been announced.

What’s the same: Suarez is back with Arris and Stanley as sponsors in 2018.

 

No. 20 Erik Jones (19th)

What’s new: A new driver in this car that Matt Kenseth had run the past five seasons. Also, crew chief Chris Gayle moves with Jones, the 2017 Cup rookie of the year, from Furniture Row Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing for the 2018 campaign.

What’s the same: The car has the same number as last year.

 

No. 21 Paul Menard (23rd)

What’s new: A new home for Menard, who goes from Richard Childress Racing to the Wood Brothers. Greg Erwin will be the new crew chief, taking over for Jeremy Bullins, who moves from the Wood Brothers to Team Penske with Ryan Blaney.

What’s the same: The Wood Brothers.

 

No. 22 Joey Logano (17th)

What’s new: Logano’s wife is expecting the couple’s first child in January.

What’s the same: Crew chief Todd Gordon is back for his sixth season with Logano. They’ve combined to win 16 races and 14 poles working together.

 

No. 24 William Byron (Did not race Cup in 2017)

What’s new: A new driver and new number for what had been the No. 5 team at Hendrick Motorsports. The Xfinity Series champion moves up from JR Motorsports. He’ll have Darian Grubb as his crew chief.

What’s the same: Liberty University, a longtime backer of Byron, is back as a sponsor.

 

No. 31 Ryan Newman (16th)

What’s new: No major changes have been announced.

What’s the same: Caterpillar, which has been a partner with Richard Childress Racing since 2009, will sponsor Newman’s car in select races in 2018.

 

No. 32 Matt DiBenedetto (32nd)

What’s new: No major changes have been announced.

What’s the same: DiBenedetto is back with the team for a second consecutive year.

 

No. 34 Michael McDowell (26th)

What’s new: New ride for McDowell, who moves from Leavine Family Racing to Front Row Motorsports and joins David Ragan at that organization. Front Row Motorsports also has expanded its technical alliance with Roush Fenway Racing.

What’s the same: Team remains in the Ford camp.

 

No. 37 Chris Buescher (25th)

What’s new: The team purchased a charter after leasing one last season.

What’s the same: Buescher is back for his second year with the team.

 

No. 38 David Ragan (30th)

What’s new: He has a new teammate with Michael McDowell joining the team and replacing Landon Cassill.

What’s the same: Ragan is back for his fifth season (in two stints) with Front Row Motorsports.

 

No. 41 Kurt Busch (14th)

What’s new: Is what’s old. Busch is back with Stewart-Haas Racing as is sponsor Monster Energy after his contract option was not picked up last season amid questions about sponsorship. Busch also has a new crew chief. Billy Scott moves from the No. 10 team to be Busch’s crew chief this season. Scott replaces Tony Gibson, who moves into a position at the shop.

What’s the same: The car number for Busch, who will enter his fifth season at Stewart-Haas Racing. 

 

No. 42 Kyle Larson (8th)

What’s new: A new sponsor for the Chip Ganassi Racing driver. Credit One will replace Target on the No. 42 Chevrolet in 2018. Also Larson got engaged to girlfriend Katelyn Sweet in December.

What’s the same: Larson will be teamed with crew chief Chad Johnston for a third consecutive year. They’ve combined to win five races and three poles together. 

 

No. 43 Darrell Wallace Jr. (50th)

What’s new: Wallace joins the team after running four races for Richard Petty Motorsports when Aric Almirola was injured last season. RPM also has switched from Ford to Chevrolet and formed an alliance with Richard Childress Racing and will get its engines from ECR Engines this season. Team also is adding sponsorship with Smithfield putting most of its resources with Almirola at Stewart-Haas Racing. 

What’s the same: Crew chief Drew Blickensderfer returns to be Wallace’s crew chief.

 

No. 47 AJ Allmendinger (27th)

What’s new: No major changes announced.

What’s the same: This will be Allmendinger’s fifth season with JTG Daugherty Racing.

 

No. 48 Jimmie Johnson (10th)

What’s new: No major changes announced.

What’s the same: He’s back with crew chief Chad Knaus for a 17th consecutive year.

 

No. 78 Martin Truex Jr. (1st)

What’s new: A new moniker for Truex – reigning Cup champion. Also, the team is back to a one-car operation with the shuttering of the No. 77 team.

What’s the same: Champion crew chief Cole Pearn is back to lead this team.

 

No. 88 Alex Bowman (Did not race Cup in 2017)

What’s new: Bowman takes over the former ride of Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Hendrick Motorsports.

What’s the same: Greg Ives is back as the team’s crew chief.

 

No. 95 Kasey Kahne (15th)

What’s new: Kahne joins Leavine Family Racing, replacing Michael McDowell. Travis Mack, who had been the car chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s team at Hendrick Motorsports, makes the move to be Kahne’s crew chief.

What’s the same: The car number for the team.

 

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Tony Gibson will be able to ‘make a difference’ in new role at Stewart-Haas Racing

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After 31 years, Tony Gibson will have a job in NASCAR that doesn’t send him on the road.

The former crew chief enters the 2018 season as the new production manager for Stewart-Haas Racing.

Gibson, 53, will supervise many of the departments responsible for building the cars for its four drivers, Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick, Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer. That includes the chassis, body shop and fabrication shops.

Gibson, who spent his last three seasons as a crew chief on Busch’s No. 41 Ford, detailed his new role with SHR Wednesday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive.”

“It’s great for me because I’m a hands-on guy,” Gibson said. “I love to be working on the race cars and trying to make things better. When we were talking about this over the last year or so, how we were going to make this work, I just wanted to be where I could make a difference and help. This is a great way for me to help all the teams, all four teams, and be hands-on.”

SHR announced its new crew chief pairings on Dec. 15. Succeeding Gibson on the No. 41 will be Billy Scott, who worked with Danica Patrick the last two seasons.

Early in his career, Gibson worked as a car chief for 1992 Cup champion Alan Kulwicki. His crew chief career in Cup began in 1994 for six races on the No. 44 Ford owned by Charles Hardy.

Since then, Gibson has worked 440 Cup races from the top of a pit box, earning six wins. The last was in the 2017 Daytona 500 with Busch.

Gibson has also worked with Patrick, Bill Elliott, Ryan Newman, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Mark Martin, Michael Waltrip and more.

Gibson was one of the last remaining crew chiefs who did not have a background in engineering.

“I’m not a paper guy, I’m not a computer guy” Gibson said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “I like to go out and talk to the guys and work with them and (figure out) how I can make their jobs easier. It takes some of the experience I’ve had over the last 31 years and put(s) it in play. How can I help some of these younger guys … like John Klausmeier (crew chief for Almirola) and Billy Scott and all those guys, give them a good shot at being a crew chief and making a career out of it?”

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