joe gibbs racing

Bump & Run: What to do about the All-Star Race?

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NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan, Dustin Long, Jerry Bonkowski and Daniel McFadin tackle this week’s topics as NASCAR heads toward the All-Star Race:

Is the All-Star Race still necessary on the Cup schedule since the same drivers are competing against each other every race?

Nate Ryan: It’s a fair question given that Cup races have adopted an All Star-type aesthetic with stage racing this season. I think there still is a purpose for an All-Star event in NASCAR, but there need to be hard questions asked about defining its objective and making aggressive moves in accordance with that.

Dustin Long: It is necessary if the purpose is to use it as a way to test ideas that could be transferred to points races, much like double-file restarts with lead-lap cars in both rows, the idea of stage racing or the use of a softer tire. If NASCAR goes away from that notion, then it would be better to replace the All-Star race with another points race or make it an open weekend.

Jerry Bonkowski: After more than 35 years, the All-Star Race remains a very viable and vibrant tradition that fans still love to attend or watch on TV. But it may need some revitalization going forward. How to revitalize it and draw even more interest is a fine line to balance. Most importantly — if changes do occur, keep them in place for several years to come. Fans oftentimes get confused when the race format changes from year to year.

Daniel McFadin: The Cup season is really long, so having one weekend devoted to a race just for fun, money and sometimes testing new aero packages is a welcome respite in the march from February to November. The second half of the season could use one as well.

What change would you make to the All-Star Race?

Nate Ryan: Rotate the venue, have fun with the personalities and take major chances with the competition. My feelings haven’t changed much since writing this three years ago: https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nascar/2014/05/15/nascar-sprint-all-star-race-failings-improvement-suggestions/9142915/

Dustin Long: Move it. If it’s going to stay in Charlotte, take it off the weekend and run it the Thursday night before the Coca-Cola 600 instead of Cup qualifying. The challenge in changing sites is that it is an event at an Speedway Motorsports Inc. track, so moving it would create an issue for SMI in terms of loss revenue. Until that matter gets resolved, the event will stay in Charlotte. However, I do like Jeff Burton’s idea of moving it to a short track like South Boston or someplace NASCAR used to run years ago.

Jerry Bonkowski: Would it be wise to move the race around from track to track each year, giving other facilities the opportunity to see what kind of show they can put on? Would perhaps two 20-car heat races to determine a final race of 20 for the $1 million prize be better than the Open or the fan vote? Heck, let’s shake it up even more and maybe run part of the race on Charlotte Motor Speedway’s road course, similar to this past weekend’s IndyCar Grand Prix.

Daniel McFadin: Take it on the road. The 1.5-mile tracks – and increasingly the night races at them – are the least popular venues in the sport. Hold the All-Star Race under the lights at Martinsville, Bristol or maybe even a track the Cup Series has never been to. If NASCAR wants to get back to its roots, taking its high profile exhibition race to a famous short track could do wonders. It’s worked for the Truck Series at Eldora. If you really want to have fun, throw the rulebook out on All-Star Weekend. No inspections at all (aside from lug nuts). Let the engineers go crazy and see who wins.

What’s been a surprise to you about this season so far?

Nate Ryan: That Joe Gibbs Racing doesn’t have a victory this late for the first time since 2007. It isn’t a surprise so much that a team’s performance is cyclical as much as it is that it’s been that long since JGR went winless this deep into the season. JGR seemed less competitive throughout much of the 2014 season than this year, so there shouldn’t be any reason to panic. Its depth and the success of Furniture Row Racing ensure that the team will get things sorted.

Dustin Long: Overlooked by the discussion of Joe Gibbs Racing still winless is that Kevin Harvick remains winless. He’s had at least one win by the season’s fourth race since joining Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. Also, other than Kurt Busch’s Daytona 500 victory, Stewart-Haas Racing is winless. Yes, Stewart-Haas Racing faced challenges with the switch to Ford in the offseason but did many think that the only victory that organization would have would be due to a last-lap pass because the leader ran out of fuel?

Jerry Bonkowski: Several surprises, actually. First, Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s decision to retire at season’s end. Second, Joe Gibbs Racing’s drivers have yet to reach victory lane. Third, how quickly and readily drivers have adapted to the new stages format. Lastly, Kyle Busch continues to be fast enough to win, but he’s still winless since last July’s Brickyard 400. What has JGR done with the real Kyle Busch, and who is the imposter in the No. 18?

Daniel McFadin: When I woke up the morning of April 25 to an email saying Dale Earnhardt Jr. was going to retire. Also, Earnhardt only being able to finish in the top 10 once through 11 races. 

Joe Gibbs Racing’s search for speed turns to Kansas

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Today begins a critical three-week stretch for Joe Gibbs Racing in its search for speed, particularly at 1.5-mile tracks.

Starting today at Kansas Speedway, the Cup Series competes the next three weekends at 1.5-mile tracks (Charlotte hosts the All-Star Race and Coca-Cola 600 after Kansas).

After this stretch, Cup teams will race at only once more at a 1.5-mile track before the playoffs begin in September. Five of the 10 playoff races will be on 1.5-mile tracks, including Kansas and Charlotte in the second round.

“I don’t think we’ve been as strong anywhere as we want to be,’’ Matt Kenseth said. “Certainly everybody likes to talk about the mile-and-a-halves because there are a lot of intermediate tracks. I think this will be a good test for us because it’s historically been a really good track for us as an organization the last few years.’’

In the season’s first three races on 1.5-mile tracks — Atlanta, Las Vegas and Texas — Joe Gibbs Racing has yet to lead a lap. Also, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Daniel Suarez and Kenseth have a combined average finish of 17.5 in those events.

Kenseth has two of the team’s three top 10s on such tracks with a third at Atlanta and a ninth at Las Vegas. Hamlin’s sixth-place finish at Las Vegas is the team’s only other top 10 at a 1.5-mile track this year. Busch was headed for a top-five finish at Las Vegas until his last-lap incident with Joey Logano.

“I think we need speed,’’ Hamlin said. “There’s been some racetracks where I felt like we missed it on the handling side of things, but overall I think our window is a dramatically tighter this year, having to hit our balances just right to be competitive to win races. I think that’s been kind of the difference over the last couple of years. That comes just from a lack of overall speed. Speed comes from a lot of different things. We have to go to work on each one of those things to make speed better.’’

Kansas could help cure some of those ills. Kenseth has three top 10s in the last four races there. Busch has top-five finishes in each of his last four starts there, including a win.

While Gibbs struggles to find speed, it remains winless in a season that has seen eight different winners in the first 10 races. Those drivers represent seven different organizations.

“That’s the most frustrating part for us is we just haven’t been able to get to victory lane yet, but we know we’re on the brink of it,’’ Busch said.

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Kyle Busch: After Talladega loss, going on to ‘a real race track’ in Kansas Speedway

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Kyle Busch lost the Geico 500 on a last-lap pass by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. at Talladega Superspeedway, as Busch finished third after leading a race high 48 laps. Busch was JGR’s best chance to earn its first Cup win of the season.

“When they have too big of a run, you can’t do anything about it,” Busch told Fox. “Stenhouse got a really big run and a good push and got by us there. Then it was all about retaliation and getting back on him. But I just never had enough help from behind.”

Busch remains winless since his Brickyard 400 victory last July. The drive of the No. 18 then took a shot at Talladega Superspeedway and the type of racing it hosts.

“It’s all circumstantial on how you win these things,” Busch said. “Unfortunately, our circumstances didn’t quite go our way. We go to a real race track next week (Kansas Speedway) and try to win there.”

Bump & Run: Is Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s back against wall after slow start?

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Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte, who appear on NASCAR America from 5:30 – 6 p.m. ET today, join Nate Ryan and Dustin Long, to answer this week’s questions.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has finished 30th or worse in five on the season’s first nine races and is 24th in the points. How much is his back against the wall a third of the way through the regular season?

Steve Letarte: Going into Talladega, it’s really hard to answer this question because Dale has to be looking at this as a huge opportunity to get to Victory Lane, and I think a win cures everything in the current format.

I don’t think it’s time to panic yet, but when NBC comes on the air on the Fourth of July weekend, which will be the last restrictor-plate race before the playoffs, if they’re still on the outside looking in without a win, I think the pressure heading into that weekend will be huge. Not pressing the panic button yet, but I think there’s more importance on this Talladega race weekend for the 88 than maybe in years past.

Jeff Burton: I’d say it’s very much against the wall. It’s putting him in a position of having to win. They’re getting to that position where they have to find a way to win if they want to get themselves in the playoffs. Points are becoming more difficult to get. I think it puts a lot of pressure on Talladega. I think it puts a lot of pressure on Daytona. I think it puts a lot of pressure where he typically is really good.

Nate Ryan: It’s must-win, and Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway might loom as his best opportunity for making the playoffs in his final season. Daytona in July also will offer another strong shot, but it’s hard to point at another track beyond those two as a strong possibility for a breakthrough victory. He can win anytime he starts at Talladega and Daytona (and probably had a car to win the 2017 Daytona 500 before wrecking). 

Part of the problem here is the struggles of Hendrick Motorsports. All four of its cars were out to lunch (and mostly outside the top 10) at Richmond. That will preclude the hope of success at most unrestricted tracks and also virtually negates any hope of Earnhardt making the playoffs on points. However, if the team quickly can hit on something and get it implemented in its Chevrolets, Earnhardt historically has run well at Dover, Michigan and Pocono. But there are other tracks (Sonoma, Watkins Glen, Darlington, Charlotte) where an out-of-the-blue win seems much less likely.

Dustin Long: There’s still plenty of time to make the playoffs. Hey, Tony Stewart missed the first eight races last year and made the playoffs, and Kyle Busch missed the first 11 races in 2015 and won the title.

It’s not about making the playoffs at Hendrick, though, it’s about winning championships. With the new points structure, his back is against the wall because he’s falling further behind drivers who have scored playoff points via stage wins or race wins. Those playoff points likely will play a key role in who advances throughout the playoffs. Earnhardt has work to do, but there is some time.

Denny Hamlin, noting the struggles Joe Gibbs Racing has had this year, said that this weekend’s restrictor-plate race at Talladega is “honestly, probably the best chance I have at winning until a few months from now.’’ Do you agree with his assessment?

Steve Letarte: I think that’s a veteran driver deflecting some of the pressure off his team or trying to motivate his team, I’m not sure which. I think they’re closer to winning than Denny is letting on, but he’s also the only guy behind the wheel that knows how his car is driving. Perhaps he’s trying to just define how aggressive he’s going to be at Talladega pre-showing up for the event. I don’t think Joe Gibbs Racing is that far off, but he did say a couple of months and not a couple of years. A couple of months is only the middle of the summer. I would expect to see Joe Gibbs Racing winning races before the playoffs.

Jeff Burton: Things change. I think if you look at the year as a whole, I think you could say that. Watch the last year with Jimmie Johnson. Good race car drivers and good race teams find a way to make things happen. So, yes, I think that’s a fair statement. Three weeks from now, we could be talking about Denny Hamlin winning two in a row. I never trust the pessimism of a driver.

Nate Ryan: Well, this is the guy who picked North Carolina to beat Gonzaga in the NCAA championship before this year’s tournament began.  

Hamlin knows the cars well and also is known for speaking accurately and bluntly when asked to provide an assessment. He probably is right that it will be until late summer – Joe Gibbs Racing probably is aiming for the Brickyard – before Toyota Racing Development and the team roll out the next generation of good stuff that will lift the organization back into weekly contention.

This season feels very similar to 2014 when JGR muddled through and won only two races (including one for Hamlin at … Talladega). That remains fresh in the drivers’ minds, and it probably informs some of why Hamlin is gauging the improvement over months instead of weeks.

Dustin Long: Yes. I think the three races after Talladega — Kansas, the All-Star race and the Coca-Cola 600 will be critical for Hamlin and Joe Gibbs Racing since all those races are on 1.5-mile tracks. The key is to show improvement to build throughout the summer.

Since JGR placed all four drivers in the top 10 at Texas in November (Carl Edwards won), the organization has not had a top-five finish in the four races at 1.5-mile tracks since. Admittedly, Kyle Busch was in place to finish in the top five at Las Vegas before the last-lap incident with Joey Logano but it’s clear JGR has work to do on these tracks.

Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. hold the final two playoff spots after nine of 26 races in the regular season. Do you think either of them will make the playoffs?

Steve Letarte: I think one Roush Fenway car has odds to make the playoffs. I don’t think there’s room for two even though they hold those spots now. I think we haven’t seen everyone win who we will see win, and that is going to change the playoff picture. I’m not sure they have winning speed yet, but if they can continue to run like they are, show some consistency and really continue to move the ball forward is the key. Where they’re currently at is barely making the playoffs. If they continue to improve, maybe one of them can solidly make the playoffs.

Jeff Burton: I think the best chance for them to make the playoffs is to not have a lot of new winners. The more people that get in by points, the better chance they have of getting in by points. They have shown definitely an uptick in performance, but they haven’t shown winning speed. If you say they have to get in by winning, I think that starts to be problematic for them. I think one of them gets in by points. I think it will be difficult for both of them to get in by points.

Nate Ryan: One of them will: Stenhouse. His improvement is real, and he finally seems to have blended the raw talent with wise decision-making. His rally from an early spin to another top 10 at Richmond (fourth) shows the moxie in his game this season – just like his bump on Kyle Busch at the end of Stage 2 at Martinsville Speedway.

The key will be if Roush Fenway can keep building fast Fords to keep pace. Last year, the team fell off a cliff after May.

Dustin Long: Admittedly, it’s hard to see both making it at this point. That said, I like what I’ve seen from this organization. It is making steady progress.

Roush hasn’t shown the speed to contend for wins. Instead, they’ve taken advantage of some pit calls to score strong finishes. Key is to avoid trouble and bad days. If they can be consistent — and as Nate notes, they struggled after May last year — then Roush could have a car in the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

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

Christopher Bell’s first laps in Xfinity car a ‘dream come true’

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CONCORD, N.C – The No. 18 has a long, storied history with Joe Gibbs Racing, dating back to the team’s first win in the 1993 Daytona 500.

The numeral has been associated with champions Dale Jarrett, Bobby Labonte and Kyle Busch. But for about seven hours Tuesday, the number belonged to Christopher Bell.

The 22-year-old driver made his first laps in a Xfinity Series car as part of a series test at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

The 2016 Camping World Truck Series Rookie of the Year called the experience of driving for JGR “a dream come true.”

As part of a joint test day with the Truck Series, Bell’s first spin in the car took place a day after the team announced he would drive in seven Xfinity races this year, beginning May 27 at Charlotte.

“I’d never would have foreseen myself running in the Xfinity Series,” Bell told NBC Sports and the Performance Motorsports Network shortly after exiting the car after a run. “So to be able to do it for Joe Gibbs is very special.”

In the morning session of the seven-hour test, Bell logged 71 laps around the 1.5-mile track. The only other driver to complete more was rookie Cole Custer with 83. Bell was 15th fastest at 180.747 mph.

“It reminds me more of the Super Late Model stuff, I think that’s the biggest difference,” said Bell of his first impressions of the Xfinity car compared to the Truck Series. “They’re a lot more lively, a lot more responsive than the trucks. It’s going to take some getting used to.”

Bell has three wins in the Truck Series, including last March at Atlanta. Last season he made the championship four and was the only driver in it born after 1980.

The Oklahoma native said his time in the car Tuesday was about “having fun” and “getting laps.”

“Obviously, JGR is one of the best teams around,” Bell said. “As far as car-wise, I don’t think there’s too much to learn out here. It’s just me getting the hang of it.”