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Toyota executive: Low downforce, not new car bodies, root of early season problems

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A Toyota Racing Development executive says the manufacturer “not sweating the numbers in terms of wins” after 11 races in the NASCAR Cup season.

David Wilson, president of TRD, also said NASCAR’s new low downforce package is more to blame for the lack of wins than Toyota’s new Camry bodies, which debuted a new nose design this season.

“Overall, we’re pleased with its performance,” Wilson said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s Tradin’ Paint. “I know when we came out of the gate a little slower than normal, human nature is you point to what’s different. ‘Well, they’ve got that new Camry.’ Honestly guys, that’s really not been the biggest contributor. I think adjusting to the lower downforce stuff; our aero program the past couple of years has been so strong and the amount of work we put into more downforce, more downforce, more downforce.”

Through 11 races, Toyota has two Cup wins, both coming with Furniture Row Racing’s Martin Truex Jr., at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and last Saturday at Kansas Speedway.

Toyota’s flagship team, Joe Gibbs Racing, hasn’t visited victory lane since last fall’s race at Texas Motor Speedway with Carl Edwards.

While Truex leads the series in stage wins with five, Joe Gibbs Racing only has four combined stage wins among its four drivers.

Also, all four drivers — Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Daniel Suarez — have combined for just seven top fives.

Wilson’s observation of the impact of the lower downforce package goes back to last season when the series tested a variation of this years’ lower downforce package in both Michigan races and at Kentucky Speedway.

In those races, JGR only recorded one top five (Carl Edwards, Kentucky) and four top 10s. Truex added a fifth for Furniture Row Racing. The Gibbs’ teams earned 46 top fives in all of 2016.

“When NASCAR cuts a thousand pounds or so off (the car), it kinds of eats into our competitive margin we spent so much time and energy building up,” Wilson said. “We’re working on a number of things. Mechanical grip, we need our cars to turn through the center of the corners a little bit better and just aero, not just downforce.”

Hamlin said two weeks ago at Richmond International Raceway that it would take more than a month for Joe Gibbs Racing’s problems to fixed.

“Some things are going to take a long time for us to get better at, but I’m very confident that when push comes to shove, we’re in September starting the (playoffs), we should be hopefully back where we were, if not better,” Hamlin said.

With the next points race a week away, there are only two Toyota teams in the top 10 in points. Truex is second, 44 points behind Kyle Larson. Busch is seventh, 150 points back. Denny Hamlin the next highest Toyota driver in 12th.

“We tend to get a little frustrated because we set the bar so high,” Wilson said. “Coming off the past two seasons, we have good cause to set that bar pretty high as we ran pretty darn well.

“What we have to keep in perspective, we’re leading a lot of laps. It’s one thing if we’re not bringing the wins home at the end of the day when we’re not leading laps. It’s another when we’re leading a lot of laps, we’e just not closing. We fall victim to whether it’s a pit miscue or just bad luck. We’re not sweating the numbers in terms of wins. We’ve won as many stages as any manufacturer. Just not enough of the third stage.”

The top Toyota teams of Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing – which are part of a technical alliance – have led 1, 367 laps. Truex (536) and Busch (521) lead the series.

“On the whole, we feel pretty good about where we are,” said of the Toyota program at the All-Star break. “This next stretch, we said to ourselves before Kansas, this is a very important part of the season because we’re going to hit these tracks where we’re going to come back during the playoffs.

“So Kansas, Charlotte, Dover and that’s going to be obviously important that we do well and are able to keep our performance high, because those are going to be somewhat predictive of our playoff performance.”

The Charlotte and Dover races have swapped spots on the schedule. Last year, Truex dominated and won the Coke 600 and Kenseth then won at Dover. Toyota didn’t visit victory lane again until New Hampshire with Kenseth, six races after Charlotte.

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Tonight’s Cup race at Kansas: Start time, weather, TV/radio info

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Joe Gibbs Racing, which had driver Kyle Busch win this event last year, looks for its first Cup victory of the season tonight at Kansas Speedway. This is the latest into a season Joe Gibbs Racing has gone without scoring a win since 2007 when it did not win until the season’s 17th race.

Here are the particulars for the race:

(All times are ET)

START: Command for drivers to start engines will be at 7:42 p.m. The green flag is scheduled for 7:52 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is scheduled for 267 laps (400.5 miles) around the 1.5-mile track.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 80. Stage 2 ends on Lap 160.

PRERACE SCHEDULE: The Cup garage opens at 1 p.m. The drivers meeting is at 5:30 p.m. Driver introductions are at 6:55 p.m.

NATIONAL ANTHEM: The Anthem will be performed at 7:36 p.m.

TV/RADIO: Fox Sports 1 will broadcast the race at 7:30 p.m. with its coverage beginning at 7 p.m. Motor Racing Network will broadcast the race on radio and at mrn.com. MRN’s coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry MRN’s broadcast.

FORECAST: The wunderground.com site predicts 75 degrees at race time with a 2 percent chance of rain.

LAST YEAR: Kyle Busch led 69 laps en route to the win. Kevin Harvick placed second. Kurt Busch was third. Martin Truex Jr. led a race-high 172 laps but finished 14th after a pit issue.

LAST TIME: Kevin Harvick led 74 laps on the way to winning. Carl Edwards was second. Joey Logano placed third. Matt Kenseth led a race-high 116 laps but finished ninth.

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for Cup starting lineup

Long: Ricky Stenhouse Jr., his father savor Victory Lane after challenges getting there

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Racers, father and son, both had their dramatic victories Sunday.

After Ricky Stenhouse Jr. held off Jamie McMurray and Kyle Busch on the final lap to earn his first career Cup victory, his father faced as daunting a challenge in his race to Victory Lane.

Perched on an RV along the backstretch, Ricky Stenhouse Sr. sought the quickest path to Victory Lane.

He tried to climb the fence to cross the backstretch.

When Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won his first ARCA race in 2008 at Kentucky Speedway, father and son climbed opposite sides of a fence to celebrate together.

This time, the father, who is in his early 60s, couldn’t make it up the fence.

So he started running along a perimeter road to a place to cross the track but security stopped him. Excited and emboldened by a day in the Talladega sunshine watching stock cars scream by at nearly 200 mph, he was in a fever pitch to get to his son.

Once he told security whom he was, a phone call was made to the track’s director of security. Soon, he was taken to Victory Lane.

“Everything that I know about racing, I learned from him,’’ Ricky Stenhouse Jr. said. “I’m glad he was able to be here in Victory Lane.’’

Ricky Stenhouse Sr. joined a celebration a few years in the making.

It was Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s first Cup win in 158 starts. It ended Roush Fenway Racing’s 101-race winless drought that went back to 2014.

Until this season, Roush Fenway Racing had become a cautious tale. Lack of performance and sponsorship had knocked the once-mighty team down.

The organization, which has won 136 Cup races and two titles, downsized from three teams to two before this season — the first time Roush has run only two cars since 1995.

A team that put all five cars in NASCAR’s Chase in 2005, has seen a decline in recent years.

Matt Kenseth left after the 2012 season. Carl Edwards left after the 2014 season. Greg Biffle’s ride went away after last year, leaving Stenhouse and Trevor Bayne.

Both endured mighty struggles. Stenhouse, the 2013 rookie of the year, never has had more than six top-10 finishes in a season. Sunday’s win was his fifth top 10 of the year.

“I think you go through that so long that you almost lose a little — all your confidence,’’ Stenhouse said of the struggles in Cup. “You know, we would have good runs here and there that would kind of boost that confidence back up and get everybody kind of energized again, and then we would kind of lose it.’’

A good run at the beginning of the race helped him at the end Sunday. Stenhouse started on the pole and led the first 13 laps. He watched how Brad Keselowski, running second, maneuvered his car to keep others behind them in overtime.

Jimmie Johnson pushed him by Busch for the lead in Turn 1. Johnson was set to attack, but McMurray squeezed between Johnson and Busch instead of giving the No. 48 car the push it needed to take the lead.

Stenhouse blocked McMurray low. Stenhouse blocked Busch high.

“My spotter was telling me everywhere to go, and there at the end, I felt like I was needing to block (McMurray), but (Busch) was coming, so I was kind of back and forth, didn’t know which one to pick,’’ Stenhouse said. “You know, my spotter told me to pick the top, block (Busch).’’

Stenhouse crossed the finish line first. He did it at a track where he failed in qualify in 2014 after a bizarre set of circumstances that later led to a rule change.

“I remember sitting in the bus watching this race and knowing that this is a racetrack that we’ve had good success at,’’ he said. “It feels awesome to get the first win here.’’

It felt even better to celebrate it with his father after his dad’s circuitous path to Victory Lane.

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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.

Upon Further Review: Joey Logano’s rise since 2013 nearly unmatched

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Joey Logano arrived to NASCAR amid enormous expectations.

And cake.

Joe Gibbs Racing celebrated Logano’s 18th birthday with a press conference and cake at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2008. The occasion was about possibilities with thoughts of how the heralded youngster might reshape the sport as Jeff Gordon did.

Less than three weeks later, Logano won at Kentucky Speedway in his third Xfinity Series start. He won as a Cup rookie the following year at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Such moments, though, were rare. Hurt by NASCAR’s decision to ban testing, Logano struggled in taking over Tony Stewart’s ride. Logano struggled with leading a team that included crew members old enough to be his father. Logano struggled with confidence that waned as results yo-yoed.

After four mediocre seasons, the struggles proved to be too much. Joe Gibbs Racing replaced Logano with Matt Kenseth.

Sunday, in his 300th career Cup start, Logano celebrated his 18th victory. After being applauded for the accomplishment, Logano sounded a measured tone.

“Eighteen out of 300 doesn’t sound very good, does it?’’ he said. “But the first 150 were pretty bad.’’

No argument there but if you look at the last 150 Cup races — dating to the Bristol spring race in March 2013 — Logano has one of the sport’s best records.

Only Jimmie Johnson (21 wins) has more victories during that time than Logano (16), who is tied with Kevin Harvick. No driver has more top-five finishes (71) and top 10s (103) than Logano. Not even Johnson, Harvick, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski can top Logano.

The 2015 Daytona 500 winner is doing this at age 26. And he’s signed with Team Penske through at least 2022, creating the stability that can help a driver flourish. In this era of competitors retiring in their early 40s, Logano still figures to have 16 years or so in the series.

If he averages three wins a year during the next 16 seasons — he’s averaged 3.2 wins a season the previous five years — he’d be 10 shy of Dale Earnhardt’s total of 76 career wins.

If Logano averages 3.5 wins a year over the next 16 seasons, he’d be two shy of Earnhardt’s total.

Former champion Dale Jarrett says that Logano has the hard-charging mindset similar to Earnhardt in that “you have the position that he wants.’’

With Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart retiring, Carl Edwards stepping away and Dale Earnhardt Jr. leaving after this season, there’s a greater chance for Logano to become one of the sport’s signature drivers the next decade and beyond.

To make that leap, Logano needs championships. That doesn’t mean he’ll become a fan favorite — it’s hard to imagine at this point the crowd at Martinsville showering him with as much love as they gave Kenseth the day Kenseth wrecked Logano in retaliation for their incident at Kansas in 2015 — but if he can collect multiple titles, Logano could become a lightning rod that will have fans, whether they like him or not, paying attention.

He’s one of three drivers to make it to the championship race twice in the last years. The others are Harvick and Busch.

But before one places Logano on the pedestal with some of the sport’s greats, challenges remain. As the sport goes through this transition, it creates opportunities for other drivers.

Some young drivers are getting off to faster starts than Logano. In Logano’s first 150 races, he had two wins, 16 top fives and 41 top 10s.

Kyle Larson has topped Logano’s totals in 120 races. Larson has two wins, 25 top fives and 48 top 10s. Chase Elliott, who has run 50 races, is winless but has 13 top fives and 23 top 10s.

When Johnson moved to Cup, he had one win in what is the Xfintiy Series. No one thought he’d tie Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt with seven championships. Maybe Logano is the next Johnson. Or maybe the next Johnson is just starting in Cup. Or yet to race in Cup.

Either way, Logano is on a path that could see him in the top 10 in career wins when he climbs from the car a last time.

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