Ryan: Can the Kevin and Jimmie Show deliver drama for NASCAR?

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Jimmie Johnson vs. Kevin Harvick doesn’t meet any definition as the cantankerous and combustible sort of rivalry upon which NASCAR was built.

The past two champions of the Sprint Cup Series and the two best drivers on the circuit this season essentially are de-facto teammates who compete under different banners. The Chevys that carried Harvick to the 2014 title feature the same chassis and engines produced by Hendrick Motorsports that delivered Johnson to six championships.

Johnson and Harvick both hail from California and followed remarkably similar routes to stardom, crashing on the same sectional couch at Camping World Truck Series champion Ron Hornaday Jr.’s house in Mooresville, N.C., 18 years ago as both tried to make inroads in NASCAR.

There is scarce history of contentiousness between them in the manner of the hotheaded highlights that are a hallmark of Harvick’s feisty career as a perpetual firebrand.

But if you’re seeking fireworks this season in Sprint Cup, it might be the best hope.

Johnson and Harvick are tied for the series lead in victories, and they have dominated the 1.5-mile speedways that comprise 11 of the 36 races (and half the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup).

It’s been six races and six months since a 1.5-mile winner other than Johnson (who has won two in a row at Texas and at Atlanta Motor Speedway in March) or Harvick (who won at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway last year and Las Vegas Motor Speedway last month).

While divergent tire strategies made for some entertaining scrambling in the last 30 laps of Johnson’s victory Saturday night in the Duck Commander 500, there also was an air of inevitability. Johnson and Harvick combined to lead 224 of 334 laps at Texas.

The battle was for best in class among drivers without Hendrick horsepower. They led 47 laps (46 between Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano; Richard Childress Racing’s Paul Menard paced the other circuit).

A week after ending a 10-month winless drought with Denny Hamlin at Martinsville Speedway, Toyota didn’t lead a lap at Texas and claimed a 10th by Carl Edwards as its top finisher.

“Stats don’t lie, and the stats say that those guys or really anyone with a Hendrick engine or chassis is going to be capable of winning right now,” Hamlin said after an 11th at Texas. “We just can’t drive through the field like what those guys are capable of, and we’re a work in progress.”

Hamlin believes his Joe Gibbs Racing team will find that speed before the Chase for the Sprint Cup begins in five months. But it’s hardly a contest for now, and that’s changed the dynamic of the series from recent seasons.

Last year, it was Penske vs. Hendrick battling in a weekly sequence of memorable battles. In 2013, Hamlin and Logano were sniping as the season opened with five different winners.

Such verve has been relatively absent this season.

Heading into the April 19 race at Bristol Motor Speedway, the 0.533-mile oval where scores often are settled or feuds are started, there is a decided dearth of ill will. It’s been replaced by the resignation of everyone trying to catch Johnson and Harvick. Even Logano just shrugged his shoulders after being punted aside late in the Texas race by Harvick, whom he engaged in a preseason shouting match at Daytona.

There didn’t seem much friction Saturday between the top two finishers, either. Johnson masterly seized the lead by swooping around Jamie McMurray, who had been busy frustrating Harvick from the front.

Crew chief Chad Knaus actually angered Johnson by chiding his driver for being “a gentleman racer” in choosing not to block Harvick early in the event.

This doesn’t completely discount the potential for a decent skirmish between the top two drivers on the Chase grid. It isn’t on the level of Richard Petty vs. David Pearson, but there have been some flare-ups between Johnson and Harvick.

Johnson once angrily called on team owner Richard Childress to fire Harvick for triggering a multicar crash in a Gatorade Duel at Daytona International Speedway a decade ago. And it was Harvick who said five years ago that Johnson and his team had “a golden horseshoe stuck up their ass,” coining a term that became synonymous with the championship dominance of the No. 48 Chevrolet.

Harvick relishes playing mind games, and his devious sense of humor poked through when he was pressed on why Johnson’s car was so good.

“Maybe they drilled more holes in their tires than we did,” Harvick said with a joking reference to NASCAR’s investigation into tire manipulation that has been the season’s biggest controversy. “I don’t know.”

Fighting words? Not really.

But for now, it’s the best fight NASCAR has to offer.

Stage points crucial at Las Vegas in Round of 12

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Former champion Brad Keselowski views Sunday’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN) as the “second most important” to win during the season after the championship race, “because these next two weeks are very difficult to prepare for.”

What’s so difficult about the two races after Las Vegas?

Two-thirds of the Round of 12 are made up of Talladega and the Charlotte Roval: a superspeedway known for its wild multi-car wrecks and a road course that can prove unpredictable.

“The biggest thing I’ve been thinking about is the playoff bonus points and winning in Vegas,” Keselowski said. “The best thing we can do to control our own destiny is to go win Vegas and then Talladega just becomes what it is. It’s the same thing with the Roval, so we’re hopeful to just kind of not have to worry about it that way by scoring a win. If we’re not able to do that, I’d like to get a few more playoff bonus points with stages for those races and that would help a bunch, but, certainly, this round presents a lot of challenges for us.”

If anyone knows the importance of winning early in a round, it’s Keselowski. His victory two weeks ago at Richmond benefitted him in the cutoff race a Bristol when power steering issues resulted in a 34th-place finish.

Chase Elliott, who has won at both Talladega and the Roval in previous seasons, has a similar view to Keselowski.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver said “we would be messing up to already be looking ahead to Talladega,” later adding, “the way I kind of look at it is I’m probably going to crash – I think that’s just the odds.”

Were everything to go right for a driver, they can earn up to 20 stage points in the first two stages of a race.

“So, I think everybody knows how important stages are and what they can mean, especially stage wins,” Elliott said. “Getting that extra bonus point is a huge thing, too. I think everybody knows that and that’s certainly a game that’s been played. I don’t know that it was as much played that very first year that we had (playoff and stage points), but really ever since that first year, I think it has been known and everybody really gets that. And it’s just gotten more and more aggressive.”

Focusing on Vegas is key for Elliott because it’s been a “super hit or miss” track for him. In seven career starts, he has two top fives and four finishes of 26th or worse.

“We’ve crashed a bunch out there (three DNFs) and had some really bad finishes,” Elliott said. “That would be a fantastic opportunity, I think, to have a solid day.”

Kurt Busch noted that you could arguably view Las Vegas as “standard” when it comes to pit strategy and racing. But Busch provided a reminder of what happened earlier this year at Texas Motor Speedway.

“A place like Vegas fits into a track like Texas, as well; where you can change just left side tires like we saw Austin Dillon do to win the Texas race earlier this year,” Busch said. “So, there are all the different strategies and different things playing out.”

The four drivers eliminated after the Round of 16 – William Byron, Cole Custer, Ryan Blaney and Matt DiBenedetto – scored a combined six stage points. All of them were earned by Byron.

Busch observed that just because four teams have been eliminated from the playoffs doesn’t mean there’s four less cars in the field vying for points.

“There are two Hendrick cars now not in the playoffs, but they’re fast,” Busch said of Byron and Jimmie Johnson. “Same thing with (Joe) Gibbs (Racing). You’ve got the No. 20 car, Erik Jones, not in the playoffs but he’s fast. Those are points that those guys could take away from the contenders that are still left in the situations they’re in. So, you’ve just got to race hard and race smart. There are three ways to get points each and every weekend: Stage 1, Stage 2, and the finish of the race. And, that happens at all the race tracks.”

Of the 12 remaining drivers left in the playoffs, here’s how many stage points they earned in the first round.

Most Stage Points Earned in 2020 Playoffs:

Chase Elliott  – 35
Kevin Harvick – 33
Martin Truex Jr.  – 32
Kyle Busch  – 31
Alex Bowman – 29
Joey Logano  – 28
Denny Hamlin  – 26
Kurt Busch – 22
Austin Dillon – 22
Brad Keselowski – 21
Aric Almirola – 7
Clint Bowyer – 4

NASCAR fines Hendrick Motorsports $100,000

NASCAR fines
Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
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NASCAR has fined Hendrick Motorsports $100,000 for exceeding the amount of wind tunnel testing allowed this season.

NASCAR also announced that it had deducted 10 hours of wind tunnel testing from the organization for the 2020-21 amount allowed.

Hendrick Motorsports will not appeal the penalty. The team reported the violation to NASCAR.

The Cup Rule Book states in section 5.3.e that organizations are allocated 150 hours to be used on cars through Dec. 31, 2021 with a maximum usage of 70 hours in 2020 and a maximum usage of 90 hours in 2021. NASCAR states that testing hours are defined as billable hours reported by the wind tunnel to NASCAR. The minimum test period is four hours. Wind tunnel testing of Next Gen cars by individual organizations will not be permitted.

The L2 penalty comes with a fine of at least $100,000 and no more than $200,000.

NASCAR also announced two fines for lug nut violations last weekend at Bristol.

In the Xfinity Series, crew chief Bruce Schlicker was fined $5,000 for the No. 10 car of Ross Chastain having one lug nut not safe and secure after the race.

In the Truck Series, crew chief Kevin Bellicourt was fined $2,500 for the No. 19 truck of Derek Kraus having one lug nut not safe and secure after the race.

 

Carson Hocevar to run full Truck schedule in 2021

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Niece Motorsports has signed Carson Hocevar to run the full NASCAR Truck schedule in 2021, the team announced Thursday.

Hocevar, who turns 18 in January, has run five races for the team this season. His best finish this year is 12th at Dover. He’s scheduled to run at Martinsville on Oct. 30.

“I’m so excited to get the opportunity to race fulltime next year with the Niece Motorsports group,” said Hocevar in a statement. “We’ve had some really strong runs in the few starts that we’ve had this season and I am grateful for the chance to continue that next year. I’ve learned so much already this year and know that we will keep improving next year too.”

“Carson has really impressed us this season,” said team owner Al Niece in a statement. “He’s proven his talent – getting into the truck with no track time and really holding his own. We’re thrilled to have him with us fulltime next season and look forward to contending for wins together.”

TikTok to sponsor Ryan Vargas in six Xfinity races

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JD Motorsports
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TikTok is coming to NASCAR.

The popular video sharing app will break into the sport next month as a sponsor of Ryan Vargas in the Xfinity Series.

TikTok has partnered with JD Motorsports to sponsor the 20-year-old Vargas in the final six races of the season, beginning with the Oct. 3 race at Talladega Superspeedway.

“TikTok has provided me with an incredible outlet to reach new fans and demographics through fun and creative content, and I’ve seen the highest growth in followers on TikTok over my other social channels,” Vargas said in a press release. “The opportunity to run the No. 6 TikTok Chevrolet Camaro in the NASCAR Xfinity Series for the rest of the season is an absolute dream come true. Johnny Davis and the whole JD Motorsports with Gary Keller team took a chance on me last year and I’m excited to bring this amazing TikTok partnership their way. I wouldn’t want to make this partnership a reality anywhere else.”

Vargas has made three Xfinity Series starts this year. His best finish was 13th at Pocono.

The sponsor deal is part of TikTok’s Latinx Heritage Month programming.

A native of La Mirada, California, Vargas joined TikTok last year. He is a former member of NASCAR’s Drive 4 Diversity programming and a winner of the Wendell Scott Trailblazer award, which is given to a minority or female driver who displays exceptional on-track performance, sportsmanship, and community service.

The partnership and paint scheme were inspired by a concept scheme by graphic designer Ryan Pistana, a friend of Vargas’.

“Creators of all sizes and backgrounds show up to TikTok with their genuine, authentic selves,” Nick Tran, TikTok’s Head of Global Marketing, said in a press release. “Partnering with an iconic brand like NASCAR to sponsor Ryan Vargas on his racing journey is a way for us to continue to support, celebrate and elevate the diverse creators that make our TikTok community what it is today. Ryan is an incredible athlete, and we’re looking forward to cheering him on alongside the rest of the TikTok community!”

According to CNBC in August, TikTok has roughly 100 million monthly users, up nearly 800% from January 2018.

TikTok, a Chinese-owned company, has been in national headlines recently after President Donald Trump threatened to ban the app in the United States for national security reasons if it was not sold to an American company. On Sept. 19 he approved a deal for its U.S operations to be operated by Oracle and Walmart.