Ryan: Erik Jones’ Sprint Cup ‘debut’ will be remembered even without the official recognition

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BRISTOL, Tenn. – At roughly 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Erik Jones was lounging on his couch in Cornelius, N.C., plotting a nap during a Sprint Cup rain delay, when the text arrived.

Could the teenager hustle to Bristol Motor Speedway to be on standby for an ailing Denny Hamlin?

The next six hours mostly were a blur for Jones, who packed a bag, hopped a 35-minute plane flight to Tennessee, helicoptered to the track and entered Hamlin’s No. 11 team hauler to meet with crew chief Dave Rogers 20 minutes before the race returned to green at 6:50 p.m. after a nearly four-hour stoppage.

“I’ve never talked to Erik in my life before he walked in the door, and I said, ‘Hi I’m Dave, crew chief of the 11. Change into your firesuit and let’s go racing,’ ” Rogers told NBC Sports after the race, smiling broadly while standing beside his team’s mostly unblemished Camry. “He looked at me and said, ‘Are you serious?’ I’m dead serious.

“He had no clue. I had my engineer tell him the chance was 15 percent he would drive. He thought he was coming up to watch Denny drive.”

Jones scrambled into a firesuit, signed a Sprint Cup license and climbed into the No. 11 Toyota. There was time to hear roughly 15 seconds of advice from Hamlin, who was out with neck spasms after completing 22 laps.

It was the first time in Jones’ life he’d been behind the wheel of a Cup car.

No tests. No practices. No laps.

And so began what could be an illustrious career in NASCAR’s premier series – though the record won’t reflect it.

Because Hamlin started the race and was credited for the finish, Jones wasn’t recognized in the official box score for the Food City 500 In Support of Steve Byrnes. But for Jones, who broke through with his first Xfinity Series victory a week earlier at Texas Motor Speedway and has four Camping World Truck Series wins, it might have been a career highlight.

Jones piloted Hamlin’s car to a 26th-place finish while being indoctrinated in the unfriendly confines of Bristol, the high-banked 0.533-mile oval that requires lightning-quick reflexes while navigating a physically punishing and incessantly treacherous environment.

Oh, and while battling a field of stock-car superstars

“It’s literally the comparative of playing college football vs. the NFL,” said Jones, who will turn 19 next month. “Obviously you have 10 cars that can win in the Xfinity Series. In this deal, you have 20 to 25 cars. It’s a totally different level of competition. It’s really cut-throat. Nobody gives you an inch. Nobody gives you a break.”

If that weren’t enough to overcome, there also was a matter of getting comfortable in the cockpit. Though they are roughly the same size, Hamlin’s steering wheel painfully pinched against Jones’ arms.

Dropping from fifth to 37th for the restart, Jones quickly fell two laps off the pace and was rear-ended by Brett Moffitt while trying to weave through the stop-and-go traffic that is a hallmark of Bristol.

But after about 100 laps, his lap times stabilized and began to accelerate. Rogers radioed during a caution on Lap 169, “You’re doing a remarkable job. I can’t think of a worse position to put you in.”

“I’m really proud of Erik,” Rogers said. “He did a phenomenal job. I think the biggest thing was to manage our expectations, and he met all of them. He got faster throughout the race. He moved around. He learned different lines. You could see the confidence growing all race long.”

Said Jones, who finished six laps down: “I learned a ton. I wish we could start the night over and do it all again. I can’t wait to hopefully try it again.”

The Byron, Mich., native likely will have his wish granted soon. As reported by NASCAR Talk in February, Joe Gibbs Racing’s plan is to have Jones in Kyle Busch’s No. 18 Toyota for a Sprint Cup debut May 9 at Kansas Speedway.

Busch remains indefinitely sidelined by injuries from his crash in the Xfinity season opener at Daytona International Speedway. Under contract to JGR, Jones already has picked up many of Busch’s Xfinity races, and team owner Joe Gibbs strongly hinted last week that Jones will be in a Cup car soon.

He sounded even more assured after Bristol, where Jones dodged several multicar wrecks and finished ahead of Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr., Kasey Kahne, Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano. Rogers said Jones saved the car at least three times from spinning.

“To see somebody that young get thrown into that situation, he handled it very good (and) smooth,” Gibbs said. “On the radio, he was really good, and I think it was a real experience for him. But I thought he handled all of that exceptionally well.

“We know Erik has a very bright future. It’s going to be fun to work with him.”

For 15 minutes after the race, Jones lingered in the pits outside his car as several JGR crewmembers and team executives wandered by to offer hearty congratulations and encouragement. Several reminded him he had held his own while making a leap up to face world-class competition on a moment’s notice.

“He showed a lot of heart to jump in that car and do that,” Rogers said. “To think about it, it’s crazy.”

The wildest part might be it’s as if it never happened, according to the history books.

Jones became the first driver to make a midrace de-facto Sprint Cup “debut” since Truex, who also wasn’t credited when he took over for an injured Dale Earnhardt Jr. during a July 2004 race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

“I don’t know why, but on the plane, I thought of it,” Jones said. “I’m like, ‘Huh, I’m not even going to get the credit for the start.’ It’s not a big deal to me. It’s just a stat. I know I ran the race.”

So did everyone else, which is really all that mattered.

Kevin Harvick expects more suspensions for Rodney Childers; unrepentant about penalty

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A postrace penalty after his victory at Texas Motor Speedway cost Kevin Harvick his crew chief for the final two races of the 2018 season.

But the punishment won’t be a deterrent: Harvick fully expects he will be thrust into a situation without Rodney Childers again.

“It better not be the last time that he gets suspended because I just don’t think you are pushing it hard enough if you’re not,” Harvick said Tuesday night during his “Happy Hours” show on SiriusXM’s NASCAR channel. “That’s part of racing. Not something I’m going to apologize for at any point in my career just because of the fact I want my crew chief doing what he has to do to make my car go as fast as he can. Try to work within the rules and find the gray area you can and win some and lose some.”

Childers was benched for mounting an illegal spoiler on the No. 4 Ford at Texas, which was the eighth and final win of a career season for Harvick. The infraction was discovered during a midweek inspection at the R&D Center in Concord, North Carolina, and NASCAR stripped the championship benefits of the win.

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver dominated NASCAR’s Loop Data statistics, finishing first in driver rating, fastest laps, fastest on restarts, laps led and green-flag speed.

Harvick also ranked first with 1,990 laps led — the third time in five seasons with Childers that he has topped that category.

During a 2017 episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast, Childers explained that had led to many trips to the R&D Center for extra scrutiny.

“It’s not going to be the last time my crew chief gets suspended,” he said. “That’s just part of what we do, and if you’re going to be one of the good teams, you’re going to have to push the limits. You’re going to have to be on the verge of getting in trouble all the time.  You have to push the envelope.”

Bump & Run panel selects superlatives of 2018 season

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Who is your driver of the year?

Nate Ryan: Kevin Harvick. It was his year in every way but the championship.

Dustin Long: Kyle Busch. While he won the same number of races (eight) as Kevin Harvick and had one less top five and top 10 than Harvick, the difference is that Busch won the Coca-Cola 600 of the sport’s four majors (Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600, Southern 500 and Brickyard 400) and Harvick won none this year.

Daniel McFadin: Brett Moffitt. It’s hard not to choose the driver who piloted an underfunded team – that had never won in the Truck Series before 2018 – through sponsor struggles and bested the elite teams in the series to claim the title. All 13 of his top-10 finishes were top fives. Also, he did it with a rad mustache.

Dan Beaver: Joey Logano was one of the few drivers able to stand up to the Big 3 on and off the track. Throughout the season, the other contenders seemed comfortable in their role as challengers to the dominators, but by declaring himself the favorite for the championship and backing it up, Logano set himself apart.

What is your race of the year?

Nate Ryan: Chicagoland. Probably the best finish of the season but also the most start-to-finish compelling action. (Honorable mentions: Daytona 500, Watkins Glen, Roval, Homestead-Miami Speedway.)

Dustin Long: The Roval. The final laps of that race were amazing and the last lap was mesmerizing with the contact between Jimmie Johnson and Martin Truex Jr. allowing Ryan Blaney to win and then Kyle Larson’s dramatic effort by bouncing off the wall twice to beat Jeffrey Earnhardt’s stalled car to the finish line to gain the spot he needed to advance to the next round of the playoffs.

Daniel McFadin: The Cup race on the Charlotte Roval. It lived up to all the hype in a way a NASCAR race hasn’t (excluding the first Truck race at Eldora) since probably the 2011 finale with Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards. The last lap had everything — the contact and spins by Jimmie Johnson and Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Blaney stealing the win, Aric Almirola passing enough cars to advance to the next round on a tiebreaker and finally Kyle Larson somehow willing his demolished No. 42 Chevrolet across the finish line and into the Round of 12 after hitting the wall twice coming to the checkered flag.

Dan Beaver: Chicagoland. The level of physical aggression in the closing laps on the 1.5-mile track may well signal a change in how races on intermediate speedways will be contested in 2019.

What is your moment of the year?

Nate Ryan: The last lap of the Roval and its aftermath, which took several minutes for a full processing of everything that had just occurred and why.

Dustin Long: A number of fans booed Kyle Busch during his winner’s interview after his dramatic last-lap duel with Kyle Larson at Chicagoland Speedway. As the booing persisted, Busch told fans: “I don’t know what you all are whining about, but if you don’t like that kind of racing, don’t even watch.” As fans want drivers to show more personality, they got it there with Busch telling off the haters.

Daniel McFadin: Ross Chastain earning his first career Xfinity win at Las Vegas. The series got a much-needed shot in the arm two weeks before when he led 90 laps at Darlington in his debut with Chip Ganassi Racing but came up short after his run-in with Kevin Harvick. Chastain sealing the deal in Vegas provided a win for a sport that’s seen it become harder and harder for drivers to advance through the ranks on pure talent without thorough sponsor backing.

Dan Beaver: The ringing of the siren in Dawsonville, Georgia on August 5 following Chase Elliott’s Watkins Glen win. While it’s been rung before for Chase Elliott, this was the first time of many that it rang for a Cup victory. It took quite a while in 2018 for the young guns to make some noise, but they closed the season strong.

NASCAR America: Aric Almirola, Chase Elliott are among the ‘best of the rest’

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Much of the attention at Miami last weekend was focused on the Championship 4 as Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch battled for the Cup title.

There were points races throughout the field, however, and on Tuesday’s edition of NASCAR America Parker Kligerman and Dale Jarrett highlighted several drivers who made up the “best of the rest”.

“For (Chase Elliott) it goes back to the fact of it was always about getting that first win,” Kligerman said. “Once he could mentally – and the team could mentally – convince themselves they could win, the floodgates would open and that’s what we saw.”

Aric Almirola had the same average finish (8.6) as Logano during the playoffs and that contributed to his fifth-place position in the points.

“If you look at the first half of the season compared to what they did in the playoffs, it’s astonishing,” Kligerman said. “And Johnny Klausmeier, his crew chief, told me once we start going back to these tracks the second time and as young team really figuring out what we needed, we started to click.”

Erik Jones, Ryan Newman and AJ Allmendinger were also mentioned as notable drivers at various points during the season.

For more, watch the video above.

Follow Dan Beaver on Twitter

NASCAR America: Brad Keselowski computer data disproves intentional spin

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Soon after the conclusion of the Cup finale in Miami, Brad Keselowski took to Twitter to dispel any notion that he spun Daniel Suarez intentionally to create a short run to the finish that would benefit his Team Penske teammate Joey Logano.

On Tuesday’s edition of NASCAR America, Parker Kligerman analyzed the computer data to confirm that it was just hard racing.

“I just want to say it’s ridiculous,” Parker Kligerman said about the notion Keselowski intentionally caused the accident. “I’ve actually gone onto the SMT data, which is the data we can look at nowadays and see the steering, the braking, the throttle traces of these cars. And I compared Brad’s entry into Turn 1 of that lap compared to any other lap before. He didn’t do anything different other than it was kind of a low percentage move.”

On Lap 248, David Ragan was to Keselowski’s inside with Clint Bowyer below Ragan. Keselowski clipped Suarez when the four drivers ran out of room, sending the No. 19 into a spin that brought out the fateful caution.

“(Keselowski) would have to be a magician … to get hit in the left rear and get knocked into the 19,” Kligerman added.

For more, watch the video above.

Follow Dan Beaver on Twitter