Ryan: Bond between Kyle Busch and Adam Stevens already has passed many tests

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Kyle Busch calmly walked through the Watkins Glen International garage Sunday afternoon, debriefing on the myriad factors that kept him out of victory lane in the Cheez-It 355.

There was a rash of caution flags. Followed by a surprising lack of them.

Then there was the decision to stand down from chasing winner Joey Logano and save fuel for a scenario that never materialized.

The order came from crew chief Adam Stevens, who stood shoulder to shoulder with Busch as they exited the back gate of the road course’s Sprint Cup work area.

It was a symbolic show of solidarity for a formidable duo that somehow has been on the losing end of fuel-strategy plays in consecutive races.

Watkins Glen was the kind of character test that can fray a crew chief-driver relationship in NASCAR beyond repair, requiring dizzying leaps of faith and logic and a firm reliance on trust and communication.

It naturally conjures analogies to a marriage, and the partnership heading the No. 18 Toyota already has endured – and overcome – some of the tribulations that might face any longtime couple.

Separation. Stress. Second-guessing.

Though Busch’s success (four wins) surely has helped since his return from missing the first 11 races with a broken right leg and fractured left foot, it’s clear the bond with Stevens has been galvanized by the adversity of their first year in Cup together.

“I’m with Adam 100 percent of the way all the time,” he said. “He’s doing a great job right now.  We’ve obviously got some things clicking, and he knows what he’s doing, so for me to argue that point doesn’t make any sense.”

If he would have been more upset about how he finished second, few would have blamed him.

With about 20 laps remaining Sunday, Busch was told to begin conserving fuel because Stevens had a hunch: With leader Kevin Harvick and several other drivers attempting to stretch their fuel for what seemed an astronomically optimistic length, there would be a rash of cars running dry near the checkered flag.

That would lead to late-race mayhem and a caution flag that would set up a green-white-checkered finish.

Busch didn’t have enough fuel to last through a potential overtime. So Stevens bet on the come and pulled the reins back on his driver, who had made his final pit stop on the same lap as Logano.

As the No. 22 Ford pulled away, Busch agonizingly feathered the gas pedal with the knowledge that the emphasis on fuel economy would cost him a shot at the win if the race stayed green – which it did.

“I could’ve passed (Logano),” he said. “I felt like I was better than he was, but my crew chief called in scared on the fuel situation from last week, and I don’t blame him. We definitely didn’t want to run out again. We wanted to make sure we could be there at the end.”

There has been an outsized amount of focus this week on Busch’s word choice, implying that “scared” was some sort of veiled shot at his crew chief. That misses the fact that Busch was smiling as he said it, but it also ignores the point that there’s a new layer to the Joe Gibbs Racing driver this season.

This isn’t a rehash of the “New Kyle Busch” narrative that became so tired, it produced Twitter memes and parody accounts. There always will be a churlish and petulant side to his personality (witness his postrace Xfinity interview at New Hampshire). It’s actually part of his appeal.

As a new father, Busch, 30, naturally has a different outlook on life in the wake of recovering from injuries that he fretted might prevent him from racing again.

But the reason that he is simpatico with Stevens simply is because they have been through so much the past six months. It is keeping them on the same page — even when they lose a very winnable race.

Stevens profusely apologized to Busch on the radio afterward. It probably was appreciated, but it wasn’t necessary. Attaining a top-30 ranking in the points is the primary goal because it ensures Busch will make the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

The runner-up at Watkins Glen put Busch within the top 30 by six points – a week after he’d suffered a 23-point swing at Pocono Raceway by running out of fuel on the final lap and remaining 13 points outside the top 30.

With four races remaining in the regular season, he is over the hump and provisionally in the Chase.

“We couldn’t afford running out of gas like we did last week and taking home an even worse finish,” Busch said. “I’m sure that was weighing on Adam’s mind and just playing it a little bit more cautious, which is fine.”

As they worked through Sunday’s disappointment, Busch and Stevens were fine, too.

Given all they’ve been through, that’s worth remembering.

 

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.