Upon Further Review: Pocono

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Is a revolution about to take place in the Sprint Cup Series?

As young drivers excel, it becomes more likely there could be multiple first-time winners this season — something that hasn’t happened since 2014 when A.J. Allmendinger and Aric Almirola each scored their first series victory.

Chase Elliott’s fourth-place finish Monday at Pocono marked the eighth time in the past 10 Cup races that a winless driver placed in the top five.

Elliott is one of five drivers seeking their first series win to score a top-five finish this season. The others are Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Austin Dillon and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. They are a part of a youthful rise as the series transitions from an era dominated by Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and others.

“There is a lot of competition out there right now between the group of young guys, who is going to win the first race, and you want to be a part of that and … prove yourself,’’ Dillon said.

Many will view Elliott as the favorite to score his first series win this year. His five top-five finishes is the most among drivers seeking their first Cup win and tied for most by a rookie after 14 races with Dale Earnhardt’s start in 1979. Elliott’s Hendrick Motorsports car has been strong at a variety of tracks from Pocono (fourth) and Texas (fifth) to Dover (third) and Bristol (fourth). With return trips to each this year, Elliott could be in position to win at any of those tracks, if not somewhere else.

Larson also has shown he’s close to winning in the last month. He teased fans with three runner-up finishes as rookie in 2014 but had struggled until earlier this year. He placed third at Martinsville and in the last month finished second at Dover and challenged for the win in the Sprint All-Star Race.

“We started the year off not great, but everybody stayed positive and kept digging,’’ Larson said recently. “Lately, we have been bringing really good stuff to the track. It’s been really cool just to see how hard work has been paying off and how we have been close.’’

Dillon has had his ups and downs this season but was third at Talladega, fourth at Martinsville and fifth Las Vegas, showing that he and his Richard Childress Racing team are moving closer to scoring a win.

“Hopefully I can keep proving myself on the track each and every weekend,’’ he told NBC Sports.

Blaney’s Wood Brothers Racing team benefits from its alliance with Team Penske. Blaney was fifth at Kansas. The Penske cars have shown more speed lately. Brad Keselowski won at Talladega and Logano won the Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“The Penske organization has always been one of the best, I think, at being ahead of the game as far as rules changes and being prepared for it,’’ Blaney said last month. “That’s a great part about being kind of a satellite team to the Penske group. We get a lot of info from them and, hopefully, (can) be ahead of the ball with these new rules changes.”

Stenhouse has shown progress as the Roush Fenway Racing cars improved. He had a season-best finish of fifth at Auto Club Speedway.

While they will still have to beat Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards and others to win this year, should more than two first-timers do it, it would make the most prolific year for new winners since 2011 when five made their first trip to victory lane in the Cup series.

That year featured new winners Trevor Bayne (Daytona 500), Regan Smith (Southern 500), Paul Menard (Brickyard 400), David Ragan (July Daytona) and Marcos Ambrose (Watkins Glen).

When does the revolution begin? Will it be this week at Michigan International Speedway, later in the summer or further away? And who will lead it?

REPEAT PERFORMANCE?

After finishing sixth Monday at Pocono Raceway, a question for Kasey Kahne and his team is if they can score back-to-back top-10 finishes this week at Michigan.

It seems like an easy question. Why wouldn’t a Hendrick Motorsports car have consecutive top 10s? Especially at Pocono and Michigan where horsepower and aerodynamics mean so much and Hendrick cars often are good in both categories. Also, with a rule change this weekend that will reduce downforce and sideforce, shouldn’t that play to the top teams, including Hendrick, and be good for Kahne?

Maybe it will. Maybe for only the second time in the last 65 races — going back to Aug. 2014 — Kahne will score two top-10 finishes in a row this coming week.

Monday was a positive sign for Kahne despite a pit road speeding penalty. He radioed his team early in the race: “Car feels really good. Like really good.’’

Although the penalty during the competition caution dropped Kahne briefly to 37th, he worked his way into the top 10 before halfway in the 160-lap race. He bounced outside the top 10 for a spell before running the final 20 laps in sixth.

It’s these types of performances — and better — car owner Rick Hendrick had in mind when he signed Kahne to a contract in Aug. 2010, more than a year before Kahne would drive for the team, replacing Mark Martin in 2012.

Kahne finished fourth in the points in his first year for Hendrick. He made the Chase each of his first three years with the team. The performance earned Kahne a contract extension through the 2018 campaign.

Yet, there have been struggles. Kahne and his team have searched for better performances. Crew chief Keith Rodden replaced Kenny Francis before the 2015 season.

Since joining Hendrick Motorsports, Kahne has won five times in 158 races. Jimmie Johnson has 22 wins during that time, Dale Earnhardt Jr.  has eight and Jeff Gordon had eight before retiring last year.

Progress won’t come in giant steps but several small ones. A key for Kahne and his team will be to follow the Pocono performance with a top-10 result at Michigan.

DYNAMIC DUO

Only two drivers have each scored three top-five finishes in the past five races: Former champion Brad Keselowski and rookie Chase Elliott.

Keselowski won at Talladega, finished fifth in the Coca-Cola 600 and was third Monday at Pocono.

“It was a pretty strong weekend,’’ Keselowski said. “The last four or five weeks have been strong runs.’’

Elliott was fifth at Talladega, third at Dover and fourth at Pocono.

“We certainly had, I feel like, one of our best days of the year,’’ said Elliott, who led a career-high 51 laps Monday. “I thought for us to be able to contend and lead laps all day and have a car that could fight for the lead the majority of the day was great.’’

TROUBLING TURN

Kyle Busch’s 31st-place finish marked his third consecutive finish of 30th or worse.

He had not gone three consecutive races without a top-five finish in the last 24 races — the equivalent of two-thirds of a season.

Busch’s chances of winning ended when he was mired in traffic and clipped by Ryan Newman, who had moved up the track after Kasey Kahne went under him.

The contact sent Busch into the wall.

PIT STOPS

Josh Wise finished a season-high 27th at Pocono.

— Regan Smith’s 22nd-place finish was his best finish of the year in a non-restrictor-plate race (he was a season-best eighth in the Daytona 500).

— In the last five races, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has finished 16th (Talladega), 13th (Kansas), 14th (Dover), 15th (Coca-Cola 600) and 15th (Pocono).

—  After scoring one top-10 finish in the first eight races, Matt Kenseth has had five top-10 results in the last six races.

Kevin Harvick’s average finish on tracks 1.5 miles or larger (not including the restrictor-plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega) is 5.4.

— Tony Stewart lost 11 points on 30th in the points standings Monday after his crash at Pocono left him with a 34th-place finish. He’s 71 points out of 30th in the standings with 12 races to go. He needs to be in the top 30 in points should he win to be eligible for a Chase spot.

Erik Jones will not return to Joe Gibbs Racing after 2020

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Erik Jones will not return to Joe Gibbs Racing after this season, the team announced Thursday night.

“We appreciate all Erik has done for Joe Gibbs Racing over the past several years,” said Joe Gibbs, owner of Joe Gibbs Racing. “He joined us as a teenager and has accomplished so much in his time here and we remain focused on the remainder of this season and earning him a spot in the playoffs.”

Said Jones: “I greatly appreciate the opportunity that JGR provided me with over the last four years and I wish the team nothing but success and good fortune,” said Jones. “JGR gave me a solid foundation from which to go out and compete at the highest level and I look forward to building on that in the years to come.”

Jones’ one-year contract with JGR expires after this season. The departure of the 24-year-old Jones clears the way for 25-year-old Cup rookie Christopher Bell to join JGR next season. In its announcement Thursday night, JGR did not indicate who will replace Jones, although that is expected to be Bell.

Bell’s status was in question for next season with Leavine Family Racing’s announcement this week that it has been sold. The new owner has not been announced and an alliance with Toyota is not expected.

Toyota Racing Development has invested significantly in Bell, guiding him through dirt track racing, the Truck Series, Xfinity Seres and now Cup. Jones also has been a TRD development driver, competing for the Toyota in the Truck, Xfinity and Cup series.

Jones has two wins in 131 Cup starts heading into this weekend’s doubleheader at Michigan International Speedway, his home track. His Cup wins came at Daytona (July 2018) and Darlington (Sept. 2019). He is the only driver in NASCAR history to be rookie of the year in Truck, Xfinity and Cup. He also won the Truck title in his first season in that series.

Bell has made 20 Cup starts with a best finish of fourth at the first Pocono race in June. He won the 2017 Truck title and set the Xfinity rookie record for wins with seven in 2018.

In a statement, Ed Laukes, Group Vice President, Marketing, Toyota Motor North America, said: “Erik has been an incredible friend to Toyota throughout the last eight years. We’ve become close not only to Erik, but to his entire family. We’ve celebrated together, we’ve cried together and we’ve supported each other through it all. Unfortunately, the time has come that we have to part ways from a competitive standpoint. We know Erik will continue to do great things in this sport and wish him nothing but the best in his future endeavors. We will certainly continue to follow his career and will be there to congratulate him as he continues to succeed.”

Toyota exec ‘not throwing in the towel’ on keeping Christopher Bell

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The announcement by Leavine Family Racing earlier this week that it had been sold puts Christopher Bell‘s Cup career in “immediate peril,” according to Toyota Racing Development President David Wilson.

Wilson made his comments about Bell’s future Wednesday night to Claire B. Lang on “Dialed In” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

“The immediate impact is to Christopher Bell,” Wilson said. “Christopher Bell, who is certainly one of our development drivers and somebody that we have invested a lot in over the years, it puts him in immediate peril. … We don’t know yet if we can recover, having to go out, it’s the first of August and this has been a relatively recent development. But to go out in this climate, in this environment, and to try to put together a partnership with no time and the demands required of that partnership from a sponsorship perspective, are just very difficult.”

Bell, a rookie, drives Leavine Family Racing’s No. 95 Toyota. Leavine Family Racing is one of three teams, including Joe Gibbs Racing and Gaunt Brothers Racing, that receives support from Toyota.

While the identity of who bought LFR has not been disclosed, Wilson said “It’s doubtful that there’s a plausible solution” that sees Toyota’s current deal with the No. 95 team continuing with the new ownership next year.

“I think this is widely known, part of the partnership, part of the way LFR worked was a technical alliance, a hardware reliance on Joe Gibbs Racing,” Wilson told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Those cars are leased, they’re not owned by Bob (Leavine) and the team. Those go back to Joe Gibbs Racing. What I can tell you is that as soon as we became aware of this problem, Joe and I have been working very closely, very aggressively, every day. It’s what’s keeping me awake every night right now, trying to figure out if we can adapt, if we can come up with a bridge to get us another year down the road.”

Bell has been a Toyota development driver his entire NASCAR career, including two full-time seasons in the Truck Series at Kyle Busch Motorsports and two full-time Xfinity Series seasons with Joe Gibbs Racing.

A winner of 16 Xfinity races, Bell joined Leavine Family Racing in part due to JGR’s stable of drivers being full in the Cup Series. Erik Jones, who drives the No. 20 Toyota, is in a contract year. That car could be driven by Bell in 2021.

But Wilson acknowledged Bell could not be in a Toyota come 2021.

“In the end, if we can’t, the collective we, Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing or a new Toyota affiliated team, if we cannot find a solution for Christopher then he’s got to do what he’s got to do,” Wilson said. “We are, again, very invested in Christopher. We’re not throwing in the towel, we are being very aggressive. I’ve been very candid in the past, probably overly so, to the effect that Christopher Bell is going to be in a Toyota for years and years and years to come. That has been our intention. That remains our intention. I would say today, stay tuned. It’s very late, but we’re working on it and we should have something to share between ourselves and Joe Gibbs Racing in the very near future.

NASCAR announces new method for setting starting lineups

NASCAR starting lineups
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NASCAR announced Thursday a new way of establishing starting lineups and pit selection order for races beginning with next weekend’s events on the Daytona road course.

NASCAR will use three competition-based performance metrics, replacing the random draw procedure that has been in place for a majority of races since NASCAR returned to racing in May.

More: NASCAR to introduce choose rule starting at Michigan

More: Starting lineup for Saturday’s Cup race at Michigan

Owner points position and the finish and fastest lap from the most recently completed race will be weighted and averaged to establish the starting order. Points position will be weighted at 35%, finishing position at 50% and fastest race lap at 15%.

When the playoffs begin, playoff cars will fill the top starting positions. In the Round of 16, the top 16 starting positions will be playoff cars; in the Round of 12, the top 12 starting positions will be playoff cars; and so on.

“The random draw has served us well during the return to racing, but it is important that starting lineups are based on performance as we approach the playoffs,” Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, said in a press release. “The entire industry is aligned on implementing a competition-based system to determine the starting lineup and pit selection order.”

Team Penske driver Joey Logano said Thursday that the formula “makes sense.”

“It’s maybe a little bit more confusing than what I would have gone with,” Logano said. “If they end up going with the process that has been talked about here, just for the race fans I feel like it’s confusing, but, outside of that, so it’s fair and I guess that’s all that matters. It’s fair and I’m sure that’s probably what the fans care about the most. If all of us competitors can agree that it’s a fair way to set the lineup, I don’t think any fan is really gonna care how it happened as long as we all feel like you earned your starting position, just like we used to.

“You used to earn your starting position by qualifying. Well, now you’re going to earn your starting position by three different ways, whether it’s lap time or finishing points position – those type of things. You’ve earned every one of those spots, so although it’s confusing it’s fair.”

NASCAR to introduce choose rule starting at Michigan

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NASCAR announced Thursday it will implement the choose rule starting with this weekend’s races at Michigan International Speedway.

The Truck Series races Friday (6 p.m. ET on FS1) and the Cup Series holds a doubleheader, racing Saturday (4 p.m. ET on NBCSN) and Sunday (4:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

The choose rule allows drivers to pick which lane they restart when a race resumes from a caution, with drivers able to secure better track position or restart in the preferred lane. It will be used in all races except those held on road courses and superspeedways (Daytona and Talladega).

With the Xfinity Series competing at Road America this weekend and on the Daytona road course next weekend, the choose rule won’t be used by the series until its Aug. 22-23 races at Dover.

The rule made its NASCAR national series debut in the July 15 All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway and was warmly received by drivers.

Drivers chose their lanes on the lap before the restart when they drove to the right or left of an orange cone symbol painted on the track just beyond the start-finish line.

“Considering feedback from teams, drivers and fans, NASCAR has implemented these changes to enhance competition as we approach the playoffs,” said Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, in a press release. “We received nothing but positive comments from the drivers on the choose rule following the All-Star Race, and felt it was an important addition to the restart procedure.

“I think the choose rule’s been needed for a long time,” Chase Elliott said after winning the All-Star Race. “I think it should be that way every week. I don’t think there’s really a reason to not have it. There’s no reason to me why you shouldn’t have the choice or you should be automatically told where you’re going to line up when one lane has an obvious advantage, just based on where you come off pit road. Life ain’t fair I guess, but just makes way more sense to put it in our hands and it either works out for you or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t work out, then it’s your own fault and not luck of the draw and where you come off pit road.”

When asked about the choose rule Thursday, Joey Logano was enthusiastic.

“Finally,” Logano said. “I’ve been looking for this for years. I’ve brought it up in meetings for years and to see it kind of come into action at Bristol is something that I thought went really smooth. It was kind of exciting and interesting to see the decisions that drivers made and it was different every time. If you do that at Bristol, what’s it look like at Michigan?  … There’s a lot of questions that kind of come along with that on what it is and there might be some races where it looks identical to what it is right now where third is on the inside and fourth is on the outside. That can happen. .. It definitely adds another piece to the strategy and even more importantly it has everyone not doing the whole stopping at the end of pit road and letting a car go by because, for one, it’s not safe to stop at the end of pit road for anyone jumping over the wall and having cars swerve like that.

“But, two, that’s not racing. The goal should be in front of whatever car is in front of you, not let one go at the end of pit road so you can have the outside lane or the inside lane. That’s backwards. You don’t want to do that, so we can get past that. Every time we’d try to count cars like that someone would have a penalty anyway, so it never worked for me. You’d always let one go and then the car in front of you has an uncontrolled or a speeding penalty and you’re like,’ C’mon!’ So, it gets rid of all that. That’s nice.”