High above crowd, spotters play key role in who wins and who doesn’t at restrictor-plate tracks

Leave a comment

STATESVILLE, N.C. – How the word popped up, spotter Joey Meier isn’t sure. Somewhere within his brain, as Meier described the madness around Brad Keselowski’s No. 2 Ford at Talladega Superspeedway in an auctioneer’s call, the word emerged.

Energy.

Meier used the word midway through the May Sprint Cup race to alert Keselowski to a surging line of cars behind him. Keselowski moved to block the lane. Meier kept using the word. Team members began counting. The total reached triple digits.

Meier said energy 11 times in the race’s final two minutes. In sync, Keselowski’s car drifted to block whatever line charged. During the final lap, a 14-second snippet featured this Meier soundtrack:

Energy behind you. Up top. 

Energy up top. Energy up top.

Behind the 18. 24 bottom lane one back. 18 is clear. Two-wide behind him. 18 is clear. One back behind him, two-wide. No energy up top. 

Meier’s fast-paced traffic report helped Keselowski win the most recent restrictor-plate race.

As the series heads to Daytona International Speedway for Saturday night’s race on NBC, the role of spotters again is magnified. Originally employed as a safety feature, spotters have become a strategic element, studying race tape, analyzing pit road and surveying the competition, to give their driver and crew chief insights from above the stands.

It’s little coincidence that eight of the last 10 restrictor-plate races have been won by four drivers. All four — Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Keselowski — have been with their current spotter since at least 2013.

“My spotter is definitely an all-star,’’ Keselowski said. “He’s been part of three of the four Talladega wins (Keselowski has had), and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.’’

BUILDING TRUST

Meier first started spotting for Keselowski in 2006, and T.J. Majors has been Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s spotter since 2007. That familiarity is important to a driver.

“You get to working with the same guy for a long time and you sort of get to where you speak the same language and he knows what you want and don’t want,’’ said Earnhardt, who won last July’s Daytona race, leading 96 of 161 laps. “As a driver, it just gives you confidence having somebody that you trust and believe in and you know is going to give you good information. You can drive the car with more confidence.’’

It often takes time to get to that point. Eddie D’Hondt was Jeff Gordon’s spotter from 2012-15. He guided Gordon to a record fifth Brickyard 400 win at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Gordon’s 93rd and final triumph last fall at Martinsville Speedway during that time. This season, D’Hondt is rookie Chase Elliott’s spotter, a role D’Hondt also performed when Elliott was in the Xfinity Series.

Still, there have been challenges meshing, especially in restrictor-plate races where so much happens at once.

D’Hondt admits it took about 10 restrictor-plate races to “click” with Gordon and that didn’t come until they watched tape together. D’Hondt said that he and Elliott “really didn’t click at all” during the qualifying race in February at Daytona. They discussed what could be better afterward.

Two days later, Elliott won the Xfinity race after he jumped to the top lane to block a line of cars off Turn 2 and held off Joey Logano at the finish line. Elliott called that experience a big “trust-building day” with D’Hondt.

It’s not easy for a driver to hear a different voice in his ear. Regan Smith joined Tommy Baldwin Racing a month before the Daytona 500. He had never worked with spotter Doug Campbell until Daytona. They watched tape ahead of time so Smith could hear Campbell call certain situations.

“You know pretty fast how aggressive you can be with a spotter and how aggressive they’re going to be with you, so by the time we got done with the (qualifying race), I knew kind of where his aggressive points were and where they weren’t,’’ Smith said. “We sat down after the (qualifying race) and said, ‘Hey … this could be a little different, this was really good. You almost know as a driver if it is going to work with a spotter pretty quick.’’

PAINT A PICTURE

There are numerous challenges and many things drivers want from their eye in the sky. It’s not so easy.

“He’s got to paint a picture in my mind what is going on back there,’’ said 2015 Daytona 500 winner Joey Logano of spotter Tab Boyd. “You got to collect all the data before you make a decision. If you’re not getting all the data, you’re going to make poor decisions.

“I think about that when I’m up there (on the spotters’ stand) watching races. I act like I’m spotting a car sometimes. Most of the times … it’s ‘Oh my God, look out!’ That’s what it would it be if I spotted. That’s why I don’t spot. They’re good at it.’’

Billy O’Dea, now Paul Menard‘s spotter, was Kevin Harvick’s spotter for years before Harvick left Richard Childress Racing for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. One of O’Dea’s proudest moments came when Harvick nipped Jamie McMurray to win at Talladega in April 2010.

During practice that weekend, O’Dea watched Gordon make a late move along the frontstretch to beat Jeff Burton to the finish line. It showed O’Dea where the winning move needed to be made and he told Harvick that.

On the final lap of that race, Harvick was second, pushing McMurray. In turn 4, O’Dea radioed Harvick:

“You know what you’ve got to do.’’

With the start/finish line beyond the tri-oval at Talladega, there was still a long way to go. Harvick started to make his move off Turn 4. O’Dea stopped him.

“Not yet. Just keep coming. You’ll get him.’’

As Harvick went through the tri-oval, O’Dea was like a jockey telling his horse what was needed.

Stay on him … Go!

Harvick cut to the left, got inside McMurray and won by 11-thousandths of a second.

After screaming on the radio, Harvick said: “That played out to the T.’’

TROPHIES AND TROUBLE

Trophies adorn Meier’s office at the hanger for Brad Keselowski’s plane. Meier, a pilot, can look around and see all the success he’s had with Keselowski.

Still, Meier’s mind flashes back to a time he made a mistake and the consequences.

“I can instantly remember wrecking Robert Richardson at Talladega,’’ Meier said of an Xfinity incident years ago. “It’s one of those things that we carry with us. (Spotters) are important and our mistakes are magnified at these restrictor-plate races.’’

As he thinks about the incident, he sees Richardson on the inside of another car in Turn 4.

“I was being real aggressive,’’ Meier said. “We were coming around the corner and we were on the bottom and we had momentum. I figured the momentum was going to clear us and we didn’t and we stalled out. By the time I said ‘clear high’ we had stalled and he came up to get in that lane and we just wiped out five or six cars.’’

Afterward, Meier went to the garage and apologized to Richardson and the crew chief.

“You know for that split-second, even though the driver trusted you, that you broke his trust,’’ Meier said. “What it taught me, after that incident … I’ll tell Brad this all the time, I won’t tell you where you can go more than I will tell you can’t go. If I’m saying outside and you think it’s clear, go out there, but I won’t tell you clear unless I know it’s clear. That’s what I learned.’’

Sometimes, the difference between winning or a good day and failing to finish can be one call from a spotter, especially when cars run inches apart at Daytona and Talladega.

For such lessons, though, there can be rewards. D’Hondt thinks back to when Keselowski had to win at Talladega during the 2014 Chase to advance and did so.

“I went to Joey (Meier) after the race and you would have thought someone had handed him a million dollars because he made the difference,’’ D’Hondt said. “I understand that. It’s very rewarding.’’

It can be if one can handle all the stress.

NASCAR Power Rankings: Kevin Harvick back at No. 1

NASCAR Power Rankings
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Stop us if you’ve heard this before: Kevin Harvick is the No. 1 driver in this week’s NASCAR rankings.

Martin Truex Jr. held the top spot for just a week before Harvick reclaimed the crown with his series-leading ninth Cup win of the year Saturday at Bristol Motor Speedway.

This week’s rankings includes three ties as 12 drivers received votes.

More: Playoff standings after Round of 16

Harvick takes his power rankings lead to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the start of the Round of 12.

Here is this week’s NASCAR Power Rankings:

1. Kevin Harvick (Last week No. 1): The Stewart-Haas Racing driver has three wins in the last five races: Dover, the Southern 500 and Bristol night race.

2. Chase Elliott (Last week No. 7): Finished seventh at Bristol for his third top 10 in five races. His 11 top fives so far matches his total from each of the last two seasons. He scored a career-high 12 top fives in 2017.

3. (tie) Kyle Busch (Last week No.  9): Finished second in Bristol after he started from the rear due to inspection failures. Has three consecutive top 10s for the first time this season.

3. (tie) Joey Logano (Last week No. 3): Followed consecutive third-place finishes with an 11th at Bristol.

5. (tie) Martin Truex Jr. (Last week No. 1): Finished 24th in Bristol following contact with Denny Hamlin after an unscheduled pit stop.

5. (tie) Brad Keselowski (Last week No. 5): After winning at Richmond, Keselowski had a rough night in Bristol. He finished 34th due to power steering problems.

7. (tie) Aric Almirola (Last week unranked): Finished fifth in Bristol for his third consecutive top 10 and his fourth in five races.

7. (tie) Clint Bowyer (Last week unranked): Placed sixth in Bristol for his third consecutive top-10 finish and to keep his playoff chances alive.

9. Austin Dillon (Last week No. 3): Placed a respectable 12th to finish the first round after consecutive top fives.

10. Erik Jones (Last week unranked): Placed third in Bristol for his seventh top-five finish of the season and his second in the last three races.

Also receiving votes: Alex Bowman and Denny Hamlin

NASCAR Silly season features Bubba Wallace, Michael Jordan

Leave a comment

NASCAR Silly Season took a twist Monday. A day that started with the announcement that Ross Chastain would drive for Chip Ganassi Racing next year ended with the news that Denny Hamlin would co-own a team with Michael Jordan and have Bubba Wallace as the driver in 2021.

As JTG Daugherty Racing co-owner Brad Daugherty said: “I think it’s a pretty dynamic trio with Michael, Denny and Bubba. They’re going to be like rock stars.”

The 26-year-old Wallace is in his third full Cup season. All 105 of his starts in NASCAR’s premier series have been with Richard Petty Motorsports.

“Bubba has shown tremendous improvement since joining the Cup Series and we believe he’s ready to take his career to a higher level,” Hamlin said in a statement. “He deserves the opportunity to compete for race wins and our team will make sure he has the resources to do just that. Off the track, Bubba has been a loud voice for change in our sport and our country. MJ and I support him fully in those efforts and stand beside him.”

A team name, car number, manufacturer and sponsors will be announced at a later time.

ANNOUNCED CUP RIDES FOR 2021

No. 00: Quin Houff enters the second year of his two-year deal with StarCom Racing.

No. 1: Kurt Busch enters the second year of a multi-year contract that Chip Ganassi Racing announced last season.

No. 2: Brad Keselowski and Team Penske announced a contract extension Aug. 3.

No. 4: Kevin Harvick signed a contract extension in February that will keep him at Stewart-Haas Racing through the 2023 season.

No. 8: Tyler Reddick said Aug. 7 that he will be back with Richard Childress Racing next season.

No. 9: Chase Elliott is under contract with Hendrick Motorsports through the 2022 season.

No. 10: Aric Almirola extends deal with Stewart-Haas Racing for 2021 season.

No. 11: Denny Hamlin is signed with Joe Gibbs Racing through at least next year.

No. 12: Ryan Blaney and Team Penske announced a multi-year extension earlier this season.

No. 18: Kyle Busch is signed with Joe Gibbs Racing through at least next year.

No. 19: Martin Truex Jr. is signed with Joe Gibbs Racing through at least next year.

No. 20: Christopher Bell moves from Leavine Family Racing to take over this ride in 2021.

No. 22: Joey Logano is tied to Team Penske “through the 2022 season and beyond.”

No. 24: William Byron is under contact with Hendrick Motorsports through 2022.

No. 42: Ross Chastain takes over Chip Ganassi Racing’s ride for the 2021 season.

No. 47: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. enters the second year of a multi-year deal with JTG Daugherty Racing.

No. 88: Alex Bowman will race for Hendrick Motorsports under a one-year contract extension announced earlier this year.

No. TBA: Bubba Wallace joins the new team co-owned by Denny Hamlin and NBA great Michael Jordan. The team purchased Germain Racing’s charter. Germain Racing will not continue after this season.

 

Available/possibly available rides

No. 14: Clint Bowyer is in a contract year to drive for Stewart-Haas Racing.

No. 21: Matt DiBenedetto said Sept. 17 that Wood Brothers Racing has an option to pick up his contract for next year and the deadline is the end of September.

No. 32: Ride is open with Corey LaJoie announcing he will not return to Go Fas Racing in 2021.

No. 43: Bubba Wallace will not return to Richard Petty Motorsports in 2021, the team confirmed on Sept. 10.

No. 48: With Jimmie Johnson retiring from full-time competition, Hendrick Motorsports has this seat to fill.

No. 95: Spire Motorsports purchased the charter and assets of Leavine Family Racing and will be a two-car operation in 2021.

No. 96: Daniel Suarez and Gaunt Brothers Racing announced Sept. 15 that they would part ways after this season.

 

Brad Daugherty: Michael Jordan to NASCAR is ‘huge moment’

Leave a comment

Brad Daugherty calls Michael Jordan’s ownership of a Cup team a “huge moment for NASCAR.”

Jordan and Denny Hamlin will co-own a Cup team next season. Bubba Wallace will be the driver. Jordan will become the first Black majority car owner of a full-time team since Wendell Scott owned and raced cars in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Daugherty, the only Black owner of a full-time Cup team currently, is excited about Jordan’s entrance into NASCAR.

“It’s a big momentum shift for this sport culturally, period,” said Daugherty, co-owner of JTG Daugherty Racing and an analyst for NBC Sports. “Three years ago, this would have never happened. A year ago, this wouldn’t have happened. It’s the timing. If the timing is right and you have someone like Michael Jordan put his brand and what he’s all about into whatever you are doing, it adds a lot of credibility. I look forward to whatever he can bring to the table to help continue to build NASCAR.”

Daugherty told NBC Sports that Jordan can help the sport reach more people.

“The eyeballs are going to be incredible,” Daugherty said of Jordan’s potential impact. “The opportunity for entrance into the sport will be made more available as far as people being aware of the availability to get involved in NASCAR as a fan or as a business. There’s just so many different areas that will light up just because of who he is and what he represents. His entire legacy creates opportunity for everyone.

“Now, we start talking diversity with what he’s able to do from a corporate standpoint and also just from a legacy standpoint with his brand. It’s going to be exciting. I’m excited because I think more people now, more than ever, will take a look at NASCAR with a keen eye and keen interest and be excited about maybe participating as a fan or as a business partner or as someone wanting to learn how to drive a race car or own a race team. The more notoriety the better.”

NASCAR stated Monday: “Michael is an iconic sports figure and celebrated champion whose fiercely competitive nature has placed him among the greatest athletes of all time. His presence at NASCAR’s top level will further strengthen the competition, excitement and momentum growing around our sport. We wish Michael and his team tremendous success.”

Jordan told The Charlotte Observer on Monday that the deal came together in about 10 days because of the chance to hire Wallace.

“When (Hamlin) told me there was a possibility of getting Bubba Wallace, I’m saying, ‘OK, this is perfect!’” Jordan told The Observer. “If I’m getting involved in NASCAR, then get a Black driver (with) a Black owner.”

For all that Jordan can bring to NASCAR, Daugherty knows that the competition can prove challenging.

“I’m sure he’s committed to next season and we’ll see how that goes and if it goes well, you go beyond that,” Daugherty said. “He had a (Superbike) team for a long time and loved that. He understands it’s a different business model. He’s at the point in his life, he’s like Roger Penske and Rick Hendrick and those guys to where it’s really not a detriment to him financially if he’s not making money. We’ll have to see how much he can stomach because it’s an interesting business model for sure.”

Jordan told The Observer he’s in it to win.

“If I’m investing, if I’m a participant, then I want to win! I don’t want to be out there to be just another car,” Jordan said.

Daugherty looks forward to seeing Jordan, Hamlin and Wallace at the track.

“I think it’s a pretty dynamic trio with Michael, Denny and Bubba,” Daugherty said. “They’re going to be like rock stars.”

Daugherty also looks forward to something else next year.

“Look forward to racing against those guys,” he said, “and trying to kick their butts.”

Germain Racing sells charter, will exit sport at end of season

Leave a comment

Germain Racing car owner Bob Germain announced Monday that he has sold the team’s charter and will end the team after this season.

The charter was purchased by a new team that will have Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan as owners and Bubba Wallace as the driver.

Germain said in a statement that the No. 13 team will continue the rest of the season with Ty Dillon as driver.

“Being an owner in NASCAR for the last 16 years has been a thrilling and rewarding adventure,” Germain said in a statement. “From winning two NASCAR Truck Series championships in 2006 and 2010 to competing at the highest level of motorsports in the Cup Series for the last 12 seasons, I have experienced the highs and lows of our sport. I’m extremely proud of what Germain Racing has accomplished at every level and I will be transitioning out of ownership with many memories and friendships. I appreciate the interest and offers made over the last couple of weeks and I am excited to see how the sport continues to grow in the future.

“Thank you to GEICO for their loyalty to Germain Racing for over a decade. It has been a great source of pride for our team to represent their brand on the track. Doug Barnette with Player Management International has facilitated our GEICO relationship since the beginning and I truly appreciate his efforts. Finally, to my employees: building a team camaraderie and creating a family atmosphere has been a highlight of this journey. I will miss each of you.”

Germain pondered a sale when GEICO decided not to renew its contract after this season with the team.  GEICO is one of NASCAR’s Premier Partners, joining Busch Beer, Coca-Cola and Xfinity.

Dillon spoke in late August about the challenges facing single-car teams in Cup.

“The model is very tough right now for single-car teams,” he said. “I’m hoping that NASCAR is going to change it and help on it. But it needs to change for one-car teams to be more successful that haven’t already been at the top level of the sport or have an incredible amount of money to leapfrog into the top spot. If you don’t have three or four teams to spread the wealth with big name sponsors and a lot of money behind the effort, it’s just not a model that’s going to survive long term.”

Hamlin acknowledged the challenge a one-car team can have.

“I do believe that the (ownership) model will hopefully get better,” Hamlin said before last weekend’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway. “Do I think it’s fixed? No, I think there is still some work to be done to make the model a viable business. You want a business that everyone wants to be a part of, not the ones that are fleeting. Certainly, I think NASCAR is trying it’s best to make the teams a little more healthy. I think that outlook toward the future is what’s interesting to me.”

Germain Racing is the second team to sell its charter since August. Leavine Family Racing announced it had sold its charter on Aug. 4. Spire Motorsports purchased it and will be a two-car team in 2021.