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Ryan: A case for Brad Keselowski’s plate greatness – and the reasons some still reject it


DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In becoming the most decorated Millennial in NASCAR history, it never seems easy for Brad Keselowski – even just garnering credit when he makes it seem remarkably easy on track.

That’s been the recurring theme lately for the Team Penske star in the restrictor-plate bedlam of Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway. Keselowski’s victory in Saturday’s Coke Zero 400 was his second straight on the tracks that choke down horsepower and create massive packs – requiring deft navigation of its capricious draft at 200 mph – and his improvement curve seems to be accelerating.

He led a race-high 115 of 161 laps at Daytona, bettering his previous plate track high of 46 laps led in May at Talladega.

In both races, he took the lead with 16 laps to go and coolly dictated the rhythm and tone on mammoth ovals whose sound and fury allegedly can’t be harnessed.

Of course, he has exhibited a flair for the dramatic, too. In the fifth start of his Cup career – and his first in a part-time, underfunded car that was blessed with a Hendrick Motorsports engine but little in the way of manpower – Keselowski outdueled a host of veterans by gamely holding the bottom lane and launching Carl Edwards into the catchfence at Talladega. The first lap he led in his Sprint Cup career was the last that day on the 2.66-mile oval.

His next two wins at Talladega – a jaw-dropping maneuver that snookered Kyle Busch in 2012 and a last-lap pass of Ryan Newman during a must-win playoff race to advance in 2014 – were just as compelling and helped bolster an inescapable conclusion.

Keselowski currently might be the world’s best plate racer, and one number bears it out nicely.

Since 2009, he has more plate victories (five) than any driver in NASCAR’s premier series.

Ahh, but it’s not so simple for some.

Just peruse the musings from the angst-ridden peanut gallery of NASCAR social media since Saturday night.

Stating the abundantly obvious – that having the most wins in the past seven years at Daytona and Talladega might merit some measure of praise – was cast as hyperbolic trolling of Keselowski’s mastery.

How can you label someone the best solely based on the number of times they finished first?

The reaction isn’t entirely unpredictable given that Keselowski has been a target of fans’ boos for several years.

It could be construed as a byproduct of the 2012 Sprint Cup champion’s hard-nosed and indefatigable will. Respect among fans and peers always has seemed elusive for the Rochester Hills, Mich., native.

While establishing himself as a rising star, he butted heads with Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch. It didn’t subside much after he won the 2012 championship, though the clashes became less frequent and vocal. Keselowski was elected to the Sprint Cup Drivers Council, but he won’t win popularity contests in many quarters of the industry.

That doesn’t explain all of why Kez has been denied his due for plate greatness, though.

Here are some reasons why:

–He’s threatening the supremacy of a 13-time most popular driver: In 2015, Dale Earnhardt Jr., who leads active drivers with 10 restrictor-plate wins, posted two wins, a second and a third between Daytona and Talladega. But he is having arguably the worst plate season of his career. After crashing in the Daytona 500 and at Talladega, Earnhardt finished a nondescript 21st Saturday while battling the same handling problems plaguing the No. 88 Chevrolet in 2016 plate races.

Keselowski’s rise hasn’t come at Earnhardt’s expense, but there are mitigating factors that make it less palatable for Junior Nation to accept. Earnhardt gave Keselowski his big break by putting him in a JRM Xfinity ride a decade ago. Since then, he’s won a Cup championship, which Earnhardt still doesn’t have.

Plate greatness has been a constant through the ups and downs of Earnhardt’s career. If Keselowski were perceived as snatching it, Earnhardt’s fervent following wouldn’t take kindly.

–His success has come in one of the oddest eras of plate racing: None of Keselowski’s victories came during the 2011 season that featured the wretched rise (and fall) of tandem drafting, but the taint still lingered.

Plate racing went through a bizarre spell during that period, and the interruption in continuity made an impact on how the racing was celebrated.

Keselowski’s winning stretch would be more appreciated if it had occurred in the early to mid-2000s, when the rules for plate racing were in a sweet spot that engendered decent racing while emphasizing driver talent (see: Earnhardt’s winning run at Talladega in 2001-04).

–He has taken advantage of depleted fields: The most specious of narratives, driven mostly by the 22-car wreck Saturday at Daytona – while conveniently omitting that it didn’t eliminate every legitimate contender. Keselowski still had to make a nifty move to take the lead from Busch (ranked first in driver rating at Daytona among active Cup drivers) as well as beat 2016 Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin, restrictor-plate sleeper Kurt Busch and others.

There also was a 21-car wreck in May at Talladega, a 10-car wreck in 2014, two nine-car wrecks in 2012 and a 14-car and 10-car wreck in 2009.

Yes, massive pileups have happened in all of Keselowski’s victories. Generally, they occur in the middle of the pack, wiping out mostly cars that weren’t a serious threat to start.

–He initially struggled at Daytona: Going strictly by the numbers (which always is a dangerous trap in analyzing plate results), Keselowski’s results have lagged at the World Center of Racing. The 2.5-mile track is his worst in Sprint Cup based on average finish (20.7).

But a closer examination shows he already has been headed in the right direction. He unquestionably was mediocre at the 2016 Daytona 500 (20th), prompting his team to construct a much sleeker No. 2 Ford for this past weekend, but aside from that, he has been strong the past three seasons.

He was running well last July before a mid-race wreck, he was contending in the top five of the 2015 Daytona 500 before a late engine failure, and he finished third in the 2014 Daytona 500 – delivering the winning push to Earnhardt in the two-lap dash to the finish.

NBC Sports Power Rankings: What were best NASCAR teams overall in 2019?

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As NASCAR Talk continues its post-season Power Rankings, here are the 10 teams we feel performed the best throughout the entire season across all three major series: Cup, Xfinity and Trucks.

We made our picks based using a number of variables including which drivers work the best with their crew chiefs, which teams have the strongest pit crews, how a team was run, and assorted other elements that often spell the difference between success and lack thereof.

Note that we are selecting the best TEAMS, not necessarily the best organizations overall. But as you will soon find out, several of those best teams also came from within the same organization, as well.

Here’s how we picked them:

1. Kyle Busch and No. 18 Cup team (30 points): Sure, this team slumped a bit in the second half of the season, going winless in 21 of the final 22 races (although they still were able to win the regular season championship), but when everything was on the line in the championship-deciding race at Miami, Busch and crew chief Adam Stevens proved why they are the best … and why they are the champions.

2. Martin Truex Jr. and No. 19 Cup team (27 points): From an overall consistency standpoint, there are few teams like the one spearheaded by Truex and crew chief Cole Pearn. Truex won the championship in 2017 and finished second in 2018 and 2019. The No. 19 also had a combined 19 wins in those three seasons. No other team matched that kind of performance (although Busch came close with 18 wins and finishes of 2nd, 4th and 1st during that same period). Truex will have a new crew chief in 2020 after Pearn unexpectedly announced he was leaving his position with Joe Gibbs Racing on Monday.

3. Kevin Harvick and No. 4 Cup team (23 points): Even though most other teams would welcome the opportunity to have the kind of performance the No. 4 team has enjoyed, the No. 4 team is seemingly stuck in a loop of sorts. Even though Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers have a team that has won 14 races in the last three seasons and have one of the best pit crews in the business, they’ve finished third in each of those last three seasons. This is a team that has made a few mistakes over that same time period, and it can be argued that may be one of the reasons why it finished third so frequently.

4. Denny Hamlin and No. 11 Cup team (22 points): The combination of Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart together for the first time in 2019 paid big dividends, particularly with six wins (including the Daytona 500). Not only was that the second-most number of wins in a single season for Hamlin – and the most races he’s won in a decade – but also was a big bounceback after Hamlin failed to win even one race in 2018 with former crew chief Mike Wheeler. Sadly, the season did not end the way Hamlin and company had hoped. And given he is now 39 years old, it may very well have been the last strong bid Hamlin will have to win that elusive Cup championship.

5. Christopher Bell and No. 20 Xfinity team (15 points): There’s domination, then there’s what this team did from 2018-19. No titles, but 15 wins, 38 top fives and 41 top 10s in 66 races. Bell now advances to the Cup Series for 2020 and he’s taking crew chief Jason Ratcliff with him, which is a no-brainer.

(tie) 6. Chase Elliott and No. 9 Cup team (7 points): Valiant comeback to advance past the second round was wasted when everything went wrong in the next round. Elliott and crew chief Alan Gustafson have become a strong team, winning a combined six races in the last two years, but there is still the issue of performing well under pressure. Elliott appeared a lock to advance to the Championship 4 round until he reached the third round and finished 36th, 32nd and 39th, ending his title hopes with a definitive thud.

(tie) 6. Ross Chastain and No. 45 Truck team (7 points): A team that opened the season not planning to run a full season with one driver, switched to a championship hunt after eight races, bounced back from having a win disqualified to win the next race and made it to the Championship 4.

(tie) 6. Cole Custer and No. 00 Xfinity team (7 points): Upgraded at crew chief with Mike Shiplett and went from a one-win-per-season team for the previous two seasons to finishing with seven wins in 2019, one less win than Christopher Bell. Not surprisingly, Custer and Shiplett will remain together when Custer jumps to the Cup series and the No. 41 in 2020.

(tie) 9. Joey Logano and No. 22 Cup team (6 points): It was a similar season to 2018 for Logano and crew chief Todd Gordon in 2019, but the end results were diametrically opposite. Whereas Logano went from underdog to champ in 2018, he fell short of running for a second career title in 2019, ultimately finishing fifth in the standings. Still, this duo works very well together. One thing that needs to be looked at if Logano wants to improve in 2020 is to cut down on the number of mistakes both he and his pit crew make.

(tie) 9. Tyler Reddick and No. 2 Xfinity team (6 points): This was an outstanding season for Reddick despite some challenges. Not only did Reddick move to Richard Childress Racing after he won the 2018 Xfinity championship for JR Motorsports, Reddick and crew chief Randall Burnett worked seamlessly throughout the season, winning five times and failing to finish in the top 10 just six times in 33 races. No surprise, they’ll stay together when Reddick drives the No. 8 for Richard Childress Racing in 2020, with Burnett going with him.

Others receiving votes: Brad Keselowski and No. 2 Cup team (5 points), Austin Hill and No. 16 Truck team (5 points), Kyle Busch Motorsports No. 51 Truck team (2 points), Kyle Larson and No. 42 Cup team (3 points) and Ryan Newman and No. 6 Cup team (1 point).

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Justin Bonnett out of ICU, faces more surgery after fiery Snowflake wreck

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Justin Bonnett faces a long road to recovery from Saturday night’s fiery wreck in the Snowflake 100 Super Late Model race at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida.

After being in intensive care for more than 48 hours, the grandson of late NASCAR star Neil Bonnett is out of ICU, has been taken off oxygen and is breathing on his own, but also faces additional surgeries, including two more on Wednesday, according to a post on his team’s Facebook page.

“Justin has been moved from ICU and into a regular room. He is now off oxygen and breathing well on his own. Justin is currently scheduled to undergo two surgeries tomorrow (Wednesday) to place rods in his left leg and a procedure to tend to his burns. The family would like to thank everyone for their thoughts, concerns and messages. The love and support shown for Justin in this difficult time has been nothing short of phenomenal. Justin says, “It is truly an honor to have all of the support. Thanks everyone for everything.”

The 26-year-old Bonnett was seriously injured in a wreck in Saturday’s final qualifying race for the annual Snowball Derby. Bonnett had nowhere to go when the car of fellow competitor Jarrett Parker spun in front of him, leading to contact between the two cars. The impact ruptured the fuel cell on Parker’s car, sending flames and burning fuel across the racetrack, including enveloping Bonnett’s race car.

He suffered a broken fibula and tibula in his leg and burns to his face, hands and neck. After initial treatment at a Pensacola hospital, Bonnett was airlifted to a larger hospital in Mobile, Alabama that was better equipped to treat the significant trauma he had experienced.

A post of gratitude from Bonnett’s family on his Facebook page thanked supporters for their concern and prayers for a speedy recovery for the Hueytown, Alabama native.

“Thank you to the Melvin family for starting this Go Fund Me page for Justin. Justin will have medical bills after his lengthy stay in the hospital and will be out of work for some time, as he has a long road of recovery ahead. He is the sole provider for his family and 10 month old daughter. Together we can make sure he does not battle financial stress while recovering. Thank you for the prayers, encouragement, and any contribution you can make!”

A GoFundMe page has been set up to help Bonnett and his family. As of 7 p.m. ET on Tuesday, more than $4,700 of the $10,000 goal has been raised.

Here is the post on the GoFundMe page:

“Justin sustained serious injuries during the Snowflake race at 5 Flags Speedway December 7, 2019. He received burns on his arm, neck, mouth, and hands. He also had a compound fracture of his leg that has already had one surgery and will have another Wednesday the 11th. Justin is the sole provider for his family and will be unable to work for quite sometime. In addition he is hospitalized 4 hours from home. Justin, Taylor and their sweet baby Brynlee could use all the help we can give them. No amount is too small. It all adds up!”

To contribute to Justin Bonnett’s GoFundMe account, click here.

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Ty Majeski to race full-time for Niece Motorsports in Truck Series

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Ty Majeski will compete full-time for Niece Motorsports in the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series in 2020, the team announced Tuesday.

Majeski, a former Roush Fenway Racing development driver, will pilot the No. 45 Chevrolet that Ross Chastain drove to an appearance in the Championship 4 this year. Chastain will compete full-time for Kaulig Racing in the Xfinity Series.

Majeski, 25, made one start for Niece Motorsports last year, making his Truck Series debut in the playoff race at ISM Raceway. He finished 11th.

The team confirmed to NBC Sports that crew chief Phil Gould will return to the team.

“I’m really excited for the opportunity to race full time with Niece Motorsports,” Majeski said in a press release.  “I’m appreciative of (owner) Al (Niece) and everyone at the team for giving me this opportunity.  We’re looking to continue to build on what Ross and the team accomplished this year.  We expect to be contending for wins and ultimately the championship.”

“Last season was really a dream come true for me and this team,” said Niece in the press release.  “No one expected us to be contending for a championship in Homestead – but there we were. We’re confident that we can do the same next season. Ty is clearly extremely talented – he’s won in everything he’s driven.  I’m excited to have him join the team full time.  We’re looking forward to great things in 2020.”

After competing part-time for Roush Fenway Racing in the Xfinity Series in 2018, Majeski made six starts in the ARCA Menards Series this year, winning three times and finishing in the top five in the other three races. The 25-year-old native of Seymour, Wisconsin, also earned four wins on the ARCA Midwest Tour.

Majeski’s news comes the day after his attempt to win the Snowball Derby came up short.

The rest of Niece Motorsports’ driver lineup will be announced at a later date. The team did not include in sponsor info in their announcement.


Joey Logano: Next Gen car will put car ‘more in the driver’s hands’

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In the midst of a two-day test of the Cup Series’ Next Gen car at ISM Raceway, Team Penske driver Joey Logano provided some insight into the car Cup teams are scheduled to begin racing in 2021.

Logano is the second Cup driver to test the car after Austin Dillon did so in October at Richmond Raceway.

“We’re trying things on different extremes – a lot of downforce, and then little downforce and then figure out what’s going to make the best racing,” Logano said in a media release. “Then you go from there to make the next step, bring some more cars. We’re still in the preliminary stages, but we definitely have some cool pieces to the car.”

Compared to what he races now in the Cup Series, Logano said a major difference in the Next Gen car is in its brakes.

“The brakes are way bigger on this thing – it stops really good, where our brakes now are way smaller as we try to take weight out of them,” Logano said. “So trying to get used to that feel will be one thing.

“Some of the steering feeling is way different, but that’s still one of the things we want to adjust. When the car gets loose with this Next Gen car, it doesn’t come back until the driver steers the car back – it doesn’t fix itself. And that puts it more in the driver’s hands. And I like that piece.

“It’s going to be challenging, but I think you’ll see more mistakes on the race track which makes, in my opinion, better racing, and more passing opportunities.”

Logano added that due to a bigger wheel, a wider tire and differences in the body, “your natural reactions are wrong. And you have to be able to adapt quick when you feel something instead of trying to let the car fix itself.”

John Probst, NASCAR’s senior vice president of racing innovation, provided an update on how much work had gone in the Next Gen car since its initial test, including having to adjust the car for the much taller Logano.

“We had a really good test at Richmond, and then said, ‘How can we make the car better?’,” Probst said in the media release. “We came up with 60-plus things we could do to the car. Not all of the things could be implemented into the car we have now, but some of them are in the design phase. We effectively updated a lot of the aerodynamics on the car.”

Probst said that ISM Raceway, a relatively flat 1-mile track, is a “logical progression from Richmond” for testing the car.

“A lot of the testing we needed to do before we head to a track like Homestead – which is where we’re headed next – wasn’t completed at Richmond,” Probst said. “For us it was a really good progression from Richmond loads and speeds, and now we’re creeping the speeds up to start really testing out a lot of the mechanical parts and pieces on the car.”

NASCAR President Steve Phelps said during championship weekend in Miami that the car is expected to be delivered to teams in July of next year.

Sources told NBC Sports’s Nate Ryan last month that at least three companies are being strongly considered to build the chassis for the Next Gen car, including Joe Gibbs Racing.

In a video he posted to Instagram, Logano went into more detail on his reaction to driving the Next Gen car.