‘Savvy’ rookie crew chief leads Tony Stewart to consecutive top fives for first time since 2014

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With three laps left in the New Hampshire 301, Tony Stewart put the nose of his No. 14 Chevrolet beneath Joey Logano‘s car and took second place away from the Team Penske driver.

Three laps later, Stewart claimed his second top-five finish in as many weeks and his third in four races. It was the first time Stewart has had consecutive top fives since March 2014 when he did so at Bristol Motor Speedway and Auto Club Speedway.

“I’m happy, I mean this is the kind of day we wanted here, and we are getting close,” Stewart told NBCSN.

He is 28th in the points standings three races after winning at Sonoma Raceway and is eligible for the Chase for the Sprint Cup after missing the first eight races due to a back injury.

Though Stewart’s average running spot during the 301-lap race was 12.9, four cautions in the final 36 laps allowed the Stewart-Haas Racing team to move into the top five during restarts.

“I’d say the last three restarts were pretty intense,” Stewart said. “This track has always kind of had a history of one lane prevailing over the others … you’ve got two lanes wide of cars that are trying to get to one lane every restart.

“It seemed like it took a couple laps after the restarts for the track to rubber back in, and I think it was the best tire that Goodyear has brought here that I can remember in the 18 years I’ve been here. You could race all over the racetrack today, and it didn’t seem like the aero situation was near as bad as what it has been in the past, so I was really happy with Goodyear brought.”

Stewart was also happy with how rookie crew chief Mike Bugarewicz handled the weekend and improved his car’s performance from Saturday when Stewart was 16th fastest in final practice. The three-time champion didn’t stick around Loudon following practice, instead, he flew to Eldora Speedway, the dirt track he owns in Rossburg, Ohio, to attend the World of Outlaws King’s Royal event.

“Mike was working all night, so my phone would vibrate in my pocket, and it’s 11 at night and he’s got a question still that he wants feedback on, and that’s the stuff I like about him,” Stewart said. “I mean, he’s a workaholic, and I guarantee you he watched the entire race last night.  The night before the race he watches every previous race there and just kind of watches what happens.

“For a guy that’s not been the head guy on the pit box for very long, he’s got a lot of savvy about what’s going on there.

The calls and moves made by Bugarewicz, which included taking four tires on the team’s last pit stop, had Stewart sixth and on the outside on the final restart with 11 laps to go.

“We were able to start picking our way through there, and that was really good,” Stewart said.

It led to Stewart’s best finish at the “Magic Mile” since he won there in 2011, a year that he finished in the top two of both New Hampshire races. Stewart believes the team is more relaxed as a result of his win at Sonoma, the first in his final Sprint Cup season.

“Everybody was kind of on edge because everybody wants this last year to be good and we want to run good in this last year,” Stewart said. “So for Mike and I to get caught up with each other, we’ve really had to work hard at it, and I think he’s done a great job, but I think Sonoma really helped kind of relax everybody and gets us in the mode of racing again and not really worrying about what we were looking like out there.”

Stewart is well aware that the Cup series will return to NHMS for the Chase for the Sprint Cup when the “atmosphere is different” at the 1-mile track in September.

“Both Mike and I feel like we’ve got some things to gain on,” Stewart said. “I hope everybody feels like what they’ve got is good enough, but I feel like we have room to gain from it, and he’s the kind of guy that won’t stop until he figures it out.”

NASCAR releases Cup rules packages for 2021

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NASCAR announced Thursday its rules package slate for the 2021 Cup Series season, a day after next year’s schedule was unveiled.

For returning tracks to the 36-race schedule, the rules are largely unchanged save for Darlington Raceway.

Cup teams will use the 750 horsepower, low downforce race package at the 1.366-mile track. It’s the package that’s been used this season on road courses and short tracks. Nashville Superspeedway, the 1.333-mile track being added in 2021, will use the same package.

The packages for the other new race tracks – Road America, Circuit of the Americas and the Indy road course – have not been decided on.

“We constantly review the race packages to try to put on the best possible racing for our fans,” John Probst, NASCAR’s Senior Vice Presiden of Innovation and Racing Development said in a media release. “When he brought in the short track / road course package this season, Darlington was not part of it due to its unique size. We’ve been evaluating data from both race packages, as well as feedback from drivers, teams and OEMs and feel that the 750 hp / low downforce package best fits the track.”

Other rule changes include:

  • Teams are restricted to 150 restricted computational fluid dynamics runs per calendar month.
  • Teams must compete in a minimum of 16 points events with a short block sealed engine (up from 13).

Click here for the rule packages for each Cup race in 2021.

Team Penske looks to extend Talladega dominance amid 2020 woes

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If there’s one thing Talladega Superspeedway is known for, it’s chaos.

But for as much chaos as the 2.66-mile track can provide, Talladega has another quality it produces: consistency in Victory Lane.

In the 2010s and up through the June Cup race, the consistency has been produced by Team Penske.

Since May 2012, Penske drivers have won nine of 17 races. Brad Keselowski has four of his five Talladega wins, Joey Logano has three and Ryan Blaney has won each of the last two races by .007 seconds.

The other eight races were won by Roush Fenway Racing (two wins), Hendrick Motorsports (two), Front Row Motorsports (one), Chip Ganassi Racing (one), Stewart-Haas Racing (one) and Joe Gibbs Racing (one).

When it comes to races like this weekend’s playoff event (2 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC), one would expect even more chaos and less consistency among winners.

You’d be wrong on the latter.

Penske’s three drivers have combined to win five of the last six Talladega playoff races. The winner of the sixth race was Aric Almirola in the 2018 playoff race.

Last week Keselowski observed how races at superspeedways have “ebbs and flows” with them currently resembling “a MAVTV demo derby just a little faster.”

On Thursday, the 2012 Cup champion credited Team Penske having a “great” driver lineup with its ability to win in a form of racing that’s constantly evolving.

“I think we have the strongest driver lineup in Cup right now,” Keselowski said. “I know that’s probably arguable and it’s completely subjective. That’s played to our favorite tracks like the plate tracks and we’re going to continue to try and leverage it.”

While Blaney has enjoyed recent success at Talladega with his two victories, Keselowski looks to re-establish his winning ways at the track he has five victories, the most among active drivers.

After winning the 2017 playoff race, he has five consecutive finishes of 13th or worse, including two DNFs for wrecks.

“It’s been up and down for me,” Keselowski said. “The last few races have probably been down. Last fall I thought we were going to win the race with two or three (laps) to go. We were making the pass for the lead and the next thing I know we’re all wrecked. It’s a love-hate affair with that track for sure and hopefully we’ll love it. I feel like we’re due for a good finish there.”

Keselowski enters Sunday’s race after miserable outings in the last two playoff races. He finished 34th at Bristol (power steering problems) and 13th at Las Vegas.

Talladega could be the relief Keselowski’s teammates are looking for as well.

Blaney, who was eliminated from the playoffs after the Round of 16, hasn’t had a top-five finish in the last nine races. Logano, while he has two top fives in the playoffs (third at Darlington and Richmond), hasn’t won since the March race at Phoenix. That was the last race before the COVID-19 shutdown.

Keselowski said “it is a bit strange” that Team Penske can view Talladega as a track where it can turn its season around.

“We haven’t been where we want to be on the mile-and-a-halfs, there’s no doubt about that,” Keselowski said. “The mile-and-a-halfs and road courses have been a weak spot for us. The superspeedways and short tracks have been a strong spot for us. Thankfully we have the superspeedway this weekend and couple of short tracks coming up in the next round (Martinsville).

“We need to kind of maximize out strengths and minimize our weaknesses. This weekend is certainly looking like a strength for us. We have high expectations.”

Kaz Grala subs for Natalie Decker in Talladega Truck race

Kaz Grala
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Natalie Decker has not been medically cleared to compete in Saturday’s Truck Series race at Talladega (1 p.m. ET on FS1) and will be replaced by Kaz Grala in Niece Motorsports’ No. 44 Chevrolet the team announced Thursday.

Decker withdrew from last weekend’s race at Las Vegas after she was not medically cleared shortly before the race. She was credited with a last-place finish.

Decker tweeted Saturday that she was flying home where “more tests (would be) run so they can further evaluate and diagnose.”

No further details about Decker’s condition have been announced.

“We are thankful that Kaz is able to fill in for Natalie this weekend and appreciate him working with our team,” team general manager Cody Efaw said in a press release. “We wish Natalie the best as she works to be as healthy as possible to return to racing.”

Grala will make his first Truck Series start since 2017. He has 32 career starts in the series, including one win in the 2017 season-opening race at Daytona.

He drove in Austin Dillon’s place earlier this year in the Cup race on the Daytona road course after Dillon tested positive for COVID-19.

“My thoughts will be with Natalie this weekend as I wish her a quick recovery,” Grala said in a press release. “I know she loves the restrictor-plate races, so I feel bad that she’ll have to miss this one, but I hope I can give her something to cheer for on Saturday. 

“It’s been a few years since I’ve been in a Truck, but the superspeedway races have been very good to me in the past, so I’m really hoping to be able to go grab a win for Niece Motorsports at Talladega.”

FanVision closes due to impact of COVID-19 pandemic

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FanVision Entertainment, the company that produces video devices used by race fans at NASCAR events, has ceased operations due to the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The news was announced in a statement from Racing Electronics, the company which sold and supported FanVision devices at NASCAR tracks through a license with FanVision Entertainment.

Racing Electronics, which is owned by NASCAR, can no longer sell or support the devices.

“We recognize this news will be met with disappointment by motorsports fans across the country who utilized FanVision’s products as part of their at-track experience,” Racing Electronics president Chad Willis said in a statement.

“To help fans and industry members transition to Racing Electronics products, we are working with existing FanVision device owners to solve their race day needs. When Racing Electronics returns to the track, fans and industry members will have access to all the sounds that make racing so special.”