Bump & Run: Is Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s back against wall after slow start?

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Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte, who appear on NASCAR America from 5:30 – 6 p.m. ET today, join Nate Ryan and Dustin Long, to answer this week’s questions.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has finished 30th or worse in five on the season’s first nine races and is 24th in the points. How much is his back against the wall a third of the way through the regular season?

Steve Letarte: Going into Talladega, it’s really hard to answer this question because Dale has to be looking at this as a huge opportunity to get to Victory Lane, and I think a win cures everything in the current format.

I don’t think it’s time to panic yet, but when NBC comes on the air on the Fourth of July weekend, which will be the last restrictor-plate race before the playoffs, if they’re still on the outside looking in without a win, I think the pressure heading into that weekend will be huge. Not pressing the panic button yet, but I think there’s more importance on this Talladega race weekend for the 88 than maybe in years past.

Jeff Burton: I’d say it’s very much against the wall. It’s putting him in a position of having to win. They’re getting to that position where they have to find a way to win if they want to get themselves in the playoffs. Points are becoming more difficult to get. I think it puts a lot of pressure on Talladega. I think it puts a lot of pressure on Daytona. I think it puts a lot of pressure where he typically is really good.

Nate Ryan: It’s must-win, and Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway might loom as his best opportunity for making the playoffs in his final season. Daytona in July also will offer another strong shot, but it’s hard to point at another track beyond those two as a strong possibility for a breakthrough victory. He can win anytime he starts at Talladega and Daytona (and probably had a car to win the 2017 Daytona 500 before wrecking). 

Part of the problem here is the struggles of Hendrick Motorsports. All four of its cars were out to lunch (and mostly outside the top 10) at Richmond. That will preclude the hope of success at most unrestricted tracks and also virtually negates any hope of Earnhardt making the playoffs on points. However, if the team quickly can hit on something and get it implemented in its Chevrolets, Earnhardt historically has run well at Dover, Michigan and Pocono. But there are other tracks (Sonoma, Watkins Glen, Darlington, Charlotte) where an out-of-the-blue win seems much less likely.

Dustin Long: There’s still plenty of time to make the playoffs. Hey, Tony Stewart missed the first eight races last year and made the playoffs, and Kyle Busch missed the first 11 races in 2015 and won the title.

It’s not about making the playoffs at Hendrick, though, it’s about winning championships. With the new points structure, his back is against the wall because he’s falling further behind drivers who have scored playoff points via stage wins or race wins. Those playoff points likely will play a key role in who advances throughout the playoffs. Earnhardt has work to do, but there is some time.

Denny Hamlin, noting the struggles Joe Gibbs Racing has had this year, said that this weekend’s restrictor-plate race at Talladega is “honestly, probably the best chance I have at winning until a few months from now.’’ Do you agree with his assessment?

Steve Letarte: I think that’s a veteran driver deflecting some of the pressure off his team or trying to motivate his team, I’m not sure which. I think they’re closer to winning than Denny is letting on, but he’s also the only guy behind the wheel that knows how his car is driving. Perhaps he’s trying to just define how aggressive he’s going to be at Talladega pre-showing up for the event. I don’t think Joe Gibbs Racing is that far off, but he did say a couple of months and not a couple of years. A couple of months is only the middle of the summer. I would expect to see Joe Gibbs Racing winning races before the playoffs.

Jeff Burton: Things change. I think if you look at the year as a whole, I think you could say that. Watch the last year with Jimmie Johnson. Good race car drivers and good race teams find a way to make things happen. So, yes, I think that’s a fair statement. Three weeks from now, we could be talking about Denny Hamlin winning two in a row. I never trust the pessimism of a driver.

Nate Ryan: Well, this is the guy who picked North Carolina to beat Gonzaga in the NCAA championship before this year’s tournament began.  

Hamlin knows the cars well and also is known for speaking accurately and bluntly when asked to provide an assessment. He probably is right that it will be until late summer – Joe Gibbs Racing probably is aiming for the Brickyard – before Toyota Racing Development and the team roll out the next generation of good stuff that will lift the organization back into weekly contention.

This season feels very similar to 2014 when JGR muddled through and won only two races (including one for Hamlin at … Talladega). That remains fresh in the drivers’ minds, and it probably informs some of why Hamlin is gauging the improvement over months instead of weeks.

Dustin Long: Yes. I think the three races after Talladega — Kansas, the All-Star race and the Coca-Cola 600 will be critical for Hamlin and Joe Gibbs Racing since all those races are on 1.5-mile tracks. The key is to show improvement to build throughout the summer.

Since JGR placed all four drivers in the top 10 at Texas in November (Carl Edwards won), the organization has not had a top-five finish in the four races at 1.5-mile tracks since. Admittedly, Kyle Busch was in place to finish in the top five at Las Vegas before the last-lap incident with Joey Logano but it’s clear JGR has work to do on these tracks.

Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. hold the final two playoff spots after nine of 26 races in the regular season. Do you think either of them will make the playoffs?

Steve Letarte: I think one Roush Fenway car has odds to make the playoffs. I don’t think there’s room for two even though they hold those spots now. I think we haven’t seen everyone win who we will see win, and that is going to change the playoff picture. I’m not sure they have winning speed yet, but if they can continue to run like they are, show some consistency and really continue to move the ball forward is the key. Where they’re currently at is barely making the playoffs. If they continue to improve, maybe one of them can solidly make the playoffs.

Jeff Burton: I think the best chance for them to make the playoffs is to not have a lot of new winners. The more people that get in by points, the better chance they have of getting in by points. They have shown definitely an uptick in performance, but they haven’t shown winning speed. If you say they have to get in by winning, I think that starts to be problematic for them. I think one of them gets in by points. I think it will be difficult for both of them to get in by points.

Nate Ryan: One of them will: Stenhouse. His improvement is real, and he finally seems to have blended the raw talent with wise decision-making. His rally from an early spin to another top 10 at Richmond (fourth) shows the moxie in his game this season – just like his bump on Kyle Busch at the end of Stage 2 at Martinsville Speedway.

The key will be if Roush Fenway can keep building fast Fords to keep pace. Last year, the team fell off a cliff after May.

Dustin Long: Admittedly, it’s hard to see both making it at this point. That said, I like what I’ve seen from this organization. It is making steady progress.

Roush hasn’t shown the speed to contend for wins. Instead, they’ve taken advantage of some pit calls to score strong finishes. Key is to avoid trouble and bad days. If they can be consistent — and as Nate notes, they struggled after May last year — then Roush could have a car in the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

Watch Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte from 5:30 – 6 p.m. ET on NASCAR America on NBCSN.

NASCAR America: Kyle Busch seeks first Cup points win at Charlotte

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There’s a few notable holes on Kyle Busch‘s Cup Series resume.

He’s never won the Daytona 500 or the Coca-Cola 600.

To be even more specific, he’s never won a Cup points race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

He’s won at every other track on the Cup circuit.

In 28 starts at the 1.5-mile track, Busch has 11 top fives and three runner-up finishes. The most recent was in last year’s Coke 600. That was a week after he won the All-Star race for the first time.

He’s combined for 15 wins at the track in the Camping World Truck and Xfinity Series, making him the track’s winningest driver.

Busch, who has three victories this season, made his effort to finally get a points win at Charlotte easier on Thursday when he qualified first for Sunday’s race.

“It’s important to me, but I’m not sure it’s important in the grand scheme of things,” Busch said of getting a win at Charlotte. “It’s certainly important to me and I would love to get that knocked out-of-the-way and to be finished with it until another new track comes up on the circuit and certainly it’s been a trying time here over the course of my career and to have it come to fruition in a points race, the last I checked I have a trophy at home that says, ‘winner at Charlotte Motor Speedway,’ so I’ll take that to my grave with me if I do never get a points win here. That will be my saving grace I guess.”

Busch came in second in last year’s Coke 600 after a fuel mileage gamble by Austin Dillon‘s team paid off, giving Dillon his first Cup win.

On NASCAR America, Steve Letarte, Landon Cassill and Kyle Petty discussed Busch’s struggle to get a Cup win at the track.

“At some point it’s kind of like Chase Elliott, ‘When’s he going to win? When’s he going to win?'” Letarte said. “Now, I think Kyle Busch feels like, when is he going to win? When is he going to win Charlotte? Starting on the front row matters, but we all know 600 miles … is very, very difficult.”

Watch the above video for more.

Reviewing Danica Patrick’s highs and lows at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the legacy left by her success

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So much of Danica Patrick’s fame can be traced to Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It’s where she became a household name 13 years ago when she became the first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500 and emerged as a transcendent athlete.

It’s where everything started. This Sunday, it’s where everything will end, too.

In her last warmup before starting the final race of her career, Patrick had a bumpy final practice Friday on Carb Day. She was eighth fastest, but her Dallara-Chevrolet was in the garage most of the session because of an electrical problem in the engine. After returning during the final 10 minutes of the session, Patrick’s No. 13 seemed to be OK.

“At the end of the day, these are things you’re actually glad for, because if this had happened Sunday, we would have been done,” she said. “I’m glad to get the issues out of the way early on. Overall, today felt good. We made some changes when I went out the second time, and I’m feeling good about starting seventh on Sunday.”
Though she has had her share of success – along with a fourth in her debut, there was a third in 2009 and six top 10s in seven starts — Patrick has learned well how to handle frustration at the 2.5-mile track, too.

Fuel mileage might have kept her from winning her debut, a pit collision ruined 2008, and an unstable setup made 2010 a wild ride.

For a review of her up-and-down history at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and her legacy in racing, watch the video essay above that ran during Friday’s NASCAR America Motorsports Special on NBCSN.

 

Kaz Grala, father reveal how Fury Race Cars came to Xfinity Series

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CONCORD, N.C. — The text was sent at 4:04 p.m. on May 9, four days after the last Xfinity Series race at Dover International Speedway.

The sender was Darius Grala, father of Kaz Grala, the JGL Racing driver who announced May 15 that was no longer his job title.

The receiver was Shane Wilson, the long-time Xfinity crew chief who had worked in that role for Grala through the first 10 races of the season.

(Photo by Daniel McFadin)

The elder Grala asked: “Can u talk?”

That was the moment when Fury Race Cars, the race car building company Grala founded in 2016 with Tony Eury Jr. and Jeff Fultz, started becoming an Xfinity Series team.

PUTTING THE TEAM TOGETHER

It wasn’t official until Kaz Grala, 19, drove onto the track Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, in his No. 61 Ford.

It capped a 15-day scramble for the Gralas, Wilson and other members of Fury Race Cars to become the newest Xfinity team. The effort was announced May 18.

It started with Darius Grala’s text. He had just gotten off the phone with JGL Racing owner James Whitener, who had offered to give them three of their Roush Fenway Racing built cars as a form of severance for Kaz Grala.

“We got the three cars from him because we left on great terms,” Kaz Grala. said. “He was a huge supporter of me, right up until the end, emotionally and financially, you name it. He was a big fan of mine and he helped me kick off my Xfinity career. He wasn’t able to continue funding my ride. He definitely wanted to help however he could.”

That allowed the group to get a “good jump” on the team building process in the midst of a two-week break for the series.

The process was made even easier with five of the six crew members who worked on Grala’s No. 24 car joining the team along with Wilson. They joined an operation in Fury Race Cars that for the last two years was devoted to building modifieds, sports cars and late models.

Darius Grala, a native of Poland who moved to the United States when he was 8, had his own background as a sports car driver. That went along with the extensive time served as NASCAR crew chiefs by Eury and Ricky Viers.

But at Fury Race Cars, they’d never worked with a Xfinity car until this month.

“I don’t want you to think we took it lightly,” Darius Grala said. “Because we didn’t we didn’t want to come and embarrass ourselves. But there wasn’t any question right from the first conversation, obviously being Kaz’s dad I want to do everything I can but after speaking with Tony and Jeff, they were all in 100 percent, whatever we need to do, let’s figure it out.”

The group worked many late nights to get ready for Saturday’s race.

“Yes, you have to get the car built, but you’ve got to have the tool box to organize …. you need to have a pit box,” Kaz Grala said. “You need to have the hauler organized, I needed race suits in eight days, I needed polos. Just every single little thing and one of our biggest challenges, just logistically, was that this came together so late, just trying to get our entry forms in in time for this race and for Pocono. Everything came so quickly, all the little I’s had to be dotted and T’s had to be crossed. All that stuff takes time and we just didn’t have time.”

Kaz Grala walks through the Xfinity Series garage on Thursday. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

Even acquiring a fuel can was a hassle.

“They’re not easy to come by, it’s not like you can go to (a store) and buy one of those,” Darius Grala said.

They also had to pick a number.

“We let the team at Fury pick the number,” Kaz Grala said. “Actually you would be surprised when looking into numbers, I know I was, how few are actually on the market. Most of them are not. It really worked out perfectly, because Fury being modifieds is one of their main things that they build and all the guys at Fury are old-time, old-school guys and of course the 61 being Richie Evans’ was immediately what jumped out at them. That was kind of the inspiration for it. Not to mention my mom is actually from Rome, New York, as well, as Richie Evans was. Seemed like a good fit.”

The team loaded up its lone car for the Charlotte race weekend by 9 p.m. Wednesday, placing it in the team’s logo-free white hauler.

“That was the first relief since the day we started,” Darius Grala said.

He had a “really, really good” night of sleep.

A DEAL WITH GOD

With the sun setting on Fury’s first day as an Xfinity team, Kaz Grala pulled his No. 61 Ford into his garage stall – the very last stall meant for the lowest team in points or a new team without any – at the end of final practice.

On his last run, Grala posted the eighth best speed in the session at 179.784 mph. That placed him ahead of Chase Briscoe, Austin Cindric, Ty Dillon and other drivers from big teams.

Where did they get that speed?

Darius Grala observes Xfinity practice atop the Fury Race Cars hauler. (Photo by Daniel McFadin)

“I don’t know, I guess a lot of hours and a lot of hard work right there, the car’s pretty darn good,” Grala said. “Couldn’t really ask for more than that.”

Has the driver who has competed in a full season of the Camping World Truck Series (and won one race) and 10 Xfinity races ever felt this good after a practice?

“Not in Xfinity, no,” he said. “I think we’re closer than we’ve been. We were within a couple of tenths of the 22 (Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski). If you’re within a couple of tenths of the 22 then you’re pretty darn good.”

In the Xfinity garage, JGL Racing’s No. 28 Ford driven by Dylan Lupton is parked right across from Fury’s stall. Lupton finished the session 24th.

“We’re still on good terms, we’re friends with all of them,” Grala said. “A little friendly competition, we’re a little bit quicker than them. We’re going to try and stay quicker than them. But we’re trying to be quicker than everyone here.”

The team’s next chance to be quicker than everyone else comes Saturday in qualifying. And the No. 61 team needs to qualify. They also need it to not rain. If it rains, they won’t be in the race.

“There’s 43 cars here and we have zero points,” said Darius Grala, noting the field would be set by owner points. “That’s about the only goal we have right now is we need to make a deal with God on the weather.

Qualifying is set to begin at 10:10 a.m. ET. The chance of rain then is 60 percent.

Regardless of the weather, the team will be back next week at Pocono and the two races after that. That fulfills the original sponsor deal Kaz Grala has with NETTTS, which has backed him since 2013 when he raced in modifieds.

The team is prepared to go beyond those four races, but won’t just stop looking for partners.

“As of right now, yes, it’s been a lot of work, but no one at Fury is scared of work,” Darius Grala said. “We’re looking at this being a step forward if at all possible.”

PJ1 traction agent, tire dragging in use at Charlotte

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Charlotte Motor Speedway is doing as much as it can to improve the racing product and create opportunities for passing this weekend at the 1.5-mile track.

A blue tractor spent Friday dragging two sets of tires in the upper groove in each turn, an effort to freshen the area where the PJ1 traction agent was applied.

A track spokesperson confirmed to NBC Sports that the substance was added to the upper grooves in both corners on Monday and Tuesday.

The spokesperson was not aware of plans to add more PJ1 or to drag the tires on Saturday.

“The Xfinity cars ran on that PJ1 a lot and definitely activated it and got the grip definitely up there,” Joey Logano said after qualifying second for the Coke 600. “It’s hard for me to say what was what, but, overall, the car got faster and that’s all I really care about.”

Charlotte first used the traction agent in the Coca-Cola 600 last year and again in October. Its presence in that race wasn’t popular due to an uneven application of the substance.

Bristol Motor Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway have also used the substance in the last two years.