Ford teams continue to struggle for answers to speed, aero woes

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With eight wins in the first 19 Cup races this season – including three in the last six – you’d think Ford would be at the top of its game.

But such is not the case. While Toyota’s Martin Truex Jr. and Chevrolet’s Kyle Larson have been at or near the front often in recent races, Fords have dropped off in performance.

The two premier Ford teams, Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing, have both struggled for more speed and to overcome aerodynamic issues.

“Aero is definitely an area we’re struggling,” Dave Pericak, Director, Ford Performance, said Thursday at Eldora Speedway. “We’re definitely not struggling from an engine perspective and many other areas, but yeah, aero, for sure, and we’re working on it.”

Paul Wolfe, crew chief for Brad Keselowski, has watched his driver slip from third in the Cup standings to eighth in the last eight races. During that stretch, Keselowski has finished 30th or worse (crashes) four times, and had just two top fives.

“We’re not in the best spot we’d like to be in,” Wolfe admitted Thursday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Seems like the last couple months have definitely been a challenge and a little bit of a struggle for all of us at Team Penske, not just the No. 2 car.

“We’re really just trying to find out what to do to get some speed back in our cars. It seems like where we get the cars driving and the drivers are somewhat happy with what we call a raceable balance, we’re just off on speed at that point. We can get the cars to run a fast lap time, but the drivers say they’re just not drivable and can’t race that way. It’s been a challenge trying to get both right now, and for whatever reason, we seem to be off.”

MORE: Brad Keselowski says ‘poorly designed car’ makes it difficult ‘to put on a show’

Time is not a luxury Wolfe or anyone else at Team Penske has. Seven races remain until the playoffs.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” Wolfe said. “There’s not too many races here until Chicago comes around, so we’re trying to figure it out, that’s for sure.”

Wolfe’s Team Penske counterpart, Todd Gordon, faces an even greater sense of urgency with the No. 22 of Joey Logano. Even though Logano won at Richmond earlier this season, the victory doesn’t count toward playoff eligibility because his car failed inspection after the race.

As a result, Logano is not locked into the playoffs and is in a seemingly must-win situation to secure a playoff berth. Things have gone from bad to worse of late: since his encumbered win at Richmond, Logano has finished between 21st and 37th seven times, with just one top-five and one other top-10 (plus a 12th-place finish) in the other three events.

Logano has fallen from fifth to 13th in the NASCAR Cup standings.

Wolfe can empathize with the plight of Logano and Gordon.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us, but this sport over the years, there’s peaks and valleys,” Wolfe said. “We’re been on the good side and bad side before.

“We’re going to have confidence everyone at Team Penske and Ford will continue to work in the right direction and hopefully get our speed where we need it to contend for a championship later this year.”

A tale of two seasons in just 19 races

Fords enjoyed early season success, winning the season’s first two races at Daytona (Kurt Busch) and Atlanta (Keselowski).

Ford also won at Martinsville, Richmond and Talladega – and earned three more wins in the last six races, but those came on a road course (Sonoma), a restrictor-plate track (Daytona) and a triangle that is seemingly part superspeedway and part road course (Pocono).

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has two wins (Talladega and Daytona), as does Keselowski (Atlanta and Martinsville), while Kurt Busch (Daytona 500), Joey Logano (Richmond), Ryan Blaney (Pocono) and Harvick (Sonoma) all have one win each.

But check out some of the other recent Ford stats:

* At Michigan, in its corporate backyard, Ford had one car in the top five and led just two of the 200 laps.

* At Kentucky, Ford had no cars in the top five and led just seven laps.

* At New Hampshire last weekend, Ford had one car in the top five and led zero laps.

How did things fall off so quickly for Ford when it came to downforce and lack of speed? Wolfe has a theory.

“As the season went on, NASCAR started changing enforcement of some templates and some aero things, and for whatever reason, it seems like it affected the Fords maybe more than Toyota,” Wolfe said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Obviously, Toyota came out with a new car, they were slow getting going, but they definitely have it figured out and seem to have a little bit of an advantage right now.

“I feel like some of the rule changes on the aero side has really affected our cars a lot and trying to get them balanced out, back to where they were before some of those changes has been difficult for us.”

When Wolfe thinks he is starting to get a handle on things, other questions arise he told “The Morning Drive.”

“Is it more of a mechanical area that we’re missing with this package because of the aero shift?” Wolfe said. “Or the amount of downforce it is, is there something we’re missing mechanically with the platform of how we control our splitter or ride heights?

“Or is it just the fact those guys just have more downforce than us? Those are all the question marks and we don’t really have the answers right now. Maybe we can get out of our comfort zone and mindset of what has had success in the past and explore new things. We’ll continue to do that and pay attention to teams that are having success.”

Stewart-Haas Racing also has woes

Wolfe’s counterpart at Stewart-Haas Racing, Rodney Childers, crew chief for Kevin Harvick, admitted to “Tradin’ Paint” on Thursday that his team is pretty much in the same boat as Team Penske.

“I hate to even say it but I agree with (Wolfe),” Childers said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “On one side of me, I feel that we’re in trouble. I don’t know if we will get caught up to where we need to be.

“I feel l like it’s time that Ford is going to have to push hard and come up with a new body and do something to get us back in the ballgame from the downforce side of things.”

Childers would like to see NASCAR get more involved in the disparity he believes has developed between Ford, Toyota and Chevrolet.

“I think it’s time for NASCAR to take all the cars to the wind tunnel again and figure out where we’re all at,” Childers said. “If there are people that are way off, other teams, then we need to figure out how to make it more equal. You hate to get into that again.”

Even so, Childers remains confident in his team, given that Harvick is the highest-ranked Ford driver (fourth) in the Cup standings.

“The downforce stuff, we’re not way off,” he said. “I feel like we’ve kind of had the best Ford week after week here lately. We’re pushing hard and we’re not going to give up by any means and I think everybody will see that in our performance.

“But on the other hand I do feel like it has hurt us a little bit more and we just have to figure out how to dig through it.”

Ups and downs are cyclical

Childers also mentioned the irony that it wasn’t all that long ago that SHR and Harvick were being looked upon as the kings of performance (albeit in Chevrolets), much like Truex and Larson are today.

“I look back at the 2014 and 2015 seasons and everybody used to complain about us being the fastest car every week, leading all those laps and always have a shot at winning,” Childers said. “Looking back, I don’t even know if we understood then exactly what we were doing to be that much faster than everybody else.

“I think it’s the same way with (Truex and Larson) right now. They’ve done a good job, have their cars where they need them to be, their drivers are doing excellent jobs, the pit crews are doing a good job.”

But there’s still the bottom line.

“We have to get faster race cars,” Childers said. “Our pit crews have done excellent, Kevin’s done excellent, we just have to be faster when we unload off the haulers. Hopefully, we can get caught up a little bit.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Sunday’s Cup race at Bristol: Start time, forecast and more

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After four races on tracks more than 1 mile in length, NASCAR heads to Bristol Motor Speedway for Sunday afternoon’s race.

NASCAR’s first short track race of the season concludes a two-week period where the Cup Series will have run five times.

Kevin Harvick won the first race in this stretch May 17 at Darlington Raceway. Denny Hamlin won the May 20 Darlington race. Brad Keselowski won last weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte. Chase Elliott won at Charlotte on Thursday night.

Here are the details for Sunday’s race:

(All times are Eastern)

START: Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee will give the command to start engines at 3:43 p.m. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 3:53 p.m.

PRERACE: Garage access health screening begins at 7:30 a.m. (teams are assigned specific times). Engine prime and final adjustments at 1:30 p.m. Drivers report to their cars at 3:20 p.m. The invocation will be given at 3:35 p.m. by Mike Rife, pastor of Vansant Church of Christ in Vansant, Virginia. The national anthem will be performed at 3:36 p.m. by Edwin McCain. There will be a flyover at 3:37 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 500 laps (266.5 miles) around the 0.533-mile oval.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 125. Stage 2 ends on Lap 250.

TV/RADIO: FS1 will televise the race. Its coverage begins at 3 p.m. Performance Racing Network will broadcast the race. Its broadcast begins at 2:30 p.m. and also can be heard at goprn.com and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

FORECAST: The wunderground.com forecast calls for sunny conditions with a high of 70 degrees and a zero percent chance of rain at the race’s start.

LAST RACE: Chase Elliott took the lead from Kevin Harvick with 28 laps to go and went on to win Thursday night’s Cup race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Denny Hamlin finished second. Ryan Blaney placed third.

LAST RACE AT BRISTOL: Denny Hamlin passed Matt DiBenedetto with 12 laps to go to take the lead and went on to win last year’s night race. DiBenedetto finished second. Brad Keselowski placed third.

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for the starting lineup.

CATCHING UP TO SPEED WITH NBC SPORTS COVERAGE:

Matt DiBenedetto: “No margin for error” at Bristol Motor Speedway

Can Adam Stevens, Kyle Busch “get mojo back” at Bristol?

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: Forget practice, qualifying, “I just like to race”

Chase Elliott’s “Sent it, for Judd” in Charlotte Cup Series win

When fans can return, how many will be allowed at tracks?

Where are they now? Catching up with Casey Mears

 

Matt DiBenedetto: ‘No margin for error’ at Bristol Motor Speedway

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It will be a weird feeling for Matt DiBenedetto on Sunday.

He and the rest of the Cup Series will embark on a 500-mile race at Bristol Motor Speedway for the first true short-track race of the season.

It will be DiBenedetto’s first trip back to the hall-mile track since last August, when he came within 12 laps of earning his first Cup Series win. Instead, he finished second to Denny Hamlin in his best career finish. For DiBenedetto, Bristol represents the site of “probably one of the most defeating and toughest days of my life” and one of the “most rewarding.”

“It was a tough week on us, so there was a lot of not really feeling how to feel,” DiBenedetto said Friday in a Zoom press conference. “But ultimately it led to being a big factor in me getting this opportunity to drive the 21 car this year, so it was a big day and everything was meant to be.”

DiBenedetto enters his ninth race as the driver for Wood Brothers Racing.  But he’s not revisiting last year’s night race in his preparation for Sunday’s race (3:30 p.m. ET on FS1).

“It’s still that painful that I’ve never watched (it),” DiBenedetto said. “I can’t remember what lap, but I cut it off and I can’t even watch it.  It would be too much.

“But as far as what I’m gonna try to learn for this Sunday, I’m actually gonna go back and probably watch mostly 2018 stuff because, thank goodness, we have the low downforce back for Bristol, which will make the racing way, way better, so I’m excited about that.”

As with the first four races back amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Cup teams will get no practice before taking the green flag in “Thunder Valley.”

DiBenedetto said it has been “amazing” how cars have been able to fire off without any preparation, thanks to simulations and notes from previous races.

“The heights (on the car) and everything are usually pretty close, just because they have so much information to work (with),” DiBenedetto said.  “Really, it’s not too big of a deal.

“Actually, it’s even better than I thought just firing straight off in the race. The (competition) yellow and things like that help so you have a little time to adjust on your car and work on it, so they’ve done a good job with that.”

But Bristol is a different animal. DiBenedetto said the race will be “nerve-racking” without on-track preparation.

“Bristol, there’s just no margin for error.,” he said. “It’s really, really fast.  It’s an insanely fast short track.  You’re on edge already even when you have your car dialed in. … It’ll work out fine, for sure, but you just really are out and out praying that your car is dialed in right because it’s very sensitive.

“If you’re off just a little bit at Bristol, it can affect you worse than these tracks where it’s a big race track – a mile-and-a-half – and you don’t have to worry about going a lap down if you miss it or things like that, so this one will be a little bit more treacherous.”

DiBenedetto will be hoping to capture some of his Bristol magic from last year. Since finishing second at Las Vegas in February, DiBenedetto has finished better than 13th just once in the following six races, placing ninth in the second Darlington race.

After starting fourth Thursday night at Charlotte, he led 10 of the first 11 laps before ending the first stage in third, but finished 15th.

“Car speed is there and great and we’ve shown if we hit it or we’re close we can be up front at any of these races,” DiBenedetto said. “I’d say we’re not in our rhythm yet, but we will be. I have no doubt about that, but we’re still learning each other and making little mistakes figuring out each other’s communication.

“(Crew chief) Greg Erwin and I are figuring out working together and we still have a lot of room for improvement, which is a good thing because I know we can run up front and can contend for wins quite often. We have a lot of room for improvement on the execution side as far as putting our race together perfect from start to finish.”

Where Are They Now? Catching up with Casey Mears

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There are certain days most people never forget: their anniversaries, their children’s birthdays and for race car drivers, their first win.

These days Casey Mears may live 2,100 miles away from Charlotte Motor Speedway, but he was there in spirit for last weekend’s Coca-Cola 600.

Mears won NASCAR’s longest race in 2007. He was in the right place at the right time, taking the lead from Denny Hamlin late in the race and hanging on for the final six laps – the only laps he led all day – for the win.

Casey Mears celebrates after winning the 2007 Coca-Cola 600. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

“It was definitely the high point of my career, for sure,” Mears told NBC Sports. “I remember everything about that night.

“The one thing – and it’s not a regret – but it’s unfortunate that it ended up being a fuel-mileage race because we had a very fast car that night and ran inside the top 10 and top five the majority of the night.

“We probably weren’t going to win it, but we had a good shot at a top five and were going to be in the hunt. (Crew chief Darian Grubb) made a great call and we won the race, which was amazing for several different reasons.

“I mean, obviously winning in Charlotte, the 600 is the longest race, winning on Memorial Day weekend, which is a huge week for my family and then also being sponsored by the National Guard at that time. It was just a big night.”

While the 600 was his only Cup win, Mears also recalls several other key moments of his career, including runner-up finishes in 2006 at the Daytona 500 and later that year at Kansas.

“That night at Charlotte was a huge part of my career but some of the stuff that I feel like we earned on speed which was really cool were, we sat on the pole at Indy, did well at places like Chicago, Pocono and Michigan, being competitive and leading laps at places like Atlanta and Homestead, going back and forth with Tony Stewart at Atlanta one year.

“Some of those big moments in my career weren’t necessarily the only parts that stand out. The moments I remember the most were when we had competitive race cars and when we were on the verge of getting those wins and getting real close.”

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Mears lives in the Phoenix area with his family. It’s also where he met his wife, Trisha.

“We always said that when the NASCAR things slowed down, we’d like to be back out this way,” Mears told NBC Sports. “So we picked up and moved the kids and came out to Phoenix. We’re loving it, and I’m really enjoying spending a lot of time with them. I’ve also been fortunate to reconnect with some of my off-road racing buddies since I’ve been out here.”

This is the off-road truck Casey Mears co-drove in last year’s NORRA Mexican Baja 1000. (Photo courtesy Casey Mears)

Mears may be gone from NASCAR, but he’s still taking part in other forms of racing part-time, including off-road competition like the NORRA Mexican Baja 1000 last year with Lynn Chenoweth. Casey’s father Roger drove for Chenoweth back in the 1960s and 1970s, and also is part of Robby Gordon’s Stadium Super Trucks Series.

“I also hang out with (NBC IndyCar analyst and former racer Paul Tracy) and drive his Lamborghini sports car, just taking it on the track and sliding around, just having fun,” Mears said. “If opportunities come around, I’d love to race some more.

“I really, really enjoyed racing out in the desert, doing off road stuff. I’d also love to get involved in some sports car stuff as well if there’s an opportunity.

“I love what I’m being able to do right now, just dabble. Playing in Robby’s series, that’s been a blast and picking up random off road, desert opportunities. But racing’s racing, it always boils down to the dollars and cents and sponsors or finding some guy that just wants to go racing and spend some money and have fun. It’s few and far between these days.”

Even though Mears has moved on from NASCAR, he admits he misses it.

“I was fortunate to get to do it for about 15 years,” Mears said. “I lived that life and it really becomes almost the opposite. Your family and friends end up being all the people on the road and people at home become extended friends and family, you’re on the road so much.

“For sure I miss a lot of the people that you saw week in and week out. I definitely miss the competition. I don’t think I’ll ever not miss being in a race car because, like so many others in the sport, I didn’t really get to go out on my own terms.

“For so many people, the sport decides it for you before you’re ready to decide not to do it. I think I’ll always have that desire to want to get in a car again.

“But the one thing that helped me make this decision to move to Phoenix is that I didn’t want to be one of those guys that lingered in the sport either. I didn’t want to be with a back marker program and not be able to be competitive and that’s kind of probably what would have happened. I would have stuck around and would have gotten into something I probably really didn’t need to be in.”

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Mears made 489 career Cup starts, his last full-time season being in 2016. He came back for a start last year for Germain Racing in the season-opening Daytona 500. He started 40th and finished 40th, involved in a crash just past the halfway point.

Mears also made 107 Xfinity Series starts, earning his lone series win in 2016 at Chicagoland Speedway.

He still keeps his hand in NASCAR somewhat, just not on a steering wheel. He does promotional work for Phoenix Raceway and visits his former chums each time NASCAR comes to town.

Casey Mears, right, remains good friends with a number of his former teammates, including seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

He also keeps in regular contact with close friends and former teammates and bosses including Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Chip Ganassi, Rick Hendrick, Bob Germain and Doug Barnette.

But moving on from being a race car driver, pretty much the only thing he had known for more than 30 years since being a kid growing up in Bakersfield, California, gave Mears pause.

“This move really forced me to figure out what’s next in life,” he said. “I’m 42 years old and although I’ve done well and been very fortunate, but I need to do something.”

He’s looking at a variety of business opportunities in the Phoenix area, primarily in the automotive industry.

“I feel very fortunate to have the career that I’ve had in the sport,” Mears said. “I drove for a lot of real good teams and programs and learned a lot from a lot of people.

“The people I got to race with and learn from just from the business standpoint is going to help me later in my career with whatever’s next. I had some great opportunities and will always miss it, but at the same time, I’m looking forward to the future and what’s next.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Starting lineup for Monday night’s Xfinity race at Bristol

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Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Harrison Burton and Brandon Jones will start on the front row for Monday night’s Xfinity Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway after a random draw.

Burton will start on the pole and Jones will be second. Austin Cindric will start third, Justin Haley starts fourth and Ryan Sieg starts fifth.

There are 37 cars in the field. NASCAR on NBC analyst AJ Allmendinger will start 27th in his season debut in the series.

Monday’s race is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. ET on FS1.

The starting lineup was determined through a random draw of the following groups:

  • Positions 1-12: The first 12 NXS Teams based on the Adverse Conditions Line Up Eligibility will be assigned starting positions 1st – 12th using a random draw.
  • Positions 13-24: The next 12 NXS Teams based on the Adverse Conditions Line Up eligibility will be assigned starting positions 12th- 24th using a random draw.
  • Starting positions 25-36:The next 12 NXS Teams based on the Adverse Conditions Line Up eligibility will be assigned starting positions 25th -36th using a random draw.
  • Any vehicles that are eligible for the Event in position 37th – 40th will be assigned starting positions based on their order of eligibility.

Click here for starting lineup

 

NASCAR Xfinity Series at Bristol

Race Time: 7 p.m. ET Monday

Track: Bristol Motor Speedway; Bristol, Tennessee (0.533-mile oval)

Length: 300 laps, 159.9 miles

Stages: Stage 1 ends on Lap 85. Stage 2 ends on Lap 170.

TV coverage: FS1

Radio: Performance Racing Network (also SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Streaming: Fox Sports app (subscription required); goprn.com and SiriusXM for audio (subscription required)

Next Cup race: May 31 at Bristol (500 laps, 266.5 miles), 3:30 p.m. ET on FS1

Next Truck Series race: June 6 at Atlanta (130 laps, 200.02 miles), 1 p.m. ET on FS1