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Greg Erwin ready for new challenge as Cup crew chief with Wood Brothers and Paul Menard

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Greg Erwin has had a good, productive tenure with Team Penske. He’s served in a number of roles since first joining the organization in 2012, including Xfinity program manager and Xfinity team crew chief.

But Erwin has always felt he left some things unfinished and unfulfilled from his previous tenure as a Cup crew chief with Greg Biffle at Roush Fenway Racing.

After five years of patiently waiting, Erwin is finally getting that chance, joining Wood Brothers Racing as crew chief for Paul Menard, who moves over after a seven-year stint with Richard Childress Racing.

“Just being at Penske under the system I’ve spent the last five years I’ve worked under is good for me and this is what I was looking to do,” Erwin told NBC Sports.

In a unique twist, Erwin remains part of the Team Penske family as part of their partnership with Wood Brothers Racing. That means he will have worked for two of the most legendary teams in motorsports: Team Penske and Wood Brothers Racing.

“The winning combination for me is I get to do it still as part of the Penske umbrella, so to speak,” Erwin said. “Opportunities to be a Cup crew chief, they come and go, they come yearly, but it’s not always necessarily with the organization that you committed yourself to be a part of, like I did at the end of 2012.

“These folks at Team Penske have been very honest and very good to me and they run their company and shop and go about building their race cars and managing their people. There’s some very key players within the organization that have a big part to play in all of that. If I ever felt myself really going Cup racing again, I decided that this was the place I wanted to do it.

“It’s taken almost five years to get an opportunity to go back, but that’s what it’s taken. I’ve done my time here and I’m looking forward to the opportunity.”

It’ll be a fresh start for Paul Menard and crew chief Greg Erwin at Wood Brothers Racing in 2018. (Getty Images)

A native of Hatboro, Pennsylvania, Erwin began his career in NASCAR in 1995. Along the way, he worked in various roles for Felix Sabates’ Team Sabco, Chip Ganassi Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Robby Gordon Racing and Robert Yates Racing before landing at Roush Fenway Racing.

A graduate of Clemson University with an engineering degree, Erwin was paired with Biffle from May 2007 through mid-2011 as crew chief, leading Biffle to five of his 19 career Cup wins.

Overall, Erwin has five overall wins, as well as 39 top-5 and 79 top-10 finishes and 4 poles as a crew chief in 250 Cup starts. In the Xfinity Series, he has an impressive record: In 119 starts, he has 12 wins, 77 top-5 and 100 top-10 finishes, along with 13 poles.

Being paired with Menard will not exactly be a brand new situation for Erwin.

“There’s a brief relationship with Paul that existed when I was at Robby Gordon’s,” he said. “We had Menard’s sponsorship on many of our race cars and there was a handful of times that Robby would tap Paul for testing or when (Gordon) was stuck in Baja.

“I remember one year very vividly when we were a go or go home car at Homestead, where we had to qualify in on time. Paul was able to get us in the race on time and we waited for Robby to come back and race the thing.

“So I’ve known Paul and obviously we’ve worked side-by-side a little bit when I was at Roush (Fenway Racing) and he was running those Roush Yates Fords for Doug (Yates) across the street (2009 in Cup and 2009-2010 in Xfinity). So there’s a known there.”

Erwin and Menard succeed Ryan Blaney and crew chief Jeremy Bullins, who have moved together to the No. 12 car with Team Penske.

“We’d kind of known all along that Blaney was going to be good enough to do a good job over there with the 21 and Jeremy and the group he’s been working with have developed a very good working relationship,” Erwin said. “It was obvious when it was announced that Ryan was going to drive the 12 in 2018, that Jeremy was going to follow him.

“I’ve been in the Xfinity series for a long time now, so when the opportunity came up to backfill (Bullins’) spot, I was the next one in line. Management here at Penske asked me if I still wanted the opportunity to go Cup racing, and when I told them yes but under the right situation, it was in a couple of weeks (that it happened).

“They’ve (Wood Brothers Racing) known me for a long time, ever since my affiliation with the 16 car. There’s just a bunch of knowns. They know me, I kind of know them, I know Paul and I know the system here, so it all just fit really well.”

Greg Biffle and Greg Erwin (right) worked together for more than 5 years.

Erwin, 47, knows he has some early challenges in his new role, but he’s up for them.

“I’ve been out of the Cup game now for five years, so I know there’s a lot of learning to be had,” Erwin said. “I felt when I was doing it last back in 2012, I was very current with rules, officiating, how races were run, the cars I had been working on. I had been with the 16 car for over five years (including before he became Biffle’s crew chief). I was very comfortable in understanding the game I was playing.

“Right now, it’s going to take me some time to learn (Cup). They’ve had some rules packages that have come into play in the last couple of years that I’m not used to working with on a daily basis, so I think there’s a learning curve for me, certainly, to get back to the comfort level of where I’ve been or where I am with the Xfinity car and the Xfinity program.

“The segment length of the races changed, the Cup segments don’t quite play out like the Xfinity segments, the ride heights of the car have changed.

“Now you tell me I’m going to get to go to Daytona and run under a rules package that I’m not even going to get a chance to test first. … Now we’re going to go down and within two hours of being on the racetrack, we’re going to have to effectively qualify this thing and run the 150s.”

But Erwin has a strong support system behind him with Ford, the Wood Brothers and, of course, Team Penske.

“It’s not intimidating because I’m not standing on an island, I’m not a single-car program,” he said. “I’ve got the 22 (Joey Logano), 2 (Brad Keselowski) and 12 (Ryan Blaney) to fall in line with, but nonetheless, the rules of the game are different and I’ve come to understand that the last few years.

“I think this is somewhat of a feel-good story hopefully also for Paul. He’s going to be in cars that are identical in every way, shape and form to the 22, 2 and 12. We all hope we’re gong to be able to provide him a better opportunity than he’s had in the last several years to be competitive in what we hope is better equipment.”

Greg Erwin, left, along with Ryan Blaney in the Xfinity race at Indianapolis in 2015.

And potentially lead Menard to his second career Cup win and arguably what would be one of the most significant wins in Wood Brothers Racing history: their 100th Cup triumph. Blaney came close, giving the Wood Brothers their 99th Cup win in June at Pocono, and now Erwin and Menard stand ready to take the torch from Blaney and go out and win No. 100 for the Wood Brothers.

“I think about all the guys I know in the garage area and all the drivers that have driven the cars for those guys at the 21 and I think it’s going to be pretty cool to have an opportunity to do that,” he said. “I’m not getting any younger, I realize that.

“This continues to be gearing towards a younger guys’ sport, so to get the opportunity to do that while still under the Penske technical alliance and then get to work real close with Len and Eddie (Wood), the guys they have on staff are going to continue be a big part of our program and stay in the spots they’re in.

“Getting that 100th win for them would be pretty neat, for sure.”

NASCAR America: Aric Almirola replaces grim Kansas memories with fond ones

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The 2017 crash in the spring Kansas Speedway that seriously injured Aric Almirola and kept him from competing in seven races that season continues to define his career.

“Breaking my back was obviously not in the plan,” Almirola said in an interview on NASCAR America. “I didn’t anticipate ever being injured in a racecar. Everybody always thinks, ‘that’s not going to happen to me.’ ”

But it did and each time Almirola returns to Kansas – like he will Sunday (2 p.m. ET on NBC) – he is met with memories of the accident that will not go away. That’s because his crash continues to be part of the highlight reel for this track as one of its most dramatic moments.

As it turns out, his thoughts about the track have become fond ones.

Later in 2017, Almirola finished ninth in the fall Kansas race after finishing fifth the week before at Talladega. He finished ninth again this spring.

“Something that really stuck out to me there is how his perception has changed,” Parker Kligerman said on Thursday’s edition of NASCAR America. “Sometimes you have drivers who ascend to the top very quickly and they don’t have, maybe, a respect for what they’re doing and what they’re getting to do week in and week out. And when they’re … forced to watch the sport from another angle and … just observe, a lot of time they come away being faster, better, more appreciative.”

This week, Almirola goes to the track with an even better feeling after winning last week’s race at Talladega.

For more, watch the video above.

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Kansas Cup race could make elimination era history

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NASCAR is five years into the elimination era of the playoffs and a bit of history could be made with Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

The Cup Series enters the second-round elimination race with five different winners in the first five races.

There has not been six different winners to begin the playoffs since the elimination era began in 2014.

The five winners so far have been Brad Keselowski (Las Vegas), Kyle Busch (Richmond), Ryan Blaney (Charlotte Roval), Chase Elliott (Dover) and Aric Almirola (Talladega).

The last three races have each seen a driver earn their second career Cup win.

This five-race stretch only saw one win by a member of the regular season’s “Big 3” with Busch’s victory.

Martin Truex Jr. has gone 12 races since he last won at Kentucky Speedway. Kevin Harvick is winless in the eight races since his Michigan victory.

But with the arrival of Kansas for the elimination race chances are good to the two drivers could make playoff history.

Harvick claimed the win in the May Kansas race, leading 79 laps from the pole. Three of his seven wins this year have come on 1.5-mile tracks.

If he wins Sunday, Harvick will also continue his six-year streak of winning in the playoffs, which is the longest active streak.

Truex will try to defend his win in this race last year, which completed a sweep of the Kansas races. He also finished second to Harvick in May’s race.

Of Truex’s four wins this season, he has only one on a 1.5-mile track. But of his 12 wins since 2017, eight have come at mile-and-a-half tracks.

“As far as why we’ve been good there (at Kansas) over the years, I’m not sure,” Truex said in a press release. “It’s a place where I really feel comfortable. Have had chances to win multiple races there over the years with different teams even. It was one of the places I was successful at before Furniture Row so for whatever reason it just points towards my driving style and my comfort level, what I like in my race car and it just seems to work out well there.”

MORE: Truex looks to rebound at reliable Kansas

Here are the winners of the first six races in the first four years of the elimination era.

2014

Chicagoland – Brad Keselowski

Loudon – Joey Logano

Dover – Jeff Gordon

Kansas – Joey Logano

Charlotte – Kevin Harvick

Talladega – Brad Keselowski

2015

Chicagoland – Denny Hamlin

New Hampshire – Matt Kenseth

Dover – Kevin Harvick

Charlotte – Joey Logano

Kansas – Joey Logano

Talladega – Joey Logano

2016

Chicagoland – Martin Truex Jr.

New Hampshire – Kevin Harvick

Dover – Martin Truex Jr.

Charlotte – Jimmie Johnson

Kansas – Kevin Harvick

Talladega – Joey Logano

2017

Chicagoland – Martin Truex Jr.

New Hampshire – Kyle Busch

Dover – Kyle Busch

Charlotte  -Martin Truex Jr.

Talladega – Brad Keselowski

Kansas – Martin Truex Jr.

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Kansas preview, Pete Pistone

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-5:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and gives you a final preview of this weekend’s races at Kansas Speedway.

Carolyn Manno hosts with Parker Kligerman from Stamford, Connecticut. They will be joined by SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s Pete Pistone.

Tune in to get the latest on Chip Ganassi Racing deciding to appeal the penalty against Kyle Larson‘s team from Talladega.

Also on today’s show:

Aric Almirola had one of the feel good moments of 2018 with his victory last weekend at Talladega. In his own words, Almirola tells the story of how his Kansas crash 17 months ago put him on the road to where he is today.

— As NASCAR America prepares for its 1,000th episode tomorrow, we’ll show you some of the best moments from our first 999 shows. Today, we’ll feature the best of the NBCSN iRacing Simulator. Parker then hops in the sim to show us what challenges await the Playoff drivers at Kansas.

— Carolyn and Parker also reveal their Kansas fantasy picks for this weekend.

Tune in after the show for the latest episode of the “Dale Jr. Download” at 5:30 p.m. ET.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Chip Ganassi Racing appealing Talladega penalties against Kyle Larson’s team

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Chip Ganassi Racing announced Thursday it will appeal the penalties brought against Kyle Larson‘s No. 42 Chevrolet after Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway.

NASCAR confirmed the appeal will be heard Friday at 8:30 a.m. CT at Kansas Speedway. Here is a primer on how the appeals process works.

During a postrace inspection, NASCAR found that team violated Section 10.9.9.d in the rulebook, which notes: “Damaged vehicle repair, regardless of how the damage occurred, is permitted to have original body parts removed or reattached in their original location with fasteners and/or tape only.”

The L1 penalty, which was announced Wednesday, resulted in Larson losing 10 driver and owner points. His car chief, David Bryant, also was suspended for a race. Crew chief Chad Johnston was fined $25,000.

Chip Ganassi Racing was granted a deferral of Bryant’s suspension. He will be allowed in the Cup garage Friday until a decision has been reached by the appeals commission.

The team issued a statement Thursday afternoon:

“After reviewing the penalty, the rule and the procedure that we used during the race in Talladega, we feel strongly that we did nothing wrong.  Subsequently, we have decided to appeal the penalty.  Despite going through the appeal process, we will do everything in our power to keep our team focused on the race this weekend in Kansas and the balance of the season.”

With the loss of 10 driver points, Larson will enter Sunday’s elimination race at Kansas Speedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC) 11th in the standings and 36 points back from the cutoff spot to advance to the Round of 8.

With or without the penalty, the race still is essentially must-win for Larson.