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NASCAR President discusses status of Monster Energy, new manufacturers

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NASCAR has given Monster Energy an extension to determine if it wants to remain the Cup series sponsor.

NASCAR President Brent Dewar revealed that Tuesday night in an appearance on Motor Racing Network’s “NASCAR Live” show.

Among the other topics Dewar, who is entering his fifth season at NASCAR, discussed was the effort to bring new manufacturers and how soon one could arrive, any tweaks to stage racing and the new pit stop rules.

Last year marked Monster Energy’s first season as series sponsor. The two sides agreed to a deal about two months before the 2017 Daytona 500. The company reportedly has a two-year deal with a two-year option. Monster Energy has not stated if it will return after this season.

Asked about Monster Energy’s status, Dewar told the MRN radio show:

“They signed late in the season (Dec. 2016). I worked with them very closely in bringing them to the sport. They were just looking to have a full season. They had to Dec. 31 (to determine if to agree to the renewal). We’ve given them an extension to go through the evaluation.

“There’s no question it was a great season with them and any kind of metric that we run we hit the ball out the park with them. They’re different. We’re excited. … It was the right thing to do to give them a little more time to evaluate. We’re letting them do that. We’d love for them to stay for many years, but if they choose not to, we’ve got a great product, we’ll continue on in that regards. There are meetings coming up. For the fans that have had a chance to go to the Monster activities prior to the race, they are a lot of fun. I’ve taken my guests that come to the race and we’ve had a great time experiencing how they demonstrate their brand in a very thoughtful, unique way. We love having them around.’’

Among the other topics Dewar discussed:

Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota are the only manufacturers in the Cup Series. The last time NASCAR had four manufacturers in Cup was 2012 when Dodge was a part of the series.

Dewar was asked by host Mike Bagley about the interest of other manufacturers and when any might come to NASCAR:

“Nothing to announce right now on the manufacturer front,’’ Dewar said. “We have a cadence to come in. The earliest one would be able to join would be 2020. We have entry ramps that come in. We have been in conversations with a number of manufacturers. … The platform is strong and it shows a strong (return of investment) potential for manufacturers to bring their products and come race with us.’’

Asked if NASCAR had a magic number of how many manufacturers it would like in Cup, Dewar said:

“I think optimally four or five is the right number for what we’re looking at. We’ve got a great series in sports car that focuses primary on the luxury brands. That is the IMSA Series. The NASCAR series is the mass brands, the Toyotas the Chevrolets,  and the Fords and their competitors. We think there are a couple of more brands in America that would be perfectly suited to come join us and race against their competitors. We work very hard at keeping the sport in front of them. We had a number of them at the track last year, joining us, seeing the events and the direction where we’re taking the sport. It’s a work in progress and it’s one of the ones that I personally lead.’’

Dewar on any tweaks to stage racing in 2018:

“We’re really happy with stage racing. I think it was a good example of the collaboration where the industry came together with the idea of stage racing, so we’re very happy with that.’’

On if NASCAR is trying to address the number of caution laps after a stage ends and before the next stage begins, Dewar said:

“I think we’ll continue to modify it. We’ve done a lot research on this. When you have 80 million fans we’re going to have people with an opinion on everything, but I don’t think it’s as concerning as maybe some of the conversation at this point. We continue to fine tune and look at how to refine and make those adjustments. We bring the councils (driver council, owner council, etc) together  and that’s one of the things that we have on our list to continue to discuss.’’

On the objective of cutting pit crews from six to five in 2018, Dewar said:

“We’ve focused very strongly on our star power of the drivers, but it’s really evolved over the time period we’ve gone to low downforce on the cars and a lot of the strategy that has gone into it. We really want to emphasize it’s the team. It’s the crew chief and the driver, but it’s the team that brings it together. … What we love about NASCAR is the pit stops and so this effort of five over the wall and the crew and identifying the pit crew with their numbers at the track, you’ll start to see and understand the names of the people that make a championship team, a high quality team, that’s the method behind it, that’s the logic behind what we’re trying to achieve. I think what you’ll see with five over the wall and the rules we have is we’ll really to start to focus on the athleticism, these great athletes that are really unlike any other motorsports that will be coming over the wall.’’

On the how eliminating one pit crew position will change pit stops, Dewar said:

“Pit stops are still going to be very fast, but they’re going to be a little bit slower so we can accentuate really what is happening. It’s almost too fast in some respects to capture it. We’re excited about this and what the athletes are going to be able to demonstrate because it makes a difference. A driver absolutely makes a difference. A crew chief makes a difference and so does everyone that participates at the track. Then you couple that back with the folks at the shop. It’s part of the storylines we think have been missing in the sport, particularly for the casual fan. The hardcore fans understand this, but for the sport to grow we need to start demonstrating the team not just the quarterback.’’

On the Cup Series having qualifying on the same day before a race, Dewar said:

“We like the tighter schedule, and I think there was a little bit of miscommunication as we went into it last year about two-day weekends. They’re not two-day weekends. We were just trying to be more thoughtful of the schedule at the Cup level and to allow more time and space for the Xfinity and Camping World (Truck) series when we might have three (in a weekend).

“I think the challenge this year was really on same-day qualifying with the race. We were actually pretty fortunate. We thought it through. There’s really not enough turnaround time in many cases. I think you’ll see less of that (this year). Also what we learned and we hadn’t really thought about it was the track goes hot all day and one of the most exciting things for the fans is the cold pass opportunity to get down on the track and to get that experience if you’re only coming for one day on Sunday, so I think you’ll see more of the Saturday qualifying for the Sunday (race) for the Cup and we’ll try to manage that. There’s still a lot of efficiencies we can work on. We’re just trying to find the right balance to give the best fan experience.’’

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Chase Elliott leads drivers with career-best days at Sonoma

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Chase Elliott said his third Cup start at Sonoma Raceway, which ended with a career-best fourth-place finish at the road course, was a “lot more fun” than his first two trips.

Elliott, who also started a career-best third, earned his second top 10 and first top-five finish at the track.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver was one of four who placed in the top 10 for career-best finishes in Sunday’s race at the road course. The others were Erik Jones, Aric Almirola and Alex Bowman.

“I made a lot of gains, personally, I think, for me at this track,” Elliott told Fox Sports 1. “It’s been one of my worst.”

Elliott started and finished eighth in the race last year. He placed 21st his rookie season.

On Sunday, he positioned his No. 9 Chevrolet to finish Stage 1 in fourth and Stage 2 in second.

He was running second late in the final stage until Kevin Harvick and his fresher set of tires passed him with nine laps to go. Elliott was later passed by Clint Bowyer.

“To come here and have pace on Friday and qualify good on Saturday, and to have pace today, it was just a lot more fun,” Elliott said. “We had a fast Chevrolet all three days. And that’s nice to show up and get rhythm. We kind of had to pick our battles today. We elected to get some stage points and that set us back a little for that last stage, but I don’t think we had the pace that the leaders had.”

Elliott’s result was his fourth top five this season and his first in six races.

In his second Sonoma start, Jones started 20th and finished seventh, a significant improvement over his 25th-place finish from his rookie year.

The result came after his No. 20 Toyota suffered minor damage from contact with Michael McDowell at the beginning of Stage 1.

“It was a great day for us, really,” Jones told FS1. “I felt like it’s a little like a win for us. We were aiming for a top 15 today and to get a top 10 is just a bonus.

The result is Jones’ second top 10 in the last nine races.

Behind Jones was Almirola, who earned his first top-10 finish in seven Sonoma starts. His previous best result was 14th in 2015.

“We are just plugging away,” Almirola said. “As solid as they come. We are a top-10 car and this just goes to show me and all of our guys that we are a top-10 car everywhere. I have just run top 10 at my two career worst race tracks, Pocono (seventh) and Sonoma. If we can do that, that is incredible.”

Almirola, who helped put all four Stewart-Haas Racing cars in the top 10 for the second time this year, has earned career-best results at five tracks this season: Sonoma, Pocono, Phoenix (seventh), Las Vegas (10th) and Michigan (11th).

“It speaks true volumes about how great this race team is and how great our race cars are because they carry me at those two places where I know I struggle,” Almirola said. “I have tried really hard to become a better road course racer and I put a lot of effort into this weekend running the K&N (West) car to help me for today and it certainly did.”

Almirola placed second in Saturday’s K&N West race.

Another driver who pulled double duty this weekend was Bowman.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver placed ninth for his first Sonoma top 10 in three starts. He previous results were 29th and 31st.

“(Crew chief) Greg (Ives) made a good call on the box to I guess one (pit) stop that (in the final stage),” Bowman said. “It looked like some people two stopped it, but I don’t know, I still don’t feel like I do a very good job at these places, but I feel like I learned some today.  Definitely made some mistakes and there is plenty I can improve on to keep getting better and learning. That is all we can really ask for.” 

Daniel Suarez misses Sonoma top 10 after contact with Jimmie Johnson on last lap

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Daniel Suarez was on the verge of his first top-10 finish at Sonoma Raceway until he was spun by Jimmie Johnson on the last lap of Sunday’s race.

Suarez was running in 10th when slight contact from Johnson as they navigated Turn 4 sent his No. 19 Toyota around.

After recovering, Suarez managed to place 15th, one spot better than his 2017 result. Johnson went on to finish 11th.

“We started wheel hopping after 10 laps into a run,” Suarez told Fox Sports 1. “We just missed something with the brakes. … After finally we figured it out, I felt like maybe we had a top-10 car. We just got dumped on the last lap.”

Suarez said that Johnson apologized to him about the contact.

“I was loose, so it didn’t take a lot for someone to spin me out,” Suarez said. “He didn’t hit me hard, he just put his bumper there a little bit. It was enough to spin me out because I guess I was loose already. We came from a little rough few weeks and a top 10 was going to be nice for us.”

Suarez has not finished better than 15th in the five races since he placed third at Dover.

What Drivers Said after Sonoma race

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Martin Truex Jr. — Winner: “Last year, I felt like we had the best car, and we didn’t win and then this year I wasn’t sure we could beat (Kevin Harvick). We were real equal. He was better early in the race. I felt like we caught up to him a little, but he was going to be hard to beat either way. To get off strategy was the perfect call and then you just hope it works out for you, so sometimes you’re the bug, sometimes you’re the windshield.”

KEVIN HARVICK — Finished 2nd: “I don’t really know what is going on up on the pit box and who is doing what. I just do what I am told. Those guys do a great job. You make some right ones, you make some bad ones and sometimes you guess right and sometimes you guess wrong. Who knows what is right or wrong. I thought that was a good call at the end to put tires on in case the caution came out. We got right back up to where we were running and put ourselves in position to have a chance in case the caution came out.”

Clint Bowyer — Finished 3rd: “I am happy to be in this equipment and have this opportunity, but I am also frustrated because we were one of the three that were the class of the field and had a legitimate shot at racing for a win. They just took a little different strategy than we did and that is what it took. You had to separate yourself some way. It was a lot of fun out there. I had my struggles just like they did. It seemed like (Kevin Harvick) had a little better turn than I did, and (Martin Truex Jr.) was better. On long runs, I was coming to him, especially that real long run we had. Then we started pitting, and I didn’t know what to expect. All in all, it was a solid day, and I am proud of the guys for going out there and getting the job done. We just came up a little short.”

Chase Elliott — Finished 4th: “It was a lot more fun, this trip out here, than it was the last two times. I made a lot of gains, personally, I think, for me at this track. It’s been one of my worst. To come here and have pace on Friday and qualify good on Saturday, and to have pace today, it was just a lot more fun. We had a fast Chevrolet all three days. And that’s nice to show up and get rhythm. We kind of had to pick our battles today. We elected to get some stage points, and that set us back a little for that last stage, but I don’t think we had the pace that the leaders had. So, it was a good finish for me, and we’re looking forward to the next road race.”

Kyle Busch — Finished 5th: “I thought we had enough to beat (Chase Elliott), maybe. That’s where our strategy put us there. Overall a good day for us. We struggled being able to find speed here, and I don’t know, it’s just a little bit each lap. There’s a few areas on the track where I kind of lack at, but it’s hard to make up that ground and then beat somebody that is so good here like (Martin Truex Jr.) and (Clint Bowyer). I feel like those guys all have that and we’re just the best of everybody else.”

Kurt Busch — Finished 6th: “I went 12 rounds, and there should be no-decision today. I feel like we gave it everything we could. We didn’t have superior lap times in the beginning and then we figured we would just do a two-stopper at the end. That is what won it last year but I was on a three-stopper last year and a two-stopper this year. I feel like we did everything we could to just find the right rhythm and you never know when yellows will come out, but we were in position. We were a top-five car and couldn’t quite hold off my little brother at the end. We battled.”

Erik Jones — Finished 7th: “It was a great day for us, really. I felt like it’s a little like a win for us. We were aiming for a top-15 today and to get a top-10 is just a bonus. We struggled a bit on the first run. Once we got an adjustment under it, and I started to get settled in and comfortable with racing through traffic, we just kind of started plugging along and picking up spots. Our strategy worked out for us.”

Aric Almirola Finished 8th: “We are just plugging away. As solid as they come. We are a top-10 car, and this just goes to show me and all of our guys that we are a top-10 car everywhere. I have just run top 10 at my two career-worst racetracks, Pocono and Sonoma. If we can do that, that is incredible. It speaks true volumes about how great this race team is and how great our race cars are because they carry me at those two places where I know I struggle.”

Alex Bowman — Finished 9th: “Yeah, Greg (Ives, crew chief) made a good call on the box to I guess one-stop that. It looked like some people two -topped it, but I don’t know, I still don’t feel like I do a very good job at these places, but I feel like I learned some today.  Definitely made some mistakes and there is plenty I can improve on to keep getting better and learning. That is all we can really ask for.”

Chris Buescher — Finished 12th: “Yeah, it was a good finish there at the end. I’m proud of this team for the work put in this weekend. I didn’t get as much out of qualifying as I needed to, and it put us a little bit behind there at the start, but through some excellent strategy and a good car, we gained a lot of points today.  It was a good day.  I enjoy road racing, something to break it up a little bit, and I’m ready for the next one.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Finished 18th: Even though we didn’t run up front all race, this race comes to down to attrition and pit strategy. Brian (Pattie, crew hief) made an excellent call resulting in my best finish here.”

William Byron — Finished 25th: “I felt like the biggest thing was just trying to learn the racetrack. The first run was really tough and after that I felt like our pace got a little bit better and improved. If I could have started the weekend where I finished the race, I feel like I have a much better idea what I needed. Now we will go back and write some notes to see how we can improve for the next road course race.”

Ty Dillon — Finished 33rd: “Today wasn’t the ending that we wanted, but I’m not going to let a mechanical issue bring this team’s morale down. There were bright spots this weekend that are worth focusing on. This is only my second time ever racing here, and I continued to learn more about how to get through this course.

Jamie McMurray — Finished 37th: “Something with the oil pump pulley mechanism broke. I really don’t know. They were going to try to fix it, but when that breaks, the engine shuts off on its own like in an oil protection mode, and we started the engine a couple of times, we kind of tricked the engine to not think it was in that mode. And so, I think they were a little worried now that maybe it ran too long and  … we are not going back out.  They are going to work on it for a while, so our day is done.”

AJ Allmendinger — Finished 38th: “I haven’t missed a shift on a road course in 10 years. It was just me. I was trying to be so patient and so smooth. It was unexpected. It’s on me. I let everybody down here. The car was good. I don’t know if it was a race-winning car. We needed a little work on the long run, but it’s just all on me. I don’t know what else to say. I just let everybody down.”

With fewest Cup winners through 16 races since 1978, who’s in playoffs on points?

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With 10 races remaining in the regular season and 10 spots still up for grabs, the points battle remains fierce in NASCAR’s premier series — and most of non-winners held serve Sunday at Sonoma Raceway.

There was only minor shuffling among those without a victory who still are vying for a playoff spot. Ryan Blaney (11th) fell two spots in the rankings, while Kyle Larson (ninth) and Aric Almirola (10th) each gained a spot.

But all still hold provisional playoff spots along with Brad Keselowski (fourth), Kurt Busch (seventh), Denny Hamlin (eighth), Jimmie Johnson (12th), Chase Elliott (13th), Erik Jones (14th) and Alex Bowman (15th). Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (16th) is 17 points behind Bowman for the final provisional playoff spot.

Sonoma marked Martin Truex Jr.‘s third victory this season. Other winners who have clinched playoff berths in the 16-driver field for the 10-race playoff that begins Sept. 16 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway: Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano and Austin Dillon.

The last time there were so few winners through 16 races was 40 years ago. In the first 16 races of the 1978 season, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Benny Parsons, David Pearson and Darrell Waltrip had accounted for all of the wins.

Kyle Busch, who finished fifth at Sonoma, remains the leader in the 2018 points standings by 72 points over Kevin Harvick (second Sunday to Truex). Winning the regular-season championship results in 15 playoff points, vs. 10 for the runner-up.

Click here for the Cup Series points standings after Sonoma.