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Bump & Run: Forecasting what to watch for in 2018

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1. Of the changes taking place this season, what is the one you’re most interested in seeing how it goes?

Steve Letarte: I guess it’s a combination of inspection, rules and a new body for Chevrolet. There was so much talk last year about aerodynamics and perhaps Toyota had a little more efficient car than the other two manufacturers, according to the other two manufacturers or the teams that raced for them. Is the combination of the new inspection station, perhaps some rule tweaks … and the new Chevrolet body style, will that combination change the racing we see at the mile-and-a-half and 2-mile tracks?

Kyle Petty: I honestly don’t have an opinion on the changes. It always seems to me it’s not so much the change we talk about as we move through the season as it is the ripple effects of those changes. I’ll wait to see how large the waves are.

Nate Ryan: Schedule. It’s been the least discussed but could have the greatest impact — particularly on the Round of 16’s complexion, which could feature major cutoff drama in the debut of the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course.

Dustin Long: I’m most intrigued in how Hendrick Motorsports performs this season with all the changes that organization has made on and off the track. Even though the organization won four races last year, even car owner Rick Hendrick noted the lack of competitiveness and ability to lead laps much of the year. Will the management changes, the driver changes (William Byron and Alex Bowman) and the cultural changes (closer working relationship among the four teams) lead to greater success or more frustration? How these changes perform will have an impact on the playoff picture.

2. Of the drivers with a new Cup ride this year, who are you most intrigued about?

Steve Letarte: I think that is going to drive some excitement into the sport to have all those changes. The name that I have highlighted that I’m going to watch is Erik Jones. Aric Almirola (to Stewart-Haas Racing) has been around a while, we kind of understand where he is. Ryan Blaney did win a race, I think his transition (to Penske) will be smooth. William Byron I think kind of gets a freebie. He’s run so well at everything. It’s his rookie year, he’s so young. Come, learn. I would add Alex Bowman as well. Erik Jones and Alex Bowman. I think those two have to prove they deserve to be in the cars they are. Erik Jones is remarkably talented, and I have no doubt that he has the ability. But the ability is not the same as going to Victory Lane. At some point you need trophies. Now that he’s driving that 20 car, a car that won with Matt Kenseth, a company that knows how to win, I really look for Erik Jones to show up this year. He’s probably the one I’m most intrigued about and I’m going to watch the closest.

Kyle Petty: Blaney and Byron. Blaney because of his talent in the car. We saw a glimpse of that last year but as much because of his personality. He has something and has tapped into something that NASCAR and the sport has been missing! A driver who has fun, has personality … and can WIN! Novel idea! Byron because of his ability at such a young age to face pressure and stare it down! He appears wise beyond his years as a person and as a driver. His personality will develop. I’m not sure in what direction it will go, but we’ll have to wait and see.

Nate Ryan: Darrell Wallace Jr. With even a modicum of success, he could trigger positive shock waves of good cheer throughout the team and NASCAR. But if he falters, it will raise questions about the long-term viability of RPM and “The King’s” tolerance for hanging around NASCAR as an also-ran.

Dustin Long: I want to see what Kasey Kahne can do with Leavine Family Racing and a single-car operation. Can he help raise the organization’s performance level or will he be stuck in the middle of the pack? With a one-year contract, there’s a lot at stake for Kahne.

3. Which one of the drivers who raced for a championship in Miami last year (Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski) has the best chance of returning?

Steve Letarte: Kevin Harvick seems to always be there. So that means the odds are something is going to happen that maybe he won’t. Brad Keselowski, I put him in the same bucket as Harvick. I have some concern where the Fords are. Toyota had good speed last year. Chevrolet has made a body change. I’m really waiting to see at the beginning of the year what the Fords have to counteract that. As much as Martin Truex Jr. was so dominant last  year, I have to say Kyle Busch. I think Kyle Busch has the ability to dominate at different types of race tracks, so I think he has the best chance to go back to Miami.

Kyle Petty: Kevin Harvick … because he’s Kevin Harvick. Enough said

Nate Ryan: Martin Truex Jr. because of his No. 78 team’s continuity. The contraction of the No. 77 could make Furniture Row Racing even better considering how far it went as a single-car team in 2015 and ’16.

Dustin Long: Kyle Busch. He’s done it three years in a row. It’s easy to see him making it four in a row.

4. Who wins first — Chase Elliott, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, Alex Bowman, William Byron, Darrell Wallace Jr., Ty Dillon or someone else?

Steve Letarte: It should be Chase Elliott or Erik Jones but something in my gut tells me that it never works that way. I think William Byron breaks through super early in his career. I do think of this list, Chase Elliott wins, Erik Jones wins, William Byron wins. Those three I’m confident to say will win a race this year. Hopefully, for Alex Bowman and Daniel Suarez they can join the list, but I’m going to have to see something at the beginning half of the year to be able to move them on to the winning list.

Kyle Petty: Erik or Daniel. I don’t see JGR or Toyota getting weaker and I see Erik and Daniel getting stronger and better. The experience of last year should pay dividends this year.

Nate Ryan: Chase Elliott, maybe as soon as the Daytona 500. He’s long overdue for a breakthrough, and after the first victory with the number his father made famous, many more soon will follow.

Dustin Long: Chase Elliott. He’s been too close too long. His time is coming.

* NASCAR America returns to NBCSN on Feb. 26 after the Winter Olympics  

NASCAR America: Pete Pistone on dirt racing in Xfinity, Cup

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Dirt racing is at the center of many conversations in NASCAR this week.

That’s thanks to the Camping World Truck Series race at Eldora Speedway on Wednesday and Tony Stewart‘s comments earlier this encouraging fans to put pressure on NASCAR to bring the Cup and Xfinity Series to his dirt track in the future.

On NASCAR America, Pete Pistone of SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive” joined the show to discuss what fans think about the prospect of more dirt races at NASCAR’s national level and more mid-week races.

“There’s not much going on during the week right now until college (football) and NFL training camps start,” Pistone said. “The fans said this morning, ‘We’d like to see more Wednesday racing,’ and I couldn’t agree more.”

While Steve Letarte is in favor of more short tracks and mid-week races, he doesn’t want to see Cup and Xfinity “copy” what the Trucks do at Eldora.

“I think they have such a marquee event and they deserve this event,” Letarte said. “This dirt race, the Dirt Derby, has turned into must-see TV, for the Trucks. And I think it’s great for any national touring series to have that event. … I love the idea of not having to wait all week to watch three races. Why can’t I have a race on Tuesday, Wednesday, have a little news cycle. … I think there’s a lot to be said for timing, but as for Eldora, it holds a special place in my heart for the Trucks. Let them have it.”

Pistone said he tends to agree that the Trucks should get their own special event at Eldora. Where should any other dirt races be held?

“Why not look at a place like Knoxville (Raceway), which is so famous in Iowa that has sprint car races,” Pistone said. “There are so many other tracks in the country, if NASCAR can find a way to do something along the liens of and not just replicate Eldora, I think that would spark a lot of interest and energy and it seems that’s what the fan base is looking for.”

Watch the above video for more.

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Eldora recap, Pete Pistone

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-5:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and continues to preview this weekend’s racing at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Carolyn Manno hosts with Steve Letarte in Stamford, Connecticut.

On today’s show:

  • NASCAR’s shipping up to New Hampshire this weekend, and as of late, the Toyotas have had the clear edge at “The Magic Mile.” It’s just one of several storylines to follow as we prepare for Sunday’s 301-lap Monster Energy Series race. We’ll have a full preview!
  • Last night, the Camping World Truck Series put on another incredible show in the Dirt Derby at Eldora. We’ll have highlights from the race, including the paint-trading finish between Chase Briscoe and Grant Enfinger that will be remembered for years to come.
  • SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s Pete Pistone will also call in live to talk fan reaction to last night’s Dirt Derby. Plus: Has the drivers’ mindset for New Hampshire changed now that they won’t be heading back there for the playoffs?
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.

Top three Xfinity drivers separated by three points entering New Hampshire

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Things have gotten pretty tight at the top of the food chain in the Xfinity Series.

Following last weekend’s race at Kentucky Speedway, the point standings are not led by just one driver.

Through 17 races, the standings are led by both Elliott Sadler and Daniel Hemric, who are tied with 608 points.

To add to an already close situation, they have Cole Custer breathing down their necks is only three points behind them heading into Saturday’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (4 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

How did this situation arise considering none of the drivers have claimed a win this year?

Consistency. It’s disappeared for Sadler while Hemric and Custer have used it to catch the JR Motorsports driver.

Following the June 2 race at Pocono Raceway, Sadler had a 62-point lead over second in the standings. His lead slipped away over the next five races thanks to finishing 12th or worst three times.

He placed 30th at Michigan, 28th at Iowa and 12th at Kentucky.

That was after entering Michigan with top-10 finishes in the first 12 races of the season.

In the five races since Pocono, Hemric hasn’t finished worse than eighth and has three top-three finishes. Custer has four top fives and a DNF (wreck, Daytona).

Compared to this point last year, Sadler has more top fives (10 to seven in 2017), the same number of top 10s (14) and his average finish is 7.9 compared to 8.8.

Sadler, is mired in a 56 race winless streak that began in October 2016. And this season he’s been the best finishing Xfinity regular just once and the best finishing JR Motorsports driver only seven times.

Hemric and Custer are each in their second full-time seasons in Xfinity and have shown significant improvement over this same point in their rookie campaigns.

Through 17 races, Hemric has two poles (one in 2017), nine top fives (two in 2017), 13 top 10s (six in 2017) and no DNFs (three in 2017).

Custer has four poles (none in 2017), seven top fives (two in 2017), 13 top 10s (seven in 2017) and two DNFs (three in 2017).

Over the last eight races Hemric and Custer are tied for the most top fives with six. In that stretch, Hemric leads the series in top 10s (eight), average finish (4.13) and race points earned (311).

The point standings would be even narrower if not for two penalties dealt out by NASCAR this season to two of the three Xfinity regulars who have won races.

Christopher Bell and Justin Allgaier enter New Hampshire in fourth (-17 points) and fifth (-39).

Bell lost 10 points after the Charlotte race for a post-race heights violation.

Allgaier was dealt a 25-point penalty following his win at Dover for a post-race inspection violation.

The two drivers would be in the same spot in the standings without the penalties.

Among Sadler, Hemric and Custer, it may be Custer who is the favorite to leave New Hampshire with points lead.

Custer is the only one of the trio with any success at the 1-mile track.

He’s won there in the K&N Pro Series East (2013) and in the Camping World Truck Series (2014).

He placed ninth in his first Xfinity start there last year.

“I think we’ve had really good cars in the past at short tracks and I think it’s more natural to me than a mile-and-a-half,” Custer said in a media release. “It’s probably like that for most guys. We just grew up running short tracks and didn’t have to deal with aero as much. We took a lot of good notes from New Hampshire last year that we’ll build on.”

Meanwhile, in 14 career starts at New Hampshire, Sadler has only led 26 laps and he hasn’t finished better than sixth since he returned to full-time Xfinity competition in 2011.

“We’re bringing the car we ran in Richmond, which is one of my favorites,” Sadler said in a media release. “We know it’s fast and is capable of a top-three finish. The end of the regular season isn’t too far away, so we’ve got to stick to our strategy, earn stage points and ultimately get ourselves and our partners a win.”

Sadler led 30 laps and finished third at Richmond.

Hemric placed 12th in his first Xfinity start in Loudon last year. In two Truck Series starts, he placed sixth and 28th (DNF).

“New Hampshire is always a place I look forward going to each year, especially how our company is on the short tracks right now,” Hemric said in a media release. “I feel like I know what I want in terms of speed when I get to a place like New Hampshire, it’s just a matter of getting our race car where we want it. I feel good headed to New Hampshire this weekend.”

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Joe Gibbs Racing returns to New Hampshire, where dominance began last July

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The 2017 Cup season was not too kind to Joe Gibbs Racing through its first 18 races.

Then the series went to New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

After entering last year’s July event at the 1-mile track winless, the race served as a launching pad for JGR, which leads the series in every major stat category in the 36 races since.

Counting Denny Hamlin‘s win in the July 16 race, the four-car team has won 14 times in the following year, which leads all other teams by five victories.

JGR closed out 2017 with eight wins in 19 races, compared to the Martin Truex Jr.‘s six wins in the same span.

Thanks to Racing Insights, here’s a look at JGR’s success against the competition since last July’s race at New Hampshire.

Ten of JGR’s wins in the last year belong to Kyle Busch, including the September playoff race in New Hampshire.

The rest belong to Denny Hamlin (two wins), Matt Kenseth (one) and Erik Jones (one).

Busch is one of six active drivers who have three wins at New Hampshire, including Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, Hamlin and Kenseth.

Kyle Busch is the only one of those drivers with a win this season.

New Hampshire has been very kind to Busch and his fellow Toyota drivers.

In the last 11 races at the flat, 1-mile track, Toyota has won eight of them. In the last four races in Loudon, Toyota has led 1,168 laps (97.2 percent) out of a possible 1,202 laps. Chevrolet has led 31 and Ford has led 3.

Chevrolet has the only non-Toyota win in the last six New Hampshire races. That was won by Kevin Harvick in 2016 before Stewart-Haas Racing moved to Ford.

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