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New year, new teams bring improvement for Matt Tifft, Brandon Jones

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It took until March 9 for Matt Tifft to realize it wasn’t 2017 anymore.

During a press conference at ISM Raceway, Tifft was not introduced as the driver of the No. 19 Toyota owned by Joe Gibbs Racing.

That honor went to the driver sitting to his left – Brandon Jones.

“I was like, ‘Oh wait, that’s not me,’” Tifft said that day.

On race days in the Xfinity Series, Tifft now pilots Richard Childress Racing’s No. 2 Chevrolet.

The end of the 2017 season and resulting offseason saw arguably the silliest of “Silly Seasons” in recent NASCAR history.

Drivers retired, got promotions, were forced to unceremoniously retire and in a few cases, swapped teams.

The last option was the case for Tifft and Jones.

Brandon Jones during the Xfinity race weekend at ISM Raceway (Getty Images).

A STEP BACK

Things did not go well last year for either driver.

Specifically Jones.

The 21-year-old driver calls his last 33 races with RCR “bizarre” and “confusing.”

It started with Jones on the pole for the season-opener at Daytona.

It ended with Jones 16th in the standings (he was 10th in 2016). He recorded no top fives, three top 10s and seven DNFs.

“It was definitely rough time, man,” Jones says. “It was just confusing because we had guys on the team and stuff that were top-of-the line guys and we put this team together and we were honestly having so much fun as a team that it almost took away from having bad luck and bad runs and stuff.”

Almost.

“I had everything possible except for a blown motor that could have gone wrong,” Jones says. “It was just bizarre. Couldn’t ever catch a break. We kind of put that behind ourselves this year. Wanted to try and start fresh whenever I made the move to JGR.”

WELCOME TO WELCOME

In the middle of 2017, Tifft had a conversation with Ben Kennedy, then one of the drivers rotating in and out of RCR’s No. 2 car.

Kennedy brought up his crew chief, Randall Burnett.

“I just lean on this guy because he’s got to much experience,” Kennedy said. Burnett was in his first season as an Xfinity crew chief. In 2016, he was crew chief for AJ Allmendinger in Cup after 10 years as a Chip Ganassi Racing engineer.

“That was way before I knew I was going to RCR,” Tifft told NBC Sports.

Matt Tifft drives the No. 2 Dollar Shave Club Chevrolet  at ISM Raceway on March 9. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

In October, the 21-year-old driver was announced as moving to RCR after one full-time season with JGR.

While his rotating cast of teammates won 12 of 33 races in 2017, Tifft came up empty. He earned just two top fives, at Mid-Ohio and Road America, and 13 top 10s.

Even without a win Tifft made the playoffs, where he placed in the top 10 in seven of the eight races. But was eliminated after the second round.

“I felt like we were competitive in the playoffs. That’s the time there I felt like we were starting to get there. But it took that long,” Tifft says. “I think I just had a hard time putting the races together and dealing with pressure and the ups and downs. I don’t think I knew exactly how to handle it. I think part of it was I didn’t know how to prepare for it, too.”

Tifft eventually found himself eating lunch at “one of the few restaurants” in Welcome, North Carolina, where RCR is headquartered.

With him was Burnett, who he had found out that day would be his crew chief in 2018.

“I felt like there was just a really good connection there as far as personalities and where he was at,” Tifft says. “This deal is so stressful that you’ve got to be able to have that trust in a relationship with your crew chief. Jimmie Johnson talks about it all the time. It really is a relationship. You’ve got to have that.”

Early on Tifft established a clear understanding with his car chief, Cam Strader.

“He said straight up, ‘Hey, we’re going to bust our tails to make sure that we’re bringing the best stuff for you but you make sure you focus on what you need to do, not only from a driver side of things, but also from a promotional side of things.,’” Tifft says. “If we’re out doing events and stuff and I can’t be at the shop that one day they understand because I want to make it clear to them if I’m not in the shop I’m doing something that’s productive for our race team.”

Blake Koch has a new role as a mentor to Matt Tifft. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

COACH KOCH

Tifft is keeping his side of the deal with Strader.

Where race preparation was a weakness last season, Tifft isn’t just relying on resources provided by RCR to improve.

He’s getting a little help from “the hardest working” guy he knows in the garage – Blake Koch.

While Tifft and Jones landed safely during “Silly Season,” Koch found himself without a ride at the end of 2017, replaced at Kaulig Racing by Ryan Truex.

Now, through a mutual connection who manages drivers, he’s Tifft’s unofficial driver coach.

“It wasn’t like I was in a dire situation where I needed somebody like that,” Tifft says. “But I was just thinking back to when you start racing in go karts and late models and all that stuff, there’s usually a strong mentor piece or someone that’s looking out for you. I felt like I was going to have a very strong foundation there this year at RCR with having (Daniel) Hemric as a teammate and whoever’s rotating through the 3 car is going to be really strong I felt like. Anything I could do to try to step up my game and keep on accelerating that learning curve to where I can make our organization better by being a better teammate, just trying to give the best effort I could.”

Koch, who has 213 Xfinity starts since 2009, helps Tifft with his workouts, weekend prep and debriefs him after the race weekend.

“He’s very particular about every single thing I’m doing,” Tifft says. “From first lap on practice to coming up to speed in qualifying, your lines and techniques. … I think a lot of the fundamental stuff that you can improve on as a driver was something I felt I needed to get better at last year and I felt like I made that jump in the playoffs.”

Koch is even picky about “garage flow,” an effort to declutter Tifft’s mind at a track

“When you show up to a race track and you get in your car you shouldn’t have to wonder how the heck you get on the race track,” Koch says. “When you get to the race track, the only thing you should have to think about is hitting your marks and running in a perfect line and focusing on your task at hand, not the other small details that are just cluttering your mind.”

What’s been Koch’s emphasis through the first few weeks of their partnership?

Tifft points to being more efficient in passing.

For Koch, it’s all about restarts

“That was the main thing we focused on going into the year, let’s be the best at restarts,” Koch says. “I think five races in he’s had better restarts than he had in the entire year last year and that’s pretty important in our series right now with the stages, with track position being so important. I would say that’s the No. 1 improvement.”

Brandon Jones drives the No.19 Juniper Toyota, during the NASCAR Xfinity Series DC Solar 200 at ISM Raceway on March 10. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

SIMULATOR DAYS

There’s not that much different in terms of resources when it comes to teams like RCR and JGR.

But Jones has found there’s a difference in how they’re used.

No more so than when it comes to simulator time.

Every Tuesday, he and teammate Christopher Bell spend the day in Toyota Racing Development’s simulator. Bell takes the morning shift and Jones takes over in the afternoon.

“We’re there and talking to each other and bouncing stuff off each other, what’s working and what didn’t,” Jones says. “That’s been a really big help for me this year. There were times last year where I was able to run a little bit on the simulator, but it wasn’t every single week and it wasn’t a set date. That’s been one of the things that’s been really cool about going to Toyota this year is just having a set date for their simulator every single week.”

Also, there’s data. So much data. The information proved to Jones that simply having better cars wasn’t the only reason the field was left chasing JGR the last few years.

“I think they were available to me at RCR, either I didn’t know to ask for it was they didn’t cram it down my throat kind of deal,” says Jones. “I get everything possible I can for a driver.”

Some of that info comes straight from the mouths of JGR’s Cup drivers.

“Even when it comes to talking to Kyle Busch or one of those guys on how they do pit stops, ‘Man, I do it way differently, but your way is more effective, so I’m going to work on doing it that way.’” Jones says. “It’s hard to know how to do all that stuff without ever being taught it. At the end of the day, some of it’s pretty obvious when they show it to you, but you would have never thought of doing stuff like that without seeing it.”

BACK ON TRACK

Whether it’s data, equipment or luck, Tifft and Jones’ first five races of 2018 are a marked improvement from last year.

Following Saturday’s race at Auto Club Speedway, Jones has two top 10s and he’s finished outside the top 15 once.

Last year, he didn’t have a top 10 until race 13. He’s also catching breaks he didn’t in 2017.

At Atlanta, he cut a tire and brushed the wall, but narrowly avoided being rammed by cars as he dove to pit road. He finished 17th.

At Phoenix, Jones “saw my life flash before my eyes” when he avoided a lapped car on the backstretch that didn’t have power steering. He placed 11th.

In Fontana, after a harmless spin in practice, he kept from wrecking with Kaz Grala at the checkered flag. He finished 13th.

“Just about everywhere we were pretty quick,” Jones says. “We’re very close. I think by the end of the year, we’re going to be very, very close if not right there with them. … We’ve got the long-run speed figured out. It’s more just trying to figure out how to get short-run speed out of me and how to qualify just a little better.”

Tifft has seen improvement every week. After finishing 19th at Daytona, he had finishes of 12th, 11th, seventh and then eighth in Fontana after starting 20th.

His first consecutive top 10s last year weren’t until races 11 and 12.

Even though they’ve swapped teams, Tifft doesn’t see Jones as his head-to-head competition, at least not yet.

“To be focused on one car and beating them is kind of stupid unless you’re in the Dash 4 Cash or the playoffs,” Tifft says. “It’s too early in the year to say we need to go out and beat the 19 car. You’d just drive yourself crazy for no reason.”

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DGR-Crosley switches from Toyota to Ford beginning in 2020

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Ford Performance is strengthening its driver development program by joining forces with DGR-Crosley, which announced its move from Toyota to Ford Wednesday.

The multi-year agreement will see team co-owner David Gilliland, a former Cup Series driver, lead the team’s driver development program as it field entries in late models, the ARCA Menards Series and NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series.

“We’re very excited to have DGR-Crosley come to Ford as part of our long-term efforts to develop drivers for NASCAR,” said Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance Motorsports in a press release. “We have just scratched the surface of what is possible in developing the next generation of Ford drivers with people like Chase Briscoe, and we believe a coordinated effort with a team like DGR-Crosley will help move that process forward successfully.

“David Gilliland was a trusted and valued Ford driver in NASCAR for many years, and we look forward to renewing that relationship with him in this new effort.”

Said Gilliland: “I’m super excited about the partnership with Ford and how things are lining up for 2020. I spent a lot of time racing Fords throughout my career, and it’s really special to now be able to bring them into our race shop. A lot of time and consideration was spent on this decision, and internally we know that this is the move that we needed to make in order to advance our program to the top level. We have a great group of hard-working, talented people at DGR-Crosley, and with Ford coming on board, our future is really bright. We’re excited for all the things ahead.”

DGR-Crosley will announce its driver lineup at a later date.

The team first entered the Truck Series in 2018. Tyler Ankrum won its first race this year at Kentucky Speedway, qualifying for the playoffs in the process.

It fielded a team record five entries in the playoff race at ISM Raceway.

Brennan Poole to compete full-time for Premium Motorsports in Cup Series

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Former Xfinity Series driver Brennan Poole will compete full-time in the Cup Series in 2020 with Premium Motorsports, Poole announced Wednesday on social media.

Poole, 28, will drive the No. 15 Chevrolet and would make his Cup debut in the Daytona 500.

He joins a rookie class that includes Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell and Cole Custer.

“I’ve been working towards this moment since I was 5 and feel blessed to have the caliber of people surrounding me that I have in this next chapter of my racing career,” Poole said in a press release. “I look forward to the opportunity to showcase our sponsor partners, both new and existing, who are supporting me at the highest level of NASCAR competition.”

Poole takes over the car that was driven by Ross Chastain in a majority of his Cup starts in 2019.

A native of The Woodlands, Texas, Poole drove for Chip Ganassi Racing in the Xfinity Series from 2016-17. His best finish was second in the 2017 race at Kentucky Speedway.

He made 13 starts in the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series in 2019, driving for On Point Motorsports. His best result was second in the May race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“I’m very happy to welcome Brennan and his group to the Premium Motorsports family,” team owner Jay Robinson said in the press release. “Brennan is a very talented and dedicated young man, I believe he has a very bright future in the NASCAR Cup Series.”

Bojangles’ ends sponsorship of Southern 500

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The fast food chain Bojangles’ will no longer sponsor the Southern 500.

Bojangles’ has sponsored the event at Darlington Raceway since 2012.

Since 2015, the Southern 500 has been the site of NASCAR’s Throwback Weekend, with Cup and Xfinity Series teams fielding retro paint schemes celebrating the sport’s history.

DarlingtonRaceway.com

“We’ve enjoyed a terrific relationship with Bojangles’ since 2012 and we look forward to their continued involvement in NASCAR for many years to come,” track president Kerry Tharp said in a statement. “Like Darlington, they are truly an authentic Southern brand.”

A logo for the race on Darlington’s website does not include a sponsor.

“Bojangles’ has enjoyed a long and successful partnership with the team at Darlington Raceway,” Bojangles’ said in a statement provided to NBC’s Myrtle Beach-affiliate WMBF. “While we will no longer be the title sponsor for the Southern 500, NASCAR remains an important part of our sports marketing strategy, and we look forward to announcing our plans for 2020 in the near future.”

The 2020 Southern 500 is scheduled for Sept. 6 on NBCSN.

NBC Sports Power Rankings: What were best NASCAR teams overall in 2019?

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As NASCAR Talk continues its post-season Power Rankings, here are the 10 teams we feel performed the best throughout the entire season across all three major series: Cup, Xfinity and Trucks.

We made our picks based using a number of variables including which drivers work the best with their crew chiefs, which teams have the strongest pit crews, how a team was run, and assorted other elements that often spell the difference between success and lack thereof.

Note that we are selecting the best TEAMS, not necessarily the best organizations overall. But as you will soon find out, several of those best teams also came from within the same organization, as well.

Here’s how we picked them:

1. Kyle Busch and No. 18 Cup team (30 points): Sure, this team slumped a bit in the second half of the season, going winless in 21 of the final 22 races (although they still were able to win the regular season championship), but when everything was on the line in the championship-deciding race at Miami, Busch and crew chief Adam Stevens proved why they are the best … and why they are the champions.

2. Martin Truex Jr. and No. 19 Cup team (27 points): From an overall consistency standpoint, there are few teams like the one spearheaded by Truex and crew chief Cole Pearn. Truex won the championship in 2017 and finished second in 2018 and 2019. The No. 19 also had a combined 19 wins in those three seasons. No other team matched that kind of performance (although Busch came close with 18 wins and finishes of 2nd, 4th and 1st during that same period). Truex will have a new crew chief in 2020 after Pearn unexpectedly announced he was leaving his position with Joe Gibbs Racing on Monday.

3. Kevin Harvick and No. 4 Cup team (23 points): Even though most other teams would welcome the opportunity to have the kind of performance the No. 4 team has enjoyed, the No. 4 team is seemingly stuck in a loop of sorts. Even though Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers have a team that has won 14 races in the last three seasons and have one of the best pit crews in the business, they’ve finished third in each of those last three seasons. This is a team that has made a few mistakes over that same time period, and it can be argued that may be one of the reasons why it finished third so frequently.

4. Denny Hamlin and No. 11 Cup team (22 points): The combination of Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart together for the first time in 2019 paid big dividends, particularly with six wins (including the Daytona 500). Not only was that the second-most number of wins in a single season for Hamlin – and the most races he’s won in a decade – but also was a big bounceback after Hamlin failed to win even one race in 2018 with former crew chief Mike Wheeler. Sadly, the season did not end the way Hamlin and company had hoped. And given he is now 39 years old, it may very well have been the last strong bid Hamlin will have to win that elusive Cup championship.

5. Christopher Bell and No. 20 Xfinity team (15 points): There’s domination, then there’s what this team did from 2018-19. No titles, but 15 wins, 38 top fives and 41 top 10s in 66 races. Bell now advances to the Cup Series for 2020 and he’s taking crew chief Jason Ratcliff with him, which is a no-brainer.

(tie) 6. Chase Elliott and No. 9 Cup team (7 points): Valiant comeback to advance past the second round was wasted when everything went wrong in the next round. Elliott and crew chief Alan Gustafson have become a strong team, winning a combined six races in the last two years, but there is still the issue of performing well under pressure. Elliott appeared a lock to advance to the Championship 4 round until he reached the third round and finished 36th, 32nd and 39th, ending his title hopes with a definitive thud.

(tie) 6. Ross Chastain and No. 45 Truck team (7 points): A team that opened the season not planning to run a full season with one driver, switched to a championship hunt after eight races, bounced back from having a win disqualified to win the next race and made it to the Championship 4.

(tie) 6. Cole Custer and No. 00 Xfinity team (7 points): Upgraded at crew chief with Mike Shiplett and went from a one-win-per-season team for the previous two seasons to finishing with seven wins in 2019, one less win than Christopher Bell. Not surprisingly, Custer and Shiplett will remain together when Custer jumps to the Cup series and the No. 41 in 2020.

(tie) 9. Joey Logano and No. 22 Cup team (6 points): It was a similar season to 2018 for Logano and crew chief Todd Gordon in 2019, but the end results were diametrically opposite. Whereas Logano went from underdog to champ in 2018, he fell short of running for a second career title in 2019, ultimately finishing fifth in the standings. Still, this duo works very well together. One thing that needs to be looked at if Logano wants to improve in 2020 is to cut down on the number of mistakes both he and his pit crew make.

(tie) 9. Tyler Reddick and No. 2 Xfinity team (6 points): This was an outstanding season for Reddick despite some challenges. Not only did Reddick move to Richard Childress Racing after he won the 2018 Xfinity championship for JR Motorsports, Reddick and crew chief Randall Burnett worked seamlessly throughout the season, winning five times and failing to finish in the top 10 just six times in 33 races. No surprise, they’ll stay together when Reddick drives the No. 8 for Richard Childress Racing in 2020, with Burnett going with him.

Others receiving votes: Brad Keselowski and No. 2 Cup team (5 points), Austin Hill and No. 16 Truck team (5 points), Kyle Busch Motorsports No. 51 Truck team (2 points), Kyle Larson and No. 42 Cup team (3 points) and Ryan Newman and No. 6 Cup team (1 point).

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