Friday 5: Toyota looking for more with Fords dominating first third of season

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Although Toyota is ahead of pace for wins compared to last year when the manufacturer scored 16 Cup victories, the president of Toyota Racing Development isn’t satisfied.

Toyota has four wins this year — three by Kyle Busch and one by Martin Truex Jr. — but Ford has scored a series-high seven victories.

“I always use laps led as an indicator of performance because if you’re not leading laps than something is not right,” Toyota’s David Wilson told NBC Sports. “I think Dover, for the first time since Atlanta of 2017, a Toyota did not lead a lap. That was an alarm bell. That’s not acceptable. We recognize that we need to be better and we’re on it.”

Only one Toyota driver (Busch) ranks in the top five in laps led this season. Kevin Harvick has led 21 percent of all laps run this year. Busch is next at 12.7 percent.

Toyota won 14 of the final 19 races last year and scored the championship with Martin Truex Jr. So, why isn’t Toyota as dominant this year?

“We make no bones about it, Fords, the Ford camp … the No. 4 camp in particular is out front right now and kudos to those guys,’’ Wilson said, noting Harvick’s success. “I think what happened in the offseason with the flat splitter and the (Optical Scanning Station) clearly brought the field closer together, but our MO isn’t one to whine about it or complain about it.’’

Wilson admits Toyota had found advantages with the splitter and now that is gone with the rule change for this season.

“We were doing some really clever things with the front of our cars and year over year, we just lost some front downforce,’’ he said. “That’s why you hear a lot of our guys complaining about having tight race cars.’’

Wilson also spoke to NBC Sports about a couple of other topics.

On the need for a fourth manufacturer in Cup, Wilson said:

“When we came into this sport, we had four manufacturers with Dodge being the fourth. As soon as Dodge left, one of our first agenda points with NASCAR (was) to start beating the drum to get another manufacturer on board.

“With the size of the field, given the investment that each of us make, the sport will be healthy with another manufacturer, so again I know and trust that NASCAR is out there looking.’’

On the aero package run with restrictor plates run at the All-Star Race and what adjustments need to be made, Wilson said:

“I don’t think we want the drivers to be flat-footed all the time. We have the best drivers in the world and we’re putting them in a situation where some of them equated it to a video game. Most of them had fun. It was fun, but it was also the All-Star race and it wasn’t a points race. Again, these are the best drivers in the world. These cars should be hard to drive.”

2. Falling behind

Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 marks the halfway point in the 26-race regular season.

Kevin Harvick already has 24 playoff points — and that’s after he was penalized at Las Vegas and lost all seven playoff points for his victory ands stage wins. Kyle Busch is next with 17 playoff points.

No one else has more than seven playoff points.

Those points could mean the difference in advancing in the playoffs or going all the way to the championship round in Miami.

Denny Hamlin, who has one playoff point, understands the deficit he could be facing. Should Harvick and Busch continue to collect playoff points, they could give themselves a big enough advantage to make it to Miami provided they don’t have major issues in any of the rounds.

Martin Truex Jr. had such a large playoff point advantage last year that he qualified for Miami with one race left in the third round, leaving only one spot left in the championship field when the series headed to Phoenix for the final race of that round.

“That’s a continued concern for us,” Hamlin said. “That’s really what made us press so much in the second-to-last playoff stage last year. We knew there was essentially one spot available after those three had locked themselves in.

“We’re trying everything we can. We really have struggled with stage points. We’re finishing well. I’ve made a few mistakes on pit road this year and that has set us back on stage points. I think we’ve got to focus on stage points first then we worry about playoff points.”

3. Betting on NASCAR

Kevin Harvick is an interested observer in what will happen after a Supreme Court decision earlier this month struck down a 1992 federal law that banned commercial sports betting.

Delaware is on pace to be among the first states to have sports betting outside of Nevada. Dover International Speedway has a casino next to the track. NASCAR fans attending the Oct. 7 Dover playoff race could have their first chance to legally bet on a NASCAR event while attending that event.

Harvick has had segments on sports betting each of the past two weeks on his SiriusXM NASCAR Radio show. So what has he learned?

I have more questions than answers just because of the fact that we have a couple of race tracks that have casinos on the property already,” Harvick said, alluding to Dover and Kansas Speedway.

“It seems like there’s a very good opportunity to get creative with a place like Dover that has that casino sitting there to have some creative betting during the race to really intrigue the fans – things that you could do from your phone or in the casino or just random stuff,” Harvick said. “Could you turn that track and race into an atmosphere like a horse race? I think there’s just a lot of questions and a lot of answers that need to be individually solved. That’s the interesting part is it’s going to come state by state, so who is going to lead that charge? Is it race tracks or is it NASCAR?”

Harvick stressed finding a way that some of the money bet filters back to the sports. The NBA seeks what it calls an “integrity fee” for all bets related to its events. Whether that is possible, remains to be seen.

Harvick also noted that a change that needs to be made is how TV money is distributed in NASCAR. Tracks keep 65 percent of the money from broadcasters, teams get 25 percent and NASCAR collects 10 percent. According to International Speedway Corp.’s 2017 annual report, broadcast and ancillary media rights accounted for 50.2 percent of total revenues for that year. 

4. Special Day

Wednesday’s Hall of Fame selection proved poignant with Alan Kulwicki and Davey Allison, who were killed within months of each other 25 years ago, joining the Class of 2019.

There are many special connections between those. One was a special observer. Tom Roberts is a long-time family friend of the Allisons. He served as Bobby Allison’s p.r. person for several years. He also worked with Kulwicki as his p.r. person. Roberts also has helped spearhead the Kulwicki Driver Development Program to help young drivers climb the ranks of racing.

Roberts had never attended the Hall of Fame announcement but came up from his Alabama home to witness Wednesday’s proceedings.

“It just felt right,” he said of seeing both make the Hall. “It will take a while to soak in (that both made it together).”

5. New winner?

An interesting stat for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 is that the top 11 qualifiers have never won this race.

Austin Dillon scored his first Coca-Cola 600 — and first Cup win — last year.

Kyle Busch starts on the pole and will be joined on the front row by Joey Logano.

The other drivers in the top 11 who have never won the 600 are: Denny Hamlin, Erik Jones, Brad Keselowski, Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray, Ryan Blaney, Aric Almirola, Daniel Suarez and Kyle Larson.

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William Byron not a fan of the ‘youngest’ label

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CONCORD, N.C. — Yes, William Byron is on the young side when it comes to the Cup Series garage.

But he’d rather you not rub it in.

That’s inevitable though when you’re 21 years old and win the pole for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600.

With a speed of 183.424 mph from his No. 24 Chevrolet, the Hendrick Motorsports driver is the youngest driver to sit on the pole in 60 runnings of NASCAR’s longest race.

“I don’t really like having the youngest term attached to me because I’ve always been the young guy and I just want to be part of the conversation as a normal person, no matter what age I am,” Byron said Thursday after his pole run.

The pole is the second of Byron’s career, following his Daytona 500 pole earlier this year.

But Byron isn’t the youngest Daytona 500 pole-sitter. That honor belongs to Chase Elliott, who was 20 when he won the pole in 2016.

“I don’t really look at myself as younger than other guys, just as what I’m doing and how I’m doing it compared to them or everybody out there,” Byron said. “But yeah, it’s cool. But I really just look at myself as a race car driver.”

Luckily for Byron, he has another birthday awaiting him in November and plenty of other up-and-coming drivers eager to take the “Youngest to….” honor.

Friday 5: Pressure builds for teams heading into Coca-Cola 600

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After all the fun and games of the All-Star Race, the focus returns this weekend to points and playoff spots.

Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 marks the halfway point in the 26-race regular season. With only six winners this season, there’s the chance that a number of playoff spots could be claimed by points.

That increases the pressure on those fighting for those positions.

Jimmie Johnson enters the weekend 16th in the points, the final transfer spot to the playoffs. He leads Ryan Newman by eight points, Austin Dillon by 11 and Coca-Cola 600 pole-sitter William Byron by 15.

Ryan Newman is eight points out of a playoff spot. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

“The biggest thing is we need to get to victory lane,” Newman said after qualifying 18th Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “If you don’t get to victory lane, you don’t really have a chance.

“You’ve got to be a winner going into the last 10. Just pointing your way in doesn’t entertain me. If we do, great, and we come into a streak and progress in the last 10 (races), then even better. I really want to have that win and that momentum going into those last 10.”

Newman finished second for the championship in 2014 despite going winless that season. Since then, every driver racing for the championship in Miami has had at least one win that season. 

Some teams already are feeling that playoff pressure.

“It’s been a grind now for a couple of weeks for us,” said Dillon, the 2017 Coca-Cola 600 champion. “Hopefully, we can get a win, but it’s going to come down to points.

“I’ve been scratching and clawing every week. That’s where you hear some frustration from because you just want all you can get. When it comes down to it – and that last race happens – you’re going to want as many points as possible on your side.”

2. A fresh outlook 

Kyle Larson has been hitting the gym this season and working with Josh Wise, marking a new routine for the Chip Ganassi Racing driver.

Wise, a former driver, now serves as the driver performance manager for Ganassi and for some of the younger drivers driving for JR Motorsports and GMS Racing.

Larson, who won last weekend’s All-Star Race, admits he’s not been one for workouts that much before this season.

“(Josh) would always still send information to me on pre-race stuff and things like that and I didn’t take it as serious as I needed to,” said Larson, who will start Sunday’s race 25th. “I kind of felt guilty about that. This year I’ve gotten into a good routine where I drop (son) Owen off at school and then I go to the shop and I work out.

“I think before it was hard for me to find that routine to get the motivation to do it. This year I feel like I’ve gotten that routine. It’s made it a lot easier and I’ve actually enjoyed it and noticed a little bit of a difference. I think just the way our sport has gone, more drivers are working out. You don’t want somebody to get an advantage or an edge on you. I feel like I’m just more prepared and confident now going to the track.”

3. Who is No. 1?

Joe Gibbs Racing has won the most races this season (seven). Team Penske won the most recent points race (Brad Keselowski at Kansas).

So which one is the strongest?

It might be another team.

I honestly feel right now the Hendrick cars are the best cars,” Keselowski said Thursday. “I feel like they really came on strong over the last two or three weeks and had some nice updates to their stuff, so I would expect them to be the ones to beat this weekend.”

He said that before Hendrick’s William Byron won the pole for the 600.

Kyle Busch also sees a difference in Hendrick Motorsports.

I think Hendrick has certainly found some speed,” he said. “They’re certainly getting better. They’re waking up. They’ve come to play a bit more lately.

“As far as the (Team) Penske group goes, they don’t really qualify well but they always race well. Then you look at the (Stewart-Haas Racing) cars and they qualify well and they’ll race well typically. It seems like the SHR cars are trimmed out a little bit more than some of the rest of us. They get more speed out of their cars but maybe they don’t have it for the long haul. Where it seems like the (Joe Gibbs Racing) cars are kind of a compromise.

“We might not qualify on the pole or be the best in qualifying, but we’ll race well. I wouldn’t call it middle of the road, but I feel like we’re in a position to win each week.”

4. More blocking?

In the most recent points race (at Kansas), Erik Jones upset Clint Bowyer with a block on the last lap. It was a big move from Jones who came down the track to block Bowyer and then moved up as Bowyer tried to go on the outside. That it was the last lap made it easier to understand Jones’ move.

Still, as the battles intensify, especially during restarts, more blocks are to be thrown. Did Jones’ block show others that they can be bolder in keeping a competitor behind?

“I didn’t even think twice about it when I saw it from my perspective,” Denny Hamlin said. “The person who gets blocked always makes it a bigger deal than what it really is. I think the other competitors probably don’t think anything about it to be honest with you.

“We all throw blocks at certain times and sometimes they’re not as dramatic. Sometimes … somebody would come up on you and you would just choose to run their lane and block them that way. It’s a less dramatic way of doing it but certainly one where you cut from high lane to low lane or whatever it might be, you are counting on the person either checking up or you are counting on them to lose enough air that they’re going to lose their car. That’s the whole reason you do it in the first place.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. described Jones’ block as “normal.”

“You can get mad about it, but we all do it, so you can’t get mad at somebody just because they do it to you. We throw blocks on each other all the time.

“Kyle Busch threw a block on me. I told (the spotter), ‘Hey, make sure he knows that later on in the race I’m not going to lift and he might end up in the fence.’ That’s just part of this package. The better track position you can keep yourself in, the better the car drives. … Obviously, at the end of the race, I think anything goes.”

5. An Olympian effort

Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 will be the first for rookie Daniel Hemric.

He’ll rely on some training he got a few years ago from Olympic speed skating champion Dan Jansen.

In 2016, Hemric and Tyler Reddick were teammates at Brad Keselowski Racing in the Truck Series. Keselowski heard Jansen tell his story of overcoming defeat to win gold in his fourth Olympics.

Jansen entered his second Olympics as the favorite in the 500- and 1,000-meter races in the 1988 Games at Calgary. His sister died of leukemia hours before his 500-meter race. Jansen fell in that race. He later fell with a lap to go in the 1,000-meter race.

He failed to medal in the 1992 Games in Albertville and finally won gold in 1994 in Lillehammer in the 1,000-meter race.

After hearing Jansen speak, Keselowski approached the former Olympic champion.

“We just asked each other questions,” Keselowski said. “What did you do for this, how did you handle that? Different athletes compare notes. Some of that crosses over. A lot of it doesn’t, that’s OK. The crossover there I thought was very interesting. I wanted to apply it to our team. What he said made a lot of sense, and I thought it was something we were missing.”

Hemric had the chance to train with Jansen.

“We would do a really hard workout and get our heart rate extremely high, up in the 190s, 200 range, if not more, and have to get off that and do some hand-eye coordination stuff,” Hemric said. “Then as soon as that’s over, your heart rate is as high as it can be and you’re breathing heavy, closing your eyes and think about qualifying a lap, think about a green-white-checkered restart, putting yourself in those moments, thinking about what you would do and how you would do it. Being able to bring your heart rate down in those moments, seeing your heart, imagine seeing your heart slow down, all those things to get your body calm.”

Those are lessons Hemric continues to practice and says will help him in his first Coca-Cola 600.

“A lot of times in our sport it gets focused solely on the physical endurance part of it,” Hemric said. “The mental side in my opinion is going to be the most crucial. When you talk to other guys that have ran this race for the first time they’ve always said that when the first thing goes and they get tired, it’s their mind.

“That’s a long time to keep yourself mentally in the game. I’ve always kind of trained and had my own mental things that I do to visualize and think about those moments late in the race. It’s something I’ve had a lot of success with in the past. I’ve got to credit Dan Jansen. I’ve kept a lot of those methods in my training regimen and a lot of that was mental.”

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Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman ‘clear the air’ about All-Star incident

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CONCORD, N.C. — Five days after Clint Bowyer threw several punches at Ryan Newman as Newman sat in his car after the All-Star Race, the two sat side by side during an autograph session at a Bass Pro Shops near Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Bowyer was upset with Newman for contact that led to Bowyer crashing after last weekend’s race. After Bowyer drove to pit road, he ran to Newman’s car while still wearing his helmet — earning a rebuke from his team owner for not removing his helmet. After reaching Newman’s car, Bowyer unleashed a number of punches.

Both drivers talked this week before they got to the autograph session.

“It was good to have a conversation about it,” Bowyer said Thursday night after qualifying eighth at Charlotte Motor Speedway for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600. “At the end of the day there were a lot of things that escalated very fast and obviously got out of hand.

“There’s one thing I can always promise you about something like that and it is unfortunate, and you hate having things like that happen, (but) that’s probably the best attended autograph session at Bass Pro Shops that I’ve had in a long, long time.

“Obviously I don’t want to do that every weekend. At the end of the day we all love this sport, we are all passionate about this sport and every now and then that shows a little brighter.”

Bowyer was asked if he thought Newman would retaliate.

“I don’t know,” Bowyer said. “Hopefully it’s behind us. We both have a little better understanding of how it escalated into that and you’ve just got to get stuff like that behind you.”

Newman said it was good to talk to Bowyer about what happened.

“It was good to kind of clear the air,” Newman said. “It is what it is. It’s the past. Just something you always remember. You learn about somebody in a situation like that.”

Newman was asked if he’ll race Bowyer differently.

“I try to race everybody the same way and that’s hard because that’s what I get paid to do,” said Newman, who qualified 18th for the Coca-Cola 600. “I try to give-and-take when I came. The way it works anymore with stage points, especially in the All-Star race, you don’t give and take. You take.”

Starting lineup for the Coca-Cola 600

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William Byron will start first and Aric Almirola will start second for Sunday’s 60th running of the Coca-Cola 600.

Byron, 21, is the youngest pole-sitter in the race’s history.

The top five is completed by defending race winner Kyle Busch, 2017 race winner Austin Dillon and two-time 600 winner Kevin Harvick.

Click here for the starting lineup.