Friday 5: Lack of cautions limit gambles by crew chiefs

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The art of gambling along pit road could become more difficult even as some crew chiefs become more desperate.

Cautions are down 23.6 percent this season compared to this time last year. Simply, there are fewer opportunities for strategy calls by crew chiefs. It also means there are not as many chances to improve a car late in the race to challenge Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer, who have combined to win 14 of the first 16 Cup races.

But what’s key is when those cautions aren’t taking place.

Cautions in the final stage of the race — when a crew chief can have the most impact with strategy — are down 41.4 percent from this point last season.

Seven of the first 16 races have seen either one or zero cautions in the final stage. While green-flag racing can be great for fans, it limits opportunities for crew chiefs to gamble.

“The lack of yellows is helping the dominant cars win the race and hurting the creative guys trying to mix up the field,” NBC analyst Steve Letarte said this week during the NASCAR America Debrief podcast with Nate Ryan.

Only once in the last four races has there been more than one caution in the final stage. That was Pocono, where Busch give up the lead to pit with 20 laps to go while Truex stayed out. Busch restarted eighth, behind cars that did not pit or took only two tires. A pair of late cautions limited Busch’s opportunity to get to the front quickly. The result was that he finished third to Truex. Kyle Larson, who also did not pit during that caution with 20 laps to go, finished second.

There have been a couple of races where gambles could have been made but weren’t this season. At Richmond, the lack of gambling was curious. At Michigan, radar and weather apps thwarted crew chiefs.

As the Cup Series heads into the final 10 races before the playoffs, beginning with Sunday’s race at Chicagoland Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN), the race for those final playoff spots will become intense. Only six of the 16 spots are set based on drivers who have won. 

If the trend continues of the same drivers winning — Harvick, Truex, Busch and Bowyer have combined to win the last six races — the pressure will build on teams hoping to win to make the playoffs. With fewer cautions, the chances of those teams will grow more desperate. 

2. Domination

At some point someone has to break the stranglehold Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. have had at 1.5-mile tracks. Right?

Those three have combined to win the last 11 races on 1.5-mile tracks, dating back to last year’s race at Kentucky. Seven times during that streak, including the last four races, Harvick, Busch or Truex have taken the top two spots.

Of course, Truex has won the past two races at Chicagoland Speedway, site of Sunday’s race and a 1.5-mile track.

The only driver not named Harvick, (Kyle) Busch or Truex to finish in the top two in a 1.5-mile race this season is Brad Keselowski, who was runner-up to Harvick at Atlanta in March.

And, if you discount the plate races, Harvick, Busch and Truex have combined to win 20 of the last 23 races (86.9 percent) since the start of last year’s playoffs.

3. Staying put

If you missed it, Denny Hamlin said on this week’s Dale Jr. Download that he is in the first year of a “long-term” contract with Joe Gibbs Racing.

The 37-year-old Hamlin, who has 31 career Cup victories but none this year, told Dale Earnhardt Jr. that he plans to keep racing for some time.

“I’ve got a good long-term contract now that we just started this year that goes for a while and maybe do another short one after that and that would be it,” Hamlin said. “Not that I don’t love the sport. I want to go as long as I’m competitive, obviously. That’s going to be right around the time my kids are going to start to be in sports or whatever they’re in to, and I want to be around for that.”

4. Good and bad

Kyle Busch has won four races, but he’s been passed for the win four times this season.

He’s won at Texas, Bristol, Richmond and the Coca-Cola 600. He was the last driver to lead before the eventual winner took the point at Las Vegas (Harvick won), Auto Club (Truex), Martinsville (Bowyer) and Pocono (Truex).

5. When will Chevrolet win again?

Austin Dillon’s Daytona 500 win is Chevrolet’s only Cup victory in the last 26 races.

Chevrolet’s last five wins have been by Larson (fall Richmond and both Michigan races last year), Kasey Kahne (Indianapolis last year) and Dillon (Daytona 500).

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Jimmie Johnson to drive rookie paint scheme in Cup season finale

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Jimmie Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports will end their 17-year relationship with Lowe’s in style.

When Johnson and the No. 48 team show up for the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Nov. 18 on NBC), Johnson’s car will have his rookie year paint scheme from 2002.

Johnson follows Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth, who drove their rookie schemes in last year’s season finale.

The scheme will cap off a partnership that began with two Cup starts in 2001 before Johnson went full-time the next year.

In 2002, Johnson earned the first three wins of his career and sat on the pole for the Daytona 500. His first win came on April 28 at Auto Club Speedway.

With Lowe’s, Johnson has won seven championships and 83 races. Lowe’s announced in March it would not sponsor Johnson in 2019.

NASCAR America: Experience vs. Youth: Justin Allgaier battling Christopher Bell

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The Cup series has the Big 3. Xfinity has the Dynamic Duo.

As the Xfinity Series begins its playoffs Friday at Richmond Raceway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN), many experts believe two drivers have an easy path to Homestead. Justin Allgaier has scored five wins and 39 playoff points. Christopher Bell has 32 playoff points. The next closest driver is Elliott Sadler with 11.

Allgaier is mindful of the accomplishments that brought him to this position. He is having a career year and knows it.

“Up until last year I’d won maybe one race a year at the max,” Allgaier told NBCSN’s Marty Snider during Xfinity Media Day. “Last year we won two, which was spectacular, but to be able to win five races this year, to have the regular-season championship, to just be as successful as we’ve been this year is just amazing.”

But that does not make him a favorite in his mind. There are simply too many other drivers that can win. Too many variables.

“There’s so many competitors right now in this Xfinity Series that are just absolutely fantastic. I don’t know that we have a clear-cut favorite,” Allgaier said.

On Tuesday’s edition of NASCAR America, Jeff Burton agreed.

“I think that (Allgaier’s) a favorite, but by a little bit, not a lot. … When I think about the Xfinity race from Richmond in the spring, Joe Gibbs Racing dominated it and it will be interesting to see, now as we go to more mile-and-halves … can Joe Gibbs Racing and Christopher Bell … get their rhythm back.”

Kyle Petty also puts Bell in the battle.

“This kid’s confident,” Petty said. “He shows confidence in every turn of the wheel. Everything he does. … and he shows great maturity.

“We’ve got youth and exuberance in Christopher Bell. We’ve got experience and maturity in Justin Allgaier and this is a battle. And it’s going to be interesting to see how it plays out.”

For more, watch the video above.

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NASCAR America: Elliott Sadler wants to shed the bridesmaid role

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Elliott Sadler is the Mark Martin of the Xfinity Series, according to NASCAR America’s Kyle Petty.

“He’s been so close … so often. He’s almost like the Mark Martin of this series. Mark finished second so many times in the (Cup) championship.”

Martin finished second in the Cup standings five times without winning a championship. Sadler has finished second four times in the Xfinity Series and has not been worse than sixth since rejoining it fulltime in 2011.

Sadler knows the burning question is how he can shed the bridesmaid role. He also has a firm grip on what that is going to take.

“Justin (Allgaier) and Christopher (Bell) have pretty much told us you’re gonna have to win to advance,” Sadler told Marty Snider at Tuesday’s Xfinity Media Day. “They have been extremely fast – especially here lately. They’ve got nine wins between them.”

And with those nine wins, the playoff bonus points that ease their way to the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

To join them in Miami, Sadler has to keep from getting swept into the temptation to make something happen that the handling of the car will not support.

“As a driver, you’ve got to understand not to get too high and not to get too low – to try and stay even tempered because the intensity is definitely ramped up and you can get yourself in trouble here real quick and the next thing you know you’re digging yourself out of a hole,” Sadler said.

Petty agrees. While Sadler’s lack of a championship does not detract from his career any more than it did Martin’s, earning that elusive honor is going to be tough for the very reasons Sadler identified.

“He’s probably mentally in a better place this year, but he’s going up against a couple of guys in Christopher Bell and Justin Allgaier … that he believes are already in Homestead,” Petty said. “He’s going up against guys that are having career years.”

For more, watch the video above.

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NASCAR America Scan All: ‘Three in a row at Vegas. Cha-ching, baby’

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In NASCAR, drivers have to be both lucky and good – something that Kyle Busch and Adam Stevens learned at Las Vegas.

After spinning on Lap 233 while running 18th, Kyle Busch was lucky that his splitter did not get torn off the car. Unfortunately, the right front tire went down in that incident.

“It’s not going to stay together,” Busch said as he limped around the track back to the pits. “We’re gonna [expletive] go a lap down.”

“There’s nobody one lap down here, so we can afford to go one down,” Stevens replied.

Their luck held. On Lap 247, teammate Denny Hamlin spun into the grass at almost the exact spot, but his splitter dug into the grass and was ripped from the car.

“We’ll be the Lucky Dog here,” Stevens told Busch over the radio. “We have a set of stickers left. I don’t think hardly anybody on the lead lap has a set of stickers.”

With fresh tires, Busch charged up to seventh.

Here are some of this week’s highlights from Scan All:

  • “Championship run starts now. We’ve got a good car; something we can win with today. Give ourselves a good shot in Miami.” – Joey Logano
  • “I am a [expletive] 10 tight. I don’t know what we’re doing to this thing, but we might as well [expletive] start over.” – Kyle Busch
  • “Listen to me. I know it’s frustrating, but we are right in the middle of this thing.” – Jeremy Bullins, Ryan Blaney’s crew chief said after Blaney and Aric Almirola made contact on the track
  • “I know. I’ll calm down.” – Blaney
  • “No you won’t, but it’s ok. I still love you.” – Bullins
  • “It don’t matter if I speed, slide into the box. It don’t [expletive] matter. We’re going to get our [expletive] kicked when we get to the pit box.” – Austin Dillon
  • “Hey. Listen here. These guys know they were slow, ok? They know. We’re talking about it.” – Danny Stockman, Dillon’s crew chief
  • “I love everybody on this team, but we’re not going to have a shot doing this.” – Dillon
  • “Guess we know what’s wrong. Piece of [expletive] tires.” – Kevin Harvick
  • “If we could have had the lead, we’d of been fine. I just got to wait for it to come to me.” – Martin Truex Jr.
  • “Three in a row at Vegas. Cha-ching, baby.” – Brad Keselowski’s spotter

For more, watch the video above.

(Editor’s Note: Danny Stockman was the crew chief for Austin Dillon this week instead of Justin Alexander. We regret the error.)

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