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Friday 5: Former Cup champ proposes rule change for road courses

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Are there too many stages in a road course race?

Former champion Kevin Harvick wonders that after racing at Sonoma and Watkins Glen this year — and a playoff race at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval to come for the Cup Series.

“I don’t like the two stages for the road races,” Harvick said on his SiriusXM NASCAR Radio show this week. “The reason that I don’t like the two stages is we waste about 8-10 laps of caution between the end of the two stages. It takes some of the strategy out of the race. This week we had three sets of tires. You had two stages, so most guys put two sets of tires on and you had to stop one time (in the final stage). Then you had another set of scuffs that you used in qualifying that were available as your emergency set of tires.

“One thing about road racing to me is strategy. You see so many strategies as you go through the years and you see guys doing different things and put themselves in position to win. To me, it might be worth looking at a single stage with double points for winning the stage.’’

He’s for putting that stage beyond a fuel window, meaning teams would have to pit before the stage ended. Harvick noted that the Watkins Glen race was 90 laps and suggested putting the single stage at Lap 40 since the fuel window was about 35 laps.

“To me it doesn’t flow well at the road courses,” Harvick said of two stage breaks at a road course race. “I would like everybody to think about and look at eliminating that second stage and going to maybe just one stage, double points.”

OK, let’s look at the issues.

At Sonoma, each stage break lasted three laps. So, six of the eight caution laps in that race were related to the stage breaks.

Still, that means that 92.7 percent of the race was run under green — the second highest percentage of laps run under green in a Cup race this year (the most was the spring Martinsville race, which had 93.4 percent of the laps run under green)

At Watkins Glen, each stage break lasted three laps. So, six of the 11 laps of caution were because of stage breaks.

That means 87.7 percent of the laps run were under green. That ranks 13th best among the first 22 races.

Strategy still was a factor in both road course races. At Sonoma, teams decided if they wanted to win the stage and get the playoff point or put themselves in position to win the race.

Sonoma winner Martin Truex Jr. pitted from the lead with two laps to go in the opening stage, sacrificing one playoff point to better position himself to win the race and score five playoff points. AJ Allmendinger won that stage.

Harvick pitted from the lead before the end of stage 2 to set himself up for the finish. Denny Hamlin won the stage. Harvick went on to finish second to Truex that day.

At Watkins Glen, Kyle Busch pitted from the lead before first stage. Truex stayed on course and won the stage. Truex went on to finish second in the race to Chase Elliott, who pitted before the stage ended.

Elliott stayed on track and won the second stage. Most of the field did not pit before that break.

Strategy seemed to matter in both races even with two stage breaks.

2. A rule change to consider

Denny Hamlin’s pole last weekend at Watkins Glen wasn’t official until about 13 hours after he completed his run.

NASCAR impounded the cars after qualifying on Saturday night and inspected them Sunday morning. Any car that failed inspection the first time through had their qualifying time disallowed and started at the rear of the field.

Had Hamlin’s car failed, he would not have been recognized as the pole winner. That would have gone to the next highest qualifier that passed tech.

If NASCAR continues to have inspection the day after qualifying and take the chance of the pole winner failing, maybe it’s time for the sport to do more for race winners who fail inspection.

An argument used to be that the sport didn’t want fans who watched the race to find out hours later that there was a different winner. Admittedly, any winner that fails tech after a race loses points, loses playoff points, can’t have that win count toward playoff eligibility and that result can’t count in any tiebreaker scenario. That’s pretty powerful.

But if NASCAR is willing to strip the pole from a driver because his car failed inspection the next day, then it would seem time to do the same for a win — either leave the position vacant or give it to the next highest finishing driver that passes inspection.

If the team still wants to claim the victory and put up a winner’s banner in the shop so be it, but let the record book show something else.

3. A memorable win

Without a full-time ride, Bubba Wallace was unsure of his future last August when he competed in a Camping World Truck Series race at Michigan.

Wallace went on to win that race. It’s his last victory in NASCAR’s national series.

So how does any driver deal with such a gap since their last win?

You go through these moments where you get signs of success and the other times when you’re fighting and crawling,” Wallace said. “And those moments make you stronger, I believe. So, those days when you do click and find something, you have extra fuel to add to the fire from those tough days to go out and really get the job done.

“So, it’s not a matter of us dwelling on not winning, it’s just a matter of us trying to find something that makes our cars much more competitive. That’s a win for us right now.”

Wallace enters this weekend 25th in the points. He scored a career-best second-place finish in the Daytona 500 for Richard Petty Motorsports. His only other top-10 finish this season was eighth at Texas in the spring.

4. Bidding for a playoff spot

JD Motorsports driver Ross Chastain holds the final transfer spot for the Xfinity playoffs with six races left in the regular season. Chastain is in that position while also running the No. 15 Cup car for Premium Motorsports.

With Cup and Xfinity in two different locations this weekend, Chastain will be with the Xfinity team at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and head to Michigan after Saturday’s Xfinity race (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN). He’ll have Reed Sorenson practice and qualify his Cup car (the Cup race is at 2:30 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN).

Chastain told Jay Robinson, owner of Premium Motorsports, that he would never miss an Xfinity on-track session if he got the ride in the No. 15 car.

“There’s no fair way I can take away from the 4 car,” Chastain said of his Xfinity ride.

Chastain leads Michael Annett of JR Motorsports by 40 points for what would be the final playoff spot. Ryan Sieg of RSS Racing is next, 75 points behind Chastain.

5. Familiar phrase

Since Brian France’s arrest and leave of absence from his role of NASCAR Chairman and CEO, a phrase is starting to be uttered more often by competitors.

After each wishes France well with his health, drivers have a commonality in what they say next:

Kevin Harvick said on his SiriusXM NASCAR Radio show this week: “I think from the drivers’ perspective, it’s really important whoever is in that position to become more connected.”

Brad Keselowski, who has been outspoken about the need for this sport’s leader to be the track more often, said: “I would definitely be encouraged to have a relationship with (Jim France, interim NASCAR Chair) and see the garage have a relationship with him. That’s never a bad thing.”

Tony Stewart, who also has been outspoken about NASCAR’s leader needing to be at the track, said: “Jim is very grounded and I feel like Jim is a guy who is in touch with what is going on and that’s what you’ve got to have.”

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Chase Elliott pleased by ‘best shot to win to date’ but knows work remains

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. – He was the only driver to outduel the dominant No. 2 Ford of race winner Brad Keselowski. He had his best shot to win a race in more than five months. He fortified the allegiance of fans at the NASCAR Cup series’ shortest track, which already has been a special place early in his career.

Ultimately, though, Chase Elliott knew a runner-up finish Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, one of only six short-track races on the circuit, will have a limited shelf life.

Hendrick Motorsports still must prove it can excel at the larger tracks such as Texas Motor Speedway that make up the bulk of the schedule and play a large role in determining the championship.

“From here? No,” Elliott said with a smile and a slight chuckle when asked if there were any momentum that could carry over to the 1.5-mile speedway that’s next on the schedule. “No.”

How about fueling some optimism that his No. 9 Chevrolet will be faster at Texas?

“I sure hope so,” he said.

There should at least be a more positive vibe in this week’s team debriefs after Elliott led 49 laps for his first top five since his Oct. 21 victory at Kansas Speedway. It also was Hendrick’s first top five of 2019 through six races (the longest the organization has gone without a top five to start a season since 2000).

It was only the second race of the past 10 that the No. 9 Chevrolet has led.

“We had a really, really solid car and this was the best shot we had to win to date this season, so when you have cars like that and performances like we did today, you really need to capitalize,” Elliott said. “And obviously with our struggle last week at Fontana (where he finished 11th), that was a bummer, so to come back and be able to run inside the top five all day long and be as competitive as the winner of the race was an improvement.

“And ultimately this is an important racetrack so coming back here in the fall, hopefully we can run like we did today, maybe a little better, and hopefully we’re still part of the deal to make it matter.”

Keselowski took the lead for the final time when his pit crew got him out ahead of Elliott under caution on Lap 374. He never passed Elliott under green, and Keselowski figured he wouldn’t after Elliott took the lead from him with 175 laps remaining shortly after a restart.

“I thought Chase was probably the best car most of the day,” said Keselowski, who led 446 of 500 laps. “I thought that might be the end of our day, but I was able to learn a few things from him and kind of dissect his strengths and weaknesses and make some adjustments of our own and come back out and be a little bit better for it. Pit crew did an excellent job gaining or retaining our track position all day, which is critical here at this racetrack.

“We were able to keep our track position, and that was so, so key to being able to win today because I think Chase, if he’d have been out front that run, he would have drove away from the field with what I saw from his car.”

Brad Keselowski held off Chase Elliott for his second win of the season. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Elliott slipped to third behind Keselowski and Kyle Busch on his last stop under yellow. He made a nifty move to retake second on the outside after Busch ran into Keselowski and slowed with 43 laps remaining.

He was making ground in the final 10 laps, but aerodynamics (rarely a factor at Martinsville but in play because of this year’s high downforce) seemed to factor into his inability to reach Keselowski’s bumper.

“I tried to root him off the bottom at the beginning of the run,” Elliott said. “That was probably my best shot. I felt like I was a little better than him taking off. Then I thought he got a little better than me through the midstage and then I feel like we kind of evened out.

“That one run I was able to get by him, it was definitely a slight advantage to being out front. Moved up with about five (laps) to go, was making a little time. But obviously not enough time and was just trying to get back to his bumper. Thought maybe I could root him out of the way. It was going to be really hard to drive up next to him and pass him. I was just going to have to get to his bumper and play some games and hope it went my way.”

At least there was hope of being in the game when NASCAR returns to Southwest Virginia in seven months for the opener of the Round of 8, which Elliott nearly won in 2017.

“Have to just improve and when we come back here,” he said. “This is an important race if you’re in the hunt, so hopefully we are.”

Brad Keselowski says ‘wins are huge’ in keeping, retaining sponsors

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Brad Keselowski was thrilled with his second Cup victory of the season, but the victory was more meaningful because the car’s sponsor, Reese/Draw Tite, serves as a primary sponsor for only two races.

“We’re fighting so hard to keep sponsors on our car and we have some gaps (in 2020) to fill there,” said Keselowski, whose other victory this season was in Atlanta with sponsor Autotrader.

“When we win with some of those partners, it’s a really big deal for us,” Keselowski added.

Reese/Draw Tite will be back as the primary sponsor on Keselowski’s car later this season. The brands were on Keselowski’s car twice in 2018 — at the first Martinsville race and Richmond playoff race.

Reese/Draw Tite sponsored Keselowski’s Truck Series team beginning in 2012. Reese/Draw Tite signed a multi-year sponsor deal with Team Penske in 2018.

“The wins are huge,” Keselowski said in attracting and retaining sponsors. “You have to win. The market loves winners, as it should. That’s what you would like it to be. You would like it to be about winning and sponsors that are connected to that. In my mind, that’s the way it should be.

“I didn’t come into this sport with a name that was just going to give me sponsors and the biggest sponsors out of the gate. With that in mind, our team has to win. (Car owner Roger Penske) is great because he’s so smart with these business-to-business deals. But even that, that’s really hard on him, and he doesn’t deserve that full burden. He’s worked his butt off, and he shouldn’t have to be in every board meeting and trying to solidify the deals, and I recognize that for him, and I’m proud of the efforts that he does put in, and the last thing I want to do is make him do more of them, right?

“So with that in mind, I hope that we can continue to attract the high‑level sponsors we need to be competitive at this level, and the best way I know how to do that is wins like today.”

Keselowski, who led 446 of 500 laps Sunday, says he plays a role in helping with sponsorship.

“It would be a lot easier to just be the race car driver, but I accept the fact that if we want to have the funding we need to be able to compete with the Toyotas specifically, who are certainly very high up on the funding level, we have to generate those revenues and those funds, and that’s the way we’re going to get back to Victory Lane,” Keselowski said. “You need that to be able to afford the engineering, to be able to afford the pit crew and still pay me to drive. So winning is very, very important.”

Keselowski also said he has five unfunded races to fill in the Xfinity Series this season that he hopes to be able to run but won’t without sponsors.

Clint Bowyer, Denny Hamlin salvage top 10s after pit road penalties

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Clint Bowyer places at least some of the blame on his two pit road speeding penalties Sunday at Martinsville Speedway with what happened Saturday at the half-mile short track.

Bowyer, who placed seventh in a failed attempt to defend his STP 500 win, would like better pit road conditions to work with.

“It’s so hard to practice pit road speed,” a dispirited Bowyer said on pit road after his second top 10 of the season. “You’ve got (Gander Outdoors) Trucks on pit road when we’re trying to practice that. I’m not making any excuses. When you’re trying to pinch it for every little thing out of it. It’s hard this week to practice pit road speed because of all the stuff on pit road.”

After he placed sixth in Stage 1 and eighth in Stage 2, Bowyer’s No. 14 was caught speeding the first time on Lap 314 after he pitted from third place. Bowyer was able to make it up to 13th in the next 60 laps.

Then on his next trip to pit road, Bowyer was again dinged for speeding.

“I guess we need to get our stuff together on being on the same page with that pit road stuff,” Bowyer said. “That’s such an important thing, such a big part of this style of racing where track position is everything. We push it to the limit.”

Before he pitted for a final time with just under 55 laps to go, Bowyer was told by crew chief Mike Bugarewicz they had figured out he wasn’t running close enough to the pit wall in the section the penalties occurred.

Bowyer didn’t speed and restarted eighth.

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver claimed his first top 10 since he placed fifth at Atlanta.

“I don’t think anybody had anything for (race winner Brad Keselowski),” Bowyer said. “But I think we were a top-three car for sure. We just kept beating ourselves.”

Bowyer wasn’t the only driver to salvage a decent finish after a pit road penalty.

After an uncontrolled tire penalty on Lap 265, Denny Hamlin roared back to finish fifth for the second time in the last three races.

“We lost a lot of spots on pit road even before that, and then just went to the back like we do most races and came back to fifth,” Hamlin said. “When you don’t have the best car, you have to pretty much execute perfectly. We didn’t, but it wouldn’t have mattered because the best car didn’t falter.”
Hamlin had stage finishes of fourth and third before the pit penalty occurred
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has two consecutive top fives at Martinsville and 14 in his 27 career starts.
“We kind of got back to where we kind of belonged, and that was the end of it,” Hamlin said. “We have to get a little better with the handling to handle right where (Keselowski is) at.”

Results, points after Martinsville Cup race

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Brad Keselowski scored his second victory of the season, dominating Sunday’s Cup race at Martinsville Speedway.

Chase Elliott finished a season-high second. Kyle Busch finished third and was followed by Ryan Blaney and Denny Hamlin, who had to overcome a penalty for an uncontrolled tire on pit road.

Click here for race results

Points

Kyle Busch leads the points and also has the most playoff points after six races. He has 273 points. Denny Hamlin is next at 252 points.

Busch has 14 playoff points. Brad Keselowski is next with 12 playoff points.

Click here for points report