16 drivers, 16 questions: Analyzing the Cup playoff competitors

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No matter what has come before, the playoffs represent hope. For those who have been strong all season, there is a hope that such performances will continue. For those who have struggled, there is hope that things will change.

Reality will intercede when cars get on track this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Until then, there is hope.

Here is a key question for each playoff driver:

Kyle Busch (2050 points)

Is this his title to lose?

Yes. Two of his six wins this year were at tracks that will host playoff races (Texas and Richmond), and he finished second at three other tracks this year that will host playoff races (Las Vegas, Phoenix and Martinsville).

(Photo: Getty Images)

A key for him could be the second round, which features Dover (35th in the spring, mechanical issue), Talladega (13th in the spring) and Kansas (10th in the spring). He failed to lead a lap in all three races, making that the only time he’s failed to lead a lap in three consecutive races this season.

The 50 playoff points he has should provide a cushion for him but he knows all too well how cruel the playoffs can be. He was second in the points entering the second round cutoff race at Talladega in 2014. While riding toward the back, he was involved in a crash and eliminated from title contention.

He should go further in the playoffs. Much further.

 

Kevin Harvick (2050)

Is this his title to lose?

Yes. Four of his seven wins this year have come on tracks the series will go to in the playoffs (Las Vegas, Phoenix, Dover and Kansas).

He has not finished worse than fifth this year at a track that will host a playoff race and has an average finish of 2.5 at those tracks.

How is anyone going to beat that?

If he’s not racing for the title in Miami, it will be shocking.

 

Martin Truex Jr. (2035)

Is there too much for Martin Truex Jr. to overcome to win another championship?

This team will no longer exist in 10 weeks and enters the playoffs with some uneven performances. It’s either setting up to be a disappointing finish for Truex or a feel-good story that could match last year’s championship run.

The performances lately, though, leave some questions.

(Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

The team failed inspection three times at Indy and had to start at the rear. Truex said during the pace laps that his brakes didn’t feel right. A brake failure ended his day after 41 laps, leaving him with a season-worst 40th-place finish.

At Darlington, Truex was fast and ran in the top three in the first half of the race before a penalty for an uncontrolled tire caused him to fall off the lead lap. It took most almost the rest of the race to get back on the lead lap because there were so few cautions. He recovered to finish 11th but the mistake cost him.

He started 17th at Bristol — the only time in the last seven races before Indianapolis that he started so far back. He was collected in an early accident, overcame that and was running near the front when contact from Kyle Busch sent him into the wall.

At Michigan, Truex spun, his team struggled on pit road and he ran out of fuel, ruining what could have been a much better finish than 14th.

“Being fast and doing all the little things right is important,” Truex told NBC Sports. “I feel like the guys that are on top of their game and … can bring speed to the race track are going to be hard to beat.”

Maybe these recent races mean nothing. Maybe they are a sign that this team isn’t as solid as it was last year. We’ll soon find out.

 

Brad Keselowski (2019)

He’s won the past two races by his team executing well instead of having the fastest car. Can that be the pathway to a title or will the lack of speed hurt this team?

So often the fastest car doesn’t win the race. Over time, though, a fast car is more likely to succeed. At some point in the playoffs, Keselowski will need to win.

At Darlington, his pit crew helped him take the lead off the final pit stop. At Indianapolis, pit strategy and a timely caution put him in position to win. He wasn’t the fastest in either race but won.

(Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

“We want more speed,” crew chief Paul Wolfe said after the Indy win. “We know we’re off a little bit there. But I believe we can get through the first round for sure by just executing and not making mistakes. 

“As I look at the second and third round, there’s some great opportunity races there. We know we can go to Talladega and win, and we know we can go to Martinsville and win. We have a little bit of work to do on the intermediate tracks to find a little more speed, but winning the last two weeks definitely is a little booster for everyone at Team Penske.”

 

Clint Bowyer (2015)

Can he be consistent enough to contend for a spot in Miami?

His longest streak of top-10 finishes is four in a row this season. Worse is that he has failed to finish in the top 10 in seven of the last nine races.

The Stewart-Haas Racing cars are fast, but he’s not been faster than teammate Kevin Harvick and hasn’t matched the consistency of teammate Kurt Busch. With many expecting at least two of the Big 3 — Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. — to make it to the finals in Miami, that leaves little room for the rest of the field and inconsistent finishes won’t do it.

 

Joey Logano (2014)

He made the championship race in 2014 and 2016. Can he keep the even-year streak going?

In 2014 and 2016, Logano came into the playoffs on a hot streak. He had scored three consecutive top 10s before playing 13th at Indy on Monday.

The sting of his Indy performance left him viewing the playoffs more critically.

We just have to get going, that’s all,” Logano said. “The playoffs are about to start and hopefully we’ll do better than that.”

One thing that Logano fans can look forward to are the tracks in the playoffs. He scored six top-10 finishes in the eight races at playoff tracks earlier this year, including his win at Talladega.

 

Kurt Busch (2014)

Is consistency enough to get him far in the playoffs?

The Bristol winner enters the playoffs with eight consecutive top-10 finishes, which ties Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick for the longest active top-10 streak. That also matches what Kyle Busch did earlier this season for the longest top-10 streak of the season.

(Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Kurt Busch said the turnaround came at New Hampshire in July when he won the pole, led 94 laps and finished eighth. He’s encouraged that the team has been good on a variety of tracks even though none of the tracks in his current streak will be in the playoffs.

As for the playoffs, he has a simple philosophy.

“There is no reason to change anything going into the playoffs,” Kurt Busch told NBC Sports after finishing sixth at Indianapolis. “This is one of the best Brickyard cars that I’ve ever had, I just didn’t execute on restarts to the best of my ability.”

 

Chase Elliott (2008)

Can momentum carry this team forward?

Last year, Chase Elliott finished no better than eighth in the eight races leading into the playoffs. But that didn’t matter. He had three runner-up finishes in the first four playoff races and finished the year with four top 10s in the last five races.

This year, Elliott enters the playoffs having scored six top 10s in the last seven races, making him among the hottest drivers.

“I think our speed has been better,” Elliott said. “We’ve just got to keep improving.”

 

 

Ryan Blaney (2007)

Is he a contender or pretender?

The Team Penske driver is an interesting case study. Eight of his 12 top-10 finishes this season came in the first 15 races of the year.

But since his 40th-place finish at Daytona in July, he has not placed worse than 15th in a race. To be a true title contender, those finishes need to be better in the coming weeks.

Some of his best tracks — other than Bristol — are playoff tracks. He finished third at Martinsville in the spring and was fifth at Texas and fifth at Las Vegas earlier this year. So there’s a foundation for him to be a contender.

 

Erik Jones (2005)

Can he step it up in his first Cup playoffs?

He enters the playoffs after a runner-up finish at Indianapolis and nine top 10s in the last 11 races, but the playoffs are so much different from the regular season.

It’s a point Jones discovered in 2016 in the Xfinity Series.

(Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

“I thought it was going to be a breeze to get to the final four because we were so fast and had won races all year, but really it wasn’t,” Jones told NBC Sports. “It was very challenging. We almost missed out in the final four.

“It’s going to be tough. Even the round of 16 (this year), as much as you want to think yea, it will be easy, just top 10 our way through it, it never seems to go like that.”

But if Jones can do what he’s done lately — he has averaged 34.3 points a race — that should get him through the opening round comfortably.

“We’ve done a good job the last month of really sticking with it, and when we’re not having a great day,  making it into one that is more than salvageable,” he said.

 

Austin Dillon (2005)

Can this team get beyond the first round?

This team has shown improvement in the second half of the season with an average finish of 16.3 in the last nine races.

That likely won’t be good enough in the playoffs. He failed to advance out of the first round last year with an average finish of 17.0. Teammate Ryan Newman had an average finish of 16.3 in the first round of last year’s playoffs and also failed to advance.

“We have had fast cars here lately and that is a good thing,” Dillon said. “So, we are capable of bringing some speed to the track, and Vegas has been a good track for us in the past. Hopefully, we can just take what we have been good with the last couple of weeks and run it there.”

 

Kyle Larson (2005)

Can he find a way to Miami and win the title at what is his best track?

Kyle Larson is encouraged by the speed he’s had in the car the past two weeks at Darlington and Indianapolis.

(Photo: Getty Images)

The key is to get to Miami. Even if the Big 3 all made it to the championship race, some observers would view Larson as the favorite there if he also qualified for that race because of how good he is there.

Getting there has been the challenge for Larson even when he’s been better.

Larson was vocal after Monday’s race at Indianapolis about what needs to be fixed if he is to make it to Miami.

“We’re still horrible on pit road,” he told NBC Sports. “That’s discouraging. We’ll clean it up. I made mistakes on pit road as well. So I wasn’t happy with myself and my performance on pit road, but our pit crew needs to be better if we want to win the championship.”

 

 

Denny Hamlin (2003)

Was Indianapolis a sign of things to come?

The bothersome issue with this team has been the speed it has had in qualifying — Hamlin had four front-row starts in the six races before Indy — yet he had not finished better than eighth in those races.

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

With qualifying rained out at Indianapolis, Hamlin showed speed in the race. He led 37 laps, tying Clint Bowyer for most laps led, and was in position to win the race until a late caution. Brad Keselowski, whose car had fresher tires, took advantage of the last restart and beat Hamlin.

Indianapolis is a track that shows what teams have the best horsepower and aero package. That said, the question is would Hamlin have led as much had Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick not had various issues on pit road? It’s doubtful.

But maybe it is the surge Hamlin and his team need entering the playoffs.

“Typically in history, we’ve performed better in the playoffs than we have in the regular season just about always,” Hamlin said. “We’ll have to take a bigger jump this year than what we’ve taken in years past. We’ve typically been pretty good and then we’ve been great in the playoffs. This year we’ve been mediocre, and I think that the big jump to great is a big one.”

 

Aric Almirola (2001)

What is a realistic expectation for this team?

For a team that hasn’t won — and is the only Stewart-Haas Racing team without a victory this season — getting past the second round could be considered a success.

He has not scored more than back-to-back top-10 finishes this year. This team will have to step it up to avoid being eliminated early.

I feel like we’ve got fast race cars and we’ve got a chance to go up there and compete to win races and go far into the playoffs,” Almirola said after finishing 23rd at Indianapolis, saddled by a flat tire while running in the top five. “Just thinking about today and another lost opportunity for us. We had a car capable of challenging to win and run up front and we just keep having things pop up.”

 

Jimmie Johnson (2000)

Will his worst season end in an early playoff exit?

It’s hard to discount a seven-time champion, but what has his team shown this year?

This team has not finished better than ninth in its last 12 races. His last top-five finish was a fifth at the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte on Memorial Day weekend. Johnson’s winless streak is a career-long 49 races.

“Honestly, we’re not in a position, I think, just to go out and drive our way in right now, sadly,” Johnson told NBC Sports. “It’s hard to admit that, it’s hard to say that, but it’s the truth. That’s not going to change our work effort, our determination, our mindset and we’ll keep swinging.”

 

Alex Bowman (2000)

Could he be the Cinderella story of the playoffs?

Alex Bowman drove underfunded cars earlier in his career, found out on social media he had lost a ride, decided his best opportunity was to join Hendrick Motorsports as the driver for its simulator program and filled in well enough when Dale Earnhardt Jr. was out in 2016 to take over the No. 88 this season.

(Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

There’s already a lot there. Now add that Hendrick Motorsports has not been as competitive this season, Bowman’s career-best finish of third came a few weeks ago at Pocono, he had to battle through damage from a crash at Indianapolis to clinch the final playoff spot and he enters the postseason as the last seed.

“To come from where I was at in my career is so unobtainable,” Bowman said. “Just driving for Hendrick Motorsports seemed unobtainable, but to make the playoffs in my first year back is really cool. It’s a special thing to be a part of.”

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‘How can we be upset?’: Ross Chastain discusses losing Ganassi ride, hopeful future

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When Ross Chastain received word of the events “out west,” he knew the loss of his full-time Xfinity Series ride with Chip Ganassi Racing was “inevitable.”

The events were the Dec. 18 dual raids by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in California on the headquarters of DC Solar, Ganassi’s primary Xfinity sponsor, and the home of the company’s CEO, Jeff Carpoff.

Seventeen days later, Ganassi made it official. The biggest opportunity of Chastain’s NASCAR career was gone roughly two months after it had been announced due to a lack of sponsorship.

Chastain, who turned 26 in December, made his first public appearance in a month on Friday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. There, he announced plans to compete part-time for Niece Motorsports in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series, beginning with the season opener at Daytona.

“Early on there was a couple of dark days following everything that went down. I’m not going to shy away from it,” Chastain told reporters before later clarifying himself. “It wasn’t dark, that’s probably going to come across wrong when you write it down now that I think about that. I don’t want people to get the wrong impression, but it was a big deal.

“(The Carpoffs) did a lot for me. They changed my life. I’ll forever be thankful for them and Chip (Ganassi) and Felix (Sabates) … and everybody involved with CGR and all the people in the office, they still stand behind me, I’m still tied to them, I’m still working for them.”

Chastain said he hasn’t been in contact with the Carpoffs since the FBI raids.

“Chip and (Chief Operating Officer) Doug Duchardt, they tried everything they could to keep that deal going,” Chastain said. “Talked to Chip back-and-forth throughout the process … it was going to affect so many people and so many mechanics and crew guys on that, including me.

“He knew that and it affected him. He was the ultimate loser here in Charlotte for it. Nobody wanted it to happen, man. We think we know what we could accomplish or what we were going to shoot for and the cards that were laying out on the table of what we could do in 2019, but it’s just not how it was intended to happen.”

While he won’t be driving the No. 42 for CGR in 2019, he’s still under contract with the team and said Ganassi himself calls “every now and then to make sure I’m doing ok.”

So what did Chastain do during a holiday season where his career was upended through no fault of his own?

He went home.

Chastain spent Christmas and New Years clearing his head on his family’s watermelon farm in Alva, Florida.

“Spent a lot of time at the farm on a tractor,” Chastain said. “Leaving my phone in the truck. Get on the tractor and a couple of days of that will make you appreciate the life I do get to live and I knew I wasn’t done racing. I was just going to change my schedule for this year. Family was really good.  It kind of made us all even closer.”

The time was also spent reflecting on everything that has transpired in the last half-year.

“If you would have told me six months ago, right, that I was going to drive for Chip Ganassi, I was going to win a race (at Las Vegas), I was going to finish second in a race (at Richmond) and I was going to crash – for the win – in a race (at Darlington) with a very high-profile driver (Kevin Harvick) and he was going to say a bunch of bad things about me and I was going to come back the next race in that car and win? I would have told you you were crazy. …

“We talked through all that and realized ‘Man, what we would have given six months ago to have all this happen,'” Chastain said. “‘How can we be upset?'”

While Chastain had been silent, including on social media, since the day before the raids, other NASCAR drivers have been in touch with him. That includes Elliott Sadler, who tweeted about Chastain on Jan. 7 after talking with him.

“Elliott has probably been the biggest one through all this,” Chastain said. “I don’t get along with many drivers. Me and him connect on a lot of things. … He was just like, ‘Yeah, it’s terrible, but you’re going to get through it. You have a future’ and that’s what he kept saying.

“He said he’s been here long enough to see it. It’s going to work out. You’ve just got to believe. I was already back on track, digging on this year when I talked to Elliott and he sent that tweet out. His biggest thing was ‘Just believe. Know it’s going to work out. I’ve seen this before. Nobody could see this coming. You didn’t do anything wrong.’ It’s head down and dig.

“He’s been really instrumental in staying on me to make sure I’m doing that.”

When it comes to who Chastain will dig deep for in races this year, Chastain said there are restrictions Ganassi has on who he can compete for that are still being worked out.

His deal with Niece Motorsports, who he made three starts for last year, was not a result of the Ganassi closure and had been in the works for months. He’ll share the No. 45 Chevrolet with Reid Wilson.

In addition to his truck ride, Chastain plans to compete full-time in Cup with Premium Motorsports in the No. 15 Chevrolet while declaring for points in the Xfinity Series.

That way he can compete in any Xfinity and Truck races in the playoffs, when all Cup drivers are banned from competition in those series.

Chastain did not reveal who he has “hand shakes galore” with in the Xfinity Series, but that he plans to compete in all three points races at Daytona in February. He does anticipate racing at some point this season with JD Motorsports, the Xfinity team he raced full-time for from 2015-2017 and all but three races in 2018.

“However many races we end up at we’ll be great,” Chastain said. “I’m getting to run, getting paid to drive in NASCAR and that was my dream growing up.”

Despite having multiple opportunities to race this season, the question was raised whether last year’s feel-good story has been set back in a way that could harm his hopes of marketing himself for a top-tier ride after 2019.

“People are going to think what they want to think if it set me back or not,” Chastain said. “We’re writing our own story for how this is going to work out.”

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Chad Knaus admits he’ll likely think he’s still with Jimmie Johnson’s team when season begins

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For perhaps the first few races of the 2019 Cup season, Chad Knaus may need a road map of both the garage area and pit road as a reminder he’s no longer with Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team, but rather in his new role as crew chief of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports team with driver William Byron.

“Look, I had 18 years of working on that 48 car, so I guarantee I’m going to walk into the wrong transporter,” Knaus said Friday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “Tradin’ Paint.” “At some point, I’m probably going to key up the radio and start to say ‘Jimmie,’ by accident.”

He then added with a laugh: “I may look at the 48 as it rolls down the front straightaway periodically and get confused, but hell, I’m getting old, so I get confused anyhow. So, that’s just going to be part of life.”

After 17 seasons with Jimmie Johnson, Knaus will be on the pit box of the No. 24 and with driver William Byron in 2019.

Knaus admits regularly referring to Johnson, with whom he won a NASCAR record-tying seven championships and 83 races in 612 starts together, is a hard habit to break..

“As we’re going through and setting rosters and doing our car lineups and what not, I’ve caught myself no less than at least 1,500 times, saying ‘On the 48, we want this,’” Knaus said. “It’s definitely a reality.

“But quite frankly, it’s a good thing. I’ve always been a 24 guy at heart, always. All the really productive years of my career began when I came to Hendrick Motorsports and began working with Rick Hendrick, Jeff Gordon and Ray Evernham back in 1993.

“To be able to wear that badge again is really exciting to me. It’s really kind of a homecoming for me. I’ve always had that passion for the 24 and always been a fan of that. So I’m excited to be back and be a part of it.”

As for working with Byron, Knaus admits it will be an interesting change, with Knaus being more of an old-school crew chief, while Byron is more of a new-age race car driver.

“The ability is there (but) it’s definitely different,” he said. “When you get yourselves into positions of a guy like myself or Ray (Evernham) … in the contemporary term of mechanical engineer, being very good at algebra, algorithms, material properties and things of that nature, you have to dig in deeper.

“The days that have come in by old school racer knowledge to really make things happen have kind of passed us to a degree. But, and the big but is, that isn’t necessarily what makes a good crew chief nowadays. What does make a good crew chief nowadays is to be able to come up with is good practical racer knowledge and convey that to the people that can make things happen.

“That’s kind of how I’ve started to approach things over the last couple years and it’s starting to show fruit from my perspective. So yeah, there are things you can do. The one thing that has remained consistent is we’re trying to get from the start/finish line back to the start/finish line as fast as you possibly can. That is a fundamental problem in our sport. And if you can do that, faster than anybody else, you’re going to be successful.”

While Knaus admits he’ll miss working with Johnson, the challenge of working with Byron has reinvigorated him.

“It’s definitely lit a fire back in me that I wouldn’t say died, but maybe helps transforms me into a more aggressive approach, which is definitely what we need,” Knaus said.

As for Daytona, Knaus can see Johnson win his third 500 — and a lot more with new crew chief Kevin Meendering.

Knaus says it would be “awesome” if Johnson can win a third Daytona 500, but also has high goals for Byron, as well.

“Jimmie Johnson’s going to go out there and win races with Kevin Meendering, period, 100 percent,” Knaus said. “Is he going to win the Daytona 500? I sure as heck hope so. Wouldn’t that be awesome?

“I love Jimmie like a brother. I hadn’t seen him since the end of last season. We saw each other at the shop two days ago and we gave each other a big old hug. My goal and our goal at Hendrick Motorsports is to have four teams that are capable of going out there and battling for wins and are in a position to battle for championships every single race and every single year. I feel that William has the ability to do that.”

While he’s not putting any pressure on Byron, Knaus definitely has Johnson-like goals for his young driver.

“The goal is to win the Daytona 500 and sit on the pole and win the 150 and we’re the fastest in practice and led every lap,” Knaus said. “That’s the goal. But the reality is it’s going to take a little time.”

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Jamie McMurray to race in Daytona 500 with Spire Motorsports

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Spire Motorsports announced Friday that 2010 Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray will drive the No. 40 car in this year’s Daytona 500.

The Chevrolet Camaro will have branding from Bass Pro Shops, McDonald’s and Cessna, which have all had an affiliation with McMurray. The effort will be done in partnership with Chip Ganassi Racing.

“The Daytona 500 is the one race that every NASCAR driver would want to win,” McMurray said in a statement from the team. “For the rest of your life you get to be introduced or recognized as a Daytona 500 champion. I’m excited to have the opportunity to potentially be a two-time winner of the race and it would mean so much to celebrate one more win with all of the great partners that have been with me for so many years.”

Spire Motorsports is a new entry to the Cup Series this year. Spire Sports + Entertainment executives Jeff Dickerson and TJ Puchyr purchased the charter from Furniture Row Racing after last season. The team will field the No. 77 the rest of the season but is using the No. 40 for this race. That’s the car number McMurray drove at the beginning of his Cup career in 2002. The charter ensures McMurray a starting spot in the 500.

The team also announced that Joe Garone, who was President of Furniture Row Racing, will have that same role for this team, which will be based in Mooresville, North Carolina.

McMurray completed his 16th season last year. Kurt Busch is taking over the No. 1 ride McMurray had the past nine seasons at Chip Ganassi Racing. McMurray has seven career Cup victories. McMurray is one of three drivers to have won the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 in the same season, joining Dale Jarrett (1996) and Jimmie Johnson (2006). McMurray accomplished the feat in 2010.

McMurray will be a Fox Sports analyst this year and have a role at Chip Ganassi Racing.

Fire Alarm Services continues sponsorship of John Hunter Nemechek

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GMS Racing announced Friday that John Hunter Nemechek will continue to be sponsored by Fire Alarm Services in 2019.

Nemechek, who will drive the No. 23 Chevrolet full-time, will be backed by Fire Alarm Services in 13 Xfinity races.

FAS has been a supporter of Nemechek since 2016.

FAS will be on the No. 23 Chevrolet at Daytona International Speedway, Atlanta Motor Speedway, ISM Raceway (spring and fall), Auto Club Speedway, Talladega Superspeedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway (spring and fall), Darlington Raceway, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway and the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

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FAS was on Nemechek’s car last year when he won his first Xfinity Series race in October at Kansas Speedway with Chip Ganassi Racing.

“I couldn’t be more excited to continue this relationship with them in 2019,” Nemechek said in a press release. “I am super thankful and blessed that Shannon and Connie Smith, owners of Fire Alarm Services, Inc., believe in me and my career. They have been a staple in various first accomplishments for me, and I hope we can add an Xfinity Series Championship on to that list of firsts.”

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