Long: Pay attention to what Chase Elliott is doing in playoffs

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KANSAS CITY, Kansas — Don’t call Chase Elliott the Fourth to NASCAR’s Big 3.

Don’t say the Hendrick Motorsports driver has become a member of the Big 3.

Don’t label him a championship threat after his second win in the past three races and third in the last 11 — although no other remaining title contender can match those victory totals in the same stretch.

He’s just Chase, the kid, once adored in those old Victory Lane photos with his dad, who has grown up.

So stop with the labels and watch what he’s doing.

Elliott’s performance is beginning to mirror what Jimmie Johnson did in his run to a record-tying seven Cup championships. Johnson raised his performance as LeBron James does in the NBA playoffs and Tom Brady does during the NFL playoffs.

But it wasn’t just Johnson who excelled. It was the entire team. The pattern was always the same. The Hendrick Motorsports crew had better cars when it came time to race for a crown and Johnson took advantage.

Elliott is taking advantage of the faster cars crew chief Alan Gustafson and his team have provided.

The signs were there last year. Elliott had an average finish of 13.5 in the regular season and it dropped to 7.9 during the playoffs. He scored runner-up finishes in three of the first four playoff races and was in position to win at Martinsville before Denny Hamlin’s bump crashed him. Elliott finished second at Phoenix when he needed a win to advance to the championship race in Miami.

“Those pressure-packed situations, the only time you can learn from them is to be in them more often,” Elliott said. “I think it’s as simple as that. The more you’re comfortable with that, the better off you’re going to be for it.”

Elliott has turned those seconds into firsts this year. What started at Watkins Glen in August continued into the playoffs with his victories at Dover and Kansas. No one has more wins than Elliott in the first six playoffs races. 

Those victories guarantee nothing in the third round, which begins Sunday at Martinsville (2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN). Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch — members of the Big 3 — each has at least three times as many playoff points as Elliott. That makes Harvick and Busch favorites to return to Miami. The other member of the Big 3, Martin Truex Jr., has 38 playoff points to Elliott’s 18 but Truex’s struggles at Kansas are concerning.

Still, that could leave one spot for Miami among Elliott, Joey Logano, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch and Aric Almirola.

Elliott has less title experience then all of them but Almirola, but Elliott has shown he’s a quick learner, steeled by the team’s struggles early in the season.

“In my opinion what he was driving earlier in the year, in his Cup career, for sure, it’s the worst cars he’s driven,” Gustafson said. “When he had to make do with that, I felt bad for him at times, doing everything I could do, but wasn’t giving him a good enough car. He had to go and deal with that. It’s a struggle. It’s a battle, right?

“I think that he learned as he went through that. That’s helped improve him. You may pick up certain traits, certain attributes about tracks or different circumstances. Those are the things that he had to do earlier in the year that he may not have had to do earlier in his career because we were able to give him a much better racecar.

“As that’s happened, he’s improved. The pit crews have been great all year. Now we’ve gotten the cars much improved. All those things add up.”

For as good as Elliott and his team have been, they aren’t perfect. Weren’t even close Sunday.

“We made mistakes throughout the day,” Elliott said. “The only reason you weren’t talking about it was because we weren’t leading. That’s the big thing. When you’re out front, everybody is watching you. 

“When you’re not leading the race, mistakes happen all day long, but just trying not to make them towards the end I think is the big one. These next three weeks, there is no room for mistakes. I look forward to the challenge.”

Mistakes by others helped Elliott. Kevin Harvick’s speeding penalty on Lap 214 took him out of contention and helped put Elliott in position to lead the final 44 laps Sunday.

Harvick also dominated Dover until a valve stem was knocked off in a late pit stop. Elliott benefitted there as well. So we’ve yet to see a true Elliott vs. Harvick battle in these playoffs.

“I wish we could have raced Kevin for it straight up there at the end, have him not have his misfortune,” Elliott said after Sunday’s win. “I think he’s been the class of the mile‑and‑a‑half’s throughout the year.

“But just to run with him, be able to pace him lap time‑wise, be being 10 car lengths of him trying to get by him, I thought was very encouraging.”

There’s still time to see if Elliott and Harvick engage in a playoff duel. Or Elliott and someone else. So pay attention to that instead of trying to label where Elliott is as this third round begins.

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Erik Jones will not return to Joe Gibbs Racing after 2020

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Erik Jones will not return to Joe Gibbs Racing after this season, the team announced Thursday night.

“We appreciate all Erik has done for Joe Gibbs Racing over the past several years,” said Joe Gibbs, owner of Joe Gibbs Racing. “He joined us as a teenager and has accomplished so much in his time here and we remain focused on the remainder of this season and earning him a spot in the playoffs.”

Said Jones: “I greatly appreciate the opportunity that JGR provided me with over the last four years and I wish the team nothing but success and good fortune,” said Jones. “JGR gave me a solid foundation from which to go out and compete at the highest level and I look forward to building on that in the years to come.”

Jones’ one-year contract with JGR expires after this season. The departure of the 24-year-old Jones clears the way for 25-year-old Cup rookie Christopher Bell to join JGR next season. In its announcement Thursday night, JGR did not indicate who will replace Jones, although that is expected to be Bell.

Bell’s status was in question for next season with Leavine Family Racing’s announcement this week that it has been sold. The new owner has not been announced and an alliance with Toyota is not expected.

Toyota Racing Development has invested significantly in Bell, guiding him through dirt track racing, the Truck Series, Xfinity Seres and now Cup. Jones also has been a TRD development driver, competing for the Toyota in the Truck, Xfinity and Cup series.

Jones has two wins in 131 Cup starts heading into this weekend’s doubleheader at Michigan International Speedway, his home track. His Cup wins came at Daytona (July 2018) and Darlington (Sept. 2019). He is the only driver in NASCAR history to be rookie of the year in Truck, Xfinity and Cup. He also won the Truck title in his first season in that series.

Bell has made 20 Cup starts with a best finish of fourth at the first Pocono race in June. He won the 2017 Truck title and set the Xfinity rookie record for wins with seven in 2018.

In a statement, Ed Laukes, Group Vice President, Marketing, Toyota Motor North America, said: “Erik has been an incredible friend to Toyota throughout the last eight years. We’ve become close not only to Erik, but to his entire family. We’ve celebrated together, we’ve cried together and we’ve supported each other through it all. Unfortunately, the time has come that we have to part ways from a competitive standpoint. We know Erik will continue to do great things in this sport and wish him nothing but the best in his future endeavors. We will certainly continue to follow his career and will be there to congratulate him as he continues to succeed.”

Toyota exec ‘not throwing in the towel’ on keeping Christopher Bell

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The announcement by Leavine Family Racing earlier this week that it had been sold puts Christopher Bell‘s Cup career in “immediate peril,” according to Toyota Racing Development President David Wilson.

Wilson made his comments about Bell’s future Wednesday night to Claire B. Lang on “Dialed In” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

“The immediate impact is to Christopher Bell,” Wilson said. “Christopher Bell, who is certainly one of our development drivers and somebody that we have invested a lot in over the years, it puts him in immediate peril. … We don’t know yet if we can recover, having to go out, it’s the first of August and this has been a relatively recent development. But to go out in this climate, in this environment, and to try to put together a partnership with no time and the demands required of that partnership from a sponsorship perspective, are just very difficult.”

Bell, a rookie, drives Leavine Family Racing’s No. 95 Toyota. Leavine Family Racing is one of three teams, including Joe Gibbs Racing and Gaunt Brothers Racing, that receives support from Toyota.

While the identity of who bought LFR has not been disclosed, Wilson said “It’s doubtful that there’s a plausible solution” that sees Toyota’s current deal with the No. 95 team continuing with the new ownership next year.

“I think this is widely known, part of the partnership, part of the way LFR worked was a technical alliance, a hardware reliance on Joe Gibbs Racing,” Wilson told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Those cars are leased, they’re not owned by Bob (Leavine) and the team. Those go back to Joe Gibbs Racing. What I can tell you is that as soon as we became aware of this problem, Joe and I have been working very closely, very aggressively, every day. It’s what’s keeping me awake every night right now, trying to figure out if we can adapt, if we can come up with a bridge to get us another year down the road.”

Bell has been a Toyota development driver his entire NASCAR career, including two full-time seasons in the Truck Series at Kyle Busch Motorsports and two full-time Xfinity Series seasons with Joe Gibbs Racing.

A winner of 16 Xfinity races, Bell joined Leavine Family Racing in part due to JGR’s stable of drivers being full in the Cup Series. Erik Jones, who drives the No. 20 Toyota, is in a contract year. That car could be driven by Bell in 2021.

But Wilson acknowledged Bell could not be in a Toyota come 2021.

“In the end, if we can’t, the collective we, Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing or a new Toyota affiliated team, if we cannot find a solution for Christopher then he’s got to do what he’s got to do,” Wilson said. “We are, again, very invested in Christopher. We’re not throwing in the towel, we are being very aggressive. I’ve been very candid in the past, probably overly so, to the effect that Christopher Bell is going to be in a Toyota for years and years and years to come. That has been our intention. That remains our intention. I would say today, stay tuned. It’s very late, but we’re working on it and we should have something to share between ourselves and Joe Gibbs Racing in the very near future.

NASCAR announces new method for setting starting lineups

NASCAR starting lineups
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NASCAR announced Thursday a new way of establishing starting lineups and pit selection order for races beginning with next weekend’s events on the Daytona road course.

NASCAR will use three competition-based performance metrics, replacing the random draw procedure that has been in place for a majority of races since NASCAR returned to racing in May.

More: NASCAR to introduce choose rule starting at Michigan

More: Starting lineup for Saturday’s Cup race at Michigan

Owner points position and the finish and fastest lap from the most recently completed race will be weighted and averaged to establish the starting order. Points position will be weighted at 35%, finishing position at 50% and fastest race lap at 15%.

When the playoffs begin, playoff cars will fill the top starting positions. In the Round of 16, the top 16 starting positions will be playoff cars; in the Round of 12, the top 12 starting positions will be playoff cars; and so on.

“The random draw has served us well during the return to racing, but it is important that starting lineups are based on performance as we approach the playoffs,” Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, said in a press release. “The entire industry is aligned on implementing a competition-based system to determine the starting lineup and pit selection order.”

Team Penske driver Joey Logano said Thursday that the formula “makes sense.”

“It’s maybe a little bit more confusing than what I would have gone with,” Logano said. “If they end up going with the process that has been talked about here, just for the race fans I feel like it’s confusing, but, outside of that, so it’s fair and I guess that’s all that matters. It’s fair and I’m sure that’s probably what the fans care about the most. If all of us competitors can agree that it’s a fair way to set the lineup, I don’t think any fan is really gonna care how it happened as long as we all feel like you earned your starting position, just like we used to.

“You used to earn your starting position by qualifying. Well, now you’re going to earn your starting position by three different ways, whether it’s lap time or finishing points position – those type of things. You’ve earned every one of those spots, so although it’s confusing it’s fair.”

NASCAR to introduce choose rule starting at Michigan

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NASCAR announced Thursday it will implement the choose rule starting with this weekend’s races at Michigan International Speedway.

The Truck Series races Friday (6 p.m. ET on FS1) and the Cup Series holds a doubleheader, racing Saturday (4 p.m. ET on NBCSN) and Sunday (4:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

The choose rule allows drivers to pick which lane they restart when a race resumes from a caution, with drivers able to secure better track position or restart in the preferred lane. It will be used in all races except those held on road courses and superspeedways (Daytona and Talladega).

With the Xfinity Series competing at Road America this weekend and on the Daytona road course next weekend, the choose rule won’t be used by the series until its Aug. 22-23 races at Dover.

The rule made its NASCAR national series debut in the July 15 All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway and was warmly received by drivers.

Drivers chose their lanes on the lap before the restart when they drove to the right or left of an orange cone symbol painted on the track just beyond the start-finish line.

“Considering feedback from teams, drivers and fans, NASCAR has implemented these changes to enhance competition as we approach the playoffs,” said Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, in a press release. “We received nothing but positive comments from the drivers on the choose rule following the All-Star Race, and felt it was an important addition to the restart procedure.

“I think the choose rule’s been needed for a long time,” Chase Elliott said after winning the All-Star Race. “I think it should be that way every week. I don’t think there’s really a reason to not have it. There’s no reason to me why you shouldn’t have the choice or you should be automatically told where you’re going to line up when one lane has an obvious advantage, just based on where you come off pit road. Life ain’t fair I guess, but just makes way more sense to put it in our hands and it either works out for you or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t work out, then it’s your own fault and not luck of the draw and where you come off pit road.”

When asked about the choose rule Thursday, Joey Logano was enthusiastic.

“Finally,” Logano said. “I’ve been looking for this for years. I’ve brought it up in meetings for years and to see it kind of come into action at Bristol is something that I thought went really smooth. It was kind of exciting and interesting to see the decisions that drivers made and it was different every time. If you do that at Bristol, what’s it look like at Michigan?  … There’s a lot of questions that kind of come along with that on what it is and there might be some races where it looks identical to what it is right now where third is on the inside and fourth is on the outside. That can happen. .. It definitely adds another piece to the strategy and even more importantly it has everyone not doing the whole stopping at the end of pit road and letting a car go by because, for one, it’s not safe to stop at the end of pit road for anyone jumping over the wall and having cars swerve like that.

“But, two, that’s not racing. The goal should be in front of whatever car is in front of you, not let one go at the end of pit road so you can have the outside lane or the inside lane. That’s backwards. You don’t want to do that, so we can get past that. Every time we’d try to count cars like that someone would have a penalty anyway, so it never worked for me. You’d always let one go and then the car in front of you has an uncontrolled or a speeding penalty and you’re like,’ C’mon!’ So, it gets rid of all that. That’s nice.”