Friday 5: The Incredible Shrinking Driver

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Michael McDowell is known for his expertise on road courses but when he exited his car at Sonoma in June, the Front Row Motorsports driver physically didn’t feel good after his 21st-place finish.

“You always want to perform your best, so I wanted to change it up,” he told NBC Sports.

McDowell, who has always been among the bigger Cup drivers, switched to the Ketogenic diet, a low-carb, high-fat diet that makes the body more efficient at burning fat for energy.

“I’m looking at this nutritional plan, I’m like ‘Good God this can’t be good for you.’ I’m eating 100 grams of a fat a day and 25 grams of saturated fat,” said McDowell, whose typical breakfast features bacon and eggs instead of eating egg whites and no yoke.

McDowell admitted he thought “this in no way shape or form is going to give me more energy in the race car but it sure has for me.”

It’s also helped him lose more than 35 pounds since July.

McDowell said he weighed 238 pounds in an official NASCAR weigh-in for drivers at Daytona in July. McDowell was down to 200 pounds at a NASCAR weigh-in at Indianapolis in September and said last weekend at Kansas that he is down to 195 pounds.

Michael McDowell (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

“Nothing fits anymore,” McDowell joked. “I have some of my old (drivers) suits. They look like pajamas.”

McDowell said the weight loss has been a benefit of the diet.

“The thought going into it wasn’t trying to dump a bunch of weight, it really wasn’t a diet as much as it was having sustainable energy in the race car and feeling good at the end of the hot, long races,” he said.

“The benefits of it have been great on all fronts from good stamina in the race car, good mental clarity throughout the day and through the race and probably the biggest thing has been recovery after the races.

“I would have a headache every time I would get out of the race car. I’ve had that for 10 years. When I switched to this Keto diet, when I get out I’m not hungry and I don’t have a headache after the race, which is a huge, huge deal.”

McDowell stresses he’s not a paid endorser of this diet and he’s still learning about it and how effective it can be for the long term. He’s working closely with his doctor and gets blood work done regularly to monitor how his body is handling the diet. McDowell said he’s focused on what he calls good fats and oils instead of just eating bacon cheeseburgers with this diet.

“For me, being at my best and not giving up anything is super important,” said McDowell, who has nine top-20 finishes this season. “I think the hardest part and most frustrating part of my career is it just has been hard to lose weight and eat enough to have the energy in the race car and now I’ve found a way to do both. That’s the biggest upside for me. Before if I tried to lose weight, I had to do it by cutting calories and cutting calories made me feel worse in the race car. It was a vicious cycle.”

2. What might have been

Erik Jones had an average finish of 5.3 in the second round of the playoffs — better than every playoff driver but Joey Logano, who also had a 5.3 average finish in round — but Jones’ struggles in the opening round eliminated him from title contention.

After such a strong run in the second half, Jones is left to wonder what might have been.

Erik Jones (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

“Our first round was kind of off the track,” said Jones, who was 40th at Las Vegas after he was collected in an incident with Kevin Harvick, finished 11th at Richmond and was 30th at the Charlotte Roval.

“It’s a bummer. I feel like we were better than some of the guys in the Round of 12 and had been better all year. That’s kind of how the playoffs go. Had we made it and ran like we did still, do we advance? Maybe. Probably.

“It’s frustrating to look at to think we could be sitting in the Round of 8 and coming up to some of my best tracks and in a pretty good spot possibly to Homestead with Texas and Phoenix on there, those are some of my favorite places.

“At the same time it’s encouraging to know we’ve got good speed. I think that momentum is going to carry into next year. I think the speed will as well. We’ll have to refocus and try it all over again.”

3. Woe is me at Martinsville

Only once in nine starts at Martinsville has Kyle Larson finished better than 14th. So what’s the issue?

“I think it’s definitely all me,” Larson said. “I feel like whenever we go to Martinsville and why we struggle it’s just a difficult place for me for whatever reason. Maybe we don’t have the best race car or set-up there, but I feel like I’m worse than what the potential of our car is. 

“(Chip Ganassi Racing teammate) Jamie (McMurray) has kind of fallen off maybe a little bit at Martinsville the last couple of years, but even when he was running well there, I was still running like 25th. I work really hard on trying to get better there and all that, but for whatever reason, I struggle, bad.”

4. Strong crowd

Chase Elliott’s win last weekend at Kansas Speedway puts him in elite category.

Elliott needed nine starts between his first three Cup wins. The only driver who needed fewer starts in the modern era (since 1972) between their first Cup victories was Tony Stewart. He needed seven starts. Elliott tied Bobby Labonte, who needed nine starts between his first three victories.

Kyle Busch is the youngest driver to score three Cup wins at 21 years, 2 months, 14 days. Elliott is next at 22 years, 10 months, 23 days. Richard Petty was third at 23 years, 2 months, 16 days.

5. Still searching

Martin Truex Jr. has the most wins (19) in Cup without scoring a short-track victory. He is winless in 77 career short-track starts. That’s more than any active driver except Jamie McMurray, who is winless in 95 career starts on a short track.

On the other hand, Kyle Busch has won five of the last eight short-track races.

In the drivers seat: A look at one of the coolest jobs in NASCAR

Photo: Dustin Long
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Some moments they are Joey Logano. Other times they are Jimmie Johnson. Or Kevin Harvick. Or some other driver.

This isn’t a video game or make-believe. This is role-playing in the real world: They pilot a Cup car. Crew members leap from the wall. Air guns whine. Lug nuts fly.

Cup drivers rarely have time to take part in pit practice. So someone has to drive the car. That perk typically goes to an entry-level employee whose duties often include gluing lug nuts to wheels, stacking tires and monitoring air tanks.

Mark Morrison said he’ll never forget the first time he drove the car in pit practice at Hendrick Motorsports.

That was 17 years ago.

One of the sport’s coolest jobs is more than a joy ride. Teams rely on these drivers to place the car in the right position so pit crews can hone their skills. With track position critical and tenths of a second the difference between winning and losing, what happens in pit practice can make a difference in a race.

It all begins with who is driving the car.

THE FRATERNITY OF PIT CAR DRIVERS

Marcus Horton is 30 but looks young enough to get carded. His father, Phil, is the pit coach for the Drive for Diversity program but Marcus Horton didn’t plan to be a pit crew member.

He has a business degree from Marshall University but admits: “For me, I wouldn’t want to be in an office all day. I like getting my hands dirty. I probably should have took up something different in college than business. I like art, I like photographs, but I’m not sure how well that was going to translate into the real world. I thought maybe I should do something that would benefit me in the long run.”

A couple of years after graduating, Horton asked his dad if he would coach him to be a pit crew member. The younger Horton was in the Drive for Diversity program for three years and served as a pit crew member for Carl Long’s Xfinity team last year. Horton joined Stewart-Haas Racing in December as a developmental pit crew member.

Erick Harps drove the car during pit practice at Hendrick Motorsports until a recent promotion to the engine shop. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Erick Harps, 22, was recently promoted to the engine shop at Hendrick Motorsports, ending his tenure driving the pit car. He trained at Universal Technical Institute in California. Harps moved to North Carolina two years ago to work in the sport. About six months after he arrived, he got a job at Hendrick Motorsports.

Chris Tomberlin, 22, joined Team Penske on Jan. 2 as a developmental pit crew member. He will graduate this year from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte where he was a receiver on the football team.

“I’ve always been a fan of racing,” Tomberlin said. “The (job) opportunity presented itself. I couldn’t not accept it.”

That was before he found out he would be driving a stock car.

NOT YOUR FATHER’S CAR

When Harps told his parents he drove a car in pit practice at Hendrick Motorsports, his mother screamed in excitement.

But that wasn’t the first time he had been in a car. He had to undergo training — as any Hendrick pit car driver does — before taking part in live pit stops.

“You can’t step into one of them and think you’re going to drive it,” Harps said.

Hendrick Motorsports’ car has a race engine, providing more horsepower than a standard passenger car. The Hendrick car has a manual transmission, not automatic like many passenger cars, so if you can’t drive a stick, you wouldn’t be able to drive these cars.

Hendrick Motorsports also sets the car for each track. With the series heading to Talladega Superspeedway, that means the car will have a smaller brake package. 

At Stewart-Haas Racing, they have three different pit cars, so Horton has to know each of them. Each steering wheel is different. One is tight, another turns more freely and the other one rates between the two. The brakes also are different in each car. They’re touchy on one car, less so on the others.

“Every day it’s a like a new day for me trying to figure out where the car is going to stop and how I’m going to handle it,” Horton said.

That’s why each driver makes test runs before pit crews jump in front of the car.

“SILVER DOLLAR EYES”

One of the biggest adjustments for any pit car driver is seeing people run in front of the car during practice.

“The craziest thing is just from driving normally out on the roads, your instinct is to avoid a person” said Andy Papathanassiou, director of human performance at Hendrick Motorsports and a former pit car driver.

Having people run in front of the car is jarring for new pit car drivers. (Photo: Dustin Long)

“But when you are driving a pit practice car, you have to just focus on your mark because there are guys jumping all around you and you can’t veer from your path or then they will be in danger. So you have to literally put the blinders on and just expect that they’re going to get out of your way.”

Chris Krieg, pit crew coach at Stewart-Haas Racing, says when pit car drivers first do live stops, they all have the same condition. He calls it “silver dollar eyes” for how their eyes widen.

Horton admits when the pit crews started jumping in front of him, it altered how he entered the pit stall.

“I was stopping earlier and slowing down a lot sooner,” he said. “I don’t want to hurt anybody on our team. It was definitely a hard time because they would be like ‘You can bring it in hotter,’ and I’d be like, ‘Actually I can’t because I think I’m going to hit you guys if I do that.’”

DO YOUR JOB

If the car stops beyond where the crew is positioned, they have to adjust and it slows the stop. Same for when the car stops too short.

There are times when a pit coach will tell the driver to purposely stop short or long or close to the pit wall to test the pit crew and prepare them for possible race situations. Other times, it’s more important to hit the right spots so the pit crew can get their reps.

“The more you practice during the week with the guy who knows exactly how to put the car where he needs to put it, the better you feel for the race track on Sunday,” said Landon Walker, fueler for William Byron’s team.

At Stewart-Haas Racing, they’ll have Horton or whoever else is driving the car to try to imitate each of the drivers for the pit crews. Each driver has their own nuance on how they enter the stall, something you likely can’t tell unless you saw them pit time after time. There are those who will lock their brakes to stop or roll the car in or stop short consistently. 

“The (pit car) driver is critical,” Krieg said. “If we waste a bunch of practice because they’re not hitting the marks where we need them to, they’re wasting time and reps and beating and banging on the crews’ body. Every rep is valuable and those guys have to be spot on.”

A PART OF THE ACTION

It’s a ride of a lifetime even if one is only traveling about 50 yards to the pit stall.

“It’s got a lot of power behind it,” Harps said. “The clutch is not an easy thing to overcome just because it’s stronger than a regular clutch. You have to have a lot of leg power. It’s very hard to get going without spinning the tire.”

Once the car stops in the stall, there’s still more for the driver to do. Keep the wheel straight for the tire changers. Don’t stall the car.

“It’s cool to actually be able to feel the changers hit their lugs and feel the jackman make his first punch on the car, feel the carriers slamming that tire on the car,” Tomberlin said. “It’s rare to be able to experience it.”

It’s an experience only a few get. It’s quite a ride.

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Ryan Sieg’s crew chief shares secrets to early success in Xfinity Series

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What started off as a pleasant surprise this year has become the norm for Ryan Sieg Racing in the Xfinity Series.

Through eight races, Ryan Sieg and his No. 39 Chevrolet have yet to finish worse than 12th.

The team based just outside of Atlanta, Georgia, has an average finish of 8.6, sixth-best among series regulars.

Heading into the second off-weekend of the year for the Xfinity Series, Sieg is probably still cleaning up from the Larry’s Hard Lemonade shower he received after he placed fifth last Friday at Richmond.

According to veteran crew chief Shane Wilson, the second non-superspeedway top five of Sieg’s career was made possible by what Sieg didn’t do a month earlier at ISM Raceway in Phoenix.

By not tearing up their short-track car at Phoenix, it allowed the team to take that car’s setup and add Richmond-specific tweaks that “worked out pretty good,” Wilson said Tuesday night on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Late Shift.”

Sieg has kept his cars clean so far, finishing on the lead lap in every race but one (Bristol, 12th) and earning five top 10s. That’s the most in his seven-year, 133-race Xfinity career.

Shane Wilson has been heading Ryan Sieg’s surprise run in 2019. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Two weeks before Richmond, Sieg captured the first stage win of his career by not pitting late in Stage 2 at Texas Motor Speedway.

What Wilson has accomplished with the family owned team is a product of a late union and a “big departure” from what Wilson was used to just a few years ago with Richard Childress Racing.

Wilson, who last year was crew chief for Kaz Grala’s upstart Fury Race Cars, was hired a couple of weeks before Speedweeks in Daytona.

Since then, Wilson wakes up every Monday around 3:45 a.m. at his home in the Charlotte area and drives around 200 miles to the team’s shop in Sugar Hill, Georgia.

“Most times I get home by Wednesday night and then we go race,” Wilson said. “That’s kind of been my schedule so far. A little here, a little there. I chase parts in the Charlotte area, Mooresville some days. It gets me home a little quicker. There’s a few of us that make the trip down here and they have a nice little, kind of like a college dorm up above the shop and some of us stay there. It’s been fun. It’s different, it’s fun and it’s been challenging.”

Another part of Sieg’s surprise performance this year are the cars he’s been keeping unscathed. The team bought three new cars from RCR in the offseason.

“We had the ECR engine deal and it was good year to buy cars from RCR because they downsized from numerous Xfinity cars to a single car,” Wilson said. “I feel like we got good stuff.

“It’s a good relationship. The Siegs bought or leased engines from RCR for many years ever since they’ve been racing in the Truck Series. So they’re a good engine customer to ECR, bought a lot of chassis from Richard. That’s kind of where it stops. There’s a few different tiers that you can get nowadays and we don’t get simulation or any kind of parts tracking or the database or anything like that.

“Chevrolet helps us with a few tools. We have what we need and we don’t have a whole lot extra, but we have enough to compete.”

Wilson said recruiting talent to help out the small team is made easier with fewer Xfinity teams.

But he’s not just getting help from the North Carolina and Georgia areas.

“I got a good friend of mine doing our shocks now and shipped some more of those up to him in Vermont,” Wilson said.

Wilson said the experience reminds him of the days “when we volunteered and helped out our best friend.”

“Ryan has some experience, so he’s very helpful,” Wilson added. “His feedback is good now that we have current cars, good engines. More people working on it. We’re able to put up more of a fight at the race track.”

NASCAR America MotorMouths: Is Kyle Busch the Tiger Woods of NASCAR?

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On Wednesday’s edition of NASCAR America’s MotorMouths, a caller — “Texas Tommy” from Corpus Christi, Texas — offered a question that got analysts Kyle Petty and Steve Letarte thinking and talking.

Given how Tiger Woods won The Masters this past Sunday in dramatic fashion, and also given how much success Woods has had in his career, “Texas Tommy” wanted to know whether Petty and Letarte agreed if Kyle Busch — with all the success he’s had — is the Tiger Woods of NASCAR?

He’s about the best driver NASCAR has and (most) dedicated of races he’s put in in the Cup, Truck and Xfinity Series,” “Texas Tommy” said. “He’s about the best driver that I can come up with next to Jimmie Johnson. He’s shown promise in every series and he has no stop in him.”

Tiger Woods, after winning The Masters this past Sunday. Is Kyle Busch the Tiger Woods of NASCAR?

Petty both agreed and disagreed.

That’s a valid point if we look at wins and what he does on the racetrack,” Petty said of Busch. “Yes, (Busch) has those numbers. Tiger Woods won his fifth Masters and 15th major, all that. You look at all that and what Kyle Busch has done at a relatively young age, Tiger Woods did the same thing at a young age.

The problem is, and the difference is, Tiger Woods has the entire sport of golf on his shoulders. It grows, it falls, it goes to the left, to the right. Everything Tiger does, every fan that follows golf is watching, whether you like Tiger Woods or not.

Kyle Busch doesn’t have that. He isn’t that way, he doesn’t have that connection to the fans, for whatever reason. People love to boo him, but if they boo him, they’re not going to follow him. I don’t know if we have that Tiger Woods personality or person (in NASCAR). I think Kyle (Busch) moves the needle for me. What he does on the racetrack, what he does in the garage area or on the radio, he moves the needle. Jeff Gordon moved the needle, then Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. moved the needle, and then there’s been nobody since.”

Letarte, former crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr., agreed with Petty, yet also added he believes Chase Elliott has the potential to become NASCAR’s version of Tiger Woods – but with a caveat.

“Tiger Woods doesn’t move the golf needle, he moves the needle outside of golf,” Letarte said. “That’s really what we’re talking about. Let’s be clear. There are very few people in any sport that transcend their sport. Tiger Woods is one of them.

“Jeff Gordon was on Saturday Night Live, he was outside of NASCAR. In the current world of NASCAR, Clint Bowyer has a great personality, but doesn’t have Tiger Woods numbers on the race track. Kyle Busch, I’m not going to say he has Tiger Woods numbers, but he’s one of a few that have great numbers but lacks the relatability, the needle, outside the sport. You can’t generate it, something has to cross.

You have to have someone like perhaps Chase Elliott, someone who has the opportunity and the image and the ability.”

And then came the caveat from Letarte:

“But then Chase Elliott has to deliver the numbers that we’ve never seen before, because that’s what Tiger Woods did. You’ve got to start talking 10-win seasons and championships. … There is no recipe. It just happens.”

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All-Star Race features longer final stage, technical changes

Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images
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The Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race will feature a longer final stage for $1 million and some technical changes that could be implemented in the Gen 7 car.

NASCAR announced the technical guidelines and race format Wednesday night.

The two technical changes for the May 18 race at Charlotte Motor Speedway will be:

# A single-piece carbon fiber splitter/pan that is expected to offer improvements in ride height sensitivity for drivers. This is expected to provide a more stable aero platform and create more consistent performance in traffic.

# The car will be configured with a radiator duct that exits through the hood as opposed to the current design, which exits into the engine component. This feature is expected to create improved aerodynamic parity and reduce engine temperatures.

“Throughout its history, the Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race has provided a platform to try new and innovative ideas, some of which we have incorporated on a full-time basis,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer. “Last year’s all-star rules package resulted in one of the most exciting all-star races in history. With a similar package, and added elements that we could see in the next generation race car, we expect another must-watch event.”

The format for the race is similar to last year with the exception of the final stage. That stage will be 15 laps — five laps longer than last year’s race. That will make the race 85 laps total.

The first stage will be 30 laps and the next two stages will be 20 laps each. Green flag and yellow flag laps will count in the first three stages. Only green flag laps will count in the final stage.

Each stage must end under green. Overtime procedures will be in place for each stage. If the race is restarted with two laps or less in the final stage, there will be unlimited attempts at a green, white, checkered finish.

As was the case last year, there is no mandatory pit strategy.

The Monster Energy Open, which also will be held May 18, will be three stages. The first two stages will be 20 laps. The final stage will be 10 laps. That is the same as last year.

Each stage winner in the Monster Energy Open advances to the All-Star Race.

Those eligible for the All-Star Race are winners from last season and this season, previous all-star winners who are competing full-time in the series, Cup champions who are running full-time in the series, the three stage winners from the Monster Energy Open and the winner of the fan vote, which is underway at nascar.com/fanvote.

Drivers who are eligible to compete are:

Aric Almirola

Ryan Blaney

Clint Bowyer

Kurt Busch

Kyle Busch

Austin Dillon

Chase Elliott

Denny Hamlin

Kevin Harvick

Jimmie Johnson

Erik Jones

Brad Keselowski

Joey Logano

Ryan Newman

Martin Truex Jr.

Kevin Harvick won last year’s All-Star Race. Alex Bowman, Daniel Suarez and AJ Allmendinger advanced to last year’s All-Star Race by winning a stage in the Open. Chase Elliott was the fan vote winner.

Also, the format for All-Star qualifying will remain the same. Qualifying will include a pit stop.

Weekend passes for the All-Star Race are $79 per person and include admission to the May 17 Gander Outdoors Truck Series race at Charlotte, All-Star qualifying, the Monster Energy Open on May 18 and the All-Star Race after that. Kids 13 and under get in free on May 17 and for $10 with an adult purchase on May 18. For more ticket information, call 1-800-455-FANS or visit CharlotteMotorSpeedway.com.