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Friday 5: Crew chief marvels at Chase Elliott’s progression

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It wasn’t until Chase Elliott scored his first Cup victory last season that crew chief Alan Gustafson saw the toll that not winning took on his driver.

With high expectations and a large fan following, pressure built on Elliott as his winless drought stretched beyond his rookie year in 2016, then 2017 and past the halfway mark of 2018.

Ryan Blaney won his first Cup race before Elliott. So did Austin Dillon, Chris Buescher and Erik Jones.

Elliott’s winless drought reached 98 Cup races before his Watkins Glen triumph.

“I think I underestimated how it was wearing on him and how personally he was taking it not winning races,” Gustafson said this week. “Once he won, I realized, ‘Wow, it was something that he was taking very personal and something that was weighing on him.’ ”

Elliott scored eight career runner-up finishes before that first victory in August. He went on to win twice more last year (Dover and Kansas in the playoffs).

Those performances showed the growth Elliott has made since his rookie Cup campaign in 2016.

“I guess the best way to describe it,” Gustafson said, “is I can remember when I first worked with him, he was so good at such a young age. ‘Where is his ceiling?’ He seems to be awfully close to it to me. Then kind of a pleasant surprise to me, he’s been able to push that ceiling, he’s made some significant growth and improvement.

“I think it stems from going to these races … knowing what line works. What line is good for this or how did this guy win the race … all these little nuances that you get from experience.”

The result was that Elliott was one of three drivers to win twice in the playoffs last year — champion Joey Logano and Kyle Busch also won twice in the playoffs.

“I am 100 percent confident if we give Chase a car that he wants, he will win the race with it,” Gustafson said. “He can adapt really well and there hasn’t been anything that he has not been able to overcome.”

2. Will IndyCar knowledge help Chevy thrive in Cup in ’19?

There are so many questions entering this season with what the racing will be like under the new rules package. Some questions will start to be answered at next week’s organizational test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, but even then there will be much uncertainty.

For Chevrolet, this could be daunting after its struggles last  year. The car manufacturer won four races a year ago — its lowest total since 1982 — and last had a car race for the Cup title in Miami in 2016.

Pat Suhy, Chevrolet’s NASCAR Group Manager, notes how the manufacturer’s IndyCar program could help its NASCAR teams with this rules package that has tapered spacers reducing horsepower and downforce added to the cars.

“We’ve been able to take a lot of what we’ve learned in IndyCar, where you are power limited,” Suhy told NBC Sports. “If you look at last year and really years past, we just piled on as much downforce as we could and you would always go faster, but when you’re power limited with the tapered (spacer) 550 (horsepower) engine, when you’re power limited, you have to start making decisions about how much drag you’re willing to accept for a downforce gain. It’s really more about trading off straightaway speed for cornering speed.

“We’re in a really good position to help answer that question with some of the tools that we have developed and used week in and week out in the IndyCar Series. We’ve been able to bring that to our NASCAR teams.”

3. JTG Daugherty Racing making changes

JTG Daugherty Racing will be more closely aligned with Hendrick Motorsports this season, according to Ernie Cope, JTG Daugherty Racing’s director of competition. JTG Daugherty Racing will receive Hendrick engines, use Hendrick simulation and have Hendrick pit crews service the cars of Chris Buescher and rookie Ryan Preece.

JTG Daugherty Racing also has purchased five chassis for Daytona from Hendrick Motorsports. The rest of JTG Daugherty Racing’s fleet will be built in-house. Cope told NBC Sports that Car No. 10 was on a surface plate this week. 

Car No. 1 will be used for wind tunnel testing. Car Nos. 2-3 will debut at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Cope said the organization plans to have new cars for all the races through Texas, which is the seventh race of the season.

Why build their own chassis?

“Part of it is you control your own innovation and destiny and when parts are coming,” Cope said. “We control our own production schedule. I think it’s going to work out fine.”

4. Chatting with the new guy

Clint Bowyer admits he didn’t know Daniel Suarez well before Suarez signed to drive the No. 41 Ford at Stewart-Haas Racing starting this season. A recent sponsor appearance together in Texas gave them the chance to talk on the flight.

“Man, it’s fun to be around kids like that are full of talent, full of piss and vinegar,” Bowyer said. “He’s set on kill. He’s excited about his opportunity, as he should be. He’s in good equipment. I know the equipment he’s going to be sitting in, the team that he’s going to be with. They were on fire last year with Billy Scott and all those guys. He’s got a good future ahead of him for this year. I’m excited for him.”

5. Fans in the Cup garage

Details are being finalized, but look for the Cup garage to be open to fans at a select time on some race weekends. This has been done in the Xfinity and Truck Series and will expand to Cup this season.

How tracks offer this to fans, how many fans will be allowed in, what time and what day this will take place on a race weekend will be set by tracks and NASCAR.

The tentative Daytona Speedweeks schedule lists an open Cup garage for fans from 9:30 – 11:30 a.m. ET on Feb. 10 — the day of the Clash and Daytona 500 qualifying. The Cup garage also is listed as being open to fans from 4-6 pm ET at Daytona on Feb. 14, the day of the Duel qualifying races.

A spokesperson for Daytona International Speedway told NBC Sports that track officials are developing their plans for this and don’t have anything to announce at this time.

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NBC Sports Power Rankings: Denny Hamlin remains No. 1 after Kansas

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For the second consecutive week, Denny Hamlin is atop this week’s NBC Sports’ NASCAR Power Rankings.Hamlin was selected unanimously.

Making the biggest jump in the rankings was Kyle Busch (from tied for seventh last week to No. 2 this week).

Falling the most was Ryan Blaney, who dropped from second last week to a tie for ninth this week.

Here are the power rankings ahead of the Round of 8 playoff race at Martinsville Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBC):

1. Denny Hamlin (40 points): Kansas win is his fifth of the season, tying for his most victories in a season since 2012. The question grows louder: Is this the year he finally wins a Cup title? Last week: First.

2. Kyle Busch (34 points): While he remains mired in one of the longest winless streaks of his career, it’s hard to imagine him not rising to the occasion in the next three races to assure his spot at Miami. Last week: Tied for seventh.

3. Chase Elliott (33 points): He just barely avoided elimination at Kansas. He needs to win one of the next three races if he’s to be assured of racing for the championship. The question is, can he? Last week: Third.

4. Martin Truex Jr. (29 points): Slow pit stop late hurt him but still finished sixth. Has five finishes of seventh or better in the last six races. Last week: Tied for seventh.

5. Kevin Harvick (23 points): It’s time for “the Closer” to reemerge in the next three races to lock himself into a championship berth at Miami. Don’t be surprised if he wins at Texas or Phoenix – or both. Last week: Sixth.

6. Jimmie Johnson (11 points): While his strong performance in the last five races – four top-10s and one 11th-place finish – has come a little too late, Johnson could really shake up the playoffs with a win in the third round. He’s capable and has been building towards it. Will it happen? Last week: Unranked.

7. Kyle Larson (10 points): Not a clean day at Kansas. He and his team need to step up in the Round of 8. Last week: Tied for fourth.

8. William Byron (9 points): After a strong Kansas showing, could be a dark horse in the final four races. While eliminated from the playoffs, he still has the potential to win a race, particularly at a short track like Martinsville or Phoenix. Last week: Unranked.

(tie) 9. Joey Logano (8 points): Yes, Joey is right, every point matters. That attitude is why he’s still alive in these playoffs. Last week: Tied for fourth.

(tie) 9. Ryan Blaney (8 points): See Kyle Larson. It’s pretty much the same story for Blaney. Last week: Second.

Others receiving votes: Clint Bowyer (6 points), Kurt Busch (3 points), Ryan Preece (3 points), Brandon Jones (2 points), Matt DiBenedetto (1 point).

Goodyear tire info for Martinsville Speedway

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NASCAR Cup and Truck teams continue their respective playoffs this weekend at Martinsville Speedway.

The Cup Series begins its Round of 8, while the Gander Outdoors Truck Series will contest its middle race of the Round of 6.

Cup and Truck teams will run the same tire setup at Martinsville, the same tires both series have run at the .526-mile bullring since 2017.

It’s getting later in the fall and we are likely to have cloudy conditions and temperatures in the 60-degree range at Martinsville this week, so track temps will be low, making it more difficult for the track to take rubber,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing. “Because of the time of year we run at Martinsville, we’ve worked hard over the past several years to come up with a tread compound that will lay rubber in the concrete corners, even in cool temperatures.

Generally, Martinsville has produced some of the best racing on the circuit and that only seems to have been enhanced by the track consistently taking rubber and having multiple racing lines. We continue to work on keeping up with Martinsville and making adjustments where needed, holding a test there this past summer and looking ahead to 2020 when we will have a full fledged night race at the track.”

According to wunderground.com, the forecast calls for a temperature of 58 degrees with a 40 percent chance of rain at the scheduled 1:30 p.m. ET start time for Saturday’s Truck race, and a temperature of 66 degrees with a 19 percent chance of green flag at the 3 p.m. ET scheduled start time for Sunday’s Cup race.

Here is the tire information for this weekend’s races at Martinsville:

Tire: Goodyear Eagle Short Track Radials

Set limits: Cup: 3 sets for practice, 1 set for qualifying/start of race and 9 sets for race (8 race sets plus 1 set transferred from qualifying or practice); Truck: 5 sets for the event.

Tire Codes: Left-side — D-4588; Right-side – D-4722

Tire Circumference: Left-side — 2,221 mm (87.44 in.); Right-side — 2,251 mm (88.62 in.)

Minimum Recommended Inflation: Left Front — 10 psi; Left Rear — 10 psi; Right Front — 23 psi; Right Rear — 22 psi

As on most NASCAR ovals 1 mile or less in length, teams will not run inner liners in their tires at Martinsville.

NASCAR penalty report after Kansas

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NASCAR issued one penalty from this past weekend’s racing action at Kansas Speedway.

Chris Gayle, crew chief for the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing NASCAR Cup Toyota driven by Erik Jones, has been fined $10,000 for lug nut(s) not properly installed following Sunday’s race.

There were no penalties assessed to the teams of Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick stemming from the altercation following Saturday’s Xfinity Series race.

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Ron Hornaday Jr., Bobby Labonte to take part in Martinsville Truck race activities

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Martinsville Speedway will honor one NASCAR Hall of Famer and one inductee before Saturday’s NASCAR Hall of Fame 200 Truck Series race.

Hall of Famer Ron Hornaday Jr. will serve as grand marshal for the race, while Bobby Labonte, who will be inducted into the Hall in January, will serve as the honorary starter.

Bobby Labonte. Photo: Getty Images.

We are honored to have 2018 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Ron Hornaday Jr. as Grand Marshal and 2020 inductee Bobby Labonte as Honorary Starter at the first NASCAR Hall of Fame 200,” NASCAR Hall of Fame executive director Winston Kelly said in a statement. “Ron is the series’ only four-time champion. As the 2000 premier series champion and 1992 Xfinity champion, Bobby is one of only 31 drivers who has won races in all three NASCAR national series with his lone truck series win coming at Martinsville.”

Said Clay Campbell, president of Martinsville Speedway: “We appreciate the NASCAR Hall of Fame making it possible to have two great NASCAR champions available to meet our fans Saturday morning before the NASCAR Hall of Fame 200. Having Ron and Bobby be a part of our race weekend is special for everyone at Martinsville Speedway.”

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