Friday 5: Tensions between Cup teams test manufacturers

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Less than a month into the Cup season, there have been signs that the tenuous alliances among teams have not held up well on or off the track.

It’s led to an unease not often visible at this point in the season.

As the sport enters a time of transition — new rules, new car in 2021, new engine as early as 2022— can a manufacturer keep its teams together for these major projects? Or will there be fissures, much like what happened between Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing in 2016 and Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing last season?

At the same time, NASCAR seeks new manufacturers and any company that comes into the sport likely will take teams from current manufacturers. Are the seeds of discontent being sown now?

Already manufacturers have had to react to issues between their teams.

Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance, conceded this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that at Ford, “we’re a family and every family has issues.”

Just look at the issues Ford has had this season:

Joey Logano confronted fellow Ford driver Michael McDowell on pit road after the Daytona 500 for pushing a Toyota and not Logano’s Ford on the final lap. McDowell told the media he was not happy with how fellow Ford drivers treated him in that race.

Ford driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was not happy with Logano, who chastised Stenhouse on the radio for a move during the Daytona 500 that cost Logano several spots and, according to Logano, could have caused an accident.

“For sure we had our issues at Daytona, can’t deny that,” Rushbook said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio this week. “But as a family, we talked through those issues, tried to understand what led to those issues and then how can we fix that and make it even better going forward.”

Ford isn’t the only manufacturer that has had issues between some of its teams. Chevrolet understands the delicate balance between competition and cooperation.

Hendrick Motorsports partnered with Joe Gibbs Racing, a Toyota team, and not fellow Chevrolet teams Chip Ganassi Racing and Richard Childress Racing in the Daytona 500. The move was made to counter the strength of the Fords, which dominated both qualifying races and entered as the favorite to win the 500.

Kyle Larson’s comments this week on NASCAR America’s Splash & Go about Hendrick Motorsports “cheating” ruffled feelings in the Chevy camp. That led to a late-night Twitter apology from Larson and subsequent comments about how he had poorly chosen his words. Ganassi gets its engines from Hendrick Motorsports. Larson said Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway that he had apologized to team owner Rick Hendrick. Said Larson: “We’re both moving on.”

There always will be conflict among competitors in the same camp. It’s natural with what is at stake each race weekend. But the manufacturers have stressed working together more. It was evident in how Toyota teams teamed together to win the 2016 Daytona 500 — a model adopted by others. At Ford, that banding of brothers is referred to as One Ford.

But this season, the slogan might be anything but togetherness.

2. New challenge for spotters

The new rules that are intended to tighten the competition at tracks — and should be the case this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway based on the January test — will change what spotters will do.

Many expect to be calling the race much like they do at Daytona and Talladega where they’re on radio almost constantly.

“I did a lot of talking in 25 laps,” Billy O’Dea, spotter for Ty Dillon, said, referring to the 25-lap races NASCAR held at the January test at Las Vegas.

One thing that spotters who were at the test noticed is that runs by cars behind their car were different from what they see in pack racing at Daytona or Talladega.

“In Daytona or Talladega, you don’t necessarily watch the car behind you,” said Tyler Green, spotter for Kurt Busch. “You watch  two or three behind because that’s where the runs come from.

“At Vegas, it seemed like you didn’t really watch the car two behind you. You watched the car right behind you. It just happens quick. There’s no really understanding of where the runs really come from unlike Daytona or Talladega.”

Other spotters at the test noticed that as well. That creates other challenges for them.

“Are they going to take (the run and try to pass) or are they just going to get close?” O’Dea said of what to tell a driver when a car behind has a run.

“When you see them moving, do you block it? It’s a lot of unknowns. Early in the race, do you really want to be blocking a guy going into (Turn) 1? If it’s continually a lot of passing, which I hope it is, it’s going to be a lot of give and take. It’s going to be interesting to see.”

Rocky Ryan, spotter for David Ragan, also was at the test. Ragan did not participate in the 25-lap races because he was driving the Ford wheel-force car, which has extra equipment on it and is too valuable to be risked in a race (the wheel-force cars for Chevrolet and Toyota also did not participate in those races).

During those races at the test, Ryan said he stood atop the spotters stand and acted as if he was spotting for a car to grasp how quickly things can happen in those drafts.

“The 15 of us that were there (for the test) will have a leg up on everybody,” Ryan said.

3. Drafting in qualifying

The expectation is that teams will draft in qualifying today at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Paul Wolfe, crew chief for Brad Keselowski, saw what the draft could do when the No. 2 team took part in the January test there.

“It seemed like at the Vegas test, the (aero) ducts made a difference,” Wolfe told NBC Sports. “Basing off of Vegas, it seems like there were two- or three-tenths of a second to be gained in the draft.

“I still don’t think it’s going to be a draft like you see at Daytona, but it’s more about timing it right to get a good suck up (on the car ahead). I don’t see us going out there running nose to tail. I still don’t see that. I could be wrong.”

Wolfe said they saw the draft make a difference when a car was a quarter of a straightaway behind another car.

“The more cars you have (in a draft), you get a faster suck up, for sure,” Wolfe said.

The key is to figure out who is going to be the trailing car to get that advantage, or if teams will run extra laps in qualifying and trade positions so each car will have that chance to take advantage of the draft.

4. On the way to Miami

If a trend holds true, one of the Championship Four contenders may be known after Sunday’s race at Las Vegas.

Since 2014, one of the drivers racing for the title at Miami has won within the first three races of the season.

Throw out the Daytona 500. No winner of that race since 2014 has made it to the championship race. So that means that either Brad Keselowski, who won last weekend at Atlanta, or Sunday’s winner could be headed for a chance at the championship — provided the trend continues.

Three times since 2014, the driver who went on to win the championship won within the first three races of the season: Harvick won the second race in 2014 (Phoenix), Jimmie Johnson won the second race in 2016 (Atlanta), and Martin Truex Jr. won the third race in 2017 (Las Vegas).

Last year, all four title contenders won for the first time that season within the first 10 races. Kevin Harvick won in the season’s second race (Atlanta). Truex won in the fifth race (Auto Club Speedway). Kyle Busch won in the seventh race (Texas). Joey Logano won in the 10th race (Talladega). Harvick and Busch had other wins within those first 10 races.

5. Familiar faces

Brad Keselowski’s victory last weekend at Atlanta kept a streak going.

Six drivers have combined to win the last 18 Cup races on 1.5-mile tracks. Martin Truex Jr. has six wins in that time, followed by Kevin Harvick (five wins), Kyle Busch (three), Keselowski (two), Joey Logano (one) and Chase Elliott (one).

The last time one of those drivers did not win a race at a 1.5-mile track was the 2017 Coca-Cola 600. Austin Dillon won that race.

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Power Rankings: Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski remain 1-2

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Brad Keselowski is getting closer to reaching the top of the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings, but he remains behind Kevin Harvick, who holds the top spot for a fifth consecutive week.

Keselowski is coming off a victory last weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and a contract extension, which was announced the day after the race.

Since the season resumed in May, Harvick and Keselowski have had similar stats. Harvick has four wins since May; Keselowski has three. Harvick has six finishes of third or better; Keselowski has five such finishes. Harvick has 13 top 10s in 16 races; Keselowski has the same total.

Cup heads to Michigan International Speedway this weekend for a doubleheader. Saturday’s race is at 4 p.m. ET. Sunday’s race is at 4:30 p.m. ET. Both races will be on NBCSN.

Here is this week’s power rankings:

  1. Kevin Harvick (Last week: No. 1): Has seven consecutive top-five finishes and might have challenged for his fifth win of the season had a pit call not taken him out of sequence and forced him to pit under green. Good chance his streak continues this weekend at Michigan. Since the track was repaved in 2012, Harvick has 10 top-five finishes in 16 starts.
  2. Brad Keselowski (Last week: No. 2): Scores at least three wins for the fifth consecutive year. The Michigan driver has never won a Cup race at Michigan. He has three top 10s there in his last four starts. 
  3. Denny Hamlin ( Last week: No. 3): Was in contention for his sixth win of the season before losing a duel with Brad Keselowski at New Hampshire. Thirteen of the 22 lead changes were between Hamlin and Keselowski. They combined to lead 186 of the last 198 laps. He has four wins, seven finishes of third or better and 10 top 10s since the season resumed in May.
  4. Aric Almirola (Last week: No. 4): Has a career-high nine consecutive top-10 finishes. Can he make it a perfect 10 Saturday at Michigan? He has only one top 10 at the track in his last five starts. 
  5. Martin Truex Jr. (Last week: No. 7): Has three finishes of third or better in the last four races. Scored third at New Hampshire despite penalty for an uncontrolled tire. His eight top-five finishes at Michigan are second only to the nine he has had at Kansas for most among active tracks.
  6. Cole Custer (Last week: No. 5): Has four top 10s in the last five races, including his Kentucky win. 
  7. Tyler Reddick (Last week: No. 9): Has four top 10s in the last five races. He won the Michigan Xfinity race in June 2019.
  8. Joey Logano (Last week: Unranked): Has two top-five finishes in the last three races. He won at Michigan in June 2019.
  9. Chase Elliott (Last week: Unranked): Has four finishes between ninth and 12th in the last five races. 
  10. Matt DiBenedetto (Last week: Unranked): Has two finishes of sixth of better in the the last four races. 

Fell out of rankings: Kyle Busch (No. 5 last week), Austin Cindric (No. 7) and Austin Hill (No. 10)

NASCAR penalizes Xfinity owner, driver for testing violation; team will appeal

NASCAR penalizes
Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Image
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NASCAR fined Xfinity car owner Mario Gosselin $50,000 and docked him 75 points for violating the private test policy last weekend at Daytona International Speedway with driver Alex Labbe.

NASCAR docked Labbe 75 points for the L2 violation. Labbe was 73 points out of the 12th and final playoff spot before the penalty.

DGM Racing stated that it will appeal the penalties. The team stated: “DGM Racing is aware of the allegations against us. We feel we followed all the proper protocol and will be appealing the penalty. We are unable to comment further. Thank you for the support we have received so far.”

The issue stems from an SCCA event last weekend on the Daytona road course that Labbe participated.

NASCAR Cup, Xfinity and Truck teams will race for the first time on the Daytona road course this month. There will be no practice before each race. Drivers are not permitted to compete in more than one series event as a way to get extra track time.

Labbe was listed in Regional Race Group 7 in a 2019 Chevrolet Camaro. The 2019 Chevrolet Camaro is the approved model for Chevy teams in the Xfinity Series.

NASCAR viewed that as an illegal test because of the car used. Section 5.1.a of the Xfinity rule book states: “Private vehicle testing by any race team, employee,  contractor, affiliate, associate, subsidiary, or surrogate is strictly prohibited.”

Section 5.1.d of the Xfinity rule book states: NASCAR, in its sole discretion, will determine in advance what constitutes an authorized test. In general, only tests conducted under the NASCAR National Series Unified Testing policy are considered to be authorized tests.”

NASCAR also stated penalties that stem from last weekend’s Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and had already been announced.

Those penalties included suspensions for the New Hampshire race for crew chiefs Jerry Baxter and Ryan Sparks after ballast was found to be improperly mounted before the race. The teams also were docked 10 points and drivers Bubba Wallace and Corey LaJoie each were penalized 10 points.

NASCAR also stated that Clint Bowyer‘s crew chief, Johnny Klausmeier, will be suspended for Saturday’s Cup race at Michigan International Speedway (4 p.m. ET on NBCSN) after two lug nuts were found to be not safe and secure after the race. Stewart-Haas Racing has stated that Greg Zipadelli, the team’s director of competition, will fill in for Klausmeier for Saturday’s race.

NASCAR fined crew chiefs Jeremy Bullins, James Small and Randall Burnett $10,000 each for having a lug nut not safe and secure on their car after the race.

 

‘Snowball effect’ led Bob Leavine to sell Cup team

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Seeing the “snowball effect” of a lack of sponsorship, cost for additional cars next year and the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the economy, car owner Bob Leavine said Tuesday that it was clear that he needed to sell Leavine Family Racing.

The team announced Tuesday that it has been sold. The buyer has not been revealed.

Leavine said Tuesday that the team had 11 races available for sponsorship on rookie Christopher Bell‘s car before the coronavirus pandemic suspended the sport in March for 10 weeks. The team’s biggest sponsor, Leavine noted, was his construction company, which also has been impacted by the economic downturn brought on by the virus.

“We haven’t really sold anything and probably won’t sell anything going forward this year,” Leavine said Tuesday of sponsorship.

Leavine also cited a business model that he has been critical of, including the charter system.

Leavine Family Racing was not granted a charter but merged with Circle Sport Racing, which had a charter, for the 2016 season. The partnership ended after that season. Leavine Family Racing bought Tommy Baldwin Racing’s charter in Nov. 2016.

We definitely did not get out of our charter what we put into our charter,” said Leavine, who has not publicly revealed what was paid for the charter. “So, from our standpoint, it is very difficult to say that it was a great investment. It just allowed us to run full time for the five years after we bought it. That’s the best thing I can say for the charter system.”

Leavine Family Racing made its NASCAR debut in 2011. Christopher Bell joined the team prior to this season. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Another challenge was NASCAR’s move to push back the debut of the Next Gen car from 2021 to 2022. Leavine Family Racing has an affiliation with Joe Gibbs Racing this season for chassis and support but Leavine said the plan was not to continue that next year.

“We had a whole lot of things banking on the Next Gen coming in,” Leavine said. “Our deal with JGR, our affiliation required us to do certain things. We were looking forward to being a standalone team with one or two cars. So, the pandemic, and sponsorship and how it affected (his construction business), our major sponsor, and then having to come back and buy all the cars again for next year, because we had planned on not needing cars next year.

“It was a snowball effect on multiple things. We saw no way out. We could not afford the affiliation, and what we did this year, next year. That’s what we banked on. Okay, we will do this one year, run good, get our charter value up, and we had a plan. That plan came tumbling down with the pandemic. Then you take a bad business model; it doesn’t work for us.”

Leavine said he lobbied NASCAR and owners in the spring for particular changes, which he did not reveal. When those ideas were rejected, Leavine said he was “very disappointed in what came out of that meeting. I knew that was probably going to be the straw that broke our back. I had to start looking for how best do we protect our team. How best do we keep people employed. A lot of things went into that decision.”

Leavine Family Racing has competed in NASCAR since 2011, making its debut with David Starr at Texas Motor Speedway on April 9. The organization didn’t run a full schedule until 2016 with Michael McDowell and Ty Dillon splitting the ride. Others who have driven for the team include Kasey Kahne, Regan SmithMatt DiBenedetto and Bell.

I really gave it all I had for the 10 years and the last five primarily when we went full-time, and I committed, and I thought we could make a difference and be a good team,” Leavine said. “A responsible and respected team in NASCAR. To walk away and not have completed that, I’ve never had to do that before and give up on anything. But I could not let it destroy our business – a 41-year old business – in Texas during these times, so you have to protect something and that’s a profitable organization.”

NASCAR entry lists for Michigan, Road America

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The NASCAR entry lists are out for this weekend’s racing at Michigan International Speedway and Road America.

Cup and Truck teams will compete this weekend at Michigan. Cup teams will race Saturday and Sunday.

Xfinity teams will race Saturday at Road America.

Here are the preliminary NASCAR entry lists 

Cup – Firekeepers Casino 400 (4 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN)

Thirty-nine cars are entered.

Joey Gase will be in the No. 7 for Tommy Baldwin Racing.

JJ Yeley will drive the No. 27 for Rick Ware Racing.

James Davison will be in the No. 51 for Petty Ware Racing.

Click here for Saturday Cup race entry list

 

Cup – Consumers  Energy 400 (4:30 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN)

Thirty-nine cars are entered.

Josh Bilicki will be in the No. 7 for Tommy Baldwin Racing. That is the only change from the Saturday entry list.

Click here for Sunday Cup entry list

 

Xfinity – Henry 180 (Noon ET Saturday on NBCSN)

Thirty-seven cars are entered.

Among the drivers entered:

Mike Wallace, who made his first series start since 2015 last month in the road course race at Indianapolis, is back in the No. 0 car for JD Motorsports this weekend.

Andy Lally, a road racing expert and the 2011 Cup rookie of the year, will be in the No. 02 Our Motorsports car.

RC Enerson will make his NASCAR debut in the No. 07 SS Green Light Racing ride.

Jesse Iwuji will make his series debut in the No. 13 Motorsports Business Management car.

AJ Allmendinger will be in the No. 16 for Kaulig Racing.

Click here for Xfinity entry list

 

Truck – Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series 200 (6 p.m. ET Friday on FS1)

Forty trucks are entered.

Cup rookie John Hunter Nemechek is entered in the No. 8 truck for NEMCO Motorsports.

David Gravel, the 2019 Knoxville Nationals winner, makes his Truck Series debut in the No. 24 ride for GMS Racing.

Brennan Poole is entered in the No. 30 On Point Motorsports truck.

Jeb Burton is entered in the No. 44 Niece Motorsports ride.

Parker Kligerman is entered in the No. 75 Henderson Motorsports truck.