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.