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Friday 5: Can Kyle Larson break out of his slump at Talladega?

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Two years ago, Kevin Harvick called Kyle Larson “the best driver to come into this sport since Jeff Gordon.”

Harvick remains bullish on Larson even though the 26-year-old enters this weekend on a 55-race winless drought.

Few drivers could have used last weekend’s break more than Larson — he said at Richmond it has been “a pretty crappy start to the year” — but can he turn things around starting at Talladega Superspeedway?

Larson’s struggles were discussed by Kevin Harvick and co-host Matt Yocum on “Happy Hours” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio this week. Yocum asked Harvick how he kept himself mentally up when things aren’t going well.

Harvick responded by raising questions about Larson’s crew chief, Chad Johnston.

“I think when you look at (Larson’s) environment, I look at his crew chief,” Harvick said. “I don’t think he’s the most positive guy in the world. When you have a driver that is in a slump, I don’t think it’s going to come from his crew chief. I think Chad is a pretty low-key guy that kind of complains a fair amount.

“I think as you look at that, I don’t know if it’s going to come from his crew chief. I think it will have to come from (car owner) Chip Ganassi or somebody outside of what they do, crew chief to driver. (Larson is) still really young, so he needs some guidance and he needs some help to get through the situations that he’s in. In the end, when his contract is up, I don’t know exactly when that is, but he’s going to be a hot commodity.”

Johnston has been Larson’s crew chief since 2016. Johnston came to Chip Ganassi Racing after he was Tony Stewart’s crew chief in 2014-15. Those were Harvick’s first two seasons at Stewart-Haas Racing.

Larson has scored all five of his Cup victories with Johnston as his crew chief.

Harvick said on his show of Larson: “The bottom line is Kyle Larson is a very, very talented driver that can win a lot of races with the right people around him and the right guidance from somebody kind of helping him finish races and helping him understand when things are good or if things are bad, if you’re running fifth, you need to finish fifth. Having those people around him would in the right environment, the right chemistry and the right things to go with it are really going to help him along in his career.”

It has been a tough start of the season for Larson, who has not finished better than sixth. He led 142 laps at Atlanta but saw his chances to win fade when he was penalized for speeding. Larson finished 12th that day.

Chevrolet’s struggles also haven’t helped Larson or teammate Kurt Busch. Joe Gibbs Racing has won six races for Toyota, and Team Penske has won three races for Ford this season. They’re the only two organizations to win in the first quarter of the season. Chevrolet teams have combined to win four races in the last 45 races, going back to last year’s Daytona 500.

Ganassi noted this week on Twitter the challenges Chevrolet teams face.

Larson’s task doesn’t get easier this weekend. He has five top-10 finishes in 21 Cup starts at Talladega and Daytona. Larson has never finished better than sixth at either track. After finishing 11th at Talladega in the playoffs last year, Larson lamented: “We just had a terrible race car and were really slow all weekend.”

Will the new package this weekend change Larson’s fortune?

2. What to expect this weekend?

Depends on who you ask? Drivers have different takes on what might happen.

There are many questions because of a few changes. Tapered spacers have replaced restrictor plates. Teams are getting about 100 more horsepower, meaning engines will top 500 horsepower.

To offset that speed gain and slow the cars, NASCAR raised the rear spoiler an inch to 9 inches. NASCAR also is mandating a 1-inch bolt-on track bar mount to change the height from 11 to 12 inches, raising the rear of the car by an inch.

“Handling should not be an issue at all, I’m pretty confident in that,” said Joey Logano, who has won three of the last seven Talladega races, including last spring’s event. “It was (before). You could tell some cars were better than others.

“Now, I think the field will be more equally matched. It’s already the great equalizer, and now we’re equalizing it even more. I would assume the pack will be tighter, cars will be closer, more aggressive moves, probably closer blocks. Maybe the runs happen quicker because the hole in the air is bigger. Maybe the runs on the leader will be bigger.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw a tandem (draft). That can happen. I don’t know if it will or not. You would think with a spoiler that big there is a good chance of that. We’ll see.”

Paul Menard is among those who question how long tandem drafting — which was prominent about a decade ago — can work, if at all.

“The big restriction with tandem racing is cooling,” he said. “Our radiators and things aren’t made, the spec radiators don’t have the cooling we had a few years ago when we did the tandem. I think you will see people get to people’s bumpers and push as long as they can.”

There are other questions as well

“I am wondering how the side draft will work,” said Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who won this race in 2017 for his first career Cup victory. “How you can get different runs on cars and ultimately what you can do when you are out front to maintain the lead. That is what our speedway racing has turned into, get to the top five and if you are in the top two of each lane, bottom or top, how do you stay there. I think a lot of people have it figured out now, but now that the package is going to change. Is that still going to be something easy or capable of doing?”

Practice should be interesting today but even that will not provide all the answers. Those will come Sunday.

3. Memorable moment 10 years ago

The end of the April 26, 2009 race at Talladega will remain one that is replayed with one car flying into the fence on the last lap, a new Cup winner being crowned and the driver whose car flipped running across the finish line to complete a race his car couldn’t.

Brad Keselowski celebrated that day, driving for car owner James Finch in a part-time ride that saw Keselowski drive the No. 09 car five times that season. Keselowski was running full time in the Xfinity Series for JR Motorsports and did seven Cup races for Hendrick Motorsports in a fifth car teams were allowed to run with a rookie driver.

Keselowski’s future, though, wasn’t with Hendrick Motorsports. The team didn’t have an opening with its four-car team filled by Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin. That lineup would remain intact through the 2011 season.

In October 2009, Keselowski signed with Team Penske. That came less than a month after Martin inked an extension through the 2011 season with Hendrick Motorsports.

Keselowski’s Talladega victory a decade ago was the first of 29 in Cup for him. Six of those 29 victories have come at the superspeedways at Daytona and Talladega. He’s won five times at Talladega and once at Daytona.

How different might things have been for Keselowski had he not won that race at Talladega in 2009?

“I’d like to think that it opened some doors for me,” Keselowski said. “It’s hard to say because none of us have complete control over our destiny, but when I look out the window, I’m not sure I would have ended up at Penske if I hadn’t won that race. 

“It was a major marker. It opened up, in my mind at least, but I can’t speak for Roger (Penske) or Discount Tire. It opened up the window for me to get the Discount Tire deal, which I needed to really feel good about driving for Team Penske because that opened up the Xfinity Series for me, opened up the team development side that I thought was going to be so critical to our success and to kind of get Penske on its feet. 

“If you recall, they were in a bad place at the time, and I don’t know if that would have happened without winning that race. Maybe it would have. I don’t know. It’s a better question for Roger and Discount Tire, but either way, I’m glad it happened. I’m thankful and I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.”

4. Working together again?

One of the fascinating elements from the Daytona 500 was how Toyota and Hendrick Motorsports worked so well together to offset the dominance of Fords.

NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan revealed the inside story of that deal after the race.

The question is will such a union be needed this weekend to combat the Fords or will the rules help others gets to the front?

Keep an eye on how this plays out this weekend.

5. White House visit 

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders announced during a briefing Thursday that reigning Cup champion Joey Logano would be honored at the White House next week, continuing a tradition of Cup champions visiting the President.

Logano and members of his team are scheduled to meet with President Donald Trump at 3:30 p.m. ET Tuesday on the South Lawn at the White House.

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Xfinity Series 2020 race fields cut, most Cup drivers limited to 5 starts

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The 2020 season will have a slightly different look in both the Xfinity Series and Gander Outdoors Truck Series, NASCAR announced Wednesday.

Among the more notable changes: reduction in Xfinity Series race fields, as well as a decrease in the number of Xfinity races that full-time Cup drivers with more than three years of experience can compete in.

Also unveiled were the 2020 Dash 4 Cash and Triple Truck Challenge race dates and tracks.

Here’s the breakdown:

XFINITY SERIES:

* The starting field for each race will be cut to 36 cars (from 38 currently).

* The field will be set with 31 starting positions based on qualifying, four provisional positions based on the rulebook and one past champion provisional.

* Drivers with more than three years of full-time NASCAR Cup experience will be limited to a maximum of just five starts (down from seven currently). Those five starts cannot include the final regular season race or the playoffs. The current maximum for 2019 is seven starts for Cup drivers with five years of full-time Cup experience.

* The Dash 4 Cash battle will have the qualifying race at Homestead-Miami (March 21, 2019), followed by the four Dash races: Texas (March 28), Bristol (April 4), Talladega (April 25) and Dover (May 2).

* Drivers electing to accumulate NASCAR Cup series points are ineligible to take part in the Xfinity Series Dash 4 Cash.

TRUCK SERIES:

* Drivers with more than three years of full-time NASCAR Cup series experience will be allowed to make a maximum of just five starts (as is the case currently, although drivers must have five years of full-time Cup tenure). Those five starts cannot include the final regular season race or the playoffs.

* The Triple Truck Challenge, introduced this season, will continue. The three 2020 races will be at Richmond (April 18), Dover (May 1) and Charlotte (May 15).

* Drivers electing to accumulate NASCAR Cup or Xfinity Series points are ineligible to compete in the Triple Truck Challenge races and the championship race.

* Removed post entry driver and owner caveat. Greg Biffle, who made one start earlier this season for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the first challenge race and won, would have been prevented from being eligible for the second Truck Challenge race because of the current limitation of not being named on the initial race entry list, which will now be rescinded for 2020.

“These updates to the Xfinity Series and Gander Trucks procedures continue our commitment to strengthening our race teams and providing a stronger field with even greater competition for our fans,” Meghan Miley, NASCAR Senior Director of Racing Operations, said in a media release. “We’re excited about the return of the Dash 4 Cash in the Xfinity Series and the Triple Truck Challenge with the Gander Trucks.

“These programs provide our teams with an incredible performance-based bonus opportunity each season. By removing the entry deadline requirement for the Triple Truck Challenge, we ensure our teams and fans know immediately if a driver is eligible to race for additional bonuses.”

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2019-20 Drive for Diversity pit crew program class announced

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The next generation of pit crew members will begin training next month with Rev Racing as part of NASCAR’s Drive for Development Program.

Seven former college athletes have been chosen for the 2019-20 program.

The athletes were selected from a fitness assessment in May at the NASCAR Research and Development Center in Concord, North Carolina. The assessment tested their agility, strength and flexibility, with all participants learning the roles of different crew members during pit stop simulations.

The class will relocate to the Charlotte area for a six-month training program led by Phil Horton, Rev Racing’s director of athletic performance. All members will train to become tire changers, tire carriers and jackmen, “with hopes of one day earning a spot on a national series race team,” according to a news release.

The pit crew element is part of the overall Drive for Diversity program, which also provides opportunities for aspiring drivers. All programs are geared toward providing opportunities for women and minorities in the pursuit of careers within NASCAR. Since its inception, more than 100 individuals have graduated from the Drive for Diversity program, with more than 50 currently working within the sport..

“We look forward to welcoming this year’s class to NASCAR’s most comprehensive pit crew training and development program,” Rev Racing CEO Max Siegel said. “We couldn’t be prouder of the journey both our pit crew development program and graduates have taken from its inception.

“With the expansion of our recruiting efforts across the country, the talent level rises, and our program continues to evolve and create more opportunities for advancement at a higher level.”

The 2019-20 NASCAR Drive for Diversity Pit Crew Development Program participants are:

Name Hometown University Primary Sport
Hadji Gaylord Norfolk, Va. Norfolk State University Football (Defensive End)
Robin Loza Charlotte, N.C. Central Piedmont Community College Football (Wide Receiver)
Maurice McKinnon Charlotte, N.C. Guilford College Football (Wide Receiver)
Dalanda Ouendeno Paris, France University of Miami Soccer (Defender)
Mequel Phillips Chester, Va. Virginia State University Football (Linebacker)
Raynard Revels Richmond, Va. Norfolk State University Football (Linebacker)
Alvin Wilson Lexington, Miss. Alcorn State University Football (Linebacker)

 

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Retro Rundown 2019: Paint schemes for the Southern 500

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We’re now under two weeks from the Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway (Sept. 1 on NBCSN), which will mark the fifth year of NASCAR’s official Throwback Weekend.

Here’s your guide to the retro paint schemes that have been announced so far for the weekend, including schemes for the Aug. 31 Xfinity Series race.

Brad Keselowski, No. 2 Ford – The Team Penske driver will race Rusty Wallace’s 1996 Cup Series scheme.

Austin Dillon, No. 3 Chevrolet – Dillon will boast a paint scheme that was driven by his grandfather and team owner Richard Childress in the late 1970s.

Ryan Newman, No. 6 Ford – With Oscar Mayer taking the place of Valvoline, Newman’s car will take its cue from the scheme Mark Martin raced in 1993, when he earned Roush Fenway Racing’s first Southern 500 victory.

Via Roush Fenway Racing

Daniel Hemric, No. 8 Chevrolet – Hemric will drive a car inspired by the design of CAT equipment and the logo used on them from its launch in 1925 until 1931.

Chase Elliott, No. 9 Chevrolet – Elliott will boast the scheme his father, Bill Elliott, claimed his first Cup pole with in 1981 at Darlington.

Denny Hamlin, No. 11 Toyota – Hamlin’s car will evoke Darrell Waltrip’s Western Auto paint scheme from the 1990s.

Joe Gibbs Racing

Ryan Blaney, No. 12 Ford – The Team Penske driver will have a scheme inspired by Michael Waltrip’s Pennzoil car from 1991-95.

Martin Truex Jr., No. 19 Toyota – The Joe Gibbs Racing driver will throwback to himself with the Bass Pro Shops paint scheme he drove during his 2004 Xfinity Series championship campaign. That year he drove for Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s Chance 2 Motorsports.

Erik Jones, No. 20 Toyota – To mark his 100th Cup Series start, Jones will boast a scheme based on his rookie late model car.

Paul Menard, No. 21 Ford – Wood Brothers Racing will pay tribute to late team founder Glen Wood with the paint scheme Wood drove himself in 1957, including in his only appearance as a driver at Darlington.

William Byron, No. 24 Chevrolet – Byron will drive one of Cole Trickle’s paint schemes from the 1990 Tom Cruise movie “Days of Thunder.”

Corey LaJoie, No. 32 Ford – GoFas Racing’s car will be based on Dale Jarrett’s 1990-91 Nestle Crunch sponsored Xfinity car.

Michael McDowell, No. 34 Ford – The Front Row Motorsports driver will have a paint scheme that pays homage to the career of long-time owner and driver Jimmy Means, who was once partnered with FRM owner Bob Jenkins.

Front Row Motorsports

David Ragan, No. 38 Ford – The Front Row Motorsports driver will drive a scheme inspired by David Pearson’s 1969 championship car.

Screenshot

Bubba Wallace, No. 43 Chevrolet – Wallace’s car will be a tribute to the late Adam Petty and his 1998 ARCA win at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Richard Petty Motorsports

Ryan Preece, No. 47 Chevrolet – Preece will have a tribute to modified racing legend Ron Bouchard. The scheme is based on the No. 47 Majik Market/Hawaiian Punch car Bouchard drove at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway in 1984.

Alex Bowman, No. 88 Chevrolet – Bowman’s Axalta-sponsored car is inspired by Tim Richmond‘s Folger’s Coffee scheme from 1986-87.

Stewart-Haas Racing – In celebration of co-owner Tony Stewart’s election to the NASCAR Hall of Fame, three SHR drivers will have paint schemes based on the cars Stewart raced to his three Cup Series titles. Aric Almirola‘s No. 10 Ford will be based on Stewart’s 2002 car, Daniel Suarez‘s No. 41 Ford will be based on the 2005 season and Clint Bowyer‘s No. 14 Ford will look like the car Stewart drove to his 2011 title.

Xfinity Series

Michael Annett, No. 1 Chevrolet – The JR Motorsports driver will channel Jeff Gordon circa the 1992 Xfinity Series season with Gordon’s Baby Ruth paint scheme when he drove for Bill Davis Racing.

Via JR Motorsports

BJ McLeod, No. 4 Chevrolet – McLeod’s car is designed after the No. 44 Slim Jim car Bobby Labonte drove in the Xfinity Series in 1992.

Justin Allgaier, No. 7 Chevrolet – Allgaier’s scheme will be based on the No. 90 Truxmore Chevrolet Ricky Rudd drove in the 1979 season.

JR Motorsports

Dale Earnhardt Jr., No. 8 Chevrolet – Earnhardt will pilot the scheme his father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., drove in his first Cup start in the 1975 World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Justin Haley, No. 11 Chevrolet – Kaulig Racing will boast Jeff Burton’s 1994 rookie Cup paint scheme with matching sponsorship from brake parts company Raybestos. It also serves as a tribute to team owner Matt Kaulig’s father and team chief financial officer, Bob Kaulig, who served as a vice president of Raybestos from 1985-2008.

Via Kaulig Racing

Denny Hamlin, No. 18 Toyota – Hamlin will have a scheme based on Bill Elliott’s No. 11 Budweiser car.

Joey Gase, No. 35 Toyota – Gase’s throwback is based on the 1997 Tabasco paint scheme raced by Todd Bodine.

Jeremy Clements, No. 51 Chevrolet – Like William Byron, Clements will pilot a “Days of Thunder” paint scheme. He’ll be using Rowdy Burns’ No. 51 Exxon scheme.

Brandon Brown, No. 86 Chevrolet – Brown’s scheme is inspired by Terry Labonte’s 1993 Kellogg’s Cornflakes scheme.

Chase Briscoe, No. 98 Ford – Briscoe will pilot a scheme based on the No. 98 Ford Parnelli Jones won the 1963 Indianapolis 500 with.

Stewart-Haas Racing

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Mario Andretti named honorary pace car driver for Roval Cup race

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Racing legend Mario Andretti has been announced as the honorary pace car driver for the Cup Series race on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval on Sept. 29.

The Indy 500 and Daytona 500 champion will pilot a Toyota Camry XSE pace car around the 17-turn, 2.28-mile road course and lead the field to the green flag for the second Cup race on the circuit.

Andretti was part of the development of the track before its debut last year.

He visited Charlotte Motor Speedway in March 2017 for a test drive around the Roval.

“When (Speedway Motorsports, Inc. CEO) Marcus Smith was creating the Roval, he invited me to check out the improvements to the infield road course,” Andretti said in a press release. “It was such a fun course to drive and the more I drove it the more I got into a rhythm, but I knew it would be challenging to the NASCAR competitors with the elevation change and transition from road course to oval.

“After last year’s successful playoff debut for the course, I’m honored that Marcus would ask me to return to lead the field to green for this year’s Bank of America Roval 400.”

After the test, Andretti suggested adding chicanes on the frontstretch and backstretch to slow the cars down and create additional passing zones.

“I liked the higher speeds so I was hesitant, but after hearing it from someone of his caliber and expertise, it made even more sense to create chicanes on our straightaways,” Smith said in a press release. “Mario’s forward thinking and his unparalleled vision for creating a spectacle contributed to the incredible finish we had last year with Ryan Blaney, Martin Truex Jr. and Jimmie Johnson.”

Andretti made one start at Charlotte in his racing career, competing in the fall 1967 race on the 1.5-mile oval. He finished 27th.