Friday 5: Rivalries among Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske drivers brewing

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The domination by Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske this season could give NASCAR fans two of the best driver rivalries the sport has seen in years.

JGR’s Kyle Busch and Penske’s Brad Keselowski have had a long, tension-filled rivalry that can spark at any time.

But the sport’s hottest rivalry involves JGR’s Martin Truex Jr. and Penske’s Joey Logano. It has been that way since last year’s Martinsville playoff race when Logano moved Truex on the last lap to win and earn a spot in the title race.

Twice this season — and three times since last year’s finale in Miami — Truex and Logano have finished 1-2 in a race. Logano beat Truex to win the championship. Truex held off Logano to win at Richmond and the Coca-Cola 600 this year.

After the Richmond win, Truex was asked if he worried having Logano behind him in the final laps after what happened at Martinsville.

“I think he drove me as hard as he could without hitting me, which that’s what I always expect, and that’s kind of how I’ve always raced him,” Truex said. “Hopefully we can race clean for the rest of the year.”

With plenty of playoff points remaining and a playoff that features two short tracks and the Roval, it seems likely there will be contact if they continue to race together at the front.

Racing in close proximity has led to contact and conflict for Busch and Keselowski through the years.

In last season’s playoff race at Richmond, they battled for the lead. After Busch passed Keselowski, Busch stuck his hand out the window at Keselowski.

Asked what he thought Busch meant by the gesture, Keselowski said then: “I don’t try to read his mind. That’s the last place I need to be.”

Busch said of his message to his rival: “When you spend 15, 20 laps trying to pass the guy and you pass him and you get run into right as soon as you pass him, it’s kind of like, ‘Come on, man, really?’ But oh, well.”

They’ve also had their issues at off the track, most memorably two years ago when Keselowski talked and tweeted about what he believed was Toyota’s advantage and Busch responded with a tweet to shut up (although not in as nice of terms).

If the trend from the first half of the regular-season continues, then each of those drivers will be racing around each other all season. All four rank in the top seven in the number of laps run in the top 15 (Busch is first at 90.7%) and all four rank in the top five in laps led (Keselowski is first at 765, followed by Busch at 684).

While other teams will try to break the stranglehold Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske have had in winning 12 of the first 13 points races of the season, it’s likely fans will see Logano and Truex together and Busch and Keselowski running door to door.

It could make for quite a summer.

2. Hendrick Motorsports rebounds

Hendrick Motorsports placed all four drivers in the top 10 in last weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 for the first time since the April 2016 Texas race.

Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman, William Byron and Jimmie Johnson have helped lead a turnaround for car owner (center) Rick Hendrick’s team. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

The series is at Pocono Raceway this weekend. Last July, Hendrick Motorsports placed three of its cars in the top 10 — Alex Bowman was third, William Byron sixth and Chase Elliott seventh. Two Hendrick drivers (Jimmie Johnson in eighth and Elliott in 10th) placed in the top 10 in last June’s race there.

The organization comes into Pocono with a good bit of momentum. Hendrick Motorsports placed three cars in the top 10 in the two previous points races.

Bowman was second at Dover, Elliott was fifth and Byron was eighth. The following week at Kansas, Bowman was second, Elliott placed fourth and Jimmie Johnson finished sixth.

It was because of those performances that Brad Keselowski said before last weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 that “I honestly feel right now the Hendrick cars are the best cars. I feel like they really came on strong over the last two or three weeks and had some nice updates to their stuff.”

Keep an eye on the Hendrick cars this weekend and see if their recent run continues.

3. Getting back in gear

Half of Martin Truex Jr.’s 22 career Cup victories have come on 1.5-mile speedways, but until last weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 win, he had not had as much luck on those tracks lately.

After winning the 2017 championship, five of Truex’s next six victories came at tracks other than 1.5-mile speedways. Then he scored his Coke 600 win.

Three days before that victory, Truex said trying to get the right setup for 1.5-mile tracks was “our biggest challenge this year, no question. … Just still searching for that confidence as a team of what we need to show up at these tracks with.”

After the victory he said: “Now that we’ve got some momentum here and a little confidence on the mile-and-a-half, that’s a really good sign for us moving forward.”

4. Support growing for IndyCar/NASCAR doubleheader

Executives from Toyota Racing Development and Chevrolet expressed their interest in IndyCar and NASCAR competing at the same track on the same weekend.

David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, and Jim Campbell, Chevrolet’s U.S. Vice President of Performance Vehicles and Motorsports, made their comments in separate interviews Thursday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

“It would be incredible to see IndyCar, edge-of-the-seat, massive speeds, wheel-to-wheel competition on one day and come right back the next day and see an incredible Cup race back-to-back,” Campbell said. “Absolutely incredible. All for it. I think the possibilities are there. A lot of work to be done to get to that point. I think it would be great for the race fans, most importantly. Great for TV and we’d love it as a manufacturer.”

Said Wilson: “Politically, the leadership across both of those organizations have expressed their openness to looking at a more collaborative approach. We applaud that even if we are not racing in both platforms like our colleagues at Chevrolet are. We are hopeful and would love to see nothing more than a doubleheader down the road.”

5. Enjoying the show

Earlier this week, I wrote about Kasey Kahne and how he’s remained optimistic despite health issues that ended his NASCAR season and career last year and an injury in a sprint car in late March that still has him sidelined.

I asked him if he missed racing in Cup. He had an interesting response.

“There hasn’t been a race yet where I was like, “Man, I wish I was out there,’ but I’ve enjoyed watching them all,” Kahne told me.

He then told me: “I’d like to see a little bit of the rivalries that they’re building now. It’s fun to see the younger guys coming up and still see the veteran guys do well. I like watching all of that and how they progress.”

Maybe Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr. will be as entertaining as Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch can be in terms of rivalries. Or maybe it will be some other drivers.

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Xfinity drivers chase historic checkered flag at Indianapolis Motor Speedway

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Chase Briscoe said in February that there was no reason he couldn’t win a quarter of the Xfinity races this year.

Even as he focused on becoming the series’ dominant driver, he concentrated on another goal — winning the inaugural Xfinity race on Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course (3 p.m. ET Saturday on NBC).

A win this weekend for the series points leader would compliment the four Xfinity victories he’s scored this year and the six he has in his career, which includes winning the inaugural Charlotte Roval Xfinity race in 2018. 

Briscoe has practiced weekly for the Indy road course race on the Ford simulator since February.

“Every Wednesday I’ve been running at least an hour and a half to two hours at Indy, just trying to get prepared for the racetrack,” the Indiana native said.

“I feel like I’ve got a pretty good idea of where to make speed. It’s hard to really say how much the simulator will correlate over to the real-life thing, but I feel like I have a really good general idea of what to do, and I’m not going to be lost for those first couple of laps.”

The only NASCAR driver who has tested the road course is Matt DiBenedetto. He drove a Team Penske Xfinity car in a January test, compiling data for all teams. DiBenedetto said he is looking forward to watching Saturday’s race.

“I’m super-jealous of those guys,” he said. “They’re going to have a blast. That course is awesome. It’s so much fun, has really good passing zones, so I’m going to be watching really closely.”

Briscoe’s challenge won’t be just with the 14-turn, 2.439-mile course that winds through Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s infield and includes the tracks famous frontstretch. Among his key foes are expected to be Austin Cindric and AJ Allmendinger.

Cindric and Allmendinger combined to win three of the four Xfinity road course races last year. Cindric won at Watkins Glen and Mid-Ohio. Allmendinger won at the Charlotte Roval.

Cindric said that there is extra meaning this weekend because of the uncertainty of the Xfinity schedule beyond this month. All four series road course events last year were held after July. NASCAR has not announced the Xfinity schedule for the rest of the season beyond July.

“It’s no (surprise) that the road courses are … a strong suit for our team, and we don’t know how many of those are left,” he said.

Cindric says that Saturday’s race on the Indy road course will be fun and notes the passing zones.

“I think it’s going to be the best layout as far as passing goes that NASCAR goes to,” he said. “You’ve got two really great passing zones at the end of the both straightaways, that’s something you can’t really say about the Roval and Watkins Glen, those races are better for other reasons.”

Allmendinger should be formidable foe for Cindric, Briscoe and others based on his road course experience. Ross Chastain said Allmendinger has been a key asset for Kaulig Racing as it prepared for this event.

“AJ Allmendinger has definitely led the charge for drivers to drive the simulator and he’s built out our setups and what we should feel on those rigs with Team Chevy and (Richard Childress Racing),” Chastain said.

Allmendinger is more motivated to win at Indy than just to win the inaugural Xfinity race on the road course.

“There are very places … when you go to a racetrack that has so much history behind it, whether it’s IndyCars or stock cars, whatever its may be, you say the word, Indy and people that aren’t in motorsports understand what the history is being that racetrack,” he said.

“I want to be a part of that history. It would be something special to kiss the bricks, even if we had to do it with masks on. I don’t care. I’ll kiss them with the mask on.”

But he’ll first have to get through the two-day weekend for the series. With running on the road course for the first time, teams will have two practices Friday. That will be key for drivers, including Jeremy Clements, who won at Road America in 2017.

“I don’t know anything about (the track),” Clements said. “We don’t have any simulators or any of that stuff. Kind of going in blind. So I’m going to be a little behind there.”

One thing he is certain of, though.

“I think it will be a survival type race,” he said.

Briscoe just hopes he’s first to drive past the checkered flag. He admits, should he do so, it will feel different because fans, including friends and family, will not be allowed at the track this weekend because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I hate, first off, that there’s not going to be fans at Indianapolis just because when I go there, there are so many people that come from my hometown (Mitchell, Indiana) and from my area that don’t get to see me race anywhere else. 

“Just feeling the support every time I go there is so special. Last year in driver’s intros when we were riding around in the trucks, I literally had tears in my eyes just the amount of people that were standing up and cheering for me. It wouldn’t suck to win Indy without fans, but it would be bittersweet because none of my family would be there, none of the fans that don’t get to watch me anywhere else (would be there). I’m not going to turn away a win at Indy just because there are no fans, but it is tough to go there and not have fans.”

Brickyard 400 weekend schedule for NASCAR

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This weekend will mark the first doubleheader for the NASCAR Cup Series and NTT IndyCar Series as they both compete at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, making the Brickyard 400 weekend schedule a busy one (Sunday, 4 pm ET on NBC and the NBC Sports app).

They’ll be joined by the Xfinity Series, which will hold its first race on the IMS road course Saturday (3 pm ET on NBC and the NBC Sports app) after the IndyCar race. The series will get two practice sessions before Saturday’s race, the first practice sessions for any NASCAR series since the sport returned in May.

The weekend culminates Sunday with the Cup Series’ Brickyard 400.

All three races will air on NBC.

RELATED: Brickyard 400 entry lists

For Saturday, wunderground.com forecasts partly cloudy skies, a high of 90 degrees and a 24% chance of rain for the start of the Xfinity race.

For Sunday, the forecast is for partly cloudy skies, a high of 91 degrees and a 14% chance of rain for the start of the Cup race.

Here’s the full Brickyard 400 weekend schedule with TV and radio info:

(All times are Eastern)

Brickyard 400 schedule: Thursday, July 2

4 – 4:30 p.m. – Xfinity rookie meeting (electronic communication)

4 – 8 p.m.- IndyCar haulers enter (screening and equipment upload)

Brickyard 400 schedule: Friday, July 3

6 a.m. – 9 p.m. – IndyCar garage open

7:30 – 9:30 a.m. – Xfinity haulers enters (screening in progress)

10 a.m. – IndyCar team manager/crew chief meeting

10 a.m. – 6 p.m. – Xfinity garage access screening in progress

11:30 a.m. – 1 p.m. – First IndyCar practice (NBC Gold)

1:30 – 2:25 p.m. – First Xfinity practice (NBC Sports App)

3 – 3:55 p.m. – Final Xfinity practice (NBC Sports App)

4:30 – 5:45 p.m. – IndyCar qualifying (NBCSN)

5 p.m. – Xfinity driver/crew chief meeting (electronic communication)

Brickyard 400 weekend schedule: Saturday, July 4

6 a.m. – IndyCar garage opens

9 a.m. – 3 p.m. – Xfinity garage access screening in progress

9 – 9:30 a.m. – IndyCar warm-up and pit stop practice

10:30 a.m. – IndyCar driver, team manager and spotter meeting

11:30 a.m. – IndyCar engine prime and final adjustments

11:45 a.m – IndyCar drivers report to cars

Noon – IndyCar race; 80 laps/207.32 miles (NBC, IMS Radio Network)

2:30 p.m. – Xfinity drivers report to cars

3 p.m. – Xfinity Series; 62 laps/151.22 miles (NBC, Performance Radio Network/IMS Radio Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

5 p.m. – Cup driver/crew chief meeting (electronic communication)

5:30 p.m. – Xfinity haulers leave

6 – 9 p.m. – Track conversion to oval layout

8 – 10 p.m. – Cup haulers enter

Brickyard 400 weekend schedule: Sunday, July 5

9 a.m. – 3 p.m. – Cup garage access screening in progress

2 – 3 p.m. – Cup engine prime and final adjustments (pit road)

3:50 p.m. – Cup drivers report to cars

4 p.m. – Brickyard 400; 160 laps/400 miles (NBC, PRN/IMS Radio Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

8:30 p.m. – Cup haulers exit

Indy provides a treasure trove of memories for Cup drivers

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The memories range from sitting on the couch to a father/son trip and from hearing a grown man say “here kitty, kitty, kitty” to seeing that same man climb a fence.

Regardless the recollection, the memories all point to one location.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

As the track prepares to host a historic doubleheader on its road course with the NTT IndyCar Series (noon ET Saturday on NBC) and the Xfinity Series (3 p.m. ET Saturday on NBC) and then host the Cup Series on the oval (4 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC), Cup drivers shared some of the special memories they have of the famed speedway.

One of the memories that stands out to Jimmie Johnson, a four-time Indy winner making his final Cup appearance at the track, is watching the 1982 Indianapolis 500. That race that saw A.J. Foyt exit early because of a mechanical issue and then take a hammer at his car to fix the issue. But it was more than that moment that remains with Johnson. 

“I was on the couch with my father and grandfather,” Johnson told NBC Sports of that day. “Their opinion of A.J. and how he handled the situation and took the bull by the horns. (It was) like a guy/man moment with my father and grandfather watching (Foyt) work on his car like he did. I have a lot of warmth inside of me when I think of that moment.”

For 2013 Brickyard 400 winner Ryan Newman, who grew up about 150 miles north of the speedway, his first memory of the track was when he was in grade school and his father took him to the Indianapolis 500. It was rare to have a free weekend even then because Newman often was racing quarter midgets. Only thing is, Newman didn’t see the race. The race was rained out. The experiences there would get better, especially in 2013 when he won from the pole. “That was an amazing weekend,” he said.

Tony Stewart climbed the fence after his 2005 Indy win. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images)

Joey Logano, who seeks his first Brickyard 400 win after finishing second there last season, thinks back to the 2007 race. As Tony Stewart chased Kevin Harvick for the lead, Stewart keyed his radio and said “Here kitty, kitty, kitty.” It was a line Stewart used from time to time when he had a strong car and was closing on the leader. Most times Stewart celebrated a win after uttering that line on the radio during a race.

Stewart is at the center of the memories for William Byron, who won the 2017 Xfinity race at the Indy. Byron recalls the first time Stewart won the Brickyard 400 in 2005. Stewart celebrated by climbing the fence. “I thought he was going to fall,” Byron said. “The fans were going crazy. … It was such an awesome moment.”

For Kevin Harvick, who won the Brickyard 400 in 2003 and last year, many early memories center around Rick Mears, who also is from Bakersfield, California. Mears is one of three men to win the Indianapolis 500 four times. 

“As a kid it was always a dream to go to Indianapolis and race IndyCars,” Harvick told NBC Sports. “Going to Indianapolis and racing stock cars is still a huge thrill for me. To go there and race on the racetrack that was your childhood hero’s place to be successful and really make a name for himself, to go there and and do that for yourself is pretty special.

“Sometimes you just have to kind of pinch yourself and say, ‘Man am I really living all that out?’ Being able to win at Indy a couple of times now and to win last year, for the first time with the whole family there and to have that iconic picture of the trophy and my family … is something that you can’t replace.”

For others, the memories that stand out are when they got on track at Indy.

“You’ve got to pinch yourself every now and then the first couple of laps around Indy because you’re like this is pretty damn cool,” Corey LaJoie said.

Kurt Busch during the 2014 Indy 500. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Kurt Busch, who will make his 700th career Cup start Sunday at Indianapolis, competed in the 2014 Indianapolis 500 and then the Coca-Cola 600 later that day.

His Indy experience was special but he admits that his laps around the speedway in an IndyCar during qualifying remain vivid.

“Going 230 miles an hour for four laps,” Busch told NBC Sports, “why I decided I was going to jump into an IndyCar I’ll never really quite understand other than I wanted to challenge myself and I wanted to go fast.”

 

Brickyard 400 entry lists: Cup and Xfinity Series for the weekend

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This weekend will be a historic one for NASCAR at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The Cup Series will hold the Brickyard 400 on the July 4 weekend for the first time as part of a doubleheader with IndyCar. Be sure you know who’s running after reading the Brickyard 400 entry lists.

On Saturday, the Xfinity Series will hold its first race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, which follows the IndyCar race.

All three races will be broadcast on NBC.

Here are the Brickyard 400 entry lists for the NASCAR races.

Cup – Brickyard 400 (start time 4 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC and the NBC Sports app)

Forty cars are entered.

Ross Chastain is entered in his third start in Spire Motorsports’ No. 77 Chevrolet this season. His previous starts, in the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600, were in a car prepared by Chip Ganassi Racing.

J.J. Yeley is entered in Rick Ware Racing’s No. 27 Ford.

Josh Bilicki is entered in Tommy Baldwin Racing’s No. 7 Chevrolet.

Click here for the entry list.

Xfinity – Pennzoil 150 (watch at 3 p.m. ET Saturday on NBC and the NBC Sports app)

Thirty-eight cars are entered.

Mike Wallace is entered in JD Motorsports’ No. 0. Chevrolet. This is his first NASCAR start since the 2015 Daytona 500.

Brett Moffitt is entered in Our Motorsports’ No. 02 Chevrolet.

Jade Buford, a Rolex Grand-Am Sports Car driver, is entered in SS Green Light Racing’s No. 07 Chevrolet for his first career NASCAR start.

Jeb Burton is entered in JR Motorsports’ No. 8 Chevrolet.

A.J. Allmendinger is entered in Kaulig Racing’s No. 16 Chevrolet.

Click here for the Brickyard 400 entry lists.