Long: How crew chiefs mastered Pocono’s challenges

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While the Cup race at Pocono Raceway went as drivers predicted with passing difficult, it showed the value of a strong team.

Rodney Childers, Paul Wolfe and Adam Stevens displayed talents Sunday that have made them among the sport’s top crew chiefs.

MORE: Joe Gibbs Racing on verge of tying Roush Fenway Racing for more national series wins

The talk before the race was how track position would be critical. Childers, crew chief for Kevin Harvick, struck early. With a competition caution on Lap 20, Childers had Harvick pit for four tires before that caution.

“I know on our box when we got to Lap 19, (Harvick) rolled on to pit road and I looked at my engineer and I said, ‘Why are they … awwww’ because Rodney made a great call on that one, one we totally should have gotten and missed, the field missed it,” said Todd Gordon, crew chief for Joey Logano, on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive” on Monday.

Harvick was 11th when he pitted.

Harvick returned to the pits during the competition caution for fuel — teams cannot add fuel before a competition caution. Filling the car with fuel didn’t take as long as changing four tires. That allowed Harvick to pass cars on pit road.

The move put Harvick ninth on the restart — gaining two positions — but six of the eight cars in front of him had two tires to his four.

Harvick moved to sixth on the first lap of the restart. By pitting before the competition caution for tires and then filling up the tank during the caution, Childers gained Harvick two spots and put him in position to gain three more positions on the restart.

Austin Dillon‘s crash helped Kevin Harvick gain two spots on the ensuring restart. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

When Austin Dillon crashed to bring out the caution a few laps later, Harvick restarted sixth in the outside lane — the preferred lane — and moved to fourth after the restart.

Childers adjusted his strategy to be on the same plan with Kyle Busch and Stevens. They were among those who pitted on Lap 94 while others stayed out until the end of the second stage at Lap 100.

That put Harvick on the front row with Busch for the restart after stage 2 since they stayed out during the break. Harvick’s chances took a hit with a penalty for an uncontrolled tire on a two-tire stop on Lap 124 and then a steering box issue. But up to that point, Childers had played the game well enough to put Harvick in position to challenge for the win.

Wolfe did a masterful job in guiding Brad Keselowski to a second-place finish. While others sacrificed stage points for track position, Keselowski finished third in the first stage and fifth in the second stage. Keselowski scored 50 points — more than any other driver.

Wolfe’s biggest accomplishment wasn’t the point total but adjusting his strategy when things went against him. It’s a trait the champion crew chief has had for years.

Wolfe called for a two-tire pit stop for Keselowski during the competition caution. Keselowski entered the pits seventh and exited second. Keselowski was the first of two cars (Martin Truex Jr. was the other) who did not pit after the first stage. That gave Keselowski the lead. He needed to pit but since a car at the front can do it at Pocono without losing a lap, Keselowski was in good shape.

Then came the caution a couple of laps after the restart for Matt DiBenedetto’s spin.

Wolfe had to adjust his strategy. He pitted during that caution (as did Truex) and was outside the top 15 and mired in traffic. Keselowski moved up to fifth by the end of stage 2 as others in front pitted and he didn’t. Keselowski then pitted during the break.

But Keselowski still didn’t have track position. He was 13th on the restart. He gained three spots to 10th on the first lap of the restart but was stuck there.

Brad Keselowski’s team services his car. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

Keselowski was 12.5 seconds behind the leader when Wolfe called Keselowski in to pit on Lap 119 of 160. Keselowski was in his fuel window to make it to the end, so Wolfe decided to bring his driver in for a two-tire stop to stay on the lead lap (changing four tires likely would have put Keselowski a lap down).

Keselowski was the first car to pit and worked his way through the field as others stopped under green. Keselowski was fourth when the caution came out on Lap 148 for Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s incident.

The leaders stayed out. Keselowski, fourth, restarted in the outside lane and took advantage of that spot. He pushed Busch to the lead and shot to second, passing Erik Jones in Turn 1. 

But Keselowski couldn’t get by Busch, a tribute not only to Busch but to Stevens. Busch and Stevens have combined to win 26 of 142 races (18.3%) in Cup since being paired in 2015.

A good crew chief puts his driver in position to excel. For Stevens, that is putting Busch close to the front. While Keselowski and a few others pitted ahead of Busch on what was their final stop, Stevens held his driver out until Lap 124.

Four years ago, Busch lost a bid to win a fourth consecutive Cup race when he ran out of fuel on the last lap at Pocono. Stevens said that day that they were good with fuel to make it to the end but didn’t factor how much the pace increased in the closing laps and that cost Busch the win.

Stevens didn’t let the same thing happen this time and was celebrating in victory lane with Busch afterward.

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It’s easy to overlook since Chris Buescher didn’t finish in the top 10 but Sunday’s 14th-place finish was significant.

It marked the first time Buescher has placed in the top 15 in three consecutive races for JTG Daugherty Racing since joining the organization in 2017. He was 10th at Kansas and sixth in the Coca-Cola 600.

Seven finishes of 20th or worse have Buescher 22nd in the season standings. He’s 60 points out of what would be the final playoff spot.

Still, this is a step forward for the organization and will be worth watching in the coming weeks if similar performances can continue.

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Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski have combined to win 10 of the 14 points races this season.

Cole Custer celebrates his Pocono Xfinity win. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

There’s a similar level of domination taking place in the Xfinity Series among three drivers. Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick and Cole Custer have combined to win the past six Xfinity races.

They’ve also combined to win eight of the 12 races this season. Busch has three wins. Michael Annett is the only other driver to win, capturing the season-opening race at Daytona. Bell, Custer and Reddick also have combined to win 13 of 24 stages and lead 58.8% of the laps (1,300 of 2,212).

They’ve also all finished in the top five in five races. They went 1-2-3 at Bristol with Bell winning, followed by Reddick and Custer.

The key question is where will they be next season. Reddick, the reigning Xfinity champ, is in his second full season. So is Bell. This is Custer’s third full season in Xfinity. They’re showing that it’s time to move them to Cup next season.

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NASCAR Cup Series to go dirt trackin’ at Bristol in 2021

Photo: Bristol Motor Speedway
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Cup teams will compete on a dirt track for the first time in more than 50 years when the series races March 28 at Bristol Motor Speedway, the track announced. 

The full Cup schedule is set to be released at 3:30 p.m. ET today.

“Bristol Motor Speedway has hosted many historic events over the years and we will be adding to that resume,” Jerry Caldwell, general manager of  Bristol Motor Speedway, said on Wednesday. “We can’t wait to see how the stars of NASCAR take to the dirt.”

Said Austin Dillon of the race: “I’m super pumped. … I’m hoping it becomes a staple.”

Caldwell said the track will work with NASCAR on the race format for the dirt event.

Bristol hosted dirt races in 2000-01 with the World of Outlaws (see video below of 2001 race) and dirt late models. The track used 14,000 truckloads of dirt for the project.

The last Cup race on dirt was Sept. 30, 1970 at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds. Richard Petty won a 200-lap race on the half-mile track. He earned $1,000. Petty was among one of five Hall of Famers in the 23-car field that day. Bobby Isaac finished third, Bobby Allison placed sixth, Benny Parsons was 14th, Wendell Scott placed 20th.

The NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Series raced on dirt at Eldora Speedway from 2013-19. It was not held this year because of COVID-19 restrictions.

Bristol also will host a second race. That event again will be in the playoffs. The Sept. 18 race again will be an elimination race in the first round. The playoff race will be on the concrete track surface.

Road America to host 2021 Cup race on July 4

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Food, fireworks and road course racing will fill the July 4 calendar for NASCAR fans with Road America hosting the Cup series on that holiday weekend in 2021.

The track announced the race date Wednesday. The full Cup schedule is set to be released at 3:30 p.m. ET today.

The 4.048-mile course has hosted Xfinity races since 2010. Among the current Cup drivers who won there in the Xfinity Series are Michael McDowell in 2016 and Christopher Bell in 2019.

MORE: Cup to run on Indy road course in 2021

MORE: Circuit of the Americas to host Cup for first time in 2021

The track takes the holiday date that had been held by Daytona International Speedway from 1959-2018 before Indianapolis Motor Speedway hosted the Cup Series that weekend last year.

“We certainly have been working very close with (Road America) not only how we bring this to life but, ultimately, where it was going to be located on the schedule,” Ben Kennedy, NASCAR vice president of racing operations, told NBC Sports, said of adding the Wisconsin track to the schedule. “We started to really toss around the idea of hey, what about July 4th weekend and what would that look like for the track?

“Just even the name, Road America, it feels like Americana and the July 4th weekend and everything. Fireworks, camping and cookout, everything that goes along with it. That track is almost synonymous with it. I think that’s where we really ended up kind of tying Road America to July 4th weekend. Working with NBC on that as well, they are certainly very bullish on it and excited about having Road America on that weekend.”

Tim Flock won the lone Cup race at Road America in 1956. Flock was among nine NASCAR Hall of Famers among the 26 drivers in that race. Others included Fireball Roberts (third), Herb Thomas (sixth), Buck Baker (eighth), Rex White (11th), Lee Petty (13th), Joe Weatherly (20th), Curtis Turner (24th) and Junior Johnson (26th).

Circuit of the Americas to host Cup for first time in 2021

R. Kevin Butts photo - Courtesy of COTA
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The Cup Series will do more road course racing in 2021 with the addition of the Circuit of the Americas to the schedule, the track announced Wednesday.

The Cup race will be held May 23.

The 3.41-mile road course in Austin, Texas, has hosted Formula One and IndyCar races, among others since its debut in 2012. The track also has a 2.2-mile, 15-turn short course. Announcements regarding race length, course selection and the full weekend schedule will be made at a later date.

MORE: Cup to run on Indy road course in 2021

A NASCAR event has never been held at Circuit of the Americas, but Tony Stewart piloted a Stewart-Haas Racing car there last year in a demonstration run.

COTA is located roughly 220 miles south of Texas Motor Speedway. Speedway Motorsports will be the event’s promoter.

“Our company is proud to have a 60-year history of fabulous firsts in motorsports entertainment, and we are honored to bring America’s premier racing series to one of the world’s most renowned entertainment venues and cities for the very first time,” said Speedway Motorsports President and CEO Marcus Smith in a statement. “I’d like to thank COTA CEO Bobby Epstein as well as NASCAR’s executive leadership for supporting us in an endeavor to do something that we believe will be spectacular for race fans, not only in Texas but around the world. We work and challenge ourselves every day at Speedway Motorsports to create amazing experiences that will last a lifetime, and we know NASCAR at COTA will deliver in 2021.” 

“I’m grateful for Marcus Smith’s vision and determination to make this event possible,” said Circuit of the Americas CEO and Chairman, Bobby Epstein in a statement. “His teams in Charlotte and at Texas Motor Speedway have created a spirit of partnership that will make for a spectacular weekend of fun and competition. Speedway Motorsports, along with the leadership at NASCAR, have a ‘Fans First’ attitude and have responded to everyone who has long desired to see a Cup Series race at COTA. Fans who’ve been here before will witness stock car racing at its finest for the first time, and first-time visitors will be amazed at the views and friendly experience. It will be our pleasure to write another chapter of motorsports history alongside Speedway Motorsports and NASCAR in 2021.” 

The complete 2021 schedule will be announced this afternoon by NASCAR.

Cup to run on Indy road course in 2021

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The NASCAR Cup Series will return to Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2021 but will race on the road course for the first time instead of the oval, track officials announced Wednesday.

Cup will race on the road course on Aug. 15. That race will be held a day after the NTT IndyCar Series races on the Indy road course.

“Our first NASCAR-IndyCar weekend was a big success last July, with positive feedback from our loyal fans who watched the races on NBC and from the drivers, teams and participants involved,” IMS President J. Douglas Boles said in a statement. “The Xfinity Series’ debut on the IMS road course provided exactly the kind of thrilling action from the green to checkered flags that we anticipated, so we know the teams and drivers of the Cup Series will put on a great show as they turn left and right for the first time at IMS.

“We can’t wait to welcome back fans to see NASCAR and IndyCar together during this exciting weekend as we add another memorable chapter in the long, storied history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.”

MORE: Atlanta to have two Cup dates in 2021

MORE: Darlington to run Cup races on Mother’s Day, Labor Day weekend in 2021

The Cup Series has raced at Indy since 1994. But as the racing there has been questioned and the sport has made a push for more road course races, NASCAR moved the Xfinity Series to the road course this year as a trial. The event was well received, creating the opportunity to move next year’s Cup race to the road course as well.

“Indy is Indy, no matter if you’re on the road course or you’re on the oval,” Joey Logano said of what a win there would mean. “It doesn’t matter. If you’re on the dirt track, I don’t care, it’s Indy. It’s that big deal to win there. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a Cup car, IndyCar or a tricycle, you want to win at that race track.”

Indy’s road course is 2.439 miles and features 14 turns. Chase Briscoe won the Xfinity race there after a four-car battle for the lead in the final laps.

The full Cup schedule will be announced Wednesday afternoon. The Xfinity schedule will be announced at a later date. Boles said on a media Zoom he was unsure of the Xfinity plans but talked with Logano about an interest Logano would have in running in a Xfinity race there to get more track time for the Cup race.