Friday 5: Friction grows between non-playoff drivers, playoff drivers

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It’s easy to miss one of the key themes to the Cup playoffs with so much talk about Martin Truex Jr.’s dominance, Kyle Busch’s inconsistency and Hendrick Motorsports advancing three cars to the second round.

What has been overlooked is the friction between playoff drivers and non-playoff drivers. 

NASCAR’s postseason is littered with cases where non-playoff drivers had an impact on playoff drivers, whether it was Scott Riggs’ crash on Lap 3 of the opening Chase race at New Hampshire in 2005 that collected title contender Kurt Busch or David Reutimann paying back title contender Kyle Busch at Kansas in 2010, among others.

But this year’s playoff races have seen the divide between the haves and have-nots reach a breaking point.

It was something Jimmie Johnson experienced at Las Vegas in his first postseason race as a non-playoff driver.

“I saw quite a few situations where drivers in the playoffs made desperate moves out there,” Johnson said a few days after the Vegas race. “Saw it happen to other drivers. I had a few make that move on me as well. It’s a tricky situation to be in, and I know they’re going after every point they need to, but so am I. We certainly plan to not allow myself to be used up as I was in Vegas a couple of times.”

Austin Dillon has been on both sides. He made the playoffs the previous three years but failed to do so this year.

“It happens a lot,” Dillon said of playoff drivers taking advantage of non-playoff drivers. “There’s a line between taking that, as a guy that’s out of the playoffs, and there’s a line that you cross.”

Dillon admits “my button ended up pushed” at Richmond by Alex Bowman after Bowman dived underneath Dillon on a restart and came up the track, hitting Dillon’s car, sending it up the track into William Byron’s car. After being told by car owner Richard Childress and crew chief Danny Stockman to pay Bowman back, Dillon retaliated and spun Bowman.

“Yes, I’ve taken advantage of guys because I was in the playoffs,” Dillon said. “I know that feeling. I feel like at some point if you take too much, it will come back on you.”

Bowman didn’t have problems just with Dillon at Richmond. Bowman said he and Bubba Wallace had an issue in that race that led to Wallace flipping him the bird. Then on the first lap of last weekend’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval, Bowman lost control of his car entering the backstretch chicane and hit Wallace’s car, forcing Wallace to miss the chicane. Wallace later responded with a series of one finger salutes as they raced together. Tiring the signal, Bowman dumped Wallace.

It’s not just Bowman who has had problems. Kyle Busch was running in the top five, rallying from two laps down, when he ran into the back of Garrett Smithley’s car. Combined with an incident with Joey Gase, a frustrated Busch told NBCSN after the race: “We’re at the top echelon of motorsports, and we’ve got guys who have never won Late Model races running on the racetrack. It’s pathetic. They don’t know where to go. What else do you do?”

Smithley later responded on social media and Gase followed a day later.

To say that playoff drivers should have the right of the way on the track is shortsighted. The other drivers have something at stake. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., whose contact spun Martin Truex Jr. while Truex led at Richmond, is racing for a job. So is Daniel Hemric. No announcement has been made on Daniel Suarez’s status for next year at Stewart-Haas Racing, so he also could be racing for a job.

Those eliminated in the first round — Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman, Aric Almirola and Erik Jones — are racing to finish as high as fifth in the points.

And others are going after more modest goals. Chris Buescher, 20th in points, seeks to give JTG Daugherty Racing its best finish since 2015 (AJ Allmendinger placed 19th in points in 2016). Johnson seeks to refine the No. 48 team in these final weeks with new crew chief Cliff Daniels to become more of a factor and end his 88-race winless streak.

To have a playoff driver think they own the road is misguided. There’s much taking place on the track.

Whether playoff drivers want to play nice with non-playoff drivers is up to them and how they’ve been raced in the past. Of course, a playoff driver has more to lose than a non-playoff driver. So drivers will need to pick their battles wisely.

2. Hendrick’s round?

It’s easy to note Alex Bowman’s runner-up finishes earlier this year at Dover, Talladega and Kansas — all tracks in the second round of the playoffs — and forecast him advancing to the next round.

It’s just as easy to think Chase Elliott will have a smooth ride into the next round since he won at Talladega this year and scored wins at Dover and Kansas last year (with a different race package).

And if things go well, William Byron could find his way into next round.

Hendrick is building momentum. But what happened in the spring or last year doesn’t guarantee what will happen in the coming weeks, beginning with Sunday’s race at Dover International Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

It would be something if all three of Hendrick’s cars moved into the third round after the team’s slow start to the season: Bowman did not have a top 10 in the first nine races of the season, Byron had one top 10 in the first nine races and Elliott had two top 10s in the same period. And Jimmie Johnson, who is not in the playoffs? He had four top 10s in the first nine races.

Bowman and Byron enter the round outside a cutoff spot. Bowman trails Kyle Larson by one point for the final transfer spot. Byron is five points behind Larson.

3. Under the radar?

It’s hard to imagine someone scoring three consecutive top-five finishes — and five top fives in the last six races — being overshadowed but that seems to be the case with Brad Keselowski.

He has quietly collected consistent finishes at the front. The key will be to continue with mistake-free races or at least races with minimal mistakes. His 29 stage points scored in the opening round trailed only Martin Truex Jr., and Kevin Harvick, who each scored 36 stage points.

For what it’s worth, Keselowski won at Kansas earlier this season. That’s the cutoff race in this round.

4. Drivers to watch at Dover

Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Chase Elliott have led the most laps in nine of the last 10 Dover races. Harvick has led the most laps five times. Truex and Elliott have each done so twice. Kyle Larson led the most laps the other time.

Domination doesn’t necessarily equal wins. Only three of those times has the driver leading the most laps won the race. Harvick has done it twice. Truex the other time.

5. Milestone starts 

Sunday’s race marks the 500th career Cup start for Denny Hamlin.

Only two drivers have won in their 500th career Cup start. Richard Petty won at Trenton in July 1970 and Matt Kenseth won at New Hampshire in September 2013.

Kevin Harvick is making his 676th career Cup start. That equals Dale Earnhardt’s career total. Harvick made his Cup debut with Earnhardt’s team the week after Earnhardt was killed in a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500.

Starting lineup for NASCAR Cup championship race at Miami

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It’s not unusual to have a starting lineup set by the NASCAR rule book and owner points if situations like weather preclude qualifying from taking place.

But it’s a rarity when the starting lineup is set due to qualifying being rained out – and without even one lap of practice being turned beforehand.

That’s what happened Friday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Rain washed out several segments of the day, including both NASCAR Cup practice sessions.

Several crew chiefs – particularly those of the Championship 4 drivers – lobbied NASCAR to give them at least an hour of practice Saturday (weather permitting).

So instead of qualifying Saturday, the four Cup championship contenders and the other 36 cars entered will have 50 minutes of practice.

The Championship 4 drivers — Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., and Kyle Busch — will start the race in the first four positions at the front of the pack.

Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 championship race will be televised live at 3 p.m. ET on NBC.

Click here for the starting lineup.

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What championship? Tony Stewart, Joe Gibbs laugh it up in Miami

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Their drivers will be 100% serious as they battle for the NASCAR Cup championship on Sunday, but on Friday Joe Gibbs and Tony Stewart injected quite a bit of levity into Championship Weekend.

Gibbs, owner of Joe Gibbs Racing, and Stewart, co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, met with the media and matched each other for quips and one-liner banter that produced a great deal of laughter.

They were so good that they could probably turn Friday’s diatribe into a popular sitcom, like NASCAR’s version of the Odd Couple.

Prepare yourself for some great laughs. Here’s some of the highlights:

* Stewart started the press conference feeling a bit, well, underdressed. While he had a SHR team polo shirt, Gibbs was nattily attired in an expensive suit.

“Well, this is how you dress when you have one car in the championship, this is how you dress when you have three,” Stewart said, pointing first at himself and then Gibbs. “I walked in, I’m like, are you going to court today? Oh, wait a minute, he’s got three cars in, this is the way you’ve got to dress. You’ve got to step it up.

To that, Gibbs quipped his reply, This is the way Tony dresses, this is the way Joe dresses. Go.”

* It didn’t take long for trash talking to start. And of course, Stewart – one of the best in the game when he was a driver – couldn’t resist to try and get into Gibbs’ head.

“He’s nervous, I’ve got him all tore up,” Stewart said of Gibbs. “We were back there talking and he’s rubbing his forehead and everything else. He doesn’t know what to do.”

Gibbs apparently was anticipating that Stewart would start trash talking, so he injected his own reply.

“I had a flashback to my years with Tony,” Gibbs said with a smile. He demurred and didn’t elaborate further.

* Stewart and Gibbs obviously both touted the fortunes of their respective drivers and teams that are battling for the championship, but Stewart had an interesting analogy, going from momentum to poker to a bullet and gun.

“I’m proud of our group,” Stewart said. “I feel like we didn’t get off to the start that we were looking for, but as the season has come on, I feel like we’ve gained momentum and keep gaining momentum. We’re here, and that was the goal all along was to at least have one car here. I feel like it’s kind of like poker. It’s a chip and a chair. We’ve got one bullet in the gun, and we’ll give it everything we’ve got.”

* Gibbs had a little nudge at Stewart when the former was asked about his legendary work ethic, both as a NASCAR team owner and his previous tenure as a multi-Super Bowl winning coach.

“I take it you didn’t talk to Tony, he thought I loafed all the time,” Gibbs laughed.

After that, Gibbs talked about his family, particularly his grandchildren, who he has tried to steer in the direction of coaching football rather than being in NASCAR like their fathers, including Gibbs’ sons Coy and the late J.D.

“Now it’s Coy has a big part of this, and we know J.D. spent his entire occupational life, and I’ve got grandkids coming,” Gibbs said. “And honestly, I’ve tried to talk a couple of them into do you want to coach and things like that. I swear, each and every one of them said to me, no, I want to do what Dad did.”

* Normally a stoic and gentle human being, Gibbs can lose his temper at times. He was asked about chewing out Denny Hamlin for wrecking during a practice session for the Daytona 500, telling Hamlin “You’re paying for that car!”, only to have Hamlin come back and win the race.

That made Gibbs reconsider the punishment he imparted upon his driver.

“I was upset with what happened and then he turned around and won that next race, and I said, ‘Okay, you can forget that,’” Gibbs said. “I don’t think I’ve ever penalized anybody for anything, but I threaten them every now and then.”

Ehhhh – busted, according to Stewart.

That’s not true,” Stewart said to laughs.

Not missing a beat, Gibbs responded, prompting this exchange between the pair:

Gibbs: “On second thought, there is a driver I’ve worked with where we …”

Stewart: “I had to pay for two TVs in the lounge of the trailer that I broke.”

Gibbs: “I used to try and get to the hauler as fast as I could if he had a bad night because he was going to tear up the inside of the hauler.”

Stewart: “I feel like I got pretty good odds out of it because I think I broke five TVs where he said if you break another one this one is coming out of your paycheck.”

Gibbs: “I got him at Richmond one time, and I beat him in there real quick, and you were ticked off and he’s in there all flustered and everything, and he goes like, they usually turn to me after tearing stuff up, he goes, ‘I’m going to go out there and kick his’ — and I went like this, I started to go, ‘Okay, I think you should. Hoping somebody will put a lump on you.”

Stewart: See, as a good owner you should have thought of that first and I would have saved the trailer.”

A few moments later, Stewart sheepishly admitted “honestly, I can’t say that he did me, either,” meaning Gibbs actually never did tongue lash Stewart.

* Stewart then complimented Gibbs for his way of how he handles his drivers and how he has a knack of calming them down – even Stewart.

“A tongue lashing is because you’re upset about something,” Stewart said. “But when you take a step back and you say, what are you ultimately trying to accomplish out of it, what’s the right way to go about it with this particular individual. So I think it’s — I learned a lot from this guy in the years I was there.”

But Smoke couldn’t avoid getting in another zinger:

“I’ve said it a million times, if I didn’t work for him (Gibbs), I wouldn’t be where I’m at now. I wouldn’t be the things that I’m doing now. I wouldn’t be in debt like I am now. And I blame all of it on Joe.”

To his credit, though, Stewart wasn’t afraid to take a shot at himself.

When asked about the difference between being a driver and a team owner, Stewart spoke about his own maturing.

“Like Joe said, with time guys grow up,” Stewart said. “It took me a lot longer. I’m not even sure I’m there yet. I’m still a work in progress.”

* One of Gibbs’s favorite memories – and nightmares at the same time – was chasing Stewart to sign him originally back in the late 1990s.

Stewart had an attorney to help him, but pretty much negotiated his first deal with Gibbs by himself. Gibbs wanted to sign Stewart so badly that he was willing to concede to some special addendums to the contract, including allowing Stewart to compete in a number of dirt late model races.

Just when the deal was finalized, Stewart got a bit mischievous. He had one more demand.

“Cary Agajanian was my attorney at the time, and I looked at Cary, I said, ‘Do you see anything that stands out that we need to look at?’ He goes, ‘No, I’m happy. Are you happy?’ I go, I’m happy. We walk back in, and Joe goes, ‘So, what do you think? I said, Well, everything is good except for one thing, and Cary looked at me and Joe looked at me funny.

“I said, I want to drive the Top Fuel car at the (NHRA) U.S. Nationals next year, too. And immediately (Gibbs’) head started spinning off.  It looked like a horror movie.

“I let him go for about five seconds and Cary is literally kicking my leg under the table like what in the hell are you doing. And then I told him, I’m just messing with you, we’re good, we’re ready to do this.”

But Gibbs retaliated: Stewart was laid up at his parents’ home in Indiana after a bad wreck in an IndyCar race in Las Vegas.

“My buddies had been calling,” Stewart said. “I’d been really depressed because if you live with your mom and stepdad for a month, you’ll be depressed. But my buddies had been calling all day and it was AJ Foyt and then it was Mario Andretti and then it was Steve Kinser and this and that. None of them were (actually calling); it was all my buddies saying who they were.

“So my mom answers the phone. It’s 10:00 at night, and my mom goes, ‘It’s Joe Gibbs.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, great. Sure, here we go, which one of these assholes is it now. So they hand the phone over to me, and I’m like, ‘Hey, Joe, how the hell are you?’ He goes, Tony? And I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, is really is Joe Gibbs.’

“That’s the way our whole relationship literally from the first phone call on because I obviously had to explain to him why I was being an idiot other than I was heavily medicated. Had to explain to him why I was being the way I was. That’s the way we’ve always been with each other. We’ve always had fun with each other. But I think as much as we’ve had fun, we’ve always had a high level of respect for each other, as well.”

Gibbs wasn’t going to let Stewart have the last word – or laugh.

“I couldn’t find him lots of times, I would call the girlfriend,” Gibbs said of Stewart’s girlfriend at the time. “I would call the girlfriend, and she would tell me where he was and everything. So about the third time I called the girlfriend, she goes, ‘That no-good rotten — don’t you ever call this house again.’ I went, ‘Well, that was done.”

To which Stewart quipped, “We were ready to hold auditions again (for a new girlfriend). It was time. What can I say?”

And then they got back to talk to racing. But that wasn’t nearly as funny as the rest of the press conference, for sure.

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Rotating the championship race to new tracks? Contenders have ideas

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MIAMI BEACH, Fla. – Sunday’s Ford 400 will end an 18-year run for Homestead-Miami Speedway as the championship finale, which will move to ISM Raceway in 2020.

Should it stay there?

That became an open discussion among the championship round contenders Thursday at Championship Media Day.

Kevin Harvick, who has advocated rotating the finale for the past few years, suggested it again (without prompting) after the title-eligible drivers were asked for their feelings on leaving Miami.

In all honesty, it shouldn’t be in Phoenix (in 2021),” Harvick said. “I think having that championship race is important to new markets, new fans, exposing people to our sport.  It’s important. I think when you look at going to Phoenix, the things that it will bring to that facility, the new fans it will bring to that facility, they’re thriving on that exposure now even before the championship race is there. They will thrive on that notoriety, the things that happen for that championship race next year.”

After a Round of 8 finale at ISM Raceway that was criticized for a lack of passing (as many tracks 1 mile and shorter have been with the 2019 rules package), there were questions raised about the long-term viability of the Phoenix area oval playing host to the championship-deciding race.

But Harvick said the quality of racing shouldn’t be considered among the criteria.

“To me what happens in the race is irrelevant,” the 2014 champion said. “It’s great that we’re going to crown a champion. We all love Homestead. The event and the market and the notoriety, the new things that come to a new market that help carry that racetrack for a number of years to come are important.

“We have to use our championship event to rebuild enthusiasm in markets. I think that will be the first step to doing that.”

The Phoenix market has proved worthy with two consecutive grandstand sellouts, and it also has undergone a $178 million renovation that has been viewed as a major positive.

“Certainly, Phoenix has earned that opportunity with what they’ve done there and the fan support out there has been incredible,” Martin Truex Jr. said. “I think the plus about here at Homestead, we only come here once a year. Completely different racetrack than anywhere we go. No other track like it. No other mile‑and‑a‑half true oval. Long straightaways.  A lot of things are different about Homestead. We don’t race here in the spring. I like that fact.

“I don’t know that we should race for a championship somewhere where we raced already in the season, you know? You’re going to have an idea who is going to be good. This weekend is a total crapshoot because we haven’t been here in a year, it’s a new car, new tire, everything is different. You have no idea what to expect. That’s a good thing for the championship.”

Though there have been discussions about shortening the calendar length of the schedule, NASCAR would be limited on its venue options if the finale is kept in the mid-November timeframe it’s occupied for a couple of decades.

Besides Phoenix and Miami, the only other viable choices would seem to be Fontana (near Los Angeles), Las Vegas, Sonoma and Daytona (and the last two would seem unlikely anyway because of their road course and superspeedway designations).

Denny Hamlin vowed that the championship round eventually will return to Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“I think the facilities could use updating, which I think they will,” Hamlin said. “This is not the last time the finale will be in Homestead. You can mark that down.”

“Phoenix now gets their time. They spent money on the facility. It’s obviously a huge sports town. They got nearly every professional sport there in that city. It’s just a good market for us. Why not continue to feed that momentum?”

Harvick said he had no overt preference on a location for the 2021 championship other than “it would not go back to Phoenix.That’s just really not the point of moving the championship race around to have it in the same spot consecutive years.

“So you’ve got (Fontana) in that mix. Vegas. Both of those racetracks would be great places to end the schedule.”

Joe Nemechek to break Richard Petty’s starts record tonight

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Veteran NASCAR driver Joe Nemechek is set to break Richard Petty’s all-time starts record in tonight’s Ford EcoBoost 200 NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Petty and Nemechek both have 1,185 combined starts in NASCAR’s national series. The man with the colorful nickname of “Front Row Joe,” will pass “The King” as soon as he takes the green flag.

“That just shows, man, I’ve started a lot of races,” Nemechek said with a laugh in a recent interview with NBC Sports. “You don’t think about that as a racer, man. When you get done with one, you’re focused on the next one.”

As recently as two weeks ago, Nemechek wasn’t even aware he was close to breaking Petty’s mark.

“I had no idea about that,” he told NBC Sports.

He tied Petty’s mark by starting last weekend’s Cup race at ISM Raceway near Phoenix.

“Getting up there and tying Richard Petty’s all-time start record is pretty cool,” Nemechek said. “To me, Richard Petty is a legend. I was just starting when he was kinda getting done, the first couple years of my career.”

For the record, Petty’s starts all came in NASCAR’s premier series, ending when it was known as the Winston Cup Series. He has 15 additional starts in the old Convertible Series in 1958 and 1959, but those starts are not included in the combined starts mark.

Nemechek, meanwhile, amassed his 1,185 starts with 673 starts in Cup, 444 starts in the Xfinity Series and 68 in the Truck Series.

Once he passes The King, don’t expect the 56-year-old Nemechek to be slowing down any time soon. He plans on putting some distance between himself and Petty.

“I’ve had a great career, I’ve won races, I still enjoy it and there’s a lot of stuff going on in my schedule for next year where people want me to come drive, so we’ll surpass whatever it is,” said Nemechek, who has made a combined 27 starts this season with two more left to go (tonight’s Truck race and Sunday’s Cup season finale).

There is one current driver who is only 35 starts away from reaching 1,185 starts: Cup Championship 4 driver Kevin Harvick has 1,150 starts heading into Sunday’s season finale. Kyle Busch is sixth on the NASCAR all-time combined starts list with 1,035 starts.

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