Friday 5: Manufacturer teamwork at ‘Dega fraught with questions

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Toyota devised the blueprint. Ford enhanced it. And Chevrolet took lessons from both to win the past two races at Talladega and Daytona by having its teams work together.

I feel like Chevy has kind of taken that to the next level recently to where we all have to figure out a way to beat that,” Joey Logano said.

For fans who long for the good ol’ days of manufacturer battles, Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC) will provide that type of action. But it does create some thorny issues with this being a playoff race. Such as:

  • How long should drivers within the same manufacturer work together?
  • What if a non-playoff driver is racing a playoff driver from the same manufacturer for the win?
  • How can Toyota, which has fewer cars than Chevrolet and Ford, compete?

There’s much at stake this weekend, particularly for Chevrolet, which has not had a driver race for the championship in Miami since Jimmie Johnson won the 2016 title. Kyle Larson is set for the next round via last week’s win at Dover, but Chevy’s other three remaining playoff drivers are not in a secure spot.

Alex Bowman is seventh in the standings 17 points ahead of Logano, who is the first driver outside a transfer spot. William Byron holds that final transfer spot via a tiebreaker with Logano. Chase Elliott, who won at Talladega in May, is seven points behind Byron.

Toyota started the trend of teams within a manufacturer working together in 2016, leading to Denny Hamlin’s Daytona 500 win and a 1-2-3 Toyota finish. Ford used its strengths in numbers and won seven consecutive races at Daytona and Talladega before Austin Dillon’s Daytona 500 win in 2018. 

The more cars working together, the more that group can dictate the race.

It wasn’t until after Joe Gibbs Racing (Toyota) and Hendrick Motorsports (Chevrolet) worked together in this year’s Daytona 500 to counter the Fords that Chevrolet executives ordered their teams to work together starting at Talladega in late April.

“The benefit of working together is too great versus the penalty of not working together,” Jim Campbell, Chevrolet’s U.S. Vice President of Performance Vehicles and Motorsports, told NBC Sports in April.

Chevrolet drivers followed orders, running nose-to-tail with near-military precision throughout the Talladega race this season. It didn’t matter if it was the bottom lane or top lane, many Chevrolets ran together. When it came time to pit, many stopped together.

The results were impressive.

Chevrolet drivers won both stages, the race and took five of the top six spots at Talladega. Chevrolet drivers won the second stage, the race and took the top four spots at Daytona in July.

Elliott said that Sunday’s race is “going to look real similar to what it did at Talladega in the spring and Daytona in the summer. We made a pretty conscious effort with our manufacturer of Chevrolet to try and do a better job of working together. It worked at Talladega. A lot of us crashed, but at least a Chevrolet still won the summer race at Daytona. Hopefully it works out.

“That’s the thing, we can put as much effort as we want or as little effort as we want, but it’s never going to guarantee that you aren’t going to crash or have a bad day there. I expect we’ll do our part on our end to try and make as good of a day as we can out of it, but no guarantees.”

2. How long should drivers work together?

This is the one of the biggest issues. When can a driver make a move that is best for them even if it hurts a teammate in the same manufacturer camp?

Joey Logano was not pleased that fellow Ford driver Michael McDowell chose to push Kyle Busch’s Toyota on the last lap of this year’s Daytona 500 instead of Logano’s Ford.

“Typically you kind of expect manufacturers to work together,” Logano said after the race.

McDowell’s reply?

“Fords weren’t that friendly to me this weekend.”

It’s an issue all drivers running at the finish will have to ponder.

You are kind of almost in a box because sometimes what is good for the group is not the best for yourself and you feel like you are compromising sometimes,” said Ryan Blaney, who enters this weekend last among the 12 remaining playoff drivers. “It might not help you out. That part makes it a little bit tough. At the end of the day, Chevy made it work at the first Talladega so hopefully we can make it work. It is hard to plan and orchestrate stuff like that when everything in the race is going. It has turned into that though.

“You can’t blame the manufacturer for wanting to do that. They put a lot of support behind the teams and they find those spots to say that if we have strength in numbers that we should be able to win the race.”

Until strategies change.

“I feel like we see that a lot at the plate tracks,” Brad Keselowski said of changing strategies. “It goes through evolutions every three or four years, and this is the next evolution.”

3. What if a non-playoff driver is racing for the win?

With all the teamwork within a manufacturer, there could be an issue if non-playoff drivers are among those racing at the front late.

Six of the top 10 finishers at Talladega in May were drivers who are not in the playoffs entering this weekend. Ryan Preece finished third in that race, placing behind Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman.

So how does a non-playoff driver handle racing playoff drivers?

Ty Dillon‘s best Cup career finish came at Daytona in July when he placed fourth. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

“I think early on in the race, it’s still the same racing that we’ve done all year,” Ty Dillon said. “I think when you get to the end of the race, you have  … to be aware that it’s hard to help someone that’s fighting for a championship. Sometimes at places like Talladega and Daytona, if you try to help somebody, you might end up causing the crash letting somebody in or something like that. I think that’s truly known throughout the series as drivers.

“Everywhere else, I race with the mentality that during the first half of the race, we’re all racing together. If you get down to the end of the race and one of those guys is on your tail and you’re holding them up, I would expect to give those guys a little bit of a leeway. They are racing for something bigger right now and it’s with the hopes that the respect will be returned one day in your favor.

“I expect to be racing for championships at some point in my career. I would like that kind of respect back. For me, I’m racing for 22nd or 23rd in points. It doesn’t make a whole lot of difference, but those guys have a lot more on the line for one position. … I think you’ve got to be smart. You don’t want to be the guy that screws up the guy going for the (championship) because you want to be in that position where somebody gives you the benefit of a doubt when you need it.”

4. What about Toyota teams?

Toyotas are at a disadvantage with having the fewest cars in the field. It’s why Joe Gibbs Racing partnered with Hendrick Motorsports for the Daytona 500. Seven of the 40 cars entered this weekend are Toyotas. Ford has 15 entries and Chevrolet has 18.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” Denny Hamlin said. “We are outnumbered, We know that. Ultimately they can’t decide what line you choose to run in. So, from my standpoint … if I’m around a bunch of Fords and they’re staying in line, I’m staying in line. It doesn’t matter what manufacturer I’m with, I’m just going to do whatever is best for me. I think that has been the thing that has made us successful over the years is having that mentality.

“You look at the teamwork from the Fords and Chevys at the last few years. In the end, you still have a bunch of guys in there that haven’t won a race. They still have to be selfish even with their own teammates. That’s when you try to take advantage.”

Another key issue with the Toyotas having fewer entries is if Martin Truex Jr., Hamlin, Kyle Busch – the top three in points – would be better off running at the back for at least part of the race. Truex can’t fall out of the top eight in points regardless of how poor he finishes Sunday. Hamlin and Busch are each 48 points ahead of Logano in the standings.

Asked on Wednesday’s edition of NASCAR America MotorMouths if his strategy would be to run up front, run at the back or just go for the win. Busch said: “Yes. All three.

“I’m sure at some point we’re going to be running at the back at somewhere or another, we might even qualify there. Past that … you want to get up within the top 10 to get those stage points.”

Busch ultimately said: “I think you just have to go out there and race and race as hard as you can.”

5. Kevin Harvick pit crew member returns

Daniel Smith. (Photo by Dustin Long)

Daniel Smith returns this weekend as the rear tire changer for Kevin Harvick’s team after missing the past eight races because of a surgery needed as part of his treatment for testicular cancer.

Smith missed the final 13 races of last season after the cancer was discovered. He returned at Daytona in February.

He had not missed a race this season until the surgery, which was originally planned for in the spring but moved to August.

Smith joined Haas-CNC Racing in 2004 and worked his way on to the pit crew. He remained with the team when it was renamed Stewart-Haas Racing and was a pit crew member on Tony Stewart’s 2011 championship team. Smith and his teammates were moved to Kevin Harvick’s team shortly before the 2014 postseason and helped Harvick win the title.

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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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