Power rankings: NASCAR driver/crew chief combinations

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NASCAR Talk continues its offseason Power Rankings, as voted on by NBC Sports’ NASCAR writers.

Today, we present our picks for the top driver/crew chief combinations in the sport.

There are a few surprises, for sure. Most notably: 2019 Cup champion Kyle Busch and crew chief Adam Stevens did not take the No. 1 spot in the rankings.

We’re asking fans to give their take on our picks (choose from Cup, Xfinity or Trucks). Do you agree or disagree – and why? Take our poll at the bottom of these rankings.

The top driver/crew chief rankings:

1. Martin Truex Jr./Cole Pearn (29 points): Among the sport’s gold standard, if not the standard other driver/crew chief pairings are measured. A series-high 23 wins have come in the last four seasons, including one championship in 2017 and back-to-back runner-up finishes in 2018 and 2019.

2. Denny Hamlin/Chris Gabehart (25 points): In his first season as a Cup crew chief, Gabehart brought a second wind to Hamlin’s career after the latter went winless in 2018. Hamlin put together his best year in almost a decade in 2019 with six wins, 19 top five and 24 top-10 finishes.

3. Kyle Busch/Adam Stevens (24 points): This is the only current driver-crew chief combo with multiple Cup titles. Stevens and Busch have been to the Championship 4 all five years they’ve been together. Sure, it wasn’t easy in the playoffs this year but they still claimed the championship.

4. Kevin Harvick/Rodney Childers (23 points): Were fast when they first got together in 2014 and have not slowed since. They have collected 26 wins in their six years together, earning the championship in 2014 and only missing the Championship 4 round once since (2016). If it wasn’t for occasional inconsistency and slumps, the No. 4 team likely would be ranked higher.

5. Christopher Bell/Jason Ratcliff (13 points): Though they will move to the Cup Series in 2020 without any Xfinity championships, they tormented the competition in the Xfinity Series the past two years, winning 15 times. Placed in the top five in 38 of 66 races.

6. Brad Keselowski/Paul Wolfe (12 points): The longest-tenured active combo in Cup at nine years. The duo has 29 wins, one championship and won three or more races in seven of those nine seasons together. The No. 2 team would have placed higher in these rankings except it has reached Championship 4 round just once (2015) since NASCAR went to an elimination playoff format in 2014.

7. Joey Logano/Todd Gordon (11 points): Did not have a strong playoffs but remained in contention for a Championship 4 spot until the penultimate race at Phoenix by grabbing stage points. The duo has 21 wins, one championship and one runner-up in seven years together. Have earned at least one win in each season they’ve been together but haven’t had more than three wins in a single season since 2015.

8. Chase Elliott/Alan Gustafson (7 points): Gustafson is underrated in his ability to build a team. After a slow start together, they’ve managed to produce back-to-back three-win seasons. Granted, the third round (finishes of 36th, 32nd and 39th) sealed Elliott’s hope of making the Championship 4, but this is a team that has laid a strong foundation.

9. William Byron/Chad Knaus (6 points): Only one of our voters selected Byron/Knaus. While this first-year pairing didn’t lead to a win for Byron, there was a tremendous amount of growth this season with five top-five and 13 top-10 finishes. Knaus’ veteran ability and patience and mentoring has paid dividends, leading to even higher expectations for this pairing in 2020.

10. Cole Custer/Mike Shiplett (5 points): After Custer earned just one win in each of his first two full-time Xfinity seasons, Shiplett provided a supercharge to Custer’s career. They earned seven wins and finished second in the championship race to Tyler Reddick in 2019. There has been no announcement whether Shiplett will follow Custer to Cup in 2020.

Others receiving votes: Ryan Newman/Scott Graves (4 points), Kyle Larson/Chad Johnston (3 points), Tyler Reddick/Randall Burnett (2 points), Matt Crafton/Carl Joiner (1 point).

John Ray, who drove patriotic big rig at Talladega, dies at 82

Photo courtesy Talladega Superspeedway
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One of Talladega Superspeedway’s most endearing and popular figures has passed away.

John “Johnny” Ray, whose diesel big rig carrying an American flag around the 2.66-mile track has been a fixture during the playing of the National Anthem at NASCAR Cup races for the past two decades, has died at the age of 82, the track announced Monday.

Ray began the tradition behind the wheel of his gold, brown and chrome-colored Peterbilt semi-tractor in 2001, with an oversized American flag flowing in the breeze behind the tractor.

The procession quickly became a significant fan favorite, eliciting loud cheers and applause from fans in the stands each time it passed by on the track’s front stretch.

“We just had the 9/11 attacks and Dale (Earnhardt) had also passed away earlier that year,” Ray, who lived down the street from the track in Eastaboga, Alabama, said in an interview three years ago. “I had a crazy idea to run my rig out on the track with an American flag attached to the back. It started off as a tribute to the country and to Dale.

“I never thought it would become the heart-felt moment that it has over the past some-odd years, but I’m glad it has become a tradition that means so much to the fans and the Talladega family. It represents such a sense of pride that we all share together as a nation and as a community. It is my honor and privilege to do it.”

Ray, who started his own trucking company in the early 1970s, and also had a brief NASCAR racing career of his own, ceded driving duties of the big rig several years ago to his late friend, Roger Haynes, and then last year to son Johnny Ray, to continue the tradition.

“National Anthems at Talladega Superspeedway are the most iconic, and it’s because of our great friend John Ray,” Speedway President Brian Crichton said in a media release. “What he brought to our fans can’t be duplicated.

“He was an incredible, passionate man who supported the track and all of motorsports with everything he had. His spirit will live here forever. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Ray family.”

Funeral arrangements for John Ray are pending, according to the track.

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Ryan Blaney experienced Kobe Bryant’s ‘Mamba Mentality’ in person

NASCAR Twitter
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CONCORD, N.C. — Kobe Bryant didn’t ask normal questions.

Nearly two years after a 20-minute conversation in the back of a Las Vegas steakhouse, that’s what sticks out to Ryan Blaney about the five-time NBA champion.

Blaney reflected on his encounter with Bryant on Monday, roughly 24 hours after the 41-year-old former Los Angeles Laker was killed in a helicopter crash, along with his 13-year-old daughter and seven others.

MORE: NASCAR community mourns death of Kobe Bryant

The encounter between the Team Penske driver and Bryant came in October 2018 during a convention for Body Armor, a sports drink company Bryant was an investor in that sponsors Blaney in the NASCAR Cup Series.

“We went into a backroom and all of a sudden Kobe Bryant was standing there,” Blaney said during a media event at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “Pretty amazing that he was back there and they let me meet him.”

During their meeting, Blaney gifted Bryant the firesuit that he wore during the race weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway earlier that year.

“He was pretty excited about that,” Blaney said. “Just being able to talk to a guy like that for 20 minutes, someone who didn’t really know a lot about racing, but wanted to learn everything about it 20 minutes. Just the way he asked questions, (he) was so interested in it, to me I could see where they call it the ‘Mamba Mentality’ comes from and how he used it in basketball to become so great.

“That was the coolest moment. I don’t get star struck very often. I knew all the answers, but I was getting nervous that I would answer wrong when he was asking me questions he knew nothing about. That’s just his atmosphere.”

Bryant didn’t pepper Blaney with the cliche questions one expects from those uninitiated with auto racing.

“I just didn’t expect the amount of interest he showed, he wanted to learn everything about it,” Blaney said. “It wasn’t like the (how do you use the) bathroom question. It wasn’t ‘do you get dizzy?’ It was technical stuff and shows what kind of amazing, intellectual person that he was. That was something that really tickled me, how excited he was to learn about it.”

Blaney, who said he was a Bryant fan growing up in the ’90s before LeBron James arrived on the scene to play for his home team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, said it was a “shame” he was never able to get Bryant to attend a race weekend.

“For somebody who has inspired so many young boys and girls around the country for decades, the social media stuff the last day and half has been unbelievable to see people who looked up to him growing up. I did too, I ain’t lying, how can you not watch Kobe Bryant when you’re growing up as a kid? A terrible loss. I hate that for his family and the other family involved.”

Bryant didn’t forget about their steakhouse encounter. He later sent Blaney a signed copy of his book, “The Mamba Mentality.”

Blaney keeps it on display on a bookshelf.

“Just really neat,” Blaney said. “You respect other great athletes and people and their work ethic. I think that’s what impressed me the most about him was his work ethic at everything. He’d outwork you at every little bit. You’ve got to respect somebody like that, who will figure out how to beat you and if he can’t do it with talent he’s going to outwork you really hard. I don’t know, it’s just amazing to get a privilege like that. It’s hard to describe.”

Brendan Gaughan to run 4 final Cup races in 2020, including Daytona 500

Photo: Beard Motorsports' Twitter account
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Brendan Gaughan will kick off his 23rd and final season of NASCAR racing in the 62nd Daytona 500 for Beard Motorsports.

Gaughan – who is using the hashtag #NotGaughanYet to symbolize his final season — will drive the No. 62 Chevrolet at Daytona. If he qualifies, it will be his fifth time in the 500 field, with his best finish coming in 2017 when he finished 11th.

The 44-year-old Gaughan is slated to drive four races this season in NASCAR Cup for Beard Motorsports. In addition to the Daytona 500, he’ll also race April 26 at Talladega Superspeedway, August 29 back at Daytona and will make the final start of his racing career on October 4 back at Talladega.

The Las Vegas native has made 12 previous starts for Beard Motorsports, all at either Daytona and Talladega.

“I love racing, and competing with Beard Motorsports these last few years have made for some of my most enjoyable moments in NASCAR,” Gaughan said in a media release. “We do a lot with a little, so when we run up front and lead laps, it’s very satisfying because you know all the work that went into it.”

Last April, Gaughan led five laps at Talladega and gave Beard Motorsports its second top-10 finish in the Cup Series, finishing eighth. Gaughan also finished seventh at Daytona for Beard Motorsports in July 2017.

“I wouldn’t want my last races as a NASCAR driver to be with any other team,” Gaughan said. “(Team owner) Mark Beard Sr., and his entire family are passionate about racing, and NASCAR in particular. We’re all competitive and want to perform, but we’re going to have fun doing it. That’s how we all got started in the sport – because it was fun. And as I wrap up my career, I’m going to make sure it stays fun.”

Gaughan has made 62 prior starts in the Cup Series dating back to his rookie season in 2004, when he earned his best career finish in the series (fourth at Talladega).

He also has made 219 starts in the Xfinity Series with two wins, and 217 starts in the Gander RV and Outdoors Truck Series with eight wins.

Gaughan’s effort at Daytona will be in a chassis built by Richard Childress Racing and powered by a motor from ECR Engines. He’ll be sponsored by Beard Oil Distributing, South Point Hotel & Casino and City Lights Shine whiskey moonshine.

He begins his quest to qualify for the 40-car field with Daytona 500 qualifying on February 9. His lap will determine his starting spot in the Feb. 13 Duel – twin 150-mile heat races that set the rest of the field for the Great American Race.

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UniFirst to sponsor Chase Elliott in three Cup Series races this year

Chase Elliott
Hendrick Motorsports
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UniFirst will be a sponsor of Chase Elliott‘s No. 9 Chevrolet in three Cup Series races this year, Hendrick Motorsports announced Monday.

The company will be on Elliott’s car at Phoenix Raceway (March 8), the All-Star Race (May 16) and the playoff race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Sept. 27).

A work clothing and uniform supplier, UniFirst has been a Hendrick Motorsports sponsor since 2016. It sponsored William Byron in four races in 2018 and three last year.

UniFirst also will be featured as an associate sponsor for all races in 2020.