Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Friday 5: Rule change is chance for drivers to go back in time

2 Comments

Jeff Gordon marveled as he watched Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch run nose-to-tail or side-by-side lap after lap for the lead late in the 2017 spring Cup race at Martinsville Speedway.

“These are the two of the most equal race cars and one of the best races for the lead I’ve seen here at Martinsville in a very long time,” said Gordon, a nine-time Martinsville winner, on the FS1 broadcast.

Keselowski and Busch rarely seemed apart for a spell within the final 100 laps, whether it was Keselowski pressuring Busch or Busch doing the same thing by closing on Keselowski’s rear bumper.

It is the type of racing NASCAR hopes will return with the announcement this week of a short track package, which includes a smaller spoiler, that shares similarities to what was run in 2017-18.

What makes that 2017 spring Martinsville race stand out is how close Keselowski and Busch ran to each other before Keselowski won.

It contrasts the 2019 spring race, which featured a larger spoiler as part of the high downforce package used at all tracks. Keselowski led 446 of 500 laps that day. Runner-up Chase Elliott could not run close to Keselowski for long. 

Brad Keselowski celebrates his 2017 Martinsville win after a duel with Kyle Busch. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Keselowski explained to NBC Sports the differences in those packages and why the cars could run closer together in the 2017 race than the 2019 race.

“You’re able to brake differently, the cars were harder to stop, they had a smaller spoiler, so you had to really use a lot of finesse to work them down into the corner,” Keselowski said of the package used in 2017-18. “You didn’t lose the nose as quickly because you weren’t using aero as such an assist in the middle of the corner.

“If you had asked me earlier in my career if I thought aero would come into play at Martinsville, I would have said you were crazy. Same thing I would have said if you had told me that the cars would make almost 4,000 pounds of downforce. Those two conversations go hand in hand.

“The 2019 car, the easiest way I know how to explain this … at full speed at the tracks that we ran at, if the race track would have been inverted, the car would have stayed on the racetrack. That’s downforce. … It’s to a point where it could be a Hot Wheels track and we could run upside down. That tells you how much assistance the cars were getting from the air.”

The short track package will be used at all ovals 1 mile or less and the three road course events for a total of 14 races this year. Eight of the season’s final 15 races, including five in the playoffs, will be run with this package. The championship race at Phoenix will use this short track setup.

“Making this change is certainly a step in the direction of putting the racing back in the drivers’ hands and out of aerodynamics’ control,” Keselowski said. “More times than not, but not always, the result is better for the fans. I think it’s a win as a whole.”

2. Tire change with short track package

One of the complaints drivers and teams had last year was the lack of tire wear during events. Without such wear and tire falloff, drivers found it more challenging to pass, particularly at short tracks. 

With the lower downforce package at short tracks this year, Goodyear will construct a tire intended to wear more, said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing.

“We are going to make some changes,” Stucker told NBC Sports about the tire that will be used with the short track setup.

“From a traction, from a grip-level perspective, I go back to what we learned at the Martinsville test that we had there in July, what we learned at our Richmond test back in October. Granted that was in the Next Gen car, but we were able to evaluate some things and learn some things about Richmond and the same thing with Phoenix because we evaluated several different compounds. We got different reference points at those two tests along with stuff we’ve done in the past at those two race tracks testing-wise. We were able to formulate a plan to go a little softer than what we have been.

“Even understanding that the downforce is coming off, on top of that, we’re going to go ahead and take a step in trying to increase the grip level mechanically, which will also result in higher tread wear that, hopefully, will fall off.”

With a new short track package and a tire intended to wear more, will NASCAR need to use the traction compound (darker portion of the track) at Phoenix again this year? (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

Goodyear will not do any testing before the first race with the short track package — Phoenix on March 8 — because there isn’t enough time.

NASCAR met with drivers, teams, Goodyear and others in Nashville before the December awards banquet to devise a course of action for the short tracks. That followed NASCAR President Steve Phelps saying before the season finale in Miami that “our promise to our fans … is that we are going to provide the best racing we can at our short tracks.”

One issue that has not been determined is if the traction compound applied in the corners at Phoenix Raceway last year will be reapplied for the March race. With a new short track package and a new tire, the traction compound might not be needed.

“Our opinion, and I think everybody’s is … (the traction compound) is to enhance the multiple racing lines, it is enable multiple grooves to come in at a particular track,” Stucker said. “We’re not in favor of just applying traction compound on a racetrack just to go faster. That’s not the goal.”

3. Decisions, decisions

Among the challenges for some teams with the short track package is determining how much wind tunnel time to devote to that setup and to the higher downforce package used at the bigger tracks.

NASCAR announced in October that organizations would be limited to 150 hours of wind tunnel time in 2020.

While the short track package shares similarities to what was run in 2017 and ’18, it’s not the same. Jimmy Makar, senior vice president of racing operations for Joe Gibbs Racing, said that wind tunnel time will be important for the short track setup.

Makar told NBC Sports that it will be a “challenge” to properly divide the wind tunnel time between the low downforce and high downforce packages.

Even with simulation programs playing a greater role for teams, Makar says wind tunnel testing is still vital.

Kyle Busch scored his second Cup title in five years in 2019 for Joe Gibbs Racing. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

“You can learn a lot of basic things in (simulation) and kind of get your preliminary ideas and thoughts together and then apply them in the wind tunnel to get your final decision on how that change worked,” Makar said. “The wind tunnel, I think, probably is still your closest thing to the racetrack.”

Other key decisions for teams will come as the year progresses.

Teams will have to decide how to allocate resources in preparing high downforce cars, low downforce cars and also the Next Gen car that debuts in 2021.

“It does create a bit of a different challenge because it is that much different,” Makar said of the Next Gen car. “It’s completely, uniquely new to us. Just looking at the car and how things bolt together, it’s a big learning curve for all the teams. It’s not like over the years when you had a body change or an aero package change, it’s still the same car.”

Makar said one thing that will help is that with NASCAR putting a freeze on teams developing new parts, those crew members can focus on the Next Gen car.

Another key issue will be for any organization that has multiple teams in the playoffs — and even multiple teams in the final eight or the championship race. Go all in on a championship or work on the Next Gen car to begin next year strong?

“In my view, the obvious thing is (this year’s) championship is the first and foremost goal,” Makar said. “That’s what we have to focus on. That’s the next thing in line.”

4. His turn

The recent shuffling of drivers and crew chiefs at Team Penske could have some fans of Brad Keselowski feeling down.

Car owner Roger Penske split Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe, sending Wolfe to work with Joey Logano. Penske also moved Logano’s crew chief, Todd Gordon, over to be with Ryan Blaney. That left Jeremy Bullins, who had been Blaney’s crew chief, to join Keselowski.

So what would Keselowski tell his fans about now being paired with Bullins?

Jeremy Bullins moves over from Ryan Blaney’s team to be Brad Keselowski’s crew chief in 2020. (Photo by Jeffrey Vest/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“First thing I’d tell my fans is that Jeremy is the only Cup crew chief at Penske of the three that hasn’t won the championship,” Keselowski said. “The way I see it, he’s the next one to win one.”

Keselowski is focused on this season but he did tell NBC Sports that “I’m super proud of everything we were able to do as a team with Paul as crew chief and everyone else that was on the team at that time. I haven’t really spent much time looking out the rear window because I can’t change anything. So I’m looking out the front windshield.”

With a new crew chief will come new demands.

“I’m sure that Jeremy and the team are going to challenge me to be better,” Keselowski said. “I think that’s healthy. I’m going to do the same with them. I guess I view it as a complete blank slate. Our goal is to be the best and win the championship in 2020.

“What’s great is that we all have enough experience for that to be a realistic opportunity. If you combine that with our willingness to try new things, I think it could be a lethal combination.”

5. A name to remember

Cannon McIntosh’s assignment last fall was to write an essay about himself as if the high school junior was preparing a college application.

He felt good about what he wrote.

Until he got his grade.

A zero.

McIntosh’s instructor thought what McIntosh wrote was not true, that it had been plagiarized. No way, the teacher assumed, this student was a race car driver.

Cannon McIntosh (right) with Jay Drake, team manager of Keith Kunz Motorsports.
(Photo by Swikar Patel/TRD)

The situation was quickly rectified. Soon more than McIntosh’s teachers will know who he is.

The 17-year-old has been making a name in midget racing the past year and earned a ride with Keith Kunz Motorsports for this week’s Chili Bowl as a Toyota Racing Development driver. Keith Kunz Motorsports has won the past five Chili Bowl titles, including the past three with Christopher Bell.

McIntosh, who grew up in the Tulsa, Oklahoma suburbs and has to only make a short drive to the site of the Chili Bowl, won his preliminary feature Monday night to earn his first berth in the Chili Bowl Nationals A main.

He can’t wait until Saturday night’s feature race.

“I’ve raced pretty much all the guys that are going to be in that feature,” McIntosh told NBC Sports. “I know what to expect, and I know what I’m going to have to bring to the table, racing against those guys.

“(Kyle) Larson and Bell are definitely going to be the ones to beat coming Saturday. I’ve raced them before and I know what to expect. I’m going to have to be on my game. No matter what happens, we did well, we made the feature. I’m just hoping we can put on a good show, let them know we were there to fight.”

Myatt Snider: It’s ‘game on’ if conflict with Noah Gragson continues

Leave a comment

The spat between Xfinity Series drivers Myatt Snider and Noah Gragson may not necessarily be over.

The pair tangled in Sunday night’s Xfinity Series race in Las Vegas. Gragson made contact with Snider’s car, sending it into a spin.

Snider discussed the incident Wednesday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “Tradin’ Paint” and where things stand between the two drivers.

“It, to me, just seemed like some impatience on Noah’s part,” Snider said of the incident. “I had gotten into a rut and was trying to figure out how to make the car faster but at that point in time, I didn’t. So he was running me down and he actually had a run on me going to the frontstretch.

“So I was, ‘Okay, he’s going to go by me.’ Then I felt a little yoink in the left rear quarter and around I was going. It’s kind of unfortunate it had to go down that way, that’s not racing to me. But I’m a big believer in karma and what goes around, comes around. We’ll be performing at our best over these next couple of weeks and I’m not worried about it.”

Snider also told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that he hasn’t texted or talked to Gragson since Sunday, but Snider said he’s ready if the spat continues.

“I’m the kind of guy that believes in racing people how you’re raced,” Snider said. “I’m not going to take any kind of stuff like that. If (Gragson) wants to send that kind of message early, then game on.”

On Tuesday, here’s how Gragson explained what happened on “Sirius Speedway” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

“It was just some hard racing between the two of us and we got into each other, so I think we both can look forward to the next couple of races and stay out of each other’s ways,” Gragson said. “I think we’re both at fault. It was a long race, none of us were going to give and we’re going to go on to California and run as good as possible and do as good as we can.”

Much has been made about the TV replays of Gragson and Snider meeting after the race to talk about the incident. Gragson tried to give Snider a fist bump only to have Snider walk away without fist bumping him.

“I told (Myatt) let’s play rock, paper, scissors,” Gragson quipped in part on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “I went with rock and he still hasn’t gotten back to me if he wants scissors, paper or rock.”

Gragson won the season opener at Daytona and finished fourth at Las Vegas for JR Motorsports. Snider, who won the pole at Daytona, finished 33rd at Daytona and 16th at Las Vegas for Richard Childress Racing. Snider will race this weekend at Auto Club Speedway for RSS Racing.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Ryan Newman gets standing ovation in visit to Roush Fenway Racing

Leave a comment

Exactly 10 months to the day when the country will celebrate Thanksgiving, the entire Roush Fenway Racing organization gave thanks and a warm welcome to driver Ryan Newman, who visited the team’s shop Wednesday.

Newman, who was involved in a horrific crash coming to the finish line of the Daytona 500 just nine days earlier, received a standing ovation from his colleagues and posed for a number of photos.

While there is still no timetable for Newman’s return behind the wheel of his No. 6 RFR Ford Mustang — Ross Chastain is scheduled to drive the car until Newman comes back — Wednesday’s appearance was yet another positive move in that direction.

“Just a good day,” RFR president Steve Newmark tweeted about Newman’s visit.

Newman said in a prior statement he suffered an undisclosed head injury in the crash but did not suffer any broken bones or internal injuries.

Tuesday he took part in one of his favorite pastimes:

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Hendrick focused on Jimmie Johnson’s success, not successor

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Kyle Larson. Brad Keselowski. Ryan Blaney. Erik Jones.

No, we’re not talking about this week’s fantasy racing picks, but those four drivers have been among drivers mentioned most often when it comes time for Hendrick Motorsports to name a replacement for Jimmie Johnson, who will retire after this season.

Yet even though filling Johnson’s spot is important, it’s not as much a priority right now as it is for the entire organization to learn more about the nuances of the new Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE, according to HMS vice president of competition Jeff Andrews.

“We don’t have a timetable for that, to be honest with you,” Andrews said of naming a replacement for Johnson on Wednesday “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Our focus has been getting better race cars under Jimmie Johnson and getting better race cars for (crew chief) Cliff Daniels and his race team to work with on the weekend.

“The focus right now immediately for the 48 is to get a win, get that car in the playoffs, get multiple wins through the season and then get Jimmie Johnson to Phoenix at the end of the year to battle for that championship.”

Andrews admits the vibe around Hendrick Motorsports’ campus is markedly different this year, knowing it’s Johnson’s final season in the No. 48.

“I think the sense is pride here within Hendrick Motorsports, to just have been associated with someone like Jimmie,” Andrews told SiriusXM. “For those of us who have been here really throughout his career, we’re just incredibly proud that he chose to drive for Hendrick Motorsports throughout his whole career.

“But we’re also proud of all his accomplishments and what he’s done for this company. I think we would have an awful hard time of ever paying him back for all that. Our goal this year is giving him everything he needs for a multiple win season and to get to Phoenix. We owe him that at the least.”

The Hendrick organization has struggled in adapting to the new Chevrolet Camaro body style this year. In the season-opening Daytona 500, Chase Elliott (finished seventh) was the only HMS driver in the top 15.

Things were a bit better this past Sunday at Las Vegas. Johnson was the highest-finishing HMS driver (fifth), while Alex Bowman was 13th. But there was considerable sense of accomplishment overall for Chevrolet as a whole, with six of its Camaros in the top 10 (as opposed to only two Chevys in the top 10 at Daytona).

That leaves Andrews, the competition department at HMS and Chevrolet officials as a whole feeling optimistic as the series heads for the third race of the season this weekend at the two-mile track in Fontana, California.

“From a barometer perspective, we’re feeling good about where we’ve been,” Andrews said. “We haven’t had that finish, that win that we’re looking for, but certainly we’ve started off the year with some good speed in our cars.

“The one thing that all of our drivers were commenting on is we had more speed in our cars and just had a better platform in our cars and a better ability to run multiple lines on the racetrack, which is something we haven’t in recent years.”

Admittedly, it’s been a tough road for Hendrick drivers over the last three seasons. Since Johnson’s seventh Cup championship in 2016, no HMS driver has reached the Championship 4 round since.

Also during that time frame, only two drivers have finished in the top-10 overall in the last three seasons (Chase Elliott, fifth in 2017, sixth in 2018 and 10th in 2019; and Johnson, 10th in 2017).

These next five races, particularly the last two of that stretch at Homestead-Miami and Texas, will help give Andrews and his staff a better handle on where their adjustment to the Camaro goes from there.

“We know it’s a long season and have a long ways to go with this,” Andrews told SiriusXM. “We need to get through three or four more races.

“I think we’ve targeted as a company a better understanding of where we’re at after the Homestead/Texas timeframe to get some types of tracks and learn with this new car.

“Steep learning curve with the new car and we’ve got to act quick. We have just a year to work with this before we get to another generation of race cars. … We’re looking forward to going back to the track this weekend in Fontana and see where we go with it.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski

NBC Sports Power Rankings: Joey Logano takes top spot from Denny Hamlin

Leave a comment

Move over Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano is coming through.

By virtue of his win Sunday in Las Vegas, Logano replaces Hamlin atop this week’s NBC Sports Power Rankings.

Eightteen drivers received votes from NBC Sports’ NASCAR writers.

Here’s this week’s Power Rankings:

1. Joey Logano (37 points out of 40): Bounced back from a DNF at Daytona to earn a gifted win at Las Vegas when the top two cars pitted late, allowing Logano to move to the lead and keep it. Last week’s ranking: unranked.

2. Kevin Harvick (34 points): Pitted before final restart, which likely cost him a chance at a top-five finish (he wound up eighth). Still, with top-10 finishes in the first two races (one of only two drivers to do so), Harvick is off to a strong start. Last week: 6th (tied).

3. Ryan Blaney (29 points): Late pit call cost him the win and a top 10 (finished 11th), but maybe there’s some solace in being atop the Cup standings heading to Fontana. Last week: 3rd.

4. Chase Elliott (24 points): Even though he finished 26th at Las Vegas, Elliott led 70 laps and won each of the first two stages. Including Daytona, he’s led nearly 100 laps in first two races. Now all he has to do is finish off a race with a win. Last week: 9th.

5. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (17 points): One of the biggest surprises this season. The move to JTG Daugherty Racing is agreeing with him. Led 24 laps at Daytona before late-race wreck and 30 laps at Vegas, finishing third. Definitely someone to keep an eye on. Last week: unranked.

(tie) 6. Denny Hamlin (15 points): After his win at Daytona, struggled through a rough day at Las Vegas, finishing 17th. Last week: 1st

(tie) 6. Kyle Larson (15 points): One of two drivers to finish in the top 10 in each of first two races. Looks to add to one win and two runner-ups in six Cup starts at Fontana on Sunday. Last week: 4th.

8. Matt DiBenedetto (14 points): Earned second-place finish in his second start for Wood Brothers Racing. Could he bring the organization it’s 100th Cup win at Fontana? Last week: unranked.

9. Jimmie Johnson (13 points): Finished fifth at Las Vegas (as well as being fastest in final Cup practice there). Has six career wins at his home track in Fontana. Can he make it seven on Sunday (which would break a 97-race winless streak)? Last week: unranked.

10. Alex Bowman (7 points): Showed some impressive speed late before being shuffled back to 13th place after last caution. Last week: unranked.

Others receiving votes: William Byron (3 points), Bubba Wallace (3 points), Austin Dillon (2 points), Brad Keselowski (2 points), Chris Buescher (2 points), Clint Bowyer (1 point), Chase Briscoe (1 point), Johnny Sauter (1 point).