Friday 5: Multiple changes have crew chiefs ‘starting over’ at Phoenix

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Although their drivers have combined to win three of the last four Cup races at Phoenix Raceway, crew chiefs Rodney Childers and Adam Stevens enter this weekend uncertain of what they’ll see.

NASCAR’s low-downforce package, which will be used at road courses and tracks less than 1 mile, debuts this weekend and is paired with a new tire that has the championship crew chiefs for Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch aware that if their setups are off in Friday’s opening practice, it could make for a long weekend.

Add that Phoenix Raceway hosts the championship race in November — the first time in the playoff era that the title race will be a track that hosts more than one Cup race a season — and this will be a busy weekend for drivers, crew chiefs and teams.

“I think the biggest thing is just making sure that you get out of the first race what you need to and learn as much as you can,” Childers told NBC Sports about this weekend. “It’s going to be about taking probably the best notes that you’ve ever taken before (at the track). Just being really precise about the things you may need when you come back.”

Kevin Harvick celebrating his 2018 win at Phoenix Raceway. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

No one has been better at Phoenix since 2014 when Harvick and Childers joined Stewart-Haas Racing. Harvick has won five of the 12 Phoenix Cup races since 2014. Harvick has never finished outside the top 10 at Phoenix with Childers as his crew chief.

Harvick’s most recent win there was in spring 2018 — with a package that is viewed as similar to the short track package NASCAR is using this season that creates less downforce with a significantly shorter spoiler than last year.

One driver who has challenged Harvick in recent years at Phoenix is Busch, who has won two of the last three races there, scoring victories in the 2018 fall race and last year’s spring race. He also has scored nine consecutive finishes of seventh or better at Phoenix.

Such success doesn’t comfort Stevens.

“Going into it there’s so much new that it’s almost like starting over or back to an older aero package that is not the same as 2018 but very close,” Stevens told NBC Sports about this weekend. “We’ve got a new tire combination with softer tread compounds so that the tires are going to wear out more throughout the run. Durability is a concern (at Phoenix in the past). You see a lot of right fronts giving up in the long run, so that might be more of a concern now.”

And the track will have PJ1 traction compound added again but lower in the corners than last fall’s race. Drivers generally felt that the PJ1 traction compound was too high on the track to be effective.

Crew chief Adam Stevens says of this weekend at Phoenix with so many unknowns: “It’s almost like starting over.” (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

“There’s so much new going into it, everybody is going to be scratching their head a little bit,” Stevens said of this weekend. “So you’re going to see quite a bit of discrepancy in speed off the truck than you normally would. Some guys are going to be a little closer (to the right setup) than the others. Maybe that gap will close up as the weekend goes. There’s a lot of learning to do and only two 50-minute practices to do it.”

With such limited practice time, teams can’t afford to be far off on speed.

“You can’t just change all four springs and all the heights and all the bump stops and stuff like that and go out and try something,” Childers said. “There’s just not enough time (to make all the adjustments in those sessions). If you have something that is pretty close, you kind of have to work around it and make it the best you can.”

While teams can do much prep work through simulation, there remains the question of the tire and how it will react to a team’s setup. Stevens calls every tire change a “wildcard” because teams don’t do their own tire testing.

“If your understanding of the tire is just a little bit off, then all of your setups and sim results are wildly off,” Stevens said. “So you have to understand the tire completely to get good results out of the sim.”

Childers has another question entering this weekend.

“We’ve never raced the Mustang with a little spoiler on the back, so we have no idea what we’re getting into,” he said. “Obviously, the new Chevrolet body, they’ve never raced it with a small spoiler on the back either. We’ll have to see how that part goes.”

2. What to take of this weekend

One of phrases likely to be stated often this weekend is if a team is slow, they have eight months to get better before the series returns to Phoenix for the championship race.

Yes, that’s true … but there’s a catch.

Looking back at 2018 — since that season’s package is similar to what is being run this weekend — shows that many of the strongest cars at Phoenix in the spring were among the strongest eight months later.

Examining the best 10 consecutive lap averages in final Cup practice shows that five of the top seven in the spring also were among the top seven in that same category in the fall.

Harvick was the fastest in that category for both the spring and the fall. Harvick won the spring race and finished fifth in the fall. Busch was sixth on the chart in the spring and fourth in the fall. Busch finished second in the spring race and won that fall race that year.

“I honestly think that the short tracks, I would call Phoenix one of them … the actual setup themselves haven’t evolved much,” Childers told NBC Sports. “I think if you found something that worked for you in 2015, it’s still going to work pretty good in 2020. The things that evolve the most are the cars and the aerodynamics and finding downforce.”

Stevens said teams are still learning and even if the results don’t show significant change over time, much has taken place.

“The thing you have to realize is everybody is developing and everybody is trying to get better,” he said. “Sometimes it’s hard to close that gap because … if you start behind, generally everybody is processing it and makes it tough to really close that gap. That gap isn’t just car potential, it’s in driver capability and certain drivers are better at certain tracks. Then there’s a certain group of drivers that are pretty at almost every track.”

3. What drivers say

Here is what some drivers say heading into Phoenix:

Brad Keselowski: “There are a lot of questions I have about the PJ1. They are putting it down, will they put it down in the fall? That could potentially make it not as important if they change what they are going to do there. That should be pretty interesting to see how it plays out. I think we would all like to believe that if you go out and win the Phoenix spring race that you will go out and win the fall race but a lot of things can change between now and then.”

Martin Truex Jr.: “It’s definitely unique going to (the track that will host the championship) twice. I don’t necessarily like that. I like that Homestead was a one-off deal. …  I felt like since the repave (between races in 2011), it’s taken a little bit for us to get our arms around it. I feel like we’re getting better there and that’s a good thing. Some good runs there the last couple years.”

Joey Logano: “I think everyone looks at Phoenix 1 now being maybe the most important race early in the season because it will be where you are racing for a championship. You need to really learn as much as possible. You want to have a strong run there and learn from your mistakes there more than anywhere and make sure you are clear about everything when you are done with the race. It is one of those tracks that you will spend more time afterwards dissecting every little piece of it.”

Kyle Busch: “I look forward to Phoenix, it’s always fun and a good place for us. Lately, we’ve been able to really pick up on some things that help us there that have made us better there the last few times and now this package is different. I think that will lend itself back into a couple years ago I guess. Felt like we were just kind of hitting on something there and was a bit racier through traffic and such. We’ll see how all that goes.”

4. Three in a row, but …

Kevin Harvick is the only Cup driver to score a top-10 finish in each of the first three races this season. Going back to last season, Harvick has scored eight consecutive top-10 results. He’s placed fifth in the Daytona 500, eighth at Las Vegas and ninth at Auto Club Speedway this season.

Crew chief Rodney Childers looks at what could have been.

“I felt like Daytona we had the best we’ve had there probably ever,” he said. “We didn’t ride around up front and show a lot of speed, but I think in the duel we showed that we had a lot of speed. We got some damage in the 500 that hurt our speed late in the race. Overall, it was a good weekend and got a top five out of it.

“Vegas was kind of disappointing at the end after running so well all day. We had a short-run car, which is what we planned. … It just didn’t work out at the end. Maybe I should have stayed out (instead of pitting) and taken a shot at it. I would had never thought that many were going to stay out. Overall, not getting a top five out of that was disappointing.

“This past weekend (at Auto Club Speedway) was just kind of a dud I guess you could say. Kind of took the wrong car and the wrong build. Just fought and fought and fought all weekend to make something out of it. No matter what you did to it, it was just kind of a one-speed (car) and just couldn’t get through the corners as fast as we needed.”

5. Interesting request

Early in last weekend’s race at Auto Club Speedway, Kyle Busch asked his team if they could look at his throttle trace from last year’s race (which he won) to compare with his throttle trace to see where he was off.

With the telemetry available, all teams can look at such items and any other team’s telemetry.

“We haven’t had a conversation like that, so that was kind of interesting,” Stevens said. “We weren’t as good as we needed to be, and we were really good (there) last year. I think from the seat he was having a hard time figuring out where his weakness was. The easiest thing to do was to compare back to last year, which everybody had that data. Anybody in the field could have given him that answer.

“Normally we wouldn’t look back toward a race that was a year prior even though the rules were the same because of the track conditions are different, they did tweak the tire. … We were able to do that quickly.

“I think it just confirmed what he thought.”

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Brad Daugherty: Michael Jordan to NASCAR is ‘huge moment’

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Brad Daugherty calls Michael Jordan’s ownership of a Cup team a “huge moment for NASCAR.”

Jordan and Denny Hamlin will co-own a Cup team next season. Bubba Wallace will be the driver. Jordan will become the first Black majority car owner of a full-time team since Wendell Scott owned and raced cars in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Daugherty, the only Black owner of a full-time Cup team currently, is excited about Jordan’s entrance into NASCAR.

“It’s a big momentum shift for this sport culturally, period,” said Daugherty, co-owner of JTG Daugherty Racing and an analyst for NBC Sports. “Three years ago, this would have never happened. A year ago, this wouldn’t have happened. It’s the timing. If the timing is right and you have someone like Michael Jordan put his brand and what he’s all about into whatever you are doing, it adds a lot of credibility. I look forward to whatever he can bring to the table to help continue to build NASCAR.”

Daugherty told NBC Sports that Jordan can help the sport reach more people.

“The eyeballs are going to be incredible,” Daugherty said of Jordan’s potential impact. “The opportunity for entrance into the sport will be made more available as far as people being aware of the availability to get involved in NASCAR as a fan or as a business. There’s just so many different areas that will light up just because of who he is and what he represents. His entire legacy creates opportunity for everyone.

“Now, we start talking diversity with what he’s able to do from a corporate standpoint and also just from a legacy standpoint with his brand. It’s going to be exciting. I’m excited because I think more people now, more than ever, will take a look at NASCAR with a keen eye and keen interest and be excited about maybe participating as a fan or as a business partner or as someone wanting to learn how to drive a race car or own a race team. The more notoriety the better.”

NASCAR stated Monday: “Michael is an iconic sports figure and celebrated champion whose fiercely competitive nature has placed him among the greatest athletes of all time. His presence at NASCAR’s top level will further strengthen the competition, excitement and momentum growing around our sport. We wish Michael and his team tremendous success.”

Jordan told The Charlotte Observer on Monday that the deal came together in about 10 days because of the chance to hire Wallace.

“When (Hamlin) told me there was a possibility of getting Bubba Wallace, I’m saying, ‘OK, this is perfect!’” Jordan told The Observer. “If I’m getting involved in NASCAR, then get a Black driver (with) a Black owner.”

For all that Jordan can bring to NASCAR, Daugherty knows that the competition can prove challenging.

“I’m sure he’s committed to next season and we’ll see how that goes and if it goes well, you go beyond that,” Daugherty said. “He had a (Superbike) team for a long time and loved that. He understands it’s a different business model. He’s at the point in his life, he’s like Roger Penske and Rick Hendrick and those guys to where it’s really not a detriment to him financially if he’s not making money. We’ll have to see how much he can stomach because it’s an interesting business model for sure.”

Jordan told The Observer he’s in it to win.

“If I’m investing, if I’m a participant, then I want to win! I don’t want to be out there to be just another car,” Jordan said.

Daugherty looks forward to seeing Jordan, Hamlin and Wallace at the track.

“I think it’s a pretty dynamic trio with Michael, Denny and Bubba,” Daugherty said. “They’re going to be like rock stars.”

Daugherty also looks forward to something else next year.

“Look forward to racing against those guys,” he said, “and trying to kick their butts.”

Germain Racing sells charter, will exit sport at end of season

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Germain Racing car owner Bob Germain announced Monday that he has sold the team’s charter and will end the team after this season.

The charter was purchased by a new team that will have Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan as owners and Bubba Wallace as the driver.

Germain said in a statement that the No. 13 team will continue the rest of the season with Ty Dillon as driver.

“Being an owner in NASCAR for the last 16 years has been a thrilling and rewarding adventure,” Germain said in a statement. “From winning two NASCAR Truck Series championships in 2006 and 2010 to competing at the highest level of motorsports in the Cup Series for the last 12 seasons, I have experienced the highs and lows of our sport. I’m extremely proud of what Germain Racing has accomplished at every level and I will be transitioning out of ownership with many memories and friendships. I appreciate the interest and offers made over the last couple of weeks and I am excited to see how the sport continues to grow in the future.

“Thank you to GEICO for their loyalty to Germain Racing for over a decade. It has been a great source of pride for our team to represent their brand on the track. Doug Barnette with Player Management International has facilitated our GEICO relationship since the beginning and I truly appreciate his efforts. Finally, to my employees: building a team camaraderie and creating a family atmosphere has been a highlight of this journey. I will miss each of you.”

Germain pondered a sale when GEICO decided not to renew its contract after this season with the team.  GEICO is one of NASCAR’s Premier Partners, joining Busch Beer, Coca-Cola and Xfinity.

Dillon spoke in late August about the challenges facing single-car teams in Cup.

“The model is very tough right now for single-car teams,” he said. “I’m hoping that NASCAR is going to change it and help on it. But it needs to change for one-car teams to be more successful that haven’t already been at the top level of the sport or have an incredible amount of money to leapfrog into the top spot. If you don’t have three or four teams to spread the wealth with big name sponsors and a lot of money behind the effort, it’s just not a model that’s going to survive long term.”

Hamlin acknowledged the challenge a one-car team can have.

“I do believe that the (ownership) model will hopefully get better,” Hamlin said before last weekend’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway. “Do I think it’s fixed? No, I think there is still some work to be done to make the model a viable business. You want a business that everyone wants to be a part of, not the ones that are fleeting. Certainly, I think NASCAR is trying it’s best to make the teams a little more healthy. I think that outlook toward the future is what’s interesting to me.”

Germain Racing is the second team to sell its charter since August. Leavine Family Racing announced it had sold its charter on Aug. 4. Spire Motorsports purchased it and will be a two-car team in 2021.

 

 

Denny Hamlin, Michael Jordan to own Cup team; Bubba Wallace to drive

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Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan will own a Cup team that will have Bubba Wallace as its driver for 2021, Hamlin announced on social media Monday night.

Hamlin said details about the single-car team, including name, car number, manufacturer and sponsors, will be announced at a later date. The team purchased Germain Racing’s charter.

The partnership of Hamlin and Jordan brings one of the most recognizable figures in sports to NASCAR. Jordan won six NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009. He became majority owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets in 2010.

“Growing up in North Carolina, my parents would take my brothers, sisters and me to the races, and I’ve been a NASCAR fan my whole life,” Jordan said in a statement. “The opportunity to own my own racing team in partnership with my friend, Denny Hamlin, and to have Bubba Wallace driving for us, is very exciting to me.

“Historically, NASCAR has struggled with diversity and there have been few Black owners. The timing seemed perfect as NASCAR is evolving and embracing social change more and more. In addition to the recent commitment and donations I have made to combat systemic racism, I see this as a chance to educate a new audience and open more opportunities for Black people in racing.”

Michael Jordon high-fives the crowd before the 2010 NASCAR All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images)

Jordan becomes the second Black car owner of a full-time team. Brad Daugherty, who also is an analyst for NBC Sports, is a co-owner in JTG Daugherty Racing. Once the charter sale is completed, Jordan will become the first Black majority owner of a full-time race team in NASCAR’s premier series since since Wendell Scott owned and raced his own cars in the 1960s and ’70s.

NASCAR issued a statement Monday night on Jordan joining the series.

“We proudly welcome Michael Jordan into the NASCAR family, and look forward to watching Michael, Denny Hamlin and Bubba Wallace compete in 2021. Michael is an iconic sports figure and celebrated champion whose fiercely competitive nature has placed him among the greatest athletes of all time. His presence at NASCAR’s top level will further strengthen the competition, excitement and momentum growing around our sport. We wish Michael and his team tremendous success.”

Jordan’s entry likely doesn’t happen if not for his friendship with Hamlin and Hamlin’s interest in being an owner.

Hamlin said last weekend that he has been interested in ownership “for a while.

I still don’t know how long my driving career will go,” Hamlin said. “There are several different sides of management or what not that I would like to be a part of when it comes to NASCAR and the sport itself. It has to be the right opportunity and if it’s not the right opportunity, the right time then I won’t do it. Everything just has to line up perfectly for me to even remotely consider it.

“I do believe that the (ownership) model will hopefully get better. Do I think it’s fixed? No, I think there is still some work to be done to make the model a viable business. You want a business that everyone wants to be a part of, not the ones that are fleeting. Certainly, I think NASCAR is trying it’s best to make the teams a little more healthy. I think that outlook toward the future is what’s interesting to me.”

This is the second team to be sold this season. Leavine Family Racing sold its charter and assets to Spire Motorsports. That gives Spire Motorsports two charters for the 2021 season.

NASCAR President Steve Phelps was asked before the playoffs about a driver owning another team. He said it would be allowed.

The short answer is yes, but they would need to abide by our guidelines that we would be satisfied that this is not just a shell for a fifth team,” he said.

Jordan has been a long-time motorsports fan and supporter of Hamlin. Nike’s Michael Jordan Brand first had a deal with Hamlin in 2011, putting Jordan’s “Jumpman” logo on Hamlin’s firesuit.

The Jordan Brand grew more than 50% in China for fiscal year 2020, approaching $1 billion in annual revenue, John Donahoe, president and chief executive of Nike, Inc., said in an earnings call with investor analysts June 25.

Jordan attended the 2019 Cup championship race in Miami in hopes of celebrating a Hamlin title. Jordan also attended the 2014 title race and was among the first to greet Hamlin after he exited the car that day after failing to win the championship.

Jordan told NBC Sports’ Dale Earnhardt Jr. about his interest in motorsports last November at Miami.

“I’m a big racing fan,” Jordan said. “Started off when I was a kid. Grew up watching (Dale Earnhardt Sr.), Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, which was the original 11 that I remember. Now I’m good friends with Denny Hamlin. We go way back. He’s a season ticket holder at the (Charlotte) Hornets (owned by Jordan). I spend a lot of time playing golf with him.”

Asked by Dale Earnhardt Jr. about any interest in becoming a NASCAR team owner, Jordan said: “No, I’ve got a lot on my plate. I love being a fan. I still understand the sport, but in terms of ownership, nah, I think I’m just going to sit back and watch it and support from afar.”

The 26-year-old Wallace is in his third full season in Cup. All 105 of his starts in NASCAR’s premier series have been with Richard Petty Motorsports.

“Bubba has shown tremendous improvement since joining the Cup Series and we believe he’s ready to take his career to a higher level,” Hamlin said in a statement. “He deserves the opportunity to compete for race wins and our team will make sure he has the resources to do just that. Off the track, Bubba has been a loud voice for change in our sport and our country. MJ and I support him fully in those efforts and stand beside him.”

Wallace, the only Black driver competing full-time in any of NASCAR’s top three national series. He has been active in helping lead NASCAR through social changes, including the banning of the Confederate flag at series events and tracks.

Wallace previously stated he had offers from Richard Petty Motorsports and Chip Ganassi Racing.

Report: Cup to compete at Circuit of the Americas in 2021

Circuit of the Americas
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The NASCAR Cup Series will compete at the Circuit of the Americas road course in Austin, Texas, next year while the All-Star Race will have a new home, The Athletic reported Monday.

The changes reported are:

  • Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas to host a Cup race in 2021. That date would come from one of the two Cup weekends Texas Motor Speedway hosts.
  • Texas Motor Speedway would get the All-Star Race, replacing the weekend sent to Circuit of the Americas.

NASCAR declined a request for comment from NBC Sports, but a spokesperson said it is “looking forward to announcing the 2021 schedule in the near future.”

The Circuit of the Americas is a 3.426-mile, 20-turn road course that opened in 2012. It hosts Formula 1 races and began holding IndyCar events in 2019.

With Circuit of the Americas, the NASCAR Cup Series could have as many as five races on road courses next year: Watkins Glen, Sonoma Raceway, Charlotte Roval and the Daytona road course, which is scheduled to host the Busch Clash in February.

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.

Circuit of the Americas is located roughly 220 miles south of Texas Motor Speedway in North Texas.

Texas Motor Speedway, owned by Speedway Motorsports, has hosted two Cup points races since 2005.

Circuit of the Americas would be the second new track to host a Cup race next year.

Nashville Superspeedway in Tennessee was revealed in June as the newest addition to the schedule. It will host the Cup Series June 21, 2021.

NASCAR’s All-Star Race was held at Bristol Motor Speedway in July this year after the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic prevented it from being held at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Charlotte, another Speedway Motorsports track, had hosted the All-Star Race every year but one since the event’s introduction in 1985.

According The Athletic, the All-Star Race is expected to be held later in the year instead of its traditional spot the week before the Coca-Cola 600 in May.