Friday 5: Drivers get ready for a challenging season of change

0 Comments

As Kevin Harvick prepares for a NASCAR schedule as diverse as he’s ever experienced, the former Cup champion sees more change coming.

With a record seven road course races, the first Cup race on dirt since 1970 and fewer events at 1.5- and 2-mile tracks, NASCAR is going through a dramatic transition with its schedule.

“The most changes since 1969,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president, when the schedule was unveiled in September.

The result is that competitors will be tested in ways they have not.

Harvick, the oldest active full-time Cup driver at age 45, only can imagine what challenges will come for the next generation of racers.

“As motorsports goes forward, I think that the preparation and the level of things that you need is going to be different than the tools you’ve needed in the past,” he told NBC Sports. “You’re going to have to be very versatile in the things that you do.

“You look at this particular season. You’re going to have to be a darn good road racer on the NASCAR side, but you’re also going to have to have a little bit of dirt experience in there along with some short-track experience.

“You look at everything that it takes, I think you need to be as well rounded as you bring these kids up. … I don’t think that’s going to change. I think that’s going to become more extreme in how versatile you need to be.”

For some competitors, the changes already seem extreme — even after a season where there was no practice or qualifying before most races.

“It will be interesting and exciting to watch, for sure, and a little nerve-racking for the competitions as we have no idea what is around the corner,” Joey Logano told NBC Sports.

Six of the seven road courses are in the regular season. There had not been more than two in the regular season since NASCAR switched to a postseason format to determine the champion in 2004. While reigning champion Chase Elliott has won the past four road course races, others are not conceding any of those races this season.

“I’m no Chase Elliott, but I try to hang the best I can on the road course,” Ryan Blaney told NBC Sports.

He’s done well. Blaney has four top-five finishes in the last six road course races, including a win.

William Byron said he anticipates this year’s schedule will alter the balance of power in the sport.

“I think you’ll see less of domination from one team because you won’t be able to just go off the setup that you ran at Michigan and take that to another 2-mile track and do well like you see during the summer,” he told NBC Sports. “Typically in the summer, the guys that are fast at Michigan (that) kind of carries over to some of the bigger tracks and it’s kind of hard to overcome the dominance of those guys and their teams.

“Now with a bunch of road courses in the mix, I doubt you’re going to see consistency like that to be fast every week.”

Harvick and Denny Hamlin combined to win eight of 11 races between last June and August at tracks 1.5-miles or longer.

Also different is that three of the final seven races in the regular season will be on road courses: Road America (July 4) Watkins Glen (Aug. 8) and Indianapolis (Aug. 15). Those races could alter who makes the playoffs.

The Bristol dirt race also could give Cup drivers with a dirt background a chance to secure a playoff spot with a win early in the season.

“I don’t think anybody has a clue of how it’s going to be,” Kyle Larson told NBC Sports of the March 28 race at Bristol. “I think that’s what intriguing to me is the unknown and kind of having to adapt to something totally different. Even though it’s a dirt track, it’s not even close to what I’m used to racing on on dirt.”

After this year? There’s a new car radically different from what competitors have raced.

This is a new era in NASCAR,” Kurt Busch told NBC Sports. “Lack of practice, jumping into these races and trying to collect stage points vs. putting yourself in position to win. The new simulators, the iRacing world, the new tracks, the new car. … If you get stuck in your ways, you’re getting put a lap down right now.”

2. Special anniversary

Cup rookie Chase Briscoe had overlooked the significance of Monday until a tweet he posted on Feb. 1, 2014, popped up on his phone.

Briscoe began his journey to North Carolina that day, leaving Indiana. He wrote in the tweet that he didn’t have a ride with any team and that “I’m not going to get anything unless I’m down there in the middle of it. I’m looking forward to this adventure and hoping to get back in a car soon.”

Briscoe said seeing the tweet seven years later brought back the emotions of that day.

“I was so excited to kind of start a new journey but also so nervous and really didn’t know what I was getting into,” he said. “I was fresh out of high school. I remember my mom, right before I left, literally trying to teach me how to do the laundry because she had always done it for me while I was in high school. 

“I was green to everything. I never had a credit card or a debit card. I literally went down with $150 in cash and just pretty much thrown into the world and try to figure it out.”

After two years, he still did not have a ride and was set to return to Indiana.

“Literally the day I was driving home I remember I was in Kentucky, called my mom,” Briscoe said. “I was in tears and told her I was moving back home. I was over it. I had been down there for two years and didn’t have anything. I was going to go run a midget that weekend and the following Monday I was going to drive back down, get my stuff and go back home. 

“Two hours later … I got a call from an ARCA team asking me if I was interested in coming and doing a test, and that was the Cunningham Motorsports team. I went there that following Monday and started volunteering my time.

“I’d been sleeping on couches for almost two years to that point and just started hanging out around their shop trying to be the first one to be there and the last guy to leave. I think I volunteered for a full nine or 10 months until I even got in a race car. They somehow, I don’t know why, decided they were going to let me race for them, and we went and ran for the championship in 2016 and was able to win the championship.”

That led to a development deal with Ford. His win in the Xfinity Roval race in 2018 led to a ride with Stewart-Haas Racing’s Xfinity program and to the Cup ride this year.

“There were so many doors that probably shouldn’t have been opened that were somehow able to get opened,” he said. “When that (memory) popped up today, I just think of all the people that were willing to give me an opportunity when I didn’t have a resume.”

3. Tears of appreciation

Ryan Newman says he has no memory of his accident in last year’s Daytona 500 that bruised his brain.

“I don’t have any fear because I don’t have any memory” of the accident, Newman said.

The Purdue University engineering graduate says he’s looked at various videos of the incident to study the crash and understand all that the car went through.

“YouTube is an amazing tool,” Newman said. “I didn’t realize somebody had created a YouTube video of every angle of my crash until probably a month or two, maybe three months ago. … I literally laid in bed one morning as it popped up – ‘We know you like these things, so check this out.’ ‘Well, hell, that’s me.’

“So I looked at it and I watched it and it was just a different perspective. It brought tears to my eyes. Like, ‘Damn.’ But those are tears of respect and appreciation, not tears of sadness because I was here and I was able to watch it and know that just down the hallway my kids were going to wake up shortly.”

4. A “Super” conversation

Asked which athlete they’d like to meet, a few Cup drivers pointed to Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady, who goes for his seventh Super Bowl title Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs.

“His competitive nature, I think, is something that anybody could respect,” Chase Elliott told NBC Sports. “That would be a guy that I would love to have a conversation with and talk about a little of everything.”

Elliott would want to talk to Brady about his mental approach.

“People are always like you set your mind to it, you can do whatever, within reason,” Elliott said. “You can really manipulate a lot of thinking in your head with the right amount of nudge from one corner or the other. It can really sway you.

“There’s absolutely a big mental game in anything you do, whether it’s sports or anything. I think the mental side is big, and he seems like a guy who has that very well in hand and obviously just his presence and whatever he brings from a leadership side of things is impressive. If you look at what he’s done this year. That’s pretty wild.”

Joey Logano also would like to have a conversation with Brady.

“Doing it for so long as he has and to be at that level would probably be my questions, how has he evolved over the years,” Logano told NBC Sports. “Playing as a 25-year-old is different than playing as a 40-something year old. How he has evolved has been pretty impressive. How he has changed his strengths over the years to be great is something really cool to see, and I’d like to ask him about that.”

5. Small group

Only four active driver/crew chief combinations have been together for more than 100 races heading into the Feb. 14 Daytona 500.

Those pairings are:

248 races — Kevin Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers

177 races — Chase Elliott and crew chief Alan Gustafson

142 races — Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and crew chief Brian Pattie

118 races — Alex Bowman and crew chief Greg Ives

The next pairing is Austin Dillon and crew chief Justin Alexander. They’ve been together for 95 races.

 and on Facebook

Talladega’s tale of two drivers: One celebrates, one laments

0 Comments

TALLADEGA, Ala. — It’s dangerous to forecast what is going to happen next in these playoffs in a Cup season unlike any other. 

So keep that in mind, but Chase Elliott’s victory at Talladega moves him one step closer to returning to the championship race for a third consecutive season.

It’s easy to overlook that beyond earning a spot in the Round of 8 with his win Sunday, Elliott scored six playoff points. That gives him 46 playoff points. He has the opportunity to score seven more playoff points this weekend at the Charlotte Roval — an event he has won twice — before the next round begins.

Once the current round ends, the points will be reset to 4,000 for each of the remaining playoff drivers and they’ll have their playoff points added. 

At this point, Elliott would have a 21-point lead on his nearest competitor and a 31-point lead the first driver outside a transfer spot to the championship race.

The next round opens at Las Vegas, goes to Homestead and ends with Martinsville. 

A key for Elliott, though, is to avoid how he has started each of the first two rounds. A crash led to a 36th-place finish in the playoff opener at Darlington. He placed 32nd after a crash at Texas to begin this round.

The up-and-down nature of the playoffs, though, hasn’t taken a toll on the 2020 Cup champion.

“I feel like I’ve been doing this long enough now to understand the roller coaster that is racing,” said Elliott, who is advancing to the Round of 8 for the sixth consecutive season. “It’s going to roll on, right? You either learn to ride it during the good days, during the bad days, too, or you don’t. That’s just part of the deal.

“So, yeah, just try to ride the wave. Had a bad week last week, had a good week this week. Obviously great to move on into the next round, get six more bonus points. All those things are fantastic, we’re super proud of that.

“This deal can humble you. We can go to the Round of 8 and crash again like we did the first two rounds, or you can go in there and maybe have a really good first race. I don’t know. You show up prepared, do the best you can, figure it out from there.”

————————————————————————————————————————————————

Joey Logano has always been one who wants to race at the front in a superspeedway event instead of riding at the back.

When asked last month about the idea of Texas Motor Speedway being reconfigured to provide superspeedway-type racing — as Atlanta Motor Speedway was before this season — Logano questioned the value of that type of racing.

“Is that the type of racing fans want to see?” Logano said. “Because when you look at the way that people have finished up front in these superspeedways lately, (they) are the ones that are riding around in the back. 

“Do you believe that you should be rewarded for not working? Because that’s what they’re doing. They’re riding around in the back not working, not going up there to put a good race on. 

“They’re riding around in the back and capitalizing on other people’s misfortune for racing up front trying to win. I don’t think it’s right. That’s not racing. I can’t get behind that.”

Logano sought to race at the front as much as possible Sunday at Talladega, even after his car was damaged in an early incident, but he took a different tack on the final restart. He restarted 24th and dropped back, finishing 27th.

“We just wreck all the time, so we thought, ‘Boy, we’ve got a big points lead, let’s just be smart and don’t wreck and we’ll be able to get out of here with a top 10, assuming they would wreck because they always do,’” Logano said after the race. 

“That was the only time I’ve ever stayed in the back, ever, was today and they didn’t wreck. We gave up a bunch of our points lead. We’re still plus-18, which is a decent spot to be, but, the goal was to race for stage points and then drop to the back and wait for the crash. I hate racing that way. I’ve gotten beat many times from people that do that, then I tried it and it didn’t work.”

————————————————————————————————————————————————

Michael McDowell’s third-place finish continues his strong season. 

McDowell’s finish extended his career-high of top-10 finishes to 12. He has five finishes of 11th or better in the last seven races. 

“I’m proud of the season we’ve had and the run that we put together,” McDowell said. “Everyone did a great job on pit road executing and getting us track position when we needed it. It’s good to be there at the end and have a shot at it, just disappointed.”

Front Row Motorsports teammate Todd Gilliland finished seventh. 

“Race car drivers are greedy,” Gilliland said. “I wish I could have gotten a couple more there, but it was still a really good day. We ran up front most of the day and my car handled really well, so, overall, there are definitely a ton of positives to take out of this.”

Sunday marked the second time this season both Front Row Motorsports cars finished in the top 10. They also did it at the Indianapolis road course. 

————————————————————————————————————————————————

NASCAR confirms that the Hendrick Motorsports appeal of William Byron’s 25-point penalty from Texas will take place Thursday.

Should Hendrick lose that appeal, the team could then have a hearing before the Final Appeals Officer. That session would need to take place before Sunday’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

“Twenty-five points in the playoffs is a ton,” car owner Rick Hendrick said Sunday of Byron’s penalty. “I mean, in the regular season if you got a bunch of races, you can make it back up.

“I’ve seen other cars under caution hit each other. In that situation, (Byron) wasn’t trying to spin him, but they got a tower full of people, they could have put him in the back, could have done something right then rather than wait till Monday or Tuesday, then make a decision.”

Byron is 11 points below the cutline after Talladega.

Talladega jumbles Cup playoff grid heading to elimination race

0 Comments

In an unpredictable season and topsy-turvy playoffs, it only made sense that Talladega would deliver a wildcard result.

A playoff driver won a playoff race for the first time this season. How about that?

Chase Elliott’s victory moves him to the next round, the only driver guaranteed to advance heading into Sunday’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric are tied for the last transfer spot, but Briscoe owns the tiebreaker based on a better finish in this round. At least for now.

Hendrick Motorsports will have its appeal this week on the 25-point penalty to William Byron from the Texas race. Byron is 11 points below the cutline after Talladega, but if the team wins the appeal and he gets all 25 points back, Byron would be back in a transfer spot and drop Briscoe below the cutline.

 

XFINITY SERIES

AJ Allmendinger became the second driver to advance to the next round, winning at Talladega.

Ryan Sieg finished fourth and holds the final transfer spot heading into the elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (3 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock). Reigning series champion Daniel Hemric is six points behind Sieg. Riley Herbst and Brandon Jones are each 10 points behind Sieg. Jeremy Clements is 47 points behind.

 

CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES

Matt DiBenedetto’s first career Camping World Truck Series victory didn’t impact the playoff standings after Talladega since DiBenedetto is not a playoff driver.

Reigning series champion Ben Rhodes holds the final transfer spot. He leads Christian Eckes and Stewart Friesen by three points each. John Hunter Nemechek is five points behind Rhodes, while Grant Enfinger is 29 points behind Rhodes. Ty Majeski is the only driver guaranteed a spot in next month’s championship race.

The Truck Series is off this weekend. The next Truck race is Oct. 22 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

 

Winners and losers at Talladega Superspeedway

0 Comments

A look at the winners and losers from Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway:

WINNERS

Chase Elliott — After a rough race at Texas, Elliott returned to the role of championship favorite Sunday with a victory. He takes the point lead to Charlotte and, with Sunday’s win, is locked into the Round of 8.

MORE: Talladega Cup results

MORE: Talladega Cup driver points

Ryan Blaney — Despite another tough race day and a second-place finish in a race he could have won, Blaney remains in good shape in the playoffs, even without a points win. He is second in points to Elliott, only two behind.

Denny Hamlin — Hamlin took some time off from leading the charge for changes in the Next Gen car to run an excellent race. He led 20 laps, finished fifth and is the only driver to finish in the top 10 in all five playoff races. He gained a spot in points to fourth.

LOSERS

Christopher Bell — Bell zipped onto pit road with too much speed during a round of pit stops and slid to a stop, earning a speeding penalty. He is 11th in points.

Kyle Larson — Larson led eight laps Sunday but was not a part of the drafting mix at the front at the finish. He was 18th and fell three spots in points to sixth.

Joey Logano — Logano held the point lead entering Sunday’s race. At day’s end, he had a 27th-place finish and had fallen four spots to fifth.

 

 

End of stages at Talladega could have lasting impact in playoffs

0 Comments

A spot in the next round of the Cup playoffs could have been determined in just a few laps Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway.

They weren’t the final laps of the race, but the final laps of Stage 1 and Stage 2. 

The end of the first stage saw a big swing for a couple of drivers that could impact on who advances and who doesn’t after next weekend’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval.

MORE: Chase Elliott wins at Talladega 

With six laps left in the opening stage, William Byron was second to Denny Hamlin.

Byron was in need of stage points because of the uncertainty of his place in the standings. NASCAR docked him 25 points for spinning Hamlin under caution last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.

Hendrick Motorsports is appealing the decision and will have the hearing this week. While car owner Rick Hendrick said Sunday that he felt the penalty was too severe in a three-race round, there’s no guarantee the appeal board will change the penalty or reduce it. 

With such unknowns, Byron’s focus was scoring as many points as possible since he entered the race eight points below the cutline. Sitting second in that opening stage put him in position to score the points he needed.

But when the the stage ended, Byron came across the line 11th — 0.036 seconds behind Erik Jones in 10th — and scored no stage points.

“I was working well with (Hamlin),” Byron said. “I tried to work to the bottom and he stayed at the top and the top seemed to have momentum.

“I just made a wrong decision there that kind of got me in a bad position further. I was still leading the inside lane, but the inside lane wouldn’t go forward. That was just kind of weird. That was kind of the moral of our day — was just not being able to advance forward.”

Byron wasn’t in position to score points in the second stage, finishing 13th. That left him as one of two playoff drivers not to score stage points (Christopher Bell was the other).

“It was frustrating the whole time,” Byron said. “I felt like the race was just going away from us. We couldn’t make anything happen. We were just kind of stuck. I don’t know what we need to do next time.”

When Byron failed to score points in the second stage, it only added to a challenging day and put more pressure on a better finish.

He managed only to place 12th. Byron finished with 25 points. He outscored only three playoff drivers.

The result is that Byron is 11 points below the cutline.

While the first stage was a harbinger of Byron’s woes Sunday, that stage proved critical for Austin Cindric.

The Daytona 500 winner was 15th with six laps to go in the stage. He finished fourth, collecting seven points — despite suffering some nose damage in an incident earlier in that stage.

“Stage points are a big deal,” Cindric said. 

He got those with quick thinking.

“I think when everybody tries to scatter to do what’s best for them, it’s very important to be decisive,” Cindric said. “I was able to make some good moves and be able to be in some lanes that moved. I’d call it 50-50 decisiveness and 50 percent luck. 

“It certainly puts us in a good spot to race for a spot in the Round of 8 at the (Charlotte) Roval.

Cindric entered the race seven points out of the last transfer spot. While he didn’t score any points in the second stage, his ninth-place finish led to a 35-point day. 

That gives him the same amount of points as Chase Briscoe, who owns the last transfer spot because he has the tiebreaker on Cindric in this round.

For Briscoe, he earned that tie by collecting one stage point. 

In the first stage, he was running outside the top 10 when he sensed a crash was likely and “decided to bail” to protect the car and avoid being in a crash.

That crash didn’t happen and he was left without stage points. In the second stage, Briscoe was 14th with two laps to go. He beat Ricky Stenhouse Jr. across the finish line by 0.035 seconds to place 10th and score that one stage point.

“You don’t think that one (point) is important until you see that you are tied,” Briscoe said. “One point could be really, really important for us next week.”