Friday 5: Could the pandemic impact future crew chief hires?

0 Comments

Among the lasting impacts the coronavirus will have on NASCAR is showing the sport it can be nimble with schedules, formats and races in ways few thought possible.

Just as impactful, though, could be who will be Cup crew chiefs in the future. How those positions are filled could be changing as a result of these times.

Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing are among organizations that have promoted an engineer with no significant crew chief experience to lead Cup teams in recent years.

But with many Cup teams no longer sending engineers to races in this era of crew limits, will that trend continue? Two of this year’s new Cup crew chiefs came from the Camping World Truck Series and one moved up from the Xfinity Series.

MORE: Ben Beshore charting Kyle Busch’s course correction

Engineers have been among those squeezed by NASCAR’s crew limits. In 2019, Cup teams were limited to 12 road crew members, not including the pit crew, at the track. That number dropped to 10 road crew members for the start of the 2020 season and dipped to six because of COVID-19 protocols after the season resumed. Teams are allowed a road crew of eight at most events this year. 

With fewer crew members allowed at the track, many teams bring those who are more hands-on with the car.

Two years ago, 29 of the 38 Cup teams (76.3%) competing in the spring Las Vegas race had two engineers at the track. No Cup team will have two engineers at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for Sunday’s Cup race (3:30 p.m. ET on Fox).

The number of engineers at the Las Vegas spring race has declined 75% since 2019, going from 64 to 16 for Sunday’s race. None of Joe Gibbs Racing’s four Cup teams will have an engineer at the track this weekend. Two of Team Penske’s three Cup teams also will not have an engineer at Las Vegas.  

“The pandemic number allows for nothing,” NBC Sports analyst Steve Letarte said during this week’s NASCAR on NBC podcast with Nate Ryan. “It doesn’t allow for growth. It doesn’t allow for training. It allows enough people to put a car on the racetrack, which by the way I’m not knocking, as it should.”

Letarte notes the effect crew limits could have for engineers hoping to move into a Cup crew chief role. 

“I think what you’re going to see is a wave of guys that are on the (pit) box in Xfinity and Trucks kind of popping into Cup over the next two or three years, just because there is going to be this 18-month gap of opportunity for that engineer,” Letarte said.

Even though most engineers work remotely on race weekends, they do many of the same roles as when they were at the track. The challenge for Cup engineers aspiring to move up to a crew chief position is that when they are not at the track, they lose out on the rhythms of the weekend, going through inspection, and helping manage the race and team from the pit box.

Letarte noted the education he received before he became Jeff Gordon’s crew chief in 2005.

“For two years before I became Jeff Gordon’s crew chief, I sat on the box next to Robbie (Loomis),” Letarte said of the former crew chief for Gordon.

“(Loomis) taught me how to see a race. That’s hard to do from home. These engineers that perhaps would be the next step up without the real in-the-battle experience, they might be passed over.”

Another option would be to send them to the Truck or Xfinity Series to be a crew chief and gain the experience they’ve lost out on by not being on the pit box for Cup events.

Miami Cup takeaways
William Byron and his team celebrate their Miami win. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“There’s a lot of little things that you don’t get to do as a race engineer that has to do with not just making the car fast, but managing the whole weekend,” crew chief Rudy Fugle said.

Fugle was among those who moved from the Truck Series to Cup after last season. The former Truck champion crew chief joined Hendrick Motorsports to be William Byron’s crew chief this season. The pairing is a reunion. Fugle, who has an engineering background, and Byron worked together at KBM in 2016. 

“It’s a big jump, for sure,” Fugle said of going from the Truck Series to Cup. “It’s hard. It’s definitely not easy. I’m not trying to underplay that. … I didn’t build a team. I came into a team. So, I’m pretty lucky.”

In their third race back, Fugle helped guide Byron to a win last weekend at Miami.

Also moving up from the Truck Series this year is Kevin Bellicourt. He was the crew chief for Derek Kraus last year at Bill McAnally Racing.

Joe Gibbs Racing promoted Ben Beshore, a former engineer, from his role as a crew chief in the Xfinity Series to be Kyle Busch’s crew chief this season. The two were paired because they had worked together for four years when Beshore was a Cup engineer on the No. 18 team. They also worked together for seven Xfinity races when Beshore was a crew chief in the Xfinity Series.

Now that he’s a Cup crew chief, Beshore’s job is simple.

“There’s pressure for sure,” he said after Busch won last month’s Busch Clash on the Daytona International Speedway road course. “That’s the fun of it, is going out there and performing and trying to steal some wins.”

2. What to expect for Front Row Motorsports?

Michael McDowell’s Daytona 500 win and top-10 finishes in the first three races of the season has been among the early highlights. His sixth-place finish last weekend at Miami was Front Row Motorsports’ first top 10 at a 1.5-mile track in team history. 

McDowell says the success isn’t from any new equipment.

“We’ve made our cars a little bit lighter, a little bit more downforce and we’ve made some small gains, but I don’t feel like we’ve done anything different or special as far as engines and chassis and all those things,” McDowell said. “We’re still getting the same equipment that we got last year.”

Last year, McDowell finished 23rd in points and had four top-10 finishes.

Can this run continue Sunday at Las Vegas for McDowell and Front Row Motorsports?

“I don’t know how we’ll be at Vegas, and I don’t know how we’ll be at Phoenix,” McDowell said of the next two Cup races. “I would love to be the guy that comes on here that I think sort of everybody wants to be like, ‘Yeah, we’re legit. We’re gonna win five races this year and we’re gonna contend for the championship.’ 

“I don’t know that to be true, but I do know we’re gonna fight our guts out and we’ll see where we end up.”

3.  Noah Gragson true to himself

Noah Gragson says he wouldn’t change how he drove in the final laps of last weekend’s Xfinity race before he ran into the back of David Starr’s car after it blew a tire. Gragson also says he wouldn’t change what he said about Starr afterward.

“I think the most important thing for me is to stay true to myself, to not really change because I went through a little process last year where I wasn’t really myself,” he said. “People tried to slow me down, and it didn’t really work for me. So, I think for myself, personally, it’s about staying true to myself.”

As to what he meant by last year — a season that saw the JR Motorsports driver in encounters on and off the track with competitors — he explained:

“They told me that I need to be a lot less aggressive and need to be more patient. They said, Dale (Earnhardt Jr.) specifically, I sat down with him and he was probably the most key guy. He’s like ‘I don’t want you to lose any speed over it, but you need to be less aggressive and more patient.’

“We had a good conversation, and I tried to do what he said, but I just slowed down. I didn’t have the speed. And I finally got into the playoffs and I’m like, ‘Screw that, I’m going out there and race as hard as I can and be comfortable with myself and race the way I know how to,’ and we had really good results. It’s just one of those deals where there’s a lot of opinions, but if I can be comfortable myself, it’s the best way possible for me.”

4. Familiar look

Nearly a dozen trucks in tonight’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (9 p.m. ET on FS1) will have sponsorship from series sponsor Camping World. This came after Marcus Lemonis, chairman and CEO of Camping World, stated on Twitter this week that he would sponsor any truck that needed it for the race.

Among those who will have the blue and yellow for Camping World on their trucks are reigning series champion Sheldon Creed, Grant Enfinger, Parker Kligerman and Jordan Anderson.

Lemonis said he would pay $15,000 to sponsor a truck. That would go up to $25,000 if the team scored a top 10, $35,000 if they finished in the top five, and go up to $50,000 if the team won.

“It’s huge,” Creed said of Lemonis’ offer to teams. “I race for a bigger Truck team (GMS Racing), so maybe we’re not in need of it, say as much as Jordan Anderson and a team like that. Anything helps. We’re at a level now where it just takes everything you have to compete and win every week. If it can start something now and make it grow into a bigger relationship and possibly a sponsor to get me into an Xfinity or Cup car next year, that would be awesome.”

5. Most stage points

Each week, drivers talk about the importance of scoring stage points in races. Here’s a look at who has scored the most stage points this season:

47 — Denny Hamlin

36 — Joey Logano

31 — Chase Elliott

30 — Kyle Larson

28 — Austin Dillon

27 — Kurt Busch

25 — Martin Truex Jr.

23 — Kevin Harvick

21 — Christopher Bell

21 — Bubba Wallace

21 — William Byron

On the other side, here are some of the drivers who have yet to score any stage points this season: Tyler Reddick, Chase Briscoe, Matt DiBenedetto, Erik Jones and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

NASCAR fines Ty Gibbs $75,000 for pit road incident at Texas

0 Comments

NASCAR fined Ty Gibbs $75,000 and docked him 25 points for door-slamming Ty Dillon on pit road during last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Crew members from other teams were nearby when Gibbs hit Dillon’s car, causing it to swerve. No crew members or officials were hit.

NASCAR has made it a priority that drivers are not to cause contact that could injured crew members or officials on pit road. NASCAR also penalized Gibbs 25 Cup driver points and docked 23XI Racing 25 car owner points for the No. 23 Cup car that Gibbs drives.

NASCAR penalizes William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin

2 Comments

NASCAR has docked William Byron 25 points and fined him $50,000 for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution in last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Byron drops from third in the playoff standings to below the cutline heading into Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe moves up to hold the final transfer spot with 3,041 points. Austin Cindric is the first driver outside a transfer spot with 3,034 points. Byron is next at 3,033 points.

Hendrick Motorsports was docked 25 owner points as well.

Hendrick Motorsports stated it would appeal the penalty.

The caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash. As Hamlin slowed, Byron closed and hit him in the rear. 

Byron admitted after the race the contact was intentional, although he didn’t mean to wreck Hamlin. Byron was upset with how Hamlin raced him on Lap 262. Byron felt Hamlin forced him into the wall as they exited Turn 2 side-by-side. Byron expressed his displeasure during the caution.

“I felt like he ran me out of race track off of (Turn) 2 and had really hard contact with the wall,” Byron said. “Felt like the toe link was definitely bent, luckily not fully broken. We were able to continue.

“A lot of times that kind of damage is going to ruin your race, especially that hard. I totally understand running somebody close and making a little bit of contact, but that was pretty massive.”

On the retaliatory hit, Byron said: “I didn’t mean to spin him out. That definitely wasn’t what I intended to do. I meant to bump him a little bit and show my displeasure and unfortunately, it happened the way it did. Obviously, when he was spinning out, I was like ‘I didn’t mean to do this,’ but I was definitely frustrated.”

Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart argued and questioned NASCAR for not putting Hamlin back in second place — where he was before Byron hit him — and also questioned Byron not being penalized.

“I guess we can just wreck each other under caution,” Hamlin said after the race.

Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, told reporters after the race that series officials did not penalize Byron because they did not see the incident. 

“When we were in the tower, we were paying more attention to the actual cause of the caution up there and dispatching our equipment,” Miller said. “The William Byron-Denny Hamlin thing, we had no eyes on. We saw Denny go through the grass.

“By the time we got a replay that showed the incident well enough to do anything to it, we had gone back to green.”

Kurt Busch ‘hopeful’ he can return from concussion this year

1 Comment

CONCORD, N.C. — Kurt Busch said Tuesday he remains “hopeful” he will recover from a concussion in time to race again before the end of the NASCAR Cup season.

The 2004 Cup champion has been sidelined since he crashed July 23 during qualifying at Pocono Raceway. He’s so far missed 10 races – both Ty Gibbs and Bubba Wallace have driven the No. 45 Toyota for 23XI Racing since Busch was injured – and withdrew his eligibility to participate in the playoffs.

“I’m doing good. Each week is better progress and I feel good and I don’t know when I will be back, but time has been the challenge. Father Time is the one in charge on this one,” Busch said.

There are six races remaining this season and 23XI co-owner Denny Hamlin said the team has contingency plans for Busch’s recovery and is not pressuring the 44-year-old to get back in the car. Busch is under contract at 23XI through next season with an option for 2024.

Hamlin said this past weekend at Texas that Busch has a doctor’s visit scheduled in early October that could reveal more about if Busch can return this season.

Busch has attended a variety of events to stimulate his recovery and enjoyed an evening at the rodeo over the weekend. But his visit to Charlotte Motor Speedway on Tuesday for its 10th annual honoring of Breast Cancer Awareness Month was Busch’s first official appearance as a NASCAR driver since his injury.

He attended for the second consecutive year as part of his “Window of Hope” program in which all the window nets on the Cup cars will be pink meshing in next week’s race on The Roval at Charlotte. Busch credited the Toyota Performance Center at TRD’s North Carolina headquarters for helping his recovery and getting him out to events again.

“I feel hopeful. I know I have more doctor visits and distance to go, and I keep pushing each week,” Busch said. “And TPC, Toyota Performance Center, has been a group of angels with the workouts and the vestibular workouts, different nutrition as well and different supplements and things to help everything rebalance with my vision, my hearing. Just my overall balance in general.”

He said his vision is nearly 20/20 in one eye, but his other eye has been lagging behind in recovery. Busch also said he wasn’t sure why he was injured in what appeared to be a routine backing of his car into the wall during a spin in qualifying.

NASCAR this year introduced its Next Gen car that was designed to cut costs and level the playing field, but the safety of the spec car has been under fire since Busch’s crash. Drivers have complained they feel the impact much more in crashes than they did in the old car, and a rash of blown tires and broken parts has plagued the first four races of the playoffs.

Busch said his concussion “is something I never knew would happen, as far as injury” and likened his health battle to that of the breast cancer survivors who aided him in painting the pit road walls at Charlotte pink for next week’s race.

“Each situation is different. It’s similar to a breast cancer survivor. Not every story is the same, not every injury is the same,” Busch said. “It’s not like a broken arm and then you get the cast taken off and can go bench press 300 pounds. It’s a process. I don’t know what journey I’m on, but I’m going to keep pushing.”

NASCAR Power Rankings: Denny Hamlin returns to first place

0 Comments

Four races into the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs and drivers who are eligible to win the championship remain 0-for-4 in pursuit of race wins.

Tyler Reddick became winner No. 4 on that list Sunday night at Texas Motor Speedway.

And now we go to Talladega Superspeedway, where there is potential for drivers from the far back end of the field to emerge victorious, given the impact of drafting and, more significantly, wrecking.

Sunday’s tire-exploding, wall-banging, car-wrestling craziness at Texas Motor Speedway jumbled the playoff standings again, and the same is true for the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings, which see a new leader in Denny Hamlin.

MORE: Winners and losers at Texas

Hamlin could be a busy guy the rest of the season. His potential retaliation list grew Sunday with the addition of William Byron after they had a major disagreement.

Here’s how the rankings look in the middle of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Denny Hamlin (No. 3 last week) — Despite everything — the tires, the wrecks, the hassle, the weather and a brouhaha with William Byron, Hamlin finished 10th Sunday and is sixth in the playoff standings entering Talladega. He has the best average finish — 5.75 — in the playoff races. Unless his “list” gets in the way, Hamlin might be ready to seriously challenge for his first championship.

2. Kyle Larson (No. 4 last week) — Larson led 19 laps at Texas and probably should have led more with one of the race’s best cars. Now fourth in points, he figures to be a factor over the final two weeks of the round.

3. Chase Elliott (No. 2 last week) — Elliott was not a happy camper after smashing the wall because of a tire issue and riding a flaming car to a halt. He finished 32nd.

4. Joey Logano (No. 6 last week) — Logano was chasing down winner Tyler Reddick in the closing laps at Texas. He jumps to first in the playoff standings and gains two spots in NBC’s rankings.

5. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron might be No. 1 on Denny Hamlin’s list; here he slides in at No. 5.

6. Christopher Bell (No. 1 last week) — Bell had a rotten Sunday in Texas, crashing not once but twice with tire issues and finishing 34th, causing a precipitous drop on the rankings list.

7. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain’s team played the tires and the cautions right and probably deserved better than a 13th-place finish Sunday.

8. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Mr. Winless (except in All-Star dress) rolls on. A fourth-place run (and 29 laps led) Sunday keeps him relevant.

9. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe’s Texas run started poorly but ended nicely with a fifth-place run.

10. Tyler Reddick (unranked last week) — Reddick Sunday became the only driver not named Chase Elliott with more than two race wins this year. Now totaling three victories, he got his first oval win at Texas.

Dropped out: Alex Bowman (No. 10 last week).