Analysis: Greg Ives has built a pit road juggernaut around Alex Bowman

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Of Hendrick Motorsports’ four teams, the strengths of the Greg Ives-led No. 48 group aren’t obvious. Among teams qualified for the playoffs, Alex Bowman, has the lowest Production in Equal Equipment Rating (ranked 18th overall) and the car has the second-slowest median lap rank (12th best overall).

But Ives’ team regularly defies statistical expectation, having fashioned itself as a pit road stalwart. Its pit crew, ranking as the fourth fastest per median four-tire box time in 2020, ranked first in the same category through the first quarter of this season. It helped yield the biggest race-long net gains under yellow in Martinsville (+14) and Atlanta (+6) and the second biggest net in Las Vegas (+8).

As Ives points out, the mistake-free nature of the No. 48 team’s caution-flag stops allows the team to capitalize on the faults of others, gains dependent upon his competition’s adjustments and errors that elongate a box time.

“I think it’s consistency, not so much the home runs all the time,” Ives said. “It’s the fact that they’re consistent and consistent at a high level.

“It’s a big focus, just because there’s time to be had. Yes, performance on the racetrack, in the lap time, is definitely important, but when you have to pit eight to 10 times a week, maximizing that is definitely important.”

The team’s dominance under yellow extends to green-flag pit cycles, in which Ives has long been a shrewd strategist. The timing of each of stop, which may include short-pitting or long-pitting the most populated point in the cycle, dictates the bulk of the positional gain. A model student of the RhoAI strategy software that popularly fueled Austin Dillon’s victory in Texas last season, Ives presently ranks as the crew chief with the best position retention rate among cars averaging a top-30 running position:

Defending’s Bowman’s position at a series-best clip is a goal for Ives, the result of a deliberate focus on a portion of the race frequently overlooked by competitors.

“I kind of live by the fact that strategy and getting onto pit road and off of pit road as cleanly and as efficiently as possible is a great way to make up time and spots,” Ives said. “I spend a lot of time with the pit crew and the driver and even the engineers behind it to maximize points or positions.”

Some calls appear more ambitious than others, and there’s no guarantee his strategy won’t be interrupted by a caution flag. To wit, his shorting of the first green-flag pit cycle in Richmond backfired when Ryan Newman spun to bring out the yellow on lap 141. It dropped Bowman from fourth to 10th in the running order.

Ives’ subsequent calls netted nine positions across the race’s next three cycles. Bowman scored the win, and the playoff spot provided by a win, following a late pass on Denny Hamlin.

“There’s always anxiety when you short pit, there’s always anxiety if you run long. So, there’s always that anxiety,” Ives said. “If I get caught — a caution comes when I short-pit — I understand what it is we’re capable of doing to get out of it.”

This is a mentality that serves Ives well even when strategy wasn’t at fault for poor track position. One noticeable example of this was his decision to only take two tires following an hour-long rain delay in last year’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, where tire wear was minimal. It not only pushed Bowman from 13th to first in the running order but also helped net two stage victories. Bowman finished 19th but landed the event’s fourth-biggest point tally.

Padding points, though, is only part of the yearlong battle. Bowman and Ives made a deep playoff run last season, eliminated in the cutoff race before the season finale.

A breakthrough past that point appears possible: Through the first nine races on non-drafting ovals, the team benefited from the driver’s elevated pass efficiency. In seven Cup seasons, this is the first time Bowman’s surplus passing value is far beyond the statistical expectation of a car with a similar average running whereabouts:

To this end, Bowman has created 53 spots on his own, a swing of 251 over last year’s net loss and a nifty addition to Ives’ 19-position contribution on non-drafting ovals. Such progression is necessary for legitimate title contention, as is improvement specifically at Martinsville and Phoenix, the two most prominent tracks on the playoff schedule.

At those 750-horsepower facilities, Ives saw improvement, but given the team’s median lap rankings — seventh at Martinsville and 18th at Phoenix — they’re not yet of an elite caliber that’s become the expectation of winners in the penultimate and final events of the season.

“At Phoenix, we struggled,” Ives said. “That’s been an issue for us. Same with Martinsville. We continuously haven’t had the best of finishes there — not bad obviously — but to contend as the champion did last year? He won both of those races.

“I feel like Phoenix this year, we had a good car, but not a car capable of winning. So, we definitely need to improve there if we want a chance or a battle at this year’s championship.”

Bowman finished 13th in Phoenix. At Martinsville, a vibration from what was believed to be a loose wheel forced him to pit under green, dropping him from third to 29th. He was later caught in a 12-car pileup on lap 386.

“Martinsville, I felt like we were in position at the end of the race,” Ives said. “Positioned as far as our strategy, positioned as far as the speed in the car and, ultimately, could’ve went out and outright won that race.”

Ives acknowledged the vibration Bowman felt was indeed the result of the prior tire change, a rare miscue from a tone-setting pit crew.

“You can get a little greedy,” Ives said. “You can cost yourself more time by speeding or getting on pit road and missing the commitment cone or having a mistake with the pit crew.”

Ives’ designs have the led the No. 48 team this far, to the playoffs for a fourth time in four seasons with Bowman as the driver, around whom he’s built a pit road juggernaut. It takes just one mistake for it all to unravel, a notion of which Ives is keenly aware.

Consistency, Ives believes, “comes from allowing all the people involved to work within their own strengths, work within their capabilities and not applying the pressure to say, ‘Hey, we need to continuously be better, but we don’t need to continuously jump past the line.’”

NASCAR Awards: Scene on the red carpet

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The NASCAR community gathered at the Music City Center to commemorate the 2022 season and celebrate Joey Logano‘s second Cup title.

The event can be seen at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock.

Here is a look at the scene on the red carpet before Thursday night’s NASCAR Awards:

Joey Logano and Brittany Logano (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Ryan Blaney and Gianna Tulio (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Kyle and Samantha Busch (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Chase Elliott (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Alex Bowman and Crystal Marsh (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Tyler Reddick and Alexa De Leon (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Denny Hamlin and Jordan Fish (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Daniel Suarez and Julia Piquet (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Chase Briscoe and Marissa Briscoe (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Christopher Bell and Morgan Bell (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Austin Dillon and Whitney Dillon (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Kyle Larson (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

William Byron and Erin Blaney (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Kevin Harvick (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Ross Chastain and Erika Turner (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Austin Cindric (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Kurt Busch (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Harrison Burton and Jenna Petty(Photo: Dustin Long)
Mario Andretti (Photo: Dustin Long)

Chase Elliott wins NMPA Most Popular Driver Award

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Chase Elliott won his fifth consecutive NMPA Most Popular Driver Award on Thursday.

The announcement was made during the NASCAR Awards at the Music City Center. The show will air at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock.

Elliott is one of only five drivers to win the award since 1984.

Bill Elliott won it from 1984-88, 1991-2000 and 2002. Dale Earnhardt won the award posthumously in 2001. Darrell Waltrip won it in 1989-90. Dale Earnhardt Jr. won it from 2003-17. Chase Elliott has won it every year since.

Noah Gragson was voted as the Most Popular Driver in the Xfinity Series. Hailie Deegan was voted as the Most Popular Driver in the Camping World Truck Series.

Kevin Harvick to make decision on future by Daytona in February

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Former Cup champion Kevin Harvick says he’ll know by Daytona in February his plans beyond 2023.

Harvick’s contract with Stewart-Haas Racing ends after the upcoming season. 

Harvick said Thursday before the NASCAR Awards that “it could go either way at this particular point” on what he’ll do, but he affirmed that “going into Daytona, I’ll know what I’m going to do.”

The Daytona 500 is scheduled for Feb. 19. Harvick anticipates making an announcement by then.

“We’re at a point where everybody needs to know what’s going on,” Harvick said. “There’s too many tentacles to everything that happens. Whether it’s the race team, driver management company, every element needs to know. It’s not fair to anybody to have to start the season not knowing.”

Harvick turns 47 on Dec. 8. Next season will be his 23rd in Cup. His debut came a week after Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash in the 2001 Daytona 500. Harvick was selected by car owner Richard Childress to drive for Earnhardt’s team. 

Harvick has gone to win the 2014 Cup championship and 60 races at Richard Childress Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing. He’s tied with Kyle Busch for ninth on the all-time Cup wins list.

Harvick won two races last season. His victory last August at Michigan snapped a 65-race winless streak. He followed that by winning the next weekend at Richmond. 

Harvick has won at least two races in nine of the past 10 seasons. He has scored 41 of his 60 Cup wins since he turned 37 years old.

“Kevin, I think, is probably the No. 1 leader of the drivers, as he should be,” two-time Cup champion Joey Logano said Thursday. “He’s been around the longest. He’s very accomplished. He’s very smart. He’s been through the ups and downs. He’s lived it. There’s wisdom in experience. It’s great to hear his opinion on where we are as a sport.”

Harvick’s business interests include a management company that represents Cup drivers Ryan Preece, Harrison Burton and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., along with other athletes. Harvick also has worked as a broadcaster on NASCAR Xfinity races for Fox Sports, earning positive reviews. 

Harvick’s son Keelan, who is 10 years old, races and has competed in karting in Europe. 

“He’s got one more race in Italy … and then we’ll start all over again,” Harvick said of his son.

Harvick went overseas after the season finale at Phoenix to watch Keelan race.

“I think he’s definitely matured a little bit since he’s been making these trips,” Harvick said. “I think it’s important to have that culturing aspect of life to be comfortable to do things like that anywhere in the world.”

The NASCAR Awards program airs at 8 p.m. ET Saturday, Dec. 3 on Peacock. To sign up for Peacock, go here.

BJ McLeod, Live Fast team move to Chevrolet

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Driver/owner BJ McLeod and Live Fast Motorsports will race in Chevrolets beginning with the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season.

Based in Mooresville, North Carolina, Live Fast has been a Ford team.

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Live Fast is owned by McLeod, Matt Tifft and Joe Falk. Jessica McLeod, BJ’s wife, is the team’s chief operating officer.

“Our team is excited to make this transition to Chevrolet,” BJ McLeod said in a statement released by the team. “Chevrolet Camaros have proven great success on the track, and Live Fast Motorsports is looking forward to becoming a part of this advance.”

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The team will use ECR engines.

McLeod had one top-10 finish in 29 starts in the Cup Series last season.