Friday 5: Aggressive driving making more of an impact in Cup

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While some might suggest Ross Chastain has hurt his chances of winning the Cup championship because of his aggressive driving this season, maybe the question should be is if that aggressive driving will help Chastain (or any other driver) win the title?

Signs point to a more volatile stretch of racing this season that could make the bumper-car action at Indianapolis seem tame. Consider:

  • Four races remain in the Cup regular season. The only way drivers outside a playoff spot can make it is to win. That can lead to aggression. 
  • The playoffs appear to be as wide open as ever. Making bold moves could be what helps competitors avoid elimination in the early rounds.
  • The durability of the Next Gen car and the challenge of passing make restarts more critical and drivers more open to aggressive behavior. 
  • NASCAR’s mixed message on retaliation leaves the door open for interpretation by each driver. 

Last weekend’s event on the Indianapolis road course proved chaotic because of the track’s setup with a long straightaway preceding a narrow, sharp right-hand turn. 

Ryan Blaney contended for second on the final restart when he was in the middle of a three-wide pack of cars entering Turn 1. Blaney was spun in the entry to Turn 2 on the road course and finished 26th.

“It’s a case of just getting wrecked,” he said after the event. “That’s all people do at the end of these things, just dive in there and wreck you. I don’t know who shoved who and I don’t care, but tires didn’t matter at the end. We restarted top three both times and tires don’t really matter.  

“It’s just a matter of getting through on the restart, but, apparently, that’s a hard thing to ask. People just run over each other … I didn’t have a shot to get to (Tyler Reddick) to try to put the bumper to him or anything like that, just get wiped out. I don’t know. I’m pissed off about it, and I have every damn right to be.”

Blaney’s frustration is understandable. He would have clinched a playoff spot with a victory. Instead, he could still miss the playoffs even though he is second in points going into Sunday’s race at Michigan International Speedway (3 p.m. ET on USA Network).

Drivers can be more aggressive because of the new car. With the previous version, it wasn’t uncommon for contact to lead to a cut tire. With the Next Gen car, the vehicle is more durable. Cut tires are not as common.

Blaney’s teammate, Austin Cindric, benefitted from that final restart to finish second and noted how the new car allows drivers to charge more. 

“All I can say is wow,” Cindric said after his best finish since winning this year’s Daytona 500. “There’s no other form of racing that you can do that and … get away with it (without significant damage).

“Pretty wild, pretty crazy. … These (cars) are tanks. Absolutely, they are tanks. Yeah, you’ll get the toe bent and it affects the bumps and makes it hard to drive, but as long as I don’t get a flat tire, I’m still digging.”

That’s the mindset throughout the field. 

“Right, wrong or indifferent, you either get or you get got right now in the NASCAR Cup Series,” Corey LaJoie said on Wednesday’s MotorMouths on Peacock. 

Joey Logano said this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that drivers essentially have no choice but to be aggressive. 

“These cars all run almost the same speed,” he said. “We all have the same parts and pieces now. There’s only limited things we’re changing to make them faster than the other car, so that just makes it harder to pass. 

“You send it down into the corner and you get out of control, you just go too fast. That’s what you saw in Turn 1 (at Indy) not just on restarts but other times, too. That was the big passing zone. If I don’t pass them here, then I’m stuck behind them for Lord knows how long, so I’ve got to go. That’s what those mistakes are. 

“Is it disrespect? I don’t know if it’s disrespect as much as it is just guys driving over their head to make a pass because that’s the only way to do it.”

Another factor is how NASCAR responds to such driving — and retaliation. 

After Noah Gragson tired of Sage Karam’s contact, he turned Karam on a straightaway during the Xfinity race at Road America. Eleven other cars were collected in the incident. It wasn’t until four days later that NASCAR penalized Gragson for the action. NASCAR fined Gragson $35,000 and docked him 30 points. 

Last Friday in the Camping World Truck Series race, Carson Hocevar retaliated against Colby Howard for contact. Hocevar turned Howard on the straightaway at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park, sending Howard into the wall. No other vehicles were collected. NASCAR did not penalize Hocevar.

While NASCAR has previously stated it judges each incident on its own, nothing happens in a vacuum in the sport. Drivers watch how NASCAR reacts. 

Unless something is done in the near future, aggressive driving may become worse.

“Somewhere there’s been that disconnect to young drivers, to really, really young drivers … I’m talking about 7-8-9-10-11-year olds,” Kyle Petty said on MotorMouths on Wednesday. “They think that’s how you race. They think you go and run over each other. 

“Then, it’s just magnified when you get to (the Cup) level because  they’ve already got that set in their head that that’s OK.”

2. Sign of the times?

Kyle Busch’s contract status isn’t the first time a former Cup champion has faced challenges recently with a contract extension.

Brad Keselowski signed a one-year contract extension with Team Penske in August 2020 that carried him through the 2021 season. Part of the challenge then was that it came during the pandemic, which impacted companies and marketing budgets. 

By the time the contract extension was announced, Keselowski had scored three or more Cup wins for a fifth consecutive season. With his contact up after last season, Keselowski agreed to a deal to become driver and be a part owner for what is now Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing.

Joe Gibbs Racing had a potential sponsor in place for Busch’s team this year before that deal went away. With about six months left until the 2023 season begins, JGR has not announced a new sponsor for the No. 18 car or a contract extension for Busch. 

Last month, David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, told NBC Sports that JGR and Toyota were working on contingency plans while still seeking to sign Busch. The two-time Cup champion said last weekend at Indianapolis that he was willing to make concessions “to race for under my market value” to remain at JGR.

On the other side, Hendrick Motorsports announced in February that it had signed Chase Elliott to a five-year contract extension that will take him through the 2027 season.

Still, Keselowski noted the challenges for drivers at this point.

“The sport is going through a dramatic reset,” he said. “The tides have changed pretty dramatically over the last decade, maybe even two decades. We went from a point in time where the drivers made an incredible amount of money. … and the team owners had no value at all.

“I look at Robert Yates, who had been a staple of the sport for 30-some years and had to sell his race team for effectively liquidated value when he was ready to retire. Think of what an absolute travesty that was, an investment he put in it. At the same time, there were drivers making as much and arguably more a year than what he was able to liquidate all his assets for, and that seems really wrong.

“We’re seeing a flip of that now, where now the team owner assets are worth considerably more money and the driver pay is declining very rapidly. It’s a flip for sure. You can argue which one is better for the sport, but definitely a dynamic shift for sure.”

Keselowski cites the charter system and media rights deal, which go through the 2024 season, as making teams more valuable.

“I feel like I got into the team ownership piece at exactly the right time and kind of saw this coming,” he said.

3. Ford and Kyle Busch?

When Kyle Busch made his NASCAR debut, it was in a Ford for Roush Fenway Racing in the Truck Series in 2001. 

One of the interesting elements about Busch’s future is what could happen to Kyle Busch Motorsports if Busch does not sign a contract extension with Joe Gibbs Racing and moves to a manufacturer other than Toyota.

Mark Rushbrook, global director, Ford Performance Motorsports, was asked this week about how might KBM be incorporated if a Ford team was interested in signing Busch.

“Any time we have an opportunity to improve our program, whether it is with drivers at a certain level in NASCAR or teams at all the levels in NASCAR, then that’s certainly something that is our responsibility to consider and make decisions on how it makes our program better or doesn’t,” he said. “So, certainly we would consider all options.”

Asked if he would personally want Busch in a Ford, Rushbrook said: “That’s not for me to answer, not from a personal perspective.”

Stewart-Haas Racing has not announced who will drive the No. 10 Ford next season. Aric Almirola announced before the season that this would be his final full-time Cup effort. That might change. 

Almirola said last month that he had been asked by “decision makers” about next season, leading to the possibility of a part-time or full-time return with Smithfield back as sponsor. Co-owner Tony Stewart declined comment to NBC Sports last weekend at Indianapolis on what the team’s plans are for next year.

If Almirola returns in a full-time role and SHR keeps its lineup intact, that would leave Team Penske and RFK Racing as the main Ford teams for Busch to consider.

Asked about Busch last week, team owner Roger Penske said: “We’ve really got four cars that we’re involved in today. We support the Wood Brothers and obviously Harrison (Burton). We’re full of drivers, and we’re happy with the guys we have there. They’re young and ready to go, and I think our sponsors are fully aligned with us.

“It’s interesting that Kyle hasn’t gotten a spot yet. Look … he’s one of the best out there. I think his expectations, along with what the sponsors and the team want to step up with, sometimes that doesn’t align. So at the moment I think we’ll wait and see.”

As for RFK Racing, Keselowski said this week: “We’re in a really good spot with Chris Buescher. I think he’s an excellent driver. I see him being a long-term driver with us here at RFK. ”

Keselowski suggested that with only two charters, there’s no room for Busch at RFK.

4. 4 is not enough

As the Cup series prepares for its 23rd race of the season, Ford has four victories this year, last among the manufacturers. Chevrolet has 13 wins. Toyota has five.

“Four wins is not enough,” Mark Rushbrook, global director, Ford Performance Motorsports, said this week. “It’s not acceptable. We need to get more wins. We need to have drivers further up the standings and hopefully at least four, if not more drivers, into the playoffs.  

“It’s certainly going to be hard with where we are with only four regular season races left, so it’s been a struggle with the new car, the new package with getting our head around it and how to set it up properly going to the track and optimizing it.  

“We’ve seen a lot of success with speed at different tracks where we have understood it, but we still didn’t bring the win home. So, there’s a lot of work to do, but that’s racing. We always need to make all elements of the car better, the engine, the aerodynamics, the chassis, the setup, the tire model, our simulator model, and that’s what we’re working on. We have a lot of meetings and advancements with our teams to try and do better every week.”

As for what he feels has been the key area in Ford’s struggles this season, Rushbrook said: “We’ve had different strengths across different cars at the different tracks. I think that’s part of the struggle is this car is so sensitive that even when one team is taking four cars or two cars to the track with very small differences, you’ll see one near the top of the board and two or three or four down at the other end of the board.  

“So, that’s part of it and just understanding how sensitive it is and making sure we can really find the optimum spot for these cars to run.”

5. Building momentum

With Chase Elliott’s streak of five consecutive top-10 finishes ending last weekend at Indianapolis, Bubba Wallace holds the longest active streak of top 10s with three in a row.

Wallace has finished third at New Hampshire, eighth at Pocono and fifth at Indianapolis. It is his longest top-10 streak in his Cup career and the longest for 23XI Racing.

For a team that has been plagued by pit road mistakes, strategy miscalls and accidents to have even a small three-race top-10 streak is “massive,” Wallace said.

“We needed to all step up,” he said. “We all needed to look ourselves in the mirror and do better. We’ve been doing that, so I’m proud of everybody.”

Denny Hamlin, co-owner of 23XI Racing, said the team is working on a contract extension with Wallace.

“We’ve got something on the table and, obviously, want him longterm with us,” Hamlin said.

Hailie Deegan to make Xfinity debut at Las Vegas

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Hailie Deegan announced Tuesday that she will make her Xfinity Series debut Oct. 15 Las Vegas Motor Speedway on NBC and Peacock.

The 21-year-old Deegan is in her second full-time season in the Camping World Truck Series. She finished a career-high sixth in that series last weekend at Talladega Superspeedway.

She will drive the No. 07 car for SS Green Light Racing with Jeff Lefcourt.

 

 

Alex Bowman to miss Charlotte Roval race

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Alex Bowman announced Tuesday night on social media that he will sit out this weekend’s Cup playoff race at the Charlotte Roval.

Bowman said on social media: “I am continuing to make strides in my recovery to make sure I can return to competition at 100%.”

This will be the second consecutive race he will have missed because of concussion-like symptoms after his crash at Texas Motor Speedway.

Noah Gragson will drive the No. 48 car this weekend for Bowman.

“Alex’s health is our first priority,” said Jeff Andrews, president and general manager of Hendrick Motorsports, in a statement. “We’re focused on supporting his recovery and seeing him back in his race car when the time is right. Alex has a long career ahead of him, so we will invest the necessary time and take our guidance from medical experts. We’re putting no pressure on him to return before he’s 100% ready.”

Bowman will be one of the four drivers eliminated from title contention Sunday.

Also Tuesday, Cody Ware announced that he will sit out this weekend’s Cup race at the Charlotte Roval, as he continues to recover from the ankle injury he suffered at Texas.

NASCAR Power Rankings: Chase Elliott leaps to the front

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A slick late-race move by Chase Elliott carried him to Victory Lane Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway — and back to the top of the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings.

Elliott is the only driver with five victories this season. No one else in the playoffs has more than two (Tyler Reddick, eliminated from the championship hunt, has won three times).

Elliott, already qualified for the Round of 8 with his Talladega win, will be among the favorites in Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (2 p.m. ET, NBC).

Here’s how the rankings look approaching the end of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Chase Elliott (No. 3 last week) — Elliott’s power move to win at Talladega was quite impressive and gave him four top-five finishes in the past 10 races. Clearly, he has re-established himself as the championship favorite.

2. Denny Hamlin (No. 1 last week) — Hamlin drops a spot despite a strong run (20 laps led and finishing fifth) at Talladega. Count him in the hunt for an elusive first championship.

3. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Blaney simply will not go away despite continuing as the playoffs’ only winless driver (not including the Texas All-Star Race). He was victimized by Chase Elliott on Sunday at Talladega, finishing .046 seconds short of victory and a push into the next round.

4. Kyle Larson (No. 2 last week) — Superspeedway racing generally is not Larson’s strong point. He finished 18th Sunday despite leading eight laps and being in the front group much of the day.

5. Joey Logano (No. 4 last week) — Logano had an unusually poor performance at Talladega. He was involved in an early-race accident and struggled much of the rest of the day, finishing 27th.

MORE: Elliott celebrates, Logano laments

6. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain tied Aric Almirola for most laps led (36) at Talladega and has been consistent as of late with three finishes of seventh or better in the past four races.

7. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron’s worst news last week came off the track as he was penalized by NASCAR for dumping Denny Hamlin under caution at Texas. He finished 12th at Talladega.

8. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe is quietly making the case that he could make the Round of 8 and challenge for the title.

MORE: Winners and losers at Talladega

9. Daniel Suarez (unranked last week) — Suarez maneuvered through the Talladega draft with style and came home eighth. He has three top 10s in the past seven races.

10. Christopher Bell (No. 6 last week) — Bell had a rough day at Talladega and will be looking to Sunday’s race at the Roval for redemption.

Dropped out: Tyler Reddick (No. 10 last week).

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

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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.”

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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.”

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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. 

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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.