Bill Elliott

A level of domination not seen in NASCAR in years

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Yes, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. have been the class of the Cup field this year, but their domination is even more impressive when looks to last year and beyond.

Consider:

Harvick, Busch and Truex have combined to win 19 of the last 24 races — dating back to the start of last year’s playoffs. That’s a 79.2 percent winning percentage.

Here is the breakdown of winners in the last 24 races:

7 — Kyle Busch

6 — Kevin Harvick

6 — Martin Truex Jr.

1 — Brad Keselowski

1 — Matt Kenseth

1 — Clint Bowyer

1 — Joey Logano

1 — Austin Dillon

But look deeper. remove the three restrictor-plate races run since last year’s playoffs and Harvick, Busch and Truex have combined to win 19 of the last 21 unrestricted races. That’s 90.5 percent.

The sport hasn’t seen this level of domination since 2008-09. Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson and Busch combined to win 17 of 24 races from Sonoma in June 2008 to Las Vegas in March 2009.

Edwards, Johnson and Busch combined to win 24 of 36 races (67 percent) in 2008.

In the last two Cup races, the domination by Harvick, Busch and Truex has been pronounced. They have combined to lead 510 of 560 laps (91.1 percent) run in the Coca-Cola 600 and Pocono race.

Here is a breakdown of laps led in the past two races:

390 — Kyle Busch

  89 — Kevin Harvick

  31 — Martin Truex Jr.

  12 —Brad Keselowski

  12 — Joey Logano

  11 — Ryan Blaney

    9 — Denny Hamlin

    4 — Bubba Wallace

    2 — Jimmie Johnson

Also consider this: In seven of the 14 Cup points race this season, Harvick, Busch or Truex took two of the top three spots at the finish.

— Here is how Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. have fared this year:

Kevin Harvick

5 wins

1 runner-up

10 top 5s

Kyle Busch

4 wins

3 runner-ups

9 top 5s

Martin Truex Jr.

2 wins

2 runner-ups

9 top 5s

The 11 wins by Harvick, Busch and Truex ranks fourth in the modern era (since 1972) for victories by a trio of drivers in the first 14 races.

Cale Yarborough (six wins), Richard Petty (four) and David Pearson (three) won 13 of the first 14 races in 1974. Yarborough (six), Petty (four) and Darrell Waltrip (two) won 12 of the first 14 races in 1977. Pearson (six), Petty (four) and Yarborough (two) also combined to win 12 of the first 14 races in 1973.

The 11 wins by Harvick, Busch and Truex ties three other seasons.

Rusty Wallace (five wins), Ernie Irvan (three) and Dale Earnhardt (three) won 11 of the first 14 races in 1994. Earnhardt (seven), Tim Richmond (two) and Davey Allison (two) won 11 of the first 14 races in 1987. Bill Elliott (seven), Neil Bonnett (two) and Earnhardt (two) won 11 of the first 14 races in 1985.

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Friday 5: Driver data could be the key to success in Phoenix

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NASCAR’s decision to provide teams with more driver data could make a bigger impact this weekend at ISM Raceway than any other race so far this season, Ryan Blaney says.

NASCAR decided before the season to make steering, braking, throttle and RPM information available to all teams. Such information had been on NASCAR’s RaceView and some teams had created programs to mine that information to study competitors.

The decision to share all that information upset some drivers, most notably Kyle Busch.

“I’ve spent 13 years in this sport to figure out how to drive a racecar, make it go fast, do the things I do to win races and championships,’’ Busch said last month. “Now you’re going to hand all that on a piece of paper to a young driver, they’re going to figure it out, as long as they know how to read it.

“They still have to do it, but at least they know what I’m doing.’’

ISM Raceway, formerly Phoenix Raceway, challenges drivers with how much they brake. That’s where driving traces from competitors can prove helpful.

“I think it might be a little bit more of a factor this weekend where you’re off the throttle a lot and you’re braking pretty heavy,’’ Blaney said of the driver data. “You can see what other people are doing braking technique wise.’’

Blaney said such information is more valuable at a high-braking track than where the series has raced so far this year.

“Vegas and Atlanta, you’re completely off the gas and you’re light braking, you’re not really having a bunch of pressure on that,’’ he said.

Blaney said he’s mainly focused on the data from teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, along with Paul Menard of the Wood Brothers, which has an alliance with Team Penske.

“I can learn a bunch from Brad, Joey and Paul,’’ Blaney said. “There is some stuff that Ford shares, too. I looked at Harvick’s stuff a little from Vegas, but, no, I have not looked at any of the Toyota or Chevy stuff, just haven’t done that. I think there will be a little bit more to gain if you do look at that stuff, other team’s stuff.’’

Of course, seeing how someone drives doesn’t mean another competitor can duplicate it. But every little bit of information can help a driver close the gap with a foe.

2. Learning the way

As 20-year-old rookie William Byron races champions twice his age and others with much more experience, his biggest challenge might not be his competition but himself.

“The biggest difference and the biggest thing you have to learn as a rookie is to trust yourself and not do anything different than what has gotten you here,” he said. 

“You’ve got to make sure you drive the race car the same, the same intensity and not shy away from communicating just because you have a bigger race team behind you or a lot more people listening. I think you just have to approach it like you are racing anything.”

It’s not been an easy start for a driver anointed by some to be one of the sport’s standard bearers for the next two decades. He was collected in a crash at the end of the opening stage in the Daytona 500 and finished 23rd. He quickly fell a lap down and was running outside the top 30 at Atlanta before rallying to finish 18th. He struggled at Las Vegas, finishing four laps behind the leaders in 27th.

He says he’s learning as he goes.

“My team gives me more information than I’ve ever had before in terms of actual data to look at or actual timing down pit road, pit road speeds, all of that stuff that we get access to, we use that right away,’’ Byron said. “I would say I use all those tools as much as I can to make sure that I’m closing that gap quicker. 

“We had one thing at Daytona that I was really low on the bar with and didn’t really do it, didn’t know how to do that and by the second week I was like one of the most consistent ones with it within my teammates.  I’m learning those things that you never get access to previous.”

What did he struggle with at Daytona?

“It was more just like doing things under caution like keeping the motor cool and just things like that to make sure that you are maximizing your performance,’’ he said. “It was just trying to make sure that I’m doing those things and make sure I’m utilizing caution periods as much as I can and things like that. That stuff is much more important in this series.”

3. Hall of Fame wait

The 20 nominees were announced this week for the 2019 Hall of Fame class. Jeff Gordon is among the five nominees added to the 15 holdovers.

While Gordon almost assuredly will be selected, there are others who have been waiting years for their chance at induction.

Among the current nominees, Ray Fox, an engine builder, car owner and official, was nominated a seventh consecutive year. Short track specialist Larry Phillips was nominated a sixth consecutive year. Buddy Baker was nominated a fifth consecutive year.

Red Byron holds the record for most nominations before being selected at nine. Richard Childress, Rick Hendrick, Raymond Parks and Benny Parsons each were inducted after their eighth consecutive nomination.

The average number of years the 45 inductees were nominated before being selected for the Hall is 3.4.

Nine people were inducted in the first year they were nominated. That includes the inaugural class of Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Junior Johnson, Bill France Sr. and Bill France Jr.

The other four who were selected after their first nomination: Rusty Wallace, Dale Jarrett, Maurice Petty and Bill Elliott.

4. Leader of the pack

Stewart-Haas Racing’s drivers combined to lead 895 laps last season. Already this season, the organization has led 464 laps in the first three races of the season, led by Kevin Harvick’s total of 395.

5. West Coast ringer

Kyle Larson’s third-place finish last weekend at Las Vegas marked his fourth consecutive top-three finish in the West Coast swing, dating back to last year. Larson finished second at Las Vegas and Phoenix on the West Coast swing before winning at Auto Club Speedway last year.

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For Chase Elliott, the Daytona 500 was ‘a devastating way to end a good week’

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HAMPTON, Ga. – On the brink of his latest soul-crushing disappointment in falling just short of his first NASCAR Cup victory, let’s revisit the last near-miss for Chase Elliott.

After losing a healthy lead when the yellow flew with a scheduled two laps remaining and subsequently finishing third Sept. 18, 2016 at Chicagoland Speedway in last season’s playoffs opener, Elliott said, “That’s life. You just have to embrace it and move on.”

Did his feelings change when he lost the season’s biggest race of the year when his No. 24 Chevrolet ran out of fuel Sunday while leading the Daytona 500 with three laps remaining?

“Um no, it is still kind of the same deal,” the Hendrick Motorsports driver said Friday before practice at Atlanta Motor Speedway. “It’s disappointing. You learn through this stuff, and you just try to think about what you could have done differently.

“At Chicago, I don’t really know what we could have done about that, and I really don’t know what you do about running out of gas with just a couple of laps to go, either. In both of those cases, I felt like from a performance side, I thought we did a good job and we were close, just not close enough. I don’t know that it really changes my complexion or outlook on how I view things. It’s definitely a disappointing finish to a good day.”

Elliott has absorbed unwanted experience with stomaching the checkered flags that slip away. As a rookie, he also finished second twice at Michigan International Speedway.

At Daytona, he started from the pole position in a car that won a Thursday qualifying race.

“I mean we had such a great car down there and a great start to the week, a great Thursday night,” he said. “That was a devastating way to end a good week for sure.

“There are two things, I think, to look at when you think about Daytona for us. A. We had to play the cards we were dealt. I felt like we planned to the best of our ability. I think that is something to be proud of. B. We ran out of gas. Yes, we were leading and it’s easy to say, ‘Ahh it was ours to lose’.  In reality there were still three laps to go and three laps at Daytona is a long time. So, I think for us to sit back and think that we had it locked down is kind of foolish.”

Jimmie Johnson scored his first Cup victory in his 13th start (at Fontana, Calif., in April 2002), but he didn’t win the first of seven championships until his fifth season — a fact that he has drawn on in advising and encouraging his Hendrick teammate Elliott.

“I just keep telling him, ‘Man, you can’t change what you are doing.  You are doing such a great job,’” Johnson said. “He has learned so quick. Such talent that in my heart and from watching from the outside, I know (a win is) going to happen. We all know it’s going to happen. When he starts winning, he is not going to stop winning.

“I had a few championship opportunities slip away before we won one.  I just kept telling myself, ‘How many of these am I going to waste away?’  These opportunities don’t show up all the time.  So, I’m pretty confident that has been through his mind, but hopefully he is also telling himself — and I know that I’m telling him — ‘Man I’m young, I’ve got a lot of racing left.’  He is really doing the right things.  Sometimes you are just unlucky, and eventually that luck will come around.”

What are the “right things” that Elliott is doing?

“He just has such a good sense of the race and adjustments that he needs for the race,” Johnson said. “To watch him grow over the course of Daytona and understand the draft and the strength that his car had, he started to do things in the draft that nobody else was even thinking about.  So, it’s just an instinctive thing inside of him, that racing savvy that you can’t teach somebody.

” You can learn to be courageous, you can learn to go run one fast lap, you can teach yourself those things, but that in-race stuff you really are kind of born with that, and he has that.”

Some TV analysts have second-guessed whether Elliott’s team should have had him drop back in the draft to avoid running out of fuel with a dominant car, positioning himself to surge near the finish when several others also had expiring fuel tanks.

Elliott, who led 39 laps at Daytona, said it wasn’t an option that made sense.

“They said we were going to be really close, and that we were basically right there if not a little short,” he said. “And really the situation we were in, leading the race, we didn’t talk about falling back to try to draft because we all know as soon as I do that, the caution comes out, and then everybody makes it from there.”

After an attrition-filled race in which 35 of 40 cars were involved in crashes, Elliott said the “biggest disappointment is we were able to survive all the way to the end and that is a hard thing to do in itself. You don’t see a whole lot of superspeedway races come down to fuel mileage. I think that is the biggest thing is we made it to the end. Just not in the right manner.”

It’s probably little consolation, but Elliott’s Hall of Fame father, Bill, finished runner-up eight times before his breakthrough victory in the 1983 season finale at Riverside International Raceway.

“Yeah, he has brought that up a couple of times,” Elliott said. “He has mentioned that. It’s one of those things where it’s crazy. Obviously, that was back in the ’80’s, and things were a lot different, but it kind of just goes to show you if it’s not your day, it’s not your day. I guess whenever it’s meant to be our day, it will be, and hopefully that day comes.”