Coming off the first off-week of the season, crew chief Alan Gustafson and his No. 9 team at Hendrick Motorsports had an interesting three-race stretch awaiting them.
The Cup Series would head to Talladega Superspeedway, Dover International Speedway and Kansas Speedway.
The last two tracks hold good memories for Gustafson and driver Chase Elliott. Two of their three wins last year came in the playoff races at Dover and Kansas. The 1-mile Dover is also the site of Elliott’s best average finish (4.3) through six starts.
“Probably of the three, I was most looking forward to Dover,” Gustafson said Sunday. “I just love Dover, because when you win Dover, you’ve done something. That’s a tough, fast track. There’s no place to hide. There’s no way you can get away with not being on the edge all day.”
But they had to go through Talladega to get there.
“I was looking forward to coming here,” Gustafson said. “I mean, you get a little beat down after doing it for so long, not getting the results, how fickle it can be. Certainly don’t want to say I wasn’t looking forward to coming here. You’re a bit cautious with your expectations because this place can bite you in a second.”
Elliott’s win Sunday at Talladega came in Gustafson’s 58th Cup points race on a superspeedway, with 29 each at Talladega and Daytona.
In those races, the first being the 2005 Daytona 500, Gustafson has worked with the likes of Kyle Busch, Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, Casey Mears and Elliott.
Outside a win in a Daytona 500 qualifying race in 2018, Gustafson had come up one spot short of victory lane three times at superspeedways.
The closest he came was in the July 2007 race at Daytona, when Jamie McMurray edged Busch by .005 of a second to steal the win.
In addition to Gustafson and Elliott’s first Cup superspeedway wins, the victory ended a seven-race stretch of Ford wins at Talladega. It also was Chevy’s first Cup win of the season.
“We needed to win this,” Gustafson said. “We needed to consolidate our efforts. We needed to break the streak that one of our rivals has here. … (Crew members at Hendrick have) worked really, really hard. Really haven’t had the results to pay off their efforts.”
The win was also Hendrick Motorsports’ first on a superspeedway since Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the July 2015 race at Daytona.
“Just thinking back a year or so, we’ve been so close to winning one of these (superspeedway) races for so long, haven’t been able to do it,” Gustafson said. “Happy for them we were able to get that done today.”
Elliott noted that it was “pretty cool” to get Gustafson’s first superspeedway win, but he observed that “a sticker is a sticker, the Playoff points are what they are. I think it’s important to rack them up as early as you can, as long as you can keep stacking on top of it.”
While the No. 9 has been to victory lane four times in the last 25 races, Elliott doesn’t think they’re “winning often enough.”
“I feel like we need to be contending more,” Elliott said. “I see some of our competitors being in contention more than we have been throughout the season. I think we can certainly do a better job.
“To have a win this early in the year I think is nice. And just because we won at Dover and Kansas last year doesn’t mean we’re going to go run good there, too. You know that.
Last week’s Cup qualifying at Las Vegas Motor Speedway raised the question of is qualifying more about entertainment or sport?
It was fascinating to watch cars parked on pit road and drivers waiting for someone to go because nobody wanted to be the lead car. They all wanted to be in the draft.
While that took place, spotters counted down the time remaining in the session.
It became a game of who would blink first and take off.
When it was time to go, there was chaos. Cars darted around each other. In the final round, Joey Logano went four-wide on pit road. Ricky Stenhouse passed Logano on the inside and left pit road ahead of him.
“Is chaos a bad thing?” Logano asked NBC Sports’ Jerry Bonkowski this week. “I think that’s the question we have to ask ourselves. Is it chaos? Yes. Is it entertaining? Oh yeah, it’s entertaining, there’s a lot going on. So I don’t know if it’s wrong and we should be changing much.
“I think there’s a couple safety aspects we can add to pit road while we’re jockeying around for position and stuff like that. But as far as the entertainment value, will you get the lap in before the clock runs out, will you get a big enough draft, will they all go out for a second time and you get a big pack again, are they going to knock somebody out of the round? That’s good.
“I don’t know why we would change much of that, I think it’s OK. Yeah, it’s a little chaotic, it’s crazy and none of us has it figured out or scienced out the way we want to have it yet, but that’s competition, that’s just what it is.”
Logano is right. While there was a randomness to who won the pole at Las Vegas, qualifying was as entertaining as any session in recent years.
What happened last week was reminiscent of qualifying at Talladega in October 2014. NASCAR divided teams into two groups for the opening round and each had five minutes. The top 24 overall times advanced.
Most cars stayed on pit road until they hit their cutoff mark to complete two laps. Not everyone made it. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Justin Allgaier were among the cars that didn’t make it to the start/finish line before the session ended. Their fastest laps didn’t count. They both failed to qualify. It’s the only race Stenhouse has failed to make since his 2013 rookie Cup season.
These days, 36 chartered cars are guaranteed a starting spot. That prevents a situation Stenhouse experienced five years ago with a well-funded team.
But that doesn’t ease all the angst. Some competitors were frustrated at Las Vegas because the draft negates who has the fastest car. It’s all about being in the right place to draft and turn the quickest lap. Being in that position can be as much luck as skill.
What happens in qualifying can impact the race. Teams pick pit stalls based on their starting spot. A poor qualifying effort can lead to issues in the race.
Logano is aware of that. He qualified 27th at Atlanta and his team had limited options on where to pick their pit stall. Crew chief Todd Gordon chose a stall behind Alex Bowman’s pit and in front of Martin Truex Jr.’s pit.
Rarely do strong teams pit next to each other because they don’t want to have to go around a car to enter their stall or be blocked in by the car in front. Logano faced that situation at Atlanta. He lost more than 10 spots on each of his first two pit stops because he couldn’t get around Bowman’s car to exit his stall.
That leads back to the question of should qualifying be about entertainment or sport?
The decision today will be easy. The fastest car will be rewarded because teams are not expected to draft.
This issue that will come up again in the coming weeks, though, when the series heads to Auto Club Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway.
“Texas, I don’t know,” Logano said. “I think there’s going to be parts of the track that you want to draft and parts of the track when you’re going to want clean air. When you get to Turns 1 and 2, you’re going to want some air on the car to be able to get through the corner with as much wide open time as possible. That one’s a real question for me.
“I think Kansas is a no-brainer, you’re definitely going to be drafting. As for Fontana, it’ll be interesting. I think there’s going to be some drafting going on there, but I think it’ll be split up a little bit, kind of like the way Atlanta was, kinda 50-50.”
There’s no splitting this issue. It’s about entertainment. Let chaos reign in qualifying.
For all the wins Kyle Busch has amassed in his NASCAR career, there is a recurring theme.
The runner-up to Busch in more than a third of the 197 races he’s won across Cup, Xfinity and the Gander Outdoors Truck Series has been one of five drivers.
The driver who has finished runner-up to Busch the most in those races is Kevin Harvick. He’s done so 18 times — five times in Cup, 10 times in Xfinity and three times in Trucks. The total equates to 9.1 percent of the time Busch has won a NASCAR race, Harvick has been second.
Carl Edwards is next on the list with 15 runner-up finishes to Busch. He’s followed by Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano with 13-runner-up finishes. Next is Kyle Larson, who has placed second to Busch eight times.
Combined, Harvick, Edwards, Keselowski, Logano and Larson have finished second to Busch in 67 of his 197 wins (34 percent).
They are among the 60 drivers who have placed second to Busch in a race he won. The list includes three NASCAR Hall of Fame members (Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and Ron Hornaday Jr.), two Indianapolis 500 winners (Sam Hornish Jr. and Juan Pablo Montoya) and drivers who have combined to win 48 NASCAR titles in either Cup, Xfinity or Trucks.
The list could grow this weekend. Busch is entered in both the Cup and Xfinity races at Phoenix.
Here is who has finished second to Busch in Cup, Xfinity and Trucks races and how often:
Tanner Thorson, who competed in 11 Gander Outdoors Truck Series races last season, is recovering after he was involved in a highway crash early Monday morning in Modesto, California.
The 2016 U.S. Auto Club national champion had surgery Monday night for a broken left arm, according to the USAC Racing. Thorson had surgery Wednesday on his broken right foot. He also suffered a cracked sternum, broken ribs and a punctured lung, according to USAC Racing. The organization said that Thorson’s family hopes the 22-year-old can return home soon.
According to a preliminary investigation by the California Highway Patrol, Thorson was driving a 2019 Ford pickup that was towing his sprint car when he approached slower moving traffic shortly before 4 a.m. PT. Thorson’s truck struck the rear of a vehicle. KCRA, an NBC affiliate in Sacramento, reported that vehicle was a milk truck.
The impact sent the milk truck into the next lane where it was hit by another vehicle and then came back across the road and was struck another car. The driver was uninjured. A passenger in the truck was transported from the scene with minor injuries, according to the California Highway Patrol. Thorson’s vehicle came to rest on the shoulder and caught fire.
4. First time in new garages at Phoenix
ISM Raceway at Phoenix debuted its new garages and layout when NASCAR raced there in November.
Kevin Harvick has finished in the top five in half of the 32 Cup races he’s run at Phoenix. He has nine wins there. Jimmie Johnson has 15 top-five finishes in 31 Cup races there. He has four wins there.
Despite the dominance of the two, they have combined for one win (by Harvick) in the last five races at Phoenix. The other winners in the last five races at Phoenix are Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman and Joey Logano.
In addition to those wins, Hendrick owns 12 Cup titles.
Seventeen drivers have gone to Victory Lane for Rick Hendrick since Geoff Bodine first did it at Martinsville in 1984.
“On behalf of everyone at Chevrolet, I am extremely pleased to congratulate Rick and the entire Hendrick Motorsports family on this tremendous accomplishment of 250 race wins in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series,” said Jim Campbell, Chevrolet’s U.S. vice president of performance vehicles and motorsports in statement. “This major milestone is the result of years of passion, persistence, and teamwork to get the job done. We are especially proud of the fact that all 250 wins have been in Chevrolet race cars. Rick’s passion for the brand and dedication to putting Chevrolet in Victory Lane has been relentless. As a key partner and respected friend, we salute you.”
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — A night that saw half the 40-car field eliminated by crashes, presented opportunities for other drivers Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway.
The result was a list of superlatives for drivers and team that often aren’t in the spotlight.
The highlights for those teams and drivers:
# Kasey Kahne matched the career-best finish for Leavine Family Racing with his fourth-place performance
# Both JTG Daugherty Racing cars finished in the top five for the first time. AJ Allmendinger placed third and Chris Buescher was fifth. Allmendinger’s result was his fourth consecutive top-10 finish at Daytona, the longest active streak.
# Ty Dillon placed sixth, earning his first career top-10 finish and was the first top-10 result for Germain Racing since Casey Mears finished sixth in the 2015 Daytona 500.
# Matt DiBenedetto’s seventh-place finish was his fourth career top 10 in 122 starts.
DiBenedetto’s best finish this season before Saturday was 16th. He scored the top 10 despite being collected in the 26-car crash that brought out the caution on Lap 55.
“I guess that was probably one of the craziest races I’ve ever taken part in,” he said. “I’m glad we survived and we seem to always position ourselves in a spot to be up front and competing for the win at the end of these speedway races at Daytona quite often.”
Kahne was thrilled with his run. His best finish this year before Saturday’s race was 17th.
“It was a strong car, really strong car,” he said. “The guys did a great job and we were able to avoid wrecks. I knew in the second stage we had a car capable to win if things went right. We were there from that point on.”
On the final restart, Kahne didn’t have anyone pushing him but the cars in front were stalled out as they ran side by side and Kahne got a run on Martin Truex Jr.
“I got past him and he just hung on my left rear corner off of Turn 2 and side drafted me, sucked me back down half the straightaway,” Kahne said. “We had such a gap on (winner Erik Jones) that he had a huge run on us at that point. I tried to block a little but he was going where I wasn’t and got by.”
Allmendinger had to overcome challenges throughout the race.
“You know, tonight was strange,” said Allmendinger, whose best finish this season before Saturday was eighth at Martinsville. “Tried to ride at the back early on, and still got wrecked and had a lot of damage on the left rear of the race car, so my guys did a good job to fix it good enough. Heck, I probably missed another seven wrecks after that. It was just kind of chaos out there.
“You know, it was a little bit of survival, and there at the end it was just trying to make the right moves. With that damage on the left side of the race car, it put a lot of drag in it, so I didn’t really know if we had a great shot to win it. I knew my only shot was going to be off of Turn 4 and try to make the right move. Going down into (Turn) 3, Martin was battling with Erik there and made a move and tried to push Martin and obviously get as much as I could, and we salvaged a great result out of it.”
Buescher, his teammate, also was in contention on the last restart.
“Glad we were able to push Erik out there and at least help him get his first Cup win, that’s pretty cool,” said Buescher, whose result matched his season-high of fifth in the Daytona 500. “Pretty wild race. It was a good points night for us. Pit crew did excellent. We put all the puzzle pieces together and stayed out of trouble. That was a big part of it.”
Earnhardt was excited about his night.
“Just proud of all these guys,” he said. “Nine Line Foundation, Black Rifle Coffee, Extreme Concepts – they are the reason I am here with the cause that they are trying to push and its just an honor to get to be a part of it. It’s an incredible company and they support our country, our military and all of our veterans. I am so happy I got them a good run.
“Everyone kept asking me what it means to come here with the Earnhardt name at Daytona, and it does mean a lot, don’t get me wrong. But to show support to our veterans and be a part of what the foundation is doing … that meant more to me than anything tonight. Proud of all the guys at Premium in giving me a good car tonight and keeping the car in one piece. It’s my best career finish in the Cup series, so hopefully this will lead to some more sponsorship and get me back out here on the track more often.”
To quote the great philosophers @Migos tonight we were “Slippery” dodged all the wrecks and brought it home #p6. I’m supper proud of my guys had a fast enough hot rod to also cash some stage points. 🤘🏻 pic.twitter.com/IWsACScH9z
“Right now I’m talking to a few NASCAR programs to do maybe limited stuff,” Mears told The Checkered Flag. “I don’t have anything that would be a full-time ride in a NASCAR series.
“I’ve been speaking with Robby Gordon in the Stadium Super Truck program. I think that’s a really cool up-and-coming-series and I’d definitely like to be involved with the GRC. It looks like a lot of fun.
“I think there’s enough difference between all those that it could leave room for doing a bit of both so we’ll see how it works out.”
Mears did not race in the Cup Series in 2017, having lost his ride at the end of 2016 to Ty Dillon in the No. 13 Geico Chevy. He has amassed 488 starts and one win (2007 Coca-Cola 600) in his Cup career, along with 13 top fives and 51 top 10s.
However, he did compete on a part-time basis in 2017 in the Xfinity Series, making 14 starts, with season-best finishes of ninth place at both Richmond and Road America. He also has 107 Xfinity starts with one win, 16 top fives and 34 top 10s.