Kevin Harvick

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Clint Bowyer, Aric Almirola look for crew chief changes to spark teams

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola each say the crew chief swaps are ways to make their teams better after each failed to win a race this past season.

While both Bowyer and Almirola made the playoffs, neither was a factor. Almirola was eliminated in the first round. Bowyer failed to advance beyond the second round. Bowyer finished ninth in points. Almirola was 14th.

“We don’t want to be satisfied with just making the playoffs,” Almirola said Wednesday, a day before the NASCAR Awards Show (8 p.m. ET Thursday on NBCSN). “You want to make a run in the playoffs like we did last year and win races. Unfortunately we didn’t do that.”

Mike Bugarewicz will be paired with Almirola after spending the past three seasons with Bowyer. Johnny Klausmeier will be paired with Bowyer after spending the past two seasons with Almirola.

Stewart-Haas Racing has struggled to have its three other cars match the consistent success of Kevin Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers. Harvick won the 2014 title in his first season at SHR. This year marked the fifth time he’s made it to the championship race in Miami in the six years of the format. No other SHR team has made it to the championship Cup race. Harvick’s team also was the only SHR car to win a race in 2019, scoring four victories.

“You look at teams like Kevin and Rodney and the success they’ve had,” Bowyer said. “They click. All the successful pairings are that way. Obviously this is an effort to try to find a little bit more of that fit factor. I’m looking forward to it. I think it’s going to be a good fit thing for all of us. Definitely excited about what’s to come and getting things started with Johnny.”

Bowyer said he and Bugarewicz didn’t fit as well because they were too much alike.

“I really enjoyed Mike and all the guys on that team,” said Bowyer, who won two races with Bugarewicz in 2018. “Sometimes we’re too much the same. When I get fired up, he gets fired up and then we butt heads. You need a little bit of the opposites attract thing like a marriage.”

Stewart-Haas Racing announces 2020 Cup driver-crew chief lineup

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Stewart-Haas Racing announced Wednesday it is shaking up its driver-crew chief lineup for the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season, with Rodney Childers the only crew chief staying in place.

Mike Shiplett will move up to the Cup Series to crew chief Cole Custer in his rookie season in the No. 41 Ford. Together, Custer and Shiplett won seven Xfinity Series races in 2019 and finished second to Tyler Reddick in the standings.

Shiplett returns to the Cup Series for the first time since 2011 when he was crew chief for A.J. Allmendinger in 19 races at Richard Petty Motorsports. He takes the place of Billy Scott, who was crew chief for Daniel Suarez‘ only season in the No. 41.

A team spokesperson confirmed to NBC Sports that Scott is no longer with SHR as he pursues other opportunities.

SHR is swapping crew chiefs on the No. 14 and No. 10 cars, with Mike Bugarewicz now paired with Aric Almirola on the No. 10 and John Klausmeier paired with Clint Bowyer on the No. 14.

Klausmeier worked with Almirola for the last two seasons as they earned one win (Talladega II, 2018) and made the playoffs both years.

Bugarewicz has led the No. 14 team since 2016, where he was Tony Stewart’s crew chief for his last NASCAR season before being paired with Bowyer in 2017. They won two races together in 2018 (Martinsville I, Michigan I) but went winless in 2019.

SHR also confirmed the No. 10 and No. 14 teams will be switching their crews, with the exception of their pit crews.

Childers will be paired with Kevin Harvick for a seventh year. Since 2014 they have produced 26 victories, one championship and have made the Championship 4 in five of six years.

“Our biggest asset at Stewart-Haas Racing is our people, and we strive to put each person in the best position to succeed,” said Greg Zipadelli, the team’s vice president of competition, in a press release. “Our driver/crew chief pairings for next season reflect this ideology, and we believe this lineup provides the best opportunity to win every time we unload our Ford Mustangs at the racetrack.”

Power rankings: NASCAR driver/crew chief combinations

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NASCAR Talk continues its offseason Power Rankings, as voted on by NBC Sports’ NASCAR writers.

Today, we present our picks for the top driver/crew chief combinations in the sport.

There are a few surprises, for sure. Most notably: 2019 Cup champion Kyle Busch and crew chief Adam Stevens did not take the No. 1 spot in the rankings.

We’re asking fans to give their take on our picks (choose from Cup, Xfinity or Trucks). Do you agree or disagree – and why? Take our poll at the bottom of these rankings.

The top driver/crew chief rankings:

1. Martin Truex Jr./Cole Pearn (29 points): Among the sport’s gold standard, if not the standard other driver/crew chief pairings are measured. A series-high 23 wins have come in the last four seasons, including one championship in 2017 and back-to-back runner-up finishes in 2018 and 2019.

2. Denny Hamlin/Chris Gabehart (25 points): In his first season as a Cup crew chief, Gabehart brought a second wind to Hamlin’s career after the latter went winless in 2018. Hamlin put together his best year in almost a decade in 2019 with six wins, 19 top five and 24 top-10 finishes.

3. Kyle Busch/Adam Stevens (24 points): This is the only current driver-crew chief combo with multiple Cup titles. Stevens and Busch have been to the Championship 4 all five years they’ve been together. Sure, it wasn’t easy in the playoffs this year but they still claimed the championship.

4. Kevin Harvick/Rodney Childers (23 points): Were fast when they first got together in 2014 and have not slowed since. They have collected 26 wins in their six years together, earning the championship in 2014 and only missing the Championship 4 round once since (2016). If it wasn’t for occasional inconsistency and slumps, the No. 4 team likely would be ranked higher.

5. Christopher Bell/Jason Ratcliff (13 points): Though they will move to the Cup Series in 2020 without any Xfinity championships, they tormented the competition in the Xfinity Series the past two years, winning 15 times. Placed in the top five in 38 of 66 races.

6. Brad Keselowski/Paul Wolfe (12 points): The longest-tenured active combo in Cup at nine years. The duo has 29 wins, one championship and won three or more races in seven of those nine seasons together. The No. 2 team would have placed higher in these rankings except it has reached Championship 4 round just once (2015) since NASCAR went to an elimination playoff format in 2014.

7. Joey Logano/Todd Gordon (11 points): Did not have a strong playoffs but remained in contention for a Championship 4 spot until the penultimate race at Phoenix by grabbing stage points. The duo has 21 wins, one championship and one runner-up in seven years together. Have earned at least one win in each season they’ve been together but haven’t had more than three wins in a single season since 2015.

8. Chase Elliott/Alan Gustafson (7 points): Gustafson is underrated in his ability to build a team. After a slow start together, they’ve managed to produce back-to-back three-win seasons. Granted, the third round (finishes of 36th, 32nd and 39th) sealed Elliott’s hope of making the Championship 4, but this is a team that has laid a strong foundation.

9. William Byron/Chad Knaus (6 points): Only one of our voters selected Byron/Knaus. While this first-year pairing didn’t lead to a win for Byron, there was a tremendous amount of growth this season with five top-five and 13 top-10 finishes. Knaus’ veteran ability and patience and mentoring has paid dividends, leading to even higher expectations for this pairing in 2020.

10. Cole Custer/Mike Shiplett (5 points): After Custer earned just one win in each of his first two full-time Xfinity seasons, Shiplett provided a supercharge to Custer’s career. They earned seven wins and finished second in the championship race to Tyler Reddick in 2019. There has been no announcement whether Shiplett will follow Custer to Cup in 2020.

Others receiving votes: Ryan Newman/Scott Graves (4 points), Kyle Larson/Chad Johnston (3 points), Tyler Reddick/Randall Burnett (2 points), Matt Crafton/Carl Joiner (1 point).

Through the viewfinder: Memorable photos of 2019 season

Photo by Dustin Long
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The end of each NASCAR season provides a chance for reflection … and a time to go back and look at the many photos taken at the track. Here are some photos I took in 2019 and what made them stand out to me.

Photo: Dustin Long

If you’ve been to a race, you’ve likely seen pit crews stand in their pit box and wave to their driver as they pass by on pit road before heading to the track to begin the race (at least at races where cars are staged on pit road).

The Richard Petty Motorsports pit crew, though, waves to every vehicle that passes them on pit road. Often drivers will wave back.

“If you don’t wave at them, you actually feel bad because they’ll like make sad faces,” Martin Truex Jr. said. Above was the scene at Charlotte in May on All-Star weekend.

 

Somewhere in this photo is Kyle Larson‘s car after he won the All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May. Photo by Dustin Long

 

Photo by Dustin Long

After each event, one of the biggest races is for the spotter of the winning team to make it down from atop the press box to Victory Lane to celebrate with the team. Sometimes the spotter can’t make it down in time before photos begin to be taken.

Spotter Chris Lambert makes sure to get a picture with his driver, Denny Hamlin, after each win because Lambert often misses the group pictures. This photo is of them after Hamlin’s win at ISM Raceway put the No. 11 driver in the championship race.

But there is more to Lambert than being the voice that tells Hamlin “clear” or “inside” or “outside.” His first wife and infant son were killed in a car crash 20 years ago. After the tragedy, a series of seemingly unrelated events over the next few years led him to marry one of his wife’s best friends. Before each race, Lambert honors the family he has and the one had.

 

Photo: Dustin Long

The intensity on Cole Custer‘s face is striking in the moments after he finished second for the Xfinity Series championship for the second year in a row in Miami.

Custer moves up to the Cup Series in 2020, joining a talented rookie class that includes two-time Xfinity Series champion Tyler Reddick and Christopher Bell. This could be one of the best rookie of the year races in recent years.

 

 

The throwback schemes for the Southern 500 have made the event at Darlington Raceway even more special for many race fans. The Wood Brothers crew uniforms help the past come alive. Photo: Dustin Long

 

Photo: Dustin Long

This photo is of artwork in the Talladega Superspeedway media center celebrating 50 years of NASCAR racing at the track.

After I tweeted the photo, I was a bit surprised by the reaction from fans and their comments about the artwork. That’s one of the things I’ll remember most about this picture.

Of course, seeing some of the sport’s most famous cars on track together also was memorable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo by Dustin Long

Another special story on pit road in 2019 was the return of Daniel Smith, rear tire changer for Kevin Harvick’s team.

Smith’s last event of the 2018 season was the Bristol night race before he was treated for testicular cancer. His treatment included four rounds of chemotherapy, which consisted of one week in a hospital and two weeks of recovery each time. Still, he continued to work out in the hospital.

Smith returned at Daytona in February. He remained on pit road through the Bristol night race this past season until surgery to remove lymph nodes in his lower abdomen. He returned to his job on pit road at Talladega Superspeedway in October.

 

 

Nothing else needs to be said as Mike Wheeler, crew chief for Matt DiBenedetto, stares at the damaged left front corner of the car after DiBenedetto finished second in the Bristol night race. Photo: Dustin Long

‘Big 3’ finally graduate from Xfinity Series

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It finally hit Cole Custer on Friday night.

His full-time Xfinity Series racing career is over.

“I guess I didn’t really realize it till tonight,” Custer said after being recognized for his Championship 4 appearance in Miami during the Xfinity and Truck Series Awards Ceremony. “I’ve been in the Xfinity Series a while now, and it’s going to be a little sad leaving for sure. It’s what I’ve been used to the last few years.”

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver – who totaled nine wins in 104 Xfinity starts since 2016 – isn’t the only one whose time on the circuit effectively came to an end with a graduation of sorts in front of peers at the Charlotte Convention Center.

Joining him in the jump to the NASCAR Cup Series are the two drivers who completed the series’ dominating “Big 3” – Christopher Bell and two-time champion Tyler Reddick.

Just like a senior in high school, the realization this chapter in his career was over hit Bell hard last week as he prepared for the season finale.

“Honestly, it was such an emotional week going into Homestead, because I’m very reluctant to change,” Bell said. “I like my routine, and it was tough. I kind of savored every moment of it. My last time sitting in an Xfinity car, my last time going to the races, my last time flying with this group of people. It was an emotional week for sure. Honestly, now that the season’s over it’s definitely behind me. I get the vibe I’m not an Xfinity driver anymore.”

Bell, who won 16 times in 74 starts since 2017, is “nervous” about his move from Joe Gibbs Racing to Leavine Family Racing for his rookie Cup season in 2020. Fortunately for Bell, he’ll do so with the person he considers his “rock,” crew chief Jason Ratcliff.

“He’s the guy who’s going to bring me comfort to the Cup Series,” Bell said. “So my boss stays the same. Just getting to know the people, getting to know the mechanics and the ins and out of their shop will be a process.”

Reddick, who has nine wins in 84 Xfinity starts, enters the Cup Series as the first two-time defending Xfinity champion since Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in 2013.

He’s actually glad his promotion by Richard Childress Racing is happening at the same time as Custer’s and Bell’s.

“It’s going to be a lot of fun that we’ll be racing against each other for the rookie battle,” Reddick told NBC Sports on Wednesday. “It’s also cool, too, because I feel like you often make that step alone by yourself. In recent years, some of these guys do. Granted, we’ll all be with different teams, different manufacturers, organizations. Honestly, I have this feeling the three of us will probably lean on each other quite a bit because we’re all going to be going through a very similar experience for the first time in our careers. I don’t think we planned on that yet, but I have a feeling that could very well happen.”

Well, it depends on where they’re racing.

“I think if we’re all running about 20th, we’ll probably lean on each other,” Bell joked. “If one of us succeeds, then we’re definitely not going to be talking to the other two giving away what we know. We all three have a really good relationship. I definitely expect us to communicate a lot.”

With this chapter of their careers over and new challenges in front of them – like the Cup Series’ own “Big 3” in Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. – it’s time to get a new name for their trio.

Even though he doesn’t like change, Bell is already testing out a new title.

“We’re kind of going to be the ‘Three Amigos,’ right?” Bell said. “Everyone’s kind of got your little cliques going on. At least we got a couple of familiar faces moving up with us.”

The NASCAR Xfinity Awards Show can be seen at 9 p.m. ET on Dec. 1 on NBCSN