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Christopher Bell ‘thankful’ he gets another year with Xfinity crew chief

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In the build up to Joe Gibbs Racing’s announcement of a restructuring of its crew chief assignments for 2019, Christopher Bell “prayed” for one outcome.

He wanted to keep Jason Ratcliff as his crew chief.

Bell, who will turn 23 on Sunday, got an early birthday present when his prayer was answered.

Ratcliff will remain as the crew chief on Bell’s No. 20 Toyota in the Xfinity Series for a second year.

Together, Bell and Ratcliff earned seven Xfinity wins, a rookie record. That propelled them to the championship race in Homestead-Miami Speedway where a loose race car and a late pit stop for a cut tire relegated them to a fourth place finish in the standings.

“I was very concerned (about losing Ratcliff),” Bell said Saturday at the Xfinity Awards banquet in Charlotte. “Whenever I got paired up with Jason it was a dream come true, right? Because I’m getting arguably one of the best crew chiefs in the Cup level to come down and do my Xfinity car.”

Ratcliff, who has been a NASCAR crew chief since 2000, was paired with Bell after five seasons and 14 wins Matt Kenseth in the Cup series.

“I knew that whenever things are getting shuffled around you never really know who’s safe and who’s not safe,” Bell said of JGR’s crew chief changes. “Obviously, Jason’s going to get opportunities. People are going to want him to crew chief their Cup cars, to go to different Xfinity teams. I just prayed that Jason was going to stay with me and stick with me. Very thankful that he did.”

Though Tyler Reddick managed to claim the series title, Bell is the obvious favorite for the championship next season.

Bell admitted “it’s going to be very hard to top ’18 in ’19.

“If I can go into ’19 and continue to win races and be in the (championship) four, I’m going to be happy with that.”

When it comes to getting ready for 2019, Bell is staying active behind the wheel.

“The only offseason prep I’m doing is just racing,” Bell said. “I’ve been pretty busy. Right after Homestead I went to Turkey Night out in California (where he beat Kyle Larson) and ran a midget. From there I went to St. Louis and ran a Midget. The only thing I know how to do is just race. I don’t think me losing the championship was a matter of not being prepared, I think it was just a matter of us missing it as a group.”

Bell’s offseason prep will continue Saturday with the Junior Knepper 55 in DuQuoin, Illinois. Bell is the defending winner of the USAC midget race, when he won with Keith Kunz/Curb Agajanian Motorsports. This year, Bell will race for Chad Boat and Tucker-Boat Motorsports.

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New owners purchase Furniture Row Racing’s charter

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Spire Sports + Entertainment, an agency that represents drivers and sponsors and works with some NASCAR teams, has purchased Furniture Row Racing’s charter, NBC Sports confirmed Tuesday.

The new team’s car number will be 77. The team will field Chevrolets. Driver, sponsor and an alliance will be announced at a later date.

The team will be co-owned by Jeff Dickerson and T.J. Puchyr, among the founders of Spire.

“We think this is the perfect time to buy in,” Dickerson told NBC Sports about why the company was moving into the role of a car owner and purchasing a charter. “Our guys sit in board rooms and tell people how much they believe in the sport. We believe in this sport. We believe in the leadership.”

The Furniture Row Racing charter is the most valuable charter to be sold. Part of the money paid to teams with charters is based off performance the past three years. With a championship and runner-up finish the past two years, the Furniture Row Racing charter will provide more money than any of the previous charters that have been sold. Furniture Row Racing ceased operations after this season.

A NASCAR spokesperson said that the sanctioning body does not reveal the price of charters but NBC Sports has learned that this is the most paid for a charter. The only charter price that has been revealed came from the sale of BK Racing’s charter through bankruptcy court in August. Front Row Motorsports purchased that charter and team equipment for $2.08 million.

There are 36 charters in Cup. A charter team is guaranteed a starting spot each race. To maintain the charter, a team must compete in every race.

This will be the first time for Dickerson and Puchyr to be Cup car owners. They can provide the new ownership that some have questioned for the sport as the current group of owners age.

Spire Sports + Entertainment was founded in 2010. Among the drivers the company represents are: Kyle Larson, James Hinchcliffe, Landon Cassill, Ross Chastain, Todd Gilliland, Justin Haley, Vinnie Miller and Garrett Smithley.

Spire Sports + Entertainment also provides services to Hendrick Motorsports, Chip Ganassi Racing, GMS Racing and Toyota Racing Development.

 

 

Kurt Busch will drive for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2019

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Kurt Busch announced Tuesday that he will drive the No. 1 for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2019, a move long expected. The Associated Press reported it is a one-year deal. Monster Energy is moving with Busch to Ganassi.

The announcement comes two days after the 2004 Cup champion announced he would not return to Stewart-Haas Racing after five seasons there.

“This is a tremendous opportunity to go out and win races and have a shot at the championship,” Busch said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday.

The 40-year-old replaces Jamie McMurray in the No. 1 car with Ganassi’s team. Busch has won at least one race in 15 Cup seasons. He has 30 career Cup victories.

“It’s not oftentimes that a NASCAR champion, a Daytona 500 winner becomes available and I think when you got a guy that is a racer like Kurt … I think somebody like that comes along, you’ve got to take a serious look at him,” car owner Chip Ganassi said on the conference call Tuesday. “It didn’t take me long to say yes when he became available.”

Busch said he has considered that 2019 could be his last season in Cup.

“For me, I know right now I’m all in, no matter what it’s going to be, whether it’s going to be 36 races and a championship run or as a pact like Chip and I have talked about, along with Monster, that if we come out of the gate like gangbusters and have five wins by July Daytona, let’s talk about 2020,” Busch said.

“For me, the way everything has panned out from my switch to SHR to Ganassi Racing, I had always talked about 2019 and that being my 20th full-time year. That’s a number I have in my mind. Any time you get an opportunity like this and now seeing everybody on the shop floor this morning, you don’t know what’s around the next corner as far as motivation and challenges. For right now I see it as all in, and we’ll see how it goes from there.”

Busch said that Matt McCall, who has been the No. 1 team’s crew chief, will remain in that role with him.

With the move, Busch will be a teammate to Kyle Larson.

Busch said the deal was done earlier, but he held off announcing until now.

“Why I wanted a small delay in the announcement was really strictly me being selfish and wanting a really cool introduction, the smoke show that Monster brings, the glitz, the glamour and the fun,” Busch said. “It also dovetailed a fantastic 2018 season that I had at SHR. That group knew midsummer that we weren’t going to be together. I have to commend Greg Zipadelli and Tony Stewart in the way they approached the playoff races. When Chip and I struck our deal and Monster confirmed, Chip and I looked at each other, and said ‘You know what? As long as you’re championship eligible … we’ll just delay the announcement.’ It just worked out perfect. My final day was the final day of November for SHR, and here it is December 4, and I wish today was February 4. I wish we were going to Daytona next week. I’m all pumped up to get going and get to the track.”

Ganassi said an announcement will be coming on McMurray. He has been offered a ride in the Daytona 500 in a third Ganassi car and then move into a position with the team.

“I do expect Jamie to stick around,” Ganassi said.

Ganassi also said that sponsors McDonald’s and Cessna will remain.

Jimmie Johnson hopes to compete in Chili Bowl ‘one of these years’

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Jimmie Johnson‘s car swap with Formula One driver Fernando Alonso last week in Bahrain got people’s imaginations running in high gear.

What else could the seven-time Cup champion try his hand at?

“I’d look at anything,” Johnson said after the car swap. “Anything is open. I’m far from done. I want to keep driving and hopefully I can find some good opportunities.”

Johnson’s contract with Hendrick Motorsports goes through 2020. Then the 43-year-old driver could have a lot more time on his hands if he doesn’t renew with the the only team he has ever raced for in Cup.

Johnson, who mentioned his interest in IndyCar road course races, also has had his eye on possibly competing in the Chili Bowl Midget Nationals, a six-night event held in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in January.

The subject was broached by a fan on Twitter.

In the immediate wake of the car swap, Kasey Kahne and Kyle Larson, NASCAR drivers with dirt racing backgrounds, expressed their desire to get Johnson behind the wheel of a sprint car.

NASCAR drivers have a rich history in the Chili Bowl. Xfinity Series driver Christopher Bell is the two-time defending winner of the event. Former Camping World Truck Series driver Rico Abreu won the two years before that.

Three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart won it in 2007 and 2002 and former Cup driver Dave Blaney won it in 1993.

Larson and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. have competed in the event every year since 2011 and Larson said earlier this year that “the Chili Bowl is bigger than the Daytona 500” for him.

NASCAR’s presence in the Chili Bowl will continue in 2019.

Alex Bowman, Johnson’s teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, is the only full-time NASCAR driver currently on the early entry list for the event.

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Friday 5: Turnaround in 2018 has Aric Almirola looking ahead to 2019

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Aric Almirola‘s performance this season at Stewart-Haas Racing provided validation to a driver who had not raced in the best Cup equipment before 2018.

Almirola improved 24 spots from last year to finish a career-high fifth in the points, the biggest turnaround from one season to the next in Cup since the elimination format debuted in 2014. 

Part of the reason for Almirola’s jump was because he missed seven races last year after being injured in a crash at Kansas Speedway and finishing 29th in points for Richard Petty Motorsports.

Almirola also showed what he could do in his first year at Stewart-Haas Racing.

“For me, there was always some amount of self-doubt, how much am I a contributor to the performance not being where I want it to be,” Almirola said this week in Las Vegas ahead of Thursday’s NASCAR Awards. “Sometimes you have to take that long, hard look in the mirror. I think for me … with my future and career being uncertain, one thing I was really hopeful for was that I would get an opportunity in a really good car to be able to know, hey, is it me or not? If I get that opportunity, can I make the most of it? Can I compete?

“I was fortunate enough that things worked out for me that I was able to get that opportunity. Some people never get that opportunity. But I was able to get that opportunity with Stewart-Haas Racing. I’ve got the best equipment in the garage area, and I was able to go out and compete. I ran up front and won a race and finished in the top five in points. It was a great year for me personally.”

Almirola nearly won in his first race with SHR this season. He led the Daytona 500 on the last lap before contact from Austin Dillon sent him into the wall and Dillon to the victory.

Almirola was in position to win at Dover when a caution for teammate Clint Bowyer came out in the final laps. Almirola pitted and then wrecked on the restart. Almirola won at Talladega when he passed teammate Kurt Busch after Busch ran out of fuel on the final lap.

“Now that we’ve got a year under our belt, and I feel like we achieved quite a bit, we can really focus in on our weaknesses and where we didn’t perform at our best and try to make that better. We can circle back to some of the tracks we ran really well at and figure out what we need to do to capitalize on some of those races where we felt like we could have won and didn’t do it. It’s very reasonable to have higher expectations going into next year.”

2. Not going anywhere

For those who wondered — and there were some whispers in Miami — Brad Keselowski will be back with Team Penske for the 2019 season.

“I don’t know where that came from,” Keselowski said Wednesday in Las Vegas of questions at the end of the season that he might retire. “As far as I’m aware (all is good). I will be at Team Penske driving the No. 2 car this year to the best of my knowledge. I’m under contract to do so.”

Recall that Keselowski was outspoken in June about the package that was used in the All-Star Race and warned then that “if we overdose on that particular form of racing, it will have … a long-term negative effect.”

Keselowski suggested in June that fewer talented drivers would come to NASCAR over time if the All-Star package became the primary one. NASCAR adopted a package for 2019 similar to what was used in the All-Star Race but added more horsepower than was used in that race.

One change for Keselowski is that he’ll have a new spotter. Joey Meier announced Nov. 19 that he would not be spotting for Keselowski in 2019, saying he had “been told my time as the 2 Car spotter has come to the checkered flag.” Keselowski said that a new hire hasn’t been made yet.

3. Offseason plans

What does a racer do when the season ends? Race, of course. At least that is what Alex Bowman will do.

He’ll compete in a midget at the Gateway Dirt Nationals today and Saturday at The Dome at America’s Center, the former home of the St. Louis Rams NFL team before they moved to Los Angeles.

Bowman also plans to run a midget at the Junior Knepper 55” USAC Midget event Dec. 15 in the Southern Illinois Center in Du Quoin, Illinois in preparation for the Chili Bowl in January in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He also has entered a midget for C.J. Leary for the Chili Bowl, which will be Jan. 14-19.

Not every driver will race in the next few weeks.

Ryan Blaney says he’ll leave Saturday for Hawaii. It’s his first trip there.

“It wasn’t my first choice, but the group I was with wanted to go,” he said Wednesday in Las Vegas. “I would like to go somewhere other than America to try to change up the culture, but I think that’s enough of a culture change in Hawaii to experience new things.”

He also plans to do some snowboarding before being home in January when his sister gives birth to her child.

Erik Jones said he’ll do some ice fishing – “go sit out in the cold and look at a hole in the ice, it’s just relaxing for me.” He said he plans to spend time with family in Michigan enjoying the holidays.

Denny Hamlin said he’ll go to St. Barts for a friend’s 50th birthday celebration. “Just going down there for some vacation time in the next few weeks and after that just spend some time at home relaxing.”

Austin Dillon said he expects to be in a deer stand for some time before Christmas.

4. ‘Exciting’ move

Kyle Larson calls the pairing of the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West and the World of Outlaws in a doubleheader at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway Dirt Track in February “exciting” but he says a key will be track preparation.

When the K&N Pro Series West raced at the Vegas Dirt Track in September, the conditions were so dusty that it impacted the racing and viewing for fans.

“I think for them to both be able to showcase how cool the event is, the track needs to be right, the way it is prepped needs to be right,” Larson said this week. “That’s the only thing I”m nervous about, judging how the (K&N West) race went a few months ago.

“I just hope that the track is good so fans can get the opportunity to see some good racing in a few different series.”

5. Together again

Among those joining Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Cole Pearn in moving to Joe Gibbs Racing will be car chief Blake Harris and an engineer, Truex said in Las Vegas.

Having Pearn in the JGR shop should prove beneficial for all, Kyle Busch said.

“Adam (Stevens’) and Cole’s offices will be right next door to one another instead of being on a chat all the time,” Busch said of his crew chief and Pearn.

Busch likened Truex and Pearn helping the organization as much as Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth did. Joe Gibbs Racing won 26 of 72 races in 2015-16 when both Edwards and Kenseth were there.