Adam Stevens

Friday 5: Multiple changes have crew chiefs ‘starting over’ at Phoenix

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Although their drivers have combined to win three of the last four Cup races at Phoenix Raceway, crew chiefs Rodney Childers and Adam Stevens enter this weekend uncertain of what they’ll see.

NASCAR’s low-downforce package, which will be used at road courses and tracks less than 1 mile, debuts this weekend and is paired with a new tire that has the championship crew chiefs for Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch aware that if their setups are off in Friday’s opening practice, it could make for a long weekend.

Add that Phoenix Raceway hosts the championship race in November — the first time in the playoff era that the title race will be a track that hosts more than one Cup race a season — and this will be a busy weekend for drivers, crew chiefs and teams.

“I think the biggest thing is just making sure that you get out of the first race what you need to and learn as much as you can,” Childers told NBC Sports about this weekend. “It’s going to be about taking probably the best notes that you’ve ever taken before (at the track). Just being really precise about the things you may need when you come back.”

Kevin Harvick celebrating his 2018 win at Phoenix Raceway. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

No one has been better at Phoenix since 2014 when Harvick and Childers joined Stewart-Haas Racing. Harvick has won five of the 12 Phoenix Cup races since 2014. Harvick has never finished outside the top 10 at Phoenix with Childers as his crew chief.

Harvick’s most recent win there was in spring 2018 — with a package that is viewed as similar to the short track package NASCAR is using this season that creates less downforce with a significantly shorter spoiler than last year.

One driver who has challenged Harvick in recent years at Phoenix is Busch, who has won two of the last three races there, scoring victories in the 2018 fall race and last year’s spring race. He also has scored nine consecutive finishes of seventh or better at Phoenix.

Such success doesn’t comfort Stevens.

“Going into it there’s so much new that it’s almost like starting over or back to an older aero package that is not the same as 2018 but very close,” Stevens told NBC Sports about this weekend. “We’ve got a new tire combination with softer tread compounds so that the tires are going to wear out more throughout the run. Durability is a concern (at Phoenix in the past). You see a lot of right fronts giving up in the long run, so that might be more of a concern now.”

And the track will have PJ1 traction compound added again but lower in the corners than last fall’s race. Drivers generally felt that the PJ1 traction compound was too high on the track to be effective.

Crew chief Adam Stevens says of this weekend at Phoenix with so many unknowns: “It’s almost like starting over.” (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

“There’s so much new going into it, everybody is going to be scratching their head a little bit,” Stevens said of this weekend. “So you’re going to see quite a bit of discrepancy in speed off the truck than you normally would. Some guys are going to be a little closer (to the right setup) than the others. Maybe that gap will close up as the weekend goes. There’s a lot of learning to do and only two 50-minute practices to do it.”

With such limited practice time, teams can’t afford to be far off on speed.

“You can’t just change all four springs and all the heights and all the bump stops and stuff like that and go out and try something,” Childers said. “There’s just not enough time (to make all the adjustments in those sessions). If you have something that is pretty close, you kind of have to work around it and make it the best you can.”

While teams can do much prep work through simulation, there remains the question of the tire and how it will react to a team’s setup. Stevens calls every tire change a “wildcard” because teams don’t do their own tire testing.

“If your understanding of the tire is just a little bit off, then all of your setups and sim results are wildly off,” Stevens said. “So you have to understand the tire completely to get good results out of the sim.”

Childers has another question entering this weekend.

“We’ve never raced the Mustang with a little spoiler on the back, so we have no idea what we’re getting into,” he said. “Obviously, the new Chevrolet body, they’ve never raced it with a small spoiler on the back either. We’ll have to see how that part goes.”

2. What to take of this weekend

One of phrases likely to be stated often this weekend is if a team is slow, they have eight months to get better before the series returns to Phoenix for the championship race.

Yes, that’s true … but there’s a catch.

Looking back at 2018 — since that season’s package is similar to what is being run this weekend — shows that many of the strongest cars at Phoenix in the spring were among the strongest eight months later.

Examining the best 10 consecutive lap averages in final Cup practice shows that five of the top seven in the spring also were among the top seven in that same category in the fall.

Harvick was the fastest in that category for both the spring and the fall. Harvick won the spring race and finished fifth in the fall. Busch was sixth on the chart in the spring and fourth in the fall. Busch finished second in the spring race and won that fall race that year.

“I honestly think that the short tracks, I would call Phoenix one of them … the actual setup themselves haven’t evolved much,” Childers told NBC Sports. “I think if you found something that worked for you in 2015, it’s still going to work pretty good in 2020. The things that evolve the most are the cars and the aerodynamics and finding downforce.”

Stevens said teams are still learning and even if the results don’t show significant change over time, much has taken place.

“The thing you have to realize is everybody is developing and everybody is trying to get better,” he said. “Sometimes it’s hard to close that gap because … if you start behind, generally everybody is processing it and makes it tough to really close that gap. That gap isn’t just car potential, it’s in driver capability and certain drivers are better at certain tracks. Then there’s a certain group of drivers that are pretty at almost every track.”

3. What drivers say

Here is what some drivers say heading into Phoenix:

Brad Keselowski: “There are a lot of questions I have about the PJ1. They are putting it down, will they put it down in the fall? That could potentially make it not as important if they change what they are going to do there. That should be pretty interesting to see how it plays out. I think we would all like to believe that if you go out and win the Phoenix spring race that you will go out and win the fall race but a lot of things can change between now and then.”

Martin Truex Jr.: “It’s definitely unique going to (the track that will host the championship) twice. I don’t necessarily like that. I like that Homestead was a one-off deal. …  I felt like since the repave (between races in 2011), it’s taken a little bit for us to get our arms around it. I feel like we’re getting better there and that’s a good thing. Some good runs there the last couple years.”

Joey Logano: “I think everyone looks at Phoenix 1 now being maybe the most important race early in the season because it will be where you are racing for a championship. You need to really learn as much as possible. You want to have a strong run there and learn from your mistakes there more than anywhere and make sure you are clear about everything when you are done with the race. It is one of those tracks that you will spend more time afterwards dissecting every little piece of it.”

Kyle Busch: “I look forward to Phoenix, it’s always fun and a good place for us. Lately, we’ve been able to really pick up on some things that help us there that have made us better there the last few times and now this package is different. I think that will lend itself back into a couple years ago I guess. Felt like we were just kind of hitting on something there and was a bit racier through traffic and such. We’ll see how all that goes.”

4. Three in a row, but …

Kevin Harvick is the only Cup driver to score a top-10 finish in each of the first three races this season. Going back to last season, Harvick has scored eight consecutive top-10 results. He’s placed fifth in the Daytona 500, eighth at Las Vegas and ninth at Auto Club Speedway this season.

Crew chief Rodney Childers looks at what could have been.

“I felt like Daytona we had the best we’ve had there probably ever,” he said. “We didn’t ride around up front and show a lot of speed, but I think in the duel we showed that we had a lot of speed. We got some damage in the 500 that hurt our speed late in the race. Overall, it was a good weekend and got a top five out of it.

“Vegas was kind of disappointing at the end after running so well all day. We had a short-run car, which is what we planned. … It just didn’t work out at the end. Maybe I should have stayed out (instead of pitting) and taken a shot at it. I would had never thought that many were going to stay out. Overall, not getting a top five out of that was disappointing.

“This past weekend (at Auto Club Speedway) was just kind of a dud I guess you could say. Kind of took the wrong car and the wrong build. Just fought and fought and fought all weekend to make something out of it. No matter what you did to it, it was just kind of a one-speed (car) and just couldn’t get through the corners as fast as we needed.”

5. Interesting request

Early in last weekend’s race at Auto Club Speedway, Kyle Busch asked his team if they could look at his throttle trace from last year’s race (which he won) to compare with his throttle trace to see where he was off.

With the telemetry available, all teams can look at such items and any other team’s telemetry.

“We haven’t had a conversation like that, so that was kind of interesting,” Stevens said. “We weren’t as good as we needed to be, and we were really good (there) last year. I think from the seat he was having a hard time figuring out where his weakness was. The easiest thing to do was to compare back to last year, which everybody had that data. Anybody in the field could have given him that answer.

“Normally we wouldn’t look back toward a race that was a year prior even though the rules were the same because of the track conditions are different, they did tweak the tire. … We were able to do that quickly.

“I think it just confirmed what he thought.”

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2019 Season in review: Kyle Busch

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Kyle Busch

CREW CHIEF: Adam Stevens

TEAM: Joe Gibbs Racing

POINTS: First

WINS: Five (Phoenix 1, Fontana, Bristol 1, Pocono 1, Miami)

LAPS LED: 1,582

TOP 5s: 17

TOP 10s: 27

POLES: One (Phoenix 2)

WHAT WENT RIGHT: Busch won the regular season championship and then the overall championship. Even with a 21-race winless streak sandwiched in-between his last two wins of the season, he still maintained consistency – if he couldn’t win, he worked to get the most out of his race car each time he took to the track – and never gave up. In addition, he had outstanding performances by his crew chief and pit crew, particularly in the playoffs. One other big key: Busch finally erased the asterisk associated with his first championship in 2015, when he won the Cup crown despite missing 11 races due to injury. Now, that asterisk is gone and Busch has become only the second active multi-season champion currently in the Cup Series. One other thing: Busch surpassed 200 career wins between the Cup, Xfinity and Truck series, only the second driver in NASCAR history to do so (although Richard Petty’s 200 wins all came in the Cup Series).

WHAT WENT WRONG: The 21-race winless streak left many doubting Busch could win the championship as he entered the Championship 4 finale. But despite one of the longest winless streaks of his career, Busch refused to give up or give in, most notably in a four-race stretch when he finished the regular season 37th at Indianapolis, 19th in the playoff opener at Las Vegas and 29th in the playoff road course race at Charlotte.

WHAT TO EXPECT IN 2020: With guys like Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, brother Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin and several others in their 40s or late 30s, Busch – who turns 35 on May 2, 2020 – could be in a strong position to win several more championships as other drivers start to retire and long before he retires. At this juncture, Busch has a target on his back heading into 2020. Now it’s up to him to determine whether he can keep that target – which he welcomes – on his back.

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NBC Sports Power Rankings: What were best NASCAR teams overall in 2019?

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As NASCAR Talk continues its post-season Power Rankings, here are the 10 teams we feel performed the best throughout the entire season across all three major series: Cup, Xfinity and Trucks.

We made our picks based using a number of variables including which drivers work the best with their crew chiefs, which teams have the strongest pit crews, how a team was run, and assorted other elements that often spell the difference between success and lack thereof.

Note that we are selecting the best TEAMS, not necessarily the best organizations overall. But as you will soon find out, several of those best teams also came from within the same organization, as well.

Here’s how we picked them:

1. Kyle Busch and No. 18 Cup team (30 points): Sure, this team slumped a bit in the second half of the season, going winless in 21 of the final 22 races (although they still were able to win the regular season championship), but when everything was on the line in the championship-deciding race at Miami, Busch and crew chief Adam Stevens proved why they are the best … and why they are the champions.

2. Martin Truex Jr. and No. 19 Cup team (27 points): From an overall consistency standpoint, there are few teams like the one spearheaded by Truex and crew chief Cole Pearn. Truex won the championship in 2017 and finished second in 2018 and 2019. The No. 19 also had a combined 19 wins in those three seasons. No other team matched that kind of performance (although Busch came close with 18 wins and finishes of 2nd, 4th and 1st during that same period). Truex will have a new crew chief in 2020 after Pearn unexpectedly announced he was leaving his position with Joe Gibbs Racing on Monday.

3. Kevin Harvick and No. 4 Cup team (23 points): Even though most other teams would welcome the opportunity to have the kind of performance the No. 4 team has enjoyed, the No. 4 team is seemingly stuck in a loop of sorts. Even though Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers have a team that has won 14 races in the last three seasons and have one of the best pit crews in the business, they’ve finished third in each of those last three seasons. This is a team that has made a few mistakes over that same time period, and it can be argued that may be one of the reasons why it finished third so frequently.

4. Denny Hamlin and No. 11 Cup team (22 points): The combination of Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart together for the first time in 2019 paid big dividends, particularly with six wins (including the Daytona 500). Not only was that the second-most number of wins in a single season for Hamlin – and the most races he’s won in a decade – but also was a big bounceback after Hamlin failed to win even one race in 2018 with former crew chief Mike Wheeler. Sadly, the season did not end the way Hamlin and company had hoped. And given he is now 39 years old, it may very well have been the last strong bid Hamlin will have to win that elusive Cup championship.

5. Christopher Bell and No. 20 Xfinity team (15 points): There’s domination, then there’s what this team did from 2018-19. No titles, but 15 wins, 38 top fives and 41 top 10s in 66 races. Bell now advances to the Cup Series for 2020 and he’s taking crew chief Jason Ratcliff with him, which is a no-brainer.

(tie) 6. Chase Elliott and No. 9 Cup team (7 points): Valiant comeback to advance past the second round was wasted when everything went wrong in the next round. Elliott and crew chief Alan Gustafson have become a strong team, winning a combined six races in the last two years, but there is still the issue of performing well under pressure. Elliott appeared a lock to advance to the Championship 4 round until he reached the third round and finished 36th, 32nd and 39th, ending his title hopes with a definitive thud.

(tie) 6. Ross Chastain and No. 45 Truck team (7 points): A team that opened the season not planning to run a full season with one driver, switched to a championship hunt after eight races, bounced back from having a win disqualified to win the next race and made it to the Championship 4.

(tie) 6. Cole Custer and No. 00 Xfinity team (7 points): Upgraded at crew chief with Mike Shiplett and went from a one-win-per-season team for the previous two seasons to finishing with seven wins in 2019, one less win than Christopher Bell. Not surprisingly, Custer and Shiplett will remain together when Custer jumps to the Cup series and the No. 41 in 2020.

(tie) 9. Joey Logano and No. 22 Cup team (6 points): It was a similar season to 2018 for Logano and crew chief Todd Gordon in 2019, but the end results were diametrically opposite. Whereas Logano went from underdog to champ in 2018, he fell short of running for a second career title in 2019, ultimately finishing fifth in the standings. Still, this duo works very well together. One thing that needs to be looked at if Logano wants to improve in 2020 is to cut down on the number of mistakes both he and his pit crew make.

(tie) 9. Tyler Reddick and No. 2 Xfinity team (6 points): This was an outstanding season for Reddick despite some challenges. Not only did Reddick move to Richard Childress Racing after he won the 2018 Xfinity championship for JR Motorsports, Reddick and crew chief Randall Burnett worked seamlessly throughout the season, winning five times and failing to finish in the top 10 just six times in 33 races. No surprise, they’ll stay together when Reddick drives the No. 8 for Richard Childress Racing in 2020, with Burnett going with him.

Others receiving votes: Brad Keselowski and No. 2 Cup team (5 points), Austin Hill and No. 16 Truck team (5 points), Kyle Busch Motorsports No. 51 Truck team (2 points), Kyle Larson and No. 42 Cup team (3 points) and Ryan Newman and No. 6 Cup team (1 point).

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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).

Bump and Run: How many Cup championships will Kyle Busch win?

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How many Cup championships will Kyle Busch win in his career?

Nate Ryan: He says he wants five, and I think he’s young enough to get there and has the chops to make Championship 4 consistently. It’s impossible to predict how many, though, because of the one-race showdown — as his 2019 title (which he won despite not having the best car) underscores. As long as he keeps putting the No. 18 in position, he should win at least one and probably two more before he turns 40.

Dustin Long: Three. This winner-take-all format just makes it so difficult for anyone to collect several series titles in a row. In the future, the gold standard for drivers will be three titles and Busch will get there.

Daniel McFadin: I think Busch can at least get to four titles before it’s all said and done. Repeating in this format is hard, he’s the first to do it in six years. But given that Busch has been in the Championship 4 in all but one year under the elimination format is evidence enough for me that if anyone can get more than two it’s him.

Jerry Bonkowski: At 34 years old and having won two titles in the last five years, I think it’s very possible Busch can win another two, maybe even three more championships in his career. Even though he’s now raced full-time in Cup for 15 years, he is so competitive that I don’t see him retiring for at least another 10 years. There’s lots of championship opportunities to be had in that period of time.

What will you most remember about the Cup championship race years from now?

Nate Ryan: The fastest car didn’t win because its pit crew put the tires on the wrong side. And the next strongest contender to the champion took itself out of the running because it asked a team member to do something extraordinarily difficult during the 12-second frenzy of the season’s most critical pit stop.

Dustin Long: The mistake by Martin Truex’s team with the tires and how sedate Kyle Busch’s demeanor seemed to be after he won his second series title. After being declared an underdog by many and ending a 21-race winless streak, one expected Rowdy to celebrate in a manner that would have included a bit more directed to those doubters.

Daniel McFadin: Martin Truex Jr.‘s tire mishap. In almost 25 years of watching and six years of covering NASCAR I can’t remember that happening in a race. For something so fluky to hamper Truex’s championship chances is remarkable. It proves anything can happen in a winner-take-all race.

Jerry Bonkowski: It was one of the calmest, most relaxed times I’ve ever seen Kyle Busch. He knew what was on the line and went out and simply did it. He didn’t get overly aggressive or tried to overdrive his car. He merely was patient, waited for the right opportunity, grabbed it for the taking at the right time and sailed on into the history books. One other thing: while the other three Championship 4 drivers and crew chiefs constantly talked about why they deserved to be the champs in interviews during the week leading up to the race, Busch and Adam Stevens were fairly quiet, didn’t fret about the 21-race winless streak and let their actions ultimately do the talking for them that needed to be done. That’s the way to do it.

Who wins a championship first: Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Alex Bowman or William Byron?

Nate Ryan: Chase Elliott, maybe as soon as next year.

Dustin Long: Denny Hamlin. Think Toyota’s advantage carries over to next year with many other teams more focused on preparing for the NextGen car in 2021. Hamlin will finally get his moment as a champion.

Daniel McFadin: It’s a tossup between Hamlin and Elliott. Aside from Hamlin’s winless season in 2018, he and Elliott at this point feel like the only drivers who can put together consistent seasons worthy of a championship. Elliott’s steadily improved over the last three years, winning six times, while Hamlin just produced his best year in a decade. My gut says Hamlin.

Jerry Bonkowski: This could be the hardest question we’ve had all year because it could just as easily be phrased “who among these drivers will never win a championship?” You may be surprised at my answer, but I’m going with William Byron. I think another year or two with Chad Knaus and he’ll be ready to be considered a true championship contender. I’m less optimistic that any of the others will win a title any time soon.