Adam Stevens

Long: How crew chiefs mastered Pocono’s challenges

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While the Cup race at Pocono Raceway went as drivers predicted with passing difficult, it showed the value of a strong team.

Rodney Childers, Paul Wolfe and Adam Stevens displayed talents Sunday that have made them among the sport’s top crew chiefs.

MORE: Joe Gibbs Racing on verge of tying Roush Fenway Racing for more national series wins

The talk before the race was how track position would be critical. Childers, crew chief for Kevin Harvick, struck early. With a competition caution on Lap 20, Childers had Harvick pit for four tires before that caution.

“I know on our box when we got to Lap 19, (Harvick) rolled on to pit road and I looked at my engineer and I said, ‘Why are they … awwww’ because Rodney made a great call on that one, one we totally should have gotten and missed, the field missed it,” said Todd Gordon, crew chief for Joey Logano, on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive” on Monday.

Harvick was 11th when he pitted.

Harvick returned to the pits during the competition caution for fuel — teams cannot add fuel before a competition caution. Filling the car with fuel didn’t take as long as changing four tires. That allowed Harvick to pass cars on pit road.

The move put Harvick ninth on the restart — gaining two positions — but six of the eight cars in front of him had two tires to his four.

Harvick moved to sixth on the first lap of the restart. By pitting before the competition caution for tires and then filling up the tank during the caution, Childers gained Harvick two spots and put him in position to gain three more positions on the restart.

Austin Dillon‘s crash helped Kevin Harvick gain two spots on the ensuring restart. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

When Austin Dillon crashed to bring out the caution a few laps later, Harvick restarted sixth in the outside lane — the preferred lane — and moved to fourth after the restart.

Childers adjusted his strategy to be on the same plan with Kyle Busch and Stevens. They were among those who pitted on Lap 94 while others stayed out until the end of the second stage at Lap 100.

That put Harvick on the front row with Busch for the restart after stage 2 since they stayed out during the break. Harvick’s chances took a hit with a penalty for an uncontrolled tire on a two-tire stop on Lap 124 and then a steering box issue. But up to that point, Childers had played the game well enough to put Harvick in position to challenge for the win.

Wolfe did a masterful job in guiding Brad Keselowski to a second-place finish. While others sacrificed stage points for track position, Keselowski finished third in the first stage and fifth in the second stage. Keselowski scored 50 points — more than any other driver.

Wolfe’s biggest accomplishment wasn’t the point total but adjusting his strategy when things went against him. It’s a trait the champion crew chief has had for years.

Wolfe called for a two-tire pit stop for Keselowski during the competition caution. Keselowski entered the pits seventh and exited second. Keselowski was the first of two cars (Martin Truex Jr. was the other) who did not pit after the first stage. That gave Keselowski the lead. He needed to pit but since a car at the front can do it at Pocono without losing a lap, Keselowski was in good shape.

Then came the caution a couple of laps after the restart for Matt DiBenedetto’s spin.

Wolfe had to adjust his strategy. He pitted during that caution (as did Truex) and was outside the top 15 and mired in traffic. Keselowski moved up to fifth by the end of stage 2 as others in front pitted and he didn’t. Keselowski then pitted during the break.

But Keselowski still didn’t have track position. He was 13th on the restart. He gained three spots to 10th on the first lap of the restart but was stuck there.

Brad Keselowski’s team services his car. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

Keselowski was 12.5 seconds behind the leader when Wolfe called Keselowski in to pit on Lap 119 of 160. Keselowski was in his fuel window to make it to the end, so Wolfe decided to bring his driver in for a two-tire stop to stay on the lead lap (changing four tires likely would have put Keselowski a lap down).

Keselowski was the first car to pit and worked his way through the field as others stopped under green. Keselowski was fourth when the caution came out on Lap 148 for Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s incident.

The leaders stayed out. Keselowski, fourth, restarted in the outside lane and took advantage of that spot. He pushed Busch to the lead and shot to second, passing Erik Jones in Turn 1. 

But Keselowski couldn’t get by Busch, a tribute not only to Busch but to Stevens. Busch and Stevens have combined to win 26 of 142 races (18.3%) in Cup since being paired in 2015.

A good crew chief puts his driver in position to excel. For Stevens, that is putting Busch close to the front. While Keselowski and a few others pitted ahead of Busch on what was their final stop, Stevens held his driver out until Lap 124.

Four years ago, Busch lost a bid to win a fourth consecutive Cup race when he ran out of fuel on the last lap at Pocono. Stevens said that day that they were good with fuel to make it to the end but didn’t factor how much the pace increased in the closing laps and that cost Busch the win.

Stevens didn’t let the same thing happen this time and was celebrating in victory lane with Busch afterward.

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It’s easy to overlook since Chris Buescher didn’t finish in the top 10 but Sunday’s 14th-place finish was significant.

It marked the first time Buescher has placed in the top 15 in three consecutive races for JTG Daugherty Racing since joining the organization in 2017. He was 10th at Kansas and sixth in the Coca-Cola 600.

Seven finishes of 20th or worse have Buescher 22nd in the season standings. He’s 60 points out of what would be the final playoff spot.

Still, this is a step forward for the organization and will be worth watching in the coming weeks if similar performances can continue.

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Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski have combined to win 10 of the 14 points races this season.

Cole Custer celebrates his Pocono Xfinity win. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

There’s a similar level of domination taking place in the Xfinity Series among three drivers. Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick and Cole Custer have combined to win the past six Xfinity races.

They’ve also combined to win eight of the 12 races this season. Busch has three wins. Michael Annett is the only other driver to win, capturing the season-opening race at Daytona. Bell, Custer and Reddick also have combined to win 13 of 24 stages and lead 58.8% of the laps (1,300 of 2,212).

They’ve also all finished in the top five in five races. They went 1-2-3 at Bristol with Bell winning, followed by Reddick and Custer.

The key question is where will they be next season. Reddick, the reigning Xfinity champ, is in his second full season. So is Bell. This is Custer’s third full season in Xfinity. They’re showing that it’s time to move them to Cup next season.

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More with less: Comparing records of Joe Gibbs Racing’s two best teams

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It took 13 races, but Martin Truex Jr. and Cole Pearn appear to have their groove back.

Sunday’s Coke 600 saw the driver-crew chief combo win for the third time in five races after a slow start to their first season with Joe Gibbs Racing.

Before their winning stretch, the No. 19 team had only two top fives (both runner-up finishes) and 12 laps led in the first eight races. By comparison, their JGR teammates Kyle Busch and crew chief Adam Stevens won three times and finished in the top 10 in every race.

In addition to their wins, Truex and Pearn have led 445 laps since their Richmond victory April 13.

“Looking at it now, it’s going well, but it’s come with a lot of hard work. It’s been a lot of adjustment,” Pearn said Sunday of the move from Furniture Row Racing to JGR.

They now have 20 wins in their five years and 156 starts together.

“It’s always been an easy relationship between the two of us,” Pearn said of Truex. “I never, ever dreamt that when I kind of took over as crew chief that we’d be sitting here with as many wins as we’ve had together. It just still blows my mind.

“Seemed like we were just hoping that we could knock out some top 10s, and looking back what we’ve been able to do is great, and just so fortunate to work with so many special people on our team and now be part of a big organization with that many more special people, it’s really cool. People are everything that makes this sport and makes the team, so it’s really cool.”

Truex and Pearn claimed three wins in fives races once before in 2016. They also had stretches of three wins in six races in both 2017 and 2018.

Busch and Stevens have been together just as long as Truex and Pearn, being paired together in Cup since 2015 after two years together in Xfinity.

But they have 15 fewer Cup races than Truex and Pearn, a result of Busch missing the first 11 races in 2015 due to injury and Stevens missing four races in 2017 due to a suspension over a lug nut violation (Pearn missed one race for suspension in 2016).

Despite the fewer Cup races together, Busch and Stevens have five more wins, 11 more top fives and six more top 10s than Truex and Pearn.

While Busch hasn’t won since Bristol, he has remained stubbornly consistent. Busch has 12 top 10s in 13 races. The only blemish came at Kansas when Busch had an unscheduled pit stop late for a tire rub and finished 30th.

“We’re fortunate enough to have strong teammates that make us better and hopefully we can do the same for them,” Pearn said Wednesday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “We’ve got some really tough competitors just in this building.”

Last June, after Truex won at Sonoma Raceway, NBC Sports took a look at his and Pearn’s record after 123 starts together and compared it to other historic and active driver-crew chief pairings at the same point, including Busch and Stevens despite them being behind in terms of starts.

With help from Racing Insights, NBC Sports has an updated look at the pace of Truex and Pearn and Busch and Stevens through 156 and 141 starts respectively.

Truex and Pearn trail their JGR teammates, as well as the historic pairings of Darrell Waltrip/Jeff Hammond, Jeff Gordon/Ray Evernham and Dale Earnhardt/Kirk Shelmerdine.

They remain narrowly ahead of the pace established at the same time by eventual seven-time champions Jimmie Johnson/Chad Knaus, along with Tony Stewart/Greg Zipadelli and Brad Keselowski/Paul Wolfe.

However, when it comes to Kevin Harvick and Rodney Childers, Truex and Pearn have them beat only in the wins category, with one more victory through 156 races.

See the complete state comparison below.

After 156 starts together

Bristol winners and losers

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WINNERS

Busch family — Kyle wins for the third time this season and Kurt finishes a season-high second. Kyle Busch has won 10 of 16 Cup, Xfinity and Truck races he’s started this year. He has three Cup victories (in eight starts), three Xfinity wins (in four starts) and four Truck wins (in four starts).

Gambling crew chiefs — Adam Stevens’ call to stay out when the lead-lap cars pitted with 19 laps to go put Kyle Busch in the lead. Matt McCall made the same decision and Kurt Busch started second and finished second. Greg Erwin also made that call, putting Paul Menard fourth (he was 13th before the final caution). Menard finished sixth. Billy Scott also made that call for Daniel Suarez. He restarted third and finished eighth.

Ty DillonCrew chief Matt Borland’s decision to keep Dillon on track during a caution shortly before the end of stage 1 allowed Dillon to restart second. Dillon did the rest, nipping Clint Bowyer at the line to score his first career stage victory. It also marked the first stage points Dillon has scored this season. Dillon went on to finish 15th. It’s his fourth top-15 result in eight races. Last year, Dillon needed 31 races before recording his fourth top 15 of the season. 

Christopher BellHe won the Xfinity race and the $100,000 Dash 4 Cash bonus on Saturday. Then on Sunday, car owner Joe Gibbs said “Christopher has a place with us long‑term.”

LOSERS

No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team: Kevin Harvick’s car failed inspection three times before the race, forcing him to start at the rear and serve a pass through penalty at the start of the race (along with having his engineer ejected and losing 30 minutes of practice this week at Richmond). A loose wheel forced a green-flag pit stop. It wasn’t until late in the race that he got back on the lead lap, finishing 13th with what some competitors said was one of the best cars on the track.

Denny Hamlin He had his third pit road speeding penalty of the season Sunday. Yes, he recovered to finish fifth and did win the previous week at Texas with that penalty (and one for an uncontrolled tire), but how much longer are things going to be sloppy on pit road for this team? 

No. 2 Team Penske team: Brad Keselowski lost a potential top-five finish when NASCAR penalized him for restarting in the wrong position with 14 laps to go. Keselowski finished 18th. Keselowski later said he originally lined up ahead of two cars that didn’t pit because they were hidden among the cars not on the lead lap. “As a team, we kind of miscommunicated,” Keselowski said. “There are four or five checks and balances to make sure that doesn’t happen and pretty much every one of them fell through, starting with me not seeing those cars mixed in with the lapped cars and kind of carrying all the way throughout the team.”

Long: All Kyle Busch does is win and win

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FONTANA, Calif. — The first time Kyle Busch won a professional race, the then-13-year-old thanked his older brother Kurt.

For not being in that race.

Twenty years later, Kurt went to Auto Club Speedway’s Victory Lane to congratulate Kyle on winning his 200th career NASCAR race.

“They’re all added up through his hard work, his dedication to perfection,” Kurt Busch said Sunday after finishing sixth to his brother.

Kyle Busch’s accomplishment will be debated. Some will suggest the accolades are hollow because many of his 147 wins in the Xfinity and Gander Outdoors Truck Series came with superior equipment and against inferior competition. Others will look at his 53 Cup wins — which has him 11th on the all-time victory list — and note his talent is worthy of the praise heaped upon him.

Forget about the number 200, don’t let it distract you. And don’t let any discussion of comparing it to Richard Petty’s 200 Cup wins distract you. They’re different.

“Somebody asked me about whether or not I was the greatest of all time,” said Busch, the 2015 series champion who scored his first career Cup victory at this track. “I’m never going to self‑proclaim that. That’s for others to debate. 

“I would just like to be attributed or in that mix of the top five, top eight guys. I think by the time I’m all said and done, I could be in the top two or three of those guys of greatest of all time.”

But one thing to look at is what Busch is doing in Cup.

He has won 13 of the last 50 Cup races, dating back to his 2017 playoff victory at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

That’s a 26 percent winning percentage. That’s ridiculous. But so are 200 career NASCAR wins (again, don’t let that number distract you).

Busch has accomplished his recent level of dominance in an era of ever-changing rules from stage racing to aerodynamic and horsepower alterations intended to keep cars closer together. He succeeds in an era where drivers can see the data on their competitors. No rule change has stopped Busch from winning.

“Take a look at football,” said Busch’s car owner, NFL Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs. “Take a look at football.  We have something going on over there.  We got a team that’s dominating things.”

Busch hasn’t reached the championship level domination of that team that Gibbs, a former coach of the Washington Redskins, wouldn’t let pass his lips, but it’s hard to argue what Busch has done in Cup lately.

“The thing you can count on in pro sports, everybody is coming,” Gibbs said. “You look at all those race teams out there and how good they are.”

Busch’s biggest competition — other than himself — was Team Penske, which had the top three cars at one point in the race. Instead Penske drivers finished second (Joey Logano), third (Brad Keselowski) and fifth (Ryan Blaney).

“It’s Team Penske and the 18 car,” Logano said of Busch. “They got something. They’ve got a good driver. They’ve got a good crew chief. They’re making good adjustments. They’re building good cars. You put something like that together, they win races.

“I wouldn’t say we’re far off. We’re right there and we’re leading laps as well. Today may have been his day. We’ll come back and fight hard next week.”

They couldn’t beat Busch on a day he cost himself the lead by speeding on pit road on Lap 123 in the 200-lap race. Busch dropped to 18th for the restart.

Stevens counseled his driver that there was enough time to make up the lost ground even in a race where the field got strung out the longer a green-flag run went.

Stevens has been Busch’s crew chief for 43 of Busch’s 200 NASCAR victories. Stevens knows when to coddle, when to push back and when to encourage. Such was the case during the final caution on Lap 165.

Busch, who was leading, debated a change to the car, saying he was afraid to free the car too much.

“Don’t be afraid,” Stevens told his driver.

Stevens later said: “I was really just busting his chops.”

Stevens explained.

“I didn’t want him to not tell me what the car was doing because we were learning about the magnitude of our changes,” Stevens said. “I didn’t want him to forecast his impression upon what we were going to do. I just wanted him to tell me what it was doing.”

The changes worked and Busch was back in front for the final 26 laps.

Then it was just a matter of time before he could sing.

“All I do is win, win and win no matter what,” Busch said on the radio after taking the checkered flag, reciting a line from DJ Khaled’s song “All I do is win.”

For as big as this victory was, there will soon be another race. Busch will compete in Saturday’s Truck race at Martinsville Speedway and the Cup race the following day.

There are more races to win.

“I think anything beyond this is just another number,” he said. “I mean, I could go lightly and say 250 (wins), or I could reach for the stars and say 300. What’s wrong with that?”

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Long: What NASCAR does with qualifying isn’t the biggest question

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FONTANA, Calif. — So what next?

What is NASCAR to do to fix a “mockery” of qualifying – a series executive’s comment — after all 12 Cup drivers in the final round waited too long to get on track Friday and failed to complete a lap before time expired?

The suggestions flow. Go back to single-car qualifying. Heat races. Make cars that don’t complete a lap in the final round start at the rear. Have group qualifying for two rounds but make the final round single-car qualifying. Send cars out at timed intervals.

Before NASCAR can set a course, other questions must be asked.

The first question is what’s more important for NASCAR? Is this about entertainment or competition?

Entertainment is critical to a sport that seeks to rebuild its fan base. Close racing, drama and excitement can energize a fans attract new ones.

The past three weeks of Cup qualifying has been appointment viewing. There was the unknown of what would happen at Las Vegas with the rules package, the fight between Daniel Suarez and Michael McDowell at ISM Raceway and then what would happen Friday at Auto Club Speedway. When is the last time there has been so much interest in qualifying for three consecutive races?

But is that interest based on too many gimmicks?

When NASCAR announced its rule changes in early February, Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer told the media: “Our core goal in everything we do is to deliver the best possible racing for our fans.”

O’Donnell also said that day that “the stars of NASCAR have always been the drivers and the cars. We want to make sure that is the emphasis in any rules package we put forth.”

But there appears to be a limit. In discussing the group qualifying model in that same meeting, Scott Miller, NASCAR’s senior vice president of competition, said: “One thing that we realize and everybody in this room realizes is that we’re in show business.”

After Friday’s episode in the last round of qualifying, Miller said that while changes will be made to the format, “we really don’t want to go back to single-car qualifying. There may not be another way. We want to exhaust every possibility before we do that because that’s not as fun, not as intriguing of a show as the group situation.”

Drivers and teams are frustrated. They feel they have less control in the group qualifying format. Some would suggest that there’s too much randomness to how the starting lineup is set. It’s more about getting the right draft at tracks 1.5 miles and larger than having a car with the most speed on its own.

“I told you all back in Vegas that I am still a big fan of single-car qualifying,” Ryan Newman, told NBC Sports after being among those who failed to complete a lap in the final round Friday. “That is all I need to say, really. That is the way qualifying should be.”

Said Adam Stevens, crew chief for Kyle Busch: “The last car has the biggest advantage and you’re a buffoon to go out and be the first car.”

Beyond the entertainment/competition question, other questions must be asked: What is the role of the sanctioning body? Should it be about penalizing infractions or creating opportunities for competitors to excel?

At Las Vegas, David Ragan started sixth for Front Row Motorsports. The organization had two top-10 starts last year (Bristol and Daytona) but none at a 1.5-mile track. The group qualifying format helped created an opportunity for that organization to attain a strong starting spot.

Without such chances might that team have qualified as high? Is it fair to do away with such opportunities for that and other teams?

“It’s hard to control every single thing in our sport,” Ragan told NBC Sports. “There needs to be a little bit of randomness. That makes things creative.”

But Ragan also noted that “we need to keep the integrity of the sport.”

So should NASCAR create a rule — another rule to anger those who say the rule book has too many entries — that penalizes teams for not completing a lap in the final round and make them start at the back? Or is there another way to deal with this situation before teams arrive in Texas in two weeks?

Those are among the questions NASCAR must answer before deciding what changes to make to qualifying.

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