Alan Gustafson

NASCAR penalty report from Martinsville

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NASCAR on Friday issued three penalties to Cup Series teams for violations incurred Wednesday at Martinsville Speedway:

  • Lee Leslie, crew chief of the No. 51 Petty Ware Racing Ford, has been issued an L1 penalty, fined $25,000 and the team has been assessed with the loss of 10 owner points for an at-track penalty (race equipment does not meet applicable specifications during pre-race inspection). The No. 51 car failed pre-race inspection five times.
  • Alan Gustafson, crew chief of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, has been fined $10,000 for a loose lug nut violation.
  • Adam Stevens, crew chief of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, has been fined $10,000 for a loose lug nut violation.

NASCAR also announced:

  • Team member Zach Yager has successfully completed NASCAR’s Road to Recovery Program and his suspension has been lifted.
  • Team member Josh Young has been reinstated.

There were no other announcements.

Will Bristol shake up dominance of a few teams?

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Will NASCAR’s first race at a short track Sunday break up the domination of the top teams or just be more of the same?

Since the Cup season resumed May 17 at Darlington, the top organizations — Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing have dominated.

Each organization has won a race in the last four. Those four organizations have combined for 85% of the top-five finishes and 67.5% of the top 10s scored since the season restarted.

MORE: A viewer’s guide to Sunday’s Cup race at Bristol

Both totals are increases compared to the first four races of the season before COVID-19 halted the season. Before the break, the four organizations combined for 65% of the top-five finishes and 62.5% of the top-10 results.

“I feel like it’s been a continuation from the beginning of the season,” Chase Elliott said after his Thursday night Charlotte victory of the dominance of the same group. “I feel like all the same contenders are contending now as to who was contending before the break.

“I almost get the sense that we’re still working on some of the parts and pieces and cars that we had before we had two months off, so I’m really curious to see how these next two weeks progress because people are going to get better, and I think some of the things they’ve been trying and working on they’re actually going to have time to implement to their cars. We have to stay hungry and stay after it.”

Alan Gustafson, Elliott’s crew chief, told NBC Sports in March that because the rules are “much more stringent than they’ve been in the past” that “there’s not a whole lot of places to go and find performance.”

In anticipation of the sport going to the Next Gen car next season, NASCAR put a freeze on new parts for cars this season. NASCAR has since delayed the Next Gen car’s debut until the 2022 season.

With Sunday’s race at Bristol completing a stretch of five races in two weeks, teams have been challenged to improve performance as they prepare cars in such a short period. With four Cup races scheduled between June 1-21, teams should have more time to fine-tune performance.

“There’s certainly room for everyone to improve, and I have every expectation that our competitors will,” Gustafson said after Thursday night’s Charlotte race.

Denny Hamlin, who won the second Darlington race, said it could be some time before there’s a change in which teams are the strongest.

“You’re not able to make huge changes because the cars are essentially locked in with all the new kind of ordinances on new parts and whatnot,” Hamlin said. “So you’ve kind of got what you’ve got. You will make some developments and you will find some things in aerodynamics through the year, but I think that you’d better have your stuff together come early to mid‑August.”

If so, that comes only a couple of weeks before the playoffs are scheduled to begin Sept. 6 at Darlington with the Southern 500.

That could mean that many teams are chasing the Hendrick Motorsports cars this summer. While Joe Gibbs Racing has had the highest percentage of its cars in the top 10 since the season resumed (27.5%), the Hendrick cars have been viewed as the dominant ones.

Hendrick cars have won 44.4% of the stages since the season restarted and combined to lead more than a third of the laps run in the past four races.

“Honestly, I think the best group out there right now is Hendrick,” Ryan Blaney said after Thursday night’s race. “They have really great speed right now on the mile‑and‑a‑halfs or the bigger tracks. I’ve seen it. 

“They’ve kind of had some unfortunate circumstances. … The Penske group has capitalized on (those) at a couple of them tracks, but Hendrick is really strong. I feel like we’re close with our group. We’ve just got to find a little bit more.”

Friday 5: When fans can return, how many will be allowed at tracks?

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As NASCAR moves ahead with racing, among the key questions are when will fans be allowed back at the track and how many fans will be able to attend?

NASCAR has stated that there will be no fans at any of its races through June 21, covering events at Bristol, Atlanta, Martinsville, Miami and Talladega. NASCAR has not announced what its schedule will be after June 21 and when fans could be back in the stands.

Marcus Smith, president of Speedway Motorsports, said “I think that NASCAR will be the first major sport with fans back in attendance, and I think it will be in a place where one, the state regulations allow it, and two, where the large outdoor facility gives an opportunity to provide plenty of space, plenty of distance and plenty of areas for people to still have fun but be in a  safe environment.”

Pocono Raceway announced Friday that its NASCAR events this season will be held without fans.

Pocono Raceway is in Monroe County in Pennsylvania. Gov. Tom Wolf has set three phases for easing of restrictions — red (most restrictions), yellow and green (fewest restrictions).

Asked if NASCAR could race at Pocono, Gov. Wolf said in a May 18 press conference: “If Monroe County goes to yellow before that race happens and NASCAR, in fact, has the competition without spectators in the stands and they follow other guidelines to keep the competitors safe, yeah.”

Monroe County enters the yellow phrase today.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway could be the first track that hosts fans when it has the NTT IndyCar Series and Xfinity Series race on the road course July 4 and the Cup Series race on the oval July 5.

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb has a five-step plan in easing restrictions for the state where the final stage is projected to be enacted July 4 and states that “raceway events may return to full capacity.”

Indianapolis Motor Speedway officials have not announced what plans they’ll have for the July 4-5 races. A track spokesperson told NBC Sports that they’re “hopeful” to have fans but “will be prepared to run with or without spectators.”

Whenever and wherever fans return, it won’t be at full capacity with the need for social distancing.

That will force tracks to determine who can attend races when they have more ticket buyers than seats they’re allowed to make available because of social distancing protocols.

“It’s going to be challenging,” Smith said. “I think if we have 40 percent or 50 percent capacity, it’s something that we’ll have to figure out. I don’t think we have those details yet, but it’s certainly something we’re sensitive to and working on right now.”

While Smith mentioned 40-50 percent capacity, he’s not sure what it will be at various tracks.

“Who knows if it’s 40 or 50 percent or 25 percent?” he said. “It’s something that when you take into account different regulations in different states, I think that percentage is going to change depending on what the regulations are.”

2. Feeling better

Crew chief Alan Gustafson admits it “wasn’t a great feeling” Sunday after his decision to pit Chase Elliott before overtime cost Elliott a chance to win the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

But Gustafson didn’t let the decision wreck him the rest of the week.

“I don’t base my self‑worth on other people’s opinions, or if I’m doing a good job based on what other people say, but certainly I’m a human being, too, and when you get that many rocks thrown at you, it doesn’t feel great,” Gustafson said after Elliott won Thursday’s Cup race at Charlotte. “It was a long couple days, but at the end of the day, you’ve just got to look past it and move on.”

Gustafson said of the decision to pit late in the 600: “There’s a lot of factors that went into it, and our struggles earlier in the race probably influenced me more than I should have let it, and it didn’t work out. We’re also assuming that we stay out and we win the race, so it’s tough. It’s just a tough situation.”

While it’s easy to look at how Elliott could have three wins in a row — he was running second late at Darlington when Kyle Busch’s contact wrecked him, then the 600 pit call and Thursday’s win — Elliott prefers to look at things differently.

“I think the biggest thing is if we can continue to put ourselves in position and give ourselves chances and we do a good job at controlling the things that are in our control, that’s all we can ask for,” Elliott said after Thursday’s win. “We can’t control when a caution comes out two laps to go and you’re kind of in a lose‑lose situation there. We’ve got to keep doing things that are in our hands and keep doing those well.”

3. Hold on tight at Bristol

Much was made about drivers not having practice and qualifying before they raced at Darlington Raceway since it is considered among the sport’s most difficult tracks.

While not as much has been mentioned about the obstacles drivers will face at Bristol Motor Speedway before Sunday’s Cup race and Monday night’s Xfinity race, they shouldn’t be overlooked.

Tyler Reddick, who won the Bristol Xfinity race last August and finished second in the April 2019 race there, notes some of the challenges drivers will face this weekend.

“I think the first challenge is going to be just completing that first lap,” he said. “That’s one of the toughest race tracks to go around when it doesn’t have rubber and heat on it. I’ve run Truck races there through my career and when we’re one of the first ones on the race track, that first hour of practice you can’t really learn much. The traction compound is slick – you go down in there to try to use it and you almost spin out. You run the middle and that’s about it. Man, the first hour or so of practice you can’t get up in that either because it’s slick and you almost wreck.

“I remember the first time they put traction compound down at Bristol. I went out for practice and I was in the middle, we were OK. But I wanted to try the bottom, so I went down there, got loose and couldn’t go anywhere. So, I was like ‘that’s not going to work’. I went up to try to use the top and I drove it straight into the fence.

“I’m worried that the start of the race is going to be very chaotic. I don’t know how that’s going to go. There’s only one groove and we’re going to be starting double-file, so that’s going to be very interesting.”

4. Midweek racing

Thursday night’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway marked the second midweek Cup race since NASCAR’s season resumed.

The series will race at Martinsville on June 10, a Wednesday night. There could be other midweek races as NASCAR seeks to run 32 Cup races in 25 weeks.

But what about next year? How realistic is it that there could be a Cup race in the middle of a week?

“Lot of people have talked about it,” Marcus Smith said this week. “Running midweek races with no attendees is not a concern in terms of how you pull it off. … You don’t have to take into consideration selling tickets and hosting live things.

“Very different model than hosting these big parties, these big events that we do. The biggest events happen on the weekends. That’s why NASCAR races typically are on a weekend. When you have these events as we do, and we have to think quickly and figure out how to catch up on this nine or 10-week delay of the NASCAR season, running races midweek was a natural way to get caught up.

“But going forward, I still don’t think that the biggest events in sports will be hosted midweek.”

Brad Keselowski would like to see midweek races continue.

“NASCAR, in my opinion, has hit gold with this format,” he said after Thursday’s Cup race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “The limited practice, show up and race, and the time window that benefits both the East and West Coast. No qualifying. Inversion from the week before is really good because it mixes the field up and creates some good storylines there. I think it’s fair. 

“It’s compelling and it’s at a time where, quite frankly, the sports world, even if it wasn’t for COVID, midweek races in the summer, when you’re generally not having a lot of competition, is in a time period where everybody is hungry for content. I think they’ve got gold here. COVID or not, I hope we keep this for years to come. I think this is a great little format that’s good for the sport and good for the fans and good for everybody all around, so kudos to them.”

5. All-Star Race status

Charlotte Motor Speedway hosted four NASCAR races, including two Cup races, this week but none of those Cup races was the All-Star Race.

Marcus Smith, president of Speedway Motorsports, was asked this week in a media conference about that event’s future and if it will remain at Charlotte.

“I think the plan is that it would be at Charlotte, but I think it’s important to note that we haven’t announced it because it’s just not ready to be announced yet,” Smith said. “With all the moving parts in this time, we have to be aware of how things change. Very soon, and I think in the next two weeks or less, we’ll have the next round of events that will be announced (by NASCAR) and it will help solve those schedules.”

Chase Elliott suffers another frustrating finish

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Heartbreak rode with Chase Elliott again.

Four nights after his bid to win at Darlington ended when Kyle Busch’s contact wrecked him, a pit decision took away Elliott’s chance to win the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“This week has been pretty unfortunate,” Elliott said after finishing second to winner Brad Keselowski. Elliott crossed the finish line third but teammate Jimmie Johnson’s car was disqualified after failing post-race tech inspection, moving Elliott up a spot.

Just around midnight, a caution came out for teammate William Byron’s spin with Elliott leading. That caution sent the race into overtime.

Then the decision for each team was if to pit.

Joey Logano showed a driver could stay out on older tires Sunday night and hold the lead. He won Stage 3 by keeping the lead for 19 laps after a restart despite having older tires than most of the field. Elliott tried to do the same thing then but had a poor restart. He was third on the restart and finished the stage 18th.

Giving up the lead has proved costly this year. Ryan Blaney led before a caution sent the race into overtime at Las Vegas. He pitted. Logano did not, assumed the lead and won. Blaney finished 11th.

The dilemma facing Elliott and crew chief Alan Gustafson was stay out and keep the lead while many in the field likely would pit for tires, or pit and try to come through the field.

“You just make the best decision you can based on information you have,” Elliott said. “People behind you are going to do the exact opposite of what you do. That was the situation we were put in. Alan made a decision and we stuck with it and it didn’t work out.”

Gustafson called Elliott to pit road. Eight cars stayed out. Elliott was the third car off pit road with four tires, putting him 11th on the restart.

After the race, Busch consoled Elliott.

“He just felt bad for us,” Elliott said when asked about what Busch told him.

Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson says Elliott will be able to bounce back from his difficult week.

“He’s been through some tough ones already,” Johnson said. “He does a nice job of getting away and letting the frustrating things that happen roll off his shoulders. He is a younger guy, but he is an old soul.

“He’s been around racing his whole life. He’s watched his dad go through stuff. He’s lived and experienced a lot on his own right. He’ll just come back more motivated and hungry. Alan Gustafson is about as good as they get in the garage area. With Alan’s leadership, they’ll dust themselves off and be back on Wednesday (for the 500-kilometer race at Charlotte) and be ready to roll.”

That’s all he can do.

“There really is no other option,” Elliott said. “I can’t rewind time.”

NASCAR America at Home: ‘What now?’ between Chase Elliott, Kyle Busch

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NASCAR on NBC analyst Steve Letarte has a simple question after Wednesday night’s explosive situation between Kyle Busch and Chase Elliott.

“What now?”

Busch said after Wednesday’s race that he made a mistake when he clipped Elliott’s car while Elliott ran second late in the event at Darlington Raceway. The contact sent Elliott’s car sliding down the frontstretch and into the SAFER barrier on the inside wall. After exiting his car, Elliott walked toward the track and gave Busch the middle finger.

After the race, Elliott’s crew chief, Alan Gustafson discussed the incident with Busch.

“Mistake or not,” Letarte said on NASCAR America at Home (video above), “if I’m Alan Gustafson, if I’m Chase Elliott, I’m still mad. I am irritated. I don’t think that Chase is one to go turn him on purpose, but I would take every inch of every move with every benefit of the doubt for the rest of the season.”

Letarte said the “big story” is what will Elliott do in response.

This isn’t Elliott’s first issue with a Joe Gibbs Racing driver. Denny Hamlin spun Elliott late in the 2017 Martinsville race. They had a discussion after the race.

Two weeks later at Phoenix, Elliott and Hamlin were running side-by-side when a nudge from Elliott sent Hamlin into he wall. Hamlin’s car developed a tire rub that eventually cut the tire and sent the car into the wall.

Letarte, Dale Jarrett and Jeff Burton all said they thought the contact from Busch at Darlington was a mistake.

Kyle Busch is going to get a lot of the blame,” Jarrett said. “He’s already taken the blame. He made a mistake and race drivers make mistakes. Things happen.

“You don’t think that’s going to happen like that on a straightaway, but that shows just how important it was for him to get back in line. … Kyle Busch just misjudged it a little bit.”

Said Burton: “(Busch) didn’t intentionally wreck Chase Elliott, but what he does have to do, other than just on TV, he’s got to take responsibility to Chase Elliott. He can’t wait for Chase Elliott to get in touch with him. He’s got to go make this right because it was his mistake and it’s on him to make it right. If you do those things as a driver, then typically things go away quicker.”