Bob Leavine

Toyota executive keen on keeping young Cup drivers

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The president of Toyota Racing Development said Wednesday that “our desire” is to have both Erik Jones and Christopher Bell race for the manufacturer beyond this season but said “how we do it is yet to be determined.”

Jones’ one-year contract extension with Joe Gibbs Racing expires after this season. Bell, a rookie for Leavine Family Racing, is in the first year of a multiyear contract. But Bell’s car owner, Bob Leavine, told The Athletic last month that “I’m walking that tightrope” to keep the team running beyond this season because of the economic downturn due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

David Wilson, president of TRD, addressed both drivers’ status with Toyota beyond this year in a video conference with reporters Wednesday.

“We all know that Erik is at the end of his current contract,” Wilson said. “What’s the plan there? We don’t know. We’re working on that. (Car owner Joe Gibbs) and I are talking about that now every week. Our desire obviously is to keep both of those young men in our company. How we do it is yet to be determined.”

The 24-year-old Jones enters Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway 18th in points for Joe Gibbs Racing. Jones has placed 20th or worse in each of the last three Cup races.

He was running seventh last weekend at Miami when he hit the wall and cut a tire with less than 10 laps left, finishing 21st. The weekend before, Jones had a flat tire and later was caught speeding on pit road within the last 125 laps at Atlanta, leading to a 28th-place finish.

Bell, 25, enters Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway 24th in points. He started the season with five consecutive finishes outside the top 20, dropping him to 32nd in the points. He’s finished 11th or better in four of the seven races since.

Wilson was asked about Leavine Family Racing’s performance this season.

“The 95 is candidly a little more disappointing and there’s circumstances behind that,” Wilson said. “I think Christopher’s raw speed has actually been quite good. A couple of races, he started the third stage inside the top 10 and he had a 14-second pit stop and loses nine to 10 spots. That’s happened twice already. … I think Christopher could have won (at Bristol) had he not had to restart whatever that was 18th (after his final pit stop) and he still drove up to the top 10. That’s cause for optimism. If we collectively can eliminate the easy things like execution on pit lane and such, I think we’ll see more consistency and more top 15s and more top 10s out of Christopher.”

Christopher Bell withdraws from New Zealand races after midget wreck

Christopher Bell
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Christopher Bell has withdrawn from his remaining dirt races in New Zealand and returned home after he was involved in a wreck on the first night of the United Truck Parts International Midget Series.

Bell flipped multiple times after making contact with the wall during a qualifying race not long after Kyle Larson flipped multiple times in a single-car accident.

Despite a report by a New Zealand outlet saying Bell was instructed by his management team not to participate in the remaining races, Bell confirmed to Racin Boys that he made the decision on his own.

Leavine Family Racing owner Bob Leavine, who Bell will compete for in the Cup Series as a rookie next year, tweeted that the team did not instruct him to withdraw from the series.

Friday 5: Cup drivers prepare to deal with anxiety, chaos at Roval

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It is not hyperbole to say that the final lap of last year’s Cup playoff race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval might be among the most exciting laps in NASCAR’s history.

The leaders crashing within sight of the finish line. The car running third suddenly wins. A mangled car bouncing off the wall and puttering toward the checkered flag needing to pass a car stalled less than 100 yards from the finish line for 25th place to advance in the playoffs. And a three-way tie for the final two spots to advance to the next round.

The Roval was great for fans and stressful for competitors.

A year ago, Aric Almirola entered the Roval sixth in points. He had a 23-point lead on the first driver outside a transfer spot and six drivers between them. While not safe, it wasn’t an awful place to be.

And yet …

“Going into the Roval last year was really nerve-racking for me,” Almirola said. “It’s hard because you go into that position and you want so badly to advance to the next round and you feel like you’re holding on so tight. You almost race with don’t lose (mentality) than with that mentality of go get it, and that’s a hard way to race. I don’t like racing that way. I like racing on offense, but I don’t want to be on the other side of the cutline, either.

“I think I learned a lot last year. I had never really been in that experience before, going into the last cutoff race (of a round) of the playoffs. In 2014, when I was with Pettys, we blew up in the very first race and we were never really in it. So going (into) this year, I gained a lot of valuable experience of being in that position. I’ll feel better about it this year and just kind of knowing more and being more relaxed and having a better understanding of what to expect.”

Expect chaos.

Almirola survived a day last year that saw him involved in three incidents before he finished 19th, tying Kyle Larson and Jimmie Johnson for the final two playoffs spots. Almirola and Larson both advanced on the tiebreaker of better finishes in the opening round.

Almirola enters Sunday’s elimination race (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC) in a worse position than he was last year. He is 11th in the standings, three points ahead of Alex Bowman, the first driver outside a transfer spot in 13th place.

Bowman understands the pressure after experiencing it last year. He went into the Roval 11th in the standings a year ago, five points ahead of the first driver outside a playoff spot.

“That was a really stressful situation, a lot of anxiousness and nervousness,” said Bowman, who advanced to the second round last year. “Going into that race, I didn’t think that was going to be a good day for us, not being super confident in my road course skills. The day went well for us and it worked out. Just stressful.”

Last year’s Roval showed anything was possible.

“It’s a crapshoot,” Almirola said, “but it’s a crapshoot for everybody.”

2. Don’t just watch the battle to avoid elimination

Martin Truex Jr.’s dominance in the opening two playoff races has allowed him to score 12 of 14 playoff points and that is likely creating concern among his competitors.

While playoff points may matter in the next round, they likely will be critical in the third round, which will determine the four drivers who will race for the championship Nov. 17 in Miami.

At least one of the four drivers in the championship race will advance from the third round via points. The difference could be playoff points.

That’s why each stage win is important and each victory is critical for the playoff points. And why the race at the front of the field could be as meaningful as the race for the final transfer spot Sunday.

Here are the drivers with the most playoff points this season:

46 — Kyle Busch

41 — Martin Truex Jr.

30 — Denny Hamlin

29 — Joey Logano

28 — Kevin Harvick

24 — Brad Keselowski

18 — Chase Elliott

Strategy on road courses often dictates giving up a chance for stage points to be in a better position to win.

Last year’s Roval race saw Truex, the points leader entering the event, not pit in the first stage when some other playoff drivers did, in hopes of winning the stage. He finished fourth in the stage.

Truex pitted in the middle of stage 2 to set himself for a final pit stop under caution with just under 40 laps to go in the final stage. It would have led to the winning strategy and five playoff points had Jimmie Johnson’s spinning car not hit Truex in the final chicane on the last lap.

3. A better trip the second time?

Even though teams tested at the Roval last summer and had three practices, some drivers struggled around the course a year ago.

Eleven drivers either spun or crashed during practice or qualifying last year. Bubba Wallace had the roughest time, spinning four different times and crashing into the tire barrier on the backstretch chicane (which was redesigned this summer).

Wallace was one of four drivers who went to backup cars for the race after incidents in practice or qualifying last year. The others were: Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin and Erik Jones.

Practice should be interesting Friday and Saturday.

MORE: Weekend schedule for Cup, Xfinity teams at Charlotte Roval

4. Don’t overlook those deep in the standings

In four of the previous five years of the elimination style playoff format, a driver ranked 10th or worse after the second playoff race went on to the championship race. It could be a sign for those drivers 10th or worse this year.

In 2014, Ryan Newman was 11th in points heading into the first elimination race. He made it to the title race and finished second. Also that year, Denny Hamlin was 13th in points heading into that elimination race. Hamlin also made it to Miami, finishing third in the points.

In 2015, Kyle Busch was 13th in points heading into the first elimination race. He went on to win the crown that year. Kevin Harvick was 15th in points heading into the elimination race — which he had to win to advance and did — and went on to make the title race, placing second in the championship. Jeff Gordon was 10th in the points going into that first elimination race and made it to the title event, placing third in the championship.

In 2016, Carl Edwards was 10th in points before the first round elimination race. He made it to Miami and finished fourth in the championship.

In 2017, Kevin Harvick was 10th in points before the last race of the opening round. He advanced to Miami and placed third in the championship.

Last year, Joey Logano was the lowest ranked driver after two playoff races among those who would compete in the championship race. Logano was fifth in the points at the time.

5. New deal, similar plan

Christopher Bell’s ascension to Cup next year in the No. 95 car for Leavine Family Racing won’t end his ability to race sprint cars. But Bell concedes that he won’t race those cars as much next year.

“There’s not a plan for him to stop that,” car owner Bob Leavine said this week. “I know he will be prudent in races he goes to because he understands the commitment that we’re going to ask of him in the Cup Series.

“It’s had to tell somebody that does that as a ‘hobby’ not to do it. We’re excited that he still wants to and excited to see him win there. I think it’ll be contagious with his confidence level.”

Said Bell: “I understand that my dirt racing is going to have to slow down a little bit. With the Cup Series, the schedule is a lot more, it’s a little bit bigger than what the Xfinity cars are and it’s going to be a huge learning curve moving into the Cup Series. …  I’m going to be allowed some races, but I understand that the schedule won’t be near what it has been the last several years.”

 

Leavine Family Racing to have enhanced alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing

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The President of Toyota Racing Development said Tuesday that the enhanced alliance next season between Leavine Family Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing and TRD will be “akin to what we had between TRD, Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing a couple of years ago.”

Furniture Row Racing won the 2017 NASCAR Cup championship with Martin Truex Jr.

David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, made the comment on a conference call with reporters after news that Christopher Bell will move to Cup in 2020 and drive for Leavine Family Racing. Bell will replace Matt DiBenedetto.

As for what will be done in the expanded relationship, Wilson said: “Enhanced hardware, enhanced communication, sharing of information, the tools that TRD provides will be further enhanced, time available on our sim (simulator) and everything that TRD brings to the table is going to be the same as what it has been with Joe Gibbs Racing.”

Wilson said the move to strengthen the alliance between the two teams is because of Bell.

“It is a huge priority for us to make sure Christopher has what he needs to succeed,” Wilson said. “This is a complete package. It is not being done piecemeal, and you can tell that by the names, having (crew chief Jason Ratcliff) follow Christopher over., etc. All those things are designed to give him the best opportunity to succeed and continue to meet and exceed our expectations.”

Toyota has invested heavily in Bell’s development since signing the dirt racer to a development contract in 2013.

Bell rewarded Toyota by winning the Truck title in 2017 and making the Xfinity playoffs each of the past two years. He has won 22.1% of his Xfinity starts (15 of 68) and his victory last week at Richmond moved him into the second round of the Xfinity playoffs.

The improved alliance should elevate Leavine Family Racing to a top-tier program in Cup. That is a reward to car owner Bob Leavine for his persistence. His single-car team made its Cup debut in 2011, did not run a full season until 2016 and had to buy a charter since it did not qualify for one.

I can remember Jeremy (Lange, president of LFR) and I coming out of a meeting (about charters) and wondering how in the world we were going to continue to race,” Leavine said. “We didn’t, we weren’t given a charter. It’s been a long haul and a difficult one.

“Our biggest step and our biggest improvement was going to Toyota (beginning with this season) and the relationship base from David, Tyler (Gibbs) and Jack (Irving) and all the people at Toyota and TRD and then Coach (Joe Gibbs) and JGR and all of the support over there, that really was a breath of fresh air because it really was getting difficult to compete and try to get better.”

Levine Family Racing has an alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing this season but it is not to the level that Furniture Row Racing had with JGR because Leavine Family Racing could not afford to pay for that type of support this year.

Along with the alliance, the team will benefit from additional sponsorship. Rheem will join Bell at Levine Family Racing and be a primary sponsor, along with Procore, which already with the team. Leavine said that his organization is further ahead on sponsorship for next season than it started this year.

 

It’s official: Christopher Bell to drive No. 95 Cup car in 2020

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Leavine Family Racing made the long-awaited news official Tuesday: Christopher Bell will move to Cup and drive the team’s No. 95 Toyota next season.

The 24-year-old Bell, who has moved through Toyota’s development ranks, will take over the car for Matt DiBenedetto in 2020. Bell’s crew chief in the Xfinity Series, Jason Ratcliff, will join him in the move to the No. 95 team. Current crew chief, Mike Wheeler, will remain as the team’s competition director. Michael Leavine moves from that role to become vice president of racing operations. 

Leavine Family Racing also announced an enhanced technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota Racing Development. TRD will continue to build the team’s engines and provide technology, data and technical assistance. Enhancements to the technical alliance between JGR and LFR, which began with the 2019 MENCS season, will continue to build into the 2020 season.

“I’ve said from the start, I want this team to be competitive,” said Bob Leavine, LFR team founding owner, in a statement. “Christopher is one of the most talented drivers we’ve seen come up through NASCAR’s ranks and together, with JGR and Toyota’s support, I’m confident our team will continue to grow, just as it has this past year. We’re certainly happy to continue to progress our relationship with both JGR and TRD as the technical partnership takes the next step forward.”

Said Bell in a statement: “Since I was young, I wanted to make a career out of racing. To take this next step and race in the NASCAR Cup Series with the support of LFR, JGR and Toyota is just a dream come true. It also means a lot to me to have Rheem make the move to Cup racing with me. I wouldn’t be in the position I am today without their support and I’m also excited to have the opportunity to represent Procore now.”

Bell will make his Cup debut in the 2020 Daytona 500, the team stated.

“TRD and Toyota have worked with Bell since his early dirt track career and we’ve been proud to see him work his way to NASCAR’s highest level,” said David Wilson, president of TRD, in a statement. “Christopher is a special talent and we’re happy to have him winning races and championships in a Toyota.

“We look forward to seeing his continued growth and success at Leavine Family Racing in 2020. We’re also pleased with how the relationship between JGR and LFR has progressed during their first season working together. We’re confident this enhanced alliance for 2020 will continue to make them a threat for race wins week in and week out.”

Bell is in his second full season in the Xfinity Series for Joe Gibbs Racing. He is coming off a win in last week’s playoff opener at Richmond that sends him to the second round. The Richmond victory was Bell’s seventh of the season and his 15th in 68 Xfinity career races — a 22.1% winning percentage.

Bell seeks his first Xfinity title. He won the Truck Series championship in 2017.

“There’s been nobody that has won all three championships,” Bell said last weekend at Richmond when asked what is there for him in the final races of the year with his 2020 future in place. “That’s been one of my goals ever since I was kid, I wanted to set records, break records. I love getting track records whenever we qualify. To be able to be the first driver to have … championships (in each series), that would be a pretty cool record to have.”