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Friday 5: Pressure builds for teams heading into Coca-Cola 600

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After all the fun and games of the All-Star Race, the focus returns this weekend to points and playoff spots.

Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 marks the halfway point in the 26-race regular season. With only six winners this season, there’s the chance that a number of playoff spots could be claimed by points.

That increases the pressure on those fighting for those positions.

Jimmie Johnson enters the weekend 16th in the points, the final transfer spot to the playoffs. He leads Ryan Newman by eight points, Austin Dillon by 11 and Coca-Cola 600 pole-sitter William Byron by 15.

Ryan Newman is eight points out of a playoff spot. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

“The biggest thing is we need to get to victory lane,” Newman said after qualifying 18th Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “If you don’t get to victory lane, you don’t really have a chance.

“You’ve got to be a winner going into the last 10. Just pointing your way in doesn’t entertain me. If we do, great, and we come into a streak and progress in the last 10 (races), then even better. I really want to have that win and that momentum going into those last 10.”

Newman finished second for the championship in 2014 despite going winless that season. Since then, every driver racing for the championship in Miami has had at least one win that season. 

Some teams already are feeling that playoff pressure.

“It’s been a grind now for a couple of weeks for us,” said Dillon, the 2017 Coca-Cola 600 champion. “Hopefully, we can get a win, but it’s going to come down to points.

“I’ve been scratching and clawing every week. That’s where you hear some frustration from because you just want all you can get. When it comes down to it – and that last race happens – you’re going to want as many points as possible on your side.”

2. A fresh outlook 

Kyle Larson has been hitting the gym this season and working with Josh Wise, marking a new routine for the Chip Ganassi Racing driver.

Wise, a former driver, now serves as the driver performance manager for Ganassi and for some of the younger drivers driving for JR Motorsports and GMS Racing.

Larson, who won last weekend’s All-Star Race, admits he’s not been one for workouts that much before this season.

“(Josh) would always still send information to me on pre-race stuff and things like that and I didn’t take it as serious as I needed to,” said Larson, who will start Sunday’s race 25th. “I kind of felt guilty about that. This year I’ve gotten into a good routine where I drop (son) Owen off at school and then I go to the shop and I work out.

“I think before it was hard for me to find that routine to get the motivation to do it. This year I feel like I’ve gotten that routine. It’s made it a lot easier and I’ve actually enjoyed it and noticed a little bit of a difference. I think just the way our sport has gone, more drivers are working out. You don’t want somebody to get an advantage or an edge on you. I feel like I’m just more prepared and confident now going to the track.”

3. Who is No. 1?

Joe Gibbs Racing has won the most races this season (seven). Team Penske won the most recent points race (Brad Keselowski at Kansas).

So which one is the strongest?

It might be another team.

I honestly feel right now the Hendrick cars are the best cars,” Keselowski said Thursday. “I feel like they really came on strong over the last two or three weeks and had some nice updates to their stuff, so I would expect them to be the ones to beat this weekend.”

He said that before Hendrick’s William Byron won the pole for the 600.

Kyle Busch also sees a difference in Hendrick Motorsports.

I think Hendrick has certainly found some speed,” he said. “They’re certainly getting better. They’re waking up. They’ve come to play a bit more lately.

“As far as the (Team) Penske group goes, they don’t really qualify well but they always race well. Then you look at the (Stewart-Haas Racing) cars and they qualify well and they’ll race well typically. It seems like the SHR cars are trimmed out a little bit more than some of the rest of us. They get more speed out of their cars but maybe they don’t have it for the long haul. Where it seems like the (Joe Gibbs Racing) cars are kind of a compromise.

“We might not qualify on the pole or be the best in qualifying, but we’ll race well. I wouldn’t call it middle of the road, but I feel like we’re in a position to win each week.”

4. More blocking?

In the most recent points race (at Kansas), Erik Jones upset Clint Bowyer with a block on the last lap. It was a big move from Jones who came down the track to block Bowyer and then moved up as Bowyer tried to go on the outside. That it was the last lap made it easier to understand Jones’ move.

Still, as the battles intensify, especially during restarts, more blocks are to be thrown. Did Jones’ block show others that they can be bolder in keeping a competitor behind?

“I didn’t even think twice about it when I saw it from my perspective,” Denny Hamlin said. “The person who gets blocked always makes it a bigger deal than what it really is. I think the other competitors probably don’t think anything about it to be honest with you.

“We all throw blocks at certain times and sometimes they’re not as dramatic. Sometimes … somebody would come up on you and you would just choose to run their lane and block them that way. It’s a less dramatic way of doing it but certainly one where you cut from high lane to low lane or whatever it might be, you are counting on the person either checking up or you are counting on them to lose enough air that they’re going to lose their car. That’s the whole reason you do it in the first place.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. described Jones’ block as “normal.”

“You can get mad about it, but we all do it, so you can’t get mad at somebody just because they do it to you. We throw blocks on each other all the time.

“Kyle Busch threw a block on me. I told (the spotter), ‘Hey, make sure he knows that later on in the race I’m not going to lift and he might end up in the fence.’ That’s just part of this package. The better track position you can keep yourself in, the better the car drives. … Obviously, at the end of the race, I think anything goes.”

5. An Olympian effort

Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 will be the first for rookie Daniel Hemric.

He’ll rely on some training he got a few years ago from Olympic speed skating champion Dan Jansen.

In 2016, Hemric and Tyler Reddick were teammates at Brad Keselowski Racing in the Truck Series. Keselowski heard Jansen tell his story of overcoming defeat to win gold in his fourth Olympics.

Jansen entered his second Olympics as the favorite in the 500- and 1,000-meter races in the 1988 Games at Calgary. His sister died of leukemia hours before his 500-meter race. Jansen fell in that race. He later fell with a lap to go in the 1,000-meter race.

He failed to medal in the 1992 Games in Albertville and finally won gold in 1994 in Lillehammer in the 1,000-meter race.

After hearing Jansen speak, Keselowski approached the former Olympic champion.

“We just asked each other questions,” Keselowski said. “What did you do for this, how did you handle that? Different athletes compare notes. Some of that crosses over. A lot of it doesn’t, that’s OK. The crossover there I thought was very interesting. I wanted to apply it to our team. What he said made a lot of sense, and I thought it was something we were missing.”

Hemric had the chance to train with Jansen.

“We would do a really hard workout and get our heart rate extremely high, up in the 190s, 200 range, if not more, and have to get off that and do some hand-eye coordination stuff,” Hemric said. “Then as soon as that’s over, your heart rate is as high as it can be and you’re breathing heavy, closing your eyes and think about qualifying a lap, think about a green-white-checkered restart, putting yourself in those moments, thinking about what you would do and how you would do it. Being able to bring your heart rate down in those moments, seeing your heart, imagine seeing your heart slow down, all those things to get your body calm.”

Those are lessons Hemric continues to practice and says will help him in his first Coca-Cola 600.

“A lot of times in our sport it gets focused solely on the physical endurance part of it,” Hemric said. “The mental side in my opinion is going to be the most crucial. When you talk to other guys that have ran this race for the first time they’ve always said that when the first thing goes and they get tired, it’s their mind.

“That’s a long time to keep yourself mentally in the game. I’ve always kind of trained and had my own mental things that I do to visualize and think about those moments late in the race. It’s something I’ve had a lot of success with in the past. I’ve got to credit Dan Jansen. I’ve kept a lot of those methods in my training regimen and a lot of that was mental.”

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The road to NASCAR can be dirty

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The story of how Chase Briscoe made it to the Xfinity Series doesn’t begin in a one-stoplight town in Southern Indiana.

“Actually, we just got a second stop light about two years ago,” Briscoe says.

The town, Mitchell, is 33 miles south of Bloomington in Lawrence County.

Before you ask, there isn’t much to do there.

“I remember in high school one of the fun things and cool things to do is just go walk around Wal-Mart,” Briscoe says.

Luckily for Briscoe, growing up in a county that produced three astronauts provided some benefit to the future Roush Fenway Racing driver.

Dirt racers. “A ton” of them.

One of those was his dad, Kevin Briscoe.

Chase Briscoe celebrates his win in the Ford EcoBoost 200 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 17, 2017. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

FAMILY BUSINESS

The son of a longtime sprint car owner, Richard Briscoe, Kevin continued in the family business, competing for more than 20 years and winning more than 150 feature events.

But for much of Chase’s childhood, Kevin didn’t want his son involved in racing.

At 7, he raced twice in a quarter midget, winning both a qualifying race and his feature. But that was almost the end for Chase.

“My dad was still racing so much, and we didn’t really have the money to be doing both,” Briscoe says. “He just never really had the desire for me to race. He just didn’t see the point of it. He didn’t think it was the safest thing. He didn’t think I could make a good livelihood doing it.”

His dad’s mind was changed one night at Bloomington Speedway when Chase was about 10.

While at the payout window, the mother of another driver asked Kevin when he was going to let his son race.

When he told her he didn’t want Chase to race, the woman launched into a story.

Her son had once written a school paper about what racing with his family on the weekends meant to him.

The teacher failed the paper. She didn’t think it was right for a kid to be racing.

The next week, the teacher’s son was arrested for drinking and driving underage.

“My dad, it kind of clicked with him,” Briscoe says. “He was always with his dad on the weekends not getting into trouble and was always at the shop working throughout the week and kept him out of a lot of trouble he thought. That was kind of his mentality to let me start racing, was to keep me out of trouble.”

Briscoe wasn’t immediately throwing dirt on the weekends. It wasn’t until 2006 at 11 that he returned to the track in a mini-sprint car.

When he was 13, he made the jump into his dad’s old 410 sprint car, which had an engine built in 1993 (the year before Briscoe was born).

In his first season, he amassed 37 starts but didn’t win until the last race of the year. By doing so, Briscoe broke Jeff Gordon’s record (14 years old) as the youngest person to win a 410 sprint car race.

Even now, Briscoe doesn’t see himself as an exceptional dirt racer.

“It’s something I’ve always been passionate about, but I’m not the best dirt racer by any means,” Briscoe says. “I’m not the best pavement racer by any means either. It was hard to kind of race against guys that were running 140 races a year experience-wise.”

DIRT TO PAVEMENT

When he graduated high school, Briscoe knew he was within a few years of an expiration date for anyone wanting to make it as a pavement racer.

“I knew I was in that age category where if you’re over 23 years old, you’re probably not going to get a chance if you’re just starting out,” Briscoe says. “I just figured, ‘What the heck? The worst they’re going to tell me is no.’ If it doesn’t work out in three or four years, I can always move back and race sprint cars and go get a full-time job or go to school or what not. I kind of just went for it, and I honestly expected it to never work out. But I figured it was something I could do, and if I was 60 years old sitting on a porch, I wouldn’t have any regret about it.”

The first step in that goal was being invited to the Michael Waltrip PEAK Antifreeze Stock Car Dream Challenge in July 2013 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Briscoe competed in the three-day event against eight other hopefuls for a chance to win a ride with Bill McAnally Racing. He made the final round before losing to Patrick Staropoli.

Both drivers made a handful of K&N Pro Series starts for Bill McAnally Racing, with Briscoe making three in the West Series. To date, Staropoli has made one Camping World Truck Series start, in 2016.

Within a year, Briscoe furthered his commitment to making it on pavement. He moved to North Carolina in January 2014 at the age of 19.

That’s where the Keselowski family came in.

TRUCKS

In the 2017 video game, “NASCAR Heat 2,” the career mode begins with a video of Brad Keselowski talking to the player as if they’re an aspiring NASCAR driver.

Keselowski says he’ll make a few calls to see about getting you a ride with a Truck Series team.

You’re basically playing as Chase Briscoe.

Unlike the game, Briscoe got to race for Keselowski.

The call from the 2012 Cup champion came after Briscoe, driving for Cunningham Motorsports, captured the 2016 ARCA Racing Series championship. He earned six wins – including four in row – during the campaign.

At the end of the process Keselowski spearheaded, Briscoe was signed as Ford’s first development driver. He drove Brad Keselowski Racing’s No. 29 Ford in the Truck Series in 2017.

But Briscoe’s history with the Keselowskis didn’t begin there.

Chase Briscoe at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

It started when he made the move to North Carolina and began sleeping on couches and volunteering at race shops.

The first shop he lent his services to belonged to Keselowski’s father and brother, Bob and Brian.

“I’m sure they would say I didn’t help out much because I didn’t really know what I was doing,” says Briscoe, who served as a spotter for Brian when he raced while Bob served as crew chief.

Briscoe got to pay tribute to Bob Keselowski’s own Truck Series career last September when he drove one of his old paint schemes at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park

After his tenure at the Keselowski shop, Briscoe wound up at Cunningham Motorsports, where he volunteered until he was awarded a test at Nashville Speedway. That test resulted in two ARCA races in 2015 and his championship campaign.

UNEXPECTED PROMOTION

The plan was for Briscoe to compete in the Truck Series two years and move to the Xfinity Series.

Plans changed.

On Aug. 18, Brad Keselowski Racing announced it would shut down at the end of the 2017 season.

Due to not being near his phone, Briscoe didn’t find out until about an hour before the announcement was made.

“I had like two or three missed calls from Brad and I was like, ‘This is weird,’ ” says Briscoe. “I called him and he pretty much just told me, ‘Hey, I wanted to let you know I went to the shop today and told everybody I’m actually shutting the team down. You’re going to run the rest of the year, and I’m going to keep you in the best stuff I can.'”

The news came with nine races left in the season. With BKR the only Ford-backed team in Trucks at the time, Briscoe’s NASCAR future was put in limbo.

Chase Briscoe competes in the Feb. 24 Xfinity Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. (Photo by Jeff Robinson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Three days after Briscoe closed the Truck season with his first series win at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Roush Fenway Racing announced he would be part of a three-driver effort to field the No. 60 Ford in the Xfinity Series in 2018 with Ty Majeski and his BKR teammate Austin Cindric.

Seventeen years after he first drove a quarter-midget, Briscoe made his Xfinity debut last Saturday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Briscoe finished 15th.

“It was very eye-opening to be there in the first place … I never would have expected to even make it in the Xfinity Series,” Briscoe says. “To be able to drive for Jack Roush in your first start in the winningest number in Xfinity Series history (94 wins) is certainly very humbling. It was just such an honor.”

Briscoe will make 11 more starts in the N0. 60 this season, the next coming on April 7 at Texas Motor Speedway. But Briscoe will make at least one other Xfinity start.

He is scheduled to compete April 28 race at Talladega Superspeedway for Stewart-Haas Racing with Biagi-DenBeste Racing.

The race is significant for a driver who grew up in the dirt racing hotbed of Indiana.

“Being a sprint car guy, my hero is Tony Stewart,” Briscoe said of the native of Columbus, Indiana. “For me just getting to drive one race at Stewart-Haas is a dream come true. Just awesome and so humbling to be able to say I’m going to drive for my hero.”

The 23 year old Briscoe — at the age he once saw as a make-or-break year for his racing dreams — has a buffet of options before him.

In addition to racing for his home-state hero, he’ll compete in seven IMSA races, three Trans-Am races and roughly 25 sprint car races this year.

There’s not much a 60-year-old Briscoe would regret about the moment.

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Social Roundup: Sights from the Xfinity, Truck Series Awards Banquet

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The NASCAR season officially came to a close Saturday night in Charlotte, North Carolina, with the annual Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series Awards at the Charlotte Convention Center. The ceremony will air at 9 p.m. ET on Dec. 17 on NBCSN.

Xfinity driver William Byron and Truck Series driver Christopher Bell were recognized as this season’s champions before they move on with their careers. Byron will race in the Cup Series for Hendrick Motorsports and Bell moves up to Xfinity with Joe Gibbs Racing.

NASCAR handed out plenty of annual awards for each series.

Rookie of the Year: Byron (Xfinity) and Chase Briscoe (Trucks)
Manufacturer title: Chevrolet (Xfinity) and Toyota (Trucks)
Comcast Community Champion: Chip Ganassi Racing pit crew department

Mobil 1 Driver of the Year: Kyle Busch (Xfinity) and Bell (Trucks)
Mahle Engine Builder of the Year: Roush Yates Racing’s Doug Yates (Xfinity) and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Mark Cronquist (Trucks).
Duralast Brake in the Race: Busch (Xfinity) and Bell (Trucks)

JR Motorsports’ Elliott Sadler was voted most popular driver for the third time after he finished runner-up in the season standings to Byron.

Brad Keselowski Racing’s Chase Briscoe was voted most popular driver in the Truck Series, though there was a slight mixup with his name on the trophy. We’ve all been there.

Here are more sights from the award ceremony brought to you by social media.

Chase Briscoe, Austin Cindric receive first win trucks as parting gift from Brad Keselowski Racing

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Following the end of the Camping World Truck Series season last month, Brad Keselowski Racing is shutting down.

But the team owned by the Cup Series driver didn’t go out without making a statement.

The team, which competed in the Truck Series beginning in 2008, scored two wins in 2017. Austin Cindric and Chase Briscoe each earned their first career wins. Cindric won in controversial fashion in September at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and Briscoe closed out the season by winning the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Briscoe also won Rookie of the Year.

MORE: Briscoe, Cindric and Majeski to drive No. 60 for Roush Fenway Racing in Xfinity Series

On Friday, BKR held its last team lunch before closing its doors. Keselowski used the moment to show his appreciation for the two drivers by gifting them the trucks they won with.

You can watch Keselowski presenting the trucks below.

Briscoe and Cindric weren’t the only ones to receive a gift.

After Keselowski was done with Briscoe and Cindric, the 2012 Cup champion got his own tarp-covered surprise.

The team rolled out an ARCA Late Model car that Keselowski built with his father in 2002 and competed in.

T.J. Majors leaving Hendrick Motorsports as No. 88 spotter at season’s end

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T.J. Majors announced on Twitter Monday that this will be his last season with Hendrick Motorsports and the No. 88 NASCAR Cup team.

Majors serves as the spotter for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is also in his final season driving in Cup.

“I would like to thank Mr. Hendrick and everyone at the organization for an incredible 10+ years that have provided me countless friendships and memories that I will forever be grateful for.”

Majors also serves as spotter for Justin Allgaier’s No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, as well as the No. 29 Brad Keselowski Racing Ford driven by Chase Briscoe.

Majors did not announce what he’ll be doing after leaving HMS.

Here’s what Majors tweeted:

UPDATE: Monday on his podcast “Door, Bumper, Clear,” Majors announced he will spot for Joey Logano in 2018.

“They’ve been great to me, I look forward to it,” Majors said. “Going to be teammates with Brad (Keselowski). Obviously, Brad’s one of my best friends. … Joey Logano’s been great. I like him, he’s really a good guy. I know people boo him and stuff for racing hard. But I like how Joey drives. He’s aggressive. He knows what he needs to do.”

In a related move, Alex Bowman, who will replace Earnhardt in the No. 88 next season, announced on Twitter his spotter for the 2018 Cup season will be Kevin Hamlin.