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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).

Friday 5: Kyle Larson focused on Texas and ‘best chance to get a win’

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Kyle Larson hinted in September at what was to come in the Cup playoffs, but it was easy to overlook with the focus on Joe Gibbs Racing’s stable and if anyone could keep all four JGR drivers from advancing to the title race in Miami.

Even though Larson had yet to win at that time, he said in Las Vegas that he felt his cars were better than what he had in 2017 when he entered that postseason second in points and with four wins.

“I think this is as good of a shot, minus I don’t have as many playoffs points as that year,” Larson said a few days before this year’s playoff opener.

Larson was eliminated in the second round in 2017 but is among the eight remaining playoff drivers this year.

Although he goes into Sunday’s race at Texas Motors Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN) outside a transfer spot to the championship race in Miami, this could be the weekend he earns a spot in that race with a win. If so, it would be his first career Cup victory on a 1.5-mile track.

No remaining playoff driver has a better average finish than Larson’s 7.0 in the past four races on 1.5-mile tracks (Chicagoland, Kentucky, Las Vegas and Kansas). Chase Elliott, who is essentially in a must-win situation after his mechanical woes last weekend at Martinsville, is next among remaining playoff drivers with an 8.0 average over those four races.

While Denny Hamlin won two weeks ago at Kansas, the most recent 1.5-mile track before this weekend, Larson led 60 laps before some sloppiness on pit road by him and his team and contact with a lapped car led to a 14th-place finish.

Even after that finish, Larson remained upbeat.

Crew chief Chad Johnston and Kyle Larson. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

“Texas will be our best chance to get a win,” he said of the Round of 8 races at Martinsville, Texas and ISM Raceway near Phoenix.

Larson survived Martinsville, notable as one of his worst tracks. He finished ninth but scored the sixth-most points in that race thanks to crew chief Chad Johnston’s call not to pit shortly before the end of stage 2. That move gave Larson the lead and he finished the stage in second, collecting nine points.

After finishing the race, Larson said on the radio to his team: “Survived. It’s what we needed to do.”

Larson is 24 points behind Joey Logano, who holds the final transfer spot to the championship round but these playoffs have already have had moments of upheaval from Ryan Blaney’s Talladega win to Elliott racing his way to the Round of 8 at Kansas while Brad Keselowski failed to advance.

A key for Larson will be have a clean race. He overcame a pit road penalty to finish eighth at Las Vegas. He was penalized one lap for pitting outside the box at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval and placed 13th. A penalty for an uncontrolled tire at Kansas played a role in him finishing 14th.

While Larson acknowledged after Kansas that he had a points deficit to overcome, he noted “a win could fix all that.”

It could this weekend for him and his Chip Ganassi Racing team.

2. Gaining traction

Eddie Gossage, president of Texas Motor Speedway, admits he was hesitant to use the PJ1 traction compound on his track in March because “I’m more of a traditionalist than people would guess I am.”

The track again will have the traction compound this weekend.

MORE: Texas Motor Speedway makes its case for IndyCar/NASCAR doubleheader 

Gossage explained to NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan his hesitation with the traction compound previously:

“I was like, look, the asphalt will come in in time. You just got to stomach out the first couple of years. That kind of thing. I don’t know. I just didn’t see the need to do it. Others did and wanted to do it, and you’ve got to trust your people and listen to what they say. I’m talking from experience and pure gut instinct. They’re talking to me about all these friction coefficients and these devices they use to measure it. And so there’s a difference there.

“Most of the time they’re right when they use those devices. Sometimes they’re wrong. The key is to know when science is right and when your gut is right.”

Asked if the traction compound seems like a crutch that detracts from more important things, Gossage told Ryan:

I look at it like there’s so much noise from a few people, the vocal minority, about so many things related to the sport, that it’s hard to know when to stick your fingers in your ear and ignore it. Because you want to listen to fans. It’s another one of those judgment things you’ve got to make. Yeah, I hear all the time from the detractors, and I thought Kansas was a watershed moment in NASCAR, but you hear these detractors, and you want to say, ‘Look, we’re not running a stock car off the showroom floor with an 8-inch bias-ply treaded tire anymore.’

“That’s not what we do. That’s not what this sport is. It’s evolved. It’s changed. The forward path is not a bad thing. It’s a tough line to straddle to stay in the old days where certain things were great because the way they were, and you also have to advance or die. So what do you listen to and who? The good old days for me are different from the good old days for you and somebody else. If I listen to most detractors, the good old days … the first Cup race I saw in person, Darrell Waltrip beat Bobby Allison by a lap. I thought it was the greatest thing I’d ever seen. Well if you did that today, they’d tear the place down. So you got to grow.”

As for Kansas being a “watershed moment,” Gossage said: “I thought Kansas was the first time where all the things that the playoffs bring about in every sport: Intrigue. Intensity. Mayhem. Nerves. Who’s in, who’s out. On and on. Great things. That was the story. That is what each playoff race needs to be like.”

3. Right tracks at the right time

Kevin Harvick enters this weekend at Texas having finished in the top 10 each of the past 10 races there, tying Greg Biffle for the longest steak of consecutive top 10s at that track.

No other drivers have had more than six consecutive top 10s at Texas. Since the track was repaved and reconfigured in 2017, Harvick has a 3.2 average finish in five races. He won two of those races. 

But this is just the beginning for Harvick with some of his best tracks.

After Texas, the series heads to ISM Raceway. Harvick has 12 consecutive top-10 finishes going into that race.

The season finale is in Miami and Harvick has scored 11 consecutive top 10s there.

4. Moving closer to record

Martin Truex Jr.’s win last weekend at Martinsville gave Joe Gibbs Racing its 17th victory of the season.

The record for wins in a season by one organization in the modern era (since 1972) is held by Hendrick Motorsports, which won 18 of 36 races in 2007.

JGR has three races left to tie or surpass Hendrick Motorsports’ accomplishment.

5. F1 announces cost cap for 2021

Formula 1 announced several changes this week for the 2021 season, including a cost cap. That’s something that could be in place in NASCAR by 2021.

The F1 cost cap will limit teams to $175 million for the calendar year and is based on 21 races. The cap will not include wages for drivers, the team’s three highest paid personnel, marketing costs and travel costs. A NASCAR team cap is not expected to include driver salaries.

Auditors will be appointed to provide independent oversight of the F1 teams. Penalties for exceeding the cap could be a financial penalty, loss of constructors and/or driver points, ban for a certain number of races, limitations on testing and/or reduction of the team’s cost cap. In the most serious cases, penalties also could include exclusion from the World Championship.

This has been something team owners have been working on with NASCAR and will be interesting to see in what ways a NASCAR cap might mirror the F1 cap and other ways it might not.

 

Where Cup playoff drivers stand heading to Texas

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If everything truly is bigger in Texas, how much bigger can the rivalries become after a pit road scuffle last weekend at Martinsville?

How much more intense can the playoffs be with two races remaining for drivers to advance to the championship race in Miami?

And how much more desperate will some drivers be this weekend?

Here is where each playoff driver stands heading into Texas (3 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN):

MIAMI BOUND

Martin Truex Jr.’s win at Martinsville makes him the first driver to qualify for the Nov. 17 title race in Miami. It’s the third consecutive year Truex has reached this race, winning the title in 2017 and finishing second last year. So how will Truex treat the next two weeks since he’s already set for the championship race?

“We’ve never been in this position before,” he said after his series-high seventh win of the season. “Every time we’ve made the final four we’ve pointed our way in. We’ve never won in this round, so it’s new territory. It’s good territory to be in, but honestly we can’t change who we are. I said that earlier in the year when the playoffs started. You can’t just go from the regular season to we’re going to change our mindset for the playoffs. You race every week the same, just there’s more on the line as you go down the road here.

DEPOSITS AND WITHDRAWALS

Denny Hamlin has stated multiple times this season about not doing anything outlandish on the track that would incite a competitor, particularly in the playoffs.

He calls it making deposits, which he did when he didn’t rough up Kevin Harvick in the final laps at New Hampshire and allowed Jimmie Johnson to get his lap back at the end of a stage at Kansas. Hamlin also noted the concept when he criticized Joey Logano for racing him hard while down 24 laps at Dover

Sunday, Hamlin and Logano made contact shortly after a Lap 456 restart. Hamlin later took the blame for the contact. After discussing the incident on pit road, Logano shoved Hamlin, triggering a scuffle on pit road.

With two races left in this round, Hamlin is second in the standings. He is 10 points ahead of Logano, who holds the fourth and final transfer spot.

*@&#$%(^)%$!

If one could go inside the mind of Kyle Busch after a playoff race, the symbols represent a clean version of what he might be thinking. Busch, the regular-season champion, has had a miserable playoffs. He has finished outside the top 10 in four of the seven races.

Before he and Aric Almirola decided to beat on each other while racing for seventh this past weekend at Martinsville, Busch had not been happy with his car’s handling, saying at one time on the radio: “We’re terrible.”

Things got worse after the contact with Almirola. Busch’s car was damaged. Busch went on to finish 14th. He’s third in the standings, three points ahead of Logano for the final transfer spot.

Busch also has an enemy on the track. Almirola vowed after Sunday’s incident that “we’ve got three more weeks, and I’m going to make it hell for him.”

Told of Almirola’s comment, Busch said: “Sounds good.”

PLUGGING ALONG

Kevin Harvick was unspectacular throughout much of Sunday’s race but finished seventh. Ryan Blaney was strong all race before finishing fifth.

They’ll look for better results this weekend at Texas. Harvick is 14 points behind Logano for the final transfer spot. Blaney is 15 points behind Logano.

TIME TO GO TO WORK

Everyone knew Martinsville could be a rough race for Kyle Larson, who has not mastered that tough half-mile track.

A good call by crew chief Chad Johnston allowed Larson to score nine points in stage 2 when he had been running outside the top 10 before a late caution. While the field pitted, Larson stayed out for track position. Still, points might not be enough to get him to the championship race in Miami. He’s seventh among the eight remaining playoff drivers and is 24 points behind Logano.

WHAT IS GOING ON?

Chase Elliott opened the previous round of the playoffs by finishing last at Dover when his engine failed after eight laps.

He started the Round of 8 at Martinsville by suffering an engine failure after five laps of opening practice. In the race, Elliott’s car suffered a broken axle on Lap 180 while he was fifth. He finished 36th and is 44 points out of the final transfer spot, meaning he is essentially in a must-win situation the rest of this round. 

As for the mechanical issues with his Hendrick Motorsports team recently, Elliott conceded: “I’m concerned.”

POINTS 

4102 – Martin Truex Jr. (Martinsville win advances him to Miami title race)

4082 – Denny Hamlin

4075 – Kyle Busch

4027 – Joey Logano

4058 – Kevin Harvick

4057 – Ryan Blaney

4048 – Kyle Larson

4028 – Chase Elliott

Long: Will Joey Logano’s actions lead to repercussions or another title?

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Joey Logano isn’t making friends in the playoffs, but does it really matter?

For the third time in the last eight playoff races, a driver climbed from his car upset with how Logano raced them and suggested a form of payback could be coming.

* Martin Truex Jr. called Logano’s bump-and-run on the final lap of last fall’s playoff race at Martinsville a “cheap shot” and said days before the championship race in Miami: “I won’t just wreck a guy … unless it is the 22.” (Logano did take part in the Martin Truex Jr. Foundation Catwalk for a Cause event in May). 

* Aric Almirola was upset with how Logano raced him in last fall’s playoff race at Texas, which was a week after Logano had assured his spot in the championship event by winning at Martinsville. Almirola said then: “He just continues to make things harder on himself. … When Homestead comes around if I’m not in it, he’ll know it.” Asked how, Almirola responded: “Just make it really difficult on him.” (Almirola and Logano talked a day later).

* Denny Hamlin expressed his frustration with Logano after last weekend’s playoff race at Dover. Logano was 24 laps down when Hamlin, who was leading, couldn’t get around him late in stage 2. Hamlin lost the lead and finished third in the stage, costing him a playoff point. “He just pissed off some guys that he’s racing with now,” Hamlin said of Logano. “So now we’re going to race him extra hard for what? For the reason he didn’t want to go 26 laps down? Anybody would tell you that’s just not a good choice.”

So far nothing has happened — except Logano winning last year’s Cup title.

That Logano races hard is no surprise. It’s a part of his DNA. His second career Cup win came in 2012 after he did a bump-and-run on Mark Martin in the final laps at Pocono. Logano has had issues throughout his career with Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson, Truex, Almirola and Hamlin, among others. So, yes, this is Logano’s style.

But even Logano admitted during last weekend’s race at Dover he was in a tough position. This was his radio conversation with crew chief Todd Gordon after stage 2 ended:

Gordon: Did a good job there, man. I know we got eaten up there at the end, but you did a good job of hanging in the whole time.

Logano: Yeah. I dunno. Trying to do the right thing by everyone.

Gordon: Yeah. You’re in a tough spot. You are. I totally understand it.

Logano: What’s our situation now? How many more laps do I have to make up?

Gordon: 54 is 14 laps down. We’re 24 laps down. The 52 is 13. The 51 is 12. Some of those guys won’t end up having enough tires to run the whole race, so, we’ll see where it gets. We’re 36 right now. Every spot we can get from here is a point.”

Logano would not pass the 54 (Garrett Smithley), 52 (JJ Yeley) or 51 (B.J. McLeod). Logano finished 34th, gaining spots only after mechanical issues caused Chris Buescher and Ryan Blaney to the garage.

While Logano’s conversation was taking place, other team radios were lit about his driving.

Hamlin didn’t realize Logano was so many laps down. Told he was, Hamlin said on his radio: “Then what the (expletive) is he doing racing us like this? Twenty-four laps?”

Logano also was a discussion point on Kyle Larson’s radio.

Larson: He’s racing awful hard, huh?

Crew chief Chad Johnston: You sound like you’re surprised. Nothing new.

Larson: I am surprised that he’s racing that hard at 24 laps down, I can see one up.

Johnston: Yeah. I think it is all things we have to put in our memory bank. And when we get the opportunity to do the same thing to him, we remember that, don’t cut him any slack. But, for today we have to race to win, so, we’ll let him go to the back or do a wave around and get one of ‘em back so he can be 23 down. And we’ll go race for a win.”

Memory bank is the key word. Drivers and teams don’t forget. Should Logano advance to the third round, he could face quite a challenge.

Two of the three races in the third round are at Martinsville and ISM Raceway near Phoenix. Both feature plenty of traffic and can be difficult to pass at — and that’s without someone mad at you. NASCAR is expected to approve a traction compound to help drivers pass at ISM Raceway, the last chance for competitors to earn a spot in the Championship 4 race the following week in Miami. 

Will Logano’s actions catch up to him in the coming weeks? Or will he be on his way to a second championship while divers are left to mutter about how the No. 22 Team Penske Ford races?

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Potential can be such an overbearing description for some. While Kyle Larson exudes California cool, many have expected him to win more often. In some cases, his team needed better cars or pit stops. In other cases, Larson needed to be better.

He said that last weekend’s win at Dover was an example of how he is improving.

“It takes focus to win in any type of car, but it takes a different type of focus to win a 400‑ or 500‑mile race,” Larson said after his sixth career Cup victory, which moved him to the next round. “You know, in a sprint car race, it’s 30, 40 laps, and they don’t have an opportunity to work on their car at any point in the race to make it better, where in this I’ve tried to get better at my communication and tried to make it easier for the team to figure out what adjustments to make because it felt like when I look at other people in the past, I’ve been good the first half of races or even past that, but then it seems like as other people get to work on their cars, that’s where they maybe get better than me at the end and that’s what they find to go out there and win.

“(Sunday) I felt like I was struggling, I was getting frustrated in the early part of the race, and then took a deep breath, changed up what I was doing behind the wheel, and we also made our car better at the same time, and here we are with a win.

“I think that’s just the things that guys like Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick and Logano, Truex, Keselowski are really good at just staying focused, and not that I wasn’t focused, it just takes a different level of focus.”

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It was easy to miss Kyle Busch’s finish Sunday at Dover. Other than the speeding penalty he incurred on Lap 122, he was not noticeable on the way to a sixth-place finish.

Busch had expressed his disappointment not only with the racing but his result at Dover in May when he finished 10th and did not exude confidence heading into the playoff race. He qualified 18th, worst of the remaining playoff drivers. He said his car’s setup was similar to what teammate Martin Truex Jr. used to win at Dover in May but still didn’t work for him.

That Busch came out of a race that he didn’t seem to feel good about with nearly a top-five finish could be viewed as a good sign for his fans. Those points earned could mean more should he encounter problems in Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC). Busch enters the race third in the standings, 48 points ahead of Joey Logano, who is the first driver outside a transfer spot.

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NASCAR Darlington penalty report

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NASCAR on Wednesday issued five penalties — four in Cup and one in the Xfinity Series — stemming from last weekend’s Cup and Xfinity races at Darlington Raceway.

In Cup, four crew chiefs were each fined $10,000 apiece for lug nut(s) not properly installed:

* Mike Wheeler, No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota (driver Matt DiBenedetto).

* Greg Ives, No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet (driver Alex Bowman).

* Chad Knaus, No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet (driver William Byron).

* Chad Johnston, No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet (driver Kyle Larson).

In the Xfinity Series, one crew chief was fined $5,000 for lug nut(s) not properly installed:

* Jeff Meendering, No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota (driver Brandon Jones).

There were no other penalties issued.

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