Getty Images

NBC Sports Power Rankings heading to Atlanta

2 Comments

If you thought the second NBC Sports Power Rankings of the year would be a recounting of the top 10 drivers in the Daytona 500, you’d be wrong.

While 500 winner Denny Hamlin takes the top spot this week, followed by Joey Logano and Kyle Busch, there’s quite a bit of variety – and even a few surprises – in our top 10.

Our weekly NASCAR power rankings are an aggregate of the individual top 10s of NASCAR Talk writers Dustin Long, Nate Ryan, Jerry Bonkowski and Daniel McFadin.

Check it out:

1. Denny Hamlin: Yes, his Daytona 500 win was big – but how will he do in the other 35 races on the schedule? He’s coming off one of the worst seasons of his career. And don’t forget Sunday’s win broke a 47-race winless streak.

2. Joey Logano: In terms of pure driving, he was the best of Speedweeks – especially his last-lap pass from fourth to first in his qualifier win.

3. Kyle Busch: Still missing the Daytona 500 from his illustrious resume, but Sunday was the closest he’s come to getting it. He’ll be there soon.

4. Matt DiBenedetto: Could anyone have predicted Matt D. would have led a race-high 49 laps? And if he hadn’t been caught in the big wreck, a top-five finish was very much within reach. This kid is going places in 2019.

5. Ryan Preece: Made his first 500 start and turned heads with his incredible dodging of late-race wrecks. Finishing eighth should give him a boost going into the much more difficult schedule after Daytona.

6. Ross Chastain: Only driver to compete in all three Speedweeks points races, proved his worth by finishing in the top 13 in each of them, including a third-place finish in the Truck race and 10th in the 500.

7. Jimmie Johnson: Rallied back after penalty put him two laps down to finish ninth. He’s definitely a favorite at Atlanta (five wins, 14 top fives in 27 starts there).

8. Chase Elliott: Finishes weren’t stellar, but NASCAR’s most popular driver gets an A effort. No one tried harder to pass cars in Speedweeks.

9. Kevin Harvick: If his team is as strong with new package at Atlanta as before, look out.

10. William Byron: Another competitive driver taken out in a late wreck. After a rookie mistake by him caused a wreck at Daytona last year, Byron took his pole-winning car and led 44 laps in his first race with crew chief Chad Knaus.

Others receiving votes: Michael McDowell, Erik Jones, Kyle Larson, Ty Dillon, Johnny Sauter, Michael Annett, Austin Hill, Alex Bowman, Jeffrey Earnhardt.

Bump & Run: Does Paul Menard owe Jimmie Johnson a payback?

4 Comments

How much of a hall pass does Paul Menard have to pay back Jimmie Johnson for the Clash wreck? Can he knock him aside on the next short track without compunction, or does it only extend to cutting Johnson no breaks in the near future?

Nate Ryan: It would seem heavy-handed if Menard retaliated by intentionally wrecking Johnson, but he has earned the right to rough up the seven-time champion if the roles are reversed in the future. They probably wouldn’t be working together anyway during a restrictor-plate race but don’t expect Menard to lay over for Johnson anytime soon, particularly with the Wood Brothers Racing driver alluding to a history between them at Daytona.

Dustin Long: As Menard said after the incident, contact from Johnson wrecked him at Daytona last year. So, yes, he’s keeping score. And yes he has a hall pass to use. 

Daniel McFadin: I don’t expect any form of retribution from Menard (it’s not really in his personality), outside possibly not cutting Johnson some slack at some point. It was a non-points race and Johnson didn’t wreck him on purpose. It was a side draft gone wrong.

Jerry Bonkowski: Given how NASCAR has cracked down on things this year, including taking wins away from drivers whose cars don’t pass post-race inspection, my guess is the sanctioning body will be equally diligent when it comes to payback between drivers. I highly doubt we’ll see a Joey LoganoMatt Kenseth tit-for-tat situation between Menard and Johnson, lest Menard gets nailed and suffers another fallback. The best situation is for Menard to move on and just beat Johnson with his car and talent.

Paul Menard said of Johnson’s ill-timed bump, “Jimmie does that a lot at these tracks.” Is that a fair criticism of how the seven-time champion has raced at plate tracks?

Nate Ryan: Johnson is a two-time Daytona 500 winner, but even he probably would admit that plate races aren’t his specialty. He has crashed out of more than a quarter of his Cup races at Daytona (nine in 34 starts), and he has been accused multiple times of instigating massive wrecks since near the beginning of his career (the 2005 season was particularly uncomfortable with Johnson in the middle of multicar pileups in both May and October at Talladega Superspeedway). Claiming Johnson starts wrecks in every plate race is hyperbole, but he has been in the middle of his share of crashes (and admirably took the blame for some of them).

Dustin Long: Yes, look it up, but also understand there are others that have been in the center of incidents on plate tracks. Over time it cycles to where those that are involved in incidents are victims of others. It’s not like Johnson has gone rogue or anything like that.

Daniel McFadin: Menard is right, just based on this short tweet thread of incidents involving Johnson and Menard. His involvement in Sunday’s wreck was his eighth straight Clash marked by involvement in an incident. Johnson may have eight points and non-points Daytona wins, but he’s no master of pack racing like Earnhardt.

Jerry Bonkowski: I think Menard spoke in the heat of the moment. Yes, Johnson has been involved in some incidents at plate tracks where the finger of blame has been pointed at him, but at the same time, how many times has he also been victimized by other drivers’ errors? Also, Menard cut down on Johnson in Sunday’s wreck and Johnson was trying to hold his position. So I do not give him full blame on the wreck; Menard is also culpable.

After the Clash, Kurt Busch said: “You want the cars more stable. You want us to run side-by-side. You want us to change lanes and not have side effects, and it just shows you how trimmed out everybody has got these cars to find that speed, and when you’re looking for speed, it usually brings instability in the cars.” Should NASCAR try to make changes to put in more comfort and handling for the Daytona 500?

Nate Ryan: Yes, if it were at all possible (and it might not be) to improve the stability in the draft and aid passing, NASCAR should look at it. The 2018 Daytona 500 was terrific, but plate racing has been mostly lackluster since then (notably the past two Talladega races). While this technically will be the last “plate” race (with tapered spacers essentially serving the same purpose in the future), and perhaps the new package will fix itself, it’s still important to ensure Sunday is as high quality as possible.

Dustin Long: No. No. No. No. No. If they’re going to make changes, then just give everyone participation ribbons while you’re at it. At some point, skill has to play a role.

Daniel McFadin: If NASCAR can introduce an element between now and Sunday that allows for easier creation of a second lane, go for it. But as a non-engineer I have no idea what that would entail.

Jerry Bonkowski: I’m not convinced that NASCAR has to do anything more. Rather, I think the onus is on the drivers to learn and adapt to the new rules. Just because drivers complain doesn’t necessarily mean the sanctioning body has to immediately change the rules to appease them. Drivers and teams are given rules and it’s up to them to abide by those rules.

Who are you picks to make it to the Championship 4 in Miami?

Nate Ryan: Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin.

Dustin Long: Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson, Erik Jones and Joey Logano.

Daniel McFadin: Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick

Jerry Bonkowski: Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch.

Who is one driver you are most intrigued about this season and why?

Nate Ryan: Jimmie Johnson, because he still feels he has much to prove despite a Hall of Fame career, and the start to 2019 underscores he might have a newfound swagger to go along with it.

Dustin Long: Christopher Bell. He said at one point last year he was ready for Cup but remains in Xfinity this season. How does he improve in a series a year after he won seven races as a rookie?

Daniel McFadin: Kyle Larson. After a disappointing winless season, how does he bounce back with a new teammate in champion Kurt Busch and how will the new rules package impact the driver with one of the most distinct driving styles?

Jerry Bonkowski: Jimmie Johnson. Will he be able to win an eighth NASCAR Cup championship with new crew chief Kevin Meendering? Will Chad Knaus have some behind-the-scenes input, even though he’s now crew chief for William Byron? There’s also some intrigue there, as well, wondering how Byron will do in his sophomore season in Cup and with one of the greatest crew chiefs in history calling the signals for him from the pit box.

William Byron wins Daytona 500 pole; teammate Alex Bowman second

3 Comments

It will be a Hendrick Motorsports front row for the Daytona 500. Again.

In his first on-track pairing with crew chief Chad Knaus, William Byron captured the pole (194.305 mph) and teammate Alex Bowman, who won last year’s 500 pole, will sit on the outside of the front row (194.154 mph).

It marked the fifth consecutive Daytona 500 pole for a Hendrick Chevrolet and the first of Byron’s Cup career.

“I thought the Chevy was real fast,” Byron told Fox Sports. “Credit to Chad and all the guys. It’s been a great offseason. We’re prepared. This is the first step of our process together.”

The last driver to win the Daytona 500 from the pole was NASCAR on NBC analyst Dale Jarrett in 2000.

Only the starting positions for Byron and Bowman are locked in, though Hendrick drivers swept the top four spots in Sunday’s qualifying. Two-time Daytona 500 winner Jimmie Johnson, who will start his first Cup race with crew chief Kevin Meendering after 16 seasons with Knaus, was third (193.807 mph), followed by Chase Elliott (193.782 mph).

The remainder of the 40-car field for the 500 will be set during Thursday’s two qualifying races.

Tyler Reddick and Casey Mears locked themselves into two of the four non-charter spots for the 500 via qualifying speeds Sunday. The other two non-charter entries will be determined Thursday during the qualifiers.

A total of six Chevrolet Camaros (including all four Hendrick Motorsports entries), four Ford Mustangs and two Toyota Camrys made the second and final 12-car qualifying round.

The rest of the second-round qualifiers were Daniel Hemric (192.460 mph), defending Cup champion Joey Logano (192.448), Martin Truex Jr. (192.353), Clint Bowyer (192.291), Brad Keselowski (192.263), defending Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon (191.416), Paul Menard (191.107) and Denny Hamlin (190.492).

Click here for full qualifying results.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Chad Knaus lauds new postrace inspections; previous wait ‘awful’

Getty Images
2 Comments

Though the price of success will be much longer hours, Chad Knaus applauds NASCAR’s move to at-track postrace inspections and disqualifications because it will save him the stress.

“I think we all understand that’s something that needs to be done so we can get the results done, finished and just move on,” Knaus said during an interview on SiriusXM NASCAR’s The Morning Drive program. “When you win a race previously in the Cup Series and you had to wait until Tuesday to take your car apart, that was the worst thing in the world.

“You hated winning a race because all you did from the time that you left victory lane was worry about whether or not your car was going to pass inspection for three days. That’s awful.”

Knaus will be the crew chief this year on William Byron’s No. 24 Chevrolet after 17 seasons and seven championships with Jimmie Johnson. Describing the new process as “clean,” Knaus said it reminded him of when NASCAR did inspections nearly exclusively at the track prior to its R&D Center (which opened in 2003).

“It’s not so unlike what we did years ago, we used to take our cars apart at the racetrack all the time and go through a postrace inspection and then pull randoms at that point and take them back and get a look at them,” Knaus said. “It’s something I’m not too unfamiliar with, the only new caveat is the fact that they’re going to disallow race wins. Unique from that perspective but familiar in another.”

What is different from that era is green-flag times.

Every Cup race in 2019 will be starting at 2 p.m. ET or later, which could make for “a heck of a long night on Sunday,” Knaus said. “When we were doing this in the past, races were starting around midday. Push that start time back two to three hours, and now you’re two to three hours into the night, it could be 10 or 11 o’clock (p.m.) before we get this done.”

The new inspection process will be governed by Jay Fabian, who takes over this season as the managing director for the Cup Series. NASCAR chief racing development officer and senior vice president Steve O’Donnell said Fabian was chosen because of his work on inspections the past few seasons and his background in Cup.

Fabian worked for several years at Michael Waltrip Racing alongside NASCAR vice president of competition Scott Miller

“I think Jay is going to be a good asset to the group with the managing director position,” Knaus said. “He’s got a good relationship with a lot of guys in the industry, so I think he’s going to be a good addition. Definitely has the ear of Scott Miller, which is good. Those guys will be on the same page and pretty consistent with their officiating throughout the season. I think that’s all good stuff.”

Darian Grubb prepared William Byron well for next big step with Chad Knaus

Getty Images
1 Comment

Like the commercials from a famous insurance company, Darian Grubb left William Byron in good hands.

As crew chief, Grubb shepherded Byron through his rookie season in Cup in 2018. Now Byron will go forward with seven-time Cup championship crew chief Chad Knaus.

Byron had a difficult rookie campaign at times, yet he still captured Rookie of the Year honors. He earned four top-10s, with a season-best showing of sixth in the second Pocono race. He had an average start per race of 17.7 and an average finish of 22.1.

In addition, Byron recorded nine DNFs, including seven crashes and two engine failures.

Still, Grubb – who has shifted this season to a technical director role at Hendrick Motorsports – sees a lot of upside that came from Byron’s first season.

Darian Grubb was William Byron’s crew chief last season. Grubb has turned over the reins to Chad Knaus for 2019. (Getty Images)

“He still has a lot of up potential but he learned a lot last year, just learning how to set his expectations and learning how competitive the Cup series is vs. the other series he had been in,” Grubb said earlier this week at a Hendrick media session.

“You have to take those small wins,” Grubb added. “If you have a 15th-place car, if you can finish 10th with it, that’s a good day. It’s a long season, much more grinding than the other series, so you have to have those positives to take.

“It’s not just going to be about a win all the time. You can see him really progress through that through the season. He got a much more of a broad perspective of what Cup racing is all about.”

Prior to moving to Cup, Byron enjoyed significant success, including winning the 2015 K&N Pro Series East championship, barely missed a bid for the Truck Series title in 2016 (he finished fifth), and then rebounded to win the Xfinity Series championship in 2017.

In a way, it was good for Byron to have struggles and learn lessons in 2018 in his first season in Cup that will likely go a long way toward making him a better driver  in 2019 and beyond, Grubb said.

“You have to go through all those trials and tribulations of coming home and having to be happy with a 21st because you had a crashed race car,” Grubb said. “You’re not going to be a winner, you’re not going to be top five, but we finished 21st instead of 32nd.

“Those are the type of things, you take a positive out of it. You can’t just come in and say we should have finished top 10. Yes, we were able to make the best out of what we had leftover because the whole season result rides on that.”

As he enters his sophomore season in Cup racing, Byron may not be the next Jimmie Johnson, but he certainly will receive much of the same knowledge and wisdom Knaus imparted upon Johnson in their 17-year tenure together, particularly their first several seasons as they laid the foundation for five consecutive Cup championships in a row (2006 through 2010) and a record-tying seven titles overall.

Grubb pointed particularly to the communication and how it will develop and improve in time between the two.

“Just look at what (Byron) learned last year about the Cup Series period and now leaning on Chad and developing that communication skill set with him,” Grubb said. “Chad has known only one style of communication for one time and William is kind of new at that, as well.

“That’s what we worked on a lot last year. So as he develops that communication with Chad, I think it is going to determine how well they perform right off the bat. I think they’ve got a lot of up potential.

“I think you’re going to see them grow and learn very quickly. He’s a great kid, he’s going to be a quick learner and he’s going to study really hard. He did that a lot last year and I think you’re going to see a lot of growth quickly.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski