Joe Gibbs on Christopher Bell: ‘We have to keep him’

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Christopher Bell’s three consecutive Xfinity wins have raised questions of if he’ll move to Cup next year, but car owner Joe Gibbs said Wednesday on “The Morning Drive” that the youngster is “scheduled” to be in Xfinity next year.

Bell’s status has gained attention because there’s seemingly no place for him in a Toyota Cup ride next year.

Joe Gibbs Racing already has Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones in its four-car lineup. The only other high-profile Toyota team, Furniture Row Racing, has reigning series champion Martin Truex Jr., and seeks sponsorship for that team. That leaves the possibility of a second ride there less likely. Truex is a free agent after this season but indicated last month at Kentucky that “I don’t plan on doing anything different” for next season.

If Toyota added another organization, it could provide Bell with a path to Cup as early as next year.

“We have to keep him,” Gibbs said to SiriusXM NASCAR Radio of ensuring Bell remains in the Toyota and JGR fold. “Just put it that way. We have to. I think Toyota has a lot invested. We do. I really think he’s a future star. You never know when you step up to the next level, that’s a huge step. We think he’s well on his way. I think he’s showing everyone what his abilities are and his talents.”

Bell won the Camping World Truck Series title last year for Toyota-backed Kyle Busch Motorsports. He ran eight Xfinity races last year for Joe Gibbs Racing, winning in his fifth series start, before moving to that series full-time with JGR this year. Bell has four victories and 12 top-five finishes in 19 Xfinity races this season. He goes for his fourth consecutive Xfinity win — an accomplishment achieved only by Sam Ard in 1983 — Saturday at Watkins Glen (3:30 p.m. ET on NBC).

Bell’s rise and the limited number of Toyota seats in Cup create a conundrum the manufacturer has faced before. Toyota’s driver development program goes from midget racing all the way to Cup, providing a ladder system for drivers to climb as they progress. But with limited seats in Xfinity and Cup, Toyota has lost some young drivers to other manufacturers and organizations.

Kyle Larson, who had been racing on dirt for a Toyota-backed team, signed with Turner Motorsports, a Chevrolet team, to drive in the NASCAR Xfinity Series in 2013. He later moved to Chevrolet’s Chip Ganassi Racing in Cup. After that, Toyota began to examine its development program to find more avenues for its young drivers.

Even with that in place, the manufacturer lost William Byron, who won a series-high seven Camping World Truck races in 2016 for Kyle Busch Motorsports. Byron moved to JR Motorsports, a Chevrolet team in the Xfinity Series, in 2017. He won the title before moving up to Cup with Hendrick Motorsports this season.

If there’s no room immediately at Joe Gibbs Racing in Cup for Bell, could the organization move him elsewhere as it did when Jones ran as a rookie last year at Furniture Row Racing before returning to JGR?

“Well, it’s so far in the future,” Gibbs said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “I think that’s what we’re all right now planning and looking at. I think it’s kind of up in the air right now. We’re kind of set next year. We want to keep him in Xfinity next year.

“I think he may have a chance to race a few other things. I think that’s kind of our plan. A year away, a lot can happen in a year. We’re just glad that we’ve got him under our banner.”

Friday 5: The race for points intensifies

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With only six drivers qualified for NASCAR’s postseason via wins so far, the Cup series could see half a dozen or more make the playoffs by points.

That will make every decision through the Sept. 9 regular-season finale at Indianapolis critical for drivers and teams. When to pit. If to pit. Take no tires. Take two tires. Take four tires. Such calls — and the hundreds of others made about setups and such — could have a lasting impact.

Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. have combined to win 13 of the first 15 races this season. Joey Logano and Austin Dillon are the only other drivers who have won this year. The six total winners are the fewest at this point in a season since 1996.

What it means is that points — particularly stage points — could play a key role in who advances.

Alex Bowman holds what is the final playoff spot entering this weekend’s trip to Sonoma Raceway. He has 331 points, putting him four ahead of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Paul Menard.

Stenhouse and Menard are so close to Bowman, in part, because of stage points. Bowman has 14. Stenhouse has 37; Menard 35. Those stage points also have helped Stenhouse and Menard keep close to Erik Jones, who is 15th in the playoff standings. Jones has a 19-point lead on Stenhouse and Menard. Jones has 38 stage points.

Realistically, there will be a few more different winners before the 16-team playoff field is set. Even if there are four more winners, that would mean six drivers would qualify by points. There has never been more than five to qualify on points. That happened in 2015.

Jamie McMurray qualified for the playoffs that year on points and did so the following two seasons. He heads to Sonoma with 283 points, 48 points behind Bowman for what is the last spot at this time. McMurray has 13 stage points.

It’s not just at the bottom of the playoff standings where stage points could be significant.

Remember that the regular-season winner scores 15 playoff points, the runner-up scores 10 playoff points and on down to the 10th-place finisher scoring one playoff point.

Brad Keselowski (fourth in the standings with 514 points), Clint Bowyer (510), Martin Truex Jr. (506) and Kurt Busch (493) are within 21 points of each other.

That could represent the difference in up to three playoff points.

Keselowski has the advantage on those other three drivers because he has scored more stage points. Keselowski has 160 stage points to 121 by Bowyer, 113 by Truex and 121 by Busch.

The race for stage points will become more important as the series heads toward Indy.

Here is look at who has scored the most stage points this season:

197 — Kyle Busch

161 — Kevin Harvick

160 — Brad Keselowski

121 — Kurt Busch

121 — Clint Bowyer

119 — Joey Logano

117 — Ryan Blaney

113 — Martin Truex Jr.

107 — Kyle Larson

84 — Denny Hamlin

58 — Aric Almirola

52 — Jimmie Johnson

46 — Chase Elliott

38 — Erik Jones

37 — Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

35 — Paul Menard

2. NASCAR in 2019

All-Star winner Kevin Harvick approves of NASCAR’s decision to not run that package in any more Cup races this season but focus on making adjustments to run it in 2019.

“I think we just need to be very cautious about protecting the integrity of the sport and the things that happen behind the wheel of the car,’’ Harvick said Thursday night on his SiriusXM NASCAR Radio show. “The other thing that I will say is the All-Star Race was a very short race. You had that caution in the first segment and you never really ran more than 20 laps at a time.

“The thing I’m most excited about is we’re going to vet this thing out and make sure that we get all the right things done to the car. I think a lot of the things that happened at the All-Star Race were covered up because the runs were so short. There’s definitely some work to do on the cars. I think we could probably make that package better.

“I’m glad we didn’t just jump right in. This is a big ship to turn. When you decide to start changing rules like that. You’re talking engines and transmissions, bodies and things like that. It’s not an easy process. It’s not like you just change the height of a spoiler. You’re basically changing the whole car, engine included.”

3. More of the same?

Four of the last six races at Sonoma have been won by this season’s dominant drivers.

Kevin Harvick won last year. Kyle Busch won in 2015. Martin Truex Jr. won in 2013. Clint Bowyer won in 2012.

The other two winners during that stretch? They’re no longer in Cup. Carl Edwards won at Sonoma in 2014. Tony Stewart won in 2015.

4. Change of scenery?

Will a road course help change Chevrolet’s fortunes this season? The car manufacturer has one win this year (Austin Dillon in the Daytona 500). In six of the first 15 races, Chevy has had two or fewer cars finish in the top 10. Chevrolet has won twice in the last 11 years at Sonoma (Tony Stewart in 2016, Jimmie Johnson in 2010).

5. Back in the saddle

With Cup back in action this weekend, the series will race on 21 of the next 22 weekends. The lone weekend off will be Aug. 26 between Bristol and the Southern 500.

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Friday 5: A new way of thinking about NASCAR’s future?

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When examining NASCAR’s future are most people looking in the wrong direction?

There are those who say the schedule — 36 points races, two non-points races and the Daytona qualifying races in a 41-week stretch — is too long.

Maybe it’s not enough.

So said Brad Keselowski earlier this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

While some says less is more for the sport, Keselowski suggests that the Cup schedule should have 50-60 races a year and no weekend off in the summer.

His plan is this:

Cup should race on Sundays and the middle of the week from February to early October (instead of ending the season in November). Keselowski also says that no track should host more than one weekend race. So, a track with two dates would get a weekend date and a midweek date.

One thing he notes is that any midweek race should take no more than three hours, meaning a number of races likely would need to be shortened

Keselowski’s idea is a novel concept and presents a new way of thinking when looking ahead in NASCAR. It’s always good to be forced to look at issues in different ways. But there are many challenges to his plan.

One question is what about the costs to teams. It would be easy to see teams saying such a schedule would cost them too much with the additional travel, expenses of preparing cars and repairing cars for example.

“The race teams will adjust, they’ll figure it out,’’ Keselowski said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Here’s what most people don’t understand. When a car owner complains about money, almost every race team out there has 20 or 30 engineers that don’t build the cars that make good wages and are smart people. What that tells me is they’ve got money and they’re just deciding to allocate it.’’

That might be a harder sell to teams. Rob Kauffman, co-owner of Chip Ganassi Racing and chairman of the Race Team Alliance spoke during All-Star weekend about cost to teams.

“It’s a joint concern, so it will be a joint solution to come up with how it works,’’ Kauffman said of working with NASCAR. “To get something like that in place will require quite a bit of collaboration.’’

Another concern would be tracks. A reason why there hasn’t been a midweek race yet is because a track executive has not volunteered to be the first.

The challenge with a midweek race is that the track likely won’t draw as many fans. Track officials note that they still have a significant percentage attend their races traveling from a few hours or more away. Not as many of those fans would probably make such a trip in the middle of the week. That could be lost income for the tracks.

Those are just among some of the key issues. It is a tangled web of trying to appease, teams, tracks, media partners, sponsors and fans as NASCAR forges ahead.

While there are many challenges to Keselowski’s plan — making it seem unlikely — that doesn’t mean such thinking should be immediately dismissed. Keselowski could be right in that bold thinking is what the sport needs as it looks ahead.

2. Kyle Busch could have company

While Kyle Busch became the first driver to win at every Cup track he’s competed with his Coca-Cola 600 victory, a couple of other drivers are not far behind.

Kevin Harvick has won at all but two tracks on the circuit (not including the Roval). He has yet to win at Kentucky (0 for 7) and Pocono (0 for 34).

Jimmie Johnson has won at all but three tracks on the circuit (not including the Roval). He has yet to win at Chicagoland (0 for 16), Kentucky (0 for 7) and Watkins Glen (0 for 16).

3. Back in the Day

LeBron James made his eighth consecutive NBA Finals appearance Thursday night. The last time he wasn’t in the NBA Finals was 2010.

That season in NASCAR:

Jimmie Johnson was on his way to a fifth consecutive Cup title.

Jamie McMurray won the Daytona 500, Brickyard 400 and Charlotte fall race.

Denny Hamlin won a series-high eight races.

Kevin Conway was Cup Rookie of the Year.

Joey Logano had just turned 20 years old.

Brad Keselowski won the Xfinity Series title.

Kyle Busch won 13 of the 29 Xfinity races he started.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was Xfinity Rookie of the Year.

Kyle Larson finished 10th in the Chili Bowl Nationals (Cole Whitt was second to winner Kevin Swindell).

William Byron wouldn’t turn 13 until November of that year.

4. France Family Group adds to portfolio

In a recent SEC filing, International Speedway Corp. stated that the France Family Group owns 74.11 percent of the combined voting power of common stock.

The France Family Group owned 73 percent, according to ISC’s 2016 annual report.

The France Family Group owned 72 percent, according to the ISC’s 2015 annual report.

As a comparison, Bruton Smith and son Marcus own 71 percent of Speedway Motorsports Inc.’s common stock. They owned 70 percent, according to SMI’s 2016 annual report.

5. A year later …

There will be much talk this weekend about how Jimmie Johnson has gone a year — it will be a year on June 4 actually — since his last Cup victory, the longest drought of his career.

But something else to ponder: In the last 36 races (a full season’s worth), Toyota has 19 wins, Ford has 12 and Chevrolet has five.

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Bump & Run: Will Kurt Busch be last driver to do Indy-Charlotte Double?

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Kurt Busch was the last to do the Indy 500-Coke 600 Double in 2014. Will we see a driver run the Double again anytime soon? If so, who might that be?

Kyle Petty: For me, the bigger question is why? Why try it? It’s been done. By multiple drivers with various levels of success. John Andretti for me will always be “The Man” for being the first. Tony Stewart ranks because he truly had a shot at wins in both. Any driver now trying “The Double” could only hope to be a contender in one and a footnote in the other. Both series have upped their game, it would be tougher to win. I’m not saying someone won’t try, but once you’ve watched the same PR stunt three or four times … well, you know.

Nate Ryan: No.

Dustin Long: No. Cup car owners aren’t going to let one of their drivers run in the Indy 500 because so much is tied up in those drivers on the Cup side. Unless an IndyCar driver comes with money, they’re not going to get the chance to run the Coca-Cola 600 because of relative lack of performance from such drivers in NASCAR (Tony Stewart notwithstanding).

Daniel McFadin: Yes, and it will be Kyle Larson. Both he and owner Chip Ganassi have indicated they want it to happen. Someone just needs to cave and say “Let’s do it.”

Dan Beaver: Unless IndyCar moves the race into an earlier, less desirable slot no one is going to be able to do it. But if they do, Kyle Larson is the most obvious pick. His passion for racing in general will eventually get the best of him and get him to test those open wheelers.

Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney, Aric Almirola, Kyle Larson, Jimmie Johnson, Erik Jones, Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman are among the drivers who have yet to win this season. Who is the next driver to win for the first time this season?

Kyle Petty: Erik Jones … Pocono! That’s just one of those tracks. We’ve seen it with Blaney, Hamlin when he first came into Cup and a few others. It’s so different from everything else that they run that someone with a good team (JGR) and a young driver with talent (Erik) can sneak up on the usual suspects!

Nate Ryan: Denny Hamlin. Though he hasn’t been as good at Pocono since the 2012 repave, he could break through Sunday or next weekend at Michigan given that Joe Gibbs Racing has turned the corner.

Dustin Long: Brad Keselowski. Fords will continue to dominate and Keselowski will get a win soon enough.

Daniel McFadin: Denny Hamlin. He has three top fives and one top 10 in the last five races and aside from the threat of speeding penalties, he is the only driver among those listed who has really managed to put together complete races in the last five events. 

Dan Beaver: Denny Hamlin stayed out of trouble last week at Charlotte and earned his fifth top five in the last six races there. Perhaps that means he is returning to predictability on tracks that have been kind to him in the past, so he not only gets the next win, it could happen this weekend at Pocono.

Chevrolet teams did not lead a lap in the Coca-Cola 600 but had four cars finish between fifth and 10th. How do you evaluate where Chevy is at the halfway point of the regular season?

Kyle Petty: For me at this point in the season, the Chevys have made gains but not enough to run as a group and consistently with the Fords and Toyotas. It’s a long season, and I’m sure we’ll see wins this year from Chevy drivers, but as a group, they are third best in class. 

Nate Ryan: Making steady gains but still short of being on the verge of consistently winning. There’s enough promise there to indicate the Camaro could be a factor in the playoffs.

Dustin Long: A step forward but still many steps to take to for Chevy to show it can beat the top Fords and Toyotas straight up.

Daniel McFadin: Since the 2017 regular-season finale, Chevy’s most consistent hope of winning a race has been Kyle Larson. But despite being a front-runner this year, Larson can’t seem to go from green flag to checkered flag without something going wrong. As of now, Chevrolet needs to hope its fortunes take a turn for the best in the second half of the season, like Toyota’s did last year with a new car model.

Dan Beaver: They’re not out of the woods yet, but it finally appeared that the Chevrolet drivers not only finished strong, but ran well as a group throughout the race. They will start to ease their way up the grid and challenge for victories, but it is difficult to imagine they will capture very many wins because Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch will continue to dominate.

Austin Dillon: ‘The Fords are absolutely kicking our tails’

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Dismayed by a 26th-place result and finishing five laps behind the leaders, Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon vowed on a Periscope message to fans Sunday that “we’re going to flip this around.’’

But Dillon acknowledged that he and all of Richard Childress Racing have much to do to learn how to make the new Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 more competitive.

“Here’s the deal, today sucked,’’ Dillon said on his Periscope video. “For everybody at RCR, the silver lining is it’s one race. We’ve got to go work on our cars to get them better. We’ve got to work on the Camaro ZL1. The Fords are absolutely kicking our tails.

“I’m committed to going to work, and everybody at RCR is committed to going to work. We’re going to flip this around. Positive thing is we won the Daytona 500, we got a win in our back pocket, but we’ve got to go to work. Can’t run like this.

“All the fans, Austin Dillon fans, RCR fans, know that we are working hard, we have been working hard, we’ve just got to change directions. We’ll keep putting in the effort. The team is doing everything they can and we’ve just got to think harder and smarter.’’

Dillon remains the only Chevrolet driver to have won this season, making him the only Chevy driver qualified for the playoffs at this point.

It’s not just Dillon and the rest of RCR who have struggled in the Chevy camp.

Chevy has failed to lead at least a lap in three races this season — the first time that has happened to the manufacturer since 1982. Sunday, Chevrolet led 26 of 400 laps (all by Hendrick Motorsports’ Alex Bowman). That marks the eighth time in the first 11 races this season that Chevrolet has led 30 or less laps in a race.

Kevin Harvick has led a series-high 741 laps. Chevrolet drivers have combined to lead 408 laps.

Harvick was dominant Sunday, leading 201 of 400 laps.

“Yeah, the 4 car was unreal,’’ Dillon said on Periscope. “He comes by you at a whole other level of speed. It’s unreal what he can do through the corner. He’s carrying a whole couple of mile an hour more than us through the center (of the corner). Pretty impressive. Pretty impressive what he’s doing.’’

Fords have won six of the first 11 races.

“Why are the Fords so dominant? I think in the offseason when we put the ZL1 body on, they were able to kind of tune on their race car while we were building race cars and putting bodies on, so we’re still just trying to figure it out.’’

Dillon knows his team and all of RCR can be better.

“We will get it going,’’ Dillon said. “I have all the faith in Chevy and RCR. Truthfully, Chevy has given us what we need. We just need to figure out how to use it. Figure out how to use it to our best advantage and get it back in the winner’s circle.

“We’re definitely still learning about the Camaro. We haven’t figured out our aero balance yet. Just at a (tire) test at Michigan a couple of weeks ago, we were moving things around  trying to figure out the aero balance. We’d pick up speed and not understand why. I think that’s a big part, we just don’t know the proper way to use the car yet.’’

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