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Austin Dillon says Chevy teams need to work together at Daytona

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Austin Dillon, who used a push from Chevrolet teammate Bubba Wallace to win last year’s Daytona 500, says more of that type of teamwork will be needed for Chevy to win Sunday’s race.

Dillon’s triumph last year is Chevrolet’s only victory at Daytona or Talladega since 2016. Fords have won nine of the last 12 restrictor-plate races and Toyota the other two. Before the era of teamwork at the plate tracks, Chevrolet had better results. From 2013-15, Chevrolet and Ford each won five restrictor-plate races and Toyota the other two.

Last fall, Stewart-Haas Racing’s four Fords dominated Talladega and Aric Almirola won after teammate Kurt Busch ran out of fuel on the final corner of the last lap.

“If we get our tails kicked in like we did at Talladega, it’s going to look bad,” Dillon said Wednesday at Daytona 500 Media Day. “Daytona is a little bit different in the fact that handling is more in play more often. What they did (at Talladega) was so impressive. They led the whole race. I don’t see that happening again. Penske did a really good job the other day, I felt like, of leading that pack (in the Clash), so that is kind of scary.”

Although Sunday’s Clash was disjointed by rain delays, the Fords of Team Penske and Wood Brothers Racing, which is aligned with Penske, dominated. Paul Menard’s Ford led 51 of 59 laps and was in front when contact with Jimmie Johnson’s car sent Menard into the wall and Johnson to victory lane.

“I do think it’s a good idea for us to get together to make some sort of game plan,” Dillon said of Chevy teams. “We do a pretty good job of trying to pit together and stay on the same pit strategies. So that is something that will probably be talked about more and more as we get closer to the race. We need to get together, I think, and work on that if that is how the race is going to go.”

Hendrick Motorsports might have its own plan. The organization took the front row for the Daytona 500 and its teams had the four fastest qualifying laps.

“Hendrick, I think they’ve got a game plan,” Dillon said. “I feel like they spent a lot of time in the wind tunnel this offseason for this race specifically, seeing what Stewart-Haas was able to do at Talladega and they took over the first four spots. Our job, we have two cars in the top 10, that was really great. We’ll go race the (Thursday’s) Duels and see how it plays out and link ourselves with them or together we just put ourselves in the right position.”

“Sometimes being the odd man out is not a bad thing because you get to play off of everybody else’s strategy. We’ll just see how it plays out.”

The challenge, though, is how well Fords work together and control the front of the field. Fords led 72.7 percent of the 756 laps run in the restrictor-plate races last year, winning two of those four events.

Denny Hamlin, who won the 2016 Daytona 500 after Toyota teams worked together and controlled the race, says Fords have taken their plan.

“I think that’s really been a lot of the success that Team Penske has had and Stewart-Haas at Talladega,” Hamlin said. “Their cars were just extremely fast and they just stayed in line together. That’s something that we displayed in 2016 with our Toyota teammates and really haven’t been able to replicate since.

“Other manufacturers have more cars. Us five cars can stay all in a line all we want, but if there are nine Fords or 10 Fords that stay in a line, that’s going to be faster. So once we kind of put the blueprint out there of how we work together, it’s been impossible for us to replicate since simply because of numbers.”

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Friday 5: Crew chief marvels at Chase Elliott’s progression

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It wasn’t until Chase Elliott scored his first Cup victory last season that crew chief Alan Gustafson saw the toll that not winning took on his driver.

With high expectations and a large fan following, pressure built on Elliott as his winless drought stretched beyond his rookie year in 2016, then 2017 and past the halfway mark of 2018.

Ryan Blaney won his first Cup race before Elliott. So did Austin Dillon, Chris Buescher and Erik Jones.

Elliott’s winless drought reached 98 Cup races before his Watkins Glen triumph.

“I think I underestimated how it was wearing on him and how personally he was taking it not winning races,” Gustafson said this week. “Once he won, I realized, ‘Wow, it was something that he was taking very personal and something that was weighing on him.’ ”

Elliott scored eight career runner-up finishes before that first victory in August. He went on to win twice more last year (Dover and Kansas in the playoffs).

Those performances showed the growth Elliott has made since his rookie Cup campaign in 2016.

“I guess the best way to describe it,” Gustafson said, “is I can remember when I first worked with him, he was so good at such a young age. ‘Where is his ceiling?’ He seems to be awfully close to it to me. Then kind of a pleasant surprise to me, he’s been able to push that ceiling, he’s made some significant growth and improvement.

“I think it stems from going to these races … knowing what line works. What line is good for this or how did this guy win the race … all these little nuances that you get from experience.”

The result was that Elliott was one of three drivers to win twice in the playoffs last year — champion Joey Logano and Kyle Busch also won twice in the playoffs.

“I am 100 percent confident if we give Chase a car that he wants, he will win the race with it,” Gustafson said. “He can adapt really well and there hasn’t been anything that he has not been able to overcome.”

2. Will IndyCar knowledge help Chevy thrive in Cup in ’19?

There are so many questions entering this season with what the racing will be like under the new rules package. Some questions will start to be answered at next week’s organizational test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, but even then there will be much uncertainty.

For Chevrolet, this could be daunting after its struggles last  year. The car manufacturer won four races a year ago — its lowest total since 1982 — and last had a car race for the Cup title in Miami in 2016.

Pat Suhy, Chevrolet’s NASCAR Group Manager, notes how the manufacturer’s IndyCar program could help its NASCAR teams with this rules package that has tapered spacers reducing horsepower and downforce added to the cars.

“We’ve been able to take a lot of what we’ve learned in IndyCar, where you are power limited,” Suhy told NBC Sports. “If you look at last year and really years past, we just piled on as much downforce as we could and you would always go faster, but when you’re power limited with the tapered (spacer) 550 (horsepower) engine, when you’re power limited, you have to start making decisions about how much drag you’re willing to accept for a downforce gain. It’s really more about trading off straightaway speed for cornering speed.

“We’re in a really good position to help answer that question with some of the tools that we have developed and used week in and week out in the IndyCar Series. We’ve been able to bring that to our NASCAR teams.”

3. JTG Daugherty Racing making changes

JTG Daugherty Racing will be more closely aligned with Hendrick Motorsports this season, according to Ernie Cope, JTG Daugherty Racing’s director of competition. JTG Daugherty Racing will receive Hendrick engines, use Hendrick simulation and have Hendrick pit crews service the cars of Chris Buescher and rookie Ryan Preece.

JTG Daugherty Racing also has purchased five chassis for Daytona from Hendrick Motorsports. The rest of JTG Daugherty Racing’s fleet will be built in-house. Cope told NBC Sports that Car No. 10 was on a surface plate this week. 

Car No. 1 will be used for wind tunnel testing. Car Nos. 2-3 will debut at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Cope said the organization plans to have new cars for all the races through Texas, which is the seventh race of the season.

Why build their own chassis?

“Part of it is you control your own innovation and destiny and when parts are coming,” Cope said. “We control our own production schedule. I think it’s going to work out fine.”

4. Chatting with the new guy

Clint Bowyer admits he didn’t know Daniel Suarez well before Suarez signed to drive the No. 41 Ford at Stewart-Haas Racing starting this season. A recent sponsor appearance together in Texas gave them the chance to talk on the flight.

“Man, it’s fun to be around kids like that are full of talent, full of piss and vinegar,” Bowyer said. “He’s set on kill. He’s excited about his opportunity, as he should be. He’s in good equipment. I know the equipment he’s going to be sitting in, the team that he’s going to be with. They were on fire last year with Billy Scott and all those guys. He’s got a good future ahead of him for this year. I’m excited for him.”

5. Fans in the Cup garage

Details are being finalized, but look for the Cup garage to be open to fans at a select time on some race weekends. This has been done in the Xfinity and Truck Series and will expand to Cup this season.

How tracks offer this to fans, how many fans will be allowed in, what time and what day this will take place on a race weekend will be set by tracks and NASCAR.

The tentative Daytona Speedweeks schedule lists an open Cup garage for fans from 9:30 – 11:30 a.m. ET on Feb. 10 — the day of the Clash and Daytona 500 qualifying. The Cup garage also is listed as being open to fans from 4-6 pm ET at Daytona on Feb. 14, the day of the Duel qualifying races.

A spokesperson for Daytona International Speedway told NBC Sports that track officials are developing their plans for this and don’t have anything to announce at this time.

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Friday 5: Key questions leading into 2019 Cup season

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Cup teams test in two weeks in Las Vegas. The Daytona 500 is a month away. The new rules package debuts in five weeks in Atlanta.

There are many questions to ponder with the Cup season nearing. Here are five key questions.

1. What will the racing be like?

NASCAR made the decision to go with a new rules package that should make the racing tighter.

Will it? Can this package lead to more side-by-side racing, more beating and banging and more drivers upset with one another?

If it does, this could be among the steps to attract more fans. If not, then what?

2. What’s next from NASCAR?

It could be argued that this year will be among the most pivotal for NASCAR.

Steve Phelps enters his first full season as President. Jim France remains interim Chairman, having taken over after Brian France went on an indefinite leave after his arrest Aug. 5 for aggravated driving while intoxicated and possession of a controlled substance in the 7th degree.

Phelps and Jim France will be among those who decide NASCAR’s direction. Phelps has twice said publicly since late September that “everything is in play” when looking at the Cup schedule for 2020 and beyond.

There has been talk of starting the season earlier and ending it sooner, midweek racing and doubleheaders.

How fans accept what NASCAR does — or doesn’t do — will be key.

3. Can Ford teams — particularly Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske — avoid the new-car blues that Toyota and Chevrolet teams experienced the past two years?

Both Toyota (2017) and Chevrolet (2018) struggled at times with their new cars in their debut seasons. If the same thing happens to Ford this year with the Mustang, it could allow Chevy and Toyota teams a chance to win races, qualify for the playoffs and build playoff points. That could be significant.

Toyota debuted the Camry in 2017 to mixed results. Although Martin Truex Jr. won three times in the first 18 races with the car at Furniture Row Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing could not get any of its Toyotas to Victory Lane until the 19th race of the season.

Things changed in the second half of the season. Toyota cars won 14 of the last 19 races and also the championship.

Chevrolet debuted the Camaro last year and also struggled in the first half of the season. Chevy teams won once — the Daytona 500 — in the first 21 races last year. Chevrolet won three times after that — all by Chase Elliott.

So can Ford teams be strong all season or will they need some time to become dominant or will they struggle much of the year?

4. Will new driver-crew chief pairings lead to wins?

The focus this season will be on Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus no longer working together on the No. 48 team — Johnson will be with rookie Cup crew chief Kevin Meendering and Knaus will be paired with sophomore Cup driver William Byron — but there are other pairings to watch.

After going winless last year, Denny Hamlin will be with crew chief Chris Gabehart, who has won in the Xfinity Series with Hamlin, Erik Jones and Ryan Preece.

Kurt Busch moves to Chip Ganassi Racing for what could be his final Cup season. He’ll look to crew chief Matt McCall to help make this year memorable.

Austin Dillon is reunited with crew chief Danny Stockman. They combined for championships in the Truck and Xfinity Series. While Dillon won last year’s Daytona 500, he wasn’t much of a threat at many other tracks. Can this pairing have success again?

Daniel Suarez lost his ride at Joe Gibbs Racing to make room for Martin Truex Jr. and Cole Pearn. Suarez moves to Stewart-Haas Racing and looks to crew chief Billy Scott to help him succeed.

Ryan Newman moves to Roush Fenway Racing and will have Scott Graves as his crew chief. Graves came from Joe Gibbs Racing. Can these two help raise Roush Fenway Racing’s profile?

5.  Who wins first?

It was shocking that Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson each went winless last year.

Don’t count on that happening this year. Don’t be surprised to see all three win this year. As for who will be the first to win? You don’t have much longer to find out. The season is approaching quickly.

Friday 5: Is it time for NASCAR to take away wins for violations?

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NASCAR’s L1 penalty this week all but stripped the Texas win from Kevin Harvick, but years from now he’ll be listed as the victor of that race.

If NASCAR can take away all that goes with the win — that includes taking Harvick’s berth in the championship race in Miami — shouldn’t the sanctioning body take away the win and leave the winner’s spot vacant in the results? And shouldn’t NASCAR remove the win from the driver’s record?

NASCAR’s history started with a disqualification after all.

Glenn Dunnaway won the first NASCAR race on June 19, 1949 at Charlotte but the win was taken away because his car failed inspection after the race. Jim Roper was declared the winner and has been recognized as the first winner of a NASCAR race since — even though he finished three laps behind Dunnaway.

So it makes sense that as NASCAR looks at possibly increasing penalties that the time has come to take away wins.

Before taking away wins, though, consider one thing.

How does one deal with the past? Richard Petty was fined what was a record $35,000 and docked 104 points after his car was found to have an oversized engine and the team used left-side tires on the right side of his car at Charlotte in 1983. The victory was the 198th of his career.

If you’re going to take away Harvick’s win last weekend at Texas (and at Las Vegas early in the season), then what about Petty? Is the NASCAR Hall of Fame going to have to change all the references to Petty’s 200 wins?

2. Chevy looks to avoid repeating last year’s disappointment

Chevrolet has one last chance to put a car in the Cup championship race in Miami or face a second consecutive year without a competitor in the title race.

Chase Elliott is the lone remaining Chevrolet driver in title contention in Cup heading into Sunday’s race at Phoenix (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC). He enters outside a transfer spot.

In January, Pat Suhy, Chevrolet’s NASCAR Group Manager, called it “unacceptable” that the manufacturer did not have a car competing for the Cup title last year and said “I expect us to have at least a car or two in the final four this year. There’s no reason we shouldn’t.”

Elliott’s path to Miami was helped by NASCAR’s penalty to Kevin Harvick that leaves three spots in the championship field to be filled Sunday. Elliott trails Harvick by 17 points for the last transfer spot.

The debut season of the Camaro ZL1 has not gone as smoothly for Chevrolet and also came in a season where Hendrick Motorsports, the top Chevy team, struggled for much of the season. The result is that Chevrolet has won four races this year — Austin Dillon won the Daytona 500 and Chase Elliott won at Watkins Glen, Dover and Kansas.

Chevrolet last had fewer than four wins in 1982 when it scored three victories that season.

3. Heavy fines

With two races left this season, NASCAR has fined Cup teams a total of $850,000 for various infractions. That tops last year’s total of $815,000.

All the money goes to the NASCAR Foundation.

Fines are issued to the crew chief. Stewart-Haas Racing’s crew chiefs and Joe Gibbs Racing’s crew chiefs have each been fined a total of $215,000 this season.

Fines can be as little as $10,000 for not having a lug nut secure after a race to the $75,000 fine crew chief Rodney Childers received this week for the infraction with Kevin Harvick’s car at Texas.

4. New look

With ISM Racing moving its start/finish line to just before the dogleg, drivers anticipate restarts could be wild.

I would imagine that we will cross the start-finish line and be nine-wide going though the dogleg and then try to figure out how to get back to two-wide by the time we get to the new Turn 1,” Aric Almirola said. “That is a really flat, tricky corner. Running much more than two-wide is pretty difficult through there. I am sure it will fan out and get really exciting. I think when it gets down late in the race, the restarts will be really, really intense and chaotic with guys trying to make moves in desperation and trying to make that final round of four.”

Joey Logano says that the new Turn 1 (which was formerly Turn 3) provides another challenge for drivers.

“I can see a lot of cars making those big moves and how Turn (1) has that very inviting apron down there with no grip at all and there are a lot of cars that slide a lot on cold tires there,” he said. “It seems like with low pressure and cold tires that the tires really want to chatter on the race track. Once they start chattering it is hard to stop it. It is like a basketball. You will see a lot of cars slip up. If there is a car on the outside of them it will cause contact for sure. I think it is going to make restarts a lot crazier than they used to be.”

5. Will history repeat?

Kevin Harvick was penalized after his victory at Las Vegas in March for a violation with the rear window brace. The infraction cost Harvick 20 points and the seven playoff points he earned for winning both stages and the race.

The next weekend, Harvick won at ISM Raceway and punctuated his victory by exiting his car on the frontstretch and pounding the rear window.

“I’ve been pissed is what I’ve been,” Harvick said to Fox after that win. “I’ve been mad as all get out because this team does a great job. This organization does a great job and we’ve got fast race cars. And to take that away from those guys just really pissed me off last week. To come here to a race track that is so good for us is a lot of fun and everyone was just determined this week and we just wanted to just go stomp them. We didn’t stomp them, but we won. That’s all that really matters. What a badass team right there!

“This really felt more important than winning at Homestead, racing for a championship, just to drive it home for all those supporters out there. And all you haters … I see you.”

Can Harvick come back and win again at Phoenix after another severe penalty? If so, what will he say to the haters this time?

Toyota executive: ‘Potentially more’ than five supported cars in Cup in 2019

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Toyota Racing Development President David Wilson said there “absolutely is intent” for there to be “at least” five Toyota-supported cars in the Cup Series in 2019 and “potentially more.”

Wilson made his comments three weeks after Furniture Row Racing announced it will shut down at the end of this season.

Without the No. 78 Toyota, that leaves just the four cars owned by Joe Gibbs Racing. Last year, FRR fielded Erik Jones in the No. 77, giving Toyota six cars.

“We’re spending a tremendous amount of energy and focus on that, of course,” Wilson said Wednesday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “Tradin’ Paint” of adding cars. “Nobody is happy. Nobody is pleased with losing Furniture Row. It’s something we’re all disappointed with. We at the same time respect the very difficult decision (owner) Barney Visser had to make.

“So as an OEM (manufacturer), we need to try and again put ourselves in the best competitive positioning going forward. That alliance we had going the past three years has been simply magical and something we’ve enjoyed a tremendous amount of success with. I’ve said this before, but we would not have won our first manufacturer championship without both Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing performing at the levels that they have been, let alone our second manufacturer’s championship we won last year.”

With Furniture Row Racing and JGR, Toyota has won two of the last four Cup titles and gone to Victory Lane 58 times since 2015.

A likely replacement for FRR in the Toyota camp is Leavine Family Racing, which fields the No. 95 Chevrolet that has been driven by Kasey Kahne and Regan Smith this season.

The team revealed in August during the Watkins Glen race weekend it would be exiting its technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing at the end of the year.

Team owner Bob Leavine told NBC Sports he has been speaking to the sport’s other manufacturers – Ford and Toyota – about making a transition.

“In our talking to the manufacturers this year, Toyota has been head-and-shoulders above the rest so far,” Leavine said.  “Everything we have investigated and done with Toyota has felt good from one end of the spectrum, the technical, to just the relationship basis.”