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Chevy, Ford to square off in ‘The Great Race for Charity’ at Michigan

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There will be competition both on and off the racetrack between Ford and Chevrolet when NASCAR visits Michigan International Speedway for its two annual Cup races this year.

Track officials announced Monday “The Great Race for Charity,” a contest that will pit fans, employees of both Ford and Chevy, as well as communities in the Wolverine State to raise the most money for two noted charities.

Ford supporters will be raising money for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) of Michigan, while Chevy supporters will be raising funds for Operation Homefront, a national nonprofit serving America’s military families.

Funds will be raised through the sale of a specially-priced ticket package for both Cup races at the two-mile oval. The package will designate a $5 donation on behalf of MIS to each of the two nonprofits. In addition, another $5 per package will be donated to the nonprofit by the manufacturer who sells the most tickets for both races.

The manufacturer that raises the most money will present a check to the winning nonprofit prior to the Aug. 11 Consumers Energy 400 at MIS.

We are excited to work with Ford Performance, Chevrolet, JDRF and Operation Homefront to create a competition off the track that will benefit two great nonprofits,” MIS President Rick Brenner said in a media release. “With our speedway being so close to the auto capital of the world, the manufacturers place importance on the two races.

This is another unique way to create a friendly competition and support two great nonprofits in Michigan.”

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Winners and Losers: Las Vegas

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WINNERS

Roger Penske: For the second week in a row, his Cup team wins. Brad Keselowski won at Atlanta and Joey Logano won at Las Vegas.

Kurt Busch: The decision to not pit during the second stage allowed Busch to climb from 17th to first. He stayed toward the front the rest of the race, placing fifth. It marked the second time in three races the Chip Ganassi Racing driver has been Chevrolet’s top finisher this season.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: His sixth-place finish marked his first top 10 on a 1.5-mile track in the last eight races on such tracks. His most recent top 10 at such tracks had been a 10th in last year’s Coca-Cola 600.

Kevin Harvick: For the second week in a row he finished fourth after a rough start to the weekend.

LOSERS

Kevin Harvick: He said after the race it was the second week in a row his team had been way off to start the weekend before calling for a top-five finish. When they get it right, look out.

Kyle Busch: A pit road speeding penalty kept him from winning Sunday’s Cup race and sweeping the Truck, Xfinity and Cup races at Las Vegas. Said Busch: “I certainly screwed up our day coming to pit road there.”

Cup Rule Book: NASCAR updated its rule on team members behind pit wall before this season, making it a penalty for such team members to make contact with the pit road surface. If so, that can count toward too many crew members over the wall. By the rule, NASCAR was right to penalize the pit crews of Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon during Sunday’s race when crew members behind pit wall touched the surface of the stall with their hand. By common sense, neither instance seemed egregious.

Jimmie Johnson: His 19th-place finish marked the eighth consecutive race on a 1.5-mile track he’s finished outside the top 10. His last top 10 at a 1.5-mile track was a fifth at last year’s Coca-Cola 600.

Friday 5: Tensions between Cup teams test manufacturers

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Less than a month into the Cup season, there have been signs that the tenuous alliances among teams have not held up well on or off the track.

It’s led to an unease not often visible at this point in the season.

As the sport enters a time of transition — new rules, new car in 2021, new engine as early as 2022— can a manufacturer keep its teams together for these major projects? Or will there be fissures, much like what happened between Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing in 2016 and Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing last season?

At the same time, NASCAR seeks new manufacturers and any company that comes into the sport likely will take teams from current manufacturers. Are the seeds of discontent being sown now?

Already manufacturers have had to react to issues between their teams.

Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance, conceded this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that at Ford, “we’re a family and every family has issues.”

Just look at the issues Ford has had this season:

Joey Logano confronted fellow Ford driver Michael McDowell on pit road after the Daytona 500 for pushing a Toyota and not Logano’s Ford on the final lap. McDowell told the media he was not happy with how fellow Ford drivers treated him in that race.

Ford driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was not happy with Logano, who chastised Stenhouse on the radio for a move during the Daytona 500 that cost Logano several spots and, according to Logano, could have caused an accident.

“For sure we had our issues at Daytona, can’t deny that,” Rushbook said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio this week. “But as a family, we talked through those issues, tried to understand what led to those issues and then how can we fix that and make it even better going forward.”

Ford isn’t the only manufacturer that has had issues between some of its teams. Chevrolet understands the delicate balance between competition and cooperation.

Hendrick Motorsports partnered with Joe Gibbs Racing, a Toyota team, and not fellow Chevrolet teams Chip Ganassi Racing and Richard Childress Racing in the Daytona 500. The move was made to counter the strength of the Fords, which dominated both qualifying races and entered as the favorite to win the 500.

Kyle Larson’s comments this week on NASCAR America’s Splash & Go about Hendrick Motorsports “cheating” ruffled feelings in the Chevy camp. That led to a late-night Twitter apology from Larson and subsequent comments about how he had poorly chosen his words. Ganassi gets its engines from Hendrick Motorsports. Larson said Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway that he had apologized to team owner Rick Hendrick. Said Larson: “We’re both moving on.”

There always will be conflict among competitors in the same camp. It’s natural with what is at stake each race weekend. But the manufacturers have stressed working together more. It was evident in how Toyota teams teamed together to win the 2016 Daytona 500 — a model adopted by others. At Ford, that banding of brothers is referred to as One Ford.

But this season, the slogan might be anything but togetherness.

2. New challenge for spotters

The new rules that are intended to tighten the competition at tracks — and should be the case this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway based on the January test — will change what spotters will do.

Many expect to be calling the race much like they do at Daytona and Talladega where they’re on radio almost constantly.

“I did a lot of talking in 25 laps,” Billy O’Dea, spotter for Ty Dillon, said, referring to the 25-lap races NASCAR held at the January test at Las Vegas.

One thing that spotters who were at the test noticed is that runs by cars behind their car were different from what they see in pack racing at Daytona or Talladega.

“In Daytona or Talladega, you don’t necessarily watch the car behind you,” said Tyler Green, spotter for Kurt Busch. “You watch  two or three behind because that’s where the runs come from.

“At Vegas, it seemed like you didn’t really watch the car two behind you. You watched the car right behind you. It just happens quick. There’s no really understanding of where the runs really come from unlike Daytona or Talladega.”

Other spotters at the test noticed that as well. That creates other challenges for them.

“Are they going to take (the run and try to pass) or are they just going to get close?” O’Dea said of what to tell a driver when a car behind has a run.

“When you see them moving, do you block it? It’s a lot of unknowns. Early in the race, do you really want to be blocking a guy going into (Turn) 1? If it’s continually a lot of passing, which I hope it is, it’s going to be a lot of give and take. It’s going to be interesting to see.”

Rocky Ryan, spotter for David Ragan, also was at the test. Ragan did not participate in the 25-lap races because he was driving the Ford wheel-force car, which has extra equipment on it and is too valuable to be risked in a race (the wheel-force cars for Chevrolet and Toyota also did not participate in those races).

During those races at the test, Ryan said he stood atop the spotters stand and acted as if he was spotting for a car to grasp how quickly things can happen in those drafts.

“The 15 of us that were there (for the test) will have a leg up on everybody,” Ryan said.

3. Drafting in qualifying

The expectation is that teams will draft in qualifying today at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Paul Wolfe, crew chief for Brad Keselowski, saw what the draft could do when the No. 2 team took part in the January test there.

“It seemed like at the Vegas test, the (aero) ducts made a difference,” Wolfe told NBC Sports. “Basing off of Vegas, it seems like there were two- or three-tenths of a second to be gained in the draft.

“I still don’t think it’s going to be a draft like you see at Daytona, but it’s more about timing it right to get a good suck up (on the car ahead). I don’t see us going out there running nose to tail. I still don’t see that. I could be wrong.”

Wolfe said they saw the draft make a difference when a car was a quarter of a straightaway behind another car.

“The more cars you have (in a draft), you get a faster suck up, for sure,” Wolfe said.

The key is to figure out who is going to be the trailing car to get that advantage, or if teams will run extra laps in qualifying and trade positions so each car will have that chance to take advantage of the draft.

4. On the way to Miami

If a trend holds true, one of the Championship Four contenders may be known after Sunday’s race at Las Vegas.

Since 2014, one of the drivers racing for the title at Miami has won within the first three races of the season.

Throw out the Daytona 500. No winner of that race since 2014 has made it to the championship race. So that means that either Brad Keselowski, who won last weekend at Atlanta, or Sunday’s winner could be headed for a chance at the championship — provided the trend continues.

Three times since 2014, the driver who went on to win the championship won within the first three races of the season: Harvick won the second race in 2014 (Phoenix), Jimmie Johnson won the second race in 2016 (Atlanta), and Martin Truex Jr. won the third race in 2017 (Las Vegas).

Last year, all four title contenders won for the first time that season within the first 10 races. Kevin Harvick won in the season’s second race (Atlanta). Truex won in the fifth race (Auto Club Speedway). Kyle Busch won in the seventh race (Texas). Joey Logano won in the 10th race (Talladega). Harvick and Busch had other wins within those first 10 races.

5. Familiar faces

Brad Keselowski’s victory last weekend at Atlanta kept a streak going.

Six drivers have combined to win the last 18 Cup races on 1.5-mile tracks. Martin Truex Jr. has six wins in that time, followed by Kevin Harvick (five wins), Kyle Busch (three), Keselowski (two), Joey Logano (one) and Chase Elliott (one).

The last time one of those drivers did not win a race at a 1.5-mile track was the 2017 Coca-Cola 600. Austin Dillon won that race.

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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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