Friday 5: Will Martinsville provide another memorable door-banging finish?

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Last fall’s Martinsville race was memorable for a finish that saw Joey Logano move Martin Truex Jr. out of the lead on the final lap to win and earn a spot in the Championship 4 in Miami.

As the series returns to the half-mile Martinsville Speedway this weekend, what are the chances of such action repeating?

“I would say that it’s probably not going to be, there’s less of a chance that it will be like that,” Truex said. “Just because it’s not a race to get into the final four. I would think it would be tame and normal like we’ve seen there in the past.”

Logano disagrees.

“I see a trophy on the line,” said the reigning series champion. “A big clock (given to the winner). I don’t see that any different from the spring to the fall.”

The first race of the season at a track less than 1 mile will test drivers and could lead to aggressive actions. The question is how aggressive will drivers be.

“The (driver) code has definitely changed,” said nine-time Martinsville winner Jimmie Johnson. “People reference the code a lot. But I think ultimately whatever code exists is between the two drivers. And that same code might not exist between driver C and driver D or driver A and driver D; it just changes all the time.

“When I look at it, sure it was a very aggressive move and Joey knew what he was doing to get that win and I’m sure we’ll expect the same to come back from Martin at some point. … In my eyes, sure it was aggressive but it could have been a lot worse.”

2. A familiar refrain

Coming off his dominant run on the West Coast swing, Kyle Busch heads to a type of track he’s ruled lately. Busch has won five of the last nine Cup races on tracks less than 1 mile in length.

Busch’s wins have been at both Richmond races in 2018, the spring Bristol race in 2018 and fall race there in 2017 and at Martinsville in fall 2017.

Teammate Denny Hamlin, whose last win at a track less than 1 mile in length was at Richmond in Sept. 2016, explains Busch’s success.

“He works tremendously hard at his craft,” Hamlin said. “I don’t think it’s just all natural talent. I think he works very hard as well.”

3. Perfect attendance

Ross Chastain is the only driver who has competed in every national series race this season. That’s five Cup, five Xfinity and three Truck races. He’s entered in this weekend’s Truck and Cup races at Martinsville.

Chastain has been running at the finish in every race. He’s completed 98.7 percent of the laps run in Cup, Xfinity and Trucks this season (2,498 of 2,532 laps run).

Such a schedule was expected entering this season. He had a deal to drive select races for Niece Motorsports in the Truck Series. He also was set with a Cup ride with Premium Motorsports.

Chastain was to have raced for Chip Ganassi Racing in the Xfinity Series but those plans went away after the FBI raided the headquarters of sponsor DC Solar and home of the DC Solar’s CEO. With DC Solar unable to fulfill its sponsor obligations, Chip Ganassi Racing shuttered its Xfinity team. That forced Chastain to look for other options.

He’ll drive three races for Kaulig Racing (he drove for the team at Daytona) and the rest of JD Motorsports this season.

So far this season, Chastain finished 10th in the Daytona 500 — giving Premium Motorsports its second top 10 in 231 Cup starts — placed seventh at Las Vegas for JD Motorsports and was third in the Daytona Truck race for Niece Motorsports.

4. “Like what I don’t like”

Xfinity rookie Justin Haley enters the off-weekend for the series 12th in points with a season-best finish of eighth at Atlanta.

Haley placed 10th last weekend at Auto Club Speedway and explained what he needs to do to have better finishes.

“I just need to get better on the feel from practice to the race, how the car transitions and goes through the process of loose and tight,” the Kaulig Racing driver told NBC Sports. 

Haley, who finished third in the points in the Truck series last year, said that experience can’t help him with what he’s seeking to improve upon this year.

“A lot of the times the Truck races are at night, so it’s gripped up,” Haley said. “These are day races, it transitions a lot. Really these Xfinity cars have less downforce. The Trucks, if you were good at the start of the run, you were going to be good at the end. There was no falloff really. Even at like Atlanta, the balance stayed the same. These things (Xfinity cars) take a huge swing throughout the run. So just getting a feel for that is the biggest thing.

“What I like most of the time isn’t what’s fastest, so I have to learn to like what I don’t like to make it fast.”

5. Ever return?

Martin Truex Jr. was asked last weekend at Auto Club Speedway if he thought Furniture Row Racing owner Barney Visser would return to NASCAR after shutting his team down after last year.

Said Truex: “We talk every week. He’s been watching. He’s been talking to us and telling us we’ve been doing a good job, and things like that. I think it’s probably a bit of a relief for him that he doesn’t have to worry about all of the things that come with being a team owner and he’s just able to enjoy it.

“I told him he needs to get to the track soon, we’d like to see him and get him around. As far as your question on whether he’ll be back, if you mean as a team owner? I have no idea. We haven’t talked about it. He hasn’t mentioned it. My best guess is no, but I guess you can never rule out anything.”

Bump & Run: Who had best, worst West Coast Swing?

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Who had the best West Coast Swing?

Nate Ryan: Team Penske. Kyle Busch turned in the best individual performance, but the trio of Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney posted the best across-the-board effort by any team.

Dustin Long: Kyle Busch. Five wins in seven national series races (should have gone seven for seven).

Daniel McFadin: Kyle Busch easily. Of the seven races he entered, he won five and placed in the top three in the other two.

Jerry Bonkowski: With two wins and a third-place finish in the West Coast swing, there’s no other choice but Kyle Busch. Other drivers that had a good run include Kurt Busch (fifth-seventh-sixth), Joey Logano (one win, one runner-up and one 10th-place finish) and Kevin Harvick (two fourth-place finishes and a ninth-place).

 

Who had the worst West Coast Swing?

Nate Ryan: Ryan Preece. After three consecutive finishes outside the top 20 (while his teammate notched three straight top 20s), the outstanding showing at the Daytona 500 must seem much further away than a month ago.

Dustin Long: Those hoping the rule changes would dramatically alter the racing and alter who the best teams would be.

Daniel McFadin: Has anyone seen Ryan Newman? While his teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has shown glimpses of improvement, including at Las Vegas, the No. 6 Ford has been missing in action. Newman’s West Coast Swing was made up of finishes of 24th (Vegas), 12th (Phoenix) and 22nd (Auto Club). He has no top 10s through five races.

Jerry Bonkowski: With finishes of 22nd (Las Vegas), 26th (Phoenix) and 30th (Fontana), Bubba Wallace ranks 30th after the West Coast swing. He’s way behind the eight ball after just five races. About the only chance Wallace has to make the playoffs is to get a win in the next 21 races.

 

If you were seeding the Cup field like the NCAA tournament, who would be your four No. 1 seeds after five races?

Nate Ryan: Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick.

Dustin Long: Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick.

Daniel McFadin: Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch

Jerry Bonkowski: Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin.

 

Bigger Chevrolet surprise: That Kurt Busch has four consecutive top 10s or Hendrick Motorsports has no top fives this season?

Nate Ryan: Busch seemed reinvigorated toward the end of last season, and Chip Ganassi Racing made the necessary moves to shore up its performance this season, so while the No. 1’s consistency has been unexpectedly stellar, it’s less of a stunner than Hendrick. It’s been 19 years since the team went five races into a season without a top five. Yes, there’ve been flashes of speed by each driver, but the statistics don’t get any plainer than that. Hendrick will need to show it has made progress by Texas Motor Speedway next week.

Dustin Long: Kurt Busch. I like how this team has performed at the beginning of the season but Busch told me after Sunday’s race at Auto Club Speedway that for all that has gone well for them with finishes, they need to qualify better to gain more stage points. He scored only four stage points during the West Coast races.

Daniel McFadin: Kurt Busch’s remarkable consistency. He entered a car that had just two top fives last year and matched it in the first four races. Last year, Busch didn’t earn his fourth top 10 until he placed second at Talladega in race No. 10. Hendrick is still working itself out of a rut that started two years ago.

Jerry Bonkowski: Tough question. Busch is the most pleasant surprise for Chevy, for sure. But Hendrick Motorsports is the biggest surprise overall – and that’s not a good thing – in the bowtie camp, as all four of its drivers are already more than 100 points behind points leader Kyle Busch after five races and Chase Elliott is the highest-ranked HMS pilot in 12th place.

Friday 5: What Cup teams with new drivers are better off?

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Some moves were made by teams. Others were made by drivers looking for better opportunities. Whatever the reason, there were a number of driver changes after last year.

Four races into this season, one can get a glimpse of how those changes are working out. In some cases, the comparisons may look unkindly on who was in the car last year — think about Chevrolet teams and the struggles many had early with the Camaro last year or how a team has switched manufacturers since last year — but here is a look at how some of the moves have gone.

Five of the eight full-time teams that had driver changes for this season are showing an uptick in performance in the first four races of this season compared to the same time last year.

No surprise that former champion Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Cole Pearn have raised the level of the No. 19 team at Joe Gibbs Racing. Truex has two runner-up finishes this season and has scored 140 points — 73 points more than Daniel Suarez had with that ride in the first four races last year.

(Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

The No. 1 team at Chip Ganassi Racing also has seen a 73-point gain in the first four races this season with Kurt Busch compared to the same time with Jamie McMurray last year. Busch has three finishes of seventh or better in his Chevrolet Camaro to score 126 points.

Also making gains this year are the No. 6 team at Roush Fenway Racing with Ryan Newman. He has three finishes of 14th or better this season and has scored 25 more points than Trevor Bayne had in that car at this time last year.

Corey LaJoie and Matt DiBenedetto also have helped their teams to more points than last year at this time. DiBenedetto took over Leavine Family Racing’s No. 95 — which also changed to Toyota and aligned with Joe Gibbs Racing after last year — and has scored five more points than Kasey Kahne had in the first four races last year when that team was with Chevrolet.

LaJoie replaced DiBenedetto in the No. 32 at Go Fas Racing and has a top finish of 18th. LaJoie has scored five more points than DiBenedetto had in the first four races last year with that team.

The teams that have not seen an increase of points so far compared to last year include two teams with rookies. Rookie Daniel Hemric replaced Newman at Richard Childress Racing and has scored 48 fewer points in the first four races than Newman did for that group last year. Rookie Ryan Preece has scored 12 fewer points in the No. 47 car for JTG Daugherty Racing than AJ Allmendinger had at this time last year.

The other driver move was Suarez taking over the No. 41 car for Stewart-Haas Racing and replacing Busch. Suarez has one top 10 so far but Busch had two top 10s at this time last year. Suarez has scored 40 fewer points than Busch did at this time last year.

2. Kyle Busch’s race to 200

A few numbers to digest in Kyle Busch’s quest for 200 NASCAR wins and more. He comes into this weekend with 199 and is entered in both the Xfinity and Cup races.

— Busch has 199 NASCAR wins in 996 starts (a 20 percent winning percentage)

— Busch has 494 top-five finishes in those 996 starts, scoring a top five in 49.6 percent of his starts.

— Busch’s 199 career NASCAR wins have come on 28 different tracks. Among the tracks he’s won at that are no longer on the NASCAR circuit are Lucas Oil Raceway (three wins), Nashville Superspeedway (three) and Mexico City (one).

— The most victories Busch has had in one season in Cup, Xfinity and Trucks was 24 in 2010.

— Busch has won a NASCAR race in 21 different states and Mexico. The most victories Busch has had in any one state is Tennessee. He’s won 24 races there.

3. So far so good on inspection

This year marks the first time in the past three seasons that a Cup car was not penalized for an inspection violation after the race.

NASCAR announced before the season that any car that failed inspection would be dropped to last in the order. Any winning car that fails inspection will have that victory taken away.

So far, no team has been given such a penalty in Cup, Xfinity or the Truck series.

That’s quite an accomplishment in Cup. Each of the past two years saw at least one team penalized for a violation discovered after the race in the first four events of the season.

In March 2018, NASCAR fined crew chief Rodney Childers $50,000, suspended car chief Robert Smith two Cup races, docked Kevin Harvick 20 points and the team 20 owner points for a violation with the rear window brace that was discovered after Harvick’s win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Harvick also lost all seven playoff points he earned — five for winning the race and two for each stage victory.

In March 2017, NASCAR suspended crew chief Paul Wolfe three races and fined him $65,000 when Brad Keselowski’s car failed inspection after the race at ISM Raceway. NASCAR also docked Keselowski 35 points and the team 35 owner points. NASCAR penalized the team for failing the rear wheel steer on the Laser Inspection Station.

NASCAR also penalized Harvick’s team after that same race for an unapproved track bar slider assembly. NASCAR suspended Childers one race and fined him $25,000. Harvick was docked 10 points and the team lost 10 owner points.

4. One or the other

Since NASCAR created the West Coast swing in 2016, Kevin Harvick or Martin Truex Jr. have managed to win at least once in those three races.

They’ll need to win this weekend at Auto Club Speedway to keep that streak going. Joey Logano won at Las Vegas to begin this year’s swing. Kyle Busch won last weekend at ISM Raceway near Phoenix.

5. Extra work

ThorSport Racing drivers Matt Crafton, Grant Enfinger, Ben Rhodes and Myatt Snider will be racing this weekend even though the Gander Outdoors Truck Series is off.

They’ll compete for Ford Performance and Multimatic Motorsports in Friday’s IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge at Sebring International Raceway. Crafton and Enfinger will be paired on the No. 22 team, while Snider and Rhodes will drive the No. 15 entry. Their race lasts two hours.

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Chip Ganassi Racing resurgence continues with dual top 10s in Phoenix

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After four races, the move to shake up Chip Ganassi Racing’s driver lineup appears to have been the right one.

The team placed both its drivers in the top 10 for the first time Sunday at ISM Raceway, with Kyle Larson placing a season-best sixth and Kurt Busch following right behind in seventh

Last year, that feat wasn’t accomplished until the Coca-Cola 600 in May and achieved only a total of four times, with the last coming at IMS Raceway in last fall’s playoffs.

Busch, who replaced Jamie McMurray in the No. 1 Chevrolet this season, earned his third straight top 10 following top fives at Atlanta and Las Vegas.

“I’m glad we got a top 10,” Busch said. “We had to battle hard for this one. We didn’t do really good on pit road and we didn’t really do good on restarts, but overall with the Global Poker Chevy it was nice to have a read on some looseness and tightness at a short track and get more notes under our belt. That is key for me and (crew chief) Matt McCall.”

With his three top 10s, Busch needs five more to match McMurray’s total from 2018. He’s already tied McMurray’s total for top fives. Busch also led 23 laps at Las Vegas, which bettered the nine McMurray led in all of 2018.

Last year, Busch didn’t earn the third of his 22 top 10s until race No. 7 at Texas Motor Speedway. He had to wait until race No. 11 at Talladega to earn his first of six top fives.

Busch said it was “awesome” to race head-to-head with Larson in the closing laps around the one-mile track.

They were the top finishing Chevrolet drivers after Busch was at Atlanta and Las Vegas.

“The two of us got a pretty good read on each other on when we are holding each other up or if we are helping each other and then at the end they told me I was about a lap shy on fuel, so I had to save and I just let Larson go and it worked out,” Busch said.

Larson’s finish was much-needed for the No. 42 team after it placed 12th in the last two races in part due to pit road issues.

“It was a clean day for us, so I was happy about that,” Larson said. “Had some really good restarts that kept us in the game. We worked on our balance throughout the race, tried to free it up and got too free and then had to go back on changes to tighten us back up.

“So, yeah to come away with a sixth is nice after the last couple of weeks we’ve had of just making mistakes and even this week we made a big mistake in qualifying, but thankfully, we were able to work through it.”

The two-car team now heads to Auto Club Speedway, where Larson will be seen as a favorite.

Four of his five Cup wins have come on 2-mile speedways, including a win at ACS in 2017. He placed second last year for his second top five there.

Busch will be aiming for his second win there in 26 starts. The first came in 2003.

He’s failed to finish better than 14th at ACS in his last three starts.

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.