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Friday 5: Kyle Busch’s comments address murky issue with no solution

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RICHMOND, Va. — The way to prevent the contact that happened last week between Kyle Busch and Garrett Smithley at Las Vegas Motor Speedway is simple.

Once the playoffs start, only playoff cars can race.

Of course, that will never happen — and should never happen.

But as long as more than half the field features non-playoff competitors, there will be times when those drivers play a role, despite their best intentions, of impacting a playoff driver’s race. It could happen again in Saturday night’s playoff race at Richmond Raceway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

While the focus since Sunday has been on Busch’s comments after the Las Vegas race, the response from Smithley and the rebuttal from Joey Gase, there is a bigger issue, which Smithley alluded to in an interview on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio earlier this week.

“People don’t understand the technology gap and the money gap that there is in the Cup series,” Smithley told Mojo Nixon on “Manifold Destiny.”

Smithley understands. His NASCAR career of 11 Cup races and 125 Xfinity starts all have been with underfunded teams.

Such teams have fewer resources and struggle to be competitive, all but forcing their drivers to seemingly spend as much time looking out the rearview mirror to stay out of the way as looking ahead through the windshield.

While NASCAR has a minimum speed for races, only one time this season, according to Cup race reports, has a car been ordered off the track because it was going too slow. That was the Spire Motorsports entry at Dover in May. Two months later, that team — one of 36 chartered teams — won the rain-shortened race at Daytona with a different driver.

Corey LaJoie noted on Twitter after the Las Vegas race how a team’s financial situation can impact its driver choice:

Justin Allgaier, preparing to compete in Friday’s Xfinity Series playoff opener, understands the plight of drivers with subpar equipment. Allgaier suffered through such circumstances when he raced in Cup.

“Kyle obviously had some pretty harsh words,” Allgaier said Thursday during the Xfinity Series playoff media day at Richmond Raceway. “I do understand sometimes there are times where lapped traffic does make a big difference in how the outcome goes. But on the flip side, I’ve been in that situation. You’re battling, really your livelihood, just to even keep a ride, and you’re doing everything you can and the last thing you want to do is mess somebody up.

“I thought that the situation we were in last week, personally I didn’t think anything could have been done differently as far as what Garrett did or what lane he ran. I thought he did everything right. He went in and picked a lane and stuck with it.”

Busch didn’t see it that way and ran into the back of Smithley. Busch then ignited a debate on social media when he told NBCSN after the race: “We’re at the top echelon of motorsports, and we’ve got guys who have never won Late Model races running on the racetrack. It’s pathetic. They don’t know where to go. What else do you do?”

Busch’s question has no answer that will appease him because nothing will be done. It’s understandable if he’s sensitive to the issue. Last year at Phoenix, a caution with 18 laps to go by a driver making his first start in either Cup, Xfinity or Trucks in four years, bunched the field and took away Busch’s advantage. Busch pulled away on the restart to win.

“I understand the implications I could cause by messing somebody’s race up, and I’m going to do everything I can to not do that,” said Tanner Berryhill, the driver who was making his first NASCAR start in four years last season at Phoenix, before that event. “That’s not how I want to be remembered in this sport.”

Nobody does. The incident between Busch and Smithley likely will be soon forgotten. But there will come a day when a non-playoff driver is involved in a situation in the championship race that could determine who wins the title and who doesn’t. As long as NASCAR’s playoff races include non-playoff cars, the risk always will be there. It is up to NASCAR to ensure that those competing in those races are qualified to do so.

2. A new experience

Jimmie Johnson got his first taste as a non-playoff driver in a playoff race last weekend at Las Vegas and it was interesting.

One of the debates before and during the playoffs is how much those not racing for a title should race the playoff contenders. As the level of desperation increases in each round among playoff drivers, their patience with non-playoff drivers decreases.

So what was the seven-time champion’s experience like with the playoff drivers Sunday?

“I saw quite a few situations where drivers in the playoffs took some desperate moves out there,” he said earlier this week at Charlotte Motor Speedway after joining breast cancer survivors in painting pit wall pink. “I saw it happen to other drivers, I had a few make that move on me as well.

“It’s a tricky situation to be in, and I know they’re going after every point they need to but so am I. We certainly plan to not allow myself to be used up as I was in Vegas a couple of times.”

3. Game planning

A fascinating aspect of this year’s rules package is how crew chiefs set their cars, particularly at the big tracks. Stewart-Haas Racing focused on speed for its cars last weekend at Las Vegas and took the top four spots in qualifying. When it came to the race, Kevin Harvick’s car was the only SHR car to excel and finished second.

Joe Gibbs Racing, on the other hand, focused on downforce to make its cars better in the race. The result was that Martin Truex Jr. won after starting 24th.

Crew chief Cole Pearn and Martin Truex Jr. celebrate their Las Vegas win. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

That’s a trend for Truex. He has started eighth or worse in four of the five races he’s won this year. Truex qualified 13th at Dover but then started at the rear because of inspection failures, he qualified 14th in the Coca-Cola 600, started eighth at Sonoma and 24th at Las Vegas in his wins. The exception was when he started fifth at Richmond in his April victory.

Harvick’s team has taken a different approach. He qualified third at Las Vegas and finished second. He won from the pole at Indianapolis. He won at Michigan in August after starting second.

“That’s their MO, right?” crew chief Cole Pearn said after Truex’s win last weekend at Las Vegas of Harvick’s team. “They’re dragging the pipes, slamming the backs, just going for all that speed. It’s working for them. All the power to them.

I think for us, we’ve had a couple races where we’ve gone more that way and they haven’t been very good for us. I think everyone has their own take. I think you generally look at JGR as a whole, how well we’ve qualified this year, I think we got one pole, 14 wins.  That’s the variance in the strategy.”

4. Reading time

Denny Hamlin and Noah Gragson have spent time on a new endeavor recently. They’re both reading books to help make them better.

Hamlin and others have cited personal growth as contributing to his turnaround this season after going winless last year, the first time he had failed to win while competing full-time in Cup.

“It’s definitely fact that I am calmer and more confident because I have learned to let go of the things that I can’t control,” Hamlin said. “A lot of that has come through self-improvement. I have done a lot of reading, which I wouldn’t consider myself a reader. I didn’t read a book, I guarantee you, from whenever I had to in high school till I turned 38 this year.

“I just started reading over the last three or four months. I started learning and trying to be a better person in general. I have learned to really let go of things I can’t control. It has really allowed me to think about the process more. I think it really has helped with my on-track performances. Thinking through the processes more and not focusing on and worrying about the things that I specifically can’t control.”

Gragson said that he’s reading a book “25 Ways to Win With People” to be a better team leader.

“That’s what I need to be for this race team,” Gragson said. “It’s really easy to be happy and smiling when things are going good, but I feel like your character comes out when maybe things aren’t going as well as you would want. I’m trying to lean on people who I call my mentors … reading that book and just trying to be better and more positive.”

Gragson said he got the book from former driver Josh Wise, who trains drivers with Chip Ganassi Racing, JR Motorsports and GMS Racing.

“I’ve been leaning on him,” Gragson said of Wise. “He helps me with overall thinking. He was the first person I went to when I felt like we were going through maybe a valley that our communication was off as a team, I was kind of struggling with my confidence and where we were. Leaning on him really helped me. The takeaways (from the book) have been very valuable and it helps me with everyday life, too. I’m willing to try it and it’s been helping so far.”

5. Who is next

Richmond marks the fifth short track race of the season. Consider what the first four races have seen:

Four different winners (Brad Keselowski at Martinsville, Kyle Busch at Bristol, Martin Truex Jr. at Richmond and Denny Hamlin at the Bristol night race).

Four different pole winners (Joey Logano at Martinsville, Chase Elliott at Bristol, Kevin Harvick at Richmond and Denny Hamlin at the Bristol night race).

Four different drivers finished second (Chase Elliott at Martinsville, Kurt Busch at Bristol, Joey Logano at Richmond and Matt DiBenedetto at the Bristol night race).

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Bump and Run: Will Joe Gibbs Racing’s dominance continue?

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Who you got this weekend at Richmond? Joe Gibbs Racing or the field?

Nate Ryan: Joe Gibbs Racing. Any of its four drivers can win. Kyle Larson is a decent dark horse, though.

Dustin Long: I’ll take the field. Give me Kyle Larson, Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and others vs. JGR this weekend.

Daniel McFadin: I’ll take JGR, given their six wins there in the last eight races. Driver specific: Martin Truex Jr. He’s led in five of the last six visits to Richmond and each time he’s led at least 121 laps. Hard to believe his win in the spring was his first there.

Jerry Bonkowski: This could be one very difficult race for the field. Erik Jones has something to prove after the mechanical issues he suffered in Las Vegas, Kyle Busch has something to prove after his disappointing 19th-place finish, and Denny Hamlin has something to prove to show he truly is one of the best championship contenders. Meanwhile, Martin Truex Jr. can basically coast through having secured his spot in Round 2 of the playoffs with his Las Vegas win. Good luck to the field because they’re going to need it. Joe Gibbs Racing is going to dominate Richmond.

 

In 2007, Hendrick Motorsports won 18 of 36 Cup races. Joe Gibbs Racing has won 14 of 27 Cup races this season. Will JGR top what Hendrick did in 2007?

Nate Ryan: Yes, you could argue JGR already has topped it because of the balance among its four drivers. Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson accounted for 16 of Hendrick’s 18 victories.

Dustin Long: JGR won’t tie or top Hendrick mark.

Daniel McFadin: I think there’s a good chance JGR will tie that number but not exceed it. The only tracks I would make them locks for wins are Richmond and Phoenix. 

Jerry Bonkowski: I think JGR could potentially tie HMS’s record, but asking for five or more wins in the last nine playoff races is a bit of a stretch. You know that Stewart-Haas, Team Penske, Hendrick Motorsports, Chip Ganassi Racing and Roush Fenway Racing are going to do all they can to stop the JGR Express and continue to ratchet up the pressure and performance with each passing race. I can see JGR winning maybe three or even four more playoff races, but not more than that.

 

The Xfinity playoffs begin this weekend at Richmond. Who are you picking to win the championship?

Nate Ryan: Leaning toward Tyler Reddick back-to-back after his impressive fuel-mileage win at Las Vegas. He is learning to beat the field in many ways.

Dustin Long: Christopher Bell triumphs in Miami.

Daniel McFadin: I’m going to go with Tyler Reddick to repeat. He’s shown a knack for being able to find multiple ways to win when he doesn’t have the outright best car on a given race day. Also, it’s hard to bet against the guy who has 20 top fives through 26 races.

Jerry Bonkowski: As much as Tyler Reddick would make a great repeat champion, the title this year goes to Christopher Bell. But don’t be surprised if this deal isn’t finished until the final turn on the last lap. This has the potential to be the most exciting championship finish in Xfinity history.

 

Silly Season scorecard: Matt DiBenedetto finds new ride for 2020

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That didn’t take long.

Less than a month after it became public that Matt DiBenedetto would not return to Leavine Family Racing in 2020, he has a new ride. DiBenedetto will drive the No. 21 for Wood Brothers Racing in 2020 with Paul Menard stepping back from full-time racing after this season.

So, yes, Denny Hamlin‘s words from Bristol were heard.

“There’s many car owners that finance cars that are on the racetrack, good teams,” Hamlin said after beating DiBenedetto to win the Bristol night race. “They got to step up and grow some balls and take a chance on somebody they really believe in. That or they can continue to run 15th.”

Here’s a look at where the NASCAR Silly Season stands at this point:

ANNOUNCED OPEN RIDES FOR 2020

No. 8: With Richard Childress Racing announcing that Daniel Hemric won’t return to the team (announcement made Sept. 17) next season, all that is left to be done is for the official announcement that Tyler Reddick will move up to take that ride. Childress spoke July 30 about wanting to keep Reddick.

No. 38: Front Row Motorsports must replace David Ragan, who stated Aug. 14 that 2019 would be his final season running a full schedule.

No. 95: The only thing missing is the official announcement that Christopher Bell will drive for Leavine Family Racing next season. Expect that soon.

 

ANNOUNCED CUP RIDES FOR 2020

No. 13: Ty Dillon posted a video on Instagram refuting rumors that he would retire after this season. He has a contract with Germain Racing through 2020.

No. 20: Joe Gibbs Racing announced Sept. 6 that it had signed Erik Jones to an extension. It is a one-year extension for the 2020 season.

No. 21: Matt DiBenedetto replaces Paul Menard at Wood Brothers Racing (announcement made Sept. 10). DiBenedetto’s deal is for 2020 only.

 

AMONG THOSE YET TO ANNOUNCE DEALS FOR 2020

No. 1: Kurt Busch‘s contract expires after this season but all indications are that he’ll return to the Chip Ganassi Racing team with Monster Energy in 2020.

No. 14: Clint Bowyer‘s contract expires after this season but Bowyer stated as recently as at Darlington that things were moving closer to an extension.

No. 41: Daniel Suarez has said that both he and the team have an option on his contract for next year. He has remained confident that he will return to Stewart-Haas Racing.

Bump and Run: Playoff predictions

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Give us the driver who intrigues you the most heading into the Cup playoffs.

Nate Ryan: William Byron because he seems on the cusp of becoming the next inaugural winner in Cup.

Dustin Long: Denny Hamlin. With 35 career victories but no Cup titles, the question has been asked if Hamlin is one of the best drivers in NASCAR history without a championship. His four victories this season shows the speed he has. Crew chief Chris Gabehart has built this team for the playoffs. Now let’s see how Hamlin and his team fares.

Daniel McFadin: Kurt Busch. After a remarkably consistent season, he briefly slumped after his Kentucky win before surging at Bristol and Darlington. I think he’ll be extremely dangerous this postseason if he can avoid getting caught up in other people’s mistakes.

Jerry Bonkowski: Kurt Busch is the guy I have my eye on. The first playoff champion in 2004, Busch comes into this year’s playoffs with little to lose and everything to gain. He still doesn’t have a deal in place to return to Chip Ganassi Racing – or to race for another team, for that matter – for next season. Or, could he retire after this season, especially if he wins the championship? If Busch gets hot in the first two rounds, he could be unstoppable all the way through Miami.


Last year Stewart-Haas Racing put all four of its drivers in the final eight. What do you think are the chances Joe Gibbs Racing can put all four of its drivers in the final eight this year?

Nate Ryan: Very good. Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. are virtual locks through playoff points. If Erik Jones can continue his recent surge, JGR will have all its cars on the doorstep to the championship round.

Dustin Long: Odds are good for Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. to make it to the final eight with the number of playoff points they take into the postseason. Then it would be up to Erik Jones to work his way into the final eight.

Daniel McFadin: I’m not at all sure that JGR can pull that off. I think the field is too competitive and we’ll get at least one surprise who advances that far. Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch will get to the final eight, but I have reservations about Erik Jones and Martin Truex Jr.

Jerry Bonkowski: While I’d like to see it, I don’t think it’ll happen. I’ll be surprised the most if Erik Jones makes it through the second round, let alone the first. Sure, his Darlington win was big, but he needs a lot more of those in the first round or two to make it to the semifinal round. And given the scope of the competition, particularly among his own teammates, I just don’t see Jones going as far as Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin.


Which four drivers do you have racing for a Cup championship in Miami?

Nate Ryan: My Championship 4 picks on Feb. 12 were: Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin. I’ll sub Truex for Elliott.

Dustin Long: Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski

Daniel McFadin: Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson

Jerry Bonkowski: Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick.


Who do you think will be the four drivers out after the first round of the Cup playoffs?

Nate Ryan: Aric Almirola, Alex Bowman, Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch.

Dustin Long: Ryan Newman, Aric Almirola, Alex Bowman and Kurt Busch

Daniel McFadin: Alex Bowman, Aric Almirola, William Byron and Clint Bowyer

Jerry Bonkowski: Erik Jones, Alex Bowman, William Byron and Ryan Newman.

Kyle Larson fastest in first Cup practice for Brickyard 400

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Kyle Larson posted the top speed in Saturday’s first Cup Series practice session for the Brickyard 400.

Larson led the session with a speed of 185.025 mph around Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Kurt Busch completed a Chip Ganassi Racing sweep of the top-two spots with a speed of 184.763 mph.

The top five was rounded out by defending race winner Brad Keselowski (184.600 mph), Chase Elliott (184.305) and Bubba Wallace (183.685).

Elliott and teammate William Byron recorded the most laps in the session with 22 each.

There were no incidents in the session.

Click here for the practice report.