Friday 5: Key questions to ponder during NASCAR’s break

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While Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske have dominated the headlines by combining to win each of the first nine races, many questions remain as NASCAR takes its Easter break.

Here is a look at five key questions with a quarter of the Cup season complete:

1. What’s up with Stewart-Haas Racing?

An organization that saw all four of its drivers win last season has yet to visit victory lane in Cup this season.

The last Cup victory for the organization was at Texas in November by Kevin Harvick with a car that later failed inspection. Stewart-Haas Racing has won two of the last 21 Cup races. Team Penske has nine wins during that time and Joe Gibbs Racing has eight victories.

Stewart-Haas Racing has been the best of the rest. Five times in the season’s first nine races, a Stewart-Haas Racing driver has been the top finisher outside the Gibbs and Penske camp.

Harvick finished fourth at Las Vegas (Joey Logano won). Aric Almirola was fourth at ISM Raceway (Kyle Busch won). Harvick placed fourth at Auto Club Speedway (Busch won). Clint Bowyer finished second at Texas (Denny Hamlin won). Bowyer was third at Richmond (Martin Truex Jr. won).

“We’ve just got to keep working,” Greg Zipadelli, SHR competition director, told NBC Sports after the last weekend’s Richmond race. “Everybody around you is. I feel like we’re getting better. I don’t feel like we’ve been terrible. We haven’t executed. We haven’t unloaded as good as we need to. We make our cars better over the weekend. That’s a plus.

“By no means are we where we want to be. We’re at a race track that is good for a bunch of our drivers the last couple of weeks and weren’t able to capitalize on it. I’m taking the approach that I’m looking at my glass as half full rather than half empty.”

Even though SHR won four times at this point last year (Harvick won three races and Bowyer had one victory), the organization has shown signs of greater depth.

Almirola, Bowyer, Harvick and Daniel Suarez have combined to score nine top-five finishes and 22 top 10s this season. Each driver has had at least one top-five finish. Each driver also has at least four top 10s.

Last year, Almirola, Bowyer, Harvick and Kurt Busch had eight top-five finishes and 19 top 10s. Busch and Almirola had yet to score a top-five finish. Only Bowyer and Harvick had at least four top 10s at this point a year ago.

“All four of our cars have been running good,” Zipadelli said of SHR’s performance this season. “All four of our cars have been running better. Everybody has been working good together. We’ll just keep plugging away.”

Then Zipadelli added: “Small victories. That’s how you eat the elephant one bite at a time.”

2. The next few weeks will be most critical to what team?

Obviously, the top organizations that have been shut out seek to win as soon as possible, but let’s look a little deeper.

This could be a key time for Roush Fenway Racing. The organization has Ryan Newman in a playoff spot but he’s 15th in the standings and only four points ahead of 17th (the first spot outside a playoff position). Teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is 18th in the standings, eight points behind Newman.

One has to figure that even for Kyle Larson’s poor start — he’s 19th in the standings, 12 points behind Newman — that Larson will find his way into a playoff spot either via a win or points. With the way Joe Gibbs Racing has been so strong, Erik Jones, who is 17th, would be a good candidate to move into a playoff spot.

Ryan Newman is 15th in the points standings after a quarter of the Cup season. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

If those situations happen, then it will be more challenging for Roush Fenway Racing to put either of its two cars in the playoffs. The organization has failed to have a car in the playoffs three of the past four years.

This is a key time for Roush Fenway to collect points, including stage points to position itself better for a playoff spot. Stenhouse has 20 stage points and Newman 18.

Fifteen drivers have more stage points than Stenhouse and 16 have more stage points than Newman.

“We’ve got to keep working on some raw speed,” Newman said after placing ninth last week at Richmond. “We’re off just a little bit still.

“We’re doing better but we’ve got to keep working on it. Ninth isn’t good enough. Tenth isn’t good enough.”

3. What driver needs a win the most?

Long list here.

Kurt Busch, who has a one-year deal with Chip Ganassi Racing, could use victories to enhance his chances of driving next year provided he wants to continue.

Jimmie Johnson has a 68-race winless streak. His last victory was at Dover in June 2017 — close to a two-year drought. He’s led laps in only three of the last 21 races.

Kyle Larson is winless in his last 55 races and has only five top-10 finishes in his last 16 starts (nearly half a season). Larson has led laps in three of those 16 races. His frustration was evident after he finished last at Richmond and said “it’s been a pretty crappy start to the year.”

Along with Johnson and Larson, one could put any Chevrolet driver on this list. Chevrolet has won four of the last 55 races, dating back to the start of the 2017 playoffs. Elliott has three of those victories and Austin Dillon the other.

4. What will the 2021 driver lineup look like?

There are some intriguing situations that will be worth watching as the season progresses.

Kurt Busch has a one-year contract with Chip Ganassi Racing. Will the 40-year-old (he turns 41 in August) be back after this season with the team or will Ganassi have a spot to fill in its lineup for 2021?

Unless NASCAR allows car owners to have more than four teams, Joe Gibbs would seem to have a wealth of riches and not a place for all of them. Kyle Busch signed a contract extension in February, Martin Truex Jr. is in his first season with the team, Denny Hamlin says his contract goes beyond this season and Erik Jones says he’s in talks with JGR on a contract extension.

So where does that leave Christopher Bell? With the investment Toyota has put into his career, there’s no chance he’ll drive for any other manufacturer next season. With 10 wins in 48 career Xfinity starts (a 20.8% winning percentage), there’s no way he should be in Xfinity after this year. Does that mean he goes to Leavine Family Racing, which is aligned with JGR, or does Toyota pull something else out to ensure Bell will be with the manufacturer in Cup next year?

Another interesting proposition is where will Cole Custer race next year? He’s won twice in the first eight races this season (he had two wins in his previous 70 Xfinity starts entering this year).

When Stewart-Haas Racing was looking to fill the No. 41 last season, car owner Gene Haas was asked if Custer could take that position. He said that Custer needed to win more. If Custer does that this season, can SHR find a way for him or will he need to go to another Ford team?

5. What will the qualifying format be?

Still to be determined. Or at least NASCAR hasn’t announced anything.

The series heads to Talladega Superspeedway next weekend and that will be single-car qualifying, same as it has been done in recent years there.

Then it’s off to Dover. Maybe the format used at Richmond (five minutes for each round) could work there. After that, NASCAR heads to Kansas Speedway and drafting will again be key. NASCAR will need to have its plans set before Kansas.

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Two-day Xfinity Series tire test concludes at Iowa Speedway

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While the Xfinity Series — as well as the Trucks and Cup teams — are off this weekend for Easter, five Xfinity teams were still in action Tuesday and Wednesday for a Goodyear tire test at Iowa Speedway.

The test on the 7/8-mile oval was in preparation for the speedway’s race weekend on June 15-16.

Teams that took part in the test were the No. 00 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford (driver: Cole Custer), the No. 2 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet (Tyler Reddick), the No. 11 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet (Justin Haley), the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota (Christopher Bell) and the No. 23 GMS Racing Chevrolet (John Hunter Nemechek).

Custer, Bell and Nemechek are all past winners at Iowa. Custer, who won there in the K&N East Series, is looking forward to returning to the track in hopes of securing another win there.

We were able to do a lot of different things and I think we found a little bit, for sure,” Custer said. “Our team has always struggled a little bit on short tracks so to get to come and test at one is a huge deal for us and I think it will help us a ton when we come for the race. We still have to get it a little better to be with that 20 car (Christopher Bell), but we’re right in the ballpark and just need a few more adjustments.

Everybody has worked so hard to get us where we are right now. Every single track we go to, we can compete for wins. I love the surface here, it’s so bumpy and so wore out it makes for good racing. It’s one of the best tracks we go to.”

Rain threatened to disrupt Wednesday’s action, but held off until the session was completed.

“It’s a good thing we came and did this tire test because we would have rolled into this race a good bit off the pace of the guys we need to compete with for the championship this year,” Reddick said. “We know we have to work on something and hopefully with all this data we were able to acquire, we’ll have a good sense of direction in the next coming weeks.

We found out we have some work to do compared to Cole (Custer) and Chris (Bell), especially. They were just able to be a lot more consistent and fire off faster and end the run faster, almost faster than we could start ours. That’s not very good for us but gives us something to chase after and work for.”

The next Xfinity Series race is the Dash 4 Cash event at Talladega Superspeedway on Saturday, April 27. Custer, Reddick, Austin Cindric and Justin Allgaier will compete for the $100,000 bonus to the highest-finishing driver in that race.

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Bump & Run: What should NASCAR do about inspection violations before race?

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Eight of 37 cars failed inspection before the Richmond Cup race and lost their starting spot. Is there a better way for NASCAR to handle such infractions to limit talk before a race being about penalties?

Nate Ryan: There has to be a solution, and whatever it is, NASCAR needs to implement it quickly. Switching from headlines about woes in postrace inspection to woes in prerace inspection is an improvement, but the preferred solution should be no headlines about inspection at all. 

Dustin Long: Until NASCAR figures out a way to do things differently, inspection failures will dominate talk before a race, especially if it involves more than 20% of the field as it did at Richmond.

Daniel McFadin: Unless you change the penalties for failing inspection (again), the cars will fail regardless of if you hold qualifying inspection right after qualifying or on race day. Only real solution I can think of is to have inspection before qualifying and for that to be the only inspection until after the race. That would just continue the endless cycle we seem to be in on the issue.

Jerry Bonkowski: It’s just the nature of the beast, particularly when you have such a large number of cars that failed pre-race inspection. The larger the number of cars penalized, the greater the attention that is placed upon the situation by the media. Perhaps more attention should be focused on what NASCAR could do to improve and streamline the overall inspection process. And if it has to swing the pendulum even further, increase penalties to keep crew chiefs from playing games with their cars. Kick out the crew chief from the race, or perhaps hold the car for the first five laps of the race. That will change things in a hurry.

NASCAR tried another format for Cup qualifying at Richmond, limiting each round to five minutes. Should this be the format at most tracks the rest of the season?

Nate Ryan: Makes no difference here as long as the focus is on qualifying results and whoever won the pole position, not on the process for getting there. 

Dustin Long: Whatever it does, NASCAR needs to get out of this rabbit hole soon.

Daniel McFadin: I’m 50/50 on this. I’d prefer the first round being 10 minutes at anything larger than 1 mile, which allows teams to make more than one run – but that’s based on the premise drivers won’t wait until the final minute to make their first.

Jerry Bonkowski: Five minutes works fine on short tracks. Not so much on longer tracks of 1.5 miles and greater. That’s why I believe open qualifying should be replaced by having two to four cars (depending on the size of the racetrack) go out at a time for two or three qualifying laps. This creates attention and a kind of race-within-qualifying excitement among fans to see which driver can “beat” the other drivers, so to speak.

There’s been a lot of talk about what Joe Gibbs Racing will do with its Cup lineup for next year with Christopher Bell’s continued success in Xfinity, but Cole Custer has won twice for Stewart-Haas Racing in Xfinity. What kind of dilemma could SHR face with its driver lineup for 2020?

Nate Ryan: With no disrespect to Cole Custer, he has yet to show he is in Christopher Bell’s league, nor is there the external pressure of a huge investment in his development to avoid letting a coveted prospect escape (as is the case with the millions Toyota Racing Development has spent on grooming Bell). Because Custer is related to the SHR executive Joe Custer and effectively sponsored by team owner Gene Haas, the dynamics are incomparable. If Custer shows enough promise for promotion, the team probably could make room in Cup next season, but there is no sense of urgency as exists with Bell.

Dustin Long: Gene Haas said last year that Cole Custer needed to win more often. If Custer continues to do so, it will make him a more inviting driver for a team, whether that is SHR or another Ford operation.

Daniel McFadin: Cole Custer is already in his third full-time Xfinity season, which makes him middle-aged in Xfinity driver years. While we’re not privy to driver contract lengths, Kevin Harvick is locked in to at least 2021, Daniel Suarez is in his first and Aric Almirola continues to be strong in his second year. Clint Bowyer probably has the biggest question mark being in his third year with the team. Gene Haas will have to decide who’s a better long-term investment: A 39-year-old Bowyer or a 21-year-old Custer. Bowyer grabbing some wins this year could complicate that.

Jerry Bonkowski: One potential option could be embedding Bell with another Toyota team such as Leavine Family Racing in 2020, like when Erik Jones was with Furniture Row Racing in 2017. I think you’ll see a similar embed of Custer with another Ford team, perhaps Front Row Motorsports. Or, because Custer’s father, Joe, is a top executive at SHR, it would not surprise me to see Daniel Suarez shifted to another Ford team to make way for the younger Custer at SHR.

The IndyCar race at Long Beach ended with series officials penalizing Graham Rahal one spot for blocking Scott Dixon on the last lap. Should blocking be a penalty in NASCAR?

Nate Ryan: No. Different series, different cars, different tracks.

Dustin Long: Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo. Don’t need any more judgment calls for NASCAR to make.

Daniel McFadin: Heck no. As much as Tony Stewart may have despised it, blocking is a racing maneuver. If a driver doesn’t like it, just show your displeasure with a love tap to the rear bumper.

Jerry Bonkowski: Yes, particularly if it puts the driver being blocked and other trailing drivers at risk of crashing. I’ve long felt that egregious blocking should be penalized. But if that were to happen, it could open a Pandora’s Box of additional issues, such as bump-and-run moving an opponent out of the way. How would NASCAR draw the line between egregious blocking/bumping and legitimate blocking/bumping?

Jimmie Johnson ran in Monday’s Boston Marathon. What is another event you’d like to see a NASCAR driver attempt to take part in someday?

Nate Ryan: Denny Hamlin in a PGA Tour event and paired with Michael Jordan.

Dustin Long: Kyle Larson as a bobsled driver. Also, Denny Hamlin in a PGA Tour event.

Daniel McFadin: Since Ryan Newman is sponsored by Oscar Mayer, he should enter the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest on July 4.

Jerry Bonkowski: The Baja 1000 is the first one that comes to mind. That, to me, is the most grueling combination of man and machine. I’d also like to see more NASCAR drivers try their luck in the Indianapolis 500 and, conversely, do “the double” by racing later that same day in the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte. Lastly, although it would be difficult due to the Cup schedule, I’d also like to see some of the best golfers among Cup drivers try their luck at The Masters.

Richmond winners and losers

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WINNERS

Joe Gibbs Racing — Martin Truex Jr. becomes the third different JGR driver to win this season. Joe Gibbs Racing has won six of the first nine Cup races. JGR drivers led 287 of the 400 laps Saturday night. The team placed three of its drivers in the top eight.

Clint Bowyer — His third-place finish was his fourth consecutive top-10 finish.

Austin Dillon — His sixth-place finish was his best result of the year. It also was his best finish since last year’s playoff race at Richmond.

Cole CusterHe won Friday night’s Xfinity race, giving him his second victory of the season. This is what he needs to do to make a move to Cup. Last September, car owner Gene Haas was asked about Custer (who had two career Xfinity wins at the time) possibly moving to Cup to replace Kurt Busch for this season. Haas said then: “We think Cole is a good talent. I think he’s talented. He’s very marketable. I think a lot of things are positives, but he has to win the Xfinity (Series) before he really move up to Cup racing.”

 

LOSERS

Kyle LarsonContact led to a tire rub. Even after pitting, he still had problems and hit the wall to finish last in the 37-car field. Larson has not finished in the top 15 in the last four races. He’s placed 37th or worse in two of the last three races.

No. 20 Cup team Erik Jones qualified second only to lose that starting spot when his car was among eight that failed inspection before the race. That forced him to start at the rear. He steadily moved into the top 10 but then two slow pit stops doomed him. On a night that a JGR car won, Jones saw his hopes go away. Now this is the only team at JGR that has yet to win a Cup race this season. 

Hendrick Motorsports None of its cars was a factor. Jimmie Johnson finished 12th, Willam Byron 13th, Chase Elliott 15th and Alex Bowman 17th.

Cole Custer wins Xfinity race at Richmond, Dash 4 Cash bonus

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Cole Custer won Friday night’s Xfinity Series race at Richmond Raceway, claiming his second win of the season.

Custer, who led 122 of 250 laps, passed Austin Cindric for the lead with 20 laps to go and went unchallenged.

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver also won the $100,000 Dash 4 Cash bonus with the victory.

The win is Custer’s fourth in Xfinity and his first on a short track.

The race managed to go its scheduled distance despite the threat of rain looming over the track for most of the night.

“It was so frustrating, they kept telling me, ’20 laps away’ and it never came,” Custer told Fox Sports 1. “We had a really great car. They made great adjustments, that’s a win. … This one means a lot. We haven’t had a short-track win yet. We’ve struggled a lot on short tracks and this helps, this definitely means a lot. My friends give me a lot of crap for being bad at this place, and I finally won. So I have a little bragging rights there. That’s nice.”

As for his rain predictions, crew chief Mike Shiplett joked, “Everytime I told him it was going to rain he drove faster.”

The top five was completed by Cindric, Justin Allgaier, Tyler Reddick and Ryan Sieg.

Custer, Cindric, Allgaier and Reddick will compete for the third Dash 4 Cash bonus in two weeks at Talladega.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Justin Allgaier

STAGE 2 WINNER: Cole Custer

Click here for race results.

Click here for the point standings.

NOTABLE: Ryan Sieg’s top five is his fifth in 177 career Xfinity starts and his second on a non-restrictor plate track. He has not finished worse than 12th through eight races .. Zane Smith finished sixth for his first career top 10 in his third Xfinity start … Elliott Sadler placed 12th in his first start of the year for Kaulig Racing.

WHAT’s NEXT: Sparks Energy 300 at Talladega Superspeedway at 1 p.m. ET on April 27 on Fox Sports 1