Danny Stockman

Friday 5: Friction grows between non-playoff drivers, playoff drivers

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It’s easy to miss one of the key themes to the Cup playoffs with so much talk about Martin Truex Jr.’s dominance, Kyle Busch’s inconsistency and Hendrick Motorsports advancing three cars to the second round.

What has been overlooked is the friction between playoff drivers and non-playoff drivers. 

NASCAR’s postseason is littered with cases where non-playoff drivers had an impact on playoff drivers, whether it was Scott Riggs’ crash on Lap 3 of the opening Chase race at New Hampshire in 2005 that collected title contender Kurt Busch or David Reutimann paying back title contender Kyle Busch at Kansas in 2010, among others.

But this year’s playoff races have seen the divide between the haves and have-nots reach a breaking point.

It was something Jimmie Johnson experienced at Las Vegas in his first postseason race as a non-playoff driver.

“I saw quite a few situations where drivers in the playoffs made desperate moves out there,” Johnson said a few days after the Vegas race. “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.”

Austin Dillon has been on both sides. He made the playoffs the previous three years but failed to do so this year.

“It happens a lot,” Dillon said of playoff drivers taking advantage of non-playoff drivers. “There’s a line between taking that, as a guy that’s out of the playoffs, and there’s a line that you cross.”

Dillon admits “my button ended up pushed” at Richmond by Alex Bowman after Bowman dived underneath Dillon on a restart and came up the track, hitting Dillon’s car, sending it up the track into William Byron’s car. After being told by car owner Richard Childress and crew chief Danny Stockman to pay Bowman back, Dillon retaliated and spun Bowman.

“Yes, I’ve taken advantage of guys because I was in the playoffs,” Dillon said. “I know that feeling. I feel like at some point if you take too much, it will come back on you.”

Bowman didn’t have problems just with Dillon at Richmond. Bowman said he and Bubba Wallace had an issue in that race that led to Wallace flipping him the bird. Then on the first lap of last weekend’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval, Bowman lost control of his car entering the backstretch chicane and hit Wallace’s car, forcing Wallace to miss the chicane. Wallace later responded with a series of one finger salutes as they raced together. Tiring the signal, Bowman dumped Wallace.

It’s not just Bowman who has had problems. Kyle Busch was running in the top five, rallying from two laps down, when he ran into the back of Garrett Smithley’s car. Combined with an incident with Joey Gase, a frustrated Busch 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?”

Smithley later responded on social media and Gase followed a day later.

To say that playoff drivers should have the right of the way on the track is shortsighted. The other drivers have something at stake. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., whose contact spun Martin Truex Jr. while Truex led at Richmond, is racing for a job. So is Daniel Hemric. No announcement has been made on Daniel Suarez’s status for next year at Stewart-Haas Racing, so he also could be racing for a job.

Those eliminated in the first round — Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman, Aric Almirola and Erik Jones — are racing to finish as high as fifth in the points.

And others are going after more modest goals. Chris Buescher, 20th in points, seeks to give JTG Daugherty Racing its best finish since 2015 (AJ Allmendinger placed 19th in points in 2016). Johnson seeks to refine the No. 48 team in these final weeks with new crew chief Cliff Daniels to become more of a factor and end his 88-race winless streak.

To have a playoff driver think they own the road is misguided. There’s much taking place on the track.

Whether playoff drivers want to play nice with non-playoff drivers is up to them and how they’ve been raced in the past. Of course, a playoff driver has more to lose than a non-playoff driver. So drivers will need to pick their battles wisely.

2. Hendrick’s round?

It’s easy to note Alex Bowman’s runner-up finishes earlier this year at Dover, Talladega and Kansas — all tracks in the second round of the playoffs — and forecast him advancing to the next round.

It’s just as easy to think Chase Elliott will have a smooth ride into the next round since he won at Talladega this year and scored wins at Dover and Kansas last year (with a different race package).

And if things go well, William Byron could find his way into next round.

Hendrick is building momentum. But what happened in the spring or last year doesn’t guarantee what will happen in the coming weeks, beginning with Sunday’s race at Dover International Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

It would be something if all three of Hendrick’s cars moved into the third round after the team’s slow start to the season: Bowman did not have a top 10 in the first nine races of the season, Byron had one top 10 in the first nine races and Elliott had two top 10s in the same period. And Jimmie Johnson, who is not in the playoffs? He had four top 10s in the first nine races.

Bowman and Byron enter the round outside a cutoff spot. Bowman trails Kyle Larson by one point for the final transfer spot. Byron is five points behind Larson.

3. Under the radar?

It’s hard to imagine someone scoring three consecutive top-five finishes — and five top fives in the last six races — being overshadowed but that seems to be the case with Brad Keselowski.

He has quietly collected consistent finishes at the front. The key will be to continue with mistake-free races or at least races with minimal mistakes. His 29 stage points scored in the opening round trailed only Martin Truex Jr., and Kevin Harvick, who each scored 36 stage points.

For what it’s worth, Keselowski won at Kansas earlier this season. That’s the cutoff race in this round.

4. Drivers to watch at Dover

Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Chase Elliott have led the most laps in nine of the last 10 Dover races. Harvick has led the most laps five times. Truex and Elliott have each done so twice. Kyle Larson led the most laps the other time.

Domination doesn’t necessarily equal wins. Only three of those times has the driver leading the most laps won the race. Harvick has done it twice. Truex the other time.

5. Milestone starts 

Sunday’s race marks the 500th career Cup start for Denny Hamlin.

Only two drivers have won in their 500th career Cup start. Richard Petty won at Trenton in July 1970 and Matt Kenseth won at New Hampshire in September 2013.

Kevin Harvick is making his 676th career Cup start. That equals Dale Earnhardt’s career total. Harvick made his Cup debut with Earnhardt’s team the week after Earnhardt was killed in a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500.

Alex Bowman ‘not immediately worried’ about Austin Dillon after Richmond run-in

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CONCORD, N.C. — Alex Bowman didn’t back down from the “silver spoon” comment he made about Austin Dillon over the radio after Dillon intentionally spun him in Stage 2 last weekend at Richmond Raceway .

Dillon spun Bowman in retaliation for contact between them earlier in the race. Bowman was racing beneath Dillon entering Turn 1 when he washed up the track and into Dillon, who then made contact with William Byron.

Dillon turned Bowman after being encouraged by his owner and grandfather Richard Childress and crew chief Danny Stockman to retaliate.

After his incident with Dillon, Bowman told his team on the radio “I want to shove that silver spoon he’s been fed on his whole life up his ass.”

Bowman didn’t apologize Friday at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“What the comment was, you heard it,” Bowman said. “I said what I said. Obviously frustrated with that situation.

“I think it hurt his day more than it hurt mine. We ran where we were kind of going to run anyway. It’s just frustrating. Got ran all they way to the inside wall down the front straightaway and then just turned. It is what it is.”

But heading into this weekend’s playoff elimination race on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval, Bowman, a playoff driver who is two points out of the cutoff spot, has concerns other than Dillon.

“Not immediately worried about it,” Bowman said. “Typically don’t see him at these places anyway.”

After being told of the comment, Dillon said: “Well, if he’s that good, he’ll catch me at some point.”

As for Dillon being directed to turn him by his grandfather, Bowman said “That’s just part of it.

“Part of how they operate. (Childress is) obviously a very involved team owner and is on the radio a lot more than our owner (Rick Hendrick). That’s just part of it. It doesn’t matter. He’s not holding the steering wheel. I’m not worried about who gave directions to anybody or anything like that. I’m here to advance to the next round this week and handle it in the future.”

Dillon said he’s moved on.

“I feel like I handled the business during the race and that’s all it was. Passed that. We raced each other the whole rest of the race. There was no bumping, no nothing.

“I think we’re pretty much square.”

Alex Bowman qualified second for Sunday’s race while Dillon qualified 30th.

Long: Heated radio chatter raises questions about who is driving

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RICHMOND, Va. — For at least the second time this season, a crew chief told his driver to retaliate after contact from another car, raising questions about such emotional outbursts and the actions that follow.

Car owner Richard Childress and crew chief Danny Stockman each told Austin Dillon on the team’s radio to pay Alex Bowman back for an incident on the Lap 109 restart Saturday at Richmond. Bowman’s contact sent Dillon’s car into William Byron’s, causing more damage to Dillon’s No. 3 Chevrolet.

Childress told his grandson to “get (Bowman’s) ass back if you get to him.”

Stockman told Dillon:

“Get him back.

“Get him back.

“Get him back.

Get … him … back … now.”

Dillon did as told and spun Bowman but the contact also damaged Dillon’s car.

Later, as Dillon tried to dissect his car’s handling at the end of stage 2 on Lap 200, he mentioned the incident earlier in the race: “I don’t have a good idea for you. We ruined our car in a wreck for no reason. I didn’t think we needed to do that.”

Ultimately, the driver is responsible for what they do with the car. But when a driver is agitated after being hit by a competitor and told to “get him back” as Dillon was, it puts the driver in a difficult situation. Ignore the crew chief — and the car owner in this case — and it can lead to questions about team leadership among crew members and who can hear the conversations on their headsets. Do as told and it can make a bad situation worse.

It did for William Byron at Watkins Glen.

Kyle Busch spun while underneath Byron’s car in Turn 1. Busch caught Byron and hit the back of Byron’s car, forcing it through the grass in the inner loop.

Crew chief Chad Knaus told Byron on the radio: “If I see that 18 (Busch) come back around without you knocking the (expletive) out of him, we’re going to have a problem.”

Byron, following the orders of a seven-time champion crew chief, did as he was told and had a bigger problem.

Seeing Byron behind him under caution, Busch hit his brakes and Byron slammed into the back of Busch’s car. The contact smashed the nose of Byron’s car. Byron, who started second, finished 21st and was never a factor after the incident.

Byron called the Watkins Glen episode a “turning point. I realized I’m the guy driving the car and ultimately the decisions that I make … trickles down to my team and all the work they’re putting in.”

Another key is what is said on the radio and how it is said between Knaus and Byron.

“I think the only thing is just staying positive and staying motivated in the race,” Byron said. “I don’t seem to do well with like negative energy.”

How did he get his point across?

“I think situations have played out on the track to where it’s kind of been understood that we’ve got to do things a different way,” Byron said. “We both have our way of doing things. I’ve really accepted the way he does things, and he’s accepted the way I do things. Any good working relationship is kind of that compromise.”

It’s understandable that crew chiefs and teams will be upset when somebody damages their car. To have all the work that goes into each race impacted by some driver’s mistake or recklessness is frustrating and infuriating.

But for those who talk to a driver on the radio during a race comes great responsibility. One can calm a driver and focus on the task at hand or inflame the situation.

When a situation escalates, the results are never good.

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Although he tied his best finish of the season Saturday night at Richmond, placing fifth wasn’t the biggest achievement to Ryan Newman.

“What meant to me the most was just being better than we were the first race,” said Newman, who finished ninth at Richmond in the April. “We came back and showed that we were learning and we’ll keep learning.”

Such improvement has put the Roush Fenway Racing driver — who didn’t secure a playoff spot until the regular-season finale — in position to advance to the second round after Sunday’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC). Newman enters the weekend ninth in the standings, 14 points ahead of Alex Bowman, the first driver outside a playoff spot.

Ryan Newman’s finishing position has improved 3.8 positions in the six races Cup teams have visited a track for a second time this year. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Newman is one of four playoff drivers — Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson are the others — who have finished better in their second appearance at a playoff track than the first time this year. Newman’s 10th-place finish in the Las Vegas playoff opener was 14 places better than he finished there in March. His Richmond race was four spots better than his spring result.

“We hoped every time we got back (to a track a second time) we would be better,” Scott Graves, Newman’s crew chief, told NBC Sports after the Richmond race. “This was a good race for us in the spring. We took all our notes there and we knew what we needed to do differently. When you get here and you unload and the car is good right from the bat and you can just make fine adjustments, it just makes the weekend go easier. We were able to do that this time.”

Richmond marked the sixth time that Cup has raced at a track for a second time this season. The others are Daytona, Las Vegas, Bristol, Pocono and Michigan.

Newman has improved 3.8 positions the second time at those tracks, ranking fourth among playoff drivers. Newman trails Larson (gain of 11.2 positions), Martin Truex Jr. (9.2) and William Byron (4.5).

“I feel like we really struggled to figure out where the balance of the car needed to be the first time around,” Graves said. “How much drag did we need? How much downforce did we need? Then mechanically, what did we need in the car. It’s kind of like those learn-by-trial kind of things. We went, ‘OK that didn’t work but we think we know what we need now.’ ”

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The six lead changes Saturday at Richmond were the fewest there since the 2014 fall race, which had four lead changes among two drivers.

Both Richmond races this season combined for 10 cautions (five in each race). Last year’s two Richmond races combined for nine cautions.

Clint Bowyer, who finished eighth, expressed his frustration with this past weekend’s race.

We have to figure something out with this track and our package,” Bowyer said. “I’m not sold that this is the best product we can do here. I love this place. I love the race track. I love this fan base, this area and everything. Ever since I started in this sport, this has always been an action track and it’s lacking a little bit of that. 

“I think we could do some things with maybe some PJ1 or sealer or tires – something. We need to try to make an adjustment, I really believe that.”

Kevin Harvick was asked the day before last weekend’s race if traction compound should be used at Richmond to help drivers with passing.

“I honestly thought we would have traction compound down for this particular race,” he said. “Using the tire dragon here does zero.”

So where would it be best to apply traction compound at Richmond?

“Chase Elliott had the best idea, just like we used to do with the sealer, just coat the whole corner,” Harvick said. “Let it ride for the weekend. Let the race track evolve. It’s become one of the most difficult places to pass. It’s become more difficult this year. I think the traction compound would definitely be a good option.”

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Clint Bowyer is a free agent after this season but signs point to him returning to Stewart-Haas Racing next year.

Bowyer noted that he did a Mobil 1 shoot last week with Kevin Harvick for next year.

Bowyer said a new contract is “not done” but “I’m comfortable where it’s at. We’re working on partnerships for next year and having success there.”

Bowyer is in his third season at Stewart-Haas Racing, taking over the No. 14 ride after Tony Stewart retired. Bower has won twice with the team, scoring victories at Martinsville and Michigan in 2018.

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There was a buzz in the garage over the weekend about possible changes for pit stops next year in the Xfinity and Gander Outdoors Truck Series.

That buzz intensified after Michael Waltrip tweeted that stage breaks without live pit stops for the Xfinity and Truck Series would be “absolutely the right thing to do” to help teams save money while also providing more racing action.

NASCAR had no comment about the issue and Waltrip’s tweets.

It’s clear based on the chatter in the garage that NASCAR is taking a look at potential changes to pit stops. In making the switch to 18-inch wheels with the Gen 7 car, which is scheduled to debut in 2021, NASCAR also is considering the use of a single lug nut to secure wheels. Such a move would overhaul pit stops and likely de-emphasize the importance of tire changers. 

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NASCAR penalty report after Mid-Ohio, Michigan

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Only one new penalty was assessed on this week’s NASCAR penalty report, released Tuesday.

Jeff Meendering, crew chief of the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota driven by Brandon Jones in the Xfinity Series, has been fined $5,000 for an improperly installed lug nut(s) found in Saturday’s post-race inspection at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

Two other penalties — $25,000 fines and the loss of 10 driver and 10 owner points in each instance — were assessed over the weekend at Michigan International Speedway to Danny Stockman, crew chief for the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, and Luke Lambert, crew chief for the No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet in the Cup Series.

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NASCAR docks Austin Dillon 10 points, fines crew chief $25,000

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NASCAR fined crew chief Danny Stockman $25,000, suspended car chief Gregory Ebert one race and docked the team and driver Austin Dillon 10 points each for a violation this past weekend at Talladega Superspeedway.

A spokesperson said the Richard Childress Racing team does not plan to appeal the penalty.

NASCAR penalized the team for its deck lid, stating the deck lid must be used as supplied from the manufacturer and that body filler was added to the deck lid.

When the team checked its deck lid on Friday at Talladega with NASCAR’s devices, it found slight changes needed be made. The team made the changes and used bondo, leading to the penalty.

“We were just fixing a problem and it turned out we didn’t need to do that,” Dillon said after winning the pole last weekend at Talladega. “I’m sure Stockman was spun out about it, but speed-wise, I knew it wasn’t going to hurt us and moving forward, I hope that NASCAR takes into effect the entire story of it and whatever is dealt our way, we’ll handle it and go on from there.”

The penalty drops Dillon from 13th in the driver standings to 14th. Ryan Newman swaps places with Dillon, who now has 243 points. Jimmie Johnson is 16th, holding the final cutoff spot to the playoffs. Johnson has 238 points.

Also, NASCAR announced Tuesday that Jeremy Bullins, crew chief for Ryan Blaney, had been fined $10,000 because Blaney’s car had a lug nut not safe and secured after the race.