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Strategy is goal of pit road experiment in Xfinity, Trucks

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While Xfinity and Truck Series teams will save some money with the newly announced pit crew and strategy rules for seven standalone races, two NASCAR team officials cited a desire to increase “strategy” and “wit” with the move.

The financial angle is a “small aspect” of the format according to Ryan Pemberton, competition director for JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series, where the rules will be used in four races — at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course (May 30), Iowa Speedway (June 13 and Aug. 1) and Road America (Aug. 8).

“I really think it’s about leveling the playing field a little bit and mixing it up, giving people opportunities to do something different on pit road that don’t normally have that opportunity,” Pemberton said after the announcement. “You take a 15th-place car and you can pick one of those guys back there that are having a good day, and it’s hard to have a real successful day due to the fact that maybe (it’s) their pit crew versus somebody else’s (more experienced) pit crew.

“I think from a strategic point, from a crew chief’s point of view, it puts more people in play, and it should be broadened ‑‑ the competition, how many guys could be in the top 10 on a regular basis and have more opportunities. And then from a logistics standpoint, it helps out, too, as far as the people and moving people across the country.

“But for the most part, it’s really about competition.”

Pemberton emphasized that teams that take two tires on a pit stop will start ahead of teams that took four.

“That mixes things up, makes for different opportunities for different people,” Pemberton said. “And then maybe one guy does it, maybe two guys do it, and the third guy wants to do it, next thing you know it really flips the field.”

David Pepper, the general manager of ThorSport Racing in the Truck Series, made small team owner Jordan Anderson the poster child for those who could benefit from these rules in his series, which will use them at Iowa Speedway (June 12) and the playoff races at World Wide Technology Raceway (Aug. 21) and Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (Sept. 6).

Anderson, a driver-owner on an underfunded team, has only two top-10 finishes in 101 Truck Series starts. Those top 10s came at Daytona and Talladega.

“Jordan Anderson, who has had many good runs, and then we come down pit road and he can’t compete on pit road with the pit crew,” Pepper said. “This will allow that to go away and a team like that to compete at a high level and have an opportunity to showcase their crew chief and driver talent and their team’s talent in building a fast race truck.

“So we’ve leveled the playing field, and I think you’re going to see a lot of really good stories from a lot of really good race car drivers that are out there that are going to have an opportunity to go run in the top five and go run in the top 10.”

Among the rules is when teams can take two or four tires.

  • On an oval track, teams may add fuel and change two tires per stop. A second stop must be made to change the other two tires.
  • On a road course, teams may add fuel or change four tires per stop.

Pemberton raised the risk/reward that a team that is leading a race will have to consider when the caution comes out.

“How many people are going to take two behind me versus taking four?” Pemberton said. “That’s going to make even the guys up front rethink what they’re doing. Maybe they get cold feet and they go like, ‘Man, I’m only going to get two because I don’t want to give up the lead, and next thing you know maybe the guys right behind them get four.

“So it’s going to really change how you go about these pit stops. And that’s where the strategy comes in play, and I think that’s where the excitement level comes in.”

Eric Peterson, the Xfinity Series technical manager, addressed how the rules impact the relationship between the haves and have nots in the NASCAR garage.

“One of the things we looked at was kind of the data of our current pit stops and all the teams that consistently run in the top 10,” Peterson said “Our current pit stop strategy really did not mix the field up very well.  The average position change was right around one position.

 “That’s the reason we kind of took this other approach, is that kind of the purpose of coming down pit road and doing pit stops is to hopefully mix the field up a little bit where you don’t have a ‘follow the leader’ race the entire race.”

The first Xfinity race at Iowa last year saw Christopher Bell lead 186 of 250 laps to win. There were two lead changes in the last 190 laps of that race. Last year’s Truck race at Iowa saw Ross Chastain lead the final 141 laps to take the checkered flag before his victory was taken away when his truck failed post-race inspection.

The perspective of one Truck Series crew chief was provided by Kyle Busch Motorsports’ Rudy Fugle Wednesday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive.”

Fugle said he’d be “open-minded” about the rules change, but said he’s “not 100% for” them.

“As the son of a mechanic, my first job as a young kid was working with someone disassembling cars at a salvage yard,” Fugle said. “I kind of grew up wanting to be a guy that changes tires on pit road. Taking that element out, or maybe leading to taking that element out is kind of … it’s not exciting to me. But I’ll be open-minded and we’ll attack and figure out how to make the system the best for KBM and figure out how to beat everybody, no matter what the rules are.”

Fugle also addressed how the new rules at the standalone races will impact the role of a spotter in pit strategy.

“Normally … the crew chief gets a lot of help on some of the ways the rules are and the way the pit road rules are from the spotter,” Fugle said. “Because the spotter can see what’s happening. So you want your spotter to know 100% what the rule is. … But now we go to the standalone races, you’re not going to have a normal spotter. You’re going to have a guy that only does three or four NASCAR races, so he’s not going to know those rules, let alone the new rules. We’re going to have to spread those delegations out a little bit through the team to make sure that we’re thinking of everything and not messing something up so we don’t make a mistake. I think that’s the biggest fear.”

While the financial savings of this limited pit format might be a “small aspect” for a team like JR Motorsports, it’s a different conversation for Tommy Joe Martins, who will race for his family-owned team in the Xfinity Series this year.

 

NASCAR declines ThorSport Racing’s request to reinstate teams to playoffs

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NASCAR has denied ThorSport Racing’s request to reinstate its two Gander Outdoors Truck Series teams that were eliminated at Las Vegas Motor Speedway because of a motor issue that Illmor Engineering claimed responsibility.

ThorSport Racing sent NASCAR a letter Sept. 27 seeking reinstatement into the playoffs for Grant Enfinger, the regular-season champion, and Johnny Sauter. Both failed to finish at Las Vegas because of engine issues and were eliminated from the playoffs.

Ilmor Engineering provides the NT1 engine that is run by nearly every team in the Truck series. After multiple engine failures during the Sept. 13 Las Vegas race, Ilmor and NASCAR investigated the matter. Ilmor Engineering cited the cause as “the combination of the high engine load condition combined with the extreme weather conditions in Las Vegas resulted in some engines suffering severe detonation.”

ThorSport Racing sent a one-page letter Sept. 27 to NASCAR with its request.

“We feel the right thing for us is we were never allowed to race at Vegas for the playoff positions,” David Pepper, general manager of ThorSport Racing, told NBC Sports on Sept. 27. “We’re not asking to reset Vegas. We’ll take our last-place finishes. We’re just asking to move the cutoff date to Phoenix, eliminate four of us instead of two (after Vegas) and two (after Phoenix.)

“Allow it to be settled on the race track and not by an outside source that has openly said, ‘Hey, we made a mistake.’ I don’t want to beat on them. They made a mistake, but we shouldn’t be the victims of the mistake.”

The six drivers remaining in the Truck playoff are: Reigning series champion Brett Moffitt, Austin Hill, Ross Chastain, Stewart Friesen, Matt Crafton and Tyler Ankrum.

The second round of the playoffs begin Oct. 12 at Talladega Superspeedway.

Friday 5: No panic for Chase Elliott in battle for playoff spots

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SPARTA, Kentucky — Chase Elliott is quick to point out that he doesn’t feel helpless, but he knows that he and his Hendrick Motorsports teammates face challenges to secure playoff spots in the final eight regular-season races.

Hendrick drivers Jimmie Johnson, Elliott and Alex Bowman hold what would be the final three playoff positions, heading into Saturday night’s race at Kentucky Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Johnson has a 54-point lead on Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — the first driver outside a playoff spot. Elliott leads Stenhouse by 37 points and Bowman leads Stenhouse by 19 points.

“I think that we certainly have room to improve, and I think we have improved from where we started the season,” Elliott said earlier this week after unveiling the tribute throwback scheme he’ll run in the Southern 500.

“There’s been some weeks where we end practice on Saturday and we’re not in the same league as some people. What you have to do is go make the most of what you got. At the end of the day that’s sometimes the best thing. It’s easy to overreach sometimes and get yourself in more trouble than what you could have done if you just had done what you had in front of you.”

That could be an easy trap to fall in.

Hendrick Motorsports, an organization that measures success by championships, has gone nearly a year since its last Cup victory.

Jimmie Johnson is on a career-long winless streak of 41 races and Elliott seeks his first career Cup win as he nears 100 career starts. Teammate Alex Bowman makes his 100th start this weekend and looks for his first Cup win, although many of his starts were with underfunded teams, and William Byron is in his rookie season.

Elliott had scored eight consecutive finishes of 12th or better before he placed 19th at Chicagoland Speedway two weeks ago and then finished 34th at Daytona after he was eliminated by an accident.

“You can’t wig out over it,” Elliott said. “It is what it is. I had no control over the crash on Saturday night. Chicago, yes I thought I could have done a better job at the end of that race to improve our finish, sure, but this past Saturday night I don’t know what I would have done to keep that from happening. That stuff happens. Once we fall out of a  race I can’t control anything beyond that.”

2. Class by themselves

Moments after exiting a boiling car at the completion of 400 miles at Chicagoland Speedway, Brad Keselowski sat on the pit wall and wiped sweat from his face with a towel as Kyle Busch celebrated another victory.

Busch’s win two weeks ago continued a trend that has seen Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. dominate. They have won 13 of the first 18 Cup races this season and the last 12 races on 1.5-mile speedways, dating back to last year.

“It’s like there’s an A, B, C, D group,” Keselowski said of ranking the teams. “We’re in the B group. We want to go from good to great.”

He noted then that they were behind Truex, Busch and the Stewart-Haas Racing cars.

“I think the difference, as you look at those cars, they have more speed and you don’t see their mistakes because they’ve got speed to recover from it,’’ Todd Gordon, crew chief for Joey Logano, said after the Chicago race. “We’ve got to keep working on trying to find more speed in our cars.

Busch admitted his car was awful the first two stages at Chicagoland before hitting on the right changes and taking the lead on pit road.

Clint Bowyer showed how fast the Stewart-Haas cars are — Gordon said Bowyer’s car at Chicago was “stupid fast” — by finishing fifth after two speeding penalties and a third trip down pit road when he did not serve a stop-and-go penalty on his second speeding infraction.

That’s not a luxury most of the field has. They have to be perfect.

That’s the challenge Saturday night (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) at Kentucky Speedway for many teams.

3. Ruh-roh

That seems to be the common theme about the road course at Charlotte Motor Speedway (or Roval as some call it) after some teams tested there Tuesday.

Tight turns, minimal run-off areas before hitting walls or tire barriers, and the race being the cutoff event in the first round of the playoffs, should make for a wild afternoon of racing.

What that race will do, though, is put more pressure on teams to do well in the first two races — Las Vegas and Richmond — in the opening round. Have poor finishes at either of those races and be toward the bottom of the playoff standings will only add pressure on drivers at Charlotte in the Sept. 30 event.

Another key factor will be how many playoff points drivers have. That could make the difference in advancing from the first round if the race is as chaotic as some forecast.

The rest of the Cup field is scheduled to test on the Charlotte road course Tuesday.

4. Gauntlet thrown

After Ben Rhodes’ Camping World Truck Series win Thursday night at his home track of Kentucky Speedway, ThorSport Racing General Manager David Pepper had a warning to competitors.

“With five races to go in the regular season, leading into the playoffs,” Pepper said, “the rest of these teams need to look out for ThorSport. We’re going to be a factor.”

Along with Rhodes giving the team its first win of the year Thursday, ThorSport’s Matt Crafton finished third and Grant Enfinger placed sixth. ThorSport’s Myatt Snider crashed in qualifying and never had a chance to do much in his backup.

GMS Racing’s Johnny Sauter has won a series-high four times and Hattori Racing Enterprises’ Brett Moffitt has three wins.

5. Drivers to get their first win while at Joe Gibbs Racing

Erik Jones is the fifth driver to score his first career Cup victory while at Joe Gibbs Racing. He joins Bobby Labonte, Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano.

Labonte’s first win came in the 1995 Coca-Cola 600. Stewart’s first win was in the September 1999 Richmond race. Hamlin’s first win was in the June 2011 Pocono race. Logano’s first victory came in June 2009 at New Hampshire.

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Ben Rhodes scores Truck win at Kentucky Speedway

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SPARTA, Kentucky —  Ben Rhodes, who grew up in nearby Louisville, held off Stewart Friesen in the final laps to win Thursday’s Camping World Truck Series race at his home track, Kentucky Speedway.

“This is sweeter than my first win,” Rhodes said. “This is sweeter because of the people that are here.

“(Kentucky Speedway) doesn’t have the history that Daytona does but it has the history for me,” Rhodes said.

Rhodes had one of the strongest trucks in the 150-lap race (he won the opening stage) but was aided by fuel-only pit stop with 25 laps to go. The other leaders took two tires.

MORE: Race results, points report 

The victory was the second of Rhodes’ career. His other win came Sept. 2017 at Las Vegas. The win is Rhodes’ first of the season and earns him a spot in the playoffs.

Friesen, who started at the rear because of an engine change before the race, finished second. Matt Crafton was third and followed by Brandon Jones and John Hunter Nemechek.

Stage 1 winner: Ben Rhodes

Stage 2 winner: Noah Gragson

How Ben Rhodes won: Runner-up Stewart Friesen said he felt that he lost time to Rhodes coming on to pit road when they made their final pit stops. After that, Friesen struggled with his truck’s handling the closer he got to Rhodes before fading in the final laps.

Who had a good race: Stewart Friesen’s second-place finish marked the fourth time in the last five races on 1.5-mile tracks he’s placed sixth or better. … Matt Crafton started 30th (after nearly crashing in qualifying) and finished third for his best result since placing second at Dover in May. … Dalton Sargeant’s ninth-place result snapped a streak of eight consecutive finishes outside the top 10.

Who had a bad race: Rookie Myatt Snider had to start at the rear after crashing in qualifying and had to go to a backup. He was never a factor, finishing 26th. … Points leader Johnny Sauter was penalized for speeding on pit road and then for a commitment line violation while serving the speeding penalty. He finished 15th, two laps off the leaders.

Notable: Ben Rhodes’ win marks the fourth consecutive series victory for a driver age 25 or under. Rhodes is 21 years old.

Quote of the night: ThorSport Racing General Manager David Pepper after Ben Rhodes’ win: “With 5 races to go in the regular season, leading into the playoffs, the rest of these teams need to look out for ThorSport. We’re going to be a factor.”

Next: The series races at Eldora at 9 p.m. ET on Wednesday, July 18.

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ThorSport Racing GM on fire: ‘I have to laugh about it, otherwise I’ll cry’

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David Pepper tries to laugh, tries to make sense of the fire that damaged about a third of ThorSport Racing’s shop on Monday, decimated its fab department and destroyed three of its Camping World Series trucks.

What other damage is uncertain, the team’s general manager told NBC Sports in an exclusive interview Tuesday. The basement is under about 5 feet of water, and the shop floor is under about a foot of water. Nineteen fire units from four Ohio communities converged on the Sandusky shop Monday. The last crew didn’t leave until more than 16 hours after the initial call. No one was injured.

Water flooded part of the ThorSport Racing shop after firefighters battled a blaze at the shop Monday. (Photo by ThorSport Racing)
Water flooded part of the ThorSport Racing shop after firefighters battled a blaze at the shop Monday. (Photo by ThorSport Racing)

Despite the angst and uncertainty of what will happen next, Pepper tries to smile.

“Nobody will want to be around us,’’ he said. “We smell like we’ve been at a campfire the whole weekend.’’

And then he adds: “I have to laugh about it, otherwise I’ll cry.’’

Pepper admits the four-truck team faces many challenges in the coming days and months, but they will be at Iowa Speedway this weekend planning to win with either two-time series champ and current points leader Matt Crafton, Cameron Hayley, Rico Abreu or Ben Rhodes.

When they arrive at Iowa, they’ll be greeted by fellow competitors offering assistance. Pepper said about five teams will bring equipment to help the team get through the weekend and beyond.

“Multiple different race teams, not only our Toyota partners, have reached out offering trucks and transporters and shop space and pull-down (rig) time,’’ Pepper said. “The outpouring of concern for us as competitors, it is nothing less than overwhelming. I want to tell everyone thank you.’’

What the team lost was devastating:

  • Fire destroyed the fab shop and suspension room — where Pepper said the fire originated. All their suspension, driveline and brake components in that area were destroyed.
  • The three trucks they lost were a speedway truck that ran at Daytona International Speedway, a new intermediate truck and a new road course chassis.
  • Pepper estimated that 35-40 percent of the 100,000-square foot shop was lost.

The Ohio State Fire Marshall’s office is investigating the cause of the fire. Bill Krugh, public information officer for the Ohio State Fire Marshall’s office, said that there is no timetable for when that will be finished.

The team cannot work in the building because of the damage.

“We are a race team without a home,’’ Pepper said.

Each of ThorSport Racing's four teams worked in the parking lot of a grocery store after Monday's fire at the race shop. (Photo by Rico Abreu)
Each of ThorSport Racing’s four teams worked in the parking lot of a grocery store after Monday’s fire at the race shop. (Photo by Rico Abreu)

Their home Tuesday was the parking lot of a nearby Kroger grocery store. All four teams were there with their haulers and the trucks they’ll race this weekend.

Pepper said local restaurants have helped, bringing the team food and drinks. He noted one woman no one knew brought the team cookies.

For all that was lost, some items were rescued.

Firefighters helped save the four haulers by allowing the team to drive those out. Three of those haulers had a truck in it. Firefighters also pushed 12 trucks out of the shop to ThorSport Racing employees. The employees then pushed the trucks into the grass near the shop, leading Pepper to joke the scene looked like a “ThorSport yard sale.’’

Those trucks will not return to the shop anytime soon.

Pepper said the team is looking for a place to work. The plan is to stay in Sandusky. Although teams in the Charlotte, North Carolina, area offered space in their shop for the team to work, Pepper said team officials didn’t want to uproot their employees from their homes. One option for the team is to relocate to the old Kroger location the grocery store recently left for its current spot near the shop.

Pepper said he hopes that in six months they can be working in about half the race shop but there’s much that must be done. Smoke damage, along with the water and fire damage will take time to repair. Some walls buckled after an excavator ripped a side of the building down so firefighters could combat the blaze, which had gone through the wall to the roof.

“If I wouldn’t have done that, we would have probably lost the entire building,” Capt. Jim Johnson of the Perkins Township Fire Department in Sandusky, Ohio, told NBC Sports.

Even more difficult than rebuilding will be for the organization to work through the coming weeks.

“The shock of it hasn’t set in,’’ Pepper said. “We’re working over in a parking lot. It’s not going to be so dissimilar when we go to Iowa and we work out of the back of the haulers.

Shop floor at ThorSport Racing after a fire there on Monday. (Photo by ThorSport Racing)
Shop floor at ThorSport Racing after a fire there on Monday. (Photo by ThorSport Racing)

“What’s going to be difficult is next week. We’re done with the race. We’re supposed to come back home and park our transporters in the hauler bay and we unload and … we go to work in the shop and get our next trucks. That’s not going to be the case. We’re currently trying to find a home and we hope to have one in the next five days, a building to go to, but now we’ve got to basically turn the world upside down.’’

That can wear on emotions for all.

“It’s our job as the leaders of this team to say, “Hey guys, this is just a challenge,’’ Pepper said, adding the message for each team  is that “we plan on going to win every one of these races.’’

Yet, as they do that, Pepper and the rest of the organization can’t escape the realty of their situation.

“I was just over with the restoration company looking at the offices … it looks like a bomb went off,’’ Pepper said. “It’s devastating. We got all of our trophies out front that have to be cleaned. Some of the stuff, like victory lane flags. I don’t know if we can ever save those. You can never replace them.’’

The scene became more poignant for Pepper when he pulled around the back of the building.

“I’m looking at a bulldozer throwing stuff into a 53-foot dumpster,’’ he said. “I just watched a little while ago them lift a pile of rubble up and it’s got a bunch of pictures that were in the back hallway. All going into a dumpster. They’re all half burned up.

“It sucks. It doesn’t seem real. This can’t be happening. I’m still processing it.’’