david wilson

Joe Gibbs Racing among serious bidders to build Next Gen chassis

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. – When NASCAR initially set a 2021 deadline for launching its NextGen car, Toyota Racing Development president David Wilson was skeptical of the timeframe.

Nearly a year later, he believes NASCAR’s overhaul is on track for next season, but he still has reservations about the aggressive rollout of a project that he compares with one of the most ambitious undertakings of the 20th century.

“We need another year, really,” Wilson told NBCSports.com last week about the release of the new car. “Because here’s my concern: We can’t afford to get this wrong. But the analogy is when NASA is doing a moon shot or rocket launch, that’s pretty well thought out, and they’re not afraid to pull the date back. What we’re doing in a relative sense feels like the same thing.

“There’s going to be more change in a year than this sport has seen in the past 60 years combined. Cumulative. It’s a revolutionary change. We as an industry need to get this right.”

During his annual address of the news media Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, NASCAR president Steve Phelps reaffirmed multiple times that the Next Gen is on pace for a 2021 debut.

A prototype of the car recently made its debut at Richmond Raceway with Austin Dillon (whose Richard Childress Racing team worked with NASCAR to build the prototype), but Cup teams likely won’t take delivery on a real-world version to test until next July.

Using a Request For Proposal-type process, NASCAR is soliciting bids on suppliers for the various stock elements that the new car will have, principally the chassis (in a structure that will resemble how Dallara supplies IndyCar teams with a standard chassis).

“The car is on schedule,” Phelps said. “I have to give a shoutout to, again, really the entire industry because they’re working collaboratively.  NASCAR runs the process, but there are teams that are involved, (manufacturers) that are involved, and that’s how we’re going to be successful moving forward.”

Multiple people familiar with the Next Gen process but who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly told NBCSports.com that there are at least three companies being considered seriously to build the chassis.

That list includes Joe Gibbs Racing, which is one of multiple Cup teams that inquired about bidding on the chassis.

It isn’t unusual for a Cup team to build chassis for others (such as Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing and JGR) have counted rivals as clients. But it would be new to have a single team that builds chassis for the entire field.

Phelps mostly demurred when asked by NBCSports.com how NASCAR would handle that arrangement.

“With respect to those that are in the RFPs to build the car, I don’t want to get into specifics about where that is,” Phelps said. “There would obviously need to be a separation between that race team and whatever part or the vehicle itself that’s being put together.

“If there is a team that is interested in competing for what that’s going to be, it would have to be kind of removed from what that organization is.”

Wilson said TRD favors Cup teams getting involved in the business of building the new car because of their familiarity with the output.

“It’s kind of polarizing because of the perceived advantage for the team that’s supplying, but the reason I say that it works to our favor is because nobody understands like a team does what it means to make a quality part,” he said.

Goodyear’s move from a 15- to 18-inch wheel with the new car also will need to be factored into the timeline of the rollout. Goodyear’s Greg Stucker said Thursday morning on SiriusXM NASCAR’s The Morning Drive that it’ll be a “significant change,” but that the tire supplier is on schedule with NASCAR and teams.

Ford Performance global director Mark Rushbrook said nearly 10 months ago that he was optimistic about having the new car by 2021 and reiterated his enthusiasm in a Saturday news conference with manufacturer executives hosted by NASCAR.

“It’s a very exciting time for NASCAR,” Rushbrook said. “To see all the technology and architecture changes that are going into Next Gen, it’s had a very successful test already. I think the fans are going to be excited once they see the final versions of the car. And then leading beyond ’21 to further technology with hybrid I think is important for all of us as manufacturers.”

The commonality of the new car should eliminate the assembly lines that many teams have and result in cost savings (in part by trimming staff). That theoretically should lower the barrier of entry to NASCAR for new teams and manufacturers (NASCAR courted a prospective automaker two weeks ago in Phoenix, according to Phelps).

Ed Laukes, group vice president of marketing for Toyota Motor North America, said the cost reductions were “overdue and had to happen, so one way or another there needs to be new blood brought into the sport, new team ownership brought into the sport, and this is the way that it’s going to happen. I think the vision of (NASCAR chairman) Jim France and of NASCAR right now was very, very appropriate.”

The new car also will enhance showroom relevance with the addition of independent rear suspension.

“When you see the proportions of this car, it fits the production vehicle even better, particularly in the rear,” said Jim Campbell, U.S. vice president of performance and motorsports for Chevrolet. “It matches up to where the Camaro is, and we’re really quite excited about that. Finally, we’ve got symmetry between left‑ and right‑hand side. We needed that so it looks more like the street car.  We’ll have a wheel that really mirrors a little bit closer to what you see on the production side in terms of size.”

Phelps said NASCAR has another test of the new car in a few weeks, and Toyota had a Next Gen body in a wind tunnel last week for the second time.

“I handicapped the possibility of racing in ’21 (with the Next Gen car) as a very slim chance,” Wilson said. “I have to eat a little crow. It is on the calendar as they laid out. On paper, it certainly looks like ’21, and certainly Jim France has not given one inch to hedging that.

“I will say that everything has to go to that schedule. There’s no margin for slipping.”

Wilson also believes there needs to be more than one vendor available for some parts to safeguard against unforeseen emergencies and faulty manufacturing.

“I was talking to Steve O’Donnell and Jim France at Charlotte just kind of cautioning them relative to the slippery slope that you have with a single-source supplier,” Wilson said. “Anecdotally, we used to have one valve-spring supplier, and that bit us in the butt. Now we have two. The issue there is very pragmatic, in case say you have a fire that takes out your factory. But the other side is you have a bad batch of material or something that puts you in a tough spot, and you don’t have a backup.

“So just suggesting that they use some, not common sense per se, but that they think about contingencies relative to the supply of parts and pieces.”

Wilson also believes a backup is needed for keeping the 2020 cars in place just in case NASCAR is unable to hit the 2021 target.

But he added the financial straits that many teams are facing have made the ’21 deadline a necessary reality for the NASCAR industry.

“We all know there are teams on the precipice of failing. So there is a lot of pressure,” Wilson said. “We appreciate and respect that there are parts of our sport that are in trouble.

“The team ownership model is nuts. So it’s not that we shouldn’t be attempting (the Next Gen in ’21). But we just need to get it right. If we can’t — hand on heart — make that target in ’21, we need to be prepared with a contingency plan.”

Friday 5: Title race a reminder of how Jimmie Johnson looms over Cup

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MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — Although Jimmie Johnson is not a part of the championship discussion this weekend, his shadow towers over the Cup Series and could play a role in how this generation’s drivers are judged.

The seven-time champion remains the only active driver with more than one Cup title heading into Sunday’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBC).

Should Denny Hamlin win the championship, Johnson will remain the only active multi-time champ. Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch, who also are in the Championship 4 race, each has one title.

All four drivers are members of the Johnson generation, a fraternity of talented racers who had the misfortune of competing during Johnson’s reign. Hamlin and Busch have each raced their entire Cup career against Johnson. Harvick started running Cup full-time in 2001, a year before Johnson.

In that time, they’ve seen Johnson win a record five consecutive titles from 2006-10 to go with crowns in 2013 and ’16. He’s also collected 83 series victories, which ranks sixth on the all-time wins list.

While Denny Hamlin (left) seeks his first Cup title, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch go for their second series crown Sunday. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

“Definitely behind in wins and championships,” said Kyle Busch, who has 55 career Cup victories. “Why? The list goes on. It’s a pretty long one. So how many can you get now is about where it’s at. If I end with one (championship), that’s going to suck. If I can only get two, well, whatever. 

“But three, four, five, I think five’s still achievable. But when you get to this final race in this moment, this championship format the way that it is, and five years in a row and you only come away with one, that gets pretty defeating.”

Johnson’s success won’t keep Harvick, Busch and Truex out of the NASCAR Hall of Fame after their career ends. One Cup championship has been a gateway to immortality. Mark Martin, who never won a Cup title, showed that there’s still room in the Hall of Fame. Should Hamlin never win a series crown, he likely is headed to the Hall with his 37 career victories, including a pair of Daytona 500 triumphs.

While Johnson’s career is measured against Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty, how should those who raced against Johnson be viewed since they have fewer titles?

One consideration is to look at the Championship 4 appearances by each driver.

This is Harvick’s fifth title race appearance in six years. Busch is making his fifth consecutive championship race appearance. Truex is racing for a title for a third consecutive year.

“I think there’s some merit to championship appearances,” Hamlin said as a measuring stick for greatness. “I think one race, winner-take-all, anything can happen. I mean, if you have a mechanical failure on Lap 25, does that mean you’re not good enough? You made the final four.

Making the final four is the culmination of your whole year. That is what deems your year a success. You made it to Homestead.  Every single driver here will tell you that. No one is going to discount their year based off of the outcome on this weekend.”

Said Truex: “I would say the odds are a lot worse in this system to win (a championship). I don’t know how to view that, to be honest. I don’t know if it’s final four appearances, straight‑up race wins. Championships are huge. I think it’s harder to win now than ever. Maybe one means more than one used to.”

2. Picking the right strategy

The strategy for Sunday’s race would seem easy for the Cup title contenders. Set the car up for a short run. Since the winner-take-all format in 2014, four of the five title races have had cautions in the last 15 laps, setting up a short run to the finish.

Last year, Joey Logano, whose car was set for the short run, passed Martin Truex Jr., whose car was set for a long run, with 12 laps left to win the race and the championship.

Kevin Harvick warns it’s not quite that simple with strategy, especially for a race that starts in the afternoon and ends at night under cooler track conditions.

“The only problem with short runs is you got to stay on the lead lap during the day,” Harvick said of when track conditions are warmer and more challenging to a car’s handling. “So you have to have some good balance and good adjustability built into your car. 

“The short run has definitely been what’s won this race over the past few years, but having … the proper track position to take advantage of that short‑run speed is still necessary in the first half of the day. I don’t think these cars are going to race like what we have raced here before.

“I just don’t see the characteristics being exactly how they have been in the past for the amount of laps and things that have happened when your car is good and when your car goes to falling off and things like that. I think that those numbers are going to change. I don’t know exactly what that number will be as far as the crossover and falloff, but we’ll just have to see.”

3. End of the road

This weekend marks not only the end of the season but the end of a journey for Ross Chastain.

He’ll race for a Ganders Outdoor Truck Series championship tonight and run in Sunday’s Cup season finale. When the weekend ends, he will have competed in 77 races across Cup, Xfinity and Trucks. That equals the number of races Kyle Busch ran in those series in 2006. Busch topped that total three times, including 2009 when he ran 86 races across those series.

“Yes, I’m tired,” said Chastain, who will compete in 23 Truck, 19 Xfinity and 35 Cup races this year. “The best part about it is that if I had a bad race, I had another one in a couple days, I would forget about it. … Now the bad part was when we had a good race, I didn’t have any time to celebrate.

I don’t know what the future will hold on that. I don’t know if we’ll hit this many races for years to come. There’s a reason nobody does it.”

Chastain will run the full Xfinity schedule next year for Kaulig Racing and is expected to also be back in Cup.

“I’m a big yes man,” said Chastain, who ran 74 races across all three series last season. “If any NASCAR team owner calls me, stops me at the track and says, ‘I want you to drive for me.’ I’m like, Of course. I’ve begged all these guys for years. Now that they say yes, I’m like, Of course, yes.”

Here’s a look at the most races run in a season in recent years (Note: Chastain’s stats are entering this weekend in Miami)

Season

Driver

Trucks

Xfinity

Cup  

Total

2009

Kyle Busch

15

35

36

86

2008

Kyle Busch

18

30

36

84

2010

Kyle Busch

16

29

36

81

2006

Kyle Busch

7

34

36

77

2019

Ross Chastain

22

19

34

75

2010

Brad Keselowski

4

35

36

75

2006

Clint Bowyer

3

35

36

74

2018

Ross Chastain

7

33

34

74

2013

Kyle Busch

11

26

36

73

2007

Carl Edwards

2

35

36

73

To end the season, Chastain will have a different type of motorhome for the weekend. He borrowed one from a friend and made the 3 1/2-hour drive from Ft. Myers, Florida to Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“Plugged in, got air‑conditioning, water, everything,” Chastain said. “Yeah, you go in and you turn and there’s a door and there’s a bathroom. Most campers and buses, there’s a bedroom. There’s no bedroom. The bedroom is the living room. It’s small. Yeah, it’s cool.”

4. Meaningful title

While the Cup driver and owner titles will be determined Sunday, the manufacturer’s crown was claimed last weekend at ISM Raceway by Toyota, which won the crown for the third time in the last four years. 

The manufacturer championship is overlooked by many but not those at Toyota.

“That championship I wish garnered more than it does,” David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, told NBC Sports. “You can make no mistake, for Toyota that’s an important championship. That’s one that resonates all the way back to Japan.

“The culture of racing internationally is a little different than with NASCAR, which is a driver-centric sport and always has been and will be, and that’s great. But everywhere else we race, it’s manufacturer-centric. It’s Toyota against Porsche, Audi or somebody.”

5. A new view

Derek Kneeland, who has been Kyle Larson’s spotter, will be Tyler Reddick’s spotter next year in Reddick’s rookie Cup season.

“What brought it all into perspective for me is when I was running part‑time at Ganassi (in 2017), I would go up and sit or stand next to Derek during practice, the races, really get an understanding of his vantage point, what he sees, how he communicates, how well of a job he did,” said Reddick, who races Christoper Bell, Cole Custer and Justin Allgaier for the Xfinity title Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

“That brought it all together for me when I was doing those races when I did have him, when I was in the racecar, it gave me a better understanding of how hard that job is and how good he was at it.

“It just came about that he wasn’t going to return (to work with Larson) next year. He was having a lot of fun working with me. Everyone at RCR really enjoyed how well of a job he did at Talladega to get our first win of the year, week in, week out.

Leavine Family Racing to have enhanced alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing

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The President of Toyota Racing Development said Tuesday that the enhanced alliance next season between Leavine Family Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing and TRD will be “akin to what we had between TRD, Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing a couple of years ago.”

Furniture Row Racing won the 2017 NASCAR Cup championship with Martin Truex Jr.

David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, made the comment on a conference call with reporters after news that Christopher Bell will move to Cup in 2020 and drive for Leavine Family Racing. Bell will replace Matt DiBenedetto.

As for what will be done in the expanded relationship, Wilson said: “Enhanced hardware, enhanced communication, sharing of information, the tools that TRD provides will be further enhanced, time available on our sim (simulator) and everything that TRD brings to the table is going to be the same as what it has been with Joe Gibbs Racing.”

Wilson said the move to strengthen the alliance between the two teams is because of Bell.

“It is a huge priority for us to make sure Christopher has what he needs to succeed,” Wilson said. “This is a complete package. It is not being done piecemeal, and you can tell that by the names, having (crew chief Jason Ratcliff) follow Christopher over., etc. All those things are designed to give him the best opportunity to succeed and continue to meet and exceed our expectations.”

Toyota has invested heavily in Bell’s development since signing the dirt racer to a development contract in 2013.

Bell rewarded Toyota by winning the Truck title in 2017 and making the Xfinity playoffs each of the past two years. He has won 22.1% of his Xfinity starts (15 of 68) and his victory last week at Richmond moved him into the second round of the Xfinity playoffs.

The improved alliance should elevate Leavine Family Racing to a top-tier program in Cup. That is a reward to car owner Bob Leavine for his persistence. His single-car team made its Cup debut in 2011, did not run a full season until 2016 and had to buy a charter since it did not qualify for one.

I can remember Jeremy (Lange, president of LFR) and I coming out of a meeting (about charters) and wondering how in the world we were going to continue to race,” Leavine said. “We didn’t, we weren’t given a charter. It’s been a long haul and a difficult one.

“Our biggest step and our biggest improvement was going to Toyota (beginning with this season) and the relationship base from David, Tyler (Gibbs) and Jack (Irving) and all the people at Toyota and TRD and then Coach (Joe Gibbs) and JGR and all of the support over there, that really was a breath of fresh air because it really was getting difficult to compete and try to get better.”

Levine Family Racing has an alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing this season but it is not to the level that Furniture Row Racing had with JGR because Leavine Family Racing could not afford to pay for that type of support this year.

Along with the alliance, the team will benefit from additional sponsorship. Rheem will join Bell at Levine Family Racing and be a primary sponsor, along with Procore, which already with the team. Leavine said that his organization is further ahead on sponsorship for next season than it started this year.

 

It’s official: Christopher Bell to drive No. 95 Cup car in 2020

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Leavine Family Racing made the long-awaited news official Tuesday: Christopher Bell will move to Cup and drive the team’s No. 95 Toyota next season.

The 24-year-old Bell, who has moved through Toyota’s development ranks, will take over the car for Matt DiBenedetto in 2020. Bell’s crew chief in the Xfinity Series, Jason Ratcliff, will join him in the move to the No. 95 team. Current crew chief, Mike Wheeler, will remain as the team’s competition director. Michael Leavine moves from that role to become vice president of racing operations. 

Leavine Family Racing also announced an enhanced technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota Racing Development. TRD will continue to build the team’s engines and provide technology, data and technical assistance. Enhancements to the technical alliance between JGR and LFR, which began with the 2019 MENCS season, will continue to build into the 2020 season.

“I’ve said from the start, I want this team to be competitive,” said Bob Leavine, LFR team founding owner, in a statement. “Christopher is one of the most talented drivers we’ve seen come up through NASCAR’s ranks and together, with JGR and Toyota’s support, I’m confident our team will continue to grow, just as it has this past year. We’re certainly happy to continue to progress our relationship with both JGR and TRD as the technical partnership takes the next step forward.”

Said Bell in a statement: “Since I was young, I wanted to make a career out of racing. To take this next step and race in the NASCAR Cup Series with the support of LFR, JGR and Toyota is just a dream come true. It also means a lot to me to have Rheem make the move to Cup racing with me. I wouldn’t be in the position I am today without their support and I’m also excited to have the opportunity to represent Procore now.”

Bell will make his Cup debut in the 2020 Daytona 500, the team stated.

“TRD and Toyota have worked with Bell since his early dirt track career and we’ve been proud to see him work his way to NASCAR’s highest level,” said David Wilson, president of TRD, in a statement. “Christopher is a special talent and we’re happy to have him winning races and championships in a Toyota.

“We look forward to seeing his continued growth and success at Leavine Family Racing in 2020. We’re also pleased with how the relationship between JGR and LFR has progressed during their first season working together. We’re confident this enhanced alliance for 2020 will continue to make them a threat for race wins week in and week out.”

Bell is in his second full season in the Xfinity Series for Joe Gibbs Racing. He is coming off a win in last week’s playoff opener at Richmond that sends him to the second round. The Richmond victory was Bell’s seventh of the season and his 15th in 68 Xfinity career races — a 22.1% winning percentage.

Bell seeks his first Xfinity title. He won the Truck Series championship in 2017.

“There’s been nobody that has won all three championships,” Bell said last weekend at Richmond when asked what is there for him in the final races of the year with his 2020 future in place. “That’s been one of my goals ever since I was kid, I wanted to set records, break records. I love getting track records whenever we qualify. To be able to be the first driver to have … championships (in each series), that would be a pretty cool record to have.”

Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota doing more with less as it goes for ‘Crown Jewel’ sweep

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Sunday’s Brickyard 400 (2 p.m. ET on NBC) presents a big opportunity for Joe Gibbs Racing as NASCAR heads to Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The four-car team has the chance to become the first team to complete a sweep of the Cup Series’ four “Crown Jewel” races – which includes the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 and Southern 500 — in the same year.

And should Kyle Busch come out on top with his third Brickyard win, it will have completed the sweep with all four of its drivers.

Denny Hamlin won the Daytona 500 for his second victory in the race in February, Martin Truex Jr. then claimed his second Coke 600 title in May and Erik Jones finally broke through with his first win of the year in the Southern 500.

“That’s just insane, it truly is,” said David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, Thursday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive.” “To do it with one organization, to do with so far with three different drivers, again it kind of comes back to having the balance that we have across that organization.”

Jones’ win gave JGR 13 wins through 25 races and JGR is the only team to have every driver win this season. The 13 wins is the second-most all-time through 25 races. Carl Kiekhafer Racing had 20 wins at this point in the 1956 season.

Before this year, the most recent examples of a team scoring at least 11 wins through 25 races was Hendrick Motorsports in 2007 and 1998.

“We certainly didn’t expect to win this many races this early in the season,” Wilson said. “Candidly, this year our target was to win no less than 12 races. We’ve checked that box. Our target was to get four Toyota drivers into the playoffs. We checked that box. My gosh, we darn near had five drivers in the playoffs with the way (Matt DiBenedetto‘s) been driving and what he almost did at Bristol.”

Compared to Toyota, Ford has seven wins and Chevrolet has five.

Those are remarkable totals given that Toyota Racing Development only has five full-time entries in the Cup Series, which includes Leavine Family Racing’s No. 95 car. In the Southern 500, there were 16 Ford entries and 17 Chevrolet entries, plus Joey Gase, who also raced a Toyota.

Wilson discussed how Toyota, with JGR as its flagship organization, has found success in the Cup Series despite its low car count.

“This has been a very deliberate strategy,” Wilson said. “It’s contrary to our initial strategy when we came in the sport (Toyota entered the Cup Series in 2007). … At the time Dodge was still participating so we were one of four manufacturers. I simply divided by four and said ultimately our target is to have a proportionate representation on the race track. But circumstantially that just never worked out and what we came to realize and came to appreciate is that having a disproportionate of a few number of cars allowed us to concentrate our resources.

“Because don’t think as we add teams I get more budget, that just doesn’t happen. So again, by having fewer, yet higher quality teams, that’s proven quite successful. It bites us on the speedways (Daytona and Talladega) in the way we’ve come to race on the speedway, just because it does become a numbers game. But by and large you look at the last five years and that served us very well.”

Toyota has two Cup championship since 2015 and has won 72 Cup races in that time

What would it take for Toyota to invest in more entries? Simply, lower costs to compete.

“We as a manufacturer could expand our footprint without necessarily expanding our budget,” Wilson said. “Again, if we can do that in a manner that doesn’t compromise our overall effort as an OEM (original equipment manufacturer), then we’re certainly open to that. The other thread to that common denominator is that it’s not just numbers, it is the quality of the teams and organizations. The industry has been talking a lot about this recently and Matt DiBenedetto and his situation at Leavine Family Racing is kind of an example of this. But it’s not just good enough to have a great driver, you have to have a business plan that will support that driver, partners and sponsors and all of those pieces coming together.

“Again, our success is founded upon the strength of our teams and every piece of that team, the driver, the crew chief, the engineer, the manufacturing, all that comes together. If there are opportunities that present themselves to us with quality organizations, quality people and tied to, again, a model, a participation model that allows us to more with the same, then why wouldn’t we consider adding to our fold?”