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Austin Dillon says Chevy teams need to work together at Daytona

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Austin Dillon, who used a push from Chevrolet teammate Bubba Wallace to win last year’s Daytona 500, says more of that type of teamwork will be needed for Chevy to win Sunday’s race.

Dillon’s triumph last year is Chevrolet’s only victory at Daytona or Talladega since 2016. Fords have won nine of the last 12 restrictor-plate races and Toyota the other two. Before the era of teamwork at the plate tracks, Chevrolet had better results. From 2013-15, Chevrolet and Ford each won five restrictor-plate races and Toyota the other two.

Last fall, Stewart-Haas Racing’s four Fords dominated Talladega and Aric Almirola won after teammate Kurt Busch ran out of fuel on the final corner of the last lap.

“If we get our tails kicked in like we did at Talladega, it’s going to look bad,” Dillon said Wednesday at Daytona 500 Media Day. “Daytona is a little bit different in the fact that handling is more in play more often. What they did (at Talladega) was so impressive. They led the whole race. I don’t see that happening again. Penske did a really good job the other day, I felt like, of leading that pack (in the Clash), so that is kind of scary.”

Although Sunday’s Clash was disjointed by rain delays, the Fords of Team Penske and Wood Brothers Racing, which is aligned with Penske, dominated. Paul Menard’s Ford led 51 of 59 laps and was in front when contact with Jimmie Johnson’s car sent Menard into the wall and Johnson to victory lane.

“I do think it’s a good idea for us to get together to make some sort of game plan,” Dillon said of Chevy teams. “We do a pretty good job of trying to pit together and stay on the same pit strategies. So that is something that will probably be talked about more and more as we get closer to the race. We need to get together, I think, and work on that if that is how the race is going to go.”

Hendrick Motorsports might have its own plan. The organization took the front row for the Daytona 500 and its teams had the four fastest qualifying laps.

“Hendrick, I think they’ve got a game plan,” Dillon said. “I feel like they spent a lot of time in the wind tunnel this offseason for this race specifically, seeing what Stewart-Haas was able to do at Talladega and they took over the first four spots. Our job, we have two cars in the top 10, that was really great. We’ll go race the (Thursday’s) Duels and see how it plays out and link ourselves with them or together we just put ourselves in the right position.”

“Sometimes being the odd man out is not a bad thing because you get to play off of everybody else’s strategy. We’ll just see how it plays out.”

The challenge, though, is how well Fords work together and control the front of the field. Fords led 72.7 percent of the 756 laps run in the restrictor-plate races last year, winning two of those four events.

Denny Hamlin, who won the 2016 Daytona 500 after Toyota teams worked together and controlled the race, says Fords have taken their plan.

“I think that’s really been a lot of the success that Team Penske has had and Stewart-Haas at Talladega,” Hamlin said. “Their cars were just extremely fast and they just stayed in line together. That’s something that we displayed in 2016 with our Toyota teammates and really haven’t been able to replicate since.

“Other manufacturers have more cars. Us five cars can stay all in a line all we want, but if there are nine Fords or 10 Fords that stay in a line, that’s going to be faster. So once we kind of put the blueprint out there of how we work together, it’s been impossible for us to replicate since simply because of numbers.”

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Friday 5: Key questions leading into 2019 Cup season

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Cup teams test in two weeks in Las Vegas. The Daytona 500 is a month away. The new rules package debuts in five weeks in Atlanta.

There are many questions to ponder with the Cup season nearing. Here are five key questions.

1. What will the racing be like?

NASCAR made the decision to go with a new rules package that should make the racing tighter.

Will it? Can this package lead to more side-by-side racing, more beating and banging and more drivers upset with one another?

If it does, this could be among the steps to attract more fans. If not, then what?

2. What’s next from NASCAR?

It could be argued that this year will be among the most pivotal for NASCAR.

Steve Phelps enters his first full season as President. Jim France remains interim Chairman, having taken over after Brian France went on an indefinite leave after his arrest Aug. 5 for aggravated driving while intoxicated and possession of a controlled substance in the 7th degree.

Phelps and Jim France will be among those who decide NASCAR’s direction. Phelps has twice said publicly since late September that “everything is in play” when looking at the Cup schedule for 2020 and beyond.

There has been talk of starting the season earlier and ending it sooner, midweek racing and doubleheaders.

How fans accept what NASCAR does — or doesn’t do — will be key.

3. Can Ford teams — particularly Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske — avoid the new-car blues that Toyota and Chevrolet teams experienced the past two years?

Both Toyota (2017) and Chevrolet (2018) struggled at times with their new cars in their debut seasons. If the same thing happens to Ford this year with the Mustang, it could allow Chevy and Toyota teams a chance to win races, qualify for the playoffs and build playoff points. That could be significant.

Toyota debuted the Camry in 2017 to mixed results. Although Martin Truex Jr. won three times in the first 18 races with the car at Furniture Row Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing could not get any of its Toyotas to Victory Lane until the 19th race of the season.

Things changed in the second half of the season. Toyota cars won 14 of the last 19 races and also the championship.

Chevrolet debuted the Camaro last year and also struggled in the first half of the season. Chevy teams won once — the Daytona 500 — in the first 21 races last year. Chevrolet won three times after that — all by Chase Elliott.

So can Ford teams be strong all season or will they need some time to become dominant or will they struggle much of the year?

4. Will new driver-crew chief pairings lead to wins?

The focus this season will be on Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus no longer working together on the No. 48 team — Johnson will be with rookie Cup crew chief Kevin Meendering and Knaus will be paired with sophomore Cup driver William Byron — but there are other pairings to watch.

After going winless last year, Denny Hamlin will be with crew chief Chris Gabehart, who has won in the Xfinity Series with Hamlin, Erik Jones and Ryan Preece.

Kurt Busch moves to Chip Ganassi Racing for what could be his final Cup season. He’ll look to crew chief Matt McCall to help make this year memorable.

Austin Dillon is reunited with crew chief Danny Stockman. They combined for championships in the Truck and Xfinity Series. While Dillon won last year’s Daytona 500, he wasn’t much of a threat at many other tracks. Can this pairing have success again?

Daniel Suarez lost his ride at Joe Gibbs Racing to make room for Martin Truex Jr. and Cole Pearn. Suarez moves to Stewart-Haas Racing and looks to crew chief Billy Scott to help him succeed.

Ryan Newman moves to Roush Fenway Racing and will have Scott Graves as his crew chief. Graves came from Joe Gibbs Racing. Can these two help raise Roush Fenway Racing’s profile?

5.  Who wins first?

It was shocking that Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson each went winless last year.

Don’t count on that happening this year. Don’t be surprised to see all three win this year. As for who will be the first to win? You don’t have much longer to find out. The season is approaching quickly.

Toyota executive: ‘Potentially more’ than five supported cars in Cup in 2019

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Toyota Racing Development President David Wilson said there “absolutely is intent” for there to be “at least” five Toyota-supported cars in the Cup Series in 2019 and “potentially more.”

Wilson made his comments three weeks after Furniture Row Racing announced it will shut down at the end of this season.

Without the No. 78 Toyota, that leaves just the four cars owned by Joe Gibbs Racing. Last year, FRR fielded Erik Jones in the No. 77, giving Toyota six cars.

“We’re spending a tremendous amount of energy and focus on that, of course,” Wilson said Wednesday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “Tradin’ Paint” of adding cars. “Nobody is happy. Nobody is pleased with losing Furniture Row. It’s something we’re all disappointed with. We at the same time respect the very difficult decision (owner) Barney Visser had to make.

“So as an OEM (manufacturer), we need to try and again put ourselves in the best competitive positioning going forward. That alliance we had going the past three years has been simply magical and something we’ve enjoyed a tremendous amount of success with. I’ve said this before, but we would not have won our first manufacturer championship without both Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing performing at the levels that they have been, let alone our second manufacturer’s championship we won last year.”

With Furniture Row Racing and JGR, Toyota has won two of the last four Cup titles and gone to Victory Lane 58 times since 2015.

A likely replacement for FRR in the Toyota camp is Leavine Family Racing, which fields the No. 95 Chevrolet that has been driven by Kasey Kahne and Regan Smith this season.

The team revealed in August during the Watkins Glen race weekend it would be exiting its technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing at the end of the year.

Team owner Bob Leavine told NBC Sports he has been speaking to the sport’s other manufacturers – Ford and Toyota – about making a transition.

“In our talking to the manufacturers this year, Toyota has been head-and-shoulders above the rest so far,” Leavine said.  “Everything we have investigated and done with Toyota has felt good from one end of the spectrum, the technical, to just the relationship basis.”

Ford looks to party in Indianapolis like it’s 1999

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Indianapolis Motor Speedway was once a happy place for Ford’s NASCAR efforts.

In the early years of the Brickyard 400, the blue oval was a regular presence in Victory Lane at 2.5-mile track, winning three of four races thanks to Dale Jarrett (1996, 1999) and Ricky Rudd (1997).

Then the turn of the century happened.

Ford has gone winless in one of NASCAR’s biggest races in the 18 years since Jarrett last kissed the bricks (a tradition Jarrett started in 1996).

Since then, the full-time Cup careers of Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Danica Patrick have come and gone and Tony Stewart won all 49 of his Cup races.

In that time, four other manufacturers have triumphed in Indy, with Chevrolet running away with 14 victories over Toyota (two) and the departed Dodge and Pontiac, who claimed one win each.

But entering the 25th annual Brickyard 400 this weekend (2 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN), Ford is in a fairly happy place.

The manufacturer is coming off a win in the Southern 500 with Brad Keselowski and Team Penske, the team’s first Darlington Raceway victory since 1975.

Ford now has 12 wins through the season’s first 25 races. At this point in 2017 it had eight of an eventual 10 wins. In 2016, it had six of eight victories. In 2015, they had four of seven wins.

Entering the regular-season finale, the first time Indianapolis has hosted it, Ford’s dominance has been centered on one team: Stewart-Haas Racing.

The four-car team has 10 of the 12 wins, with Penske claiming the other two through Keselowski and Joey Logano (Talladega). Kevin Harvick has a series-leading seven wins.

But every current Ford team is looking for their first Brickyard win for the manufacturer.

Though Penske is the king of Indy in open-wheel racing, it has proved to be one of its worst tracks in NASCAR.

In 51 combined starts, Penske has 10 top fives, its fourth fewest on Cup’s active tracks. Its 20 top 10s are its third fewest. Its 316 laps led are only ahead of its totals at Watkins Glen (230) and Sonoma (273).

But like Ford’s improved overall success in the last three seasons, Penske has gained ground at Indy.

Logano has three top fives in his last four starts at Indy. Keselowski earned his first in eight starts last year with a runner-up finish in a race marred by late wrecks.

Stewart-Haas Racing has an Indy win, but that came in 2013 with Ryan Newman driving a Chevrolet. The team transitioned to Ford in 2017.

In 27 combined starts, SHR has five top fives (second fewest), 11 top 10s (third fewest) and 144 laps led, ahead of only its Watkins Glen total (78 laps).

Since joining SHR the year after Newman’s Brickyard win, Kevin Harvick has been the team’s leader at the track. He has four top 10s and one top five in his four starts.

Ford’s other major team is Roush Fenway Racing.

In 93 combined starts, the team has earned 16 top fives (fourth fewest), 30 top 10s (fourth fewest) and led 173 laps, which is only better than its total at Kentucky (38 laps).

Roush hasn’t placed in the top five at Indy since 2012 with Greg Biffle (third).

Matt Kenseth, who is competing part-time this year for Roush, will make his 19th Brickyard 400 start.

He has three runner-up results at IMS (2003, 2006, 2016) and has placed seventh or better in his last five starts there. Those starts came with Joe Gibbs Racing.

“There’s no other track we go to that compares to Indy,” Kenseth said in a press release. “It’s two-and-a-half miles, but it’s one of the flattest tracks on the circuit, and it has such long straightaways that you’re carrying a lot of speed going into those flat turns. It’s also pretty narrow and you need to find ways to get track position, because there’s just not a lot of room to pass.”

Kenseth’s first Indy start came in 2000, the year after Jarrett delivered Ford its last Brickyard win.

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Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick optimistic about prospects of Mustang in Cup

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The question came quickly after Ford revealed its Mustang model for Cup competition Thursday: How would Ford avoid the slow starts that resulted from NASCAR’s previous model changes for Toyota in 2017 and Chevrolet this year?

After Toyota went to the new Camry model last year, Joe Gibbs Racing failed to visit Victory Lane in the first 18 races. Meanwhile, eventual champion Martin Truex Jr. won three times in that span in his Toyota. JGR ultimately won eight races in 2017.

Last weekend’s win by Chase Elliott at Watkins Glen was just the second in 22 races for Chevrolet with its new Camaro model. The first was in the Daytona 500 with Austin Dillon.

“I don’t think with either of those two cases it’s been the car,” Brad Keselowski said after the Mustang announcement at Ford’s world headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan. “I think there’s been other issues. That’s the thing about this sport. The car is super important but it’s not the only piece. You have the weekend execution, you have the driver piece, the pit crew piece. All those things have to come together and I don’t think in those two scenarios it was the car that held them back. I don’t think it will for us either.”

The Team Penske driver said Ford has learned “a lot” from what Toyota and Chevy went through.

“I think you learn as much from how others have done it as you learn from NASCAR and how they go about the process … and learn where the opportunities are,” Keselowski said.

Any misgivings Kevin Harvick has about the new model are tempered by what Stewart-Haas Racing experienced in 2017 when it switched to Ford from Chevy.

“I think the strongest part of our company is the aero side of things,” Harvick said. “In my opinion, switching from one manufacturer to another is way more challenging. Having all the teams and the people involved in the process of designing the car obviously gives you some characteristics of how the car works, what it likes, what it doesn’t like and things like that.

“As a team and as a group, Ford wouldn’t be making a change if we didn’t think there was more potential to be better.”

“I don’t have any reservations about it,” said SHR co-owner Tony Stewart about the move to the Mustang.

One question that hasn’t been answered is what rules package Cup teams will have next year.

“I think it would be foolish for me to stand here and say I’m 100 percent certain it’s going to go well, because you never know where things are going to be and apparently don’t know where there rules are going to be,” Harvick said.

NASCAR sent a proposed rules package to teams last week. Teams are reviewing it and then will get back with officials to discuss.

NASCAR has stated that it plans to use a package similar to the one used in the All-Star Race next year. The All-Star package included a restrictor plate, air ducts, a taller spoiler and the 2014 style splitter.

In the rules package sent to teams it included horsepower targets based on open throttle time and what plate sizes would be needed.

People who saw the rules proposal last week told NBC Sports it didn’t state how many races it would be used in.

“If we end up going with the All-Star package, it’s a real dart board,” Keselowski said. “Because none of the cars have been tested under that configuration. I have no idea how we’ll be competitively. But if we go or stick with a package similar to what we have right now, I expect this race car to be extremely competitive and a pretty big advancement from where we’re at right now with the Fusion.”

Of the wait for the package to be confirmed, Stewart said “It’s always been that way.

“You act like this is something new. This is their MO. This is not something we’re not used to.”

Dustin Long and Nate Ryan contributed to this report