Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

Friday 5: Time is now for change in NASCAR

15 Comments

Tis the season when hopes and dreams fill so many heads.

None more this holiday season than NASCAR fans, who look to a changing future with anticipation.

NASCAR President Steve Phelps has twice said publicly since late September that “everything is in play” when looking at the NASCAR Cup schedule in 2020 and beyond.

Since this is a time of hopes and dreams, here are five things NASCAR should do:

1. Move the All-Star Race to Eldora Speedway 

It’s time for Cup to get dirty again. While there has been talk of connecting to grassroots racing — Phelps said in September that “we want Kyle Larson to talk about NASCAR racing and dirt racing and things that are his passion” — it’s time to turn words into action.

Take Cup to the dirt track for the non-points race.

But it will take away what makes the Truck race there unique, some might say.

Maybe so, but the fact is NASCAR runs more on what happens in Cup than the Truck Series.

This is a time to be bold. Put Cup cars on dirt. Maybe it works. Maybe it doesn’t but you don’t know if you don’t try. Start off with this special event and if the fans like what they see, then it can continue as an All-Star event or eventually become a points race.

2. Have a doubleheader at Martinsville …

In the playoffs.

Take one of the playoff venues out and have two Martinsville races on back-to-back days.

And cut the race from 500 laps to 300 laps each day. That way there is little time to ride around. Make these short races so drivers have to go.

Can you imagine the potential for two rough-and-tumble finishes with a spot in the third round at stake? Drivers upset with one another on Saturday? Why wait until a couple of weeks later at Phoenix for payback when one could possibly do it the next day?

With the shortened distances there could be less patience. Doesn’t mean it will be a free-for-all. Drivers still have to protect their fenders. Still, makes one wonder what it could be like.

3. Midweek races

The time is coming for these. It’s just a matter of how many. I suggested earlier this year that NASCAR have a summer series of midweek races and suggested the first one should be at Martinsville. Move that track out of its March date for at least one year and have the oldest track kick off this special series.

For these midweek races, tracks can truly make it a doubleheader. Maybe run a Truck or Xfinity race during the day. Or be creative and add some other series or event that can attract fans.

4. Better cell and wifi service at tracks

Some places are better than others but in this era when people share their experiences over social media, it is disappointing that fans can go to an event and not be able to send photos or videos or such to others.

This should be among the top priorities for fans in 2019 and beyond.

5. Be aggressive

This is no time to be timid. That doesn’t mean the sport makes radical changes on a whim but there needs to different mindset on how to approach ways. Methodical is good but it also can be slow. Sometimes, one has to try be willing to take a chance to see if something will work.

It is that time.

Friday 5: Turnaround in 2018 has Aric Almirola looking ahead to 2019

Leave a comment

Aric Almirola‘s performance this season at Stewart-Haas Racing provided validation to a driver who had not raced in the best Cup equipment before 2018.

Almirola improved 24 spots from last year to finish a career-high fifth in the points, the biggest turnaround from one season to the next in Cup since the elimination format debuted in 2014. 

Part of the reason for Almirola’s jump was because he missed seven races last year after being injured in a crash at Kansas Speedway and finishing 29th in points for Richard Petty Motorsports.

Almirola also showed what he could do in his first year at Stewart-Haas Racing.

“For me, there was always some amount of self-doubt, how much am I a contributor to the performance not being where I want it to be,” Almirola said this week in Las Vegas ahead of Thursday’s NASCAR Awards. “Sometimes you have to take that long, hard look in the mirror. I think for me … with my future and career being uncertain, one thing I was really hopeful for was that I would get an opportunity in a really good car to be able to know, hey, is it me or not? If I get that opportunity, can I make the most of it? Can I compete?

“I was fortunate enough that things worked out for me that I was able to get that opportunity. Some people never get that opportunity. But I was able to get that opportunity with Stewart-Haas Racing. I’ve got the best equipment in the garage area, and I was able to go out and compete. I ran up front and won a race and finished in the top five in points. It was a great year for me personally.”

Almirola nearly won in his first race with SHR this season. He led the Daytona 500 on the last lap before contact from Austin Dillon sent him into the wall and Dillon to the victory.

Almirola was in position to win at Dover when a caution for teammate Clint Bowyer came out in the final laps. Almirola pitted and then wrecked on the restart. Almirola won at Talladega when he passed teammate Kurt Busch after Busch ran out of fuel on the final lap.

“Now that we’ve got a year under our belt, and I feel like we achieved quite a bit, we can really focus in on our weaknesses and where we didn’t perform at our best and try to make that better. We can circle back to some of the tracks we ran really well at and figure out what we need to do to capitalize on some of those races where we felt like we could have won and didn’t do it. It’s very reasonable to have higher expectations going into next year.”

2. Not going anywhere

For those who wondered — and there were some whispers in Miami — Brad Keselowski will be back with Team Penske for the 2019 season.

“I don’t know where that came from,” Keselowski said Wednesday in Las Vegas of questions at the end of the season that he might retire. “As far as I’m aware (all is good). I will be at Team Penske driving the No. 2 car this year to the best of my knowledge. I’m under contract to do so.”

Recall that Keselowski was outspoken in June about the package that was used in the All-Star Race and warned then that “if we overdose on that particular form of racing, it will have … a long-term negative effect.”

Keselowski suggested in June that fewer talented drivers would come to NASCAR over time if the All-Star package became the primary one. NASCAR adopted a package for 2019 similar to what was used in the All-Star Race but added more horsepower than was used in that race.

One change for Keselowski is that he’ll have a new spotter. Joey Meier announced Nov. 19 that he would not be spotting for Keselowski in 2019, saying he had “been told my time as the 2 Car spotter has come to the checkered flag.” Keselowski said that a new hire hasn’t been made yet.

3. Offseason plans

What does a racer do when the season ends? Race, of course. At least that is what Alex Bowman will do.

He’ll compete in a midget at the Gateway Dirt Nationals today and Saturday at The Dome at America’s Center, the former home of the St. Louis Rams NFL team before they moved to Los Angeles.

Bowman also plans to run a midget at the Junior Knepper 55” USAC Midget event Dec. 15 in the Southern Illinois Center in Du Quoin, Illinois in preparation for the Chili Bowl in January in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He also has entered a midget for C.J. Leary for the Chili Bowl, which will be Jan. 14-19.

Not every driver will race in the next few weeks.

Ryan Blaney says he’ll leave Saturday for Hawaii. It’s his first trip there.

“It wasn’t my first choice, but the group I was with wanted to go,” he said Wednesday in Las Vegas. “I would like to go somewhere other than America to try to change up the culture, but I think that’s enough of a culture change in Hawaii to experience new things.”

He also plans to do some snowboarding before being home in January when his sister gives birth to her child.

Erik Jones said he’ll do some ice fishing – “go sit out in the cold and look at a hole in the ice, it’s just relaxing for me.” He said he plans to spend time with family in Michigan enjoying the holidays.

Denny Hamlin said he’ll go to St. Barts for a friend’s 50th birthday celebration. “Just going down there for some vacation time in the next few weeks and after that just spend some time at home relaxing.”

Austin Dillon said he expects to be in a deer stand for some time before Christmas.

4. ‘Exciting’ move

Kyle Larson calls the pairing of the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West and the World of Outlaws in a doubleheader at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway Dirt Track in February “exciting” but he says a key will be track preparation.

When the K&N Pro Series West raced at the Vegas Dirt Track in September, the conditions were so dusty that it impacted the racing and viewing for fans.

“I think for them to both be able to showcase how cool the event is, the track needs to be right, the way it is prepped needs to be right,” Larson said this week. “That’s the only thing I”m nervous about, judging how the (K&N West) race went a few months ago.

“I just hope that the track is good so fans can get the opportunity to see some good racing in a few different series.”

5. Together again

Among those joining Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Cole Pearn in moving to Joe Gibbs Racing will be car chief Blake Harris and an engineer, Truex said in Las Vegas.

Having Pearn in the JGR shop should prove beneficial for all, Kyle Busch said.

“Adam (Stevens’) and Cole’s offices will be right next door to one another instead of being on a chat all the time,” Busch said of his crew chief and Pearn.

Busch likened Truex and Pearn helping the organization as much as Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth did. Joe Gibbs Racing won 26 of 72 races in 2015-16 when both Edwards and Kenseth were there. 

Friday 5: Tony Gibson seeks to win Cup title four months after hospitalization

Leave a comment

Four months after suffering what he called a “mini-stroke” that impacted his vision and hearing, Tony Gibson could help lead Kevin Harvick to the Cup title.

The 54-year-old Gibson, as affable and easygoing as anyone who has worked a lifetime in the Cup garage, will be on Harvick’s pit box Sunday in Miami as crew chief Rodney Childers sits out his last race of a two-race suspension.

Gibson will be there after spending more than a month off from work recovering from his health issues.

“I was actually just driving home from work (July 6) and just had a real, I just could not get my brain to function with my hands and my feet, and I could not drive any further and knew something was wrong,” Gibson said. “Just wasn’t sure, and ended up going to the emergency room and put me in for observation that night, and then about one in the morning they came back and they had done several scans and told me I had a blood clot in my vertebral artery.”

Gibson said he was hospitalized more than a week before he was released. The blood clot started to dissolve but then it caused what Gibson called a mini-stroke, leaving him without 85 percent of his hearing in his left ear and cost him most of the function of his left eye.”

He went through therapy. He continues to see doctors. Gibson had an appointment with his neurologist today that had to be canceled since he’s in Miami.

“I was very lucky, and I don’t take that for granted,” Gibson said. “There’s a lot of people out there that are way worse than me, so it’s just something that I’ll overcome and I’ll get used to it and go on.”

When Stewart-Haas Racing asked him to fill in for Childers after his penalty for an infraction discovered in Harvick’s winning car at Texas, Gibson had to consult his doctors to make sure it was OK for him to fly.

“They said I’m probably safer than anybody on the plane as far as blood clots with the medicines that I’m on,” Gibson said.

“Other than having to get up and walk around on the plane and do my normal stuff that I do, they were pretty satisfied with me doing it, and if all possible, I was going. There was no way I was going to let those guys down.”

Gibson was a natural choice to fill in for Childers. Gibson has faced championship pressure before. The Daytona Beach native was on Alan Kulwicki’s crew when Kulwicki won the 1992 title. Gibson was the car chief for Jeff Gordon’s team when Gordon won crowns in 1998 and 2001. Gibson was a crew chief from 2003-17, winning the 2017 Daytona 500 with Kurt Busch.

But Gibson decided in December he wanted off the road, writing on social media “Traveling 4 days a week for 31 years can take a toll on you.”

He took a role in the shop, coordinating the work on the cars for all four Cup teams as production manager. That kept him at home with family and gave him plenty of time for fishing.

Then again, it’s hard to keep racers from the track. That’s where he’ll be Sunday.

2. Got his back

For as much success as Kevin Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers have had in their time together since 2014, their winning percentage (12.5 percent) is just slightly better than what Martin Truex Jr. and Cole Pearn have accumulated (12.0 percent) since 2015.

So how have Truex and Pearn achieved such success? It started when Pearn was Truex’s engineer at Furniture Row Racing in 2014 when the team struggled.

“Our cars were not very good,” Truex said. “We had some major issues that took a while to figure out. But he never pointed the finger at me.  He did a lot of the setups and a lot of the work on the cars, and he was the one writing down the notes and taking all my feedback.

“As far as I know, and as far as I could tell, he believed in me 100 percent in that time when we were running 20th. I felt like (he) always had my back and was always willing to go the extra mile to figure it out. Once we did, obviously, you’ve seen what happened. But that just gave me the trust and the confidence that he had my back and he was my guy, and we figured it out together.”

3. Success of failure?

Kyle Busch has tied his career-high for wins in a season with eight, already has a career-high in top fives (21) and top 10s (27) and has the best average finish (8.4) of his career.

But can such a year be successful if it doesn’t come with a championship?

 “I would say it’s certainly been a successful year, but I don’t think it would be truly successful without being able to bring home that championship,” Busch said.

Busch was asked if it would be more disappointing to lose the title this year after the season he’s had.

“I guess it depends on who you lose it to,” he said. “Obviously, Harvick’s done a phenomenal job. Those guys and that group have been so good all season long, even in the late stages of last year. You lose it to him, and it’s like, yeah, okay, I can see why they got it. In all honesty, I feel like we’ve been right there toe-to-toe with them. He wins a week, I can win a week, he wins a week, I can win a week. Truex wins a week, I win a week, he wins a week. That’s kind of the way this season’s gone.”

Busch was asked if it would be more disappointing to lose the title to Logano since Logano hasn’t had the overall season Harvick and Truex have had.

“I would agree with that statement,” Busch said. “(Logano has) been there. He’s been consistent. He’s been good. He hasn’t necessarily performed to the level of the big three, and that’s no shake on them at all. 

“It’s just the fact of the matter. So if he wins the title over the rest of us, then that would certainly be a little bit more disappointing.”

4. Back in time

The past four years, the driver who won the championship won the race. If that trend continues this year, then Joey Logano would need to win on a 1.5-mile track for the first time in 2015 at Kansas in the playoffs – a span of 34 races on 1.5-mile tracks.

Logano is encouraged with how his team has performed in recent races on 1.5-mile tracks.

“I think we were really good at Kansas this year,” Logano said of a race he led 100 of 267 laps before placing eighth. “We may not have won the race, but we sat on the pole, led most laps that race.

  “We ran pretty well (at Homestead-Miami Speedway last year), as well. I feel confident in that. I feel confident we’re going to make a lot of pit stops because the tires wear out really quick. I have so much confidence in this pit crew to do their job that we’re going to go out there and do our things, have fun with that.”

5. A special celebration

If Kevin Harvick wins the championship Sunday, 6-year-old son Keelan has a special celebration he wants to do.

Harvick said Keelan asked him Wednesday night that if he won the championship could they do anything they wanted.

“If you win the championship, you can do pretty much anything you want,” Harvick told his son.

“He’s like, We’re going to climb the fence, dad. I said, Okay, I’ll watch. You climb the fence.”

Friday 5: Why Christopher Bell won’t have a full-time Cup ride in 2019

Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images
Leave a comment

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Leavine Family Racing’s announcement Wednesday that it will align with Toyota and have Matt DiBenedetto drive the No. 95 car next season was not a surprise.

But it’s understandable to ask why Christopher Bell isn’t in that car next year.

Bell has been dominant in Xfinity for Joe Gibbs Racing this season and said in August he feels ready for Cup. He has finished in the top five in nearly 60 percent of his starts this year and set a series rookie record with his sixth Xfinity win last weekend at Dover International Speedway. This is after he won the Camping World Truck Series title last year for Toyota at Kyle Busch Motorsports.

So why wasn’t Bell introduced as the driver of the No. 95 car?

“Between ourselves and Joe Gibbs Racing, we’ve been very intentional about Christopher’s development,” David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, told NBC Sports. “Was there some conversation? Absolutely. But we collectively decided to stay the course and genuinely believe it will serve Christopher to invest another year (in Xfinity). It’s not going to hurt him.

“One of the challenges of this new alliance is next year we’re … starting from some respects from ground zero (with a new partner in Leavine Family Racing). I don’t think it’s fair to put a rookie driver in the midst of that. This is why Matt will be a good fit. His experience will lend itself to building this alliance and building the level of competitiveness.”

Leavine Family Racing owner Bob Leavine watches the action during the Southern 500. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Leavine Family Racing replaces Furniture Row Racing, which will cease operations at the end of this season, in the Toyota camp. But the two teams are very different. Leavine Family Racing is behind where Furniture Row Racing was when it joined Toyota in 2016. Furniture Row Racing had already won in Cup. Leavine Family Racing has not. Even though both are single-car teams this year, car owner Bob Leavine said his team has 35 employees, about half the number that work at Furniture Row Racing. Leavine also said he doesn’t have the budget Furniture Row Racing has.

Wilson’s focus of building Leavine Family Racing is understandable.

Wilson confirmed that Toyota Racing Development will support five Cup teams next year — the four Joe Gibbs Racing teams and Leavine Family Racing — and no more.

But there’s still a way for Bell to run some Cup races next year. Leavine said he planned to ask Wilson about Toyota Racing Development providing an extra engine to run Bell from time to time.

“That’s for them to decide,” Leavine said. “We’re just going to be available if they want to do it to put it all together and make it all work.”

Joe Gibbs Racing, which will provide the cars to Leavine Family Racing, also would have to be able to build cars for those extra races.

Wilson is open to the idea of a second Leavine Family Racing car running at times if it makes sense.

“We’ve not made any definitive plans along those lines but certainly it gives us some options,’’ he said. “The challenge in doing that is making sure that you do it in a manner, not that you expect to win per say, (but) you can risk spreading your resources too thin.

“Next year will be our first year with LFR and the priority needs to be building their capabilities and building their success, so if we have the opportunity to do something creative like that without compromising our primary mission, then we might take a look at that.”

2. What’s next for Toyota’s youngsters?

Even with Noah Gragson leaving the Toyota lineup after this season to drive in the Xfinity Series for JR Motorsports, Toyota still has a bounty of young talent.

Among those who have yet to reach the Truck Series are Hailie Deegan and Logan Seavey.

Deegan returns to the track this weekend for the first time since her K&N Pro Series West win two weeks ago in Meridian, Idaho.

The 17-year-old is fifth in the points in her first season in the series. Is her win and two runner-up finishes this season enough to have her run a Toyota Truck at Martinsville or Phoenix later this season?

“There’s no plans right now to put her anywhere this year,” David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, told NBC Sports. “We’re still working very closely with Hailie and the family about the right steps, the next steps. I don’t think we’ve made any definitive decisions at this point.”

So what about a Truck next year?

“There’s not a plan,” Wilson said. “You need to put her experience in perspective. She’s literally only run 20-something races on pavement and is 17 years old. She just need mores races, more laps, more seat time. There’s not a burning urgency of we’ve got to get her in a truck.”

A possibility for her could be to move to the K&N Pro Series East next year and run the full season there.

Another Toyota driver looking to move up the development ladder is Seavey, who leads the USAC National Midget standings and seeks to become the third rookie to win that championship.

The 21-year-old Seavey, whose background is on dirt tracks, made his Camping World Truck Series debut in July at Eldora Speedway and finished eighth after leading 53 laps.

So what’s next for Seavey?

“We have a lot of faith and belief in Logan,” Wilson said. “What we’ll see with Logan is just more pavement time. We’ve got some great relationships across the Super Late Model ranks and I would expect next year that we give him some more opportunities with (those) races and maybe some K&N and ARCA. He’s definitely on the right track and we’re excited about his potential.”

3. Right from the start

Kyle Busch and wife Samantha have been open about their struggles to have children and that they had to go through in vitro fertilization to have son Brexton in May 2015.

Since their son’s birth, they’ve created the Bundle of Joy Fund that gives grants to couples who need such treatments to have children. Those treatments can cost $15,000 or more and insurance doesn’t cover it.

Kyle and Samantha Busch pose with son Brexton and many of the families that have had children through grants from the Bundle of Joy Fund. (Photo: Dustin Long)

The Bundle of Joy Fund has led to the birth of more than a dozen children. Many of those families gathered in August for a play date and to all be together for the first time.

Kyle and Samantha both recently announced that they are wanting to give Brexton a baby sister and said they planned to share all the ups and downs they go through during this process publicly.

“If we only showed the good times, and we only showed when it was a success and went well, that’s not fair to all the women that have (not had stories that have gone like that),” Samantha Busch told NBC Sports.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen, and it is a little scary to know that things may come up down the road that may not be as easy as last time, but for all those couples out there that need to go through this or have gone through this and need to know that they’re not alone and need to understand that this can happen to anybody, I think it’s important to start from the beginning this time.’’

Samantha said she has begun taking a shot a night to prepare her body for the process and will be scheduled to have additional shots before the in vitro fertilization takes place.

4. No to the Roval theory

The notion that the end of the Charlotte Roval race was the final straw that led to Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus splitting after this season is not true, they say.

“Not even close,” Johnson said.

“I think it was already done” by then, Knaus said of the decision.

Johnson was second and in a position to advance to this round of the playoffs but challenged Martin Truex Jr. for the win and spun in the final chicane. The result was that Johnson lost enough spots and Kyle Larson gained a spot on the last lap to forge a three-way tie among Johnson, Larson and Aric Almirola for the final two transfer spots. Larson and Almirola advanced based on their best finish in the first round was better than Johnson’s best.

Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson discuss their plans to split after this year. (Photo: Dustin Long)

That was … heartbreaking,” Knaus said Thursday of the Roval finish, (but) that was not part of it. I wanted to win that race just as bad as he did. 

“I beat myself up more than I probably ever blamed Jimmie for what happened there. I could have probably come on the radio and said one or two things and he probably would have maybe thought and checked up a little bit, but my last words to him was ‘go get his ass.’”

Said Johnson: “I was crossing the start/finish line watching the white flag wave when he said that… yeah, that is what we do, we are there to win.”

5. New frontier 

With Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus splitting after this season, Knaus will become William Byron’s crew chief.

Byron is excited about the opportunity to work with the seven-time champion crew chief and knows it will push him to be better.

I think Chad is going to be brutally honest with me, and I’m okay with that,” Byron said Thursday. “I want to succeed in this sport. That’s my number one goal, and I’ll do whatever it takes to do that.”

Although Knaus is 47 and Byron is 20, Byron says he sees similarities with Knaus.

Probably attention to detail,” Byron said. “Type A personality. I don’t like excuses so that will fit well.”

Knaus said he’s “so geeked up” to be working next year with Byron and the No. 24 team, a team Knaus worked for when he started at Hendrick Motorsports in 1993.

Jimmie Johnson said he thinks the pairing of Knaus and Byron will be good.

“I am really excited for William,” Johnson said. “We have chatted quite a bit about it, and I feel that William is a lot like me. He likes to be coached along. I think there are some personalities that liked to be coached and others that don’t thrive or succeed in that environment. William is a lot like me in that he likes to be coached and with Chad’s wisdom and years and experience his intensity and desire to win, I think it could do a lot of good for him.”

 and on Facebook

 

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

Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images
1 Comment

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.

 and on Facebook