Friday 5

Friday 5: Team’s departure adds to ‘extremely stressful’ time

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While NASCAR celebrates Michael Jordan’s entry as a Cup owner, his arrival comes at the expense of another team.

Jordan and Denny Hamlin purchased Germain Racing’s charter, marking the end of that single-car team when the season concludes Nov. 8 at Phoenix Raceway.

Seven races remain for Germain Racing, Ty Dillon and the team’s 40-plus employees before they scatter, some within the sport and others elsewhere. The team races for the first time since the announcement Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN). 

“It’s not been real easy the last couple of weeks,” Dillon told NBC Sports.

He has been Germain Racing’s driver the past four seasons. The team, which won Truck titles in 2006 and 2010 with Todd Bodine, has competed in Cup since 2009. Germain Racing’s best Cup finish is fourth, accomplished by both Dillon and Casey Mears.

The team’s future soured when GEICO determined it would not return after this season. Without sponsorship money and with multiple groups interested in the team’s charter, a sale became the best route for owner Bob Germain. Hamlin and Jordan quickly put together an effort to buy the charter and made headlines with their deal.

With lives upturned by the novel coronavirus, Germain Racing employees now seek work in a pandemic. It adds stress to a 2020 that has tested so many.

“We all in life go through things,” Dillon said. “Life is … never going to be easy or perfect. For me, this has definitely been an extremely stressful time with all the things, the virus that is going on, our team announces that we’re selling and is sold now with seven races to go, and you still have people that you care about that you want to see get opportunities.

“Everyone is trying to keep a good attitude. It’s a very tough situation. Then I have a little girl (who turns 3 in November) and my wife is pregnant and we’re going to have our son in November. You have your virus concerns and also wanting to make sure your daughter is raised and still be able to get out and do things a 2 1/2-year-old should be able to do. That is what is most important to me over all things, spending time with her.

“Then you have in the back of your mind you want to provide for your family. I’m 28 years old and just getting started. … Also, I’ve been (racing) since I was 13, I’ve put a lot of effort and time in it myself. I feel like I still haven’t gotten to prove what I’m fully capable of yet. That’s always in the back of my mind. So it’s been extremely stressful.”

Dillon said he’s relied on his faith to navigate these challenges.

“I believe that God is with me in this process, no matter how much I don’t understand,” he said. “He’s on the other side. He’s going to put me in a place that is going to allow me to do the most for his kingdom, and he’s going to bring me the most joy at the end of wherever I’m going here.

“Knowing that is my teeth in this bit of a storm. It’s definitely not an easy season, and I’m immature in the fact that I want to know what is going to happen.”

Dillon, who finished a season-best 10th at Las Vegas in February, said he’s put together sponsorship for 2021. He is among a number of drivers who have not announced rides for next year. That list includes Clint Bowyer, Corey LaJoie, Daniel Suarez, Chase Briscoe, Austin Cindric and Justin Haley, among others. 

Dillon told NBC Sports that “this week and next week are going to be really crucial weeks in figuring out what the next step is. There’s an array of things that can happen and I’m not sure which one is going to happen.”

2. Staying Power

While Michael Jordan has made news for coming to NASCAR, the key is how long he stays as an owner.

The sport is filled with former athletes and celebrities who have come and gone in ownership roles through the years.

While many in the sport hope Jordan can help attract more fans and businesses, he needs to remain in the sport to help achieve some of those goals.

Denny Hamlin, who is partnering with Jordan on the new team with Bubba Wallace as driver, told NBC Sports and Fox in an exclusive interview this week that he is confident he can create a program with staying power.

“He has me to help him with the day-to-day stuff,” Hamlin said of Jordan. “Obviously, I’ve got a day job, racing a car and that’s what I’m going to continue to do for years and years with my FedEx team, but I know enough about this sport that I can help guide this ownership team in the right direction.”

The team is expected to align with Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing.

Another key will be the personnel hired to run the team with Hamlin racing and Jordan busy as owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets and his other business ventures.

“I think we’re going to have the ability by starting a team from scratch essentially of hiring the best people available at every position,” Hamlin said. “Believe me, since this became public knowledge, we’ve already started those conversations.

“We’re going to give Bubba the best possibility or chance to win in Year 1. I believe that he can win in the first year, but I’m also not naive to think this is an easy business either. It’s hard to win.

“Two years ago, I didn’t win a race. I’ve got 12 years experience and I’m with the best team. My teammate, Kyle Busch, is one of the best, and hasn’t won yet in 2020. It’s not easy. It’s going to be difficult, but I have very good faith that Bubba is going to have everything that he needs to be capable of winning.”

If so, that should keep Jordan in the sport for a long time.

3. TikTok the timing was right

For all the time Ryan Vargas spent searching for sponsorship, networking in the NASCAR garage and looking for a ride in the Xfinity Series, he could have not imagined how he landed a deal with this year’s hottest social media property.

Credit goes to Ryan Pistana, a friend of Vargas who designs paint schemes for some NASCAR teams.

Pistana created a TikTok car for Vargas because Vargas uses the social app so much. Pistana posted his concept scheme for Vargas on social media in July.

TikTok soon saw the image and talks began.

TikTok
Ryan Vargas’ TikTok car for JD Motorsports mirrors the design Vargas’ friend, Ryan Pistana, created in July and posted on social media. (Photo: JD Motorsports)

“They loved the scheme, they loved the sport,” Vargas told NBC Sports. “They’re very enthusiastic about jumping in.”

TikTok also had a good representative in Vargas, who has more than 40,000 followers and nearly 600,000 likes. Vargas’ TikTok videos are a mix of fun, behind the scenes images and inspiration.

Within about two months, TikTok completed a six-race deal with Vargas and JD Motorsports that will begin next week at Talladega Superspeedway. The agreement allows Vargas to run the rest of the season.

Those six races equal the number of races Vargas has run in the series since last year. He ran three races last year and three this season.

When he hasn’t been racing, he’s often been on the road crew for JD Motorsports. In the last month, Vargas was a mechanic for BJ McLeod’s car at Richmond and Daytona, drove for the team at Darlington (finishing 25th) and was a mechanic for Jeffrey Earnhardt’s car at Dover.

“I learn just by doing that,” Vargas said of his role as mechanic at the track. “So when I hop into the car, I know what I want changed.”

It’s a great learning experience but drivers want to drive and Vargas is no different.

“I would be lying to you if I said that didn’t kind of sting sometimes, your friends are out there racing and doing what they want,” he said. “I’ve experienced what it’s like to have pretty much everything fall apart. I was very close to being completely done racing at the end of 2018, so I know what it’s like to sit out and not be in the car.”

Vargas credits a meeting with Mike Davis, director of brand strategy for JR Motorsports and co-host with Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the Dale Jr. Download, with helping him push through after the 2018 season.

“His piece of advice to me, be present, have your gear and never stop working,” Vargas said of what Davis told him in their meeting.

Vargas has kept following his dream. Now he has a ride for six races thanks to social media.

4. A fan’s last ride

For nearly 20 years, Kenneth Chase took grandson Brendon Harmon to NASCAR races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

They’d travel from Chase’s home in Sebago, Maine and camp with friends and family. Sometimes the group was so large, they’d need a second camper to accommodate everyone.

The trips started when Harmon was about 5 years old. They continued when Chase, known as Pa to his grandchildren, was found to have prostrate cancer.

Kenneth Chase with grandson Brendon Harmon at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2014. (Photo: Brendon Harmon)

As his grandfather went through treatments in 2012, Harmon decided he wanted to take him to the Daytona 500.

Harmon worked two jobs and saved more than $3,000 so he could take his grandparents and mom to the 2013 Daytona 500. He paid for the plane tickets, race tickets and hotel.

Chase later got colon cancer. Doctors removed the tumor. The cancer returned. They did another surgery. The cancer came back and spread.

Chase died Aug. 25. He would have been 77 years old Saturday.

“He’s what I aspire to be some day,” Harmon said of Chase. “I really hope my future grandkids think of me the way I think of him.”

Harmon has found a way to honor his grandfather. The NASCAR Foundation and Martin Truex Jr. Foundation partnered for the Nominate a Cancer Hero program. The program auctions off space on a NASCAR Truck or car to put a person’s name for this weekend’s Las Vegas races. More than 40 drivers are participating. The program raised about $100,000.

Harmon found out about the auction shortly before it closed. He didn’t have enough money to provide a winning bid but asked friends for help and they rallied to provide the winning bid of about $2,800 to have Chase’s name on Alex Bowman’s car Sunday at Las Vegas.

Chase was a Dale Earnhardt fan. He switched to Hendrick Motorsports drivers Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson after Earnhardt’s death. Chase remained a Hendrick fan after that, so putting his name on a Hendrick car was perfect for Harmon.

“He gets to go fast one more time,” Harmon told NBC Sports. “He gets to feel the race car one more time and hear the race car one more time.”

Harmon will gather with family Sunday and have a cookout at his house, serving deer steak and chicken on the grill. He’ll also have ice cream. Chase would eat ice cream, often chocolate, as he watched the races on TV.

Watching Sunday’s race on NBCSN and knowing his grandfather’s name will be on Bowman’s car will be special for Harmon.

“It’s going to kind of be a mixture of tears with joy,” he said.

5. Learn by example

The Xfinity playoffs begin Saturday night at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

While Chase Briscoe enters after his seventh win of the season, leading regular-season champ Austin Cindric by two victories, rookie Harrison Burton looks to take the lessons he’s learned this season and turn them into a title run.

Burton told NBC Sports that one of the areas he’s improved most this season is “using my head and thinking about things.”

He notes his third-place finish at Kansas Speedway was a turning point.

“I think Kansas was probably one of the most fun races I ever lost,” he said. “I was really thinking, how can I beat Austin (Cindric, who finished second to Brandon Jones)? What can I show him to make him do something that I want him to do? (It’s) things I listen to Denny Hamlin talk about and say on his radio. Using the mental side of the game to their advantage. That has been really fun to go to the places where that is a big deal and try to make the most of it.”

The key, Burton said, is having a car that will allow a driver to think as they’re hitting their marks in each corner.

“When that becomes muscle memory, that’s when you free up your brain and you’re able to strategize in your head,” he said. “You’re able to show people lines that you know are going to hurt their tires but it’s fast. Then you run them down on a long run because they have been doing that.”

Who has taught Burton a memorable lesson in such a situation?

“Briscoe does a good job of that, of showing you a different lane and catching you with a different lane and then he has the ability to pass you in a completely different (lane),” Burton said.

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Friday 5: Brad Keselowski tells team ‘Why not us?’ for title

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At a socially distanced gathering Wednesday, former Cup champion Brad Keselowski sought to inspire his crew with the rallying cry of “Why not us?” winning the title.

For a team with three wins this season — more than any other except playoff co-favorites Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin — the slogan seems tame.

Shouldn’t the mantra be more aggressive and evocative?

Keselowski’s team is about to enter a 10-week stretch that likely will challenge them but could reward them should they make it to the Nov. 8 title race at Phoenix Raceway. The journey begins with Sunday’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway (6 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Keselowski said he chose the slogan to reflect the recent results for his team.

“I think what gets caught up in all of that is the mentality oftentimes that you’re only as good as your last race, as good as your last few weeks, and the last two or three weeks have not been as strong as I’d like them to be as a team,” said the 2012 Cup champ who is seeded third in the 16-driver playoff field.

Brad Keselowski’s most recent win came in August at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

“We went out and kicked some serious butt at Loudon, New Hampshire. I was really proud of that, but we weren’t as strong as I hoped we’d be at Daytona and Dover. I think there’s moments as a team where sometimes people reflect on that a little deeper than is needed — not just as a team but media — and you have to remind yourselves what you’re capable of. Sometimes the easiest way to remind yourself what you’re capable of is, in my mind, eliminating the fears of what you’re not capable of.

“I think ‘Why not us?’ is my way of saying, ‘Give me a legit reason why we can’t win this championship right now?’ And we’ll come up with it and we’ll hammer it down in the ground with a 100-pound sledgehammer and we’ll fix it. ‘Why not us’ is as much a rallying cry to addressing and fixing all the little gaps.”

Keselowski said examining the matter that way can help a team evolve into a championship unit.

“What becomes of it is a culture, a mentality and a mindset of continuous improvement to eliminate your weaknesses,” he said. “Hopefully, there’s a tenacity born out of that that will serve us.”

Keselowski’s team is an intriguing option to counter Harvick, Hamlin and others in the NASCAR playoffs.

Keselowski won in May at Bristol, which will host the cutoff race in the first round. He scored a dominant victory at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, a track that shares qualities with Richmond and Phoenix. He finished second at Kansas, which hosts the opening race in the third round of the NASCAR playoffs.

Kansas is where Keselowski’s title hopes ended last year. He entered that race 20 points ahead of the first driver outside a spot to advance to the third round. The final restart doomed Keselowski. He lost six spots on the overtime restart. Keselowski finished three points behind Chase Elliott for the final spot to advance.

Despite that disappointment other years stand out to Keselowski in failing to win a second title.

“I had a great team and it didn’t come together — ‘14 probably for reasons just as much of luck as anything else, ‘15 was probably more my fault with some things I didn’t execute at the level I needed to execute. But all together the scorecard was still zero and we had efforts that were capable of winning the championship those two years, so that stings.”

So this year, it’s “Why not us?”

While other sayings might have more vigor, that slogan has a good history.

It was the rallying cry of the 2004 Boston Red Sox. They won their first World Series in 86 years that season.

2. Is this Chase Elliott’s time?

One of the key lessons about the NASCAR playoffs came last year with Chase Elliott and Brad Keselowski. Elliott entered the Kansas race 24 points behind the Team Penske driver. Elliott beat Keselowski for the last transfer spot to the third round.

“It just kind of shows you that it’s not over until it’s over in a lot of those cases,” Elliott said.

Elliott’s playoffs would end in the third round after three finishes of 32nd or worse. He’s yet to advance to the championship race in four previous playoff appearances.

Chase Elliott’s wins this year have come at Charlotte, the Daytona road course and the Bristol All-Star Race. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

“I mean you can’t win the championship without making that final four; and that’s been that point of the playoffs that we haven’t been able to bust through yet,” said Elliott, who is seeded fifth in the 16-driver playoff field. “I feel like we’ve been really close at times, to doing it. I think we’re very capable of making the final four.

Could this be Elliott’s year to make it to the title race? He’s having one of his best seasons with two wins, 10 top-five and 15 top-10 finishes.

“I feel like we’ve had some really good runs at the beginning of the year and then got into a little bit of a dip there over the last couple of months,” said Elliott, who also won the All-Star Race in July at Bristol. “And then I thought Dover was back competitive again. So, I think for me, I just look at a little bit of the inconsistency.

“I think we need to be more consistent across the board. I’m encouraged by the fact that when I feel like we have things going, we can compete for wins at a lot of different style race tracks, which is awesome. So that definitely gives me confidence. But this deal is all about what has happened lately, what your performance has been up to this date, and what you have ahead to try to improve on and how much you need to improve.”

Only Martin Truex Jr. (seven wins) and Kyle Busch (six) have more than the three victories Elliott has had in playoff races since 2017.

Playoff rookie Matt DiBenedetto calls Elliott his dark horse pick.

Elliott gets an early shot Sunday to show what he can do. He’ll start first in the Southern 500.

“I think even a bigger deal to have is that first pit box, which is super valuable,” Elliott said. “Hopefully we’re fast enough for it to matter and we can put that thing to use.”

3. Quite a streak

The last time Kevin Harvick was penalized for speeding on pit road in a Cup race, it cost him a playoff win.

That was 2018 at Kansas Speedway.

Harvick has not been penalized for speeding on pit road in the last 66 races. 

Kevin Harvick, the No. 1 seed in the NASCAR playoffs, has not had a speeding penalty in a Cup race since 2018. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Harvick, Alex Bowman, Kurt Busch and rookie Cole Custer are the only playoff drivers not penalized for speeding this season.

“I think as you look at the things that we do on pit road it’s really the shape of the pit road, the strategy of the location of the pit stall and making sure that my gauges and things are set up to the way that I like them,” he said. “Something that works for me and our team to be able to maximize that. So it’s just like anything else, you want to maximize everything that you do on pit road, but there’s a lot of little details that go into making that happen.”

Bowman notes there are other challenges when going down pit road anywhere between 30-60 mph.

“A Cup car doesn’t drive smoothly at those speeds and the pit roads aren’t perfectly smooth,” he said. “The lights (on the dashboard noting the car’s speed on pit road) jump around a lot, basically. If you want the lights accurate, they jump around a lot. If you make them not jump around, they aren’t very accurate. So, just finding what works for you as a driver in that sense is really important.

“There’s a lot of factors to it. It’s really tough on a busy pit road trying not to run into people, trying to hit your pit box well. It’s definitely important, but it’s a big risk versus reward. Like if you have a green flag speeding penalty, it’s a huge, huge deficit for the rest of your day, especially at a speedway race. So, there are times to push and times not to push, for sure.”

Here is how many speeding penalties each playoff driver has this year:

5 — Austin Dillon

3 — Kyle Busch

2 — Clint Bowyer, Matt DiBenedetto, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano

1 — Aric Almriola, Ryan Blaney, William Byron, Martin Truex Jr.

0 — Alex Bowman, Kurt Busch, Cole Custer, Kevin Harvick

4. A new parking spot

When Joey Logano worked with crew chief Todd Gordon, Logano’s pit stalls often were near pit exit.

Among the changes Logano has experienced with new crew chief Paul Wolfe this season is a different philosophy in picking pits. Wolfe often prefers a stall near pit entrance. In six of the last eight races, Logano’s pit stall has been among the first stalls after pit entrance. For Sunday’s Southern 500, Logano’s pit stall will be the first one after pit entrance.

NASCAR stock market
Crew chief Paul Wolfe and Joey Logano. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

“That’s been the running joke here at Team Penske for a little bit,” Logano said. “Todd will always go furthest forward possible, and Paul will be the guy that kind of goes back and forth on just trying to figure out what’s best for that particular weekend,” Logano said.

“So, the first few weeks was a little bit odd because I’m used to being all the way down at the other end, and I didn’t want to drive by the stall.

“Now I’ve kind of gotten used to it and Paul has done a good job at some pit selections. That was one of the things we went through at the beginning of the year is what works for me with pit stalls, and what direction can we get the best rolling times with and each racetrack is different. 

“Some narrow pit roads are different than the wide ones and pit openings are bigger than others and timing lines, there’s a lot that goes into that game. It’s not a random selection sometimes as much as some people think. There’s a lot that goes into that and I don’t know if there’s one more challenging than the other being in the front or the back. It’s just more or less a strategy of how do we have the best rolling time at the end of pit road.”

5. Future of single-car teams

Ty Dillon’s impassioned plea during a media session in August foreshadowed the news this week that owner Bob Germain was pondering his 2021 plans, including a potential sale of the team.

Germain Racing team has GEICO as a sponsor but the deal expires after this season. the team does not have a sponsor signed for next year. 

Dillon told reporters that changes need to be made in the sport to help single-car teams.

“The model is very tough right now for single-car teams,” Dillon said. “I’m hoping that NASCAR is going to change it and help on it. But it needs to change for one-car teams to be more successful that haven’t already been at the top level of the sport or have an incredible about of money to leapfrog into the top spot. If you don’t have three or four teams to spread the wealth with big name sponsors and a lot of money behind the effort, it’s just not a model that’s going to survive long term.”

Bob Leavine sold Leavine Family Racing, a single-car team. Spire Motorsports, a single-car team, will take over that operation after this season.

Leavine has been critical about the business model for teams. Jeff Dickerson, co-owner of Spire Motorsports, said on a recent episode of the Dale Jr. Download that “charter values (for Cup teams) are increasing. There is a real market for these and there are several groups trying to obtain them. Both inside the sport and outside the sport.”

NASCAR has made rule changes in an effort to save teams money. The Next Gen car is designed to do that. The car’s debut was pushed back to 2022 because development was stalled for several months by the novel coronavirus.

“We are working with our teams and frankly have been working with our teams over the last four or five years to try to improve the business model,” NASCAR President Steve Phelps said this week. “We want healthy teams.”

Phelps said those outside the sport have noticed what how the team model has changed.

“I would suggest that the number of new owners trying to get into this sport has never been higher,” Phelps said. “Certainly when I’ve been around, and I’ve been around for 15 years. There’s just a ton of enthusiasm for the direction of what team ownership looks like.”

Said Dillon: “I believe in our sport and the direction it is going. And, I know everyone has a mindset to make it better. But we just have to get there. We have to do everything that it takes. … “We can only get better as a sport if we all get better. We can’t just keep focusing on the big-end teams and the guys running up-front week in and week out. So, if we want the sport to thrive, it takes a lot of focus throughout the field.”

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Friday 5: Erik Jones balances playoff bid and future

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As Erik Jones prepares for one last chance to make the Cup playoffs this year, he also focuses on his future.

With a pair of Cup wins, two playoff appearances and youth on his resume, Jones is selling himself to teams for next year after Joe Gibbs Racing decided not to extend his contract.

“I’ve been burning up the phone more in the last two or three weeks since I found out I wasn’t going to be back at JGR,” he told reporters this week. “Just trying to work on opportunities and find out what is out there for next year because I didn’t have really an inkling that I was going to be in that spot.

“I guess that’s probably more of what I’ve been focused on right now, which is unfortunate because I want to be focused on racing 100 percent and be able to do what I need to do there and go and be competitive each and every week. I’ve been putting in the time on that as well. It definitely seems it has been split more to the side of me trying to work on opportunities for next year.”

Jones declined to reveal which teams he’s had discussions with but is optimistic he’ll be in winning equipment next year.

“There are still some other dominoes to fall in the sport to make the decisions for them and what they’re going to do,” he said. “I feel good about the couple of opportunities that we’ve got out there right now.”

He also notes he faces some challenges in securing a ride.

“I don’t have sponsors with me to move around and any kind of money to bring,” he said. “That’s been part of the challenge.”

Erik Jones celebrates after winning the Busch Clash in February. He likely needs to win Saturday night at Daytona to make the playoffs for a third year in a row. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Jones previously said he was “blindsided” by JGR’s decision to let him go after talks had progressed on a contract extension. Plans changed after Bob Leavine sold Leavine Family Racing. That left Toyota without a place to put either Jones or rookie Christopher Bell. Toyota and JGR went with Bell. Jones was left without a ride for next year.

Joey Logano can relate to what Jones is experiencing. Logano was not retained by JGR, opening a place for Matt Kenseth to join in 2013.

Logano texted Jones to see how he was doing. Although they are not close, Jones asked to meet Logano for lunch to talk.

“He went from not being 100% competitive where he wanted to be at JGR to being obviously a champion after he left,” Jones said of Logano, who won the 2018 Cup title for Team Penske. “I kind of wanted to know what switched for him and what really clicked for him after he left. … It was an enlightening conversation.”

Jones’ immediate goal, is making the playoffs for a third consecutive year. The 24-year-old all but needs to win Saturday night’s regular-season finale at Daytona (7:30 p.m. ET on NBC and the NBC Sports App) to do so.

He scored his first career Cup win in the July 2018 Daytona race. Jones also won the crash-filled Busch Clash to open this season in February.

“Both of those races my car was pretty destroyed, so I don’t know that laying back and trying to avoid the wrecks helps that much,” he said. “At the end of the day, if you’re still in it with five to go or 10 to go, even if you’ve got damage, it seems like it doesn’t really matter.

“I know there is going to be a lot of aggression.”

2. A life-changing experience

It’s tempting to look ahead to what could be, but Matt DiBenedetto is focused on making the playoffs for the first time.

DiBenedetto is in danger of falling out of a playoff spot after large leads on William Byron and Jimmie Johnson disappeared the past three races.

DiBenedetto is 15th in the playoff standings heading into Saturday night’s race at Daytona. Byron, who holds what would be the 16th and final playoff spot trails DiBenedetto by five points. Johnson trails DiBenedetto by nine points.

Matt DiBenedetto is on the cusp of making the Cup playoffs for the first time. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

It’s probably going to be a game of survival when it comes down to the very end, especially as desperate as a lot of people will be,” DiBenedetto said. “We’ll be paying pretty close attention to what those guys are doing. Where they’re at. If they’re getting into any trouble or anything like that, but it changes lap by lap at Daytona.”

Two weeks ago, DiBenedetto led Byron by 37 points and Johnson by 57 points.

DiBenedetto’s advantage narrowed after he placed 15th at the Daytona road course and then 20th in the Saturday Dover race and 17th the next day. Johnson has finished no worse than seventh in the last three races. Byron scored two top 10s in those three races.

As far as where my emotions are at I haven’t been able to answer it real well,” he said. “Because it’s like, man, am I excited that we have a shot to make the playoffs? For sure. Am I frustrated that we had a much bigger cushion and we had a bad couple Dover races and lost a whole bunch of points? Yeah. Am I a little uneasy knowing that the cutoff race is Daytona and not like a short track or some more straightforward race? Yeah.”

Should he get through Daytona, he’ll have a chance at the title. While Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin will be the favorites, DiBenedetto could imagine being the champion in November.

“This stuff is life-changing for me if we make the playoffs,” he said. “Because not only knowing that we could just make them and be there, knowing that we have the speed and the team to really go and compete and hopefully make it through rounds and make a big splash in the playoffs and you’re in the fight for a championship.”

3. Teamwork

Hendrick Motorsports teammates William Byron and Jimmie Johnson are racing for the final playoff spots. While there is a chance both could advance, it’s possible they could race each other for the final playoff spot.

Johnson, the seven-time champion, seeks to avoid missing the playoffs for a second consecutive year. Byron seeks to make the playoffs for a second year in a row.

Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Cliff Daniels enter Daytona outside a playoff spot. (Photo: Getty Images)

The question is how much will their teams work with each other?

Cliff Daniels, crew chief for Johnson, said he’s had conversations with Chad Knaus, crew chief for Byron.

Very close in our communication in what we’re doing with our cars and what we’re doing with our strategy,” Daniels said. “I’m so thankful, along the course of my career, working with the No. 48. Chad, I was his engineer for a while, and he was a great leader and great mentor. He was very supportive of my switch to the role of crew chief on this team. He still loves Jimmie to death and loves his team.

“Chad and I were talking the other day and we both want each other to be in the playoffs, just not quite as much as we want ourselves to be in the playoffs, right? So, it’s been great to have a relationship with that team. Those guys have done a good job digging out of the few holes that they’ve been in. I know that they’re going to be strong and tough.

I hope to work with them, and we are going to work with them, all night Saturday night and put ourselves both in a good spot. And I would love to be side-by-side, door-to-door with them, with points in the bag, coming to the finish line for the final checkered flag with those guys. It would be a great position to be in.”

4. Is this his time?

Saturday night’s regular-season finale provides drivers outside a playoff spot hope. That’s not something they could truly say about past regular-season finales.

Only once in the last four regular-season Cup races did a driver outside a playoff spot finish in the top five. Bubba Wallace placed third at Indianapolis last year.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. enters Saturday night’s race at Daytona outside a playoff spot but a win would give him a chance to race for a Cup title. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

For those seeking playoff bubble drama, Indianapolis was not an ideal track to host the regular-season finale because of the unlikelihood of a surprise winner. Richmond hosted the regular-season finale before that. It’s last two regular-season finales saw only one driver outside a playoff spot entering that event finish in the top 10.

Daytona offers more of a chance for a surprise winner. Justin Haley scored his first career Cup win in last July’s rain-shortened race. Erik Jones scored his first career Cup win in the July 2018 race there.

That gives Ricky Stenhouse Jr. hope. He finished second to Ryan Blaney by inches at Talladega in June in the most recent superspeedway race.

Stenhouse’s previous two Cup wins came at Talladega and Daytona in 2017. Could he race his way into the playoffs with a win Saturday night?

“We have a lot better shot to win here than we did at Indy or Richmond in those final regular season races,” Stenhouse said. “But, to me, I don’t really feel like I’m going into this race any different than I would if it was in July. I still feel like the July race is our opportunity to make it into the playoffs.

“Yeah, it’s kind of a little more dramatic with it being the final race of the regular season and it’s super nerve-racking for those three that are trying to get in on points. So, they will be tiptoeing around and making sure they get to the end, but stage points are also critical for them.

“It’ll be kind of crazy, as far as that scenario goes – that playoff bubble. And then if somebody like ourselves or somebody outside of the playoffs gets a win, I think that’s kind of the thing that’s exciting – makes it come down to the final lap in the last race of the regular season because there’s multiple people that can win and move somebody out of the playoffs.”

5. A race of his own

Mac MacLeod’s interest in motorsports comes naturally. His great-grandfather raced stock cars and was a thrill show stunt driver in Canada. MacLeod grew up in Blind River, Ontario, Canada, about six hours north of Michigan International Speedway.

He followed his love of motorsports to North Carolina. MacLeod graduated in May 2018 from Belmont Abbey College in the Charlotte suburb of Belmont, North Carolina. 

He works at Front Row Motorsports, serving as the social/digital media manager and public relations manager. MacLeod works with driver Michael McDowell. MacLeod handles various media and partnership duties related to it. Before NASCAR reduced the number of team personnel at the track because of COVID-19, he was at the track most weekends. He now does the same work at home as many others in similar positions for other teams. 

As the season moves closer to the end, MacLeod faces his own challenge in securing a visa to continue his work. With restructuring in visas, what MacLeod must have has changed. His current visa expires at the end of January.

It’s just an example of some of the challenges those in the sport can have as NASCAR draws people from outside the U.S., whether they are engineers, mechanics or work on the business side of the sport. 

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Friday 5: Focus is on drivers, teams to be vigilant against COVID-19

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NBA and NHL players reside in bubbles. Major League Baseball and NFL players do not. While the NBA and NHL have not reported any positive tests from those inside their bubbles, Major League Baseball faces a COVID-19 outbreak on one team, and the NFL will see how well its system works with training camps underway.

NASCAR, meanwhile, rolls on.

There is no coronavirus testing in NASCAR. The onus is on competitors to avoid contracting the virus and infecting their team and others in the sport.

NASCAR’s plan is designed to keep drivers separate from their crews, pit crews separate from road crews and those that travel separate from team members working in the shop. If someone is infected, it should only impact a small group instead of an entire team.

The challenge is for drivers and crew members to remain vigilant against COVID-19 away from the track and shop as the year progresses and the desire grows to be in more public settings.

Dave Alpern, president of Joe Gibbs Racing. (Photo: JGR)

“It’s easy to get fatigued with this and let off the gas and we can’t do that,” said Dave Alpern, president of Joe Gibbs Racing.

Teams need to run races to collect sponsor and TV money. When the series was shut down for 10 weeks, teams didn’t get paid. At least six Cup organizations received funds from the Paycheck Protection Program

After the 70-day shutdown, Cup teams ran 16 races in 68 days — an average of one race every 4.3 days — between the series resuming May 17 at Darlington Raceway and the July 23 race at Kansas Speedway.

August will not be much easier. Cup teams will race seven times between Sunday’s race at New Hampshire and Aug. 29 at Daytona. Five of those races will be held in a 16-day period — a pair of doubleheaders at Michigan and Dover each and the series’ inaugural race on the Daytona road course.

So, if anyone deserves a break, it is the Cup drivers and crew members. Last weekend provided that opportunity and some shared photos on social media about their getaways.

But with no COVID-19 vaccine available and what’s at stake should they be infected, drivers and team members must balance being cautious in what they do outside the track and shop and living life.

Christopher Bell said he plans to run in midget races next Tuesday and Wednesday at Pennsylvania.

“The biggest thing is just trying to use common sense and being as smart as I can about going to the races and making sure you keep your distance,” Bell said of balancing health concerns with personal decisions. “Instead of traveling up to the Pennsylvania races on a plane, like I probably would, I’m going to be riding in the rig and isolating from the masses as much as I can anyway. I think it’s a matter of just doing your part. Wearing masks when you need to and making sure that you’re staying away from people and just using common sense.”

Although Ryan Preece admits he’d like to race a modified between Cup events this summer, he isn’t doing so.

“I think it’s hard right now with the way things are to do it and not know if you’re going to be forced into quarantine or whatever it may be,” Preece said. “I’m used to racing 60 to 80 times a year, but at the same time my focus is on the Cup series.”

And that means avoiding situations that could compromise his health and force him out of his ride temporarily at JTG Daugherty Racing while he would have to quarantine.

You don’t put yourself in those situations,” Preece said. “That’s really it … because I want to race. And that’s it.”

Alpern says Joe Gibbs Racing reinforces car owner Joe Gibbs’ message of “Just be smart” to the organization’s drivers and team members about when they are not at the track or the shop.

NASCAR informed all teams and others in the industry going to New Hampshire for Sunday’s race that they are “prohibited from patronizing any restaurants (take-out/to-go/delivery orders only) or bars in the area and must limit their travel to New Hampshire Motor Speedway and their hotel only.”

Such restrictions are mandated by a modified travel-related quarantine the state of New Hampshire approved for those traveling to put on the race.

Jimmie Johnson missed one race after testing positive for COVID-19. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson is the only Cup driver to miss a race for testing positive for COVID-19. He missed the July 5 Indianapolis race after he and his wife tested positive. Johnson said he did not know how they were infected. Also this month, Brendan Gaughan stated he tested positive. He is not scheduled to compete again until the Daytona oval race Aug. 29.

Formula One, which tests drivers and team members, announced Thursday that Sergio Perez had become the first series driver to test positive for the coronavirus. He will miss this weekend’s British Grand Prix.

NASCAR President Steve Phelps defended the sanctioning body’s protocols earlier this month.

To those who raise questions about NASCAR not doing COVID-19 testing, Alpern says he understands the reasoning.

“When we were talking about protocols, there was a ton of discussion about testing and should we test, should we not test,” he said. “We went back. I know testing is not like you just walk down the road and get one. It’s not super easy, but it’s a lot easier right now than it was. When we came back (to race in May), there was a lot of sensitivity to people who really needed tests not being able to get a test.

“So I think our sport wanted to be sensitive to the fact. Do we really have to use up tests for folks? The challenge that you have when you don’t have a bubble, let’s say for example we were testing people every day, the second you leave the bubble, the test is rendered useless because you tested but now you have gone and exposed yourself. If you’re in a bubble, testing makes complete sense because then you’re protecting the bubble.

“Once you are in the bubble you can act like things are normal. We are not acting like things are normal at the track or (at the shop) because of that. We are spacing, we are wearing masks because it’s difficult when people are coming in and out of the bubble as we talked about before. I think the process we have is working pretty well.”

2. Frustrating stretch

Last week at Kansas Speedway, Ryan Preece didn’t finish last. 

It’s been that kind of a month for the JTG Daugherty Racing driver who had finished last in three consecutive races before he placed 34th last week at Kansas. But that race marked the fourth consecutive time he’s failed to finish: three times because of an accident and once because of a transmission failure.

“Whenever I hear people talk about bad luck or that, I’ve always been a believer of making your own luck,” Preece said. “But this has probably been the first time in my career that I really, wrong place wrong time, things that were out of my control happening. I’m not one to make excuses, but it’s been frustrating for sure.

“The thing that’s even more frustrating is Kansas. I really don’t know what else I could have done. I don’t think there was anything else I could have done. But we had a fast race car right there, at that point in time when it needed to be and that’s kind of been the case. We’ve struggled at the beginning of the races and then gotten our car better as the stages have gone on. The only thing you can do at this point is really go and gamble on things. I’ve got nothing else to lose.”

He was collected in a crash at Kansas that sent his car into the inside SAFER barrier on the backstretch. Asked how long he was sore after that vicious crash, Preece said: “I was ready to go as soon as I got out of that race car.”

He says he won’t let these struggles beat him.

“You’ve just got to be positive,” Preece said. “It’s easier to say than it is to do, but I feel like over the past few weeks of just constantly living that way, things have become easier. My life has become much happier. I’m probably a lot better to be around. And you just put in the hard work, that’s it.

“Just sitting there hoping things are going to turn around … it doesn’t work like that. Life doesn’t work like that. So, I’m just going to continue fighting and hopefully we can finish 2020 better than we have.”

3. Different stage length

One thing that will be different about Sunday’s race at New Hampshire (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN) is the length of the last two stages.

Stage 1 ends on Lap 75 as it has in the past. Stage 2 will end on Lap 185 — 30 laps later than it has in the past. That makes the final stage shorter by 30 laps.

Randall Burnett, crew chief for Tyler Reddick, says the changes to the stage length could make an impact since the race is among the shorter ones, which puts a premium on track position.

“It will definitely make it a little more interesting I think with the longer stage,” he said. “You have tire wear, you’re going to have fuel mileage stuff to look at. It’s definitely going to change the strategy a little bit, which we’re going to have to stay on top of. You’re going to have a Lap 30 competition caution, which should give you a good read on tires, as far as what kind of wear you’re going to be looking at throughout the race and the lap time fall off. So, I think that’s going to kind of dictate what you do in that second stage, for sure.”

4. One way of looking at it

It’s easy to look at Ryan Newman’s season and think how different it could have been had the Roush Fenway Racing driver won the Daytona 500 instead of crashing as he came to the checkered flag.

“No doubt I’ve thought about it, but the reality is it’s not the truth, it’s not what happened, it’s the what could have been and everybody has that in their season,” he said. “We have to do our job to go back and kind of replay those events and make corrections to whatever mistakes or whatever differences we can to try to be victorious. That doesn’t go just for Daytona, that goes for every racetrack. 

“The season no doubt has been a challenge in so many ways for so many people and our team, I feel like we’ve struggled a little bit, but I feel like we have the things that we need to make the corrections to be better and be stronger and be successful, so we’re just gonna keep our nose to the grindstone and carry on.”

5. Will dominance continue?

A few things to watch for in Sunday’s race:

Joe Gibbs Racing has finished either first or second in 13 of the last 14 Cup races at New Hampshire. JGR cars have led 45% of all the laps run in those last 14 races.

Toyota cars, led by JGR, have been dominant in the last five races, leading 84.3% of the laps run in that time. Chevrolet teams have led 2.9% of the laps in the races at New Hampshire since July 2016.

Martin Truex Jr. has won the first stage in three of the last four years there. His 744 laps led there makes him the driver to lead the most laps at the 1-mile track and yet to score a win. His best New Hampshire finish is third.

Friday 5: Denny Hamlin, Chris Gabehart are NASCAR’s dynamic duo

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It’s too soon to anoint greatness but what Denny Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart have done is remarkable.

Thursday night’s victory at Kansas Speedway was their 11th in 52 Cup races together, a remarkable 21.2% winning percentage.

This from a driver who went winless in 2018 and heard the whispers that his future at Joe Gibbs Racing could be in jeopardy. But Gabehart joined the No. 11 team last year, created a winning expectation and reinforced it not only to the team but to Hamlin.

When Hamlin said last fall at Phoenix that he wouldn’t base the success or failure of his season on if he advanced to the championship race, Gabehart texted his driver upon hearing the comment and told Hamlin to expect more of himself.

It’s that mentality that has led to such a strong beginning for Hamlin and Gabehart.

“I think it really boils down to trust,” Hamlin said. “I do my job, he does his. I don’t venture into his department, he don’t really venture into mine.

“He knows I’ve been doing this long enough, when I give him the information I need to make my car faster, he just goes to work on it. He doesn’t try to change how I’m driving to adapt to maybe what someone else is doing. He works on the car to get it where I need it.

“That relationship really works well. We’re building a notebook. That notebook is getting thicker and thicker. The knowledge is getting greater and greater. That’s why you’re seeing the results you’re seeing.”

What they’ve done ranks among the best starts for a driver-crew chief pairing in recent years.

Crew chief Rodney Childers and Kevin Harvick won seven times in their first 52 races together (13.5% winning percentage). Crew chief Adam Stevens and Kyle Busch won nine of their first 52 races together (17.3%).

The main difference is that Childers and Harvick won a title in their first year in 2014, and Stevens and Busch won the championship in 2015 in their first year.

Hamlin and Gabehart might have joined them last year in their first full season together but an aggressive call by Gabehart backfired. A large piece of tape placed over the front grille overheated the engine and forced Hamlin to pit. He never got a chance to race for the lead because the pit stop had put him too far back.

Hamlin and Gabehart rebounded by winning the next points race, this year’s Daytona 500.

When the duo of Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson was mentioned to Gabehart after Thursday’s race, he quickly demurred at any such comparison.

“Let me be very blunt,” Gabehart said, “I think Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson are the two greatest ever to get it done, period.  Write it down, that’s my opinion. Doesn’t mean anything more than the piece of paper you’re writing it on, but I think they’re the two greatest ever to get it done.

“The reason is sustainability. The years upon years upon years upon years that they did it, it’s hard to burn the candle that hot for that long. Bar none, I would never put myself in that category.  That’s not for me to do.  I’m really embarrassed to even be talking about it to be honest with you.

“But I look at Rodney and Kevin, they’ve had lots of sustainability. Adam and Kyle have had years of success together.

“I think for us, again, all I can say is it’s about the process. Right now the 11 team, we have that figured out to where if we execute to our ability every week we’re going to have a shot to win.  Hopefully that doesn’t change any time soon.”

What stands out about Hamlin and Gabehart is the variety of tracks they’ve won.

They’ve won on a short track, on a 1-mile track, on a track between 1 and 1.5 miles and on tracks 2.5 miles. This isn’t a team taking advantage of a setup at one particular track but showing strength everywhere.

“I think he believes in his race team,” Gabehart said of Hamlin. “That puts him at ease. All great athletes really and truly want to do it in a lot of ways on their own. They want them to be the differentiator between winning and losing. But this is a team sport. There’s a million moving pieces every week to give Denny the platform he needs to make that the case.

“I think he knows he’s got that now. Every single week if we execute, he’s going to have a shot to win, and he knows it. I think that puts him at ease and lets him really focus on the mental aspect of winning these races.”

2. Reward for a long night

William Byron raced without crew chief Chad Knaus at the track, overcame a pit road penalty, fought a car’s handling throughout the night, yo-yoed through the field on pit strategy and ended Thursday night with a 10th-place finish that put him in a playoff spot with seven races to go.

William Byron (24) finished 10th and moved into the final playoff spot Thursday night at Kansas Speedway. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Byron entered the race two points behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson for the final playoff spot. Johnson was collected in a crash and finished 32nd, falling out of a playoff spot. Byron took his place. Byron leads rookie Tyler Reddick by 10 points for the final playoff spot.

Byron did all that with Knaus remaining in Charlotte for the birth of his second child. Keith Rodden, a former crew chief, was on the pit box for Byron on Thursday night.

“We had a crazy night,” Rodden said in a video posted by Hendrick Motorsports. “Car was super loose for William to start. Guys battled hard. Made a ton of adjustments. I mean, we made huge adjustments. It took three to four stops to make the car right.

“Did a little strategy to get out front. Then probably got a little too aggressive on that last (pit) call, taking two. We needed to control the restart and move on and have it run green and it didn’t. You hate to see that, but at the end of the day, it’s a good run for us considering how we started and hopefully a momentum builder as they head into Loudon (New Hampshire on Aug. 2).”

3. Preparing for the unknown

It is less than a month before NASCAR races on the Daytona road course for the first time. The Cup Series races there Aug. 16. Even though it is new to the series, drivers will have no practice before the race.

Another challenge is that the course isn’t set yet. NASCAR is expected to add a chicane off Turn 4 of the oval to slow the cars down the frontstretch before they turn into the infield portion of the course.

Just as challenging is preparing cars for that race. That’s what crew chiefs face.

Crew chief Alan Gustafson and Chase Elliott. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

“It’s going to be difficult for everybody,” said Alan Gustafson, crew chief for Chase Elliott. “You’re not going to have any references really. Certainly there are some characteristics of the Roval, but it’s obviously a bigger oval and the speeds are going to be higher. The infield is pretty unique. In my experience, a million years ago road racing there, it’s a track that’s hard to get ahold of.

“That infield is not the easiest to navigate and get the car hooked up on. It’s going to present some unique challenges. Certainly the speed of the banking, it’s a pretty dedicated true chicane unlike what we’ve run at the Roval. That will be different for everybody to get a hold of.”

Jason Ratcliff, crew chief for Christopher Bell, said he expects the inaugural Daytona road course race to be “about as challenging as the (Charlotte) Roval was.”

Cup teams had multiple test sessions before he race weekend at the Roval and then multiple practice sessions that weekend to prepare for the first race there in 2018.

I think the biggest concern right now, the biggest difference that I see right now from the Roval to Daytona is the entry speed into Turn 1 is going to be huge (into the infield road course),” he said. “I don’t know if we can keep brakes on the car for 10 laps if they don’t do something, but they’re working on it.”

4. Now what?

For the first time since NASCAR returned on May 17, Cup teams will have a Sunday off.

So what to do on a free day during a pandemic?

“You get an idea and go down that path and that doesn’t work,” Clint Bowyer said. “I’ve been going over to the lake a lot and I enjoy that. But it’s like, I want to go somewhere different, I want to take my family somewhere. The kids are fixin’ to go back to school or whatever the heck that’s going to look like. It’s just hard, you know.

“Camping. I love to camp, you know, we camp every weekend anyway. And it’s kind of funny to say, oh, let’s take the bus and go camp somewhere. We were going to do that. Good luck finding a campground somewhere you can get into to do that. I would say we’ll probably end up back over at the lake. It makes the most sense.”

Erik Jones says he will head back to Michigan for his best friend’s wedding. Jones is the best man.

“A little bit different wedding than what we all were planning on, but still going to get to do it,” he said. “Little different, but it’s definitely nice to have this coming up. We’ve been working really hard between the doubleheader races and the Sunday and Wednesday races, it’s really been busy for everybody. For the drivers, for the teams – it’s nice to have an off-weekend coming up.”

5. Streakin’

Kyle Larson remains indefinitely suspended by NASCAR for uttering a racial slur during an online race in April, but he has dominated the sprint and midget car races he’s entered this year.

From early May to earlier this week, Larson had won 21 of 38 races in the various dirt track divisions and had separate winning streaks of eight and five consecutive races.

Larson’s friend, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who also races sprint cars, provided a perspective on what Larson has accomplished.

“I think a lot of people look at it as, ‘Oh, he’s going to a lower series and running and dominating.’ That’s not the case at all. These people, the teams and competitors that he’s racing against are the best of the best in those divisions. In the midgets and USAC we battled hard and he came out on top.

“He’s raced throughout Pennsylvania and raced against our Outlaw teams and what he’s doing is tough to do. It’s not only when you look at the feature wins. I’ve been racing sprint cars over the last few weeks and just thinking back to winning heat races, qualifying first, winning features, battling for wins. …It’s impressive.

“And, I don’t think you’ll see many people be able to go do that in a USAC midget, in Pennsylvania, with the Outlaws; there’s just so much that goes into sprint car racing and what him and Paul Silva have built together and the speed that they have is pretty fascinating to watch and kind of unreal.”