The President of Toyota Racing Development said Tuesday that the enhanced alliance next season between Leavine Family Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing and TRD will be “akin to what we had between TRD, Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing a couple of years ago.”
As for what will be done in the expanded relationship, Wilson said: “Enhanced hardware, enhanced communication, sharing of information, the tools that TRD provides will be further enhanced, time available on our sim (simulator) and everything that TRD brings to the table is going to be the same as what it has been with Joe Gibbs Racing.”
Wilson said the move to strengthen the alliance between the two teams is because of Bell.
“It is a huge priority for us to make sure Christopher has what he needs to succeed,” Wilson said. “This is a complete package. It is not being done piecemeal, and you can tell that by the names, having (crew chief Jason Ratcliff) follow Christopher over., etc. All those things are designed to give him the best opportunity to succeed and continue to meet and exceed our expectations.”
Toyota has invested heavily in Bell’s development since signing the dirt racer to a development contract in 2013.
Bell rewarded Toyota by winning the Truck title in 2017 and making the Xfinity playoffs each of the past two years. He has won 22.1% of his Xfinity starts (15 of 68) and his victory last week at Richmond moved him into the second round of the Xfinity playoffs.
The improved alliance should elevate Leavine Family Racing to a top-tier program in Cup. That is a reward to car owner Bob Leavine for his persistence. His single-car team made its Cup debut in 2011, did not run a full season until 2016 and had to buy a charter since it did not qualify for one.
“I can remember Jeremy (Lange, president of LFR) and I coming out of a meeting (about charters) and wondering how in the world we were going to continue to race,” Leavine said. “We didn’t, we weren’t given a charter. It’s been a long haul and a difficult one.
“Our biggest step and our biggest improvement was going to Toyota (beginning with this season) and the relationship base from David, Tyler (Gibbs) and Jack (Irving) and all the people at Toyota and TRD and then Coach (Joe Gibbs) and JGR and all of the support over there, that really was a breath of fresh air because it really was getting difficult to compete and try to get better.”
Levine Family Racing has an alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing this season but it is not to the level that Furniture Row Racing had with JGR because Leavine Family Racing could not afford to pay for that type of support this year.
Along with the alliance, the team will benefit from additional sponsorship. Rheem will join Bell at Levine Family Racing and be a primary sponsor, along with Procore, which already with the team. Leavine said that his organization is further ahead on sponsorship for next season than it started this year.
Friday 5: Can Jimmie Johnson repeat Tiger Woods’ Masters magic at Indy?
A generation of drivers grew up watching Jimmie Johnson win races and championships year after year.
It was nearly all they knew from 2006-10 when Johnson won the Cup championship five consecutive seasons and visited victory lane in nearly 20% of the races run during that time.
Now, they see the seven-time champion winless in his last 84 races and fighting to make the playoffs. Critics question Johnson and expect his 15-year streak of postseason appearances to end when the checkered flag waves in Sunday’s regular-season finale at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC).
Those drivers who watched Johnson dominate when they were teens are not among the doubters.
“I would like to see him just win to shut everyone up,” said Kyle Larson, who was 14 when Johnson won his first Cup title. “When you are watching somebody like that dominate, you never expect to see them in this position, being winless for as long as he’s been, at risk of not making the playoffs and having a chance to win the championship.
“I think it just shows how tough our sport gets, how tough our drivers are, how close our equipment is, and how good of a combination him and Chad (Knaus) really were. Hopefully they can figure something out and finish upfront where he belongs.”
Xfinity title contender Christopher Bell also is rooting for Johnson this weekend.
“I love to see the greats win,” said Bell, who was a month shy of turning 12 when Johnson celebrated his first Cup crown. “For example, seeing Tony Stewart win at Sonoma (Raceway in 2016) was unbelievable. That was one of the coolest things ever. Sammy Swindell, Steve Kinser, the dirt drivers, seeing those guys still compete and win – Steve’s done now, but Sammy still runs – that’s the coolest thing ever to me.
“Like Tiger Woods winning the golf deal, right? How awesome was that when he won the Masters? I don’t think Jimmie is done by any means, but it’s going to be really, really cool whenever we see him win again just because he’s been doing it for so long and you have to respect how good he’s been for so long and we’re not sure if we’ll ever see that again, right?”
Alex Bowman was 13 when Johnson’s title reign began. Now he watches Johnson’s challenge up close as a teammate at Hendrick Motorsports.
“We are doing all we can to get Jimmie into the playoffs,” Bowman said. “But, at the end of the day, they’ve had a lot of bad luck and a tough year. He is still more motivated and fired up than ever, at least since I’ve been around. He’s a big part in the success that I’ve had, I feel like. He definitely still has it and he’s not given up.
“I think everyone has learned over the years that you can’t count the 48 out by any means.”
Johnson enters the weekend 18 points out of the final playoff spot. He’s among four drivers vying for the final two spots. Clint Bowyer has an eight-point lead on Daniel Suarez, who holds the last playoff spot. Suarez and Ryan Newman have the same number of points but Suarez is ahead based on the tiebreaker of best finish this year. Then comes Johnson.
For those that have counted out Johnson?
“I can’t wait to shut up the keyboard warriors that are out there,” he said. “The people that are close to me and the people on my race team know the truth. They know the story. They’ve been working hard on it and when you work hard, wins will come. So, that’s where I find my peace. I know all the effort I’ve put into this program and for what my guys have put into the program.”
2. Sticking to the plan
For all the focus on Jimmie Johnson seeking to make the playoffs a 16th consecutive year, new crew chief Cliff Daniels continues to preach the need to build the No. 48 team at a deliberate pace.
While making the playoffs gives Johnson a chance to win a record eighth title, realistically, his odds of accomplishing that feat this year would be slim based on how the team has performed.
It is Daniels’ job to manage building a team while pursuing the playoffs.
“Part of the reason for the methodical approach we took coming (to Darlington) and we’re going to take to Indy is to make sure we’re placing the building blocks correctly so that as we move forward we know why we have run good, why we’ve made the calls that we’ve made or made the decisions that we’ve made and all of that is in place,” Daniels said after last week’s Southern 500.
“Jimmie and I both know how important it is to meet our goals now but sometimes things just don’t work out. We’re still going to go to Indy with a really solid approach and things may work out and I certainly hope they do. But in the event that they don’t, we still have 10 races where this approach, this team, this energy, this vibe and just the whole process that we’ve built is really going to carry us. Now we get to go into the season one way or the other with a plan in place for how we’re going to meet our goals and take that into those final 10 races one way or the other and build on that for next year.”
A key is that Daniels is having more of an impact on the cars Johnson drives. Daniels was promoted from engineer to crew chief before last month’s race at Watkins Glen. With cars built or refined ahead of time, it wasn’t until last week’s Southern 500 where Daniels was able to do more with the car’s setup for Johnson. The result was that Johnson qualified sixth — his best starting spot since Chicagoland in June — scored points in both stage points for only the third time this season.
3. Don’t look back
History can’t beat someone but history can show the challenges ahead.
Take Ryan Newman and Roush Fenway Racing. Newman enters this weekend outside of the final playoff spot based on a tiebreaker with Daniel Suarez.
While Newman could finish deep in the field and still make the playoffs, that scenario isn’t as likely. Good chance he’ll need a strong finish, but history has not been kind to Roush Fenway Racing at Indy.
The organization’s last top 10 at Indy was in 2012 when Greg Biffle placed third.
Since, these are the organizations that have scored at least one top 10 at Indy:
Joe Gibbs Racing (16 top 10s since 2013)
Stewart-Haas Racing (10 top 10s)
Hendrick Motorsports (9 top 10s)
Team Penske (8 top 10s)
Chip Ganassi Racing (5 top 10s)
Richard Childress Racing (5 top 10s)
JTG Daugherty Racing (2 top 10s)
Furniture Row Racing (2 top 10s)
Wood Brothers Racing (1 top 10)
Go Fas Racing (1 top 10)
Michael Waltrip Racing (1 top 10)
If you wish to counter that, then look at what Newman did the past two seasons with Richard Childress Racing, finishing 10th at Indy last year and third the year before. And he won the 2013 race for Stewart-Haas Racing.
Hendrick Motorsports has qualified three of its drivers (Alex Bowman, Chase Elliott and William Byron) with Jimmie Johnson trying to claim one of the final spots.
Stewart-Haas Racing could have all four of its drivers make the playoffs for a second year in a row if Clint Bowyer and Daniel Suarez both advance to join Kevin Harvick and Aric Almirola.
Roush Fenway Racing is trying to break into the playoff picture with Ryan Newman.
Unless there is a surprise winner Sunday at Indy, the Cup playoffs could feature drivers from just five organizations. Last year’s Cup playoffs featured drivers from seven organizations.
5. High standards
Tyler Reddick could clinch the Xfinity regular-season title in Saturday’s race at Indianapolis (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN).
He needs to leave Indy with a 61-point lead on second in the standings. Reddick holds a 51-point lead on second-place Christopher Bell.
Reddick, the reigning series champion, is on the cusp of the regular-season title because of a season that ranks among the best in series history.
His average finish of 4.9 ranks second all time among drivers to compete in all 24 races. His 21 top 10s are tied for second most through 24 races all time in the series. His 19 top-five finishes are third most through 24 races all time in the series.
INDIANAPOLIS – When Furniture Row Racing closed its doors after the 2018 season, engineer Pete Craik was facing the same dilemma as a few dozen of his co-workers.
How to remain a resident of Colorado but also continue a full-time career in a national racing series?
There were no shortage of offers to stay in the NASCAR Cup Series, including following crew chief Cole Pearn and Martin Truex Jr. to the No. 19 at Joe Gibbs Racing, but all would have required a relocation to North Carolina.
Having settled in Denver, Craik and his new wife, Abby (whom he met after moving to Colorado four years ago), decided they wanted to stay.
“Cole said, ‘That’s fair enough. We really want you (at Gibbs), but I get it,’” Craik said. “I just decided initially to say unless I can stay here, I’ll figure something else out.”
The Australian managed a good compromise.
Craik, who came to America in 2012 to work in the NTT IndyCar Series for three seasons before his NASCAR stint, joined Ed Carpenter Racing in January.
He still lives in Denver, staying in touch with ECR team members in Indianapolis daily through instant messaging programs. He travels the 18-race IndyCar circuit and visits the shop once a month.
There’s a parallel to the relationship that Furniture Row Racing had with top engineer Jeff Curtis, who worked remotely from the Charlotte area while the team’s headquarters were in Colorado.
“It’s not like you’re out of the loop at all,” Craik said while standing outside his team’s Gasoline Alley garage stall four days before the Indianapolis 500 last month. “It’s just you’re either in the office here or my office at home.”
Craik is the race engineer on the No. 20, which qualified second and finished sixth in the Indy 500 with Ed Carpenter (who will race the Dallara-Chevrolet this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway).
“I really like this series,” said Craik, who spent three seasons at Andretti Autosport before moving to NASCAR with Furniture Row in 2015. “The cars are good. It’s competitive. I’ve always said that it pains me that it’s not more popular, because I think it’s a great series. It was an easy decision once I spoke to (ECR). It’s a good team, and hopefully I can try to contribute something to that.”
Craik is one of a few Furniture Row Racing veterans who joined IndyCar teams since last year. A few others remained in Denver to work at team owner Barney Visser’s machine shop. But many naturally decamped for North Carolina.
“Honestly I don’t know that many people in Denver anymore because they all moved,” Craik said. “I didn’t have time to go and make friends because we all had each other.”
“The cakes were baked, and we were putting icing on the cake,” Craik said. “We obviously were heavily sim based and relied on that a lot. We just had a good group. We just wanted to win. I think everybody does, but we were a bit of a ragtag group of guys.
“We had a lot of fun. We just got along well. Everybody was pushing in the same direction. There wasn’t a bad egg amongst them.”
He remains in touch with many of them. Team owner Barney Visser attended a Denver wedding reception in January for Craik (he was married in Australia last December to Abby, who is pictured above during a visit to IMS).
“Barney was putting in a lot of his own money, having health issues and wanted to spend more time with his family, so I get it,” Craik said about Visser’s decision to walk away from NASCAR. “Hey, I wouldn’t want to spend that money myself, so I totally get it.
“It was a good time, but the time’s over. You’re not going to get it back, so there’s no point in looking back on it and wishing it still was.”
The bonds from that team remain strong, though, particularly with Pearn and James Small, a fellow Australian who helped recruit Craik to Furniture Row but went to the No. 19 this season.
“We all still get along,” Craik said. “There’s no hard feelings about it at all. I think everybody’s ended up in good positions otherwise, whether it’s in Colorado not in racing, or in racing. Some people didn’t want to move, but it ended up that way. I feel really fortunate I didn’t have to move, and I get reminded of that by James and Cole every day.
“They text me and are like, ‘Man, you really got a good deal.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I did.’ ”
Today’s Cup race at Pocono: Start time, lineup and more
Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske have combined to win 12 of the first 13 points races of the season, leading to the question of if anyone can beat them and will it happen today at Pocono Raceway.
Joe Gibbs Racing drivers have won the past three Pocono races. Kyle Busch has two wins and Martin Truex Jr. won this race a year ago when he was at Furniture Row Racing. Team Penske driver Ryan Blaney won this race in 2017 while driving for the Wood Brothers.
Here’s all the info you need for today’s event:
(All times are Eastern)
START: Lt. General Giovanni Tuck, U S Air Force Joint Staff, Lt. General Todd Semonite Commander Army Corp of Engineers & Major General Andrew Schafer, Commanding General 28th Infantry, PA National Guard will give the command to start engines at 1:49 p.m. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 2 p.m.
PRERACE: Garage opens at 9 a.m. The driver/crew chief meeting is at noon. Driver introductions begin at 1:15 p.m. The invocation will be given by Monty Self of Motor Racing Outreach at 1:42 p.m. Technical Sergeant Chris Whiting, USAF, Security Forces, Dover AFB, Delaware, will perform the National Anthem at 1:43 p.m.
DISTANCE: The race is 160 laps (400 miles) around the 2.5-mile track.
STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 50. Stage 2 ends on Lap 100.
COMPETITION CAUTION: Lap 20
TV/RADIO: FS1 will broadcast the race at 2 p.m. Coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. with NASCAR RaceDay. Motor Racing Network will broadcast the race. MRN’s coverage begins at 1 p.m. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry MRN’s broadcast, which is also available at mrn.com.
FORECAST: wunderground.com calls for cloudy skies with a high of 68 degrees and a 15% chance of isolated thunderstorms for the start of the race. The threat of thunderstorms increases as the race progresses.
LAST TIME: Martin Truex Jr. won this race a year ago, finishing ahead of Kyle Larson and Kyle Busch. In the July race, Kyle Busch won and was followed by Daniel Suarez and Alex Bowman.
Nate Ryan: There has to be a solution, and whatever it is, NASCAR needs to implement it quickly. Switching from headlines about woes in postrace inspection to woes in prerace inspection is an improvement, but the preferred solution should be no headlines about inspection at all.
Dustin Long: Until NASCAR figures out a way to do things differently, inspection failures will dominate talk before a race, especially if it involves more than 20% of the field as it did at Richmond.
Daniel McFadin: Unless you change the penalties for failing inspection (again), the cars will fail regardless of if you hold qualifying inspection right after qualifying or on race day. Only real solution I can think of is to have inspection before qualifying and for that to be the only inspection until after the race. That would just continue the endless cycle we seem to be in on the issue.
Jerry Bonkowski: It’s just the nature of the beast, particularly when you have such a large number of cars that failed pre-race inspection. The larger the number of cars penalized, the greater the attention that is placed upon the situation by the media. Perhaps more attention should be focused on what NASCAR could do to improve and streamline the overall inspection process. And if it has to swing the pendulum even further, increase penalties to keep crew chiefs from playing games with their cars. Kick out the crew chief from the race, or perhaps hold the car for the first five laps of the race. That will change things in a hurry.
NASCAR tried another format for Cup qualifying at Richmond, limiting each round to five minutes. Should this be the format at most tracks the rest of the season?
Nate Ryan: Makes no difference here as long as the focus is on qualifying results and whoever won the pole position, not on the process for getting there.
Dustin Long: Whatever it does, NASCAR needs to get out of this rabbit hole soon.
Daniel McFadin: I’m 50/50 on this. I’d prefer the first round being 10 minutes at anything larger than 1 mile, which allows teams to make more than one run – but that’s based on the premise drivers won’t wait until the final minute to make their first.
Jerry Bonkowski: Five minutes works fine on short tracks. Not so much on longer tracks of 1.5 miles and greater. That’s why I believe open qualifying should be replaced by having two to four cars (depending on the size of the racetrack) go out at a time for two or three qualifying laps. This creates attention and a kind of race-within-qualifying excitement among fans to see which driver can “beat” the other drivers, so to speak.
There’s been a lot of talk about what Joe Gibbs Racing will do with its Cup lineup for next year with Christopher Bell’s continued success in Xfinity, but Cole Custer has won twice for Stewart-Haas Racing in Xfinity. What kind of dilemma could SHR face with its driver lineup for 2020?
Nate Ryan: With no disrespect to Cole Custer, he has yet to show he is in Christopher Bell’s league, nor is there the external pressure of a huge investment in his development to avoid letting a coveted prospect escape (as is the case with the millions Toyota Racing Development has spent on grooming Bell). Because Custer is related to the SHR executive Joe Custer and effectively sponsored by team owner Gene Haas, the dynamics are incomparable. If Custer shows enough promise for promotion, the team probably could make room in Cup next season, but there is no sense of urgency as exists with Bell.
Dustin Long: Gene Haas said last year that Cole Custer needed to win more often. If Custer continues to do so, it will make him a more inviting driver for a team, whether that is SHR or another Ford operation.
Daniel McFadin: Cole Custer is already in his third full-time Xfinity season, which makes him middle-aged in Xfinity driver years. While we’re not privy to driver contract lengths, Kevin Harvick is locked in to at least 2021, Daniel Suarez is in his first and Aric Almirola continues to be strong in his second year. Clint Bowyer probably has the biggest question mark being in his third year with the team. Gene Haas will have to decide who’s a better long-term investment: A 39-year-old Bowyer or a 21-year-old Custer. Bowyer grabbing some wins this year could complicate that.
Jerry Bonkowski: One potential option could be embedding Bell with another Toyota team such as Leavine Family Racing in 2020, like when Erik Jones was with Furniture Row Racing in 2017. I think you’ll see a similar embed of Custer with another Ford team, perhaps Front Row Motorsports. Or, because Custer’s father, Joe, is a top executive at SHR, it would not surprise me to see Daniel Suarez shifted to another Ford team to make way for the younger Custer at SHR.
The IndyCar race at Long Beach ended with series officials penalizing Graham Rahal one spot for blocking Scott Dixon on the last lap. Should blocking be a penalty in NASCAR?
Nate Ryan: No. Different series, different cars, different tracks.
Dustin Long: Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo. Don’t need any more judgment calls for NASCAR to make.
Daniel McFadin: Heck no. As much as Tony Stewart may have despised it, blocking is a racing maneuver. If a driver doesn’t like it, just show your displeasure with a love tap to the rear bumper.
Jerry Bonkowski: Yes, particularly if it puts the driver being blocked and other trailing drivers at risk of crashing. I’ve long felt that egregious blocking should be penalized. But if that were to happen, it could open a Pandora’s Box of additional issues, such as bump-and-run moving an opponent out of the way. How would NASCAR draw the line between egregious blocking/bumping and legitimate blocking/bumping?
Jimmie Johnson ran in Monday’s Boston Marathon. What is another event you’d like to see a NASCAR driver attempt to take part in someday?
Nate Ryan: Denny Hamlin in a PGA Tour event and paired with Michael Jordan.
Dustin Long:Kyle Larson as a bobsled driver. Also, Denny Hamlin in a PGA Tour event.
Daniel McFadin: Since Ryan Newman is sponsored by Oscar Mayer, he should enter the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest on July 4.
Jerry Bonkowski: The Baja 1000 is the first one that comes to mind. That, to me, is the most grueling combination of man and machine. I’d also like to see more NASCAR drivers try their luck in the Indianapolis 500 and, conversely, do “the double” by racing later that same day in the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte. Lastly, although it would be difficult due to the Cup schedule, I’d also like to see some of the best golfers among Cup drivers try their luck at The Masters.