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Bump & Run: Was Martin Truex Jr. right to be upset with lapped cars at Atlanta?

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Did Martin Truex Jr. have a point in complaining so much about lapped cars getting out of his way, or doth he complain too much, and that’s racin’?

Nate Ryan: In context, when considering that Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had a straightaway on anyone he was racing for position and was the only roadblock between Truex and race winner Brad Keselowski, the 2017 series champion’s qualms are justified. As well documented in the most recent race at Martinsville Speedway, Truex races cleanly to deserve getting breaks from others – but the problem is the favors rarely are returned because there’s no obligation to reciprocate.

Stenhouse was the first driver a lap down, and in an era of unlimited overtime restarts, it’s hard to live with just yielding positions when circumstances can change so quickly. Look at Keselowski, who went from being a lap down to leading in less than 10 laps because of some quirky scoring twists from a yellow flag. Truex does have a point … but at the same time, that’s racin’.

Dustin Long: It’s a courtesy that drivers move over. There is nothing in the rule book that says a car a lap or more down must move over. That said, get in the way of the leaders enough times and it will come back to haunt you when you need the help. Was Ricky Stenhouse Jr. doing this as payback for something that happened earlier? Or was he just being bullheaded? Either way, Stenhouse’s actions will lead to a response on the track by Truex someday.

Daniel McFadin: I think it’s a fair complaint, especially when the checkered flag is within 20 laps. Truex said his spotter had communicated the urgency to Stenhouse’s repeatedly without success. It’s yet another chapter in the saga of Stenhouse making his competitors unhappy.

Jerry Bonkowski: Yes, I believe Truex had a very valid point and it’s something NASCAR will have to address if it continues. If things aren’t fixed by Fontana, and drivers can’t police themselves, I believe NASCAR will step in. I understand hard racing, but if a driver is not on the lead lap and is far from getting back on the lead lap, he should be penalized if he is intentionally blocking those on the lead lap and with a potential chance to win the race.

 

Were the rash of mistakes in the pits at Atlanta just drivers and teams shaking off rust, or a harbinger of what’s to come in 2019 with the new rules likely putting an emphasis on track position?

Nate Ryan: I think it’s mostly the former. If anything, I’d expect there will be fewer pit mistakes this season because the downsides outweigh the rewards too greatly. Kyle Larson’s slow rebound from a speeding penalty underscored how difficult it can be getting through traffic with a strong car. It might make sense for teams to build in an extra buffer on their speed monitoring systems to ensure they avoid penalties.

Dustin Long: It was sloppy work on pit road by many teams. Call it a bad day at the office. Just like one shouldn’t judge the new rules package based off the Atlanta race, one shouldn’t assume the rest of the season will be as error-filled on pit road based on what happened at Atlanta.

Daniel McFadin: It could well be a sign of things to come. Two of the pit road penalties for speeding were on front-row starters Aric Almirola and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., two drivers who have two Cup wins apiece but who don’t start up front often. Any time a driver unfamiliar with racing in the lead and pitting from the lead is put in that situation, I expect them to push the limit to stay there. 

Jerry Bonkowski: I think it’s more an example of drivers getting used to the new rules and how they impact track position. I give drivers 5-7 races tops – probably more like 3-4 races – and they’ll be up to speed on the nuances related to the new rules.

  

No top 10s for Hendrick Motorsports and a very mediocre race for Jimmie Johnson. Should the team be worried it might be even further out to lunch than it was for much of the 2018 season?

Nate Ryan: It’s too early to push the panic button, but someone’s thumb definitely is poised right above it in case the team fails to record a top 10 or run competitively at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Dustin Long: Crew chief Greg Ives expressed to me after the race that the Hendrick cars need to find more speed. It is a concern that Jimmie Johnson hasn’t had a top-10 finish at a 1.5-mile track since last year’s Coca-Cola 600. Certainly Hendrick Motorsports can’t be pleased with Sunday’s results, but let’s see what this organization does this week at Las Vegas.

Daniel McFadin: It was the first race with the new rules, but I’m sure the Hendrick shop is feeling a little bit hotter this week. Dominating Daytona 500 qualifying was impressive but everything after that is another animal and it’s a bit surprising Hendrick appeared to trip over themselves with all four cars. But you can’t really pass judgement on anybody until we’re through at least Martinsville.

Jerry Bonkowski: Between the new rules and the shuffling of crew chiefs within HMS, the first few races are going to be a learning experience, just as they were last year with the then-new Chevrolet Camaro. Jimmie has to build the same kind of communication with Kevin Meendering as he did with Chad Knaus. Remember, JJ did win the Clash race and he finished 9th at Daytona. Yes, he’s riding a 61-race winless streak and finished a career-worst 14th last season, but the seven-time champ has not forgotten how to win races. If he wins at, say, Las Vegas, Phoenix or Fontana, people are quickly going to start saying “Jimmie’s back.”

Long: How a decision on a Friday impacted pit road in Atlanta Cup race

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HAMPTON, Ga. — A strategic decision that didn’t work as planned and steadfastness to protocol created much angst on pit road for the teams of Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano and Alex Bowman on Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Frustrations boiled during the race. Logano lost more than 10 spots in each of his first two pit stops when he was blocked by Bowman in the stall ahead. After being blocked a second time, Logano said on his radio “if I’m blocked in (again), I will push him off the jack.”

Truex, who was pitting behind Logano, also was angry with being blocked by Logano. Truex said on his radio at one point that he’d push Logano off the jack if it happened again.

Rarely do strong teams pit next to each other because of the likelihood they will be on the lead lap and pit together under caution throughout the race.

“I still don’t understand why he chose that pit stall because it screwed himself a lot, too,” Cole Pearn said about Logano’s crew chief, Todd Gordon.

It goes back to a decision Gordon made Friday.

“We didn’t focus on qualifying and paid the penalty for it,” Gordon said after Logano’s up-and-down day ended with a 23rd-place finish in a race won by teammate Brad Keselowski.

Cup teams had one practice Friday before qualifying. Gordon said the team made only one qualifying run, focusing on race setup instead. Logano ran 26 laps in the session, second only to Denny Hamlin, who ran 27 laps. Aric Almirola, who would win the pole, ran eight laps in the session.

“Honestly, we focused a lot on race trim because I wasn’t sure if, one, we would qualify, it looked like rain was coming during qualifying, and two, whether we would get to practice on Saturday,” because of weather, Gordon said. “I wanted to make sure we had a good race balance. We had really good pace Friday in race trim but didn’t make enough changes to go to qualifying, honestly.”

Pit stall picks are based on qualifying. Logano qualified 27th, meaning he had the 27th pick of the 40 pit stalls.

Gordon prefers a stall near pit exit at Atlanta. Since being teamed with Logano in 2013, Gordon has picked between the first and sixth pit stall at Atlanta every year.

When it came time for him to pick his pit stall for Sunday’s race, pit stall No. 5 — in front of Truex and behind Bowman — was the closest stall to pit exit.

“I do like to be down there,” Gordon said of being as close to pit exit as possible. “Honestly, this is a place you green-flag pit, you short pit … we do that separate. As we did today. You work around who is around you. It was definitely a challenge to be up there.”

The next closest pit stall available when Gordon made his pick was stall No. 10 in front of Ryan Newman and behind William Byron. Pit stall No. 14 also was available, but it was in front of Keselowski’s stall, and teammates do not pit next to each other.

“I hate being in the middle of pit road because there’s a lot of crap that happens there,” Gordon said. “Sometimes, you pick yourself into a hole to avoid catastrophe.”

On the first two stops, Truex was ahead of Logano on the track. So Truex entered his stall first and then Logano had to maneuver around him. Bowman was behind both. That meant Bowman had to maneuver around Logano’s car to enter his stall. That led to Logano being boxed in.

It’s just a tough situation when you got (Logano) coming in around (Truex),” said Greg Ives, crew chief for Bowman. “He’s not in an optimal position to come out and we’re not in an optimal position to get in.

“Todd Gordon came over and asked if we could give them a little more room. He understood the situation. When (Logano) is pointing toward the wall, and we’re pointing toward the wall, you’re never really going to get out of that. That comes down to Friday qualifying and pit selection. He knew his pit selection got him into that situation, and it wasn’t going to break until we got our cars better and stayed in front of them.”


No Hendrick Motorsports car finished better than 15th Sunday — the sixth consecutive race the organization has gone without a top-five finish. Hendrick’s last top-five result came with Chase Elliott’s win at Kansas in October.

Alex Bowman led the Hendrick group by placing 15th. William Byron was 17th. Elliott placed 19th, a lap down. Jimmie Johnson finished 24th, two laps down. Johnson has not had a top-10 finish in his last seven races on a 1.5-mile track.

“We’ve just got to get our cars better,” Bowman’s crew chief, Greg Ives, told NBC Sports. “We need to get just more overall speed. I don’t think anybody’s car (in the field) drives good. It’s just that one is faster than the other, and that’s who wins. So we’ve got to do a little bit better job with our cars. We go back home, and you’ve just got to get back to work.”


Front Row Motorsports has a unique setup for its pit crews this season.

It is using crews from three different organizations.

Michael McDowell’s pit crew is from Chip Ganassi Racing. Rookie Matt Tifft’s pit crew is from Stewart-Haas Racing. David Ragan’s pit crew is from Roush Fenway Racing.

The team used a pit crew from SHR and Roush last year but needed to find a third unit when it added the team for Tifft. Ganassi had a crew available because it no longer was pitting Leavine Family Racing’s car with that team moving to Toyota and getting its pit crew from Joe Gibbs Racing this season.

Using pit crews developed by other teams allows Front Row Motorsports to use the savings for its cars and organization. If Front Row had its own pit crew program, it would need at least 20 people (three teams of five and then at least some backups), training facilities and more.

Because these larger teams have programs in place, it makes sense for Front Row to use those team members. The benefit for the bigger teams is it helps develop those who are not on their own teams.

“We’d rather have the best group out of those organizations,” Jerry Freeze, general manager for Front Row Motorsports, told NBC Sports. “We felt that would be a better pit crew for us than going out and recruiting our own and coaching our own.”


Are changes coming to the rules package for Daytona and Talladega?

Daniel Hemric, Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman took part in a Goodyear tire test the two days after the Daytona 500.

“They had to slow us down,” Bowman said. “It will be interesting what gets brought back.”

Larson said one of the changes made to slow them down was a larger spoiler.

What that could mean, if anything, remains to be seen.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, said of any adjustments: “It’s probably premature to talk about that. We’re just downloading that data.”


The Toyota Racing Development pipeline of talent is deep, and that puts the pressure on young drivers to perform and work their way up.

After winning Saturday’s Gander Outdoors Truck Series race, Kyle Busch was asked about 18-year-old Todd Gilliland, who is running the full season for Kyle Busch Motorsports after competing in 19 of 23 races last year. Gilliland was winless last year and finished with nine top 10s.

“I don’t know how many times last year we were in meetings and I was just yelling at him about ‘Let’s go,’ ” Busch said. “Our (stuff) is not that slow. You got to get up on top of the wheel and make it happen. Obviously, we kind of proved that here (at Atlanta).”

Gilliland finished ninth in Saturday’s Truck race. Harrison Burton placed eighth but was second on the final restart before falling back.

“I was happy to see Harrison (run) as good as he did, and Todd, we certainly have to work with him and continue to bring him up and get him filled in on what it takes to be fast at these places,” Busch said.

“We’ll hopefully be able to get (Gilliland) places because you know his career is on the line. You don’t get very many chances at this, and I’m sure that we’ll hopefully be able to get him going better. He should have won two races last year, no question about it, but obviously it just didn’t happen. He’s got to show up this year and make it happen.”

Busch was asked if it was just of matter of Gilliland slowing down, taking a step back to take a step forward.

Absolutely,” Busch said. “We’ve had that discussion as well, too. There were times last year where Todd wrecked every week, and we were like, ‘Dude, you got to just slow down, you’ve got to figure out how to finish.’ To finish first, first you must finish, right?

“Obviously there was that discussion that happened. He went on to almost win the road course and then almost win Texas, and he struggled at Phoenix for some reason and struggled at Homestead. So obviously we continue to work on not only Todd, Harrison, but anybody that is behind the wheel, Christian Eckes, Chandler Smith who is going to get the chance later this year, Raphael Lessard. All these guys. If they want to make it, if they want to be a star in this sport, they better perform in KBM stuff because if you don’t, sorry, man, there’s not much left for you.”

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Hendrick Motorsports signs extensions with Alex Bowman, Nationwide through 2020

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Alex Bowman and Nationwide Insurance will be with Hendrick Motorsports through 2020, the team announced Thursday.

Bowman signed a one-year extension with the team, while Nationwide entered an two-year extension to sponsor the No. 88 Chevrolet in 20 races in 2019 and 2020.

The company is the primary sponsor for 19 races this season.

The news comes four days after Bowman, 25, placed third at Pocono Raceway for the best finish of his Cup career.

Bowman, who has 102 career starts, is in his first full season with Hendrick after replacing Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88.

Nationwide joined Hendrick as a corporate sponsor in 2014 and was a primary sponsor of Earnhardt from 2015-17.

“Having this kind of support is incredible,” Bowman said a press release. “From Nationwide and our other partners to Mr. Hendrick, (crew chief) Greg (Ives) and all my teammates, I feel very fortunate to be in such an awesome position. We have an opportunity to have a lot of success together. To hear a sponsor like Nationwide and a team like Hendrick Motorsports say I’m their guy gives me a ton of confidence and motivation to go out there and deliver results.”

Bowman has been a member of the Hendrick organization since Oct. 2016 when he signed during his tenure as a substitute driver for Earnhardt, who missed the final 18 races of the season due to a concussion.

“We have such a strong partnership with Nationwide,” said Rick Hendrick in the press release. “From doing great things in the community with Nationwide Children’s Hospital to driving significant value back to their business, it’s truly impressive to see how they consistently make the maximum impact with their racing program. We appreciate the incredible relationship with their whole team and look forward to more great things in the coming years.

“Alex has the talent to win races and compete for championships. He and Greg are clicking, and we have a lot of confidence in what they will accomplish together. From our driver and team to our sponsors, we have an exciting No. 88 program that’s set for the foreseeable future.”

Through 21 races this season Bowman has two top fives and eight top 10s along with earning the pole for the Daytona 500.

He is 15th in the point standings with five races left in the regular season.

NASCAR America: Dale Jr. discusses what he’s ‘weirded out’ by in his new job

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. makes his big debut this weekend as a race analyst for NBC Sport’s NASCAR coverage.

While taking part in a huge media tour in New York City to promote NBC’s coverage, Earnhardt sat down with former competitor and neighbor Ryan Blaney.

Earnhardt shared that he’s “weirded out” by the prospect of regularly interviewing drivers and even his former crew chief, Greg Ives.

“I was talking to Greg Ives the other day at basketball and I was like, ‘I’m going to come up in your trailer, are you OK with that?'” Earnhardt said. “I’m going to be on the other side, it’s going to be super weird. I don’t have any interviewing experience.”

Earnhardt and Blaney also discuss their shared experience of having appeared on Bravo’s “Watch What Happens Live.”

Watch the above video for the full discussion.

Friday 5: Pair of drivers question further limiting Cup drivers in Xfinity

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As NASCAR debates if to further restrict Cup drivers in the Xfinity Series, two drivers suggest that the decision could have a far-reaching impact on Cup.

Kyle Larson, who finished runner-up in three Xfinity races to Cup drivers in 2013 — the only season he ran every race in that series — worries that if future Xfinity drivers aren’t challenged by Cup competitors as he was, it could hurt them.

“I would just be worried that you’re making the guys that come from Xfinity, your young guns, that make it to Cup in future years, I don’t think they’re going to be up to speed enough,’’ Larson said Thursday during a visit to a Chevrolet plant that assembles the Camaro ZL1 in Lansing, Michigan.

“When I ran Xfinity, I learned a ton off of getting beat by Kyle Busch and (Brad) Keselowski and (Joey) Logano and whoever other Cup drivers that were racing every week with me. It made me better. I learned a lot.

“Now, I feel like if you limit those guys getting to race with us, they don’t know where the bar is set. It’s actually set when they’re racing just with Xfinity regulars who don’t really have a lot of experience. I feel like they’re making our sport less competitive for the future when you do that.’’

Larson’s comments, in a way, echoed what Kevin Harvick said on his SiriusXM NASCAR Radio show “Happy Hours” earlier this week.

Harvick, who will compete in Saturday’s Xfinity race at Michigan International Speedway, gave his opinion in response to the fact that the series has had 11 different winners in the first 12 races.

“Four of those 11 races everybody was excluded from the Cup side to run in the Xfinity races,’’ Harvick said, noting the Dash 4 Cash races that did not allow any Cup drivers. “I think as you look at the variety of winners, I think that’s definitely intriguing for the series.

“Look, there’s a lot of great race car drivers in the Xfinity Series and there’s a lot of great young drivers, but I think right now one of the interesting things to me is looking at the young guys in Cup and how much longer it has taken them to win.

“Is that a result of dumbing down the Xfinity Series by not letting as many Cup guys in the series? Are those guys learning the same things that they would be learning if you had it how it was 10 years ago with more Cup guys in the series? Are they learning as much? Are they rushed? What’s the difference?

“Why is it taking them longer to win in Cup now? Why aren’t the young guys winning as many Cup races as what the young guys used to win 10-15 years ago when they came to Cup? Lot of interesting questions.’’

Many of the top young drivers viewed as most likely to win — Larson, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman, Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez — competed in Xfinity against Cup drivers on a regular basis before moving to Cup. While experience is a key, their teams also are a factor.

Hendrick Motorsports has struggled this season, making the challenge greater for Elliott, Bowman and rookie William Byron. Chevy teams are behind as they sort out the Camaro ZL1. Blaney moved from the Wood Brothers to Team Penske and that group has been fast but inconsistent at times. Jones and Suarez have had noteworthy moments but also lacked consistency at Joe Gibbs Racing.

If further restrictions are put on Cup drivers, then it could lead to the concerns Larson and Harvick posed.

With five of the top 12 drivers in points heading into Sunday’s race at Michigan age 38 and older, another transition could start in the next few years, creating an avenue for more young drivers to enter Cup.

Will they be prepared for the jump to Cup when their time comes?

2. What’s next for the All-Star Race aero package?

NASCAR has yet to state where the All-Star Race package will be used in Cup this season.

Matt Kenseth is clear on how he feels about the package and where it should not be run.

“I can’t say I was a huge fan of it,’’ said Kenseth at a tire test this week at Darlington Raceway. “I don’t know how different it will be once everybody has some time to work on it. I really think that for mile-and-a-halves, it’s probably not the right package, I think, depending on what everybody is looking for.

“Charlotte was a good race, especially the Open, but man if you look back at last year’s races, it was a really good race, too, the Open was. It was crazy, three-wide for the win at the end. When you have those short races and you throw cautions every 20 laps, it’s going to stay bunched up and be pretty exciting.

“I think there’s probably some potential there for some tracks, maybe somewhere like Indy where it was good for the Xfinity cars. Even as we saw at Pocono last weekend (in the Xfinity Series), it really wasn’t that great.’’

Greg Ives, crew chief for Alex Bowman, says that 1.5-mile tracks could be key for this package.

“If we’re going to try to do it as a season-long package, I think we need to try a race track that is the bulk of what we do, the mile-and-a-half,’’ Ives told NBC Sports on Thursday.

“Michigan, I’ve heard floated around. That will turn into another superspeedway-type race. … It’s going to be tricky to try. Michigan, I think, is going to be a tough place to get a true understanding of how a mile-and-a-half is going to race. ‘’

Only two 1.5-mile tracks remain before the playoffs begin — Chicagoland (July 1) and Kentucky (July 14).

The Xfinity cars will run a similar package this weekend for the second race in a row.

“I think what us as an industry and me as a crew chief have to have is an understanding of what our future product needs to be,’’ Ives said. “Four hundred horsepower cars are probably not the perfect answer when you’re a premier series in racing, but there is something that can be done to make our fans appreciate the racing, appreciate not only the driver’s talent because it takes a talent to get into these races.

“That’s what the compromise needs to be. Drivers, they want to be able to race, race hard and showcase their talent.’’

3. Betting on NASCAR

Delaware became the first state outside of Nevada on Tuesday to offer betting on several different sports, including NASCAR.

Bets are being taken for this weekend’s Cup and Xfinity races at Michigan.

As of Thursday, Kevin Harvick is the favorite to win Sunday’s Cup race at 3/1, followed by Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Larson and Kyle Busch at 4/1. Next is Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney at 12/1. They are followed by Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin at 18/1.

New Jersey lawmakers passed legislation to authorize legal sports betting in that state on Thursday, sending the measure to Gov. Phil Murphy for his signature, which would make the state second to Delaware to offer sports betting outside Nevada.

4. Could it be four in a row for Kyle Larson?

Kyle Larson is going for his fourth consecutive victory at Michigan this weekend. While among the favorites this weekend, he knows the challenges to keeping this streak going.

“I think the last one we won was really difficult,’’ he said. “I ran like 10th all race long but we were able to have some good pit strategy and a good restart at the end. The other two we won I felt like we had the best car, probably, going into the race. Where right now you look at the same three guys (Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick) as being the favorites.

“We’re just a little step behind those guys right now. I think with having three wins, confidence will be up and that could be important.’’

If Larson wins, he’d match what Bill Elliott did when he swept the Michigan races in 1985 and ’86.

5. Close to 100 percent

Joey Logano and Clint Bowyer are the only drivers who have completed more than 99 percent of the 4,462 laps run this year.

Logano has completed all but two laps this year. Bowyer has completed all but 28 laps this season.

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