Greg Zipadelli

Friday 5: Key questions to ponder during NASCAR’s break

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While Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske have dominated the headlines by combining to win each of the first nine races, many questions remain as NASCAR takes its Easter break.

Here is a look at five key questions with a quarter of the Cup season complete:

1. What’s up with Stewart-Haas Racing?

An organization that saw all four of its drivers win last season has yet to visit victory lane in Cup this season.

The last Cup victory for the organization was at Texas in November by Kevin Harvick with a car that later failed inspection. Stewart-Haas Racing has won two of the last 21 Cup races. Team Penske has nine wins during that time and Joe Gibbs Racing has eight victories.

Stewart-Haas Racing has been the best of the rest. Five times in the season’s first nine races, a Stewart-Haas Racing driver has been the top finisher outside the Gibbs and Penske camp.

Harvick finished fourth at Las Vegas (Joey Logano won). Aric Almirola was fourth at ISM Raceway (Kyle Busch won). Harvick placed fourth at Auto Club Speedway (Busch won). Clint Bowyer finished second at Texas (Denny Hamlin won). Bowyer was third at Richmond (Martin Truex Jr. won).

“We’ve just got to keep working,” Greg Zipadelli, SHR competition director, told NBC Sports after the last weekend’s Richmond race. “Everybody around you is. I feel like we’re getting better. I don’t feel like we’ve been terrible. We haven’t executed. We haven’t unloaded as good as we need to. We make our cars better over the weekend. That’s a plus.

“By no means are we where we want to be. We’re at a race track that is good for a bunch of our drivers the last couple of weeks and weren’t able to capitalize on it. I’m taking the approach that I’m looking at my glass as half full rather than half empty.”

Even though SHR won four times at this point last year (Harvick won three races and Bowyer had one victory), the organization has shown signs of greater depth.

Almirola, Bowyer, Harvick and Daniel Suarez have combined to score nine top-five finishes and 22 top 10s this season. Each driver has had at least one top-five finish. Each driver also has at least four top 10s.

Last year, Almirola, Bowyer, Harvick and Kurt Busch had eight top-five finishes and 19 top 10s. Busch and Almirola had yet to score a top-five finish. Only Bowyer and Harvick had at least four top 10s at this point a year ago.

“All four of our cars have been running good,” Zipadelli said of SHR’s performance this season. “All four of our cars have been running better. Everybody has been working good together. We’ll just keep plugging away.”

Then Zipadelli added: “Small victories. That’s how you eat the elephant one bite at a time.”

2. The next few weeks will be most critical to what team?

Obviously, the top organizations that have been shut out seek to win as soon as possible, but let’s look a little deeper.

This could be a key time for Roush Fenway Racing. The organization has Ryan Newman in a playoff spot but he’s 15th in the standings and only four points ahead of 17th (the first spot outside a playoff position). Teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is 18th in the standings, eight points behind Newman.

One has to figure that even for Kyle Larson’s poor start — he’s 19th in the standings, 12 points behind Newman — that Larson will find his way into a playoff spot either via a win or points. With the way Joe Gibbs Racing has been so strong, Erik Jones, who is 17th, would be a good candidate to move into a playoff spot.

Ryan Newman is 15th in the points standings after a quarter of the Cup season. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

If those situations happen, then it will be more challenging for Roush Fenway Racing to put either of its two cars in the playoffs. The organization has failed to have a car in the playoffs three of the past four years.

This is a key time for Roush Fenway to collect points, including stage points to position itself better for a playoff spot. Stenhouse has 20 stage points and Newman 18.

Fifteen drivers have more stage points than Stenhouse and 16 have more stage points than Newman.

“We’ve got to keep working on some raw speed,” Newman said after placing ninth last week at Richmond. “We’re off just a little bit still.

“We’re doing better but we’ve got to keep working on it. Ninth isn’t good enough. Tenth isn’t good enough.”

3. What driver needs a win the most?

Long list here.

Kurt Busch, who has a one-year deal with Chip Ganassi Racing, could use victories to enhance his chances of driving next year provided he wants to continue.

Jimmie Johnson has a 68-race winless streak. His last victory was at Dover in June 2017 — close to a two-year drought. He’s led laps in only three of the last 21 races.

Kyle Larson is winless in his last 55 races and has only five top-10 finishes in his last 16 starts (nearly half a season). Larson has led laps in three of those 16 races. His frustration was evident after he finished last at Richmond and said “it’s been a pretty crappy start to the year.”

Along with Johnson and Larson, one could put any Chevrolet driver on this list. Chevrolet has won four of the last 55 races, dating back to the start of the 2017 playoffs. Elliott has three of those victories and Austin Dillon the other.

4. What will the 2021 driver lineup look like?

There are some intriguing situations that will be worth watching as the season progresses.

Kurt Busch has a one-year contract with Chip Ganassi Racing. Will the 40-year-old (he turns 41 in August) be back after this season with the team or will Ganassi have a spot to fill in its lineup for 2021?

Unless NASCAR allows car owners to have more than four teams, Joe Gibbs would seem to have a wealth of riches and not a place for all of them. Kyle Busch signed a contract extension in February, Martin Truex Jr. is in his first season with the team, Denny Hamlin says his contract goes beyond this season and Erik Jones says he’s in talks with JGR on a contract extension.

So where does that leave Christopher Bell? With the investment Toyota has put into his career, there’s no chance he’ll drive for any other manufacturer next season. With 10 wins in 48 career Xfinity starts (a 20.8% winning percentage), there’s no way he should be in Xfinity after this year. Does that mean he goes to Leavine Family Racing, which is aligned with JGR, or does Toyota pull something else out to ensure Bell will be with the manufacturer in Cup next year?

Another interesting proposition is where will Cole Custer race next year? He’s won twice in the first eight races this season (he had two wins in his previous 70 Xfinity starts entering this year).

When Stewart-Haas Racing was looking to fill the No. 41 last season, car owner Gene Haas was asked if Custer could take that position. He said that Custer needed to win more. If Custer does that this season, can SHR find a way for him or will he need to go to another Ford team?

5. What will the qualifying format be?

Still to be determined. Or at least NASCAR hasn’t announced anything.

The series heads to Talladega Superspeedway next weekend and that will be single-car qualifying, same as it has been done in recent years there.

Then it’s off to Dover. Maybe the format used at Richmond (five minutes for each round) could work there. After that, NASCAR heads to Kansas Speedway and drafting will again be key. NASCAR will need to have its plans set before Kansas.

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Kurt Busch will drive for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2019

Chip Ganassi Racing
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Kurt Busch announced Tuesday that he will drive the No. 1 for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2019, a move long expected. The Associated Press reported it is a one-year deal. Monster Energy is moving with Busch to Ganassi.

The announcement comes two days after the 2004 Cup champion announced he would not return to Stewart-Haas Racing after five seasons there.

“This is a tremendous opportunity to go out and win races and have a shot at the championship,” Busch said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday.

The 40-year-old replaces Jamie McMurray in the No. 1 car with Ganassi’s team. Busch has won at least one race in 15 Cup seasons. He has 30 career Cup victories.

“It’s not oftentimes that a NASCAR champion, a Daytona 500 winner becomes available and I think when you got a guy that is a racer like Kurt … I think somebody like that comes along, you’ve got to take a serious look at him,” car owner Chip Ganassi said on the conference call Tuesday. “It didn’t take me long to say yes when he became available.”

Busch said he has considered that 2019 could be his last season in Cup.

“For me, I know right now I’m all in, no matter what it’s going to be, whether it’s going to be 36 races and a championship run or as a pact like Chip and I have talked about, along with Monster, that if we come out of the gate like gangbusters and have five wins by July Daytona, let’s talk about 2020,” Busch said.

“For me, the way everything has panned out from my switch to SHR to Ganassi Racing, I had always talked about 2019 and that being my 20th full-time year. That’s a number I have in my mind. Any time you get an opportunity like this and now seeing everybody on the shop floor this morning, you don’t know what’s around the next corner as far as motivation and challenges. For right now I see it as all in, and we’ll see how it goes from there.”

Busch said that Matt McCall, who has been the No. 1 team’s crew chief, will remain in that role with him.

With the move, Busch will be a teammate to Kyle Larson.

Busch said the deal was done earlier, but he held off announcing until now.

“Why I wanted a small delay in the announcement was really strictly me being selfish and wanting a really cool introduction, the smoke show that Monster brings, the glitz, the glamour and the fun,” Busch said. “It also dovetailed a fantastic 2018 season that I had at SHR. That group knew midsummer that we weren’t going to be together. I have to commend Greg Zipadelli and Tony Stewart in the way they approached the playoff races. When Chip and I struck our deal and Monster confirmed, Chip and I looked at each other, and said ‘You know what? As long as you’re championship eligible … we’ll just delay the announcement.’ It just worked out perfect. My final day was the final day of November for SHR, and here it is December 4, and I wish today was February 4. I wish we were going to Daytona next week. I’m all pumped up to get going and get to the track.”

Ganassi said an announcement will be coming on McMurray. He has been offered a ride in the Daytona 500 in a third Ganassi car and then move into a position with the team.

“I do expect Jamie to stick around,” Ganassi said.

Ganassi also said that sponsors McDonald’s and Cessna will remain.

Comparing Cole Pearn, Martin Truex Jr.’s record together to NASCAR greats

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Martin Truex Jr and Cole Pearn have a good thing going.

Truex’s win Sunday at Sonoma Raceway came in his 123rd start with Pearn serving as his crew chief.

The two have had an eventful tenure in their four years together at Furniture Row Racing.

Since teaming up in the No. 78 Toyota in 2015, Truex’s second year with the team, the duo has scored 16 wins, 45 top fives, 75 top 10s and an all important championship last season.

How does their record so far compare to the first 123 races of other notable driver-crew chief pairings in NASCAR history?

Racing Insights compiled the info of nine pairings, including Truex/Pearn and Kyle Busch/Adam Stevens, who have 119 starts together. They would have 134 starts together if not for Busch missing 11 races in 2015 due to injury and Steven being suspended for four races in 2017.

Truex and Pearn would have 124 starts together if not for a one-race suspension for Pearn in 2015.

The data includes five active pairings: Pearn/Truex, Stevens/Busch, Chad Knaus/Jimmie Johnson, Rodney Childers/Kevin Harvick and Paul Wolfe/Brad Keselowski.

Among the nine pairings, the best is Darrell Waltrip and Jeff Hammond, who had two championships, 28 wins, 75 top fives and 91 top 10s in their first 123 races together.

The most comparable pairing to Truex/Pearn is Knaus/Johnson.

After 123 starts, they’re tied for 16 wins and 75 top 10s. While the Hendrick Motorsports pairing had two more top fives, Truex and Pearn earned their first championship faster.

Johnson and Knaus earned their first title in their fifth year together when they reached 176 starts together.

Check out the info below.

Pairing       Starts     Wins Top 5s   Top 10s Titles
Jeff Hammond/Darrell Waltrip 123 28 75 91 2
Cole Pearn/Martin Truex Jr. 123 16 45 75 1
*Adam Stevens/Kyle Busch 119 18 54 74 1
Rodney Childers/Kevin Harvick 123 13 59 84 1
Chad Knaus/Jimmie Johnson 123 16 47 75 0
Ray Evernham/Jeff Gordon 123 19 51 71 1
Kirk Shelmerdine/Dale Earnhardt 123 22 59 89 1 – Secured 2nd title in 125th start
Greg Zipadelli/Tony Stewart 123 14 47 76 0
Paul Wolfe/Brad Keselowski 123 11 39 61 1
 

*Only 119 starts together

What’s next for All-Star rules package? That’s what NASCAR faces

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CONCORD, N.C. — The fans stood even as Kevin Harvick held the lead for the final 10 laps.

They stood because this was unlike anything they had seen at Charlotte Motor Speedway — cars bunched on a track that typically stretches them like taffy over 1.5 miles; cars two-wide often, three wide at times and four wide once.

This was so different even though there wasn’t a lead change in the final stage — duplicating the finish of last year’s race.

“I think you knew on Lap 7 that Kyle Busch had won the All-Star Race, I think we all knew that last year,’’ said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer.

Not Saturday night. A new aero package combined with restrictor plates created a form of racing that Harvick suggested could be a seminal moment years from now.

But for fans wanting more of what they saw Saturday, when will it return to Cup?

Not until next year.

While O’Donnell said “never say never’’ to the rules package being run this year, the reality is it won’t. NASCAR’s charter agreement precludes rule changes that would create significant costs for teams unless it is safety related. That’s not the only reason this package will not return this year.

Many questions need to be examined and that goes deeper than what took place on the track, O’Donnell said.

“For us, we’ve got to take the time, be smart about this, really look at it, see where we can go from here,’’ O’Donnell said. “But I think it’s fair to say that this is something we absolutely want to look at.’’

The question will be where else to run it.

“I wouldn’t want to take it to every 1.5-mile track,’’ said Kyle Larson, who finished seventh. “I’d hate to see this at Homestead or Chicago or something like that. I’d think Kentucky would be a nice one to try at it. It seemed like you could run with people on your right side a little bit a lot better than normal, so I’m thinking Kentucky when somebody’s on your door into (Turn) 3, maybe you won’t get as loose getting in, but yeah, I don’t think every track, but there’s some it could work for.’’

Denny Hamlin, who finished fourth, was open to the possibilities.

“I thought the race looked decent from my perspective,’’ he said. “Maybe it could use some refinement but overall if the fans or the stakeholders believe they saw a good race, then we can work on it from here. I’m not really opposed to anything, really.’’

What to do next is just another obstacle to hurdle. One that Marcus Smith, chief executive officer of Speedway Motorsports, has been doing for the past few months.

Smith spearheaded the push to run this package in the All-Star Race before the season when NASCAR discussed a plan with the sport’s key stakeholders to try this package in 2019.

Not everyone liked Smith’s idea. So he and other SMI officials worked for a few months to convince team owners it was worth the additional cost. The point being teams could do this in a test and pay for the costs or they could do it in a race that paid the winner $1 million.

But there’s much to consider before such changes can be instituted. Team executives told NBC Sports that restrictor plate motors are typically more expensive than a regular motor, so more races with this setup could prove more costly. Also, with cars running closer together, there’s the great chance of more multicar crashes and the added costs of repairing or replacing cars.

“It’s going to be different than our other packages,’’ said Greg Zipadelli, vice president of competition at Stewart-Haas Racing. “It’s a motor package, potentially a body change from what we race on downforce racetracks. We’re just creating more work for ourselves which just takes more resources. It puts good racing on, the races are spread out, we’ll all figure it out as teams.  Dumping it on us right now wouldn’t be the right thing to do.’’

Of course, cost shouldn’t be the determining factor for why something isn’t done. The ultimate goal, as Smith sees it, is simple.

“To me the measure is highlights, and we had a lot of highlights tonight,’’ he told NBC Sports. “Highlight-worthy racing is something I like to talk about, that’s my goal with every single race. Tonight I spent most of the day from 10:30 this morning to just now out with the fans … I was able to observe a lot and hear a lot and I saw a lot of fans standing on their feet, they weren’t using their seats much.’’

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Kevin Harvick says new pit guns ‘pathetic’ and ’embarrassing for the sport’ after loose wheels in Texas

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FORT WORTH, Texas – After a spate of loose wheels this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, Kevin Harvick trashed the new NASCAR-mandated pit guns after finishing second in the O’Reilly 500.

“The pathetic part about the whole thing is the pit guns,” said Harvick, who also had problems in Saturday’s Xfinity race. “The pit guns have been absolutely horrible all year, and our guys do a great job on pit road, and the pathetic part about it is the fact you get handed something that doesn’t work correctly, and those guys are just doing everything that they can to try to make it right.

“It’s embarrassing for the sport.”

Asked by NBC Sports if he planned to address it with NASCAR, Harvick said, “They know they have problems. They just don’t want to talk about them.”

It was a rough day in the pits for Harvick, who had at least two loose wheels and was forced to make an unscheduled stop for one of them on Lap 136 that dropped him two laps down. His team had another mediocre pit stop because of a lug nut getting stuck in a jack and also was penalized for having a crew member over the wall too early.

Despite all that, Harvick rebounded to finish second by 0.300 seconds behind Kyle Busch after winning the first stage and leading 87 laps.

Asked if his No. 4 Ford would have won if it had been leading on the final restart with 30 laps remaining, Harvick responded, “What do you think? Probably would have been a straightaway ahead.”

Joe Gibbs, team owner for Busch’s winning No. 18 Toyota, also expressed discontent with the guns.

“I don’t like things not in our hands,” Gibbs said. “To be quite truthful, I’ve taken a stand on that. That’s something I hope we continue to really evaluate that.”

In a statement, NASCAR vice president of competition Scott Miller said, “We’ll continue gathering information on the pit gun’s performance like we do after every race. It is too early to make assumptions without all the facts. It’s also important to remember that this is a collaborative initiative with the race teams.”

Harvick’s crew chief, Rodney Childers, told FS1 during the race that the pit guns needed to be addressed, and he was “tired of biting my lip about it.”

But Stewart-Haas Racing vice president of competition Greg Zipadelli wasn’t as quick to cite the pit guns as the primary reason for the No. 4’s struggles.

“We were just off on pit road today,” Zipadelli said. “We had been the last couple of weeks. Seems like we started the year off pretty strong. Other teams obviously caught up. We’re pushing the pressure to do a better job. When you go fast, it just seems we’re making some mistakes.

“I honestly don’t know I’d even blame the pit gun. I know exactly what the situation is. Yes, we had a loose wheel today, but we let the jack down early. So that’s not necessarily the guns’ fault. These guns seem to be just a little temperamental in (colder) temperature and things, but everyone’s got the same stuff, you know what I mean? I think it’s too early to draw conclusions there’s an issue. I do know it’s a lot different than what we’re using last year.”

NASCAR began using the Paoli-manufactured pit guns this season after consultation with the NASCAR Team Owners Council. In recent seasons, teams made seven-figure investments in building and developing their own pit guns, so the move was considered partly a cost-savings measure but also was hailed for its competitive benefits.

But there have been problems after multiple races this season, with defending series champion Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Cole Pearn particularly irate after problems at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

However, NASCAR’s decision to move to a common pit gun wasn’t supported unanimously by teams, as Chip Ganassi Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing apparently were among those that resisted the decision.

“That’s the frustrating part when you felt you had a really good product last year,” Zipadelli said. “We were probably ahead of the curve and probably second or so on pit road as far as that part of it goes, but it is what it is. They changed the way they inspected them this year and we all got to figure it out and adjust to it. That’s just how our sport has always been. That part is nothing new. We started good and just making mistakes now.

But Zipadelli did confirm SHR’s teams have had problem with the pit guns (as did Adam Stevens, crew chief for Busch).

“We’ve changed a lot of regulators,” Zipadelli said. “We’ve changed the guns. We’ve had them leaking. But so have other people on pit road. When you run well and are up front, everything’s magnified.

“Do I wish we could go back to what we had? Yes. But I’m not bashing them or blaming them on the situation we’re in. Some people and teams felt this was the direction we needed to go. We weren’t in favor of it. But you win some, you lose some.

“We’ve got to figure it out as a group and not make mistakes as a group. Then if the gun is a limiting factor, then it’s the gun. But we as a group have made mistakes in the past couple of weeks also. There’s fault on many sides.”

Harvick said “everybody on pit road has talked to” NASCAR about problems with the pit guns.

“This is four out of seven weeks that we’ve had trouble with the pit guns,” he said. “Yesterday the rear pit gun wouldn’t even … we had two lug nuts that were tight in the last two pit stops.  You had two lug nuts that had 30 pounds of torque on them.  Today you have another one. The wheel doesn’t even get tight. It’s just a mess.”