Greg Zipadelli

Long: No fans mutes Indy soundtrack, but Chase Briscoe still relishes win

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INDIANAPOLIS — Mimicking what his hero Tony Stewart twice did at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Chase Briscoe climbed the fence after winning Saturday’s Xfinity Series race on the road course.

But unlike Stewart, who looked out to a sea of fans bathing him in cheers, Briscoe saw only empty gray bleachers and heard only the shouts of his crew members who joined him on the ascent.

The culmination of a historic doubleheader with the NTT IndyCar Series and the Xfinity Series also meant the end of a day — and a July 4 at that — unlike any other at the famed speedway.

No fans at NASCAR races have become common during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the sight — and lack of sound — at Indy was stark.

Sunday’s Cup race will not have fans. It also will not have seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who announced Friday he and his wife have contracted the coronavirus.

Johnson says he is asymptomatic but admits he has more questions than answers about how he and his wife got the virus and when he’ll be able to return to racing. Sunday was to have been his final Cup start in a race he’s won four times.

Johnson will be missed. So will be the fans. Just as they were Saturday.

The fans provide a soundtrack to any event, even a race where engine noise dominates. There was no roar from the crowd when the command to start engines was made. No cheers for the winner when he emerged from his car in victory lane. No oohs and ahhs when the top four cars in the Xfinity race sailed down the long front straightaway into a sharp right-hand turn with two laps left, dueling for the win.

The only sound came from the engines echoing off the canyon of empty seats.

Even in the smallest settings, interactions were missed. When Scott Dixon won the IndyCar race earlier in the day, his crew, unable to be in victory lane because of protocols, stood on a stairwell 20 feet above him and clapped.

When Briscoe won, there was no family to greet him. Two years ago his father had tears seeing Briscoe drive at Indy. One could only imagine what his reaction would have been Saturday.

My family is probably crying at home,” said Briscoe, an Indiana native. “I was thinking about that the last couple of laps. That is tough. I wish they could have been here to experience it. It is something that may not ever happen again. It is definitely bittersweet to win without them here.”

If he wins again at Indy, good chance it could be with Stewart-Haas Racing. Greg Zipadelli, SHR’s competition director, served as Briscoe’s interim crew chief because Richard Boswell was serving the final race of a four-race suspension and voiced his support for Briscoe.

“I think he is still young and has a lot to learn, but I am very, very impressed with how quick he is learning how to race these stock cars,” Zipadelli said. “I hope he is a part of Stewart-Haas for a long period of time.”

What makes Briscoe — only the second driver to win five of the first 13 races of a season in the Xfinity Series — stand out?

“He is able to dig deep,” Zipadelli said. “There are some people that when it is time to close, I see that a lot in him, he finds a little bit extra. He has a lot of confidence but isn’t getting cocky, which I love. Most of all he is just a good race car driver.”

While IndyCar had run on this course, this was new for Xfinity Series. Briscoe had prepared since February for this race, spending time weekly on the Ford simulator driving the 14-turn, 2.439-mile course. The training came through as Briscoe battled AJ Allmendinger, Austin Cindric and Justin Haley for the lead late. 

Even though Haley finished second to Briscoe, he still enjoyed the afternoon.

“I have zero complaints about the Indy road course,” Haley said. “I thought it was an amazing day

“When the fans are back, I think it’s going to be better.”

Briscoe said he can’t wait for fans to be back at this track and elsewhere.

“They are the reason you celebrate and the last couple of times I didn’t really celebrate because without the fans I don’t get hyped up,” he said. “Here I was obviously excited. I wish there were fans here.”

Even so, Briscoe would still have a celebration.

A former dirt track racer, Briscoe planned to visit a dirt track Saturday night within an hour’s drive of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“My little sister has decided she wants to try to drive a race car,” Briscoe said. “At the end of the night she is going to drive a mini-sprint around there for 20 or 30 laps. I am going to head there and see a lot of my friends I don’t get to see anymore and hang out with my dad and family.”

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Chase Briscoe: Dale Jr. ‘changed my entire outlook’ of superspeedway races

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Before a roughly 45-minute conversation with Dale Earnhardt Jr. last year, Xfinity Series driver Chase Briscoe “used to despise” competing on superspeedways like Talladega Superspeedway.

“I went there with the mentality I was just gonna ride around and hopefully the wreck would happen and I wouldn’t be in it and I’d maybe finish in the top 10 or whatever,” Briscoe said. “And not that I wasn’t going there to win, but I was just there making laps essentially.”

But early last year Briscoe had a lengthy phone call with Earnhardt, the winner of six Cup Series races and one Xfinity race at Talladega, that “changed my entire outlook on those races.”

The changed perspective in part resulted in Briscoe’s fourth-place finish at Talladega last year in his second Xfinity start at the track.

Before that he had a 16th-place finish in 2018 and he placed 22nd in his lone Truck Series start there in 2017.

“I’ve logged a lot of laps and been up front and in contention and just talking to (Earnhardt) and how he approaches those races and his mentality, just how you race them was the total 180 (degrees) opposite of how I was going to go in there,” Briscoe said. “And I felt like ever since I talked to Dale, it’s been a night and day difference, my outlook going to the races. But typically, whenever I get done, I’m like, ‘Man, that was a lot of fun. I’m ready to keep going,’ where the past I would have never said that.”

Added Briscoe: “A lot of people say for the most part that (doing well in) those races are luck, which there is a certain variable of that, but typically you see the same guys winning at the superspeedways, whether it’s Denny (Hamlin) or Joey (Logano) or Brad (Keselowski) or any of those guys and even Dale back when he was racing. So it’s not a coincidence that he got lucky necessarily that many times, there’s something to it. Talking to Dale I feel like really opened my eyes up a lot.”

What was the biggest piece of advice Earnhardt passed on to the 25-year-old driver?

“Just be the aggressor,” Briscoe said. “Now I go there with mentality, I’m going to try to lead every single lap. If I get hung out to dry or whatever, and I fall back to 30th, that’s fine. I’m going to try to drive right back to the lead anytime I get any kind of a run whatsoever. … I just feel like you almost approach it like you’re going go-kart racing. If you wreck, you wreck. But you’re going there to try to lead every single lap you can and it’s just a different style of racing. On the mile-and-half-stuff that’s the mentality I use, and there’s no reason why on superpeedways I wouldn’t use that same mentality of trying to lead every lap.”

That mentality has resulted in Briscoe earning a series-leading three wins so far this year, at Las Vegas, Darlington and last weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway. That win qualified him to compete for the Dash 4 Cash bonus today at Talladega (5:30 p.m. ET on FS1). He will race against Brandon Jones, Ross Chastain and AJ Allmendinger for the $100,000 prize.

However, for the second race in a row Briscoe will be without his main crew chief, Richard Boswell. Boswell, the team’s car chief and an engineer were suspended four races after last weekend’s first race at Miami, a result of a piece of ballast falling off Briscoe’s No. 98 Ford during the pace laps.

Boswell was replaced on the pit box on Sunday by Stewart-Haas Racing’s vice president of competition, Greg Zipadelli, who will also be in that position Saturday.

“Right now the point is to have him do it at Talladega,” Briscoe said. “I think that’s kind of all of our goal is to have Zippy do it for the following two races, but it’s just dependent on what is going on on the Cup side. That’s obviously priority No. 1 for him. … It was different in a sense of how Zippy communicates and just some of the lingo he uses and his demeanor compared to Boswell. … Obviously, Zippy, he’s won plenty races and championships in the past. So we know he’s more than capable of the job.

“At the same time, this is the perfect opportunity for an interim chief to step in just because of the situation, we’re not practicing or anything. So Boswell’s still setting the car up and everything at home. He’s just not allowed to go to the racetrack. So all that Zippy has to do is really call the race and get the car through tech. So it’s kind of a blessing in disguise for us if this was going to happen just because of the situation we’re in. The only place that it’ll even affect us is Indy (July 4), where we have practice. But we’re confident Zippy’s more than capable of doing the job. And that’s the great thing about Stewart-Haas, we have so much depth all across companies, if something happens. We always have a perfect backup plan.”

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