Chase Elliott pleased by ‘best shot to win to date’ but knows work remains

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. – He was the only driver to outduel the dominant No. 2 Ford of race winner Brad Keselowski. He had his best shot to win a race in more than five months. He fortified the allegiance of fans at the NASCAR Cup series’ shortest track, which already has been a special place early in his career.

Ultimately, though, Chase Elliott knew a runner-up finish Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, one of only six short-track races on the circuit, will have a limited shelf life.

Hendrick Motorsports still must prove it can excel at the larger tracks such as Texas Motor Speedway that make up the bulk of the schedule and play a large role in determining the championship.

“From here? No,” Elliott said with a smile and a slight chuckle when asked if there were any momentum that could carry over to the 1.5-mile speedway that’s next on the schedule. “No.”

How about fueling some optimism that his No. 9 Chevrolet will be faster at Texas?

“I sure hope so,” he said.

There should at least be a more positive vibe in this week’s team debriefs after Elliott led 49 laps for his first top five since his Oct. 21 victory at Kansas Speedway. It also was Hendrick’s first top five of 2019 through six races (the longest the organization has gone without a top five to start a season since 2000).

It was only the second race of the past 10 that the No. 9 Chevrolet has led.

“We had a really, really solid car and this was the best shot we had to win to date this season, so when you have cars like that and performances like we did today, you really need to capitalize,” Elliott said. “And obviously with our struggle last week at Fontana (where he finished 11th), that was a bummer, so to come back and be able to run inside the top five all day long and be as competitive as the winner of the race was an improvement.

“And ultimately this is an important racetrack so coming back here in the fall, hopefully we can run like we did today, maybe a little better, and hopefully we’re still part of the deal to make it matter.”

Keselowski took the lead for the final time when his pit crew got him out ahead of Elliott under caution on Lap 374. He never passed Elliott under green, and Keselowski figured he wouldn’t after Elliott took the lead from him with 175 laps remaining shortly after a restart.

“I thought Chase was probably the best car most of the day,” said Keselowski, who led 446 of 500 laps. “I thought that might be the end of our day, but I was able to learn a few things from him and kind of dissect his strengths and weaknesses and make some adjustments of our own and come back out and be a little bit better for it. Pit crew did an excellent job gaining or retaining our track position all day, which is critical here at this racetrack.

“We were able to keep our track position, and that was so, so key to being able to win today because I think Chase, if he’d have been out front that run, he would have drove away from the field with what I saw from his car.”

Brad Keselowski held off Chase Elliott for his second win of the season. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Elliott slipped to third behind Keselowski and Kyle Busch on his last stop under yellow. He made a nifty move to retake second on the outside after Busch ran into Keselowski and slowed with 43 laps remaining.

He was making ground in the final 10 laps, but aerodynamics (rarely a factor at Martinsville but in play because of this year’s high downforce) seemed to factor into his inability to reach Keselowski’s bumper.

“I tried to root him off the bottom at the beginning of the run,” Elliott said. “That was probably my best shot. I felt like I was a little better than him taking off. Then I thought he got a little better than me through the midstage and then I feel like we kind of evened out.

“That one run I was able to get by him, it was definitely a slight advantage to being out front. Moved up with about five (laps) to go, was making a little time. But obviously not enough time and was just trying to get back to his bumper. Thought maybe I could root him out of the way. It was going to be really hard to drive up next to him and pass him. I was just going to have to get to his bumper and play some games and hope it went my way.”

At least there was hope of being in the game when NASCAR returns to Southwest Virginia in seven months for the opener of the Round of 8, which Elliott nearly won in 2017.

“Have to just improve and when we come back here,” he said. “This is an important race if you’re in the hunt, so hopefully we are.”

Chase Elliott leads Hendrick Chevy sweep of top three in final practice

Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
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MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Chase Elliott paced the final Cup practice Saturday at Martinsville Speedway, turning a 97.542 mph lap on the 0.526-mile oval.

Teammate Alex Bowman was second fastest, and Jimmie Johnson made it a sweep of the top three speeds for Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets, which have been winless since Elliott’s win last October at Kansas Speedway..

Austin Dillon and Paul Menard rounded out the top five in the 50-minute session.

The rest of the top 10 were comprised of Ty Dillon, Daniel Hemric, Kevin Harvick, Erik Jones (the highest-ranked Toyota) and Martin Truex Jr.

Clint Bowyer, who won at Martinsville a year ago, was fastest in the first practice Saturday morning when Chris Buescher was the fastest Chevy in seventh.

The practice ended under a red flag after a crash for Cody Ware.

Qualifying for the STP 500 will be at 5:10 p.m. on FS1.

Click here for speeds during the final practice at Martinsville.

Bump & Run: Who had best, worst West Coast Swing?

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Who had the best West Coast Swing?

Nate Ryan: Team Penske. Kyle Busch turned in the best individual performance, but the trio of Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney posted the best across-the-board effort by any team.

Dustin Long: Kyle Busch. Five wins in seven national series races (should have gone seven for seven).

Daniel McFadin: Kyle Busch easily. Of the seven races he entered, he won five and placed in the top three in the other two.

Jerry Bonkowski: With two wins and a third-place finish in the West Coast swing, there’s no other choice but Kyle Busch. Other drivers that had a good run include Kurt Busch (fifth-seventh-sixth), Joey Logano (one win, one runner-up and one 10th-place finish) and Kevin Harvick (two fourth-place finishes and a ninth-place).

 

Who had the worst West Coast Swing?

Nate Ryan: Ryan Preece. After three consecutive finishes outside the top 20 (while his teammate notched three straight top 20s), the outstanding showing at the Daytona 500 must seem much further away than a month ago.

Dustin Long: Those hoping the rule changes would dramatically alter the racing and alter who the best teams would be.

Daniel McFadin: Has anyone seen Ryan Newman? While his teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has shown glimpses of improvement, including at Las Vegas, the No. 6 Ford has been missing in action. Newman’s West Coast Swing was made up of finishes of 24th (Vegas), 12th (Phoenix) and 22nd (Auto Club). He has no top 10s through five races.

Jerry Bonkowski: With finishes of 22nd (Las Vegas), 26th (Phoenix) and 30th (Fontana), Bubba Wallace ranks 30th after the West Coast swing. He’s way behind the eight ball after just five races. About the only chance Wallace has to make the playoffs is to get a win in the next 21 races.

 

If you were seeding the Cup field like the NCAA tournament, who would be your four No. 1 seeds after five races?

Nate Ryan: Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick.

Dustin Long: Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick.

Daniel McFadin: Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch

Jerry Bonkowski: Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin.

 

Bigger Chevrolet surprise: That Kurt Busch has four consecutive top 10s or Hendrick Motorsports has no top fives this season?

Nate Ryan: Busch seemed reinvigorated toward the end of last season, and Chip Ganassi Racing made the necessary moves to shore up its performance this season, so while the No. 1’s consistency has been unexpectedly stellar, it’s less of a stunner than Hendrick. It’s been 19 years since the team went five races into a season without a top five. Yes, there’ve been flashes of speed by each driver, but the statistics don’t get any plainer than that. Hendrick will need to show it has made progress by Texas Motor Speedway next week.

Dustin Long: Kurt Busch. I like how this team has performed at the beginning of the season but Busch told me after Sunday’s race at Auto Club Speedway that for all that has gone well for them with finishes, they need to qualify better to gain more stage points. He scored only four stage points during the West Coast races.

Daniel McFadin: Kurt Busch’s remarkable consistency. He entered a car that had just two top fives last year and matched it in the first four races. Last year, Busch didn’t earn his fourth top 10 until he placed second at Talladega in race No. 10. Hendrick is still working itself out of a rut that started two years ago.

Jerry Bonkowski: Tough question. Busch is the most pleasant surprise for Chevy, for sure. But Hendrick Motorsports is the biggest surprise overall – and that’s not a good thing – in the bowtie camp, as all four of its drivers are already more than 100 points behind points leader Kyle Busch after five races and Chase Elliott is the highest-ranked HMS pilot in 12th place.

Friday 5: Tensions between Cup teams test manufacturers

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Less than a month into the Cup season, there have been signs that the tenuous alliances among teams have not held up well on or off the track.

It’s led to an unease not often visible at this point in the season.

As the sport enters a time of transition — new rules, new car in 2021, new engine as early as 2022— can a manufacturer keep its teams together for these major projects? Or will there be fissures, much like what happened between Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing in 2016 and Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing last season?

At the same time, NASCAR seeks new manufacturers and any company that comes into the sport likely will take teams from current manufacturers. Are the seeds of discontent being sown now?

Already manufacturers have had to react to issues between their teams.

Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance, conceded this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that at Ford, “we’re a family and every family has issues.”

Just look at the issues Ford has had this season:

Joey Logano confronted fellow Ford driver Michael McDowell on pit road after the Daytona 500 for pushing a Toyota and not Logano’s Ford on the final lap. McDowell told the media he was not happy with how fellow Ford drivers treated him in that race.

Ford driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was not happy with Logano, who chastised Stenhouse on the radio for a move during the Daytona 500 that cost Logano several spots and, according to Logano, could have caused an accident.

“For sure we had our issues at Daytona, can’t deny that,” Rushbook said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio this week. “But as a family, we talked through those issues, tried to understand what led to those issues and then how can we fix that and make it even better going forward.”

Ford isn’t the only manufacturer that has had issues between some of its teams. Chevrolet understands the delicate balance between competition and cooperation.

Hendrick Motorsports partnered with Joe Gibbs Racing, a Toyota team, and not fellow Chevrolet teams Chip Ganassi Racing and Richard Childress Racing in the Daytona 500. The move was made to counter the strength of the Fords, which dominated both qualifying races and entered as the favorite to win the 500.

Kyle Larson’s comments this week on NASCAR America’s Splash & Go about Hendrick Motorsports “cheating” ruffled feelings in the Chevy camp. That led to a late-night Twitter apology from Larson and subsequent comments about how he had poorly chosen his words. Ganassi gets its engines from Hendrick Motorsports. Larson said Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway that he had apologized to team owner Rick Hendrick. Said Larson: “We’re both moving on.”

There always will be conflict among competitors in the same camp. It’s natural with what is at stake each race weekend. But the manufacturers have stressed working together more. It was evident in how Toyota teams teamed together to win the 2016 Daytona 500 — a model adopted by others. At Ford, that banding of brothers is referred to as One Ford.

But this season, the slogan might be anything but togetherness.

2. New challenge for spotters

The new rules that are intended to tighten the competition at tracks — and should be the case this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway based on the January test — will change what spotters will do.

Many expect to be calling the race much like they do at Daytona and Talladega where they’re on radio almost constantly.

“I did a lot of talking in 25 laps,” Billy O’Dea, spotter for Ty Dillon, said, referring to the 25-lap races NASCAR held at the January test at Las Vegas.

One thing that spotters who were at the test noticed is that runs by cars behind their car were different from what they see in pack racing at Daytona or Talladega.

“In Daytona or Talladega, you don’t necessarily watch the car behind you,” said Tyler Green, spotter for Kurt Busch. “You watch  two or three behind because that’s where the runs come from.

“At Vegas, it seemed like you didn’t really watch the car two behind you. You watched the car right behind you. It just happens quick. There’s no really understanding of where the runs really come from unlike Daytona or Talladega.”

Other spotters at the test noticed that as well. That creates other challenges for them.

“Are they going to take (the run and try to pass) or are they just going to get close?” O’Dea said of what to tell a driver when a car behind has a run.

“When you see them moving, do you block it? It’s a lot of unknowns. Early in the race, do you really want to be blocking a guy going into (Turn) 1? If it’s continually a lot of passing, which I hope it is, it’s going to be a lot of give and take. It’s going to be interesting to see.”

Rocky Ryan, spotter for David Ragan, also was at the test. Ragan did not participate in the 25-lap races because he was driving the Ford wheel-force car, which has extra equipment on it and is too valuable to be risked in a race (the wheel-force cars for Chevrolet and Toyota also did not participate in those races).

During those races at the test, Ryan said he stood atop the spotters stand and acted as if he was spotting for a car to grasp how quickly things can happen in those drafts.

“The 15 of us that were there (for the test) will have a leg up on everybody,” Ryan said.

3. Drafting in qualifying

The expectation is that teams will draft in qualifying today at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Paul Wolfe, crew chief for Brad Keselowski, saw what the draft could do when the No. 2 team took part in the January test there.

“It seemed like at the Vegas test, the (aero) ducts made a difference,” Wolfe told NBC Sports. “Basing off of Vegas, it seems like there were two- or three-tenths of a second to be gained in the draft.

“I still don’t think it’s going to be a draft like you see at Daytona, but it’s more about timing it right to get a good suck up (on the car ahead). I don’t see us going out there running nose to tail. I still don’t see that. I could be wrong.”

Wolfe said they saw the draft make a difference when a car was a quarter of a straightaway behind another car.

“The more cars you have (in a draft), you get a faster suck up, for sure,” Wolfe said.

The key is to figure out who is going to be the trailing car to get that advantage, or if teams will run extra laps in qualifying and trade positions so each car will have that chance to take advantage of the draft.

4. On the way to Miami

If a trend holds true, one of the Championship Four contenders may be known after Sunday’s race at Las Vegas.

Since 2014, one of the drivers racing for the title at Miami has won within the first three races of the season.

Throw out the Daytona 500. No winner of that race since 2014 has made it to the championship race. So that means that either Brad Keselowski, who won last weekend at Atlanta, or Sunday’s winner could be headed for a chance at the championship — provided the trend continues.

Three times since 2014, the driver who went on to win the championship won within the first three races of the season: Harvick won the second race in 2014 (Phoenix), Jimmie Johnson won the second race in 2016 (Atlanta), and Martin Truex Jr. won the third race in 2017 (Las Vegas).

Last year, all four title contenders won for the first time that season within the first 10 races. Kevin Harvick won in the season’s second race (Atlanta). Truex won in the fifth race (Auto Club Speedway). Kyle Busch won in the seventh race (Texas). Joey Logano won in the 10th race (Talladega). Harvick and Busch had other wins within those first 10 races.

5. Familiar faces

Brad Keselowski’s victory last weekend at Atlanta kept a streak going.

Six drivers have combined to win the last 18 Cup races on 1.5-mile tracks. Martin Truex Jr. has six wins in that time, followed by Kevin Harvick (five wins), Kyle Busch (three), Keselowski (two), Joey Logano (one) and Chase Elliott (one).

The last time one of those drivers did not win a race at a 1.5-mile track was the 2017 Coca-Cola 600. Austin Dillon won that race.

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Kyle Larson: I need to work on word choice after ‘cheating’ comments

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Kyle Larson admitted Wednesday he’s not the best at crafting his words and that no one knows that better than his wife.

“I think there’s right times to say what’s on your mind and other times I could definitely do a better job of using different words or something that could make things come across a lot better,” Larson said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “On Track” with Danielle Trotta and Larry McReynolds. “(Wife) Katelyn would probably be the first person to tell you I’m not the best with my words.”

Larson’s choice of words were in the spotlight after comments he made Tuesday on NASCAR America’s Splash & Go that Hendrick Motorsports “plays games” with NASCAR early in the season before “they start cheating and finding some speed.”

Larson told “On Track” he intended the comment, to be “funny,” but it came out wrong about Hendrick, which supplies engines for Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 42 Chevrolet driven by Larson.

“Either way, it hurt some feelings,” Larson said. “Hendrick is a partner of ours at Chip Ganassi Racing. We love having their support, and we use their engines. We believe we have the best engines out there.  I meant no harm by it. But I regret saying that because they are partners of our race team in a way.”

Larson said “he’s got to work” on refining his bluntness, but that he will “still be who I am at the same time.”

Even if choosing the proper wording isn’t his strong suit, Larson has drawn praise for a long history of honest comments, particularly during the 2018 season.

“Growing up watching NASCAR, and when it started getting corporate, I didn’t ever want to be like that,” Larson said last year. “You have to be a little bit, but I like being honest. I think fans should appreciate drivers being honest and open, and this is my personality.

“Yeah, I don’t like sugar-coating stuff. You have to here and there to not hurt feelings or get yourself in trouble, but I like being open.”