James Small

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Friday 5: Key storylines entering Daytona Speedweeks

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Eighty-three days after Kyle Busch celebrated his second Cup championship, the garage opens today at Daytona International Speedway.

And with it will be the sense of renewal and unbridled optimism that often pervades during the offseason and Daytona Speedweeks.

Such feelings are evident in drivers who think this is their year to win the Daytona 500 and with smaller teams that count on the race’s big payday to help fund their operations for the coming weeks. Hope also will be strong with those among the many driver and crew chief changes made since last year.

With all the good feelings entering Daytona Speedweeks, here are five storylines to watch:

1. When will Kyle Busch’s Daytona 500 drought end?

While Kyle Busch has won a summer Cup race at Daytona, three qualifying races, a Busch Clash, a summer Xfinity race, a Truck race, and an ARCA race, he’s never won the Daytona 500 in 14 previous attempts.

The closest Busch has come to winning the season-opening race was last year when he placed second to Denny Hamlin as part of a 1-2-3 finish for Joe Gibbs Racing that included Erik Jones finishing third.

David Pearson celebrates winning the 1976 Daytona 500 after a last-lap crash with Richard Petty.(Photo by ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images)

If it is any solace for Busch and his fans, Hall of Famer David Pearson didn’t win his lone Daytona 500 until his 15th attempt.

Others who needed more years before winning their first Daytona 500 were: Kurt Busch (in his 16th start), Darrell Waltrip (17th start), Buddy Baker (18th start) and Dale Earnhardt (20th start).

Of course, some Hall of Fame drivers never won a Daytona 500. Mark Martin failed to win the race in 29 starts. Rusty Wallace didn’t win in 23 starts. Tony Stewart, inducted into the Hall of Fame last weekend in a class that included Baker, did not win the Daytona 500 in 17 starts.

With Toyota the presumptive favorite again this season — based on few rule changes and Toyota’s 19 wins in 36 points races last year — will this be the year that Busch wins the Daytona 500?

2. Putting the puzzle together

Car owner Roger Penske shocked many by jumbling his driver/crew chief lineup after his organization won six races and placed all three drivers in the top eight in points.

But as Brad Keselowski recently said: “We want to be great. We want to win championships. You’ve got to recognize that winning races is still a significant accomplishment in this sport. It’s great competition week in and week out, so winning is good but also emphasize that greatness is the championship. We didn’t win it. It means we’ve got work to do.”

Todd Gordon (left) will serve as Ryan Blaney‘s crew chief this season. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Daytona marks the debut of the new combinations. Keselowski is paired with crew chief Jeremy Bullins. Joey Logano is teamed with crew chief Paul Wolfe, who led Keselowski to a championship in 2012. Ryan Blaney is working with Todd Gordon, who guided Logano to the Cup title in 2018.

Other new pairings to watch include Martin Truex Jr. and James Small, who takes over with Cole Pearn leaving the sport, and Chris Buescher and Luke Lambert, who both come to Roush Fenway Racing from other teams.

Crew chief strategy often is limited at Daytona because of the need for cars within the same manufacturer to work together (i.e. pit at the same time), but Speedweeks can be valuable for new driver/crew chief pairings with communication. After Daytona, Cup teams race seven consecutive weekends before the Easter break in April. If the communication falters, the results may not be as good.

3. Will the chaos continue?

Last year’s Daytona 500 saw 36 of the 40 cars involved in a crash, according to NASCAR’s race report (Racing Insights, which supplies statistics to NBC Sports, had 37 cars involved in accidents).

“It’s incredible to me how many times we were able to crash in the last 10 laps,” Jamie McMurray said after last year’s race, his final Cup start.

“Brains come unglued,” Kyle Busch said after last year’s race. “That’s all it is.”

Just a portion of the chaos in last year’s Daytona 500. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

There were three cautions, including two red flags totaling nearly 40 minutes, in the last 17 laps. Those incidents collected 29 cars and forced the race to go seven laps beyond the scheduled distance.

Such destruction has become a trend. The past three Daytona 500s have seen an average of 32 cars involved in accidents. 

Last year’s Daytona Speedweeks was especially tough on Cup car owners. A total of 60 cars were involved in accidents in practices, qualifying races, the Busch Clash and the Daytona 500. That was an increase of 16.7% from the previous Daytona Speedweeks.

As another Speedweeks begins, key questions are how many cars will be damaged, how will that impact teams and who can emerge from the chaos to win?

4. Who steps up in this pivotal contract year?

Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney and Brad Keselowski are among the drivers in the final year of their contract this season.

Who will drive this car in 2021? (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

What better way to have some leverage at the bargaining table then to be the reigning Daytona 500 champ?

Silly season could be frenzied with several drivers, including Erik Jones, Alex Bowman and Clint Bowyer, among those in the last year of their contracts. A strong start could build momentum over the next several weeks and help drivers remain in their current spot or find a tantalizing ride elsewhere.

One thing is for certain, the No. 48 is open next year with Jimmie Johnson set to step away from full-time Cup racing after this season. 

5. Hailie Deegan’s Daytona debut

The 18-year-old makes her debut on Daytona International Speedway’s oval with today’s ARCA practice sessions. Of course, she was on track a couple of weeks ago in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge race.

Hailie Deegan will compete in her first race on Daytona’s oval this weekend. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Deegan left Toyota’s development program for Ford in the offseason and will drive full-time in the ARCA Series for DGR-Crosley. She won three races in what was called K&N Pro Series West over the past two years.

Deegan’s move to ARCA will be watched closely at Daytona and throughout the season. She has the best funding and resources among any female drivers in NASCAR.

Some may view her as the next Danica Patrick but Deegan and her family are wanting to take a more measured approach to moving up the NASCAR ladder.

Deegan understands what’s at stake. She said last month during sports car testing at Daytona that “this is the year that’s very important and crucial to my career because it decides contracts for years out with sponsors getting behind you for the higher levels.”

It all starts this weekend for her.

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Auto-Owners Insurance to continue backing Martin Truex Jr. through 2021

Martin Truex Jr.
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Auto-Owners Insurance will continue as a sponsor of Martin Truex Jr. and Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 19 Toyota through the 2021 Cup Series season, according to the company’s website. JGR announced a multi-year deal with the company in 2019.

Like the last two seasons, the company will be on Truex’s car in eight races in 2020: Atlanta (March 15), Bristol I (April 5), Kansas I (May 31), Michigan I (June 7), Brickyard 400 (July 5), Kentucky (July 11), Michigan II (Aug. 9) and Martinsville II (Nov. 1).

The insurance provider has sponsored Truex since 2016 when he drove for Furniture Row Racing.

Truex earned a series-best seven wins in 2019, his first year with Joe Gibbs Racing. He enters his second year with the organization, but will have a new crew chief in James Small.

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Team Penske shakes up driver/crew chief lineup

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Team Penske announced Monday that it has changed the driver/crew chief lineup for each of its three Cup teams.

The changes for 2020 are:

The changes come after a season where all three drivers finished in the top 10 in points and combined to win six races.

“As we do after the completion of each season, we evaluated what we can do to better achieve our goals and we felt it was time to make these changes to better position us to reach our potential,” said Roger Penske. “We are fortunate that we have three very strong leaders in Paul, Todd and Jeremy, who work with experienced and talented crews. Pairing each of these winning teams with different drivers and cars should provide new energy and a fresh approach for the 2020 season.”

Keselowski and Wolfe had been together since the 2010 Xfinity season. They won the Xfinity title that year and moved to Cup together in 2011. They won 29 races together and the 2012 Cup title but had only been to the championship race once since the playoff format change in 2014.

Gordon and Logano had been together since 2013. They won 21 races together and the 2018 Cup championship.

Bullins and Blaney had been together since 2014. Blaney has made all 162 Cup starts with Bullins as his crew chief. They were together with the Wood Brothers and moved together to Team Penske in 2018. They won three races together.

The changes were made even though all three teams won races last season. Logano won two races and finished fifth in the points. Blaney won one race and was seventh in points. Keselowski won three races and was eighth in points. Last year marked the second consecutive year Team Penske had all three of its drivers place in the top 10 in points.

Keselowski and Wolfe had the longest active streak together in Cup. With them split, the longest tenure for a current driver/crew chief pairing is Rodney Childers and Kevin Harvick. The 2020 season will mark the seventh year together for Childers and Harvick.

These changes also mean that six of the top 10 finishers in the points last year have had a new driver/crew chief pairing since 2019. Other drivers who finished in the top 10 who have had a new crew chief since the start of the 2019 season are:

Martin Truex Jr., who finished second in points last year, will be paired with James Small after Cole Pearn announced after last season he was stepping away from the sport.

Denny Hamlin, who finished fourth in the points last year, was paired with crew chief Chris Gabehart entering the 2019 season.

Clint Bowyer, who finished ninth in the points last year, will be paired with John Klausmeier this season after a swap of crew chiefs with Aric Almirola.

What’s different in the NASCAR Cup Series in 2020

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The fog of the offseason has begun to lift and the start of a new NASCAR season looms.

When the fog clears, we will be met with the 62nd Daytona 500 on Feb. 16.

But this won’t be the start of just another season in NASCAR’s premier series. It will have a very different landscape compared to when the 2019 season ended in Miami in November.

While there’s a lot to breakdown for the coming season, it’s all essentially a preamble for 2021, which will see the Cup Series with its Next Gen car and potentially a very different race schedule.

Here’s what the table looks like for the Cup Series heading into 2020.

New Era, New Names

After serving in the role for three years, Monster Energy is no longer the entitlement sponsor of the Cup Series. With its departure also comes the end of the Cup Series’ entitlement sponsor model that had been in place since 1971 beginning with Winston.

After five decades of being the Winston, Nextel, Sprint and finally the Monster Energy Cup Series, the premier series will simply be called the NASCAR Cup Series.

2020 marks the start of NASCAR’s premier partner program, which includes Xfinity, Coca-Cola, Geico and Busch Beer.

Farther down on the series ladder comes the official merger of the ARCA Menards Series with NASCAR and what had been its K&N Pro Series circuits. The regional series will now be called the ARCA Menards Series East and West.

A glimpse at what Martinsville Speedway will look like at night. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

Shuffling the Schedule

There’s a lot of expectations for what the Cup Series schedule will look like in 2021 after the end of NASCAR’s current five-year agreement with tracks.

But 2020 also has plenty of groundbreaking schedule developments.

– Martinsville Speedway will host its first official Cup night race on May 9. The short track also will host the final playoff elimination race for all three national series, with the Cup race held Nov. 1.

– Pocono Raceway will be the site of the Cup Series’ first ever doubleheader weekend June 27-28. Saturday’s race will be preceded by a Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series event and Sunday begins with a Xfinity Series race.

– Daytona International Speedway will host the Cup regular season finale, moving its second date from the traditional July 4 weekend to Aug. 29. The July 4 weekend race is now held by Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Cup races there July 5).

– Darlington Raceway and the Southern 500 will open the Cup playoffs on Sept. 6. It’s joined in the opening round by Richmond Raceway and in the playoffs for the first time, Bristol Motor Speedway, which will be the first elimination race.

– After being the site of the first elimination race the last two seasons, the Charlotte Roval will be the Round of 12 elimination race (Oct. 11) and be preceded by Talladega Superspeedway.

–  After a nearly two-decade run, Homestead-Miami Speedway is no longer the site of the championship weekend. Its place is now held by Phoenix Raceway, with the Cup championship race scheduled for Nov. 8. Miami’s Cup race will be March 22.

– Other notable changes: The Xfinity Series will compete at Martinsville (Oct. 31) for the first time since 2004. The Truck Series returns to Richmond Raceway (April 18) for the first time since 2005.

Chevrolet

Chevrolet Remodel

Chevrolet Cup teams will appear in Daytona with a slightly different look to their cars.

Chevy will field its Camaro ZL1 1LE model in 2020, replacing the basic ZL1 model. One reason for the change is difficulties with the latter’s pointed nose when it came to pushing other cars at Daytona and Talladega compared to Ford and Toyota and their flatter noses.

Familiar Names, Different Teams

When the full Cup Series starting grid forms for the first time at the Daytona 500, there will be a lot familiar faces sporting new numbers with new teams. That includes a rather accomplished rookie class.

Matt DiBenedetto debuts with Wood Brothers Racing in the No. 21 Ford, moving over from Leavine Family Racing and taking over for Paul Menard, who retired from full-time racing.

–  After a decade with Roush Fenway Racing, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. begins the 2020s with his first season at JTG Daugherty Racing driving the No. 47 Chevrolet. Teammate Ryan Preece will drive the No. 37. Stenhouse will have Brian Pattie as his crew chief. Preece will work with Trent Owens.

Chris Buescher left JTG Daugherty Racing to return to Roush and race the No. 17 Ford, which was vacated by Stenhouse. Buescher will be paired with crew chief Luke Lambert.

Christopher Bell moves up from the Xfinity Series to drive Leavine Family Racing’s No. 95 Toyota along with crew chief Jason Ratcliff. Harrison Burton replaces Bell in Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 Xfinity car. 

Tyler Reddick was promoted by Richard Childress Racing to drive its No. 8 Cup car after winning the last two Xfinity Series titles. He moves up with crew chief Randall Burnett. Reddick replaces Daniel Hemric, who will drive a part-time Xfinity schedule for JR Motorsports.

Cole Custer and Mike Shiplett after their first win together in 2019. (Photo by Donald Page/Getty Images)

– Cole Custer and crew chief Mike Shiplett were promoted by Stewart-Haas Racing to take over its No. 41 Cup car, taking the place of Daniel Suarez. Suarez has not announced his plans for this season. SHR has not announced plans for its Xfinity program in 2020.

SHR also paired crew chief Mike Bugarewicz with Aric Almirola on the No. 10 and John Klausmeier with Clint Bowyer on the No. 14.

– Rookie John Hunter Nemechek takes over Front Row Motorsports’ No. 38 Ford, which was driven by the now retired David Ragan. Nemechek is paired with Seth Barbour at crew chief.

– Rookie Brennan Poole will drive for Premium Motorsports full-time in the No. 15 car. 

– After making 17 Cup starts in 2019, Quin Houff will race full-time in StarCom Racing’s No. 00 Chevrolet.

Joey Gase and J.J. Yeley will race full-time for Rick Ware Racing.

Martin Truex Jr. will have a new crew chief after the surprise resignation of Cole Pearn. The No. 19 team will be led by James Small.

Team Penske shook up its crew chief lineup for this year. Paul Wolfe will now work with Joey Logano, Jeremy Bullins is paired with Brad Keselowski and Todd Gordon is paired with Ryan Blaney.

Bubba Wallace also has a new crew chief. The Richard Petty Motorsports driver is reunited with Jerry Baxter, who he worked with in the Truck Series.

– Ryan Sparks joins Go Fas Racing after 13 years with Richard Childress Racing, primarily as an engineer, and will serve as crew chief for Corey LaJoie in the No. 32, replacing Randy Cox.

A Post-Jimmie Johnson World

Jimmie Johnson announced soon after the 2019 season finale that 2020 would be his final full-time Cup season.

That means the storyline of who will replace him in the No. 48 will simmer underneath the surface for much of the season. Who could succeed the seven-time champion?

Kyle Larson is entering the final season of his contract with Chip Ganassi Racing.

Erik Jones is racing on a one-year extension with Joe Gibbs Racing

Matt DiBenedetto is under a one-year deal with the Wood Brothers.

More possible candidates could include Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski and others.

Building for the Future

Ford provided one of the biggest storylines of the offseason when it announced that Hailie Deegan was joining the manufacturer as a development driver after a few years spent in the Toyota pipeline.

Deegan will compete full-time in ARCA Menards Series with DGR-Crosley.

James Small named Martin Truex Jr.’s crew chief

Photo: Joe Gibbs Racing
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When Martin Truex Jr. greets his crew chief every morning, don’t be surprised if he starts off by saying “G’day, mate.”

One week after Cole Pearn announced he was leaving Joe Gibbs Racing as crew chief on Truex’s No. 19 Toyota Camry, the organization announced Thursday that Melbourne, Australia native James Small has been promoted from Truex’s lead engineer to Pearn’s replacement as crew chief.

Small, 36, is no stranger to Truex, Pearn or the No. 19 team as a whole, having served in various capacities the past three seasons with Truex, dating back to Truex’s last two seasons with Furniture Row Racing in the No. 78 (2017-2018).

When Truex, Pearn and the team moved from the now-defunct FRR to Joe Gibbs Racing for the 2019 season, Small came along and was elevated to lead engineer, helping Truex to a series-best seven wins, as well as 15 top-five and 24 top-10 finishes.

Truex finished second to JGR teammate Kyle Busch in the final season standings. After Pearn’s departure, Truex discussed what he was looking for in a new crew chief. He apparently has found that with Small’s ascension to that role.

“This is an incredible opportunity,” Small said in a JGR media release. “Having the confidence of Coach (team owner Joe Gibbs), Martin and everyone at JGR means a lot to me.

“I moved to the United States six years ago to work in NASCAR and I wanted to work my way up to become a crew chief. I’m ready for this and I am excited about working with Martin and the foundation we have in place on the 19 team with the group of guys we have.”

Truex took to Twitter to talk about Small’s promotion and his hopes for how the pair will fare in the upcoming 2020 season.

Truex also said in a media release, “I know James well and feel very comfortable with him. I feel like we approach racing very similar. He and Cole (Pearn) have a lot of similarities. It’s a natural fit and I’m really excited about it. I think he’ll do a great job.”

While this will be Small’s first time as a full-time Cup crew chief, he previously filled in for two races as crew chief for Erik Jones in the latter’s Cup rookie season in 2017 with Furniture Row Racing.

Small displayed his prowess atop the pit box almost immediately, leading Jones to a third-place finish at Michigan International Speedway and a 10th-place finish at Watkins Glen International.

Small spent that entire 2017 season as Jones’ lead engineer with the No. 77 team before moving to Truex’s team in 2018.

Prior to coming to the U.S. and NASCAR, Small spent eight years working in his native Australia in the V8 Supercars Championship. His first role in NASCAR was in an engineering role from 2014-2016 with Richard Childress Racing.

Later Thursday afternoon, Small was a guest on SiriusXM Speedway with Dave Moody on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. Here’s a tweet of some of his comments:

Joe Gibbs Racing also announced that Jeff Curtis has joined the organization and will assume Small’s former role as lead engineer for Truex’s car. In addition, the team also announced Blake Harris will return as car chief for the No. 19.

Pearn also tweeted about Small’s promotion:

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