Daniel McFadin: I’ll take JGR, given their six wins there in the last eight races. Driver specific: Martin Truex Jr. He’s led in five of the last six visits to Richmond and each time he’s led at least 121 laps. Hard to believe his win in the spring was his first there.
Jerry Bonkowski: This could be one very difficult race for the field. Erik Jones has something to prove after the mechanical issues he suffered in Las Vegas, Kyle Busch has something to prove after his disappointing 19th-place finish, and Denny Hamlin has something to prove to show he truly is one of the best championship contenders. Meanwhile, Martin Truex Jr. can basically coast through having secured his spot in Round 2 of the playoffs with his Las Vegas win. Good luck to the field because they’re going to need it. Joe Gibbs Racing is going to dominate Richmond.
In 2007, Hendrick Motorsports won 18 of 36 Cup races. Joe Gibbs Racing has won 14 of 27 Cup races this season. Will JGR top what Hendrick did in 2007?
Nate Ryan: Yes, you could argue JGR already has topped it because of the balance among its four drivers. Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson accounted for 16 of Hendrick’s 18 victories.
Dustin Long: JGR won’t tie or top Hendrick mark.
Daniel McFadin: I think there’s a good chance JGR will tie that number but not exceed it. The only tracks I would make them locks for wins are Richmond and Phoenix.
Jerry Bonkowski: I think JGR could potentially tie HMS’s record, but asking for five or more wins in the last nine playoff races is a bit of a stretch. You know that Stewart-Haas, Team Penske, Hendrick Motorsports, Chip Ganassi Racing and Roush Fenway Racing are going to do all they can to stop the JGR Express and continue to ratchet up the pressure and performance with each passing race. I can see JGR winning maybe three or even four more playoff races, but not more than that.
The Xfinity playoffs begin this weekend at Richmond. Who are you picking to win the championship?
Nate Ryan: Leaning toward Tyler Reddick back-to-back after his impressive fuel-mileage win at Las Vegas. He is learning to beat the field in many ways.
Daniel McFadin: I’m going to go with Tyler Reddick to repeat. He’s shown a knack for being able to find multiple ways to win when he doesn’t have the outright best car on a given race day. Also, it’s hard to bet against the guy who has 20 top fives through 26 races.
Jerry Bonkowski: As much as Tyler Reddick would make a great repeat champion, the title this year goes to Christopher Bell. But don’t be surprised if this deal isn’t finished until the final turn on the last lap. This has the potential to be the most exciting championship finish in Xfinity history.
Long: Let drivers be who they are, especially Bubba
Bubba Wallace was a whirling dervish of personality, opinion and openness Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway — as he has been throughout his career. And as the sport needs.
Drivers fuel NASCAR. It’s a point NASCAR President Steve Phelps stressed last year before the season finale in Miami, saying that “every driver is really important for us to help drive star power in our sport.”
Drivers are akin to the quarterback in the NFL and the superstar in the NBA. But unlike athletes in those sports, NASCAR drivers can struggle in how much personality they reveal.
That’s not a problem for Wallace. Although his team has funding, it doesn’t have a major corporate presence choking his personality.
For that, he was Friday’s headliner at the track even if his car was not in the top 25 in either practices in single-lap speed.
Among his pearls in a 20-minute session with reporters:
# He warned veteran drivers upset about being raced hard that “shit changes every day. Get accustomed to it.”
# He was realistic about his chances this weekend, noting that his team finished third at Indy with a new car. The car he’ll race this weekend was last run in March at Las Vegas. “Hopefully we can show up and run top 15.”
# He called the search for funding for his Richard Petty Motorsports team an “uphill climb. … It’s still been a gruesome battle on that side of things.”
Look, this is someone who plays video games on Twitch for others to watch, is constructing a drum room and flew Fit for a King’s drummer in to help set the room up, and is active on social media.
Wallace’s comments Friday came a day after former champion Brad Keselowski acknowledged that expressing one’s opinion can be detrimental in auto racing.
That it is Keselowski, who offered outspoken opinions earlier in his career on everything from how the sport could be better to raising questions about concussion diagnosis, talking about the limits to a driver’s personality is disheartening.
“The penalties for having a big personality are real, and I want to win,” Keselowski said. “Winning comes before anything else. You can’t win when you don’t have sponsors.
“The last thing sponsors want is big personalities. That’s just a reality of it. Sponsors want safe personalities, they want personalities that sell a lot of whatever and that’s not necessarily a big personality. It’s the reality, whether you like it or not. It’s part of the business model.”
Kurt Busch, whose public flare-ups have cost him rides, said that “I know what Brad is talking about. I agree with Brad on his main point, winning is everything.”
With the extra money, the team had a new car built for Indianapolis. Wallace took advantage of problems by others and moved into the top 10 and continued to climb. Once he was third, he held others off in the final laps to finish there.
He called out haters on Twitter during his NBC Sports interview after the race.
“I’m just here taking it all in and enjoying it and making the most of it,” Wallace said in his interview after the Brickyard 400. “But again, that’s not supposed to happen. We’re not supposed to run with these big teams. What the hell? Somebody can drive.”
And will drive hard. He says he’s not afraid to race hard when needed.
Every generation changes the racing. Veteran drivers were upset with Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson, with how hard they raced when they came in as rookies in 2002. Now, the same refrain is heard as a new generation makes its impact.
Asked if the etiquette on the track is changing, Kyle Busch noted how “those rules are changing.
“I think it’s just the nature of Mark Martin not being around and (Tony) Stewart and (Jeff) Gordon and Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. and some of those guys that knew how to race, but also the aero-package and what these cars drive like nowadays.
“A lot of these younger kids now come up running Late Models and K&N cars and beating the doors off of one another throughout their careers and here they are doing it at the Cup level. It’s just a different form of where these guys are being taught to race.”
The challenge is to be aggressive and successful. Wallace seeks success. It has only been fleeting in NASCAR’s premier series, although his two best finishes there — second in last year’s Daytona 500 and third at Indy last week — are at two of racing’s iconic tracks.
“I love how aggressive we race,” Wallace said. “That’s just what I was taught growing up; be as aggressive and clean as you can. There is a fine line, but if the opportunity presents itself for me to force the issue onto you, absolutely it’s going to happen.
“I fell victim to it at this race earlier this year. Ryan Preece and I were racing for I think the lucky dog or something. We came out on a little different pit strategy about two laps or so and we were racing hard against each other. In my Monday morning debrief, I texted him and said I was sorry and it was just hard racing. He was like, ‘Why are you apologizing for racing hard?’ I was like, ‘you are absolutely right.’”
Just as there was no need to apologize how he raced, there is no need for Bubba Wallace to apologize for who he is.
INDIANAPOLIS — On the cusp of failing to make the Cup playoffs for the first time in his career, Jimmie Johnson prefers to look at what he could accomplish Sunday with a win at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“It would be a heck of a story to tie Jeff (Gordon) with five (wins) here and to come through a drought and all the things that we all know,” Johnson said of an 84-race winless streak that dates back to 2017. “To have all that come to a conclusion and lock myself into the playoffs would be one hell of a story. Hopefully, that is the story.”
Bowyer has an eight-point lead on Suarez and Newman. Suarez holds the final playoff spot via a tiebreaker on Newman. Johnson is 18 points behind Suarez and Newman.
That Suarez and Newman are tied in points adds a layer to their duel. Newman spun in last week’s Southern 500 with Suarez closely on Newman’s left rear.
“Everything kind of cycles in our sport and what comes around goes around,” Newman said. “I don’t think he meant to turn me around, but he did turn me around. It is just racing. I get it. Whether he plowed through me like (Matt) Kenseth did to (Joey) Logano (at Martinsville in 2015) or just took the air off me or whatever, it is racing. I don’t have any intentions going into this race other than to do the best that I can for our team.”
Suarez contends there was no contact between the cars at Darlington Raceway.
“I have a lot of respect for him,” Suarez said of Newman. “He is a very aggressive driver. One of the most aggressive. People know that. Sometimes we race hard and sometimes you know what the limits are and sometimes we push a little bit hard. It was just a racing deal. I didn’t mean to spin him out. I didn’t mean to wreck him. But I wanted to pass him.”
Suarez also faces the possibility of competing against Bowyer, his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate, for a playoff spot.
“Clint and I, we are good friends and we know that if we can help each other, we will, but at the same time we will race hard,” Suarez said. “That is what we do. We’re smart. He’s got plenty of experience, and I’m not dumb.
“I know what I have to do, and he knows what he has to do. We are going to go out there to do what we do best and try to beat each other but, at the same time, without trying to kill each other. Hopefully things work out in a good way for both of us.”
Bowyer, who is coming off top-10 finishes the past two races, says that is what his team can do if it can avoid the issues that have plagued it this season.
“I think Darlington was a snapshot of our capabilities,” Bowyer said. “I have said it time and time again, when we race to our capabilities we are a (top-10) car. A lot of things go into play on that. I feel like we have raced inside the single digits several times this year and more often than not struggled to get the finish and manage track position.”
Johnson and the No. 48 team know Bowyer’s pain. Johnson’s team has struggled much of this season. That lack of performance led Hendrick Motorsportsto replace Kevin Meendering with Cliff Daniels as crew chief in late July.
Johnson enters this weekend with seven consecutive finishes outside the top 15. His performance last weekend at Darlington was his best in recent weeks. He was fast in practice, qualified sixth, scored points in both stages and was in the top five when he was collected in a crash that he couldn’t avoid. His team was headed for one of its best performances of the season.
“We’ve had plenty of bad luck, that’s for sure,” Johnson said. “Last weekend we did perform well through practice and qualified well and ran well. We’re getting there. What I have learned through this two- or three-year drought and difficult time, is just how important the team is.
“I’ve known it. I’ve lived it. And, I’ve been the beneficiary of some amazing teams. And, I just didn’t realize how fragile it was until I got involved and had to start building that and help select the right people in place to build that team. It’s been an interesting journey. And through it all, I’ve learned a ton. I really have. And, I think we’re in a spot now that everybody can see where the hard work has gone and that we’re starting to show up and perform.”
But even if Johnson’s team has a flawless performance Sunday, there’s no guarantee Johnson will be among the 16 drivers to race for a championship.
“I have been able to work through some really tough situations and come out on top over the years,” Johnson said. “There are no guarantees on what happens here this weekend, but I do feel like if that opportunity presents itself, the experience I have will help me stay calm and help me do the right things in that moment. So, it helps me sleep better, absolutely, knowing what I’ve pulled off in the past. It helps with my confidence rolling into this weekend.”
It was 2016 when Johnson didn’t have the best car in the championship race in Miami but circumstances fell his way and he won his record-tying seventh title. That crown came a day after Suarez won the Xfinity championship.
That Xfinity title has been something Suarez has reflected upon this week as he prepared to race for a playoff spot.
“I have had a lot of flashbacks from that weekend,” Suarez said. “I feel like I was able to handle that weekend extremely well. I feel like I work pretty well under pressure, and I have been that way since I was racing go karts and was trying to find sponsors and trying to win races to be able to continue and go on to the next one. It feels good. It feels good to be here and good to be in this position and hopefully just like we did in 2016 we can end up the weekend on the good side of things.”
Should a race winner do donuts? Should they do a reverse victory lap? Or a bow? Or climb a fence? Or the latest, offer a hug.
Just as there are different ways to enjoy a NASCAR win, drivers also have distinct opinions on how to celebrate those accomplishments.
“I don’t go too over the top, but we sure do like to hang around the track for a long time and we really don’t ever want to leave that Sunday night after the race,” Martin Truex Jr. told NBC Sports. “We just want to kind of hang out and maybe stay over in the motorhome or something and party in the campground. These races are tough and that’s kind of why you see guys enjoy it so much because you never know when you get another one.”
Brad Keselowski admits he’s a fan of sprint car drivers climbing on the wing of their car and celebrating after a win. Keselowski has created his unique victory celebration by having a pit crew member bring out an American flag to his car. It’s something he began doing in 2010.
“Honestly, in sprint cars, I only do donuts and stuff if it’s a really exciting finish,” Larson told NBC Sports. “I feel like when you win in NASCAR, like you’re obligated to do donuts just because that’s what they expect.”
Rookie Ryan Preece said that there is something better than donuts.
“The donuts are all well and cool, but I think they’re kind of overplayed,” he told NBC Sports. “I think the (reverse) victory lap is something that is pretty special. I would say the (reverse) victory lap is the coolest one of them all. I actually did it at Iowa (in 2017). It’s just not as rough on equipment and is pretty cool seeing all the fans.”
But Ryan Newman likes the donut celebration after a race for a particular reason.
“I still pattern my victory celebrations, which are rusty now at this point, after Alex Zanardi’s donuts,” Newman said. “I always admired him as a race car driver and his ability to celebrate and do it at different parts of the course, and I just thought that was spectacular.
“My dad has always told me if you can’t win, be spectacular. So, I guess if you win, you better be spectacular.”
For others, the celebration can be a moment of thanks. Xfinity driver Chase Briscoe kneels.
“I’m a pretty relaxed guy as it is,” Briscoe said. “I get excited but I don’t get too excited. I feel like my signature thing is just getting down on one knee and praying and just thanking God. I did that at the Roval (last year). I wasn’t in a dark place but really questioning myself and really thankful for the opportunity and just gave Him thanks and it was well received. I’m not going to hide my faith. I’m proud of it. I did it (at Iowa in July) as well.”
Austin Cindric bearhugged Rutledge Wood during his interview after Cindric scored his first career Xfinity win at Watkins Glen. Cindric then hugged Dillon Welch during his interview after winning at Mid-Ohio.
It’s that type of emotion Cindric said he likes seeing from others who win, citing Team Penske driver Will Power’s reaction after winning the 2018 Indianapolis 500.
“I think my favorite are the ones where you can see the emotion of the drivers and how much it means to them,” Cindric said. “I think of when Will Power won the Indy 500. He had been trying to win that race so long and to see him do it and be there in person and see how the emotion, there are so many pictures of him going crazy in victory lane, the crazy eyes and the smile, things that mean that much to drivers because there’s a lot of work that goes into it and there’s a lot of pressure you end up putting on yourself. I think that connects with race fans so well when you see ho much it means.
“What drives me nuts, I’ll take your standard Formula One interview, the guy who just had the greatest race of his career and he’s like ‘This is a good weekend, such a great opportunity, thank you to the guys.’ Just the most bland interview. The biggest moment of your life just happened. Get excited about it. I think that’s what makes our sport fun.”
2. Memorable throwback schemes
With NASCAR heading into to Darlington Raceway for its fifth throwback weekend, here’s a look at my favorite throwback schemes.
A classic look.
STP and the Petty Blue. The two were synonymous in NASCAR for years and it only made sense that for the inaugural throwback weekend in 2015, these two would return to the track with the paint scheme from 1972.
Aric Almirola got into the spirit of the weekend by sporting a Fu Manchu to match what Richard Petty once showcased.
Almirola finished 11th in that race.
Perhaps no car has looked as sharp under Darlington Raceway’s lights since the sport went to a throwback weekend format than this car, driven by Kyle Larson in 2015.
What made this car even better was that it had the paint scheme and proper sponsor to go with it.
This mirrored the car Kyle Petty drove for SABCO Racing from 1991-94 (and also the car Tom Cruise’s character, Cole Trickle, drove in the 1990 film “Days of Thunder”).
Larson finished 10th in this car, placing a spot ahead of Aric Almirola in that No. 43 car.
This car ran in the Xfinity Series race in 2016, as more Xfinity teams began embracing the throwback idea at Darlington. This continues to grow as several Xfinity teams come to Darlington with throwback schemes each year.
Ryan Reed drove this car for Roush Fenway Racing. The paint scheme pays tribute to Bobby Allison and the car he drove in 1975. Allison won three races that season, including a victory at Darlington.
Reed finished 13th in the Xfinity race.
Richard Childress Racing had both its No. 3 and 31 cars with this look for the 2017 Southern 500, but the No. 3 car looked the best to me.
RCR went with this look to honor Dale Earnhardt’s 1987 Southern 500 victory with the Wrangler paint scheme.
While Earnhardt will be remembered for his black cars, I always liked this paint scheme.
Dillon finished fourth with this car.
It was good to see Jeff Gordon’s rainbow paint scheme eventually return for the Southern 500 at Darlington in 2018.
Dylon Lupton drove a rainbow paint scheme car in the 2017 Xfinity race.
While Lupton’s car looked sharp, the paint scheme was meant to be on a Cup car for throwback weekend. Hendrick Motorsports did the right thing in 2018 by putting it on William Byron’s ride.
Newman has an average finish of 12.1 at Darlington, his best of all the active tracks that he’s had more than one start. His 13 top 10s at Darlington also are the most there among active Cup drivers. Suarez has never finished better than 29th in two Cup starts at Darlington. Bowyer has an average finish of 22.8 at Darlington and his only top-10 finish there came in 2007. Johnson is a three-time winner at the track but has not finished better than 12th in the last four races at Darlington.
4. Familiar face
Joe Nemechek, who turns 56 on Sept. 26, will drive the No. 27 Cup car for Premium Motorsports this weekend at Darlington Raceway. This will be Nemechek’s 668th career Cup start but first since March 1, 2015 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He’s continued to run in the Xfinity and Gander Outdoors Truck Series.
To put it into perspective, when Nemechek last raced in Cup:
# William Byron was in the K&N East Series (and would win the 2015 title)
# Erik Jones was in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series (and would become the youngest series champion that year)
# Daniel Suarez was in the Xfinity Series (and would become the rookie of the year)
# Kyle Busch was out after being injured in a crash during the February Xfinity race at Daytona (he would come back to win the Cup title that year).
Also, Nemechek is entered in both Xfinity and Cup races at Darlington this weekend. That will give him 1,174 career starts in NASCAR’s top series.
Richard Petty holds the record for most starts in NASCAR’s national series with 1,182 — all in the Cup Series.
Mark Martin is third on the all-time starts list with 1,143 across the three national series. Kevin Harvick is next with 1,139 career starts.
Since NBC Sports took over broadcasting the Cup series at Chicagoland Speedway, no driver has scored more points in that time than Denny Hamlin. The top four in points in that time are all from Joe Gibbs Racing.
Here are the drivers who have scored the most points since Chicagoland:
Daniel McFadin: Ryan Newman and Daniel Suarez. Of the four drivers they’re the only two who have produced consistent enough results.
Jerry Bonkowski: Daniel Suarez and Jimmie Johnson. Suarez has had a strong season but hasn’t gotten the recognition he deserves. Making the playoffs will be a huge boost for him and his team. Ditto for Johnson. Sure, he hasn’t won in his last 82 starts, but he’s never missed the playoffs. That would be even more embarrassing than remaining winless for the rest of the season.
At this point, who would be your Championship Four in Cup for Miami?
Dustin Long: Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano
Daniel McFadin: Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin
Jerry Bonkowski: Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick.
There are 36 charter teams. Sixteen make the Cup playoffs. That’s 44.4% of the charter teams making the playoffs. Are you OK with that? Or should there be a different number of teams make the playoffs?
Nate Ryan:I’d prefer that the field be limited to 12 drivers and the elimination sets changed to reach the Championship Four (how about eight drivers after Round 1 and six after Round 2?). While the “anybody who gets in can win the championship” argument is appreciated (and with Tony Stewart’s 2011 as a rallying cry), this season in particular seems to have accentuated that there are only so many teams truly worthy of running for a title. While Jimmie Johnson extending his playoff streak and Ryan Newman gritting out a berth are both nice storylines, they are the NASCAR equivalent of 16 seeds.
Dustin Long: It’s too many. But it’s on par with the Truck series where eight of the 19 drivers (42.1%) who have run in at least 80% of the races made the playoffs. And it’s on par with the Xfinity Series where 12 of the 28 drivers (42.9%) who have started at least 80% of the races will be in the playoffs. The 80% marker is used since one Truck driver, Tyler Ankrum, started 81.3% of the regular-season races, missing the first three because he was too young to race on those tracks, and made the playoffs.
Daniel McFadin: I’d be OK if there were only 14 drivers in the Cup playoffs. It would add more drama to the regular season and postseason. Playoff eliminations don’t have to include round numbers in each round.
Jerry Bonkowski: I’d like to see the playoff structure changed to see the top-20 teams make the playoffs. Then, 10 teams would be eliminated after the fifth playoff race, five others would be eliminated after the penultimate race, leaving five teams/drivers to battle it out in a winner-take-all race in the season finale.
What is your most memorable Bristol memory?
Nate Ryan: As far as races covered there, my first taste of a night race in person – Jeff Gordon bumping Rusty Wallace aside for the win during a 2002 race filled with emotion (Ward Burton’s heel pads, Jimmie Johnson’s obscene gesture, Elliott Sadler’s finger-pointing) – would rank at the top, beating out Carl Edwards’ bump on Kyle Busch in August 2008, Jeff Gordon’s shove of Matt Kenseth in March 2006 and Kurt Busch’s win under duress in August 2003.
Dustin Long: The 1999 night race where Dale Earnhardt spun Terry Labonte but meant only to “rattle his cage” on the last lap. What is most memorable is that several minutes after the race ended, the track played the radio call of the final lap on the PA system and when it got to the point where Earnhardt spun Labonte, boos cascaded from the stands. The stands appeared to be more than half full even then, people not wanting to leave after seeing such a wild finish.
Daniel McFadin: My memory comes from the first time I covered a race at Bristol in 2017 and it doesn’t involve the race itself. While driving to the track, I rounded a corner and suddenly it was in front of me. It just doesn’t make sense that a facility like Bristol exists where it does. Having grown up for 20 years watching Bristol races, it was a surreal moment.
Jerry Bonkowski: The first time I attended the night race at Bristol in 2000 is a memory that will forever stay with me. It was a battle of the senses, sounds, smells and more. Honestly, when cars took the green flag to start the race, the first thing I immediately thought of as I watched the action from pit road was tens of thousands of angry hornets had been released, the sound was deafening and overpowering.