Jeremy Bullins

Ryan Blaney leads dominant night for Team Penske at Martinsville

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Team Penske did everything but win Wednesday’s Cup night race at Martinsville Speedway.

While Martin Truex Jr. ran away with the victory in the final leg of the race, he was followed by Team Penske’s three cars, as Ryan Blaney led Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano.

At the end of the night, the three drivers combined to lead 273 of 500 laps as Logano led 234 laps and won the first stage.

But Blaney’s second-place finish – his fourth top five in the last five races – was anything but easy.

Blaney started on the pole but quickly dropped through the field and was lapped by Logano on Lap 51.

“We started off really bad,” Blaney said. “We went from starting on the pole to being a lap down in 60 laps. That’s kind of tough to do. We found a way to do that. We already dug ourselves a hole early. … After the first pit stop, we got our car a lot better, a lot better. I think just the green racetrack didn’t really go well with what we had or something. We really wore our tires out. I had to run the top a lot, was getting passed. I don’t think that helped.”

After 63 circuits of the track spent a lap down, Blaney received a free pass when the caution came out on Lap 113. He then charged to 10th place by Lap 161, fifth by Lap 182 and was second at the end of Stage 2 on Lap 260.

“We had a great long‑run car,” said Blaney, who took the lead 35 laps into the final stage. “(It was good) to be able to get the lead there at the start of the third stage, kind of biding our time, taking care of our stuff.”

It came undone during a caution that came out on Lap 328 when Blaney was penalized for a crew member going over the pit wall too soon. Blaney had to restart at the back of the field. But with just under 170 laps left in the race, Blaney charged again and was in second place with 44 laps to go.

“(Truex) just got away from me,” Blaney said. “I couldn’t run him down. By the time I got to second, he was gone. … I was never really close enough … on equally worn tires to see what we had for him.”

For Keselowski, it was his sixth straight top-10 finish, which includes two wins. He also rallied from being a lap down early.

“By the time we were able to get the lap back, we were at Stage 2,” Keselowski said. “Unfortunately, I didn’t get any stage points, but rallied to get up to the lead there about 150 to go. Wasn’t quite good enough to hold off (Truex). He was super, super strong. He proved why he’s so good. He just kept passing cars, just flying. Pretty impressive.

“All in all was really proud. The first time I’ve been here with (crew chief) Jeremy Bullins. This is a track you get a lot of reps with a crew chief, you reiterate, find small things to get to the front, to be the best. To come here our first time together and run third I think is a pretty good mark for us.”

For all three drivers it was their first time at Martinsville with their respective crew chiefs, who were swapped among the teams in the offseason. It’s a move that’s proven to be fruitful. Both Keselowski and Logano have two wins each and Blaney has had winning speed the last five races.

Logano isn’t totally surprised by the success of the crew chief swap after 11 races. He called the season so far “enlightening.”

“I think if you look at what was going on last year we all had good speed, all of our cars were strong at different points of the season or different types of race tracks, so I really didn’t see much of a risk by doing it and I think I’ve seen just a longer runway for everybody because you’re really sharing information,” Logano said.

“Obviously, we share setups and we talk to each other, but I never drove Brad’s car. I never worked with (crew chief) Paul (Wolfe).  Blaney never worked with Todd (Gordon) and Jeremy with Brad.  We can talk about it and we can try to mimic setups, but it’s not the same. … At the same time, I’m bringing what we did last year to Paul and Paul is bringing what he did last year and we’re able to just kind of try to make the best of both worlds. It’s been fun.

“There have been a lot of interesting conversations that get sparked that otherwise wouldn’t have happened. As weird as it is to see what was your team for six or seven years working with Blaney, but I honestly can tell you that the relationships that you build with your team it becomes family, so I hope for their success and I’m glad to see Blaney is running really well and leading a lot of laps and a win is right around the corner.”

Brad Keselowski savors Coke 600 win while contemplating future

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Brad Keselowski celebrated his 30th career Cup win with Team Penske early Monday morning by saying “I think I got another 30 left in me. I’d like to have the chance at it.”

Keselowski, who has 31 total Cup wins, is a free agent after this season.

Asked if his victory in Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 would give him added value, the former Cup champion said: “I know winning never hurts.

“I wish I had more news, but I don’t. So, yeah, winning is not a bad thing. I hope to continue to compete at a very high level and be able to win races for a long time.”

The 36-year-old Keselowski is in his 11th full-time Cup season with Team Penske. Jimmie Johnson (19th full-time season with Hendrick Motorsports), Denny Hamlin (15th full-time season with Joe Gibbs Racing) and Kyle Busch (13th full-time season with Joe Gibbs Racing) are the only active drivers who have been with the same Cup team longer than Keselowski has been with Team Penske.

Keselowski acknowledged several factors will determine what he’ll do next season.

“It’s not all up to me,”  he said. “A lot of things have to come together, whether it’s sponsors or whatnot, management things. That hasn’t happened yet.”

During his interview with Fox after the race, Keselowski acknowledged sponsor Miller Lite, which has been a significant part of his career but has diminished its role as a primary sponsor in recent years.

“I don’t know what’s gonna happen with them, if they’re gonna come back on the car or what, but it’s been a great 10-year ride with them and this is their only race of 2020 and we’re in victory lane,” Keselowski said.

Keselowski is just part of a robust free agent market.

Much of what happens could center on the No. 48 car at Hendrick Motorsports. This is Jimmie Johnson’s final full-time season, and the team has not announced a replacement. Sponsor Ally Financial is signed as a full-season primary sponsor of the team through the 2023 season, meaning a driver would not need to bring sponsorship with them.

Among the drivers with contracts that expire after this season or have an option for next season that could be declined are Erik Jones, Matt Kenseth, Clint Bowyer, Aric Almirola, Matt DiBenedetto, Bubba Wallace, Corey LaJoie and Ty Dillon. Kyle Larson was a part of his class before Chip Ganassi Racing fired him April 14 for using a racial slur during a sim racing event. Larson remains indefinitely suspended by NASCAR.

While there could be opportunities elsewhere, Keselowski said he likes what he has with his new team. Car owner Roger Penske shuffled drivers and crews within his organization before the season. Keselowski was paired with Jeremy Bullins and Bullins’ crew.

Keselowski said he sees the progress his team is making with the Hendrick Motorsports cars that have been fast this season on the bigger tracks.

“They were just a touch better, but we weren’t far off,” Keselowski  said. “I think this is as close or the closest we’ve been to them. But we still have a little bit of work to do. We need to keep iterating, getting faster.

“They seem to be a little faster than what we do in dirty air.  In clean air we’re close to them, maybe even a touch faster.  In dirty air they seem to be just a little bit faster. I think we have a little bit of work to do.

“We can do it. We just have to put our head down and stay focused on it.”

Storylines: Where NASCAR Cup Series left off

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Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of stories this week examining the key storylines as the Cup season resumes Sunday at Darlington Raceway (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX).

Although it might feel much longer, it was only three months ago when the NASCAR season began.

But when teams headed to Daytona International Speedway to open the season in February, the focus was not on a virus. The questions entering the Cup season included:

How would the Team Penske driver/crew chief shuffle do?

Would the new Camaro help make Chevrolet teams more competitive?

Could Joe Gibbs Racing continue its dominance?

Car owner Roger Penske surprised many in the sport when his organization announced Jan. 6 that it was changing its driver/crew chief lineup. The move came after all three drivers finished in the top 10 in points and combined to win six races in 2019.

Joey Logano was paired with crew chief Paul Wolfe. Ryan Blaney joined crew chief Todd Gordon. Brad Keselowski was matched with crew chief Jeremy Bullins.

MORE: Cup driver points heading to Darlington

In the four Cup races held before the season was paused, the Team Penske moves continued to make headlines.

Crew chief Paul Wolfe has helped Joey Logano win two of the season’s first four races. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Logano and Wolfe won at Las Vegas and Phoenix. Blaney was in position to win at Las Vegas until a call to give up the lead and pit before the final restart. Logano capitalized by staying out and winning. Keselowski has finished 11th or better since placing 36th in the Daytona 500.

“For the most part, you could say you’re kind of starting where we left off,” Wolfe told NBC Sports about resuming the season. “I don’t know if there is any momentum left at this point; that part of it is kind of like starting over. But I think it was good, especially for us with all the changes at Team Penske in the offseason with the driver swaps, that it gave us a chance to kind of see a few different style of racetracks to get the season started and then give us some time to kind of digest it all and understand strengths and weaknesses.”

Logano told NBC Sports in victory lane at Phoenix that he and Wolfe are “a dangerous combination” with their early success and still not being as fast as they want to be.

The three Penske drivers have combined to lead more than 30% of the laps run (315 of 992) this season. No other organization has led more laps. Hendrick Motorsport’s four-driver lineup is next, having led 313 of 992 laps.

Hendrick Motorsports has shown more success this season with the change in the Camaro, which was introduced to improve the manufacturer’s lackluster performance the past two years. And also help Chevrolet get back into the Cup championship race. Chevrolet has not had a Cup team race for the championship in the season finale the past three years.

At Las Vegas, Jimmie Johnson finished fifth, giving him his first top-five result since Daytona in July 2019. Alex Bowman won at Auto Club Speedway, and Chase Elliott has led more laps than any other driver (186) this season.

“The performance of our cars were pretty good,” Elliott’s crew chief, Alan Gustafson, told NBC Sports. “Not a huge gap, if any gap to anybody else. That, on our side, was good. The execution of the races wasn’t very good.”

The expectation entering the season was that Joe Gibbs Racing would continue to dominate after winning 19 of 36 points races last year, placing three of its drivers in the championship race and Kyle Busch claiming the Cup title.

The season started well for JGR with Erik Jones winning the crash-marred Busch Clash and Denny Hamlin winning the Daytona 500, a victory overshadowed by Ryan Newman‘s terrifying last-lap crash and the image less than 48 hours later of him walking out of a Daytona hospital holding hands with his daughters.

After the Daytona successes for JGR, its drivers combined for more finishes of 20th or worse (five) than top 10s (four). Martin Truex Jr., who had 24 top-10 finishes last season, did not score a top-10 result in the season’s first four races.

Kyle Busch finished second at Auto Club and placed third at Phoenix Raceway, which will host the championship race in November for the first time. Even with that result, Busch said more work remained.

“We unloaded and we weren’t very good,” he said after that race. “I wasn’t too optimistic for the race and rightfully so.”

He later said: “We need to come back here with a better piece.”

Will JGR’s fortunes change this week? Each of the team’s four drivers has at least one Darlington Cup victory.

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Friday 5: Key storylines entering Daytona Speedweeks

Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images
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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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Friday 5: New slogan spotlights Jimmie Johnson’s focus in 2020

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CONCORD, N.C. — Jimmie Johnson is not chasing history. He seeks to enjoy it.

Johnson’s revelation this week that he has ditched #chasing8 for #One FinalTime as the slogan for his final Cup season is not a sign of surrender, he insists.

Instead, he wants to be more focused on the moment and hope that leads to greater goals.

“I’m not chasing anything,” the seven-time Cup champion said Thursday at the Hendrick Motorsports complex.

Johnson used #6pack on his quest for a sixth title and #se7en in his bid for a seventh title. He had used #chasing8 while seeking an unprecedented eighth Cup title for a driver.

Jimmie Johnson on his final season: “I’ll lay it on the line and go.” (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Even without the slogan, Johnson says he remains focused on this coming season.

“I’m going to get in that car, I’m going to give it 100% as I always do … I’ll lay it on the line and go,” he said.

But Johnson’s go has been slow in recent years. He is winless in 95 races, dating back to June 2017 at Dover International Speedway.

Since that victory, Johnson has six top-five finishes, 29 top 10s and led 216 laps. He has not finished better than third in a points race in that span.

Such struggles make it easy to discount a driver for championship contention — even one of only three seven-time champions in series history.

It’s not been just one thing, though, that has held the 44-year-old back. His struggles coincided with a decline in performance for Hendrick Motorsports in 2017 and ’18. Chevrolet’s Camaro had its issues. Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus split after the 2018 season. Johnson went on to change crew chiefs again in 2019 when performance soured.

“It was definitely frustrating,” Johnson said of missing the playoffs last year for the first time in his career. “I was angry, embarrassed.”

He cites last year as a learning experience in racing without Knaus on his pit box. Without Knaus’ leadership, there was a vacuum and Johnson had to understand how to help fill it. As his performance waned, the team struggled. A late-summer crew chief change failed to get Johnson into the playoffs.

Johnson, considered among NASCAR’s greatest drivers, said that “winning races, making the playoffs would be a good season (this year). A great season is going (multiple) rounds (in the playoffs). The ultimate season is being in that championship four.”

First Johnson must be able to run at the front. And win again.

Jimmie Johnson celebrates his 2016 title with wife Chandra and daughters Lydia (held by Johnson) and Genevieve.(Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

While his 83 career Cup victories are tied for sixth with Cale Yarborough on the all-time list, Johnson’s focus is to win again to show his daughters what he can do. Genevieve is 9 years old and Lydia is 6.

“I think deep down inside it would be very satisfying,” Johnson said of winning again. “In my heart of hearts I still now I’m doing my best work out there.

“I can also say from a family perspective, to have another moment or two this year with my family in that environment and winning at the top level would be very special for us.

“I guess, ultimately, my kids don’t remember going to victory lane. They don’t have any vivid memories of it. They have no filters. To come home and especially Lydia is like, ‘so Dad, we didn’t win, what happened?’ Evie is so polite about it: ‘Dad you tried hard, good job.’

“To have that moment with them and a moment they will hopefully remember … would be really special.”

2. Hope for Nashville for 2021?

NASCAR and Speedway Motorsports Inc. are not ready to publicly shut the door on a race at Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville for 2021, even though no deal has been announced between Nashville and SMI. NASCAR is expected to release the 2021 Cup schedule in April.

“We’re having great discussions with leadership in Nashville,” Marcus Smith, president of Speedway Motorsports Inc., told NBC Sports this week. “We think it’s a great opportunity for the city and for NASCAR and for Speedway Motorsports. … Everything we’re working on seems to be moving forward in a reasonable pace.

Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville in July 2019. (Photo: Dustin Long)

“I don’t think I can really put a timeframe on it right now because it would just be speculation. I’m very optimistic about NASCAR in Nashville.

“The timing is one of those things that once we get the agreement done, then we’ll have some planning and … the actual construction will take place. It’s a big project and one that when it’s done, the city of Nashville will be really proud of.”

Speedway Motorsports Inc. seeks an agreement with the city to bring top-tier stock-car racing back to Nashville but has not been able to work through financing and other issues. SMI proposed a $60 million renovation plan in May for the historic .596-mile track that would increase seating capacity from 15,000 to 30,000, among other projects.

A previous plan for $54 million in bond payments was rejected by then-Mayor David Briley. John Cooper defeated Bailey to become the city’s mayor in September.

The Tennessean reported in December that the mayor’s spokesperson confirmed that the administration received a new proposal from SMI and it was being reviewed.

Cooper told the Nashville Rotary Club on Monday, according to The Tennessean, that “racing needs to be a success, not just soccer (at the Fairgrounds property). It has to be a workable overall site plan.”

However, The Tennessean notes that that Cooper has not said if he supports a deal to bring NASCAR’s top-tier series to the Fairgrounds.

The Tennessean reported Thursday that Cooper had met with auto racing advocates this week.

Asked if Nashville was still a consideration for the 2021 schedule, Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, said: “I would say Nashville as a market is a high priority for us in 2021.”

3. Changes for 2020

Along with the changes to stage lengths this season — and how a race will be official once it hits the halfway mark (unless the end of the second stage occurs first) — NASCAR also revealed a few other changes for the coming season.

Last year, NASCAR typically took no more than one car to the R&D Center after a race. That was primarily to study trends in the sport and if NASCAR needed to adjust any rules. The point was to get away from issuing penalties days after the race.

This year, series officials said they would look at taking multiple cars back to the R&D Center after Cup races.

“We tried to do the best we could in response to the teams and try to curb development,” said Jay Fabian, NASCAR Cup director. “Part of that there is that there’s been a new set of rules as far as a parts freeze. Teams have to submit a significant amount of parts and they have to run those parts throughout the year. They have options of each part, they can mix and match as long as they are on that list.

“We will bring more cars back this year because that’s, quite honestly, a lot of work postrace. So we’re going to bring that back and make sure everybody is on the up and up.”

Fabian said if NASCAR found “a major, significant issue, we’d react to it” by issuing a penalty that week.

Erik Jones drives the Next Gen car in a test at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Jan. 2020. (Photo: NASCAR)

In regards to the Next Gen car, NASCAR’s next test will be March 2-3 at Auto Club Speedway. That’s expected to have only one car but NASCAR anticipates having two cars test by April. That would give officials more information on how a Next Gen car reacts behind another car. Teams are expected to take delivery of their first Next Gen car by July. Tests will be set up for August and beyond.

Five tests are expected to be held for teams before next season. How those tests will be done — whether only one car per organization is allowed or one car per team — will be determined later.

Also, NASCAR officials were scheduled to meet Wednesday with manufacturers in the sport and those that could join the sport about a new engine for 2023, among other issues.

4. Stress of rule change on teams

There have been many reasons discussed for Team Penske’s decision to change its entire driver/crew chief lineup for this season after winning six Cup races and placing all three drivers in the top 10 in points.

As Brad Keselowski acknowledged this week, that type of season was good but not good enough.

“We want to be great,” he said. “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.”

Brad Keselowski with crew chief Paul Wolfe last season. As part of Team Penske’s moves, Wolfe will be Joey Logano‘s crew chief this season. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Keselowski, who will be teamed with crew chief Jermey Bullins this season, also expressed his belief on why the change was made at Team Penske.

“I’ll be honest with you, I think the rules package is as much a factor as anything else,” Keselowski said. “The rules changed when we went to the high downforce and the really small horsepower. That’s really hard to accept. It’s hard to accept for the drivers. It’s really hard to accept for the teams with respect some of the things that we consider telltales of the past that are not necessarily the telltales of today.

“Used to get into this car and you were a good racecar driver if you could run every lap within half a tenth to a tenth (of a second). With these rules, the lap time variance is very significant. You might run one lap, let’s say around (Charlotte Motor Speedway), a 30 (second) flat and the next lap you catch the draft wrong in all the wrong places and you run a 31 flat and the team sees that and they say ‘What the hell? What is this guy out here doing? Is he drunk? Is he not focused? What’s going on?’

“I think it’s part of the package. When you’re not winning, when you’re having the bad days you’re going to have in this sport … it really has put a lot of stress on the team relationships, driver relationships, that dynamic. I think that dynamic has caused a fair amount of rift and ripples across the whole sport and the easiest way for Team Penske to fix it was this change because it forces everyone to think a little bit more thoroughly and different about it.

“That’s one of many examples, it’s not the only reason. I do think the rules change has had a drastic impact on the drivers’ and teams’ abilities to communicate with each other and value the right things.”

5. An unforgettable ride

One of John Andretti’s greatest gifts was what he could give others. Sometimes it was his wit that left one laughing. Sometimes it was his smile and positive nature even through a battle with colon cancer that ended Thursday with his death at age 56.

Other times it was his drive.

Andretti, the first driver to compete in the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 in the same day, won an IndyCar race, two Cup events, a Rolex 24 and even a USAC national midget race. He also competed in NHRA, reaching the semifinals once. 

Of all that, there was one drive that illustrates Andretti’s essence.

It came in his 1999 Cup win at Martinsville Speedway for Petty Enterprises. Andretti won the day after Petty Enterprises claimed the Martinsville Truck race, completing a weekend sweep for the famed organization that no longer exists.

But Andretti’s path was not easy that day. He fell a lap down less than 50 laps into the event after he was hit from behind by Ward Burton and spun. No Martinsville Cup winner in the previous decade had come back from a lap down to win.

MORE: Motorsports world mourns passing of John Andretti 

Andretti needed less than 100 laps to pass leader Jeff Gordon and get back on the lead lap. A two-tire pit stop with about 120 laps left played a key role and Andretti did the rest. He was third with 50 laps to go.

Andretti passed Gordon for second with about 12 laps to go as his car suffered a vibration.

“With 12 to go, I figure the heck with it,” Andretti said later that day. “Nobody is going to remember if you run third.”

Andretti challenged close friend Jeff Burton for the lead and drove past the Virginia driver with four laps to go as the crowd cheered.

After taking the checkered flag, Andretti took an extra victory lap. On his way to victory lane, he stopped to give car owner Richard Petty a ride.

The sight of Petty sitting on the driver’s window opening as Andretti drove the No. 43 to victory lane is a memory that won’t be forgotten.