Jeremy Bullins

Long: Managing mistakes defined Cup playoff opener

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Mistakes and how they were handled during Sunday’s Southern 500 could reverberate throughout the Cup playoffs.

Ryan Blaney, Martin Truex Jr. and Chase Elliott could feel the impact of what happened for the next few weeks. Austin Dillon, Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin could benefit in how they recovered.

Drivers talked last week about the need to be mistake-free in the playoffs. Some teams didn’t make it to the pre-race ceremonies without blunders.

NASCAR penalized Blaney 10 points, his starting spot and suspended crew chief Todd Gordon for the race before Blaney was on the grid.

A five-pound bag of lead used at the shop to simulate fluid weights before the engine is installed was accidentally left in Blaney’s car, the team stated. Gordon said Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive” that the issue “was missed by several people.”

NASCAR saw it. The 10-point penalty could be devastating to Blaney.

Darlington and Richmond, the first two tracks in the opening round of the playoffs, are among Blaney’s worst. He’s not scored a top 10 at either in Cup.

Blaney’s Southern 500 issues were compounded when a left rear tire went down and he had to pit as the field took the green flag to begin the second stage. That cost him a lap. Blaney finished 24th. He’s last in the playoff standings and now heads to Richmond, a place he’s never finished in the top 15 in a Cup race.

Blaney’s team wasn’t the only one to have problems before the command to fire engines. Somehow, Dillon’s team switched the left front and right front tires on the No. 3 car.

“Somebody just didn’t see the L and didn’t see the R,” Dillon said of the markings that note left side and right side tires. “They’re Sharpied on there. That was how they found it.”

Dillon said crew chief Justin Alexander saw the issue shortly before the race. Had the error not been found, Dillon said “I would have probably knocked the fence down.” Dillon had to start at the rear for changing the tires since it came after pre-race inspection.

Dillon relied on FIDO — Forget It and Drive On — to get him through that challenge.

It’s an approach Dillon picked up from former Marine Lt. Clebe McClary, a motivational speaker and veterans advocate, who lost his left arm and left eye in combat in Vietnam. Clebe spoke at Richard Childress Racing before the season.

“It was probably one of the best luncheons we’ve had as a group, just an unbelievable speaker,” Dillon said. “I think it really hit home for me because I’m a fiery guy and I can dwell on things too long instead of moving on. That acronym is just an easy reminder, like hey, man, it’s over. There’s no need to play it back or wonder why we’re in the situation we’re in. It’s just get the most out of everything that I can.”

Dillon moved on and prepared to race from the back of the lineup. Challenges persisted. He had to pit under green during the first stage because a right rear tire was going flat. He overcame that obstacle and went on to finish second to winner Kevin Harvick.

Brad Keselowski’s team had their own challenges. Keselowski — whose playoff motto is “Why not us?” — hit the wall and had a flat right front tire on Lap 81 of the 367-lap race. Instead of making partial repairs and sending Keselowski back on track to stay on the lead lap, crew chief Jeremy Bullins calmly told his team they’d lose a lap while making the necessary repairs.

Keselowski eventually got back on the lead lap and went on to finish 11th. It wasn’t a memorable result, but it was better than 31st, his position after the incident.

Hamlin also was steady during a key point in the race. He was in a pack of cars and tried to get to the lower lane so he could pit under green. Hamlin was blocked by a car on the inside on the backstretch. He finally got to the bottom lane in Turn 3.

Hamlin recognized he was going too fast to pit and didn’t compound matters with a daring move that could have damaged his car. He lost positions by going back around the track before pitting, but he didn’t panic. A debris caution about 10 laps late stuck Hamlin outside the top 10 and he wasn’t able to recover. Still, his 13th-place finish was better than it might have been.

It was a better finish than Truex (22nd) and Elliott (20th). As they raced for the lead late, Truex got a run off Turn 4 and made a move under Elliott entering Turn 1 with 14 laps to go. Truex hadn’t cleared Elliott when he moved up but later said: “I thought I had enough momentum and distance on (Elliott) that he was going to let me in there. I didn’t expect him to be on my right rear and I was committed.”

They made contact and both hit the wall. Their chances to win were over.

The aggressive move is understandable. It’s 14 laps to go in the Southern 500. It’s a playoff race where a win moves the driver to the next round and scores five playoff points. Truex entered the playoffs with only 14 playoff points. But his hope that Elliott would let him up might have been overly optimistic. Could Truex have stayed on the low side and tried to pressure Elliott into a mistake over the remaining laps? Possibly. If he thought that was his one opportunity to take the lead, Truex had the take the chance. 

With risk comes reward, but there was no reward this time. Instead, Truex and Elliott each lost about 20 points and the potential for five playoff points because of the incident.

Will they need those points in the playoffs? Will those points be the difference in advancing to another round or the championship race? Or will it be only a footnote to what is to come in these playoffs?

With nine races remaining, there will be many challenges and mistakes made. How drivers and teams respond could  play a role in who races for a title.

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NASCAR penalizes Xfinity owner, driver for testing violation; team will appeal

NASCAR penalizes
Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Image
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NASCAR fined Xfinity car owner Mario Gosselin $50,000 and docked him 75 points for violating the private test policy last weekend at Daytona International Speedway with driver Alex Labbe.

NASCAR docked Labbe 75 points for the L2 violation. Labbe was 73 points out of the 12th and final playoff spot before the penalty.

DGM Racing stated that it will appeal the penalties. The team stated: “DGM Racing is aware of the allegations against us. We feel we followed all the proper protocol and will be appealing the penalty. We are unable to comment further. Thank you for the support we have received so far.”

The issue stems from an SCCA event last weekend on the Daytona road course that Labbe participated in.

NASCAR Cup, Xfinity and Truck teams will race for the first time on the Daytona road course this month. There will be no practice before each race. Drivers are not permitted to compete in more than one series event as a way to get extra track time.

Labbe was listed in Regional Race Group 7 in a 2019 Chevrolet Camaro. The 2019 Chevrolet Camaro is the approved model for Chevy teams in the Xfinity Series.

NASCAR viewed that as an illegal test because of the car used. Section 5.1.a of the Xfinity rule book states: “Private vehicle testing by any race team, employee,  contractor, affiliate, associate, subsidiary, or surrogate is strictly prohibited.”

Section 5.1.d of the Xfinity rule book states: “NASCAR, in its sole discretion, will determine in advance what constitutes an authorized test. In general, only tests conducted under the NASCAR National Series Unified Testing policy are considered to be authorized tests.”

NASCAR also stated penalties that stem from last weekend’s Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and had already been announced.

Those penalties included suspensions for the New Hampshire race for crew chiefs Jerry Baxter and Ryan Sparks after ballast was found to be improperly mounted before the race. The teams also were docked 10 points and drivers Bubba Wallace and Corey LaJoie each were penalized 10 points.

NASCAR also stated that Clint Bowyer‘s crew chief, Johnny Klausmeier, will be suspended for Saturday’s Cup race at Michigan International Speedway (4 p.m. ET on NBCSN) after two lug nuts were found to be not safe and secure after the race. Stewart-Haas Racing has stated that Greg Zipadelli, the team’s director of competition, will fill in for Klausmeier for Saturday’s race.

NASCAR fined crew chiefs Jeremy Bullins, James Small and Randall Burnett $10,000 each for having a lug nut not safe and secure on their car after the race.

 

Could New Hampshire be a sign of things to come in Cup?

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New Hampshire winner Brad Keselowski wanted to take control of a race. Runner-up Denny Hamlin wanted to have a good run to prepare for key playoff races.

Sunday’s race provided both with such opportunities, but it is just a beginning.

With NASCAR’s schedule rearranged by COVID-19 postponements and realignments this season, Sunday started a key stretch for the field.

Nine of the last 17 races, including Sunday’s event at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, will be with the 750-horsepower package. The package was introduced before this season to enhance racing at ovals 1 mile in length and shorter and also at road courses. The change was made after the low-horsepower and larger spoiler package last year led to complaints from fans about the racing at short tracks.

The 750 package, which makes throttle control pivotal — putting performance more in the control of drivers — will be run the rest of the year at the Daytona road course, both Dover races and playoff races scheduled at Richmond, Bristol, Charlotte Roval, Martinsville and Phoenix.

While some competitors left New Hampshire feeling good about their chances in the title race at Phoenix — since both are flat 1-mile tracks and Goodyear uses the same time at those facilities — there’s plenty of time for others to learn and close the gap.

“I think you just have to keep working, just have to take every race as a practice session and learn everything you can from what we did today, the decisions we made coming here,” said Jeremy Bullins, crew chief for Keselowski.

Sunday’s race featured 22 lead changes, including 13 between Keselowski and Hamlin. The previous two New Hampshire races had 24 lead changes combined. 

Keselowski’s teammate, Joey Logano, also has been strong with this package on the flat short tracks. He won at Phoenix in March, finished fourth at Martinsville in June and was fourth Sunday at New Hampshire.

The 750 package is a lot of fun,” Logano said. “There’s a lot more that the crew chief and the driver can really add to everything. It’s not a chaos restart at the end and something crazy happens that is unexpected. You’re not going to get that at 750. 

“The good drivers and good race teams are going to win. That’s the bottom line. They’re challenging to drive. You’ve got to use both feet. You go to Kansas (with the 550-horsepower package) and all you’ve got to use is the right foot, so (the 750 package) gives a driver more tools to work with. You’ve got to think things through more. It’s not balls to the wall all day long, pushing as hard as you can on the repave and not paying a penalty. 

“You come to these short tracks and there’s a penalty for riding the brake. There’s a penalty for pushing too hard on a short run compared to a long run. You’ve got to think more.”

Although Hamlin didn’t win, he left New Hampshire feeling good after answering some questions he and his team had about their performance with the 750 package on a flat short track. He crashed early at Phoenix in March. When the Richmond spring race was moved to Charlotte, he lost a chance to learn about the car’s handling there. At Martinsville in June, Hamlin was never a factor.

“I’m encouraged by the run simply because this is the first short flat track we have some data that we can build setups for other tracks like Richmond and Phoenix, the championship race at Phoenix,” Hamlin said.

Keselowski was encouraged by how strong he was in Sunday’s event, leading a race-high 184 of 301 laps.

“Third win of the year, but first kind of win where we’ve been able to kind of take control of the race,” Keselowski said. “Gosh, that feels good.”

How some drivers have fared racing the 750 package this year

Brad Keselowski

Phoenix — 11th

Bristol — 1st

Martinsville — 3rd

New Hampshire — 1st

 

JOEY LOGANO

Phoenix — 1st

Bristol — 21st

Martinsville — 4th

New Hampshire — 4th

 

Kevin Harvick

Phoenix — 2nd

Bristol — 11th

Martinsville — 15th

New Hampshire — 5th

 

DENNY HAMLIN

Phoenix — 20th

Bristol — 17th

Martinsville — 24th

New Hampshire — 2nd

 

Kyle Busch

Phoenix — 3rd

Bristol — 4th

Martinsville — 19th

New Hampshire — 38th

 

Chase Elliott

Phoenix — 7th

Bristol — 22nd

Martinsville — 5th

New Hampshire — 9th

Poll: Vote for NASCAR’s greatest driver

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On Friday, NASCAR.com revealed the results of poll it conducted with 19 Cup drivers that covered six categories.

Among the topics drivers were polled:

# Greatest driver of all-time

# Driver who will win the 2020 championship

# Best active crew chief

We decided to take those questions, tweak them a little bit and pose them to you.

Greatest Driver of All-Time

With 37% of the vote, Jimmie Johnson‘s peers voted him the greatest NASCAR driver to grace the track, besting four other choices: Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty, Kyle Busch and David Pearson.

We’re giving you one more option in our poll, with the addition of four-time champion Jeff Gordon.

 

2020 Cup Championship Pick

The 19 drivers polled by NASCAR.com voted Denny Hamlin as their choice to win the title with 53% of the vote. Kevin Harvick got 47%.

We’re opening the choices to the current top 10 drivers in the Cup point standings, plus an “other” option.

 

Best Crew Chief

Behind every great driver is a crew chief calling the shots. NASCAR.com’s poll saw Rodney Childers, who works with Kevin Harvick, voted best crew chief with 63% of the vote. Second place, Chris Gabehart (Denny Hamlin’s crew chief), received 16%.

Who do you think is the best crew chief who can be found in the Cup Series garage?

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.”