Jeremy Bullins

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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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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.

Ryan Blaney tired of being ‘bottom of the totem pole’ at Team Penske

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CONCORD, N.C. — While Ryan Blaney says he’s not treated like it by his Team Penske peers, he knows how his performance output has compared to his teammates over the last few years.

“I look back and I’ve been the third best performing driver since ’16,” Blaney said during a media event Monday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “You don’t want to be that guy. That’s something I want to change really bad.”

Blaney, who is in the last year of his contract with the team, admitted being “the last guy” can “put your job in jeopardy.”

In his first four full-time Cup seasons, two with the Penske-aligned Wood Brothers Racing before transitioning to Penske’s No. 12 car, Blaney has three wins and 26 top fives. His wins have come at a pace of one a year starting in 2017, with two earned in dramatic last-lap fashion on the Charlotte Roval and last season at Talladega.

“You don’t want to be a one-win a year guy,” Blaney said. “People tell me that it’s better than no wins a year. You want to be level or above your teammates. That’s just a competitor thing.”

Enter Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano. Keselowski had 13 wins and 56 top fives in the last four seasons, while Logano claimed nine wins, 51 top fives and the 2018 Cup championship.

“I don’t want to be the bottom of the totem pole,” Blaney said. “I’m not treated like that. I’m not saying that. I get everything those guys get. … Joey and Brad are great. They’re both champions. I want to be better than those guys, that’s obviously the goal. It’s a personal thing. I need to get better.”

He hopes Team Penske’s major crew chief/crew shakeup announced earlier this month will do a lot toward making that a reality.

The 26-year-old driver enters his fifth full-time Cup season paired with crew chief Todd Gordon, who moves over to the No. 12 after eight years working on the No. 22. Seven of those were spent with Logano behind the wheel.

Blaney’s previous crew chief, Jeremy Bullins, is now paired with Keselowski on the No. 2 Ford and Keselowski’s former crew chief, Paul Wolfe, is paired with Logano.

“I wouldn’t say I needed a kick in the ass,” Blaney said of the shakeup. “I feel like when things like that happen, they happen so abruptly and it’s a big change for everybody. It kind of opens some people’s eyes. ‘Oh, ok we weren’t doing as good as we thought. We need to be better.’ They’re not afraid to make a change. It might get everyone hungry. I want to show I can do this with a new person. … Change can be good. If you’re going to make change, don’t make a little change. I’m a big fan of big overhauls. I think it will give everyone a big jolt of energy. We’ll find out in about a month.”

Gordon has proven what he can do with a young driver who has struggled to produce consistent success.

When Logano arrived at Team Penske in 2013 at the age of 23, he brought with him a four-year record at Joe Gibbs Racing that saw him win twice, in his first and final years with the team.

While they only won once in 2013, over the next three years Logano and Gordon claimed 14 victories. After missing the playoffs in 2017, they won five times over the last two seasons and won the 2018 title.

“Working with someone new is going to challenge me more to learn him and you kind of combine your two knowledges,” Blaney said. “You have your own language, right? You mesh them together and you hopefully understand and work on and both make sure you understand.”

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Friday 5: Rule change is chance for drivers to go back in time

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Jeff Gordon marveled as he watched Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch run nose-to-tail or side-by-side lap after lap for the lead late in the 2017 spring Cup race at Martinsville Speedway.

“These are the two of the most equal race cars and one of the best races for the lead I’ve seen here at Martinsville in a very long time,” said Gordon, a nine-time Martinsville winner, on the FS1 broadcast.

Keselowski and Busch rarely seemed apart for a spell within the final 100 laps, whether it was Keselowski pressuring Busch or Busch doing the same thing by closing on Keselowski’s rear bumper.

It is the type of racing NASCAR hopes will return with the announcement this week of a short track package, which includes a smaller spoiler, that shares similarities to what was run in 2017-18.

What makes that 2017 spring Martinsville race stand out is how close Keselowski and Busch ran to each other before Keselowski won.

It contrasts the 2019 spring race, which featured a larger spoiler as part of the high downforce package used at all tracks. Keselowski led 446 of 500 laps that day. Runner-up Chase Elliott could not run close to Keselowski for long. 

Brad Keselowski celebrates his 2017 Martinsville win after a duel with Kyle Busch. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Keselowski explained to NBC Sports the differences in those packages and why the cars could run closer together in the 2017 race than the 2019 race.

“You’re able to brake differently, the cars were harder to stop, they had a smaller spoiler, so you had to really use a lot of finesse to work them down into the corner,” Keselowski said of the package used in 2017-18. “You didn’t lose the nose as quickly because you weren’t using aero as such an assist in the middle of the corner.

“If you had asked me earlier in my career if I thought aero would come into play at Martinsville, I would have said you were crazy. Same thing I would have said if you had told me that the cars would make almost 4,000 pounds of downforce. Those two conversations go hand in hand.

“The 2019 car, the easiest way I know how to explain this … at full speed at the tracks that we ran at, if the race track would have been inverted, the car would have stayed on the racetrack. That’s downforce. … It’s to a point where it could be a Hot Wheels track and we could run upside down. That tells you how much assistance the cars were getting from the air.”

The short track package will be used at all ovals 1 mile or less and the three road course events for a total of 14 races this year. Eight of the season’s final 15 races, including five in the playoffs, will be run with this package. The championship race at Phoenix will use this short track setup.

“Making this change is certainly a step in the direction of putting the racing back in the drivers’ hands and out of aerodynamics’ control,” Keselowski said. “More times than not, but not always, the result is better for the fans. I think it’s a win as a whole.”

2. Tire change with short track package

One of the complaints drivers and teams had last year was the lack of tire wear during events. Without such wear and tire falloff, drivers found it more challenging to pass, particularly at short tracks. 

With the lower downforce package at short tracks this year, Goodyear will construct a tire intended to wear more, said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing.

“We are going to make some changes,” Stucker told NBC Sports about the tire that will be used with the short track setup.

“From a traction, from a grip-level perspective, I go back to what we learned at the Martinsville test that we had there in July, what we learned at our Richmond test back in October. Granted that was in the Next Gen car, but we were able to evaluate some things and learn some things about Richmond and the same thing with Phoenix because we evaluated several different compounds. We got different reference points at those two tests along with stuff we’ve done in the past at those two race tracks testing-wise. We were able to formulate a plan to go a little softer than what we have been.

“Even understanding that the downforce is coming off, on top of that, we’re going to go ahead and take a step in trying to increase the grip level mechanically, which will also result in higher tread wear that, hopefully, will fall off.”

With a new short track package and a tire intended to wear more, will NASCAR need to use the traction compound (darker portion of the track) at Phoenix again this year? (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

Goodyear will not do any testing before the first race with the short track package — Phoenix on March 8 — because there isn’t enough time.

NASCAR met with drivers, teams, Goodyear and others in Nashville before the December awards banquet to devise a course of action for the short tracks. That followed NASCAR President Steve Phelps saying before the season finale in Miami that “our promise to our fans … is that we are going to provide the best racing we can at our short tracks.”

One issue that has not been determined is if the traction compound applied in the corners at Phoenix Raceway last year will be reapplied for the March race. With a new short track package and a new tire, the traction compound might not be needed.

“Our opinion, and I think everybody’s is … (the traction compound) is to enhance the multiple racing lines, it is enable multiple grooves to come in at a particular track,” Stucker said. “We’re not in favor of just applying traction compound on a racetrack just to go faster. That’s not the goal.”

3. Decisions, decisions

Among the challenges for some teams with the short track package is determining how much wind tunnel time to devote to that setup and to the higher downforce package used at the bigger tracks.

NASCAR announced in October that organizations would be limited to 150 hours of wind tunnel time in 2020.

While the short track package shares similarities to what was run in 2017 and ’18, it’s not the same. Jimmy Makar, senior vice president of racing operations for Joe Gibbs Racing, said that wind tunnel time will be important for the short track setup.

Makar told NBC Sports that it will be a “challenge” to properly divide the wind tunnel time between the low downforce and high downforce packages.

Even with simulation programs playing a greater role for teams, Makar says wind tunnel testing is still vital.

Kyle Busch scored his second Cup title in five years in 2019 for Joe Gibbs Racing. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

“You can learn a lot of basic things in (simulation) and kind of get your preliminary ideas and thoughts together and then apply them in the wind tunnel to get your final decision on how that change worked,” Makar said. “The wind tunnel, I think, probably is still your closest thing to the racetrack.”

Other key decisions for teams will come as the year progresses.

Teams will have to decide how to allocate resources in preparing high downforce cars, low downforce cars and also the Next Gen car that debuts in 2021.

“It does create a bit of a different challenge because it is that much different,” Makar said of the Next Gen car. “It’s completely, uniquely new to us. Just looking at the car and how things bolt together, it’s a big learning curve for all the teams. It’s not like over the years when you had a body change or an aero package change, it’s still the same car.”

Makar said one thing that will help is that with NASCAR putting a freeze on teams developing new parts, those crew members can focus on the Next Gen car.

Another key issue will be for any organization that has multiple teams in the playoffs — and even multiple teams in the final eight or the championship race. Go all in on a championship or work on the Next Gen car to begin next year strong?

“In my view, the obvious thing is (this year’s) championship is the first and foremost goal,” Makar said. “That’s what we have to focus on. That’s the next thing in line.”

4. His turn

The recent shuffling of drivers and crew chiefs at Team Penske could have some fans of Brad Keselowski feeling down.

Car owner Roger Penske split Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe, sending Wolfe to work with Joey Logano. Penske also moved Logano’s crew chief, Todd Gordon, over to be with Ryan Blaney. That left Jeremy Bullins, who had been Blaney’s crew chief, to join Keselowski.

So what would Keselowski tell his fans about now being paired with Bullins?

Jeremy Bullins moves over from Ryan Blaney’s team to be Brad Keselowski’s crew chief in 2020. (Photo by Jeffrey Vest/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“First thing I’d tell my fans is that Jeremy is the only Cup crew chief at Penske of the three that hasn’t won the championship,” Keselowski said. “The way I see it, he’s the next one to win one.”

Keselowski is focused on this season but he did tell NBC Sports that “I’m super proud of everything we were able to do as a team with Paul as crew chief and everyone else that was on the team at that time. I haven’t really spent much time looking out the rear window because I can’t change anything. So I’m looking out the front windshield.”

With a new crew chief will come new demands.

“I’m sure that Jeremy and the team are going to challenge me to be better,” Keselowski said. “I think that’s healthy. I’m going to do the same with them. I guess I view it as a complete blank slate. Our goal is to be the best and win the championship in 2020.

“What’s great is that we all have enough experience for that to be a realistic opportunity. If you combine that with our willingness to try new things, I think it could be a lethal combination.”

5. A name to remember

Cannon McIntosh’s assignment last fall was to write an essay about himself as if the high school junior was preparing a college application.

He felt good about what he wrote.

Until he got his grade.

A zero.

McIntosh’s instructor thought what McIntosh wrote was not true, that it had been plagiarized. No way, the teacher assumed, this student was a race car driver.

Cannon McIntosh (right) with Jay Drake, team manager of Keith Kunz Motorsports.
(Photo by Swikar Patel/TRD)

The situation was quickly rectified. Soon more than McIntosh’s teachers will know who he is.

The 17-year-old has been making a name in midget racing the past year and earned a ride with Keith Kunz Motorsports for this week’s Chili Bowl as a Toyota Racing Development driver. Keith Kunz Motorsports has won the past five Chili Bowl titles, including the past three with Christopher Bell.

McIntosh, who grew up in the Tulsa, Oklahoma suburbs and has to only make a short drive to the site of the Chili Bowl, won his preliminary feature Monday night to earn his first berth in the Chili Bowl Nationals A main.

He can’t wait until Saturday night’s feature race.

“I’ve raced pretty much all the guys that are going to be in that feature,” McIntosh told NBC Sports. “I know what to expect, and I know what I’m going to have to bring to the table, racing against those guys.

“(Kyle) Larson and Bell are definitely going to be the ones to beat coming Saturday. I’ve raced them before and I know what to expect. I’m going to have to be on my game. No matter what happens, we did well, we made the feature. I’m just hoping we can put on a good show, let them know we were there to fight.”

Paul Wolfe thinking about little things after move to Joey Logano’s car

Paul Wolfe
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In the week since he started working with Joey Logano, crew chief Paul Wolfe has had to revisit aspects of his job he hadn’t had to worry about for almost a decade.

That’s the scenario he finds himself in after Team Penske announced Jan. 6 that he was moving from Brad Keselowski‘s No. 2 car to Logano’s No. 22 as part of crew chief swap involving all three of Penske’s Cup teams.

“Doesn’t seem like a very big change because we’re all in the same company,” Wolfe said Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “Tradin’ Paint.” “There’s so many little details and things that go along with the change. It’s (made what would) typically (be) a calm January for us without any testing, it’s left us with plenty to do and plenty to think about.”

Before the shakeup, Wolfe and Keselowski were the longest active driver-crew chief pairing in the Cup Series, dating back to 2011. Before that they had one season together in the Xfinity Series.

Now Wolfe holds the role Todd Gordon had on the No. 22 team starting in 2012 before Logano took over the ride in 2013. Jeremy Bullins moves into Wolfe’s spot, while Gordon is paired with Ryan Blaney on the No. 12.

“(I’m) just trying to keep track of which hauler I’m supposed to walk into now,” Wolfe said. “When you walk into the 2 (hauler) for 10 years and the Miller colors. Now being on the 22, there’s been plenty of confusion when guys are talking about cars and car numbers. We’ll have to get all that sorted out.”

Added Wolfe: “The short time Joey and I have been together here, it’s only been just a week, it really gets you thinking about things that just kind of became natural for you when you’ve been with someone, with a team for 10 years, just the way you go about business everyday and how you look at things and your approach into a race weekend.”

Wolfe said he and Keselowski were “fortunate enough” to have a decade run that saw them win the 2012 Cup title (Team Penske’s first) and 29 Cup races, including the 2018 Brickyard 400 (Team Penske’s first win in the race) and the Southern 500 (the team’s first Cup win at Darlington since 1975).

“It’s tough when you have to leave something like that,” Wolfe told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “You’re always looking forward and trying to figure out how to be better. I think as I look at our company as a whole, I think the boss man (Roger Penske) thought this could shake things up. You know, maybe spark some new ideas and things mixing the guys up.

Wolfe cited Penske when he referred to how differently he, Gordon and Bullins approach their job.

“Roger always says we all have the same cars … and everyone’s got the same equipment,” Wolfe said. “I don’t play golf, but he makes a reference to everyone holds their seven iron a little bit different. I think that’s kind of the same way with the drivers and the crew chiefs. We all have the same tools and things to work with, but there’s different thoughts and ideas and theories on how to make it all work and how to use all those things.

“Trying to understand where Joey’s at on some of those things. Brad and Joey are both winning, championship drivers. But with that being said, they have different styles and techniques and ways they see the race play out. Trying to really understand and get the communication part down.”

Wolfe and Logano won’t be in a garage together until Feb. 8 for the Cup Series’ first practice sessions at Daytona International Speedway. In the meantime, the new duo is figuring each other out with the help of simulators.

“(You) try to understand Joey’s level when he’s telling us a car is a one or a two or a three loose,” Wolfe said. “You try to understand, ‘OK, how much of an adjustment is that for Joey or what do we need to do to fix that complaint?’ Now we have simulators and that’s the next closest thing we’re going to do to getting on the race track.

“The simulators have come a long ways and they still could be better and we’re working with them to try and make them better. But there’s definitely one thing that it is good for and it’s just that communication piece and making changes and trying things and just talking on the radio to understand a little bit of the lingo.”

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