Jerry Baxter

Bubba Wallace, Ty Dillon off to better 2020 starts than Cup champions

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We’re only two races into the the NASCAR Cup Series season and we’re already writing sentences that make us do a double take or spit takes depending on if we’re drinking liquids.

When the green flag dropped on the Daytona 500 last weekend, we were not expecting the following stat to be staring back at us after Sunday’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway:

Through two races, Bubba Wallace, Ty Dillon, Corey LaJoie, the retired David Ragan and part-time driver Brendan Gaughan each have more top-10 finishes than defending champion Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, former champion Martin Truex Jr., Erik Jones, Aric Almirola and William Byron.

Put simply, the second batch of drivers – which includes 3/4ths of Joe Gibbs Racing – has none, while a group of typically midpack cars and partially retired drivers have at least one apiece.

That’s due to a combination of DNFs, poor performances and wrecks among the latter group.

Busch hasn’t finished better than 15th. Elliott’s best finish was 17th in the Daytona 500. Truex’s best was 20th Sunday while Jones’ is 18th (Daytona) and Almirola’s is 21st (Las Vegas).

Not counting the 2015 season when he missed 11 races due to injury, Busch has failed to finish in the top 10 in the first two races five times in his full-time career (since 2005). The latest he’s earned a top 10 was in 2010 (Bristol, race No. 5).

Last year, Busch started the season with 11 straight top 10s.

He now heads to Auto Club Speedway, where he’s won three of the last six races – including last year – and he’s finished outside the top 10 just once in his last eight races there.

This is the sixth time Truex hasn’t earned a top 10 in the first two races of the season in his full-time career (since 2007). He goes to Auto Club Speedway having finished eighth or better in four of his last five starts at the 2-mile track (including one win).

After the chaos produced by the final round of pit stops and restart, Wallace placed sixth Sunday, earning his best finish on a 1.5-mile track and his fifth career top-10 finish. He was among the drivers who did not pit under the final caution.

“We had a shot at a good finish and we capitalized on that,” Wallace said. “All-in-all, it was a good day and a win for us. It was just a good gamble call. We were terrible on restarts. It would take us 10 or 15 laps just to get going and get the car underneath us. Then, we could start fighting our way up there.”

Wallace also credited new crew chief Jerry Baxter for the result. Baxter was Wallace’s crew chief in the Truck Series when he won multiple races.

“There were frustrating moments over the radio, just trying to make this Coke Energy Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE better,” Wallace said. “I know how I lose my cool a little bit, but one of the main reasons I brought Jerry Baxter in was to calm me down and show that light at the end of the tunnel. Every time I fired back, he said ‘I get it, you’re fine, we’re going to be fine’ and he was right. It was a good call by the team and everyone involved.”

Dillon pitted for four tires during the last caution and was able to snag a 10th-place finish after a “nuts” restart. It’s his first top 10 on a 1.5-mile track. Sunday was his 128th Cup Series start.

“I think I restarted 19th and went through the middle, and we ended up 10th,” Dillon said. “I don’t really know what happened, but we just started passing cars. You just had to find the lane, and you’re processing things at such a high rate of speed. You just had to be committed to where you were going.”

The result was Germain Racing’s first top 10 on a non-superspeedway oval.

“That’s what makes NASCAR fun,” Dillon added. “Nobody just dominates everything anymore. It was a really fun race and I hope the fans enjoyed it.”

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Bubba Wallace feeling positive after reunion with crew chief

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On Jerry Baxter’s first day as crew chief of the famous Richard Petty Motorsports’ No. 43 car, he called Bubba Wallace into his office.

He had some questions for the driver.

“It almost felt like a principal’s office type visit,” Wallace recalled Tuesday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “Tradin’ Paint.” “He was like, ‘Hey man, looking at these notes, some of these races, you guys really didn’t have the best races, just by looking at setup notes … Do you know why we ran this way or why you ran this?'”

The grilling from Baxter made Wallace “excited” for the 2020 Cup season, which is just over four weeks away.

“Because he’s going through, doing everything that he can already, as a crew chief would and should, but just seeing certain things that stick out to him that like ‘Ah, I don’t really know about that,'” Wallace said. “So we can go to some of these places and try new changes, new setups, something that’s totally different, something that’s kind of Jerry Baxter’s style.”

It’s a style Wallace is familiar with and which proved successful for him early in his NASCAR career.

Baxter was Wallace’s crew chief at Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series from 2013-14. They won five races, including four in 2014. Baxter joins RPM after leading Brett Moffitt to four wins in the Truck Series last year at GMS Racing.

Baxter is reunited with the 26-year-old Wallace ahead of Wallace’s third full-time campaign driving the No. 43 Chevrolet.

“I don’t think there’s been a birthday or a holiday that’s gone by where we haven’t communicated with each other or just random times throughout the week,” Wallace said. “I keep my boat at his house. I see him usually about every weekend. Any day we have off throughout the summer … Or he’ll send me a picture right before I climb in the race car and say ‘Hey, thanks for letting me take your boat out.’ It’s good to have that relationship off and away from the race track, then once we get to the race track we know kind of how to work with each other. It’s just a matter of going back to old files and digging up that relationship.”

Together Wallace and Baxter will try improve on a 2019 season where Wallace only had one top-10 finish, a third-place result in the Brickyard 400. That was down from three top 10s in his rookie year. He placed 28th in the standings both years.

But with Baxter’s process at play, Wallace is allowing himself to be positive about his prospects in 2020, which is unusual for him.

“I’m not really the one to carry a lot of optimism,” Wallace said. “I like to keep it real and then be realistic about everything. Going into this year I’ve said it to many people, that I’m very optimistic about this season, I feel good about it. It’s the best I’ve felt about a race season in a long time. It’s going to be fun when we go to Daytona.”

When the Daytona 500 arrives on Feb. 16, it will be Wallace’s 77th Cup Series start and his third start in the “Great American Race.”

But for Baxter, who has been a crew chief in NASCAR off and on since 1986, including 12 Cup races, it will be his first Daytona 500 calling the shots atop a pit box.

Wallace gave Baxter some advice on how to approach the Daytona 500 experience recently over dinner with him and his wife.

“Him and I are kind of the same,” Wallace said. “We both love racing, but we never had dreams of being where we were. It just kind of worked out. We’re here together, we met and crossed paths. God put us in situations to help us work together and grow together.

“I told him, ‘No matter what, when you get down to Daytona … you’ve been on the Truck and Xfinity level for a while, but when you get to Daytona and you get to experience your first Daytona 500, it’s the coolest thing ever … don’t forget to set aside some time for yourself to be able to take in the moment, whether it’s race day, whether it’s the middle of week down there, whatever it is because there’s only one first time Daytona 500.’

“Obviously, mine was pretty remarkable, but I want Jerry to kind of sit back, relax, take it all in and enjoy the show. … If you can, separate yourself from your job for a split second and just kind of put yourself in a third-person perspective and see everything around that’s going on.”

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Jerry Baxter named crew chief for Bubba Wallace for 2020

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Jerry Baxter has been named crew chief of the No. 43 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 driven by Bubba Wallace for the 2020 NASCAR Cup season, Richard Petty Motorsports announced Monday.

It will be a reunion of sorts for Baxter and Wallace, who previously worked together for two seasons during Wallace’s tenure for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series in the 2013 and 2014 seasons.

“The 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season is a crucial year for Richard Petty Motorsports,” Wallace said in a team media release. “As a team, we have made a ton of progress from my debut in 2018, and we are looking to continue that progress with Jerry calling the shots.

“He has been a great mentor, and even better friend, since we were able to work together in 2013 and 2014. I am excited to see him get this opportunity in the NASCAR Cup Series, and use our past success to take this team to new levels.”

This will be Wallace’s third different crew chief in as many seasons with RPM. Drew Blickensderfer was crew chief for the No. 43 in 2018, while Derek Stamets was promoted from Wallace’s engineer to crew chief in 2019. A spokesman for the team said Monday that Stamets “has been offered a position within Richard Petty Motorsports.”

Jerry Baxter, left, and Bubba Wallace shown together in 2014 at Phoenix. They’re reunited for 2020 with Baxter serving as Wallace’s crew chief in the NASCAR Cup Series.(Getty Images)

Baxter and Wallace earned five wins, 25 top-10 finishes and three poles in their time together in Trucks with KBM, including Wallace finishing third in the driver standings in 2014.

“During our time together, he trusted what I did as a crew chief, and trusted himself more and more, and we got better and better as we went,” Baxter said in the media release. “This is an incredible opportunity, and change is good.

“Having the confidence of Bubba and everyone at Richard Petty Motorsports means a lot to me. I am excited about working with Bubba again, and the foundation Richard Petty Motorsports has in place with their group of guys.”

Baxter spent the last three seasons at GMS Racing, most recently in 2019 as Brett Moffitt’s crew chief in the Truck Series. Moffitt finished third in the standings this past season with four wins, 13 top-5 and 17 top-10 finishes, as well as three poles.

Baxter has worked with a number of notable drivers over his 34-year career in NASCAR Cup, Xfinity and Trucks, including Ernie Irvan, Boris Said, Christopher Bell, Kyle Busch, Daniel Suarez, Matt Tifft, Timothy Peters, Martin Truex Jr., Michael Waltrip, David Reutimann, Trevor Bayne and Robby Gordon.

The majority of Baxter’s career as a crew chief has been in the Xfinity and Truck Series. This will be his first crew chief role in the Cup Series since 2000 with Robby Gordon.

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What’s different in the NASCAR Cup Series in 2020

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

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

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

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

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

New Era, New Names

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

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

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

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

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

Shuffling the Schedule

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

But 2020 also has plenty of groundbreaking schedule developments.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chevrolet

Chevrolet Remodel

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

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

Familiar Names, Different Teams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Post-Jimmie Johnson World

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building for the Future

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

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

Brett Moffitt joins GMS Racing to defend Truck title

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GMS Racing announced Thursday that reigning NASCAR Truck champion Brett Moffitt will drive the team’s No. 24 ride in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series. GMS Racing made the announcement a day after stating that Johnny Sauter would not return to the team.

“I’m excited to be given the chance to defend my 2018 championship,” Moffitt said in a statement from the team. “I have to thank the Gallagher family and everyone at GMS for this opportunity. I can’t wait to start working with Jerry (Baxter, crew chief) and the guys to kick off the season at Daytona in a few weeks.”

Moffitt needed a ride after he was replaced by Austin Hill at Hattori Racing. Despite winning the championship, Hattori Racing struggled to find sponsorship throughout the season. Moffitt said after winning the title in November he didn’t know where he would drive this season.

The 26-year-old Moffitt won six races last year. He has seven career Truck wins in 36 starts.

“Brett will be an excellent addition to the GMS organization,” GMS team president Mike Beam said in a statement. “Last year he showed the racing world the amount of talent and determination he has, especially while facing some adversity throughout the season. We look forward to helping him win his second championship and ours as well.

“We have a strong driver lineup in every series we’ll compete in this year. Maury Gallagher has given us the tools and personnel we need to compete for several championships.”

In a Thursday afternoon teleconference, Moffitt called the signing an “11th hour” deal and said discussions between him and GMS started “in-between the holidays. They just wanted to see what I could bring to them and what they could for me and if I was still available.”

Moffitt said “a few existing partners” that have been with him through the years will be on the No. 24, but he’s not sure how often.

Even with those partners, Moffitt said staying with Hattori was “never an option.”

“Quite frankly, I don’t think it would have been enough to move the needle,” Moffitt said. “I think GMS has given us a really good platform where we can take some of our current partners and their current partners and help build it all.”

Before the GMS opportunity arrived, Moffitt said he “had options open.”

“None of them that would necessarily lead to me being in race-winning equipment, which is what I wanted ultimately,” Moffitt said. “A few opportunities in less than impressive Cup stuff. We had talked with some Xfinity teams as well. The biggest thing for me is to go out and try to compete for a championship and win races. I was kind of holding out and hoping a deal like this would come together.”

Moffitt said he considered at one point settling for opportunities to run limited races in winning equipment.

He said the deal from GMS was the “best deal out there by far and I think it’ll be one of the best positions I’ve been in in my career.”

Moffitt cited a relationship with GMS that originated in one Xfinity Series start for the team in 2017 when he finished 11th at Iowa Speedway.

“Just kind of always been in talks on-and-off,” Moffitt said. “When this opportunity opened up to them, I believe I was the first person they called about it. I’m just glad we were able to make it happen.”

The rest of the GMS Racing lineup for 2019 features:

  • Rookie Sheldon Creed in the No. 2 Truck with Doug Randolph as crew chief.
  • John Hunter Nemechek in the No. 23 Xfinity car with Chad Norris as crew chief.
  • Sam Mayer in the No. 21 K&N Pro Series East ride. He’ll also run limited ARCA and Truck races.

GMS Racing also stated that Halmar Friesen Racing renewed its technical alliance with GMS Racing to field the No. 52 for Stewart Friesen.

Daniel McFadin contributed to this report