Jim Campbell

Friday 5: Manufacturer teamwork at ‘Dega fraught with questions

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Toyota devised the blueprint. Ford enhanced it. And Chevrolet took lessons from both to win the past two races at Talladega and Daytona by having its teams work together.

I feel like Chevy has kind of taken that to the next level recently to where we all have to figure out a way to beat that,” Joey Logano said.

For fans who long for the good ol’ days of manufacturer battles, Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC) will provide that type of action. But it does create some thorny issues with this being a playoff race. Such as:

  • How long should drivers within the same manufacturer work together?
  • What if a non-playoff driver is racing a playoff driver from the same manufacturer for the win?
  • How can Toyota, which has fewer cars than Chevrolet and Ford, compete?

There’s much at stake this weekend, particularly for Chevrolet, which has not had a driver race for the championship in Miami since Jimmie Johnson won the 2016 title. Kyle Larson is set for the next round via last week’s win at Dover, but Chevy’s other three remaining playoff drivers are not in a secure spot.

Alex Bowman is seventh in the standings 17 points ahead of Logano, who is the first driver outside a transfer spot. William Byron holds that final transfer spot via a tiebreaker with Logano. Chase Elliott, who won at Talladega in May, is seven points behind Byron.

Toyota started the trend of teams within a manufacturer working together in 2016, leading to Denny Hamlin’s Daytona 500 win and a 1-2-3 Toyota finish. Ford used its strengths in numbers and won seven consecutive races at Daytona and Talladega before Austin Dillon’s Daytona 500 win in 2018. 

The more cars working together, the more that group can dictate the race.

It wasn’t until after Joe Gibbs Racing (Toyota) and Hendrick Motorsports (Chevrolet) worked together in this year’s Daytona 500 to counter the Fords that Chevrolet executives ordered their teams to work together starting at Talladega in late April.

“The benefit of working together is too great versus the penalty of not working together,” Jim Campbell, Chevrolet’s U.S. Vice President of Performance Vehicles and Motorsports, told NBC Sports in April.

Chevrolet drivers followed orders, running nose-to-tail with near-military precision throughout the Talladega race this season. It didn’t matter if it was the bottom lane or top lane, many Chevrolets ran together. When it came time to pit, many stopped together.

The results were impressive.

Chevrolet drivers won both stages, the race and took five of the top six spots at Talladega. Chevrolet drivers won the second stage, the race and took the top four spots at Daytona in July.

Elliott said that Sunday’s race is “going to look real similar to what it did at Talladega in the spring and Daytona in the summer. We made a pretty conscious effort with our manufacturer of Chevrolet to try and do a better job of working together. It worked at Talladega. A lot of us crashed, but at least a Chevrolet still won the summer race at Daytona. Hopefully it works out.

“That’s the thing, we can put as much effort as we want or as little effort as we want, but it’s never going to guarantee that you aren’t going to crash or have a bad day there. I expect we’ll do our part on our end to try and make as good of a day as we can out of it, but no guarantees.”

2. How long should drivers work together?

This is the one of the biggest issues. When can a driver make a move that is best for them even if it hurts a teammate in the same manufacturer camp?

Joey Logano was not pleased that fellow Ford driver Michael McDowell chose to push Kyle Busch’s Toyota on the last lap of this year’s Daytona 500 instead of Logano’s Ford.

“Typically you kind of expect manufacturers to work together,” Logano said after the race.

McDowell’s reply?

“Fords weren’t that friendly to me this weekend.”

It’s an issue all drivers running at the finish will have to ponder.

You are kind of almost in a box because sometimes what is good for the group is not the best for yourself and you feel like you are compromising sometimes,” said Ryan Blaney, who enters this weekend last among the 12 remaining playoff drivers. “It might not help you out. That part makes it a little bit tough. At the end of the day, Chevy made it work at the first Talladega so hopefully we can make it work. It is hard to plan and orchestrate stuff like that when everything in the race is going. It has turned into that though.

“You can’t blame the manufacturer for wanting to do that. They put a lot of support behind the teams and they find those spots to say that if we have strength in numbers that we should be able to win the race.”

Until strategies change.

“I feel like we see that a lot at the plate tracks,” Brad Keselowski said of changing strategies. “It goes through evolutions every three or four years, and this is the next evolution.”

3. What if a non-playoff driver is racing for the win?

With all the teamwork within a manufacturer, there could be an issue if non-playoff drivers are among those racing at the front late.

Six of the top 10 finishers at Talladega in May were drivers who are not in the playoffs entering this weekend. Ryan Preece finished third in that race, placing behind Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman.

So how does a non-playoff driver handle racing playoff drivers?

Ty Dillon‘s best Cup career finish came at Daytona in July when he placed fourth. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

“I think early on in the race, it’s still the same racing that we’ve done all year,” Ty Dillon said. “I think when you get to the end of the race, you have  … to be aware that it’s hard to help someone that’s fighting for a championship. Sometimes at places like Talladega and Daytona, if you try to help somebody, you might end up causing the crash letting somebody in or something like that. I think that’s truly known throughout the series as drivers.

“Everywhere else, I race with the mentality that during the first half of the race, we’re all racing together. If you get down to the end of the race and one of those guys is on your tail and you’re holding them up, I would expect to give those guys a little bit of a leeway. They are racing for something bigger right now and it’s with the hopes that the respect will be returned one day in your favor.

“I expect to be racing for championships at some point in my career. I would like that kind of respect back. For me, I’m racing for 22nd or 23rd in points. It doesn’t make a whole lot of difference, but those guys have a lot more on the line for one position. … I think you’ve got to be smart. You don’t want to be the guy that screws up the guy going for the (championship) because you want to be in that position where somebody gives you the benefit of a doubt when you need it.”

4. What about Toyota teams?

Toyotas are at a disadvantage with having the fewest cars in the field. It’s why Joe Gibbs Racing partnered with Hendrick Motorsports for the Daytona 500. Seven of the 40 cars entered this weekend are Toyotas. Ford has 15 entries and Chevrolet has 18.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” Denny Hamlin said. “We are outnumbered, We know that. Ultimately they can’t decide what line you choose to run in. So, from my standpoint … if I’m around a bunch of Fords and they’re staying in line, I’m staying in line. It doesn’t matter what manufacturer I’m with, I’m just going to do whatever is best for me. I think that has been the thing that has made us successful over the years is having that mentality.

“You look at the teamwork from the Fords and Chevys at the last few years. In the end, you still have a bunch of guys in there that haven’t won a race. They still have to be selfish even with their own teammates. That’s when you try to take advantage.”

Another key issue with the Toyotas having fewer entries is if Martin Truex Jr., Hamlin, Kyle Busch – the top three in points – would be better off running at the back for at least part of the race. Truex can’t fall out of the top eight in points regardless of how poor he finishes Sunday. Hamlin and Busch are each 48 points ahead of Logano in the standings.

Asked on Wednesday’s edition of NASCAR America MotorMouths if his strategy would be to run up front, run at the back or just go for the win. Busch said: “Yes. All three.

“I’m sure at some point we’re going to be running at the back at somewhere or another, we might even qualify there. Past that … you want to get up within the top 10 to get those stage points.”

Busch ultimately said: “I think you just have to go out there and race and race as hard as you can.”

5. Kevin Harvick pit crew member returns

Daniel Smith. (Photo by Dustin Long)

Daniel Smith returns this weekend as the rear tire changer for Kevin Harvick’s team after missing the past eight races because of a surgery needed as part of his treatment for testicular cancer.

Smith missed the final 13 races of last season after the cancer was discovered. He returned at Daytona in February.

He had not missed a race this season until the surgery, which was originally planned for in the spring but moved to August.

Smith joined Haas-CNC Racing in 2004 and worked his way on to the pit crew. He remained with the team when it was renamed Stewart-Haas Racing and was a pit crew member on Tony Stewart’s 2011 championship team. Smith and his teammates were moved to Kevin Harvick’s team shortly before the 2014 postseason and helped Harvick win the title.

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Chevrolet boss happy with three-race Cup winning streak but wants more

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Even with a three-race Cup winning streak, the head of Chevrolet’s NASCAR program wants more victories as the playoffs near.

Jim Campbell, vice president of performance and motorsports for Chevrolet, made the comments Wednesday on “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

In the last three races, Chevrolet has won with Alex Bowman (Chicagoland Speedway), Justin Haley (Daytona International Speedway) and Kurt Busch (Kentucky Speedway). Until that string, Chevrolet had won only once this year with Chase Elliott’s victory at Talladega Superspeedway.

Last year, Chevrolet had four Cup wins, its fewest victories in Cup since scoring three wins in 1982.

“We have really, really, I think, increased the collaboration (among Chevrolet teams) to another level, and I think we need to because we’ve got to put more wins on the board,” Campbell said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “The Chevy camp is used to putting 10, 12, 15 wins on the board a year. Right now we’re at four. We expect more of ourselves. I know the teams are looking for more wins and I’ll call it top-five finishes. Talladega was kind of a turbocharger for us to get everyone really working at the next level.”

Chevrolet won at Talladega after an increased effort to have its teams work together throughout the weekend and during the race. Chevrolet made the effort after seeing how successful Toyota and Ford teams were at Daytona and Talladega by working together. Until then, Chevrolet had allowed its teams and drivers to go their own way at those tracks.

“Over the years, Chevy results were pretty doggone strong without a massive work-together effort,” Campbell said during the radio interview. “I think we go back to ’16 and Toyota put together an effort to get some of the (Joe) Gibbs (Racing) guys working together and I think in the fall, the Ford camp was doing that. So, it was time, it was time that we just pulled ourselves together and really worked across all of our teams.”

With seven races left until the Cup playoffs begin, Chevrolet has three drivers set for the playoffs via wins: Elliott, Bowman and Busch. Chevrolet also has three competitors who would qualify for the 16-driver playoffs as of today via points with William Byron 12th in the standings, Kyle Larson 13th and Jimmie Johnson 15th.

Johnson’s position is tenuous. He is 10 points ahead of Ford’s Ryan Newman, who holds the first spot outside a playoff position.

“I look at the trajectory,” Campbell said of Chevrolet’s progress. “Are we on the trajectory up or are we flat or are we down? I would say the momentum is going up, but it’s all performance based. We’ve got to put wins on the board, more top 10s.”

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Friday 5: Rivalries among Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske drivers brewing

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The domination by Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske this season could give NASCAR fans two of the best driver rivalries the sport has seen in years.

JGR’s Kyle Busch and Penske’s Brad Keselowski have had a long, tension-filled rivalry that can spark at any time.

But the sport’s hottest rivalry involves JGR’s Martin Truex Jr. and Penske’s Joey Logano. It has been that way since last year’s Martinsville playoff race when Logano moved Truex on the last lap to win and earn a spot in the title race.

Twice this season — and three times since last year’s finale in Miami — Truex and Logano have finished 1-2 in a race. Logano beat Truex to win the championship. Truex held off Logano to win at Richmond and the Coca-Cola 600 this year.

After the Richmond win, Truex was asked if he worried having Logano behind him in the final laps after what happened at Martinsville.

“I think he drove me as hard as he could without hitting me, which that’s what I always expect, and that’s kind of how I’ve always raced him,” Truex said. “Hopefully we can race clean for the rest of the year.”

With plenty of playoff points remaining and a playoff that features two short tracks and the Roval, it seems likely there will be contact if they continue to race together at the front.

Racing in close proximity has led to contact and conflict for Busch and Keselowski through the years.

In last season’s playoff race at Richmond, they battled for the lead. After Busch passed Keselowski, Busch stuck his hand out the window at Keselowski.

Asked what he thought Busch meant by the gesture, Keselowski said then: “I don’t try to read his mind. That’s the last place I need to be.”

Busch said of his message to his rival: “When you spend 15, 20 laps trying to pass the guy and you pass him and you get run into right as soon as you pass him, it’s kind of like, ‘Come on, man, really?’ But oh, well.”

They’ve also had their issues at off the track, most memorably two years ago when Keselowski talked and tweeted about what he believed was Toyota’s advantage and Busch responded with a tweet to shut up (although not in as nice of terms).

If the trend from the first half of the regular-season continues, then each of those drivers will be racing around each other all season. All four rank in the top seven in the number of laps run in the top 15 (Busch is first at 90.7%) and all four rank in the top five in laps led (Keselowski is first at 765, followed by Busch at 684).

While other teams will try to break the stranglehold Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske have had in winning 12 of the first 13 points races of the season, it’s likely fans will see Logano and Truex together and Busch and Keselowski running door to door.

It could make for quite a summer.

2. Hendrick Motorsports rebounds

Hendrick Motorsports placed all four drivers in the top 10 in last weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 for the first time since the April 2016 Texas race.

Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman, William Byron and Jimmie Johnson have helped lead a turnaround for car owner (center) Rick Hendrick’s team. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

The series is at Pocono Raceway this weekend. Last July, Hendrick Motorsports placed three of its cars in the top 10 — Alex Bowman was third, William Byron sixth and Chase Elliott seventh. Two Hendrick drivers (Jimmie Johnson in eighth and Elliott in 10th) placed in the top 10 in last June’s race there.

The organization comes into Pocono with a good bit of momentum. Hendrick Motorsports placed three cars in the top 10 in the two previous points races.

Bowman was second at Dover, Elliott was fifth and Byron was eighth. The following week at Kansas, Bowman was second, Elliott placed fourth and Jimmie Johnson finished sixth.

It was because of those performances that Brad Keselowski said before last weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 that “I honestly feel right now the Hendrick cars are the best cars. I feel like they really came on strong over the last two or three weeks and had some nice updates to their stuff.”

Keep an eye on the Hendrick cars this weekend and see if their recent run continues.

3. Getting back in gear

Half of Martin Truex Jr.’s 22 career Cup victories have come on 1.5-mile speedways, but until last weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 win, he had not had as much luck on those tracks lately.

After winning the 2017 championship, five of Truex’s next six victories came at tracks other than 1.5-mile speedways. Then he scored his Coke 600 win.

Three days before that victory, Truex said trying to get the right setup for 1.5-mile tracks was “our biggest challenge this year, no question. … Just still searching for that confidence as a team of what we need to show up at these tracks with.”

After the victory he said: “Now that we’ve got some momentum here and a little confidence on the mile-and-a-half, that’s a really good sign for us moving forward.”

4. Support growing for IndyCar/NASCAR doubleheader

Executives from Toyota Racing Development and Chevrolet expressed their interest in IndyCar and NASCAR competing at the same track on the same weekend.

David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, and Jim Campbell, Chevrolet’s U.S. Vice President of Performance Vehicles and Motorsports, made their comments in separate interviews Thursday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

“It would be incredible to see IndyCar, edge-of-the-seat, massive speeds, wheel-to-wheel competition on one day and come right back the next day and see an incredible Cup race back-to-back,” Campbell said. “Absolutely incredible. All for it. I think the possibilities are there. A lot of work to be done to get to that point. I think it would be great for the race fans, most importantly. Great for TV and we’d love it as a manufacturer.”

Said Wilson: “Politically, the leadership across both of those organizations have expressed their openness to looking at a more collaborative approach. We applaud that even if we are not racing in both platforms like our colleagues at Chevrolet are. We are hopeful and would love to see nothing more than a doubleheader down the road.”

5. Enjoying the show

Earlier this week, I wrote about Kasey Kahne and how he’s remained optimistic despite health issues that ended his NASCAR season and career last year and an injury in a sprint car in late March that still has him sidelined.

I asked him if he missed racing in Cup. He had an interesting response.

“There hasn’t been a race yet where I was like, “Man, I wish I was out there,’ but I’ve enjoyed watching them all,” Kahne told me.

He then told me: “I’d like to see a little bit of the rivalries that they’re building now. It’s fun to see the younger guys coming up and still see the veteran guys do well. I like watching all of that and how they progress.”

Maybe Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr. will be as entertaining as Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch can be in terms of rivalries. Or maybe it will be some other drivers.

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Hybridization of NASCAR cars not expected by 2021, Toyota executive says

Photo: Dustin Long
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NASCAR and manufacturers have discussed the hybridization of future cars but one manufacturer executive said it won’t happen soon.

Relative to hybridization and electrification, quite simply, it’s not a question of if, it’s a question of how and when,” David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development said Thursday morning on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “A hybrid type of strategy is absolutely something that we’re looking at.

“Candidly, it won’t be something that we see as early as ’21. That’s, realistically, a little further down the road.”

NASCAR Vice Chairman Mike Helton said May 20 on the Dale Jr. Download that a key to the Gen 7 car — expected to debut in 2021 — would be to “make room for what might happen next. Not in the short-term, but if the automobile industry and the racing industry go down the road with some type of electrification, the chassis should have room for that. In the motor component, whatever evolution we go to in the next generation of power plants for the cars … we have the opportunity with a clean sheet of paper to build a chassis that can accommodate that easily without having to tear a car apart.”

Brad Keselowski wrote an essay last May titled: It’s time: The NASCAR hybrid. Keselowski wrote: “Not only am I sure that hybrids are the future of NASCAR — I believe it’s essential to the success of the sport that we embrace hybrid technology as soon as possible.”

Hybrids have become more important for manufacturers, Wilson said on “The Morning Drive” on Thursday.

“You look across the motorsports landscape, you’re seeing hybridization and electrification everywhere you look,” he said. “That again is simply a reflection of the automotive culture on a global basis. Today, Toyota has eight different hybrid vehicles in their lineup.”

Jim Campbell, Chevrolet’s U.S. Vice President of Performance Vehicles and Motorsports, also was on “The Morning Drive” on Thursday and expressed the value of the Gen 7 car being able to incorporate hybrid elements in the future.

“I think Gen 7 gives an opportunity to bring more relevant elements of the car and the technology to what we’re selling in the showroom or what we’ll be selling more of in the future,” Campbell said. “Along with that is the ability of if we do that have an opportunity to attract more (manufacturers). So it all does really fit together. There’s still much work going on with the Gen 7.

“In terms of hybrid, I will tell you that every series we’re involved in, every single series Chevy is involved in … is looking at what is the opportunity to package protect or what are the options to include some element of hybridization. That’s really where it is right now. It’s in a discussion phrase. It hasn’t been locked down.”

In regards to hybridization coming to NASCAR, Wilson said on SiriusXM: “It is an inevitability from our perspective.”

Before the season, Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance, said of hybrids: “As we change road cars, we’re not going directly from an internal combustion engine to electric. We’ll have hybrids along the way. I don’t know NASCAR needs to go full electric.

“Even if you continue racing the internal combustion engine, we get a ton of benefit from that and connection with the fans. The ability to put the hybrid in when the time is ready, that’ll continue to connect as fans’ cars and trucks go hybrid.”

Chevrolet teams make plans to work together at Talladega

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — It was a sight not seen before. At least in the Chevrolet camp.

About 10 Chevrolet cars ran together in Friday’s final Cup practice at Talladega Superspeedway, a sign that Chevrolet wants its teams to work more closely together after some partnered with Toyotas during the Daytona 500.

To reaffirm the message, Jim Campbell, Chevrolet’s U.S. Vice President of Performance Vehicles and Motorsports, met with Chevrolet drivers Saturday.

“The benefit of working together is too great versus the penalty of not working together,” Campbell told NBC Sports.

“We have to work together as a team but also be adaptive. That’s what we’re trying to balance.”

Talladega pole-sitter Austin Dillon said “we’re just unified as a group now.”

While Chevrolet teams work on projects together off the track, they haven’t always been so cooperative on the track, whether it was because of philosophy or disparity in performance. That contributed to Chevrolet’s decline at Daytona and Talladega — the manufacturer has won one of the last 15 races at those tracks.

Toyota originated the strategy of cars within the same manufacturer working together and dominated the 2016 Daytona 500. Denny Hamlin won, leading a 1-2-3 Toyota finish. Fords began working together and dominated last year’s playoff race at Talladega —  its seventh consecutive at NASCAR’s longest track. Aric Almirola won and Ford cars led nearly 95% of the race.

To combat Ford’s strength, Toyota and the Chevrolet team of Hendrick Motorsports worked together in the Daytona 500. During the second stage, a six-car train of Toyotas and Hendrick cars controlled the pace. Crashes later in the race lessened the maneuver’s effectiveness but a strategy against the Fords had been created.

That particular pairing of Chevrolet and Toyota teams, though, will not be repeated.

“I think some of the other Chevys probably griped about the Hendrick guys working with us,” Hamlin said.

There have been multiple meetings about Chevrolet teams about working together since February.

“They’re laying the law down,” Bubba Wallace told NBC Sports.

The result was 10 Chevrolets went on track together Friday in practice. They ran about 15 laps, came to pit road together and exited together to simulate a green-flag pit stop.

That could be critical Sunday. Teams have found this weekend that the more cars in a line, the faster it goes. Last fall, Stewart-Haas Racing’s four cars ran single-file and pulled away from the pack. That’s not expected to happen Sunday with rule changes that include teams having another 100 horsepower to 550 and the larger rear spoiler (with the wicker added to the spoiler Friday).

“At tracks like this, numbers win,” Jimmie Johnson told NBC Sports. “So the more organized we can be, and if we can ever get more quality cars, more quality Chevrolets working together, we can hopefully have that upper hand in those rare situations of pitting under green.”

When Almirola saw the Chevrolets run together in practice Friday, he said “it’s about time.

“What’s that old saying … fool me once, shame on you,. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times, that’s not going to happen. They’ve been fooled a lot of times by the manufactures teaming up and working together.

“To see that, it speaks volumes of what we did at Ford years ago to organize our race teams to get together and make sure that we work together to put a blue oval out front and that’s what this kind of racing has turned into. I think they’ve finally taken notice.”

Kyle Larson said everything has gone well with the teams working together so far.

“We’ve been pretty disciplined about it,” he said. “We’ll see how it goes in the race. Hopefully we can do what those other teams have done, but even better. I’m excited to work together and hopefully we’ll learn throughout it and tweak on it in the future and get even better.”

That’s a challenge Dillon noted. Toyota and Ford teams know how to work together during the race. This will be Chevrolet’s first attempt at going all in.

“These guys have been working at it for a couple of races now, and they’ve kind of done a good job of perfecting how to get to the front and work together,” Dillon said. “We’ve got a young group of Chevy drivers, a little less experience. We, as a group, I feel like have done a good job over the weekend.”

If Chevrolet cars do work together Sunday, it could impact the Toyota teams. Toyota has the fewest cars in the 39-car field with seven — that includes two part-time teams.

“I knew it was coming,” Hamlin said of losing the partnership with Hendrick Motorsports. “I’m friends with a couple of (Chevrolet drivers), so I knew about meetings that have been going on for the last month or so. I knew that we were going to kind of be on our own.”

But this edict by Chevrolet doesn’t mean a Chevy driver can’t work with another manufacturer during the race. It will happen. The pack will get jumbled. But the point is to work together when one can.

“Chevy is a huge part of our success,” Daniel Hemric told NBC Sports. “Whether we have it or not, they’ve given us all a route to have it. At the end of the day, one of us needs to be in victory lane. That’s why we’ve got to come together to make that happen.”

If they can’t Sunday, it will mark the first time since 1971 that Chevrolet has not won in the first 10 races of a season.

“The focus is on winning,” Campbell told NBC Sports. “Also, we want to see as many Chevys finish well with the stage points and at the end of the race. It’s a long season. Our goal is to get as many Chevy drivers in the playoffs, whether it is through wins or points or both.

“Cleary, the goal is to get some wins on the board. The one benefit of having our key partners is we continue to learn from one another how to gain more speed and improve the performance.”

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