Jimmy Makar

Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

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.”

NASCAR disqualifies Erik Jones’ car for failing inspection

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RICHMOND, Va. — Erik Jones’ fourth-place finishing car failed inspection after Saturday night’s Cup race at Richmond Raceway and the disqualification puts him in a must-win situation next weekend to advance in the playoffs. 

The team confirmed that Jones’ car failed on the rear toe in the Optical Scanning Station. Jimmy Makar, president of Joe Gibbs Racing, said that the team did not plan to appeal.

Jay Fabian, managing director of the Cup Series, explained what officials found:

“There’s fairly critical measurements on the rear wheel alignment that have to be followed, so there’s any number of things that the team could do or not do to make it fail,” Fabian said. “Standard process as a race, we give a pretty strong allowance on what they can run pre‑race to post‑race, and it’s crept out of that range.

“We didn’t see anything that was designed to fail. At the end of the day, the result is the same, it failed.”

Fabian explained why the measurement is important.

“Rear wheel steer and alignment is important as a critical factor in downforce,” he said. “It’s an aero benefit to get more skew in the rear, so we keep those parameters pretty tight so that everybody is racing with the same thing, and that’s the key to running all 16 cars through there. We just finished up probably 30 minutes ago, so it’s important to keep the playing field level and make sure all the playoff cars are the same and pass that thing.”

The disqualification takes away from Joe Gibbs Racing’s first 1-2-3-4 finish in team history.

Jones was dropped to last place and given one point. He had scored 42 points.

Jones is now 45 points behind Willian Byron for the final transfer spot to the second round. The penalty makes it highly unlikely he can advance to the second round of the playoffs via points, so he will need to win next Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

This is the first time this season that a Cup car has been disqualified for failing inspection after the race. Four cars have been disqualified in the Xfinity Series and one Truck has been disqualified in that series.

Joe Gibbs Racing executive says team was off on measurements that caused Denny Hamlin’s penalties (video)

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Jimmy Makar, senior vice president of racing operations at Joe Gibbs Racing, said “circumstances that are out of your control” from pushing the limits of the rules contributed to both of Denny Hamlin‘s winning cars at Darlington failing inspection, resulting in encumbered finishes and suspended crew chiefs.

Mike Wheeler, crew chief for Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota in the Cup Series, and his Xfinity crew chief Eric Phillips, both were suspended two races because of an L1 penalty for violating section 20.14.2 (rear suspension) of the NASCAR Rule Book.

On SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “Tradin’ Paint,” Makar attributed the violations in tolerances to the wear-and-tear of Darlington Raceway and the way NASCAR inspects cars at its R&D Center compared with immediately after a race.

“We’ve been back to the tech center with the race cars multiple times this year and been checked for these same rear suspension measurements they’re doing that we were found to be out of tolerance on (after Darlington),” Makar said, indicating the cars previously had passed those inspections.

“This measurement that they’re using back at the tech center is new this year the way they’re doing it. … They check it at the racetrack a little differently. And we were fine in prerace and postrace on the measurements they take there.

“The problem became when they came back to the tech center, and they measured it in a different way is where we got into the discrepancy on the amount of tolerance.”

Makar said the distinction is important because “it’s a little different than just having an illegal part or something like that that just blatantly you try to get by with. That’s kind of black and white, and nobody wants to get involved in that kind of mess. This kind of situation is more of a tolerance, a measurement that they measure at the racetrack.”

A team’s goal, Makar said, is to find the limits of those measurements. “You know you want to take advantage of every opportunity you can to make your race car faster and give your driver all the advantages they can have,” he said. “There is a line there you don’t want to cross, but as long as you’re dancing on that line, you have circumstances that are out of your control sometimes that cause a problem.”

After the Southern 500, NASCAR took the cars of Hamlin, second-place finisher Kyle Busch and Austin Dillon back to the R&D Center for a more thorough inspection. The penalties were announced Wednesday.

Cars run close to the wall at Darlington, and Makar said the team probably hadn’t built in enough of a cushion for parts that bent because of the frequent contact.

“You hit the wall several times during the course of the race with the right rear,” Makar said. “Things get bent. Things move. I think all those things added up to this couple thousandths of tolerance that we were out. It’s not an excuse, but as we look back at it, we did leave ourselves enough room for those things to happen. … Even if you were going to be a little bit inside the (tolerances), you still don’t know if hitting (the) wall one time is one time too many.”

JGR already has announced it won’t appeal the penalties, which means Wheeler will miss this weekend’s regular-season finale at Richmond Raceway and the postseason opener next week at Chicagoland Speedway.

Makar said NASCAR ideally should conclude the inspection process immediately after the race.

“Within an hour or two or a couple of hours after the end of the race, so we know there’s been a problem or not,” Makar said. “That’s not in our hands. NASCAR has got to figure out how to do that. It’s not an easy thing.”

Though JGR accepted the penalties, Makar said a more widespread inspection could have yielded more cars that were out of bounds.

“This is my opinion and my opinion only, but I think you could’ve taken every car that finished that race this weekend and found most of them have a little bit of the same problem,” Makar said. “It’s just what it is. But that’s not the way they inspect after a race.”

Upon Further Review: Martinsville could provide relief for famed teams seeking victory

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No big deal that Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing both haven’t won a Cup race yet?

Maybe, but consider this — the last time both teams had yet to win by the season’s fifth race was 1994. That’s before Hendrick Motorsports driver Chase Elliott was born, before Jeff Gordon had won his first championship and two years after Richard Petty’s final race.

While this season celebrates five different winners in the first five races, including Stewart-Haas Racing’s first Daytona 500 triumph and Richard Childress Racing’s first Cup win since Nov. 2013, it also notes what hasn’t been done with Hendrick and Gibbs failing to reach Victory Lane.

Most wins at Martinsville Speedway in last 30 races there (since 2002).

Of course, that likely will change Sunday at Martinsville Speedway. Hendrick and Gibbs have combined to win 80 percent of the last 30 races (See Chart at right) at the historic half-mile track, dating back to 2002. Hendrick Motorsports has 16 wins during that time, including last fall with Jimmie Johnson.

Executives from both organizations told NBC Sports this week that they’re not fretting about their starts to the season.

“I don’t sense any extra pressure,’’ said Doug Duchardt, general manager at Hendrick Motorsports. “There’s no meeting saying we’ve got to win or anything like that.’’

Said Jimmy Makar, senior vice president of racing operations at Joe Gibbs Racing: “I don’t put a timestamp on it, we’ve got to win by our fifth or sixth race. I feel like that we need to be competitive  week in and week out and then we tweak from there. I know our guys are capable of winning.’’

Duchardt notes the speed Chase Elliott’s car has had this year as a sign of the potential for each Hendrick team. While questions have been raised about Jimmie Johnson’s start to the season, Duchardt sees the matter differently.

“The 48 team obviously hasn’t had the finishes that we wanted,’’ Duchardt said. “Other than this past weekend (21st at Auto Club Speedway), I feel like at Atlanta they had a top-five car. At Vegas, they did, kind of got behind in strategy there on that one second stage. In Phoenix, they were running top five and the way things ended we ended up (ninth). This weekend obviously was not what we wanted. I think up to this weekend, I thought they were, obviously not as strong as (Elliott), but were pretty good.’’

Duchardt said one area he’s looking for improvement is in qualifying, feeling that has hindered some of the teams in scoring stage points. Elliott has 63 stage points, while Johnson has 18, Dale Earnhardt Jr. 12 and Kasey Kahne has yet to score a stage point this season.

“Overall I think the company, we’re good relative to the competition, but obviously we’re going to have to continue to work and make the next step as far as speed in the cars,’’ Duchardt said.

Joe Gibbs Racing entered this season having won 26 of the previous 67 races (38.8 percent), but its Toyota ally, Furniture Row Racing, has made it to Victory Lane first this season with Martin Truex Jr.

“Obviously, we didn’t start off as strong as we thought we were going to be,’’ Makar said. “I guess this package has hindered us more than we thought compared to other teams. We’re a little disappointed in that.

“We’ve had to go to work. Atlanta kind of gave us the first glimpse of it. We’ve improved on all of our races since then. I feel good about that. That’s a positive that we’ve been getting better week in and week out, and we’ve gotten to the point where we’ve gotten in contention to win a few of these races. I still feel like we’re still a little behind the eight-ball on the way our cars driver compared to the field.’’

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