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Tire issues derail several competitors at Indy

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INDIANAPOLIS — Denny Hamlin was among at least eight drivers whose cars had tire issues in Sunday’s Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, saying “it’s kind of roulette if you’re going to get one that will stay together or not.”

Hamlin’s team was one of three at Joe Gibbs Racing that had tire issues or vibrations throughout the race. Hendrick Motorsports had two drivers suffer tire problems, and Aric Almirola had to pit out of sequence because of tire vibrations before rallying to finish third to winner Kevin Harvick. Ryan Newman also hit the wall after a right front tire went down.

Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing, explained in a statement what happened with tires Sunday: “The importance of air pressure, and getting it right, is something that we cautioned about before the race. With the high amount of downforce on the Cup cars down the straightaways, we asked teams to respect our recommended pressures so as not to hurt the tire. 

“Early in the race, without having the benefit of any practice, teams obviously had to be very mindful of that. Most of the race was run in the heat and teams were obviously searching for grip, while several issues happened later in the event when track temperature cooled off a bit and speeds picked up. We had our engineers on the ground all race, working with teams as we do every week, trying to emphasize the importance of right-front pressures.”

The 2.5-mile speedway is difficult on tires and has created challenges in the past, most notably in 2008 when cautions had to be called throughout the race to prevent tires from blowing.

Hamlin crashed when his right front tire went out while leading with eight laps left.

“I had a fast car obviously and was stretching it out there but wasn’t pushing right front at all,” Hamlin said. “It’s kind of roulette if you’re going to get one that will stay together or not and mine didn’t. You saw the end result.”

Hamlin’s teammate, Erik Jones, crashed earlier in the race after a right front tire went down.

“I felt it pop, and I was kind of along for the ride,” Jones said.

Kyle Busch said he “had vibrations at various points throughout the race with different sets of tires so we had to stay on top of that and make sure we changed those.”

Hendrick Motorsports’ drivers also had issues. William Byron blew a left front. Alex Bowman crashed after a right front tire blew.

“We suffered a tire issue right before we made a green flag stop, which ended our day,” Bowman said.

Almirola finished third despite tire issues.

“We kept having left front tires come apart,” he said. “They would start shaking and vibrating so bad, I could hardly see where I was going on the straightaway. We had to pit for that. We kept getting off our pit sequence for our strategy.”

Brad Keselowski, who finished fourth, also had some tire issues.

I felt us have a problem one time and my crew chief confirmed we did,” he said. “Every time the tires would have an issue it was really concerning.  You blow a tire out here you wreck really hard and there’s no chance of saving it, so definitely concerned about that all race.”

Harvick said he had no tire issues in winning his third Brickyard 400.

“We had great tire wear today,” he said. “They hit the cambers and everything right on. I was able to really push my car hard, as hard as I could push it.”

Erik Jones eliminated after hard crash in Brickyard 400

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Erik Jones was eliminated from Sunday’s Brickyard 400 after a hard single-car crash on Lap 75.

Jones was running in 10th when his No. 20 Toyota hit the outside wall in Turn 3. Jones was able to exit his car.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver entered the race 16th in the point standings, which is the last spot on the playoff grid.

Jones stayed out of the pits during a late caution in Stage 1 in order to earn stage points. He managed to finish second in the stage, earning nine points.

“I guess we had a right front (tire) go down,” Jones told NBC. “I felt it pop and I was kind of along for the ride. It was a pretty hard hit. But it’s a shame. … It’s kind of the story of our season. We’ve just had a rough year. Things just not going out way.”

Friday 5: Crew chief strategies will be key at Indianapolis

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The wizardry of crew chief Rodney Childers will be tested after a random draw gave Kevin Harvick the 11th starting spot for Sunday’s Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Only twice since 2010 has an Indy winner started outside the top 10. Paul Menard won on a fuel-milage gamble after starting 15th in 2011. Kasey Kahne won in 2017 after he pitted before a caution late in the race, putting him at the front. He won in overtime.

Such is the challenge Harvick and Childers have at a place where track position and strategy are critical and passing is difficult.

“I think everybody in the field can have a different strategy and that different strategy can work for any of those people,” Childers told NBC Sports. “Just depending on when the caution comes out. There’s so many different things that can go on.”

Harvick had a dominant car in last year’s race but also benefitted when he pitted from the lead — and before most of the field — on Lap 128 of the 160-lap race. The caution came out while he was on pit road. That put him back at the front while others pitted during the caution. Had Childers not called Harvick in at that point, they would not have been able to take advantage of that break.

But what happens early can determine if a team will be in position to contend late in the race.

If Harvick’s car is good early, the question becomes how many positions can he gain before the field stretches out single file?

Then, there’s the competition caution, which is set for Lap 12. The first stage ends at Lap 50. A full fuel run should make it to the end of the stage from the competition caution.

One thing Harvick could do is what Childers did in 2018. Childers had Harvick, who was running second at the time, pit before the competition caution to change four tires (fuel cannot be added before the competition caution).

The plan was for Harvick to come back down pit road during the competition caution for fuel only, making that a quicker pit stop than those who changed four tires and get out ahead of them. That plan was undone by a penalty for an uncontrolled tire.

Still, it shows what Childers is willing to do. Another consideration is that if a car is about six seconds or more behind the leader, it’s unlikely they can pit under green and remain on the lead lap by the time they get back to speed.

Tire wear also will play in what crew chiefs decide. Tires will wear more early in the race with less rubber on the track.

Then, there’s the thought of how many cautions will there be between the competition caution and the end of the first stage. Last year, a right front tire went down and sent Landon Cassill’s car into the wall, creating a caution on Lap 43. The year before, Martin Truex Jr. brought out the caution on Lap 42 after a mechanical failure.

There’s much to consider for any crew chief.

“You can’t do the same thing (as the leaders) and have the same result,” Childers said. “That’s where it becomes tricky is just thinking all of it through. Having a good group of people behind you that are constantly thinking about that stuff (is key) and trying to think it through. Just one person, like myself, can’t think it through on my own.”

But those who make the right decisions – and maybe get some help from a well-timed caution – could be celebrating after Sunday’s race.

2. Aging like fine wine

Since the Cup Series resumed in May, nine of the 11 races have been won by drivers 36 and older. Seven of those wins have come from drivers 39 and older.

There’s no doubt that 44-year-old Kevin Harvick (Stewart-Haas Racing), 40-year-old Martin Truex Jr. (Joe Gibbs Racing), 39-year-old Denny Hamlin (Joe Gibbs Racing) and 36-year-old Brad Keselowski (Team Penske) drive for some of the top organizations in the sport.

Still, they’ve won during this stretch, while others, such as Kyle Busch, remain winless. Harvick has three wins, Hamlin has three victories, Keselowski has two wins and Truex has one triumph.

The only drivers younger than 36 years old to have won since May are 24-year-old Chase Elliott at the second Charlotte race and 26-year-old Ryan Blaney at Talladega.

So is this a matter of veteran drivers using their experience with no practice before races? Or is this a case of older talent showing it can remain among the sport’s elite longer?

“The experience level obviously comes into play,” Harvick said. “I think when you are surrounded with a good team and a good organization and are able to work those details out, I think the potential is to drive into your 50’s. Why not? I think with the health side of things and the way that people take care of themselves and work out, I think the longevity of the body on most of us going forward is going to be more durable than what it has been in the past.”

Harvick has won 15 races since 2018.

“I think I kind of had a second life I guess you could say coming to SHR,” said Harvick, who has been with Stewart-Haas Racing since 2014. “That was very motivating, and I think as you look at it now, for me it is still very motivating. You work your whole career to get into a situation like this.

“I had a long conversation with Mark Martin. You work your whole career to get in this situation, why would you want to give that up and just say, ‘I quit’? As long as (wife) DeLana and my family are supportive, I don’t think the drive and enthusiasm, as far as showing up to the racetrack every week, will go away anytime soon. You just have to balance those things. I think as you look at Martin (Truex Jr.) turning 40 and Denny (Hamlin) and a lot of the success has been from that particular age group. I don’t think that is going to change any time soon.”

3. Location, location, location

A key to what happens on the track Sunday could be what happens in the stands.

While there will be no fans at Indy this weekend, spotters will move from atop the pagoda to the Turn 1 stands to allow for social distancing. Secondary spotters will be positioned in Turn 3.

With the group stretched out, a spotter for the leader can’t run to spotters of slower cars and tell them what lane the leader wants. Catching a slower car in the corner, especially at Indy, can cost the faster car a couple of seconds or more and allow those behind to close.

It’s something that could impact pit strategy. It did for Erik Jones and crew chief Chris Gayle last Sunday at Pocono Raceway.

“It’s a huge thing,” Gayle said of being held up by slower cars. “We were in the same scenario at this (past) weekend at Pocono where we came up on (Ryan Newman). We were running out (of fuel) and were going to do a fuel only strategy, had pretty much decided that’s what we were going to do but it was about staying in clean air for the majority of the time that we could toward the end of that race. We came up on the 6 car (Newman) and it’s notorious for how hard it is to get around him. I’m like, I’m going to give (Jones) one lap to pass the 6 car. If we don’t get it in one lap, we were pitting because we knew we could come out in another clean spot.”

Jones went on to finish third. Newman finished 18th, the first car a lap down.

4. Standout performance

With the focus on Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick last weekend at Pocono Raceway, it was easy to miss one of the weekend’s key performances.

Matt DiBenedetto scored the sixth-most points in the two Cup races at Pocono. That’s important because of what the weekend meant for him.

Matt DiBenedetto scored 72 points, including 17 stage points, last weekend at Pocono. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

He headed to Pocono 16th in points, holding what could be the final playoff spot. After those two races – and buoyed by scoring more stage points than Hamlin and Harvick — DiBenedetto is 14th in the driver standings. He’s 43 points ahead of Erik Jones, who is 16th.

With the regular-season finale scheduled for Daytona, there’s a greater chance than in previous years that a driver outside the top 16 could win that race and claim a playoff spot. The key is to keep out of the 16th spot. DiBenedetto’s performance last weekend, particularly in each stage, was a key step in that goal.

“Stage points can just make such a huge difference, especially this point in the year when the point stuff is really starting to settle out a little bit,” said DiBenedetto, whose 17 stage points in the doubleheader were the fifth-most scored last weekend. “People are settling in place, so you’ve got to take everything you can get because that makes a big difference as far as securing a solid spot in the playoffs and, for us, really climbing back up in the points to where we think we are running weekly.”

Keep an eye on DiBenedetto this weekend. Crew chief Greg Erwin helped Paul Menard to top-10 finishes each of the past two years at Indianapolis.

5. Rough going

After 15 races this season, Kyle Busch has no wins, no stage wins and no playoff points.

Last year at this time, he had four wins, five stage wins and 25 playoff points.

His avenge finish this season is 14.7. His average finish at this time last year was 6.3.

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Erik Jones: It’s time for better finishes and future

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Erik Jones doesn’t need to look at a clock to know now is his time.

The Michigan native earned a season-best third-place finish – and his second top-five in the last three starts – in Sunday’s back half of the NASCAR Cup doubleheader weekend at Pocono Raceway.

It couldn’t have come at a better time, as Jones is closing in on the end of a one-year contract extension with Joe Gibbs Racing he signed last year. His future remains uncertain.

“We started talking to them about next year and what we’re going to do moving forward,” Jones said after the race.

“I feel like right now that’s kind of the plan, working with them. We’ll see what happens, but I feel good about it right now moving forward.”

David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, said on June 17 that it’s his hope to keep both Jones and Christopher Bell in the manufacturer’s fold.

“We all know that Erik is at the end of his current contract,” Wilson said. “What’s the plan there? We don’t know. We’re working on that. (Car owner Joe Gibbs) and I are talking about that now every week. Our desire obviously is to keep both of those young men in our company. How we do it is yet to be determined.”

Jones’ finish Sunday was a strong rebound after finishing 38th in Saturday’s race due to a wreck.

“We needed a good run, a good rebound,” he said. “It’s great we finished third, but in a way it’s frustrating because I think our primary car (in Saturday’s) race was quite a bit better than our backup car was today, but obviously third is a good run.”

After struggling through much of the season – including seven showings of 20th or worse in the first 14 events – Jones believes he’s turned a corner and sees more promising results ahead.

“It’s nice to rebound and hope we can keep the momentum going next week and keep going strong,” Hamlin said. “It’s nice to run a normal race. I think on a normal weekend we can run top five and I think we showed that today.”

Sunday’s finish – Jones’ sixth top-10 in eight career Cup starts at Pocono – also put Jones back in the top 16 Cup playoff rankings.

“We feel like we definitely should make the playoffs,” said Jones, who entered Sunday six points out of a playoff spot. “We’ve done that the last few years and I don’t see this year as any different.

“Hopefully we can keep moving forward. We’ve got good racetracks coming up for us, places we’ve run well at in the past, I think we’re going to keep racking up some good finishes here and hopefully get a win here pretty soon.

“I think our cars are way faster than a 16th-place team. Hopefully we can keep up the good runs. We just need three-four more races running strong like we need to, get some stage points and we’ll be in the top 12 pretty quickly.

“… It’s not even a question in my mind, making the playoffs or not. I feel we’ll be strong enough here to get a win at a race here in the next month or two.”

Earlier in the day, Jones drew attention for a tweet he posted criticizing over-aggressive driving by many in the field of the Xfinity Series race, which preceded the Cup race.

The most notable example of that was when Justin Haley hooked Riley Herbst on the Pocono straightaway. NASCAR held Haley for two laps on pit road after the incident and met with Haley and crew chief Alex Yontz after the race.

“The Xfinity Series is in kind of a weird spot right now,” Jones said. “There’s a lot of young guys, very talented guys, don’t get me wrong, but definitely some of the guys can click it down a notch.

“I watch it on TV every week and it’s like, man, some of those guys are so fast and some of the things they do just blows your mind. The way I grew up racing, hooking somebody on the straightaway is pretty out there. I don’t think you want to face the repercussions of what would have happened coming into the pits.

“It’s just kind of a lack of respect. I grew up with a lot of respect in racing and respect for my equipment and competitors. I don’t believe in intentionally wrecking people. I think that’s pretty low, low-class and doesn’t belong in our sport. It’s just Saturday night, Mickey Mouse stuff and I don’t like to see it.”

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Winners and losers after Saturday’s Cup race at Pocono

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WINNERS

Kevin Harvick Finally scores that elusive Cup victory at Pocono Raceway.

Stewart-Haas Racing — Placed three of its drivers in the top 10.  Kevin Harvick won. Aric Almirola placed third. Clint Bowyer finished seventh.

Joe Gibbs Racing — Had three of its drivers finish in the top 10. Denny Hamlin finished second. Kyle Busch placed fifth. Martin Truex Jr. was sixth.

Front Row Motorsports: Michael McDowell’s eighth-place finish marked the first time the organization has posted back-to-back top-10 finishes. McDowell’s run came a week after John Hunter Nemechek was eighth at Talladega.

Christopher Bell Finished a career-high fourth on Saturday.

LOSERS

Erik Jones Saw his streak of three consecutive top-five finishes at Pocono end after a crash with Tyler Reddick.

Joey LoganoWas running in the top 10 late in the race when his left front tire blew. He finished 36th. He did win a stage and finish second in the other.