justin alexander

Friday 5: With pressure on, time for Denny Hamlin to perform

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For all that Denny Hamlin has accomplished, what he does this weekend at ISM Raceway could alter the narrative for one of NASCAR’s most successful drivers without a Cup championship.

Among the favorites to win the title when the playoffs began in September, Hamlin is in danger of seeing his championship hopes end with Sunday’s race (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC).

Hamlin trails rival Joey Logano, a driver he’s feuded with in these playoffs and over the years, by 20 points for the final spot in the Championship 4 field despite a stellar season that ranks among the best in Hamlin’s 14 seasons in Cup.

Hamlin is in this position after a crash last weekend at Texas dropped him from a transfer spot. Kevin Harvick is the only driver to race his way into the championship race at ISM Raceway, winning that event in 2014 and then claiming the title a week later.

While the pressure is on now, Hamlin professed before the playoffs began “pressure doesn’t get to me, nothing like it probably did 10, 12 years ago.”

Hamlin’s best chance for a title before this season came in 2010 when he led the points going into the season’s penultimate race at ISM Raceway but had to make an extra pit stop for fuel late. That allowed Jimmie Johnson and Harvick to close the points gap.

Miami weekend started with the press conference for the title contenders. Johnson and Harvick ganged up on Hamlin. Harvick said of Hamlin: “He definitely seems like the most nervous.”

While Hamlin still led going into Miami, he had a poor qualifying effort and an incident early in the race that doomed his title hopes, allowing Johnson to win his fifth consecutive title in a row.

That late-season collapse will always be a part of Hamlin’s history. He made the championship race in 2014 but hasn’t been back since.

If he doesn’t advance this year, it does not diminish the two Daytona 500 wins, two Southern 500 victories and 36 career Cup victories, but it leaves a gap for a driver who likely is Hall of Fame bound (just maybe not as soon as others without a championship). Only Junior Johnson (50 Cup wins) and Mark Martin (40) have more Cup wins than Hamlin and also not a title.

“I’ve seen it all,” Hamlin told NBC Sports before the playoffs of his postseason disappointments. “Any way I can get taken out of a championship battle, I’ve had happen.

“But I know as long as I prepare each week, the way I’ve been doing, as long as I do the work during practices, give the right feedback like I’ve been doing, we’re going to be fine. That makes me rest easier than anything.”

Those experiences help Hamlin, who will turn 39 the day after the title race. While it’s easy to wonder what might have been, Hamlin says he’s moved past that in regards to 2010.

“It probably took a year to get over that,” Hamlin said earlier this week at Toyota’s national headquarters in Plano, Texas. “After that, you’re so week-to-week, you can’t let stuff linger, and if you do, you’re not doing your job 100 percent.”

Few thought Hamlin would be in this position based on his season and his playoffs. His five wins trail only teammate Martin Truex Jr. for the most this season. Hamlin has finished third or better in 10 of the season’s 34 races. In the playoffs, Hamlin has a win and five top-five finishes in eight races. Yet, that might not be good enough after finishing 28th at Texas.

Hamlin, the NBA fan, can look to LeBron James and the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers for inspiration this weekend.

Hamlin says his favorite moment in sports came in the NBA Finals between the Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors that year. Golden State led the best-of-seven series three games to one before Cleveland rallied to force a seventh game.

Late in that series-deciding contest came the play that Hamlin says “I remember like it was yesterday.”

“(Andre) Igoudala fast break at the end of the game, and LeBron chasing him down,” Hamlin said. “If (Igoudala) makes that basket, it’s over. LeBron chases him down, beats it off the backboard, and they (later) go down and score and change the whole game.

“Anyone down 3-1, they always talk about the odds and statistics of how impossible it is to come back, but that was the moment that someone just wanted it more.”

Such is the position Hamlin is in. Can he provide a memorable moment Sunday?

2. A NEW APPROACH

Austin Dillon’s 13th-place finish last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway wasn’t particularly noteworthy on the surface, but it was significant in other ways.

Dillon’s result marked one of his team’s better finishes on a 1.5-mile speedway this season.

“I feel like we need to try to find a baseline that we can kind of go to, and we haven’t had that this year,” Dillon said before the race. “We have had some fast cars but haven’t been able to race very well with them. We’re trying to kind of tune our cars to more a race-style setup. (At Texas) and Homestead we’re going to try to develop a little more of that baseline.”

The Richard Childress Racing cars were set up with less downforce easier in the season, giving them more speed in qualifying, but when they fell into the pack during a race, the cars were more unstable and harder to drive.

Dillon qualified in the top 10 in eight of the nine 1.5-mile races before Texas, including a pole at Chicago, but never finished better than 10th in any of those races. He showed that speed also at the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway in March, winning the pole but failing to score any stage points despite the favorable track position and pit stall.

At Texas last weekend, Dillon qualified 21st, his worst starting spot at a 1.5-mile track this year. He joked ahead of qualifying that if they were any better than 15th to 20th, “we will have tricked ourselves.”

The point being is the team put more downforce in the car to make it more stable in traffic, knowing it would hurt the qualifying speed.

“It’s been pretty obvious where our cars are and what they’ve had,” Dillon said of the setup. “There’s a happy medium in there. You see some of the guys that make it work and the other teams that don’t even try to run that concept. The Chevys that are fast don’t seem to be doing what we were doing.”

Another change is that crew chief Danny Stockman will give way to Justin Alexander after this season. Alexander was at Texas and will be with at the track the final two races to assess the team.

3. LOOKING AHEAD

As Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finishes the season with Roush Fenway Racing, he’s looking ahead to 2020 with JTG Daugherty Racing.

Stenhouse joins JTG in a virtual swap that sees Chris Buescher taking over Stenhouse’s ride in the No. 17 next year.

Stenhouse says he’s begun preparing for his ride by talking to Ernie Cope, competition director at JTG Daugherty Racing, and team owner Tad Geschickter after races.

Stenhouse says he’s discussed with Cope and Geschickter “the things that they fought through (with the car) in the weekend, kind of compare that to what I’m feeling and then also just looking at the potential that they have.

“I thought both their cars had really good short-run speed at Martinsville. We had better long run speed. Going over there it’s like, ‘Alright, how do we get that long-run better and keep that short-run speed?’ I look at Kansas … we raced around (Buescher) a lot and felt like in the end they were probably a little bit better overall.

“I’m interested to see how Phoenix goes. We ran decent there in their spring, but (JTG Daugherty Racing’s) short track stuff, I feel like, seems better than what we have right now and that’s an area that I feel like needs to get better.”

Until Stenhouse finished last after a crash last weekend at Texas, he had placed in the top 20 in six consecutive races, his longest stretch since 2017 when he won two races and made the playoffs.

“I am focused on making sure we finish the job here,” Stenhouse said of his final races with Roush Fenway Racing. “We’ve had some solid runs. We haven’t had any stellar runs, but we’ve had solid runs since the announcement came out in Charlotte. Just looking to continue that … and end on a decent note.”

4. BETTER HELP

One of the issues with the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, particularly at Daytona and Talladega, is that its pointed nose made it more challenging to push as compared to the Fords and Toyotas, which each had flatter noses.

While Chevrolet won at Daytona (Justin Haley in July) and at Talladega (Chase Elliott in the spring), the nose on the Camaro ZL1 1LE that Chevy teams will use in 2020 should prove beneficial at those tracks.

“It was definitely a challenge for us being able to push like some of our competitors were doing,” Elliott said. “I think all the drivers wanted (a flatter nose). We’re just lucky that Chevrolet saw it and wanted to make an effort and try to make it a little better. I think they did. We’ll see when we get to Daytona how it affects things, but I certainly think with all the pushing and how aggressive restarts are … hopefully that helps us.”

Cars pushing one another could become more important at those tracks in 2020. The Talladega playoff race showed more cars could form a two-car tandem and pull away briefly from the pack. With the rules stable for next season, teams will have more time to maximize that, and the tandem could play greater role in those races next year.

5. LAST CHANCE

Chevrolet will need a big day Sunday from Kyle Larson or Chase Elliott to avoid missing the Cup championship race for a third year in a row.

Chevrolet last had a team racing for the Cup title in 2016 when Jimmie Johnson won his record-tying seventh series crown.

In 2017, the Chevy teams of Elliott and Johnson were eliminated in the Round of 8 at ISM Raceway. Last year, Elliott was eliminated in the Round of 8 at ISM Raceway.

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Justin Alexander returning to be Austin Dillon’s crew chief in 2020

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Richard Childress Racing announced Monday that Justin Alexander will return to the No. 3 team to be Austin Dillon‘s crew chief in 2020, taking over for Danny Stockman.

The team announced that Stockman will remain with the organization in a role to be announced.

Alexander took over as Dillon’s crew chief before the 2017 Coca-Cola 600, a race Dillon won. Alexander also was Dillon’s crew chief through the 2018 season, which included Dillon’s Daytona 500 victory.

Stockman, who won championships in the Xfinity and Truck series with Dillon, took over as Dillon’s Cup crew chief this season. Dillon is 23rd in points heading into this weekend’s race at Texas Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN). Dillon has three top-10 finishes in the last 24 races.

 

Crew chief Matt Borland cites diet coffee as cause of failed drug test

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Germain Racing and crew chief Matt Borland stated Monday morning that Borland failed a random drug test and has been indefinitely suspended by NASACR, per its Substance Abuse Policy

Borland cited a diet coffee he has been drinking the past six months as including a banned substance.

“This past weekend I was informed by a NASCAR doctor that I had DMAA (2-amino-5-methylhexanamine) in my system,” Borland said in a statement. “After the surprise of this and not even knowing what that was, I asked if it could have come from a diet coffee I have been drinking for the past six months. I gave the doctor all of the details of the coffee and ingredients, and after he researched it, he said he thought that this was the cause.

“Even after doing my due-diligence, I felt comfortable in drinking the coffee. I plan to work with NASCAR to figure out what exactly has happened and resolve this issue as quickly as we can. I will cooperate with them and do whatever is requested of me to make this situation right. I have worked in the NASCAR garage for 20 years now, and have never been a part of anything like this in my life. I take full responsibility for this incident and want to get it taken care of completely.

“I would like to sincerely apologize to my team, sponsors, associates, NASCAR and my family and I look forward to resolving this situation in an efficient manner.”

Team owner Bob Germain Jr. said in a statement: “Matt Borland has informed me that he was notified by NASCAR that a random urinalysis showed a substance, DMAA (2-amino-5-methylhexanamine) that is impermissible under the NASCAR Substance Abuse Policy. We reviewed the ingredients label on a coffee product that Matt had been drinking and it includes DMHA (2-amino-5-methylheptane), a derivative of DMAA.

“Based upon the ingredients label we do not believe that Matt had reason to know that the coffee contained a banned substance. However, we also understand and respect NASCAR’s decisions to strictly uphold their policies for each and every owner, driver and crew member in the garage. As an organization, we stand behind Matt. He has been and remains an integral part of our race team and we look forward to his return to the garage and pit box.”

The team stated that Justin Alexander will serve as the interim crew chief for Ty Dillon.

Here is the FDA’s page on DMAA

Here is the FDA’s page on DMHA

Kaz Grala ‘starting from scratch’ in Xfinity season debut

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Kaz Grala‘s offseason is finally over.

Six weeks after the rest of the NASCAR world got the 2019 season underway, Grala will join them this weekend in his first Xfinity Series start of year.

Thanks to sponsorship from Hot Scream – a brand of spicy ice cream – the 20-year-old will make the first of selected starts this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway driving Richard Childress Racing’s No. 21 Chevrolet.

It’s a far cry from where Grala found himself in November. When the Xfinity season ended in Miami, Grala made the last of 12 starts for Fury Race Cars, a team owned by his family that didn’t exist before May. After he lost his ride at JGL Racing due to a lack of sponsorship, Fury Race Cars came together in the three weeks between races.

In Fury Race Cars’ 12 races, Grala earned three top 10s, including a top five at Daytona in a 10-year-old car.

Now he’s “starting from scratch” in the best ride of his career.

“I feel as prepared as I possibly can be,” Grala told NBC Sports. “It’s hard driving part-time as I know from last year and competing against teams and drivers that are out here every single week and have been now for the past five races. They’re already warmed up there in the swing of things, they’ve got chemistry together. … That’s going to be a challenge.”

While he’s five races and 1,371 miles behind everyone else, Grala hasn’t been sitting on the couch waiting for today to arrive.

Though there has been sitting involved.

For the first time in his career Grala has access to a manufacturer simulator, plus RCR’s own simulator.

“Everyone had me a little bit concerned because they say you can get motion sickness from it. Luckily, no problems there for me,” Grala said. “We got to spend five hours in there. It felt to me like a five-hour test. Now the question’s going to be taking those things that we learned on the simulator and applying them in real life.”

Grala’s start will be the first for the No. 21 car this season, but it won’t be the first for the crew manning it. Headed by crew chief Justin Alexander, it’s the same crew that was behind Tyler Reddick‘s Daytona 500 entry in the No. 31 Cup car.

Grala shadowed the team during the Daytona weekend and other races in preparation for Texas.

“My engineer is extremely knowledgable and Justin of course, his experience speaks for himself,” Grala said of Alexander, who has 125 starts in Cup as a crew chief including wins in the Daytona 500 and the Coca-Cola 600. “His kind of range of knowledge about these cars and the way they work is even broader than just the Xfinity Series. He’s a really, really smart guy. I’m excited to see him work with me in real life at the race track rather than just in front of a screen.”

What does it all add up to?

While the final number of races he’ll run for RCR is “up in the air,” Grala hopes the decision to go with a limited schedule, combined with his experience in 2018, pays off in a similar way it has recently for Ryan Preece and Ross Chastain after their own limited starts in top equipment.

“I’m going to be having to figure out how to work with this team, but at least I kind of have a baseline for how to race these cars,” Grala said. “I think that’s been huge for me, but also just the difficulty of racing and competing for the finishes that we were last year with Fury. I’m back there racing with guys like Chastain, Ryan Sieg. These guys are some of the most underrated but best drivers in the series. …

“I feel like that helps make you a stronger driver. I think that we’ve seen that in the past with Ryan Preece and Ross himself. That really helps you gain a lot of race craft as a driver.”

When he hits the track today, he’ll have one token on his car representing his challenging rookie season. A Fury Race Cars logo will be located on his rear quarter panel to help promote their late model and modified manufacturing.

“This is kind of what they were hoping for, to be able to help me out in a pinch last year and have it work out to where I could end up with a bigger and better opportunity in the future,” Grala said. “This was an absolute perfect scenario for all involved.”

Silly Season sees third rookie join Cup ranks in 2019

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Front Row Motorsports’ announcement that it will expand to three cars and add Matt Tifft increases the rookie field for the 2019 Cup season.

Tifft will be in a Cup rookie class with Ryan Preece and Daniel Hemric. That’s already larger than last season’s rookie class, which featured only William Byron and Bubba Wallace (Byron won rookie of the year honors).

Tifft’s signing is just one of many changes that will take place for the 2019 season.

Here’s a look at where things stand in Silly Season:

ANNOUNCED CUP RIDES FOR 2019

No. 6: Ryan Newman joins Roush Fenway Racing for next season (announcement made Sept. 22)

No. 13: Ty Dillon said he will remain at Germain Racing for the 2019 season (announcement made Sept. 24)

No. 19: Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Cole Pearn move to Joe Gibbs Racing from the defunct Furniture Row Racing team (announcement made Nov. 7)

No. 31: Daniel Hemric replaces Ryan Newman at Richard Childress Racing for 2019. (announcement made Sept. 28)

No. 36: Matt Tifft joins Front Row Motorsports in a third car for the 2019 season (announcement made Nov. 27)

No. 43: Bubba Wallace will remain with Richard Petty Motorsports through the 2020 season (announcement made July 28)

No. 47: Ryan Preece replaces AJ Allmendinger at JTG Daugherty Racing beginning next season (announcement made Sept. 28)

No. 95: Matt DiBenedetto moves to Leavine Family Racing for 2019. Leavine Family Racing also switches to Toyota beginning next year (announcement made Oct. 10)

CUP RIDES NOT YET ANNOUNCED FOR 2019

No. 1: Jamie McMurray will not drive this car next season. He has yet to decide if he will drive for Chip Ganassi Racing in the 2019 Daytona 500 and then move to a management position with the team. He said Nov. 16 he had yet to decide if to do that or some other racing.

No. 32: Go Fas Racing is looking for a driver after Matt DiBenedetto announced Sept. 7 that he would not return to the team after this season.

No. 41: Kurt Busch‘s one-year deal with Stewart-Haas Racing ended after the season. Reports have him headed to the No. 1 car in 2019. 

DRIVERS WITHOUT ANNOUNCED PLANS FOR 2019

AJ Allmendinger: He told NBC Sports on Nov. 17 that he didn’t have any races for 2019 lined up at the time.

Trevor Bayne: 2011 Daytona 500 winner is looking for a ride after the Sept. 12 announcement that he won’t return to Roush Fenway Racing in 2019. He told NBC Sports on Sept. 14 that he has been calling car owners looking for a ride and would look at any of NASCAR’s top three national series. 

Kurt Busch: The 2004 Cup champion has yet to announce his 2019 plans.

Jamie McMurray: Has yet to announce what he’ll do in 2019 but it won’t be a full-time ride in the No. 1 car at Chip Ganassi Racing.

Daniel Suarez: With Martin Truex Jr. taking over the No. 19 in 2019, Suarez is looking for a ride. He said Sept. 21 that “we’re talking to a lot of people.” Suarez is the favorite for the No. 41 ride.

CREW CHIEF CHANGES

No. 3: Danny Stockman replaces Justin Alexander as Austin Dillon‘s crew chief in 2019 (move confirmed Nov. 26)

No. 11: Mike Wheeler will not return as Denny Hamlin‘s crew chief for 2019 (announcement made Nov. 16)

No. 24: Chad Knaus replaces Darian Grubb as William Byron’s crew chief in 2019 (announcement made Oct. 10)

No. 48: Kevin Meendering replaces Chad Knaus as Jimmie Johnson‘s crew chief in 2019 (announcement made Oct. 10)

No. 95: Mike Wheeler joins the team and replaces Jon Leonard, who moved back to Richard Childress Racing to be an engineer on Austin Dillon’s team.

XFINITY SERIES

ANNOUNCED CHANGES FOR 2019

No. 1: Noah Gragson replaces Elliott Sadler at JR Motorsports for 2019 season (announcement made Sept. 25).

No. 42: Chip Ganassi Racing signs Ross Chastain to drive the No. 42 full-time for 2019 (announcement made Nov. 9).

No. 98: Stewart-Haas Racing signs Chase Briscoe to drive the team’s second Xfinity car and be a teammate to Cole Custer (announcement made Nov. 27).

RCR: Tyler Reddick moves from JR Motorsports to RCR for the 2019 season. Reddick’s car number, sponsor and crew chief will be announced later. (announcement made Oct. 31).