Leavine Family Racing

First 15 Cup races have been ‘eye-opening’ for Christopher Bell

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Believe it or not, Christopher Bell has not come to dread Thursdays.

That’s when NASCAR announces the starting lineup, based on a random draw, for Cup races.

Due to his position in the owner points (which the draw is based on), the rookie driver has started 32nd or worse in five of the last seven races. That rough patch continues Sunday in the Brickyard 400 (4 p.m. ET on NBC), when Bell and his No. 95 Toyota start 35th.

“Honestly, I haven’t even been paying attention to it,” Bell said Friday in a Zoom press conference. “I go to the racetrack and then just listen to see what the damage is when my team tells me. But it’s the name of the game and we buried ourselves there that first four weeks and really, really killed our points.”

For Bell, the first four races of his Cup career were a “disaster,” as he had two DNFs and failed to finish better than 21st.

After NASCAR’s COVID-19 shutdown, that bad start continued at Darlington, where he placed 24th. But his slow rebound began in the second Darlington race with an 11th-place finish. He followed that with his first top 10 in the Coca-Cola 600.

Since the sport’s return, Bell has five finishes of 11th or better, including his first career top five in the first race of the Pocono doubleheader last weekend. His only DNF since May 17 was for a crash in the second Pocono race.

But it hasn’t been enough to dig himself out of the cellar of the owner point standings and achieve his “No. 1 goal” of getting to the 24th spot. The way the random draws are done, being 24th in owner points would allow Bell to start anywhere between 13th and 24th.

“It’s crazy … I ran fourth for Pocono 1 and then I looked at the points and I didn’t make any headway at all because I’m pretty sure (Michael) McDowell ran eighth and the guys that I’m racing in points, it seems like whenever I have a good day, they have a good day too,” Bell said.

Through 15 races, Bell is 26th in owner points. He trails McDowell by three points and fellow rookie John Hunter Nemechek, who is 24th, by 17 points.

“So it’s been very frustrating, we’re just gonna keep plugging on and thankfully, these races are 400-500 mile races and not sprint races,” Bell said.

For Bell, the strategy involved in Cup races compared to shorter Xfinity races is what’s surprised him the most about his rookie season with Leavine Family Racing. The biggest difference: pit stops.

“It just seems like the races are way more dynamic in the Cup Series, you know that the strategy is all over the board,” Bell said. “Even if you go to a place like Atlanta or Homestead where you put four tires on every time you pit, there might be 10 pit stops in one race. Compared to the Xfinity Series, there’s guaranteed only going to be three, maybe four. So that’s been very eye-opening just how many times you come down pit road, how many times you pit. But as far as competition standpoint, I knew what I was getting into in the Cup Series. The Xfinity side you have that eight-ish number of competitive cars and that number gets turned into 25 on the Cup side.”

Going into his 16th Cup start and his first Brickyard 400, you can count Bell among the drivers who have actually preferred not having practice and qualifying, even if it means he’s starting deep in the field.

“For me, I feel like it fits what I’ve grown up doing,” Bell said. “And if you look at our performance, we’ve ran exceptionally better since we stopped practicing for whatever reason that is. But I really enjoy it and as a rookie, going to the racetrack … I’m not starting on the pole or the front row so I’m not having to go wide open into Turn 1 and expect the car to stick or anything you know. I have enough time starting in the back that we’re able to just creep up on it and I feel like I’ve done a good job of not overstepping my limits and making sure that I get to that first pit stop where we can tune the car to my liking and stuff like that.”

Friday 5: Despite 2 wins in a row, Toyota boss has sharp words for teams

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Although Toyota has won four of 12 Cup races this season, including the past two, the president of Toyota Racing Development used the words “embarrassing,” “dog crap” and “unacceptable” in discussing a recent race, and performance this season.

A third of the way through the Cup season, Toyota has not shown the strength it did last year in winning 19 of 36 points races and the championship.

David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development said this week that the manufacture’s advantage has declined.

“It’s not that we’ve fallen behind as much as they’ve caught up, and there’s no question that that new Chevrolet Camaro and the nose that is on that car has elevated their program,” Wilson said. “The fact that they’re only sitting on two wins right now is shocking to me. I always look at not necessarily the wins, but the potential, what is the true potential of your race cars and that being a function of raw speed. You could argue that we’re punching above our weight right now and they’re not running at their full potential.”

MORE: Toyota executive keen on keeping young Cup drivers

Wilson said even with wins in the last two Cup races, that’s not satisfying because of the performance of the Toyota cars.

“Coming off two wins, I still think we’re on our back foot a little bit,” he said. “In many respects I feel much better about our loss at Atlanta than our win at Martinsville. … The reason I say that is because at Atlanta we had three cars in the top five, we led laps, we had a couple of cars that were good enough to win that race.

David Wilson. (Photo by Chris Trotman/NASCAR via Getty Images)

“In Martinsville, we embarrassed ourselves. This is one of the most embarrassing races I can remember for the Toyota family. We weren’t ready for the new tire that Goodyear brought to the racetrack. There’s circumstances behind it, but I’m not going to make excuses for it. We weren’t prepared for it.

“Our engine drivability was terrible. On pit lane and restarts. We could have had our worst finish since 2007 had it not been for Martin (Truex Jr.) hanging on long enough to get the car balanced correctly for the tires and putting himself, ultimately, in a position to win the race.

“I was encouraged at what we saw at (last weekend) Homestead. Where we need to be better is our consistency of how we unload from the haulers across the camp. We’ve had too many guys that are just dog crap for the first stage and use that time to try and catch up. That’s unacceptable. We should be better with the tools that we have, with the experience that we have, we should be better.

“There’s definitely room for improvement. Having said all of that, within our camp, within the JGR camp, we’re still positive because we know that our potential is there to lead laps and win races if we execute consistently on pit lane, if we do a better job with our sim, we will be in a position to win more races.”

Toyota is aligned with Joe Gibbs Racing, Leavine Family Family and Gaunt Brothers Racing. The drivers for JGR and Leavine all have scored significantly fewer points in the first stage compared to the second stage, illustrating Wilson’s frustration with how the teams begin the race.

Erik Jones has scored 12.5% of all his stage points in the first stage. Reigning Cup champion Kyle Busch has scored 29.6% of all his stage points in the first stage. Martin Truex Jr. has scored 37.8% of all his stage points in the first stage. Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin has scored 41.6% of all his stage points in the first stage.

To compare, Chase Elliott, who has a series-best 141 stage points this season, has scored 51.8% of all his stage points in the first stage. Joey Logano, who is tied with Truex for second with 127 stage points, has scored 49.6% of all his stage points in the first stage.

Among manufacturers, Fords have won six of the season’s first 12 races and Chevrolet has won twice this season.

Even if Toyota went on to win 12 Cup races this season, based on its current pace, it would be its fewest wins in a season since 2014. Toyota has averaged 15.6 Cup wins a season since 2015.

2. Looking ahead to 2021

With the Next Gen car’s debut pushed back to 2022, the sport will have an additional year with the current rules. That also means an additional year with a similar workforce. With the move to the Next Gen car, teams are expected to reduce their workforce because of limits on the cars.

Now, teams will keep a similar workforce through next year while finding sponsorship at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted the economy.

David Wilson, president of the Toyota Racing Development, said next year will be among the key points discussed in a meeting among the manufacturers with NASCAR next week.

“Part of the agenda is going to be looking at ’21 and how do we as an industry help our teams bridge one more year that wasn’t in the plan,” Wilson said. “We already have enough teams in trouble and on the brink. The focus needs to be not selfishly on us as individual (manufacturers) but on the industry as a whole.”

3. Talladega changes

Rule changes for Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway will lead to slower speeds as NASCAR looks to reduce the chance of a crash similar to what Ryan Newman experienced at the end of the Daytona 500.

Among the changes is a reduction in the throttle body from 59/64” to  57/64” that is expected to reduce horsepower by 35-40. That would put teams around 510-515 horsepower this weekend.

NASCAR also has eliminated the aero ducts to help reduce the likelihood of tandem drafting.

One change not made was to the spoiler. John Probst, NASCAR senior vice president of innovation and racing development, explained why such a change wasn’t made.

“Certainly spoiler changes were looked at,” Probst told reporters this week. “… The items that were under consideration were largely centered around slowing (cars) down, which would usually mean a bigger spoiler.

The spoiler that we have on there now is as tall as we can get them without putting significant bending … on the deck lid to the point at which we’d be worried structurally. From that standpoint, getting larger wasn’t really a good option. The more direct knob for us to turn to slow the cars down is directly to the horsepower.”

Another change is the addition of slip tape to the rear bumper. The contact from Ryan Blaney‘s car to the rear of Newman’s car triggered Newman’s crash.

“We’re trying to make the rear bumper of the car being hit like ice, where they slide across, don’t contact and start influencing the car in front laterally, left to right, if you will,” Probst said.

4. COVID-19 protocols

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, was asked this week if the sport has had anyone test positive for the coronavirus and about the status of protocols NASCAR has in place for each race weekend.

“Everything has been going, actually, remarkably smooth, in terms of the protocols that have been set in place,” O’Donnell said. “We’ve certainly had some folks who may have presented some symptoms that we’ve turned away early. That’s up to them to disclose if there were any issues in terms of did someone have COVID or not, but I would say (the protocols have) worked 100% according to plan.

“We’ve not had challenges during an event where anything has come up where we’ve had to react during the hours that the garage was open. It’s been if there were any issues prior to someone entering the facility, which have been very minimal.

“We expect there will be some challenges. We need to continue to do our due diligence. We need to continue to wear our masks. We need to continue to follow the protocols.”

5. Leader of the pack

Team Penske has won seven of the last 11 Cup races at Talladega Superspeedway, a 63.6% winning percentage.

Brad Keselowski has won four times during that stretch. Joey Logano has three wins during that time, and Ryan Blaney won last year’s playoff race. 

The races not won by a Team Penske driver during that stretch were won by Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Aric Almirola and Chase Elliott.

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Toyota executive keen on keeping young Cup drivers

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The president of Toyota Racing Development said Wednesday that “our desire” is to have both Erik Jones and Christopher Bell race for the manufacturer beyond this season but said “how we do it is yet to be determined.”

Jones’ one-year contract extension with Joe Gibbs Racing expires after this season. Bell, a rookie for Leavine Family Racing, is in the first year of a multiyear contract. But Bell’s car owner, Bob Leavine, told The Athletic last month that “I’m walking that tightrope” to keep the team running beyond this season because of the economic downturn due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

David Wilson, president of TRD, addressed both drivers’ status with Toyota beyond this year in a video conference with reporters Wednesday.

“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.”

The 24-year-old Jones enters Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway 18th in points for Joe Gibbs Racing. Jones has placed 20th or worse in each of the last three Cup races.

He was running seventh last weekend at Miami when he hit the wall and cut a tire with less than 10 laps left, finishing 21st. The weekend before, Jones had a flat tire and later was caught speeding on pit road within the last 125 laps at Atlanta, leading to a 28th-place finish.

Bell, 25, enters Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway 24th in points. He started the season with five consecutive finishes outside the top 20, dropping him to 32nd in the points. He’s finished 11th or better in four of the seven races since.

Wilson was asked about Leavine Family Racing’s performance this season.

“The 95 is candidly a little more disappointing and there’s circumstances behind that,” Wilson said. “I think Christopher’s raw speed has actually been quite good. A couple of races, he started the third stage inside the top 10 and he had a 14-second pit stop and loses nine to 10 spots. That’s happened twice already. … I think Christopher could have won (at Bristol) had he not had to restart whatever that was 18th (after his final pit stop) and he still drove up to the top 10. That’s cause for optimism. If we collectively can eliminate the easy things like execution on pit lane and such, I think we’ll see more consistency and more top 15s and more top 10s out of Christopher.”

More NASCAR teams under stay at home order

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Cabarrus County in North Carolina became the second county that is home to NASCAR teams to issue an order for residents to stay at home because of COVID-19.

The order was issued Wednesday after two individuals in the county died of coronavirus. The order takes effect at 5 p.m. ET on Thursday. The order, which restricts non-essential travel and bans gatherings of more than 10 pepole, goes through April 16.

The order impacts those also in the cities of Kannapolis, Concord and Harrisburg. Cup race shops in those locations – and subject to the order – include Stewart-Haas Racing (Kannapolis), Chip Ganassi Racing (Concord), Roush Fenway Racing (Concord), Leavine Family Racing (Concord) and JTG Daugherty Racing (Harrisburg).

Previously, Mecklenburg County issued a stay at home order that begins at 8 a.m. ET Thursday and goes through April 16. Joe Gibbs Racing, based in Huntersville, is in that county. Hendrick Motorsports has a Charlotte address in Mecklenburg County.

Race shops in other counties are not under such orders at this time.

Here is the Cabarrus County order.

 

 

JGR puts three cars in top 10 at Auto Club but work remains

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A week after it failed to place a car higher than 15th at Las Vegas, Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota put three cars in the top 10, with Kyle Busch leading the way with a runner-up finish in the Auto Club 400.

But that didn’t keep David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, from noting that race winner Alex Bowman “schooled us.”

Bowman led 110 of 200 laps and won Stage 1 on the way to victory lane.

Meanwhile, Toyota cars led just once for a total of three laps. That was when Martin Truex Jr. – who started at the rear after failing pre-qualifying inspection three times – battled with Bowman in the middle of the final stage.

That’s after Truex led Toyota’s only lap last week at Las Vegas.

Busch only finished second after Ryan Blaney had to pit for a corded tire with three laps to go. After starting 17th, Busch placed 10th in Stage 1 and seventh in Stage 2.

His runner-up finish is his first top 10 of the season.

“We have a lot of work to do,” Busch told Fox. “Guys did a great job here though just trying to work on it and trying to make everything we could out of it all day long, all weekend long. Interstate Batteries Camry wasn’t a second-place car, but thankfully we got a good finish out of here and try to get some points. Guys are doing all they can, I know along with everybody at (Toyota Racing Development). I appreciate all the hard work, we just have to get a little bit better. We finished the end of last year so strong, I don’t know what we’re missing here. Obviously, it’s a little bit of something here and maybe a little bit of something in a few different areas, but overall good car today.”

Behind Busch were Denny Hamlin in sixth and Erik Jones in 10th.

Hamlin was running in fourth on Lap 140 when his No. 11 Toyota brushed the wall exiting Turn 2 and he dropped to seventh.

“We’re still slow,” Hamlin said. “Our cars handled okay. If we don’t have a draft, we’re just run over. It’s tough because I feel like we’re getting beat on throttle time, but we’re also just getting murdered down the straightaways. Just need more horsepower, more downforce and less drag. If we can have all those, we’ll be better.”

Jones’ top 10 is his best finish of the season after he placed 18th at Daytona and 23rd in Vegas.

He called the race “a step in the right direction.”

“I don’t think any of us really had race-winning speed,” Jones said. “I think Kyle (Busch) got some good track position on that restart and was able to maintain. We got shuffled back and kind of had to come back from 15th. I don’t know, I think we’re off. We didn’t have anything for the 88 (Alex Bowman) or anything like that.”

After making his way to the front, Truex’s status as a contender ended with a slow pit stop on Lap 160 when a tire changer’s hand cramped up. He finished 14th.

Meanwhile, the rookie campaign of Leavine Family Racing’s Christopher Bell remains stuck in neutral after three races.

After wrecking out of the Daytona 500 and placing 33rd in Vegas following a crash, Bell was the only driver who failed to finish the race Sunday. His day ended on Lap 80 when he went to the garage after a bolt from another car struck a hole in the oil cooler on his No. 95 Toyota.

Gaunt Brothers Racing and Daniel Suarez had their best outing of the season  after failing to make the Daytona 500 and suffering a mechanical issue coming to the green flag in Vegas.

Suarez had an uneventful day and placed 28th, two laps down.