Leavine Family Racing

Bump & Run: Will Talladega win start Chase Elliott on a roll?

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Chase Elliott won the playoff races last year at Dover and Kansas — the next two races on the schedule. After his Talladega victory last weekend, do you believe he could be starting on a roll?

Nate Ryan: Yes. Elliott’s team seems to thrive off momentum (which is always a nebulous concept in auto racing but seems real in some instances). Regardless of whether he’d won at the next two tracks, expect Elliot’s surge to continue.

Dustin Long: Teams say momentum is meaningful in a sport that can be so grinding. While that will help, there’s still the matter of trying to beat the cars of Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske on the track. Coming off a win helps make that task seem easier for the No. 9 team. Wouldn’t be surprised to see the performance improve but not sure it will lead Elliott back to victory lane immediately.

Daniel McFadin: I’m somewhat skeptical. While he has an average finish of 4.3 at Dover (his best at any track) Elliott’s two top fives this year have come at Martinsville and Talladega, which are drastic departures from what the series experiences regularly. His only other top 10 so far was a ninth at Las Vegas. I expect to see improvement at Dover but not a win for Elliott.

Jerry Bonkowski: Not necessarily. It’s much easier to compare Dover and Kansas than Talladega and the other two. That being said, Elliott’s win at Talladega will certainly boost not only his team’s morale, but also that of Hendrick Motorsports overall.

 

NASCAR has held the yellow flag (at least initially) for a head-on crash on the last lap of the past two races at Talladega (Matt DiBenedetto last October; Ricky Stenhouse Jr. on Sunday). Should officials go that far to ensure a green-flag finish?

Nate Ryan: Common sense says no. Every second matters in accident response time, and it would be impossible to determine instantaneously that DiBenedetto and Stenhouse were fine after such heavy impacts. If driver safety is a top priority, that risk should outweigh the desire to deliver a green-flag finish. But there’s also been seemingly little pushback on NASCAR from drivers and teams about this policy, and if they’re OK with it, then it’s hard to fault NASCAR. There is some measure of risk assumption as a race car driver, but those risks also should be minimized as much as possible in the moments immediately after hitting a wall at 190 mph.

Dustin Long: Officials had more time to analyze Stenhouse’s wreck before making a decision to throw the caution flag because of Talladega’s size. NASCAR needs to be careful in overanalyzing such scenarios. Yes, it’s preferable to finish under green but driver safety must always be paramount.

Daniel McFadin: The caution needs to be put out for any impact with the wall that immobilizes a car. If it’s a harmless spin, no need for a caution. But the safety and well-being of a driver should be more important than a green-flag finish. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

Jerry Bonkowski: They likely held the flag because of Talladega’s size. You likely wouldn’t see the same thing happen at a smaller track like the next few on the schedule, including Dover, Kansas and Charlotte. Frankly, I’d like to see a yellow come out immediately due to a wreck on the last lap, rather than try and hold it like it has done so the last two races at ‘Dega.

 

Now that Chevrolet teams are working together, what must Toyota, which has the fewest cars in the field, do to combat the strength in numbers of Chevrolet and Ford in the next speedway race in Daytona in July?

Nate Ryan: There isn’t much that can be done, but with 100 fewer miles and cooler conditions at night, the July 6 race could play out much differently than the Daytona 500 with a de-emphasis on the importance of teamwork.

Dustin Long: Just like in any sports, the strongest and best do not always win. Strategy can overcome such obstacles. Toyota might have to come up with a different strategy to counter the challenges. What that will be? Toyota and its teams have a couple of months to figure that out.

Daniel McFadin: If there’s strength in numbers, Daytona might be the right time for Toyota to field a second car through Leavine Family Racing with Christopher Bell behind the wheel. But even that won’t help if you lose multiple cars in early wrecks.

Jerry Bonkowski: Toyota — and Ford, for that matter — definitely took notes on how their Chevy counterparts performed at Talladega. And they will definitely apply those notes to Daytona in July. Because Toyota has fewer cars, they in theory have to work harder.

Friday 5: Key questions to ponder during NASCAR’s break

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While Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske have dominated the headlines by combining to win each of the first nine races, many questions remain as NASCAR takes its Easter break.

Here is a look at five key questions with a quarter of the Cup season complete:

1. What’s up with Stewart-Haas Racing?

An organization that saw all four of its drivers win last season has yet to visit victory lane in Cup this season.

The last Cup victory for the organization was at Texas in November by Kevin Harvick with a car that later failed inspection. Stewart-Haas Racing has won two of the last 21 Cup races. Team Penske has nine wins during that time and Joe Gibbs Racing has eight victories.

Stewart-Haas Racing has been the best of the rest. Five times in the season’s first nine races, a Stewart-Haas Racing driver has been the top finisher outside the Gibbs and Penske camp.

Harvick finished fourth at Las Vegas (Joey Logano won). Aric Almirola was fourth at ISM Raceway (Kyle Busch won). Harvick placed fourth at Auto Club Speedway (Busch won). Clint Bowyer finished second at Texas (Denny Hamlin won). Bowyer was third at Richmond (Martin Truex Jr. won).

“We’ve just got to keep working,” Greg Zipadelli, SHR competition director, told NBC Sports after the last weekend’s Richmond race. “Everybody around you is. I feel like we’re getting better. I don’t feel like we’ve been terrible. We haven’t executed. We haven’t unloaded as good as we need to. We make our cars better over the weekend. That’s a plus.

“By no means are we where we want to be. We’re at a race track that is good for a bunch of our drivers the last couple of weeks and weren’t able to capitalize on it. I’m taking the approach that I’m looking at my glass as half full rather than half empty.”

Even though SHR won four times at this point last year (Harvick won three races and Bowyer had one victory), the organization has shown signs of greater depth.

Almirola, Bowyer, Harvick and Daniel Suarez have combined to score nine top-five finishes and 22 top 10s this season. Each driver has had at least one top-five finish. Each driver also has at least four top 10s.

Last year, Almirola, Bowyer, Harvick and Kurt Busch had eight top-five finishes and 19 top 10s. Busch and Almirola had yet to score a top-five finish. Only Bowyer and Harvick had at least four top 10s at this point a year ago.

“All four of our cars have been running good,” Zipadelli said of SHR’s performance this season. “All four of our cars have been running better. Everybody has been working good together. We’ll just keep plugging away.”

Then Zipadelli added: “Small victories. That’s how you eat the elephant one bite at a time.”

2. The next few weeks will be most critical to what team?

Obviously, the top organizations that have been shut out seek to win as soon as possible, but let’s look a little deeper.

This could be a key time for Roush Fenway Racing. The organization has Ryan Newman in a playoff spot but he’s 15th in the standings and only four points ahead of 17th (the first spot outside a playoff position). Teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is 18th in the standings, eight points behind Newman.

One has to figure that even for Kyle Larson’s poor start — he’s 19th in the standings, 12 points behind Newman — that Larson will find his way into a playoff spot either via a win or points. With the way Joe Gibbs Racing has been so strong, Erik Jones, who is 17th, would be a good candidate to move into a playoff spot.

Ryan Newman is 15th in the points standings after a quarter of the Cup season. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

If those situations happen, then it will be more challenging for Roush Fenway Racing to put either of its two cars in the playoffs. The organization has failed to have a car in the playoffs three of the past four years.

This is a key time for Roush Fenway to collect points, including stage points to position itself better for a playoff spot. Stenhouse has 20 stage points and Newman 18.

Fifteen drivers have more stage points than Stenhouse and 16 have more stage points than Newman.

“We’ve got to keep working on some raw speed,” Newman said after placing ninth last week at Richmond. “We’re off just a little bit still.

“We’re doing better but we’ve got to keep working on it. Ninth isn’t good enough. Tenth isn’t good enough.”

3. What driver needs a win the most?

Long list here.

Kurt Busch, who has a one-year deal with Chip Ganassi Racing, could use victories to enhance his chances of driving next year provided he wants to continue.

Jimmie Johnson has a 68-race winless streak. His last victory was at Dover in June 2017 — close to a two-year drought. He’s led laps in only three of the last 21 races.

Kyle Larson is winless in his last 55 races and has only five top-10 finishes in his last 16 starts (nearly half a season). Larson has led laps in three of those 16 races. His frustration was evident after he finished last at Richmond and said “it’s been a pretty crappy start to the year.”

Along with Johnson and Larson, one could put any Chevrolet driver on this list. Chevrolet has won four of the last 55 races, dating back to the start of the 2017 playoffs. Elliott has three of those victories and Austin Dillon the other.

4. What will the 2021 driver lineup look like?

There are some intriguing situations that will be worth watching as the season progresses.

Kurt Busch has a one-year contract with Chip Ganassi Racing. Will the 40-year-old (he turns 41 in August) be back after this season with the team or will Ganassi have a spot to fill in its lineup for 2021?

Unless NASCAR allows car owners to have more than four teams, Joe Gibbs would seem to have a wealth of riches and not a place for all of them. Kyle Busch signed a contract extension in February, Martin Truex Jr. is in his first season with the team, Denny Hamlin says his contract goes beyond this season and Erik Jones says he’s in talks with JGR on a contract extension.

So where does that leave Christopher Bell? With the investment Toyota has put into his career, there’s no chance he’ll drive for any other manufacturer next season. With 10 wins in 48 career Xfinity starts (a 20.8% winning percentage), there’s no way he should be in Xfinity after this year. Does that mean he goes to Leavine Family Racing, which is aligned with JGR, or does Toyota pull something else out to ensure Bell will be with the manufacturer in Cup next year?

Another interesting proposition is where will Cole Custer race next year? He’s won twice in the first eight races this season (he had two wins in his previous 70 Xfinity starts entering this year).

When Stewart-Haas Racing was looking to fill the No. 41 last season, car owner Gene Haas was asked if Custer could take that position. He said that Custer needed to win more. If Custer does that this season, can SHR find a way for him or will he need to go to another Ford team?

5. What will the qualifying format be?

Still to be determined. Or at least NASCAR hasn’t announced anything.

The series heads to Talladega Superspeedway next weekend and that will be single-car qualifying, same as it has been done in recent years there.

Then it’s off to Dover. Maybe the format used at Richmond (five minutes for each round) could work there. After that, NASCAR heads to Kansas Speedway and drafting will again be key. NASCAR will need to have its plans set before Kansas.

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NBC Sports Power Rankings rate Cup organizations

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With NASCAR off this weekend for Easter, we’re altering our weekly Power Rankings to focus on the best performing organizations in Cup through the first nine races of the season.

Here’s our picks:

1. Joe Gibbs Racing (40 points): Has won six of the first nine races, including the Daytona 500. Plus, they have the series-leading driver (Kyle Busch, three wins). If JGR continues to have the same success in the next nine races, it could make for a very, very long season for many other organizations.

2. Team Penske (36 points): The only other Cup organization to win a race (two by Brad Keselowski and one by Joey Logano). Organization has been competitive in almost every other race it hasn’t won. The only driver lacking is Ryan Blaney, who has yet to reach victory lane, but whose performance has also picked up in recent races.

3. Stewart-Haas Racing (32 points): Team that is best of the rest behind JGR and Penske. All four drivers have had strong performances at times, but inconsistency and pit road incidents have kept SHR from breaking through with its first win of the season. Could that winless streak finally end at Talladega?

4. Chip Ganassi Racing (26 points): The top Chevrolet team but still well behind the top organizations. If it wasn’t for Kurt Busch and his strong performance (three top fives and six top 10s) in his first season at CGR, this organization would be ranked significantly lower. And what has happened to Kyle Larson? He’s off to one of the worst starts of his career.

5. Hendrick Motorsports (23 points): What’s happened to the once titans of NASCAR? It almost seems like the same struggle virus that has infected Jimmie Johnson has spread to his teammates. Has shown signs of progress but plenty of work still remains.

6. Roush Fenway Racing (22 points): Ryan Newman is starting to hit his stride with his new team, including a pair of season-best ninth-place finishes at Bristol and Richmond, plus four other top-15 showings. But what about teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr.? He’s shown promise at times, but with just one top 10, how does the second quarter of the season bode for him?

7. Richard Childress Racing (17 points): Has shown speed at times but results haven’t always followed. Austin Dillon has the team’s only two top-10 finishes. Daniel Hemric has struggled in his rookie season, with a best finish so far of 18th.

8. JTG Daugherty Racing (9 points): Has shown improvement from last year. Chris Buescher has made some positive gains and Ryan Preece has looked good at times in his first season with the organization. But inconsistency continues to be a problem. What’s the answer?

(tie) 9. Wood Brothers Racing (6 points): Things are starting to come into their own for the single-car team (with an affiliation with Team Penske). Paul Menard has back-to-back top 10 finishes in his two most recent races (Bristol and Richmond) and is up to 16th in the Cup standings. If playoffs started today, Menard would be in.

(tie) 9. Germain Racing (6 points): Ty Dillon has had some solid performances for this one-car team, including a sixth-place finish at Daytona and three other top-15 finishes. But like JTG Daugherty, inconsistency remains an issue that needs to be addressed.

Other organizations receiving votes: Front Row Motorsports (5 points), Richard Petty Motorsports (2 points), Leavine Family Racing (1 point).

Bump & Run: What should NASCAR do about inspection violations before race?

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Eight of 37 cars failed inspection before the Richmond Cup race and lost their starting spot. Is there a better way for NASCAR to handle such infractions to limit talk before a race being about penalties?

Nate Ryan: There has to be a solution, and whatever it is, NASCAR needs to implement it quickly. Switching from headlines about woes in postrace inspection to woes in prerace inspection is an improvement, but the preferred solution should be no headlines about inspection at all. 

Dustin Long: Until NASCAR figures out a way to do things differently, inspection failures will dominate talk before a race, especially if it involves more than 20% of the field as it did at Richmond.

Daniel McFadin: Unless you change the penalties for failing inspection (again), the cars will fail regardless of if you hold qualifying inspection right after qualifying or on race day. Only real solution I can think of is to have inspection before qualifying and for that to be the only inspection until after the race. That would just continue the endless cycle we seem to be in on the issue.

Jerry Bonkowski: It’s just the nature of the beast, particularly when you have such a large number of cars that failed pre-race inspection. The larger the number of cars penalized, the greater the attention that is placed upon the situation by the media. Perhaps more attention should be focused on what NASCAR could do to improve and streamline the overall inspection process. And if it has to swing the pendulum even further, increase penalties to keep crew chiefs from playing games with their cars. Kick out the crew chief from the race, or perhaps hold the car for the first five laps of the race. That will change things in a hurry.

NASCAR tried another format for Cup qualifying at Richmond, limiting each round to five minutes. Should this be the format at most tracks the rest of the season?

Nate Ryan: Makes no difference here as long as the focus is on qualifying results and whoever won the pole position, not on the process for getting there. 

Dustin Long: Whatever it does, NASCAR needs to get out of this rabbit hole soon.

Daniel McFadin: I’m 50/50 on this. I’d prefer the first round being 10 minutes at anything larger than 1 mile, which allows teams to make more than one run – but that’s based on the premise drivers won’t wait until the final minute to make their first.

Jerry Bonkowski: Five minutes works fine on short tracks. Not so much on longer tracks of 1.5 miles and greater. That’s why I believe open qualifying should be replaced by having two to four cars (depending on the size of the racetrack) go out at a time for two or three qualifying laps. This creates attention and a kind of race-within-qualifying excitement among fans to see which driver can “beat” the other drivers, so to speak.

There’s been a lot of talk about what Joe Gibbs Racing will do with its Cup lineup for next year with Christopher Bell’s continued success in Xfinity, but Cole Custer has won twice for Stewart-Haas Racing in Xfinity. What kind of dilemma could SHR face with its driver lineup for 2020?

Nate Ryan: With no disrespect to Cole Custer, he has yet to show he is in Christopher Bell’s league, nor is there the external pressure of a huge investment in his development to avoid letting a coveted prospect escape (as is the case with the millions Toyota Racing Development has spent on grooming Bell). Because Custer is related to the SHR executive Joe Custer and effectively sponsored by team owner Gene Haas, the dynamics are incomparable. If Custer shows enough promise for promotion, the team probably could make room in Cup next season, but there is no sense of urgency as exists with Bell.

Dustin Long: Gene Haas said last year that Cole Custer needed to win more often. If Custer continues to do so, it will make him a more inviting driver for a team, whether that is SHR or another Ford operation.

Daniel McFadin: Cole Custer is already in his third full-time Xfinity season, which makes him middle-aged in Xfinity driver years. While we’re not privy to driver contract lengths, Kevin Harvick is locked in to at least 2021, Daniel Suarez is in his first and Aric Almirola continues to be strong in his second year. Clint Bowyer probably has the biggest question mark being in his third year with the team. Gene Haas will have to decide who’s a better long-term investment: A 39-year-old Bowyer or a 21-year-old Custer. Bowyer grabbing some wins this year could complicate that.

Jerry Bonkowski: One potential option could be embedding Bell with another Toyota team such as Leavine Family Racing in 2020, like when Erik Jones was with Furniture Row Racing in 2017. I think you’ll see a similar embed of Custer with another Ford team, perhaps Front Row Motorsports. Or, because Custer’s father, Joe, is a top executive at SHR, it would not surprise me to see Daniel Suarez shifted to another Ford team to make way for the younger Custer at SHR.

The IndyCar race at Long Beach ended with series officials penalizing Graham Rahal one spot for blocking Scott Dixon on the last lap. Should blocking be a penalty in NASCAR?

Nate Ryan: No. Different series, different cars, different tracks.

Dustin Long: Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo. Don’t need any more judgment calls for NASCAR to make.

Daniel McFadin: Heck no. As much as Tony Stewart may have despised it, blocking is a racing maneuver. If a driver doesn’t like it, just show your displeasure with a love tap to the rear bumper.

Jerry Bonkowski: Yes, particularly if it puts the driver being blocked and other trailing drivers at risk of crashing. I’ve long felt that egregious blocking should be penalized. But if that were to happen, it could open a Pandora’s Box of additional issues, such as bump-and-run moving an opponent out of the way. How would NASCAR draw the line between egregious blocking/bumping and legitimate blocking/bumping?

Jimmie Johnson ran in Monday’s Boston Marathon. What is another event you’d like to see a NASCAR driver attempt to take part in someday?

Nate Ryan: Denny Hamlin in a PGA Tour event and paired with Michael Jordan.

Dustin Long: Kyle Larson as a bobsled driver. Also, Denny Hamlin in a PGA Tour event.

Daniel McFadin: Since Ryan Newman is sponsored by Oscar Mayer, he should enter the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest on July 4.

Jerry Bonkowski: The Baja 1000 is the first one that comes to mind. That, to me, is the most grueling combination of man and machine. I’d also like to see more NASCAR drivers try their luck in the Indianapolis 500 and, conversely, do “the double” by racing later that same day in the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte. Lastly, although it would be difficult due to the Cup schedule, I’d also like to see some of the best golfers among Cup drivers try their luck at The Masters.

Friday 5: Elliott Sadler excited to be back in a car at Richmond

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Elliott Sadler doesn’t look back on his decision to step away from full-time racing with regret.

“It is 100 percent the best decision I made,” he told NBC Sports this week.

But he’s also looking forward to his return to the Xfinity Series tonight for Kaulig Racing at Richmond Raceway. This is one of two races Sadler is scheduled to drive this season (the other is Sept. 14 at Las Vegas). 

Sadler, 43, said it became clear last year that it was time for him to step back.

“A few things helped in my decision,” said Sadler, who has 13 Xfinity and three Cup victories. “I know what it takes to race at this level. I understand the homework you have to do, the videos you have to watch, the notes you have to take, the simulation you have to study, the working out that you have to do, the whole mental and physical part of it.

“I was at the point last year where I did not and just could not do all the things that I wanted to do. I lost that drive to do it 100 percent. I couldn’t make myself go to the gym, every day, every night. I couldn’t make myself watch videos … all the time. So I lost a little bit of that drive. I didn’t want to half-ass it. I’m not that kind of person.

Elliott Sadler’s best finish at Richmond Raceway in the Xfinity Series is second in this car in May 2005. (Photo By Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

“I knew that if I was not going to do everything that I knew I needed to do to compete at a 100 percent level like some of these other guys, like Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch, some of these guys that I know work their butts off to stay in the shape they’re in and live on the edge, there was no need for me to do it.”

Sadler said another key factor was being more involved with his family and children, 9-year-old Wyatt and 7-year-old Austyn.

“I think that is why I lost some of my drive to do this every weekend,” Sadler said of racing. “It’s hard to race 33 weekends a year when you’ve got kids at home. I’m not singing the blues by no means. I was in a good point in my life where if I had to make a decision or wanted to make the decision to stay at home more and be a part of my kids’ life I could and that’s the decision I ended up making.”

Sadler is coaching his kids in sports and noted that earlier this week their team won a baseball tournament championship in extra innings in Richmond.

“I told my wife, after the game we were driving home, I said, I wouldn’t have missed this for the world,” Sadler told NBC Sports. “This is one of the happiest days of my life, watching all these kids fight through what they did to win the championship. That’s what it is all about.”

Sadler admits he is excited to get back into the car this weekend. Although he’s missed the first seven races, he isn’t worried. He looks to friend Dale Earnhardt Jr., who ran in Richmond’s Xfinity race in September in his only start of the year and finished fourth, leading 96 of 250 laps. Sadler seeks his first career Xfinity win at Richmond.

“I’m not putting a uniform on to go ride around and be fan,” Sadler said. “I could just buy a ticket if I wanted to be a fan. I want to be a part of the race and a part of the action.”

2. Heavy on the gas

Denny Hamlin acknowledged this week on Twitter that his pit road speeding penalties are “frustrating for me … frustrating for the team.”

Hamlin was caught speeding on pit road last weekend at Bristol after he exited first with less than 85 laps to go. He restarted outside the top 15 and went on to finish fifth.

The speeding penalty was his third of the season, tying Hamlin with Ty Dillon, Bubba Wallace and Corey LaJoie for most in Cup in the first eight races of the season.

Such penalties are not new to Hamlin. His 23 pit road speeding penalties since 2016 rank third in the series. He’s recorded a pit road speeding penalty in 19.8% of the 116 Cup races run since 2016, according to Racing Insights.

The drivers with the most pit road speeding penalties (and how many they’ve had) since 2016 are:

27 – Michael McDowell

24 – Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

23 – Denny Hamlin

16 – Austin Dillon

16 – David Ragan

15 – Kasey Kahne

14 – Corey LaJoie

14 – Kyle Busch

14 – Paul Menard

Hamlin is a bit better in the playoffs the past three years. He has five speeding penalties. He’s recorded a pit road speeding penalty in 16.7% of the 30 playoff races run since 2016.

Here are the drivers with the most speeding penalties (and how many they’ve had) in playoff races since 2016:

11 – Michael McDowell

9 – Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

6 – David Ragan

5 – Daniel Suarez

5 – Denny Hamlin

5 – Kasey Kahne

5 – Landon Cassill

5 – Matt Kenseth

4 – Corey LaJoie

4 – J.J. Yeley

4 – Jimmie Johnson

4 – Paul Menard

3. How much more change is needed to qualifying?

NASCAR told Cup teams Thursday that it was reducing the first and second round of qualifying from 10 minutes to five for today at Richmond Raceway. The final round will remain five minutes.

NASCAR stated that this is not the new qualifying format moving forward. The change was made after all 24 cars did not go on to the track in the first five minutes of the second round last weekend at Bristol.

NASCAR has made it clear it doesn’t want to go back to single-car qualifying. Officials still have to figure out what to do about qualifying at bigger tracks where drafting plays a role.

But changing the rules time after time and spending so much time discussing qualifying — instead of the race — makes it seem as if the sport has fallen into a rabbit hole on this matter.

If the sport is against single-car qualifying and officials need to keep tweaking the format time after time, the question becomes is qualifying necessary?

Want to make setting the lineup simple? Fine. Make the starting lineup based on how drivers finished in the previous race.

Finishing order from the previous race also determines the pit stall picks. If the car didn’t race the week before, it starts behind all those that ran that race. If there are more cars than spots, then have single-car qualifying among the cars that did not compete the race before.

Problem solved. Now the sport can move on to something else.

4. Working together (finally)

It took a while but Michael McDowell got Drew Blickensderfer to be his crew chief. Blickensderfer was someone McDowell had targeted previously.

“When I was at (Leavine Family Racing), I tried really hard to get Drew, and the biggest reason is watching him from the garage and two, I became good friends with Carl (Edwards),” said McDowell, now with Front Row Motorsports. “And Carl and I would have fun conversations, and Carl is an intense guy, and I said, ‘Hey if you were going to go to battle, who would you go with?’ He’s like, ‘I’d take Drew with me.’

“So that was always ingrained a little bit in my mind, and then just seeing Drew, and I see him from afar, and I felt he’s always overachieved and always had that leadership and that intensity. Yeah, it’s just like one of those things where you just know when you know, and so I fought hard for years to try to get him, and it just never really worked out, and opportunity became available kind of late in the game and late in the (off)season and really thankful to get him over there.”

McDowell saw firsthand how Blickensderfer battled when he stepped in after McDowell went to the ground in his confrontation with Daniel Suarez at ISM Raceway in March. Blickensderfer pinned Suarez against the hood of McDowell’s car on pit road.

“The battle part wasn’t a reference to Suarez, but you know, you can tell if you look at Drew and look at his ears, they’re closed up for a reason,” McDowell said. “He’s been on the mat and on the floor a lot. And him and I kind of joked about that because he obviously stepped in there, and you could just see it was instincts. He’s got that fire about him. I didn’t want him because he can take care of all the drivers for me … but that intensity is what you’re looking for.”

McDowell enters this weekend 28th in points. He finished fifth in the Daytona 500 but has had one top 20 since, placing 15th at Texas.

5. Bounty award for fans

NASCAR on NBC analyst Parker Kligerman noted on Thursday’s NASCAR America that he’d like to see a bounty paid to any driver that can beat Kyle Busch, who has won three of the first eight races this season. Kligerman noted it’s an old short-track promotion done when someone dominates.

It’s a good idea, but why not include the fans? If someone beats Kyle Busch – or better yet, if any team can win other than Joe Gibbs Racing or Team Penske – then maybe that track takes the number of the winning car and deducts that much from the ticket (with a ceiling as to how much those tickets can be reduced). Make the fans a part of something like that.

And tracks could still win by offering some sort of special ticket price if Busch wins or a JGR car or Team Penske car does.

No, this isn’t going to suddenly pack every track’s grandstands. That’s not the intent. It would be a way to have a little fun and maybe help fans with the cost of tickets and encourage a few others to purchase them.