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Long: Chevrolet victory went just as planned at Talladega

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — A fan arrived to Talladega Superspeedway this weekend carrying flowers to his seat, looking for the woman he has dated online but never met in person.

In much the same way, Chevrolet teams came to NASCAR’s longest and most ferocious track, agreeing to help each other in ways they’ve never done amid questions to if they could actually do it.

The fan, Omar, was to meet his date, Amber, at the track. At last report, he had yet to find her.

But Chevrolet teams made an instant connection Sunday, fortifying the bottom lane and outmaneuvering Fords and Toyotas for a 1-2-3 finish led by Chase Elliott’s fan-pleasing, drink-raising victory at a track his Hall of Fame father Bill Elliott reigns as the fastest man. Chevrolet, which scored its first win of the season, had five of the top six finishers.

“Every Chevy driver was all in on it and all in on trying to get a Bowtie to win,” runner-up Alex Bowman said.

They had little choice.

Hendrick Motorsports’ decision to work with Toyotas instead of fellow Chevrolet teams in the Daytona 500 put this weekend’s plan in motion.

“That’s kind of what pushed us to be a little bit more firm I’d say with the teams,” said Pat Suhy, Chevrolet Manager of NASCAR Competition Group.

Chevy executives met with drivers, crew chiefs, technical directors and directors of competition Saturday, then met with crew chiefs and team executives afterward to formulate the race plan. Sunday morning, Chevy executives met with crew chiefs and spotters to finalize the plans and make sure all were onboard.

The message was clear.

“Look, we all know you know that there is power in numbers and we know that you’d like to be able to pick your dance partners,” Suhy said Chevy officials told teams. “We’re going to ask you — maybe some would say we told them — very firmly to work together as a group of Chevys and see how that works out.”

Drivers understood.

“We all have egos and we all think we’re a tick better than the guy we’re sitting next to, but we were all able to put that aside and focus on the betterment of our manufacturer,” fifth-place finisher Daniel Hemric said.

The Chevrolets worked together throughout the race. Bowman’s spotter, Kevin Hamlin, even referred to fellow Chevy cars as “friendlies” throughout the race. Chevrolet drivers pitted together under green and often ran the bottom lane together. The cohesion among the Chevy camp impressed those who tried to beat it.

“It’s harder than ever to stay in a line,” said fourth-place finisher Joey Logano, the only non-Chevrolet driver in the top six. “When you’re in line you’re running three-quarter, half throttle, you’re just waiting to go and cars are really tight and packed up. I was surprised to see how much that worked for them.”

There were numerous instances of Chevy drivers helping each other and letting them in line off restarts. Typically in the final laps, the orders go away and everyone understands it’s each driver for themself.

Yet on the final restart with four laps to go, Elliott, starting on the inside of third row, slowed to allow fellow Chevrolet driver Kurt Busch to come down from the top line, hanging his brother, Kyle, out and moving in front of Elliott.

“If it had been a green‑white‑checkered, I don’t think it would have been favorable,” Elliott said. “I think having it be more than three laps, I felt like there was going to be enough steam and momentum up to where the pack was going to be kind of back to normal.

I felt like there was going to be some power in numbers with it being that many laps to go. That’s what we did. I was really trying to stay with him and trying to stay the course on all that, be the best friend I could be at that point in time. He went to make a move on Joey. Honestly, I couldn’t get up there to push him fast enough. If I did, somebody else behind me probably wasn’t going to do the same. At some point that was going to hurt.

That’s just kind of the way it goes. You have to realize the shoe could be on the other foot next time. It’s not always going to work out for everybody. I get that. It’s easy for me to say today. That’s just the way it’s going to be at these places.”

Although Kurt Busch fell to sixth, he was “impressed” with how the Chevrolet drivers worked together.

“I feel like Chase did a perfect job to put himself in a good position,” Busch said. “I feel like I just gave the win away. I had a run and didn’t change lanes quick enough and got bottled up. Chase was a perfect wingman and in a great spot. I’m happy that Chase got the win today.

“I’m really disappointed that I didn’t close the deal. It was in my hands and I let it fall through.”

For a time this weekend at least, a fan holding flowers waiting for his date, could understand Busch’s feelings.

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Friday 5: Crew chief marvels at Chase Elliott’s progression

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It wasn’t until Chase Elliott scored his first Cup victory last season that crew chief Alan Gustafson saw the toll that not winning took on his driver.

With high expectations and a large fan following, pressure built on Elliott as his winless drought stretched beyond his rookie year in 2016, then 2017 and past the halfway mark of 2018.

Ryan Blaney won his first Cup race before Elliott. So did Austin Dillon, Chris Buescher and Erik Jones.

Elliott’s winless drought reached 98 Cup races before his Watkins Glen triumph.

“I think I underestimated how it was wearing on him and how personally he was taking it not winning races,” Gustafson said this week. “Once he won, I realized, ‘Wow, it was something that he was taking very personal and something that was weighing on him.’ ”

Elliott scored eight career runner-up finishes before that first victory in August. He went on to win twice more last year (Dover and Kansas in the playoffs).

Those performances showed the growth Elliott has made since his rookie Cup campaign in 2016.

“I guess the best way to describe it,” Gustafson said, “is I can remember when I first worked with him, he was so good at such a young age. ‘Where is his ceiling?’ He seems to be awfully close to it to me. Then kind of a pleasant surprise to me, he’s been able to push that ceiling, he’s made some significant growth and improvement.

“I think it stems from going to these races … knowing what line works. What line is good for this or how did this guy win the race … all these little nuances that you get from experience.”

The result was that Elliott was one of three drivers to win twice in the playoffs last year — champion Joey Logano and Kyle Busch also won twice in the playoffs.

“I am 100 percent confident if we give Chase a car that he wants, he will win the race with it,” Gustafson said. “He can adapt really well and there hasn’t been anything that he has not been able to overcome.”

2. Will IndyCar knowledge help Chevy thrive in Cup in ’19?

There are so many questions entering this season with what the racing will be like under the new rules package. Some questions will start to be answered at next week’s organizational test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, but even then there will be much uncertainty.

For Chevrolet, this could be daunting after its struggles last  year. The car manufacturer won four races a year ago — its lowest total since 1982 — and last had a car race for the Cup title in Miami in 2016.

Pat Suhy, Chevrolet’s NASCAR Group Manager, notes how the manufacturer’s IndyCar program could help its NASCAR teams with this rules package that has tapered spacers reducing horsepower and downforce added to the cars.

“We’ve been able to take a lot of what we’ve learned in IndyCar, where you are power limited,” Suhy told NBC Sports. “If you look at last year and really years past, we just piled on as much downforce as we could and you would always go faster, but when you’re power limited with the tapered (spacer) 550 (horsepower) engine, when you’re power limited, you have to start making decisions about how much drag you’re willing to accept for a downforce gain. It’s really more about trading off straightaway speed for cornering speed.

“We’re in a really good position to help answer that question with some of the tools that we have developed and used week in and week out in the IndyCar Series. We’ve been able to bring that to our NASCAR teams.”

3. JTG Daugherty Racing making changes

JTG Daugherty Racing will be more closely aligned with Hendrick Motorsports this season, according to Ernie Cope, JTG Daugherty Racing’s director of competition. JTG Daugherty Racing will receive Hendrick engines, use Hendrick simulation and have Hendrick pit crews service the cars of Chris Buescher and rookie Ryan Preece.

JTG Daugherty Racing also has purchased five chassis for Daytona from Hendrick Motorsports. The rest of JTG Daugherty Racing’s fleet will be built in-house. Cope told NBC Sports that Car No. 10 was on a surface plate this week. 

Car No. 1 will be used for wind tunnel testing. Car Nos. 2-3 will debut at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Cope said the organization plans to have new cars for all the races through Texas, which is the seventh race of the season.

Why build their own chassis?

“Part of it is you control your own innovation and destiny and when parts are coming,” Cope said. “We control our own production schedule. I think it’s going to work out fine.”

4. Chatting with the new guy

Clint Bowyer admits he didn’t know Daniel Suarez well before Suarez signed to drive the No. 41 Ford at Stewart-Haas Racing starting this season. A recent sponsor appearance together in Texas gave them the chance to talk on the flight.

“Man, it’s fun to be around kids like that are full of talent, full of piss and vinegar,” Bowyer said. “He’s set on kill. He’s excited about his opportunity, as he should be. He’s in good equipment. I know the equipment he’s going to be sitting in, the team that he’s going to be with. They were on fire last year with Billy Scott and all those guys. He’s got a good future ahead of him for this year. I’m excited for him.”

5. Fans in the Cup garage

Details are being finalized, but look for the Cup garage to be open to fans at a select time on some race weekends. This has been done in the Xfinity and Truck Series and will expand to Cup this season.

How tracks offer this to fans, how many fans will be allowed in, what time and what day this will take place on a race weekend will be set by tracks and NASCAR.

The tentative Daytona Speedweeks schedule lists an open Cup garage for fans from 9:30 – 11:30 a.m. ET on Feb. 10 — the day of the Clash and Daytona 500 qualifying. The Cup garage also is listed as being open to fans from 4-6 pm ET at Daytona on Feb. 14, the day of the Duel qualifying races.

A spokesperson for Daytona International Speedway told NBC Sports that track officials are developing their plans for this and don’t have anything to announce at this time.

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Friday 5: Is it time for NASCAR to take away wins for violations?

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NASCAR’s L1 penalty this week all but stripped the Texas win from Kevin Harvick, but years from now he’ll be listed as the victor of that race.

If NASCAR can take away all that goes with the win — that includes taking Harvick’s berth in the championship race in Miami — shouldn’t the sanctioning body take away the win and leave the winner’s spot vacant in the results? And shouldn’t NASCAR remove the win from the driver’s record?

NASCAR’s history started with a disqualification after all.

Glenn Dunnaway won the first NASCAR race on June 19, 1949 at Charlotte but the win was taken away because his car failed inspection after the race. Jim Roper was declared the winner and has been recognized as the first winner of a NASCAR race since — even though he finished three laps behind Dunnaway.

So it makes sense that as NASCAR looks at possibly increasing penalties that the time has come to take away wins.

Before taking away wins, though, consider one thing.

How does one deal with the past? Richard Petty was fined what was a record $35,000 and docked 104 points after his car was found to have an oversized engine and the team used left-side tires on the right side of his car at Charlotte in 1983. The victory was the 198th of his career.

If you’re going to take away Harvick’s win last weekend at Texas (and at Las Vegas early in the season), then what about Petty? Is the NASCAR Hall of Fame going to have to change all the references to Petty’s 200 wins?

2. Chevy looks to avoid repeating last year’s disappointment

Chevrolet has one last chance to put a car in the Cup championship race in Miami or face a second consecutive year without a competitor in the title race.

Chase Elliott is the lone remaining Chevrolet driver in title contention in Cup heading into Sunday’s race at Phoenix (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC). He enters outside a transfer spot.

In January, Pat Suhy, Chevrolet’s NASCAR Group Manager, called it “unacceptable” that the manufacturer did not have a car competing for the Cup title last year and said “I expect us to have at least a car or two in the final four this year. There’s no reason we shouldn’t.”

Elliott’s path to Miami was helped by NASCAR’s penalty to Kevin Harvick that leaves three spots in the championship field to be filled Sunday. Elliott trails Harvick by 17 points for the last transfer spot.

The debut season of the Camaro ZL1 has not gone as smoothly for Chevrolet and also came in a season where Hendrick Motorsports, the top Chevy team, struggled for much of the season. The result is that Chevrolet has won four races this year — Austin Dillon won the Daytona 500 and Chase Elliott won at Watkins Glen, Dover and Kansas.

Chevrolet last had fewer than four wins in 1982 when it scored three victories that season.

3. Heavy fines

With two races left this season, NASCAR has fined Cup teams a total of $850,000 for various infractions. That tops last year’s total of $815,000.

All the money goes to the NASCAR Foundation.

Fines are issued to the crew chief. Stewart-Haas Racing’s crew chiefs and Joe Gibbs Racing’s crew chiefs have each been fined a total of $215,000 this season.

Fines can be as little as $10,000 for not having a lug nut secure after a race to the $75,000 fine crew chief Rodney Childers received this week for the infraction with Kevin Harvick’s car at Texas.

4. New look

With ISM Racing moving its start/finish line to just before the dogleg, drivers anticipate restarts could be wild.

I would imagine that we will cross the start-finish line and be nine-wide going though the dogleg and then try to figure out how to get back to two-wide by the time we get to the new Turn 1,” Aric Almirola said. “That is a really flat, tricky corner. Running much more than two-wide is pretty difficult through there. I am sure it will fan out and get really exciting. I think when it gets down late in the race, the restarts will be really, really intense and chaotic with guys trying to make moves in desperation and trying to make that final round of four.”

Joey Logano says that the new Turn 1 (which was formerly Turn 3) provides another challenge for drivers.

“I can see a lot of cars making those big moves and how Turn (1) has that very inviting apron down there with no grip at all and there are a lot of cars that slide a lot on cold tires there,” he said. “It seems like with low pressure and cold tires that the tires really want to chatter on the race track. Once they start chattering it is hard to stop it. It is like a basketball. You will see a lot of cars slip up. If there is a car on the outside of them it will cause contact for sure. I think it is going to make restarts a lot crazier than they used to be.”

5. Will history repeat?

Kevin Harvick was penalized after his victory at Las Vegas in March for a violation with the rear window brace. The infraction cost Harvick 20 points and the seven playoff points he earned for winning both stages and the race.

The next weekend, Harvick won at ISM Raceway and punctuated his victory by exiting his car on the frontstretch and pounding the rear window.

“I’ve been pissed is what I’ve been,” Harvick said to Fox after that win. “I’ve been mad as all get out because this team does a great job. This organization does a great job and we’ve got fast race cars. And to take that away from those guys just really pissed me off last week. To come here to a race track that is so good for us is a lot of fun and everyone was just determined this week and we just wanted to just go stomp them. We didn’t stomp them, but we won. That’s all that really matters. What a badass team right there!

“This really felt more important than winning at Homestead, racing for a championship, just to drive it home for all those supporters out there. And all you haters … I see you.”

Can Harvick come back and win again at Phoenix after another severe penalty? If so, what will he say to the haters this time?

New car buoys hopes for Chevrolet to avoid ‘unacceptable’ Cup result last year

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A Chevrolet executive calls it “unacceptable” that the manufacturer did not have a car racing for the Cup championship last year at Homestead-Miami Speedway but says he expects Chevrolet to have “at least a car or two” in the title race this season with the new Camaro ZL1

Pat Suhy, Chevrolet’s NASCAR Group Manager, made the comments Sunday after a luncheon at the National Motorsports Press Association Convention.

Chevrolet had no Cup car finish higher than fifth (Chase Elliott) last year and did not score a win in the 10-race playoffs — Toyota won eight races and Ford two. Toyota won the championship with Martin Truex Jr. and Furniture Row Racing.

“If you look at the car count and just do a ratio of the car count, we were (seven) out of 16 going into the playoffs last year and to not have one make it in the final round was not good,’’ Suhy said.

“I expect us to have at least a car or two in the Final Four this year. There’s no reason we shouldn’t.’’

Suhy and others at Chevrolet are buoyed by the Camaro ZL1 and look to repeat the success Toyota had last season (16 wins in 36 races) with its updated Camry.

Suhy said a key to the Camaro ZL1 is that Chevrolet engineers found ways to move more downforce from the front to the rear of the car.

“As teams make more downforce, they tend to make more and more front downforce, they don’t gain rear downforce as much,’’ Suhy said. “With the old car, as they made more and more front downforce, it got more and more aero loose, so it got harder to keep the car from being too loose and unstable going into the turns.’’

Suhy said that while there were some Chevrolets that were strong last season — Kyle Larson won four races to lead the manufacturer — many teams had a challenge with the setup.

“I would say the loose to relative looseness of the car didn’t feel as comfortable getting into the corners,’’ Suhy said of last year’s car. “So I think a lot of it is really about driver comfort and how they feel going 210 mph down the frontstretch at Michigan and lifting and turning left and having the confidence that the car is actually going to turn left and not lose the front end. I think those are the things this car will help feel more settled, more stable and less twitchy.’’

Any new car can have its struggles. Despite its dominance last year, Toyota won only two of the first 17 races before winning 14 of the final 19.

“I think some of the things that we’ve done with our car and what we’ve done since it was approved, working together with our teams and with the teams working separately, I’d like to think that we’re not going to struggle that badly that early,’’ Suhy said. “I guess we’ll see. We’re prepared. If we do struggle, it’s not because of the fundamental design of the car, it’s really just a matter of more time development needed. We’re ready to address that if needed.’’

Chevrolet enters this new era without its NASCAR program manager. Alba Colon joined Hendrick Motorsports earlier this month to oversee the team’s competition systems group. She was among those from Chevrolet at the track most weekends who worked with the teams.

Suhy said he’s temporarily filling Colon’s job, along with his other duties, until a replacement can be found. Suhy said the team that developed the car remains and that Kevin Bayless, Chevrolet Racing NASCAR Chassis and Aerodynamics Program Manager, will play a greater role. Bayless will be at the organizational test Jan. 31-Feb. 1 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Each Cup organization is allowed to have one team test. 

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Chevy exec discusses development of latest low-downforce package

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Yesterday, NASCAR announced further downforce reduction changes for the Sprint Cup Series that will be used for the June race at Michigan International Speedway and in July at Kentucky Speedway.

The changes include:

  • A reduced spoiler that will be 2.5 inches high and 53 inches wide. The current spoiler is 3.5 inches high. The width is the same as the width of a spoiler for superspeedway events.
  • A tapered deck lid fin
  • Neutral rear toe/skew setting
  • 2-inch wide splitter with current center section length.

Chevrolet has conducted a Q&A with Pat Suhy, Chevrolet Racing’s NASCAR Group Manager to answer questions about the package that could be utilized in 2017 and give insight into how the package was developed and tested last week at Michigan.

Q: HOW DID THE NEW TWEAKS TO THE RULES PACKAGE COME ABOUT?

PAT SUHY: “I really think it started in discussions between the teams and NASCAR about where the teams are spending their resources; and wondering if this is really an area they want to race in? NASCAR knows that over time, teams have gained aero performance, whether it’s increased downforce or reduced drag, as they spend more and more time in the Wind Tunnel and as they have worked on the tires to have more grip and more give-up. Gaining back more of the downforce they lost by whatever means, jeopardizes all the work that has been done and fans could see racing return to what it was like last year. I think as a problem to solve it was the question of, ‘Well, where are you guys gaining downforce? How come the cars have all this skew in them?’

“I think there were other discussions going on about electrical loads and battery life and stuff like that. You come to realize that the two things that were just done, reducing the number of fans underneath the car and reducing the skew in the rear of the car, were two of the areas the teams had been working in to gain back a lot of the performance that the body change was supposed to eliminate. Collectively, I think the teams and NASCAR agreed that limiting those things wouldn’t be a bad way to slow the progress down that path and allow them to focus their resources elsewhere.”

Q: HOW WILL THE NEW AERODYNAMIC CHANGES AFFECT HOW THE CARS DRIVE?

SUHY: “The low downforce package that was tested at Michigan last week fundamentally probably won’t change things a lot as far as the way the cars handle. I believe NASCAR and the teams that participated with them on the project directly did a really good job of doing things that were sensible to maintain the aero balance and be simple to implement. The aero balance really didn’t shift very much from where it is today.

“What is going to probably change is the way the cars behave in traffic. Based on what we saw at Michigan, we are going to see corner entry speeds go up, and mid-corner speeds go down. It’s going to put a lot of the ‘driver’ back in the car. It is partway back to the package we saw last spring at Michigan when they tested the 2015 low downforce package there. The speeds were still too high, but I think between the engine changes that happened this year and the fact that they didn’t go all the way to that low downforce package, we are going to see a pretty racy package that a lot of the drivers have been talking about wanting.”

Q: DO YOU THINK TRYING THESE NEW CHANGES IN THE ALL-STAR RACE AND THE TEST AT MICHIGAN WAS ENOUGH EXAMINATION TO IMPLEMENT THESE CHANGES?

SUHY: “I think the truck arm rule and the fan rule are done for the rest of the season. I don’t really think that needed a lot of testing.  That’s just a matter of trying to get some of the gains that the teams have made in downforce out of the car so they are more like what we had at the beginning of the season.  As far as the new future aero package being tested at Michigan and Kentucky, I do think that is adequate testing.  Actually, that is probably more than adequate based on what we know and how the test went last year on the two packages versus how the racing turned out.  My opinion is you might have been able to do it just based on the tire test at Michigan.”

Q: ARE THERE FURTHER STEPS THAT CAN BE TAKEN TO REDUCE DOWNFORCE?

SUHY: “You get to a point where you can take more downforce off the cars, but there are diminishing returns in terms of the racing quality.  I think there is a sweet spot there.  Along the way you can’t stop working on tires.  Another thing you could to if you really want the cars to be harder to drive, I think, is to put some of the horsepower back in them. There are a lot of things you can do if it’s about making the drivers drive the cars.  I think the teams are working well with NASCAR.  I think the whole competition committee that NASCAR has together is coming to grips with the fact that we, as an industry, have to decide our points of difference.  Where do we want to race each other?  Do we want to race each other with pit guns, or tire fans, or do I want my driver to determine if my car is the fastest?”