NASCAR America: Ford drivers dominate end of Talladega race

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After his fourth-place finish in Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway, Kevin Harvick was disappointed, but had praise for the collaboration shown by Ford drivers he didn’t see earlier in the year at Daytona.

“Yeah, we haven’t done a real good job of that really since the first time we’ve been with Ford,” Harvick told NASCAR America. “We gave away the Daytona 500 this year with everybody not doing a very good job of working together. It was definitely much better today. If a Ford doesn’t win one of these superspeedway races, we should all walk away ashamed.”

Ford drivers worked so well Sunday, with Joey Logano winning, that it bothered Chase Elliott. He was the only non-Ford driver in the top seven.

“Those guys around me were working together so much,” Elliott said. “If it was me, I feel like I would have wanted to try or do something. Those guys weren’t having it. I was trying to move forward and make a lane and push, and they were not interested in advancing.”

On NASCAR America, analysts Dale Jarrett and Jeff Burton discussed the difficulty drivers had in trying to run down Logano in the closing laps.

“There were not enough good cars to jumble the field up to get side-by-side action going on, which is what’s needed with this package to make passing,” Burton said. “They just didn’t have the confidence that their cars had the speed to make anything happen.”

Logano’s win gives Ford wins in seven of the last eight Talladega Cup races.

Watch the above video for more on how Ford driver determined the outcome of Sunday’s race.

For first time in career, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. believes he can win Daytona 500

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CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — Winning a Cup race for the first time can do a lot to help a driver’s confidence.

Having your first two Cup wins come at restrictor-plate tracks can do wonders for your confidence in the “Great American Race.”

That’s the case for Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

The Roush Fenway Racing driver broke through in 2017 after four years of trying to get that elusive first Cup win. It came in the May race at Talladega Superspeedway.

Two months later, the No. 17 Ford was back in Victory Lane after the July race at Daytona after leading 17 laps, Stenhouse’s first laps led at the 2.5-mile track.

As a result, the 30-year-old driver got to experience his first NASCAR Media Tour without having to answer questions about why he hadn’t won yet.

“Not looking for our first win is nice, not having that riding on your back,” Stenhouse said Tuesday. “Now it’s what other race tracks are we gonna win at? I definitely want to win at other race tracks.”

But the first track the Cup Series visits in 2018 is the last one Stenhouse found victory at. His win under the lights in Daytona last year has completely changed his mindset ahead of the 60th Daytona 500.

“Going into the 500 I feel a lot more confident than I ever have,” Stenhouse said. “I always went into the 500 thinking, ‘Hey, let’s get off to a good start. Let’s have a good points race.’ I never thought about winning the 500. I just thought that I was competing in it and if I won that was cool, but I didn’t really feel I had the confidence that we could. After last season, I feel like going in that is the only goal that we have when we go down there is to win and not just to get a good finish out of it.”

Stenhouse was a major part of Ford’s sweep of the four restrictor-plate races last season. Kurt Busch claimed the Daytona 500 and Brad Keselowski won the fall race at Talladega.

“I think Doug (Yates) builds us great horsepower at those speedway events,” Stenhouse said. “I think each one of the Ford programs … I know you have somebody like Tony Gibson at Stewart-Haas, we’ve got Jimmy Fennig – the superspeedways are some of their bread and butter that they really enjoy working on and tuning those race cars.  It was obviously a huge benefit for us at Roush Fenway Racing, putting us in the playoffs and giving us those opportunities to go win.

“Now, the focus that we put in on those, I think, is also what’s gonna help us hopefully improve on our other areas because we saw that putting one person really focused on our speedway program could really lift it fairly quick, so we’re working on all that.”

Prior to last season, Stenhouse had one top five in nine Daytona starts and two top fives in seven Talladega starts. His DNFs in the Daytona 500 and the fall Talladega race from wrecks were his first at each track.

Until the checkered flag drops on the 500 on Feb. 18, the race is the “No. 1 priority” for the No. 17 team.

But Stenhouse is eager for the organization test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway at the end of the month. Then he’ll have a better measurement of where his team stands going into the post-Daytona schedule.

“We’ve got a new car that we’re taking out there and we’ve got other cars to kind of judge ourselves off of,” Stenhouse said. “I know (Kyle) Larson is gonna be out there, so some of those cars that were fast on the mile-and-a-half race tracks last year will be out there testing and I’m anxious to kind of see how we stack up with our new car.”

Recently, Larson expressed his desire to win the Chili Bowl Nationals more than the Daytona 500. 

Stenhouse, like Larson, rose through the racing ranks on dirt. Stenhouse explained the significance of the midget event in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

“Kyle and I have been trying to win the Chili Bowl a lot longer than we’ve ever thought about winning the Daytona 500,” Stenhouse said. “I think us growing up racing sprint cars, him in California and me in Mississippi,  I raced go karts in the same building that we race the Chili Bowl in and that’s just something that we’ve always strived for and not until as of recent history or recent events that we’ve gotten opportunities to even go compete in the Daytona 500.

“In the country I would say the Daytona 500 is the biggest …  They’re both huge races.  I want to win the Daytona 500 really, really bad.  I want to win the Chili Bowl bad too, but I’m sure if you asked Larson today which one he’s looking forward to I’m sure he’s looking to the 500.

“The Chili Bowl is over.”

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Time for Martin Truex Jr. ‘to be more of a jerk’ to win at Talladega

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Martin Truex Jr. is the only playoff driver with nothing to worry about Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, and you might see him racing that way on the 2.66-mile oval.

The Furniture Row Racing driver, who is 0 for 50 at the restrictor-plate tracks of Daytona International Speedway and Talladega, told NBC Sports after his win Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway that it’s time to shed his nice-guy image at the tracks where depending on the whims of drafting partners can be the key to success.

“I’ve got to be more of a jerk on the racetrack if I’m going to win a plate race,” Truex said with a laugh. “I give too much room. I’m too cautious. I don’t make those dumb moves that cause big wrecks like some guys do.

“And you see the guys who win there a lot are just erratic as hell, and they’re all over the place, and you never know where they’re going to go. That’s why they’re good there, but that’s also why they cause the big wrecks. So I’m kind of in the middle. I race like I normally do — pretty cautious. I don’t want to mess anybody up. So I guess I got to race like a jerk this time around since I’ve got nothing to lose. See if we can win it.”

Truex doesn’t need to win it because his Bank of America 500 victory advances him to the Round of 8 regardless of his results at Talladega and Kansas Speedway. He still has incentive to keep rivals from gaining playoff points to start the next round (while also building on his series-leading 64 playoff points).

But mainly he and his No. 78 Toyota team will enjoy a stress-free 500 miles while the other 11 drivers wrestle with the nail-biting capriciousness that Truex is all too familiar with in his career.

Truex has only two top fives in 25 starts at Talladega and one in 25 starts at Daytona – a runner-up finish to Denny Hamlin in the 2016 Daytona 500. The tracks are his two worst in average finish on the circuit (21.0 at Talladega, 22.6 at Daytona).

“We suck,” crew chief Cole Pearn said of his team’s record in plate races. “I know we’ve had a couple ones we’ve got close, but man, average finish-wise we’re pretty terrible.  For us not to have to worry about that, and it’s just the randomness of what can happen.  But we always feel like we’re in the randomness.”

Things might seem a little less random Sunday as Truex will have a Furniture Row Racing teammate (Erik Jones) and the four-car fleet of Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas, which won’t be sandbagging this season after employing that strategy last year.

Hamlin also believes that Truex might benefit from getting “meaner” in Sunday’s race.

“It’s fair to say,” Hamlin said Tuesday when told of Truex’s postrace comment. “When people think of Jamie McMurray at superspeedways, he has a lot of success there. He also wrecks a ton there, and it’s because of the moves he makes sometimes. Most times, they don’t pay off, but when it does, he has great results.

“I think it’s a risk/reward thing. I found success the other way, letting those guys make abrupt moves and me follow through. I think it’s to each his own and the styles with which they race, but I’d somewhat agree that Martin errs on the side of helping teammates vs. being selfish, but he hasn’t really had all the teammates that he’s had over the last couple of years. So he’s got more teammates out there than what he probably has had in the past.”

Ryan Reed, Blake Koch gives positive review of restrictor-plate test at Indianapolis

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Last October, three Xfinity Series teams journeyed to Indianapolis Motor Speedway to help figure out how to make NASCAR racing at the historic track better and more enticing.

The teams of Blake Koch, Ryan Reed and Brandon Jones spent Oct. 11 trying eight different car setups – with various splitter heights and gear ratios – for a 2017 rules test.

Koch, who drives for Kaulig Racing, remembers three of those setups which were used in mock races as an evaluation for potential implementation of restrictor plates to the 2.5-mile track.

One package, which Koch “didn’t like at all,” was ineffective as all three cars couldn’t keep together.

Another saw the trailing cars able to “really suck up to the car in front of you and try to make that pass, but you kind of stalled out when you got next to them.”

The third package inspired NASCAR’s announcement last week that restrictor plates would be used for the July 22 race at IMS. Koch said it may lead to “a wild race” at the track known for hosting the “Great Spectacle in Racing” in May.

During a series of five-lap races between the three cars, Koch told NBC Sports he, Jones and Reed were “bumper-to-bumper” the entire time, with the lead changing as much as twice a lap.

“It just opened up a bigger air pocket to where you could get a run on the car in front of you and just keep that run going and clear them,” Koch said. “Once two of you cleared the first-place car, that first-place car could actually get back behind you and suck up back to you and pass you back.”

This is the type of action NASCAR is seeking to replace what fans have become accustomed to at the track that also hosts the Indianapolis 500 (which has produced at least 30 lead changes for five consecutive years, including a record 68 in 2013 and 54 in 2016)

MORE: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ryan Newman share thoughts on plate racing at Brickyard

Last year, Kyle Busch led 62 of 63 laps in the Xfinity Series’ main event at IMS. The next day, Busch led 149 of 170 laps before winning the Brickyard 400. Reed says that such dominance will be a thing of the past.

“It’s less of an advantage (where) one car’s going to hit it and they’re just going to dominate the race. You’re not going to have that,” Reed told NBC Sports. “You’re going to have at least the top 10 be able to win the race.”

In the July 22 Xfinity race, in addition to the restrictor plates, cars will have the spoiler and splitter measurements from 2016 along with the first use of aero ducts, or “drag ducts.” The ducts work in concert with the existing brake ducts (for brake cooling) on the car. The aero ducts help direct more air into the car and shoot it out the side through the wheel wells. By kicking air out the side, it helps punch a bigger hole in the air, allowing the trailing car to get more momentum.

“You’re not going to be able to break away,” Koch said. “There’s no way the lead car will be able to break away from anybody.”

Koch predicts racing packs of about five cars, while Reed sees groups ranging from 10 to 15 with gaps between them.

Koch cautioned the final result won’t look exactly like what fans are used to with one pack of cars at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway.

“You’re not going to be able to run around that place wide open in a pack, you’re just not,” Koch said. “You’re going to have to make methodical passes and spit someone out and they’re probably going to go from first or second to 25th in one lap. Then they’re going to get help and they’re going to shoot to the front.”

Reed, who captured his second Daytona win last month, disagrees with the last part of Koch’s assessment.

“When we go back there with 39 other guys, it’s going to be a lot different,” Reed said. “When you get in 20th place and you’re in the middle of the pack in dirty air it’s not going to be easy. That place isn’t easy to run around in dirty air if there’s one car in front of you. You get 20 cars in front of you it’s going to be really tough.”

And if the race that is delivered in four months doesn’t live up to expectation and hopes?

“If the fans want to see something different, then we need to do something different,” Koch said. “I think it’s just proof NASCAR’s always trying to please the fans, which is a big deal I think. They are important to us. If they don’t like this package, I’m sure we’ll change it again.”

But Reed sees nothing in the October test to make him believe fan’s expectations should be tempered for the July 22 race.

“It’s going to make the racing a lot better,” Reed said. “Fans are going to have a lot more fun with it. It’s going to be a lot more competitive race. I believe that with 100 percent confidence.”

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Breaking up the Gibbs’ boys in Clash result of ‘perfect storm’

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Those who tuned in late to Sunday’s Advance Auto Parts Clash may have been confused.

For awhile, it looked like a replay of last year’s Daytona 500, as Joe Gibbs Racing’s four Toyota’s paraded around Daytona International Speedway with a field of cars stacked up behind them.

Denny Hamlin once again set the benchmark, leading 48 laps (95 in last year’s Daytona 500) while his teammates Daniel Suarez, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch were snug tight behind him.

“The Gibbs team is really the only team that, to me, is always together at speedway events,” Jamie McMurray said Wednesday at Daytona 500 media day. “You look up and they’re always lined up. That doesn’t have as much to do with the team as it does with the drivers all working well together. You don’t see any other organization do that. So, that’s an advantage for them at plate tracks.”

While the JGR fortress was nearly impenetrable in last year’s Daytona 500 – JGR related teams led 156 of 200 laps – the opposition put up a successful fight in Sunday’s exhibition race.

In the closing laps, the two Team Penske cars of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano chiseled away at the four cars, side drafting each JGR entry until Hamlin was left to fend for himself with one lap to go. That resulted in Hamlin’s late block and contact with Keselowski in Turn 2, which allowed Logano to slip by and win.

Both JGR drivers and their competitors say that the team’s restrictor-plate strategy is harder than it looks.

“Game plans don’t necessarily all work out,” Kenseth said. “You’ve got to have strong cars to do it. The car has to end up there, not be separated by bad pit stops or strategy, what have you. It’s hard to say. … I thought we had it lined up really good in the Clash. We had all four of us in a row for a while. We just weren’t quite fast enough.”

Logano said it was the result of the “perfect storm” while Hamlin described it as his team being “almost selfless to a fault.”

“It took us the whole race to figure out how to do it and we almost ran out of time,” Logano said. “No, it wasn’t easy. The side draft is huge like it’s always been. Brad is probably the best at doing that leapfrog or what he calls the island hop, whatever you want to call it, and we were able to pull them apart and get in a hole and pull another one apart and get in the hole.”

Busch was the only other JGR car to lead Sunday (four laps) while Hamlin led all but four in the final 50-lap segment. The other four laps were led by Logano, who has won four restrictor-plate events dating back to his 2015 Daytona 500 event. Keselowski has chipped in another three for Team Penske since the fall 2014 Talladega race.

“The game has changed a lot and to be honest, I think the Gibbs cars have changed the game more than anything,” Logano said. “Like I said on Sunday, how selfless they are. They’re able to say, ‘Hey, you’re the guy in the lead and all four of us are gonna line up and we’re not gonna throw blocks, we’re not gonna try to pass you, we’re gonna stay in a straight line’ and it makes them really hard to pass. The only way you pass them is you’ve got to have a team that’s stronger that’s able to pick them apart one at a time and that’s what we were able to do.”

While the combined effort of Keselowski and Logano won the race after leading only 22 laps, Kenseth admits JGR’s four cars had nothing for the Penske cars.

“The 2 and 22 were fast,” Kenseth said. “They could pull the back car off the line all the time. The three of us couldn’t really get away. If it was going to work, I think it would have worked in the Clash better because the group is so much smaller.”

Only 17 cars were in the 75-lap race compared to 40 that will be in the Daytona 500. The lineup for Sunday’s race won’t be settled until Thursday night’s Can-Am Duel. Only then can teams begin making plans to try to duplicate what JGR accomplished last year or a way to break such a monopoly up.

“I think if it happens again, we have an alternate plan,” Hamlin said. “The same ideas are not going to continue to work over and over. You have to come up with something new, something to keep them off guard. Not just Penske, but there are going to be many other contenders in the mix of it that are not just going to allow us to go out there and lead all the laps. We’ve got to be ready for it.”

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