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Friday 5: What Cup teams with new drivers are better off?

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Some moves were made by teams. Others were made by drivers looking for better opportunities. Whatever the reason, there were a number of driver changes after last year.

Four races into this season, one can get a glimpse of how those changes are working out. In some cases, the comparisons may look unkindly on who was in the car last year — think about Chevrolet teams and the struggles many had early with the Camaro last year or how a team has switched manufacturers since last year — but here is a look at how some of the moves have gone.

Five of the eight full-time teams that had driver changes for this season are showing an uptick in performance in the first four races of this season compared to the same time last year.

No surprise that former champion Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Cole Pearn have raised the level of the No. 19 team at Joe Gibbs Racing. Truex has two runner-up finishes this season and has scored 140 points — 73 points more than Daniel Suarez had with that ride in the first four races last year.

(Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

The No. 1 team at Chip Ganassi Racing also has seen a 73-point gain in the first four races this season with Kurt Busch compared to the same time with Jamie McMurray last year. Busch has three finishes of seventh or better in his Chevrolet Camaro to score 126 points.

Also making gains this year are the No. 6 team at Roush Fenway Racing with Ryan Newman. He has three finishes of 14th or better this season and has scored 25 more points than Trevor Bayne had in that car at this time last year.

Corey LaJoie and Matt DiBenedetto also have helped their teams to more points than last year at this time. DiBenedetto took over Leavine Family Racing’s No. 95 — which also changed to Toyota and aligned with Joe Gibbs Racing after last year — and has scored five more points than Kasey Kahne had in the first four races last year when that team was with Chevrolet.

LaJoie replaced DiBenedetto in the No. 32 at Go Fas Racing and has a top finish of 18th. LaJoie has scored five more points than DiBenedetto had in the first four races last year with that team.

The teams that have not seen an increase of points so far compared to last year include two teams with rookies. Rookie Daniel Hemric replaced Newman at Richard Childress Racing and has scored 48 fewer points in the first four races than Newman did for that group last year. Rookie Ryan Preece has scored 12 fewer points in the No. 47 car for JTG Daugherty Racing than AJ Allmendinger had at this time last year.

The other driver move was Suarez taking over the No. 41 car for Stewart-Haas Racing and replacing Busch. Suarez has one top 10 so far but Busch had two top 10s at this time last year. Suarez has scored 40 fewer points than Busch did at this time last year.

2. Kyle Busch’s race to 200

A few numbers to digest in Kyle Busch’s quest for 200 NASCAR wins and more. He comes into this weekend with 199 and is entered in both the Xfinity and Cup races.

— Busch has 199 NASCAR wins in 996 starts (a 20 percent winning percentage)

— Busch has 494 top-five finishes in those 996 starts, scoring a top five in 49.6 percent of his starts.

— Busch’s 199 career NASCAR wins have come on 28 different tracks. Among the tracks he’s won at that are no longer on the NASCAR circuit are Lucas Oil Raceway (three wins), Nashville Superspeedway (three) and Mexico City (one).

— The most victories Busch has had in one season in Cup, Xfinity and Trucks was 24 in 2010.

— Busch has won a NASCAR race in 21 different states and Mexico. The most victories Busch has had in any one state is Tennessee. He’s won 24 races there.

3. So far so good on inspection

This year marks the first time in the past three seasons that a Cup car was not penalized for an inspection violation after the race.

NASCAR announced before the season that any car that failed inspection would be dropped to last in the order. Any winning car that fails inspection will have that victory taken away.

So far, no team has been given such a penalty in Cup, Xfinity or the Truck series.

That’s quite an accomplishment in Cup. Each of the past two years saw at least one team penalized for a violation discovered after the race in the first four events of the season.

In March 2018, NASCAR fined crew chief Rodney Childers $50,000, suspended car chief Robert Smith two Cup races, docked Kevin Harvick 20 points and the team 20 owner points for a violation with the rear window brace that was discovered after Harvick’s win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Harvick also lost all seven playoff points he earned — five for winning the race and two for each stage victory.

In March 2017, NASCAR suspended crew chief Paul Wolfe three races and fined him $65,000 when Brad Keselowski’s car failed inspection after the race at ISM Raceway. NASCAR also docked Keselowski 35 points and the team 35 owner points. NASCAR penalized the team for failing the rear wheel steer on the Laser Inspection Station.

NASCAR also penalized Harvick’s team after that same race for an unapproved track bar slider assembly. NASCAR suspended Childers one race and fined him $25,000. Harvick was docked 10 points and the team lost 10 owner points.

4. One or the other

Since NASCAR created the West Coast swing in 2016, Kevin Harvick or Martin Truex Jr. have managed to win at least once in those three races.

They’ll need to win this weekend at Auto Club Speedway to keep that streak going. Joey Logano won at Las Vegas to begin this year’s swing. Kyle Busch won last weekend at ISM Raceway near Phoenix.

5. Extra work

ThorSport Racing drivers Matt Crafton, Grant Enfinger, Ben Rhodes and Myatt Snider will be racing this weekend even though the Gander Outdoors Truck Series is off.

They’ll compete for Ford Performance and Multimatic Motorsports in Friday’s IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge at Sebring International Raceway. Crafton and Enfinger will be paired on the No. 22 team, while Snider and Rhodes will drive the No. 15 entry. Their race lasts two hours.

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Ryan Sieg having ‘a lot more fun’ during career-best start to Xfinity season

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Ryan Sieg was “mad.”

While running eighth in Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway a Brandon Jones crash with two laps to go left Sieg thinking the worst going into overtime.

“I thought we were going to finish eighth and now we have to restart over again,” Sieg told NBC Sports.

The reaction by the 32-year-old from Tucker, Georgia, was likely instinctive. In five previous full-time years on the Xfinity circuit, Sieg has never had an average finish better than 17.8 and had only nine top 10s in 169 starts.

Things have changed in 2019.

In overtime, Sieg avoided a four-car wreck among the leaders coming to the white flag. On the last overtime attempt, he restarted fifth and lost one spot before the checkered flag.

It was his second top 10 to start the season on top of placing 11th a week before at Atlanta. It also was his best finish on a 1.5-mile track.

That leaves Sieg with a career-best position of eighth in the point standings. His previous best through three races was ninth in 2016.

Sieg said his Las Vegas experience was the most fun he’s ever had in a race.

“It was definitely wild,” Sieg said.

Ryan Sieg during Speedweeks in Daytona. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

New and Improved

Sieg is used to wild racing.

But the wild he’s experiencing at the front this year is different than previous seasons.

“You’d get side-by-side with a couple of drivers and just kind of cringe ’cause you were worried about them holding their line,” Sieg said. “This year I’ve been racing with the 9 (rookie Noah Gragson), the 11 (rookie Justin Haley), the 22 (Austin Cindric), pretty much all of them, the JR Motorsports cars. You’re passing them and you’re racing them and they’re racing you clean.

“It’s given me a better feeling racing side-by-side with people you can trust, so that’s definitely a positive compared to other years where I think you had some drivers who were in equipment that was a little bit better than they were.”

Now Sieg can say he’s in equipment worthy of his own talents.

Last year, Sieg ended the season 16th in the standings. It tied his career-worst result and was his lowest mark in four seasons.

One culprit was age. Not for him, but the cars he was driving.

“Our cars last year were I think 4 to 5 years old,” Sieg said. “When you’re running cars that are four and five (years) off what the Cup (affiliated) cars are, you can’t beat it. That’s (on top) of being down on horsepower a little bit, down on engineering, down on everything. … I would say the Cup teams in Xfinity were two to three generations ahead of what we had. It makes a big difference.”

Now Sieg is piloting essentially brand new cars bought from Richard Childress Racing.

“‘Cowboy’ (nickname for competition director Kevin Starland), whose been with us for a while, said they’re the best cars we’ve ever had,” Sieg said.

He qualified for the season-opener at Daytona in eighth and stayed in the top 10 most of the day before he finished third.

It was his fourth career top five and his third at Daytona.

“Racing in the top 10 all day you realize it’s a different level of a car and a program,” Sieg said. “When you go out every weekend, 33 races and you have a car you know is going to be off the pace of other drivers it wears on you. It gets tiring, it gets old. You get frustrated with it. You almost just get stuck in that same mold of, ‘OK, that guy’s faster than me, that guys faster than me.’ It gets frustrating but now it’s a lot more fun.”

Crew chief Shane Wilson worked with Brendan Gaughan from 2014-17. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

More with less

Another addition for Sieg’s team is at crew chief.

After Starland served in the position for much of last season, Sieg decided to hire Shane Wilson about two weeks before the team headed to Daytona.

Wilson, a winner of 17 Xfinity races since 2006, worked at RCR from 2014-17 with Brendan Gaughan. In 2018, he was paired with rookie Kaz Grala at JGL Racing and then the very quickly formed Fury Race Cars.

He’s now part of an effort that includes seven full-time employees in addition to the “weekend warriors” Sieg says help them out at the track.

“I don’t want to slight anyone we’ve worked with in the past, but I’ll say Shane is definitely very smart and comes to the race weekend with a plan,” Sieg said. “A big difference is on Fridays we’re not trying to set a fast lap. … We’re really working on the balance on the longer run. A lot of that is how your car is set up. You can go out and cut a fast lap in practice, but 10 laps into the race don’t do you a whole lot of good.”

What Sieg and his team are capable of this week could say a lot about the gains they’ve made.

The series heads to the flat, 1-mile ISM Raceway outside Phoenix, a place Sieg has never finished better than 14th (twice). Last year he earned finishes of 25th and 19th.

“For sure, our flat track results, Phoenix and New Hampshire and some of those other tracks have really been our biggest weakness,” Sieg said. “I’ve never really been to that track with a car I felt has been under me. The goal again is to have a good car for the longer run. It can go green there. … I’m definitely more excited to go there this year than any other year in the past.”

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Bump & Run: Is it time for Jimmie Johnson to be worried?

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How alarmed should Jimmie Johnson be after finishing outside the top 15 at Atlanta and Las Vegas for the first time in five seasons?

Nate Ryan: It has to be somewhat unsettling, even though so much was unknown for the seven-time champion entering this season. Getting acclimated to the new rules, crew chief and sponsor simultaneously is a new experience for the 17-year veteran. It could be simply a matter of getting settled. But at 43 and coming off the first winless season of his career, Johnson surely is feeling some urgency. He wants to prove last year was an anomaly, but so far 2019 has been a regression.

Dustin Long: There should be some concern but it should be tempered. There’s little time during the West Coast swing to update cars based on what is learned at the previous race. This just shows the team it has some work to do. If this team is still running like this by Kansas in May, then the level of concern will increase significantly.

Daniel McFadin: I’d be worried. He has an average running position of 17.4 through three races and the only reason he has a top 10 is because most of the field wrecked at Daytona. He finished two laps down in Atlanta and he wasn’t part of any incidents. If we get through Martinsville and Johnson hasn’t earned another top 10, then it’s time to full on panic.

Jerry Bonkowski: Even though his winless streak now stands at 62 races (dating back to spring 2017 at Dover), it’s not time for Johnson to push the panic button just yet. If he gets to say, Bristol, and he’s still struggling, then there may be pause for concern. But remember, just one win puts him in the playoffs and he can build from there. He’s likely still learning communication and unique nuances with new crew chief Kevin Meendering, so I’m not overly worried just yet.

With consecutive victories and a strong showing by Joey Logano in the Daytona 500, how seriously should Team Penske be taken as the team to beat?

Nate Ryan: It’s only two races, but the organization’s flair for adaptability is undeniable, and Penske seems to have as strong a handle on the new rules as any team in Cup. If Ryan Blaney’s team can shake off its error-prone ways, Penske could have all of its drivers eligible for the playoffs before many teams have a guaranteed berth.

Dustin Long: Team Penske is until someone beats them, but let’s not get too carried away with what they’ve done at Atlanta and Las Vegas. While Brad Keselowski has scored top 10s in both events, he’s done that in each of the past two years at those races. Joey Logano would have the same streak had he not placed 23rd at Atlanta this year. The point is they’ve been strong early in the season before and they’ve shown the ability to excel with this new package.

Daniel McFadin: Penske is the top team right now. Dating back to last season’s Southern 500 they have won eight of the last 15 races and the championship. The fact the new Mustang model hasn’t impeded them is even more impressive. If they’re not up front in Phoenix, I expect them to be the team to beat at Auto Club Speedway where Penske hasn’t placed a driver outside the top 10 in the last four races.

Jerry Bonkowski: Right now, they ARE the team to beat. Yes, teammates Ryan Blaney (15th place in the standings) and Paul Menard (20th place) are struggling, but I expect both to get back on track in the next few races, particularly by Martinsville. And don’t forget, with Logano and Keselowski are now both locked into the playoffs, Team Penske can potentially allocate more resources to Blaney and Menard to get their cars working better and stronger.

Despite flashes of promise, Richard Childress Racing and JTG Daugherty Racing have one driver between them ranked in the top 20  in points. Is this an indication that the new rules package is less of an “equalizer” than some had predicted?

Nate Ryan: It seems more a reflection on the teams and their relatively inexperienced drivers than on the rules. Mistakes (several in the pits) by RCR and JTG Daugherty have undermined the strength they’ve shown at times.

Dustin Long: NASCAR stated that it was their intent with this rules package that the best teams still would be the ones to beat. Richard Childress Racing and JTG Daugherty Racing are not the best teams. RCR has shown speed in practice and qualifying but still has to figure out things for the race. The penalty to Austin Dillon’s pit crew didn’t help at Las Vegas. JTG Daugherty is building their own chassis and refining that takes time.

Daniel McFadin: I don’t think so, Las Vegas was the first race with the full package. RCR showed plenty of speed all weekend, but Austin Dillon’s effort was hurt by a pit penalty. We won’t know what the full potential of this package and its benefits to teams until Auto Club or at least Texas.

Jerry Bonkowski: Let’s not forget that RCR is down to only two teams this season and JTG Daugherty really hasn’t improved much. If anything, it’s in another growth mode. So, lack of success for both teams this early in the season is not entirely a surprise. And unfortunately, it’s not likely to get much better any time soon. Sure, Austin Dillon has looked strong at times this season, but he can’t carry RCR or partners JTG and Richard Petty Motorsports on his shoulders. And while the teams may be struggling with the new rules package, it’s simply going to be a matter of time, patience and trial and error before they start to make any significant progress.

There were more accidents on pit road than on the track at Atlanta and Las Vegas. What’s your take on the lack of cautions for accidents in the last two races?

Nate Ryan: It’s surprising and also a little unsettling. With the new rules delivering additional downforce and lower horsepower, there were concerns that the degree of difficulty might be lessened. Hopefully the lack of crashes isn’t indicative of that emerging trend because the cars need to be hard to drive.

Dustin Long: It’s simple. Sometimes they wreck (Daytona) and sometimes they don’t (past two weeks). Let’s see what happens in the coming weeks.

Daniel McFadin: We are fully entrenched in an era of a lack of attrition and the vanishing act of debris cautions. I expect cautions to roar back in Phoenix with its short-track characteristics. 

Jerry Bonkowski: NASCAR is giving fans what they want in terms of closer racing. That’s a good thing. Teams are still getting used to the new rules package. It’s an evolutionary process, with drivers still feeling their way out on track. Once they get a bit more confident or more familiar with the new package, it’s likely you’ll see more aggressive driving – which likely means we’ll start seeing more cautions for accidents, as a result.

Friday 5: Tensions between Cup teams test manufacturers

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Less than a month into the Cup season, there have been signs that the tenuous alliances among teams have not held up well on or off the track.

It’s led to an unease not often visible at this point in the season.

As the sport enters a time of transition — new rules, new car in 2021, new engine as early as 2022— can a manufacturer keep its teams together for these major projects? Or will there be fissures, much like what happened between Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing in 2016 and Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing last season?

At the same time, NASCAR seeks new manufacturers and any company that comes into the sport likely will take teams from current manufacturers. Are the seeds of discontent being sown now?

Already manufacturers have had to react to issues between their teams.

Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance, conceded this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that at Ford, “we’re a family and every family has issues.”

Just look at the issues Ford has had this season:

Joey Logano confronted fellow Ford driver Michael McDowell on pit road after the Daytona 500 for pushing a Toyota and not Logano’s Ford on the final lap. McDowell told the media he was not happy with how fellow Ford drivers treated him in that race.

Ford driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was not happy with Logano, who chastised Stenhouse on the radio for a move during the Daytona 500 that cost Logano several spots and, according to Logano, could have caused an accident.

“For sure we had our issues at Daytona, can’t deny that,” Rushbook said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio this week. “But as a family, we talked through those issues, tried to understand what led to those issues and then how can we fix that and make it even better going forward.”

Ford isn’t the only manufacturer that has had issues between some of its teams. Chevrolet understands the delicate balance between competition and cooperation.

Hendrick Motorsports partnered with Joe Gibbs Racing, a Toyota team, and not fellow Chevrolet teams Chip Ganassi Racing and Richard Childress Racing in the Daytona 500. The move was made to counter the strength of the Fords, which dominated both qualifying races and entered as the favorite to win the 500.

Kyle Larson’s comments this week on NASCAR America’s Splash & Go about Hendrick Motorsports “cheating” ruffled feelings in the Chevy camp. That led to a late-night Twitter apology from Larson and subsequent comments about how he had poorly chosen his words. Ganassi gets its engines from Hendrick Motorsports. Larson said Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway that he had apologized to team owner Rick Hendrick. Said Larson: “We’re both moving on.”

There always will be conflict among competitors in the same camp. It’s natural with what is at stake each race weekend. But the manufacturers have stressed working together more. It was evident in how Toyota teams teamed together to win the 2016 Daytona 500 — a model adopted by others. At Ford, that banding of brothers is referred to as One Ford.

But this season, the slogan might be anything but togetherness.

2. New challenge for spotters

The new rules that are intended to tighten the competition at tracks — and should be the case this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway based on the January test — will change what spotters will do.

Many expect to be calling the race much like they do at Daytona and Talladega where they’re on radio almost constantly.

“I did a lot of talking in 25 laps,” Billy O’Dea, spotter for Ty Dillon, said, referring to the 25-lap races NASCAR held at the January test at Las Vegas.

One thing that spotters who were at the test noticed is that runs by cars behind their car were different from what they see in pack racing at Daytona or Talladega.

“In Daytona or Talladega, you don’t necessarily watch the car behind you,” said Tyler Green, spotter for Kurt Busch. “You watch  two or three behind because that’s where the runs come from.

“At Vegas, it seemed like you didn’t really watch the car two behind you. You watched the car right behind you. It just happens quick. There’s no really understanding of where the runs really come from unlike Daytona or Talladega.”

Other spotters at the test noticed that as well. That creates other challenges for them.

“Are they going to take (the run and try to pass) or are they just going to get close?” O’Dea said of what to tell a driver when a car behind has a run.

“When you see them moving, do you block it? It’s a lot of unknowns. Early in the race, do you really want to be blocking a guy going into (Turn) 1? If it’s continually a lot of passing, which I hope it is, it’s going to be a lot of give and take. It’s going to be interesting to see.”

Rocky Ryan, spotter for David Ragan, also was at the test. Ragan did not participate in the 25-lap races because he was driving the Ford wheel-force car, which has extra equipment on it and is too valuable to be risked in a race (the wheel-force cars for Chevrolet and Toyota also did not participate in those races).

During those races at the test, Ryan said he stood atop the spotters stand and acted as if he was spotting for a car to grasp how quickly things can happen in those drafts.

“The 15 of us that were there (for the test) will have a leg up on everybody,” Ryan said.

3. Drafting in qualifying

The expectation is that teams will draft in qualifying today at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Paul Wolfe, crew chief for Brad Keselowski, saw what the draft could do when the No. 2 team took part in the January test there.

“It seemed like at the Vegas test, the (aero) ducts made a difference,” Wolfe told NBC Sports. “Basing off of Vegas, it seems like there were two- or three-tenths of a second to be gained in the draft.

“I still don’t think it’s going to be a draft like you see at Daytona, but it’s more about timing it right to get a good suck up (on the car ahead). I don’t see us going out there running nose to tail. I still don’t see that. I could be wrong.”

Wolfe said they saw the draft make a difference when a car was a quarter of a straightaway behind another car.

“The more cars you have (in a draft), you get a faster suck up, for sure,” Wolfe said.

The key is to figure out who is going to be the trailing car to get that advantage, or if teams will run extra laps in qualifying and trade positions so each car will have that chance to take advantage of the draft.

4. On the way to Miami

If a trend holds true, one of the Championship Four contenders may be known after Sunday’s race at Las Vegas.

Since 2014, one of the drivers racing for the title at Miami has won within the first three races of the season.

Throw out the Daytona 500. No winner of that race since 2014 has made it to the championship race. So that means that either Brad Keselowski, who won last weekend at Atlanta, or Sunday’s winner could be headed for a chance at the championship — provided the trend continues.

Three times since 2014, the driver who went on to win the championship won within the first three races of the season: Harvick won the second race in 2014 (Phoenix), Jimmie Johnson won the second race in 2016 (Atlanta), and Martin Truex Jr. won the third race in 2017 (Las Vegas).

Last year, all four title contenders won for the first time that season within the first 10 races. Kevin Harvick won in the season’s second race (Atlanta). Truex won in the fifth race (Auto Club Speedway). Kyle Busch won in the seventh race (Texas). Joey Logano won in the 10th race (Talladega). Harvick and Busch had other wins within those first 10 races.

5. Familiar faces

Brad Keselowski’s victory last weekend at Atlanta kept a streak going.

Six drivers have combined to win the last 18 Cup races on 1.5-mile tracks. Martin Truex Jr. has six wins in that time, followed by Kevin Harvick (five wins), Kyle Busch (three), Keselowski (two), Joey Logano (one) and Chase Elliott (one).

The last time one of those drivers did not win a race at a 1.5-mile track was the 2017 Coca-Cola 600. Austin Dillon won that race.

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Tyler Reddick gears up for Xfinity title defense in new territory

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Tyler Reddick wishes he had been able to be more “selfish” with his offseason.

Over the last two months, Reddick didn’t have much time to dwell on anything – past or future.

He claimed his unlikely Xfinity Series championship Nov. 17 in Miami. The following weeks were filled by a trip to Universal Studios and driving to Bloomington, Illinois, and Nashville, Tennessee, for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Between the holidays, the 23-year-old’s championship was recognized in Charlotte at the Xfinity Banquet.

After putting roughly 10,000 miles on a brand new Chevy truck in less than two months, Reddick was taken out of commission for two weeks thanks to a tonsillectomy.

“With everything thrown together, I lost track of time,” Reddick told NBC Sports.

The offseason whirlwind didn’t leave him much time to contemplate what lays ahead in 2019 – being the first Xfinity champion to return to the series to try and defend his title since Chase Elliott in 2015 after winning in 2014.

But Reddick will have to do it under vastly different circumstances from last year.

New Team

When Reddick hoisted his title trophy in Miami, it was as the driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet for JR Motorsports.

But just a few weeks earlier his move to Richard Childress Racing in 2019 – where he’ll drive the No. 2 Chevrolet – was made official.

Reddick now calls RCR’s campus in Welcome, North Carolina, his professional home.

When Reddick made his first trip to RCR’s campus he was taken aback by the vastness of the team’s campus.

In addition to RCR’s Cup and Xfinity programs, the campus is home to the RCR Museum, Richard Petty Motorsports, Kaulig Racing and the newly arrived Germain Racing.

“I’ve been involved in NASCAR, I can see what’s going on and what not, right?” Reddick said. “But I had no idea they had so many buildings. It’s just insanity.”

The primary reason behind Reddick moving to his third Xfinity team in three years? He was thinking ahead.

Tyler Reddick drives his No. 31 Chevrolet during Daytona 500 practice. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

“It just looked like the avenue to get to the Cup Series with a more clear path than it was at JR Motorsports,” Reddick said. “That was the bulk of it. I got along great with (crew chief) Dave (Elenz) and my whole team. I loved them. I think they loved me as well.”

That foresight paid off quickly, with Reddick set to compete in Sunday’s Daytona 500. His first Cup start will come in RCR’s No. 31 Chevrolet. He’ll start 39th after finishing 13th in his qualifying race on Thursday.

But there are other reasons Reddick likes RCR.

“The thing that makes me feel really good is Richard just has a lot of involvement in everything that goes on,” Reddick said. “Honestly, he’s the decision maker. It’s his business. A lot of these team owners and what have you that are in NASCAR have other business that have been successful. Richard, like a couple of others, not many, Richard and Chip (Ganassi) are the two that come to mind that make their living, their bread and butter is racing. So they take it very seriously and spend a lot of time around it. For me that’s important.”

No (Official) Full-Time Teammates

A year ago Reddick was able to claim three full-time teammates, all who were 10 or more years older than him.

Now he’s technically alone.

RCR will field one full-time Xfinity car in 2019, with Reddick at the helm of the No. 2.

That’s two years after RCR fielded five cars. Last year, the team ran Daniel Hemric and Matt Tifft full-time and various drivers part-time in the No. 3.

But thanks to RCR’s many partners in its technical alliance, Reddick will have the equivalent of a teammate.

Reddick’s offseason was so chaotic he had to ask NBC Sports if Kaulig Racing had officially announced Justin Haley as the driver of its No. 11 Chevrolet.

“In all seriousness, he’s going to be like my teammate,” Reddick said after being told it was official. “Even though it’s not under the RCR banner … we’re still going to be sharing everything.”

Haley, 19, enters his rookie season in Xfinity. He’s made 50 starts in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series since 2015 and earned three wins last year. He also made three Xfinity Series starts with GMS Racing.

But the move to being essentially a one-car operation makes the No. 2 a “nimble” team in the eyes of the man who leads it.

New Crew Chief

Somehow, some way Reddick made it to the end of the 2018 season with Dave Elenz as his crew chief.

“I think any other crew chief in the garage would have pulled out his hair and quit on me halfway through the year but Dave wouldn’t do it,” Reddick said. “He believed in me, more so than anybody else did in the entire garage and that’s what held us together last year and got us to Homestead.”

After Reddick’s win at Daytona last year, the No. 9 team finished in the top five just twice in the next 22 races.

Their struggles stemmed partly from a difficulty to communicate when it came to diagnosing issues on the JRM cars, which were significantly different from what he drove in 2017 at Ganassi.

Reddick took the blame, saying he wasn’t consistent enough in what he conveyed to Elenz.

“Dave was at a huge disadvantage because at the time the Chip Ganassi Racing cars drove night and day different than what JR Motorsports cars did,” Reddick said.” I feel like in the sim (simulator), the Richard Childress Racing cars and JR Motorsports cars are a little bit closer together.”

Reddick says his Ganassi experience is part of the reason he’s connected so quickly with his new crew chief, Randall Burnett.

Burnett was crew chief on the No. 2 in 2018 when it was driven by Tifft. This will be Burnett’s third season as a crew chief for RCR after two years spent in Cup working with AJ Allmendinger.

Before that, Burnett spent 10 years as an engineer at Ganassi. That tenure included working “hand-in-hand” with crew chief Mike Shiplett to build its Xfinity team, which won 14 races from 2016-18 before shutting down due to a lack of sponsorship.

“I think we’ve got a lot of common ground with our racing background, growing up racing go karts and mini-outlaw karts and this, that and the other,” Burnett said. “I think we’ve just got a lot of common ground that we kind of relate to one another and are able to communicate really well so far.”

Burnett has a history of working with a multitude of drivers in a short amount of time. In 2017 he worked with four drivers, including the final five races with Hemric during his run to the Championship 4.

“I feel like I’ve kind of got a pretty good checklist of things to learn relatively quick so I can hit the ground running with a new driver,” Burnett said.

Without any time at a track in the last two months, the duo has adapted to each other through time at the team shop, talking on the phone and in the simulator.

“That’s been a huge benefit too, trying to learn how his language is about the car’s terms that he uses,” Burnett said of the simulator time with Reddick. “Like his scaling. How loose and tight the car is on a 1-10 scaling and how big of an adjustment I need to be able to make based on that scaling.”

Compared to other drivers he’s worked with, including Hemric, Paul Menard, Ben Kennedy and Allmendinger, Burnett describes Reddick as being more “laid back” and in the form of Kyle Larson.

“Kind of not too hands-on in the car setup stuff,” Burnett said. “Just kind of tells you, ‘Hey, it’s doing this.’ Where Daniel Hemric was kind of on the other extreme of that, he’s very in-tune, building his own race cars and everything. Tyler’s kind of on the opposite end. He’s like, ‘You do your job, I’m just going to tell you what it’s doing and you all fix it.'”

‘Do It Better’

With his title defense Reddick joins Christopher Bell, who won a rookie record seven races in 2018, in having a target on his back.

But Reddick says he feels less stress entering his title defense than he did last year.

“I feel like the weight is off my shoulders,” Reddick said. “I know that I can do it again, I just want to do it better than the first time. Winning a title is really cool and it’s great, but it wasn’t a perfect year. Everyone talks about they want to have a perfect year, they want to win every game they play and they want to win the Super Bowl at the end of the season. It’s very hard to do, but I want to strive more towards perfection.”

Simply, he wants to “be more like Christopher Bell” last year, even though he proved you don’t have to be to win the title. No matter how he does it, if Reddick pulls off back-to-back titles, he’d be the first Xfinity driver to do so since Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in 2011-12.

“We can easily, if we execute properly and be smart and kind of play to our strengths, I think we should be able to have a year like Christopher Bell put together,” Reddick said.