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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Meet the ‘Gen 7 for NASCAR’ that could include shorter races and capped costs

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Are shorter races better? That’s a discussion taking place in NASCAR, along with the length of the season and other key topics.

“We have to keep (fans) engaged,” car owner Jack Roush said Friday at Daytona International Speedway. “We have to think about their attention spans. The races may need to get shorter.  That could be cost savings all the way around. Probably need to get shorter. 

“People say we need to race fewer times. I’m not sure that’s true. I used to tell (NASCAR Vice Chairman) Mike Helton, if he had three or four races a week, I’d be there for him. I don’t know if I’d say that today.”

Already this week, Kevin Harvick has advocated eliminating the Clash, and Denny Hamlin has noted one of the most popular events in the Olympics is the 100-meter dash instead of the marathon, a hint to shorter races

These comments have been made as the sport looks to cut costs for teams and energize fans who can become weary over a 38-race season that goes from February to November. NASCAR President Steve Phelps said last year that various ideas would be considered for the 2020 schedule and beyond. 

Car owner Roger Penske, whose organization is coming off Joey Logano’s Cup championship season, likens the sport’s look at race lengths to its focus on the next car, which is targeted to debut in 2021.

“I think we’re really talking about Gen 7 for NASCAR,” Penske said, using the term for the next car. “It’s not just the car or the engine. I think it’s the show, it’s the length of the races, it’s where we’re going to run, are we going to run more at night, short tracks. Let’s call it Gen 7 for NASCAR, not just the car.”

A shorter season could limit how many weekends NASCAR goes head-to-head against the NFL in the fall. Shorter races could provide the opportunity for midweek races. The belief from those advocating shorter races is that it would create a better show for fans.

“I think it’s an exciting time for us really in the sport,” car owner Joe Gibbs said. “You know, there’s times that you struggle, and I think we have struggled some, but I honestly think (NASCAR Chairman) Jim France is on board and after it.  I think we, having constant meetings with everybody has kind of put everything on the table. 

“We’ve got a great fan base, but I think everything is really out there, scheduling, everything that you’re talking about, cost savings, everything is on the table. And so sometimes when you go through a tough time, those wind up being the best times because it causes you to really think your way through things.”

Just as important to teams are the costs, which NASCAR continues to look to cut. There’s also been talk of some type of spending limitation for teams.

“You’re going to see other things happen with the cars, engine packages, that’s going to reduce the cost,” car owner Rick Hendrick said. “So NASCAR is really on it. When you look at it, we talk about a spending cap. I don’t know how you regulate that with all we have going on. I mean, everything is on the table.”

Bob Jenkins, car owner for Front Row Motorsports, said cost containment can make an impact for his three-car organization.

“The ultimate goal has always got to be how can we do more with less with any team,” he said. “I think some of the larger teams have felt the financial pinch maybe more so than we have. When you’re in a constant evolution mode, it’s hard for us to keep up. We can make suspension changes a few times a year. Like Roger said, we can’t change cars every week.

“In previous years, we were always a generation or two behind and it shows on our performance. I think now when they come with these common parts that are produced by a third-party manufacturer that can’t be tweaked or re-engineered it only helps a team like us.”

Alex Bowman still waiting to drag race Rick Hendrick

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The stakes were established 12 months ago, but Alex Bowman is still waiting to take on the boss man.

After he won the pole for the 2018 Daytona 500, Bowman and car owner Rick Hendrick revealed they were planning a drag race.

Bowman’s personal Corvette versus Hendrick’s. Winner may or may not get the loser’s car.

“One of us is going to lose a Corvette,’’ Hendrick said then.

But February has arrived with Daytona Speedweeks and the race has yet to take place.

The weather is an alleged culprit.

“Mr. H says we can (race), but we can’t run until it gets warmer outside,” Bowman said Saturday at Daytona International Speedway. “It was like 70-some degrees the day before we left (North Carolina). But he needs it warmer. I guess his car doesn’t like it when it’s cold or something.”

But Bowman, entering his second full-time season driving the No. 88 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, said there’s been too much talk between him and Hendrick for it to not happen.

“Eventually, it’s gotta happen,” Bowman said. “‘Cause I know he has hired some people to purposely make his car faster than mine. I’ve got a couple tricks up my sleeve, too. We’re both pretty invested in this race for it not to happen, to just be talking about it for the last two years. It kind of has to happen at this point.”

Bowman is hopeful the race will happen “in the next couple of months.”

But Bowman wouldn’t dare call his employer “scared” for possibly dragging his feet for the drag race.

“If I called him scared right now, it’s going to end really badly for me,” Bowman said. “I’m going to show up and he’s going to have a six-second drag car or seven-second drag car. I do not think Mr. Hendrick is scared of drag racing my street car. I think he’s just making sure he embarrasses me. He doesn’t just (want to) beat me by a little bit. He’s got to beat me by a lot.”

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Jeff Gordon would be ‘truly honored’ to take on ownership of Hendrick Motorsports

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — At some point, Jeff Gordon could be introduced as the owner of Hendrick Motorsports.

If that moment comes, the four-time Cup champion said he would be “truly honored” to take the reign from the team’s founder, Rick Hendrick.

Gordon, who is a minority owner of the team he drove full-time for from 1993-2015, addressed his potential future Sunday before his induction into the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame and his induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Friday (8 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Hendrick himself made waves in December when he indicated Gordon could take over for him.

“That’s the way we’re going. Whenever I finally step away, it’ll be Jeff Gordon in my place,” Hendrick was quoted as saying in an Autoweek feature. The story focused on how Cup teams are planning for the future with aging owners.

Hendrick, who has owned Hendrick Motorsports since 1984, turns 70 in July. Gordon, 47, has been an analyst for Fox Sports since 2016 and recently signed a multi-year extension with the network.

Gordon said he and Hendrick have been talking about his potential future since three years before he retired.

“I went to Rick and told him what I wanted to do and felt like it was the right time,” Gordon said. “I felt like things were starting to line up with Chase Elliott. So those things were playing out well timing-wise for me and I thought for Hendrick. Because I have so much respect for the organization, being not just an equity owner but what they’ve done for me, what that organization did for my career, I feel like I owe that back to them to be respectful and to try and give all that I can back to it to continue to see it be successful even when I stepped away.”

At the time of their conversation, Gordon didn’t think Hendrick was ready to step aside and they agreed going into TV would be good branding for Gordon and HMS.

Their conversations have continued through his first three seasons with Fox, a job Gordon said “suits me well.”

“I just told him, ‘Rick, I’m really liking TV. And I don’t think you’re quite ready and I don’t know if I’m quite ready to move into that role, so I’m probably going to sign an extension or new contract with Fox to keep doing that,'” Gordon said. “So of course I told him that and then he went and put that out in there in the media.”

Gordon doesn’t know exactly what will come of his ownership talks with Hendrick, but that “I can see in the future that interesting me a lot,” Gordon said.

Gordon also advocates for more teams having former drivers with business savvy in leadership roles.

“We need more guys like Tony (Stewart), like myself, others who are racers that get the business side of it,” Gordon said. “They see the business side of it and have somebody, a mentor like a Rick Hendrick, like a Jack Roush or a Roger Penske or whoever it may be to be able to form who that person can be to take over that role.”

Gordon said the “greatest news” coming out of the ownership speculation is that Hendrick “doesn’t want to see the destiny of Hendrick end any time soon.

“If that day ever comes, I would be truly honored even though I don’t think I can do the job that he’s done.”

Should he one day take up Hendrick’s mantle, Gordon noted that he’d finally have to work for a living.

“That would be the first time other than when my parents made me sweep floors and run the machine shop … when I was a kid during summers that I actually had a real job,” Gordon said. “‘Cause running a race team or being in that role in a race team, that is a real job.”

Rick Hendrick wants Jeff Gordon ‘in my place’ when he steps away

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In an interview for an Autoweek story detailing NASCAR teams and their plans for ownership succession, Rick Hendrick dropped news about who he sees as being the future leader of Hendrick Motorsports.

Hendrick, 69, said his former driver, Jeff Gordon, would someday take charge of the team he started in 1984.

“That’s the way we’re going. Whenever I finally step away, it’ll be Jeff Gordon in my place,” Hendrick told Autoweek.

Gordon, 47, is already a long-time minority owner of the team, a result of a contract he signed in 1999.

But don’t expect Hendrick to give up the reigns soon.

“I love this and still enjoy it so much, and it’s tied to my automotive businesses,” Hendrick said. “My health is good, so I expect to be around for a long time.”

But it’s possible Gordon’s heart wouldn’t be into being sole owner of the race team he competed for from 1992 – 2016, or at least as the owner of his own team.

Gordon discussed the possibility of ownership on Tuesday during a Q&A related to Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s podcast, “The Dale Jr. Download.”

“I would not be an owner if it weren’t for Rick Hendrick and being there for such a long time and the contract that I signed that helped me be an equity owner,” Gordon said. “I want to be partners with Rick in the business. I certainly would never want to go out and do this on my own. Nor would I even be capable of (it).”

Gordon has a history of ownership outside Hendrick. He and his former crew chief, Ray Evernham, co-owned Gordon-Evernham Motorsports, an Xfinity Series team they fielded from 1999-2000.

Gordon went on to explain what keeps him from being more involved in Hendrick Motorsports: the state of the NASCAR business model.

“I’m always so interested in what’s happening from the business aspect,” Gordon said. “I’ve got to say, (Interim CEO and Chairman) Jim France and the France family and the involvement they have right now, (President) Steve Phelps. I’m seeing some momentum of some thing things, what’s happening with the (Race Team Alliance). There’s just some cool things that are happening and it all got started I think talking about Comcast coming in and buying NASCAR.

“Whether that was ever a reality or whatever was going to happen, what it’s generated is concerted efforts where people are coming together to try and take the sport to the next level from a business viability standpoint. That’s what I’m excited about. If it could do that, you would see me far more involved. But right now, if you look at the business model on paper, no, it doesn’t make sense. We’re lucky to have racing as more of a hobby and do it the level we do it because of our partners.”

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