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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. What driver needs a win the most?

Long list here.

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

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

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

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

4. What will the 2021 driver lineup look like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. What will the qualifying format be?

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

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

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

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NBC Sports Power Rankings rate Cup organizations

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

Here’s our picks:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long: Martin Truex Jr.’s latest win gives him extra reason to boast

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What might be as remarkable as Martin Truex Jr. ending an 80-race winless streak on short tracks Saturday at Richmond Raceway is that he now has victories with four different organizations.

No other active Cup driver can boast that.

Not every driver has the chance to stay with one organization their whole career as Jeff Gordon did and Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin are doing, so what Truex has done is quite an accomplishment.

Then consider that three previous teams he won with — Dale Earnhardt Inc., Michael Waltrip Racing and Furniture Row Racing — are no longer in the sport.

Truex’s first career Cup victory came in 2007 with Dale Earnhardt Inc. His next victory wasn’t until 2013 at Michael Waltrip Racing. He lost his ride after that season when NAPA left the organization as a sponsor after the penalties NASCAR assessed MWR for its actions in the fall Richmond race. Truex then went to Furniture Row Racing and won 17 races before it closed its doors after last season.

Truex’s win at Richmond came with Joe Gibbs Racing.

While some members of Truex’s team at Furniture Row Racing followed him and crew chief Cole Pearn to JGR, not all did.

“It’s a new group of guys and a new group of people,” Truex said. “New pit crew. Just the way everybody fits together, works together – it’s a little bit different and that’s always something that can take a while to get rolling.”

Although he was a part of competition meetings in the past — Furniture Row Racing was aligned with JGR — Truex admits those meetings feel a bit different now.

“You feel like part of the team now and not a competitor,” he said.

Even with joining Joe Gibbs Racing, Truex’s team does have some independence.

“I think for the most part, for what I see, we get to do our own thing and we have leeway to make some options here and there and make decisions,” he said. “Some guys want to go down one path, and if we want to go down a different one, then certainly I feel like we have the ability to do that.”

Truex’s victory separated him from a group of active drivers who have won with three different organizations.

Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman each has wins with three different organizations.

Bowyer has won with Richard Childress Racing, Michael Waltrip Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing. Busch has won with Roush Fenway Racing, Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing. Newman has won with Team Penske, Stewart-Haas Racing and Richard Childress Racing.

Busch, who is with Chip Ganassi Racing, and Newman, who is with Roush Fenway Racing, could join Truex with having at least one victory with four different organizations if they win with their new teams this season.


How challenging was Saturday night’s race for drivers at Richmond?

Here’s what some said:

“Hard to pass,” Kyle Busch said repeatedly after the race.

“I could only gain two or three positions at a time per run,” said Denny Hamlin, who finished fifth after he started at the rear because his car failed inspection before the race. “It literally took us 400 laps to get to the top five. … I just got caught behind guys I was faster than, I just couldn’t get around them.”

Asked how aero dependent the cars are even on a short track, runner-up Joey Logano said: “Very, very, very, very, very aero dependent. Clean air is worth a lot. … It gets really tough when you get behind cars. The tire Goodyear brought didn’t rubber the race track at all, so we were all kind of stuck on the bottom, couldn’t find much area to get clean air.”

Said winner Martin Truex Jr.: “Man, it’s just tough. You already have no grip at all, your tires are completely wore out, feel like you’re running on bologna skins, and you catch a car and you feel like you lose all the air in your car. It feels like you’re driving on a road … you’re going around a turn, everything is fine, you feel normal, and you hit black ice. What happens? That’s the difference between being in front of a car and behind a car. You just lose all that grip.”

Here’s what Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, said Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio about the rules package:

“I continue to say and believe that directionally this is the right call. I’d say that we’ve moved on to this is the 2019 rules package and we’re happy with it. We continue to learn, obviously, each track we go to. Each track presents a different challenge.

“Any time you can run a long, long green-flag run with 145 laps and have four drivers in contention there at the end, I view as a success. You can always learn and always make some tweaks, which we will continue to do, but all in all really happy with the direction we’ve gone and continue to learn.”

Saturday’s Richmond race had 359 green-flag laps, featuring 1,238 green-flag passes. Chase Elliott had a race-high 73 green-flag passes. Hamlin and Aric Almirola were next with 71 each.

Last year’s spring race at Richmond had 356 green-flag laps, featuring 2,495 green-flag passes. Danica Patrick had a race-high 119 green-flag passes. Eighteen drivers had more than 73 green-flag passes.


For all the angst Kyle Larson has gone through lately, perhaps the biggest blow to his season was a speeding penalty at Atlanta.

While Larson has finished 37th or worse in two of the last three races and placed outside the top 15 in the last four races, the penalty at Atlanta cost him a chance to win.

He led 142 of the first 223 laps that day before the speeding penalty and couldn’t recover, finishing 12th. Although a win wouldn’t have changed the recent results he’s had, it could have cushioned some of the disappointment with the team set for the playoffs.

Instead, Larson’s struggles have dropped him to 19th in the points and outside a playoff spot.

After he fell out of Saturday night’s race at Richmond, Larson said: “It’s been a pretty crappy start to the year.”

Car owner Chip Ganassi understands Larson’s frustration.

“He’s in what I would call one of those rough career slumps for one reason or another,” Ganassi said before Sunday’s IndyCar race at Long Beach. “Yeah. I’d like to tell you that it was his fault or mine. I think we have had our moments when it’s been our team’s fault or his.

“What happens is it starts a snowball thing. Once that little thing happens, it often times is out of everybody’s control, and it snowballs. It’s just unfortunate.

“He has my full support. He has the team’s full support. He knows that there’s nothing that we or the team or anybody else wants more than to put a weekend together. It’ll be coming soon, I’m confident.”


What to do about qualifying?

NASCAR made each round of Cup qualifying five minutes at Richmond, reducing the first and second round from 10 minutes.

The point was to keep cars from sitting on pit road for part of the session, which happened the week before at Bristol. Drivers sat at Bristol because no one wanted to be first out on track because the traction compound didn’t activate until it had some heat in it. When it didn’t have that heat (such as when it sat there with no cars on track), it was slick. So drivers waited.

There was no traction compound used at Richmond so that wouldn’t have been a reason for the field to sit on pit road. 

“The optics of drivers sitting on pit road I don’t think works for the sport,” Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio on Monday. “I think the teams would agree with that as well. We looked at cutting down the time.

“All in all, I think it worked out well. We’re still continuing to look at what we want to do beyond Talladega (single-car qualifying) and have some additional discussions.”

Opinion was mixed on the change to the qualifying format at Richmond.

When you come to Richmond you’re looking for clean air,” Joey Logano said. “The tracks you’re looking for clean air, we don’t have to have to have that rule (five minutes per round). But when we go to the (tracks where drafting plays a role), that’s where you need it.”

One issue is that with only five minutes per round, it makes it difficult for a team to make more than one attempt per round. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. made two runs in the second round but wasn’t fast enough on his last attempt to advance to the final round.

“It wasn’t adequate to go out twice,” Stenhouse said. “With five-minute rounds, the whole group qualifying format of coming in and going back out, that was the reasoning behind doing the group, you’ve kind of eliminated it.

“We were in the first wave of cars on the track, came right back in and started cooling it down and tried to get tire pressures where we needed. You just don’t have enough time. So as far as coming in and going back out and knocking people out, it’s not going to happen.”


Clay Campbell, president of Martinsville Speedway, told NBC Sports that the track has taken deposits from people in 32 states and Canada for the May 2020 race. The track’s spring date next year moves to May 9, the day before Mother’s Day.

Campbell said that the track plans to send out renewal notices in early summer for that May 2020 race, but fans wanting tickets to that event can put down a deposit of $20 per ticket with the track now.

Nate Ryan contributed to this report

Matt Kenseth to race at Slinger Nationals in July

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Former Cup champion Matt Kenseth plans to compete in the July 9 Slinger Nationals at Slinger Speedway, the track announced on its Facebook page.

Kenseth, the 2003 Cup champion, ran 665 races in his Cup career, winning 39 times. The two-time Daytona 500 champion competed in 15 Cup races last year for Roush Fenway Racing to help the organization improve its cars. His last Cup race was in the 2018 season finale in Miami.

In a statement to the track, Kenseth said of returning to run the Slinger Nationals:

“I can’t think of a better place for me to get back in a race car than Slinger. It’s been a good track for me throughout my career. We’ve had a lot of success there, a lot of memorable moments, and I’m looking forward to going back.

“The Nationals have always been one of the major events in all of short track racing. Certainly it was the one you wanted to win growing up in Wisconsin. Throughout the years, a lot of big names in NASCAR have raced in the Nationals. That’s a testament to how big of a race this has been for some time.”

Kenseth is a seven-time Slinger Nationals champion, winning the event in 1994, 2002, ’06, ’08, ’09, ’12, ’16.

Among those who have won the Slinger Nationals are Alan Kulwicki, Dick Trickle, Mark Martin and Kyle Busch

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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