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Friday 5: NASCAR’s bold moves earning praise from drivers

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A season unlike any other has had NASCAR officials instituting changes few could have expected.

After being sidelined 10 weeks by the COVID-19 pandemic, NASCAR returned in May ahead of the NBA, Major League Baseball, NHL and many other sports. To defray costs to teams, NASCAR eliminated practice and qualifying at nearly all events. Race weekends turned into one-day shows. Race dates were realigned.

Then came this week’s news that NASCAR plans to convert Auto Club  Speedway into a short track.

Many of NASCAR’s actions are earning praise from drivers.

“I think the bigger picture that we should all be really excited about is the leadership at NASCAR is doing something different nowadays and it’s becoming a trend,” Chase Elliott said Thursday when asked about Auto Club Speedway plans.

“It’s really been a trend all year. I think instead of finding the negatives in some of the things that they’re doing, I think we should all be super excited that they’re actually changing and doing some things different – have some different ideas and they’re putting them to work. That’s something that I don’t think has happened probably ever until right now. So, just excited to see them trying different things.”

Change also has included the midseason adoption of the choose rule in races, a Cup race at Nashville Superspeedway in 2021 and the delay of the Next Gen car’s debut to 2022.

Turning the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway into a short track that has elements of Martinsville’s long straightaways, Bristol’s high-banked turns and Richmond’s dogleg frontstretch stunned drivers.

“It is very provocative and I mean that in a good way,” Brad Keselowski said Thursday of the Auto Club news. “I think we are really starting to see (NASCAR Chairman) Jim France and his leadership style, I don’t want to say get comfortable, but kind of find their path and direction. It has been a little bit of a breath of fresh air in some ways. I would say that the move at Auto Club Speedway has a good feel to it in the sense that it feels like this is something coming right from the top. It feels like there has been a fair amount of thought put into it, at least from my perspective.

“I think we have seen a couple different examples of that with things that just kind of feel like they are Jim. He has got his own style, and I don’t think it is bad and I am not sure I would say that where we were before was bad. I thought there was room for improvement, but I feel like I am in the middle of a book and I am just reading chapters and it is almost like there is a different writer now with these chapters and Jim is writing them and they are pretty interesting and compelling.

“It is hard to view them as a whole because naturally none of us know everything that is going on behind the scenes, but in the moment there is more that I agree with than I disagree with and that is probably a good thing.”

NASCAR Chairman Jim France, shown with Wood Brothers co-owners Len (left) and Eddie Wood (right) in the garage at Daytona in July 2019. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Jim France took over as NASCAR Chairman on Aug. 6, 2018 after former Chairman Brian France was arrested by the Sag Harbor Village (New York) police for aggravated driving while intoxicated and criminal possession of a controlled substance in the 7th degree.

Jim France immediately appeared in the garage on race weekends, earning praise from competitors. Many in the garage complained that Brian France had not been at the track as often during his tenure, which began in Sept. 2003.

Jim France also presided over NASCAR’s merger with International Speedway Corp. The merger was announced in May 2019.

Less than two months after Jim France took over, Steve Phelps was promoted to NASCAR President on Sept. 20, 2018, replacing Brent Dewar.

Not everything has been perfect. Bob Leavine, owner of Leavine Family Racing, has been critical about NASCAR’s business model. Leavine sold his team to Spire Motorsports this summer. Germain Racing owner Bob Germain said he is considering a potential sale of the team with sponsor GEICO not returning after this season. Questions about Richard Petty Motorsports have been raised with the news that Bubba Wallace will race elsewhere next year and take some of his sponsors with him.

“We are working with our teams and frankly have been working with our teams over the last four or five years to try to improve the business model,” Phelps recently told reporters. “We want healthy teams.

“I would suggest that the number of new owners trying to get into this sport has never been higher. Certainly when I’ve been around, and I’ve been around for 15 years. There’s just a ton of enthusiasm for the direction of what team ownership looks like.”

2. Exclusive club

Kevin Harvick’s eight victories has him on pace to become the first driver to win at least 10 Cup races in a season in more than a decade and only the third driver to reach that mark in the past quarter century.

Jimmie Johnson is the last driver to accomplish the feat. He won 10 races in 2007. The only other driver to reach that mark in the last 25 years is Jeff Gordon. He won 13 races in 1998 and 10 races each in 1996 and ’97.

The last driver not from Hendrick Motorsports to reach at least 10 wins in a season was Rusty Wallace. He won 10 times in 1993 for car owner Roger Penske.

Kevin Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers have collected eight Cup victories this season. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Harvick’s crew chief, Rodney Childers, admits a 10-win season is a “big deal.

“In 2018, we were able to win eight races and the All‑Star Race, and that was a huge deal for us. That’s one of those dream seasons, and of course this one has been also.”

Denny Hamlin, who has six victories, said a team goal for this year is to win 10 races.

“Now you know how important Bristol and Indy were to us,” said Chris Gabehart, Hamlin’s crew chief. “Those were two we had and got away from us.”

Hamlin lost the lead with 12 laps to go at Bristol when his car got too high in the corner. He then ran into Joey Logano when Logano did the same thing in the next corner.

Hamlin had a tire go down and wrecked while leading with eight laps to go at Indianapolis. Harvick won that race.

Why is 10 wins a goal for Hamlin’s team?

“You look at the names of the guys on that list, not only was it done a long time ago, it was done in kind of a different era where the rule book is concerned,” Gabehart said. “It’s an elite list of guys.”

3. No talkback

Kyle Busch enters Saturday night’s Richmond race seven points above the cutline for the final transfer spot and without crew chief Adam Stevens. But Busch doesn’t foresee any issues with Stevens back at the shop.

NASCAR suspended Stevens one race because Busch’s car had two lug nuts not safe and secure after the Southern 500 (Clint Bowyer crew chief Johnny Klausemeir suffered the same penalty and also won’t be at Richmond).

Crew chief Adam Stevens and Kyle Busch have been together since 2015. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

Engineer Jacob Canter will serve as Busch’s crew chief Saturday. Canter has been Busch’s crew chief in his five Xfinity races this season, including Friday night’s event.

Even though Canter has much less experience with Busch than Stevens — Busch and Stevens have been together since 2015 — Busch said he won’t change what he says on the radio. That’s because Stevens will be listening.

Me talking on the radio is basically me talking directly to Adam,” Busch said. “It’s just I can’t hear back from Adam.”

A NASCAR suspension prohibits a person from the garage, pits and other restricted areas. A suspension does not prevent a crew chief from listening to the team’s radio and communicating with the crew at the track.

“I’m not sure with technology today and the war room and all that stuff at Joe Gibbs Racing with the communications and all that stuff that we have going on right now that much is going to be different at all really,” Busch said of not having Stevens at Richmond.

4. In a hole

Ryan Blaney faces a steep challenge to reach the second round of the playoffs. Should he do so, he likely will be one of the favorites to advance to the third round.

Such is life in the NASCAR playoffs.

The first round is viewed as Blaney’s weakest. He’s never had a top 10 at Darlington. His 24th-place finish there last weekend leaves him last among the playoff drivers. Blaney and Matt DiBenedetto are each 17 points from the final transfer spot.

Ryan Blaney
Ryan Blaney won at Talladega in June for his second consecutive win there. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

For as much as Blaney has struggled at Darlington, Richmond is worse for him. He’s never finished better than 17th there in eight starts. His average finish at Richmond is 25.5.

Another poor result Saturday could force Blaney into a must-win situation at Bristol.

If he can just get past this round, he’ll be one to watch. The second round features Las Vegas, Talladega and the Charlotte Roval. Some drivers call this the wildcard round, noting how important it will be to win at Las Vegas so a driver doesn’t have to worry about what can happen at Talladega and the Roval.

Joey Logano won at Las Vegas in February but Blaney led when a caution set up an overtime restart. Blaney pitted from the lead, a move crew chief Todd Gordon lamented. Alex Bowman, running second, also pitted. Logano, who was third at the caution, inherited the lead and won.

Even if Blaney doesn’t win Las Vegas, Talladega is next. Blaney has won the past two races there. He won there in June and in last year’s playoff race.

If not Talladega, there’s the Roval. Blaney won the inaugural race there in 2018 and finished eighth last year.

So if Blaney can advance from the first round, he could be in a good position to go deep into the playoffs.

5. Perfect count

Last week’s 10-point penalty to Ryan Blaney and his team for improperly mounted ballast is changing how Team Penske prepares its cars.

The team stated that a 5-pound lead bag was accidentally left in the car. The bag was added to simulate fluid weights before the race engine was installed.

Travis Geisler, competition director at Team Penske, said the team is changing its process to ensure such bags are retrieved.

A pretty unfortunate situation, but you go back and you look at it and you say, ‘Okay, what do we have to do different here?” Geisler said. “How do we prevent this going forward? What do we do?’ We’re moving towards a ballast bag count. 

“Normally, guys would just add ballast bags until the car was at weight. Now there needs to be a count. It’s just the same as when doctors go into surgery they know what they have, they know what tools they have so they don’t leave any in or behind.  That’s the same thing we need to be doing. That’s a piece of our process that has to get tightened up.”

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Leader of the pack: These Cup drivers raced to history

inaugural Cup races
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Today brings the inaugural Cup race on the Daytona International Speedway road course (3 p.m. ET on NBC).

Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin will start on the front row. But given the chaos that can be expected on the first lap for a road course race when there wasn’t practice or qualifying, who will be able to claim they led the first lap?

Leading the first lap of inaugural Cup races at a new track is a big deal.

For the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994, Dale Earnhardt pressed the issue so much that he caused his No. 3 Chevrolet to slap the outside wall exiting Turn 4.

He still didn’t lead the first lap. That honor went to pole-sitter Rick Mast.

Among the information available for the 24 active Cup tracks (excluding Richmond Raceway), only four times has the driver who led the first lap of an inaugural race not started in first place. Those occurred in 1950 at Darlington, 1961 at Bristol Motor Speedway, 1969 at Michigan International Speedway and 2011 at Kentucky Speedway.

Three drivers have led the first lap more than once: Dale Jarrett (Texas Motor Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway), Kurt Busch (the last two inaugural races at Kentucky and the Charlotte Roval) and Fireball Roberts (Atlanta and Charlotte).

Here’s a look back at all the inaugural Cup races at each active track and the drivers who led the first lap in each event.

 

Charlotte Roval, 2018: Kurt Busch (started first)

Kentucky Speedway, 2011: Kurt Busch (started third)

Kansas Speedway, 2001: Jason Leffler (started first)

Chicagoland Speedway, 2001: Todd Bodine (started first)

Homestead-Miami Speedway, 1999: David Green (started first)

Las Vegas Motor Speedway, 1998: Dale Jarrett (started first)

Auto Club Speedway, 1997: Joe Nemechek (started first)

Texas Motor Speedway, 1997: Dale Jarrett (started first)

Indianapolis Motor Speedway, 1994: Rick Mast (started first)

New Hampshire Motor Speedway, 1993: Mark Martin (started first)

Sonoma Raceway, 1989: Rusty Wallace (started first)

Phoenix Raceway, 1988: Geoffrey Bodine (started first)

Pocono Raceway, 1974: Buddy Baker (started first)

Dover International Speedway, 1969: David Pearson (started first)

Michigan International Speedway, 1969: LeeRoy Yarbrough (started second)

Talladega Superspeedway, 1969: Bobby Isaac (started first)

Bristol Motor Speedway, 1961: Junior Johnson (started second)

Charlotte Motor Speedway, 1960: Fireball Roberts (started first)

Atlanta Motor Speedway, 1960: Fireball Roberts (started first)

Daytona International Speedway, 1959: Bob Welborn (started first)

Watkins Glen International, 1957: Buck Baker (started first, led every lap)

Richmond Raceway, 1953: Due to poor record keeping, the info isn’t available.

Darlington Raceway, 1950: Gober Sosebee (started third)

Martinsville Speedway, 1949: Curtis Turner (started first)

Stage is set for Cup teams in race for points

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With 10 races left in the Cup regular season, the push for stage points is starting to play a key role in strategy and the results are showing in the standings.

Austin Dillon holds what would be the 16th and final playoff heading into Sunday’s race at Kentucky Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on FS1). But as Matt Kenseth nearly showed last weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a victory by a driver outside the top 16 will take a playoff spot away from one hoping to make it by points.

Teams also are mindful that the regular season finale will be at Daytona International Speedway, which could lead to a surprise winner. Three of the last five Cup points races at Daytona saw a driver score either their first or second career Cup win: Dillon, Erik Jones and Justin Haley.

Teams already are trying different strategies to get away from 16th in the standings or climb into a potential playoff spot.

Matt DiBenedetto entered the Pocono doubleheader weekend 15th in the standings. Focusing on stage results, he scored 17 stage points in the two races that weekend and added 11 stage points last weekend at Indy.

Stage points can just make such a huge difference, especially this point in the year when the point stuff is really starting to settle out a little bit,” DiBenedetto said after the Pocono weekend. “People are settling in place, so you’ve got to take everything you can get because that makes a big difference as far as securing a solid spot in the playoffs.”

Those 28 stage points he’s earned the past three races helped DiBenedetto climb to 12th in the standings heading to Kentucky. He’s scored 26 more stage points than Clint Bowyer the past three races. That 26-point advantage helped put DiBenedetto three points ahead of Bowyer in standings.

William Byron‘s stage win at Indy proved key in helping him climb the points standings. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

William Byron won the first stage last weekend at Indy and collected 10 stage points (and one playoff point) after crew chief Chad Knaus had Byron stay on track under caution when most of the leaders did pit with eight laps left in the stage. Byron restarted in the lead and held that position for the final four laps of the stage under green.

Those 10 points helped Byron pass Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson for 14th in the standings. Byron leads Johnson, who sat out Indy because he had tested positive for COVID-19, by two points. Johnson has since had two negative tests for the coronavirus and been reinstated for this weekend.

Another driver who has benefitted from a strategy focused on stage points is Dillon. He’s scored 18 stage points the past three races to nine stage points by Jones. Dillon holds what would be the final playoff spot by six points on Jones.

2. Will this be Kyle Busch’s weekend?

The reigning series champion has one win in the last 38 races but heads to a Kentucky Speedway that has been good to him, even though Kurt Busch nipped his younger brother for the win in last year’s race.

Kyle Busch has two wins in nine starts at Kentucky and leads all drivers in top-five finishes (seven), top-10 finishes (eight) and laps led (621) at the track.

Busch’s lone victory in the last 38 races came in last year’s championship race in Miami. In that same span, his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates have combined to win 14 races.

Also during that 38-race stretch, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick have combined to win 16 races (42.1%). Each has eight wins in that time.

3. Speeding on pit road

Here’s a look at the number of pit road speeding penalties drivers have had in the first 16 races of the Cup season:

6 – Quin Houff

5 – Ryan Newman, Bubba Wallace

4 – Corey LaJoie, Garrett Smithley, Daniel Suarez

3 – Ty Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., JJ Yeley,

2 – Christopher Bell, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Busch, Matt DiBenedetto, Austin Dillon, Denny Hamlin, Timmy Hill, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Michael McDowell, Brennan Poole, Ryan Preece.

1 – Chris Buescher, William Byron, Chase Elliott, Joey Gase, Erik Jones, Matt Kenseth, John Hunter Nemechek, Tyler Reddick,

0 – Aric Almirola, Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, Kurt Busch, Cole Custer, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Martin Truex Jr.

4. Streakin’

With Jimmie Johnson missing last weekend’s race at Indianapolis after testing positive for COVID-19, his consecutive starts streak ended at 663, ranking fifth on the all-time list. Johnson has since been cleared to race this weekend at Kentucky Speedway.

Kevin Harvick ranks sixth on the list of longest consecutive starts streak with 656 consecutive starts heading into Sunday’s race at Kentucky Speedway.

Here is the top 6 in longest consecutive streaks:

797 — Jeff Gordon

788 — Ricky Rudd

704 — Bobby Labonte

697 — Rusty Wallace

663 — Jimmie Johnson

656 — Kevin Harvick

5. More of the same for Chevy teams?

Chevrolet teams are winless in their last eight Cup races and the manufacturer has one win in nine races at Kentucky. That victory came last year with Kurt Busch beating Kyle Busch at the finish.

Since Chase Elliott won the second Charlotte race in late May, Chevy drivers have not won. Elliott finished second in Miami, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was second at Talladega and Matt Kenseth was second at Indianapolis.

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Kurt Busch to make 700th career Cup start

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Former champion Kurt Busch will make his 700th career Cup start today at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (4 p.m. ET on NBC and the NBC Sports App).

Busch becomes only the 16th driver to amass at least 700 career Cup starts. Richard Petty owns the series record with 1,185 starts.

Busch, who starts second today at Indy, has the most career starts among active drivers. He has two more starts than Kevin Harvick, who is scheduled to make his 700th career Cup start July 19 at Texas Motor Speedway.

Busch made his first career Cup start Sept. 24, 2000 at Dover, finishing 18th.

He has 31 career victories, including the 2017 Daytona 500. Busch won the 2004 Cup title. He has 307 career top-10 finishes.

The 41-year-old marvels at making his 700th career Cup start today.

“It’s amazing,” Busch said. “To have this opportunity and to have been blessed to have raced with so many great race teams over the years, just making it past the local track was something that I thought was an achievement because my dad was a local racer. He won a lot. But it was like money, sponsors, and the whole challenge of even getting to like the Southwest Tour and Late Model division, that was even tough for us way back in the past.

“So, it’s amazing. Twenty years of racing at the top series level and now having 700 starts, I never would have guessed.”

Busch is 10th in points entering today’s race. He has yet to win his year but has three top-five finishes and nine top-10 results in 15 starts for Chip Ganassi Racing.

MOST CAREER CUP STARTS

1,185 – Richard Petty

906 – Ricky Rudd

890 – Terry Labonte

883 – Dave Marcis

882 – Mark Martin

829 – Kyle Petty

828 – Bill Elliott

809 – Darrell Waltrip

805 – Jeff Gordon

784 – Michael Waltrip

763 – Ken Schrader

748 – Sterling Marlin

729 – Bobby Labonte

706 – Rusty Wallace

700 – Kurt Busch

NASCAR’s top five moments from the Coca-Cola 600

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Today marks the longest race of the year for NASCAR as the Cup Series holds the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The 400-lap race was first held in 1960 and has seen its fair share of defining moments.

Here are the five top moments from the first 60 years of the Coca-Cola 600.

1) New Kid on the Block (1994)

The first 46 years of NASCAR were defined by names like Petty, Earnhardt and Waltrip.

Arguably the first big moment for NASCAR’s next generation of racers came on May 29, 1994 courtesy of Jeff Gordon.

That was the day the 22-year-old kid from California scored his first Cup Series win.

After making his first start in the 1992 season finale, Gordon’s team, led by crew chief Ray Evernham, had to wait until their 42nd start together to visit Victory Lane.

The victory was aided by Evernham’s decision on a late pit stop to take two tires instead of four.

Gordon led the final nine laps and beat Rusty Wallace. In Victory Lane, an emotional Gordon called it the greatest day of his life.

2) One Turn Away (2011)

May 29, 2011 was not a good day to drive a race car sponsored by the National Guard.

The bad luck began on the last lap of the Indianapolis 500. Rookie J.R Hildebrand was leading Dan Wheldon when Hildebrand passed a slow car on the outside in the final turn and hit the wall, allowing Wheldon to steal the win.

Hours later, it was Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s turn to experience misfortune in the Coke 600.

An overtime finish saw Earnhardt leading at the white flag. He still led in Turn 3, but then his No. 88 Chevrolet pulled up lame in Turn 4 as it ran out of gas.

That allowed Kevin Harvick to overtake him and streak to the checkered flag as Earnhardt limped to a seventh-place finish.

It was the first of two Coke 600 wins for Harvick.

3) The No. 3 Returns to Victory Lane (2017)

After Feb. 18, 2001 and the death of Dale Earnhardt in the Daytona 500, the No. 3 did not compete in the Cup Series for 13 years.

Richard Childress Racing brought the number back in 2014 with Childress’ grandson, Austin Dillon, behind the wheel.

Dillon and his team would have to wait until May 28, 2017 to bring the famous number back to Victory Lane.

The race ended with a 67-lap green flag run, which set up a fuel-mileage battle between Jimmie Johnson and Dillon.

Dillon won.

Johnson ran out of gas with two laps to go, which allowed Dillon to take the lead on the backstretch. Dillon took the checkered flag, giving the No. 3 a win in the Coke 600 for the first time since 1993.

4) The Silver Fox Arrives (1961)

1960 saw the inaugural Coke 600 – then called the World 600 – and the arrival of David Pearson on the NASCAR stage.

The following year Pearson began building his Hall of Fame resume in the 400-lap race.

Pearson, driving a car owned by Ray Fox, dominated the race by leading 225 laps.

But Pearson’s car didn’t finish the race in one piece.

With two laps to go, one of the tires on Pearson’s Pontiac blew. But Pearson managed to pilot the car to the checkered flag, crossing the finish line in sparks to beat Fireball Roberts by two laps.

It was the first of 105 career Cup wins for Pearson and his first of three Coke 600 wins.

5) Janet Guthrie Arrives in NASCAR (1976)

While David Pearson and Richard Petty finished first and second, the future Hall of Famers weren’t the highlight of the World 600 on May 30, 1976.

That was the driver who finished 15th in her first NASCAR race: Janet Guthrie.

Guthrie, a former aerospace engineer and a sports car driver, had been brought to the World 600 by Charlotte Motor Speedway President Humpy Wheeler after her bid to make the Indianapolis 500 failed.

Guthrie became the first woman to compete in a NASCAR race on a superspeedway. She started 27th and survived the 400-lap marathon as 16 cars dropped out. While she finished 21 laps behind Pearson and Petty, she placed ahead of future Hall of Famers Richard Childress, Bill Elliott, Dale Earnhardt and Bobby Isaac.

It was the first of 33 career Cup starts Guthrie would make over the next four years and it was her only start in the 600.

MORE: Where Are They now? Janet Guthrie

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