NASCAR Talk continues its offseason Power Rankings, as voted on by NBC Sports’ NASCAR writers.
Today, we present our picks for the top driver/crew chief combinations in the sport.
There are a few surprises, for sure. Most notably: 2019 Cup champion Kyle Busch and crew chief Adam Stevens did not take the No. 1 spot in the rankings.
We’re asking fans to give their take on our picks (choose from Cup, Xfinity or Trucks). Do you agree or disagree – and why? Take our poll at the bottom of these rankings.
The top driver/crew chief rankings:
1. Martin Truex Jr./Cole Pearn (29 points): Among the sport’s gold standard, if not the standard other driver/crew chief pairings are measured. A series-high 23 wins have come in the last four seasons, including one championship in 2017 and back-to-back runner-up finishes in 2018 and 2019.
2. Denny Hamlin/Chris Gabehart (25 points): In his first season as a Cup crew chief, Gabehart brought a second wind to Hamlin’s career after the latter went winless in 2018. Hamlin put together his best year in almost a decade in 2019 with six wins, 19 top five and 24 top-10 finishes.
3. Kyle Busch/Adam Stevens (24 points): This is the only current driver-crew chief combo with multiple Cup titles. Stevens and Busch have been to the Championship 4 all five years they’ve been together. Sure, it wasn’t easy in the playoffs this year but they still claimed the championship.
4. Kevin Harvick/Rodney Childers (23 points): Were fast when they first got together in 2014 and have not slowed since. They have collected 26 wins in their six years together, earning the championship in 2014 and only missing the Championship 4 round once since (2016). If it wasn’t for occasional inconsistency and slumps, the No. 4 team likely would be ranked higher.
5. Christopher Bell/Jason Ratcliff (13 points): Though they will move to the Cup Series in 2020 without any Xfinity championships, they tormented the competition in the Xfinity Series the past two years, winning 15 times. Placed in the top five in 38 of 66 races.
6. Brad Keselowski/Paul Wolfe (12 points): The longest-tenured active combo in Cup at nine years. The duo has 29 wins, one championship and won three or more races in seven of those nine seasons together. The No. 2 team would have placed higher in these rankings except it has reached Championship 4 round just once (2015) since NASCAR went to an elimination playoff format in 2014.
7. Joey Logano/Todd Gordon (11 points): Did not have a strong playoffs but remained in contention for a Championship 4 spot until the penultimate race at Phoenix by grabbing stage points. The duo has 21 wins, one championship and one runner-up in seven years together. Have earned at least one win in each season they’ve been together but haven’t had more than three wins in a single season since 2015.
8. Chase Elliott/Alan Gustafson (7 points): Gustafson is underrated in his ability to build a team. After a slow start together, they’ve managed to produce back-to-back three-win seasons. Granted, the third round (finishes of 36th, 32nd and 39th) sealed Elliott’s hope of making the Championship 4, but this is a team that has laid a strong foundation.
9. William Byron/Chad Knaus (6 points): Only one of our voters selected Byron/Knaus. While this first-year pairing didn’t lead to a win for Byron, there was a tremendous amount of growth this season with five top-five and 13 top-10 finishes. Knaus’ veteran ability and patience and mentoring has paid dividends, leading to even higher expectations for this pairing in 2020.
10. Cole Custer/Mike Shiplett (5 points): After Custer earned just one win in each of his first two full-time Xfinity seasons, Shiplett provided a supercharge to Custer’s career. They earned seven wins and finished second in the championship race to Tyler Reddick in 2019. There has been no announcement whether Shiplett will follow Custer to Cup in 2020.
CONCORD, N.C. — While Ryan Newman‘s crew chief admits “we were probably not in the right” when Newman missed the backstretch chicane with three laps left in Sunday’s playoff elimination race, Scott Graves still doesn’t “understand why it deserved a penalty.”
Newman, racing ahead of Aric Almirola at the time and in position to advance by one point, briefly shot over the curbing of the chicane before returning to the track. He was quickly passed by Almirola.
But Newman did not stop in the frontstretch restart zone – the penalty for missing the chicane. Then NASCAR ordered him to serve a pass through penalty. He didn’t comply.
With so little time left in the race, he was kept on the track by Graves. In the end, a 30-second penalty was tacked onto Newman’s 17th-place finish. Instead of being one point away from advancing, Newman was relegated to a 32nd-place finish, 16 points behind the cutoff.
“It wasn’t going to matter,” Graves told NBC Sports of serving the penalty. “I wasn’t going to give up the spot on track until we could fight for it. … We were on the blue curbing, but I guess you got to be on the red-and-white curbing. It’s not like we advanced our position, we actually lost a position. So I guess I kind of question the rule a little bit. Obviously, you can blow the whole chicane and you can pass three or four cars. If you’re not advancing your position and it’s actually a penalty, for us to do what we did I don’t understand why it deserved a penalty. Those are the rules.”
“I really don’t like this race track at all, so asking me about the chicane is not going to narrow it down,” Newman said.
“It’s not the only mistake I made, but it’s what actually took us out. In the end, just proud of the guys. I let us down on pit road, we had one bad pit stop (stalled on Lap 90). Just lots of little things today. But I felt like I made a lot of mistakes trying too hard. We did not have the race car. That’s what I had to do. I felt like we were in position at one point. Just kept trying too hard to keep (Almirola) behind us. Missed the curbs. It was unfortunate. We came in at a big deficiency.”
Graves knew after last week’s fifth-place finish at Richmond that this weekend would be a challenge because Roush Fenway Racing has not been as strong on the road courses. The team struggled all weekend and wasn’t fast. Changes Graves tried during the race didn’t work and they went back to their setup at the start of the race. Nothing proved effective.
Despite missing the playoff, Newman was given a reason to smile afterward on a hot Charlotte Motor Speedway pit road.
While sitting next to his No. 6 Ford, his daughter Ashlyn helped cool him off by dousing him with water.
“It’s awesome to have her here,” Newman said. “It’s special to me to have her come out and be a part of this. It doesn’t make it all better, but it surely makes it better.”
Long: Heated radio chatter raises questions about who is driving
RICHMOND, Va. — For at least the second time this season, a crew chief told his driver to retaliate after contact from another car, raising questions about such emotional outbursts and the actions that follow.
Car owner Richard Childress and crew chief Danny Stockman each told Austin Dillon on the team’s radio to pay Alex Bowman back for an incident on the Lap 109 restart Saturday at Richmond. Bowman’s contact sent Dillon’s car into William Byron’s, causing more damage to Dillon’s No. 3 Chevrolet.
Childress told his grandson to “get (Bowman’s) ass back if you get to him.”
Stockman told Dillon:
“Get him back.
“Get him back.
“Get him back.
“Get … him … back … now.”
Dillon did as told and spun Bowman but the contact also damaged Dillon’s car.
Later, as Dillon tried to dissect his car’s handling at the end of stage 2 on Lap 200, he mentioned the incident earlier in the race: “I don’t have a good idea for you. We ruined our car in a wreck for no reason. I didn’t think we needed to do that.”
Ultimately, the driver is responsible for what they do with the car. But when a driver is agitated after being hit by a competitor and told to “get him back” as Dillon was, it puts the driver in a difficult situation. Ignore the crew chief — and the car owner in this case — and it can lead to questions about team leadership among crew members and who can hear the conversations on their headsets. Do as told and it can make a bad situation worse.
It did for William Byron at Watkins Glen.
Kyle Busch spun while underneath Byron’s car in Turn 1. Busch caught Byron and hit the back of Byron’s car, forcing it through the grass in the inner loop.
Crew chief Chad Knaus told Byron on the radio: “If I see that 18 (Busch) come back around without you knocking the (expletive) out of him, we’re going to have a problem.”
Byron, following the orders of a seven-time champion crew chief, did as he was told and had a bigger problem.
Seeing Byron behind him under caution, Busch hit his brakes and Byron slammed into the back of Busch’s car. The contact smashed the nose of Byron’s car. Byron, who started second, finished 21st and was never a factor after the incident.
Byron called the Watkins Glen episode a “turning point. I realized I’m the guy driving the car and ultimately the decisions that I make … trickles down to my team and all the work they’re putting in.”
Another key is what is said on the radio and how it is said between Knaus and Byron.
“I think the only thing is just staying positive and staying motivated in the race,” Byron said. “I don’t seem to do well with like negative energy.”
How did he get his point across?
“I think situations have played out on the track to where it’s kind of been understood that we’ve got to do things a different way,” Byron said. “We both have our way of doing things. I’ve really accepted the way he does things, and he’s accepted the way I do things. Any good working relationship is kind of that compromise.”
It’s understandable that crew chiefs and teams will be upset when somebody damages their car. To have all the work that goes into each race impacted by some driver’s mistake or recklessness is frustrating and infuriating.
But for those who talk to a driver on the radio during a race comes great responsibility. One can calm a driver and focus on the task at hand or inflame the situation.
When a situation escalates, the results are never good.
Although he tied his best finish of the season Saturday night at Richmond, placing fifth wasn’t the biggest achievement to Ryan Newman.
“What meant to me the most was just being better than we were the first race,” said Newman, who finished ninth at Richmond in the April. “We came back and showed that we were learning and we’ll keep learning.”
Such improvement has put the Roush Fenway Racing driver — who didn’t secure a playoff spot until the regular-season finale — in position to advance to the second round after Sunday’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC). Newman enters the weekend ninth in the standings, 14 points ahead of Alex Bowman, the first driver outside a playoff spot.
Newman is one of four playoff drivers — Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson are the others — who have finished better in their second appearance at a playoff track than the first time this year. Newman’s 10th-place finish in the Las Vegas playoff opener was 14 places better than he finished there in March. His Richmond race was four spots better than his spring result.
“We hoped every time we got back (to a track a second time) we would be better,” Scott Graves, Newman’s crew chief, told NBC Sports after the Richmond race. “This was a good race for us in the spring. We took all our notes there and we knew what we needed to do differently. When you get here and you unload and the car is good right from the bat and you can just make fine adjustments, it just makes the weekend go easier. We were able to do that this time.”
Richmond marked the sixth time that Cup has raced at a track for a second time this season. The others are Daytona, Las Vegas, Bristol, Pocono and Michigan.
Newman has improved 3.8 positions the second time at those tracks, ranking fourth among playoff drivers. Newman trails Larson (gain of 11.2 positions), Martin Truex Jr. (9.2) and William Byron (4.5).
“I feel like we really struggled to figure out where the balance of the car needed to be the first time around,” Graves said. “How much drag did we need? How much downforce did we need? Then mechanically, what did we need in the car. It’s kind of like those learn-by-trial kind of things. We went, ‘OK that didn’t work but we think we know what we need now.’ ”
The six lead changes Saturday at Richmond were the fewest there since the 2014 fall race, which had four lead changes among two drivers.
Both Richmond races this season combined for 10 cautions (five in each race). Last year’s two Richmond races combined for nine cautions.
Clint Bowyer, who finished eighth, expressed his frustration with this past weekend’s race.
“We have to figure something out with this track and our package,” Bowyer said. “I’m not sold that this is the best product we can do here. I love this place. I love the race track. I love this fan base, this area and everything. Ever since I started in this sport, this has always been an action track and it’s lacking a little bit of that.
“I think we could do some things with maybe some PJ1 or sealer or tires – something. We need to try to make an adjustment, I really believe that.”
Kevin Harvick was asked the day before last weekend’s race if traction compound should be used at Richmond to help drivers with passing.
“I honestly thought we would have traction compound down for this particular race,” he said. “Using the tire dragon here does zero.”
So where would it be best to apply traction compound at Richmond?
“Chase Elliott had the best idea, just like we used to do with the sealer, just coat the whole corner,” Harvick said. “Let it ride for the weekend. Let the race track evolve. It’s become one of the most difficult places to pass. It’s become more difficult this year. I think the traction compound would definitely be a good option.”
Clint Bowyer is a free agent after this season but signs point to him returning to Stewart-Haas Racing next year.
Bowyer noted that he did a Mobil 1 shoot last week with Kevin Harvick for next year.
Bowyer said a new contract is “not done” but “I’m comfortable where it’s at. We’re working on partnerships for next year and having success there.”
Bowyer is in his third season at Stewart-Haas Racing, taking over the No. 14 ride after Tony Stewart retired. Bower has won twice with the team, scoring victories at Martinsville and Michigan in 2018.
There was a buzz in the garage over the weekend about possible changes for pit stops next year in the Xfinity and Gander Outdoors Truck Series.
That buzz intensified after Michael Waltrip tweeted that stage breaks without live pit stops for the Xfinity and Truck Series would be “absolutely the right thing to do” to help teams save money while also providing more racing action.
Stage breaks w/0 live pit stops in the @XfinityRacing and the @NASCAR_Trucks Series is absolutely the right thing to do. It’ll give fans more racing action and the TV networks a perfect time to play commercials and keep the race flowing. And save teams a lot of money. 👍🏼🏁
I’d recommend when the field is frozen at stage end and cars come to pit road teams can change 4, 2 or no tires. Then they line up in order depending on what they elected to do. No tires first, 2 next then 4.
NASCAR had no comment about the issue and Waltrip’s tweets.
It’s clear based on the chatter in the garage that NASCAR is taking a look at potential changes to pit stops. In making the switch to 18-inch wheels with the Gen 7 car, which is scheduled to debut in 2021, NASCAR also is considering the use of a single lug nut to secure wheels. Such a move would overhaul pit stops and likely de-emphasize the importance of tire changers.
INDIANAPOLIS — Amid the weekend’s celebrations at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the most emotional moments came not in Victory Lane but on pit road.
One driver cried. Another beamed.
Jeb Burton and Bubba Wallace have faced various challenges in their careers. The 27-year-old Burton, son of 2002 Daytona 500 winner Ward Burton, has fought to remain relevant in NASCAR. The 25-year-old Wallace, whose dynamic personality is engaging, has been open about his struggles on the track and off.
In a sport where the focus often shifts to the next young driver, it’s easy to forget how much racing Burton and Wallace both could have left and the impact they could make.
Of course, racing, as in life, isn’t always fair. Short tracks across the country feature drivers who had the talent to race in NASCAR’s premier series but never got the chance whether because they didn’t have the proper funding, right look or were too old when discovered.
So in that sense, Burton and Wallace can be considered among the fortunate to have climbed NASCAR’s ladder. That isn’t satisfying for either, though. They want more.
Burton has not had a full-time ride in any of NASCAR’s top three national series since a 2015 Cup effort with BK Racing, a team that no longer exists after going through bankruptcy court a year ago. Burton has pieced together rides with whatever sponsorship he can find. He’s run three Cup, 14 Xfinity and four Truck races since 2017.
He will drive two more Xfinity races this season (Texas and Miami) for JR Motorsports, giving him seven starts in the team’s No. 8 car this season.
Asked where the emotion was coming from, Burton said in a quivering voice: “Two years ago I didn’t know if I was going to drive again. That’s where it comes from.”
Burton later said: “Every time I get into a race car I feel like I’ve got something to prove. You don’t know, this could be the last time out there. You don’t know. I cried like a baby in my TV interview because it means so much. You don’t know when this could be your last day. You’ve just got to cherish every moment.”
Suarez led the opening 49 laps at Kentucky but when a caution came out, the team decided to change four tires. Two cars took no tires and 10 cars took two tires during that caution. Suarez restarted 13th, the first car on four tires. He finished the opening stage in 14th and scored no stage points.
In the second stage, Suarez had a flat tire and had to pit under green and then was called for speeding. He fell three laps down at one point and never had a chance to score any stage points.
That was one of three times this season that the driver who started on the pole failed to score any stage points. Austin Dillon did not tally any stage points after starting on the pole at Auto Club Speedway in March, and Denny Hamlin failed to do so after starting on the pole at Bristol in August.
Drivers who started on the pole scored an average of 10.2 stage points per race in the regular season this year. Suarez could have used those 10 points Sunday.
Twenty-seven cars, including Newman, pitted for fuel on Lap 150 at Michigan, putting them all on the edge of making it the rest of the race on fuel. Newman and teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. came back to pit road the next lap to top off on fuel.
With no caution the rest of the way, fuel mileage was critical. Newman went from 18th to 12th in the final three laps as cars ahead of him had to pit for fuel or ran out on the track.
Newman ran out of fuel on Turn 4 of the last lap but easily made it across the finish line. Had he not stopped on Lap 151 to top off, he wouldn’t have made it to the end and would have lost several positions.
Ryan Newman helped snap the playoff drought for Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 6 car.
The car once piloted by Hall of Famer Mark Martin last made the playoffs in 2006 — the year Jimmie Johnson won the first of his record-tying seven Cup titles.
Newman’s team has gone through key changes since last season’s finale in Miami. Scott Graves became the team’s crew chief for this season. The team also has a different engineer and car chief from last year’s Miami race.
“Our team is so new,” Newman said. “It is newer than I have ever experienced. That is huge. With all the changes we had in our sport in the offseason, I think it was underestimated by me and a huge change to tackle.
“I feel like we have done a good job but to answer your question, we just need to continue to progress to make our cars go faster. I think we have had some good strategy and pit stops and good moves on the race track. All those types of things. Good things need to turn into great things and keep progressing as a team.”
Leaders crashing late in a race can can create ill will and lead to spicy exchange between competitors. Not for Tyler Reddick and Christopher Bell in Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Indianapolis.
Instead, fans saw sportsmanship after the two drivers wrecked with seven laps left.
Reddick approached Bell on the track and gave him a tap on the back.
Reddick told NBCSN after leaving the infield care center: “No one in this garage or in NASCAR racing in general should ever question Christopher’s driving ability. That wasn’t the issue there.
“His car just simply got loose, and we just got together and we didn’t really have a lot of race track. It’s (the) end of the race, we’re going for it type deal. Nothing against Christopher. He did nothing wrong. His car just got loose. Just part of racing at the end at this place.”
Refreshing to see how this situation was handled.
Shortly after celebrating Kevin Harvick‘s victory at Indianapolis, crew chief Rodney Childers was focused on the challenge of the playoffs, which begin Sunday (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN) at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
“I think this season is just tough,” he said. “I think it’s going to be tougher the next 10 races than it’s ever been. You’ve got 550 (horsepower) races that you have to be good at. You’ve got 750 races you’ve got to be good at. You’ve got road course cars you’ve got to be good at. You’ve got to have a good Martinsville car. There’s so many different things in the playoffs this year that it’s going to be so important to have great race cars every week.”
The quote of the weekend belonged to Kevin Harvick’s son Keelan.
Asked what it was like to kiss the bricks after his father’s win, Keelan said: “They don’t taste great, but it was fun kissing the bricks.”
Long: Playoff drought could be coming to an end for one team
BROOKLYN, Mich. — As cars ran out of fuel Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, Ryan Newman gained positions.
Then his engine sputtered, and he ran out of fuel in Turn 4.
On the final lap.
Newman made it to the finish line without losing any spots. He went from 18th to 12th in the last three laps as others coasted or had to pit for fuel.
Those six spots gained — and six points collected — helped stretch Newman’s lead for one of the final Cup playoff spots. He can help end a significant playoff drought. Newman enters Saturday night’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) 15th in the standings. Clint Bowyer, who holds the final playoff spot, is 10 points behind Newman.
Not since 2006 has the No. 6 team made the Cup playoffs. That car number was the first number Roush Fenway Racing used when it entered NASCAR’s premier series in 1988 with Mark Martin. And it was Martin in the car when it last made the Cup playoffs. Now it’s Newman’s ride and he is three races away from making the playoffs.
“To get into the (playoffs), race our way in throughout the whole season, it would show a huge step for the program,” said crew chief Scott Graves.
The team struggled last year with Trevor Bayne and Matt Kenseth sharing the ride. Graves, who had been Daniel Suarez’s crew chief for the majority of the past two years at Joe Gibbs Racing, joined Newman with the No. 6 team this year.
Topping off for fuel played a key role in Newman’s finish at Michigan. Twenty-seven cars pitted on Lap 150 under caution but Newman returned to pit road the following lap to top off on fuel. Only Newman and teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. came back to pit road to top off for fuel on Lap 151
Without that extra fuel, Newman would have run out sooner and lost positions — and points.
Newman looks to lead the No. 6 back in the playoffs with a grinding style that has not been pretty but has been productive.
The team has struggled to find speed. Newman has not started better than 16th in the last 15 races. It’s a key reason why Newman has scored 19 stage points in that span.
Newman is ahead of Bowyer, Suarez and Jimmie Johnson in the race for the final two playoff spots. Bowyer (54 stage points), Suarez (23) and Johnson (37) each has more stage points than Newman.
With the deficit on stage points, Newman and his team have had to score solid finishes. That made Graves’ decision to top off for fuel on Lap 151 at Michigan critical.
“We know the guys we’re racing against here, they’ve got the potential on any given weekend to go up there and bust off stage points and potentially win,” Graves said. “Obviously we are working really hard. We are grinding it out and getting the finishes we can to stay in this.
“That’s how we have to race right now. We know that to get in and even get anywhere in the (playoffs) if we do get in, we’ve got to really work on speed to get points.”
The shoulder, he said, was not injured in an accident on the track. No, he injured the shoulder throwing a Nerf ball to son Keelan.
“It’s cut into my golf game,” Harvick quipped Sunday on NBCSN’s post-race show.
He later added that the shoulder is “probably 80 percent now. I mean, there was a point when I went to Sonoma that I couldn’t even lift it up. It feels better in the race car than it does— the worst thing I had to do in the race car was shift.
“My main concern was Watkins Glen, but we got through it. It’s getting close to being back where it needs to be. But it was definitely uncomfortable. The load that these cars put on it is right next to the … it’s right in the spot where it’s not feeling well. So all the load from the shoulder is where it’s been injured. … But it’s fine.”
With the rules package intended to keep cars closer together and blocking more prevalent, additional conflicts are likely to occur toward the end of the regular season and into the playoffs. How one handles those situations could play a role in the final weeks of the season.
Such situations can be challenging, says Brad Keselowski, who had feuds with Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards early in his career. There remains friction with Busch even after Keselowski sought to smooth things between them.
“It wears on you as much as you let it wear on you,” Keselowski said of conflicts with other drivers. “Second, I would say that there are some drivers that handle conflict incredibly well and there are some that don’t. I have never considered myself to be the best at it.
“I will be honest, I do look at videos of guys like Dale Earnhardt. He was in so many situations of conflict and they were easier to deal with in his time and age because of the lack of social media and lack of a 24-hour news cycle and things of that nature. But then on the flip side, he was a master at dealing with it. So I think you look at those guys and you think that probably parlayed into some of the success of his career, so you would be a fool not to study and try to learn from it. In today’s landscape it is harder than ever to handle for sure.”
Ben Rhodes collected a dubious honor Saturday at Michigan International Speedway.
He ranked fifth in the points — before the standings were reset for the playoff competitors — and failed to make the playoffs. That makes him the driver who has been the highest in points before the standings were reset to miss the postseason in Cup, Xfinity or the Gander Outdoors Truck Series in this current format.
Also what makes Rhodes standing unique is that not all the playoff competitors ran all the races or scored points in all the races.
Ankrum was not old enough to compete in the season’s first three races. Sauter was suspended one race when NASCAR penalized him for wrecking Hill at Iowa in June. Chastain started the season running for points in the Xfinity Series and switched to Truck points before the season’s ninth race, which was at Texas in June. That’s why they were behind Rhodes in points.
The Truck playoffs begin Thursday night at Bristol Motor Speedway.