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Friday 5: Key questions leading into 2019 Cup season

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Cup teams test in two weeks in Las Vegas. The Daytona 500 is a month away. The new rules package debuts in five weeks in Atlanta.

There are many questions to ponder with the Cup season nearing. Here are five key questions.

1. What will the racing be like?

NASCAR made the decision to go with a new rules package that should make the racing tighter.

Will it? Can this package lead to more side-by-side racing, more beating and banging and more drivers upset with one another?

If it does, this could be among the steps to attract more fans. If not, then what?

2. What’s next from NASCAR?

It could be argued that this year will be among the most pivotal for NASCAR.

Steve Phelps enters his first full season as President. Jim France remains interim Chairman, having taken over after Brian France went on an indefinite leave after his arrest Aug. 5 for aggravated driving while intoxicated and possession of a controlled substance in the 7th degree.

Phelps and Jim France will be among those who decide NASCAR’s direction. Phelps has twice said publicly since late September that “everything is in play” when looking at the Cup schedule for 2020 and beyond.

There has been talk of starting the season earlier and ending it sooner, midweek racing and doubleheaders.

How fans accept what NASCAR does — or doesn’t do — will be key.

3. Can Ford teams — particularly Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske — avoid the new-car blues that Toyota and Chevrolet teams experienced the past two years?

Both Toyota (2017) and Chevrolet (2018) struggled at times with their new cars in their debut seasons. If the same thing happens to Ford this year with the Mustang, it could allow Chevy and Toyota teams a chance to win races, qualify for the playoffs and build playoff points. That could be significant.

Toyota debuted the Camry in 2017 to mixed results. Although Martin Truex Jr. won three times in the first 18 races with the car at Furniture Row Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing could not get any of its Toyotas to Victory Lane until the 19th race of the season.

Things changed in the second half of the season. Toyota cars won 14 of the last 19 races and also the championship.

Chevrolet debuted the Camaro last year and also struggled in the first half of the season. Chevy teams won once — the Daytona 500 — in the first 21 races last year. Chevrolet won three times after that — all by Chase Elliott.

So can Ford teams be strong all season or will they need some time to become dominant or will they struggle much of the year?

4. Will new driver-crew chief pairings lead to wins?

The focus this season will be on Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus no longer working together on the No. 48 team — Johnson will be with rookie Cup crew chief Kevin Meendering and Knaus will be paired with sophomore Cup driver William Byron — but there are other pairings to watch.

After going winless last year, Denny Hamlin will be with crew chief Chris Gabehart, who has won in the Xfinity Series with Hamlin, Erik Jones and Ryan Preece.

Kurt Busch moves to Chip Ganassi Racing for what could be his final Cup season. He’ll look to crew chief Matt McCall to help make this year memorable.

Austin Dillon is reunited with crew chief Danny Stockman. They combined for championships in the Truck and Xfinity Series. While Dillon won last year’s Daytona 500, he wasn’t much of a threat at many other tracks. Can this pairing have success again?

Daniel Suarez lost his ride at Joe Gibbs Racing to make room for Martin Truex Jr. and Cole Pearn. Suarez moves to Stewart-Haas Racing and looks to crew chief Billy Scott to help him succeed.

Ryan Newman moves to Roush Fenway Racing and will have Scott Graves as his crew chief. Graves came from Joe Gibbs Racing. Can these two help raise Roush Fenway Racing’s profile?

5.  Who wins first?

It was shocking that Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson each went winless last year.

Don’t count on that happening this year. Don’t be surprised to see all three win this year. As for who will be the first to win? You don’t have much longer to find out. The season is approaching quickly.

Scott Graves to be Ryan Newman’s crew chief at Roush Fenway Racing

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Roush Fenway Racing confirmed Tuesday that Scott Graves will be Ryan Newman‘s crew chief next season on the No. 6 Cup team.

Graves had been the crew chief for Daniel Suarez this season until leaving Joe Gibbs Racing Oct. 9.

Graves joined Roush Fenway Racing as an engineer in 2006. He was a crew chief there from 2012-15. He did four races as an Xfinity crew chief in 2012, working with a variety of drivers. In 2013, he served as Ricky Stenhouse Jr.‘s crew chief for three Cup races late in the season. Graves was Stenhouse’s crew chief in Cup for the 2013 season. Graves returned to the Xfinity Series and was the crew chief for Chris Buescher in 2014-15. They won the championship in 2015.

Graves left Roush for Joe Gibbs Racing and was Suarez’s crew chief in Xfinity in 2016 when he won the championship. Graves started 2017 with JGR’s Xfintiy program before moving up to be Suarez’s Cup crew chief early in the season.

“We are very pleased to bring Scott back to the fold,” said team co-owner Jack Roush in a statement from the team. “Scott is an exceptional talent atop the pit box and he has done an outstanding job throughout his career – with multiple championship campaigns attesting to that.

“He brings a strong engineering background to the table and we are excited about the opportunity to pair him with Ryan Newman going into the 2019 season.”

Roush Fenway Racing announced Sept. 22 that Newman would join the team in 2019.

Matt Puccia is the crew chief on the No. 6 car this season. Roush Fenway Racing stated that details on Puccia’s role are being worked out.

 

 

Daniel Suarez gets new crew chief for final six races of season

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Crew chief Scott Graves is leaving Joe Gibbs Racing and will be replaced immediately by Dave Rogers, the team announced Tuesday.

Rogers has served as technical director for JGR’s Xfinity operation. He will be the crew chief for Daniel Suarez the rest of the season.

Rogers and Suarez worked together for five races in 2017, Suarez’s rookie year, before Rogers took a personal leave of absence. Graves had been Suarez’s crew chief since then.

Rogers has 18 career Cup wins while working with Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards at JGR.

Suarez was the only Joe Gibbs Racing driver not to make the Cup playoffs this season. He enters this weekend’s race at Talladega Superspeedway 18th in points.

NASCAR docks Kyle Larson 20 points for rear window infraction

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NASCAR docked Kyle Larson’s team 20 driver and owner points for a rear-window violation from Saturday night’s race at Kansas Speedway.

Larson dropped from 10th to 11th in the standings behind Aric Almirola. Larson also lost one playoff point from his second stage victory at Kansas.

Car chief David Bryant was suspended for two points races for the L1 violation. Crew chief, Chad Johnston was fined $50,000

MORE: NASCAR official says teams will get maximum penalties for future rear-window violations

The NASCAR penalty report cited Larson’s team for violating “Section 20.4.h Body and 20.4.8.1.b&c Rear Window Support and Structure; rear window support braces must keep the rear window glass rigid in all directions at all times.”

In a statement, Chip Ganassi Racing announced it wouldn’t challenge the penalty: “Although all parties agree that the infraction was unintentional and the result of contact, we will not appeal the penalty so that we can focus our energy on the All-Star Race and the Coca-Cola 600.”

After he finished fourth at Kansas, Larson blamed his sagging rear window on damage from contact with Ryan Blaney with 20 laps to go.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s executive vice president and chief racing development officer, said Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio about Larson’s car: “We see claims of damage, but I think in talking to our folks, I’ve never seen damage cause that.”

It’s the fifth rear-window violation in the Cup Series this season and the third in two weeks.

After the May 6 race at Dover International Speedway, the teams of Clint Bowyer (second) and Daniel Suarez (third) received similar penalties to Larson’s.

Kevin Harvick also was penalized after his win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in March, and Chase Elliott’s team was punished after the April 8 race at Texas Motor Speedway.

The only other penalty NASCAR announced Tuesday was a $10,000 fine to crew chief Todd Gordon for an unsecured lug nut on Joey Logano‘s car after the Kansas race.

Martinsville Cup race turns back clock to 1978 (video)

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MARTINSVILLE, Virginia — The last time a Martinsville Cup race featured four cautions before Monday?

You have to go back to when car owner Richard Childress was racing, the field had 30 cars, and drivers in that race included Satch Worley, Baxter Price and Ferrel Harris, along with eight Hall of Famers — race winner Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Benny Parsons, Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, Terry Labonte, David Pearson, and Childress.

That was September 1978. That race also had four cautions.

Of the four cautions in Monday’s snow-delayed race won by Clint Bowyer, two were for stage breaks, one was a competition caution and the other one was for an incident.

So, why were there so few cautions in Monday’s 500-lap race?

Opinions vary.

“Once you get strung out here, there’s not a lot of attrition,’’ Denny Hamlin, a five-time winner at Martinsville, said after placing 12th Monday. “Guys give each other room and when somebody is faster, somebody gives up the spot.

“It’s different racing now than what it used to be. I think that everyone is running the same speed. All of our cars, whether it be data sharing, setups that we’re sharing with each other and all that, everyone is getting their car to drive very, very similar.

“Even when I would come up on lapped cars, they were running a similar speed to what I was, but I was able to get through traffic better than they were. We’ve gotten the cars to where the drive is so similar so when everyone runs the same speed it’s hard to pass and with less passing there’s less chance for incidents. I thought it was still a good race, a lot of races have gone caution-free for a long time back in the day and Clint really put a whipping on them.”

Jeremy Bullins, crew chief for Ryan Blaney, said that with so few restarts, there were fewer chances for accidents and cautions toward the end of the race.

“I don’t know about the data sharing aspect,’’ Bullins told NBC Sports. “It could have an impact on it, but I think it’s just one of those days were it seemed like everybody stayed off each other a little bit more than normal and weren’t knocking each other out of the way. You saw the end of the Truck race. Once they started racing hard, they started going crazy.

“We didn’t have that caution with 50 to go that led to all the cautions at the end. That’s really what makes a difference. If you don’t get the late caution and jam everybody back up again, that’s what separates them at the end. Once they get spread out like that, you’re not going to get a caution. It’s the late cautions that jumble everything up.’’

The race’s final caution was from laps 385-391 for contact between Austin Dillon and Jamie McMurray.

Scott Graves, crew chief for Daniel Suarez, had a different thought on the matter.

“This is the third (race) on this tire combination,’’ Graves told NBC Sports, noting the change to the right-side tread compound before the 2017 spring race that helped create an outside groove at the flat track. “I feel like since we’ve been on this tire combination it’s been a little different, it hasn’t been your typical Martinsville. … With this tire you still don’t have all the marbles going down and you can run on the outside a little bit and it’s not as big a penalty as it used to be.’’

BACK IN THE DAY

The four cautions in Monday’s Cup race at Martinsville were the fewest there since the September 1978 race. A look back at what was taking place in 1978:

1978 Cup champion: Cale Yarborough

1978 Daytona 500 winner: Bobby Allison

Cost of gas: 65 cents a gallon 

Highest-grossing movies: 1. “Grease”; 2. “Animal House”; 3. “Superman”; 4. “Every Which Way but Loose”

Billboard top 100 singles for 1978: 1. “Shadow Dancing” by Andy Gibbs; 2. “Night Fever” by Bee Gees; 3. “You Light Up My Life’’ by Debby Boone.

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