Steve Phelps

Long: 100 days left in 2020, what else can happen?

Leave a comment

What’s next?

In a season of change that has zoomed through NASCAR like history did in Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” 100 days remain in the year. That’s plenty of time for more upheaval.

Remember the beginning of the season when talk centered on the championship race moving to Phoenix Raceway this year?

That was back when teams practiced and qualified before races, before drivers chose what lane to restart, before midweek races.

The novel coronavirus pandemic forced NASCAR and all sports to change, but when NASCAR returned after a 10-week break in May to Darlington without spectators, that was only the beginning of a season unlike any other.

Michael Jordan’s entry into the sport Monday night capped a day that started with Chip Ganassi hiring Ross Chastain to drive its No. 42 car next year and a report that NASCAR would add another road course to the 2021 schedule and move the All-Star Race.

The 2021 schedule has not been released so that is something to look forward to at some point in the next 100 days. The timeline on when it will be revealed continues to change, so let’s just say it will be out by Christmas, if not sooner. Who knows, there still might be more road course races on next year’s schedule. 

This is what we know of 2021: It won’t feature the Next Gen car, which has been delayed to 2022; the Daytona 500 is scheduled to open the season on Valentine’s Day; and Nashville Superspeedway will host Cup cars for the first time in June, the first in a four-year agreement.

Oh, and we also know where Bubba Wallace will be racing in 2021. He’ll drive for a team co-owned by Jordan and Denny Hamlin. JTG Daugherty Racing co-owner Brad Daugherty says of the three: “I think it’s a pretty dynamic trio with Michael, Denny and Bubba. They’re going to be like rock stars.”

The sport’s quiet rock star, seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, is watching his final full-time season — don’t worry he hints that he’ll look to run a few Cup races when his IndyCar schedule allows — end with muted fanfare in front of empty stands or socially distanced crowds.

Hendrick Motorsports has yet to announce who it will add to its driver lineup with Johnson’s departure. That’s just among the unknowns with 100 days left in the year and 145 days until next year’s Daytona 500. Erik Jones, Matt DiBenedetto, Clint Bowyer, Corey LaJoie, Daniel Suarez and Matt Kenseth have yet to announce plans for next year. The status of Kyle Larson’s return looms over all of them.

One of the bigger questions on the track is if Kyle Busch can win a Cup race this season. He’s won at least one series race in each of the past 15 years, a streak that ranks tied for sixth on the all-time list with Hall of Famers Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip and Tony Stewart.

“It’s really important,” Busch said of the streak. “Think about it, it’s a 16-year investment that we’ve placed on that being able to win a race in 16 consecutive seasons. Hopefully we can keep that going and get it to 17 and then to 18 or however many that I’m here.”

Busch came close last weekend at Bristol, the first time that track hosted a playoff race. It was part of the revamped playoff schedule that has Bristol, the Charlotte Roval and Martinsville as elimination races, NASCAR’s way of ramping the intensity as the season comes to a close.

There weren’t fireworks on the track but the 30,000 fans at Bristol saw a spellbinding battle between Harvick and Busch for the win over the final laps. Harvick prevailed for his ninth win of the season. Only two drivers in the last quarter century have won 10 or more races.

Fans are slowly returning to the track, although there won’t be any at Las Vegas Motor Speedway this weekend. Charlotte Motor Speedway found out Tuesday that North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper will permit outdoor arenas with seating capacity of more than 10,000 to be filled to 7% capacity. Charlotte races in May were run without fans and the All-Star Race was moved to Bristol in July because Bristol could have fans and Charlotte could not.

Social initiatives, including the banning of the Confederate flag at NASCAR races and tracks, were added this summer.

“Ultimately,” NASCAR President Steve Phelps said in June, “when we get back to full grandstands, everyone who walks through the gates or on to our property or one of our tracks or where our races are being held will understand that they will not see the Confederate flag.”

That was among the key changes that Jordan said drew him to joining Hamlin as an owner of NASCAR’s newest Cup team.

“Historically, NASCAR has struggled with diversity and there have been few Black owners,” Jordan said in a statement. “The timing seemed perfect as NASCAR is evolving and embracing social change more and more. In addition to the recent commitment and donations I have made to combat systemic racism, I see this as a chance to educate a new audience and open more opportunities for Black people in racing.”

Jordan’s entrance is significant. But the way this season has gone, a global sports icon joining NASCAR? That’s called Tuesday.

With 100 days left in the year, there’s plenty more change ahead.

 and on Facebook

 

Denny Hamlin, Michael Jordan to own NASCAR Cup team; Bubba Wallace to drive

8 Comments

Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan will own a NASCAR Cup team that will have Bubba Wallace as its driver for 2021, Hamlin announced on social media Monday night.

Hamlin said details about the single-car team, including name, car number, manufacturer and sponsors, will be announced at a later date. The team purchased Germain Racing’s charter.

The partnership of Hamlin and Jordan brings one of the most recognizable figures in sports to NASCAR. Jordan won six NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009. He became majority owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets in 2010.

MORE: Brad Daugherty: Michael Jordan to NASCAR is a “huge moment”

“Growing up in North Carolina, my parents would take my brothers, sisters and me to the races, and I’ve been a NASCAR fan my whole life,” Jordan said in a statement. “The opportunity to own my own racing team in partnership with my friend, Denny Hamlin, and to have Bubba Wallace driving for us, is very exciting to me.

“Historically, NASCAR has struggled with diversity and there have been few Black owners. The timing seemed perfect as NASCAR is evolving and embracing social change more and more. In addition to the recent commitment and donations I have made to combat systemic racism, I see this as a chance to educate a new audience and open more opportunities for Black people in racing.”

Michael Jordan NASCAR
Michael Jordan high-fives the crowd before the 2010 NASCAR All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images)

Jordan becomes the second Black car owner of a full-time team. Brad Daugherty, who also is an analyst for NBC Sports, is a co-owner in JTG Daugherty Racing. Once the charter sale is completed, Jordan will become the first Black majority owner of a full-time race team in NASCAR’s premier series since since Wendell Scott owned and raced his own cars in the 1960s and ’70s.

NASCAR issued a statement Monday night on Jordan joining the series.

“We proudly welcome Michael Jordan into the NASCAR family, and look forward to watching Michael, Denny Hamlin and Bubba Wallace compete in 2021. Michael is an iconic sports figure and celebrated champion whose fiercely competitive nature has placed him among the greatest athletes of all time. His presence at NASCAR’s top level will further strengthen the competition, excitement and momentum growing around our sport. We wish Michael and his team tremendous success.”

Jordan’s entry likely doesn’t happen if not for his friendship with Hamlin and Hamlin’s interest in being an owner.

Hamlin said last weekend that he has been interested in ownership “for a while.

I still don’t know how long my driving career will go,” Hamlin said. “There are several different sides of management or what not that I would like to be a part of when it comes to NASCAR and the sport itself. It has to be the right opportunity and if it’s not the right opportunity, the right time then I won’t do it. Everything just has to line up perfectly for me to even remotely consider it.

“I do believe that the (ownership) model will hopefully get better. Do I think it’s fixed? No, I think there is still some work to be done to make the model a viable business. You want a business that everyone wants to be a part of, not the ones that are fleeting. Certainly, I think NASCAR is trying it’s best to make the teams a little more healthy. I think that outlook toward the future is what’s interesting to me.”

This is the second team to be sold this season. Leavine Family Racing sold its charter and assets to Spire Motorsports. That gives Spire Motorsports two charters for the 2021 season.

NASCAR President Steve Phelps was asked before the playoffs about a driver owning another team. He said it would be allowed.

The short answer is yes, but they would need to abide by our guidelines that we would be satisfied that this is not just a shell for a fifth team,” he said.

Jordan has been a long-time motorsports fan and supporter of Hamlin. Nike’s Michael Jordan Brand first had a deal with Hamlin in 2011, putting Jordan’s “Jumpman” logo on Hamlin’s firesuit.

The Jordan Brand grew more than 50% in China for fiscal year 2020, approaching $1 billion in annual revenue, John Donahoe, president and chief executive of Nike, Inc., said in an earnings call with investor analysts June 25.

Jordan attended the 2019 Cup championship race in Miami in hopes of celebrating a Hamlin title. Jordan also attended the 2014 title race and was among the first to greet Hamlin after he exited the car that day after failing to win the championship.

Jordan told NBC Sports’ Dale Earnhardt Jr. about his interest in motorsports last November at Miami.

“I’m a big racing fan,” Jordan said. “Started off when I was a kid. Grew up watching (Dale Earnhardt Sr.), Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, which was the original 11 that I remember. Now I’m good friends with Denny Hamlin. We go way back. He’s a season ticket holder at the (Charlotte) Hornets (owned by Jordan). I spend a lot of time playing golf with him.”

Asked by Dale Earnhardt Jr. about any interest in becoming a NASCAR team owner, Jordan said: “No, I’ve got a lot on my plate. I love being a fan. I still understand the sport, but in terms of ownership, nah, I think I’m just going to sit back and watch it and support from afar.”

The 26-year-old Wallace is in his third full season in Cup. All 105 of his starts in NASCAR’s premier series have been with Richard Petty Motorsports.

“Bubba has shown tremendous improvement since joining the Cup Series and we believe he’s ready to take his career to a higher level,” Hamlin said in a statement. “He deserves the opportunity to compete for race wins and our team will make sure he has the resources to do just that. Off the track, Bubba has been a loud voice for change in our sport and our country. MJ and I support him fully in those efforts and stand beside him.”

Wallace, the only Black driver competing full-time in any of NASCAR’s top three national series. He has been active in helping lead NASCAR through social changes, including the banning of the Confederate flag at series events and tracks.

Wallace previously stated he had offers from Richard Petty Motorsports and Chip Ganassi Racing.

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

Leave a comment

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.”

 and on Facebook

NASCAR COVID-19 policy will not change for playoffs

Leave a comment

Regular-season champion Kevin Harvick isn’t taking any chances.

With NASCAR reaffirming this week that any driver testing positive for COVID-19 is not allowed to race until meeting standards to return, Harvick seeks to remain isolated the next 10 weeks for the playoffs.

“I travel by myself (to the track),” said the 2014 Cup champion. “I drive in the rental car by myself. I go to the motorhome by myself. I get back in the rental car, and I go home. 

“We don’t go to the grocery store. We don’t go to any social events anywhere. My son doesn’t go to school. He’s now homeschooled. So there’s really nothing that this whole situation hasn’t changed in our family’s life in order to try to create the safest environment that we can possibly create in our own little bubble, I guess you could say.”

He’ll remain in his personal bubble through the playoffs, which begin with Sunday’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway (6 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

MORE: Friday 5: Brad Keselowski tells team “Why not us?” for title 

MORE: Martin Truex Jr.’s team makes pit crew change 

NASCAR’s policy is the same as what it had in place for the regular season. Jimmie Johnson and Austin Dillon each missed a race after testing positive for novel coronavirus.

For any playoff driver, missing a race because of a positive COVID-19 test doesn’t necessarily end their title hopes but will make it more difficult to transfer to the next round. They likely would need to win to advance.

The NASCAR COVID-19 policy states that any competitor who has tested positive cannot return to competition until they have two negative tests more than 24 hours apart. If after 10 days, a NASCAR member is unable to produce two negative tests, their return status may be medically reviewed by a NASCAR consulting physician. 

The question becomes if a driver would attempt to hide any symptoms to continue their quest for the championship.

“We will control the things we’re going to control and understand that the drivers when they’re coming into the bubble are going to follow the same protocols that we’ve been following,” NASCAR President Steve Phelps said.

Joey Logano, the 2018 Cup champion, says he will remain vigilant.

“Our safety needs to be the utmost concern, just for everybody, not just for ourselves, not in a selfish way but in a selfless way we need to be smart about testing,”he said. “Now, also, we need to be smart about who we see and how we do things and all that as much as ever. 

“As the world is starting to open up slowly and things like that, I think for these 10 weeks I probably still need to be smart about it because my season is on the line. I think we just keep doing the same things we’ve been doing. You wash your hands. You wear your mask. You social distance. Those are the things that you can do.”

Chase Elliott, who seeks his first championship, said NASCAR’s policy makes him cautious on what he does.

“I’ve thought about that some, for sure,” he said of NASCAR’s rule. “And just being smart. And trying to wash your hands and do all the things that we’re supposed to be doing from that standpoint. That’s really all we can do, right, are the things that they’ve put out there for us and try to be smart about who you’re around and the environment you are in.

“So, from my end, I’m going to certainly try to think about some of that stuff some more and try to be as smart as possible and hope for the best. I mean, that’s really all we can do.”

 and on Facebook

Friday 5: Brad Keselowski tells team ‘Why not us?’ for title

Leave a comment

At a socially distanced gathering Wednesday, former Cup champion Brad Keselowski sought to inspire his crew with the rallying cry of “Why not us?” winning the title.

For a team with three wins this season — more than any other except playoff co-favorites Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin — the slogan seems tame.

Shouldn’t the mantra be more aggressive and evocative?

Keselowski’s team is about to enter a 10-week stretch that likely will challenge them but could reward them should they make it to the Nov. 8 title race at Phoenix Raceway. The journey begins with Sunday’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway (6 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Keselowski said he chose the slogan to reflect the recent results for his team.

“I think what gets caught up in all of that is the mentality oftentimes that you’re only as good as your last race, as good as your last few weeks, and the last two or three weeks have not been as strong as I’d like them to be as a team,” said the 2012 Cup champ who is seeded third in the 16-driver playoff field.

Brad Keselowski’s most recent win came in August at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

“We went out and kicked some serious butt at Loudon, New Hampshire. I was really proud of that, but we weren’t as strong as I hoped we’d be at Daytona and Dover. I think there’s moments as a team where sometimes people reflect on that a little deeper than is needed — not just as a team but media — and you have to remind yourselves what you’re capable of. Sometimes the easiest way to remind yourself what you’re capable of is, in my mind, eliminating the fears of what you’re not capable of.

“I think ‘Why not us?’ is my way of saying, ‘Give me a legit reason why we can’t win this championship right now?’ And we’ll come up with it and we’ll hammer it down in the ground with a 100-pound sledgehammer and we’ll fix it. ‘Why not us’ is as much a rallying cry to addressing and fixing all the little gaps.”

Keselowski said examining the matter that way can help a team evolve into a championship unit.

“What becomes of it is a culture, a mentality and a mindset of continuous improvement to eliminate your weaknesses,” he said. “Hopefully, there’s a tenacity born out of that that will serve us.”

Keselowski’s team is an intriguing option to counter Harvick, Hamlin and others in the NASCAR playoffs.

Keselowski won in May at Bristol, which will host the cutoff race in the first round. He scored a dominant victory at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, a track that shares qualities with Richmond and Phoenix. He finished second at Kansas, which hosts the opening race in the third round of the NASCAR playoffs.

Kansas is where Keselowski’s title hopes ended last year. He entered that race 20 points ahead of the first driver outside a spot to advance to the third round. The final restart doomed Keselowski. He lost six spots on the overtime restart. Keselowski finished three points behind Chase Elliott for the final spot to advance.

Despite that disappointment other years stand out to Keselowski in failing to win a second title.

“I had a great team and it didn’t come together — ‘14 probably for reasons just as much of luck as anything else, ‘15 was probably more my fault with some things I didn’t execute at the level I needed to execute. But all together the scorecard was still zero and we had efforts that were capable of winning the championship those two years, so that stings.”

So this year, it’s “Why not us?”

While other sayings might have more vigor, that slogan has a good history.

It was the rallying cry of the 2004 Boston Red Sox. They won their first World Series in 86 years that season.

2. Is this Chase Elliott’s time?

One of the key lessons about the NASCAR playoffs came last year with Chase Elliott and Brad Keselowski. Elliott entered the Kansas race 24 points behind the Team Penske driver. Elliott beat Keselowski for the last transfer spot to the third round.

“It just kind of shows you that it’s not over until it’s over in a lot of those cases,” Elliott said.

Elliott’s playoffs would end in the third round after three finishes of 32nd or worse. He’s yet to advance to the championship race in four previous playoff appearances.

Chase Elliott’s wins this year have come at Charlotte, the Daytona road course and the Bristol All-Star Race. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

“I mean you can’t win the championship without making that final four; and that’s been that point of the playoffs that we haven’t been able to bust through yet,” said Elliott, who is seeded fifth in the 16-driver playoff field. “I feel like we’ve been really close at times, to doing it. I think we’re very capable of making the final four.

Could this be Elliott’s year to make it to the title race? He’s having one of his best seasons with two wins, 10 top-five and 15 top-10 finishes.

“I feel like we’ve had some really good runs at the beginning of the year and then got into a little bit of a dip there over the last couple of months,” said Elliott, who also won the All-Star Race in July at Bristol. “And then I thought Dover was back competitive again. So, I think for me, I just look at a little bit of the inconsistency.

“I think we need to be more consistent across the board. I’m encouraged by the fact that when I feel like we have things going, we can compete for wins at a lot of different style race tracks, which is awesome. So that definitely gives me confidence. But this deal is all about what has happened lately, what your performance has been up to this date, and what you have ahead to try to improve on and how much you need to improve.”

Only Martin Truex Jr. (seven wins) and Kyle Busch (six) have more than the three victories Elliott has had in playoff races since 2017.

Playoff rookie Matt DiBenedetto calls Elliott his dark horse pick.

Elliott gets an early shot Sunday to show what he can do. He’ll start first in the Southern 500.

“I think even a bigger deal to have is that first pit box, which is super valuable,” Elliott said. “Hopefully we’re fast enough for it to matter and we can put that thing to use.”

3. Quite a streak

The last time Kevin Harvick was penalized for speeding on pit road in a Cup race, it cost him a playoff win.

That was 2018 at Kansas Speedway.

Harvick has not been penalized for speeding on pit road in the last 66 races. 

Kevin Harvick, the No. 1 seed in the NASCAR playoffs, has not had a speeding penalty in a Cup race since 2018. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Harvick, Alex Bowman, Kurt Busch and rookie Cole Custer are the only playoff drivers not penalized for speeding this season.

“I think as you look at the things that we do on pit road it’s really the shape of the pit road, the strategy of the location of the pit stall and making sure that my gauges and things are set up to the way that I like them,” he said. “Something that works for me and our team to be able to maximize that. So it’s just like anything else, you want to maximize everything that you do on pit road, but there’s a lot of little details that go into making that happen.”

Bowman notes there are other challenges when going down pit road anywhere between 30-60 mph.

“A Cup car doesn’t drive smoothly at those speeds and the pit roads aren’t perfectly smooth,” he said. “The lights (on the dashboard noting the car’s speed on pit road) jump around a lot, basically. If you want the lights accurate, they jump around a lot. If you make them not jump around, they aren’t very accurate. So, just finding what works for you as a driver in that sense is really important.

“There’s a lot of factors to it. It’s really tough on a busy pit road trying not to run into people, trying to hit your pit box well. It’s definitely important, but it’s a big risk versus reward. Like if you have a green flag speeding penalty, it’s a huge, huge deficit for the rest of your day, especially at a speedway race. So, there are times to push and times not to push, for sure.”

Here is how many speeding penalties each playoff driver has this year:

5 — Austin Dillon

3 — Kyle Busch

2 — Clint Bowyer, Matt DiBenedetto, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano

1 — Aric Almriola, Ryan Blaney, William Byron, Martin Truex Jr.

0 — Alex Bowman, Kurt Busch, Cole Custer, Kevin Harvick

4. A new parking spot

When Joey Logano worked with crew chief Todd Gordon, Logano’s pit stalls often were near pit exit.

Among the changes Logano has experienced with new crew chief Paul Wolfe this season is a different philosophy in picking pits. Wolfe often prefers a stall near pit entrance. In six of the last eight races, Logano’s pit stall has been among the first stalls after pit entrance. For Sunday’s Southern 500, Logano’s pit stall will be the first one after pit entrance.

NASCAR stock market
Crew chief Paul Wolfe and Joey Logano. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

“That’s been the running joke here at Team Penske for a little bit,” Logano said. “Todd will always go furthest forward possible, and Paul will be the guy that kind of goes back and forth on just trying to figure out what’s best for that particular weekend,” Logano said.

“So, the first few weeks was a little bit odd because I’m used to being all the way down at the other end, and I didn’t want to drive by the stall.

“Now I’ve kind of gotten used to it and Paul has done a good job at some pit selections. That was one of the things we went through at the beginning of the year is what works for me with pit stalls, and what direction can we get the best rolling times with and each racetrack is different. 

“Some narrow pit roads are different than the wide ones and pit openings are bigger than others and timing lines, there’s a lot that goes into that game. It’s not a random selection sometimes as much as some people think. There’s a lot that goes into that and I don’t know if there’s one more challenging than the other being in the front or the back. It’s just more or less a strategy of how do we have the best rolling time at the end of pit road.”

5. Future of single-car teams

Ty Dillon’s impassioned plea during a media session in August foreshadowed the news this week that owner Bob Germain was pondering his 2021 plans, including a potential sale of the team.

Germain Racing team has GEICO as a sponsor but the deal expires after this season. the team does not have a sponsor signed for next year. 

Dillon told reporters that changes need to be made in the sport to help single-car teams.

“The model is very tough right now for single-car teams,” Dillon said. “I’m hoping that NASCAR is going to change it and help on it. But it needs to change for one-car teams to be more successful that haven’t already been at the top level of the sport or have an incredible about of money to leapfrog into the top spot. If you don’t have three or four teams to spread the wealth with big name sponsors and a lot of money behind the effort, it’s just not a model that’s going to survive long term.”

Bob Leavine sold Leavine Family Racing, a single-car team. Spire Motorsports, a single-car team, will take over that operation after this season.

Leavine has been critical about the business model for teams. Jeff Dickerson, co-owner of Spire Motorsports, said on a recent episode of the Dale Jr. Download that “charter values (for Cup teams) are increasing. There is a real market for these and there are several groups trying to obtain them. Both inside the sport and outside the sport.”

NASCAR has made rule changes in an effort to save teams money. The Next Gen car is designed to do that. The car’s debut was pushed back to 2022 because development was stalled for several months by the novel coronavirus.

“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,” NASCAR President Steve Phelps said this week. “We want healthy teams.”

Phelps said those outside the sport have noticed what how the team model has changed.

“I would suggest that the number of new owners trying to get into this sport has never been higher,” Phelps said. “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.”

Said Dillon: “I believe in our sport and the direction it is going. And, I know everyone has a mindset to make it better. But we just have to get there. We have to do everything that it takes. … “We can only get better as a sport if we all get better. We can’t just keep focusing on the big-end teams and the guys running up-front week in and week out. So, if we want the sport to thrive, it takes a lot of focus throughout the field.”

 and on Facebook