Stewart-Haas Racing

Friday 5: Kyle Busch’s comments address murky issue with no solution

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RICHMOND, Va. — The way to prevent the contact that happened last week between Kyle Busch and Garrett Smithley at Las Vegas Motor Speedway is simple.

Once the playoffs start, only playoff cars can race.

Of course, that will never happen — and should never happen.

But as long as more than half the field features non-playoff competitors, there will be times when those drivers play a role, despite their best intentions, of impacting a playoff driver’s race. It could happen again in Saturday night’s playoff race at Richmond Raceway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

While the focus since Sunday has been on Busch’s comments after the Las Vegas race, the response from Smithley and the rebuttal from Joey Gase, there is a bigger issue, which Smithley alluded to in an interview on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio earlier this week.

“People don’t understand the technology gap and the money gap that there is in the Cup series,” Smithley told Mojo Nixon on “Manifold Destiny.”

Smithley understands. His NASCAR career of 11 Cup races and 125 Xfinity starts all have been with underfunded teams.

Such teams have fewer resources and struggle to be competitive, all but forcing their drivers to seemingly spend as much time looking out the rearview mirror to stay out of the way as looking ahead through the windshield.

While NASCAR has a minimum speed for races, only one time this season, according to Cup race reports, has a car been ordered off the track because it was going too slow. That was the Spire Motorsports entry at Dover in May. Two months later, that team — one of 36 chartered teams — won the rain-shortened race at Daytona with a different driver.

Corey LaJoie noted on Twitter after the Las Vegas race how a team’s financial situation can impact its driver choice:

Justin Allgaier, preparing to compete in Friday’s Xfinity Series playoff opener, understands the plight of drivers with subpar equipment. Allgaier suffered through such circumstances when he raced in Cup.

“Kyle obviously had some pretty harsh words,” Allgaier said Thursday during the Xfinity Series playoff media day at Richmond Raceway. “I do understand sometimes there are times where lapped traffic does make a big difference in how the outcome goes. But on the flip side, I’ve been in that situation. You’re battling, really your livelihood, just to even keep a ride, and you’re doing everything you can and the last thing you want to do is mess somebody up.

“I thought that the situation we were in last week, personally I didn’t think anything could have been done differently as far as what Garrett did or what lane he ran. I thought he did everything right. He went in and picked a lane and stuck with it.”

Busch didn’t see it that way and ran into the back of Smithley. Busch then ignited a debate on social media when he told NBCSN after the race: “We’re at the top echelon of motorsports, and we’ve got guys who have never won Late Model races running on the racetrack. It’s pathetic. They don’t know where to go. What else do you do?”

Busch’s question has no answer that will appease him because nothing will be done. It’s understandable if he’s sensitive to the issue. Last year at Phoenix, a caution with 18 laps to go by a driver making his first start in either Cup, Xfinity or Trucks in four years, bunched the field and took away Busch’s advantage. Busch pulled away on the restart to win.

“I understand the implications I could cause by messing somebody’s race up, and I’m going to do everything I can to not do that,” said Tanner Berryhill, the driver who was making his first NASCAR start in four years last season at Phoenix, before that event. “That’s not how I want to be remembered in this sport.”

Nobody does. The incident between Busch and Smithley likely will be soon forgotten. But there will come a day when a non-playoff driver is involved in a situation in the championship race that could determine who wins the title and who doesn’t. As long as NASCAR’s playoff races include non-playoff cars, the risk always will be there. It is up to NASCAR to ensure that those competing in those races are qualified to do so.

2. A new experience

Jimmie Johnson got his first taste as a non-playoff driver in a playoff race last weekend at Las Vegas and it was interesting.

One of the debates before and during the playoffs is how much those not racing for a title should race the playoff contenders. As the level of desperation increases in each round among playoff drivers, their patience with non-playoff drivers decreases.

So what was the seven-time champion’s experience like with the playoff drivers Sunday?

“I saw quite a few situations where drivers in the playoffs took some desperate moves out there,” he said earlier this week at Charlotte Motor Speedway after joining breast cancer survivors in painting pit wall pink. “I saw it happen to other drivers, I had a few make that move on me as well.

“It’s a tricky situation to be in, and I know they’re going after every point they need to but so am I. We certainly plan to not allow myself to be used up as I was in Vegas a couple of times.”

3. Game planning

A fascinating aspect of this year’s rules package is how crew chiefs set their cars, particularly at the big tracks. Stewart-Haas Racing focused on speed for its cars last weekend at Las Vegas and took the top four spots in qualifying. When it came to the race, Kevin Harvick’s car was the only SHR car to excel and finished second.

Joe Gibbs Racing, on the other hand, focused on downforce to make its cars better in the race. The result was that Martin Truex Jr. won after starting 24th.

Crew chief Cole Pearn and Martin Truex Jr. celebrate their Las Vegas win. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

That’s a trend for Truex. He has started eighth or worse in four of the five races he’s won this year. Truex qualified 13th at Dover but then started at the rear because of inspection failures, he qualified 14th in the Coca-Cola 600, started eighth at Sonoma and 24th at Las Vegas in his wins. The exception was when he started fifth at Richmond in his April victory.

Harvick’s team has taken a different approach. He qualified third at Las Vegas and finished second. He won from the pole at Indianapolis. He won at Michigan in August after starting second.

“That’s their MO, right?” crew chief Cole Pearn said after Truex’s win last weekend at Las Vegas of Harvick’s team. “They’re dragging the pipes, slamming the backs, just going for all that speed. It’s working for them. All the power to them.

I think for us, we’ve had a couple races where we’ve gone more that way and they haven’t been very good for us. I think everyone has their own take. I think you generally look at JGR as a whole, how well we’ve qualified this year, I think we got one pole, 14 wins.  That’s the variance in the strategy.”

4. Reading time

Denny Hamlin and Noah Gragson have spent time on a new endeavor recently. They’re both reading books to help make them better.

Hamlin and others have cited personal growth as contributing to his turnaround this season after going winless last year, the first time he had failed to win while competing full-time in Cup.

“It’s definitely fact that I am calmer and more confident because I have learned to let go of the things that I can’t control,” Hamlin said. “A lot of that has come through self-improvement. I have done a lot of reading, which I wouldn’t consider myself a reader. I didn’t read a book, I guarantee you, from whenever I had to in high school till I turned 38 this year.

“I just started reading over the last three or four months. I started learning and trying to be a better person in general. I have learned to really let go of things I can’t control. It has really allowed me to think about the process more. I think it really has helped with my on-track performances. Thinking through the processes more and not focusing on and worrying about the things that I specifically can’t control.”

Gragson said that he’s reading a book “25 Ways to Win With People” to be a better team leader.

“That’s what I need to be for this race team,” Gragson said. “It’s really easy to be happy and smiling when things are going good, but I feel like your character comes out when maybe things aren’t going as well as you would want. I’m trying to lean on people who I call my mentors … reading that book and just trying to be better and more positive.”

Gragson said he got the book from former driver Josh Wise, who trains drivers with Chip Ganassi Racing, JR Motorsports and GMS Racing.

“I’ve been leaning on him,” Gragson said of Wise. “He helps me with overall thinking. He was the first person I went to when I felt like we were going through maybe a valley that our communication was off as a team, I was kind of struggling with my confidence and where we were. Leaning on him really helped me. The takeaways (from the book) have been very valuable and it helps me with everyday life, too. I’m willing to try it and it’s been helping so far.”

5. Who is next

Richmond marks the fifth short track race of the season. Consider what the first four races have seen:

Four different winners (Brad Keselowski at Martinsville, Kyle Busch at Bristol, Martin Truex Jr. at Richmond and Denny Hamlin at the Bristol night race).

Four different pole winners (Joey Logano at Martinsville, Chase Elliott at Bristol, Kevin Harvick at Richmond and Denny Hamlin at the Bristol night race).

Four different drivers finished second (Chase Elliott at Martinsville, Kurt Busch at Bristol, Joey Logano at Richmond and Matt DiBenedetto at the Bristol night race).

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Bump and Run: Will Joe Gibbs Racing’s dominance continue?

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Who you got this weekend at Richmond? Joe Gibbs Racing or the field?

Nate Ryan: Joe Gibbs Racing. Any of its four drivers can win. Kyle Larson is a decent dark horse, though.

Dustin Long: I’ll take the field. Give me Kyle Larson, Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and others vs. JGR this weekend.

Daniel McFadin: I’ll take JGR, given their six wins there in the last eight races. Driver specific: Martin Truex Jr. He’s led in five of the last six visits to Richmond and each time he’s led at least 121 laps. Hard to believe his win in the spring was his first there.

Jerry Bonkowski: This could be one very difficult race for the field. Erik Jones has something to prove after the mechanical issues he suffered in Las Vegas, Kyle Busch has something to prove after his disappointing 19th-place finish, and Denny Hamlin has something to prove to show he truly is one of the best championship contenders. Meanwhile, Martin Truex Jr. can basically coast through having secured his spot in Round 2 of the playoffs with his Las Vegas win. Good luck to the field because they’re going to need it. Joe Gibbs Racing is going to dominate Richmond.

 

In 2007, Hendrick Motorsports won 18 of 36 Cup races. Joe Gibbs Racing has won 14 of 27 Cup races this season. Will JGR top what Hendrick did in 2007?

Nate Ryan: Yes, you could argue JGR already has topped it because of the balance among its four drivers. Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson accounted for 16 of Hendrick’s 18 victories.

Dustin Long: JGR won’t tie or top Hendrick mark.

Daniel McFadin: I think there’s a good chance JGR will tie that number but not exceed it. The only tracks I would make them locks for wins are Richmond and Phoenix. 

Jerry Bonkowski: I think JGR could potentially tie HMS’s record, but asking for five or more wins in the last nine playoff races is a bit of a stretch. You know that Stewart-Haas, Team Penske, Hendrick Motorsports, Chip Ganassi Racing and Roush Fenway Racing are going to do all they can to stop the JGR Express and continue to ratchet up the pressure and performance with each passing race. I can see JGR winning maybe three or even four more playoff races, but not more than that.

 

The Xfinity playoffs begin this weekend at Richmond. Who are you picking to win the championship?

Nate Ryan: Leaning toward Tyler Reddick back-to-back after his impressive fuel-mileage win at Las Vegas. He is learning to beat the field in many ways.

Dustin Long: Christopher Bell triumphs in Miami.

Daniel McFadin: I’m going to go with Tyler Reddick to repeat. He’s shown a knack for being able to find multiple ways to win when he doesn’t have the outright best car on a given race day. Also, it’s hard to bet against the guy who has 20 top fives through 26 races.

Jerry Bonkowski: As much as Tyler Reddick would make a great repeat champion, the title this year goes to Christopher Bell. But don’t be surprised if this deal isn’t finished until the final turn on the last lap. This has the potential to be the most exciting championship finish in Xfinity history.

 

Silly Season scorecard: Matt DiBenedetto finds new ride for 2020

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That didn’t take long.

Less than a month after it became public that Matt DiBenedetto would not return to Leavine Family Racing in 2020, he has a new ride. DiBenedetto will drive the No. 21 for Wood Brothers Racing in 2020 with Paul Menard stepping back from full-time racing after this season.

So, yes, Denny Hamlin‘s words from Bristol were heard.

“There’s many car owners that finance cars that are on the racetrack, good teams,” Hamlin said after beating DiBenedetto to win the Bristol night race. “They got to step up and grow some balls and take a chance on somebody they really believe in. That or they can continue to run 15th.”

Here’s a look at where the NASCAR Silly Season stands at this point:

ANNOUNCED OPEN RIDES FOR 2020

No. 8: With Richard Childress Racing announcing that Daniel Hemric won’t return to the team (announcement made Sept. 17) next season, all that is left to be done is for the official announcement that Tyler Reddick will move up to take that ride. Childress spoke July 30 about wanting to keep Reddick.

No. 38: Front Row Motorsports must replace David Ragan, who stated Aug. 14 that 2019 would be his final season running a full schedule.

No. 95: The only thing missing is the official announcement that Christopher Bell will drive for Leavine Family Racing next season. Expect that soon.

 

ANNOUNCED CUP RIDES FOR 2020

No. 13: Ty Dillon posted a video on Instagram refuting rumors that he would retire after this season. He has a contract with Germain Racing through 2020.

No. 20: Joe Gibbs Racing announced Sept. 6 that it had signed Erik Jones to an extension. It is a one-year extension for the 2020 season.

No. 21: Matt DiBenedetto replaces Paul Menard at Wood Brothers Racing (announcement made Sept. 10). DiBenedetto’s deal is for 2020 only.

 

AMONG THOSE YET TO ANNOUNCE DEALS FOR 2020

No. 1: Kurt Busch‘s contract expires after this season but all indications are that he’ll return to the Chip Ganassi Racing team with Monster Energy in 2020.

No. 14: Clint Bowyer‘s contract expires after this season but Bowyer stated as recently as at Darlington that things were moving closer to an extension.

No. 41: Daniel Suarez has said that both he and the team have an option on his contract for next year. He has remained confident that he will return to Stewart-Haas Racing.

Indianapolis winners and losers

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WINNERS

Kevin HarvickScored his third win in the last seven races. And got car owner Tony Stewart to climb the fence once again at Indy. Win also helps Harvick and his Stewart-Haas Racing team build momentum just in time for the playoffs.

Bubba WallaceFinished a season-best third on Sunday. His two career top-five finishes are a second in the 2018 Daytona 500 and a third at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Clint BowyerOvercame bubble pressure to post top-10 finishes in each of the last three regular-season races. Could he go from one of the last in to one of the last remaining in the playoffs?

Ryan NewmanSnapped a five-race streak of finishes outside the top 10 with an eighth-place finish to secure the final playoff spot.

Jeb Burton Matched his career high with a fourth-place finish in Saturday’s Xfinity race and was overcome with emotion afterward. Burton is running a part-time schedule and seeks to run full-time again. He’ll be back with JR Motorsports at Texas and Miami.

LOSERS

Daniel SuarezHit the wall, hit a car and had other misfortune in failing to make the playoffs after entering Sunday’s race at Indianapolis in the final playoff spot.

Jimmie JohnsonHis remarkable streak of 15 consecutive years in the postseason ends after a year of struggles. His wreck while racing Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron for sixth place kept Johnson from having a chance to make the playoffs Sunday.

Cup car owners — Eight cars were eliminated by accidents in Sunday’s race. That’s more cars eliminated by crashes in the last four Cup races combined. Sunday proved expensive to some teams.

Clint Bowyer survives day of ‘high anxiety’ at The Brickyard

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INDIANAPOLIS – Clint Bowyer’s quest to get into the Cup Series playoffs was not as precarious as Ryan Newman’s, but he was a long way from being locked into the 15th position in the 16-driver playoff lineup entering Sunday’s Brickyard 400.

He still needed to finish ahead of the other drivers in contention for the playoffs including Newman, Daniel Suarez and Jimmie Johnson, who entered the race still eligible to get in on points, but realistically needed to win the race to clinch.

Bowyer improved his chances of making the playoffs dramatically by qualifying third fastest in Sunday morning’s Brickyard 400 qualifications.

The race, however, had more than its share of moments of “high anxiety” for the Stewart Haas Racing driver.

“You’re damn right I did,” Bowyer told NBC Sports on pit road at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “You knew it going in, you knew it was going to be high anxiety and it was going to be crazy like that.

“You don’t know where it’s going to be coming from. About the time we qualified good, I walked away from that car and knew the worst was yet to happen. The caution could come out at Lap 10 and present an opportunity for somebody and a mishap for somebody else.”

That happened throughout the race for Bowyer, who kept track of his competitors throughout the race and tried to manage his day.

In the closing stages of the contest, Bubba Wallace was in contention to sneak into the playoffs with a victory. He was running third, briefly made it up to second, before he was passed by Joey Logano for that position with the laps winding down.

The last thing Bowyer or Newman needed was a driver like Wallace to completely change the dynamic of the playoffs with an upset victory.

“I didn’t want to be anywhere around Bubba today,” Bowyer said. “I knew what he was racing for and what I was racing for and those two things didn’t match up today.

“I’m happy for Bubba, though. It was a great finish at a great race track for him. That’s a great finish for him and his team.”

Wallace would finish third, behind race winner Kevin Harvick and second place Logano. William Bryon finished fourth and Bowyer’s fifth-place finish was more than enough to lock him into the playoffs.

He became the third driver in the four-car Stewart-Haas Racing team to make the 16-driver lineup for the playoffs. Daniel Suarez was still in competition, entering the race tied in points with Newman, but his 11th-place finish combined with Newman’s eighth place eliminated the driver from Mexico.

“It was super close to getting all four in,” Bowyer said. “We’ve got to keep building, man. We’re working hard and digging and trying to get better.

“We aren’t the fastest group. We know that. But we looked pretty damn fast today.”

Bowyer’s road to that top-five finish was eventful to say the least.

“It was going to be chaotic, I said that before the race, it was going to be an emotional roller-coaster,” Bowyer said. “The 6 car (Newman) was able to stay out there and capitalize on that and get those five points on us.

“I was like, ‘Damn, I didn’t need that.’

“But we got it back in the second stage. It was identical. I finished fifth and he finished 11th in that stage and he handed it right back to us.

“We were faster than we ran. I think we were a top-five car, but we were just trying to survive. We needed to survive this thing and it was going to be a war of attrition and we survived.”

Making the playoffs is important, but it doesn’t beat winning, according to Bowyer.

“Winning is everything,” Bowyer said. “That’s why we get up in the morning, to go win. There is nothing better than winning. I’m looking forward to some of those tracks. I should have won at Richmond earlier this year.

“I still think about that race and how easy our season would have been if I had won it earlier.”

Now, it’s off to the playoffs and Bowyer is excited his team’s recent surge. Since finishing 37th at Michigan in August, Bowyer has finished seventh at Bristol, sixth at Darlington and fifth at Indianapolis.

“We’ve got 10 races in the playoffs and the last three races have been single-digit finishes for us,” Bowyer said. “That will get you around. It also builds confidence and momentum with our race team. That is what it takes.

“We are finally doing the right things, putting ourselves in the right situations to capitalize on other people’s mishaps rather than being the one to make the mishap and having someone capitalize on us.”