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Friday 5: What Cup teams with new drivers are better off?

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Some moves were made by teams. Others were made by drivers looking for better opportunities. Whatever the reason, there were a number of driver changes after last year.

Four races into this season, one can get a glimpse of how those changes are working out. In some cases, the comparisons may look unkindly on who was in the car last year — think about Chevrolet teams and the struggles many had early with the Camaro last year or how a team has switched manufacturers since last year — but here is a look at how some of the moves have gone.

Five of the eight full-time teams that had driver changes for this season are showing an uptick in performance in the first four races of this season compared to the same time last year.

No surprise that former champion Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Cole Pearn have raised the level of the No. 19 team at Joe Gibbs Racing. Truex has two runner-up finishes this season and has scored 140 points — 73 points more than Daniel Suarez had with that ride in the first four races last year.

(Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

The No. 1 team at Chip Ganassi Racing also has seen a 73-point gain in the first four races this season with Kurt Busch compared to the same time with Jamie McMurray last year. Busch has three finishes of seventh or better in his Chevrolet Camaro to score 126 points.

Also making gains this year are the No. 6 team at Roush Fenway Racing with Ryan Newman. He has three finishes of 14th or better this season and has scored 25 more points than Trevor Bayne had in that car at this time last year.

Corey LaJoie and Matt DiBenedetto also have helped their teams to more points than last year at this time. DiBenedetto took over Leavine Family Racing’s No. 95 — which also changed to Toyota and aligned with Joe Gibbs Racing after last year — and has scored five more points than Kasey Kahne had in the first four races last year when that team was with Chevrolet.

LaJoie replaced DiBenedetto in the No. 32 at Go Fas Racing and has a top finish of 18th. LaJoie has scored five more points than DiBenedetto had in the first four races last year with that team.

The teams that have not seen an increase of points so far compared to last year include two teams with rookies. Rookie Daniel Hemric replaced Newman at Richard Childress Racing and has scored 48 fewer points in the first four races than Newman did for that group last year. Rookie Ryan Preece has scored 12 fewer points in the No. 47 car for JTG Daugherty Racing than AJ Allmendinger had at this time last year.

The other driver move was Suarez taking over the No. 41 car for Stewart-Haas Racing and replacing Busch. Suarez has one top 10 so far but Busch had two top 10s at this time last year. Suarez has scored 40 fewer points than Busch did at this time last year.

2. Kyle Busch’s race to 200

A few numbers to digest in Kyle Busch’s quest for 200 NASCAR wins and more. He comes into this weekend with 199 and is entered in both the Xfinity and Cup races.

— Busch has 199 NASCAR wins in 996 starts (a 20 percent winning percentage)

— Busch has 494 top-five finishes in those 996 starts, scoring a top five in 49.6 percent of his starts.

— Busch’s 199 career NASCAR wins have come on 28 different tracks. Among the tracks he’s won at that are no longer on the NASCAR circuit are Lucas Oil Raceway (three wins), Nashville Superspeedway (three) and Mexico City (one).

— The most victories Busch has had in one season in Cup, Xfinity and Trucks was 24 in 2010.

— Busch has won a NASCAR race in 21 different states and Mexico. The most victories Busch has had in any one state is Tennessee. He’s won 24 races there.

3. So far so good on inspection

This year marks the first time in the past three seasons that a Cup car was not penalized for an inspection violation after the race.

NASCAR announced before the season that any car that failed inspection would be dropped to last in the order. Any winning car that fails inspection will have that victory taken away.

So far, no team has been given such a penalty in Cup, Xfinity or the Truck series.

That’s quite an accomplishment in Cup. Each of the past two years saw at least one team penalized for a violation discovered after the race in the first four events of the season.

In March 2018, NASCAR fined crew chief Rodney Childers $50,000, suspended car chief Robert Smith two Cup races, docked Kevin Harvick 20 points and the team 20 owner points for a violation with the rear window brace that was discovered after Harvick’s win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Harvick also lost all seven playoff points he earned — five for winning the race and two for each stage victory.

In March 2017, NASCAR suspended crew chief Paul Wolfe three races and fined him $65,000 when Brad Keselowski’s car failed inspection after the race at ISM Raceway. NASCAR also docked Keselowski 35 points and the team 35 owner points. NASCAR penalized the team for failing the rear wheel steer on the Laser Inspection Station.

NASCAR also penalized Harvick’s team after that same race for an unapproved track bar slider assembly. NASCAR suspended Childers one race and fined him $25,000. Harvick was docked 10 points and the team lost 10 owner points.

4. One or the other

Since NASCAR created the West Coast swing in 2016, Kevin Harvick or Martin Truex Jr. have managed to win at least once in those three races.

They’ll need to win this weekend at Auto Club Speedway to keep that streak going. Joey Logano won at Las Vegas to begin this year’s swing. Kyle Busch won last weekend at ISM Raceway near Phoenix.

5. Extra work

ThorSport Racing drivers Matt Crafton, Grant Enfinger, Ben Rhodes and Myatt Snider will be racing this weekend even though the Gander Outdoors Truck Series is off.

They’ll compete for Ford Performance and Multimatic Motorsports in Friday’s IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge at Sebring International Raceway. Crafton and Enfinger will be paired on the No. 22 team, while Snider and Rhodes will drive the No. 15 entry. Their race lasts two hours.

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Splash & Go: Daniel Suarez: ‘Keep being nice to me and we’ll be fine’

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While talking with NASCAR America’s Dave Burns for this week’s “Splash & Go,” Daniel Suarez had a clear message for his competitors in the Cup Series.

“Keep being nice to me and we’ll be fine,” Suarez said.

Or as Dr. Bruce Banner, aka the Incredible Hulk, would say: don’t make him angry. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry.

Michael McDowell found this out on Friday when his confrontation with Suarez on pit road during qualifying at ISM Raceway resulted in Suarez throwing him to the ground and then Suarez being held on the hood of McDowell’s car.

The scuffle was the product of McDowell impeding the path of Suarez during his qualifying run, which Stewart-Haas Racing had planned for days due the importance of track position on the 1-mile track.

“We had a big plan for Friday,” Suarez told NBC Sports. “Maybe like never before. To get screwed the way we did. Five days of preparation for one day and to get screwed like that, I wasn’t very happy. My team wasn’t happy and they were not expecting me to react the way I did. But I wasn’t very happy with how things worked out.”

Suarez, who wound up qualifying 28th, had left pit road with three minutes left in the first round. That should have been “plenty of time” to make his run.

“We were pushing it, but we were not pushing it too hard,” Suarez said. “Because it was the first round. I knew that I needed to race that lap 80 percent, 90 percent. To get screwed liked that, that was my problem.”

Adding to his frustration was that McDowell wasn’t yet on his own qualifying lap.

“If he was stopping on the back straightaway and then going again he had nothing to lose,” Suarez said. “That was my biggest, biggest fire that I had inside. I feel like it was a lack of respect. When someone (shows) a lack of respect, you have to settle things up.”

While many may have been surprised to see Stewart-Haas Racing’s newest driver lose his cool, Suarez said those close to him know what happens when you push the limits with him.

“I have a little of me that’s like a switch, I just fire up really quick, Suarez said. “But I have to get there.”

Being employed by one of NASCAR’s more notorious hot heads in Tony Stewart also hasn’t influenced him.

“I feel like I’ve been that way my entire life and my entire career,” Suarez said. “When things don’t go as they’re planned, for circumstances you can’t control, you get disappointed. But when things get more away from the plan because of someone else, you’re going to get mad and disappointed. We all in the Cup Series, we’re very passionate. That’s why we’re there. Sometimes things get a little out of control. That’s part of racing sometimes. You just have to let people know that they have to respect the way you think and if you’re given respect … I expect that respect back. If I don’t get that, that’ll be something I don’t like.”

In a twist of faith granted by the marketing gods, Suarez has been paired with WWE wrestler Rey Mysterio in a cross-promotion effort. Mysterio will be a guest of Suarez’ this weekend at Auto Club Speedway and will drive the pace car to start the race.

Would Suarez accept an invitation into a real wrestling ring?

“I think I would be concerned to jump into that one,” Suarez said. “I think I could get my butt kicked in that one. I have a lot for respect for what these guys do. They jump high. They hit hard.”

 

Long: How a decision on a Friday impacted pit road in Atlanta Cup race

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HAMPTON, Ga. — A strategic decision that didn’t work as planned and steadfastness to protocol created much angst on pit road for the teams of Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano and Alex Bowman on Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Frustrations boiled during the race. Logano lost more than 10 spots in each of his first two pit stops when he was blocked by Bowman in the stall ahead. After being blocked a second time, Logano said on his radio “if I’m blocked in (again), I will push him off the jack.”

Truex, who was pitting behind Logano, also was angry with being blocked by Logano. Truex said on his radio at one point that he’d push Logano off the jack if it happened again.

Rarely do strong teams pit next to each other because of the likelihood they will be on the lead lap and pit together under caution throughout the race.

“I still don’t understand why he chose that pit stall because it screwed himself a lot, too,” Cole Pearn said about Logano’s crew chief, Todd Gordon.

It goes back to a decision Gordon made Friday.

“We didn’t focus on qualifying and paid the penalty for it,” Gordon said after Logano’s up-and-down day ended with a 23rd-place finish in a race won by teammate Brad Keselowski.

Cup teams had one practice Friday before qualifying. Gordon said the team made only one qualifying run, focusing on race setup instead. Logano ran 26 laps in the session, second only to Denny Hamlin, who ran 27 laps. Aric Almirola, who would win the pole, ran eight laps in the session.

“Honestly, we focused a lot on race trim because I wasn’t sure if, one, we would qualify, it looked like rain was coming during qualifying, and two, whether we would get to practice on Saturday,” because of weather, Gordon said. “I wanted to make sure we had a good race balance. We had really good pace Friday in race trim but didn’t make enough changes to go to qualifying, honestly.”

Pit stall picks are based on qualifying. Logano qualified 27th, meaning he had the 27th pick of the 40 pit stalls.

Gordon prefers a stall near pit exit at Atlanta. Since being teamed with Logano in 2013, Gordon has picked between the first and sixth pit stall at Atlanta every year.

When it came time for him to pick his pit stall for Sunday’s race, pit stall No. 5 — in front of Truex and behind Bowman — was the closest stall to pit exit.

“I do like to be down there,” Gordon said of being as close to pit exit as possible. “Honestly, this is a place you green-flag pit, you short pit … we do that separate. As we did today. You work around who is around you. It was definitely a challenge to be up there.”

The next closest pit stall available when Gordon made his pick was stall No. 10 in front of Ryan Newman and behind William Byron. Pit stall No. 14 also was available, but it was in front of Keselowski’s stall, and teammates do not pit next to each other.

“I hate being in the middle of pit road because there’s a lot of crap that happens there,” Gordon said. “Sometimes, you pick yourself into a hole to avoid catastrophe.”

On the first two stops, Truex was ahead of Logano on the track. So Truex entered his stall first and then Logano had to maneuver around him. Bowman was behind both. That meant Bowman had to maneuver around Logano’s car to enter his stall. That led to Logano being boxed in.

It’s just a tough situation when you got (Logano) coming in around (Truex),” said Greg Ives, crew chief for Bowman. “He’s not in an optimal position to come out and we’re not in an optimal position to get in.

“Todd Gordon came over and asked if we could give them a little more room. He understood the situation. When (Logano) is pointing toward the wall, and we’re pointing toward the wall, you’re never really going to get out of that. That comes down to Friday qualifying and pit selection. He knew his pit selection got him into that situation, and it wasn’t going to break until we got our cars better and stayed in front of them.”


No Hendrick Motorsports car finished better than 15th Sunday — the sixth consecutive race the organization has gone without a top-five finish. Hendrick’s last top-five result came with Chase Elliott’s win at Kansas in October.

Alex Bowman led the Hendrick group by placing 15th. William Byron was 17th. Elliott placed 19th, a lap down. Jimmie Johnson finished 24th, two laps down. Johnson has not had a top-10 finish in his last seven races on a 1.5-mile track.

“We’ve just got to get our cars better,” Bowman’s crew chief, Greg Ives, told NBC Sports. “We need to get just more overall speed. I don’t think anybody’s car (in the field) drives good. It’s just that one is faster than the other, and that’s who wins. So we’ve got to do a little bit better job with our cars. We go back home, and you’ve just got to get back to work.”


Front Row Motorsports has a unique setup for its pit crews this season.

It is using crews from three different organizations.

Michael McDowell’s pit crew is from Chip Ganassi Racing. Rookie Matt Tifft’s pit crew is from Stewart-Haas Racing. David Ragan’s pit crew is from Roush Fenway Racing.

The team used a pit crew from SHR and Roush last year but needed to find a third unit when it added the team for Tifft. Ganassi had a crew available because it no longer was pitting Leavine Family Racing’s car with that team moving to Toyota and getting its pit crew from Joe Gibbs Racing this season.

Using pit crews developed by other teams allows Front Row Motorsports to use the savings for its cars and organization. If Front Row had its own pit crew program, it would need at least 20 people (three teams of five and then at least some backups), training facilities and more.

Because these larger teams have programs in place, it makes sense for Front Row to use those team members. The benefit for the bigger teams is it helps develop those who are not on their own teams.

“We’d rather have the best group out of those organizations,” Jerry Freeze, general manager for Front Row Motorsports, told NBC Sports. “We felt that would be a better pit crew for us than going out and recruiting our own and coaching our own.”


Are changes coming to the rules package for Daytona and Talladega?

Daniel Hemric, Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman took part in a Goodyear tire test the two days after the Daytona 500.

“They had to slow us down,” Bowman said. “It will be interesting what gets brought back.”

Larson said one of the changes made to slow them down was a larger spoiler.

What that could mean, if anything, remains to be seen.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, said of any adjustments: “It’s probably premature to talk about that. We’re just downloading that data.”


The Toyota Racing Development pipeline of talent is deep, and that puts the pressure on young drivers to perform and work their way up.

After winning Saturday’s Gander Outdoors Truck Series race, Kyle Busch was asked about 18-year-old Todd Gilliland, who is running the full season for Kyle Busch Motorsports after competing in 19 of 23 races last year. Gilliland was winless last year and finished with nine top 10s.

“I don’t know how many times last year we were in meetings and I was just yelling at him about ‘Let’s go,’ ” Busch said. “Our (stuff) is not that slow. You got to get up on top of the wheel and make it happen. Obviously, we kind of proved that here (at Atlanta).”

Gilliland finished ninth in Saturday’s Truck race. Harrison Burton placed eighth but was second on the final restart before falling back.

“I was happy to see Harrison (run) as good as he did, and Todd, we certainly have to work with him and continue to bring him up and get him filled in on what it takes to be fast at these places,” Busch said.

“We’ll hopefully be able to get (Gilliland) places because you know his career is on the line. You don’t get very many chances at this, and I’m sure that we’ll hopefully be able to get him going better. He should have won two races last year, no question about it, but obviously it just didn’t happen. He’s got to show up this year and make it happen.”

Busch was asked if it was just of matter of Gilliland slowing down, taking a step back to take a step forward.

Absolutely,” Busch said. “We’ve had that discussion as well, too. There were times last year where Todd wrecked every week, and we were like, ‘Dude, you got to just slow down, you’ve got to figure out how to finish.’ To finish first, first you must finish, right?

“Obviously there was that discussion that happened. He went on to almost win the road course and then almost win Texas, and he struggled at Phoenix for some reason and struggled at Homestead. So obviously we continue to work on not only Todd, Harrison, but anybody that is behind the wheel, Christian Eckes, Chandler Smith who is going to get the chance later this year, Raphael Lessard. All these guys. If they want to make it, if they want to be a star in this sport, they better perform in KBM stuff because if you don’t, sorry, man, there’s not much left for you.”

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Bump & Run: Should Michael McDowell have pushed fellow Ford at end of Daytona 500?

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Should Michael McDowell have been obligated to push fellow Ford driver Joey Logano on the last lap of the Daytona 500 instead of pushing Toyota driver Kyle Busch? Or are such beliefs pointless in the final laps?

Nate Ryan: He wasn’t obligated to push Logano, but it also seemed his best hope for getting to the front. It’s understandable why McDowell, who has soldiered through a decade of mostly getting knocked around while racing for midpack teams, was frustrated that the elite of the Cup Series seemed so dismissive of his No. 34 Ford in the draft. But if he was trying to send that message by declining to push Logano out of spite, it probably was a decision that doomed both their hopes of winning the Daytona 500. (Also worth noting: Front Row Motorsports might be a Ford team, but it isn’t supported by the manufacturer at nearly the same level as Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske, so the dynamics of the allegiances were different.)

Dustin Long: No. Manufacturers should not be second-guessing a driver for going with a different car make if the driver feels that is their best chance to win in the heat of the moment. And drivers should not assume that just because they are in the same camp they should expect help in such moments. 

Daniel McFadin: Absolutely not. At some point the emblem on your hood is meaningless when it comes to winning a race, especially the final laps of the Daytona 500. I’m fine with manufacturers collaborating through the early stages as a means of survival, but you have to be a tad naive to expect that on the last lap. McDowell’s in the right.

Jerry Bonkowski: No, McDowell was under no obligation to push Logano. Even with both being Ford drivers, McDowell chose to push the driver – in this case Kyle Busch – he thought might help McDowell earn a higher result. Now, once we start using tapered spacers at Daytona and Talladega, things could be much different. Time will tell.

Does Ross Chastain deserve a full-time ride with an elite team after his triple-header masterpiece of not tearing up his equipment at Daytona?

Nate Ryan: Yes, and it would benefit NASCAR nearly as much as Chastain if he gets one. Beyond being a special talent, the part-time watermelon farmer from Florida speaks his mind in an appealingly brash and candid manner. He is the type of personality that is needed, and it’s somewhat inexplicable he wasn’t scooped up by a bigger team when his Xfinity ride with Chip Ganassi Racing dissolved. Sponsors and teams should be cognizant of what he brings to the table.

Dustin Long: He may deserve a ride but the reality is money plays a key role on where some drivers go. Look, there are plenty of drivers racing at local tracks who might deserve a chance at one of NASCAR’s national series but they aren’t going to get it for one reason or another. The sport could be better by having Chastain in a top-flight ride as Nate notes but sometimes things don’t go as they should.

Daniel McFadin: Chastain deserved an elite ride after his performance with Chip Ganassi Racing in three Xfinity races last year. He got that ride until circumstances out of his control took it away. He’s still under contract with Ganassi, and I don’t think he’s going to be forgotten next year.

Jerry Bonkowski: I don’t know if I would use the word “deserve,” but Chastain has shown he has a great deal of talent that deserves to be recognized by higher-level teams. The problem is there is only a finite number of driver positions with teams in Cup, and as he has learned throughout his career, Cup is far too often a numbers game. Chastain will have to keep fighting the good fight, but sooner or later his time will come.

NASCAR Chairman Jim France asked drivers to work the bottom lane and put on a show before Sunday’s Daytona 500. Was the race evidence that they listened or just circumstantial coincidence?

Nate Ryan: As I wrote in the notes column, the only thing that ultimately matters is he said it. It’s impossible to say definitively if drivers did listen … but you could make a strong case it made an impact in the first stage.

Dustin Long: Coincidence. Competitors were talking after the Duels that they expected two lanes of racing in the 500 with a full 40-car field. Yes, it was a less-than subtle dig at the drivers but once in the heat of competition, a competitor isn’t going to focus on the requests of a series executive if they don’t feel it gives them a good chance to win.

Daniel McFadin: I originally was going to answer that I thought the stakes of the Daytona 500 meant the racing we saw was going to happen regardless. But then I remembered a good chunk of last year’s 500 was conducted in a single-file manner (with Ryan Blaney leading 118 laps). So it’s entirely possible France’s friendly prodding did the trick.

Jerry Bonkowski: I lean more towards circumstantial coincidence. Drivers will be the first to tell anyone that they race for themselves and their teams first and foremost, and then their sponsors. NASCAR officials are not – and should not – be in a position to tell drivers how to drive or where to drive on a track to put on any kind of a show. Fans are not stupid, they will quickly pick up if drivers are given NASCAR orders (as opposed to team orders, which they should listen to).

What do you expect to see this weekend at Atlanta with the new rules package?

Nate Ryan: A race that resembles most races at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The lower horsepower should keep cars closer, but surely the massive tire wear, coupled with a few long green-flag runs, will produce a familiar look.

Dustin Long: I don’t know. That will be the fun of it. Sure, the cars should be closer together for a few laps but tire wear likely will spread the field some. How much remains to be seen. I’m keeping an open mind on what will take place this weekend.

Daniel McFadin: I expect a somewhat uneventful first stage as the teams get their heads around the package before they drop the hammer in Stage 2 and beyond. I’m willing to say it will probably be the most interesting Atlanta race in a decade.

Jerry Bonkowski: Given what we saw at the Las Vegas test – and at a track very similar to Atlanta – I am very bullish that this could be one of the closest and best races we’ve seen at Atlanta in perhaps a decade or more. The only thing that could alter that is if there are weather issues. Then it could be a whole different ballgame, especially if drivers are in a race to not only beat their opponents, but also closing-in rainstorms.

Austin Dillon says Chevy teams need to work together at Daytona

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Austin Dillon, who used a push from Chevrolet teammate Bubba Wallace to win last year’s Daytona 500, says more of that type of teamwork will be needed for Chevy to win Sunday’s race.

Dillon’s triumph last year is Chevrolet’s only victory at Daytona or Talladega since 2016. Fords have won nine of the last 12 restrictor-plate races and Toyota the other two. Before the era of teamwork at the plate tracks, Chevrolet had better results. From 2013-15, Chevrolet and Ford each won five restrictor-plate races and Toyota the other two.

Last fall, Stewart-Haas Racing’s four Fords dominated Talladega and Aric Almirola won after teammate Kurt Busch ran out of fuel on the final corner of the last lap.

“If we get our tails kicked in like we did at Talladega, it’s going to look bad,” Dillon said Wednesday at Daytona 500 Media Day. “Daytona is a little bit different in the fact that handling is more in play more often. What they did (at Talladega) was so impressive. They led the whole race. I don’t see that happening again. Penske did a really good job the other day, I felt like, of leading that pack (in the Clash), so that is kind of scary.”

Although Sunday’s Clash was disjointed by rain delays, the Fords of Team Penske and Wood Brothers Racing, which is aligned with Penske, dominated. Paul Menard’s Ford led 51 of 59 laps and was in front when contact with Jimmie Johnson’s car sent Menard into the wall and Johnson to victory lane.

“I do think it’s a good idea for us to get together to make some sort of game plan,” Dillon said of Chevy teams. “We do a pretty good job of trying to pit together and stay on the same pit strategies. So that is something that will probably be talked about more and more as we get closer to the race. We need to get together, I think, and work on that if that is how the race is going to go.”

Hendrick Motorsports might have its own plan. The organization took the front row for the Daytona 500 and its teams had the four fastest qualifying laps.

“Hendrick, I think they’ve got a game plan,” Dillon said. “I feel like they spent a lot of time in the wind tunnel this offseason for this race specifically, seeing what Stewart-Haas was able to do at Talladega and they took over the first four spots. Our job, we have two cars in the top 10, that was really great. We’ll go race the (Thursday’s) Duels and see how it plays out and link ourselves with them or together we just put ourselves in the right position.”

“Sometimes being the odd man out is not a bad thing because you get to play off of everybody else’s strategy. We’ll just see how it plays out.”

The challenge, though, is how well Fords work together and control the front of the field. Fords led 72.7 percent of the 756 laps run in the restrictor-plate races last year, winning two of those four events.

Denny Hamlin, who won the 2016 Daytona 500 after Toyota teams worked together and controlled the race, says Fords have taken their plan.

“I think that’s really been a lot of the success that Team Penske has had and Stewart-Haas at Talladega,” Hamlin said. “Their cars were just extremely fast and they just stayed in line together. That’s something that we displayed in 2016 with our Toyota teammates and really haven’t been able to replicate since.

“Other manufacturers have more cars. Us five cars can stay all in a line all we want, but if there are nine Fords or 10 Fords that stay in a line, that’s going to be faster. So once we kind of put the blueprint out there of how we work together, it’s been impossible for us to replicate since simply because of numbers.”

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