Was Clint Bowyer justified to be angry with Erik Jones for blocking on the last lap at Kansas, or did Jones have a point that the current style of 1.5-mile racing demands such moves?
Nate Ryan: Both drivers could make legitimate cases for their actions. Bowyer absolutely cut Jones a break by backing off on the last lap and giving up a shot at finishing second, which had to be hard to swallow at the home-state track where the Stewart-Haas Racing driver is so desperate to win. But Jones’ point on the aggressive and risky moves required by the drafting package also is well taken. As Cup drivers adapt their racecraft to this style, and if there are more races similar to Kansas, it’s likely there will be more instances such as these. That could be good for rivalry-building in NASCAR but frustrating for those behind the wheel.
Dustin Long: Welcome to racing with this rules package. If there are more late-race cautions, expect more extreme maneuvers and blocking. Bowyer had every right to be upset, but Jones had every right to defend his position. Until NASCAR starts penalizing drivers for blocking, expect these types of moves to continue.
Daniel McFadin: It was the last lap of an overtime finish. I expect a driver to do whatever they can to advance their position or protect their position in that instance. Bowyer has every right to be annoyed, but that’s racing.
Jerry Bonkowski: I understand both drivers’ arguments. Bowyer has never won at his home Cup track and was pressing for a top-three finish. Jones, who has struggled at times, was looking for his best finish of the season (and wound up tying it). This is yet another example why NASCAR should implement rules against blatant blocking.
There have been six different winners as the Cup Series nears the halfway point in the regular season. How many drivers will qualify for the playoffs via wins when the regular season ends?
Nate Ryan: There will be 10 and here are my four predictions of those winners: Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Larson and Erik Jones.
Dustin Long: Ten drivers will make the playoffs via wins.
Daniel McFadin: I’m going to go with 11 drivers qualifying via wins.
Jerry Bonkowski: Given that there are 14 more races left in the regular season, I believe we’ll see four or five more different winners. In addition, several of the frontrunners to date may go into slumps themselves, which could further shake things up (much like Kyle Busch finished 30th at Kansas after 11 consecutive top-10 finishes).
Is Brad Keselowski right that many wins are coming soon for Alex Bowman, or did the way the No. 88 driver lost at Kansas underscore that Bowman still needs more improvement?
Nate Ryan: Three consecutive runner-up finishes show that Bowman and his team are consistently putting themselves in position to win, but the Hendrick Motorsports driver rightfully was beating himself up after Kansas. Beyond being able to register fast laps with a good car, managing restarts and traffic are essential to being a winner in NASCAR’s premier series. Bowman struggled with both Saturday: losing the lead to teammate Chase Elliott on a Lap 229 restart and then losing the race to Keselowski by misjudging a lapped car on Lap 261. That makes it harder to declare he’s on the verge of a breakthrough.
Dustin Long: Bowman’s recent run has been impressive but he needs improvement — as many drivers who have limited experience running at the front.
Daniel McFadin: At this point it feels inevitable that Bowman will steal a win somewhere (possibly Pocono). But Bowman does need more experience when it comes to leading in Cup. His 63 laps led were his most in a race since he led 194 at Phoenix in 2016 when he was a substitute driver for Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Jerry Bonkowski: I agree with Keselowski that Bowman will win — and soon. Some may say his Talladega runner-up was a fluke, but there’s no denying he drove his butt off for second-place showings at Dover and Kansas. But Bowman still needs improvement; he learned a valuable lesson in the way he was snookered by Keselowski at Kansas. It’s a lesson he likely won’t forget any time soon.
Aric Almirola fastest in opening Cup practice at Kansas Speedway
The visit to the 1.5-mile track in Kansas City, Kansas, represents the first of two trips the Cup Series makes to the home track for Bowyer, who hails from Emporia, Kansas.
It also means yet another opportunity for the Stewart-Haas Racing driver to claim a Cup win at his home track.
Through 29 starts at the track across all three national series, Bowyer’s only triumph in Kansas came in 2011 in the Truck Series.
In 21 Cup starts, he has only two top fives with his best result of second occurring in his second start in 2007.
In all those starts he has led only 51 laps, 43 of them coming in his first start.
He has only one top 10 in his last 11 Kansas starts.
Now it’s time to let Bowyer talk.
“I love Kansas, it’s home,” Bowyer said in a media release. “But there’s been something about that track I’m still trying to figure out. Maybe Saturday night we’ll put it all together.”
Bowyer enters Saturday night’s race – on the eve of Mother’s Day – with five top 10s and two top fives in the last six races.
A win would also be SHR’s first of the season.
Should he win, his mother Jana may have to wait for Mother’s Day to be celebrated in the Bowyer family.
“I’ve said before that if we ever win at Kansas, I probably wouldn’t be in very good shape for Mother’s Day,” Bowyer said with a laugh. “We would probably have to postpone that to Monday.
“It would be huge to win at home and finally seal the deal after all this time. It would be ultra-special. This is where all my family and friends and people who helped me get to where I am today all live, in the area, and it would be cool to celebrate that with them. I think probably everybody would have an open invite.”
What are the two or three most memorable NASCAR races you attended?
Nate Ryan: June 21, 1997, California Speedway: New NASCAR sensation Jeff Gordon christens Roger Penske’s new racing palace with a victory in its inaugural race weekend that also was the first Cup experience for many in attendance (including this writer). July 7, 2001, Daytona International Speedway: In one of the most feel-good moments in NASCAR history, Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins the first Cup race held at the track since his father’s death there five months earlier. Aug. 7, 2005, Indianapolis Motor Speedway: Tony Stewart finally breaks through at the hometown track that tormented him for a decade, climbing the fence after a Brickyard victory that became the signature moment of his second championship season.
Dustin Long: The inaugural Brickyard 400 at Indy in 1994 with that massive crowd, Dale Earnhardt trying to lead that opening lap, the Bodine brothers brouhaha and Jeff Gordon winning it. The October 2000 Talladega race that Earnhardt rallied from 18th with five laps left to win. July 2001 when Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the first Cup race at Daytona after his father’s death.
Daniel McFadin: My first NASCAR race ever in 1997 with the inaugural Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway when I was 6. Flash forward to 2011 for my first race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I witnessed Paul Menard‘s surprise Brickyard 400 win over Jeff Gordon. But as an adult, the most exciting race I’ve ever attended was last year’s inaugural Cup event on the Charlotte Roval. The final lap is one of the wildest things I’ve ever seen and probably will see in the near future.
Jerry Bonkowski: The 1988 Checker 500 at the then-Phoenix International Raceway. It was Alan Kulwicki’s first career Winston Cup win and he celebrated by performing the first-ever “Polish Victory Lap,” where he drove in the opposite direction around the 1-mile track before going on to victory lane. The 1994 Brickyard 400. It was near-magical with a sellout crowd watching the first time NASCAR had ever raced upon the greatest racetrack in the world. The 2011 Ford 400. Tony Stewart won the race and captured his third career NASCAR Cup championship. But after the race was the most surreal setting I’ve ever seen in racing. As Stewart celebrated his win, it was also announced that crew chief Darian Grubb was being fired. It was such an awkward scene, but to Grubb’s credit, he handled it like the true pro he is, answering all questions — even the ones that involved his firing.
Talladega, Dover, Kansas, All-Star Race and the Coca-Cola 600 are the next five Cup events. What will you be watching for in this next stretch?
Nate Ryan: Whether the Gibbs-Penske stranglehold is broken.
Dustin Long: What team or teams can get to victory lane that don’t run for Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske. Can Kyle Larson shake his poor start and be a factor? Also will be curious to see how the package fares in these races, particularly the 1.5-mile tracks.
Daniel McFadin: I’m interested to see how the rules package performs at Charlotte a year after its early draft was introduced in the All-Star Race. This package was introduced to improve competition on 1.5-mile tracks, with Charlotte being one of the main culprits. The All-Star Race and the Coke 600 will be the most significant tests for the package yet for me.
Talladega is Dash 4 Cash race in the Xfinity Series. Drivers earning Cup points are barred from competing in 12 of 33 Xfinity races (Dash 4 Cash races and final eight races of the year). Is that enough?
Nate Ryan: Too many. Would prefer to see the trend toward restricting lower-level starts be reversed.
Dustin Long: Don’t need to further bar drivers scoring Cup points from any other Xfinity races.
Daniel McFadin: I’m for limiting Cup drivers as much as possible in Xfinity, but the 12 races overall is reasonable given the significance of those races. Only alteration I’d propose: Outside those races, Cup drivers with more than five years of experience can’t compete in consecutive races.
Jerry Bonkowski: Given that Cup regulars with more than five years of full-time experience in the series are even more restricted — to just seven starts per season in the Xfinity Series — yes, I feel that’s enough. Cup drivers doing any more than seven Xfinity starts — not including Cup regulars with less than five years of full-time Cup experience — would water down the chance for the Xfinity regulars to shine on their own.
Cole Custer, Mike Shiplett ‘fine-tuned’ their way to early Xfinity success
In early December, crew chief Mike Shiplett had a good idea what was in store for him in 2019.
In charge of Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 42 Xfinity car, Shiplett would be paired with 26-year-old Ross Chastain full-time. It would be Shiplett’s first full year with a single driver since the 2010 Cup season with AJ Allmendinger.
Later that month, Shiplett and his wife Brooke flew to South Asia to scuba dive in the Maldives. They’d also spend time living on a boat in the middle of the sea.
“That’s part of the lure of it,” Shiplett told NBC Sports. “You’re out there, you’re away from the rest of the world and nothing else matters.”
Within three months, Shiplett would stand in Victory Lane at Richmond Raceway celebrating his second Xfinity Series win of the year.
Instead of Chastain, Shiplett posed for pictures with 21-year-old Cole Custer, who had won his first short-track race in Xfinity, claimed a $100,000 Dash 4 Cash bonus and matched his win total from the previous two years.
The victory also established themselves as the No. 1 threat to Christopher Bell, the prohibitive favorite to win the series championship.
But that was only because the team needed to officially submit Shiplett’s name as crew chief for the race.
Shiplett’s first day at SHR was Jan. 7, three days after Ganassi closed its Xfinity operation.
Shiplett has been in NASCAR since 1995 and is no stranger to teams shutting down mid-season after advance warning.
“This one was a little bit unexpected,” he said. “I’ve never been part of that, how rapidly it happened. But you’ve been in racing long enough, you see a lot of things. Unfortunately, this sport is driven by sponsors a lot. You kind of go with the flow of what happens.”
The quick turnaround in employment was a result of a call Shiplett made to SHR President Joe Custer, Cole’s father.
The elder Custer had inquired with Shiplett last year whether he was set for a job in 2019. He had been and Custer went on his way.
Shiplett took the place of Jeff Meendering, Cole Custer’s crew chief during his first two years who had moved to Joe Gibbs Racing to work with Brandon Jones.
Custer was “pretty nervous” about his new crew chief pairing so late in the offseason.
“That’s what kind of made it a little bit more stressful,” Custer said. “You never know how (Shiplett’s) going to compare to your chassis and your program and everything. You just don’t really know what to expect. It’s just a thing where I’m in my third year and I didn’t want to get worse than what I was. I knew we could probably have the speed and compete for wins, it was just a matter of how fast it would take to get there.”
Custer’s takeaway from their first meeting was that Shiplett was “pretty straight-forward” in his approach.
“He was quiet,” Custer said. “I think he’s all business, honestly. He’s a guy that doesn’t talk a ton, but he tells you what he thinks and what’s productive and I think that’s pretty much his deal.”
While the No. 00 had a full operation, Shiplett brought with him his lead engineer from CGR, Davin Restivo.
There were no major overhauls implemented by Shiplett with his arrival to a team that had been competing in Xfinity for just two years.
“It was a lot of fine-tuning,” Shiplett said. “Taking Cole’s strengths and putting them aside and then taking Cole’s weaknesses and then really working on them and saying, ‘OK, where are you the weakest? Where are you not happy with? Where did you struggle? Let’s focus on all that stuff.’ We didn’t have to worry about building cars. Their cars were already there. Everything was already established. It was more just working with Cole and understanding what he wanted in the car and just making him a better driver.”
Custer owned up to his weaknesses – short tracks and a lack of long-run speed. Those played some part in his wins only coming in the final three races of each season.
“I think the biggest thing was the long-run speed, figuring out how set your car up and then saving tires enough to have speed on the long runs,” Custer said.
Without the ability to test ahead of the season, the new duo had to rely on the notebook the No. 00 team had already put together.
Shiplett said the notebook chronicled how “Cole felt in practices, the changes they did, everything like that. It’s just a matter of going through all that and understanding what kind feel (Custer wants). Rewatching races, seeing what Cole puts in the car, what he wanted to do with the car.”
One area Shiplett is “fine-tuning” for SHR as a whole is how their cars and parts are put together between races.
“All the pieces and parts have to be inspected and (put) through a process where I feel Stewart-Haas Racing is young enough on the Xfinity side that was an area we could greatly improve that process and make it better,” Shiplett said. “When a car is raced, all the pieces come off the car, they get cleaned, they get serviced, they get inspected. How we go about that, getting it ready for the next event is a process I’ve learned from experience that we can make better in fine-tuning and making it more efficient to get the pieces and parts ready for the next event.”
Ahead of the Curve
Whether a result of Custer being in his third season on the Xfinity circuit or being paired with Shiplett, the No. 00 Ford is well ahead of its established pace of 2017-18.
After eight races, Custer has two wins and five top fives. Last year, his second top five didn’t come until race No. 11 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Three races later, Custer followed a third-place finish at Bristol Motor Speedway with a dominant evening in Richmond. After Christopher Bell claimed the previous two races on the short track, Custer led 122 of 250 laps to earn the victory.
Custer’s two wins tie him with Bell, who is also well ahead of his record 2018 pace.
“Like I told Cole, ‘If you want to be the best driver, you’ve got to beat the best,'” Shiplett said. “If Kyle Busch is in the race or Kyle Larson or Kevin Harvick. Any of those guys like that, you’ve got to beat them.
“So it doesn’t matter whose in the race. Just getting in that mentality of if there’s five Cup drivers, that’s just five more people we’ve you’ve got to beat. Just cause they’re a Cup driver doesn’t mean they’re any more talented or better than you are.”
When it comes to the cause of their success, Custer puts it at “50/50” between his own experience and Shiplett’s leadership.
“If I was restarting this whole thing and I had my Mike as my crew chief my rookie year I think we would have done pretty good,” Custer said. “I don’t know if we’d have won the races we have so far and everything, but I think we would have added speed and competed. But I think having the two years of experience under my belt I know what it takes to win races and what feel I want when we go to the track.