Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

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

1 Comment

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.

 and on Facebook

Johnny Sauter back in Truck with ThorSport Racing

Getty Images
1 Comment

Who says you can’t go home again? Johnny Sauter is proof you can.

Just over a month after unexpectedly losing his Gander Outdoors Truck Series ride with GMS Racing, Sauter has returned to ThorSport Racing, just in time for Friday’s NextEra Energy 250 at Daytona International Speedway.

Sauter announced that he has rejoined ThorSport on Tuesday’s edition of RaceHub on Fox Sports 1.

I’m returning home,” Sauter said. “I couldn’t be more proud of going back there and running for a championship.” 

ThorSport expands to four full-time Truck entries with Sauter returning. He’ll be teammates with Matt Crafton, Ben Rhodes, Myatt Snider and Grant Enfinger. Snider will drive in select races for the team.

Sauter also will have longtime crew chief Joe Shear Jr. back with him for the 2019 season.

“He’s like an old pair of shoes for me,” Sauter smiled, alluding to how comfortable he is with Shear. “I think we’ll pick up right where we left off, racing for wins.”

Sauter raced for ThorSport from 2009-15, scoring 10 wins. He moved to GMS Racing for 2016-18 before he found himself out of a ride on January 9.

“It was just a business decision,” Sauter said. “The guy that took my place (defending Truck Series champ Brett Moffitt) probably works a little cheaper. Just kidding.

“You can let it bother you or you just move on. I’ve never raced a Ford, so I’m looking forward to working with their engineers and people.”

Sauter flew into Daytona Tuesday and is ready to go for Friday night’s race.

“Daytona is a crapshoot,” he said. “I’ve been wrecked there on Lap 1 and I’ve won there. You have to manage your expectations going into that race, have to put your best effort forward and be patient all night long.”

Sauter, a native of Necedah, Wisconsin, won his lone Truck Series championship in his first season with GMS in 2016, was second in 2017 and fourth last season.

Sauter has 244 career starts in a Truck, with 23 wins. He also has 85 Cup races without a win and 207 Xfinity starts with three wins.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Xfinity, Gander Outdoors Truck entry lists for Daytona

Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images
Leave a comment

NASCAR has released the preliminary entry lists for this weekend’s Xfinity Series and Gander Outdoors Truck Series races at Daytona International Speedway.

Xfinity – NASCAR Racing Experience 300 (2:30 p.m. ET Saturday on Fox Sports 1)

Thirty-eight cars on the preliminary entry list. With NASCAR cutting the field by two cars after last season, 38 cars is a full field. Cup drivers entered are Chase Elliott and Brad Keselowski.

Click here for Xfinity entry list

Trucks – NextEra Energy 250 (7:30 p.m. ET, Friday on FS1)

There are 40 trucks on the preliminary entry list. Johnny Sauter, who was let go by GMS Racing in the offseason, is listed in the No. 13 Ford for ThorSport Racing.

Click here for Truck entry list

Friday 5: No panic for Chase Elliott in battle for playoff spots

Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images
1 Comment

SPARTA, Kentucky — Chase Elliott is quick to point out that he doesn’t feel helpless, but he knows that he and his Hendrick Motorsports teammates face challenges to secure playoff spots in the final eight regular-season races.

Hendrick drivers Jimmie Johnson, Elliott and Alex Bowman hold what would be the final three playoff positions, heading into Saturday night’s race at Kentucky Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Johnson has a 54-point lead on Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — the first driver outside a playoff spot. Elliott leads Stenhouse by 37 points and Bowman leads Stenhouse by 19 points.

“I think that we certainly have room to improve, and I think we have improved from where we started the season,” Elliott said earlier this week after unveiling the tribute throwback scheme he’ll run in the Southern 500.

“There’s been some weeks where we end practice on Saturday and we’re not in the same league as some people. What you have to do is go make the most of what you got. At the end of the day that’s sometimes the best thing. It’s easy to overreach sometimes and get yourself in more trouble than what you could have done if you just had done what you had in front of you.”

That could be an easy trap to fall in.

Hendrick Motorsports, an organization that measures success by championships, has gone nearly a year since its last Cup victory.

Jimmie Johnson is on a career-long winless streak of 41 races and Elliott seeks his first career Cup win as he nears 100 career starts. Teammate Alex Bowman makes his 100th start this weekend and looks for his first Cup win, although many of his starts were with underfunded teams, and William Byron is in his rookie season.

Elliott had scored eight consecutive finishes of 12th or better before he placed 19th at Chicagoland Speedway two weeks ago and then finished 34th at Daytona after he was eliminated by an accident.

“You can’t wig out over it,” Elliott said. “It is what it is. I had no control over the crash on Saturday night. Chicago, yes I thought I could have done a better job at the end of that race to improve our finish, sure, but this past Saturday night I don’t know what I would have done to keep that from happening. That stuff happens. Once we fall out of a  race I can’t control anything beyond that.”

2. Class by themselves

Moments after exiting a boiling car at the completion of 400 miles at Chicagoland Speedway, Brad Keselowski sat on the pit wall and wiped sweat from his face with a towel as Kyle Busch celebrated another victory.

Busch’s win two weeks ago continued a trend that has seen Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. dominate. They have won 13 of the first 18 Cup races this season and the last 12 races on 1.5-mile speedways, dating back to last year.

“It’s like there’s an A, B, C, D group,” Keselowski said of ranking the teams. “We’re in the B group. We want to go from good to great.”

He noted then that they were behind Truex, Busch and the Stewart-Haas Racing cars.

“I think the difference, as you look at those cars, they have more speed and you don’t see their mistakes because they’ve got speed to recover from it,’’ Todd Gordon, crew chief for Joey Logano, said after the Chicago race. “We’ve got to keep working on trying to find more speed in our cars.

Busch admitted his car was awful the first two stages at Chicagoland before hitting on the right changes and taking the lead on pit road.

Clint Bowyer showed how fast the Stewart-Haas cars are — Gordon said Bowyer’s car at Chicago was “stupid fast” — by finishing fifth after two speeding penalties and a third trip down pit road when he did not serve a stop-and-go penalty on his second speeding infraction.

That’s not a luxury most of the field has. They have to be perfect.

That’s the challenge Saturday night (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) at Kentucky Speedway for many teams.

3. Ruh-roh

That seems to be the common theme about the road course at Charlotte Motor Speedway (or Roval as some call it) after some teams tested there Tuesday.

Tight turns, minimal run-off areas before hitting walls or tire barriers, and the race being the cutoff event in the first round of the playoffs, should make for a wild afternoon of racing.

What that race will do, though, is put more pressure on teams to do well in the first two races — Las Vegas and Richmond — in the opening round. Have poor finishes at either of those races and be toward the bottom of the playoff standings will only add pressure on drivers at Charlotte in the Sept. 30 event.

Another key factor will be how many playoff points drivers have. That could make the difference in advancing from the first round if the race is as chaotic as some forecast.

The rest of the Cup field is scheduled to test on the Charlotte road course Tuesday.

4. Gauntlet thrown

After Ben Rhodes’ Camping World Truck Series win Thursday night at his home track of Kentucky Speedway, ThorSport Racing General Manager David Pepper had a warning to competitors.

“With five races to go in the regular season, leading into the playoffs,” Pepper said, “the rest of these teams need to look out for ThorSport. We’re going to be a factor.”

Along with Rhodes giving the team its first win of the year Thursday, ThorSport’s Matt Crafton finished third and Grant Enfinger placed sixth. ThorSport’s Myatt Snider crashed in qualifying and never had a chance to do much in his backup.

GMS Racing’s Johnny Sauter has won a series-high four times and Hattori Racing Enterprises’ Brett Moffitt has three wins.

5. Drivers to get their first win while at Joe Gibbs Racing

Erik Jones is the fifth driver to score his first career Cup victory while at Joe Gibbs Racing. He joins Bobby Labonte, Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano.

Labonte’s first win came in the 1995 Coca-Cola 600. Stewart’s first win was in the September 1999 Richmond race. Hamlin’s first win was in the June 2011 Pocono race. Logano’s first victory came in June 2009 at New Hampshire.

 and on Facebook

Ben Rhodes scores Truck win at Kentucky Speedway

Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images
Leave a comment

SPARTA, Kentucky —  Ben Rhodes, who grew up in nearby Louisville, held off Stewart Friesen in the final laps to win Thursday’s Camping World Truck Series race at his home track, Kentucky Speedway.

“This is sweeter than my first win,” Rhodes said. “This is sweeter because of the people that are here.

“(Kentucky Speedway) doesn’t have the history that Daytona does but it has the history for me,” Rhodes said.

Rhodes had one of the strongest trucks in the 150-lap race (he won the opening stage) but was aided by fuel-only pit stop with 25 laps to go. The other leaders took two tires.

MORE: Race results, points report 

The victory was the second of Rhodes’ career. His other win came Sept. 2017 at Las Vegas. The win is Rhodes’ first of the season and earns him a spot in the playoffs.

Friesen, who started at the rear because of an engine change before the race, finished second. Matt Crafton was third and followed by Brandon Jones and John Hunter Nemechek.

Stage 1 winner: Ben Rhodes

Stage 2 winner: Noah Gragson

How Ben Rhodes won: Runner-up Stewart Friesen said he felt that he lost time to Rhodes coming on to pit road when they made their final pit stops. After that, Friesen struggled with his truck’s handling the closer he got to Rhodes before fading in the final laps.

Who had a good race: Stewart Friesen’s second-place finish marked the fourth time in the last five races on 1.5-mile tracks he’s placed sixth or better. … Matt Crafton started 30th (after nearly crashing in qualifying) and finished third for his best result since placing second at Dover in May. … Dalton Sargeant’s ninth-place result snapped a streak of eight consecutive finishes outside the top 10.

Who had a bad race: Rookie Myatt Snider had to start at the rear after crashing in qualifying and had to go to a backup. He was never a factor, finishing 26th. … Points leader Johnny Sauter was penalized for speeding on pit road and then for a commitment line violation while serving the speeding penalty. He finished 15th, two laps off the leaders.

Notable: Ben Rhodes’ win marks the fourth consecutive series victory for a driver age 25 or under. Rhodes is 21 years old.

Quote of the night: ThorSport Racing General Manager David Pepper after Ben Rhodes’ win: “With 5 races to go in the regular season, leading into the playoffs, the rest of these teams need to look out for ThorSport. We’re going to be a factor.”

Next: The series races at Eldora at 9 p.m. ET on Wednesday, July 18.

 and on Facebook