Friday 5: ‘Chaotic’ qualifying is entertaining and shouldn’t change

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Last week’s Cup qualifying at Las Vegas Motor Speedway raised the question of is qualifying more about entertainment or sport?

It was fascinating to watch cars parked on pit road and drivers waiting for someone to go because nobody wanted to be the lead car. They all wanted to be in the draft.

While that took place, spotters counted down the time remaining in the session.

It became a game of who would blink first and take off.

When it was time to go, there was chaos. Cars darted around each other. In the final round, Joey Logano went four-wide on pit road. Ricky Stenhouse passed Logano on the inside and left pit road ahead of him.

“Is chaos a bad thing?” Logano asked NBC Sports’ Jerry Bonkowski this week. “I think that’s the question we have to ask ourselves. Is it chaos? Yes. Is it entertaining? Oh yeah, it’s entertaining, there’s a lot going on. So I don’t know if it’s wrong and we should be changing much.

“I think there’s a couple safety aspects we can add to pit road while we’re jockeying around for position and stuff like that. But as far as the entertainment value, will you get the lap in before the clock runs out, will you get a big enough draft, will they all go out for a second time and you get a big pack again, are they going to knock somebody out of the round? That’s good.

“I don’t know why we would change much of that, I think it’s OK. Yeah, it’s a little chaotic, it’s crazy and none of us has it figured out or scienced out the way we want to have it yet, but that’s competition, that’s just what it is.”

Logano is right. While there was a randomness to who won the pole at Las Vegas, qualifying was as entertaining as any session in recent years.

What happened last week was reminiscent of qualifying at Talladega in October 2014. NASCAR divided teams into two groups for the opening round and each had five minutes. The top 24 overall times advanced.

Most cars stayed on pit road until they hit their cutoff mark to complete two laps. Not everyone made it. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Justin Allgaier were among the cars that didn’t make it to the start/finish line before the session ended. Their fastest laps didn’t count. They both failed to qualify. It’s the only race Stenhouse has failed to make since his 2013 rookie Cup season.

These days, 36 chartered cars are guaranteed a starting spot. That prevents a situation Stenhouse experienced five years ago with a well-funded team.

But that doesn’t ease all the angst. Some competitors were frustrated at Las Vegas because the draft negates who has the fastest car. It’s all about being in the right place to draft and turn the quickest lap. Being in that position can be as much luck as skill.

What happens in qualifying can impact the race. Teams pick pit stalls based on their starting spot. A poor qualifying effort can lead to issues in the race.

Logano is aware of that. He qualified 27th at Atlanta and his team had limited options on where to pick their pit stall. Crew chief Todd Gordon chose a stall behind Alex Bowman’s pit and in front of Martin Truex Jr.’s pit.

Rarely do strong teams pit next to each other because they don’t want to have to go around a car to enter their stall or be blocked in by the car in front. Logano faced that situation at Atlanta. He lost more than 10 spots on each of his first two pit stops because he couldn’t get around Bowman’s car to exit his stall.

That leads back to the question of should qualifying be about entertainment or sport?

The decision today will be easy. The fastest car will be rewarded because teams are not expected to draft.

This issue that will come up again in the coming weeks, though, when the series heads to Auto Club Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway.

“Texas, I don’t know,” Logano said. “I think there’s going to be parts of the track that you want to draft and parts of the track when you’re going to want clean air. When you get to Turns 1 and 2, you’re going to want some air on the car to be able to get through the corner with as much wide open time as possible. That one’s a real question for me.

“I think Kansas is a no-brainer, you’re definitely going to be drafting. As for Fontana, it’ll be interesting. I think there’s going to be some drafting going on there, but I think it’ll be split up a little bit, kind of like the way Atlanta was, kinda 50-50.”

There’s no splitting this issue. It’s about entertainment. Let chaos reign in qualifying.

2. Second to Kyle Busch

For all the wins Kyle Busch has amassed in his NASCAR career, there is a recurring theme.

The runner-up to Busch in more than a third of the 197 races he’s won across Cup, Xfinity and the Gander Outdoors Truck Series has been one of five drivers.

Kyle Busch celebrating a NASCAR win has been a familiar sight through the years. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

The driver who has finished runner-up to Busch the most in those races is Kevin Harvick. He’s done so 18 times — five times in Cup, 10 times in Xfinity and three times in Trucks. The total equates to 9.1 percent of the time Busch has won a NASCAR race, Harvick has been second.

Carl Edwards is next on the list with 15 runner-up finishes to Busch. He’s followed by Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano with 13-runner-up finishes. Next is Kyle Larson, who has placed second to Busch eight times.

Combined, Harvick, Edwards, Keselowski, Logano and Larson have finished second to Busch in 67 of his 197 wins (34 percent).

They are among the 60 drivers who have placed second to Busch in a race he won. The list includes three NASCAR Hall of Fame members (Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and Ron Hornaday Jr.), two Indianapolis 500 winners (Sam Hornish Jr. and Juan Pablo Montoya) and drivers who have combined to win 48 NASCAR titles in either Cup, Xfinity or Trucks.

The list could grow this weekend. Busch is entered in both the Cup and Xfinity races at Phoenix.

Here is who has finished second to Busch in Cup, Xfinity and Trucks races and how often:

18 — Kevin Harvick

15 — Carl Edwards

13 — Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano

8 — Kyle Larson

7 — Todd Bodine, Matt Crafton

6 — Erik Jones, Johnny Sauter

5 — Greg Biffle, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Ron Hornaday Jr., Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart

4 — Jeff Burton, Austin Dillon

3 — Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Daniel Suarez, Martin Truex Jr.

2 — Mike Bliss, Terry Cook, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin, John Hunter Nemechek, Timothy Peters, David Reutimann, Elliott Sadler

1 — Justin Allgaier, AJ Allmendinger, Marcos Ambrose, Trevor Bayne, James Buescher, Kurt Busch, Colin Braun, Jeb Burton, Brendan Gaughan, David Gilliland, Jeff Gordon, Daniel Hemric, Sam Hornish Jr., Parker Kligerman, Jason Leffler, Sterling Marlin, Jamie McMurray, Casey Mears, Brett Moffitt, Juan Pablo Montoya, Ryan Newman, Nelson Piquet Jr., Ryan Preece, Brian Scott, Reed Sorenson, Brian Vickers, Bubba Wallace, Cole Whitt

3. Multiple surgeries

Tanner Thorson, who competed in 11 Gander Outdoors Truck Series races last season, is recovering after he was involved in a highway crash early Monday morning in Modesto, California.

The 2016 U.S. Auto Club national champion had surgery Monday night for a broken left arm, according to the USAC Racing. Thorson had surgery Wednesday on his broken right foot. He also suffered a cracked sternum, broken ribs and a punctured lung, according to USAC Racing. The organization said that Thorson’s family hopes the 22-year-old can return home soon.

According to a preliminary investigation by the California Highway Patrol, Thorson was driving a 2019 Ford pickup that was towing his sprint car when he approached slower moving traffic shortly before 4 a.m. PT. Thorson’s truck struck the rear of a vehicle. KCRA, an NBC affiliate in Sacramento, reported that vehicle was a milk truck.

The impact sent the milk truck into the next lane where it was hit by another vehicle and then came back across the road and was struck another car. The driver was uninjured. A passenger in the truck was transported from the scene with minor injuries, according to the California Highway Patrol. Thorson’s vehicle came to rest on the shoulder and caught fire.

4. First time in new garages at Phoenix

ISM Raceway at Phoenix debuted its new garages and layout when NASCAR raced there in November.

One person missing that weekend was Rodney Childers, crew chief for Kevin Harvick. NASCAR suspended Childers the final two races of last year as part of penalties imposed to the No. 4 team for failing inspection after its win at Texas. So Childers missed the new look at Phoenix – until this weekend.

Childers shared his excitement of being in Phoenix on Thursday night.

5. Remarkable record

Kevin Harvick has finished in the top five in half of the 32 Cup races he’s run at Phoenix. He has nine wins there. Jimmie Johnson has 15 top-five finishes in 31 Cup races there. He has four wins there.

Despite the dominance of the two, they have combined for one win (by Harvick) in the last five races at Phoenix. The other winners in the last five races at Phoenix are Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman and Joey Logano.

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Brad Keselowski: Expect Team Penske to be ‘more aggressive’

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It has taken only three races for Team Penske to lock down two of the 16 available spots in this season’s Cup playoffs.

Joey Logano joined teammate Brad Keselowski in the playoffs after he held off Keselowski on the final lap of Sunday’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Keselowski earned his playoff spot with his Atlanta win last weekend.

With those playoff berths secured, Keselowski anticipates the No. 2 and No. 22 teams to push the limits of their Fords over the rest of the regular season.

“Expect us to get more aggressive with things that might break,” he said during a Facebook Live video on a flight after the race. “Things of that nature that could make us run faster but might break, because we don’t have to worry so much about points.”

Logano leads the point standings after three races while Keselowski is fifth.

Logano’s crew chief, Todd Gordon, views things differently after the win.

“I don’t think that I’ll do things differently, the only thing is (the win) allows you to be a little more aggressive,” he said. “That’s how you call a race or some of the things you do. You can be a little bit more aggressive to try to go get wins. Those things you’ll still do, but we’re still trying to learn what we’ve got to do to race this package, and where we go.”

The third Penske driver, Ryan Blaney, has yet to finish in the top 10 this season

This is the fastest Team Penske has secured two playoff spots in the elimination era, which began in 2014.

Last year, the team didn’t earn its second win and playoff spot until Keselowski’s Southern 500 victory at Darlington in September.

During his Facebook Live video, Keselowski was asked about his thoughts about running a night race at Martinsville Speedway.

“Don’t get me started,” Keselowski said. “I think we should be running Martinsville in the middle of the summer at night. A good ole’ short track race. I think like a good midweek race at Martinsville would be awesome. That’s probably not going to happen in my lifetime. But I can ask and I can dream, right?”

NASCAR is expected to make significant changes to the schedule in the next two years.

NASCAR President Steve Phelps has said “everything is on the table” in regards to schedule changes.

Regarding a night race, Martinsville President Clay Campbell said last summer, “We would love to swap dates with somebody, but the question is who wants to give up a date and give it to us? Because most of the dates are taken, it would take something that makes sense for the other track and makes sense for us and it’s complicated.”

NASCAR sees better racing with rules package but can ‘continue to improve’

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A NASCAR executive saw signs of better racing with the new rules package at Las Vegas Motor Speedway but also said “we can continue to improve on that.”

Joey Logano beat Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski by less than a quarter of a second. The race featured aero ducts for the first time this season to go along with a tapered spacer that limited engines to 550 horsepower and other aerodynamic changes intended to keep the cars closer together.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, gave his review of the race:

“What we said from the beginning was we wanted to see the best car still win. We wanted the ability … if you look up in Turn 2 or Turn 3 during a run, we wanted to see the leader and the ability for second or third to be at least in that shot and have the ability to pass. We saw that.

“We certainly saw the last stage, 100-lap, green-flag run, no cautions and the top four within 2.5 seconds. So directionally I think better for sure but not satisfied. I’m a race fan first and liked what I saw but also think there’s more to come hopefully.”

What would make O’Donnell more satisfied with the race?

“I think it’s not really up to me,” he said. “It’s the fans. You want higher ratings and you want more butts in seats ultimately. You want rivalries out there and drivers getting after it. I think what happens in that situation is you have more passes for the lead and you have cars closer together. I think we’re on the march to do that. I think we saw some of that today, but we can continue to improve on that.”

Where will that improvement come from? 

“I think over time,” O’Donnell said. “We’ve said from the beginning this is going to be a season that we analyze. We’re not every race going to say was that a good race? I know fans do that.

“For us, directionally, are you improving upon where we wanted to be, and if you look at last year vs. this year, I would say we are. Was it tremendous improvement? Probably not, but again as a fan you want to see lead changes. We saw that today. I think if you would have looked in the past with no cautions, we would have seen someone check out all race long and we wouldn’t have seen a lead change.”

Sunday’s race saw 19 lead changes among nine drivers. The lead changes were the most for this event since the March 2016 race.

Eight of the 19 lead changes were passes on the track. The remaining lead changes were the result of green-flag pit stops when the leader came in or during stage breaks. Both stage breaks saw lead changes. Brad Keselowski took the lead with a two-tire stop after the end of the first stage. Kurt Busch took the lead after the second stage when he did not pit.

Sunday’s race also had cautions only for the two stage breaks.

“I think you never forecast a caution-free race other than the stages and that’s what you had,” O’Donnell said. “You had cars sticking together for a longer period on a restart. What we really wanted on an intermediate track was if you had a long green-flag run, the ability to make a pass during that stretch vs. one-second, two-, three-, four- (second lead), almost what you saw in stage one vs. the second and third.

“I think it was good to see directionality that guys could come up through the pack and make a pass for the lead. Still work to do. It’s early. Three different winners in three races. We’ll take this one and head to Phoenix.”

Asked about how difficult it was to come through the pack, Martin Truex Jr. said: “It’s insanely tough. You have to hope other guys run different lanes than you. It’s hard to follow through the corners. You have to be a half-second quicker than they are to be able to stay in line against them in the corners. It’s really tough once you get a few laps on your tires.”

Denny Hamlin said the racing was “about what I expected” with the rules package.

“The restarts were super exciting, and you’re able to kind of dice around and put yourself in good positions,” he said. “Then once it gets strung out with all the on-throttle time, it seems like the bottom lane is the place to be and then if you’re second you can’t run the bottom either because the wake is so big. It’s kind of a catch-22 and it will work really, really good at some tracks. Other tracks it won’t, but overall, I don’t know how tight the field was there, but it definitely seemed like it strung out.”

O’Donnell also addressed the penalties to the teams of Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon for having a crew member, who was behind the wall, reach over and touch the pit stall with their hand.

Section 10.9.8.i of the Cup Rulebook states: “Crew Members/Servicing: Crew member(s) purposely assisting (e.g. rolling tires, signboard) from the equipment side of pit road, either in the vehicle’s assigned pit box or in an adjacent pit box, may not contact the pit road surface and may be counted towards the six crew member total.”

Asked about those penalties after the race, O’Donnell said: “That’s the way the rule is written and we made that call. We’ll go back and continue to look at it but under the rule that’s the call we needed to make.”

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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2018 Cup Season in Review: Joey Logano

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Joey Logano

CREW CHIEF: Todd Gordon

TEAM: Team Penske

POINTS: First

WINS: Three (Talladega I, Martinsville II and Miami)

LAPS LED: 934 (Most since 1,431 in 2015)

TOP 5s: 13 (Second fewest since 2014)

TOP 10s: 26 (Tied for second most in career)

POLES: One (Kansas II)

WHAT WENT RIGHT: Delivered Team Penske its second Cup title, joining Brad Keselowski‘s title in 2012 … Earned Penske its sixth Talladega win since 2014 … Won the title after failing to make the playoffs in 2017 … Earned first Martinsville win after contact with Martin Truex Jr. on last lap allowed him to take the lead … Passed Truex with 11 laps to go in Miami and went on to win race and title … Miami win made Team Penske the only Cup team with a win on every active Cup track …

WHAT WENT WRONG: Suffered three DNFs (Daytona II, Watkins Glen and Phoenix II) … Led a race-high 100 laps at Kansas II but finished eighth … Had an 11-race stretch from the Coke 600 to the second Michigan race where he failed to finish in the top five.

WHAT TO EXPECT IN 2019: Logano enters his seventh season with Penske, all of which have been spent with crew chief Todd Gordon. They are the second longest tenured driver-crew chief pairing in Cup. 2019 will represent the start of Logano’s second decade as a full-time Cup driver.