Todd Gordon

Long: How crew chiefs mastered Pocono’s challenges

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While the Cup race at Pocono Raceway went as drivers predicted with passing difficult, it showed the value of a strong team.

Rodney Childers, Paul Wolfe and Adam Stevens displayed talents Sunday that have made them among the sport’s top crew chiefs.

MORE: Joe Gibbs Racing on verge of tying Roush Fenway Racing for more national series wins

The talk before the race was how track position would be critical. Childers, crew chief for Kevin Harvick, struck early. With a competition caution on Lap 20, Childers had Harvick pit for four tires before that caution.

“I know on our box when we got to Lap 19, (Harvick) rolled on to pit road and I looked at my engineer and I said, ‘Why are they … awwww’ because Rodney made a great call on that one, one we totally should have gotten and missed, the field missed it,” said Todd Gordon, crew chief for Joey Logano, on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive” on Monday.

Harvick was 11th when he pitted.

Harvick returned to the pits during the competition caution for fuel — teams cannot add fuel before a competition caution. Filling the car with fuel didn’t take as long as changing four tires. That allowed Harvick to pass cars on pit road.

The move put Harvick ninth on the restart — gaining two positions — but six of the eight cars in front of him had two tires to his four.

Harvick moved to sixth on the first lap of the restart. By pitting before the competition caution for tires and then filling up the tank during the caution, Childers gained Harvick two spots and put him in position to gain three more positions on the restart.

Austin Dillon‘s crash helped Kevin Harvick gain two spots on the ensuring restart. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

When Austin Dillon crashed to bring out the caution a few laps later, Harvick restarted sixth in the outside lane — the preferred lane — and moved to fourth after the restart.

Childers adjusted his strategy to be on the same plan with Kyle Busch and Stevens. They were among those who pitted on Lap 94 while others stayed out until the end of the second stage at Lap 100.

That put Harvick on the front row with Busch for the restart after stage 2 since they stayed out during the break. Harvick’s chances took a hit with a penalty for an uncontrolled tire on a two-tire stop on Lap 124 and then a steering box issue. But up to that point, Childers had played the game well enough to put Harvick in position to challenge for the win.

Wolfe did a masterful job in guiding Brad Keselowski to a second-place finish. While others sacrificed stage points for track position, Keselowski finished third in the first stage and fifth in the second stage. Keselowski scored 50 points — more than any other driver.

Wolfe’s biggest accomplishment wasn’t the point total but adjusting his strategy when things went against him. It’s a trait the champion crew chief has had for years.

Wolfe called for a two-tire pit stop for Keselowski during the competition caution. Keselowski entered the pits seventh and exited second. Keselowski was the first of two cars (Martin Truex Jr. was the other) who did not pit after the first stage. That gave Keselowski the lead. He needed to pit but since a car at the front can do it at Pocono without losing a lap, Keselowski was in good shape.

Then came the caution a couple of laps after the restart for Matt DiBenedetto’s spin.

Wolfe had to adjust his strategy. He pitted during that caution (as did Truex) and was outside the top 15 and mired in traffic. Keselowski moved up to fifth by the end of stage 2 as others in front pitted and he didn’t. Keselowski then pitted during the break.

But Keselowski still didn’t have track position. He was 13th on the restart. He gained three spots to 10th on the first lap of the restart but was stuck there.

Brad Keselowski’s team services his car. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

Keselowski was 12.5 seconds behind the leader when Wolfe called Keselowski in to pit on Lap 119 of 160. Keselowski was in his fuel window to make it to the end, so Wolfe decided to bring his driver in for a two-tire stop to stay on the lead lap (changing four tires likely would have put Keselowski a lap down).

Keselowski was the first car to pit and worked his way through the field as others stopped under green. Keselowski was fourth when the caution came out on Lap 148 for Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s incident.

The leaders stayed out. Keselowski, fourth, restarted in the outside lane and took advantage of that spot. He pushed Busch to the lead and shot to second, passing Erik Jones in Turn 1. 

But Keselowski couldn’t get by Busch, a tribute not only to Busch but to Stevens. Busch and Stevens have combined to win 26 of 142 races (18.3%) in Cup since being paired in 2015.

A good crew chief puts his driver in position to excel. For Stevens, that is putting Busch close to the front. While Keselowski and a few others pitted ahead of Busch on what was their final stop, Stevens held his driver out until Lap 124.

Four years ago, Busch lost a bid to win a fourth consecutive Cup race when he ran out of fuel on the last lap at Pocono. Stevens said that day that they were good with fuel to make it to the end but didn’t factor how much the pace increased in the closing laps and that cost Busch the win.

Stevens didn’t let the same thing happen this time and was celebrating in victory lane with Busch afterward.

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It’s easy to overlook since Chris Buescher didn’t finish in the top 10 but Sunday’s 14th-place finish was significant.

It marked the first time Buescher has placed in the top 15 in three consecutive races for JTG Daugherty Racing since joining the organization in 2017. He was 10th at Kansas and sixth in the Coca-Cola 600.

Seven finishes of 20th or worse have Buescher 22nd in the season standings. He’s 60 points out of what would be the final playoff spot.

Still, this is a step forward for the organization and will be worth watching in the coming weeks if similar performances can continue.

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Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski have combined to win 10 of the 14 points races this season.

Cole Custer celebrates his Pocono Xfinity win. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

There’s a similar level of domination taking place in the Xfinity Series among three drivers. Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick and Cole Custer have combined to win the past six Xfinity races.

They’ve also combined to win eight of the 12 races this season. Busch has three wins. Michael Annett is the only other driver to win, capturing the season-opening race at Daytona. Bell, Custer and Reddick also have combined to win 13 of 24 stages and lead 58.8% of the laps (1,300 of 2,212).

They’ve also all finished in the top five in five races. They went 1-2-3 at Bristol with Bell winning, followed by Reddick and Custer.

The key question is where will they be next season. Reddick, the reigning Xfinity champ, is in his second full season. So is Bell. This is Custer’s third full season in Xfinity. They’re showing that it’s time to move them to Cup next season.

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Penalty report from Charlotte

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Two NASCAR Cup teams were penalized on Tuesday for lug nut violations in Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Todd Gordon, crew chief for the No. 22 Team Penske Ford Mustang, and Brian Pattie, crew chief of the No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford Mustang, were both assessed $10,000 fines apiece for loose or missing lug nuts.

Also, in the Xfinity Series, NASCAR announced that team member William Z. McAlister has successfully completed NASCAR’s Road to Recovery Program and his indefinite suspension, given on April 23, has been lifted.

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Joey Logano’s crew chief explains call to pit for tires late at Bristol

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Todd Gordon admits hindsight may be 20-20.

Joey Logano‘s crew chief reflected Monday on “The Morning Drive” on what he may have done differently at the end of Sunday’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway.

With Logano leading late in the race, Gordon debated whether to bring his driver in for tires. When Kyle Larson hit the wall on Lap 479, bringing out the caution, Gordon made the call to bring Logano in for four tires.

I thought we were in position to win the race, but the late caution threw up a decision-making time and with the information I had at the time, I chose one route and probably could have been a different route,” Gordon told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

MORE: Joey Logano finishes third at Bristol after pitting from lead late

Gordon entered the pits as the race leader, only to watch Kyle Busch remain on the track and take the lead on Lap 482. 

“We had been 33 laps on tires, thought we were going to have about 18 (laps) to go (before the restart),” Gordon said. “The sort out (of the lineup) afterwards took a bit longer than I thought so we had about 15 (laps) to go when we got done. … I was scanning the radios and the 18 (Busch) said it might stay out, but my concern was that if we and the 18 stayed out and everybody else behind us comes to get tires, then there’s tires lined up on the rows behind us.

I didn’t want to be that guy that stayed out and then got beat by tires behind us. It was a last-minute call. We had talked back and forth about whether to stay out or come for tires. I felt like if we stayed out, my opinion was we were going to see tires in Row 2 and at worse in Row 3 and it didn’t end up being that way. When we came off pit road, I think we ended up in Row 4.

It’s just trying to anticipate what other crew chiefs are going to do with their cars is a gamble and a guess and as (the race) leader, I think we had a really strong car and everybody knew we had a strong car. I think at times people react to whatever decision you make and go the opposite way. If we stay out, I don’t know that everybody that stayed out stays out, but we’ll never know that and you try to make the decisions you can with the information you have at the time. Immediately once you see how many guys stayed out, it’s pretty evident maybe we should have made the other call.”

Logano, who won Stage 2, finished third and led the second-most laps in the race (146). 

In the future, do you make that call differently? I don’t know,” Gordon said. “You take the information you have at the time and make decisions from the information you’ve got. You’re never going to make every call right. People can second-guess what you do and where it goes and it’s very easy to sit back on Monday and say they should have run the ball instead of throwing it.

They’re reactionary calls. You can’t calculate every situation. In this one, could I have gone the other way? Yes. Was I all the way into the middle of (Turns) 1 and 2 before I made the call for him to come because I was waffling on it? I got to the point where it was a 50-50 call in my head and when I get to 50-50 calls, I go for putting tires on because Joey is an awesome, aggressive driver and when we put him in those positions, he usually elevates.”

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NASCAR might return to single-car qualifying on drafting tracks

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After another controversial group qualifying session on a drafting-style track, NASCAR chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell said a return to single-car qualifying is being considered.

“We’re going to look at every option, including the possibility of going to single-car qualifying,” O’Donnell said in his weekly Monday interview on SiriusXM NASCAR’s “The Morning Drive” program. “The reason we haven’t is that’s on the teams. That’s parts and pieces. We’ve tried to be as efficient as possible trying this method of (group) qualifying.

“But we’re definitely going to look at it and see what we can do. We’ve got a couple of weeks to do that. We’ll make adjustments as needed.”

A NASCAR spokesman said discussions of any potential changes have yet to occur. A move to single-car qualifying likely would happen only on drafting tracks. Group qualifying has worked at short tracks such as Bristol Motor Speedway (site of Sunday’s race) where drafting doesn’t happen.

The next track at which group qualifying could be problematic is Kansas Speedway, which will play host May 11 to the Cup Series. NASCAR already has been using single-car qualifying at Talladega Superspeedway (site of the April 28 race) for a few years.

When the lower-horsepower 2019 rules package created more drafting at larger speedways aside from Talladega and Daytona International Speedway, there was speculation that NASCAR would tweak group qualifying (which made its debut five years ago) at those tracks.

But citing the need for “show business” in qualifying, officials have resisted calls for change this season despite debacles at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Auto Club Speedway (where there were no recorded speeds in the final round) and most recently last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. Despite new rules to incentivize teams, the Friday session still resulted in controversy.

Clint Bowyer was particularly upset with NASCAR after feeling he was blocked in by Ryan Newman during the session. Bowyer playfully chided officials about it after finishing second Sunday at Texas.

Drivers have spent nearly the entire final round of each session waiting idle in the pits because the first car to leave is at a disadvantage without a drafting partner (though Daniel Suarez qualified fourth as a single car at Texas).

The strategy results in long periods of inactivity during qualifying.

“It’s really unfortunate for the fans,” O’Donnell said Monday. “It’s miraculous that Daniel Suarez is able to make a lap on his own and qualify fourth, so I don’t know how that’s possible based on all the data the teams seem to be putting together to sit on the end of pit road and wait.

“I think the one clarification on our end, we instructed (Newman) to move. He did that. I think Clint Bowyer could have gotten out and gotten past (Newman), but regardless of that, the optics of what is taking place with the teams is not tenable for us with the fans.”

Richard Childress Racing’s Tyler Reddick weighed in with a suggestion Monday morning.

O’Donnell replied “absolutely” when asked whether he was angered by the incessant controversy and openly wondered whether drivers were trying to subvert the process.

“I think it’s ridiculous, candidly,” he said. “I know the drivers did not like this qualifying before the season. Part of you says, ‘Are we doing this on purpose to get rid of it?’ I know it can be done. I know we have the best drivers in the world and crew chiefs to figure it out. We seem to want to outdo each other, and that results in sitting on pit road.

“We’ll react to it. We’ll make the right call and get it right. We don’t want to see cars sitting on pit road for 8 minutes. That’s not NASCAR racing. We’ll make the fix there.”

O’Donnell said any switch would be met by resistance from team owners who lobbied for group qualifying to help hold down costs. A move to single-car qualifying would mean teams focusing on more expensive and specialized parts and pieces.

“If we have to go back to single car, simple,” he said. “We’ll do that. It won’t be popular with some of the owners, but unfortunately, we’re getting put in this position.”

In an interview 45 minutes later on “The Morning Drive”, crew chief Todd Gordon said he liked the current system of group qualifying on drafting tracks, suggesting it needed better elucidation.

“The problem is we’re not explaining what the strategies are, what the pieces are,” said Gordon, the crew chief for Joey Logano. “I like it. If the fan base or NASCAR doesn’t like it, we’ll adapt to what’s next.”

Sitting idle for long stretches during qualifying is just part of the strategy, Gordon said.

“It’s not that we’re doing something deviant,” he said. “We’re doing something that’s been laid out by NASCAR. … That’s the biggest problem. We haven’t done a good job to explain to our fan base, our TV partners, our radio partners what’s going on and what the strategy is and what the rules are.

“There’s a structure here, and we maximize our opportunity as it unfolds.”

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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