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Bump & Run: What should NASCAR do about inspection violations before race?

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Eight of 37 cars failed inspection before the Richmond Cup race and lost their starting spot. Is there a better way for NASCAR to handle such infractions to limit talk before a race being about penalties?

Nate Ryan: There has to be a solution, and whatever it is, NASCAR needs to implement it quickly. Switching from headlines about woes in postrace inspection to woes in prerace inspection is an improvement, but the preferred solution should be no headlines about inspection at all. 

Dustin Long: Until NASCAR figures out a way to do things differently, inspection failures will dominate talk before a race, especially if it involves more than 20% of the field as it did at Richmond.

Daniel McFadin: Unless you change the penalties for failing inspection (again), the cars will fail regardless of if you hold qualifying inspection right after qualifying or on race day. Only real solution I can think of is to have inspection before qualifying and for that to be the only inspection until after the race. That would just continue the endless cycle we seem to be in on the issue.

Jerry Bonkowski: It’s just the nature of the beast, particularly when you have such a large number of cars that failed pre-race inspection. The larger the number of cars penalized, the greater the attention that is placed upon the situation by the media. Perhaps more attention should be focused on what NASCAR could do to improve and streamline the overall inspection process. And if it has to swing the pendulum even further, increase penalties to keep crew chiefs from playing games with their cars. Kick out the crew chief from the race, or perhaps hold the car for the first five laps of the race. That will change things in a hurry.

NASCAR tried another format for Cup qualifying at Richmond, limiting each round to five minutes. Should this be the format at most tracks the rest of the season?

Nate Ryan: Makes no difference here as long as the focus is on qualifying results and whoever won the pole position, not on the process for getting there. 

Dustin Long: Whatever it does, NASCAR needs to get out of this rabbit hole soon.

Daniel McFadin: I’m 50/50 on this. I’d prefer the first round being 10 minutes at anything larger than 1 mile, which allows teams to make more than one run – but that’s based on the premise drivers won’t wait until the final minute to make their first.

Jerry Bonkowski: Five minutes works fine on short tracks. Not so much on longer tracks of 1.5 miles and greater. That’s why I believe open qualifying should be replaced by having two to four cars (depending on the size of the racetrack) go out at a time for two or three qualifying laps. This creates attention and a kind of race-within-qualifying excitement among fans to see which driver can “beat” the other drivers, so to speak.

There’s been a lot of talk about what Joe Gibbs Racing will do with its Cup lineup for next year with Christopher Bell’s continued success in Xfinity, but Cole Custer has won twice for Stewart-Haas Racing in Xfinity. What kind of dilemma could SHR face with its driver lineup for 2020?

Nate Ryan: With no disrespect to Cole Custer, he has yet to show he is in Christopher Bell’s league, nor is there the external pressure of a huge investment in his development to avoid letting a coveted prospect escape (as is the case with the millions Toyota Racing Development has spent on grooming Bell). Because Custer is related to the SHR executive Joe Custer and effectively sponsored by team owner Gene Haas, the dynamics are incomparable. If Custer shows enough promise for promotion, the team probably could make room in Cup next season, but there is no sense of urgency as exists with Bell.

Dustin Long: Gene Haas said last year that Cole Custer needed to win more often. If Custer continues to do so, it will make him a more inviting driver for a team, whether that is SHR or another Ford operation.

Daniel McFadin: Cole Custer is already in his third full-time Xfinity season, which makes him middle-aged in Xfinity driver years. While we’re not privy to driver contract lengths, Kevin Harvick is locked in to at least 2021, Daniel Suarez is in his first and Aric Almirola continues to be strong in his second year. Clint Bowyer probably has the biggest question mark being in his third year with the team. Gene Haas will have to decide who’s a better long-term investment: A 39-year-old Bowyer or a 21-year-old Custer. Bowyer grabbing some wins this year could complicate that.

Jerry Bonkowski: One potential option could be embedding Bell with another Toyota team such as Leavine Family Racing in 2020, like when Erik Jones was with Furniture Row Racing in 2017. I think you’ll see a similar embed of Custer with another Ford team, perhaps Front Row Motorsports. Or, because Custer’s father, Joe, is a top executive at SHR, it would not surprise me to see Daniel Suarez shifted to another Ford team to make way for the younger Custer at SHR.

The IndyCar race at Long Beach ended with series officials penalizing Graham Rahal one spot for blocking Scott Dixon on the last lap. Should blocking be a penalty in NASCAR?

Nate Ryan: No. Different series, different cars, different tracks.

Dustin Long: Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo. Don’t need any more judgment calls for NASCAR to make.

Daniel McFadin: Heck no. As much as Tony Stewart may have despised it, blocking is a racing maneuver. If a driver doesn’t like it, just show your displeasure with a love tap to the rear bumper.

Jerry Bonkowski: Yes, particularly if it puts the driver being blocked and other trailing drivers at risk of crashing. I’ve long felt that egregious blocking should be penalized. But if that were to happen, it could open a Pandora’s Box of additional issues, such as bump-and-run moving an opponent out of the way. How would NASCAR draw the line between egregious blocking/bumping and legitimate blocking/bumping?

Jimmie Johnson ran in Monday’s Boston Marathon. What is another event you’d like to see a NASCAR driver attempt to take part in someday?

Nate Ryan: Denny Hamlin in a PGA Tour event and paired with Michael Jordan.

Dustin Long: Kyle Larson as a bobsled driver. Also, Denny Hamlin in a PGA Tour event.

Daniel McFadin: Since Ryan Newman is sponsored by Oscar Mayer, he should enter the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest on July 4.

Jerry Bonkowski: The Baja 1000 is the first one that comes to mind. That, to me, is the most grueling combination of man and machine. I’d also like to see more NASCAR drivers try their luck in the Indianapolis 500 and, conversely, do “the double” by racing later that same day in the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte. Lastly, although it would be difficult due to the Cup schedule, I’d also like to see some of the best golfers among Cup drivers try their luck at The Masters.

Erik Jones ‘working through an extension’ with Joe Gibbs Racing

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Erik Jones told NBC Sports on Thursday that he and Joe Gibbs Racing are “working through an extension” for him to remain with the team and that he has “no plans to leave JGR.”

“I don’t think there’s any plans to change anything,” Jones said. “It’s just a matter of both sides agreeing to an agreement, which takes time. I imagine here soon we’ll have something ironed out.

“I think both sides are pretty set on staying on the path we got.”

The 22-year-old is in his third year in the Cup Series and his second at JGR after moving over from Furniture Row in 2017.

JGR did not respond to a request for comment on if 2019 was the last year on Jones’ contract.

Jones earned his first Cup win last July at Daytona, but hasn’t found victory lane this season. He’s coming off a fourth-place finish at Texas where he led 33 laps, his most since leading 64 laps in the same race last year.

“We’ve been pretty happy with the growth over the last couple of years, from my side and from the team’s side and what we’ve done and where we’re heading,” Jones said prior to the unveiling of his Craftsman ”Racing for a Miracle” car for this weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway.

“I think we’re so close to breaking that little wall down of winning many races. We’re just right there, it seems, of making that big step to be consistent race winners. I feel like we’re right there. We’re close. Hopefully, here pretty soon it will be set in stone.”

The potential of a Jones’ extension raises questions about Xfinity Series driver Christopher Bell‘s future in the Cup Series after his second Xfinity season with JGR.

The organization recently announced Kyle Busch had agreed to a multi-year contract extension with the team and sponsor Mars Inc.

Martin Truex Jr. is only in his first year with JGR after coming over from the defunct Furniture Row Racing.

Denny Hamlin, who has two wins through seven races including his second Daytona 500, announced a contract extension in early 2017. He said last year on the Dale Jr. Download that 2018 was the first year on “a good long-term contract” and “that goes for a while.”

Bell, who won a Xfinity Series rookie-record seven races in 2018, said last year he felt he was ready for Cup. 

In Cup, Toyota gives full support to just JGR and the one-car team of Leavine Family Racing, which replaced Furniture Row Racing when it closed.

But Leavine Family Racing felt it was prudent to go with veteran Matt DiBenedetto in the No. 95 in its first year with Toyota.

Team owner Bob Leavine said last year he planned to ask Toyota for an engine to be able to run Bell occasionally.

“That’s for them to decide,” Leavine said. “We’re just going to be available if they want to do it to put it all together and make it all work.”

David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, told NBC Sports last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, that “for the moment there is no plan, there’s no consideration to put Christopher in one of those (Cup) cars (this year).”

Wilson cited the extra work needed to put a car together for Bell this season but also added that “you never say never.”

Hailie Deegan to run six ARCA races this season

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Hailie Deegan, coming off her last-lap pass to win Thursday night’s K&N Pro Series West race, announced that she will drive six ARCA races and one K&N Series race for Venturini Motorsports.

The 17-year-old Toyota Racing Development driver will make her ARCA debut May 19 at Toledo Speedway. She’ll also compete in ARCA races at Pocono Raceway (May 31), Madison International Speedway (June 14), Elko Speedway (July 13), Lucas Oil Raceway (Oct. 5) and Kansas Speedway (Oct. 18). She will drive for Venturini Motorsports in the K&N Pro Series East race Aug. 15 at Bristol Motor Speedway.

She will have sponsorship from Monster Energy, Craftsman and iK9.

MORE: Hailie Deegan: I put my helmet on the same way everyone else does

So will this ARCA deal lead to a full-time effort in that series next year?

“I think it honestly depends on how this year goes with my K&N Series,” Deegan said Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. “I think if we get that championship, yes, I would want to move up and make that step into a bigger series after we accomplish everything we can in this series. That’s something I really wanted to do with my career is win at every level I’m at before I move up. I think this year in the ARCA Series, I just want to go out there, be able to run in the top five, go out there and maybe get a win.”

Deegan’s win Thursday was her second career K&N Pro Series  West victory. She won last year at Meridian (Idaho) Speedway.

“I wanted to come into this year to really show everyone that we’re going to be competitive during this K&N West season, that I’m going for a championship, that we’re not playing games,” she said. “We’re here to win races.”

Saturday, Deegan will drive the pace car for the Xfinity race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Toyota exec explains how Gibbs-Hendrick deal at Daytona took trust

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The alliance between Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing in the 2019 Daytona 500 was essentially a handshake deal, but the details were much more complex.

“The thing is with this strategy is it’s not just saying, ‘Do you want to work together? OK, great,’ ” Toyota Racing Development president David Wilson said Thursday on SiriusXM Satellite Radio. “You have to sit down with crew chiefs in one room looking each other in the eye, plotting a definitive strategy of what you’re doing with pit stops because it’s about coming in and leaving together.

“It’s more than just shaking hands and saying, ‘OK, we’ll work together.’ The credit goes to crew chiefs, spotters and the level of trust and unselfishness it takes from the drivers. These guys aren’t programmed in this manner.”

During an interview with co-hosts Danielle Trotta and Larry McReynolds, Wilson shed some more light on the unusual partnership between the Chevrolet and Toyota teams, which came to light through in-race scanner chatter and winner Denny Hamlin’s postrace comments to NBCSports.com’s Dustin Long.

The strategy was most evident during the second stage when a fleet of six cars – three Hendrick Camaros and three Gibbs Camrys – got off sequence and ran much faster that the field (putting some good cars a lap down).

“When you saw that pack about to lap the entire field, how do five to six cars go three 10ths (of a second) faster? It was because they weren’t racing each other at the time,” Wilson said.

“To be clear, we also agreed that with 10 (laps) to go, it’s every man for himself. In the end each driver was working toward winning that race, not pushing one of their competitors to the win. But awful proud of the innovation and creativity deployed that particular Sunday.”

The impetus for the Gibbs-Hendrick deal was Ford sweeping the top three spots in both qualifying races last Thursday.

“I have to admit that it wasn’t something we’ve been plotting for weeks,” Wilson said. “It really came together a couple of days before the race. Looking at how we fared in the Clash and Duels, we knew we had fast cars, drivers happy with power, but we knew when it came down to it, we needed numbers.

“We could do it with our five Toyotas. The problem is if one or two drop out, you don’t have enough. It was in that moment after the Duels where we looked at what else can we do. We approached one of our competitors.”

Toyota executive: ‘Potentially more’ than five supported cars in Cup in 2019

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Toyota Racing Development President David Wilson said there “absolutely is intent” for there to be “at least” five Toyota-supported cars in the Cup Series in 2019 and “potentially more.”

Wilson made his comments three weeks after Furniture Row Racing announced it will shut down at the end of this season.

Without the No. 78 Toyota, that leaves just the four cars owned by Joe Gibbs Racing. Last year, FRR fielded Erik Jones in the No. 77, giving Toyota six cars.

“We’re spending a tremendous amount of energy and focus on that, of course,” Wilson said Wednesday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “Tradin’ Paint” of adding cars. “Nobody is happy. Nobody is pleased with losing Furniture Row. It’s something we’re all disappointed with. We at the same time respect the very difficult decision (owner) Barney Visser had to make.

“So as an OEM (manufacturer), we need to try and again put ourselves in the best competitive positioning going forward. That alliance we had going the past three years has been simply magical and something we’ve enjoyed a tremendous amount of success with. I’ve said this before, but we would not have won our first manufacturer championship without both Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing performing at the levels that they have been, let alone our second manufacturer’s championship we won last year.”

With Furniture Row Racing and JGR, Toyota has won two of the last four Cup titles and gone to Victory Lane 58 times since 2015.

A likely replacement for FRR in the Toyota camp is Leavine Family Racing, which fields the No. 95 Chevrolet that has been driven by Kasey Kahne and Regan Smith this season.

The team revealed in August during the Watkins Glen race weekend it would be exiting its technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing at the end of the year.

Team owner Bob Leavine told NBC Sports he has been speaking to the sport’s other manufacturers – Ford and Toyota – about making a transition.

“In our talking to the manufacturers this year, Toyota has been head-and-shoulders above the rest so far,” Leavine said.  “Everything we have investigated and done with Toyota has felt good from one end of the spectrum, the technical, to just the relationship basis.”