Toyota Racing Development

Erik Jones: It’s time for better finishes and future

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Erik Jones doesn’t need to look at a clock to know now is his time.

The Michigan native earned a season-best third-place finish – and his second top-five in the last three starts – in Sunday’s back half of the NASCAR Cup doubleheader weekend at Pocono Raceway.

It couldn’t have come at a better time, as Jones is closing in on the end of a one-year contract extension with Joe Gibbs Racing he signed last year. His future remains uncertain.

“We started talking to them about next year and what we’re going to do moving forward,” Jones said after the race.

“I feel like right now that’s kind of the plan, working with them. We’ll see what happens, but I feel good about it right now moving forward.”

David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, said on June 17 that it’s his hope to keep both Jones and Christopher Bell in the manufacturer’s fold.

“We all know that Erik is at the end of his current contract,” Wilson said. “What’s the plan there? We don’t know. We’re working on that. (Car owner Joe Gibbs) and I are talking about that now every week. Our desire obviously is to keep both of those young men in our company. How we do it is yet to be determined.”

Jones’ finish Sunday was a strong rebound after finishing 38th in Saturday’s race due to a wreck.

“We needed a good run, a good rebound,” he said. “It’s great we finished third, but in a way it’s frustrating because I think our primary car (in Saturday’s) race was quite a bit better than our backup car was today, but obviously third is a good run.”

After struggling through much of the season – including seven showings of 20th or worse in the first 14 events – Jones believes he’s turned a corner and sees more promising results ahead.

“It’s nice to rebound and hope we can keep the momentum going next week and keep going strong,” Hamlin said. “It’s nice to run a normal race. I think on a normal weekend we can run top five and I think we showed that today.”

Sunday’s finish – Jones’ sixth top-10 in eight career Cup starts at Pocono – also put Jones back in the top 16 Cup playoff rankings.

“We feel like we definitely should make the playoffs,” said Jones, who entered Sunday six points out of a playoff spot. “We’ve done that the last few years and I don’t see this year as any different.

“Hopefully we can keep moving forward. We’ve got good racetracks coming up for us, places we’ve run well at in the past, I think we’re going to keep racking up some good finishes here and hopefully get a win here pretty soon.

“I think our cars are way faster than a 16th-place team. Hopefully we can keep up the good runs. We just need three-four more races running strong like we need to, get some stage points and we’ll be in the top 12 pretty quickly.

“… It’s not even a question in my mind, making the playoffs or not. I feel we’ll be strong enough here to get a win at a race here in the next month or two.”

Earlier in the day, Jones drew attention for a tweet he posted criticizing over-aggressive driving by many in the field of the Xfinity Series race, which preceded the Cup race.

The most notable example of that was when Justin Haley hooked Riley Herbst on the Pocono straightaway. NASCAR held Haley for two laps on pit road after the incident and met with Haley and crew chief Alex Yontz after the race.

“The Xfinity Series is in kind of a weird spot right now,” Jones said. “There’s a lot of young guys, very talented guys, don’t get me wrong, but definitely some of the guys can click it down a notch.

“I watch it on TV every week and it’s like, man, some of those guys are so fast and some of the things they do just blows your mind. The way I grew up racing, hooking somebody on the straightaway is pretty out there. I don’t think you want to face the repercussions of what would have happened coming into the pits.

“It’s just kind of a lack of respect. I grew up with a lot of respect in racing and respect for my equipment and competitors. I don’t believe in intentionally wrecking people. I think that’s pretty low, low-class and doesn’t belong in our sport. It’s just Saturday night, Mickey Mouse stuff and I don’t like to see it.”

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Toyota executive keen on keeping young Cup drivers

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The president of Toyota Racing Development said Wednesday that “our desire” is to have both Erik Jones and Christopher Bell race for the manufacturer beyond this season but said “how we do it is yet to be determined.”

Jones’ one-year contract extension with Joe Gibbs Racing expires after this season. Bell, a rookie for Leavine Family Racing, is in the first year of a multiyear contract. But Bell’s car owner, Bob Leavine, told The Athletic last month that “I’m walking that tightrope” to keep the team running beyond this season because of the economic downturn due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

David Wilson, president of TRD, addressed both drivers’ status with Toyota beyond this year in a video conference with reporters Wednesday.

“We all know that Erik is at the end of his current contract,” Wilson said. “What’s the plan there? We don’t know. We’re working on that. (Car owner Joe Gibbs) and I are talking about that now every week. Our desire obviously is to keep both of those young men in our company. How we do it is yet to be determined.”

The 24-year-old Jones enters Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway 18th in points for Joe Gibbs Racing. Jones has placed 20th or worse in each of the last three Cup races.

He was running seventh last weekend at Miami when he hit the wall and cut a tire with less than 10 laps left, finishing 21st. The weekend before, Jones had a flat tire and later was caught speeding on pit road within the last 125 laps at Atlanta, leading to a 28th-place finish.

Bell, 25, enters Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway 24th in points. He started the season with five consecutive finishes outside the top 20, dropping him to 32nd in the points. He’s finished 11th or better in four of the seven races since.

Wilson was asked about Leavine Family Racing’s performance this season.

“The 95 is candidly a little more disappointing and there’s circumstances behind that,” Wilson said. “I think Christopher’s raw speed has actually been quite good. A couple of races, he started the third stage inside the top 10 and he had a 14-second pit stop and loses nine to 10 spots. That’s happened twice already. … I think Christopher could have won (at Bristol) had he not had to restart whatever that was 18th (after his final pit stop) and he still drove up to the top 10. That’s cause for optimism. If we collectively can eliminate the easy things like execution on pit lane and such, I think we’ll see more consistency and more top 15s and more top 10s out of Christopher.”

JGR puts three cars in top 10 at Auto Club but work remains

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A week after it failed to place a car higher than 15th at Las Vegas, Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota put three cars in the top 10, with Kyle Busch leading the way with a runner-up finish in the Auto Club 400.

But that didn’t keep David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, from noting that race winner Alex Bowman “schooled us.”

Bowman led 110 of 200 laps and won Stage 1 on the way to victory lane.

Meanwhile, Toyota cars led just once for a total of three laps. That was when Martin Truex Jr. – who started at the rear after failing pre-qualifying inspection three times – battled with Bowman in the middle of the final stage.

That’s after Truex led Toyota’s only lap last week at Las Vegas.

Busch only finished second after Ryan Blaney had to pit for a corded tire with three laps to go. After starting 17th, Busch placed 10th in Stage 1 and seventh in Stage 2.

His runner-up finish is his first top 10 of the season.

“We have a lot of work to do,” Busch told Fox. “Guys did a great job here though just trying to work on it and trying to make everything we could out of it all day long, all weekend long. Interstate Batteries Camry wasn’t a second-place car, but thankfully we got a good finish out of here and try to get some points. Guys are doing all they can, I know along with everybody at (Toyota Racing Development). I appreciate all the hard work, we just have to get a little bit better. We finished the end of last year so strong, I don’t know what we’re missing here. Obviously, it’s a little bit of something here and maybe a little bit of something in a few different areas, but overall good car today.”

Behind Busch were Denny Hamlin in sixth and Erik Jones in 10th.

Hamlin was running in fourth on Lap 140 when his No. 11 Toyota brushed the wall exiting Turn 2 and he dropped to seventh.

“We’re still slow,” Hamlin said. “Our cars handled okay. If we don’t have a draft, we’re just run over. It’s tough because I feel like we’re getting beat on throttle time, but we’re also just getting murdered down the straightaways. Just need more horsepower, more downforce and less drag. If we can have all those, we’ll be better.”

Jones’ top 10 is his best finish of the season after he placed 18th at Daytona and 23rd in Vegas.

He called the race “a step in the right direction.”

“I don’t think any of us really had race-winning speed,” Jones said. “I think Kyle (Busch) got some good track position on that restart and was able to maintain. We got shuffled back and kind of had to come back from 15th. I don’t know, I think we’re off. We didn’t have anything for the 88 (Alex Bowman) or anything like that.”

After making his way to the front, Truex’s status as a contender ended with a slow pit stop on Lap 160 when a tire changer’s hand cramped up. He finished 14th.

Meanwhile, the rookie campaign of Leavine Family Racing’s Christopher Bell remains stuck in neutral after three races.

After wrecking out of the Daytona 500 and placing 33rd in Vegas following a crash, Bell was the only driver who failed to finish the race Sunday. His day ended on Lap 80 when he went to the garage after a bolt from another car struck a hole in the oil cooler on his No. 95 Toyota.

Gaunt Brothers Racing and Daniel Suarez had their best outing of the season  after failing to make the Daytona 500 and suffering a mechanical issue coming to the green flag in Vegas.

Suarez had an uneventful day and placed 28th, two laps down.

Friday 5: Rule change is chance for drivers to go back in time

Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
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Jeff Gordon marveled as he watched Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch run nose-to-tail or side-by-side lap after lap for the lead late in the 2017 spring Cup race at Martinsville Speedway.

“These are the two of the most equal race cars and one of the best races for the lead I’ve seen here at Martinsville in a very long time,” said Gordon, a nine-time Martinsville winner, on the FS1 broadcast.

Keselowski and Busch rarely seemed apart for a spell within the final 100 laps, whether it was Keselowski pressuring Busch or Busch doing the same thing by closing on Keselowski’s rear bumper.

It is the type of racing NASCAR hopes will return with the announcement this week of a short track package, which includes a smaller spoiler, that shares similarities to what was run in 2017-18.

What makes that 2017 spring Martinsville race stand out is how close Keselowski and Busch ran to each other before Keselowski won.

It contrasts the 2019 spring race, which featured a larger spoiler as part of the high downforce package used at all tracks. Keselowski led 446 of 500 laps that day. Runner-up Chase Elliott could not run close to Keselowski for long. 

Brad Keselowski celebrates his 2017 Martinsville win after a duel with Kyle Busch. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Keselowski explained to NBC Sports the differences in those packages and why the cars could run closer together in the 2017 race than the 2019 race.

“You’re able to brake differently, the cars were harder to stop, they had a smaller spoiler, so you had to really use a lot of finesse to work them down into the corner,” Keselowski said of the package used in 2017-18. “You didn’t lose the nose as quickly because you weren’t using aero as such an assist in the middle of the corner.

“If you had asked me earlier in my career if I thought aero would come into play at Martinsville, I would have said you were crazy. Same thing I would have said if you had told me that the cars would make almost 4,000 pounds of downforce. Those two conversations go hand in hand.

“The 2019 car, the easiest way I know how to explain this … at full speed at the tracks that we ran at, if the race track would have been inverted, the car would have stayed on the racetrack. That’s downforce. … It’s to a point where it could be a Hot Wheels track and we could run upside down. That tells you how much assistance the cars were getting from the air.”

The short track package will be used at all ovals 1 mile or less and the three road course events for a total of 14 races this year. Eight of the season’s final 15 races, including five in the playoffs, will be run with this package. The championship race at Phoenix will use this short track setup.

“Making this change is certainly a step in the direction of putting the racing back in the drivers’ hands and out of aerodynamics’ control,” Keselowski said. “More times than not, but not always, the result is better for the fans. I think it’s a win as a whole.”

2. Tire change with short track package

One of the complaints drivers and teams had last year was the lack of tire wear during events. Without such wear and tire falloff, drivers found it more challenging to pass, particularly at short tracks. 

With the lower downforce package at short tracks this year, Goodyear will construct a tire intended to wear more, said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing.

“We are going to make some changes,” Stucker told NBC Sports about the tire that will be used with the short track setup.

“From a traction, from a grip-level perspective, I go back to what we learned at the Martinsville test that we had there in July, what we learned at our Richmond test back in October. Granted that was in the Next Gen car, but we were able to evaluate some things and learn some things about Richmond and the same thing with Phoenix because we evaluated several different compounds. We got different reference points at those two tests along with stuff we’ve done in the past at those two race tracks testing-wise. We were able to formulate a plan to go a little softer than what we have been.

“Even understanding that the downforce is coming off, on top of that, we’re going to go ahead and take a step in trying to increase the grip level mechanically, which will also result in higher tread wear that, hopefully, will fall off.”

With a new short track package and a tire intended to wear more, will NASCAR need to use the traction compound (darker portion of the track) at Phoenix again this year? (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

Goodyear will not do any testing before the first race with the short track package — Phoenix on March 8 — because there isn’t enough time.

NASCAR met with drivers, teams, Goodyear and others in Nashville before the December awards banquet to devise a course of action for the short tracks. That followed NASCAR President Steve Phelps saying before the season finale in Miami that “our promise to our fans … is that we are going to provide the best racing we can at our short tracks.”

One issue that has not been determined is if the traction compound applied in the corners at Phoenix Raceway last year will be reapplied for the March race. With a new short track package and a new tire, the traction compound might not be needed.

“Our opinion, and I think everybody’s is … (the traction compound) is to enhance the multiple racing lines, it is enable multiple grooves to come in at a particular track,” Stucker said. “We’re not in favor of just applying traction compound on a racetrack just to go faster. That’s not the goal.”

3. Decisions, decisions

Among the challenges for some teams with the short track package is determining how much wind tunnel time to devote to that setup and to the higher downforce package used at the bigger tracks.

NASCAR announced in October that organizations would be limited to 150 hours of wind tunnel time in 2020.

While the short track package shares similarities to what was run in 2017 and ’18, it’s not the same. Jimmy Makar, senior vice president of racing operations for Joe Gibbs Racing, said that wind tunnel time will be important for the short track setup.

Makar told NBC Sports that it will be a “challenge” to properly divide the wind tunnel time between the low downforce and high downforce packages.

Even with simulation programs playing a greater role for teams, Makar says wind tunnel testing is still vital.

Kyle Busch scored his second Cup title in five years in 2019 for Joe Gibbs Racing. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

“You can learn a lot of basic things in (simulation) and kind of get your preliminary ideas and thoughts together and then apply them in the wind tunnel to get your final decision on how that change worked,” Makar said. “The wind tunnel, I think, probably is still your closest thing to the racetrack.”

Other key decisions for teams will come as the year progresses.

Teams will have to decide how to allocate resources in preparing high downforce cars, low downforce cars and also the Next Gen car that debuts in 2021.

“It does create a bit of a different challenge because it is that much different,” Makar said of the Next Gen car. “It’s completely, uniquely new to us. Just looking at the car and how things bolt together, it’s a big learning curve for all the teams. It’s not like over the years when you had a body change or an aero package change, it’s still the same car.”

Makar said one thing that will help is that with NASCAR putting a freeze on teams developing new parts, those crew members can focus on the Next Gen car.

Another key issue will be for any organization that has multiple teams in the playoffs — and even multiple teams in the final eight or the championship race. Go all in on a championship or work on the Next Gen car to begin next year strong?

“In my view, the obvious thing is (this year’s) championship is the first and foremost goal,” Makar said. “That’s what we have to focus on. That’s the next thing in line.”

4. His turn

The recent shuffling of drivers and crew chiefs at Team Penske could have some fans of Brad Keselowski feeling down.

Car owner Roger Penske split Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe, sending Wolfe to work with Joey Logano. Penske also moved Logano’s crew chief, Todd Gordon, over to be with Ryan Blaney. That left Jeremy Bullins, who had been Blaney’s crew chief, to join Keselowski.

So what would Keselowski tell his fans about now being paired with Bullins?

Jeremy Bullins moves over from Ryan Blaney’s team to be Brad Keselowski’s crew chief in 2020. (Photo by Jeffrey Vest/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“First thing I’d tell my fans is that Jeremy is the only Cup crew chief at Penske of the three that hasn’t won the championship,” Keselowski said. “The way I see it, he’s the next one to win one.”

Keselowski is focused on this season but he did tell NBC Sports that “I’m super proud of everything we were able to do as a team with Paul as crew chief and everyone else that was on the team at that time. I haven’t really spent much time looking out the rear window because I can’t change anything. So I’m looking out the front windshield.”

With a new crew chief will come new demands.

“I’m sure that Jeremy and the team are going to challenge me to be better,” Keselowski said. “I think that’s healthy. I’m going to do the same with them. I guess I view it as a complete blank slate. Our goal is to be the best and win the championship in 2020.

“What’s great is that we all have enough experience for that to be a realistic opportunity. If you combine that with our willingness to try new things, I think it could be a lethal combination.”

5. A name to remember

Cannon McIntosh’s assignment last fall was to write an essay about himself as if the high school junior was preparing a college application.

He felt good about what he wrote.

Until he got his grade.

A zero.

McIntosh’s instructor thought what McIntosh wrote was not true, that it had been plagiarized. No way, the teacher assumed, this student was a race car driver.

Cannon McIntosh (right) with Jay Drake, team manager of Keith Kunz Motorsports.
(Photo by Swikar Patel/TRD)

The situation was quickly rectified. Soon more than McIntosh’s teachers will know who he is.

The 17-year-old has been making a name in midget racing the past year and earned a ride with Keith Kunz Motorsports for this week’s Chili Bowl as a Toyota Racing Development driver. Keith Kunz Motorsports has won the past five Chili Bowl titles, including the past three with Christopher Bell.

McIntosh, who grew up in the Tulsa, Oklahoma suburbs and has to only make a short drive to the site of the Chili Bowl, won his preliminary feature Monday night to earn his first berth in the Chili Bowl Nationals A main.

He can’t wait until Saturday night’s feature race.

“I’ve raced pretty much all the guys that are going to be in that feature,” McIntosh told NBC Sports. “I know what to expect, and I know what I’m going to have to bring to the table, racing against those guys.

“(Kyle) Larson and Bell are definitely going to be the ones to beat coming Saturday. I’ve raced them before and I know what to expect. I’m going to have to be on my game. No matter what happens, we did well, we made the feature. I’m just hoping we can put on a good show, let them know we were there to fight.”

Friday 5: Youth movement expanding in NASCAR

Truck starting lineup
Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images
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While the focus during the offseason is on which drivers will fill what seats in Cup, Xfinity and Trucks, there’s also a lot taking place for younger drivers seeking to reach NASCAR’s top levels someday.

Toyota Racing Development spends the end of the year evaluating talent and seeing what roles those drivers can have in the coming season.

“When I look at kind of that 16- to 21-year old group … there’s some pretty fantastic talent in that group,” Jack Irving, whose duties at Toyota Racing Development include overseeing the organization’s driver development program, told NBC Sports earlier this month. “(Also) we’ve literally tested 14- and 15-year olds that I’m extremely excited about in the same way.”

The question is where might that talent go if it remains in Toyota’s pipeline.

Toyota has five Cup seats with three filled by drivers who competed in the championship race this season — 2019 champion Kyle Busch, runner-up Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin, who placed fourth in the points. Toyota’s other two Cup seats are filled by budding stars Erik Jones (23 years old) and 2020 Cup rookie Christopher Bell (24).

Joe Gibbs Racing’s 2020 Xfinity lineup includes Brandon Jones, who turns 23 in February. This will be his third consecutive season with JGR. Joining him is Riley Herbst, who turns 21 in February, for his first full season with the team, and 19-year-old Harrison Burton for his rookie campaign.

Kyle Busch Motorsports will have 18-year-old Raphael Lessard compete full time in 2020 after running five races for the team this past season. The team also will have 19-year-old Christian Eckes, who won the ARCA title this past season, drive full time. He made eight starts in 2019 and four starts for the organization in 2018. A third truck will feature several drivers. Chandler Smith, who doesn’t turn 18 until June and is limited in what tracks he can run before then, likely will run some races for the team.

Then there’s Derek Kraus, the 18-year-old who won the title in what is now known as the ARCA West Series. There’s also 18-year-old Hailie Deegan, who finished third in points in the ARCA West Series and shows signs of climbing NASCAR’s ranks. And Ty Gibbs, the 17-year-old grandson of car owner Joe Gibbs, who won twice in ARCA and once each in what is now ARCA East and ARCA West Series in 2019. Many others are in the pipeline, which stretches to the formidable Keith Kunz Motorsports midget teams.

As each season nears an end, the work increases for Toyota Racing Development to evaluate drivers and where they will race for next year. The competition can be intense.

“I think there is a point here somewhere quickly where you get pushed pretty hard to start winning and competing,” Irving said, “to compete for top five in all the races and not have wrecked cars and do all these things and then also be a good teammate and a good person and all those kinds of things that you don’t necessarily always talk about that are pretty important for what we do from a structure perspective.”

Another key factor can be how a young driver ends a season, even if it doesn’t end in a championship.

“You typically want to see them under pressure, so the end of the season really does matter in the whole scheme of things,” Irving said. “If they’ve had a tough season, how are they finishing? If they’re having a good season, then how are they finishing?

And there’s more that is examined.

“We typically go through an analytics run through with the group,” Irving said. “A few of us will get together and kind of go through … some of the things from the coaches, some of the things from the engineers who work with them and what they’ve done with the team, so we’ll start talking to the individuals in the team, if it’s the team owner, if it’s crew chief, car chief.”

It’s all about seeking to find the next talent for the Cup Series.

2. New Generation

Based on what driver lineups that are set for next year, the 2020 Daytona 500 could see half the field age 29 and younger.

Drivers who will be age 29 and under as of next year’s Daytona 500 (Feb. 16) and have rides announced are:

Age 22: William Byron, Cole Custer, Quin Houff

Age 23: Erik Jones

Age 24: Chase Elliott, Tyler Reddick

Age 25: Christopher Bell

Age 26: Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, Bubba Wallace

Age 27: Chris Buescher, Ty Dillon, Kyle Larson

Age 28: Matt DiBenedetto

Age 29: Austin Dillon, Joey Logano, Ryan Preece

One also can add Corey LaJoie (age 28), Ross Chastain (27), Parker Kligerman (29) with the expectation they will each be in a Cup car for next year’s season-opening race. That would put the list at 20 drivers age 29 and under in next year’s Daytona 500. And there could be even more, including Daniel Suarez, who turns 28 in January, and John Hunter Nemechek, 22.

Compare that to 2015 when there were 13 drivers age 29 and under in that year’s season opener.

3. 99 Club

Five drivers completed at least 99% of the 10,255 laps run this season in Cup, the first time any driver has reached that mark since 2015.

Joey Logano led the way, completing 99.67% of the laps (10.221). That’s the highest percentage of laps completed by a driver since 2010 when Matt Kenseth ran 99.93% of the laps. Kenseth ran all but eight of the 10,778 laps run that year.

Also completing more than 99% of the laps this Cup season were Paul Menard (99.63%), Ty Dillon (99.18%), champion Kyle Busch (99.14%) and series runner-up Martin Truex Jr. (99.00%).

4. Ticket deals

With all the sales for Black Friday and Cyber Monday, many tracks also have announced special deals for tickets to NASCAR races this coming season.

NBC Sports’ Daniel McFadin has compiled what deals many tracks have starting today. You can find the information here.

5. Banquet week

The NASCAR Awards Show, which will celebrate Kyle Busch’s championship, takes place next week in Nashville, Tennessee. Festivities will be Dec. 3-5 with the Awards show taking place Dec. 5.

NBCSN will air Burnouts on Broadway at 11:30 p.m. ET on Dec. 4. and replay it at 7 p.m. ET Dec. 5. NBCSN will air the Cup Awards show from 8-10:30 p.m. ET on Dec. 5 with a replay immediately afterward.

The Xfinity Awards show will air from 9-11 p.m. ET on Sunday (Dec. 1) on NBCSN.