MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Chase Elliott paced the final Cup practice Saturday at Martinsville Speedway, turning a 97.542 mph lap on the 0.526-mile oval.
Teammate Alex Bowman was second fastest, and Jimmie Johnson made it a sweep of the top three speeds for Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets, which have been winless since Elliott’s win last October at Kansas Speedway..
As NASCAR leaves the land of Hollywood, hopefully it also will be shaking its “Being John Malkovich”-esque meta feedback loop that has been on repeat for two race weekends with a dizzying relentlessness.
Maybe there are other things happening in NASCAR that are worthy of further examination with the completion of the fourth annual Nevada-Arizona-California hopscotch?
Running through a few of them:
–This is the first time in 19 years that Hendrick Motorsports has yet to record a top five through the first five races (and that 2000 team had one fewer car).
After a mediocre start to 2018 in the Camaro’s debut, the team somehow seems in the same straits with the model this season while adapting to the 2019 configuration of lower horsepower and higher downforce.
Because of the hurdles in running three consecutive races more than 2,000 miles from the industry’s Charlotte hub, it was expected that course-correcting any car deficiencies would be more difficult than it already is.
Never mind the expense of changing on the fly, it’s logistically impossible to make significant updates to cars while trying to ship them to the other side of the country amid a carefully coordinated and highly regimented plan of hauler swaps and highway gymnastics.
The March 31 race at Texas Motor Speedway will be the first 1.5-mile race in which teams have been able to digest everything learned in real-world conditions and apply them to their cars.
If Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman, William Byron and Jimmie Johnson leave Texas without a top five, it won’t be the end of the world for Rick Hendrick’s squad. Last year, it took until August for Elliott to earn the first of three victories for the team, and Hendrick has an Optical Scanning Station in house (it didn’t a year ago), along with a better grasp on its personnel restructuring that occurred before the 2018 season.
All four drivers have run well at times this season, too, and Phoenix was a major rebound in qualifying.
But a collective one top 10 across 12 starts at Atlanta, Las Vegas and Fontana is troubling and indicative that much work remains to be done for a storied organization that takes great pride in its 12 Cup championships.
–Stewart-Haas Racing didn’t miss the boat as much with its new Mustangs, but its lead driver also was chalking some of his recent success up to being a veteran.
“I don’t think as a group we feel like our cars are where they need to be but that experience has led to decent finishes so we can change the things we want to when we get home,” Kevin Harvick said two days before his third top five and fourth consecutive top 10 this year. “Experience is always going to matter.”
So is money and sponsorship, which is why Stewart-Haas, Hendrick and other high-budget teams will be well positioned to retrofit their cars (or perhaps rebuild them entirely). Harvick estimated there could as many as a half-dozen combination of car styles that will need to be developed and require “an extreme amount of work” for the armies of engineers employed by teams.
“I think we are seeing some of the unintended consequences of this package,” he said. “It isn’t what everybody expected from the testing with the drafting and low drag and things you are prepared for. I feel like we have had top five, top three cars (at Atlanta, Vegas and ISM Raceway). They are just not quite winning cars.
“It is really just a survival game at this point trying to keep up with the schedule. We are learning at such a rapid pace right now that the changes to the car will be extreme by the time you get to Texas. … One of the things that caught a lot of people off guard are the differences you will have to have from race track to race track with the things you do to the car and how they work. The workload is going to be absolutely extreme on the race teams this year.”
–According to one crew chief whose team has figured out the 2019 package as well as anyone, body construction and rear ride heights are the keys to hitting the right combination of downforce and balance.
Paul Wolfe, whose No. 2 Ford posted a first, second and third with driver Brad Keselowski on the big ovals since Daytona, said his team still is finding the handle on this season’s setup, but those areas have been the most impact.
“There is a window there where you can change your rear ride height to change your drag, but that also changes the overall balance of your car,” Wolfe said after Saturday practice at Auto Club Speedway. “So then, your mechanical balance to go with the aero balance could be different. Some guys may have gone down the path of really trimming their cars out with their body build and then when you get (to Fontana), you just can’t put downforce back in it enough to be good at the tracks where you need to start to lift (off the throttle) because of tire fall off.
“There are a lot of options and lots of different things to do. It is about trying to understand not only being fast by yourself but how these cars seem to get extremely tight or they could get loose in the dirty air.”
“It didn’t work in trucks, it didn’t work in Xfinity, and I don’t know why anybody thought it was going to work in the Cup Series,” analyst Jeff Burton said Monday on NASCAR America.
If the strategy for having it work this time was “let’s hope that drivers and teams will do the right thing and choose the path that will benefit the greater good of fan entertainment instead of stubbornly sticking to their selfish performance interests,” well … that’s hopeless.
OK, we give in: here’s ONE note on Kyle Busch (for Rowdy Nation and all its lovers/haters).
For the second consecutive week, Busch joked about the possibility of driving for a Formula One team as the last undiscovered country of his racing career (well, aside from if he ever gets around to the Indianapolis 500).
It seems an unlikely prospect because “nobody from F1 is calling.
“They’re going to have to spend a lot of money to buy me out of Joe Gibbs Racing, that’s for sure,” said Busch, who recently signed a multi-year extension that probably takes him through at least 2022 in the No. 18 Toyota. “I don’t know if it’s worth their investment. … I’d love to be able to give it a shot and kind of see. I don’t foresee the opportunity really blossoming.”
“It’s definitely something I wouldn’t shoot down,” Busch said in 2009. “If I could win a championship (in NASCAR) in the next two or three years then I wouldn’t mind going doing (F1) for a few years and coming back. I think I’d still be young enough that if I could win a championship by 25, go run Formula 1 for a few years and be back (in NASCAR) by 28.”
That window has closed for Busch, who turns 34 in May.
But he doesn’t sound as if someone who has completely closed the door on considering the possibility again. So in the unlikely event an F1 team wanted to take a chance on a NASCAR champion in his late 30s …
Typically, such arrangements don’t happen with drivers crossing manufacturer lines. But the time and travel constraints of the Fontana race made Custer (a native of nearby Orange County who had lingered after his Ford won Saturday’s Xfinity race) the easiest choice.
In the “corporate teammates” era in which automaker hardball on brand loyalty often is a barrier to drivers moonlighting as often as yesteryear, it was refreshing to confirm it doesn’t preclude a common-sense decision such as this.
Fontana again stirred some passionate debate about the efficacy of the 2019 rules package, which virtually has guaranteed wild restarts but also has produced a surprising amount of green-flag racing (there’s been one crash that could be considered “multicar” – and even that was a stretch – over 1,300 miles at Atlanta, Las Vegas and Fontana).
Two more points seem relevant:
–Kyle Busch’s 2.354-second margin of victory was a fraction of Martin Truex Jr.’s 11.685-second thumping at the same 2-mile oval last year.
–If you are advocating dumping the tapered spacers that limit horsepower to 550 at tracks such as Fontana, here’s your friendly reminder that restoring last year’s horsepower numbers would take a herculean effort by engine manufacturers who have already mapped out months of inventory at the current parameters. Reverting to 2018 probably would require months of hardware and logistical challenges.
Kyle Busch, winner: “We knew the 12 (Ryan Blaney) was really, really fast. He was probably the best car here this weekend. I don’t know if he just got too tight in that long run. That’s what it looked like all of us were doing. Just seemed like I could get through there a little bit better. I tried to search around and find something that could help me to get me going a little bit better and get around to his outside and get the lead. Just an awesome day for us here at ISM Raceway. To come out here and celebrate with another win – back-to-back races here — I’d love to be able to come back and do it again next time.”
Martin Truex Jr., finished second: “We did save quite a bit (of fuel) there. The car was really fast there at the end. Just a good day overall for our Bass Pro Camry. Everybody at JGR and TRD and everybody back at the shop are really doing a good job. Our boys in the pits did a good job today as well, so thanks to Cole (Pearn, crew chief). James (Small, engineer) and all the guys, we’re starting to click. We’re a little bit off on Fridays and that’s getting us behind, but I feel like each weekend as the weekend goes, we’re getting a little strong and a little stronger. Two second places is pretty decent. We’ll just keep chipping away at it. Had a fun day today and congrats to Kyle (Busch) and those guys.”
Ryan Blaney, finished 3rd: “Honestly, we hung on better there on two tires than I thought we would. Fired off really good. Got Kyle (Busch) a little bit. I was kind of riding trying to save tires, save gas. They were telling me we were really close on gas just doing two. I think he was kind of riding back there, too. I think they knew what situation I was in. Started to get real tight. I got to the lap cars, and I was done. Then when we got past the lead, just full‑on fuel save mode. A good recovery.”
Aric Almirola, finished 4th: “We had a good car, but we’re just not quite as good as we need to be. We still have work to do, but I’m really proud of everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing. We keep chipping away. That’s three top 10s in a row, our first top five of the year, so we’re getting there. Our cars are getting a little better, but we just have to keep working and keep finding more speed. We have a great race team and we’ll continue to improve on what we’ve got, so we’ll just keep working. Our Smithfield Ford Mustang was decent, but just not quite good enough.”
Denny Hamlin, finished 5th: Frustrating. Trying to get track position when you have a fast car. You just can’t drive through the field. You have to be patient and wait on everyone to kind of mess up or you’ve got try to run a different line, but when you do it’s just too much distance. Just the frustration of having a faster car and you can’t pass.”
Kyle Larson, finished 6th: “It was a clean day for us, so I was happy about that. Had some really good restarts that kept us in the game. We worked on our balance throughout the race, tried to free it up and got too free and then had to go back on changes to tighten us back up. So yeah, to come away with a sixth is nice after the last couple of weeks we’ve had of just making mistakes. Even this week we made a big mistake in qualifying, but thankfully, we were able to work through it.”
Kurt Busch, finished 7th: “I’m glad we got a top 10. We had to battle hard for this one. We didn’t do really good on pit road and we didn’t really do good on restarts, but overall with the Global Poker Chevy it was nice to have a read on some looseness and tightness at a short track and get more notes under our belt. That is key for me and Matt McCall (crew chief). Awesome, fun, running with (Kyle) Larson. The two of us got a pretty good read on each other on when we are holding each other up or if we are helping each other. Then at the end they told me I was about a lap shy on fuel, so I had to save and I just let Larson go and it worked out. To have two Ganassi cars sixth and seventh, top Chevy’s that is good stuff.”
Jimmie Johnson, finished 8th: “It’s not a victory, but it’s definitely a solid day for the Ally Chevrolet. These guys have been working so hard at Hendrick Motorsports to get us more and more and we took a good step in the right direction. I even think at Vegas we were better than where we finished. Once we lost track position, we struggled the second half of the race. Atlanta was terrible, can’t say anything different there. We are learning each week and I still think we have some catching up to do, but certainly a solid performance. Kevin (Meendering, crew chief) called a great race, it was really tricky with strategy, two tires, four tires, our pit crew had to adjust mid-pit stop one time and go from four to two and everybody responded really well.”
Kevin Harvick, finished 9th: “It took us I don’t even know how long to get past cars that were six, seven, eight-tenths slower than us at the end of the race, so just extremely difficult to pass. We got shuffled there on the restarts and just decided to come down and get tires and see if we could do something better than being in the middle on two tires, and it took us a long time to get back going.”
Joey Logano, finished 10th: “It was really, really, really, really, really hard to pass. You start to catch a car and you just stop. That big spoiler on the back just makes it really, really challenging to even get to the car in front of you to make something happen, so restarts became everything. If you can get through the first couple laps and settle out, you were fine. It’s just very challenging behind a car to even keep up to speed and then what happens is you get behind him and that makes the tires mad and you go slower. You’re better off just getting there and riding and hopefully that car falls off enough to where you can maybe get close enough to make a move or wait until there’s a lapped car and try to make a pass or something like that. That was tough. That was hard.”
Ryan Newman, finished 12th: “We definitely showed improvement from last week, which is a good sign for the weeks to come. Our No. 6 Oscar Mayer team worked hard after practice yesterday to make some changes, which showed once we took the green. Although we wanted a top 10, we’ll take the result, improve and move on to Fontana next week looking to capitalize on the momentum.”
Ty Dillon, finished 15th: “Today was a great day for our GEICO Racing team. We consistently ran inside the top 20, kept making adjustments to fine tune the handling, and then got ourselves in a position to run inside the top 15. I know this is what our Germain Racing team can do every single week and I’m proud of all the hard work that is going into building faster race cars. We will keep building on top-15 finishes like this and I know good things will continue to happen for our team.”
Alex Bowman, finished 35th: “We have just been too tight since we unloaded and couldn’t figure out how to fix it. We were pretty good as long as there was air on the nose, but get buried in traffic and we were just way too tight. It’s unfortunate, obviously, finishing that first stage fourth we had a good race car just had to have clean air and without that we were way too tight.”
Michael McDowell, finished 36th: “I just came off the corner and I noticed that the throttle pedal was gone. I knew I was in trouble at that point because it was still wide-open, so I tried hitting the ignition and jumping on the brakes and did everything I could to keep it up against the wall and try not to make a big mess. I was trying not to run into the car in front of me, which I think was Menard. I was just jamming on the brakes as hard as I could to try to get it to slow down and not take a bunch of people with me.”
Check back for more.
Speed Tweets: A rescheduled wedding, a hole-in-one and a driver fight
During media availability Friday at the track, Alex Bowman had a little fun and “interviewed” his Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron. If anyone says Bowman doesn’t have a personality, they don’t know what a personality is.
“I hate qualifying second,” Elliott said. “I look forward to Sunday. At least we have a good place to start. I really would have liked to get a pole outside a speedway track, so we’ll try again next week.”
NOTES: The No. 2 Ford of Atlanta winner Brad Keselowski twice failed pre-qualifying inspection and was docked 15 minutes in Saturday’s final practice, plus team engineer Brandon Pope was ejected for the remainder of the weekend.