Clint Bowyer
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Clint Bowyer wants to provide ‘bang’ for fan’s ‘buck’ when racing returns

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As it stands, the NASCAR Cup Series won’t be seen in action in real life for 45 days.

With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing the postponement of seven NASCAR race weekends, the next scheduled Cup race is May 9 at Martinsville Speedway.

If that race is able to be held as scheduled, it would mean race teams and fans would be in for a fast and furious remainder of the season, as NASCAR intends to hold all 36 of its Cup points races and the All-Star Race.

But what would that look like and what do drivers think of the possible layout of the rest of the season?

Stewart-Haas Racing asked its four Cup drivers how they’re preparing for a potential resumption of the season and what they’d like to see in a condensed schedule with doubleheaders and mid-week races likely in the mix.

“If you’ve followed me, you know I’ve been pretty vocal about changing things up when it comes to the schedule,” Kevin Harvick said in a media release from SHR. “When it comes to the 2021 schedule, NASCAR was already looking outside the box of things we can do differently. Out of necessity, how we configure race weekends and when we race will have to be figured out for when we get back to racing this year.”

Harvick observed that “change is different, but it can be good.”

“We’ll have to think differently and be open-minded to what the rest of this year’s schedule ends up looking like,” said Harvick.

Aric Almirola believes the introduction of mid-week races for NASCAR’s premier series would “resonate really well.”

“Fans who worked all day can come home, eat dinner and then relax on the couch while we put on a show,” Almirola said in the media release.

The prospect of same-day doubleheaders between Cup and NASCAR’s other national series was a real prospect at Atlanta two weeks ago before the race weekend was postponed just hours before cars took to the track for practice. An initial plan had Cup and Xfinity both competing on Saturday.

“I think as soon as everyone got to Atlanta and saw the schedule change, it raised an eyebrow,” Clint Bowyer said in the release. “We said, ‘Hey, we can do these races in a day.’ I was fine with it. You know we need to do whatever we can do to put on a show for all these fans across the country. If all we have time for is a one-day show, then so be it. I think we can provide enough bang for their buck.”

A one-day show could also mean little or no practice for teams. But that sits well for Almirola.

“Teams have a lot of data simulation to predict how their car is going to drive and handle at a particular track, but it’s not always perfect,” Almirola said. “Practice is always helpful, even if it’s just a little bit. It would present a challenge to not practice, but it would at least be the same for everybody.”

However, a lack of practice would take away some valuable track time for a driver like Cole Custer, who had his rookie campaign paused after just four races.

“It would be a little harder just getting one or two qualifying laps in and then going racing,” Custer said in the media release. “Any time on the racetrack as a rookie is huge – the more, the better. If all we did was qualify, like we were set to do at Atlanta, it would put a lot of emphasis on our preparation going into the weekend. For me, practice is just really important so we can work on the car and get used to the track.”

In the meantime, with a little under two months to the next potential Cup race, Almirola is doing his best to prepare himself for the physical toll of what could be awaiting him and other drivers if and when the season resumes.

“During the offseason, I’m very relaxed, but this is so different,” Almirola said. “My mind is still so focused on racing. I’m continuing to work out and I go through the week with a schedule and stay in shape because, quite honestly, I think it’s going to be even more important to be in tip-top shape when we’re ready to go and the season does start back up because we’re going to be racing a lot.

“We’re talking about running races on the weekend, then midweek, then another the following weekend. If we do that, running three races in a week is going to be a lot. Recovering after the race and getting your body and mind prepped for the next race in a short period of time will be important. I’m focused on eating right, getting plenty of protein, and staying in shape to be as ready as possible for whatever this season has in store for us.”

NASCAR driver: ‘Sitting here at home on a Saturday. It feels weird’

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Saturday was to have been the day NASCAR fans found out: Could someone defeat Kyle Busch in a Truck race?

The answer had been no in Busch’s last seven series starts, dating to 2018, but the interest in his streak built the last few weeks.

It started with a Feb. 22 tweet from Kevin Harvick: “I’ll put up a $50,000 bounty for any full time cup driver who races a truck and can beat @KyleBusch in his next 4 races. #gameon.”

Marcus Lemonis, from series sponsor Gander RV & Outdoors, added another $50,000 to Harvick’s bounty. Truck owner Chris Larsen pledged $50,000 to any Truck Series regular who could win a series race with Kyle Busch.

Suddenly, Saturday’s Truck race at Atlanta Motor Speedway became the most anticipated series event since the Trucks ran at Eldora Speedway for the first time in 2013.

With sports shut down, including NASCAR, for the foreseeable future because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Saturday became a day of confusion. What to do with no racing and no sports.

“I’m sitting here at home on a Saturday. It feels weird,” Matt DiBenedetto said in a video to fans.

Ryan Newman, who continues his recovery from a head injury suffered in a crash on the last lap of the Daytona 500, took time for more of what he called “therapy” on Saturday. He went fishing.

Aric Almirola did some racing at home with his children.

This much is certain. NASCAR postponed this weekend’s races at Atlanta Motor Speedway and next weekend’s races at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was to have made his one Xfinity start at Miami. Now? We’ll see.

Next on the schedule is Texas Motor Speedway. It hosts Trucks, Xfinity and Cup on March 27-29.

On Friday, the mayor of Fort Worth, Texas issued a state of emergency that included a mandatory cancelation of any events or gatherings with an expected attendance of 250 people or more. The mandate, though, is for seven days.

Texas Motor Speedway issued a statement Saturday that track officials are “currently preparing to host our regularly scheduled events and will continue consulting with officials on best practices and recommendations.”

But there will be racing Sunday even if Atlanta Motor Speedway will sit silent.

Kevin Hamlin, spotter for Alex Bowman, tweeted that there will be a 100-lap NASCAR industry iRacing event at 3 p.m. ET Sunday. Among those scheduled to take part are Hamlin, Bowman, Earnhardt, William Byron, Bubba Wallace, Justin Allgaier, Harrison Burton and crew chief Chad Knaus.

DiBenedetto mentioned in his video to fans about an iRacing event next weekend..

As restrictions continue and events are postponed, the only races for NASCAR fans could be online events with some of the their favorite drivers.

“Hope all this stuff passes,” DiBenedetto said in his video to fans. “Hang with us and we can get back to the racetrack soon.”

NBC Sports Power Rankings: Joey Logano is unanimous No. 1

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Phoenix and Las Vegas winner Joey Logano rockets to the No. 1 spot in this week’s NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings.

Logano was a unanimous choice among NBC Sports’ writers, while Kevin Harvick was a close second in both the race and this week’s poll.

MORE: Ryan Newman tells Today show he wants to race “as soon as I possibly can”

Biggest drops from last week to this week: Fontana winner Alex Bowman (1st to 9th), Ryan Blaney (2nd to 8th) and Jimmie Johnson (3rd to unranked).

Fifteen drivers earned votes this week.

Here’s how this week’s power rankings look:

1. Joey Logano (40 points out of 40): Four races, two wins. May not have the fastest car but he keeps finding a way to win. Last week: 6th (tied).

2. Kevin Harvick (35 points): Has had a top 10 in each of the first four races this season – but he’s still looking for a win. Last week: 4th.

3. Kyle Busch (31 points): After a rough first two races, the defending series champ now has back-to-back top-five finishes. Last week: 6th (tied).

4. Chase Elliott (25 points): Has had excellent speed the last two races. Now he heads to his home track, where he’s never won a Cup, Xfinity or Truck race. Could this be the weekend to do so? And could he kick things off by winning the Kyle Busch bounty in Saturday’s Truck race? Last week: 6th (tied).

(tie) 5. Kyle Larson (19 points): Has been on a solid roll with three top 10s in first four races. Finally had a joint strong effort with teammate Kurt Busch for the first time this season. Last week: Unranked.

(tie) 5. Kurt Busch (19 points): After struggles in first two races, was third at Fontana and sixth at Phoenix. Not the fastest but making the most of the opportunities and finishing higher than the car runs in a race. Last week: 10th.

7. Brad Keselowski (15 points): With Logano and Ryan Blaney’s success, Keselowski may have been overlooked so far, but still has strong numbers: He has finished seventh, fifth and 11th in last three races. He’s likely licking his chops for Atlanta, where he has two wins and a runner-up in last three races. Last week: 5th.

8. Ryan Blaney (10 points): Even though he finished runner-up at Daytona, he’s had rough outings since with finishes of 11th (at Las Vegas due to pit call), 19th (tire issue with three laps to go at Fontana) and 37th at Phoenix due to a crash not of his making. Last week: 2nd.

9. Alex Bowman (6 points): Had a tough weekend with a car that was bad in practice, although it qualified eighth. In the race, finished 14th after winning the week before in Fontana. Last week: 1st.

10. Brandon Jones (5 points): It’s not every day you pass Kyle Busch to score a win in the Xfinity Series. Last week: Unranked.

Others receiving votes: Aric Almirola (4 points), Clint Bowyer (4), Jimmie Johnson (2), Martin Truex Jr. (1), Denny Hamlin (1).

Long: Even with wins, Joey Logano, Paul Wolfe still have work to do

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AVONDALE, Ariz. — One has to wonder when Joey Logano and crew chief Paul Wolfe will begin to jell in their new partnership.

They’ve only won two of the four Cup races in their first season together.

Car owner Roger Penske’s decision to switch the driver/crew chief lineup for all three of his Cup teams in the offseason seems to be working about as well as possible.

Besides Logano’s wins, Ryan Blaney could have easily won the first three races and led the points until he was collected in a crash at Phoenix, and Brad Keselowski has three consecutive finishes of 11th or better.

Even with their early success, Logano and Wolfe both say there’s still much work to do to become a dominant team.

“We’ve done a good job executing races,” Logano told NBC Sports in victory lane after he went from 18th to first and led the final 24 laps to win. “Are we as fast as we want to be? No, not yet, but I think we’re a dangerous combination for sure.

“With (Wolfe’s) cars and being able to still be aggressive and do the things I need to do and have some long run speed on top of that, it has been a good combination for us. Nice to win a 550 (horsepower) and 750 race already. It shows we’re close, but we haven’t been the dominant car … in any race this year.”

Logano won at Las Vegas when the leaders pitted before the final restart. Logano, who was third at the time, stayed out, assumed the lead and won. At Phoenix, Logano overcame a pit road penalty and then lost the lead on his final pit stop when the jack broke, dropping him to 18th.

With the debut of the short track package, which included a much smaller spoiler than last season, a tire compound that wore out and the traction compound on the track, Logano was able to get to the front. What also helped was that he and Keselowski had similar setups. Wolfe, who had been Keselowski’s crew chief before this season, used elements of Keselowski’s setup from past years.

In a sign of how Logano and Wolfe continue to learn each other, Logano did not run make a mock qualifying run in practice on Friday. Wolfe said he wanted all the time in the two 50-minute practice sessions focused on “just trying to understand and learn where he wants to be with the setups under our car for race trim.”

Todd Gordon, who went from being Logano’s crew chief last season to be Blaney’s crew chief this season, noted the work that goes into learning a new driver. One such example came at Auto Club Speedway when Blaney had to pit from second place with three laps left because of a tire issue. Blaney finished 19th.

“It’s part of the learning curve that this whole team is going through with the change,” Gordon said recently on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “We know each other pretty well but need to learn the little idiosyncrasies of what each driver’s driving style does, what we can and can’t be aggressive on.”

Auto Club Speedway also wasn’t a good race for Logano. He ran well until fading late and placing 12th.

“I’ll tell you what, I was sick to my stomach all week,” Wolfe told NBC Sports. “We didn’t have the performance I wanted at (Auto Club). Obviously (Blaney) was real strong at (Auto Club). We started the race strong but we got off course there. Really to finish 12th was not what we’re capable of where we should be. I didn’t sleep a lot.”

He felt much better after Sunday’s race at Phoenix.

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When Brandon Jones passed Kyle Busch for the lead with 20 laps to go and went on to win the Xfinity race at Phoenix last weekend, it marked the first time since June 2016 that Busch had been passed so late in a race for the win by a series regular.

Brandon Jones celebrates his Phoenix win. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The last time it happened was when Daniel Suarez passed Busch with two laps to go to win at Michigan.

Jones’ win was as much on the track as off. He went 134 series races before his first victory in October at Kansas. Jones needed only seven races to score his second Xfinity triumph. While there are a number of factors, Jones cites a greater worth ethic as among the keys.

“I kind of came into this year with a mindset of, ‘If I’m not doing it, someone else is doing it,’” the 23-year-old said. “That includes anything outside of this and it includes everything at the track and includes studying and everything. I’m exhausting myself doing it and at the same time, the reward is so big that it doesn’t matter to me. This is what it’s about.”

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Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has yet to talk to NASCAR about his penalty for passing below the yellow line in the Daytona 500 but plans to do so before next month’s race at Talladega.

NASCAR penalized Stenhouse, who was running in the top five at the time for going below the yellow line to pass Blaney. A replay showed that Blaney, who was leading the bottom lane, initially blocked Stenhouse but then Stenhouse went lower to make his move.

“I did not want to talk to (NASCAR) right after because I wasn’t really happy about it,” Stenhouse said this past weekend at Phoenix.

“I felt like my move at that point was go left or crash (Blaney), so I went left and gave myself extra room. We had already turned (William Byron) on accident, so I didn’t want to turn somebody else. I gave myself a ton of room and then I had (Kyle Busch) pushing me as well. Trying to give that spot back was kind of difficult.”

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Two teams placed all their cars in the top 10 Sunday at Phoenix. It marked the first time this season that any team had placed all its drivers in the top 10.

Stewart-Haas Racing had Kevin Harvick place second, Clint Bowyer finish fifth, Aric Almirola place eighth and rookie Cole Custer finish ninth.

“It means a ton, honestly,” Custer said of the top-10 finish. “It’s been pretty tough these first few races of the year. A lot of learning. It just kind of all came together this weekend.”

Chip Ganassi Racing had Kyle Larson finish fourth. Kurt Busch was sixth.

Phoenix winners and losers

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WINNERS

Joey LoganoMade a spirited charge late to rebound from a slow pit stop when the jack broke and then held off Kevin Harvick in an overtime restart to score his second win this season, matching his win total from the 2019 season.

Stewart-Haas Racing — Still winless this season but placed all four cars in the top 10 at Phoenix: Kevin Harvick was second, Clint Bowyer was fifth, Aric Almirola placed eighth and rookie Cole Custer was ninth.

Chip Ganassi Racing — Placed both its cars in the top 10 for the first time this season. Kyle Larson finished fourth and Kurt Busch was sixth. Both had gritty performances.

Brandon JonesPassed Kyle Busch for win with 20 laps left in the Xfinity race. It took Jones 134 races to win his first Xfinity race. He needed only seven races to score his next series win.

MORE: Phoenix race proves tantalizing for title event 

MORE: What drivers said after Phoenix Cup race 

LOSERS

Ryan BlaneyCollected in crash triggered by Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski early in the race and finished 37th. Blaney has had one of the best cars all season but never got to show what he could do at Phoenix.

Martin Truex Jr.If it’s not one thing, it’s another for him and his Joe Gibbs Racing team. He started at the rear for the second consecutive week but worked his way up to the front with the help of his pit crew, which had let him down the past couple of weeks. This time, contact from Aric Almirola put Truex in the wall. Almirola said the contact was unintentional but the damage was enough too ruin Truex’s race. He finished 32nd.

Chase ElliottIn one sense, his seventh-place finish was not satisfying considering how strong a car he had. On the other hand he still scored a top 10 after he had to pit for a loose wheel under green and later hit the wall, slowing his progress. But when one has among the strongest cars, one has to take advantage of the situation.

Denny Hamlin — Last November, Phoenix was magical with a win that put him into the Championship 4. This time, his contact with Brad Keselowski sent him into the wall. While Hamlin continued, the damage kept him from contending and he finished 20th.