Veteran NASCAR spotters not returning to 2019 roles

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Joey Meier, veteran spotter for NASCAR Cup driver Paul Menard and others, announced Sunday night on Twitter that he will be leaving the sport after nearly a quarter-century of service.

“All good things must come to an end” Meier (pictured above) wrote. “My ‘good thing’ for the past 23 years has come to an end … my choice this time.”

Meier said he will devote all of his energies going forward to flying airplanes.

“NASCAR was in my life WAY before Aviation, but flying is my profession,” Meier wrote. “NASCAR was just a huge bonus. I’ll leave knowing I always tried my best (Thx to Big E and Pops) … being a small part of Wins and Championships, in all 3 series. … BUT it was more about being a part of a TEAM, thru thick/then, winning/defeat/flying/spotting, I cherished being part of THE TEAM. I will miss that. But that’s OK.

“I’m excited about my new team & a new cockpit. Thank you for following along. Keep it up. I’ll stay busy keeping the “BLUE SIDE UP” from here on out, I promise.”

Meier took over as spotter for Menard this season after spotting for Brad Keselowski from 2006 through the end of the 2018 season. He won NASCAR championships with Ron Hornaday, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Martin Truex Jr. and Keselowski, as well as also winning the Daytona 500 with Michael Waltrip. Among the notable team owners he worked for over the years were NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt and Roger Penske.

Also, Andy Houston, who had spotted for Austin Dillon for the last nine seasons, announced Sunday on Twitter that he also would no longer be serving in that role.

 

Cup, Xfinity teams to be penalized practice time Friday at ISM Raceway

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – Three Cup teams and five Xfinity teams will be docked practice time Friday at ISM Raceway for inspection issues last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.

The Cup teams of Austin Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and Jimmie Johnson must sit out the final 15 minutes of the first practice session. The first Cup practice session will be from 4:05 – 4:55 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports App (and NBCSN at 4:30 p.m. ET).

In the Xfinity Series, the cars of playoff contenders Chase Briscoe and Michael Annett each will miss 30 minutes of final practice for failing inspection three or more times last week at Texas. The final Xfinity practice is scheduled for 6:05 – 6:55 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

In the opening Xfinity practice, the car of playoff contender Noah Gragson will miss 15 minutes of the first practice for failing inspection twice at Texas. The cars of Chad Finchum and David Starr each will miss 15 minutes of the first practice for being late to inspection at Texas. Opening Xfinity practice is scheduled for 3:05 – 3:55 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports App.

Friday 5: With pressure on, time for Denny Hamlin to perform

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For all that Denny Hamlin has accomplished, what he does this weekend at ISM Raceway could alter the narrative for one of NASCAR’s most successful drivers without a Cup championship.

Among the favorites to win the title when the playoffs began in September, Hamlin is in danger of seeing his championship hopes end with Sunday’s race (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC).

Hamlin trails rival Joey Logano, a driver he’s feuded with in these playoffs and over the years, by 20 points for the final spot in the Championship 4 field despite a stellar season that ranks among the best in Hamlin’s 14 seasons in Cup.

Hamlin is in this position after a crash last weekend at Texas dropped him from a transfer spot. Kevin Harvick is the only driver to race his way into the championship race at ISM Raceway, winning that event in 2014 and then claiming the title a week later.

While the pressure is on now, Hamlin professed before the playoffs began “pressure doesn’t get to me, nothing like it probably did 10, 12 years ago.”

Hamlin’s best chance for a title before this season came in 2010 when he led the points going into the season’s penultimate race at ISM Raceway but had to make an extra pit stop for fuel late. That allowed Jimmie Johnson and Harvick to close the points gap.

Miami weekend started with the press conference for the title contenders. Johnson and Harvick ganged up on Hamlin. Harvick said of Hamlin: “He definitely seems like the most nervous.”

While Hamlin still led going into Miami, he had a poor qualifying effort and an incident early in the race that doomed his title hopes, allowing Johnson to win his fifth consecutive title in a row.

That late-season collapse will always be a part of Hamlin’s history. He made the championship race in 2014 but hasn’t been back since.

If he doesn’t advance this year, it does not diminish the two Daytona 500 wins, two Southern 500 victories and 36 career Cup victories, but it leaves a gap for a driver who likely is Hall of Fame bound (just maybe not as soon as others without a championship). Only Junior Johnson (50 Cup wins) and Mark Martin (40) have more Cup wins than Hamlin and also not a title.

“I’ve seen it all,” Hamlin told NBC Sports before the playoffs of his postseason disappointments. “Any way I can get taken out of a championship battle, I’ve had happen.

“But I know as long as I prepare each week, the way I’ve been doing, as long as I do the work during practices, give the right feedback like I’ve been doing, we’re going to be fine. That makes me rest easier than anything.”

Those experiences help Hamlin, who will turn 39 the day after the title race. While it’s easy to wonder what might have been, Hamlin says he’s moved past that in regards to 2010.

“It probably took a year to get over that,” Hamlin said earlier this week at Toyota’s national headquarters in Plano, Texas. “After that, you’re so week-to-week, you can’t let stuff linger, and if you do, you’re not doing your job 100 percent.”

Few thought Hamlin would be in this position based on his season and his playoffs. His five wins trail only teammate Martin Truex Jr. for the most this season. Hamlin has finished third or better in 10 of the season’s 34 races. In the playoffs, Hamlin has a win and five top-five finishes in eight races. Yet, that might not be good enough after finishing 28th at Texas.

Hamlin, the NBA fan, can look to LeBron James and the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers for inspiration this weekend.

Hamlin says his favorite moment in sports came in the NBA Finals between the Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors that year. Golden State led the best-of-seven series three games to one before Cleveland rallied to force a seventh game.

Late in that series-deciding contest came the play that Hamlin says “I remember like it was yesterday.”

“(Andre) Igoudala fast break at the end of the game, and LeBron chasing him down,” Hamlin said. “If (Igoudala) makes that basket, it’s over. LeBron chases him down, beats it off the backboard, and they (later) go down and score and change the whole game.

“Anyone down 3-1, they always talk about the odds and statistics of how impossible it is to come back, but that was the moment that someone just wanted it more.”

Such is the position Hamlin is in. Can he provide a memorable moment Sunday?

2. A NEW APPROACH

Austin Dillon’s 13th-place finish last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway wasn’t particularly noteworthy on the surface, but it was significant in other ways.

Dillon’s result marked one of his team’s better finishes on a 1.5-mile speedway this season.

“I feel like we need to try to find a baseline that we can kind of go to, and we haven’t had that this year,” Dillon said before the race. “We have had some fast cars but haven’t been able to race very well with them. We’re trying to kind of tune our cars to more a race-style setup. (At Texas) and Homestead we’re going to try to develop a little more of that baseline.”

The Richard Childress Racing cars were set up with less downforce easier in the season, giving them more speed in qualifying, but when they fell into the pack during a race, the cars were more unstable and harder to drive.

Dillon qualified in the top 10 in eight of the nine 1.5-mile races before Texas, including a pole at Chicago, but never finished better than 10th in any of those races. He showed that speed also at the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway in March, winning the pole but failing to score any stage points despite the favorable track position and pit stall.

At Texas last weekend, Dillon qualified 21st, his worst starting spot at a 1.5-mile track this year. He joked ahead of qualifying that if they were any better than 15th to 20th, “we will have tricked ourselves.”

The point being is the team put more downforce in the car to make it more stable in traffic, knowing it would hurt the qualifying speed.

“It’s been pretty obvious where our cars are and what they’ve had,” Dillon said of the setup. “There’s a happy medium in there. You see some of the guys that make it work and the other teams that don’t even try to run that concept. The Chevys that are fast don’t seem to be doing what we were doing.”

Another change is that crew chief Danny Stockman will give way to Justin Alexander after this season. Alexander was at Texas and will be with at the track the final two races to assess the team.

3. LOOKING AHEAD

As Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finishes the season with Roush Fenway Racing, he’s looking ahead to 2020 with JTG Daugherty Racing.

Stenhouse joins JTG in a virtual swap that sees Chris Buescher taking over Stenhouse’s ride in the No. 17 next year.

Stenhouse says he’s begun preparing for his ride by talking to Ernie Cope, competition director at JTG Daugherty Racing, and team owner Tad Geschickter after races.

Stenhouse says he’s discussed with Cope and Geschickter “the things that they fought through (with the car) in the weekend, kind of compare that to what I’m feeling and then also just looking at the potential that they have.

“I thought both their cars had really good short-run speed at Martinsville. We had better long run speed. Going over there it’s like, ‘Alright, how do we get that long-run better and keep that short-run speed?’ I look at Kansas … we raced around (Buescher) a lot and felt like in the end they were probably a little bit better overall.

“I’m interested to see how Phoenix goes. We ran decent there in their spring, but (JTG Daugherty Racing’s) short track stuff, I feel like, seems better than what we have right now and that’s an area that I feel like needs to get better.”

Until Stenhouse finished last after a crash last weekend at Texas, he had placed in the top 20 in six consecutive races, his longest stretch since 2017 when he won two races and made the playoffs.

“I am focused on making sure we finish the job here,” Stenhouse said of his final races with Roush Fenway Racing. “We’ve had some solid runs. We haven’t had any stellar runs, but we’ve had solid runs since the announcement came out in Charlotte. Just looking to continue that … and end on a decent note.”

4. BETTER HELP

One of the issues with the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, particularly at Daytona and Talladega, is that its pointed nose made it more challenging to push as compared to the Fords and Toyotas, which each had flatter noses.

While Chevrolet won at Daytona (Justin Haley in July) and at Talladega (Chase Elliott in the spring), the nose on the Camaro ZL1 1LE that Chevy teams will use in 2020 should prove beneficial at those tracks.

“It was definitely a challenge for us being able to push like some of our competitors were doing,” Elliott said. “I think all the drivers wanted (a flatter nose). We’re just lucky that Chevrolet saw it and wanted to make an effort and try to make it a little better. I think they did. We’ll see when we get to Daytona how it affects things, but I certainly think with all the pushing and how aggressive restarts are … hopefully that helps us.”

Cars pushing one another could become more important at those tracks in 2020. The Talladega playoff race showed more cars could form a two-car tandem and pull away briefly from the pack. With the rules stable for next season, teams will have more time to maximize that, and the tandem could play greater role in those races next year.

5. LAST CHANCE

Chevrolet will need a big day Sunday from Kyle Larson or Chase Elliott to avoid missing the Cup championship race for a third year in a row.

Chevrolet last had a team racing for the Cup title in 2016 when Jimmie Johnson won his record-tying seventh series crown.

In 2017, the Chevy teams of Elliott and Johnson were eliminated in the Round of 8 at ISM Raceway. Last year, Elliott was eliminated in the Round of 8 at ISM Raceway.

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What drivers said after Texas

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Kevin Harvick – winner: (How critical was this race for you?) Well, we’ve already been going down the road. They’ve already built the car, picked a direction. Like we talked about earlier, we’ve got so many things that you had to choose from from an aero standpoint, and Homestead is such a unique racetrack. We’ve already been to the simulator, we’ve already built the car, and now we’ve just got to make sure that we do what we think is right and go with our gut and see what happens.

(Your son, Keelan, set the air pressures before the race and again you won. What’s up with that?) Yeah, I think he’s three for three or four for four. I think all four races he’s set the air pressure this year, so if anything we’re helping him with math. It’s fun to have him at the racetrack. Had a fun weekend. They have a great zoo here, in case you were wondering. We didn’t do much yesterday. But just really proud of everybody on this team.”

Aric Almirola – finished second: “Our Smithfield Ford Mustang was really fast. I am really proud of the effort by everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing, Roush Yates Engines and Ford Motor Company. Our cars were really, really good from the time we unloaded here and we all came with a little something different, just trying to learn and get ahead for next year. I think we learned some stuff. I am really proud of all the guys on my team. We have had such a bad run of luck the last two months and it is so nice to come here and just execute all night and have a fast car, lead laps and win a stage and run up front. We had a great night on pit road. I did my part on restarts and on and off pit road and just an all-around solid night. We can build on that.

(You were relentless tonight, weren’t you?) Yeah, for a little while I thought we had a car capable of winning. When Harvick got a good restart there and was able to keep pace with us I knew I was in trouble. His car was a good bit faster than ours in clean air.”

Daniel Suarez – finished third: “That was a very solid night and I am very happy with the performance and speed that we brought from the shop. Everyone back at the shop did a great job. We knew we would be fast here. We had a solid performance here last time. We did a good job. We had good execution and a good clean day. I am very happy for Stewart-Haas Racing and the 41 Ford Mustang was pretty sporty. I am very happy for Kevin (Harvick) getting his ticket for Homestead.”

Joey Logano – finished fourth: (Kyle Busch said he will have to race you next weekend and you’re tough to beat. Your thoughts?) It is going to be a good battle for sure. We are definitely racing for that last spot just in case someone behind us outside of the top-four wins. Then it will come down to (Busch) and the 22 to try to get for that last spot. It is going to be fun. I am looking forward to the battle. It will be a good time. Obviously the 18 team is good and Kyle is a good driver but I think we are a great team and they are beatable just like everybody else.”

Alex Bowman – finished fifth: We started really tight and we made good adjustments throughout the day. Obviously, once the sun went down, the car got a lot better and we were pretty solid. I wish we could have had a little more track position and our strategy go our way a little more there at the end. But we definitely had a really good car today. It was just really tough to pass, but the guys did a good job. We came through the field a couple of times and had a good day.”

Martin Truex Jr. – finished sixth: (What was today like?) Just a battle. We felt pretty good after practice going into this thing that we’d be competitive. We were not very good and then we got some track position and we were hanging on okay. Then, we got back in the pack again and just had one run where it got really, really tight and lost all of our track position again and then it was just a battle. Made huge adjustments. We’ve not adjusted on a car that much all year long and we still never got it perfect, but definitely a lot better at the end. We just fought hard and never gave up on it all day and came home with a decent finish.”

Kyle Busch – finished seventh: “(What are your thoughts about today’s race?) I don’t know, I was running wide open there and those guys were just driving away. We got what we got out of our M&M’s Camry tonight. Adam (Stevens, crew chief) made some good adjustments. The whole first set of tires was just ugly for us. Once we got past that and got some other tires on the car, it seemed to go a little bit better. It was hard battling some of them guys up there and up through traffic and what not. We should have run third and ran out of gas and starved the pump there at the end. Then I was stalled on pit road. That cost us four or five spots there.

(How do you feel about heading to Phoenix to get back to victory lane?) We all know one guy is going to move through on points and we have to do whatever we have to do in order to be that guy. If we can obviously go to Phoenix and have a strong run and be able to go out there and win, that will put ourselves through as well too. We’re two (points) on (Joey Logano) so it’s going to be a race between the 18 and the 22, imagine that. … The last couple times we’ve been to Phoenix, we’ve run pretty good. Hopefully, that can translate to this time around again. We were good at Richmond and normally Richmond translates good there. Loudon (N.H.), that translates there. I’m optimistic about it. I think we can do okay. It’s just a matter of running another clean race and not having mistakes.”

Ryan Blaney – finished eighth: “It was a long night. We struggled really bad all night with track position and then I felt like even when we got a little bit of it we still weren’t very good. We tried a lot of things tonight and they didn’t really work. Unfortunately we didn’t really get many stage points and the 4 winning didn’t help our cause but we have to run better than that anyway. … (How do you feel about Phoenix?) Gotta win. Hopefully we go do that.

(What happened late in the race with Ryan Newman?) I am not in his head. Ryan is Ryan and he is going to race hard. I was mad that I had a massive run up top and he just turned right and it made me jump out of the gas and get tight and hit the fence. That is what I was mad about. I was fine with the racing before that but when someone has a big run like that it is like, ‘C’Mon.’ I don’t know. I don’t really care. I forgot about it until you brought it up to be honest.”

Kurt Busch – finished ninth: “I think we just need to stay positive on this with our Monster Chevy and we finished ninth. We were running second and had everything under control and the yellow came out right after we pitted and it locked us a lap down. It’s just tough to be on the back side of that circumstance and to be locked back there in 20th with only 90 (laps) to go. It’s tough to make that back up. Our car had really good speed. I was really happy with the balance the second half of the race. And all-in-all, it just wasn’t the top-five effort that we needed but we’ll take ninth.

(What did you make of the traction compound at the top of the track?) They don’t need to spray it that heavy right before the race starts. That just throws away everybody’s set-ups and it’s too inconsistent to start and with too many guys having trouble that are quality cars, it shows that the surface wasn’t prepped right.

(Your teammate criticized Bubba Wallace’s spin. How do you look at it?) We won Kentucky earlier this year when the No. 43 (Wallace) spun on the same spot. He had an axle problem a couple of weeks ago. My spotter said 200 feet before he spun, he had a flat tire. So, if you have a flat tire, it’s kind of hard to hold on to your car.”

Erik Jones – finished 10th: (Talk about your finish) It was okay, the car was alright. Got caught out there on pit road and had to restart pretty far back with 90 to go and just drive back to where we could. Kind of a tough day. The Sport Clips Camry fired off the race well and just kind of lost it through the race. We’ll go on to Phoenix and hopefully be a little bit better.”

Clint Bowyer – finished 11th: “Track position was everything, and we just lost out on that in the end.”

Kyle Larson – finished 12th: “I’m not really sure yet. But it was just vibrating really bad and it lost a lot of speed. So, something happened. But what really killed our race was the No. 43 (Bubba Wallace) spinning on purpose. They put us a lap down. I think we were up to fourth at that point. It really killed us and a few others. You hate to see that and be affected by it, but it is what it is. There’s nothing you can do about it now. We’ll try and go to Phoenix and get a win. I don’t really know who is in front of us. I feel like we had a good shot to win up until the No. 43 spun in front of us.

(Can you put a positive spin on this weekend that give you a positive outlook heading to Phoenix?) Well, I felt like once the traction compound came in today, I was really fast; probably the best on top, for sure. Next week they’re going to be doing it at Phoenix as well. I hope that opens up some lanes for me. I feel like there’s nobody better at finding different lanes and things like that to find speed. So, hopefully it lends to benefit us because we need to get a win. We can do it. I’ve been close to winning there before. So, we’ve just got to work hard.”

Austin Dillon – finished 13th: We put up a good fight tonight in the No. 3 RigUp Chevrolet at Texas Motor Speedway. We came up from the back three times, which is a testament to the amount of speed we had in these Richard Childress Racing Chevrolets. I think we could have ended up with a top-10 finish if a few more things would have just went our way. We’re working hard to make our cars respond better in traffic, and we’re learning a lot as a team. We’ll be in a strong position for 2020. I want to thank RigUp for their support this weekend.”

Daniel Hemric – finished 16th: Everyone on this No. 8 Cat Dozers Chevrolet team fought all day and never gave up. We were just way too tight to start the race, then we had a piece of debris wrap around the splitter and cover the right-side air duct, which really hurt the handling. I hate we lost that whole run to adjust on the car and make it better, because when we did get a chance to work on it and wave around, we were sitting in a position to have a good day. I feel like we just needed one more caution to be on equal tires with everyone ahead of us and fighting on the lead lap, it just didn’t work out. I’m proud of everyone on this No. 8 Cat Dozers Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 team. We love to fight another day and we’ll go on to Phoenix to do just that.”

Denny Hamlin – finished 28th: (What happened in your incident?) Just got up in (the traction compound) before it was really broke in. Just lost control. That’s all there is to it. Proud of the whole FedEx team for putting their best effort forward so we could be there at the end. Did the best we could and we’ll go to Phoenix and try to win.

(How confident are you going to Phoenix to win and to transfer to Miami?) The car and the effort will be there, that’s for sure. There’s no doubt in my mind that we can go there and win. In these circumstances, I like the challenge. We’re going to go out there and give it our best shot and put our best foot forward and see if we can’t get a win next week.”

Chase Elliott – finished 32nd: (What happened in your crash?) I made a mistake, got loose and crashed. I really hate that happened. Obviously, it’s not good and not what you’re looking for. It’s just my mistake and there’s really no excuse for it. It’s just all eyes on Phoenix.

(Has anyone had a crazier playoff run than you with all the highs and lows?) I’m not sure. Obviously, today was very self-inflicted. I made a mistake that there’s really no excuse for and that’s what you get. You make mistakes, you put yourself in a bad position and that was all on me today. I hate that it happened, but it did and we’ll just go onto Phoenix and try to get a win out there.

(You’re in a must-win situation at Phoenix. How do you feel about your chances?) I feel a lot better about it than I did today. So, I look forward to getting out there.”

Brad Keselowski – finished 39th: “(What happened in the accident with Ricky Stenhouse Jr.?) I just busted my butt. I feel terrible for Ricky, he didn’t deserve to get caught up in it. I was just real loose and trying to make something happen. When you are getting passed by other cars you kind of lose your confidence and you try something and I knew better. My butt told me I would wreck if I do that. I was getting passed and swung for the fence and I hit it. It just sucks. I am kind of embarrassed to do that. I was just trying to make something happen for my team and swung too hard.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – finished 40th: We got our car better there and we were running top five but with the flip-flop of track position we made an adjustment and I got running 1 and 2 really good and passed some really good cars. Then we got around to Brad (Keselowski) there in (Turns) 1 and 2 and he got loose underneath me and almost crashed us down there. We lost a lot of track position. Then going into Turn 3 there I was running the top and saw him getting loose. When I checked up my car got loose as well. I was just trying to avoid him and it got mine sideways. It is a bummer of a weekend. Our Fastenal Mustang was really fast and I was having fun until then.”

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Three Cup teams lose a crew member after inspection issues

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FORT WORTH, Texas – The teams of Jimmie Johnson, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Austin Dillon each had a team member ejected after multiple inspection failures Saturday before Cup qualifying at Texas Motor Speedway.

The cars of Johnson, Stenhouse and Dillon each failed inspection two times. All three cars passed on the third attempt.

Each team also will be docked 15 minutes practice next week at ISM Raceway.