Friday 5: David Ragan says gap between ‘haves and have-nots’ has grown

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It started with a tweet.

Isn’t that often the case?

It was a few days after Travis Pastrana successfully recreated three of Evel Knievel’s iconic Las Vegas jumps earlier this month. Pastrana, who ran full-time in the NASCAR Xfinity Series in 2013, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that he enjoyed his racing experience except for losing his own money.

“The best way to end up a millionaire,” Pastrana told the newspaper “is to start with two and go racing.”

David Ragan, who has made 417 career Cup starts, responded to the comment with a tweet:

In a conversation with NBC Sports a few hours before last weekend’s race at Kentucky Speedway, Ragan praised the racing, the safety of the cars and NASCAR’s marketing of drivers, but reiterated his concerns about the financial gap between Cup teams.

“The gap has gotten larger from the haves and have-nots,” Ragan said. “A team like Jasper Motorsports in the early 2000s, they could have a good weekend and a good setup and a good pit crew and they could go and run in the top five. Can Front Row Motorsports run in the top five at Kentucky on a normal weekend? No. There’s no way.

“A team like Roush Racing, they’re off right now, they can’t do it. So the distance between the haves and the have-nots are as great as they’ve ever been.”

How to solve the problem, Ragan admits he isn’t sure. He says the sport needs to be cheaper so teams don’t require as much sponsorship money to be competitive.

Richard Petty Motorsports stated before last weekend’s race at Kentucky that it continues to look for sponsorship this season for rookie Bubba Wallace. The businesses of car owners Richard Petty (Petty’s Garage) and Andrew Murstein (Medallion Bank) were the sponsors on Wallace’s car last week and will be on his car this weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

“Now a team owner, when they hire a driver, the first question is ‘How much money do you have?’ or ‘Can you sell a sponsor for me?’ ” Ragan said.

Ragan admits that there are some such cases that have worked out well for team and driver.

“You look at Matt Tifft and … Brandon Jones, they bring money to the team and it’s a rent-a-ride and those kids are deserving of a ride,” Ragan said. “They do a good job, but it’s not always like that because you do have some kids – and I don’t need to name names – but there are some kids just having a good time spending their daddy’s money and that doesn’t help our sport.

“They don’t have the passion. There’s probably late model drivers, (Camping World Truck Series driver) Jordan Anderson who is passionate about our sport, who drives his truck and trailer all around the country. He deserves a top-tier ride. It all boils down to expense.”

Ragan says it is important for new people to enter the sport and the Cup level.

“What creates interest in our sport, someone from an owner or a driver that says, ‘Hey I can come in and pay my dues and be successful in a reasonable amount of time,’ ” Ragan said. “(I) think that was possible 25 years ago. I think that Bill Davis or the owner of Jasper Motorsports … someone like a Robert Yates, who is not a billionaire but who is hard worker, who is a good team leader and who has good people surrounding them, they could come and be successful. I think like Morgan-McClure, but we’ve run those teams out because this is a rich man’s hobby. If you don’t have a half a billion net worth or more, you don’t have a chance of making it in NASCAR.”

The Race Team Alliance, which Ragan’s Front Row Motorsports team is not part of by choice, has sought to help teams reduce costs through shared expenses. NASCAR repeatedly has stated that one of its prime objectives is costs and that it works with teams on cutting expenses.

One recent example is NASCAR deciding not to run the All-Star package at any other track this season after concerns from teams about the expense of a mid-season change.

Rob Kauffman, chairman of the Race Team Alliance, said on the NASCAR on NBC podcast earlier this month that the purpose of the RTA “is to promote and grow the sport of stock-car racing and pursue the long-term (common) interests of the teams.”

Kauffman said the RTA worked on cutting costs for teams. That included travel costs, working with carriers to ferry teams to tracks instead of teams needing to have their own jets (although some still do).

Still, the sport faces challenges. That’s among the reasons the charter system was created. Kauffman said on the NASCAR on NBC podcast that the RTA was involved in the negotiations on the charter system and “how the rule process works: When, how, when do changes get implemented. The teams are not against changes. I think in general they’re in favor of evolution and trying to promote and grow the sport, just change needs to be done in a reasonable and planned out and sensible fashion.”

The charter system helps Cup teams budget for a season based on an estimated earning per race. Teams still need to secure sponsorship to fund all that they want or need. A hope among owners is that as the charters mature, they will grow in value so if an owner ever decides to sell, they won’t be losing money just like Pastrana said he did.

2. Playoff battle among teammates

Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman hold the final three playoff spots heading into Sunday’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (2 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Johnson leads Elliott by 15 points and Elliott has a 42-point point advantage on Bowman, who is coming off a last-place finish at Kentucky after a brake rotor failed that caused his crash last weekend.

Bowman admits “it’s definitely crossed my mind” on how to race his teammates if they’re also battling for the final playoff spots.

“I would imagine at that point you just become competitors,” he told NBC Sports. “You’re still going to help each other. The teams are going to share information, but when it comes down to Sunday afternoon, you’re just going to become competitors and can’t race each other easy like teammates at that point.

“Hopefully it doesn’t come down to that and all three of us get in, but it will be an interesting experience and a learning process for me because, you’re right, I haven’t had an experience like that, I don’t know what to expect with that.”

3. Roval concerns

After Cup drivers tested the road course at Charlotte Motor Speedway over the past two weeks, the consensus is that playoff race there Sept. 30 should feature a lot of bumping and banging — crashing.

Over the past couple of weeks, minor adjustments were made to the track. The first test day, additional curbing  and a tire barrier were put near the backstretch chicane to keep drivers from cutting through the exit and shortening the distance to Turn 3 on the oval.

During the test this past week, rumble strips were removed from Turn 8, a left-hand turn that leads cars from the infield portion back on to the oval.

Joey Logano has another change he’d like to see but knows he likely won’t.

“I think the goal should be to try to get rid of the bus stop on the back,” Logano told NBC Sports. “Just get rid of it. Just go. Hell with it. We don’t need it any other time we’re here. There’s no passing zone there. It’s kind of hodge-podge in a way.

“It’s going to cause accidents, and there’s no room for error. Someone is going to hit the tire pylon on exit and knock the radiators out of the car. We’re going to have a big caution and a  big cleanup. It would just be better if we didn’t have it.”

That chicane is intended to prevent cars from carrying too much speed into Turns 3 and 4 on the oval. The challenge with a road course that also has high-speed banked turns is for teams to have the proper setup and Goodyear to provide the proper tire that can handle those speeds and the demands of a road course.

That’s not the only concern.

Aric Almirola noted that for the start and restarts, drivers will come down the frontstretch instead of going through the chicane. He worries about the speed drivers will carry into Turn 1, a sharp left-hand turn into the infield road course.

“Turn 1 is very sketchy, and on the restarts I think that’s going to be a really, really sketchy spot,” Almirola told NBC Sports. “We’re going to be going faster because we’re going to be restarting from the oval instead of from the chicane. That’s going to be an interesting thing to watch and see how it develops throughout the weekend. I just don’t know.

“It’s fun to do something different. I enjoy that. I wish it wasn’t a playoff race. I would love for this to be an exhibition race or to run here in May when it means a little less, but to come here for a playoff race to do something this extreme, I’m not totally in favor of it.”

Alex Bowman said that his team considered simulating a restart during their test last week but ran out of time after having parts failures that limited their track time.

4. Something new?

Martin Truex Jr. has 16 wins since the beginning of the 2016 season but he’s not won back-to-back races. Will that change this weekend?

5. Will the domination continue?

Toyota drivers have led 97.2 percent of the laps run in the last four Cup races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Toyota drivers won three of those four races. Will anyone else challenge those cars this weekend?

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Ryan Blaney scores first Xfinity win of year at Texas Motor Speedway

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Ryan Blaney dominated to win the Xfinity Series race Saturday at Texas Motor Speedway, leading 132 of 200 laps to earn his first victory of the year.

Blaney led the final 46 laps to give Team Penske’s No. 22 Ford its third consecutive win, following victories by Brad Keselowski (ISM Raceway) and Joey Logano (Auto Club Speedway).

Blaney finished ahead of Christopher Bell, Daniel Hemric, Cole Custer and Ryan Preece.

It’s his first win at Texas after three runner-up finishes in his first five starts at the track.

“Our Mustang was amazing all weekend,” Blaney told Fox. “We got behind a little bit getting loose on that restart (with 15 laps to go in Stage 2). With the different strategies in the second stage there, we had to come from behind a little bit. The car was great. … It’s finally nice to win one here in Texas.”

The Team Penske driver started from the pole, which was his second in 66 starts, after a rain-shortened qualifying session.

Only 10 cars finished on the lead lap.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Ryan Blaney

STAGE 2 WINNER: Brandon Jones won in a one-lap shootout for the first stage win of career.

MORE: Click here for results, point standings

WHO HAD A GOOD DAYSpencer Gallagher spun and made contact with the frontstretch wall on Lap 70. He bounced back to finish 10th. … Christopher Bell finished second after being sent to the back for an uncontrolled tire penalty midrace. … Austin Cindric placed ninth for his second top 10 of the season. … Daniel Hemric led a career-best 39 laps.

WHO HAD A BAD DAY: There were three cautions in the first 17 laps due to spins by Jamie McMurray, Vinnie Miller and Chad Finchum. … Finchum brought out his second caution late on Lap 81 when he backed hard into the Turn 2 wall. He finished 34th. … Justin Allgaier finished 35th after dealing with mechanical problems. … Brandon Jones finished 33rd after wrecking during the first restart of the final stage. It is his first DNF of the season. … Kevin Harvick finished 19th, two laps down after pitting with 23 to go for a tire vibration.

NOTABLE: The temperature at the start of the race was 34 degrees, making it the coldest NASCAR race run at Texas Motor Speedway. … Christopher Bell, Daniel Hemric, Cole Custer and Ryan Preece qualified to compete in the first round of the Dash 4 Cash next weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “It could help me finish building a race car.” – Ryan Preece when asked what he would do with $100,000 Dash 4 Cash prize money.

WHAT’S NEXT: Fitzgerald Glider Kits 300 at Bristol Motor Speedway at 1 p.m. ET on April 14 on Fox Sports 1.

New year, new teams bring improvement for Matt Tifft, Brandon Jones

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It took until March 9 for Matt Tifft to realize it wasn’t 2017 anymore.

During a press conference at ISM Raceway, Tifft was not introduced as the driver of the No. 19 Toyota owned by Joe Gibbs Racing.

That honor went to the driver sitting to his left – Brandon Jones.

“I was like, ‘Oh wait, that’s not me,’” Tifft said that day.

On race days in the Xfinity Series, Tifft now pilots Richard Childress Racing’s No. 2 Chevrolet.

The end of the 2017 season and resulting offseason saw arguably the silliest of “Silly Seasons” in recent NASCAR history.

Drivers retired, got promotions, were forced to unceremoniously retire and in a few cases, swapped teams.

The last option was the case for Tifft and Jones.

Brandon Jones during the Xfinity race weekend at ISM Raceway (Getty Images).

A STEP BACK

Things did not go well last year for either driver.

Specifically Jones.

The 21-year-old driver calls his last 33 races with RCR “bizarre” and “confusing.”

It started with Jones on the pole for the season-opener at Daytona.

It ended with Jones 16th in the standings (he was 10th in 2016). He recorded no top fives, three top 10s and seven DNFs.

“It was definitely rough time, man,” Jones says. “It was just confusing because we had guys on the team and stuff that were top-of-the line guys and we put this team together and we were honestly having so much fun as a team that it almost took away from having bad luck and bad runs and stuff.”

Almost.

“I had everything possible except for a blown motor that could have gone wrong,” Jones says. “It was just bizarre. Couldn’t ever catch a break. We kind of put that behind ourselves this year. Wanted to try and start fresh whenever I made the move to JGR.”

WELCOME TO WELCOME

In the middle of 2017, Tifft had a conversation with Ben Kennedy, then one of the drivers rotating in and out of RCR’s No. 2 car.

Kennedy brought up his crew chief, Randall Burnett.

“I just lean on this guy because he’s got to much experience,” Kennedy said. Burnett was in his first season as an Xfinity crew chief. In 2016, he was crew chief for AJ Allmendinger in Cup after 10 years as a Chip Ganassi Racing engineer.

“That was way before I knew I was going to RCR,” Tifft told NBC Sports.

Matt Tifft drives the No. 2 Dollar Shave Club Chevrolet  at ISM Raceway on March 9. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

In October, the 21-year-old driver was announced as moving to RCR after one full-time season with JGR.

While his rotating cast of teammates won 12 of 33 races in 2017, Tifft came up empty. He earned just two top fives, at Mid-Ohio and Road America, and 13 top 10s.

Even without a win Tifft made the playoffs, where he placed in the top 10 in seven of the eight races. But was eliminated after the second round.

“I felt like we were competitive in the playoffs. That’s the time there I felt like we were starting to get there. But it took that long,” Tifft says. “I think I just had a hard time putting the races together and dealing with pressure and the ups and downs. I don’t think I knew exactly how to handle it. I think part of it was I didn’t know how to prepare for it, too.”

Tifft eventually found himself eating lunch at “one of the few restaurants” in Welcome, North Carolina, where RCR is headquartered.

With him was Burnett, who he had found out that day would be his crew chief in 2018.

“I felt like there was just a really good connection there as far as personalities and where he was at,” Tifft says. “This deal is so stressful that you’ve got to be able to have that trust in a relationship with your crew chief. Jimmie Johnson talks about it all the time. It really is a relationship. You’ve got to have that.”

Early on Tifft established a clear understanding with his car chief, Cam Strader.

“He said straight up, ‘Hey, we’re going to bust our tails to make sure that we’re bringing the best stuff for you but you make sure you focus on what you need to do, not only from a driver side of things, but also from a promotional side of things.,’” Tifft says. “If we’re out doing events and stuff and I can’t be at the shop that one day they understand because I want to make it clear to them if I’m not in the shop I’m doing something that’s productive for our race team.”

Blake Koch has a new role as a mentor to Matt Tifft. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

COACH KOCH

Tifft is keeping his side of the deal with Strader.

Where race preparation was a weakness last season, Tifft isn’t just relying on resources provided by RCR to improve.

He’s getting a little help from “the hardest working” guy he knows in the garage – Blake Koch.

While Tifft and Jones landed safely during “Silly Season,” Koch found himself without a ride at the end of 2017, replaced at Kaulig Racing by Ryan Truex.

Now, through a mutual connection who manages drivers, he’s Tifft’s unofficial driver coach.

“It wasn’t like I was in a dire situation where I needed somebody like that,” Tifft says. “But I was just thinking back to when you start racing in go karts and late models and all that stuff, there’s usually a strong mentor piece or someone that’s looking out for you. I felt like I was going to have a very strong foundation there this year at RCR with having (Daniel) Hemric as a teammate and whoever’s rotating through the 3 car is going to be really strong I felt like. Anything I could do to try to step up my game and keep on accelerating that learning curve to where I can make our organization better by being a better teammate, just trying to give the best effort I could.”

Koch, who has 213 Xfinity starts since 2009, helps Tifft with his workouts, weekend prep and debriefs him after the race weekend.

“He’s very particular about every single thing I’m doing,” Tifft says. “From first lap on practice to coming up to speed in qualifying, your lines and techniques. … I think a lot of the fundamental stuff that you can improve on as a driver was something I felt I needed to get better at last year and I felt like I made that jump in the playoffs.”

Koch is even picky about “garage flow,” an effort to declutter Tifft’s mind at a track

“When you show up to a race track and you get in your car you shouldn’t have to wonder how the heck you get on the race track,” Koch says. “When you get to the race track, the only thing you should have to think about is hitting your marks and running in a perfect line and focusing on your task at hand, not the other small details that are just cluttering your mind.”

What’s been Koch’s emphasis through the first few weeks of their partnership?

Tifft points to being more efficient in passing.

For Koch, it’s all about restarts

“That was the main thing we focused on going into the year, let’s be the best at restarts,” Koch says. “I think five races in he’s had better restarts than he had in the entire year last year and that’s pretty important in our series right now with the stages, with track position being so important. I would say that’s the No. 1 improvement.”

Brandon Jones drives the No.19 Juniper Toyota, during the NASCAR Xfinity Series DC Solar 200 at ISM Raceway on March 10. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

SIMULATOR DAYS

There’s not that much different in terms of resources when it comes to teams like RCR and JGR.

But Jones has found there’s a difference in how they’re used.

No more so than when it comes to simulator time.

Every Tuesday, he and teammate Christopher Bell spend the day in Toyota Racing Development’s simulator. Bell takes the morning shift and Jones takes over in the afternoon.

“We’re there and talking to each other and bouncing stuff off each other, what’s working and what didn’t,” Jones says. “That’s been a really big help for me this year. There were times last year where I was able to run a little bit on the simulator, but it wasn’t every single week and it wasn’t a set date. That’s been one of the things that’s been really cool about going to Toyota this year is just having a set date for their simulator every single week.”

Also, there’s data. So much data. The information proved to Jones that simply having better cars wasn’t the only reason the field was left chasing JGR the last few years.

“I think they were available to me at RCR, either I didn’t know to ask for it was they didn’t cram it down my throat kind of deal,” says Jones. “I get everything possible I can for a driver.”

Some of that info comes straight from the mouths of JGR’s Cup drivers.

“Even when it comes to talking to Kyle Busch or one of those guys on how they do pit stops, ‘Man, I do it way differently, but your way is more effective, so I’m going to work on doing it that way.’” Jones says. “It’s hard to know how to do all that stuff without ever being taught it. At the end of the day, some of it’s pretty obvious when they show it to you, but you would have never thought of doing stuff like that without seeing it.”

BACK ON TRACK

Whether it’s data, equipment or luck, Tifft and Jones’ first five races of 2018 are a marked improvement from last year.

Following Saturday’s race at Auto Club Speedway, Jones has two top 10s and he’s finished outside the top 15 once.

Last year, he didn’t have a top 10 until race 13. He’s also catching breaks he didn’t in 2017.

At Atlanta, he cut a tire and brushed the wall, but narrowly avoided being rammed by cars as he dove to pit road. He finished 17th.

At Phoenix, Jones “saw my life flash before my eyes” when he avoided a lapped car on the backstretch that didn’t have power steering. He placed 11th.

In Fontana, after a harmless spin in practice, he kept from wrecking with Kaz Grala at the checkered flag. He finished 13th.

“Just about everywhere we were pretty quick,” Jones says. “We’re very close. I think by the end of the year, we’re going to be very, very close if not right there with them. … We’ve got the long-run speed figured out. It’s more just trying to figure out how to get short-run speed out of me and how to qualify just a little better.”

Tifft has seen improvement every week. After finishing 19th at Daytona, he had finishes of 12th, 11th, seventh and then eighth in Fontana after starting 20th.

His first consecutive top 10s last year weren’t until races 11 and 12.

Even though they’ve swapped teams, Tifft doesn’t see Jones as his head-to-head competition, at least not yet.

“To be focused on one car and beating them is kind of stupid unless you’re in the Dash 4 Cash or the playoffs,” Tifft says. “It’s too early in the year to say we need to go out and beat the 19 car. You’d just drive yourself crazy for no reason.”

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Social Roundup: Snow hits NASCAR country

@Christian_Racin (via @bakerracing37)
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A week ago Charlotte Motor Speedway announced an open test for the Camping World Truck Series today.

It was quickly postponed to Jan. 24.

The cause? The first snowstorm of the year in North Carolina.

That means it’s time for obligatory shots of a snow-covered race track and team shops.

Before we get started, Cole Pearn, the Canadian crew chief for Martin Truex Jr,. thinks all the excitement over a little snow is adorable.

First up is a bird’s-eye view of Charlotte Motor Speedway. After that, teams like Hendrick Motorsports and Team Penske tweeted proof there’s no such thing as a snow day in NASCAR. Also, Daniel Suarez and Dale Earnhardt Jr. each got into a bit of a jam while driving.

 

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How we celebrate a snow day!! #burnemdown

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Menards, vendors to sponsor Brandon Jones in Xfinity Series

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Menards home improvement stores and some of its partner vendors will sponsor Brandon Jones‘ No. 19 Toyota in 10 Xfinity Series races, Joe Gibbs Racing announced Thursday.

Jones, in his first year with JGR, will have one partner-specific brand on his hood in each of Menards’ races.

Menards was a sponsor of Jones the last three years at Richard Childress Racing. The company will sponsor both Paul Menard and Ryan Blaney in the Cup Series this season.

Menards, also the title sponsor of the ARCA Racing Series, has been involved in NASCAR since 2001.

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