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Friday 5: Key questions leading into 2019 Cup season

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Cup teams test in two weeks in Las Vegas. The Daytona 500 is a month away. The new rules package debuts in five weeks in Atlanta.

There are many questions to ponder with the Cup season nearing. Here are five key questions.

1. What will the racing be like?

NASCAR made the decision to go with a new rules package that should make the racing tighter.

Will it? Can this package lead to more side-by-side racing, more beating and banging and more drivers upset with one another?

If it does, this could be among the steps to attract more fans. If not, then what?

2. What’s next from NASCAR?

It could be argued that this year will be among the most pivotal for NASCAR.

Steve Phelps enters his first full season as President. Jim France remains interim Chairman, having taken over after Brian France went on an indefinite leave after his arrest Aug. 5 for aggravated driving while intoxicated and possession of a controlled substance in the 7th degree.

Phelps and Jim France will be among those who decide NASCAR’s direction. Phelps has twice said publicly since late September that “everything is in play” when looking at the Cup schedule for 2020 and beyond.

There has been talk of starting the season earlier and ending it sooner, midweek racing and doubleheaders.

How fans accept what NASCAR does — or doesn’t do — will be key.

3. Can Ford teams — particularly Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske — avoid the new-car blues that Toyota and Chevrolet teams experienced the past two years?

Both Toyota (2017) and Chevrolet (2018) struggled at times with their new cars in their debut seasons. If the same thing happens to Ford this year with the Mustang, it could allow Chevy and Toyota teams a chance to win races, qualify for the playoffs and build playoff points. That could be significant.

Toyota debuted the Camry in 2017 to mixed results. Although Martin Truex Jr. won three times in the first 18 races with the car at Furniture Row Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing could not get any of its Toyotas to Victory Lane until the 19th race of the season.

Things changed in the second half of the season. Toyota cars won 14 of the last 19 races and also the championship.

Chevrolet debuted the Camaro last year and also struggled in the first half of the season. Chevy teams won once — the Daytona 500 — in the first 21 races last year. Chevrolet won three times after that — all by Chase Elliott.

So can Ford teams be strong all season or will they need some time to become dominant or will they struggle much of the year?

4. Will new driver-crew chief pairings lead to wins?

The focus this season will be on Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus no longer working together on the No. 48 team — Johnson will be with rookie Cup crew chief Kevin Meendering and Knaus will be paired with sophomore Cup driver William Byron — but there are other pairings to watch.

After going winless last year, Denny Hamlin will be with crew chief Chris Gabehart, who has won in the Xfinity Series with Hamlin, Erik Jones and Ryan Preece.

Kurt Busch moves to Chip Ganassi Racing for what could be his final Cup season. He’ll look to crew chief Matt McCall to help make this year memorable.

Austin Dillon is reunited with crew chief Danny Stockman. They combined for championships in the Truck and Xfinity Series. While Dillon won last year’s Daytona 500, he wasn’t much of a threat at many other tracks. Can this pairing have success again?

Daniel Suarez lost his ride at Joe Gibbs Racing to make room for Martin Truex Jr. and Cole Pearn. Suarez moves to Stewart-Haas Racing and looks to crew chief Billy Scott to help him succeed.

Ryan Newman moves to Roush Fenway Racing and will have Scott Graves as his crew chief. Graves came from Joe Gibbs Racing. Can these two help raise Roush Fenway Racing’s profile?

5.  Who wins first?

It was shocking that Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson each went winless last year.

Don’t count on that happening this year. Don’t be surprised to see all three win this year. As for who will be the first to win? You don’t have much longer to find out. The season is approaching quickly.

True Gritty: Martin Truex Jr. enjoys another Philly sports fan adventure

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His new Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was nowhere in sight, but Martin Truex Jr. seemed worried he hadn’t donned his helmet Wednesday night – at a hockey game.

The 2017 Cup champion spent the first period between the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins benches as the featured guest of “Inside The Glass”, where he was “excited and nervous, maybe a little bit scared” to fulfill his goal of seeing “how close I can get to that puck without it actually hitting me.”

Truex was close enough that he ducked behind NBCSN’s Brian Boucher (a retired goaltender who knows about stopping pucks) as the action whizzed by a few times.

“I feel like this is a NASCAR race,” Truex said. “It’s so intense, you’ve got to be here to see it in person.

“TV is awesome, but when you get here down by this ice, it’s amazing what these guys are doing. NASCAR fans say the same thing about racing all the time.”

It was the second visit to a Flyers game on NBCSN for Truex (three years ago, he said he remembered to bring a helmet), who rarely turns down the chance to pull for the Flyers, Phillies and Eagles.

During an episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast a year ago, Truex said his hometown of Mayetta was about 25 miles south of an imaginary line in New Jersey that divided his native state’s allegiances between pro teams in Philadelphia and the New York metro area.

With his family about a little more than an hour from Philadelphia, Truex grew up as a diehard fan of all professional sports in the City of Brotherly Love.

“Everyone I grew up around are Philly fans in general,” he said. “My dad. Aunts and uncles. I was born into it. It’s been fun.”

Last year, his obligations as Cup champ included a serendipitous trip to Super Bowl LII, where he took part in NBC’s pregame coverage and then watched his beloved Eagles defeat the New England Patriots 41-33.

He received the royal treatment again before and during a 4-3 victory for his favorite NHL team Wednesday, meeting the Flyers team and its beloved, irreverent and oft-viral mascot, Gritty (who presented Truex with a personalized jersey).

Truex left the Wells Fargo Center with many stories to tell crew chief Cole Pearn, a Canadian and avid Toronto Maple Leafs fan who played for rec hockey league teams in Denver while working with Truex at Furniture Row Racing the past five seasons.

With Furniture Row’s closure after the No. 78’s runner-up finish to 2018 champion Joey Logano, Truex and Pearn will move to Gibbs’ No. 19 in hopes of earning a third consecutive berth in the Championship 4.

“I feel good about the season coming up,” Truex said Wednesday. “(It’s) 32 days away from the Daytona 500. That’s hard to believe, but we’re really excited to race for a first-class team, that’s Joe Gibbs Racing, a championship team, year after year.

“We’re excited for the future, and hopefully it’ll be a great year for us.”

Furniture Row Racing owner Barney Visser thanks fans

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Furniture Row Racing owner Barney Visser issued a note to fans, thanking them for their support.

Furniture Row Racing, which won the 2017 Cup title with Martin Truex Jr., ceased operations after the 2018 season because of lack of sponsorship. Truex and crew chief, Cole Pearn, along with other crew members, have moved to Joe Gibbs Racing to the No. 19 team.

As for Visser, he shares some more info in this note to fans:

Dear Race Fan,

First, I want to express a sincere thank you for the passionate support given to Furniture Row Racing during our storied career in NASCAR. It was an incredible ride and we are proud to be known as a NASCAR Cup Series champion. 

Along with the enjoyment of being a competitive team on the racetrack, we also enjoyed a great deal of satisfaction partnering with renowned Denver-based neurosurgeon, Dr. Scott Falci, and his adaptive motorsports program. The Falci Adaptive Biosystems Program and its cutting-edge technology is designed to bring mobility to paraplegic, quadriplegic and disabled individuals.

Furniture Row Racing, Furniture Row and Denver Mattress provided the adaptive Toyota race car the past four years. Dr. Falci and his team built and installed the highly sophisticated technological components that allow the spinal cord injured to drive the race car with its’ special hand controls linked to the accelerator and braking. In addition to the hand controls the car can be driven hands and foot free, with technology that allows movement of the occupant’s head to be detected and input into the vehicles steering, accelerator, and brake systems (see video) 

While the race car will continue to be provided by Furniture Row and Denver Mattress, I will not be personally involved. I am proud to announce that this inspirational program will have more assets to expand under the executive leadership of Joe Garone, who was the architect of building Furniture Row Racing to a championship level as the team’s president. 

Joe will work with Charlotte-based Spire Sports & Entertainment and Dr. Falci to grow the program’s fundraising and awareness efforts. 

Joe and Spire are currently seeking sponsorship for a number of special events to showcase the adaptive race car technology prior to a NASCAR Cup Series weekend. The events will include spinal cord injured individuals driving the adaptive car along with a NASCAR Cup Series driver, who will offer assistance and advice plus give a thrilling, high-speed ride to the participants. 

For a better understanding of an adaptive motorsports event please see video below, which includes former NHRA champion Darrell Gwynn driving the adaptive race car with only head movements. 

A birthday celebration that eases pain of 2018 for Daniel Suarez

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Amid a day celebrating his 27th birthday and new Cup ride with Stewart-Haas Racing, Daniel Suarez confided how difficult 2018 was.

But without that season — and a series of events beyond his control — Suarez wouldn’t be with a Stewart-Haas Racing team that saw its four drivers win races last year and each advance to the third round of the playoffs.

The joy makes up for the frustration and angst Suarez experienced last year while at Joe Gibbs Racing. After finishing 20th in points as a rookie in 2017, more was expected last year from his team.

Suarez and his team didn’t deliver.

“I wish I knew many answers,” Suarez told NBC Sports on Monday about last season’s struggles. “I can tell you we were not even close to my expectations. As a driver, you always have your expectations and then as a team you plan the expectations of the team, and I don’t feel we got to either expectations.

“We had good results. We had a couple of second-place finishes and few top five finishes but (were) extremely inconsistent, extremely inconsistent. I don’t really know exactly what was the problem. I just know that in a year we were not able to fix it. We tried.

“Once I saw that something wasn’t right, I was pushing very hard with the team to try to fix it, and we just couldn’t. I don’t know. I felt like a change, it was going to be good for me. I’m very, very grateful for the opportunity that Gibbs gave me in the national series and Toyota, but once I moved to Cup, I felt like it was a little slow for myself. I was working extremely hard to fix that, I just couldn’t make it work.”

As Suarez struggled for results — he would finish 21st in the points — other factors were taking place that would impact his future.

Furniture Row Racing announced July 18 that 5-hour Energy would not return after the season, a blow to the Denver, Colorado-based team. Car owner Barney Visser was unable to replace the primary sponsorship for this season and announced Sept. 4 that the team would cease operations, leaving 2017 Cup champ Martin Truex Jr. without a ride.

Truex and crew chief Cole Pearn would ink deals with Joe Gibbs Racing and join the organization in 2019. That meant JGR had to jettison one of its drivers. Suarez was told he would not be retained less than two years after winning the Xfinity title for JGR and not yet though his second full Cup season.

“I was very disappointed,” Suarez told NBC Sports. “I will tell you that for a month I was a different person. I was mad with everyone. I don’t feel that I was being a good person in general, not just in racing but in general.

“But then you just have to realize that everything happens for a reason. The position that I’m in today was something that maybe, who knows, without that change, who knows if I would have been able to do this move. I honestly feel like I’m in a better position than I was a year ago.

“I’m really relieved that everything happens for a reason, and I’m extremely grateful to have this second chance in a top-caliber team. I’m really excited to go out there and show what I can do and what I couldn’t do last year.”

Suarez admits he was worried for more than a month last year where he would race once JGR said it would let him go after the season. There were questions if sponsor Arris would remain at Joe Gibbs Racing or follow Suarez to another ride. The logical destination for Suarez was the No. 41 car at Stewart-Haas Racing with Kurt Busch leaving that ride, but Suarez would need to bring sponsorship. Without Arris, the chances of him being in that car — one that won a race last year and won the Daytona 500 two years ago — were less. Arris will sponsor Suarez’s ride, along with Haas Automation, at SHR.

“When things start to happen, you don’t really know who has your back and who doesn’t,” Suarez told NBC Sports. “I thought a lot of people had my back at one point and then the next week all of a sudden everything changed. There were a lot of questions. A lot of questions without answers. It wasn’t fun. It wasn’t just a fun month or so. Like I said, everything started to get on track, everything started to get better, a better idea of where everything was going to go.

“I just feel very, very happy to be in the position I’m in today with great teammates, a great organization.”

While he hasn’t worked with new teammates Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola before, he’s spent time with them.

Suarez said that he’s known Harvick since running in the Xinfity Series. Suarez often asked Harvick questions or for advice on matters. Same with Bowyer. Suarez and Almirola often rode bikes in the same group last year at the track.

Now he will seek to help them repeat what they did last year by getting every SHR car back to Victory Lane.

“That’s something that is very, very hard to do,” Suarez told NBC Sports. “Sometimes people don’t realize. Most of the big team teams, they have very good programs, but they don’t every single car winning and up front. Stewart-Haas Racing was able to do that. You know when you are able to do that you have an extremely good group of people behind those programs working extremely hard.”

Suarez is confident he can win in the No. 41 car this year with crew chief Billy Scott. Suarez cites the new package teams will run this year and notes he finished second to Harvick in the All-Star Race when a similar package was tried last year.

“I will say to myself, why not?” Suarez said of winning this year. “The team is good, strong. The team is pretty much exactly the same. The only part that has changed is the driver. The rules are different. I feel those rules, if anything, are going to help me based on what I experienced in the All-Star Race. I have high expectations. The team has high expectations as well.

“I feel there is a lot of potential to do great things this year.”

Nate Ryan contributed to this report

2018 Cup Season in Review: Martin Truex Jr.

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Martin Truex Jr.

CREW CHIEF: Cole Pearn

TEAM: Furniture Row Racing

POINTS: Second

WINS: Four (Auto Club Speedway, Kentucky, Pocono I and Sonoma)

LAPS LED: 1,016 (Down from 2,253 in 2017)

TOP 5s: 20 (Up from 19 in 2017)

TOP 10s: 21 (All but one was a top-five finish)

POLES: Four

WHAT WENT RIGHT: Won at Sonoma to complete back-to-back road course victories … Won three consecutive poles at Phoenix I, Fontana and Martinsville I … Five top fives in the first six races … Won at Auto Club Speedway for first victory on a 2-mile oval … Advanced to championship four for third time in four years

WHAT WENT WRONG: Led the most laps at Richmond I, Las Vegas II and Richmond II without winning … Lost the lead in the final turn at the Charlotte Roval and Martinsville II due to contact with second-place car … Passed for lead on final lap at Daytona in July, finished second … Crashed on Lap 431 at Bristol II while running in second … Had five DNFs including in three of the four races in April … Ran out of gas on final lap at Watkins Glen while fighting for the lead, finished second … Winless in final 17 races.

WHAT TO EXPECT IN 2019: After five years and one championship with Furniture Row Racing, Truex and Pearn leave the now defunct team for Joe Gibbs Racing to compete in the No. 19. They’ll try for a bit of course correcting after a career-best season – with the obvious lack of a title – filled with so much disappointment.