Friday 5: Toyota looking for more with Fords dominating first third of season

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Although Toyota is ahead of pace for wins compared to last year when the manufacturer scored 16 Cup victories, the president of Toyota Racing Development isn’t satisfied.

Toyota has four wins this year — three by Kyle Busch and one by Martin Truex Jr. — but Ford has scored a series-high seven victories.

“I always use laps led as an indicator of performance because if you’re not leading laps than something is not right,” Toyota’s David Wilson told NBC Sports. “I think Dover, for the first time since Atlanta of 2017, a Toyota did not lead a lap. That was an alarm bell. That’s not acceptable. We recognize that we need to be better and we’re on it.”

Only one Toyota driver (Busch) ranks in the top five in laps led this season. Kevin Harvick has led 21 percent of all laps run this year. Busch is next at 12.7 percent.

Toyota won 14 of the final 19 races last year and scored the championship with Martin Truex Jr. So, why isn’t Toyota as dominant this year?

“We make no bones about it, Fords, the Ford camp … the No. 4 camp in particular is out front right now and kudos to those guys,’’ Wilson said, noting Harvick’s success. “I think what happened in the offseason with the flat splitter and the (Optical Scanning Station) clearly brought the field closer together, but our MO isn’t one to whine about it or complain about it.’’

Wilson admits Toyota had found advantages with the splitter and now that is gone with the rule change for this season.

“We were doing some really clever things with the front of our cars and year over year, we just lost some front downforce,’’ he said. “That’s why you hear a lot of our guys complaining about having tight race cars.’’

Wilson also spoke to NBC Sports about a couple of other topics.

On the need for a fourth manufacturer in Cup, Wilson said:

“When we came into this sport, we had four manufacturers with Dodge being the fourth. As soon as Dodge left, one of our first agenda points with NASCAR (was) to start beating the drum to get another manufacturer on board.

“With the size of the field, given the investment that each of us make, the sport will be healthy with another manufacturer, so again I know and trust that NASCAR is out there looking.’’

On the aero package run with restrictor plates run at the All-Star Race and what adjustments need to be made, Wilson said:

“I don’t think we want the drivers to be flat-footed all the time. We have the best drivers in the world and we’re putting them in a situation where some of them equated it to a video game. Most of them had fun. It was fun, but it was also the All-Star race and it wasn’t a points race. Again, these are the best drivers in the world. These cars should be hard to drive.”

2. Falling behind

Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 marks the halfway point in the 26-race regular season.

Kevin Harvick already has 24 playoff points — and that’s after he was penalized at Las Vegas and lost all seven playoff points for his victory ands stage wins. Kyle Busch is next with 17 playoff points.

No one else has more than seven playoff points.

Those points could mean the difference in advancing in the playoffs or going all the way to the championship round in Miami.

Denny Hamlin, who has one playoff point, understands the deficit he could be facing. Should Harvick and Busch continue to collect playoff points, they could give themselves a big enough advantage to make it to Miami provided they don’t have major issues in any of the rounds.

Martin Truex Jr. had such a large playoff point advantage last year that he qualified for Miami with one race left in the third round, leaving only one spot left in the championship field when the series headed to Phoenix for the final race of that round.

“That’s a continued concern for us,” Hamlin said. “That’s really what made us press so much in the second-to-last playoff stage last year. We knew there was essentially one spot available after those three had locked themselves in.

“We’re trying everything we can. We really have struggled with stage points. We’re finishing well. I’ve made a few mistakes on pit road this year and that has set us back on stage points. I think we’ve got to focus on stage points first then we worry about playoff points.”

3. Betting on NASCAR

Kevin Harvick is an interested observer in what will happen after a Supreme Court decision earlier this month struck down a 1992 federal law that banned commercial sports betting.

Delaware is on pace to be among the first states to have sports betting outside of Nevada. Dover International Speedway has a casino next to the track. NASCAR fans attending the Oct. 7 Dover playoff race could have their first chance to legally bet on a NASCAR event while attending that event.

Harvick has had segments on sports betting each of the past two weeks on his SiriusXM NASCAR Radio show. So what has he learned?

I have more questions than answers just because of the fact that we have a couple of race tracks that have casinos on the property already,” Harvick said, alluding to Dover and Kansas Speedway.

“It seems like there’s a very good opportunity to get creative with a place like Dover that has that casino sitting there to have some creative betting during the race to really intrigue the fans – things that you could do from your phone or in the casino or just random stuff,” Harvick said. “Could you turn that track and race into an atmosphere like a horse race? I think there’s just a lot of questions and a lot of answers that need to be individually solved. That’s the interesting part is it’s going to come state by state, so who is going to lead that charge? Is it race tracks or is it NASCAR?”

Harvick stressed finding a way that some of the money bet filters back to the sports. The NBA seeks what it calls an “integrity fee” for all bets related to its events. Whether that is possible, remains to be seen.

Harvick also noted that a change that needs to be made is how TV money is distributed in NASCAR. Tracks keep 65 percent of the money from broadcasters, teams get 25 percent and NASCAR collects 10 percent. According to International Speedway Corp.’s 2017 annual report, broadcast and ancillary media rights accounted for 50.2 percent of total revenues for that year. 

4. Special Day

Wednesday’s Hall of Fame selection proved poignant with Alan Kulwicki and Davey Allison, who were killed within months of each other 25 years ago, joining the Class of 2019.

There are many special connections between those. One was a special observer. Tom Roberts is a long-time family friend of the Allisons. He served as Bobby Allison’s p.r. person for several years. He also worked with Kulwicki as his p.r. person. Roberts also has helped spearhead the Kulwicki Driver Development Program to help young drivers climb the ranks of racing.

Roberts had never attended the Hall of Fame announcement but came up from his Alabama home to witness Wednesday’s proceedings.

“It just felt right,” he said of seeing both make the Hall. “It will take a while to soak in (that both made it together).”

5. New winner?

An interesting stat for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 is that the top 11 qualifiers have never won this race.

Austin Dillon scored his first Coca-Cola 600 — and first Cup win — last year.

Kyle Busch starts on the pole and will be joined on the front row by Joey Logano.

The other drivers in the top 11 who have never won the 600 are: Denny Hamlin, Erik Jones, Brad Keselowski, Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray, Ryan Blaney, Aric Almirola, Daniel Suarez and Kyle Larson.

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Denny Hamlin tops first Coke 600 practice

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Danny Hamlin was fastest in the first practice session for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver posted a top speed of 190.134 mph around Charlotte Motor Speedway.

He was followed by Ryan Blaney (189.673 mph), Brad Keselowski (189.434), defending race winner Austin Dillon (189.414) and Erik Jones (189.261).

William Byron and Jeffrey Earnhardt recorded the most laps in the session with 10 each.

Qualifying for the Coke 600 is scheduled for 7:15 p.m. ET.

Click here for the practice report.

NASCAR America Fantasy League: 10 Best at Charlotte in last three years

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The Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway is the longest Cup race on the schedule and can be one of the most challenging. The extra 100 miles over the length of most of NASCAR’s endurance races puts an added strain on drivers as well as the parts and pieces of their car.

The added distance can also change a team’s strategy. The 2011, 2015 and 2017 races were decided by fuel mileage. Two tire stops, green-white-checkered finishes and other special circumstances have also changed the late running order, which can make this one of the least predictable events on the calendar.

This is a good week to take some risks on dark horses when setting the NASCAR America Fantasy Live roster and fantasy players want to choose from drivers with a proven record of success.

1. Martin Truex Jr. (three-year average: 9.67)
Truex has been overshadowed by Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch this year because he does not have the same number of wins. Even so, he has seven top fives in 12 races this year, which has made him extremely fantasy relevant. He’s been almost perfect at Charlotte in the past three years with two victories and five top fives in six starts.

2. Daniel Suarez (three-year average: 8.50 in 2 starts)
Suarez has only two starts at Charlotte, but he came close to sweeping the top 10. By finishing 11th in last year’s Coke 600 and sixth in the Bank of America 500, he has shown an affinity for this track that was confirmed by a second-place finish in the All-Star race. NASCAR America Analysts Jeff Burton and Landon Cassill thinks that gives him added confidence that could result in another strong run.

3. Denny Hamlin (three-year average: 9.17)
Only three drivers swept the top 10 at Charlotte last year: Truex, Harvick and Hamlin. Finishing fifth in the spring and fourth in the fall, Hamlin’s streak is significant because it backs up a near-perfect record since the end of 2010. Beginning with a fourth-place finish in the Bank of America 500 that year, Hamlin has scored 13 top 10s in his last 15 races on this track.

4. Kurt Busch (three-year average: 9.50)
Busch entered last fall’s Bank of America 500 with a five-race streak of top-10 finishes. He left his fantasy owners disappointed with a 22nd in that event, but he has a better-than-average chance of starting a new streak this week. In 12 races this year, he has six top 10s, another pair of 11ths and a 14th. If he misses the single digits, it is not going to be by much.

5. Kevin Harvick (three-year average: 10.33)
If not for a blown engine on lap 155 of the scheduled 334-lap distance in the 2016 Bank of America 500, Harvick would most likely enter the weekend with a 10-race, top-10 streak. If one mentally discounts that finish, Harvick boasts an average finish of 3.8 since the start of the 2013 season. Couple that with his current momentum and there is no reason that a player should not build their lineup around the No. 4.

6. Matt Kenseth (three-year average: 11.67)
Last week’s KC Masterpiece 400 at Kansas Speedway was brutal for Kenseth. He didn’t expect much in his return, but one has to suspect he thought the car would perform better than it did. The good news is that he has a feel for Charlotte — a track on which he scored his first Cup victory — and he has an extra 100 miles to figure things out what’s wrong with the No. 6 this week.

7. Erik Jones (three-year average: 12.00 in two starts)
There are a couple of reasons to recommend Jones this week. His seventh-place finish in last year’s Coke 600 was an impressive debut on a tough track. More important, he has been great on similarly configured, 1.5-mile tracks since finishing 10th in last fall’s AAA Texas 500. In his last five attempts on this track type, he has a worst finish of 11th and an average of eighth.

8. Jamie McMurray (three-year average: 12.83)
Nearly every time he makes the top 10 list, McMurray’s consistency is noted. He rarely posts such remarkable numbers that everyone expects him to land with the leaders, but once the checkers wave, no one is ever surprised to see him in the front half of the pack. McMurray has not finished outside the top 20 at Charlotte in 11 races although he came close on a few occasions with four 19th-place results.

9. Brad Keselowski (three-year average: 13.67)
Keselowski may be one bad finish away from falling out of the lead pack. He swept the top 10 in both 2015 and 2016, but crashed on lap 19 of last year’s 600 and could manage to record only a 15th in the fall. With only one top five in his last eight Charlotte races, Keselowski is a questionable fantasy value.

10. Austin Dillon (three-year average: 14.00)
Dillon won last year’s Coke 600 after gambling on fuel. In the fall 2016 Bank of America 500, he finished 32nd. Fantasy owners can toss out the high and the low and are left with an average finish of 12.75. And once the player gets rid of the peak and valley, they are left with a consistent pattern of results of seventh to 16th. Chances are good that is where he is going to finish again this week.

Bonus Picks

Pole Winner: Picking the pole winner has become a difficult proposition. The standard speedsters this year have been Harvick, Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Larson. Keep those drivers on your radar screen, and make the final decision based on Thursday practice.

Segment Winners: This is a good week to vote the straight Harvick ticket. When he finds the right groove, he is hard to pass and even though the All-Star Race was contested under a different rules package. The strength he showed in it is going to transfer to Sunday’s Cup race.

For more Fantasy NASCAR coverage, check out Rotoworld.com and follow Dan Beaver (@FantasyRace) on Twitter.

Starting lineup for Monster Energy Open

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Rain forced the cancellation of qualifying for tomorrow’s Monster Energy Open at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The lineup for the 50-lap event prior to the All-Star Race has been set by owner points, giving Aric Almirola the pole.

He will be joined on the front row by Erik Jones.

Alex Bowman will start third and Chase Elliott starts fourth.

The Open is broken up into three segments. The first two are 20 laps in length and final segment is 10 laps.

The winner of each segment will advance to the All-Star Race. A fourth driver will advance via a fan vote.

Click here for the lineup.

NASCAR America Fantasy League: 10 Best fantasy values of 2018

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The All-Star Race comes at the one-third mark of the season and affords the opportunity to take stock in who has been a good fantasy NASCAR value so far in 2018.

Kevin Harvick (with five wins and an average finish of 7.8) and Kyle Busch (three wins and an average of 8.5) have dominated the first 12 races like few have done in recent memory, but that does not make them good fantasy values. It is impossible to make up any ground on the competition when everyone has the same two drivers on the roster.

Their domination and popularity among fantasy players puts a premium on the other three active drivers as well as the garage pick.

Players also want to look at trends. Read the articles at Rotoworld.com, particularly the weekly Power Rankings and Cheat Sheets.

When setting the roster for the NASCAR America Fantasy Live game, click on the stats tab in the game’s navigation bar. There is sortable data that provides a wealth of information, such as the three-week average fantasy points earned by each driver.

The fantasy points, as reported on the stats tab, include points for the Gatorade Duels in Daytona and do not subtract any points lost to penalties during the year, but they are still highly reflective of a driver’s strength to this stage of the season.

1. Joey Logano (average finish in 2018: 6.91; stage points: 117)
Logano actually has a better average finish so far this year than either Harvick or Busch and is within striking distance of them in terms of fantasy points earned through the first 12 races (plus his Daytona Duel). Harvick leads with 553. Busch is second with 534, but Logano has earned 529 points on the strength of his average finish and 117 stage points. He has scored 10 top-10 finishes and a 13th so far this year.

2. Clint Bowyer (average finish in 2018: 10.67; stage points: 79)
Once one is past the top three drivers in terms of fantasy points, the difference becomes notable. Bowyer has scored 426 fantasy points in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game because he has not been as productive in terms of stage points. He is also trending down with 31.3 points per game in the past three weeks, which is tied for only eighth best.

3. Kurt Busch (average finish in 2018: 13.25; stage points: 102)
Busch got off to a rocky start in 2018. His 26th-place finish in the Daytona 500 came after an accident on lap 198. He crashed two weeks later at Atlanta to finish 35th. His next six races featured only two top 10s. But in that span, he also had three more top 15s and that was enough to keep him fantasy relevant. In the last three races, he swept the top 10.

4. Brad Keselowski (average finish in 2018: 15.50; stage points: 138)
Keselowski actually has earned a few more fantasy points than Bowyer or Kurt Busch, but his tendency to fall back in the second half of the race has cost fantasy players. Much of Keselowski’s woes can be traced to a four-race period from Texas Motor Speedway through Talladega Superspeedway when he crashed three times. If he can stay out of trouble, he will rival his teammate Logano.

5. Denny Hamlin (average finish in 2018: 10.25; stage points: 57)
Because of a rash of penalties, Hamlin has struggled enough in the early stage of races that he was a recent topic of conversation on NASCAR America. His 57 stage points is the least among any other driver in this week’s top 10, but he has at least been able to overcome at the end of races to minimize that damage.

6. Martin Truex Jr. (average finish in 2018: 12.50; stage points: 77)
With only 412 fantasy points banked, it would be easy to say that Truex has been a bit of a disappointment this year, but that is not strictly true. Champions often have slumps after winning the Cup and Truex suffered through a four-race streak from Texas to Talladega without a single top 10. Seven of his 12 races this year have ended in top-five finishes, however, so he is only an adjustment or two away from challenging the No. 4 and 18.

7. Kyle Larson (average finish in 2018: 13.83; stage points: 74)
One thing fantasy players look for is consistency. Having a historically strong driver on the roster when he wrecks, like Larson did at Texas earlier this year, or when he simply fades is not helpful. For that reason, streaks are important. Unfortunately, Larson has managed to back up one top 10 with another only three times so far this year and has not yet had a three-race string.

8. Aric Almirola (average finish in 2018: 12.42; stage points: 47)
Ranked eighth on the list, Almirola might be even more valuable because he is still flying under the radar. He has been strong, but as the fourth-most productive driver in a four-car team it can be easy to overlook him. The biggest factor Almirola has in his favor is consistency. In 12 races this year, he has finished outside the top 15 only twice and one of those was a 17th at Richmond Raceway.

9. Ryan Blaney (average finish in 2018: 14.67; stage points: 86)
Last week’s late-race crash at Kansas Speedway was frustrating. Since the NASCAR Fantasy Live game allows players to change a driver before the end of stage two, one prefers any problems to come early. That has not typically been the case with Blaney as can be evidenced by the fact that nearly 23 percent of his 374 points have come at the end of stages while his average finish of 14.67 is the second-worst among this week’s top 10.

10. Chase Elliott (average finish in 2018: 14.50; stage points: 31)
Elliott is a victim of his popularity. Everyone keeps expecting him to win so he keeps popping up on rosters. The unfortunate fact is that he has been hampered by whatever problem the new Chevrolets are facing. So long as players keep their expectations in check, Elliott’s eight top-12 finishes this year have been enough to make him fantasy relevant, but no one wants to build a roster around the No. 9. Use him as a frequent garage pick.

Stage Winners
Picking stage winners has been challenging. Harvick has dominated the first stage with four victories, followed by Keselowski with two. No one else has more than one. Stage two has been just as mercurial. Harvick and Keselowski are joined by Blaney with two.

Stage Points
Stage points are a good way to determine who has potential even if their average finish is less than optimal. Jimmie Johnson has not had the season anyone expected with only five top 10s in the first 12 races, but he has managed to earn stage points on 10 occasions for a total of 39.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has is another driver to watch. With Matt Kenseth joining Roush Fenway Racing, expectations are high that its performance will rise. Stenhouse has earned 33 stage points by being up front seven times. Now he needs to figure out how to close the deal.

Erik Jones has also earned segment points on seven occasions this year. Sophomores often have erratic results, but Jones is a solid value as a garage pick.

For more Fantasy NASCAR coverage, check out Rotoworld.com and follow Dan Beaver (@FantasyRace) on Twitter.