Friday 5: Crew chief strategies will be key at Indianapolis

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The wizardry of crew chief Rodney Childers will be tested after a random draw gave Kevin Harvick the 11th starting spot for Sunday’s Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Only twice since 2010 has an Indy winner started outside the top 10. Paul Menard won on a fuel-milage gamble after starting 15th in 2011. Kasey Kahne won in 2017 after he pitted before a caution late in the race, putting him at the front. He won in overtime.

Such is the challenge Harvick and Childers have at a place where track position and strategy are critical and passing is difficult.

“I think everybody in the field can have a different strategy and that different strategy can work for any of those people,” Childers told NBC Sports. “Just depending on when the caution comes out. There’s so many different things that can go on.”

Harvick had a dominant car in last year’s race but also benefitted when he pitted from the lead — and before most of the field — on Lap 128 of the 160-lap race. The caution came out while he was on pit road. That put him back at the front while others pitted during the caution. Had Childers not called Harvick in at that point, they would not have been able to take advantage of that break.

But what happens early can determine if a team will be in position to contend late in the race.

If Harvick’s car is good early, the question becomes how many positions can he gain before the field stretches out single file?

Then, there’s the competition caution, which is set for Lap 12. The first stage ends at Lap 50. A full fuel run should make it to the end of the stage from the competition caution.

One thing Harvick could do is what Childers did in 2018. Childers had Harvick, who was running second at the time, pit before the competition caution to change four tires (fuel cannot be added before the competition caution).

The plan was for Harvick to come back down pit road during the competition caution for fuel only, making that a quicker pit stop than those who changed four tires and get out ahead of them. That plan was undone by a penalty for an uncontrolled tire.

Still, it shows what Childers is willing to do. Another consideration is that if a car is about six seconds or more behind the leader, it’s unlikely they can pit under green and remain on the lead lap by the time they get back to speed.

Tire wear also will play in what crew chiefs decide. Tires will wear more early in the race with less rubber on the track.

Then, there’s the thought of how many cautions will there be between the competition caution and the end of the first stage. Last year, a right front tire went down and sent Landon Cassill’s car into the wall, creating a caution on Lap 43. The year before, Martin Truex Jr. brought out the caution on Lap 42 after a mechanical failure.

There’s much to consider for any crew chief.

“You can’t do the same thing (as the leaders) and have the same result,” Childers said. “That’s where it becomes tricky is just thinking all of it through. Having a good group of people behind you that are constantly thinking about that stuff (is key) and trying to think it through. Just one person, like myself, can’t think it through on my own.”

But those who make the right decisions – and maybe get some help from a well-timed caution – could be celebrating after Sunday’s race.

2. Aging like fine wine

Since the Cup Series resumed in May, nine of the 11 races have been won by drivers 36 and older. Seven of those wins have come from drivers 39 and older.

There’s no doubt that 44-year-old Kevin Harvick (Stewart-Haas Racing), 40-year-old Martin Truex Jr. (Joe Gibbs Racing), 39-year-old Denny Hamlin (Joe Gibbs Racing) and 36-year-old Brad Keselowski (Team Penske) drive for some of the top organizations in the sport.

Still, they’ve won during this stretch, while others, such as Kyle Busch, remain winless. Harvick has three wins, Hamlin has three victories, Keselowski has two wins and Truex has one triumph.

The only drivers younger than 36 years old to have won since May are 24-year-old Chase Elliott at the second Charlotte race and 26-year-old Ryan Blaney at Talladega.

So is this a matter of veteran drivers using their experience with no practice before races? Or is this a case of older talent showing it can remain among the sport’s elite longer?

“The experience level obviously comes into play,” Harvick said. “I think when you are surrounded with a good team and a good organization and are able to work those details out, I think the potential is to drive into your 50’s. Why not? I think with the health side of things and the way that people take care of themselves and work out, I think the longevity of the body on most of us going forward is going to be more durable than what it has been in the past.”

Harvick has won 15 races since 2018.

“I think I kind of had a second life I guess you could say coming to SHR,” said Harvick, who has been with Stewart-Haas Racing since 2014. “That was very motivating, and I think as you look at it now, for me it is still very motivating. You work your whole career to get into a situation like this.

“I had a long conversation with Mark Martin. You work your whole career to get in this situation, why would you want to give that up and just say, ‘I quit’? As long as (wife) DeLana and my family are supportive, I don’t think the drive and enthusiasm, as far as showing up to the racetrack every week, will go away anytime soon. You just have to balance those things. I think as you look at Martin (Truex Jr.) turning 40 and Denny (Hamlin) and a lot of the success has been from that particular age group. I don’t think that is going to change any time soon.”

3. Location, location, location

A key to what happens on the track Sunday could be what happens in the stands.

While there will be no fans at Indy this weekend, spotters will move from atop the pagoda to the Turn 1 stands to allow for social distancing. Secondary spotters will be positioned in Turn 3.

With the group stretched out, a spotter for the leader can’t run to spotters of slower cars and tell them what lane the leader wants. Catching a slower car in the corner, especially at Indy, can cost the faster car a couple of seconds or more and allow those behind to close.

It’s something that could impact pit strategy. It did for Erik Jones and crew chief Chris Gayle last Sunday at Pocono Raceway.

“It’s a huge thing,” Gayle said of being held up by slower cars. “We were in the same scenario at this (past) weekend at Pocono where we came up on (Ryan Newman). We were running out (of fuel) and were going to do a fuel only strategy, had pretty much decided that’s what we were going to do but it was about staying in clean air for the majority of the time that we could toward the end of that race. We came up on the 6 car (Newman) and it’s notorious for how hard it is to get around him. I’m like, I’m going to give (Jones) one lap to pass the 6 car. If we don’t get it in one lap, we were pitting because we knew we could come out in another clean spot.”

Jones went on to finish third. Newman finished 18th, the first car a lap down.

4. Standout performance

With the focus on Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick last weekend at Pocono Raceway, it was easy to miss one of the weekend’s key performances.

Matt DiBenedetto scored the sixth-most points in the two Cup races at Pocono. That’s important because of what the weekend meant for him.

Matt DiBenedetto scored 72 points, including 17 stage points, last weekend at Pocono. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

He headed to Pocono 16th in points, holding what could be the final playoff spot. After those two races – and buoyed by scoring more stage points than Hamlin and Harvick — DiBenedetto is 14th in the driver standings. He’s 43 points ahead of Erik Jones, who is 16th.

With the regular-season finale scheduled for Daytona, there’s a greater chance than in previous years that a driver outside the top 16 could win that race and claim a playoff spot. The key is to keep out of the 16th spot. DiBenedetto’s performance last weekend, particularly in each stage, was a key step in that goal.

“Stage points can just make such a huge difference, especially this point in the year when the point stuff is really starting to settle out a little bit,” said DiBenedetto, whose 17 stage points in the doubleheader were the fifth-most scored last weekend. “People are settling in place, so you’ve got to take everything you can get because that makes a big difference as far as securing a solid spot in the playoffs and, for us, really climbing back up in the points to where we think we are running weekly.”

Keep an eye on DiBenedetto this weekend. Crew chief Greg Erwin helped Paul Menard to top-10 finishes each of the past two years at Indianapolis.

5. Rough going

After 15 races this season, Kyle Busch has no wins, no stage wins and no playoff points.

Last year at this time, he had four wins, five stage wins and 25 playoff points.

His avenge finish this season is 14.7. His average finish at this time last year was 6.3.

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Power Rankings after Pocono: Denny Hamlin a unanimous No. 1

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Denny Hamlin not only won Sunday’s Cup race at Pocono, he also knocked Ryan Blaney off the top spot for this week’s NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings.

Hamlin was a unanimous selection of NBC Sports’ NASCAR writers for No. 1 in this week’s rankings.

Kevin Harvick, who finished 1st-2nd in the two Pocono races (while Hamlin finished 2nd-1ast), was the biggest gainer, going from unranked last week to a unanimous pick for No. 2 this week. The biggest drop was Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who went from third last week to unranked this week.

Here’s how this week’s rankings look:

1. Denny Hamlin (30 points): Keeps getting stronger. First four-time winner of the season. Could this be the year he finally wins his first Cup championship? Last week: second.

2. Kevin Harvick (27 points): Came so close to making it a weekend sweep. Has 3 wins, eight top five and 12 top-10 finishes in first 15 races. Has finished outside the top 15 only once this season. Last week: unranked.

3. Aric Almirola (23 points): Four consecutive top fives – his only top fives this season and the best streak of his career – has Almirola back on track after earlier struggles. Last week: fourth (tied).

4. Chase Elliott (15 points): Has four top 10s in the last six races. Last week: seventh.

5. Brad Keselowski (14 points): Since NASCAR returned from the COVID-19 hiatus, Keselowski has two wins and just three finishes outside the top 10 in 11 races. Last week: eighth (tied).

6. Ryan Blaney (13 points): Had an off weekend (best finish was 12th on Saturday) after his win at Talladega. His Pocono finishes snapped a streak of six top-five finishes in his previous seven starts. Last week: first.

7. Martin Truex Jr. (12 points): Has four top 10s, including a win, in the last six races. Last week: unranked.

8. Chase Briscoe (9 points): Has been strong in the Xfinity Series this season, leading the way with four wins – including Sunday at Pocono. Last week: unranked.

9. Erik Jones (8 points): Sunday’s season-best third-place finish – his second top five in the last three races – was a big turnaround from wrecking out Saturday. Last week: 10th (tied).

(tie) 10. Clint Bowyer (6 points): Earned pair of top-10 finishes at Pocono, first back-to-back top 10s this season. Can he keep the momentum going at Indianapolis, where he’s had back-to-back fifth-place finishes the last two years? Last week: unranked.

(tie) 10. Alex Bowman (6 points): Earned third top 10 in last five races. Last week: 4th (tied).

Others receiving votes: Matt DiBenedetto (1 point), Brandon Jones (1 point).

Kyle Larson completes sensitivity training

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Kyle Larson has completed his mandated sensitivity training but remains indefinitely suspended by NASCAR, NBC Sports has confirmed.

NASCAR indefinitely suspended Larson on April 13, a day after he uttered a racial slur during an iRacing event. NASCAR also required Larson to complete sensitivity training.

NASCAR had no comment on Larson completing his training.

Chip Ganassi Racing fired Larson on April 14. The team hired Matt Kenseth on April 27 to drive the No. 42 car for the rest of the season.

Larson is scheduled to compete in a World of Outlaws race Friday at Knoxville (Iowa) Raceway. The World of Outlaws had said that Larson, who owns a team in the series, would be permitted to compete in the series after finishing sensitivity training.

Former NASCAR driver Kasey Kahne also is scheduled to compete in that race, which marks the resumption of the season for the World of Outlaws. Kahne has not competed in that series since being injured in a crash a year ago at Williams Grove Speedway.

Friday’s event at Knoxville will be closed to the public but will be televised via pay-per-view streaming on DIRTVision.

Matt Kenseth among notable Cup Series substitute drivers

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Just when you thought 2020 couldn’t get any weirder, Chip Ganassi Racing announced Monday that Matt Kenseth, at the age of 48, is coming back to drive its No. 42 Chevrolet for the rest of the year.

The 2003 Cup champion is the replacement driver for Kyle Larson, who was fired from the team two weeks ago after using a racial slur in an iRacing event.

Substitute drivers, whether for one race or longer, are nothing new for NASCAR.

Here’s a look back at some notable substitute drivers in the Cup Series. What better place to start than with Kenseth himself?

Matt Kenseth subs for Bill Elliott, 1998

Two years before his rookie season in the Cup Series, Kenseth was competing full-time in what was called the Busch Series. In September, the 26-year-old Kenseth was called in to drive Bill Elliott’s No. 94 McDonald’s car at Dover while Elliott attended his father’s funeral. Kenseth finished sixth in his Cup debut.

Kevin Harvick replaces Dale Earnhardt, 2001

Richard Childress Racing tapped Kevin Harvick to replace Dale Earnhardt after Earnhardt’s death at the end of the 2001 Daytona 500. Harvick made his Cup debut the following week at Rockingham and would win at Atlanta in his third series start. He competed full-time in both Cup and the Busch Series that year, winning Cup Rookie of the Year honors and the Busch championship.

Jamie McMurray subs for Sterling Marlin, 2002

In September 2002, Chip Ganassi Racing chose Jamie McMurray to sub for Sterling Marlin after he was injured in a crash at Kansas Speedway. McMurray made his Cup debut on Oct. 6 at Talladega. A week later, he won a race at Charlotte. After finishing out the last six races of the season, he went full-time with Ganassi in Cup in 2003.

Jeff Gordon and Alex Bowman sub for Dale Earnhardt Jr., 2016

Less than a year after he retired from NASCAR competition, Jeff Gordon was back in a race car. Gordon and Alex Bowman were enlisted by Hendrick Motorsports to split time in the No. 88 Chevrolet as Dale Earnhardt Jr. recovered from a concussion. Gordon made eight starts while Bowman made 10 and nearly won the playoff race at Phoenix. Bowman’s performance helped him earn the No. 88 ride full-time after Earnhardt retired at the end of 2017.

Ernie Irvan replaces Davey Allison, 1993; Kenny Wallace/Dale Jarrett sub for Irvan, 1994-95

The mid-90s were a difficult time for Robert Yates Racing and the No. 28 team. On July 13, 1993, Davey Allison died from injuries sustained in a helicopter crash at Talladega Superspeedway. After skipping the next race at Pocono,  Robby Gordon and Lake Speed shared the No. 28 over the next four races. Ernie Irvan took over the ride permanently, making his first start in the Southern 500.

Irvan made it through the first 20 Cup races in 1994 before being critically injured in a crash in practice at Michigan in August. Irvan wouldn’t return to the Cup Series until October 1995. Kenny Wallace finished out the 1994 season in the No. 28, making 10 starts. Dale Jarrett took over the ride full-time in 1995, and would be teammates with Irvan when he returned in the No. 88 (they would swap numbers in 1996).

Matt Crafton before the 2015 Daytona 500. (Photo by Michael Bush/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Matt Crafton subs for Kyle Busch, 2015 Daytona 500

When Kyle Busch fractured his right leg and left foot in a crash in the 2015 Xfinity Series season opener, Joe Gibbs Racing turned to Matt Crafton to drive the No. 18 Toyota in the Daytona 500. Then a two-time Truck Series champion, it was Crafton’s first Cup Series start. He finished 18th.

Michael McDowell subs for Kyle Busch, 2011

Four years earlier, Busch missed one Cup race due to suspension. He was parked for the rest of the weekend at Texas Motor Speedway by NASCAR after he intentionally wrecked Ron Hornaday Jr. under caution during a Truck Series race at Texas. Michael McDowell was chosen to race in Busch’s place. He finished 33rd.

Erik Jones subs for Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth, 2015

In 2015, Erik Jones was a substitute driver for 3/4ths of Joe Gibbs Racing’s Cup teams. He made his unofficial Cup debut on April 19 as a mid-race relief driver for Denny Hamlin. He was then the final substitute driver for the injured Kyle Busch on May 9 at Kansas Speedway. He finished 40th. Jones made two more starts in Kenseth’s No. 20 after Kenseth was suspended for intentionally wrecking Joey Logano in the playoff race at Martinsville.

Mark Martin subs for Tony Stewart, 2013

When Tony Stewart broke a leg in a sprint car crash in August 2013, Stewart-Haas Racing turned to 54-year-old veteran Mark Martin to take his place. Martin drove the No. 14 car for 12 of the last 13 races to close out a Cup career the began in 1981.

Darrell Waltrip subs for Steve Park, 1998

Dale Earnhardt turned to three-time Cup champion Darrell Waltrip in 1998 to sub for Steve Park after he suffered three fractures in a crash at Atlanta in March. Waltrip made 13 starts in the No. 1 Chevrolet, which included his final career top five in a race at Auto Club Speedway.

Regan Smith at Martinsville Speedway in 2015. (Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Regan Smith

There are substitute drivers, then there’s “Super Subs” like Regan Smith. Here’s how much substitute work Smith has gotten over the years.

– 2012: Drove for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in two races late in the season as Earnhardt recovered from a concussion.

– 2014: Subbed for Tony Stewart at Watkins Glen following Stewart’s sprint car incident that killed Kevin Ward Jr.

– 2015: Subbed for a suspended Kurt Busch in the first three races of the season. Then subbed for Kyle Larson at Martinsville after Larson fainted during an autograph session that weekend.

– 2017: Subbed for an injured Aric Almirola in the All-Star Race, the Coca-Cola 600 and at Dover.

– 2018: Drove in the place of Kasey Kahne for the final 11 races after dehydration issues resulted in an early end to Kahne’s career.

Kenny Wallace

Like Smith, Kenny Wallace did his fair of substitute driving during his Cup career.

– 1991: Drove Kyle Petty’s No. 42 car in two races after Petty broke his leg in a crash at Talladega.

-1994: Drove Ernie Irvan’s No. 28 car in the final 10 races of the season after his injuries suffered in the Michigan crash.

– 2001: Drove Steve Park’s No. 1 car for the final 12 races after Park was injured in a freak accident in the Xfinity race at Darlington.

– 2002: Subbed for Kevin Harvick at Martinsville after Harvick was suspended for actions during that weekend’s Truck Series race.

– 2005: Drove Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 97 car for the final two races of the year after the team suspended Kurt Busch.

– 2007: Drove Robert Yates Racing’s No. 88 car in four races after Ricky Rudd injured a shoulder in a wreck at Auto Club Speedway.

 

Highlights of Matt Kenseth’s NASCAR career

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Matt Kenseth is coming back to drive the No. 42 for Chip Ganassi Racing for the rest of the season.

The future Hall of Famer will look to add to a career that includes the 2003 Cup championship and 39 Cup victories, including a pair of Daytona 500 triumphs.

Here’s a look at some of the landmark events in Kenseth’s NASCAR career.

May 25, 1996 – Makes NASCAR debut in what was called the Busch Grand National Series. He started 37th and finished 31st at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Mark Martin won that race. Dick Trickle was second.

Feb. 21, 1998 – Scores first win in what was called the Busch Grand National Series. He chased down Tony Stewart in the final laps at Rockingham. Kenseth gave Stewart’s rear bumper a tap on the last lap, allowing him to get next to Stewart and drag race Stewart to the finish.

Sept. 20, 1998 – Makes first Cup start. Drives in place of Bill Elliott, who misses race at Dover to attend the funeral of his father. Kenseth started 16th and finished sixth in the No. 94 car.

May 28, 2000 – Scores first career Cup victory, winning the Coca-Cola 600. Kenseth joined a list that  includes David Pearson (1961), Jeff Gordon (1994) and Bobby Labonte (1995) as drivers who scored their first career Cup victory with a win in the 600. Kenseth goes on to win Rookie of the Year honors.

Nov. 9, 2003 – His fourth-place finish at Rockingham clinches the Cup title with one race left in the season.

Feb. 22, 2004 – Wins final Cup race at Rockingham, nipping Kasey Kahne at the finish line by 0.01 seconds.

Aug. 27, 2005 – Wins Bristol night race for the first time. He would go on to win the event in 2006 and 2013.

March 26, 2006 – The memorable incident with Jeff Gordon at Bristol. Gordon got Kenseth loose with two laps to go for third place. Kenseth returned the favor on the last lap and Gordon spun. Gordon approached Kenseth on pit road and shoved him after the race.

Feb. 15, 2009 – Scores his first career Daytona 500 victory, leading the final seven laps in the rain-shortened race. He would go on to win the following week at Auto Club Speedway to open the season with wins in the first two races of the year.

Feb. 27, 2012 – Scores his second career Daytona 500 win, beating Dale Earnhardt Jr. by 0.210 seconds in an overtime finish.

June 26, 2012 – Roush Fenway Racing confirms that Kenseth will not return to the team after the season.

Sept. 4, 2012 – Joe Gibbs Racing announces that Kenseth will join the team beginning with the 2013 season.

March 10, 2013 – Wins at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the first of seven Cup wins that season, a career high. He also won at Kansas, the Southern 500 at Darlington, Kentucky, the Bristol night race, Chicagoland and New Hampshire. He would go on to finish second in the points. He also was runner-up in the Cup championship in 2006.

Sept. 27, 2015 – Wins playoff race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway for his fifth and final win of the season. The New Hampshire victory is Kenseth’s third in a six-race stretch.

Oct. 18, 2015 – Finishes 14th at Kansas in a race he led late before contact with Joey Logano‘s car spun Kenseth.

Nov. 1, 2015 – Wrecks Logano intentionally at Martinsville Speedway in retaliation for Kansas incident.

Nov. 3, 2015 – NASCAR suspends Kenseth two races for wrecking Logano at Martinsville.

July 7, 2017 – Kenseth reveals at a press conference at Kentucky Speedway that “as of today, I do not have a job for next year.”

Nov. 12, 2017 – Kenseth wins at Phoenix Raceway in his next-to-last race with Joe Gibbs Racing.

April 25, 2018 – Roush Fenway Racing announces that Kenseth will return to the team to drive the No. 6 car in select races to help the team improve. He’ll split driving duties with Trevor Bayne.

April 27, 2020 – Chip Ganassi Racing announces that Kenseth will take over the No. 42 car for the rest of the Cup season.