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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.

Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports dominate Lionel’s best-selling diecasts for 2018

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2018 was a really good year for Hendrick Motorsports — on the diecast market.

Lionel Racing revealed Tuesday that despite having its fewest Cup wins in 25 years, Hendrick Motorsports dominated its top 10 best-selling diecasts last year.

Anchored by five Chase Elliott diecasts, HMS claimed the top eight spots.

Elliott, who scored Hendrick’s only three Cups wins and was voted NASCAR’s most popular driver, tops the list with his No. 9 NAPA Chevrolet.

All three of Elliott’s race win diecasts are on the list, with his first career Cup win at Watkins Glen coming in at No. 2.

Hendrick is represented by all four of its drivers on the list with Jimmie Johnson, William Byron and Alex Bowman each having one diecast in the top 10.

Kyle Larson‘s No. 42 Credit One Chevrolet is eighth and Kevin Harvick‘s No. 4 Busch Beer Ford is 10th.

Here’s the full list:

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K&N West schedule includes return to Phoenix for season finale

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NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series West revealed its 2019 schedule Wednesday, which features 14 races and begins Feb. 28 at The Dirt Track at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The schedule also includes the series’ return to ISM Raceway in Phoenix on Nov. 9 for its season finale.

The race will be one of four in three days, including the Cup, Xfinity and Gander Outdoors Truck Series’ final playoff elimination races.

The 100-lap K&N West race will be the series’ 45th on the 1-mile Phoenix track and its first since 2015. The series ended its 2018 season at Kern County Raceway Park in Bakersfield, California.

“Phoenix is a destination our fans and teams of the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West have really wanted to get back to,” said Brandon Thompson, NASCAR’s managing director for regional racing in a press release. “With all the new and exciting changes with ISM Raceway, it’s a tremendous opportunity to return, and we are very excited to be part of their NASCAR Playoff Weekend. We want to say a huge thank you to International Speedway Corporation for underscoring their commitment to grassroots racers. To be able to crown our West champion on that stage means a lot for the series.”

The addition of the Phoenix race comes after Kevin Harvick underscored the lack of a K&N event at the track after his win there last March.

“I’ve been mad at (former track president Bryan) Sperber here for a couple years now because he won’t have the K&N cars come race here because it doesn’t help his budget,” Harvick said. “One of the best things that happened for racing, it’s not just about NASCAR, was when we had the Copper Classic here.  We had midgets, sprint cars.  Didn’t matter how many people sat in the grandstands.  As competitors, those guys, this was their Daytona. On the West Coast, this is what we thought our Daytona 500 was. This is where everybody wanted to race.

“It’s kicking those guys low on the K&N West Series that they don’t get to come and race at this particular racetrack because of the fact there’s a little bit of a pissing contest between a budget, what is right, what is wrong from a sanctioning fee side on Trucks and Xfinity. So they cut the K&N guys out.

“Cutting the grassroots side of things out is not the right way to do things.  Those guys, they just want to race.  This is a crown jewel race for those guys.  The thought process for me is broken.  When I look at our hardcore fans, they’re all sitting at those short tracks and they’re mad.”

Below is the full K&N West schedule.

Date Track Location Laps
Thurs., Feb. 28 Dirt Track at Las Vegas Motor Speedway Las Vegas, Nev. 100
Sat., March 30 Irwindale Speedway Irwindale, Calif. 150
Sat., May 11 Tucson Speedway * Tucson, Ariz. 100s*
Sat, June 8 Colorado National Speedway Dacono, Colo. 175
Sat, June 22 Sonoma Raceway Sonoma, Calif. 64
Sat, June 29 Douglas County Speedway Roseburg, Ore. 150
Fri., July 26 Iowa Speedway Newton, Iowa 150
Sat., Aug. 17 Evergreen Speedway Monroe, Wash. 175
Sat., Aug. 24 Gateway Motorsports Park Madison, Ill. 120
Sat., Sept. 28 Meridian Speedway Meridian, Idaho 208
Sat., Oct. 12 All American Speedway Roseville, Calif. 150
Sat., Oct. 26 Kern County Raceway Park Bakersfield, Calif. 175
Sat., Nov. 9 ISM Raceway Avondale, Ariz. 100

* Twin 100-lap championship points races

 

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

Daniel Suarez to drive No. 41 car for Stewart-Haas Racing

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Daniel Suarez will drive the No. 41 Ford Mustang Cup car for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2019, the team announced Monday on Suarez’s 27th birthday. The announcement also comes 41 days before the Daytona 500. 

Arris, a long-time backer of Suarez, and Haas Automation will sponsor Suarez’s car.

“This is the best birthday present I could ask for,” said Suarez in a statement from the team. “We’ve all seen how competitive Stewart-Haas Racing is – all of their drivers won last year and all of them advanced deep into the playoffs. This is the opportunity every driver wants, and now I have it. I want to deliver for this team, our partners in Haas Automation, Arris and Ford and, ultimately, for me. We have everything we need to be successful.”

Suarez fills the last remaining open seat with a charter Cup team. The move had been anticipated for weeks. He replaces Kurt Busch, who moved to Chip Ganassi Racing to drive the No. 1 car this season.

Suarez enters his third Cup season after spending the past two at Joe Gibbs Racing. He lost his ride so the organization could bring in Martin Truex Jr. Truex was available when his ride at Furniture Row Racing went away when the team ceased operations after the 2018 season.

Saurez joins a Stewart-Haas Racing team that won 12 of 36 points races last year but will have a new car with Ford using the Mustang in Cup this season.

Suarez becomes the youngest Cup driver at Stewart-Haas Racing. Kevin Harvick is 43 years old, Clint Bowyer is 39 and Aric Almirola is 34.

In two seasons in Cup, Suarez has four top-five finishes and 21 top 10s in 72 starts. He won the 2016 Xfinity championship at Joe Gibbs Racing.

“In each series Daniel has raced in, he’s advanced quickly from rookie to race winner,” co-owner Tony Stewart said in a statement from the team. “In four years, he went from the K&N Series to the NASCAR Cup Series. In between, he won an Xfinity Series championship, and he did it all while learning a new language and a new culture. He’s dedicated, he’s talented and we’re proud to have him as a key part of our race team.”

Said co-owner Gene Haas in a statement from the team: “We’re in racing to win and we believe Daniel Suarez can win in the NASCAR Cup Series. “Haas Automation is a global brand and our success is directly attributable to how we’ve leveraged the Haas name in racing. We use motorsports to showcase our latest technology and to attract the best talent in engineering and design. Daniel allows Haas Automation to strengthen its ties to the Mexican community by racing the No. 41 Haas Automation Ford Mustang.”

The season begins Feb. 10 with the Advance Auto Parts Clash, a race Suarez is eligible for with his pole last season. The Daytona 500 is Feb. 17.