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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.

Five can’t-miss NASCAR Cup races in 2019 beyond Daytona 500

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We’re 32 days out from the biggest NASCAR event of the season in the Daytona 500, a race of such importance that needs no explanation.

But what else is there to look forward to?

There are 35 other Cup points races this season and they’re not all created equal.

Here are five races to pay closer attention to this season.

– Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway (2 p.m. ET on Feb. 24 on Fox)

The second Cup race of the season will probably have its biggest spotlight in recent memory when the 1.5-mile track is the first to host the 2019 rules package.

Derived from the 2018 All-Star Race package, it includes a tapered spacer and is intended to provide closer racing. Cars will run 550 horsepower at all tracks 1.33 miles and larger, which includes Atlanta. At tracks less than 1.33 miles, cars will have 750 horsepower.

Combine the hopeful intent behind the package and a rough track surface that’s being kept in place by the “most powerful lobby this side of Washington, D.C.,” and you have no excuse to not tune in and see what happens.

Camping World 400 at Chicagoland Speedway (3 p.m. ET on June 30 on NBCSN)

The race that marks the start of NBC’s portion of the NASCAR schedule set an incredible precedent in 2018. The 1.5-mile track debuted in its new spot on the schedule with Kyle Larson and Kyle Busch’s dramatic last-lap battle and Busch’s win.

Was it a result of the drivers involved? The hot Chicagoland surface? Lapped traffic?

Yes.

Can it be topped?

We can only hope.

Go Bowling at the Glen at Watkins Glen International (3 p.m. ET on Aug. 4 on NBCSN)

From the green flag last year, the Cup race on the New York road course was a barn burner, ending with a duel between Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr. that resulted in Elliott’s first Cup win as Truex ran out of gas.

Races on the road course have had increasingly memorable finishes over the last seven years (beginning in 2012 with Brad Keselowski and Marcos Ambrose). WGI shows no sign of providing a snoozer in the near future, especially as long as pit strategy is involved.

Bank of America ROVAL 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on Sept. 29 on NBC)

The final lap of last season’s inaugural Cup race on the Charlotte Roval  had enough drama for three races on the new road course.

From Martin Truex Jr. and Jimmie Johnson‘s contact in the final turn giving Ryan Blaney the win; Kyle Larson hitting the wall twice and passing a stalled car at the checkered flag to advance in the playoffs; and Aric Almirola passing enough cars to advance himself.

Do teams have the oval-road course hybrid figured out after one year? It’ll be fun to watch that question answered.

First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway (3 p.m. ET on Oct. 27 on NBCSN)

We’re starting to run out of fingers to use to list memorable events in Martinsville’s recent history of hosting a playoff race.

You could argue it started with Dale Earnhardt Jr. banging doors with Tony Stewart to win his only Martinsville clock in 2014.

Since then?

We’ve seen Matt Kenseth’s retaliation against Joey Logano in 2015, which resulted in Jeff Gordon’s final Cup win.

Two years later, Denny Hamlin wrecked Elliott from the lead near the end of regulation. Kyle Busch then won in overtime as Martinsville’s version of “The Big One” unfolded. Afterward, an angry Elliott confronted Hamlin on the track as fans filled the air with cheers and boos.

Last year Truex and Logano provided a thrilling battle over the last six laps. Logano performed the bump-and-run on Truex in the final turn to win the battle in the “damn war” (which Logano also won in Miami).

 

J.D. Gibbs dies at 49

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J.D. Gibbs, the oldest son of car owner Joe Gibbs, died on Friday from complications following a long battle with a degenerative neurological disease, the team announced. J.D. Gibbs was 49.

The family revealed in March 2015 that J.D. Gibbs was suffering from brain-function problems but that doctors had no clear answer for it.

J.D. Gibbs celebrates a win by Denny Hamlin in the 2015 All-Star Race. (Photo: Dustin Long)

J.D. Gibbs was the president of Joe Gibbs Racing at the time, having done a variety of roles, including working on a pit crew with the organization.

“J.D. gains his strength from the fact that he has a personal relationship with the Lord, and I have got to tell you that he’s my hero when I kind of watch him,” Joe Gibbs said in 2015 at Martinsville Speedway. “I don’t know that anybody has ever deal with anything as courageous as J.D. does. He went through a situation with his son Taylor having leukemia at 2, and we fought through that for about three or four years … J.D. through his entire life has probably been the most courageous person that I’ve ever been around or knew.”

J.D. Gibbs was instrumental in helping Denny Hamlin join the organization when Hamlin was racing Late Models. Hamlin’s Xfinity car in last year’s race at Darlington Raceway honored Gibbs. Hamlin’s car was made to look like the car Gibbs drove in four Xfinity races in 1998.

Hamlin has displayed Gibbs name on the side of his car since the 2017 Daytona 500.

After winning the 2016 Daytona 500, Hamlin spoke of J.D. Gibbs: “He’s the guy that took a chance on me. This is the biggest win of my life. He’s not at every race. But to have him here with me today, that’s just how it was supposed to be, wasn’t it?”

In the tweet below from last year, Hamlin explained what J.D. Gibbs meant to him.

J.D. Gibbs was there at Joe Gibbs Racing from the beginning. He was named the organization’s president in 1997 and led the company from 2004-08 when Joe Gibbs returned to coaching in the NFL. Along with Hamlin, the company added Kyle Busch during J.D. Gibbs’ tenure.

Born Jason Dean Gibbs on February 21, 1969, J.D. as he became known, always had an outgoing personality and beaming smile. From 1987-’90, Gibbs played defensive back and quarterback at The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.

The father of four boys with his wife Melissa – Jackson, Miller, Jason, and Taylor – Taylor was diagnosed with childhood leukemia in 2007 at age 2. At age 5 in 2010, Taylor underwent his final chemotherapy treatment.

Jim France interim NASCAR Chairman and CEO, issued a statement on Gibbs:

“We were privileged to watch J.D. Gibbs grow within the sport, displaying an endearing personality, a keen eye for talent and the strong business acumen that helped grow Joe Gibbs Racing into a preeminent NASCAR team. The NASCAR family has lost a truly special member. On behalf of NASCAR and the France family, I extend my deepest condolences to Joe Gibbs, Pat, Melissa, Coy and the entire Gibbs family.”

Kelly Crandall and Daniel McFadin contributed to this report. 

Six couples to share $100,000 from Kyle, Samantha Busch ‘Bundle of Joy’ fund

Samantha, son Brexton and Kyle Busch. Photo: Getty Images.
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Samantha and Kyle Busch had to undergo in vitro fertilization to conceive their first child, Brexton, born in 2015. (Getty Images)

Six Charlotte-area couples will share $100,000 in grant money to assist with in vitro fertilization (IVF) efforts from the Kyle and Samantha Busch Bundle of Joy Fund, the Fund announced recently.

This is the eighth and largest round of “Bundle of Joy” grants issued since the Fund was created in 2015, following Kyle’s and Samantha’s IVF journey to conceive son Brexton.

“Kyle and I have heard so many stories of couples struggling to conceive a child of their own,” Samantha Busch said in a statement. “From unexplained infertility to a cancer diagnosis, there are multiple variables that may eventually lead to the difficult path of IVF.

“We strongly believe that every journey to parenthood is unique and even though sometimes it can’t happen the natural way, everyone deserves a chance to try and have their own child without worrying about the cost or judgement.”

IVF, which is a process that mixes eggs and sperm in a lab dish to create an embryo, is a costly procedure that typically is not covered by most insurance companies.

One of the recipient couples, Sharika and Gabriel Ramseur, have been trying to conceive for much of their seven years of marriage.

“This is something we had prayed about for so long and then to suddenly receive that gift (from the Fund),” Gabriel Ramseur told the Gaston (North Carolina) Gazette. “I can’t describe it.”

Added Sharika Ramseur to the Gazette, “The Buschs spoke with us, encouraged us, supported us and told us to stay in touch throughout the process. They could not have been more understanding toward us.”

MORE: Sharing the Joy: Through their charity, Kyle and Samantha Busch are helping couples conceive

MORE: Bundle of Joy provides families with play date they never could have imagined

The six couples will receive between $10,000 and $25,000 from the Fund for treatments at the Reproductive Endocrinology Associates of Charlotte, also known as REACH.

“Over the last four years, I am proud to say that the Kyle and Samantha Busch Bundle of Joy Fund has helped 37 couples overcome the financial burden of fertility treatments with nearly $500,000 awarded,” Samantha Busch said. “We now have 16 ‘Bundle of Joy’ babies with five more due in 2019 and are beyond thrilled for this next round of recipients as they begin the process to have their own bundle of joy.

“The ‘Bundle of Joy Fund’ began as a way for Kyle and I to help alleviate the financial burden couples are faced with during fertility treatments, but I don’t think we realized the significant impact it would end up having on our life. Every round of grants means Kyle, Brexton and I get to welcome more amazing couples into our growing  ‘Bundle of Joy’ family, and that fills our hearts with so much happiness.”

Click here to read more about the most recent grants, as well as to learn more about the Kyle Busch Foundation Bundle of Joy Fund, click here.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

 

Drivers to take part in Cup Las Vegas organizational test

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Las Vegas Motor Speedway has announced a roster of 14 drivers who will take part in the first Cup organizational test of the year on Jan. 31-Feb. 1.

The test on the 1.5-mile track will be one of the first opportunities for teams to test the 2019 rules package that includes a tapered spacer.

The drivers who will take part:

Brad Keselowski (Team Penske)

Jimmie Johnson (Hendrick Motorsports)

Kyle Busch (Joe Gibbs Racing)

Kurt Busch (Chip Ganassi Racing)

Ryan Newman (Roush Fenway Racing)

Austin Dillon (Richard Childress Racing)

Clint Bowyer (Stewart-Haas Racing)

Landon Cassill (StarCom Racing)

Matt DiBenedetto (Leavine Family Racing)

Ryan Preece (JTG Daugherty Racing)

Paul Menard (Wood Brothers Racing)

Ross Chastain, David Ragan and Drew Herring are also scheduled to be at the track. They will be driving manufacture wheel force cars.

The test will be the first on-track time for Kurt Busch, Newman, Preece and DiBenedetto with their new teams.

The test is tentatively scheduled to run from 11 am to 9 pm ET on Jan. 31 and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. ET on Feb. 1.

A section of the main grandstands and pit road will be open to fans at the test.

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