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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.

Kyle Larson ready to learn from Kurt Busch — and maybe teach him a bit, too

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Kyle Larson is looking forward to learning from new Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Kurt Busch. And Larson may even be able to teach Busch a few lessons.

Calling in from Tulsa, Oklahoma, home of this week’s Chili Bowl, Larson appeared on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive” Thursday.

“Being a teammate with a champion is really cool,” Larson said of being paired with the 2004 NASCAR Cup champion. “I think I’ll be able to learn a lot off him. I think he’s going to push me to be a better race car driver, really. I’m looking forward to working with him.

Kurt Busch. Photo: Getty Images.

“I’m excited to learn from him and how he gets around Martinsville and the road courses and during the races and stuff like that. Those are my biggest weak points and I feel like those are some of his strongest race tracks.

“Kurt has always been very into knowing about his race cars. I think he’ll be able to have some input on changes to our chassis or anything on our race cars to try and help us out at places where he thinks we might struggle.”

Due to offseason schedule conflicts, Larson and Busch haven’t been able to spend much time together yet. But the new teammates are slated to get together once Larson returns to the Charlotte area after the Chili Bowl concludes Saturday night.

And while Larson is looking forward to Busch’s mentorship, he also feels he can maybe teach Busch a few things, as well.

“I think the style of racing has changed some from, say, a decade ago,” Larson said. “There’s a lot of younger, it seems like, really aggressive drivers out there.

“Just with (Busch) being able to see me and my aggression even more so up-close and being on the same team and looking at the driver data, yeah, maybe there’s some things he can learn.”

Larson admits because he’s been focused during the offseason on racing both in the U.S. and overseas, including the Chili Bowl, he hasn’t spent much time thinking about the 2019 NASCAR Cup season.

But that’s about to change.

“I don’t really think about NASCAR season until the checkered flag waves here on Saturday,” he said. “I think it’ll be a good year for us. The rules package is going to be way different, so I’m not really sure what to expect there and how we’ll be, but I’m looking forward to get going.”

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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).

 

New NASCAR Cup team owners invest in minor league hockey team

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You might say that the newest NASCAR Cup team owner is now in a Rush.

Spire Sports + Entertainment, which recently purchased the Cup charter of former NASCAR championship team Furniture Row Racing, has branched out, taking a minority ownership share in the Rapid City (South Dakota) Rush of the 27-team East Coast Hockey League.

Spire co-founders Jeff Dickerson and T.J. Puchyr will become active minority partners in the Rush, hoping to bring the team back to past prominence.

“We aren’t going to be saviors here,” Spire co-founder Jeff Dickerson said in a press conference at the team’s Rushmore Plaza Civic Center home. “There’s no magic bullet. It’s going to take all of us to create the culture that builds excitement and value. The city loves the Rush and we hope to get it back to where it was.”

Rush majority owner, Rapid City businessman Scott Mueller, sees better days ahead for his club.

“The biggest thing is (Spire’s) sports industry knowledge,” Mueller said, according to the Rapid City Journal. “It’s about putting people in seats, selling advertising and they have a lot of knowledge on that. (Dickerson) sees so many venues, and I think he’s going to be involved in changes that are needed.

“We’ve taken some steps in the last few months. These are great days for us, and we’re really excited about our future.”

The Rush is mired in sixth place in the ECHL’s seven-team Mountain Division.

In addition to purchasing Furniture Row Racing’s charter, Spire represents several race car drivers including NASCAR’s Kyle Larson, Landon Cassill, Ross Chastain, Justin Haley, Todd Gilliland, Garrett Smithley and Vinnie Miller and IndyCar’s James Hinchcliffe.

Spire isn’t the only NASCAR Cup team owner involved in other sports. Roush Fenway Racing’s co-owner John Henry owns Major League Baseball’s Boston Red Sox and the Liverpool Football Club of soccer’s Premier League, while Chip Ganassi previously was a minority owner in MLB’s Pittsburgh Pirates. Felix Sabates, who also holds a minority ownership stake in Chip Ganassi Racing, is also a minority owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets.

“We have been looking for several years to find something in minor league sports and see if what we do in motorsports translates to this space,” Puchyr said, according to The Journal. “Our due diligence indicates that it does.”

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Kyle Larson wins preliminary event at Chili Bowl

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Kyle Larson won the A feature Tuesday night to advance to Saturday night’s A main at the Chili Bowl Nationals. It was his fifth preliminary event win at the Chili Bowl. Zach Daum finished second.

Larson took the lead on Lap 6 of the 25-lap feature and went on to the win.

MORE: Tuesday night race results from Chili Bowl

MORE: Monday night race results from Chili Bowl

“We’ll move on to Saturday and try to be better,” Larson said in the press conference afterward.

NBCSN broadcaster Dillon Welch finished seventh in the 24-car field. Alex Bowman placed ninth. Tanner Berryhill, who will be a Cup rookie this season, was 10th.

The Chili Bowl continues the rest of the week, culminating with Saturday night’s main event.

JJ Yeley, Landon Cassill and Rico Abreu are among the drivers scheduled to race Wednesday night at the Tulsa, Oklahoma, event.

Thursday’s racing will include two-time defending winner Christopher Bell, Justin Allgaier and Karsyn Elledge, daughter of Kelley Earnhardt Miller. Kasey Kahne and Tanner Thorson are among those scheduled to race Friday.

Thorson won Tuesday night’s Race of Champions. Larson was second, Bell placed third and Yeley was fifth in that event.