Chip Ganassi Racing announced Tuesday that engineer Phil Surgen will be the crew chief for Matt Kenseth‘s team for the rest of the season. Surgen has been with the team since 2016.
Surgen replaces Chad Johnston, who had been the crew chief for the No. 42 team since 2016. The team’s statement did not address Johnston’s status.
Chip Ganassi Racing hired Kenseth in late April to take over the ride after the team fired Kyle Larson. Kenseth finished 10th in his debut with the team in May at Darlington but has had one top-10 finish since, a runner-up showing at Indianapolis last month. Kenseth finished 37th last weekend at New Hampshire after causing three cautions.
NBCSN’s Marty Snider reported during Sunday’s Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway that Wallace told him before the race that he has “a lot of options on the table” and was uncertain what he would do. Snider said Wallace planned to listen to all options.
“We’re in discussions with him about an extension that includes ownership in the team,” Murstein told Forbes SportsMoney.
Murstein told Forbes SportsMoney that he expects an agreement to be finalized “within the next couple of weeks.”
Wallace, 26, is in his third season with Richard Petty Motorsports. He enters Sunday’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway 20th in the points. Wallace finished a career-best second in the 2018 Daytona 500. His best finish this season is sixth at Las Vegas.
Friday 5: Denny Hamlin, Chris Gabehart are NASCAR’s dynamic duo
This from a driver who went winless in 2018 and heard the whispers that his future at Joe Gibbs Racing could be in jeopardy. But Gabehart joined the No. 11 team last year, created a winning expectation and reinforced it not only to the team but to Hamlin.
It’s that mentality that has led to such a strong beginning for Hamlin and Gabehart.
“I think it really boils down to trust,” Hamlin said. “I do my job, he does his. I don’t venture into his department, he don’t really venture into mine.
“He knows I’ve been doing this long enough, when I give him the information I need to make my car faster, he just goes to work on it. He doesn’t try to change how I’m driving to adapt to maybe what someone else is doing. He works on the car to get it where I need it.
“That relationship really works well. We’re building a notebook. That notebook is getting thicker and thicker. The knowledge is getting greater and greater. That’s why you’re seeing the results you’re seeing.”
What they’ve done ranks among the best starts for a driver-crew chief pairing in recent years.
Crew chief Rodney Childers and Kevin Harvick won seven times in their first 52 races together (13.5% winning percentage). Crew chief Adam Stevens and Kyle Busch won nine of their first 52 races together (17.3%).
The main difference is that Childers and Harvick won a title in their first year in 2014, and Stevens and Busch won the championship in 2015 in their first year.
Hamlin and Gabehart might have joined them last year in their first full season together but an aggressive call by Gabehart backfired. A large piece of tape placed over the front grille overheated the engine and forced Hamlin to pit. He never got a chance to race for the lead because the pit stop had put him too far back.
Hamlin and Gabehart rebounded by winning the next points race, this year’s Daytona 500.
When the duo of Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson was mentioned to Gabehart after Thursday’s race, he quickly demurred at any such comparison.
“Let me be very blunt,” Gabehart said, “I think Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson are the two greatest ever to get it done, period. Write it down, that’s my opinion. Doesn’t mean anything more than the piece of paper you’re writing it on, but I think they’re the two greatest ever to get it done.
“The reason is sustainability. The years upon years upon years upon years that they did it, it’s hard to burn the candle that hot for that long. Bar none, I would never put myself in that category. That’s not for me to do. I’m really embarrassed to even be talking about it to be honest with you.
“But I look at Rodney and Kevin, they’ve had lots of sustainability. Adam and Kyle have had years of success together.
“I think for us, again, all I can say is it’s about the process. Right now the 11 team, we have that figured out to where if we execute to our ability every week we’re going to have a shot to win. Hopefully that doesn’t change any time soon.”
What stands out about Hamlin and Gabehart is the variety of tracks they’ve won.
They’ve won on a short track, on a 1-mile track, on a track between 1 and 1.5 miles and on tracks 2.5 miles. This isn’t a team taking advantage of a setup at one particular track but showing strength everywhere.
“I think he believes in his race team,” Gabehart said of Hamlin. “That puts him at ease. All great athletes really and truly want to do it in a lot of ways on their own. They want them to be the differentiator between winning and losing. But this is a team sport. There’s a million moving pieces every week to give Denny the platform he needs to make that the case.
“I think he knows he’s got that now. Every single week if we execute, he’s going to have a shot to win, and he knows it. I think that puts him at ease and lets him really focus on the mental aspect of winning these races.”
2. Reward for a long night
William Byron raced without crew chief Chad Knaus at the track, overcame a pit road penalty, fought a car’s handling throughout the night, yo-yoed through the field on pit strategy and ended Thursday night with a 10th-place finish that put him in a playoff spot with seven races to go.
Byron entered the race two points behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson for the final playoff spot. Johnson was collected in a crash and finished 32nd, falling out of a playoff spot. Byron took his place. Byron leads rookie Tyler Reddick by 10 points for the final playoff spot.
Byron did all that with Knaus remaining in Charlotte for the birth of his second child. Keith Rodden, a former crew chief, was on the pit box for Byron on Thursday night.
“We had a crazy night,” Rodden said in a video posted by Hendrick Motorsports. “Car was super loose for William to start. Guys battled hard. Made a ton of adjustments. I mean, we made huge adjustments. It took three to four stops to make the car right.
“Did a little strategy to get out front. Then probably got a little too aggressive on that last (pit) call, taking two. We needed to control the restart and move on and have it run green and it didn’t. You hate to see that, but at the end of the day, it’s a good run for us considering how we started and hopefully a momentum builder as they head into Loudon (New Hampshire on Aug. 2).”
3. Preparing for the unknown
It is less than a month before NASCAR races on the Daytona road course for the first time. The Cup Series races there Aug. 16. Even though it is new to the series, drivers will have no practice before the race.
Another challenge is that the course isn’t set yet. NASCAR is expected to add a chicane off Turn 4 of the oval to slow the cars down the frontstretch before they turn into the infield portion of the course.
Just as challenging is preparing cars for that race. That’s what crew chiefs face.
“It’s going to be difficult for everybody,” said Alan Gustafson, crew chief for Chase Elliott. “You’re not going to have any references really. Certainly there are some characteristics of the Roval, but it’s obviously a bigger oval and the speeds are going to be higher. The infield is pretty unique. In my experience, a million years ago road racing there, it’s a track that’s hard to get ahold of.
“That infield is not the easiest to navigate and get the car hooked up on. It’s going to present some unique challenges. Certainly the speed of the banking, it’s a pretty dedicated true chicane unlike what we’ve run at the Roval. That will be different for everybody to get a hold of.”
Jason Ratcliff, crew chief for Christopher Bell, said he expects the inaugural Daytona road course race to be “about as challenging as the (Charlotte) Roval was.”
Cup teams had multiple test sessions before he race weekend at the Roval and then multiple practice sessions that weekend to prepare for the first race there in 2018.
“I think the biggest concern right now, the biggest difference that I see right nowfrom the Roval to Daytona is the entry speed into Turn 1 is going to be huge (into the infield road course),” he said. “I don’t know if we can keep brakes on the car for 10 laps if they don’t do something, but they’re working on it.”
4. Now what?
For the first time since NASCAR returned on May 17, Cup teams will have a Sunday off.
So what to do on a free day during a pandemic?
“You get an idea and go down that path and that doesn’t work,” Clint Bowyer said. “I’ve been going over to the lake a lot and I enjoy that. But it’s like, I want to go somewhere different, I want to take my family somewhere. The kids are fixin’ to go back to school or whatever the heck that’s going to look like. It’s just hard, you know.
“Camping. I love to camp, you know, we camp every weekend anyway. And it’s kind of funny to say, oh, let’s take the bus and go camp somewhere. We were going to do that. Good luck finding a campground somewhere you can get into to do that. I would say we’ll probably end up back over at the lake. It makes the most sense.”
Erik Jones says he will head back to Michigan for his best friend’s wedding. Jones is the best man.
“A little bit different wedding than what we all were planning on, but still going to get to do it,” he said. “Little different, but it’s definitely nice to have this coming up. We’ve been working really hard between the doubleheader races and the Sunday and Wednesday races, it’s really been busy for everybody. For the drivers, for the teams – it’s nice to have an off-weekend coming up.”
Kyle Larson remains indefinitely suspended by NASCAR for uttering a racial slur during an online race in April, but he has dominated the sprint and midget car races he’s entered this year.
From early May to earlier this week, Larson had won 21 of 38 races in the various dirt track divisions and had separate winning streaks of eight and five consecutive races.
Larson’s friend, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who also races sprint cars, provided a perspective on what Larson has accomplished.
“I think a lot of people look at it as, ‘Oh, he’s going to a lower series and running and dominating.’ That’s not the case at all. These people, the teams and competitors that he’s racing against are the best of the best in those divisions. In the midgets and USAC we battled hard and he came out on top.
“He’s raced throughout Pennsylvania and raced against our Outlaw teams and what he’s doing is tough to do. It’s not only when you look at the feature wins. I’ve been racing sprint cars over the last few weeks and just thinking back to winning heat races, qualifying first, winning features, battling for wins. …It’s impressive.
“And, I don’t think you’ll see many people be able to go do that in a USAC midget, in Pennsylvania, with the Outlaws; there’s just so much that goes into sprint car racing and what him and Paul Silva have built together and the speed that they have is pretty fascinating to watch and kind of unreal.”
18 questions entering final 18 Cup races of the season
Tonight’s Cup race at Kansas Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App) marks the beginning of the second half of the Cup season. So here are 18 questions for the final 18 Cup races of the season.
The Dover doubleheader is coming up on the schedule (Aug. 22 and 23) and that was the site of his last Cup win in 2017. Heading into tonight’s race at Kansas Speedway, Johnson’s winless streak is 112 races. His best finish this year is third at Bristol and the series will be back there in September in the playoffs.
2. Who will drive the No. 48 car in 2021?
There’s plenty of interest in this high-profile ride that has a full-season sponsor already in place. Will car owner Rick Hendrick go with an established star or pick a younger driver with plenty of potential? What Hendrick decides could greatly impact the upcoming Silly Season.
“Stewart-Haas is a wonderful organization,” Bowyer said this week. “I want to be there. I want to retire there, and I love the opportunity and the people behind it.”
Said Jones, who is battling for a playoff spott, this week: “I’ve had a really good relationship with (Joe Gibbs Racing) for quite a few years now. I put probably the most pressure on myself. I wouldn’t say JGR ever comes to me and asks questions or questions why you’re in this spot. They see the same things we do and the same things we struggle each weekend and why we’re in this spot. People aren’t blind to that.”
He led 150 laps last weekend at Texas, won the first two stages but didn’t win the race when a caution came out at the wrong time. He finished seventh. He ranks third in laps led this season but has one Cup win. He could have a few more wins. Instead, those are playoff points lost. Will that hurt him later in the year?
In 2014 and 2016, a record three drivers outside a playoff spot won aCup race. Could there be a third such winner this year? Among those outside a playoff spot entering tonight’s race at Kansas Speedway are William Byron, Tyler Reddick, Erik Jones, Bubba Wallace and Chris Buescher.
6. Will Kyle Busch make it to the championship race a sixth year in a row?
Busch has talked about the struggles at Joe Gibbs Racing this season and how the lack of practice has made it more difficult to fix the issues. With NASCAR announcing this week that it will go the rest of the season without practice and qualifying, Busch’s task has become more difficult.
7. What drivers in last year’s playoff could miss it this year?
Kyle Larson will since he’s not in the series. William Byron enters Kansas two points out of what would be the final playoff spot. Erik Jones enters Kansas outside a playoff spot. As does Ryan Newman, who missed three races because of his head injury suffered in a last-lap crash in the Daytona 500. He has a waiver and would make the playoffs should he win a race. Newman is too far back in points to make the playoffs that way.
8. Which will be more of a wildcard race: Daytona road course or Daytona oval?
Drivers will have no practice before running the road course for the first time in Cup cars (same for Xfinity and Trucks). And the Daytona oval race is the final regular-season race, so desperation to make the playoffs will be high.
Both races in August could prove quite interesting.
9. Who will win rookie of the year?
Cole Custer has a win and is in the playoffs. Tyler Reddick has arookie-high six top-10 finishes, including three in a row. Christopher Bell is showing signs of progress after a rotten start to the season. John Hunter Nemechek has had a few highlights this season.
This will be worth watching as the season progresses. Some are suggesting this could be among the best rookie crop in years.
10. How will NASCAR change the starting lineup draw?
11. Martinsville moves to the final race before the championship. What type of chaos could be seen there?
Well, let’s see. Last year’s playoff race saw Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano scuffle after the race. In 2018, Martin Truex Jr. was upset with Logano for his bump-and-run to win. In 2017, Hamlin and Chase Elliott had a heated exchange after Hamlin’s contract wrecked Elliott late. In 2015, Matt Kenseth wrecked Logano in retaliation for an incident earlier in the playoffs at Kansas.
Now, Martinsville is the last race before the championship field is set? Safe to say plenty of tempers will be on display that day.
12. How big will the crowds be at upcoming races?
There will be no fans allowed tonight at Kansas. Next week’s race at New Hampshire can have up to 19,000. The following weekend features the Cup doubleheader at Michigan before no fans. The races at Daytona — both on the road course and oval — will have fans but no total has been announced. Nothing has been announced for the playoffs. Among the playoffs tracks is Bristol Motor Speedway, which hosted an estimated 20-25,000 for the All-Star Race earlier this month.
13. What happens if a playoff driver tests positive for COVID-19 in the playoffs?
NASCAR gave Jimmie Johnson a waiver when he missed Indianapolis for testing positive for COVID-19, but what happens if a playoff driver has to miss one or two races in a round? Will that driver be allowed to advance to the next round and just make one more driver advancing than scheduled?
14. How high a stack of pennies will Corey LaJoie have at the end of the season?
Corey LaJoie’s mantra is stacking pennies, meaning a little progress can grow into greater success over time.
He had seven top-20 finishes last year for Go Fas Racing. LaJoie already has six top-20 finishes this season. He’s stacked plenty of pennies so far.
15. Will Matt Kenseth be back after this season?
Kenseth was coy about that when asked about his future recently, saying he was focused on improved finishes. He has had four top-20 finishes in the last five races heading into Kansas. With the number of drivers available for next season, Chip Ganassi Racing could have many options.
He has had a fantastic season with four wins, a series-high 11 top-five finishes, including five in a row, and a series-best 15 top 10s. He’s finished in the top 10 in 83.3% of the races. Remarkable. So far so good.
17. Or is this Denny Hamlin’s year?
The Daytona 500 winner is tied with Harvick for most wins this year with four. Hamlin had a four-race streak of top-five finishes, including two wins, before struggles the past three weeks. Heading into Kansas, Hamlin has not finished better than 12th the past three races. Still, he has nine top-five finishes and 10 top 10s this year.
18. What about 2021?
NASCAR is working on a 2021 schedule. No date has been set on an announcement.
The winners of each segment advance to the All-Star Race, along with the fan vote winner. Last year, Kyle Larson won a segment in the Open to advance to the All-Star Race and then won that event. Other segment winners last year were William Byron and Bubba Wallace. Alex Bowman advanced through the fan vote a year ago. Bowman has already qualified for this year’s All-Star Race.
NASCAR Open at Bristol
Race Time: 7 p.m. ET Wednesday
Track: Bristol Motor Speedway; Bristol, Tennessee (0.533-mile speedway)
Length: 85 laps over three segments, 45.3 miles
Segments: Segment 1 is 35 laps. Segment 2 is 35 laps. Segment 3 is 15 laps.