Indy is last chance for bubble drivers on Cup playoff quest

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INDIANAPOLIS — On the cusp of failing to make the Cup playoffs for the first time in his career, Jimmie Johnson prefers to look at what he could accomplish Sunday with a win at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“It would be a heck of a story to tie Jeff (Gordon) with five (wins) here and to come through a drought and all the things that we all know,” Johnson said of an 84-race winless streak that dates back to 2017. “To have all that come to a conclusion and lock myself into the playoffs would be one hell of a story. Hopefully, that is the story.”

Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Daniel Suarez and Ryan Newman are battling for the final two playoff spots in today’s race at Indy (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Bowyer has an eight-point lead on Suarez and Newman. Suarez holds the final playoff spot via a tiebreaker on Newman. Johnson is 18 points behind Suarez and Newman.

That Suarez and Newman are tied in points adds a layer to their duel. Newman spun in last week’s Southern 500 with Suarez closely on Newman’s left rear.

Everything kind of cycles in our sport and what comes around goes around,” Newman said. “I don’t think he meant to turn me around, but he did turn me around. It is just racing. I get it. Whether he plowed through me like (Matt) Kenseth did to (Joey) Logano (at Martinsville in 2015) or just took the air off me or whatever, it is racing. I don’t have any intentions going into this race other than to do the best that I can for our team.”

Suarez contends there was no contact between the cars at Darlington Raceway.

“I have a lot of respect for him,” Suarez said of Newman. “He is a very aggressive driver. One of the most aggressive. People know that. Sometimes we race hard and sometimes you know what the limits are and sometimes we push a little bit hard. It was just a racing deal. I didn’t mean to spin him out. I didn’t mean to wreck him. But I wanted to pass him.”

Suarez also faces the possibility of competing against Bowyer, his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate, for a playoff spot.

“Clint and I, we are good friends and we know that if we can help each other, we will, but at the same time we will race hard,” Suarez said. “That is what we do. We’re smart. He’s got plenty of experience, and I’m not dumb.

“I know what I have to do, and he knows what he has to do. We are going to go out there to do what we do best and try to beat each other but, at the same time, without trying to kill each other. Hopefully things work out in a good way for both of us.”

Bowyer, who is coming off top-10 finishes the past two races, says that is what his team can do if it can avoid the issues that have plagued it this season.

“I think Darlington was a snapshot of our capabilities,” Bowyer said. “I have said it time and time again, when we race to our capabilities we are a (top-10) car. A lot of things go into play on that. I feel like we have raced inside the single digits several times this year and more often than not struggled to get the finish and manage track position.”

Johnson and the No. 48 team know Bowyer’s pain. Johnson’s team has struggled much of this season. That lack of performance led Hendrick Motorsports to replace Kevin Meendering with Cliff Daniels as crew chief in late July.

Johnson enters this weekend with seven consecutive finishes outside the top 15. His performance last weekend at Darlington was his best in recent weeks. He was fast in practice, qualified sixth, scored points in both stages and was in the top five when he was collected in a crash that he couldn’t avoid. His team was headed for one of its best performances of the season.

“We’ve had plenty of bad luck, that’s for sure,” Johnson said. “Last weekend we did perform well through practice and qualified well and ran well. We’re getting there. What I have learned through this two- or three-year drought and difficult time, is just how important the team is.

“I’ve known it. I’ve lived it. And, I’ve been the beneficiary of some amazing teams. And, I just didn’t realize how fragile it was until I got involved and had to start building that and help select the right people in place to build that team. It’s been an interesting journey. And through it all, I’ve learned a ton. I really have. And, I think we’re in a spot now that everybody can see where the hard work has gone and that we’re starting to show up and perform.”

But even if Johnson’s team has a flawless performance Sunday, there’s no guarantee Johnson will be among the 16 drivers to race for a championship.

“I have been able to work through some really tough situations and come out on top over the years,” Johnson said. “There are no guarantees on what happens here this weekend, but I do feel like if that opportunity presents itself, the experience I have will help me stay calm and help me do the right things in that moment. So, it helps me sleep better, absolutely, knowing what I’ve pulled off in the past. It helps with my confidence rolling into this weekend.”

It was 2016 when Johnson didn’t have the best car in the championship race in Miami but circumstances fell his way and he won his record-tying seventh title. That crown came a day after Suarez won the Xfinity championship.

That Xfinity title has been something Suarez has reflected upon this week as he prepared to race for a playoff spot.

“I have had a lot of flashbacks from that weekend,” Suarez said. “I feel like I was able to handle that weekend extremely well. I feel like I work pretty well under pressure, and I have been that way since I was racing go karts and was trying to find sponsors and trying to win races to be able to continue and go on to the next one. It feels good. It feels good to be here and good to be in this position and hopefully just like we did in 2016 we can end up the weekend on the good side of things.”

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Ryan: Where could Matt DiBenedetto be heading next season in Cup?

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BRISTOL, Tenn. – The audition essentially is over for Matt DiBenedetto, who again proved Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway that he is worthy of keeping a ride in NASCAR’s premier series.

Do withering auditions now begin for scads of other drivers whom DiBenedetto has outperformed for two months (his runner-up finish after leading a race-high 93 laps is his third top five and fifth top 10 in nine races)?

As NASCAR on NBC analyst Steve Letarte said during the NBCSN broadcast (and has said before), “I can give you a list of drivers who should be scared to death of Matty D. because he deserves their seats.”

There could be team owners feeling some heat, too, by remaining complacent. Bristol winner Denny Hamlin said on the NBCSN postrace interview in victory lane, “all you car owners are idiots” if DiBenedetto didn’t land a Cup ride in 2020.

“There’s many car owners that finance cars that are on the racetrack, good teams,” Hamlin said later in his media center interview. “They got to step up and grow some balls and take a chance on somebody they really believe in. That or they can continue to run 15th.”

Hamiln said numerous times that there is “no doubt in my mind” that DiBenedetto will land “better even than he is right now.”

The question is where, and the chattering classes of NASCAR were in overdrive this past weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway, trying to chart how the annual parade of driver movement will unfold (after it began in earnest last week later than normal).

A few important parameters:

–While contracts are important, they can vary as to how ironclad they are because of results clauses and options. DiBenedetto originally was announced as having a two-year deal last October with Leavine Family Racing, but the team actually had to approve his renewal. A driver can be “set” for next season and still be removed.

–The possibility always exists that a team with fewer than four drivers could add a car for DiBenedetto, but the reality is highly unlikely anyone would.

–Before being informed Aug 13 that he wouldn’t be returning to LFR, DiBenedetto said he hadn’t talked to any other teams about 2020.

Here’s everything we seem to know about the status of major rides next year, in a team-by-team analysis:

–Chip Ganassi Racing: Kyle Larson is under contract through next season. Kurt Busch, who has had Monster sponsorship the past five seasons, said Friday at Bristol that he still isn’t set for next year. That could open a slot in the No. 1, but Ross Chastain is believed to remain under contract with Ganassi and probably would be the first option if Busch were to leave.

Front Row Motorsports: The full-time retirement of David Ragan opens a ride here that Front Row intends to fill, but Ross Chastain would be high on this team’s list for the No. 38 Ford, and Corey LaJoie also has been mentioned as a possibility. Michael McDowell and Matt Tifft are believed to be returning to the team.

–GoFas Racing: LaJoie is putting up solid numbers while emerging as a breakout personality, and that could draw attention and opportunities from other teams. DiBenedetto remains friendly with many on this team from his 2017-18 stint.

–Hendrick Motorsports: Jimmie Johnson (contract through 2020), Chase Elliott, William Byron and Alex Bowman (pending sponsorship finalization) all are solid for next year

–Joe Gibbs Racing: Clearly no room here with all four drivers seemingly set for next season.

JTG Daugherty Racing: Ryan Preece said Friday his deal with the team is beyond 2019. Chris Buescher was announced in August 2017 as having signed a multiyear deal. The team has ended its deals before the end of a term before, though, with A.J. Allmendinger leaving after last season despite two years remaining on an extension he signed in 2015.

Leavine Family Racing: This isn’t an option for next year with the expected arrival of Christopher Bell.

But thanks to the trigger-happy Twitter thumbs of team owner Bob Leavine, it’s known that a scenario has been discussed in which DiBenedetto could spend a season in Xfinity before returning to Cup in 2021 (when the Gen 7 car is expected to make its debut). DiBenedetto has been careful to avoid burning any bridges (he immediately thanked LFR and its team members in postrace interviews).

-Richard Childress Racing: Daniel Hemric’s contract with the team is through 2020, but he has sent signals he isn’t certain of being kept (Xfinity champion Tyler Reddick will need a Cup ride to stay at RCR). Austin Dillon, grandson of team owner Richard Childress, is set.

Richard Petty Motorsports: Bubba Wallace was signed to a multiyear deal last year and has indicated he will return in 2020.

Roush Fenway Racing: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. recently reaffirmed that he has a contract through 2021, and the team would seem very happy with Ryan Newman taking the No. 6 to the playoffs in his first season.

Stewart-Haas Racing: Kevin Harvick is set beyond this season (and probably as long as he wants to drive the No. 4). Aric Almirola came with sponsor Smithfield to SHR last year and is good through 2020. Clint Bowyer is in a contract year and while indications have been positive about his return, sponsorship on his No. 14 has been difficult, and an extension likely would include a pay cut similar to many other veterans in his class. Daniel Suarez is in his first season at SHR and said last Friday that he and the team both have options for remaining together in 2020 “but everything is looking pretty good” for remaining in the No. 41.

Team Penske: Its trio of Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney is firm.

–Wood Brothers Racing: Paul Menard recently said he expects to be back in the No. 21 Ford next year.


In taking on Bell as its No. 95 driver next year, LFR will function much more like a de-facto fifth Joe Gibbs Racing car in a stronger alliance resembling what Furniture Row Racing had with JGR.

LFR switched to Toyota this season but was running a 2018 chassis Saturday, according to crew chief Mike Wheeler, who also said as “JGR learns stuff, we get upgrades.” Based on how well DiBenedetto ran at Bristol, where he led final Cup practice, qualified seventh and finished second, there was some speculation that the team might have received a full-fledged JGR-prepared Camry at Bristol.

“There’s a misconception out there about it being a JGR primary car,” Wheeler said. “It is a generation behind, but it’s good. If you put a good setup and good driver in it, it can go fast, and you saw that tonight.”


As difficult as Saturday night’s finish was for Denny Hamlin and Matt DiBenedetto, it was just as gutting for Mike Wheeler, who had to watch as his current driver got beat by the driver whom he guided as the No. 11 crew chief from 2016-18 before being transferred to LFR by JGR.

Though it isn’t expected that Wheeler will remain as the No. 95 crew chief next year (Bell has spoken highly of his Xfinity crew chief, Jason Ratcliff, who previously won with Matt Kenseth in Cup), Gibbs said Wheeler was under long-term contract to the team. “We all love Wheels,” Gibbs said. “He’s been a very key part to our organization. Then when he moved over to the 95, he’s just done an outstanding job over there.”

Wheeler told reporters he “definitely needed a moment to compose myself” after Saturday’s finish (as captured in this photo by Dustin Long).

“If you told us we’d ran second before we got here, but to lead the whole last stint and come up short, that was disappointing,” he said. “It’s like gosh. I don’t know why things happen to me like that. But it makes you a better person I guess in the future.”


In making the switch to 18-inch tires with the Gen 7 car, NASCAR also is considering the use of a single lug nut to secure wheels. That would be another step toward bringing NASCAR in line with IndyCar, whose common chassis by Dallara has been pushed by team owners Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi (whose teams compete in both series) as a model for the Gen 7 on cost-savings components.

The move to a single lugnut (from the current five-lugnut wheel) could be viewed as a safety enhancement by greatly reducing the possibility of loose wheels, but it also would overhaul the dynamics of pit stops and likely de-emphasize the importance of tire changers.


Brad Keselowski long has been sensitive to how private aviation in NASCAR is perceived by a fan base that formed its bonds with stars through workingman’s roots. The Team Penske driver once banned news media that traveled with him from taking photos or video aboard his plane.

In the wake of the crash involving Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s plane last week, Keselowski made another impassioned and well-reasoned defense of flying in NASCAR – particularly in the case of Bristol, which is about a three-hour drive from the Charlotte area homes of many drivers.

“It’s work-life balance,” said Keselowski, who flew into the same airport Friday morning where Earnhardt’s plane crashed the previous afternoon. “That’s the reality of it. We’re trying to be dads and be husbands. And try to leverage the privileges we have to do just that. That’s probably the easiest way I can answer it.

“My staying home (Thursday) night, I got to have dinner with my daughter. Her grandparents got to come over. That’s a big deal. I don’t get many nights like that. Michigan week, I wasn’t home at all and didn’t spend any time with my family. I look through the pictures of my daughter when she’s growing up, and it’s, ‘Oh my God, how did my daughter turn 4 years old?’ It happened like that, and it happened while I was at races in Michigan and gone all week And when I have a week like this where we can make the most of it, we’re going to try like hell to make the most of it. We were able to do that because of private aviation.

“I understand that most people might not get that concept, but most people aren’t in the situation we’re in as race car drivers that travel every week. We don’t get to skip a week. We’re not like LeBron James where we get to sit on the bench or stay home for a week or whatever it is from other sports. This is 38 weeks, and they will run the race without you. And your ass will get fired if you don’t show up. So that’s really hard to explain to people. And it’s very hard to explain to your wife and daughter when you miss something that’s really special to them. Private aviation is a great way to try to fill those gaps. And we might get a black eye because of that, but it’s something that I’m really passionate about and very thankful for.”


Facing the likelihood that he will miss the Cup playoffs for the first time in 16 years, Jimmie Johnson said Friday that failing to qualify for championship eligibility would change his goal from grinding out points to advance through rounds to focusing exclusively on getting a win with new crew chief Cliff Daniels.

The seven-time champion also would need to begin considering whether the 2020 season would be his last. In the instances of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr., that decision was made months (or in Stewart’s case, more than a year) ahead of the final race. Despite his current slump, Johnson seems inclined to keep racing because “our team is getting so good, so strong” but also recognizes foresight on exit strategy is necessary.

“I know for the team, sponsor and for (team owner) Rick (Hendrick), following some sort of timeline would be best for them,” said Johnson, who turns 44 next month. “Like Jeff did and some just decide to walk away, some want a year, others want half a year. I fortunately have not put any thought into that. My commitment is still the team. I’m sure I’ll be pressed for a decision at some point, but I’m not really ready to make that decision. I love what I’m doing being on the track. If I had to pick right now, I’d sign on for more years.”

Johnson added that new primary sponsor Ally seems more focused on branding and name recognition than on-track results.


Besides some unfortunate mainstream publicity, the controversy over the removal of Slayer as the sponsor of a Rick Ware Racing car again underscored the mixed messages that the entangling alliances of sponsorship often tend to breed in NASCAR. RWR released a statement that the band’s “brand image and beliefs” did not align with the team and its longtime partners – though it probably would be more than welcome in many other corners of stock-car racing.

Slayer is one of the progenitors of death metal, a genre that is popular among the ranks of up and coming youth in NASCAR. Longtime Megadeth fan Tyler Reddick had the band on his Xfinity car at New Hampshire last month. Bubba Wallace and Ryan Blaney have noodled around as a death metal duo in social media clips and have posted videos from concerts.

The mainstream headlines last week, though (driven in part by the team’s 11th-hour cancellation), were “NASCAR says no to death metal band,” which doesn’t really help a series desperately trying to be as inclusive and universally appealing as possible in order to build audience. Sponsorship choices are made individually by teams, tracks and the sanctioning body, but their negative ramifications often can be felt across the board.


There’s another Cup alliance being considered in the Ford camp. Stewart-Haas Racing has discussed the possibility of offloading many of its cars to GoFas Racing in anticipation of its four-car fleet having a lot of extra inventory next season as it moves to the Gen 7car. It’s uncertain if the arrangement also might include technical support.

Racing chassis that are a few years old, Corey LaJoie is 29th in points with the No. 32, a spot higher than it was ranked with Matt DiBenedetto through 24 races last year.


Saturday night’s crowd at Bristol undoubtedly was better than April, but there’s been some debate over how much of the grandstands filled in after there were significant pockets at the green flag (which seemed to mostly disappear in photos of a gorgeous dusk at the track).

There is a simple way to resolve this, of course: If more auto racing tracks would release attendance, like virtually any other professional sport. The longtime excuse is that Cup tracks owned by publicly held companies don’t provide crowd numbers because they don’t want to provide “earnings guidance.”

With ISC and SMI on the cusp of being taken private and no longer required to report earnings, it would be a welcome end to the policy so that officially provided attendance figures could be used to comparatively demonstrate when a NASCAR crowd is truly a success story.

Dustin Long contributed to this report

Friday 5: Silly season off to a late start, leaving many questions

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BRISTOL, Tenn. — The anticipation of NASCAR’s Silly Season has been building because of its late arrival.

Wednesday’s announcement that David Ragan would not run full-time in Cup next year and Thursday’s announcement that Matt DiBenedetto was out at Leavine Family Racing after this season kickstarted Silly Season, making it the latest start to the ride-changing season in recent years.

Also Thursday, Erik Jones left little doubt he’ll be in the No. 20 car for Joe Gibbs Racing next season and a report stated that Christopher Bell will take over the No. 95 at Leavine Family Racing.

Many questions remain. Tyler Reddick and Cole Custer could be headed to Cup next season but have not announced where they’ll be. Clint Bowyer’s contract expires after this season, and while there are indications he’ll remain at Stewart-Haas Racing, nothing official has been announced. Kurt Busch signed a one-year deal with Chip Ganassi Racing for this season and said after he won in July at Kentucky that “it would be stupid not to keep this group together.”

Those are just among some of the questions this Silly Season. There are other moves that could take place.

But until this week, there had been a lot of talk but little action. 

That’s much different than when Cup teams arrived at Bristol Motor Speedway two years ago for the August race. By that point, it had already been announced that:

— Matt Kenseth was out at Joe Gibbs Racing after the 2017 season.

Erik Jones would replace Kenseth in that ride in 2018.

Alex Bowman would take over Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s ride in 2018.

Brad Keselowski had signed a contract extension with Team Penske.

Ryan Blaney was moving to Team Penske in 2018.

Paul Menard was taking over the Wood Brothers ride with Blaney moving

William Byron would drive the No. 24 in 2018

Matt DiBenedetto would remain with Go Fas Racing.

When Cup teams arrived at Bristol Motor Speedway last August, there were few moves that had been completed. The only announcements to that point were:

Bubba Wallace to remain with Richard Petty Motorsports through 2020.

— Kasey Kahne was retiring from full-time Cup racing.

Wallace’s announcement was in July. Kahne’s announcement was in August.

The decline in announcements to this point is partly on the complexity of completing deals. It’s not just the driver that has to be signed. There has to be enough sponsorship. Until there is, some deals won’t be done. At this rate, actual movement in Silly Season could continue to go deeper into the season. Of course, the talk is always there, even early in the year.

2. Life in the Fast Lane

Bristol Motor Speedway is notorious for nabbing speeders on pit road. And that could play a key role in Saturday night’s Cup race (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

There have been at least six speeding penalties in each of the last 10 Cup races at the half-mile track. There were 11 speeding penalties in April’s race, the most at the track since 17 speeding penalties were called in the April 2016 race.

Those racing for the final playoff spots have had their troubles with speeding on pit road at Bristol.

Daniel Suarez, who is six points out of the final playoff spots, has been penalized for speeding in each of the past two Bristol races. Jimmie Johnson, who is 12 points out of the final playoff spot, also has been penalized for speeding in each of the past two Bristol races.

Ryan Newman, who has a 10-point lead on the final playoff spot, was penalized for speeding at Bristol in the 2018 night race.

Bristol’s pit road speed is 30 mph, the same as Martinsville Speedway but Martinsville has not had as many speeding penalties in recent races.

So what makes Bristol more troublesome for drivers?

The track has pit stalls on both the frontstretch and backstretch. On pit stops during cautions, drivers must enter pit road at the exit of Turn 2 even if their pits are on the frontstretch, meaning, they must drive down the backstretch pit road and then run below the apron in the corners before entering the frontstretch pit road. It is the turn where drivers can get in trouble with speeds by cutting it too sharply.

“You’re just trying to get everything you can,” Newman said. “You’re cutting that radius and it’s kind of an unspecified science, I guess, of trying to guess the distance and the speed and you only got some much time to practice it and when you get somebody racing you, you push it a little bit and you get caught.”

3. Sure bet (almost)

Kyle Busch has won six of the last 12 short track races in Cup. No one else has won more than once in that time.

He’s finished in the top three in eight of those 12 races. He’s finished eighth or better in all but one of those races. The exception was a 20th-place finish in last year’s night race at Bristol. He spun on Lap 2 and was hit by multiple cars in that race. Later, he had contact with Martin Truex Jr. and then spun with a flat tire with less than 20 laps to go in the race.

Here is a look at his recent finishes on short tracks (wins in bold):

8th — Richmond (April 2019)

1st — Bristol (April 2019)

3rd — Martinsville (March 2019)

4th — Martinsville (October 2018)

1st — Richmond (September 2018)

20th — Bristol (August 2018)

1st — Richmond (April 2018)

1st — Bristol (April 2018)

2nd — Martinsville (March 2018)

1st — Martinsville (October 2017)

9th — Richmond (September 2017)

1st — Bristol (August 2017)

4. A budding rivalry?

Sam Mayer and Chase Cabre have seemingly built quite a rivalry in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East.

It’s been cooking for a bit among the title contenders.

In a story Thursday in the Bristol Herald Courier, Cabre said of Mayer: “I think he’s arrogant. Sam and I have talked, and he knows where I stand.”

Cabre also said in the story: “We have an ongoing rivalry, so things will happen and I’m not afraid to voice my opinion. There’s a good guy and bad guy element now between us. Nobody wants to tear up a race car, but it looks like Sam and I are going to be mashing heads for a while.”

It didn’t take long for them to make contact Thursday night.

Cabre spun on the opening lap after contact from Mayer. NASCAR penalized Mayer for the incident, forcing him to restart at the rear. Mayer went on to win the race and had plenty to say afterward about Cabre.

“He just keeps racing me like … you know what,” Mayer said. “I can’t say the word that describes him right now. He definitely does not race me clean. I did not appreciate it at all. It started at Memphis, all the way back there (June 1 in a race won by Cabre). I waited until it really mattered to finally do something and unfortunately I did it big. I wouldn’t want to call it a rivalry.”

Cabre finished eighth. Medics came to his wrecked car after the race and helped him on to a stretcher. After being checked in the infield care center, he was transported to a local hospital for further evaluation. He later tweeted he was suffering from back pain.

5. Leading the way

Since NBC took over broadcasting the Cup races, beginning June 30 at Chicagoland Speedway, no driver has scored more points than Denny Hamlin.

He has scored 273 points in those seven races. He’s followed by Martin Truex Jr. (262 points), Kyle Busch (250), Kevin Harvick (249) and Erik Jones (237).

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Plans for 2020 coming into focus for Erik Jones, Christopher Bell

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BRISTOL, Tenn. — Erik Jones laughed, but then stated that if any of his fans has a No. 20 tattoo, “I wouldn’t be worried about having to cover it up.”

Although Jones said he has not signed a contraction extension to remain at Joe Gibbs Racing, he stated Thursday at Bristol Motor Speedway that “we’re close. I hope we can announce something soon … we’re all really close.”

With Jones set to remain at JGR in the No. 20 car, a report by The Athletic states that Christopher Bell is expected to move to the No. 95 Toyota at Leavine Family Racing, taking the ride from Matt DiBenedetto, who announced Thursday he would not be back with the team after this season.

Leavine Family Racing issued a statement Thursday on DiBenedetto’s departure after this season and added that “we have no further announcements at this time.”

Bell said Thursday that “nothing is official until it comes from me or whatever team or whatever happens. I have no news to tell you guys right now. We’ll just have to wait for another day.

“Like I’ve said time and time again, my future is not in my hands, so the only thing I can control is if I can go out there and try and win races and do as good as I can and just have to play the cards how they fall.”

Asked if he knew what he was doing for 2020, Bell said: “Not yet. Not at this moment. It’s still all the way up in the air. There’s a number of different cars I could drive next year. I still could run the Xfinity Series. I could go to the Cup Series. It’s not in my hands right now. Just have to go out there and try to continue to win races.”

Where Jones and Bell would race next season was speculated on this summer with the two young drivers key cornerstones in Toyota’s program.

“I was never worried,” Jones said Thursday at Bristol Motor Speedway. “I was really comfortable and knew the situation and knew where things were kind of headed and knew that we all had a good plan and I was going to continue to work toward being in the 20 car.”

Jones in his second season at Joe Gibbs Racing. He ran his rookie season in Cup at Furniture Row Racing and replaced Matt Kenseth at JGR in 2018. Jones won the July Daytona race last year.

He enters Saturday night’s Cup race at Bristol (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) 14th in the points. He’s 70 points — more than a full race — ahead of Daniel Suarez, who is the first driver outside a playoff spot.

Bell, who is in his second Xfinity season for Joe Gibbs Racing, has shown he’s ready to move to Cup. Bell has won 13 of his 62 career Xfinity starts (21% winning percentage). This season, Bell has five wins in 21 starts (23.8% winning percentage) heading into Friday night’s Xfinity race at Bristol (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Long: Playoff drought could be coming to an end for one team

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BROOKLYN, Mich. — As cars ran out of fuel Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, Ryan Newman gained positions.

Then his engine sputtered, and he ran out of fuel in Turn 4.

On the final lap.

Newman made it to the finish line without losing any spots. He went from 18th to 12th in the last three laps as others coasted or had to pit for fuel.

Those six spots gained — and six points collected — helped stretch Newman’s lead for one of the final Cup playoff spots. He can help end a significant playoff drought. Newman enters Saturday night’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) 15th in the standings. Clint Bowyer, who holds the final playoff spot, is 10 points behind Newman.

MORE: Click here for the point standings.

Not since 2006 has the No. 6 team made the Cup playoffs. That car number was the first number Roush Fenway Racing used when it entered NASCAR’s premier series in 1988 with Mark Martin. And it was Martin in the car when it last made the Cup playoffs. Now it’s Newman’s ride and he is three races away from making the playoffs.

“To get into the (playoffs), race our way in throughout the whole season, it would show a huge step for the program,” said crew chief Scott Graves.

The team struggled last year with Trevor Bayne and Matt Kenseth sharing the ride. Graves, who had been Daniel Suarez’s crew chief for the majority of the past two years at Joe Gibbs Racing, joined Newman with the No. 6 team this year.

Topping off for fuel played a key role in Newman’s finish at Michigan. Twenty-seven cars pitted on Lap 150 under caution but Newman returned to pit road the following lap to top off on fuel. Only Newman and teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. came back to pit road to top off for fuel on Lap 151

Without that extra fuel, Newman would have run out sooner and lost positions — and points.

Ryan Newman is in a playoff spot with three races left in the regular season. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Newman looks to lead the No. 6 back in the playoffs with a grinding style that has not been pretty but has been productive.

The team has struggled to find speed. Newman has not started better than 16th in the last 15 races. It’s a key reason why Newman has scored 19 stage points in that span.

Newman is ahead of Bowyer, Suarez and Jimmie Johnson in the race for the final two playoff spots. Bowyer (54 stage points), Suarez (23) and Johnson (37) each has more stage points than Newman.

With the deficit on stage points, Newman and his team have had to score solid finishes. That made Graves’ decision to top off for fuel on Lap 151 at Michigan critical.

“We know the guys we’re racing against here, they’ve got the potential on any given weekend to go up there and bust off stage points and potentially win,” Graves said. “Obviously we are working really hard. We are grinding it out and getting the finishes we can to stay in this.

“That’s how we have to race right now. We know that to get in and even get anywhere in the (playoffs) if we do get in, we’ve got to really work on speed to get points.”

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Kevin Harvick revealed after his victory Sunday that he’s been racing with a right shoulder injury this summer.

The shoulder, he said, was not injured in an accident on the track. No, he injured the shoulder throwing a Nerf ball to son Keelan.

“It’s cut into my golf game,” Harvick quipped Sunday on NBCSN’s post-race show.

He later added that the shoulder is “probably 80 percent now. I mean, there was a point when I went to Sonoma that I couldn’t even lift it up. It feels better in the race car than it does  — the worst thing I had to do in the race car was shift.

“My main concern was Watkins Glen, but we got through it. It’s getting close to being back where it needs to be. But it was definitely uncomfortable. The load that these cars put on it is right next to the … it’s right in the spot where it’s not feeling well. So all the load from the shoulder is where it’s been injured. … But it’s fine.”

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Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Blaney, Kyle Busch, William Byron and Bubba Wallace were among the drivers who had conflicts after Watkins Glen and had to address it at Michigan.

Johnson and Blaney traded barbs through the media before eventually meeting in Johnson’s motorhome last Friday night. Busch had meetings with Byron and Wallace.

With the rules package intended to keep cars closer together and blocking more prevalent, additional conflicts are likely to occur toward the end of the regular season and into the playoffs. How one handles those situations could play a role in the final weeks of the season.

Such situations can be challenging, says Brad Keselowski, who had feuds with Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards early in his career. There remains friction with Busch even after Keselowski sought to smooth things between them.

“It wears on you as much as you let it wear on you,” Keselowski said of conflicts with other drivers. “Second, I would say that there are some drivers that handle conflict incredibly well and there are some that don’t. I have never considered myself to be the best at it.

“I will be honest, I do look at videos of guys like Dale Earnhardt. He was in so many situations of conflict and they were easier to deal with in his time and age because of the lack of social media and lack of a 24-hour news cycle and things of that nature. But then on the flip side, he was a master at dealing with it. So I think you look at those guys and you think that probably parlayed into some of the success of his career, so you would be a fool not to study and try to learn from it. In today’s landscape it is harder than ever to handle for sure.”

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Ben Rhodes collected a dubious honor Saturday at Michigan International Speedway.

He ranked fifth in the points — before the standings were reset for the playoff competitors — and failed to make the playoffs. That makes him the driver who has been the highest in points before the standings were reset to miss the postseason in Cup, Xfinity or the Gander Outdoors Truck Series in this current format. 

Rhodes scored more points than playoff drivers Ross Chastain, Austin Hill, Johnny Sauter and Tyler Ankrum. The difference is that in NASCAR’s win-and-you’re-in system, Chastain, Hill, Sauter and Ankrum won this year. Rhodes did not.

Also what makes Rhodes standing unique is that not all the playoff competitors ran all the races or scored points in all the races.

Ankrum was not old enough to compete in the season’s first three races. Sauter was suspended one race when NASCAR penalized him for wrecking Hill at Iowa in June. Chastain started the season running for points in the Xfinity Series and switched to Truck points before the season’s ninth race, which was at Texas in June. That’s why they were behind Rhodes in points.

The Truck playoffs begin Thursday night at Bristol Motor Speedway.