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Cup team’s debut stirs debate on value of smaller part-time teams

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The entry of NY Racing for this weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 has stirred talk about the value of smaller teams unable to compete a full season in Cup after a comment from the chairman of the Race Team Alliance.

NY Racing is entered in its first Cup race of the year. JJ Yeley is the driver. The team announced Tuesday a multi-year deal with Steakhouse Elite as sponsor. The team is owned by John Cohen, whose previous Cup teams ran 16 races between 2012-15. His team’s best finish was 32nd in the 2015 Daytona 500 with Reed Sorenson. His teams also failed to qualify for seven races and withdrew five times.

The entry of NY Racing means one car will fail to qualify for the Coca-Cola 600. The five teams going for the four spots available for non-charter teams are those of BJ McLeod (No. 52, Rick Ware Racing), Jeffrey Earnhardt (No. 55 Premium Motorsports), Timmy Hill (No. 66, Motorsports Business Management), Parker Kligerman (No. 96 Gaunt Brothers Racing) and Yeley.

NY Racing’s entry drew the ire of Rob Kauffman, co-owner of Chip Ganassi Racing and chairman of the Race Team Alliance. Kauffman tweeted about NY Racing’s entry and then responded to a few who questioned him.

Kauffman’s tweet drew a response from Xfinity driver Tommy Joe Martins, who has been vocal about the importance of smaller teams in NASCAR’s national series and the need to raise the profiles of such teams. Martins responded to Kauffman’s comments with a series of tweets.

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Preliminary entry lists for Cup, Xfinity at Charlotte Motor Speedway

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Forty-one cars are on the preliminary entry list for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

NBC Sports analyst Parker Kligerman will make his first Cup start since 2014 this weekend. He’s driving the No. 96 for Gaunt Brothers Racing.

BJ McLeod will be in the No. 52, a second entry for Rick Ware Racing.

The entry list was updated Monday to add a 41st car — the No. 7 that will be driven by JJ Yeley for NY Racing Team. The team is owned by John Cohen, who was owner of Team Xtreme when it had its Atlanta car stolen from the parking lot of a Georgia hotel in Feb. 2015.

Rob Kauffman, chairman of the Race Team Alliance, tweeted his displeasure with the team entering the event:

Austin Dillon is the defending Coca-Cola 600 winner.

Click here for updated Coca-Cola 600 entry list

In the Xfinity Series, 43 cars are entered for the Alsco 300.

Cup drivers entered are: Ty Dillon, Brad Keselowski, Chase Elliott and Jamie McMurray. Elliott is driving the No. 23 for GMS Racing in place of suspended driver Spencer Gallagher.

Kaz Grala, who lost his ride at JGL Racing when the organization shut down the No. 24 because of lack of sponsorship, is entered with the No. 61 car for Fury Race Cars.

Ryan Blaney won last May’s race.

Click here for Xfinity entry list

Kligerman: Why the essence of Jimmie Johnson is ‘They won’t outwork me’

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CONCORD, N.C. – Recently, I had the opportunity to test a Monster Energy Cup car at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It was the first time I’ve had the chance to wheel a car at the top level of NASCAR in just more than four years.

A lot has changed in that time but in my case, the most important was the car itself.

Setup styles, digital dashes, vastly lower downforce levels and lower horsepower.  It’s almost a different car.

This test was for the Coca-Cola 600. Thankfully, the person I leaned on for advice in my first taste of Cup racing at the end of 2013 is still there for advice.

Except he has two more championships to his name. (During the same time, I’ve been yapping into cameras and occasionally racing.)

That person is seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson.

In 2013, I was lucky enough to be able to use Jimmie’s spotter, Earl Barban. So when my Cup debut was upon me, Earl gave me Jimmie’s number, and he was gracious enough to not only text me back but take time to talk to me as he fought for a championship.

To this day, it’s one of the highlights of my career. Per his advice, I earned the team its best qualifying position of the year and best finish on a 1.5-mile track.

Preparing for my first Cup start since April 2014, I wasn’t expecting to have the same chance to talk to Jimmie this time around. Mostly because I would be too shy to reach out.

Yet call it fate: It happened on the day of this manufacturer test for wheel force cars (which are outfitted with million-dollar telemetry equipment to validate and assess tires for their simulation programs).

“Jimmie is driving the wheel force car,” Drew Herring, Toyota’s simulation and wheel force driver, said to me. “Can you believe that?”

“I’m not surprised,” I replied.

Drew was shocked.

Wheel force testing is usually reserved for the drivers who draw the short straw or a talented young driver such as Drew who is happy to have the work.

It’s the closest that driving a race car will seem like a chore. It is monotonous, systematic and doesn’t require you to always go as fast as you can but instead hit certain parameters the engineers need to gather data.

But the job doesn’t end there. The wheel force driver is also required to turn laps in the manufacturer simulator, so the engineers can validate the data. It is a multi-day commitment to working on racecars as if they are a new line of code in an app.

After speaking to Drew, I walked by the Chevy pit area to get to my team’s pit area. Jimmie didn’t look too busy, so I seized the opportunity to strike up a conversation and get his advice on what I was struggling with in my Cup car.

I started by asking the simple question, “What are you doing here?”

He looked me straight in the eyes and said, “They won’t outwork me.”

It was this answer as to why I am not surprised he was there.

Earlier, Drew also suggested to me that someone asked Johnson to do the test. But Jimmie’s answer all but confirmed he wanted to be there.

Jimmie and I talked about current Cup cars and how they drive. Just as in 2013, he was very gracious with his time and knowledge to help guide me in the right direction with my own driving (much of what I won’t go into as that is driver-to-driver talk).

As we talked, I’m sure he noticed that I couldn’t stop my eyes from being drawn to the Monster Energy Cup Series logo on his suit. A “Champion 7x” patch is stitched directly below.

That assures him a place in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. In my eyes, he is the greatest NASCAR driver of all time. The sheer sight of that simple patch is intimidating, to say the least.

Yet the conversation I was having with the person behind the patch was as if we were two buds hanging out.

At one point, he thought the lap times they were doing were 29.3 seconds, and he then asked an engineer if he was right. “Nah, we are not that fast. More like 29.6s”

It didn’t matter. They weren’t there to set blistering lap times. It’s all about gathering data in an effort to stop the bleeding.

He is in the midst of the longest losing streak of his career – 35 races (if he comes up short in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, the drought will be as long as a full Cup season). Last Saturday night at Kansas Speedway, the No. 48 team radio underscored the tension building as Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus hunt for performance.

His race team, Hendrick Motorsports, is struggling to build the speed into their new Chevy Camaros that he needs to win.

He went into the facets of what he is struggling with handling-wise and the ways he was trying to adjust his driving style to fix them.

And all the while going through these issues, his face appeared to light up, and a smile came across as he said, “This is fun!”

I joked that it would be boring to just be winning every week. He chuckled and said, “Not exactly!”

As our conversation continued, his eyes filled with the enthusiasm and vibrancy of a young kid getting his first shot by doing the grunt work. Not a seven-time champion who many keep asking how many years he has left.

After a couple minutes, it was time for us both to get back in our cars and do our jobs. In his case, it was working with the multitude of Chevy engineers to make sure the data they were gathering was useful to improve their chances in the battle against the pointy end of the Cup field.

And in my case, it was to lament that I didn’t take notes.

As I was working with a small team that has only a handful of starts, Jimmie’s advice was once again invaluable to me. When we take the green flag at the Coca-Cola 600, it will be my team’s seventh start – the same number as Jimmie has championships.

The thing is, often in my other job, I am asked what makes Jimmie Johnson so good. People want to know what makes one driver better than another.

Usually, I’ll name a couple of his attributes and his incredibly unassuming nature. But on this fateful day at Charlotte, I finally saw the answer.

What makes Jimmie tick is a challenge. He loves, relishes and searches for a challenge. And right in front of him is maybe the largest he has ever faced.

But I’m not betting against him.

As he said, “They won’t outwork me.”

Friday 5: Matt Kenseth’s return is only the beginning for Roush Fenway Racing

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Matt Kenseth’s return to Cup today at Kansas Speedway is a feel-good story his fans hope will continue throughout the season.

But let’s get one thing clear.

He won’t be any type of savior for Roush Fenway Racing. Kenseth can help make the team stronger but it will be up to every person in the organization to make that happen. This is not a one-person job.

“Probably as much as anything I’m as excited about Matt interacting with us about is what’s most important on the car because there’s 100 things that go on behind the steering wheel — from conditions of how the car is handling to how they react in traffic to all the stuff that goes on on pit road,’’ Tommy Wheeler, operations director at Roush Fenway Racing, said April 25 after the announcement of Kenseth’s return.

“We have enough resources to fix any number of things, but what is very difficult to discern with a young driver lineup like we have is what is most important. What is going to be the most impactful today to make the car faster?’’

Kenseth will be in the car for the next five weeks, including three events in a row at a 1.5-mile track (Kansas, All-Star Race at Charlotte and Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte). The team has stated it needs to be better at such tracks. Kenseth’s input will be valuable.

Wheeler knows what Kenseth can provide. Wheeler joined Roush in 2010 as an engineering manager and saw the impact Kenseth had then.

“His feedback of telling us what direction to go with the race cars of ‘Hey if you fix this, I will run faster,’ that direct link and having the credentials and the ability to back that up can’t be overstated,’’ Wheeler said.

Anything that Kenseth can state and the team can adjust could help Ricky Stenhouse Jr. make the playoffs for a second year in a row.

Stenhouse enters this weekend two points behind Chase Elliott for what would be the final playoff spot at this time. With 15 races left until the playoffs begin, there is time to move into a playoff spot but the competition won’t be easy.

Stenhouse trails a Hendrick Motorsports driver for that last playoff spot and is just ahead of a Joe Gibbs Racing driver (Daniel Suarez) and another Hendrick driver (William Byron) in the points. 

2. NASCAR is watching you …

Since teams were informed before Bristol that NASCAR would call uncontrolled tire penalties more closely, such penalties have increased significantly.

NASCAR has called 18 uncontrolled tire penalties in the last four Cup races — more than double the number of those penalties called in the first seven races.

The change happened after NASCAR admitted it should have penalized Kevin Harvick’s team for an uncontrolled tire on a late pit stop at Texas. Instead, Harvick went on to finish second in that race.

Kyle Larson’s pit crew has been penalized for an uncontrolled tire twice in the last four races. So has Matt DiBenedetto’s team and AJ Allmendinger’s team.

NASCAR called six uncontrolled tire penalties at both Bristol and Richmond. There were five last weekend at Dover. 

3. Youth tryout

NASCAR announced this week the formation of a youth esports racing series catered to “attract and identify young talent.’’

This column brought up the topic in February but focused more on what a manufacturer or team could do to gauge the ability of youngsters. Such a program would give those who begin racing at an early age a way to display their talent who wouldn’t be able to otherwise for whatever reason. William Byron didn’t race a car until he was 15 years old. Five years later, he’s with one of the sport’s top teams in Hendrick Motorsports.

Said Jack Irving, director of team and support services for Toyota Racing Development, on finding talented youngsters through sim racing: “That is something that is of interest and something we’ve spent some time on.’’

For more of the story, go here.

4. Working hard

On Thursday’s NASCAR America, Parker Kligerman noted that while testing Wednesday at Charlotte Motor Speedway for Gaunt Brothers Racing — the team he will drive for in the Coca-Cola 600 — he shared the track with manufacturers doing a wheel-force test.

Wheel-force testing can be mundane and time-consuming. But Kligerman noted that the Chevrolet wheel-force car was driven by Jimmie Johnson. Kligerman said that Johnson told him that no one was going to outwork him as he seeks to return to winning races for Hendrick Motorsports. 

5. To the front 

Stewart-Haas Racing has had at least one of its cars finish in the top three in seven of the first 11 races this season. SHR took the top two spots last weekend with Kevin Harvick winning at Dover and Clint Bowyer placing second.

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NASCAR America: Denny Hamlin needs stage points to succeed

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With stage points on the line, finishing well at the end of the race is now only part of the equation. No one knows this better than Denny Hamlin.

“We’re finishing well,” Hamlin told Nate Ryan on NASCAR America. “Even though we’re overcoming adversity, but obviously those speeding penalties and other things like that – we just have not got enough stage points and that has kind of put us behind in the standings.”

Hamlin sits eighth in the standings, 105 points above the cutoff line top make the playoffs, but with 15 regular-season races remaining, that can change quickly.

NASCAR America’s Steve Letarte agreed with Hamlin about his challenge: “I think Denny Hamlin has it absolutely right. Their performance is there, but he keeps using a word: ‘overcome.’ We overcame this, we need to overcome that…

“You look at his performance and it’s pretty decent. You compare him to other cars in the field when it comes to stage points – and you look at Clint Bowyer. Clint Bowyer and Denny Hamlin both have run pretty decent; they do ok – the difference being the penalties. The number one thing when it comes to Denny Hamlin is he has five penalties just in the first two segments.”

While Hamlin and Bowyer have an almost identical average finishing position in the first two stages, Hamlin has earned 22 fewer stage points.

And without a victory yet in 2018, that could prove to be critical.

For more, watch the above video.