Friday 5: Crew chief strategies will be key at Indianapolis

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The wizardry of crew chief Rodney Childers will be tested after a random draw gave Kevin Harvick the 11th starting spot for Sunday’s Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Only twice since 2010 has an Indy winner started outside the top 10. Paul Menard won on a fuel-milage gamble after starting 15th in 2011. Kasey Kahne won in 2017 after he pitted before a caution late in the race, putting him at the front. He won in overtime.

Such is the challenge Harvick and Childers have at a place where track position and strategy are critical and passing is difficult.

“I think everybody in the field can have a different strategy and that different strategy can work for any of those people,” Childers told NBC Sports. “Just depending on when the caution comes out. There’s so many different things that can go on.”

Harvick had a dominant car in last year’s race but also benefitted when he pitted from the lead — and before most of the field — on Lap 128 of the 160-lap race. The caution came out while he was on pit road. That put him back at the front while others pitted during the caution. Had Childers not called Harvick in at that point, they would not have been able to take advantage of that break.

But what happens early can determine if a team will be in position to contend late in the race.

If Harvick’s car is good early, the question becomes how many positions can he gain before the field stretches out single file?

Then, there’s the competition caution, which is set for Lap 12. The first stage ends at Lap 50. A full fuel run should make it to the end of the stage from the competition caution.

One thing Harvick could do is what Childers did in 2018. Childers had Harvick, who was running second at the time, pit before the competition caution to change four tires (fuel cannot be added before the competition caution).

The plan was for Harvick to come back down pit road during the competition caution for fuel only, making that a quicker pit stop than those who changed four tires and get out ahead of them. That plan was undone by a penalty for an uncontrolled tire.

Still, it shows what Childers is willing to do. Another consideration is that if a car is about six seconds or more behind the leader, it’s unlikely they can pit under green and remain on the lead lap by the time they get back to speed.

Tire wear also will play in what crew chiefs decide. Tires will wear more early in the race with less rubber on the track.

Then, there’s the thought of how many cautions will there be between the competition caution and the end of the first stage. Last year, a right front tire went down and sent Landon Cassill’s car into the wall, creating a caution on Lap 43. The year before, Martin Truex Jr. brought out the caution on Lap 42 after a mechanical failure.

There’s much to consider for any crew chief.

“You can’t do the same thing (as the leaders) and have the same result,” Childers said. “That’s where it becomes tricky is just thinking all of it through. Having a good group of people behind you that are constantly thinking about that stuff (is key) and trying to think it through. Just one person, like myself, can’t think it through on my own.”

But those who make the right decisions – and maybe get some help from a well-timed caution – could be celebrating after Sunday’s race.

2. Aging like fine wine

Since the Cup Series resumed in May, nine of the 11 races have been won by drivers 36 and older. Seven of those wins have come from drivers 39 and older.

There’s no doubt that 44-year-old Kevin Harvick (Stewart-Haas Racing), 40-year-old Martin Truex Jr. (Joe Gibbs Racing), 39-year-old Denny Hamlin (Joe Gibbs Racing) and 36-year-old Brad Keselowski (Team Penske) drive for some of the top organizations in the sport.

Still, they’ve won during this stretch, while others, such as Kyle Busch, remain winless. Harvick has three wins, Hamlin has three victories, Keselowski has two wins and Truex has one triumph.

The only drivers younger than 36 years old to have won since May are 24-year-old Chase Elliott at the second Charlotte race and 26-year-old Ryan Blaney at Talladega.

So is this a matter of veteran drivers using their experience with no practice before races? Or is this a case of older talent showing it can remain among the sport’s elite longer?

“The experience level obviously comes into play,” Harvick said. “I think when you are surrounded with a good team and a good organization and are able to work those details out, I think the potential is to drive into your 50’s. Why not? I think with the health side of things and the way that people take care of themselves and work out, I think the longevity of the body on most of us going forward is going to be more durable than what it has been in the past.”

Harvick has won 15 races since 2018.

“I think I kind of had a second life I guess you could say coming to SHR,” said Harvick, who has been with Stewart-Haas Racing since 2014. “That was very motivating, and I think as you look at it now, for me it is still very motivating. You work your whole career to get into a situation like this.

“I had a long conversation with Mark Martin. You work your whole career to get in this situation, why would you want to give that up and just say, ‘I quit’? As long as (wife) DeLana and my family are supportive, I don’t think the drive and enthusiasm, as far as showing up to the racetrack every week, will go away anytime soon. You just have to balance those things. I think as you look at Martin (Truex Jr.) turning 40 and Denny (Hamlin) and a lot of the success has been from that particular age group. I don’t think that is going to change any time soon.”

3. Location, location, location

A key to what happens on the track Sunday could be what happens in the stands.

While there will be no fans at Indy this weekend, spotters will move from atop the pagoda to the Turn 1 stands to allow for social distancing. Secondary spotters will be positioned in Turn 3.

With the group stretched out, a spotter for the leader can’t run to spotters of slower cars and tell them what lane the leader wants. Catching a slower car in the corner, especially at Indy, can cost the faster car a couple of seconds or more and allow those behind to close.

It’s something that could impact pit strategy. It did for Erik Jones and crew chief Chris Gayle last Sunday at Pocono Raceway.

“It’s a huge thing,” Gayle said of being held up by slower cars. “We were in the same scenario at this (past) weekend at Pocono where we came up on (Ryan Newman). We were running out (of fuel) and were going to do a fuel only strategy, had pretty much decided that’s what we were going to do but it was about staying in clean air for the majority of the time that we could toward the end of that race. We came up on the 6 car (Newman) and it’s notorious for how hard it is to get around him. I’m like, I’m going to give (Jones) one lap to pass the 6 car. If we don’t get it in one lap, we were pitting because we knew we could come out in another clean spot.”

Jones went on to finish third. Newman finished 18th, the first car a lap down.

4. Standout performance

With the focus on Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick last weekend at Pocono Raceway, it was easy to miss one of the weekend’s key performances.

Matt DiBenedetto scored the sixth-most points in the two Cup races at Pocono. That’s important because of what the weekend meant for him.

Matt DiBenedetto scored 72 points, including 17 stage points, last weekend at Pocono. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

He headed to Pocono 16th in points, holding what could be the final playoff spot. After those two races – and buoyed by scoring more stage points than Hamlin and Harvick — DiBenedetto is 14th in the driver standings. He’s 43 points ahead of Erik Jones, who is 16th.

With the regular-season finale scheduled for Daytona, there’s a greater chance than in previous years that a driver outside the top 16 could win that race and claim a playoff spot. The key is to keep out of the 16th spot. DiBenedetto’s performance last weekend, particularly in each stage, was a key step in that goal.

“Stage points can just make such a huge difference, especially this point in the year when the point stuff is really starting to settle out a little bit,” said DiBenedetto, whose 17 stage points in the doubleheader were the fifth-most scored last weekend. “People are settling in place, so you’ve got to take everything you can get because that makes a big difference as far as securing a solid spot in the playoffs and, for us, really climbing back up in the points to where we think we are running weekly.”

Keep an eye on DiBenedetto this weekend. Crew chief Greg Erwin helped Paul Menard to top-10 finishes each of the past two years at Indianapolis.

5. Rough going

After 15 races this season, Kyle Busch has no wins, no stage wins and no playoff points.

Last year at this time, he had four wins, five stage wins and 25 playoff points.

His avenge finish this season is 14.7. His average finish at this time last year was 6.3.

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Goodyear bringing new ‘robust’ tires for Martinsville night race

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On Wednesday night, the NASCAR Cup Series will do a first: race under the lights at Martinsville Speedway (7 p.m. ET on FS1).

For the event, Goodyear will bring new tire codes to the half-mile track. The construction of the tires – a result of a test at the track last year partially held at night – has been designed to optimize the acceleration, deceleration and handling needed on Martinsville’s flat, tight turns.

The teams that took part in the test were Team Penske (Ryan Blaney), Stewart-Haas Racing (Clint Bowyer) and Wood Brothers Racing (Paul Menard). This is the only track at which NASCAR teams will run either of these two tire codes. As on most NASCAR ovals 1 mile or less in length, teams will not run inner liners in their tires at Martinsville.

“Moving the first Martinsville race later in the schedule will have an impact on tires and the track’s ability to take rubber,” Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing, said in a media release. “Originally scheduled for May and now being held in June, ambient temperatures will be warmer, which will help the cars’ ability to lay rubber in the concrete corners. Even though this race will be held at night, track temperatures should be warmer than what we ‘normally’ have for this event. In addition to the concrete corners, Martinsville’s lack of banking, long straightaways and tight turns combine for the other challenges teams face. Drivers are hard on the brakes entering the corners and hard on the gas exiting, so our constructions have to be very robust in handling those conditions.”

Here’s the info on the tires being used at Martinsville:

Set limits: 10 sets for the race

Tire Codes: Left-side — D-4948; Right-side — D-4950

Tire Circumference: Left-side — 2,221 mm (87.44 in.); Right-side — 2,250 mm (88.58 in.)

Minimum Recommended Inflation: Left Front — 10 psi; Left Rear — 10 psi; Right Front — 23 psi; Right Rear — 22 psi

NASCAR’s top 5 moments from Talladega Superspeedway

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Talladega.

You either love or hate the track in Alabama.

As we’ve done with with Miami, Texas, Bristol, former NASCAR tracks and Richmond, we’re taking a look at the top five NASCAR moments from the track.

You’ll either love them or hate them.

Here they are.

 1. 18th to first (2000)

With four laps left in the 2000 Winston 500, Dale Earnhardt was nowhere near the front.

He was 18th.

Over the last four circuits of the 2.66-mile superspeedway, the seven-time Cup champion would put on one last show at the track he’d won nine previous times.

Earnhardt deftly navigated the draft and the field, rubbing fenders when he needed to, and eventually picked up help from Kenny Wallace with three laps to go. That allowed him to move into third on the backstretch behind his teammate, Mike Skinner, and his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr.

As they took the white flag, the elder Earnhardt narrowly led Skinner and Earnhardt Jr. across the finish line.

By the time they reached Turn 3, Earnhardt led Wallace and Joe Nemechek as they broke away from the chaos of the pack behind them.

Earnhardt kept the lead and crossed the finish line for his 76th and final Cup Series win.

 2. Gordon win angers Dale Jr. fans (2004)

From fall 2001 to spring 2003, Dale Earnhardt Jr. claimed four straight wins on NASCAR’s biggest oval. After his teammate Michael Waltrip won the fall 2003 race, he aimed for win No. 5 in April 2004.

He came very close.

Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon were battling for the lead with five laps to go when a Brian Vickers incident in Turn 3 brought out the caution and froze the field.

When the field raced through the tri-oval back to the finish line, Earnhardt led Gordon.

Cue controversy.

As the field crept around the track with four laps to go, NASCAR ruled Gordon had been the leader when the caution was issued.

The race never resumed and Gordon took the win.

As the checkered and yellow flags flew, so did cups and cans of beer, as angry fans pelted the track and a celebrating Gordon to show their disapproval in the race not resuming and the outcome.

The creation of the green-white-checkered finish wasn’t far behind.

 3. Brad Keselowski gets first win in a part-time role (2009)

In 2009, Brad Keselowski was driving part-time for James Finch. The spring race at Talladega was his fifth Cup Series start and his third of 15 starts that season.

Entering the race, Keselowski had yet to lead a lap. Exiting the race, he had one lap led on his record. How he led that lap is notable.

The tandem racing era on superspeedways was just getting underway and it was on display during a four-lap shootout to the finish.

When the white flag was displayed, Carl Edwards, with Keselowski hooked to his bumper, sped by Ryan Newman and Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the lead and second place.

As they raced through the tri-oval for the final time, Keselowski went to Edwards’ inside. They made contact and Edwards went into a spin, the momentum of which caused him to collide with Newman and get airborne into the catch fence. He was unharmed.

By the end of the season Keselowski would be driving for Team Penske. He’d go full-time in 2010 and two years later would win his first Cup title. In the spring 2010 Atlanta race, Edwards would get payback when he intentionally spun Keselowski, causing him to flip onto his roof.

 4. Dawn of the restrictor plates (1987)

Every era of auto racing has to start somewhere.

NASCAR’s restrictor-plate era began in 1988 and lasted through the 2019 Daytona 500.

But its origins are in the May 1987 Winston 500 and a scary Bobby Allison wreck, days after Bill Elliott established the track’s qualifying record at 212.809 mph.

Twenty-one laps into the event, Allison was racing through the tri-oval when his engine blew. Debris from it cut a tire, causing Allison to lose control. He lifted up into the catch fence, where his car ripped a large section of it down right before the flag stand.

Allison was unharmed in the crash.

After a lengthy red flag to repair the fence, the race resumed. It ended with Davey Allison, Bobby’s son, earning his first Cup Series win.

That year was the last year of unrestricted racing on superspeedways.

 5. ‘Sorry we couldn’t crash more cars today’ (2012)

While Daytona and Talladega provide plenty of spectacle, they also provide really big crashes.

In the May 2012 Cup race, one of those wrecks unfolded on a restart with four laps to go.

Among those involved in the nine-car wreck was Tony Stewart.

Afterward, an unhappy Stewart showed his displeasure in a sarcastic interview.

“Sorry we couldn’t crash more cars today. We didn’t fill the quota for today for Talladega and NASCAR,” Stewart deadpanned. “If we haven’t crashed at least 50% of the field by the end of the race we need to extend the race until we crash at least 50% of the cars. ‘Cause it’s not fair to these fans for them to not see any more wrecks than that and more tore up cars.”

April 17 in NASCAR: Johnson wins in four-wide finish at Talladega

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The early 2010s were a different time for NASCAR when it came to restrictor-plate tracks and it can be summed up in two words: Tandem racing.

For a brief time, the signature image of a huge pack of cars streaming around Daytona and Talladega was replaced by the visual of two-car pairings, usually teammates, frantically pushing each other for position.

The tandem era arguably peaked on April 17, 2011 at Talladega in a race that featured 88 lead changes.

With five laps to go in the Aaron’s 499, 10 groups of tandem partners jockeyed for the win, with Dave Blaney leading into Turn 1 via a push from Kurt Busch. Neither driver would finish in the top 15 after Busch nearly wrecked Blaney with four laps to go.

With three laps to go, the remaining pairings with a shot at the win were: Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle; Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr.; Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick; Martin Truex Jr. and David Reutimann; Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin; Tony Stewart and David Gilliland; AJ Allmendinger and Paul Menard.

With two laps to go, the parings of Edwards/Biffle and Bowyer/Harvick had a good advantage over the rest of the field. But by the time the field exited Turn 4, the Gordon/Martin duo had passed Bowyer/Harvick. They were the leaders as they took the white flag.

When the field reached Turn 3 for the final time, Johnson/Earnhardt had entered the fray. They were behind Bowyer/Harvick and Gordon/Martin as they entered the tri-oval. Edwards/Biffle trailed them.

Johnson/Earnhardt then dove to the lower lane in the tri-oval and started a three-wide drag race to the finish line that would become a four-wide finish at the last moment.

Johnson beat Bowyer by .002 seconds.

“I drove through (Turns) 3 and 4 and I’m like, ‘We’ll get another chance, I hope,'” Johnson told Fox. “They were worried about each other in the second and third lane and left that bottom open and we had some big (momentum) on our side and off we went.”

Also on this date:

1960: Joe Weatherly won his second race in two nights with a victory at Wilson (N.C) Speedway, a half-mile dirt track. But Weatherly wasn’t the first to cross the finish line. That was Emanuel Zervakis. NASCAR disqualified his win after they found his fuel tank was oversized, according to “Forty Years of Stock Car Racing: The Superspeedway Boom.”

1965: Rookie Dick Hutcherson earned his first career win in a race at Greenville-Pickens (S.C) Speedway. He went on to win nine poles and nine races that season on his way to a runner-up finish in the points. He’d only compete in two more seasons, winning five times. He went on to crew chief for David Pearson during Pearson’s 1969 championship run.

1977: Cale Yarborough led 495 of 500 laps and won a Cup race at Bristol by seven laps over Dick Brooks.

1994: Terry Labonte led only the final 29 laps and beat Rusty Wallace and Ernie Irvan at North Wilkesboro for his first win as driver of Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 5 Chevrolet.

2009: Greg Biffle led the final 106 laps and beat Jason Leffler at Phoenix Raceway for his 20th and final Xfinity Series win.

Friday 5: Daytona 500, Speedweeks prove costly to teams

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Crashes collected an alarmingly high number of cars in the Daytona 500 for a fourth consecutive year.

Thirty-two of the 40 cars — 80% of the field — in this year’s Daytona 500 were involved in a crash based on NASCAR’s race report and video review.

In the last four years, 81.3% of the cars in the season-opening Cup race were involved in an accident. 

Despite the number of cars damaged in Daytona 500 crashes, Ryan Newman is the only Cup driver taken to a hospital in the past four years. He was released from Halifax Medical Center on Wednesday but will not race this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, ending his streak of 649 consecutive Cup starts that dates to his rookie season in 2002.

While there is an expectation of cars wrecking in the sport’s most prestigious race because of the tight racing, it hasn’t always been this extreme.

From 2013-16, the percentage of cars involved in an accident in the Daytona 500 was 42.6% — nearly half the percentage of cars damaged in crashes the past four years. 

Among the reasons for the dramatic increase is that more crashes begin toward the front of the field.

The 19-car crash in Monday’s Daytona 500 started when a shove from Joey Logano pushed Aric Almirola into Brad Keselowski’s car. Keselowski, running second, was turned into the outside wall in front of the field.

A nine-car crash in overtime started when Ross Chastain, running fourth, got out of shape after contact with Ryan Preece’s car and came up the track into Preece and Logano.

And Newman’s crash coming to the checkered flag happened while he led.

In 2019, 21 cars were involved in a crash with less than 10 laps left in the scheduled distance. It started when Matt DiBenedetto, running fifth, turned in front of the field after contact from behind by Paul Menard.

The 2018 race featured a 12-car crash that started when Kurt Busch, running third, got hit from behind and spun in front of the field, forcing the race to go to overtime.

In the 2017 race, 17 cars crashed after Jimmie Johnson, running third, was hit and spun in front of the field.

Blocking also has been cited for an increase in incidents. As to what is considered fair when blocking, Martin Truex Jr. said a few days before this year’s race: Well, I think lately anything is fair. It tends to cause a lot of crashes, too, but it seems like that’s par for the course in speedway racing these days is just block until you crash and go to the next one.”

All the cars crashed in this year’s Daytona 500 pushed the total number of vehicles in a wreck during Speedweeks to 102 for the Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series.

It’s the third time in the last eight years the number of damaged vehicles exceeded 100 for Speedweeks.

Included in that total were all 18 cars in the Busch Clash. Winner Erik Jones was listed in three crashes in that exhibition race.

2. Xfinity drivers get help

This season marks the first full season Xfinity drivers will be able to look at some data from competitors, much like Cup drivers do.

“I think it changes the game, especially for the rookies,” Chase Briscoe told NBC Sports.

Xfinity drivers could look at the data in the last two races of last season, Phoenix and Miami. Briscoe said the technology, which translates data to virtual effects via live tracking of cars, helped him at Phoenix.

“I’ve always told everybody that Phoenix is my worst racetrack,” Briscoe said. “For me to be able to have SMT (sports media technology) and see what guys do different (helps). We don’t have the SMT that the Cup guys have, we don’t have throttle, brake or steering. We only have GPS so we can literally only see what the car is doing line-wise and acceleration-wise. I can’t see what Kyle Busch is doing inside his race car, but I can see where his car is line-wise compared to mine and where he enters the corner.

“I know my crew chief is super excited about it. He wants me to sit down in the shop and watch two hours of the track we’re going to before we go that weekend. It’s definitely going to be a tool that we’re going to use a lot of.”

Briscoe says the technology looks like a video game, and he can change the camera angle to study another competitor.

Brandon Jones said a key is that the team can look at the data live, so his crew chief can help him change lines during a race. At Miami last year, Jones was told by his team he wasn’t driving deep enough in the corner based on the data they were looking at.

“That gave me a thought to say, hey, this is what we’ve got to do to get the car to able to do that, so it’s going to help me with adjustments,” Jones said.

3. On to Las Vegas

Among the key storylines this weekend for Cup teams at Las Vegas Motor Speedway will be the performance of the Chevrolet teams with the new Camaro.

Changes were made from last year’s car to improve the aerodynamics. Chevrolet teams won 11 of 72 races in 2018-19 — its fewest wins in a two-year period since the manufacturer scored four victories in 1981-82. A Chevrolet has not made the championship Cup race since Jimmie Johnson won the 2016 title.

“I feel like last year Chevy came, they just missed the ball,” car owner Richard Petty said. “You know what I mean? They thought they had something good. 

“This year they corrected a lot of these mistakes. We hope they corrected it enough that we’re going to be competitive everywhere we go. I think from that standpoint, Chevrolet and all the Chevrolet people are really looking forward to making up for what we did last year.”

Chevrolet did win two races on 1.5-mile tracks last year (tracks the same size as Las Vegas). Alex Bowman won at Chicagoland Speedway, and Kurt Busch won at Kentucky Speedway.

4. Leaner driver

Ty Dillon says he’s lost more than 30 pounds since focusing on a workout program. He weighed 167 pounds before the season.

“I thought naively as a driver who had raced his whole life, as a Cup driver I didn’t really need to work out and take my physical (role) seriously,” said Dillon, who has former driver Blake Koch as a trainer. “In the past few years I’ve taken it serious for the first time. It has made me a better driver.”

Dillon, who is beginning his fourth season in Cup, admits: “I didn’t think I was heavy. I didn’t think I needed to workout. I just relied purely on my skill.

“I just feel different (now). I’m stronger, mentally stronger, more confident. You look back at those pictures, and you just see you’re just naive and young. You mature and grow as a person, and I think you start realizing what is important.”

5. Phoenix adjustment

Phoenix Raceway will have the PJ1 traction compound again applied to the track for next month’s races. That event marks the debut of the short track package for Cup that is intended to tighten the racing.

The traction compound will be applied in the corners but will be applied more along the driving line. Last fall, the traction compound was applied close to the wall. It will not be as high this time in the turns.

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