Friday 5: Pressure builds for teams heading into Coca-Cola 600

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After all the fun and games of the All-Star Race, the focus returns this weekend to points and playoff spots.

Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 marks the halfway point in the 26-race regular season. With only six winners this season, there’s the chance that a number of playoff spots could be claimed by points.

That increases the pressure on those fighting for those positions.

Jimmie Johnson enters the weekend 16th in the points, the final transfer spot to the playoffs. He leads Ryan Newman by eight points, Austin Dillon by 11 and Coca-Cola 600 pole-sitter William Byron by 15.

Ryan Newman is eight points out of a playoff spot. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

“The biggest thing is we need to get to victory lane,” Newman said after qualifying 18th Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “If you don’t get to victory lane, you don’t really have a chance.

“You’ve got to be a winner going into the last 10. Just pointing your way in doesn’t entertain me. If we do, great, and we come into a streak and progress in the last 10 (races), then even better. I really want to have that win and that momentum going into those last 10.”

Newman finished second for the championship in 2014 despite going winless that season. Since then, every driver racing for the championship in Miami has had at least one win that season. 

Some teams already are feeling that playoff pressure.

“It’s been a grind now for a couple of weeks for us,” said Dillon, the 2017 Coca-Cola 600 champion. “Hopefully, we can get a win, but it’s going to come down to points.

“I’ve been scratching and clawing every week. That’s where you hear some frustration from because you just want all you can get. When it comes down to it – and that last race happens – you’re going to want as many points as possible on your side.”

2. A fresh outlook 

Kyle Larson has been hitting the gym this season and working with Josh Wise, marking a new routine for the Chip Ganassi Racing driver.

Wise, a former driver, now serves as the driver performance manager for Ganassi and for some of the younger drivers driving for JR Motorsports and GMS Racing.

Larson, who won last weekend’s All-Star Race, admits he’s not been one for workouts that much before this season.

“(Josh) would always still send information to me on pre-race stuff and things like that and I didn’t take it as serious as I needed to,” said Larson, who will start Sunday’s race 25th. “I kind of felt guilty about that. This year I’ve gotten into a good routine where I drop (son) Owen off at school and then I go to the shop and I work out.

“I think before it was hard for me to find that routine to get the motivation to do it. This year I feel like I’ve gotten that routine. It’s made it a lot easier and I’ve actually enjoyed it and noticed a little bit of a difference. I think just the way our sport has gone, more drivers are working out. You don’t want somebody to get an advantage or an edge on you. I feel like I’m just more prepared and confident now going to the track.”

3. Who is No. 1?

Joe Gibbs Racing has won the most races this season (seven). Team Penske won the most recent points race (Brad Keselowski at Kansas).

So which one is the strongest?

It might be another team.

I honestly feel right now the Hendrick cars are the best cars,” Keselowski said Thursday. “I feel like they really came on strong over the last two or three weeks and had some nice updates to their stuff, so I would expect them to be the ones to beat this weekend.”

He said that before Hendrick’s William Byron won the pole for the 600.

Kyle Busch also sees a difference in Hendrick Motorsports.

I think Hendrick has certainly found some speed,” he said. “They’re certainly getting better. They’re waking up. They’ve come to play a bit more lately.

“As far as the (Team) Penske group goes, they don’t really qualify well but they always race well. Then you look at the (Stewart-Haas Racing) cars and they qualify well and they’ll race well typically. It seems like the SHR cars are trimmed out a little bit more than some of the rest of us. They get more speed out of their cars but maybe they don’t have it for the long haul. Where it seems like the (Joe Gibbs Racing) cars are kind of a compromise.

“We might not qualify on the pole or be the best in qualifying, but we’ll race well. I wouldn’t call it middle of the road, but I feel like we’re in a position to win each week.”

4. More blocking?

In the most recent points race (at Kansas), Erik Jones upset Clint Bowyer with a block on the last lap. It was a big move from Jones who came down the track to block Bowyer and then moved up as Bowyer tried to go on the outside. That it was the last lap made it easier to understand Jones’ move.

Still, as the battles intensify, especially during restarts, more blocks are to be thrown. Did Jones’ block show others that they can be bolder in keeping a competitor behind?

“I didn’t even think twice about it when I saw it from my perspective,” Denny Hamlin said. “The person who gets blocked always makes it a bigger deal than what it really is. I think the other competitors probably don’t think anything about it to be honest with you.

“We all throw blocks at certain times and sometimes they’re not as dramatic. Sometimes … somebody would come up on you and you would just choose to run their lane and block them that way. It’s a less dramatic way of doing it but certainly one where you cut from high lane to low lane or whatever it might be, you are counting on the person either checking up or you are counting on them to lose enough air that they’re going to lose their car. That’s the whole reason you do it in the first place.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. described Jones’ block as “normal.”

“You can get mad about it, but we all do it, so you can’t get mad at somebody just because they do it to you. We throw blocks on each other all the time.

“Kyle Busch threw a block on me. I told (the spotter), ‘Hey, make sure he knows that later on in the race I’m not going to lift and he might end up in the fence.’ That’s just part of this package. The better track position you can keep yourself in, the better the car drives. … Obviously, at the end of the race, I think anything goes.”

5. An Olympian effort

Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 will be the first for rookie Daniel Hemric.

He’ll rely on some training he got a few years ago from Olympic speed skating champion Dan Jansen.

In 2016, Hemric and Tyler Reddick were teammates at Brad Keselowski Racing in the Truck Series. Keselowski heard Jansen tell his story of overcoming defeat to win gold in his fourth Olympics.

Jansen entered his second Olympics as the favorite in the 500- and 1,000-meter races in the 1988 Games at Calgary. His sister died of leukemia hours before his 500-meter race. Jansen fell in that race. He later fell with a lap to go in the 1,000-meter race.

He failed to medal in the 1992 Games in Albertville and finally won gold in 1994 in Lillehammer in the 1,000-meter race.

After hearing Jansen speak, Keselowski approached the former Olympic champion.

“We just asked each other questions,” Keselowski said. “What did you do for this, how did you handle that? Different athletes compare notes. Some of that crosses over. A lot of it doesn’t, that’s OK. The crossover there I thought was very interesting. I wanted to apply it to our team. What he said made a lot of sense, and I thought it was something we were missing.”

Hemric had the chance to train with Jansen.

“We would do a really hard workout and get our heart rate extremely high, up in the 190s, 200 range, if not more, and have to get off that and do some hand-eye coordination stuff,” Hemric said. “Then as soon as that’s over, your heart rate is as high as it can be and you’re breathing heavy, closing your eyes and think about qualifying a lap, think about a green-white-checkered restart, putting yourself in those moments, thinking about what you would do and how you would do it. Being able to bring your heart rate down in those moments, seeing your heart, imagine seeing your heart slow down, all those things to get your body calm.”

Those are lessons Hemric continues to practice and says will help him in his first Coca-Cola 600.

“A lot of times in our sport it gets focused solely on the physical endurance part of it,” Hemric said. “The mental side in my opinion is going to be the most crucial. When you talk to other guys that have ran this race for the first time they’ve always said that when the first thing goes and they get tired, it’s their mind.

“That’s a long time to keep yourself mentally in the game. I’ve always kind of trained and had my own mental things that I do to visualize and think about those moments late in the race. It’s something I’ve had a lot of success with in the past. I’ve got to credit Dan Jansen. I’ve kept a lot of those methods in my training regimen and a lot of that was mental.”

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Gallery: Coca-Cola 600 patriotic paint schemes

Photos by Daniel McFadin
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With Memorial Day weekend here, many NASCAR teams will be racing patriotic paint schemes in Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Here’s a look at the unique schemes that will compete in NASCAR’s longest race.

All photos by Daniel McFadin.

Landon Cassill – No. 00 Chevrolet

Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Ford

Ryan Newman – No. 6 Ford

Aric Almirola – No. 10 Ford

Ty Dillon – No. 13 Chevrolet

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – No. 17 Ford

Kyle Busch – No. 18 Toyota

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Martin Truex Jr. – No. 19 Toyota

 (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

William Byron – No. 24 Chevrolet

Corey LaJoie – No. 32 Ford

 

Michael McDowell – No. 34 Ford

Matt Tifft – No. 36 Ford

David Ragan – No. 36 Ford

Ryan Preece – No. 47 Chevrolet

Jimmie Johnson – No. 48 Chevrolet

Cody Ware – No. 51 Ford

Bayley Currey – No. 52 Ford

BJ McLeod – No. 53 Chevrolet

Alex Bowman – No. 88 Chevrolet

Xfinity Series

Michael Annett – No. 1 Chevrolet

Jefferey Earnhardt – No. 18 Toyota

Ryan Sieg – No. 39 Chevrolet

Mike Harmon – No. 74 Chevrolet

Monster Energy Open: Larson, Wallace, Byron, Bowman advance to All-Star Race

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MONSTER ENERGY OPEN UPDATE — CONCLUSION OF RACE:

Kyle Larson dominated the final stage of the Monster Energy Open to advance to tonight’s NASCAR All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“I had to be patient,” Larson told Fox Sports 1. “I knew I had a really good car so I didn’t want to put myself in a bad spot and get damage like other guys did in the segments.

“Hopefully, we can give ourselves a good shot and clean up our act in the next hour or so (when the All-Star Race begins).

Click here for full race results.

Larson joins Stage 2 winner Bubba Wallace and Stage 1 winner William Byron in transferring into the All-Star Race. A fourth driver, Alex Bowman, also advances to the All-Star Race by virtue of winning the Fan Vote.

Larson briefly had a challenge by Ty Dillon in the 10-lap final stage, but then pulled away and won uncontested.

Dillon finished second, followed by Bowman, Matt DiBenedetto, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ryan Preece, Paul Menard, David Ragan, Corey LaJoie and Michael McDowell.

The All-Star Race is slated to begin shortly after 8 p.m. ET.

MONSTER ENERGY OPEN UPDATE — END OF STAGE TWO:

Bubba Wallace held off a late charge by Daniel Suarez — sending the latter spinning after colliding — and Kyle Larsen in Stage 2 of the Monster Energy Open to advance to the NASCAR All-Star Race later tonight at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Wallace joins Stage 1 winner William Byron in advancing to the All-Star Race. One final stage remains in the Open.

“This has been tough and I’ve been feeling like a failure for a really long time, I didn’t give a damn out there,” Wallace told Fox Sports 1. “I love Suarez to death but he knows what’s on the line. … We needed this. I needed this.”

Like Stage 1, the scheduled 20-lap Stage 2 went into overtime. Ryan Preece and pole-sitter Daniel Hemric collided with two laps remaining, bringing out the caution.

Stage 2 ultimately went 25 total laps, including five laps of overtime. Kyle Larson finished second, followed by Suarez, Ty Dillon and David Ragan.

Sixth through 10th were Matt DiBenedetto, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ryan Preece, Corey LaJoie and Alex Bowman

One final stage — a 10-lap shootout — remains in the Open. The winner of the final stage will also advance to the All-Star Race. A fourth driver will also advance by winning the Fan Vote.

MONSTER ENERGY OPEN — END OF STAGE 1

William Byron bumped his way into tonight’s NASCAR All-Star Race, bumping and then passing Bubba Wallace in the final turn to take Stage 1 of the Monster Energy Open at Charlotte Motor Speedway and will advance into the NASCAR All-Star Race later tonight.

Due to a caution late in Stage 1 when B.J. McLeod‘s car started smoking heavily, the scheduled 20 laps of Stage 1 went 27 laps. Byron was fourth when the white flag fell on the 24-driver Open field and was able to get by Wallace at the start-finish line to take the checkered flag.

“It was just crazy, the seas just parted for us,” Byron told Fox Sports 1. “It feels awesome to be in the All-Star Race. It’s a huge accomplishment for myself and Chad (crew chief Chad Knaus) has been here a number of times. It feels good.”

Two more stages remain: the 20-lap Stage 2 and the final 10-lap Stage 3 (the race winner). The winners of Stage 2 and the overall race winner will then join Byron in advancing to the All-Star Race.

A fourth driver will transfer to the All-Star Race by virtue of winning the fan vote.

Wallace finished second in Stage 1, followed by Kyle Larson, Daniel Suarez and Alex Bowman.

Sixth through 10th were pole-sitter Daniel Hemric, Matt DiBenedetto, Paul Menard, David Ragan and Ryan Preece.

We’ll have the results of Stage 2 and the overall full results of the Open after their completion.

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Dover winners and losers

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WINNERS

Alex Bowman While he wasn’t the first across the finish line Monday at Dover International Speedway, Bowman followed his runner-up performance at Talladega with another second-place effort. That’s good momentum heading to Kansas Speedway.

Joe Gibbs Racing — Martin Truex Jr.’s victory was the organization’s fourth in the last five races and seventh in 11 races this season. JGR has not gone more than two races without a Cup victory. Oh, by the way, JGR won the Xfinity race at Dover with Christopher Bell.

Johnny SauterRevenge is sweet. He beat Brett Moffitt, the driver who replaced him at GMS Racing, to win Friday’s Gander Outdoors Truck Series race at Dover.

Kyle Larson Finishing third and having a clean weekend was a big victory for this team, which has had all sorts of issues this year.

LOSERS

Drivers who led the most laps — It’s hard to list drivers who finished in the top five, but none of the drivers who led the most laps in the Cup, Xfinity and Truck races won at Dover. Brett Moffitt led 81 laps in the Truck race and finished second. Cole Custer led the first 155 laps of the Xfinity race and finished fourth. Chase Elliott led 145 laps in the Cup race and finished fifth.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.Hit the wall early and finished 33rd in Monday’s Cup race. He has finished 16th or worse six consecutive races.

What Drivers Said after Gander RV 400 at Dover

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Here’s what drivers said after Monday’s Gander RV 400 at Dover International Speedway:

Martin Truex Jr. – winner: “It feels incredible. So thankful for this team. What a race car we had today. This SiriusXM Camry was just incredible. Thank you to everyone back at the shop at JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing), Bass Pro, Auto Owners, everybody who supports us and makes this happen. We have one hell of a team and we came here with a new setup this time. We had an older setup that won in 2016 and had been good but not good enough. Hats off to Cole (Pearn, crew chief), James (Small, engineer) and everyone with TRD (Toyota Racing Development, U.S.A.) back in California, Costa Mesa for awesome engines and horsepower. Thanks to all these fans that have come out today on Monday. I promise it wasn’t easy. It was a lot of work. It was tough. But this race car was just incredible. Just thanks to everyone who makes this possible. I can’t believe it. Without Talladega, we would have had two in a row. It is special. New guys this year. Coach (Joe Gibbs, team owner) has put together a good bunch and Cole (Pearn, crew chief) and everybody. I am really, really proud to drive these Toyotas. They are awesome and I am a lucky guy. (What has started to click for you guys?) I think just putting all the details together. We’ve had speed all year. Finished second at Atlanta. Felt like we had the best car. Had some issues on pit road. Phoenix we ran second again. Seems like we were having little hiccups here and there. Now we’re starting to not only make our cars a little bit faster, show up better on Fridays, we’re a step ahead on the weekend. The pit crew is really doing a great job. That’s been the difference. We had a lot of trouble in the pits earlier in the year, didn’t get to show our speed. The guys are coming together, gelling, doing a fine job. We were able to take advantage of fast race cars today.”

Alex Bowman – finished second: “I’m worn out. This is the physically hardest race of the year for me, for sure. We at least had a shot at it. That’s really all you can ask for. Congrats to Martin Truex, Jr. Our Nationwide Small Business Chevy was really good. Cool deal they’ve got going on. A small business owner can enter to win a $100,000, so that’s a pretty neat promotion for them. I’m still proud of (crew chief) Greg Ives and everybody on this No. 88 team. We had a miserable start to the season and we did a really good job of resetting over the off-weekend. We’ve come out strong since then. … It would be better if we had a trophy, right? But, we needed this, for sure. Talladega is a speedway and it’s a lot of luck involved. But to come here to, in my opinion the hardest race track we go do, and run like that from the back of all things, was pretty special. I’m just proud of everybody at Hendrick Motorsports for all the improvement we’ve made over the last year or so and we’re going to keep it going.”

Kyle Larson – finished third: “Oh, yeah, we ran inside the Top 5 all race long. We fought tight early-on, with our Credit One Bank Chevy, but we freed it up and got it to where I felt like I was pretty good. And in the last run there, after cycling through green-flag stops, I was really loose and got stuck in traffic and then was just looser in the dirty air. So, I had to just make sure I hit the bottom lap after lap to hold (Kevin) Harvick off. So, it was good to finally have a clean race. I don’t think we’ve had a clean weekend all year long. And we’re 11 weeks into the season. So, it’s good to finally get a clean day, like I said, and thanks to our race team. Our pit crew did a good job today as well. It was a nice day.”

Kevin Harvick — finished fourth: “As you look at the cars behind each other, especially there at the end, there was hardly anybody who could pass anybody. You lose so much downforce behind each other every week that, from a driver’s standpoint, it becomes frustration. It’s difficult to maneuver your car to make up positions, because they become so aero-bad behind each other. Our guys on our Jimmy John’s Ford did a good job today, we just got super tight the last run stuck behind the 42 (Kyle Larson). We just couldn’t go anywhere.”

Chase Elliott – finished fifth: We just fell off there at the end of that second Stage. That was the time of the race that we needed to be controlling it and not falling back. Just a bad time to have a bad half of a run and that is kind of what happened. So, we were fast, just not fast enough when it really mattered. … (Truex) was really good there at the end for sure. His car came on about the time I felt our car was starting to fall off. And hey, that is what pays. It was a tough race for sure. It was a very physical event, a lot of corner speed, which is hard on us for sure.”

Erik Jones – finished sixth: “We had really good speed in the Sport Clips Camry. We kind of rode around there all day in the top 10. We just couldn’t get the track position we needed to go and run up front. We felt like we were better than a couple in front of us. Just couldn’t quite get there. Just a long day. It was tough to pass and you really had to rely on track position and getting good restarts and getting good pit stops. A solid day for us. We have had some rough weeks, so to get back on track and run where we know we are fully capable of – good momentum and we are going to Kansas next week which has been a good place for us the past few times.” (Define ‘hard to pass’) It seemed like the bottom groove was preferred by a lot and it was tough to get up and make a move in the middle. It was hard to get some speed rolling there, especially if you had someone behind you. It felt like they would kind of snooker you and put you back another spot. It was just tough to make moves and it was tough to be aggressive and find a way to pass. Just tough all day.”

Joey Logano — finished seventh: “We made the most out of our day today for sure. We took a seventh-place car and won a stage, got a playoff point, and racked up some more stage points. We maximized what we could do. I’m happy with how the Shell-Pennzoil team performed. We were solid in the pits. It was a physical race out there for sure. This is one of the toughest places for a driver to race. I’m proud of my team.”

William Byron – finished eighth:Yeah, we had the strategy deal where we took two tires and got some Stage points. And then we had to start at the back, and ultimately we were clawing our way back the whole race. We finished behind the 22, and we both started in the back, which was unfortunate. The guys brought a really fast car that was a lot of fun. (Compare the race to last year) It was really hard to pass. Coming from the back the one time, it took me the whole race to get back there. The 22 and us worked our way back from wherever we were at the end of Stage 2, and then it took another 130 laps to kind of get any farther. That was unfortunate, but he could run the top which is nice. (Was that due to the package this year?) I don’t know. It might have just been me, but it was hard to pass anyone on the bottom and really defend significantly on the bottom. I don’t think I passed many guys on the bottom all day, if we were both running bottom/bottom. If they ran up a car length, I could get enough air that I could. But the only passes I made really all day were on top.”

Clint Bowyer — finished ninth: “It was kind of a frustrating day. We were OK. I think anyone who got in the top-five was going to stay there. We lost track position on the first pit stop and never really regained any of it. It was just really tough to pass today.”

Kyle Busch – finished 10th: “I kind of thought we were off as a program but obviously the 19 (Martin Truex Jr.) won the race. We were probably going to end up about eighth but then I got into the wall at the start of the last stage so after that I was just sort of hanging on with my Pedigree Camry. It would have been nice to run better. It would have been nice to lead laps. When you run better you have something to hang your hat on so we obviously have some work to do before we come back here in the fall.”

Daniel Suarez — finished 11th: “It was a tough day for us here at Dover. The cars were really fast at this track today. Last year they weren’t, but obviously it was a different rules package. I had very high expectations coming into this race because I’ve run so well here in the past, and Stewart-Haas Racing has, too. I just couldn’t get the Haas Automation Mustang to turn like I wanted it to. We probably had an eighth- to 12th-place car today and we finished 11th.”

Brad Keselowski — finished 12th: “Not the result we wanted today with our Miller Lite Ford. I was just super-tight on corner exit during that last long green flag run. We lost track position and couldn’t get it back.”

Ryan Blaney — finished 15th: “It was a long day for our Menards/Duracell team. We were struggling especially with our Mustang being too tight on corner exit and couldn’t seem to get it where we needed. I want to thank the pit crew. Those guys had a great day and it seemed like they picked up positions every time we pitted. We know we have some work to do when we come back to Dover in the fall.”

Aric Almirola — finished 16th: “We struggled today, to say the least. This is probably one of the most track position-dependent tracks we go to, and we started off the race running fifth and the next thing you know we’re running 13th. We just never could recover from that. It wasn’t easy to make passes even when we were in the postion to do so, and it turned into a long day for us. But our Smithfield team is strong, and we’ve got another chance next week at Kansas to show everyone what we’ve got.”

Austin Dillon — finished 19th: “Our 19th-place finish at Dover today wasn’t indicative of the fight this team showed all race long. The No. 3 AAA Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 started off the day tight on exit and stayed that way until the end of the Stage 1. My pit crew did a great job when we pitted on Lap 105 during the caution and gained us several spots in the process to help us with track position. After that first stop, our No. 3 AAA Chevy really took off and felt it was in the best shape it had been all weekend. However, a few laps later, it became really free and I battled loose entry and exit throughout the rest of Stage 2. Unfortunately, this caused us to go a lap down and finish the stage in the 19th spot. The final stage began with several wedge and trackbar adjustments to try and dial in the No. 3 AAA Chevrolet. This helped out quite a bit until after the final green flag pit stop. Our Chevrolet tightened up right after that stop and was tough to handle for the rest of the race. Even though The Monster Mile was a beast today, I look forward to conquering it later in the year. For now, we’ll regroup as a team during this short week in order to get back on track for Kansas next weekend.”

Ty Dillon – finished 22nd:We didn’t really know what to expect coming into this weekend but speeds here were incredibly fast. It made the racing a lot more challenging in some ways, but we made it through with a good, clean race. My Twisted Tea team worked hard all weekend to get our Camaro ZL1 where we needed it to be. We went back and forth on the balance throughout the day, but I ended the race feeling pretty good about everything. I wish we could have cracked into the top 20, but I’m proud of the progress we’ve made as a team at this track. This was a solid race for us and a good day to keep 2019 going in a positive direction.”

Daniel Hemric — finished 23rd: “They call this place The Monster Mile for a reason, and it was a monster to us today. We fought the handling of the No. 8 Caterpillar Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 all weekend, but Luke Lambert and these guys didn’t give up on it and kept working from the time we unloaded and all throughout the race. We never did get it to where we needed it to be and then on top of that, we had to pit with less than 20 laps to go for a loose wheel. We will take what we learned today and make sure we are in a better spot coming back here in the fall. I have to say thanks to all of the fans that came back today after yesterday’s rain out. The crowd was impressive for a Monday race, and hopefully they enjoyed the show.”

We’ll have more driver quotes as they become available.

Follow @JerryBonkowski