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.

Friday 5: What Cup teams with new drivers are better off?

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Some moves were made by teams. Others were made by drivers looking for better opportunities. Whatever the reason, there were a number of driver changes after last year.

Four races into this season, one can get a glimpse of how those changes are working out. In some cases, the comparisons may look unkindly on who was in the car last year — think about Chevrolet teams and the struggles many had early with the Camaro last year or how a team has switched manufacturers since last year — but here is a look at how some of the moves have gone.

Five of the eight full-time teams that had driver changes for this season are showing an uptick in performance in the first four races of this season compared to the same time last year.

No surprise that former champion Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Cole Pearn have raised the level of the No. 19 team at Joe Gibbs Racing. Truex has two runner-up finishes this season and has scored 140 points — 73 points more than Daniel Suarez had with that ride in the first four races last year.

(Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

The No. 1 team at Chip Ganassi Racing also has seen a 73-point gain in the first four races this season with Kurt Busch compared to the same time with Jamie McMurray last year. Busch has three finishes of seventh or better in his Chevrolet Camaro to score 126 points.

Also making gains this year are the No. 6 team at Roush Fenway Racing with Ryan Newman. He has three finishes of 14th or better this season and has scored 25 more points than Trevor Bayne had in that car at this time last year.

Corey LaJoie and Matt DiBenedetto also have helped their teams to more points than last year at this time. DiBenedetto took over Leavine Family Racing’s No. 95 — which also changed to Toyota and aligned with Joe Gibbs Racing after last year — and has scored five more points than Kasey Kahne had in the first four races last year when that team was with Chevrolet.

LaJoie replaced DiBenedetto in the No. 32 at Go Fas Racing and has a top finish of 18th. LaJoie has scored five more points than DiBenedetto had in the first four races last year with that team.

The teams that have not seen an increase of points so far compared to last year include two teams with rookies. Rookie Daniel Hemric replaced Newman at Richard Childress Racing and has scored 48 fewer points in the first four races than Newman did for that group last year. Rookie Ryan Preece has scored 12 fewer points in the No. 47 car for JTG Daugherty Racing than AJ Allmendinger had at this time last year.

The other driver move was Suarez taking over the No. 41 car for Stewart-Haas Racing and replacing Busch. Suarez has one top 10 so far but Busch had two top 10s at this time last year. Suarez has scored 40 fewer points than Busch did at this time last year.

2. Kyle Busch’s race to 200

A few numbers to digest in Kyle Busch’s quest for 200 NASCAR wins and more. He comes into this weekend with 199 and is entered in both the Xfinity and Cup races.

— Busch has 199 NASCAR wins in 996 starts (a 20 percent winning percentage)

— Busch has 494 top-five finishes in those 996 starts, scoring a top five in 49.6 percent of his starts.

— Busch’s 199 career NASCAR wins have come on 28 different tracks. Among the tracks he’s won at that are no longer on the NASCAR circuit are Lucas Oil Raceway (three wins), Nashville Superspeedway (three) and Mexico City (one).

— The most victories Busch has had in one season in Cup, Xfinity and Trucks was 24 in 2010.

— Busch has won a NASCAR race in 21 different states and Mexico. The most victories Busch has had in any one state is Tennessee. He’s won 24 races there.

3. So far so good on inspection

This year marks the first time in the past three seasons that a Cup car was not penalized for an inspection violation after the race.

NASCAR announced before the season that any car that failed inspection would be dropped to last in the order. Any winning car that fails inspection will have that victory taken away.

So far, no team has been given such a penalty in Cup, Xfinity or the Truck series.

That’s quite an accomplishment in Cup. Each of the past two years saw at least one team penalized for a violation discovered after the race in the first four events of the season.

In March 2018, NASCAR fined crew chief Rodney Childers $50,000, suspended car chief Robert Smith two Cup races, docked Kevin Harvick 20 points and the team 20 owner points for a violation with the rear window brace that was discovered after Harvick’s win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Harvick also lost all seven playoff points he earned — five for winning the race and two for each stage victory.

In March 2017, NASCAR suspended crew chief Paul Wolfe three races and fined him $65,000 when Brad Keselowski’s car failed inspection after the race at ISM Raceway. NASCAR also docked Keselowski 35 points and the team 35 owner points. NASCAR penalized the team for failing the rear wheel steer on the Laser Inspection Station.

NASCAR also penalized Harvick’s team after that same race for an unapproved track bar slider assembly. NASCAR suspended Childers one race and fined him $25,000. Harvick was docked 10 points and the team lost 10 owner points.

4. One or the other

Since NASCAR created the West Coast swing in 2016, Kevin Harvick or Martin Truex Jr. have managed to win at least once in those three races.

They’ll need to win this weekend at Auto Club Speedway to keep that streak going. Joey Logano won at Las Vegas to begin this year’s swing. Kyle Busch won last weekend at ISM Raceway near Phoenix.

5. Extra work

ThorSport Racing drivers Matt Crafton, Grant Enfinger, Ben Rhodes and Myatt Snider will be racing this weekend even though the Gander Outdoors Truck Series is off.

They’ll compete for Ford Performance and Multimatic Motorsports in Friday’s IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge at Sebring International Raceway. Crafton and Enfinger will be paired on the No. 22 team, while Snider and Rhodes will drive the No. 15 entry. Their race lasts two hours.

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Friday 5: ‘Chaotic’ qualifying is entertaining and shouldn’t change

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Last week’s Cup qualifying at Las Vegas Motor Speedway raised the question of is qualifying more about entertainment or sport?

It was fascinating to watch cars parked on pit road and drivers waiting for someone to go because nobody wanted to be the lead car. They all wanted to be in the draft.

While that took place, spotters counted down the time remaining in the session.

It became a game of who would blink first and take off.

When it was time to go, there was chaos. Cars darted around each other. In the final round, Joey Logano went four-wide on pit road. Ricky Stenhouse passed Logano on the inside and left pit road ahead of him.

“Is chaos a bad thing?” Logano asked NBC Sports’ Jerry Bonkowski this week. “I think that’s the question we have to ask ourselves. Is it chaos? Yes. Is it entertaining? Oh yeah, it’s entertaining, there’s a lot going on. So I don’t know if it’s wrong and we should be changing much.

“I think there’s a couple safety aspects we can add to pit road while we’re jockeying around for position and stuff like that. But as far as the entertainment value, will you get the lap in before the clock runs out, will you get a big enough draft, will they all go out for a second time and you get a big pack again, are they going to knock somebody out of the round? That’s good.

“I don’t know why we would change much of that, I think it’s OK. Yeah, it’s a little chaotic, it’s crazy and none of us has it figured out or scienced out the way we want to have it yet, but that’s competition, that’s just what it is.”

Logano is right. While there was a randomness to who won the pole at Las Vegas, qualifying was as entertaining as any session in recent years.

What happened last week was reminiscent of qualifying at Talladega in October 2014. NASCAR divided teams into two groups for the opening round and each had five minutes. The top 24 overall times advanced.

Most cars stayed on pit road until they hit their cutoff mark to complete two laps. Not everyone made it. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Justin Allgaier were among the cars that didn’t make it to the start/finish line before the session ended. Their fastest laps didn’t count. They both failed to qualify. It’s the only race Stenhouse has failed to make since his 2013 rookie Cup season.

These days, 36 chartered cars are guaranteed a starting spot. That prevents a situation Stenhouse experienced five years ago with a well-funded team.

But that doesn’t ease all the angst. Some competitors were frustrated at Las Vegas because the draft negates who has the fastest car. It’s all about being in the right place to draft and turn the quickest lap. Being in that position can be as much luck as skill.

What happens in qualifying can impact the race. Teams pick pit stalls based on their starting spot. A poor qualifying effort can lead to issues in the race.

Logano is aware of that. He qualified 27th at Atlanta and his team had limited options on where to pick their pit stall. Crew chief Todd Gordon chose a stall behind Alex Bowman’s pit and in front of Martin Truex Jr.’s pit.

Rarely do strong teams pit next to each other because they don’t want to have to go around a car to enter their stall or be blocked in by the car in front. Logano faced that situation at Atlanta. He lost more than 10 spots on each of his first two pit stops because he couldn’t get around Bowman’s car to exit his stall.

That leads back to the question of should qualifying be about entertainment or sport?

The decision today will be easy. The fastest car will be rewarded because teams are not expected to draft.

This issue that will come up again in the coming weeks, though, when the series heads to Auto Club Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway.

“Texas, I don’t know,” Logano said. “I think there’s going to be parts of the track that you want to draft and parts of the track when you’re going to want clean air. When you get to Turns 1 and 2, you’re going to want some air on the car to be able to get through the corner with as much wide open time as possible. That one’s a real question for me.

“I think Kansas is a no-brainer, you’re definitely going to be drafting. As for Fontana, it’ll be interesting. I think there’s going to be some drafting going on there, but I think it’ll be split up a little bit, kind of like the way Atlanta was, kinda 50-50.”

There’s no splitting this issue. It’s about entertainment. Let chaos reign in qualifying.

2. Second to Kyle Busch

For all the wins Kyle Busch has amassed in his NASCAR career, there is a recurring theme.

The runner-up to Busch in more than a third of the 197 races he’s won across Cup, Xfinity and the Gander Outdoors Truck Series has been one of five drivers.

Kyle Busch celebrating a NASCAR win has been a familiar sight through the years. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

The driver who has finished runner-up to Busch the most in those races is Kevin Harvick. He’s done so 18 times — five times in Cup, 10 times in Xfinity and three times in Trucks. The total equates to 9.1 percent of the time Busch has won a NASCAR race, Harvick has been second.

Carl Edwards is next on the list with 15 runner-up finishes to Busch. He’s followed by Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano with 13-runner-up finishes. Next is Kyle Larson, who has placed second to Busch eight times.

Combined, Harvick, Edwards, Keselowski, Logano and Larson have finished second to Busch in 67 of his 197 wins (34 percent).

They are among the 60 drivers who have placed second to Busch in a race he won. The list includes three NASCAR Hall of Fame members (Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and Ron Hornaday Jr.), two Indianapolis 500 winners (Sam Hornish Jr. and Juan Pablo Montoya) and drivers who have combined to win 48 NASCAR titles in either Cup, Xfinity or Trucks.

The list could grow this weekend. Busch is entered in both the Cup and Xfinity races at Phoenix.

Here is who has finished second to Busch in Cup, Xfinity and Trucks races and how often:

18 — Kevin Harvick

15 — Carl Edwards

13 — Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano

8 — Kyle Larson

7 — Todd Bodine, Matt Crafton

6 — Erik Jones, Johnny Sauter

5 — Greg Biffle, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Ron Hornaday Jr., Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart

4 — Jeff Burton, Austin Dillon

3 — Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Daniel Suarez, Martin Truex Jr.

2 — Mike Bliss, Terry Cook, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin, John Hunter Nemechek, Timothy Peters, David Reutimann, Elliott Sadler

1 — Justin Allgaier, AJ Allmendinger, Marcos Ambrose, Trevor Bayne, James Buescher, Kurt Busch, Colin Braun, Jeb Burton, Brendan Gaughan, David Gilliland, Jeff Gordon, Daniel Hemric, Sam Hornish Jr., Parker Kligerman, Jason Leffler, Sterling Marlin, Jamie McMurray, Casey Mears, Brett Moffitt, Juan Pablo Montoya, Ryan Newman, Nelson Piquet Jr., Ryan Preece, Brian Scott, Reed Sorenson, Brian Vickers, Bubba Wallace, Cole Whitt

3. Multiple surgeries

Tanner Thorson, who competed in 11 Gander Outdoors Truck Series races last season, is recovering after he was involved in a highway crash early Monday morning in Modesto, California.

The 2016 U.S. Auto Club national champion had surgery Monday night for a broken left arm, according to the USAC Racing. Thorson had surgery Wednesday on his broken right foot. He also suffered a cracked sternum, broken ribs and a punctured lung, according to USAC Racing. The organization said that Thorson’s family hopes the 22-year-old can return home soon.

According to a preliminary investigation by the California Highway Patrol, Thorson was driving a 2019 Ford pickup that was towing his sprint car when he approached slower moving traffic shortly before 4 a.m. PT. Thorson’s truck struck the rear of a vehicle. KCRA, an NBC affiliate in Sacramento, reported that vehicle was a milk truck.

The impact sent the milk truck into the next lane where it was hit by another vehicle and then came back across the road and was struck another car. The driver was uninjured. A passenger in the truck was transported from the scene with minor injuries, according to the California Highway Patrol. Thorson’s vehicle came to rest on the shoulder and caught fire.

4. First time in new garages at Phoenix

ISM Raceway at Phoenix debuted its new garages and layout when NASCAR raced there in November.

One person missing that weekend was Rodney Childers, crew chief for Kevin Harvick. NASCAR suspended Childers the final two races of last year as part of penalties imposed to the No. 4 team for failing inspection after its win at Texas. So Childers missed the new look at Phoenix – until this weekend.

Childers shared his excitement of being in Phoenix on Thursday night.

5. Remarkable record

Kevin Harvick has finished in the top five in half of the 32 Cup races he’s run at Phoenix. He has nine wins there. Jimmie Johnson has 15 top-five finishes in 31 Cup races there. He has four wins there.

Despite the dominance of the two, they have combined for one win (by Harvick) in the last five races at Phoenix. The other winners in the last five races at Phoenix are Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman and Joey Logano.

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NASCAR Hall of Famer Glen Wood dies at 93

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Wood Brothers Racing patriarch Glen Wood, who was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2012, died Friday. He was 93.

The team announced his passing Friday morning on social media.

Wood was a link to NASCAR’s early years.

A former driver – he won four times at Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, N.C. – Glen Wood founded the Wood Brothers Racing team with brothers Leonard and Delano. In Wood’s first win at Bowman Gray Stadium in April 1960, he beat a field that included former champions Richard Petty, Rex White, Ned Jarrett and Lee Petty. Wood’s history also includes seeing Tim Flock race with a monkey and having Ralph Earnhardt drive convertible and sportsman cars for the team.

His racing career nearly ended as soon as it started. Wood and a friend paid $50 for a 1938 Ford coupe to go racing. The Stuart, Virginia, native ran his first race at a track near Martinsville. During the heat race, his car was hit and bent the rear-end housing. After the race, Wood and his friend hooked the race car to the vehicle they were driving and headed home.

But on the trip, the axle eventually broke, and the damage caused spilling fuel to ignite. The fire engulfed the back of the race car.

“Every once in a while one of them (gas cans) would blow up, and we would be afraid to get close to it because of that,” Wood recalled in a 2011 interview. “Finally we got it unhooked and got the car away from (the one pulling it) and let it burn because we couldn’t do anything about it.”

They salvaged the engine and repaired the car. A few weeks later, Wood was back racing.

While Leonard is often credited as the father of the modern pit stop, Glen was equally as responsible. The two developed a communication and strategy plan that was one of the best in NASCAR for several decades.

Wood Brothers Racing, which has 99 Cup victories, remains the oldest continuous racing team in NASCAR. Among the drivers that have raced for the team are Hall of Famers David Pearson, Curtis Turner, Junior Johnson, Joe Weatherly, Fred Lorenzen, Cale Yarborough, Dale Jarrett and Bill Elliott.

Born on July 18, 1925, Glen retired as a driver at the age of 39, assuming full-time duties as the team’s chief administrator, a role that he handled for nearly 30 years before relegating the role to sons Eddie and Len.

Through the years, Wood’s name mysteriously changed. His birth certificate lists his first name as Glenn, but somewhere along the way the last letter was dropped.

Wood received the colorful nickname of “Wood Chopper” early on for how he used to cut timber at a Virginia sawmill. But when Glen started racing, that nickname followed him and became somewhat of a calling card for his winning ways.

“When he pulled into a racetrack, and the announcer would say, ‘Here comes the Wood Chopper from Stuart, Virginia,’ you knew you had a challenger that night,” Ned Jarrett, a fellow NASCAR Hall of Famer, said of Glen Wood in a 2012 NASCAR Hall video of Glen Wood’s career. “Glen Wood, he was the master.”

Kyle Petty, who drove for the Wood Brothers during his career, was a Hall of Fame voter when the group discussed who to induct in the 2012 class. Behind the closed doors, Petty made an impassioned speech for the voters to select Wood for induction.

“I think people forget the breadth of somebody’s career sometimes when it spans as long as his,” Kyle Petty said that day in 2011.

In a statement, Edsel B. Ford II, member of the Board of Directors for Ford Motor Company, said of Wood’s passing:

“This is a difficult day for all of us at Ford Motor Company. Glen Wood was the founding patriarch of the oldest continuously operating NASCAR Cup Series team and we consider Wood Brothers Racing a part of our family, the Ford Family. The Wood Brothers race team, by any measure, has been one of the most successful racing operations in the history of NASCAR. Most importantly for our company, Glen and his family have remained loyal to Ford throughout their 69-year history.

“Glen was an innovator who, along with his family, changed the sport itself.  But, more importantly, he was a true Southern gentleman who was quick with a smile and a handshake and he was a man of his word.   I will cherish the memories of our chats in the NASCAR garage, at their race shop in Mooresville or the racing museum in Stuart.  My most memorable moment with Glen was with he and his family in the #21 pit box watching Trevor Bayne win the 2011 Daytona 500 and the celebration that followed in victory lane.”

In a statement, NASCAR’s Jim France said: “In every way, Glen Wood was an original. In building the famed Wood Brothers Racing at the very beginnings of our sport, Glen laid a foundation for NASCAR excellence that remains to this day. As both a driver and a team owner, he was, and always will be, the gold standard. But personally, even more significant than his exemplary on-track record, he was a true gentleman and a close confidant to my father, mother and brother. On behalf of the France family and all of NASCAR, I send my condolences to the entire Wood family for the loss of a NASCAR giant.”

In a statement, Indianapolis Motor Speedway President J. Douglas Boles said: “Everyone at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is saddened by the passing of Glen Wood. The word ‘legendary’ sometimes is overused, but it absolutely fits Glen and the team that he and his brother, Leonard, founded and built into a powerhouse in NASCAR. Wood Brothers Racing has such a deep, rich connection to IMS through its multiple entries in the Brickyard 400 and by serving as the pit crew for the Lotus/Ford that Jim Clark drove to victory in the 1965 Indianapolis 500. Glen’s legacy as a fine driver and motorsports innovator will be matched only by his enduring status as one of racing’s true gentlemen and class acts.”

Jerry Bonkowski contributed to this report

Josh Wise is Chip Ganassi Racing’s human optimizer

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At some point in the past two years Josh Wise had to say it out loud.

He wasn’t a professional race car driver anymore.

But what is he now?

“Man, I don’t know. I struggle with titles,” Wise says while sitting in a conference room at Chip Ganassi Racing’s shop.

It turns out the 35-year-old Wise is the driver performance manager for CGR’s NASCAR operations. That’s a vague title covering the work Wise has done “optimizing humans” for the team over the last two years and that now stretches to drivers like Noah Gragson and Brett Moffitt.

But Wise has other titles that tell the story of how he became a man who molds the eating, workout and driving habits of NASCAR drivers.

Former Professional Race Car Driver

Wise concedes the end of his NASCAR career, which lasted 10 years and 318 starts, was “not very romantic” compared to Jeff Gordon or Dale Earnhardt Jr.

His last start came on Nov. 6, 2016 in the Cup playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway. Driving the No. 30 Chevrolet for The Motorsports Group, he started and finished last. His car was parked after 257 of 293 laps due to an electrical issue.

Josh Wise during his final season in the Cup Series in 2016. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

“I was really tired of racing the way that I was having to race,” Wise says of the time, which capped off a two-year stretch of dissatisfaction. “I grew up racing with just a tremendous amount of passion and love for the sport.

“The thing that I enjoyed about it was being able to push myself to limits beyond what I thought I was capable of. The position I was in as a race car driver at that point in my career wasn’t that … It just wasn’t that fun anymore.”

Wise now finds himself dedicated to a job that’s led him to say no to offers to race.

“I’ve actually turned them down because I haven’t wanted to blur the lines between wanting to be a race car driver anymore and doing what I’m doing now,” Wise says. “I really have no desire to be a race car driver anymore.”

But he had to say it out loud.

“I think at that point I told my wife (Ashley), I was like, ‘Hey, I’m done,’ ” Wise says. “She kind of knows when I draw a pretty distinct line when I say things like that. I have a bit of a switch I flip in my mind and I’m able to focus on another direction pretty efficiently.”

Iron Man

The path to Wise letting go of his racing identity began roughly a decade ago when he took part in his first Iron Man competition.

At the time, Wise was not the poster boy for driver fitness.

“I was amazed because I was a guy who had never run more than three miles in my life,” Wise says. “I had started cycling. I didn’t know how to swim. The first time I swam in a pool I didn’t make it across the pool one time before I had to stop.”

He began training himself to swim 2.5 miles, bike 112 miles and run a marathon without a break. He qualified for and competed in the Iron Man World championships in Zell am See-Kaprun, Austria, in 2015 with Landon Cassill.

During this period, Wise found himself consulted by other drivers for fitness advice. Wise trained with Jimmie Johnson, helped Trevor Bayne prepare for his own Iron Man event and worked with Erik Jones, who was racing in Xfinity at the time.

Wise became “fascinated” with the human body, its adaptability, the “fitness benchmarks” and “sensory demands” it needs to handle to process information and make decisions.

As he sought answers, the door to Wise’s future opened at the track where he made his last start. Walking through the garage at Texas Motor Speedway, he ran into Max Jones, CGR’s managing director of NASCAR operations and an acquaintance.

Wise told Jones about what he was pursuing. Jones then invited him to make a presentation to the team.

“I really just presented my philosophy and my foundation for what I was doing already and what I had hoped to build and what I thought I could bring to the table for their drivers,” Wise said. “We basically had made a commitment by the time I walked out of the room.”

Human Optimizer

Wise entered the 2018-19 offseason after two years with Ganassi.

Two seasons of controlling the exercise routines, diets and race prep for drivers.

Two years of “optimizing humans.”

That optimization helped result in four Cup wins for Kyle Larson and 11 wins in the Xfinity Series from five different drivers: Larson, Ross Chastain, John Hunter Nemechek, Tyler Reddick and Alex Bowman.

What has Wise subjected his drivers to?

Food

Let’s start with trips to the grocery store.

“If there’s something in packages, I tell them no more than five ingredients and you better be able understand what every ingredient is in there,” says Wise. “Other than that, it’s all fruits, vegetables and meats as close to coming right off the animal as we can get them.”

That includes making farm-to-table restaurants a frequent destination for Ganassi teams on the road.

According to Nemechek – who has documented that he’s willing to eat grass –  one food Wise has imparted on his drivers is avocado on toast with jelly.

“That’s probably a pretty weird one,” Wise says. “It’ll blow your mind, but a good kind of whole grain toast with avocado and strawberry jelly is one of the tastiest, odd things that most people would ever try. Other than that, it just depends on what they’ve been exposed to. There’s some things that maybe I don’t what to share that I have them try that are a little bit unorthodox.”

Chastain, who was set to drive for Ganassi in the Xfinity Series in 2019 before that operation closed due to lack of sponsorship, described how Wise encourages his drivers to introduce themselves to an unusual eating pallet.

“(Wise says to) pretend you’re in the forest, and you’re going to eat all this stuff that you find and then you’re going to eat some salmon,” Chastain says. “There’s blueberries and strawberries and spinach and all this stuff and kale. Me being a (watermelon) farmer, (I ask) ‘What forest are you in? This is some enchanted forest and I want to go there and grow watermelons there because it sounds like anything can grow there.’ ”

Exercise

Among the Ganassi drivers, “everybody’s different” when it comes to a Wise-directed workout regimen.

“It’s a combination of my opinion on where they’re at in a certain area, their opinion on where they’re at in a certain area, what type of time constraints we have, what types of goals we have, what performance is showing we need,” Wise says. “Because in the end we’ve got to create on-track performance.”

He used Larson as an example on where opinions and scheduling come in to play.

“While I might think that Kyle needs to work out more, Kyle’s racing sprint cars all summer and Kyle needs to focus on recovery and Kyle needs to focus on watching video,” Wise says. “So to take resources away from that to say ‘you’ve got to run 6 miles,’ you can easily let ego make things counter productive.”

One driver who is willing to run 6 miles – and then some – is Nemechek.

Nemechek, who will compete for GMS Racing in 2019, frequently documents his running habits on social media.

In early December, he and Wise “felt guilty” after McMurray took part in a marathon.

Their solution? Run 16 miles through a very cold Davidson, North Carolina.

“Sixteen miles might be a little bit over the top,” Nemechek told Fox Sports. “But it takes about two hours to run if you’re really digging. Our races are normally, two, two-and-half-hours. … Granted it was cold, so that really didn’t help the fundamental of being hot in a race car, but still the endurance aspect is really huge.”

Eye Tracking

Reaction time is everything in auto racing, with drivers having to navigate close quarters and avoid accidents in a blink-of-an-eye.

Wise wants to help slow things down for drivers and Ganassi’s pit crews.

He used a driving simulator to highlight the significance of a driver’s vision.

“I could turn off the sound and they could go out and they could probably run a lap time,” Wise says. “Then I could turn the sound on and they’ll probably go run about the same lap time. I could turn off the feel in the steering wheel and they’ll probably go run the same lap time.”

But once you start tinkering with a driver’s visual inputs, “You’re not going to make a lap,” Wise says.

With this in mind, Wise turned to eye tracking.

Eye tracking involves a digital board that lights up with green and red dots. You touch the green dots and avoid the red ones.

The program is a product of Tobii Pro.

Tobii Pro

There are physical exercises that are also done in relation to eye tracking.

“One set would consist of something at a computer which takes a minute or two minutes and then you go and do a physical activity,” McMurray said in early 2018. “They’re not like normal exercises. You get tired and you do it again. It’s interesting. It’s hard. It’s very mind exhausting. It’s one of those things (where) you’re exhausted when it’s over and you haven’t done anything.”

McMurray, who was the oldest driver under Ganassi’s NASCAR umbrella last year at 42, actually found the eye tracking reassuring.

“I was concerned about that because I was the oldest,” McMurray said. “It just so happened that I happened to have the best eyes of all the group as far as just the typical eye chart. But there were some things that Kyle was really good at that I wasn’t at. There were some things Tyler was good at. Everyone had strengths. It was kind of good to see what are your weaknesses.”

Wise emphasizes that everything from a “decision-making and application standpoint” for a driver comes from “visual inputs.”

“All the other things are really supplementing that foundation,” Wise says. “The better that I can make them see, the better I can help them make decisions based on vision, the better the foundation they have as an athlete.”

Student-Teacher

Anyone who pays attention to Chip Ganassi’s personal Twitter account knows he likes winners.

Whether it’s with Josh Wise and Jamie McMurray in NASCAR or Dario Franchitti in IndyCar, Ganassi puts a premium on experienced drivers remaining involved in his race teams.

In 2018, that included six Xfinity Series wins and a fifth IndyCar championship with Scott Dixon.

“I think anytime you have guys that are current in the sport it’s an opportunity,” Ganassi said. “That is what guys like Josh or Dario or Jamie can bring.

“They are the most current guys that are maybe not driving for one reason or another and that is something that is invaluable in a team organization. You are constantly building this book of information and you are constantly tapping this book of knowledge or building it. You have another head in the room. It doesn’t have to be much, just one little piece of advice or one little tidbit of information can be invaluable on a race weekend.”

Wise has no intention of becoming stagnant in his one-man quest for human optimization. He plans to complete an online degree in specialized sports psychology from Capella University in the spring or summer.

“Just checking the boxes on meeting the needs for these athletes. It’s all I care about, really,” Wise says. “I want to be someone that I wish I had when I was doing this.”

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