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2020 Silly Season Updates and Expectations

With the NASCAR Cup Series off-season in full effect and the 2019 Awards Banquet in Nashville wrapping up a week ago, we’re already under 60 days away from the Daytona 500. As the 2020 season draws closer, the sport has now seen many of it’s stars swap rides as well as inherit well-established teams to begin their new careers.

Here’s everything you need to know about the most up to date team changes to this point and the newest faces entering NASCAR’s premier series:

Nigel Kinrade | NKP

Matt DiBenedetto

Quite possibly the best storyline to come out of 2019 was the breakout of Matt DiBenedetto. The former driver of the No. 95 for Levine Family Racing made headlines in the first race of the season  when he had a legitimate shot to win the Daytona 500. As the year progressed, fans soon came to realize that the 27-year old was no fluke.

The California-native would go on to complete the season with 152 laps led, seven top-10s and three top-fives – which included a second-place finish  to Denny Hamlin at Bristol Motor Speedway.

While DiBenedetto did not notch the first win of his career in 2019, he certainly turned heads and cemented himself as a fan favorite. In fact, he finished third overall in the Most Popular Driver ballot.

Fast forward to 2020, Paul Menard revealed he would be stepping away from full-time racing, leaving his seat in the famed Wood Brothers Racing No. 21 wide open. When Menard announced he would be giving up his ride, he fully endorsed DiBenedetto as his replacement and sure enough – the California-native will now be driving the No. 21 Ford Mustang for the Penske-affiliated team.

Not only was DiBenedetto the feel good story of 2019, but the signing and how it came about for the 27-year old was also a feel good story.

Team Penske amassed six wins last season and it would not be a surprise to see DiBenedetto capture his first career win in better equipment. One thing is certain, we should see the fan favorite contending for top-10 finishes and maybe even top-fives. However, he is making the jump from Toyota to Ford. Even while fielding a significantly less cars than Ford and Chevrolet in 2019, Toyotas were the class of the field. It will be interesting to see if DiBenedetto can make the transition with ease.

Russell LaBounty | NKP

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

After seven years of full-time racing for Roush-Fenway Racing, Jack Roush decided to part ways with two-time NASCAR Xfinity Series Champion, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. The now former driver of the No. 17 Ford Mustang posted yet another lackluster season driving for ‘The Cat in the Hat.’ When teammate Ryan Newman is 10 years older, racing in the same equipment and making the Playoffs, it’s not a good look.

The Mississippi-native now finds himself racing for JTG Daugherty Racing in the No. 37 car, which was driven by Chris Buescher in 2019. The two drivers posted similar stats last season and in all honestly, this is a true-blue car swap. The only major difference is that the two-time Xfinity Series Champion is making the jump from Ford to Chevrolet, which could put him at a disadvantage.

In 2019, Stenhouse totaled one top-five, three top-10s and led 109 laps, which placed him 23rd in the overall standings. Expect more or less the same from the Mississippi-native in 2020.

Gavin Baker | NKP

Chris Buescher

As documented above, Stenhouse would be taking over driving duties for the No. 37 Chevy Camaro which Buescher piloted in 2019. The 2015 Xfinity Series Champion will now join Newman at Roush-Fenway Racing as he will now take over for the No. 17 Ford Mustang.

The 26-year old driver didn’t have an awful season given his equipment and manufacturer disadvantage last year. While he only led 13 laps en route to four top-10s, this was good enough to place him 20th in the overall Cup Series standings – three spots ahead of his counterpart, Stenhouse.

The Texas-native is inheriting a quality ride and he’ll have a well-established veteran in Newman to lean on for advice. He even showed glimmers of hope in the 2019 season, contending for top-10 finishes regularly towards the end of the year. It would not be out of the question to see Buescher add some more top-fives to his resume and even have a shot at making the Playoffs in 2020.

Rusty Jarrett | NKP

Tyler Reddick

Historically, Xfinity Series drivers making the jump to the Cup Series doesn’t pan out until a few years down the road. However, Tyler Reddick is indeed Cup ready.

The 23-year old driver just recorded his second-consecutive title in the Xfinity Series and he already has experience at the sport’s premier level. While the California-native has only run two race at the Cup level, in one of those starts he finished ninth and at Kansas Speedway nonetheless. Not to mention, in the same equipment that he will be racing with in 2020.

In one of the more shocking headlines from 2019, it was announced that Richard Childress Racing would be parting ways with the driver of the No. 8 Chevrolet, rookie Daniel Hemric. By no means at all did Hemric have a disappointing debut season, but with such highly touted talent on the rise in NASCAR’s lower divisions there is a strong emphasis on performing now.

Reddick will now take over driving for the No. 8 Camaro at Richard Childress Racing, but rest assured for him, he should have much more lee-way than the driver who came before.

Given the 23-year old’s experience and showcased talent in two of NASCAR’s series, it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary to see Reddick compete for top-10s and maybe even top-fives with a shot at making the Playoffs in 2020. I personally could see him delivering Richard Childress Racing their first win in two years.

Russell LaBounty | NKP

Cole Custer

Fans have been treated to many unlikely and divisive moves in the offseason, but this could be the most shocking. It was well documented that Daniel Suarez was seeking a contract extension during the 2019 season. Team-owner Tony Stewart even reiterated that they were “close” to a deal in mid-October.

Just days before the events at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Stewart-Haas Racing released a statement citing that Cole Custer would be promoted to the Cup Series and they would be parting ways with Suarez. This now leaves the Mexico-native with no ride currently for 2020 and places Custer in the No. 41 Ford Mustang.

While he was one of the Xfinity Series ‘Big Three’ last year, don’t expect the 21-year old to make immediate waves like Reddick possibly can. The California-native does have limited experience running three race at NASCAR’s premier level, but in 2018 and for Rick Ware Racing.

Custer does have many advantages over Reddick and Christopher Bell as he prepares for his debut season in the Cup Series. Not only will he have teammates Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola to turn to for help, but he’ll also have Stewart to assist as well. Not to mention, Stewart-Haas Racing has been one of the most dominant forces in the sport since it was established in 2011.

It typically takes rookie drivers around two years to settle into NASCAR’s highest division, but it would not be shocking to see Custer start his career off strong. He should be in contention for top-10 finishes and may even snag a top-five here and there. Playoffs could be a possibility, but right now consider it a stretch.

Russell LaBounty | NKP

Christopher Bell

The final piece to the Xfinity Series ‘Big Three’ will be inheriting the former ride of DiBenedetto. As revealed, the 27-year old will be taking over driving duties for the No. 21 at Wood Brothers Racing, which now places Bell in the No. 95 at Levine Family Racing.

Bell will without a doubt be faced with the biggest disadvantage of his two counterparts from last season, but this doesn’t mean he can’t have a successful season. Levine Family Racing went from Kasey Kahne (who had a less than stellar season due to health issues) to DiBenedetto who seriously turned heads and made waves in 2019.

The talent is definitely there for the 24-year old, who had a series leading eight wins, 20 top-fives and 21 top-10s in the Xfinity Series last year, but this is the Cup Series. Unlike Custer and Reddick, Bell has no experience at NASCAR’s highest level and it would be incorrect to say that he’ll tear it up like he did in NASCAR’s lower division, especially in the No. 95 car.

It’s again not out of the question to see him have a successful year – look at what DiBenedetto did last season. And should the Oklahoma-native remain at Levine Family Racing through 2021, maybe we could see this small team follow the trend that Furniture Row Racing did with Martin Truex Jr. at the helm.

But for 2020, we should expect to see Bell mostly in contention for top-15 finishes with an occasional top-10 mixed in as the season progresses.

EMAIL COLE AT: colecusumano88@gmail.com

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management to other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered and endorsement.

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Commentary

Daniel Suarez – “We had to find a big amount of money to keep the ride.”

Through the final months of the 2019 season, several drivers firmed up their plans for what they are doing moving forward into 2020 and beyond. One of those who is still searching for a ride is Daniel Suarez.

Just a couple days before the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Suarez found out that he would be replaced by Cole Custer behind the wheel of the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford in 2020.

“It was a surprise,” he commented this past weekend. “I was as shocked as you guys are probably right now, just a couple of nights ago. It is what it is. One door closes, another door opens.”

It was well documented through the past couple months that Suarez was working with SHR to renew their contract, with the Mexican “95% sure that we were in” at one point in his comments. Though ultimately, the deal fell short due to a matter of dollars. 

“We needed a few months,” he said. “We had to find a big amount of money to keep the ride for next year. My group of people, friends and a lot of people at Stewart-Haas Racing went to work and we actually did a pretty good job. We pretty much got the goal but unfortunately part of the money wasn’t on the table at this point. It was going to come a few months later and it wasn’t enough. It was a little unfortunate.”

Suarez said through the process, both Tony Stewart and Brett Frood were pushing for him to return, but “unfortunately things didn’t work out with Haas.”

It marks the second straight season that Suarez is now spending his off-season searching for a ride, after losing his place at Joe Gibbs Racing a year ago. 

“I am pretty strong,” he said. “I have had a lot of sacrifices in my life to be here. Not just when I came here to the US, but even before that. To stay in racing and to do a lot of different things. As many of you know, I don’t come from a race family or from a lot of money or have a lot of contacts or anything like that. I am here because of myself.

“This has been tough. It is not fun to be in this position. I feel like I am strong and it has been a little difficult the last 24-hours. I couldn’t believe it because we did find a big amount of money. This is the position we are in now but I think good things happen to good people and I am sure good things are going to line up for me.”

Since finding out about his release, Suarez has spent time with Stewart, with the past series Cup Champion assuring him that he was trying to help Suarez stay in the family. That could possibly result in him being behind the wheel of an Xfinity car for Stewart-Haas Racing, or one of the Cup seats in Front Row Motorsports’ Fords. 

Of note, Suarez has also spoken with Mark Rushbrook from Ford Performance to discuss possibilities on the table. 

“Tony is a great guy,” Suarez commented. “In the last six months I have learned that he is a very good friend. In the last week I have been talking to him a lot. He was talking to a lot of people and he was pushing very hard for me. Unfortunately the 41 team, and especially the 41, he doesn’t have a lot that he can do with that car because the 41 is not his car. He pushed. I am sure that he pushed as hard as he could, like a lot of people at Stewart-Haas Racing did. It just didn’t work out.”

Though right now, Suarez is unsure if that is a direction that he wants to take with Stewart. 

“There are a lot of things going through my head right now and I don’t know,” he admitted. “I don’t even know if I want to be here. That is the way it is. I have to get back on my feet and find the best option for myself.”

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Daniel Suarez Looks to Carry Momentum from Texas into Phoenix

AVONDALE, Arizona — Daniel Suarez is in the midst of a contract-year at Stewart-Haas Racing, as his agreement expires at the conclusion of the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway next weekend. After matching a season-high best finish of third last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, the driver from Monterrey, Mexico is looking to build off some momentum as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series gets set to do battle at ISM Raceway.

Suarez, who considers the 1.5-mile oval a sort of home track, was in good spirits when talking about his chances this Sunday.

“Texas was a lot of fun and we’re looking to carry that here to Phoenix,” Suarez told POPULAR SPEED. “This is kind of like a home track for me. There are a lot of good people here, lots of fans and it’s always fun to come back.”

The NASCAR Drive for Diversity driver has had a rollercoaster ride of a career when coming to the Valley of the Sun. He notched his career-best finish at Zoomtown U.S.A. in his rookie season in the Spring of 2017 with a seventh. His best effort since then came the in the following Spring, where he finished eighth. Since then, the 27-year old has not fared better than 23rd.

“I think we have a good car – I don’t think we have the best car, but I think I think we have a car that can get a top-five or a top-10,” said Suarez. “Hopefully we can make the right calls and get a top-five.”

When asked about the pressures of performing without a contract for the 2020 season set in stone, the driver of the No. 41 offered up a humorous reply.

“What’s the worst thing that can happen? I go back to Mexico and work on old cars?,” Suarez joked. “We have some work to do. I feel like the team is doing their part, I’m doing my part, we just have to put all the pieces together – that’s the way it works. Sometimes it takes one week, sometimes it takes three months – we’ll keep working. I feel like life is tough, learn your lessons. I just have to find different ways to make things happen off the racetrack. I’m learning a lot so hopefully we can get a win.”

Team-owner Tony Stewart revealed that they are in the process of getting a deal done to extend Suarez’s tenure at Stewart-Haas Racing. The three-time Cup Series champion also assured the media that he is big fan of the driver from Mexico and would like to keep him around for an extended period of time.

EMAIL COLE AT: colecusumano88@gmail.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: https://twitter.com/Cole_Cusumano_

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management to other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered and endorsement.

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NASCAR Cup Series

OBSERVATIONS: Big Machine Vodka 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Although not known for the most dramatic racing, there was enough drama to wet the appetite of every fan watching on Sunday afternoon at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The field spread out once there were some green laps in the books – as usual no matter the package, but the restarts saw close competition with some of those battles producing their own twists and turns for the race.

Of course, everything started off with the first trip down pit road when a stack-up resulted in Chase Elliott getting turned sideways.

“I haven’t seen a replay of the pit road incident, but one thing about Indy is pit road is so narrow,” Elliott said. “You have to start braking before you turn into your box which is typically not the case. I think that was a contributor. I apologize if I didn’t stop quick enough. Once they all started stopping, they stopped so fast, I didn’t get stopped quick enough and about the time I got stopped, somebody piled into me. It was one of those chain reaction things.”

Despite receiving damage and going a lap down making repairs, the Hendrick Motorsports driver fought back for a ninth-place finish.

His teammate Jimmie Johnson was not so lucky with his damage later in the event, though. Battling three-wide, William Byron crowded Johnson, resulting in Johnson getting into the grass and sideways. In total, nine drivers were caught up in the incident. Johnson’s rear-end damage was significant enough that he could not continue, ending his chances of making the playoffs.

Although NBC put on the focus on Johnson not making the post-season solely focused on Sunday, there were 25 races that drivers also scored wins and points to ensure their championship chances. Quite frankly, this year has been a struggle for seven-time with consistency being a struggle to find, including a crew chief change mid-season.

Despite some suggesting Johnson may be past his prime, he has stated that the No. 48 team plans to make the most of these final 10 races with some trips to victory lane.

The playoff battle was the main story of the day, and reasonably so with the Big Machine Vodka 400 being the cut-off. Ryan Newman put together the right drive en route to an eighth-place finish, snagging the last playoff spot Daniel Suarez

” We just weren’t good enough this weekend,” Suarez said. “Qualifying was wide open and we qualified 20th. We just didn’t have the straightaway speed this weekend for whatever reason. We have to keep working on it and try to keep getting better.”

While Suarez was critical of his Stewart-Haas Racing team, keep in his mind teammate Kevin Harvick won the pole and dominated the race, while both Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch will join him in the playoffs.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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News

Daniel Suarez makes decisive pole run at Kentucky Speedway

Daniel Suarez saved the best for last in Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series qualifying on Friday at Kentucky Speedway.

The 27-year-old driver from Monterrey, Mexico, was the last to run a qualifying lap at the 1.5-mile track, and he used the opportunity to Knock Stewart-Haas Racing teammate off the provisional pole for Saturday’s Quaker State 400 (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.)

Suarez covered the distance in 29.254 seconds (184.590 mph) to beat out Almirola (183.799 mph) for the top starting spot by .126 seconds.

“The car’s been very fast the entire day,” said Suarez, who earned his Busch Pole Award of the season and the second of his career. “We had probably the fastest car in last practice and the fastest car in qualifying, so I’m very proud of my guys, Ford Performance, Haas Automation—everyone who makes this program possible.

Suarez, the 2016 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion, hasn’t won in the Cup series. Suarez would become the first Mexican driver to earn a victory in NASCAR’s premier series.

“I really want to win so bad,” Suarez said. “I haven’t been in Victory Lane for a while. The last time I was in Victory Lane was in Brazil, and it was in a go-kart race. I have been looking forward to bring a trophy home for a while.

“We have very fast cars. Now it’s up to me to make it happen (Saturday) night.”

Three-time Kentucky winner Brad Keselowski went out early, and his speed (183.443 mph) stood up for the third starting spot, as Ford drivers swept the top three spots on the grid and five of the top seven. Kurt Busch (183.355 mph) was fourth in the fastest Chevrolet, and two-time defending race winner Martin Truex Jr. (182.587 mph) qualified eighth in the quickest Toyota.

“I think that’s our best qualifying effort on a mile-and-a-half (track) this year, so that’s something to be proud of there,” Keselowski said. “I didn’t quite have the speed to get to the pole. I’d have liked to have had a later draw. I think there might have been a bit of speed there, but I don’t know if I could have got… Daniel was a tenth (of a second) and a half… I might have been able to get a half a tenth or tenth.

“All in all, a decent run for our Discount Tire Ford Mustang, and happy for (engine builder) Doug Yates and all the Ford guys to have all three of our cars up front with the Fords, but we’ll see what we have (Saturday).”

Kevin Harvick qualified fifth, followed by Daniel Hemric, Clint Bowyer and Truex. Austin Dillon was ninth, and two-time Kentucky winner Kyle Busch claimed the 10th starting spot.

Keselowski, Truex and Kyle Busch are the only former Kentucky winners in the 36-driver field. Front-row starters have won the last three Cup races at the 1.5-mile track, a good omen for Suarez and Almirola.

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NASCAR Cup Series

SUAREZ ON CONTRACT: “We are working on things.”

Daniel Suarez may have just joined Stewart Haas Racing at the beginning of the 2019 season, but that doesn’t mean his name has not surfaced already when it comes to discussions of where drivers will be for 2020. 

Although originally believed to be a multi-year contract, Suarez ultimately signed a one-year deal with an option to go beyond that. As of right now, those discussions are taking place with the team, and thus far going well as Suarez said at Michigan International Speedway that he feels “very confident in where we are.” 

“We know where we are at and what we can do,” he said. “We haven’t won races, that was my goal, but nobody has on the team. It isn’t like I am the only one not winning races like it was the last three years. It is a way different situation. I feel like when we move forward we move forward together. I don’t feel like I am the guy that is struggling of the group. I feel like we are going to be in good shape. I feel like I am in a good home with Stewart-Haas Racing and Ford Performance and everyone in this group.”

Suarez has been solid through the first 15 races this season, currently ranked 13th in the standings with six top-10 finishes, including a pair of top-fives. He also enters Sonoma Raceway with momentum after placing eighth and fourth in the past two events on the 2019 schedule. 

The solid performance, combined with Suarez’s confidence, would lead you to believe everything will easily fall in place for 2020. However, everybody believed that was going to happen last year with Joe Gibbs Racing and the Mexican driver, and that changed in an instant. 

“You never know in this sport,” he commented. “I don’t like talking about it until it is 110% secure. The sport is at a point where anything can happen. What I can control is this weekend. I have to do my thing this weekend and try to win races. I feel like the rest will take care of itself.”

Last season, the news of Suarez being replaced by Martin Truex Jr. did not come out until November, with him signing with SHR two months later. 

“I feel like last year was one of those life lessons for me,” he said. “I am the kind of person that I just trust people a lot. I just trust people and that is just how I operate. Unfortunately, things ended up working out different. For me, I wasn’t worried at all because we were not signing the contract, for me what they were telling me was more than enough and then it ended up not working out that way. It was a lesson learned that way.

“I don’t come from a racing family or anything even close to that. I have been learning as I go and last year was a good lesson for myself.”

For now, though, Suarez is cherishing his time at Stewart-Haas Racing and the opportunity before him, as he continues to grow more comfortable with his teammates. 

“I feel like everyone has been extremely good to me and we work very good together,” he said. “I have great teammates with Clint, Kevin and Aric. We have a great group and I am very happy to be part of it. I wish we were winning races, all four of us. We aren’t there yet. I know we are going to get there. That is something that I know. I know it is going to happen. We just have to be patient and keep working hard.

“We have had a lot of long meetings because I don’t like to race 15th. Kevin definitely doesn’t. Clint doesn’t’. Nobody does. We know what we can do. We all know that we can win races, all four of us. We just have to work hard and try to find that sweet spot that we have been missing a little bit in the last month.”

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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NASCAR Cup Series

OBSERVATIONS: O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway

Since Texas Motor Speedway’s reconfiguration in 2017, the racing hasn’t been all that good entertaining. The new package, though, brought a breath of fresh air as the cars were able to run a lot closer together, therefore giving the fans a more visually appealing race.

That said, NASCAR’s rule changes still cannot be deemed successful.

Despite everything thrown his way, between adjusting to the package to a pair of pit road penalties, Denny Hamlin was able to overcome everything en route to his second victory of the season.

The strength of Joe Gibbs Racing has been witnessed by Kyle Busch‘s dominance thus far, with Hamlin playing second fiddle. However, if he could ever figure out a way to avoid penalties, he could be the strongest driver on the circuit. Just look back through this year alone and see how many weeks he has been caught speeding on pit road.

Busch was fast once again, but contact with the wall cutting down the left rear while dealing with an extreme loose condition caused him to pit sooner in the cycle than he wanted, with a lengthy stop in the process. As a result, he got behind and was unable to recover, finishing 10th.

Busch was one of the drivers who put on a show through the first half of the race, though, as drivers battled side-by-side, sometimes three-wide for position with the package enabling them to get close together and create runs. Just check out how close he came to making contact with his own brother, Kurt Busch. 

While this, among other small moments, were exciting, there are still issues to be addressed. The top-five cars when on evenly matched tires were only able to run side-by-side for two or three laps after a restart, before going single-file. Although the package enabled them to not get away from each other, no passing could be found.

Beyond the front runners, observations from the track indicated it was a “slug fest” with groups of cars running together closely, battling for position. However, NASCAR on Fox didn’t bother to show that. They just showed the pack racing for the first 10 laps after a restart, and then focused on the single-file train at the front or went to commercial.

It’s pretty hard to showcase the strengths of a package if your broadcast partner sucks, but more on that later.

The single-file train did prove something, though, in the difficulty is it to pass the leader. On two different occasions, the second-place car was able to close in on the leader relatively quickly, but unable to do anything about making a move happen. Joey Logano got stuck behind Jimmie Johnson through stage one, just like Daniel Suarez got stuck behind Ryan Blaney. Essentially, passes for the lead only happened virtue of varying tire strategies – with the first of those not happening until Lap 99.

When NASCAR announced the package, they stressed that it was supposed to enable better racing, with side-by-side battles and drivers able to moves forward. Welp, the running order didn’t flex much, unless it was due to someone pulling a strategy move on pit road. The reason being – we’re still watching drivers battle against dirty air, with track position still meaning everything.  

As Jeff Gordon said it perfectly, “Tires don’t wear out, speed don’t slow down, you can’t get away from each other, and track position is key.” Anybody remember the days of tire wear making some of the best racing? 

Team Penske had been right there with Joe Gibbs Racing every step of the way this season – until Sunday. All three of their entries ran into mechanical issues, relegating them outside of the top-15 for the first time in 2019. 

On the flip side, Hendrick Motorsports is closer to the front than they have been all year. After sweeping the top-three spots in qualifying, they placed two cars in the top-six at the checkered flag.

Three of their four entries – Johnson, William Byron, and Chase Elliott – ran in the top-five through the first half of the race. Johnson was able to fight back from jack issues on pit road to finish fifth, with Byron in sixth. Meanwhile, Elliott had to take the wavearound during the second stage when the caution came out for Kyle Larson after he had pitted under green. While Alan Gustafson tried a strategy call of leaving him out at Lap 260, they were unable to make up the lost ground en route to placing 13th.

“For me, I was just trying to get a consistent weekend,” Johnson said. “It is one thing to have one-lap paced, we needed that and we did that on Friday. Then, Saturday went really well. So, in the back of my mind I was thinking we just needed to have a rock-solid day, and if we did that, then I could confirm to myself and to everyone else that we are moving in the right direction.

“For the No. 48, No. 24 and the No. 9 were all good. Not sure what happened with the No. 88 but the majority of our cars all ran really strong today, so I feel much better about things.” 

NASCAR ON FOX used to be known for having the best coverage when the television package first saw their involvement. However, those days seem long gone based on what fans are paying witness to this season. Between the endless commercials, and lacking smarts in the booth, it’s going downhill really fast. I mean, do you really the viewers at home care if the commentators are eating ice cream?

It seemed they would show a small piece of the race, before going straight to another commercial break. Essentially, giving you bits of the racing action in-between allowing you to memorize each ad since you’d seen it too many times to count. It almost felt like a third to a quarter of the race was shown in commercial – maybe more.

Of course, when you were able to watch coverage, then you had to deal with the commentating. Darrell Waltrip may be a respected veteran and has earned his right in the sport, but pretty sure his time is up. His reasoning for certain things happening is so far off, that it makes you roll your eyes. Now how do you feel offering that to someone who may be tuning in for the first time?

When Brad Keselowski broke, it was suggested that the team may have been trying something since they locked in the post-season already. Waltrip then commented, “You don’t want to do something that’d put you out of the race, so I always question that.” Isn’t it the best chance to do that so you learn something with nothing to lose? 

They were speaking about Suarez and Waltrip said, “That’s something people don’t realize about Daniel Suarez. He needs his team to really believe in him to be successful.” Doesn’t everybody require that?

The best was when Waltrip suggested that Busch got into the wall during the final stage due to being tired after running both the NASCAR Gander Outdoor Truck Series and Xfinity Series events this weekend. Busch saying, “it just got away from me,” means that he was pushing hard despite handling not being perfect – like he always does in his aggressive matter.

“It just broke loose,” Busch said afterwards. “I kind of felt it getting a little bit freer as we were going there, and you’re still trying to hustle as hard as you can and get all you can through the corners in order to keep your lap time going…and it just busted loose on me, and I had to catch it and make sure we didn’t crash.

“First and foremost, we did that, and then I got back inline and got rolling and started gaining back on those guys in front of us, but the looseness was still there, and then I had to chase it on exit of (turn) two one time behind the 10 (Aric Almirola) and just knocked the fence down.”

There have been rumors about this being Waltrip’s last season in the booth, and that’d certainly be a welcome sight. Perhaps adding Larry MacReynolds back in the booth, or maybe Jamie McMurray, would work; anything would actually be an improvement right now. 

NASCAR has talked about wanting to create the best racing for their fans and drivers, hence trying this new package this season. While they’re continuing to analyze aspects to improve, hopefully some discussions are had. 

P.S.: It’d also be nice if they showed the running order during their “Crank it Up” segment.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @ladybug388

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Elite Opportunity for Suárez at Stewart-Haas Racing

On Monday January 7, Monterrey, Mexico’s Daniel Suárez turned 27-years-old while announcing that he had signed with Stewart-Haas Racing, replacing Kurt Busch. He will drive the No. 41 Haas Automation/ARRIS International PLC.

After a mysterious off-season, the news that everyone was waiting for finally came out. The 2016 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion was told last year that he would not be back at Joe Gibbs Racing. During his two full-time campaigns in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Suarez has a best finish of second and scored one pole award.

“This is the best birthday present I could ask for,” said Suárez, who now calls Huntersville, North Carolina home. “We’ve all seen how competitive Stewart-Haas Racing is – all of their drivers won last year and all of them advanced deep into the playoffs. This is the opportunity every driver wants, and now I have it. I want to deliver for this team, our partners in Haas Automation, ARRIS and Ford and, ultimately, for me. We have everything we need to be successful.”

His opportunity with Stewart-Haas Racing not only keeps him in the Cup Series but also gives him the ability to prove himself in a top-tier ride. SHR was the headline of the 2018 season as they added Aric Almirola to their team and every driver went to victory lane.

Now, Suárez has the same chance Almirola had going into 2018. Prior to joining Stewart-Haas Racing, seven top-10 finishes are what Almirola scored highest in one season which was back in 2014. Last year, he captured 17 and added a second victory to his career which ultimately locked his spot in the postseason.

Will Suárez be the Almirola story of the 2019 season? Not necessarily as Suárez is in a different situation. He is much younger and has less experience than Almirola, but capturing this opportunity gives Suárez a chance to continue the little success he had at Joe Gibbs Racing and grow it into a possible championship caliber driver.

“In each series Daniel has raced in, he’s advanced quickly from rookie to race winner,” said Tony Stewart, co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing. “In four years, he went from the K&N Series to the NASCAR Cup Series. In between, he won an Xfinity Series championship, and he did it all while learning a new language and a new culture. He’s dedicated, he’s talented and we’re proud to have him as a key part of our race team.”

EMAIL BRANDON AT: brandon.rivero@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MrBrandonRivero

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

OBSERVATIONS: Gander Outdoors 400

While Pocono Raceway has grown a reputation for being a race for fans to take naps, both events at the tricky triangle delivered in 2018. 

From the green flag to the checkered, the speedway was filled with passing throughout the field as drivers battled for position, sometimes going three-wide down the Long Pond straightaway. Combined with pit strategy, and the Gander Outdoors 400 had a bit of everything for fans on Sunday.

For the record, neither event was won by the driver whom dominated it, either. Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch were the ones to beat in June, but yet Martin Truex Jr. beat them both then. On Sunday, Harvick dominated – but Busch won.

While the storylines have been filled with “The Big 3” and you’d expect their names to be mentioned, things weren’t easy for them as they both started from the rear due to failing post-qualifying inspection. These two-day shows for the summer will be interesting in how teams fare as if you fail before qualifying, you just get to go through again and lose practice time. However, in the schedule where there is no pre-tech, a failure means you lose your lap time and start from the tail. Just ask those who started from the back on Sunday. It certainly also fuels the debate how disqualifications should be handled post-race if the winner is found illegal. 

Although starting from the back made it entertaining for the fans in watching both competitors moving up to the front, it didn’t take them long to get there with Harvick ready to set sail. However, contact on pit road with his teammate Aric Almirola on the final round of stops damaged the No. 4 Ford, requiring a second stop for repairs, and restarting 30th for the final run. Give Harvick credit where it’s due, though, as he worked his way back to the front for a fourth-place finish.

The events handed the advantage over to Busch, and he didn’t let go as he led the rest of the way – despite being heavily challenged by his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Daniel Suarez

On that note, did anybody notice how all four JGR cars and all four Hendrick Motorsports cars were in the top-10 at one point? As we get closer to the playoffs, the cream is rising to the top and we see powerhouse teams making a push to get their drivers into the post-season. Things could get interesting for HMS as three of their drivers sit right on the doorstep together, while Gibbs has locked in all four except Suarez. 

Speaking for HMS, for the first time since October 2017, they had all four cars finish in the top-10. We’ve seen the slow progress of their hardwork to gain back ground courtesy of strong runs from Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman and wondered if they were actually getting back on-track. Welp, the results today certainly give that theory a whole new meaning.

Finally, shout-out to Darrell Wallace Jr. on getting another season at Richard Petty Motorsports as they’ve had some strong runs together. More importantly, thank you for safer barriers as it was extremely satisfying to see him climb out of the No. 43 Chevrolet after slamming the turn one wall due to no brakes. Everybody’s hard work on safety innovations is showing, and that’s a great feeling for all involved.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Suarez Showing Strength Despite Hand Injury

After being diagnosed with an avulsion fracture of his left thumb, many were left wondering how big of an impact the injury would have on Daniel Suarez.

For the 26-year-old it was just the latest in what had been a rough start to the season; he only had only two top-15 finishes in the first seven races and, was 26th in points. Already in a hole, would the injury be an early nail in the coffin for his 2018 campaign?

Nope.

Instead of faltering, Suarez and his team became better than they were before, going on to score three top-10’s in the next four races. The most recent came this past weekend at Dover International Speedway, where he qualified seventh, ran near the front all day, and ended the afternoon with a career-best third-place finish.

Joe Gibbs Racing has found momentum and currently sees similarities to teammate Erik Jones’ season in 2017. Jones, who was with Furniture Row Racing during his first full campaign in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, had a less than stellar start to the year like Suarez. However, he started becoming a more significant threat as the team got stronger on a weekly basis. In the end, he came close to winning the night race at Bristol Motor Speedway and just missed making the playoffs.

While the year wasn’t exactly what the 2017 Rookie of the Year wanted, it was still enough to solidify himself as a driver who can contend, which is what the No. 19 team is beginning to do now with their current run.

However, Suarez might see himself in a better spot because of his experience. Yes, one year may not seem like a lot, but it does make a difference. Instead of trying to learn tracks for the first-time in addition to attempting to maintain momentum, the team can focus more on the later, something that could prove to be the difference maker.

Not to forget, Suarez has proven to get better in his second season, as showcased in his sophomore campaign in the NASCAR XFINITY Series, where not only did he get his first wins, but a championship as well.

Obliviously the competition level is very different there than at NASCAR’s top-tier series. Suarez still has a way to go before he can prove to be a championship contender.  However, the power of momentum cannot be underestimated. Neither can the fact he drives for Joe Gibbs Racing, an organization that is one of the best in the sport.

Simply put, Suarez has the tools to succeed and has shown that he is close to that race winning level with his recent performances.

While the question of can this team put can continue to carry this newly found momentum further into the season is still to be answered, there is one thing they have made certain. The No. 19 is a car is one that you should be keeping an eye on moving on to Kansas Speedway this weekend.

EMAIL MITCHELL AT mitchell.breuer@popularspeed.com

TWITTER: @MitchellB66

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.