Categories
Trucks

Bell Proving Ready for Next Career Step

Christopher Bell picked up his series-leading fourth victory in Saturday’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Overton’s 150 at Pocono Raceway.

The Kyle Busch Motorsports driver has impressed through the first 12 races of the season, scoring top-10’s in all but one event.

This strength and consistency has not only proven his potential to once again be a title contender this year after making last season’s Championship 4 but attests to his future in the sport.

KBM has produced high-quality drivers in recent years, and Bell is no exception. He is the third consecutive competitor to compete for the team and have a remarkable season following Erik Jones and William Byron.

However, Bell is setting himself apart from Jones and Byron.

Jones experienced similar consistency as he only placed outside of the top-10 three times in 2015. Bell’s ability to win provides him an edge as Jones only captured three victories while Bell has already surpassed that mark at the halfway point of the season.

Byron’s seven wins in 2016 broke numerous series records, but consistency wasn’t always his strong suit as he captured 16 top-10’s. Bell is at 11 with 11 events remaining in 2017 and will likely top Byron.

Bell is proving to have an advantage in both statistical categories, and it’s creating a stout tenure while showing that he’s worthy of a promotion.

When the 22-year-old made his NASCAR XFINITY Series debut at Charlotte in May with Joe Gibbs Racing, he ran exceptional and finished fourth after overcoming adversity from an early race spin.

Bell’s five additional opportunities behind the wheel for JGR this season will likely yield similar results as he has seemed to defy the learning curve that is typically associated with the transition between the two series.

While his sights are set on battling for the Truck Series championship this fall, his performance through the remainder of the season won’t have much influence on his future after establishing himself as a talented, versatile racer over the last year of the half.

A title would be an excellent addition to his résumé but shouldn’t be necessary for him to earn a full-time ride in the XFINITY Series next season.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @HeyJasonSchultz

EMAIL JASON AT jason.schultz@popularspeed.com

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
Commentary

For NASCAR Racers, Their Bark is Worse Than Their Bite

Racers think differently than normal people. That’s simply a fact.

I mention this now because the big story this week is about a confrontation that took place in last week’s Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

To recap, two-time defending Brickyard winner Kyle Busch won the first two stages of last week’s race and appeared heading for a third consecutive victory in the race, something no driver has ever done.

But on a restart on Lap 111, Martin Truex Jr. got loose underneath Busch in Turn 1 and wound up hitting him, knocking both drivers out of the race. 

Afterwards, Busch’s crew chief, Adam Stevens, and two of Truex’s crewmembers, tire changers Chris Taylor and Lee Cunningham, got in a brief, but heated verbal altercation. No punches were thrown, just plenty of angry words.

The crewmembers on Truex’s Furniture Row Racing Toyota are actually employed and trained by JGR. Earlier this week, JGR suspended Taylor and Cunningham for three races each. No punishment was handed out to Stevens.

You can argue that the suspensions to Taylor and Cunningham were unwarranted.

You can argue Stevens should have been punished, too.

Just don’t be surprised that it happened.

Emotions run high in racing and racers have to have thick skin. If they don’t, they have no prayer of a career in this sport. Every week one team wins and 39 others don’t and everyone that doesn’t win leaves the track feeling some combination of angry, frustrated and ticked off.

Because emotions run high, racers vent. Sometimes they yell, they curse, they scream and they carry on like petulant children. And when the race is over, it’s on to the next race. They don’t let hard feelings linger because they don’t have the luxury of feeling sorry for themselves.

With 38 races a year over nine months in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, there just isn’t time. So drivers, crew chiefs and crewmembers vent their feelings at the track and maybe in their competition meetings on the Tuesday after the race and then it’s over. That’s how racers act.

Now to you or me, if somebody dropped a few F-bombs in our direction or questioned our ancestry, we might have hard feelings for a very, very long time. Not racers. No matter what the beef, the next week, all 40 teams are back in the garage trying to win again.

That incident that happened last week?

To racers, that’s so last week. It may not be the way you or I think, but it’s the way racers think.

This week, there’s work to do, a car to prepare, a race to win.  And that’s where the teams put all their energy.

Categories
Commentary

Grading the 2018 Silly Season Moves So Far

It’s that time of the year in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series — Silly Season time. Already, a number of top teams have made moves for the 2018 season, with many more changes still to come.

Here’s how we break down the grades for the deals announced so far.

Richard Childress Racing,  C

Paul Menard is leaving to join the Wood Brothers next year, which means a pretty big financial hit for RCR. On one hand, the team could be forced to downsize to two cars; on the other hand, if sponsorship is found, it could open the door for Ty Dillon to move to his grandfather’s team.

Furniture Row Racing, C

It will be one-and-done for rookie Erik Jones in the No. 77 Furniture Row Toyota, as next year he’ll move to Joe Gibbs Racing. Furniture Row owner Barney Visser has said he doesn’t know if the team will be able to find sponsorship for the No. 77 next year. If the team has to return to running a single car, it will be a step backwards.

Wood Brothers Racing, B-

Next year, Paul Menard will replace Ryan Blaney in the iconic No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford. Certainly, Blaney has more upside as a driver than Menard does. On the other hand, Menard brings solid sponsorship with him and the Wood Brothers will still have a technical alliance with Team Penske, so they should be OK. 

Joe Gibbs Racing, B

Next year, Erik Jones will take over the No. 20 JGR Toyota for Matt Kenseth, while the 2003 champion becomes a free agent. Short term, this could be a slight step back for the team as even at age 45, Kenseth is still fully capable of winning races. Long-term, though, this ought to prove a solid move.

Hendrick Motorsports, B+

Replacing Dale Earnhardt Jr. with Alex Bowman for 2018 and beyond was a wise decision. Bowman showed well in the No. 88 last year when Earnhardt was out recovering from a concussion. He can step into the seat and be up to speed from Day 1, which is a plus. This grade could change depending on what Hendrick decides to do with Kasey Kahne.

Team Penske, A+

Joey Logano and his crew chief Todd Gordon re-signed? Check. Brad Keselowski and his crew chief Paul Wolfe re-signed? Check. Rising star Ryan Blaney and crew chief Jeremy Bullins signed for a third Team Penske Ford? Check. Add the moves up and it’s clear no one has helped themselves more for 2018 than Team Penske has.

Categories
XFINITY

Preece’s Performance Attests to Struggle Between Funding and Talent

A long standing struggle in NASCAR between sponsorship and talent was again showcased in Saturday’s NASCAR XFINITY Series Overton’s 200 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Ryan Preece made his first of two scheduled starts with Joe Gibbs Racing this season and excelled.

He finished second to teammate Kyle Busch and beat many prominent Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series competitors and XFINITY Series regulars including William Byron, Kyle Larson, and Brad Keselowski.

Loudon marked Preece’s 37th series start but the first with a top-tier organization. He previously competed with Tommy Baldwin Racing and JD Motorsports but never had the quality of equipment that earned him a career-best finish on Saturday.

By thriving when climbing behind the wheel for arguably the strongest team in the series, it showed Preece’s skill but also served as a reminder that a lack of sponsorship often keeps Preece and other talented drivers out of competitive rides.

Alex Bowman has faced a similar situation over the last couple of years. After racing for smaller teams in the NASCAR XFINITY Series, an opportunity to compete for JR Motorsports arose and changed the landscape of his career.

He captured seven top-10 finishes in 11 starts for the organization after only scoring six in 39 races previously.

Those impressive performances put him in a position to fill-in for the injured Dale Earnhardt Jr. in one of the best  Cup Series cars last season and earned him the full-time ride in the No. 88 car beginning in 2018 following Earnhardt Jr.’s retirement.

Preece similarly showed promise with JGR and could follow in Bowman’s footsteps if additional opportunities surfaced. 

While the 26-year-old had caught the eye of those in the sport before New Hampshire, he believes this performance turned even more heads.

“It means a lot to do it at this stage,” Preece said. “To prove to people that I feel like I belong to be here. I would only get better with seat time.”

Although it’s an unfortunate truth that many competitive drivers will never have the chance to compete for a high-quality team because of funding, it highlights the challenge of reaching the top levels of racing.

The importance of sponsorship will always be a given in the sport but seeing talented drivers such as Preece not able to land a competitive ride because of funding continues to be a difficult reality to accept.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @HeyJasonSchultz

EMAIL JASON AT jason.schultz@popularspeed.com

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

Kenseth, JGR Looking to Change the Narrative at New Hampshire

Matt Kenseth and Joe Gibbs Racing are in need of a change in the storylines surrounding both heading to New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Last week, Kenseth revealed the news that he wouldn’t be back in the No. 20 car for JGR next season and that his future is uncertain in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

JGR can’t seem to escape their winless streak as it continues to dominate headlines heading into the second half of the season.

Many would assume at least one JGR competitor would have won through the first 18 races considering they have one of the strongest lineups in the sport and that Toyota has shown tremendous speed with Furniture Row Racing. However, week after week, the team has continued to show promise and fall short by the finish.

Now 2017 marks the second-longest winless drought the team has faced to begin a season in the last 20 years. They last went this deep into the year without a win in 1997 when the then one-car stable only won the season finale at Atlanta with Bobby Labonte.

New Hampshire presents an opportunity for both Kenseth and his teammates to perform well and change the narrative.

The organization has been among the best at the 1.058-mile over the past few years, winning four of the last seven races with Kenseth earning three victories and becoming one of the best in the sport at New Hampshire in the process. 

The difference maker in his success? Joining Joe Gibbs Racing. After scoring five top-five’s in his first 26 starts with Roush Fenway Racing, he’s earned five top-five’s in last eight events.

The 45-year-old nearly swept both races last year after winning in July and finishing second in September. 

The win was added insurance for his playoff run as it marked his second victory of the season. This season tells a different story as he currently sits just seven points above the Chase cutoff line with a hungry Joey Logano one position below him, and a win seems critical to securing a playoff spot.

While there will be seven more opportunities to win before Chicagoland and he could still get in based on points, visiting the winner’s circle would alleviate some pressure for the No. 20 team.

JGR is off to a promising start this weekend as all four cars qualified in the top-15 with Kenseth leading the way in third-place.

The focus is on the future for Kenseth and JGR, and a victory would significantly help both parties moving forward as they look to assert themselves as top championship contenders in the second half of the season.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @HeyJasonSchultz

EMAIL JASON AT jason.schultz@popularspeed.com

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

Busch Again Falls Short of Victory

Kyle Busch continues to be the strongest driver in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series to remain winless in 2017.

Another encouraging performance Sunday at Michigan International Speedway placed the Joe Gibbs Racing driver up front throughout the event, and a two-tire gamble in the Final Stage put the No. 18 car in position to win.

While a series of late cautions helped Busch’s fuel mileage, the ensuing restarts cost him multiple spots and Kyle Larson took advantage to capture the victory.

Busch fell back to seventh by the finish, picking up his fifth top-10 in the last six races.

However, the  consistent results have followed multiple events where Busch was in a position to win before losing the lead late in the race.

Pocono and Michigan played out similarly as he likely would have won had there been no yellow flags in the closing laps. However, he was unable to maintain the top spot on the final restarts which cost him each victory.

These strong runs have benefited the 32-year-old in the points as he sits third and is the highest competitor without a win, two points above Kevin Harvick in fourth.

By continuing to perform at this pace throughout the summer, he may be able to catch Larson and Martin Truex Jr. at the top of the standings and battle for the 15 playoff points awarded to the regular season champion.

With some of Busch’s best tracks approaching on the schedule, it’s likely that his strong days will continue as Joe Gibbs Racing searches for its first win of the year.

In Busch’s championship season of 2015, he won four of five races beginning at Sonoma and then scored three consecutive victories at Kentucky, New Hampshire, and Indianapolis.

Based on his recent performances, one victory could spur another summer winning streak.

However, if he isn’t able to snap the 31-race losing spell by the end of July, it could cause some concern for the No. 18 team as they eye a third consecutive Championship 4 run in the playoffs.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @HeyJasonSchultz

EMAIL JASON AT jason.schultz@popularspeed.com

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

Hamlin Looks to Replicate Past Success at Pocono

Pocono Raceway has been one of Denny Hamlin’s best tracks throughout his career.

In his rookie season of 2006, he swept both poles and races in his first two starts at the venue. He remains the only driver to have ever accomplished this feat at the “Tricky Triangle.”

He visited Victory Lane again three seasons later, winning the August 2009 event and backing it up with a win in the following June race.

However, since the repave in 2011, Hamlin hasn’t performed as well. He scored seven top-five finishes on the old surface but has only captured two in the last ten events.

Now the 36-year-old heads to the track looking reclaim some of his past success and deliver Joe Gibbs Racing its first win of the year.

JGR remains winless through 13 points paying races. It marks the most events the organization had gone without a victory to begin a season since 2007 when Hamlin won 19 contests into the year at New Hampshire.

While they haven’t been completely absent from the front of the field, neither Hamlin nor his teammates have been able to get the job done and lock into a playoff spot.

A strong showing at Charlotte two weeks ago showed promise and potential as three of the organization’s four cars placed in the top-five including Hamlin in fifth.

With a win, Hamlin would join Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch as the top running Toyota’s this season.

Hamlin has been in the conversation but hasn’t matched the performance level of points leader Truex Jr. and Busch’s two runner-up results as Hamlin’s best finish was third at Richmond.

He is coming off back-to-back top-10’s, and with the speed JGR has gained, it could lead to another strong showing and a return to Victory Lane at Pocono for the first time in seven years.

The No. 11 FedEx Toyota team’s qualifying result won’t help their efforts on Sunday as Hamlin will start 18th. Track position is crucial at the 2.5-mile track and implementing a unique pitting strategy may be what crew chief Mike Wheeler relies on to get upfront.

With half the regular season complete, the focus will begin to shift to who will be among the 16 playoff contenders. Two wins at Pocono ultimately earned Hamlin his first shot at competing for the title in 2006 and the track could again place him in the post-season in 2017.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @HeyJasonSchultz

EMAIL JASON AT jason.schultz@popularspeed.com

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
XFINITY

Bell Shows Promise in XFINITY Series Debut

Christopher Bell has been a rising star in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series since his debut in 2015.

Through 35 career starts, he’s scored 25 top-10 finishes including three victories. He competed for the championship last November at Homestead-Miami Speedway but ultimately finished the season third in the standings. 

Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota recognized the 22-year-old’s potential and put him behind the wheel of the No. 18 car in the NASCAR XFINITY Series for the first time on Saturday.

A test at Charlotte Motor Speedway earlier this month allowed Bell his first chance to climb behind the wheel of a XFINITY Series car and prepare for the Hisense 4K TV 300.

“Having the test was huge,” Bell said. “Being able to get seat time and get a feel for it at the test, I don’t think I was very fast at the test. I knew I didn’t have to be the fastest car at the test, all I needed to do was get a feel for it and get some laps and come here this weekend and show speed.”

The opening laps of Saturday’s event didn’t go as planned as a spin down the frontstretch on Lap 4 put Bell behind early.

“After we got spun out, I was pretty confident that we’ll work our way back up there but every run, I’d have to start tailback and just kick it to about 18th before I stalled out,” Bell said. “I knew it was really good but just needed track position to get up there.”

However, once he earned track position through numerous cautions, Bell worked his way back to the front and came home fourth.

He placed highest among the non-Cup Series drivers in the field and finished better than two seasoned premiere level veterans, Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski.

In a race dominated by Cup Series regulars as they have now won the last eight May races at Charlotte, scoring a top-five is an impressive feat.

Bell had competed at Charlotte twice in the Truck Series before Saturday. His first start was postponed from night to a day race, which provided Bell an understanding of how the speedway races under the sun. With the Hisense 4K TV 300 being the lone day event at the track until recently, having run during the day was an invaluable experience and likely gave him a leg-up.

“When Toyota came to me and said they have some XFINITY races, I was pretty excited Charlotte was the first one,” Bell said. “Charlotte was one of my favorite race tracks last year whenever we got to run the truck race in the day.”

Compared to other young competitors in the Toyota camp, Bell’s performance is remarkable. When Daniel Suarez made his series debut in 2014, he finished 19th at Richmond. During Erik Jones’ debut at Chicagoland in 2014, he came home seventh.

Now as Bell looks to follow in the footsteps of both Suarez and Jones who are now competing full-time in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, he will have seven more races behind the wheel for JGR in 2017.

Continuing to run well could pay off for Bell as he eyes his next career step of a full-time XFINITY Series ride.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @HeyJasonSchultz

EMAIL JASON AT jason.schultz@popularspeed.com

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

Improving Now Will Be Crucial for Joe Gibbs Racing in the Playoffs

An organization that can perform well at 1.5-mile tracks may prove to be more successful than at other layouts in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, as a majority of those venues make up half of the playoff races.

It’s crucial for teams to find the best mile-and-a-half setup early in the season to run well once the championship battle begins.

After dominating at intermediate facilities last year, Joe Gibbs Racing has struggled through the first three events in 2017.

The organization had one car finish in the top-10 at Atlanta with Matt Kenseth placing third, two at Las Vegas with Denny Hamlin sixth and Kenseth ninth, and zero in the most recent race at Texas as Kyle Busch finished highest in 15th.

While Atlanta and Las Vegas have only one date on the schedule, their struggles at Texas are most concerning as its second race is in the Round of 8 of the playoffs.

Now with three 1.5-mile events in May beginning this weekend at Kansas Speedway and both of the Monster Energy All-Star and Coca-Cola 600 races at Charlotte Motor Speedway, improving their intermediate program will be vital.

Not only will performing well this month show that JGR has advanced past its early season struggles, but it will provide a basis to build off at Kansas and Charlotte in the playoffs.

Following Charlotte, only one mile-and-a-half track will remain. In July, Kentucky Speedway plays hosts to the final opportunity for intermediate success before the title battle begins at Chicagoland Speedway in September. Teams will want to come out of the gate strong at Chicagoland as it will set the tone for the playoffs, and starting behind the curve will make it difficult to gain any momentum through the final nine races.

Kyle Busch’s victory at Kansas last May should provide confidence heading into Saturday night’s Go Bowling 400. Busch led 69 laps en route to victory, and Martin Truex Jr. paced the field for a race-high 172 laps, showing Toyota’s prowess.

Matt Kenseth also secured a fourth-place finish last year and has yet to finish outside the top-10 in the Kansas May race since joining Joe Gibbs Racing, including a win in his debut year of 2013.

While the team didn’t perform as well in the All-Star Race last year, after Denny Hamlin’s win in 2015, next weekend’s non-points event provides a perfect opportunity to search for the speed that could deliver a Coca-Cola 600 victory the following week.

Toyota’s strength was showcased in the the series’ longest event last year, as Truex Jr. won after leading a record-setting 392 laps. Hamlin and Kenseth each earned top-10 finishes.

Daniel Suarez will visit both tracks for the first time in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series this month. He finished in the top-10 in each of his two XFINITY Series starts at Kansas, and in three of four races at Charlotte, proving that he knows what it takes to run well at both tracks. 

With a month passing since Texas, JGR has had ample time to target areas of weakness on intermediate tracks and work to improve their package.

Now they will be put to the test at Kansas and Charlotte as they look to return to their dominant ways of 2016 and learn what it will take to succeed at 1.5-mile facilities in the playoffs.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @HeyJasonSchultz

EMAIL JASON AT jason.schultz@popularspeed.com

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

Dominance Thwarted by Bad Luck is a Continuing Trend for Kenseth

The past two seasons have begun similarly for Matt Kenseth. After looking poised for an impressive run, bad luck has taken the No. 20 Toyota team out of contention numerous times, and this trend continued at Richmond International Raceway.

The weekend started well for Kenseth as he captured his first pole of the season. That advantage allowed him to lead the opening 100 laps of Sunday’s race and win Stage 1, picking up his first playoff point of the season.

These laps marked the first the Wisconsin veteran has led this season, ending the longest drought to begin a season in his career.

After finishing second in Stage 2, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver remained within the top-10 for much of the second half of the Toyota Owners 400 before trouble struck in the final 50 laps. Contact with Chase Elliott off Turn 2 cut down Kenseth’s right rear tire, and its debris brought out the eighth yellow flag of the race.

While Kenseth would go a lap down, he fought back to earn the Free Pass at the next caution, but it wasn’t enough to salvage an otherwise impressive day. He finished 23rd after leading 164 laps with, arguably, the dominant car.

Despite the poor finish, Richmond marked Kenseth’s strongest performance of 2017. With Joe Gibbs Racing still looking to match the speed and strength of other teams this season, the No. 20 car leading the most laps attests to the strides being made within the organization.

Running well but ultimately having an issue take him out of contention is a situation Kenseth has become familiar with through the start of the last two seasons.

He collected five finishes outside the top-15 through the first nine races of each year. This inconsistency has been a result of crashes and issues similar to Sunday’s cut tire developing late in races.

However, Kenseth mounted a turnaround last May. He scored four consecutive top-10 finishes from Kansas to Pocono, including a victory at Dover.

While Kenseth may be suffering a good-turned-bad beginning to his season, the immediate future could spark a turnaround for the past champion.

He has won at every venue the series visits in May and the first three events of June.

That, combined with Kenseth’s prowess of joining the conversation when it counts and his inherent patient demeanor, may favor a resurgence as we approach the heart of the season.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @HeyJasonSchultz

EMAIL JASON AT jason.schultz@popularspeed.com

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.