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NASCAR Cup Series

Hamlin Spotter Chris Lambert Details Last Lap Decisions

Denny Hamlin stuck to the Toyota master plan on Sunday in the Daytona 500 and his victory in the Great American Race was actually an unintended consequence of his selfless decision to adhere to a strategy made the night before.

Chris Lambert is the spotter for Hamlin and the no. 11 Sprint Cup Series team and says he never told his driver to move up as to receive the push from Kevin Harvick that ultimately won them the race. The night before the 500, Hamlin and each of the Gibbs affiliated drivers were a part of a group text that outlined their strategy to send one of them to Victory Lane.

Lambert says the Gibbs drivers realized how fast they were together in a line during practice and knew their combined speed would continually get them to the front of the field during the race itself. That’s exactly how the 500 played out on Sunday, and their intended strategy was to stay in a line on the bottom until one lap to go.

With a steady shove from Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick looked to break up the Toyota party with a massive run on the high side and Hamlin made the decision to move up only to block the progress of the Chevy-Ford duo. Lambert said the decision to block for Matt Kenseth, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch ultimately won him the race.

“I never told him to pull up to get a push from Harvick,” Lambert said. “We pulled up at the start-finish line at the white, just to stop the progress of the outside line,” Lambert told Popular Speed in the garage after the race. “But they got such a head of steam coming to Turn 1 that the only way to block it was to pull out of line and try to back that line up. And once we did, it just shot us forward from fourth to side-by-side with second-place Truex.

“If you watch the replay, (Logano) was wiggling (Harvick) all the way down the frontstretch. He was all over them. So the only thing we could have hoped to do was hope they didn’t split us or side-draft them.”

After the race, Hamlin said he was okay with securing the victory for Toyota — it’s first in the Daytona 500. But he knew that Harvick was going to carry that momentum to the lead, so he jumped purely with the intent of stalling their speed.

“I saw (Harvick) coming,” Hamlin said. “I told myself, if I didn’t make a run, he was going to make a run just like I did. I went up there to block and he hit me so hard it shot me three cars forward. I had to do something with that run.”

Lambert said the run his driver got was more the result of Logano pushing Harvick than the 2014 champion alone.

“Joey is one heck of a pusher,” Lambert said. “The Penske cars for years have been great at pushing. He was locked onto (Harvick) and pushing and the only call we had was to block and we were shot so far ahead that (Kenseth) couldn’t block us in time.”

Hamlin used the burst of speed to fly under Kenseth, who made slight contact with his teammate before bouncing into the wall and out of contention, and then beat Truex in the closest finish in Daytona 400 history – 0.010 of a second.

Lambert is a former short track crew member and spotter out of Kannapolis, North Carolina and grew up a Dale Earnhardt Sr. fan Remembering how much adversity Earnhardt faced before winning the 500 himself made him feel extra emotional.
He said his knees were weak during the final lap and that it was easily the most notable professional moment of his career.

“Being a Senior fan and knowing how hard he worked at it before he was able to win here, there’s a definitely a skill to it,” Lambert said of restrictor plate racing. “It’s like Denny said earlier this week, Dale Junior isn’t that lucky, he’s good here. We learned and have gotten better at it too. So any time I feel like I can give Denny information that helps him or tells him what to do or whatever it was, it’s huge. I just never thought I would ever be able to say that I’m a Daytona 500 champion.”

Lambert says plate racing is where spotters feel the most involved with their drivers, due to the close proximity of the cars and the immediacy of all the action. While he doesn’t want to take anything away from Hamlin or crew chief Mike Wheeler, he also feels an extra degree of involvement with the victory since it was at Daytona.

“This is where we feel like we have our hands on the car a lot more than anywhere else,” Lambert said. “I’ll never tell Denny how to drive it because I’ve never driven a race car — that’s not my thing. But look, I see what other people do and I’m going to relay that info. We’re so involved here and we have to paint the picture, so to say, of what line has the energy and who is tight and who is doing the most.

“Denny has told me he never looks out the mirror here. He takes my word as the gospel and he makes his mind up from that and what he sees out the front. So I feel like I have my hands on the car a lot more and that makes it so much more special.”

EMAIL MATT AT matt.weaver@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattWeaverSBN

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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Commentary

WEAVER: Green Finishes Rock but Don’t Define a Good Race

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — In the pursuit of the perfect finish, NASCAR is risking the invalidation of entire races.

This will not be a popular opinion, but in the aftermath of the Sprint Unlimited and another restrictor plate race finishing under yellow, it’s worth wondering if fans have started to overvalue the necessity of a green-flag finish.

Everyone wants to see races finish under green, drivers battling door-to-door and margins of victory beneath a second. But like everything else in NASCAR, if something special doesn’t happen every week, it will be forced until it becomes commonplace.

The Sprint Cup Series ran eight green-white-checkered finishes in 2015, the fourth most from any season since the overtime rule was first established back in 2004. That doesn’t even include countless other races where a caution fell in the final 15 laps, for reasons legitimate or even questionable.

Fans were treated to an exciting Sprint Unlimited on Saturday night. There were 14 lead changes amongst nine different participants, along with the requited big ones and nail-biting action. It was a good race. And yet, the talk of social media was centered around the disappointment of another plate race ending under yellow, despite the use of a new overtime rule.

First, fans need to understand that not every race will end under green. In the same way that Game 7 moments shouldn’t be forced in the Chase for the Championship, NASCAR is has created a monster in working to appease overwhelming fan desire to end races under green.

By in large, NASCAR has gotten the process right during the course of a 38-race season. Green-white-checkered worked, and it rarely changed the outcome of a race anyway, as only 28 overtime finishes out of 87 tries, have resulted in a different winner.

The overtime line rule makes sense too, especially at non-plate tracks, where there are unlimited attempts at a valid attempt, something that should prevent the shenanigans of last October at Talladega.

But a caution is still an extremely likely outcome during a restrictor plate race and it’s hard to force a race to a green flag conclusion. Sure, the ARCA model has been floated out there, unlimited attempts at a green and white one-lap showdown but that’s not enough to even get the cars to speed, so that rule is better suited for the rest of the schedule anyway.

Ultimately, fans could stand to be a little more tolerant of races ending under caution.

In fact, consider the IndyCar model, which still hasn’t adopted an overtime procedure, and controversially allows races to end under yellow with an alarming frequency. A race like the Indianapolis 500 grows in intensity nearing the 10 lap to go mark, because drivers know they must get to the lead, before a potential final caution prematurely ends the race.

Instead of racing to the green-white-checkered, those races tend to pick up in intensity much sooner, with drivers knowing the end could come at any moment. That places a higher value on the entirety of a race, rather than just the finish, something that has been lost in the modern NASCAR.

Producing the good finish, through overtime rules and late race yellow flags have been the band-aid for the Car of Tomorrow, Gen-6 and the relentless pursuit of a high-downforce rules packages. The races are often bad while the sport tries to make up for it with close finishes.

As with most things in NASCAR, improving the entirety of the race will quiet the calls for closer finishes and those that end under green.

After all, a good finish isn’t a requirement for a good race, even if it helps.

EMAIL MATT AT matt.weaver@popularspeed.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 or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement. 

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Home Tracks

Todd Gillland Wins K&N East at New Smyrna Amid Controversy

The JET Tools 150 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East season-opener at New Smyrna Speedway should have ended on lap 150 with Todd Gilliland flagged the winner, but the leaders were never shown the white flag and the race continued on for an extra lap.

During the course of this extra lap, third-place driver Ronnie Bassett Jr. took Gilliland and Spencer Davis three-wide. The resulting contact sent Davis crashing into the Turn 4 wall and Bassett crossed the line as the announced initial winner. But realizing they made a critical mistake, NASCAR reverted to the previous lap, which was the intended final lap and Gilliland was declared the winner.

During the post-race press conference, Gilliland fielded questions from the media about the circumstances surrounding his victory but was instructed by a NASCAR representative to only speak about his accomplishment.

The official statement from NASCAR reads as follows.

As tonight’s K&N Pro Series East race neared the conclusion of the advertised distance, there was a delay in the appropriate flags being displayed to the field.  As a result, the race continued for an additional lap beyond the scheduled 150 laps, during which a wreck occurred involving cars at the front of the field.  Per the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East Rule Book Section 10-2.11.B, the official results of the race reverted to the running order at the completion of lap 150, the advertised distance. NASCAR will review the circumstances surrounding the finish and take steps to avoid a recurrence.

Once everything had been settled, Davis was reinserted as the second-place driver, despite a trashed race car with Bassett in third. Kyle Benjamin and Justin Haley completed the top-5, followed by Noah Gragson, Ryan Preece, Tyler Dippel, Riley Herbst and Dominique Van Wieringen.

Gilliland has now won in his four most-recent tour debuts, including last March in the CARS Late Model Stock Car Tour at Southern National Motorsports Park, in May in the ARCA Racing Series event at Toldeo Speedway and in November in the K&N Pro West Series at Phoenix International Raceway.

The complete results from the JET Tools 150 can be found below.

1. Todd Gilliland *
2. Spencer Davis *
3. Ronnie Bassett, Jr.
4. Kyle Benjamin
5. Justin Haley
6. Noah Gragson
7. Ryan Preece
8. Tyler Dippel *
9. Riley Herbst *
10. Dominique Van Wieringen *
11. Collin Cabre
12. Gracin Raz
13. Harrison Burton *
14. Trey Hutchens
15. Kaz Grala
16. David Calabrese *
17. Reid Wilson *
18. John Holleman, IV *
19. Codie Rohrbaugh
20. Ali Kern *
21. Ruben Garcia Jr. *
22. Sarah Cornett-Ching *
23. Jairo Avila Jr. *
24. Austin Theriault
25. Clayton Green *
26. Christian Celaya
27. Dillon Bassett
28. Ulysse Delsaux *
29. Hunter Baize *

Categories
Commentary

WEAVER: Charter Day Opens a New Era in NASCAR History

CHARLOTTE — It’s probably fair to say that Rob Kauffman made out like a bandit on Tuesday with the official unveiling of NASCAR’s new ownership model, released just days ahead of the start of the 2016 season.

That’s not the same as saying he did something illicit or injudicious. It was just awfully convenient that he was able to spearhead the acceptance of the charter system right when he needed it the most, needing to sell off his stake in the recently closed Michael Waltrip Racing team.

In simplest terms, Kauffman created a demand when he chose to leave MWR to become a co-owner of Chip Ganassi Racing and was able to limit his losses in crafting a system in which he could be paid for a team that shut down largely because of his exit in the first place.

The way the system has been constructed includes only the teams that have been full-time since 2013. That means both defunct MWR teams were included, while the still operating Stewart Haas No. 41 and Joe Gibbs No. 19 were not. The same goes for the part-time Wood Brothers No. 21, which intends to run the full schedule this season with Ryan Blaney.

So there’s certainly an injustice to be found in MWR receiving two transferable charters while Gibbs, Haas and (unlikely) the Woods left to fight for them. Kauffman is the obvious benefactor in the impending sale of his former entries, and that’s about the only thing that can be nitpicked about the new system.

Beyond that, NASCAR and the new Team Owners Council have unveiled something that really seems to carry a lot of promise for the overall long-term health of the sport. Like most changes made over the past decade, it’s going to be really difficult to determine the success of the program until years down the road but on paper, this is something that’s appeared necessary for at least two decades.

Long-time fans can remember the first cries for a franchising model as early as the 1990s, when in the midst of a significant boom period, team owners wanted NASCAR to provide a safety net for investors should that bubble ever burst.

And burst it did.

Every team that entered the sport during that peak during the mid-to-late 90s has subsequently died off by the 2000s. Their sponsors and even manufacturers have left during that time and the risk to participate in the Sprint Cup Series has only increased.

Jimmie Johnson told Forbes back in 2009 that the best entity to be in NASCAR was NASCAR itself, then the drivers and followed to a great distance by the team owners. They assume all the risk to make the sport as healthy as possible and reap the fewest of the rewards.

Sure, motorsport team ownership has never traditionally been a place for the wealthy to go to increase that wealth. After all, the way to make a small million in racing has always been to start with a great million.

But what if NASCAR, the team owners and the rest of the so-called stakeholders could get together and make it better? What if NASCAR and its partners could absolve some of the owner’s risk? That was the founding thesis behind the Race Team Alliance, when it was formed back in 2014.

So here we are – the start of a new era with a new Sprint Cup ownership model.

There is still much to be answered in terms of just how much NASCAR will provide the charter teams. As it stands now, charter teams will receive their earnings through a combination of historical performance, fixed-purse performance through a guaranteed entry and the year-end point fund.

This is mostly technical jargon, but the exact numbers will become important because it will allow teams to better forecast their expenses, revenue and earnings over an extended period of time. This first agreement runs for five years, with a four-year option, coinciding with both the track sanctioning period and television contract respectively.

Consider it NASCAR’s version of a collective bargaining agreement, the financial staple of every other professional sport like the NFL, MLB and NBA. With the charter system, NASCAR has now made car entries akin to sport franchises like the Denver Broncos, Chicago Cubs or Miami Heat.

It’s not in the traditions of motorsports, and that’s why some fans may revolt at the idea, but it is the most logical conclusion to have reached from a business perspective in 2016. But ultimately, if NASCAR can provide teams the stability to find and maintain sponsors, invest in younger drivers, and remain in the sport, this should be considered a win for the fans more than they realize.

Having secured what it hopes to be the future in the ownership model, hopefully NASCAR now diverts a majority of its attention to the on-track product, because honestly, if the racing is good, fans won’t care about the background narrative like charters, unions or town hall meetings.

The racing has not been good over the past decade, and that only serves to magnify some of the band-aid decisions like the Chase for the Championship and a caution clock. As it has always been, fans will come to races when the track action is close and authentic, and that needs to be the next focus for those in the ivory towers in Charlotte and Daytona respectively.

All in all, Tuesday felt like a positive step for the entire industry. There is much work to be done, but give the charter system a chance.

For the first time in a long time, the entire industry is pulling in the same direction and that should lead to a much brighter future

EMAIL MATT AT matt.weaver@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattWeaverSBN

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

WEAVER: Possible Substitutes for Stewart After Latest Injury

With the competitive fate of Tony Stewart still unknown, it would be inappropriate to speculate about the severity of his injuries, but it can’t be good based on the outpouring of support from the NASCAR community following the announcement of his incident on Tuesday afternoon.

After all, the official Tony Stewart Facebook page has already updated itself with the #SmokeWillRise branding, which was last used in 2013 when the driver broke bones in his lower right leg during a Sprint Car event at Southern Iowa Speedway in Oskaloosa, Iowa.

In short, this hashtag has a notoriously foreboding precedent.

While it hasn’t been made clear whether or not Smoke will have to miss any part of the season during his final Sprint Cup campaign, it certainly seems like a possibility. That alone is unfortunate because Stewart had already missed 18 events over the past three seasons due to injury and the legal ramifications of the Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy back in 2014.

Further complicating matters is that the pool of available substitutes isn’t particularly deep right now, especially if Stewart Haas Racing wanted to place a veteran into the role.

At first glance, it would seem to make sense to go ahead and place Clint Bowyer into the No. 14 a year early just to get him acclimated with the team, but he and 5-Hour Energy seem totally committed to HScott Motorsports from both a competition and sponsor activation standpoint. It would take a lot of wrangling to move him over to SHR, especially if it’s for only a portion of the season.

So who does that leave from a veteran standpoint? A quick head-count includes David Gilliland, Josh Wise, Justin Allgaier, Brian Vickers, JJ Yeley and maybe JR Motorsports XFINITY Series part-timer Alex Bowman as a stretch.

Vickers has health issues of his own while Gilliland, Wise and Bowman fail to provide the marketing punch that Mobil1, Bass Pro Shops and Rush Trucks Centers will likely demand.

The most logical option might lie in Ty Dillon, who was scheduled to drive the Daytona 500 and eight other events for Circle Sport – Leavine Family Racing. Recall that brother Austin, himself, drove the No. 14 at Michigan and Talladega in 2013 when Stewart was sidelined from his Southern Iowa crash referenced above.

The reasons Austin fit with the team in 2013 are the same reasons Ty currently makes a lot of sense should Stewart need time to heal. Dillon needs Sprint Cup experience before presumably going full-time in 2017. He’s a Chevrolet lifer as the grandson of Richard Childress and his family has a long-standing personal and professional relationship with Bass Pro.

So while everyone is hoping for the best for the three-time Sprint Cup champion, his team may have a tough decision looming on the horizon.

EMAIL MATT AT matt.weaver@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattWeaverSBN

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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Home Tracks

Harrison Burton Looking Forward to Debut NASCAR K&N Effort

The next several months stand to be the embodiment of everything that young Harrison Burton has worked for over the past three seasons.

To wit, after several successful years proving himself in southeastern Super Late Models, the 2016 season could very well could be the year that the 15-year-old establishes himself as a bonafide NASCAR prospect.

Burton began what he expects to be his busiest season to date by finishing second to Bubba Pollard in the CRA Speedfest event at Watermelon Capital Speedway on Sunday night. The son of Sprint Cup Series veteran Jeff Burton will have a loaded schedule over the next 12 months that includes both a full slate of Late Model races and the complete NASCAR K&N Pro Series East schedule.

He will compete in NASCAR for HSCott Motorsports with Justin Marks, driving the No. 12 Toyota with sponsorship from DEX Imaging and given the pedigree of that team — he expects to win.

“Yeah, I’m really excited about that,” Burton said on Sunday at Cordele. “The guys at HScott will put a good car under me, I’m sure, because they always seem to have the fastest cars. We’re going to start the season at New Smyrna and I’m running a Super Late Model there all week too.

“I’m going to be prepared and those races are just plain fun. Nine overall nights of racing is going to leave us pretty tired but it will all be worth it.”

Burton has showed well for himself in Super Late Models. Even though he hasn’t won with the regularity that he had wanted to by this point, he’s done a great job of taking care of his equipment and rarely placing himself in a position to get knocked out of races.
That was the lesson that his dad wanted him to learn over the past three years, so having accomplished that, Burton could become a multi-race winner now that he’s chasing a championship for the first time in his career.

He finished 11th and sixth in his first two K&N West starts last season at Roseville and Phoenix so Victory Lane is the natural next step.

“I definitely hope we can win,” Burton said. “It’s tough competition really. The series seemed to have a lot of it last year and I think we’re going to have a lot more of it everywhere we go. I just hope so and I know we’re going to have a great car underneath us so I’m ready to go.”

EMAIL MATT AT matt.weaver@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattWeaverSBN

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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Trucks

Persistence, Perseverance Lead Jordan Anderson to Next Step

There was one brief moment that Jordan Anderson considered leaving NASCAR to pursue other interests.

The idea ran counter-intuitive to every decision he had made up until that point, but following a stretch of bad luck in 2013 and 2014, he felt it needed to be explored. Anderson first told his parents that he wanted to be a NASCAR driver when he was six-years-old and every subsequent decision reflected that.

Born the son of a property manager and hairdresser, Anderson always had limited resources growing up, but chased his dreams with diligence and unyielding dedication. His father was supportive but told him he would have to work to secure his own fundung and that shaped much of his adult life.

He earned a business and marketing degree from Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina and served as driver, mechanic and public relations concurrently for his much of his professional career in Legends and Late Models.

Like many of his peers, Anderson ended up on the wrong side of several key business decisions and connected with people that didn’t ultimately benefit his career. He was forced to sell his Late Model and it could have pushed him away from the sport he’s sacrificed so much to be a part of.

But he persevered.

“I feel like perseverance is the one word that most describes my entire life,” Anderson said. “Looking back on it, I use to wonder why things would come easier for some other drivers, but it taught me to just put blinders on. It taught me to just focus and do what I needed to accomplish.”

And that’s exactly what Anderson did, eventually making his Truck Series debut in 2014. He was full-time last season, and now Anderson hopes he’s taken another step forward, joining upstart Bolen Racing with long-time friend and fellow South Carolinian Jeff Bolen.

They are joined by the Columbia, South Carolina Tourism Board — meaning all three primary figures of the team are Columbia-bred, an important aspect of their marketing and hospitality strategy.

“It’s definitely an unorthodox sponsor, which I think reflects my career pretty well,” Anderson said. “It works because we’re all from Columbia and we know how to promote our city. It’s a multi-faceted program and we’re going to be able to do a lot of hospitality too.”

On the competition side, Anderson believes he can compete for the occasional top-10 and run around the top-15 on a weekly basis. He also believes that he could shine in restrictor plate and road course events, important as a result of the new eight-team Chase for the Championship.

While he doesn’t expect to compete for a playoff spot in this first season, Anderson doesn’t want to set the ceiling too low either.
“You never really know until you get on the track,” Anderson added. “The caution clock could help us a little bit too. It’s going to change the pit strategy and it could provide elements that play out in our favor.

“For sure, our goal is to make the races. We don’t have a provisional. From there, we’d like to run 10th, and we expect to run around the top-15. We finished 13th last year at Michigan with a short track truck, so anything is possible. I just want to be consistent as a driver, which was something I didn’t fully grasp when I was running short tracks.

“Learning to be more conservative last year really made a difference. If we can just finish the races, a lot of other things will take care of themselves.”

So while Anderson doesn’t expect to immediately compete for wins, simply remaining in the Truck Series and rising up the grid feels like a moral victory for the 24-year-old.

“Even when things were tough, it always came back to being a NASCAR driver. I missed things in school and I sacrificed so much to get here. This makes it all worth it and I know this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”

EMAIL MATT AT matt.weaver@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattWeaverSBN

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

WEAVER: Chase Elliott Should Exceed Expectations

Last week during the NASCAR Media Tour, Rick Hendrick made quite the bold statement when he suggested that Chase Elliott was seemingly more prepared for his rookie Sprint Cup season than Jeff Gordon was back in 1993.

Given the meteoric rise of the eventual four-time champion, Hendrick dished-out a major compliment towards the new driver of his iconic No. 24 — but can Elliott meet those expectations in his debut season?

Despite a rash of crashed cars, Gordon put together a very impressive rookie campaign, amassing 11 top-10s in 30 starts, not including a victory in his Daytona Duel qualifying race at the start of the season.

In fact, Gordon spent much of the year inside the top-10 in the championship standings and should have finished there if not for three straight finishes outside of the top-20 to end his campaign.

All told, Gordon displayed a tremendous amount of speed and promise for a 21-year-old ex-open-wheel prospect, and that season laid the groundwork for the career that would soon follow.

Elliott has openly admitted that he expects to face a steep learning curve in 2016, but the 20-year-old also has more resources available to him than Gordon could have ever imagined upon joining Hendrick late in 1992.

For one, Elliott has spent his entire life preparing for this moment and grew up in the garage as the son of a NASCAR champion. It took Gordon several years of competing at the Cup level just to gain the knowledge that Elliott had absorbed prior to becoming a teenager.

The Hendrick team that Elliott has just joined is a database of information that Gordon simply didn’t have access to during his rookie year. In addition to Gordon himself, Elliott has Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mr. H to lean on and that will make a considerable difference.

For his part, Hendrick is no stranger to cultivating top prospects either, having led Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch to early success under the HMS banner.

In his rookie season, Johnson posted three victories, 21 top-10s and finished fifth in the championship standings. Even Busch proved to be a quick study with the Concord-based team, posting a pair of wins before finishing 20th that season.

Rookie Stats: Jeff Gordon | Jimmie Johnson | Kyle Busch

Elliott appears better poised for success at the Cup level than both of them, having already won the 2014 XFINITY Series crown, having earned a reputation for staying out of trouble — both on and off the track.

While no one expects Elliott to make the Chase for the Championship in his first season, there’s no real reason for him not to. In an era where 16 out of roughly 20 competitive cars make the NASCAR playoffs, Elliott should easily be able to point his way into the Challenger Round.

Sure a victory might be a tall task, but Elliott has already proven he can be consistent and that’s all that will be asked of him as he learns on the job in his first full-time season. And should he make the Chase, the sky could be the limit, as he and Alan Gustafson will have enjoyed a 26-race cohesion period in advance of the real season.

Chase Elliott appears to be the real deal and 2016 could be the start of a new legend in the No. 24.

EMAIL MATT AT matt.weaver@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattWeaverSBN

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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Home Tracks

ARCA’s Matt Kurzejewski Blessed with 2016 Opportunity

With the ARCA Racing Series seemingly poised to enter an extended period of growth, Matt Kurzejewski stands equally prepared to become the face of the tour moving forward.

There’s a great deal to like about ARCA this year, starting with the most diverse schedule in stock car racing, an expanding roster of talented drivers and the cost-conscious way in which it tries to conduct itself.

In many ways, Kurzejewski is the embodiment of the ARCA spirit.

He’s a young driver that competes for the love of the game while balancing a career away from the track. For Kurzejewski, that career is serving as director of operations at the family business, Costy’s Energy Service.

That combination of business savvy and professionalism, combined with the 2015 ARCA Superspeedway Challenge championship eventually led him to Ken Schrader Racing and a significant full-time sponsor in Menards and Ansell Protective Products.

“The best way to describe it is that it was a joint collaboration between myself, Ansell/Menards and Ken Schrader Racing,” Kurzejewski said. “It was a bunch of people coming together to make something happen and I couldn’t be more honored to drive the No. 52 for KSR and Ansell, Menards and Federated Auto Parts.”

Menards is also the title sponsor for ARCA, so driving that entry along with KSR will mean an increase in responsibility and pressure for the 25-year-old. Much in the way he inherited the sponsor from 10-time champion Frank Kimmel, Kurzejewski could be poised to inherit the role as face of the series too.

But Kurzejewski isn’t putting a lot of thought into that narrative.

He says he simply feels blessed to have this opportunity and just wants to prove himself worthy of the support by winning races and contending for the championship. That mission starts at Daytona International Speedway in two weeks as Kurzejewski, Schrader and veteran crew chief Donnie Richeson prepares to tackle the prestigious Lucas Oil 200.

“I can’t say enough good things about the people that Ken has surrounded himself with,” Kurzejewski said. “I’ve really enjoyed meeting JR Bishop and everyone at Federated — great people.”

Richeson has served as crew chief under Schrader for over a decade across a variety of disciplines and Kurzejewski already feels at home with the team that’s been assembled around him.

Kurzejewski said he only looked at the timing charts once during the entire weekend at Daytona testing in January.

“I didn’t have to,” Kurzejewski said. “I just knew we were good. That’s a rare feeling to come by.”

Even though Kurzejewski exclusively ran the superspeedways last season, he does have an extensive short track background and has made eight NASCAR K&N Pro Series East starts in 2009. So in short, he doesn’t expect a steep learning curve.

“We should be okay there,” Kurzejewski said. “I even think I’m a pretty good road course racer, so I’m looking forward to New Jersey too. The small characteristics of Salem or Winchester will be tough to pick up on but KSR and Donnie have such a big notebook that I think we’re going to be just fine.”

Additionally, Kurzejewski doesn’t expect his rapidly expanding driving career to get in the way of his day job at Costy’s either. The extent of his obligations at KSR are to show up when asked, test and compete on race day.

But as a safe-guard, Kurzejewski has built a solid infrastructure back in Mansfield, Pennsylvania, should he ever need to take several days off.

“I have a great group of people that I work with that can run the business with or without me,” Kurzejewski said. “I plan to stay involved in the day-to-day operations but I’m going to stay true to my people. I’m going to try to spend as much time with the team as I can in North Carolina but I feel pretty good about striking a balance.”

And like any race car driver, Kurzejewski still dreams of NASCAR but is more than content if this is as far as he makes it in his career.

“I got to this point by racing week-to-week or season-by-season,” Kurzejewski said. “I realize that so many people have spent all of their money and time just hoping to get to this point. I don’t take that for granted. I’m so incredibly lucky and happy to be here.

“I want to enjoy this season and keep progressing. If I ever get the opportunity to move up, I’d definitely want to take it. But I feel at home here in ARCA. My focus is on 2016 and I just want to win.”

EMAIL MATT AT matt.weaver@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattWeaverSBN

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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WEAVER: Smoke Has Fallen but Can he Recover in Final Season?

Tony Stewart has been stealing headlines quite a bit recently, but not for reasons he and his fans grew accustomed to during his peak in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series over the past 15 years.

Instead of making the news for winning races and championships, Smoke has largely become a punching bag in the public spotlight for reasons equally valid and unfair.

The three-time Sprint Cup champion will hope to avoid this kind of scrutiny when he retires to his short track roots following the conclusion of the 2016 season, but will he return to form or follow the recent trend of disappointment and relative obscurity?

Much has been written about Stewart and his struggles since breaking parts of his right leg in a Sprint Car crash in August of 2013, but the signs of decline predate that injury with Stewart not finding much success with crew chief Steve Addington that year. At the time of his crash, Stewart was 11th in the standings after spending much of the year outside of the top-20. He was starting to synchronize with Addington, but the sport will never know if that was a sign of things to come or closer to a well-timed hot streak.

Next came 2014 and the tragic incident at Canandaigua Motorsports Park. But like the year before, it’s not as if Stewart was finding any sort of success before his extracurricular activities resulted in missed time at the track.

Stewart was mired 19th in the championship standings and struggling to crack the top-10 with any real regularity. For whatever reason, and perhaps a variety of them, one of the most feared competitors of all time was relegated to a mid-packer on the largest stage in Stock Car racing.

An honest look at Stewart and his recent statistics reveal several notable culprits. The most notable is the high-downforce Gen-Six race car that has taken success largely out of the hands of the drivers and placed them on the engineering front.

Accustomed to driving high speed and low downforce cars throughout his heyday, Stewart has been neutered by the recent technical changes that have spread across the Sprint Cup Series. Even Stewart himself admitted last year that the current rules just don’t match-up with his skill-set and the results have reflected it.

While the lower downforce rules for 2016 will aid Stewart to a certain degree, NASCAR and its crew chiefs expect most of the downforce to be re-engineered back on the cars by the end of spring. If the gen-6 is to blame for the fall of Tony Stewart, there isn’t much respite coming in the form of the coming rules changes.

Respectfully, Stewart also likely bears some degree of responsibility for the fall-off in his performance, based on his physical appearance. Stewart’s weight and conditioning has fluctuated over the past half-decade, no doubt a byproduct of his stress and various rehabs processes during this period of his life.

The marathon races at the Sprint Cup Series are incredibly taxing, and it’s no surprise that the more athletic drivers have enjoyed a vast majority of success in recent seasons.

Stewart addressed this during the NASCAR Media Tour last week and says he has adjusted his diet and lifestyle in order to begin losing weight by the start of the season next month. The former IndyCar champion has resolved to leave nothing on the table in his final season and has taken multiple steps within his organization to achieve his remaining goals.

Stewart hasn’t won a race since 2013, hasn’t made the playoffs since 2012, and is still looking for his first Daytona 500 victory. To that end, he’s replaced former crew chief Chad Johnston with Michael Bugarewicz, and hopes the same organization that has supplied Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch with championship caliber cars can do the same for him.

Stewart is arguably the greatest all-around driver of his generation, and deserves the same competitive send-off that Jeff Gordon received in 2015. Like Gordon, Stewart will have a few physical questions to address and will need to gain momentum leading up to the playoffs.

It remains a coin-flip if all the changes to the sport and Stewart Haas Racing will help him return to Victory Lane, but there’s no question that NASCAR is infinitely more interesting when Stewart is in the mix.

EMAIL MATT AT matt.weaver@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattWeaverSBN

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.