NASCAR Cup Series

Joe Gibbs Racing Rebound Latest Display Down the Stretch

JOLIET, IL – Going into the Chase, Joe Gibbs Racing was considered the team to beat, and after a roller coaster performance that began with a Lap 2 spin and culminated in victory lane, @DennyHamlin proved that was still the case.

Hamlin, who is racing with a torn ACL for the rest of this season, admitted even after working his way through the field and using the wave around, was worried it would all be for nothing with a chaotic five lap dash looming.

He stayed out on a last minute decision and held off the charging field which had fresher tires, using clean air caused by @JeffGordonWeb stacking the field to seal victory.

“I thought we were screwed actually,” Hamlin said. “Starting on the second row with old tires, especially new tires right on the outside of you, I thought the only chance we have is to get three-wide entering Turn 1 and get some clean air. It worked out that way. Once we got clean air, those were the fastest laps I ran all day.”

A late restart combined with tire strategy catapulted the JGR driver into a winning position, while teammate Carl Edwards, who himself rebounded from an early pit road speeding penalty and motor problems, took second.

While Hamlin gambled to stay out front, Edwards and championship winning crew chief Darian Grubb chose to take tires and chase from behind with dirty air, but fresh rubber.

“My guys just do a great job on pit road, they really do,” Edwards said post-race. “Darian never loses his cool ever. He played the game perfectly with pit strategy.”

Amid the chaos of tire strategy, @KyleBusch, who led 121 laps, fell back on the final restart but nonetheless finished ninth. Third on the JGR pecking order was championship favorite @MattKenseth, who surprisingly finished in the top-five but consistently ran outside the top-10 all day.

“We really struggled. We had probably a 15th-place car at best and barely hung onto the lead lap all day,” Kenseth said. “Somehow we wound up fifth. We definitely finished way better than we deserved today. But that’s what you’ve have to do in these things, you have to try to take your days and try to make them the best you can.”

Throughout recent NASCAR history, it hasn’t necessarily been statement wins near the end of the championship season that defined which team was the one to beat. Often, especially in the Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus era of titles, it was about overcoming adversity and posting solid results in order to remain in the championship hunt.

Each Gibbs driver faced a unique race, and yet all wound up near the front. It may just be one more race, but it is one more race into the sample of their dominance down the stretch, and one more race closer to the championship in Homestead.

NASCAR Cup Series

Harvick, Johnson Restart Incident the Talk of Chicago

JOLIET, IL – Entering the Chase, drivers throughout the Sprint Cup Series were concerned about restarts.

Sunday afternoon at Chicagoland, their concerns came to fruition with @KevinHarvick losing the most ground in the championship after contact with @JimmieJohnson cut his tire on Lap 139.

“I saw those guys coming on the apron,” Harvick said. “They must have gotten together and had a good run up. But I just held my ground and he slammed into the side of the door like I wasn’t even there.”

Harvick, who finished 42nd, started from the pole and was restarting on the front row before contact from Johnson cut his left rear tire. Rather than pitting, Harvick remained on track with his car smoking before losing control in Turn 3.

Following the race, Harvick and Johnson had a minor confrontation in the driver’s motorhome lot. Johnson confronted the defending champion and was hit with a light jab to the chest by Harvick, who had to be restrained by his business manager Josh Jones.

Johnson, who finished 11th, said he was bumped onto the apron by @JoeyLogano, and had to force himself back onto the racing surface before Turn 1.

“I’ve got to get back on the track,” Johnson said on pit road. “I just tried to inch my way back up on the track. We had a little bit of contact there and unfortunately Kevin got a tire rub out of that. He didn’t leave me any space. He was pinning me down, and I had to get back up on the track.”

The third man in on the incident, Logano, was pushing Johnson and forced the 48 onto the apron. For his part, Logano was mum on his role in the incident, but added that NASCAR’s ineffectiveness at addressing the restart issue contributed to the championship altering accident.

“I felt like the 24 jumped it once,” Logano explained. “NASCAR’s not calling it, we just need to push it.”

Race winner @DennyHamlin acknowledged things have changed as a result of this iteration of the championship. Drivers are more aggressive, especially on restarts, and the effect of that has already been seen after just one race like it was all of last season.

“Anytime you break your season down into a three race season, every point matters,” Hamlin said. “Every position matters. We saw more fights in the Chase last year than in the last 10 years because when people feel like they’re wronged by somebody, and their entire season is possibly ruined because of somebody else’s mistake, or what have you.

“But it’s just racing.”

POPULAR SPEED writer Matt Weaver contributed to this report

NASCAR Cup Series

Logano Hopes Blend of Youth and Experience Lead to First Title

CHICAGO – Failing to secure victory at Richmond International Raceway last weekend was the latest Fall misstep for Team Penske driver @JoeyLogano, who once again finds himself entering NASCAR’s playoffs as a championship favorite despite his age and despite seeing last year’s title shot slip away on a late pit stop in the season finale.

“Last year we proved to ourselves, most importantly, that we can do it,” Logano said of merely advancing to the final round of The Chase. “We learned a lot throughout that last week and that valuable experience; you can’t really put a price tag on… It’s one race at a time to be in that championship, but at the same time if we get there we’ll have a better idea of what we’ve got to do.”

The task in front of Logano is certainly daunting, and with the added emphasis on track position entering this year’s Chase, good runs can quickly devolve into the type of results that doom a season. Through 26 races, Logano’s wins (3) are identical, but his top-five’s this year (16) are equal to all of last season’s while he is just two top-10 runs away from tying his 36-race mark from 2014.

In his seventh full season of Sprint Cup Series racing, the 25-year-old Logano has become the consistent title contender people penned him as years ago, but has yet to secure his first title regardless of the format and circumstance.

NASCAR, especially in the previous Chase era, has been dominated by older drivers. @JimmieJohnson, now 40, is a six-time champion and remains near the top of NASCAR’s proverbial power rankings no matter what. @JeffGordon, now 44, became the Sprint Cup Series’ youngest champion in 1995, but also shifted the needle in 2013 when his inclusion in the Chase moved the average driver age in NASCAR’s playoffs to 35.4.

One of the few outliers in this trend is Logano’s teammate, @Keselowski. The 2012 series champion, Keselowski won his first championship at age 28 as the only driver in that year’s playoffs under 30. Logano, then with Joe Gibbs Racing, was the only driver in the top-30 in points under the age of 25.

When asked about why older drivers tend to be able to seal the deal and win titles consistently, Keselowski said it was a matter of experience while admitting his teammate is in a unique situation that could lead to one of the youngest champions in nearly two decades.

“I think there’s a maturation process in your 20’s,” Keselowski explained. “You don’t have the experience; you don’t have the maturity to lead a team, that’s why Logano is such a standout.

“For him to be able to do that is very special.”

Despite the Sprint Cup Series playoffs, NASCAR is undoubtedly undergoing a youth movement. Driver development programs are highly emphasized from teams and manufacturers, while young drivers are now entering NASCAR’s highest level more prepared due to various experience on short tracks and tight developmental guidelines.

Logano did enter the Sprint Cup Series as soon as he technically could, but he was raw and struggled as a result. Now on the cusp and with approaching almost a decade of Sprint Cup seat time, Logano is hoping he can bring the best of both worlds into Homestead and take the next step not just into victory lane, but onto the top of the championship standings.

“I look at a lot of rookies that come in, it takes a while to get going and understand what you need at each race track,” Logano said. “The experience level you have outweighs the advantages you have as a younger person in terms of reflexes and all that.

“The experience is larger than that. What I like about my position is that I’m in my seventh year, I’m still 25, so hopefully I got both going for me I’ve just got to keep growing.”

NASCAR Cup Series

Downforce Decision Looms Large as Chase Opens in Chicago

CHICAGO – The Chase once again begins at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, IL this weekend, one of five 1.5-mile tracks in NASCAR’s 10 race playoff system.

With aerodynamics a focal point this season on and off the track, NASCAR said it would not alter its speedway downforce package this season, leaving teams with a lot of data to work with, but perhaps a lot of excitement left on the table.

“The cars have gotten closer and closer, we’ve got more dependence on aero, the cars make a bigger and bigger hole in the air,” Toyota driver Carl Edwards, who won with a slightly different low downforce package at Darlington, explained. “It really does get tougher to pass. I think we saw with the smaller spoiler and softer tires that the racing got better and closer, and NASCAR’s looking hard at that.

“If you have really low downforce and lots of power it becomes a real show of talent. Driver skill and car setup, strategy, that’s what the sport’s based on. It shouldn’t be based on track position.”

Numerous teams will be unloading brand new race cars specifically built for the Chase this weekend at Chicagoland, and as it stands, change in the setup does not come quickly. With every race meaning more and more, a number of drivers feel that how a team rolls off the trailer impacts total performance over the weekend far too much.

Drivers feel lower downforce, among other things, would give them more control on track as the margin for error decreases. And with the quality of the product needing to improve over each round in order to entice viewers, a lower downforce package seems to be a win-win solution that remains only hypothetical until next season.

“The worst design on any race car ever built … ever … was the splitter. It’s absolutely horrible,” Chevy driver Ryan Newman, an engineering graduate from Purdue University, added before berating the style of car that introduced NASCAR into the low downforce era.

“One of the biggest things that we complain about is you can’t even afford to drive through the grass to miss an accident. It’s not cool. I can’t go tell the people at Caterpillar ‘I’m sorry I tried to avoid an accident and drug my car into the grass.’ It’s not cool. On the performance side of it, it creates no advantage. It does not make the racing better.”

Amid everything else, the current downforce package that will play a dramatic role in The Chase lends itself to using pit strategy and bold moves on restarts for an advantage, prioritizing track position as opposed to on track prowess.

“I think we’ve seen all season long where restarts and pit road have had a greater impact on deciding the race winner than in years past,” Ford driver Brad Keselowski added. “I expect that to continue … I’d be really happy if we had any kind of package that de-emphasizes track position.”

NASCAR Cup Series

Restart Format Under a Microscope Entering Chase

CHICAGO – NASCAR’s latest Chase for The Sprint Cup format has been both praised and criticized by fans and media alike for its uncertainty. The body of work for a champion no longer has to be an entire 36 races. It doesn’t even have to be an entire 400 mile race.

The current climate in NASCAR is this – one restart, one moment, one event with a massive amount of gamesmanship and human interpretation involved, can decide a champion.

Last week, race leader @MattKenseth took control of the race at Richmond on the final restart, mastering the start and finding clean air on the way to victory. He left as early as physically possible and was rewarded with a win, as opposed to penalized with a black flag that would have been insignificant in the long term.

Defending his actions, Kenseth didn’t admit to testing NASCAR’s officials directly, but said that all competitors push the envelope as the stakes increase, with every rule remaining up for interpretation also up for exploitation.

“(It’s) a moving target but yeah, as a driver you’re going to try and get every advantage you can get within the rules, without getting yourself penalized,” Kenseth said, adding referees in other sports often set an officiating tone early. “I think that you’re going to do whatever you can to get an advantage within the rules.”

The driver Kenseth spurned on Richmond’s final restart, @JoeyLogano, said that he’s fine with restarts now being under a microscope heading into the first three race stretch of the playoffs.

“I understand where NASCAR is that it’s a ball and strike call,” Logano said. “If it’s something blatantly obvious you have to make that call. You have to stick up and do it. You have to stand up and make it happen. It’s a tough position for them when you look at angles … When there’s something on the line, a race win on the line, possible the championship on the line, it can be a lot larger than what happened.”

Seemingly every Chase driver was asked about NASCAR’s restart policy, with varying responses. Some faulted the added competition of double file restarts; others equated it to the current downforce package. Each, however, felt that more consistency was needed, even if it meant going back to the prior system, where the field departed on the leader’s command only.

With the competitive environment of every restart now under the microscope and the integrity of every green flag up for debate, Joe Gibbs Racing driver @KyleBusch wondered if the punishment for jumping a restart, for simply gaming a difficult to interpret rule, fits the crime.

Busch, who enters the Chase with four wins this season, was not only fighting for victory, but also to remain within the top-30 in points to remain Chase eligible. In his situation, fighting for a win by taking advantage of a restart was not worth the risk of a black flag that could cost him dozens of spots and cripple his season.

“I’ve taken restarts and have come up to conclusion myself that I can’t give NASCAR that opportunity to penalize me,” Busch explained. “I have to make sure it’s by the book and I do it right so I don’t put it in their hands to make a bad choice because they’re really good at making bad choices for me.”

“If they want to give us the opportunity to fix it first, that’s fine I’m OK with that,” Busch said. “If somebody jumps the restart, if they give the lead up on the racetrack or fall to second or third, give it up and go back and race again, that’s OK in my book. You have a chance to fix it.”

In the end, the matter comes down to policing. NASCAR’s decision to rarely penalize drivers on restarts came to a helm last week, at a time when the stakes were raised dramatically. Drivers have asked for tighter policing, and while it may cost them with a key penalty, drivers such as Logano are perfectly fine with accepting the risk.

“I want it to be analyzed and for a call to be made,” Logano said. “That would not be frustrating to me at all.”

NASCAR Cup Series

Pit Stops Leading Denny Hamlin Back to Contention

By Michael Guzman (JOLIET, Ill.) — Reunited with crew chief Darian Grubb for the first time in six weeks, Denny Hamlin took a pivotal step in the right direction with a sixth place finish on Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway.

Going into the Chase for the Sprint Cup, perhaps no driver was more of an unknown that the driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. After all, Hamlin’s average starting position of 15.4 and finish of 14.8 were amongst the worst of the Field of 16.

Between Grubb’s reinstatement and a blown engine in the Nationwide Series on Saturday, Hamlin was tasked with overcoming adversity. During the early stages of the race, he claimed he was losing another engine but ultimately chalked it up to jitters from all the accumulated bad luck once the engine held together by the end of the race.

“The engine changed tones quite a bit and I was very, very gun shy from yesterday,” Hamlin admitted.
“Probably a little more spooked than what I normally would be. It held together. Overall, I’m pretty happy with our performance.”

In addition to his crew chief returning, Hamlin also has a strong team that has strength in numbers and resources. Two weeks removed from an Atlanta performance where they had every pit stop recorded in less than 12.0 seconds, Hamlin and crew had the third best average pit road time at 36.409 seconds at Chicagoland.

It’s an element that Hamlin believes could ultimately win him the Sprint Cup championship.

“Pit road — we did a really great job once again,” Hamlin said. “Overall, we gained most of our spots — I felt like — on the race track. Our car got better. Darian really made some good adjustments after halfway to get our car back to where it belongs. This is a good momentum-builder.”

The latest iteration of NASCAR’s Chase is very much a numbers game. If each driver carries with it a chance of surviving into the final four, powerful alliances will clearly determine who the favorites are early on. While some teams, especially race winner Brad Keselowski, can afford to glimpse into the future, Hamlin continues to emphasize that the weekly results will ultimately determine their fate.

“I mean this is what we’ve been working on for months just to try and perform at a high level once you get to the last 10 and now it’s the last nine. So, you just have to continue to get a little bit better each week but this is definitely a step in the right direction as far as where we need to be.”

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NASCAR Cup Series

Jeff Gordon Offers Praise and Advice for Kyle Larson After Late Battle at Chicagoland

By Michael Guzman (JOLIET, Ill.) — Jeff Gordon emerged from his car after an impressive second-place run during the playoff-opening race at Chicagoland Speedway and didn’t have to go far to find the driver he was looking for.

Kyle Larson was parked right behind him as the two engaged in a ferocious side-by-side battle over the final 10 laps that had Gordon raving about the rookie phenom at the conclusion of the race. Gordon made a beeline over to the 22-year-old and congratulated him for what was his best effort of the season.

For his part, Larson was thrilled to receive praise from one of the sport’s icons but even more delighted to have Gordon impart his advice about restart following such an intense battle.

“I’m never on the front row, so I don’t know what to do,” Larson said of the final restart where he started next to eventual winner Brad Keselowski. “You look at my Nationwide races and I’m maybe on the front row a handful of times — and in the Cup Series another handful — so I’m still learning that part of it.

“So (Gordon) came down and gave some advice which was nice. I know Jeff thinks a lot about me and I think a lot about him too. It was fun racing him, I definitely wanted to beat him and I was trying all I could and just tried a little too hard.”

Nevertheless, the 22-year-old remained humble and exuberant while the four-time champion continued to sing the highest of praises for Larson, who has made a name for himself this season not unlike what Gordon did during his rookie season in 2013.

“I think this kid is the real deal and he’s going to be a star in this series for a long time,” Gordon said. “I really want to see him win because I like him and I know he’s going to win a lot of races. I also didn’t want to see the other guys win, so I’m a big fan. I like seeing young guys out there driving like that — that’s so much fun — that’s what this sport is all about and I just wanted to let him know what a great job I felt like he did.”

Gordon reaffirmed his status as one of the championship favorites on Sunday and Larson acknowledged that the four-time champion isn’t always going to be this willing to aid his efforts as they continue to duel against each other.

“It’s only going to last so much longer until I’m kind of here and everybody knows, I guess,” Larson said. “That’s just really cool that guys I’ve looked up to since forever are now talking about me and I’m racing them and battling for wins, which is very cool.”

The battle between two generations of NASCAR stardom was not the first between Gordon and Larson and it certainly will not be the last. The Chase features five intermediate tracks where both drivers have excelled this season

Today’s battle between Jeff Gordon and Kyle Larson was not the duo’s first duel of the season, continuing one that started at Texas in April, and it doesn’t appear to be their last either.


Daniel Suarez Excels in First Intermediate Start

By Michael Guzman (JOLIET, Ill.) — Daniel Suarez (@dnlsuarez) quietly defied the odds in just his second career Nationwide Series start, finishing 15th in his debut for RAB Racing on Saturday afternoon at Chicagoland Speedway.

The start was his first on an intermediate track and the NASCAR Drive for Diversity graduate and Joe Gibbs Racing development driver was audibly excited, but not shocked, that his first speedway experience went so well.

“I learned a lot, we learned a lot about the aero,” Suarez told Popular Speed on Saturday. “The car was pretty good and we were getting better. We were just okay on the short runs.The most important thing, and the goal today, was to just learn and get approval from NASCAR and I think we made it.”

Suarez qualified 18th and his 15th-place-finish marked the best finish by the No. 29 entry this season. Nevertheless, a late spell of cautions created a variety of strategies and dropped Suarez from as high as eighth towards the middle of the pack.

“It didn’t work out in the short run,” Suarez said. “In the long runs we were pretty decent. Maybe with new tires like some of the cars, maybe we could have been more aggressive on the restarts. But with old tires and some of the cars with new tires, it was kind of difficult.

“But as soon as we get 10 laps on the tires, we were equal to everyone. Maybe we missed (the setup), I don’t know, three, four spots over there, but it’s okay, we learned a lot. It’s a learning experience and we have to keep working.”

Suarez will now take to another intermediate track, running the ARCA Racing Series event at Kentucky next weekend for Venturini Motorsports as he continuing to prepare for his first full-time Nationwide Series season in 2015 with Joe Gibbs Racing.

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Michael Waltrip Racing Hopes to Dance to the Front in Chase

By Michael Guzman (JOLIET, Ill.) — @ClintBowyer and @BrianLVickers may have missed the inaugural, win-centric Chase for the Sprint Cup, but the team’s namesake and quirky team owner Michael Waltrip (@mw55) says he isn’t worried about it.

Waltrip has plenty to worry about these days as he is set to dance in front of millions on Monday night as he makes his debut on Dancing with the Stars. The 51-year-old Kentucky native has certainly kept busy since stepping out of the NASCAR cockpit on a full-time basis in 2010, including becoming a best-selling author and driving a Ferrari in the World Endurance Championship.

The two-time Daytona 500 winner believes that his team will return to the level it had achieved prior to suffering a setback during the off-season. Even with NASCAR’s new playoff system presumably being wide open, Waltrip is glad this year played out the way it did.

“If we were in the Chase, I don’t think you’d be talking about us being champions, and that’s what the Chase is all about, being a champion.” Waltrip said on Friday. “So, we would have tiptoed into the Chase, but we know that over these next 10 weeks, we continue to improve our cars and continue to improve the engines, we can build momentum and race through these 10 races and win and be ready to be championship contenders in 2015.”

Much of MWR’s struggles have been attributed to the overall lack of power produced by Toyota Racing Development (TRD)’s engine package this year. Waltrip, though, was the first major team to feature Toyota support at the Sprint Cup level, and the team owner remains confident 2015 will see a significant rebound out of team and supplier.

“I’m so proud of Vickers and Bowyer for their constructive help towards what the engines feel like at specific points on the race track. This one has more power, well it doesn’t feel good at this RPM, it feels better at that.” Waltrip said. “We’re total partners and I wouldn’t be racing without them and we know we’re with the right manufacturer.

“We believe the will have the best engines in 2015 and beyond and we’re going to help them to continue to provide feedback so they can get there.”

The 2014 Chase may be treated as a large testing session for MWR, but the numbers have shown the team should not be counted out of victory lane contention due to a poor campaign this season. That started at Richmond last week, but Bowyer hopes the solid run will transfer to Chicago, where he has amassed seven top-10 finishes during the last eight races and ran sixth during Friday’s lone practice session.

“(Richmond) we finally executed like we needed to. Everything came together. We’ve had flashes of that throughout the year but Saturday it showed… “I’m happy with the way we performed at Richmond. That’s what this team is capable of.”

“This team has done a good job for our first year together” Vickers added. “We’re going to go out and try to win a championship next year, and there’s still 10 races left this year where we can win some races and get some top fives and top 10s. Everyone at MWR has done a really great job giving us some really great cars the last month or two, stepping up our downforce and car potential and its showing in our performance.”

Vickers may not yet be acclimated to his new team, but for Bowyer the standards and expectations are that much higher. Despite not having the yellow trim that signified he was championship eligible, he nonetheless still has the confidence of a winner and a contender.

“I wouldn’t say that we are ready to compete for a championship right now but we are going in the right direction and we will use the rest of this year to get a win and get ready for next year.”

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