Categories
News

2020 Silly Season Updates and Expectations

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

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

Nigel Kinrade | NKP

Matt DiBenedetto

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russell LaBounty | NKP

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

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

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

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

Gavin Baker | NKP

Chris Buescher

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

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

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

Rusty Jarrett | NKP

Tyler Reddick

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

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

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

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

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

Russell LaBounty | NKP

Cole Custer

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

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

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

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

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

Russell LaBounty | NKP

Christopher Bell

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

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

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

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

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

EMAIL COLE AT: colecusumano88@gmail.com

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

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

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Stenhouse Jr. Avoiding Frustration as Roush Continues Making Gains

At the beginning of the season, Roush Fenway Racing did not have their program necessary where they wanted it. However, the past couple weekends have seen the organization make steady improvements.

In the previous Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races at Kansas Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has been able to run in the top-10, highlighted by a fifth-place finish in the Coca-Cola 600.

“I know it’s tough, but it’s nice to have runs like Kansas and being able to pass for the lead under green and not just restart up there and take the lead,” he said. “So I think that gave everybody at our place a little bit of confidence that we’ve got a car that’s capable of doing that, we just have to put all the parts and pieces together to do that every week. 

“Another thing that I took from that weekend is we were not very good on Friday and we changed everything in the car and made the same chassis, the same body car with different components underneath and made it fast for racing on Saturday, so that gave me a little bit more confidence that we are building the right things, we just have to make sure we put it all together every weekend.”

Prior to those performances, Stenhouse had only posted one top-10 – sixth at Las Vegas Motor Speedway – in the first 11 races of the season. 

“I think there are times that we’ve had really, really good runs and there are times that we’ve had quite the opposite, and I think that’s the frustrating part is when you go to one race track and you’re really good, and then you go back to another race track and can’t seem to find that same speed,” he said. “I think we’re getting better at that, for sure.  You always want it to be overnight, but when all the other cars and teams are trying to do the same thing and continue their path of progression, it makes that task difficult.”

Despite expressing constant frustration on the team radio through the struggles, Stenhouse remains confident in the team’s ability as he believes Roush Fenway Racing’s employees are putting in every bit of effort possible to find what they are missing. It’s easy for him to be able to do that, through RFR’s initiative to discuss what they are currently working on as part of the debrief meetings on Monday so the drivers are aware. 

“I think that’s been really beneficial to let us talk about the importance of some of those things that we’re working on and then also just to know that, ‘Hey, we’re working on it,’” he said. “Like I said, it’s not from a lack of effort.”

The progress has also been shown on track, with Stenhouse showing speed at times through those first 11 events, as noted with a runner-up qualifying effort at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Just last weekend, he posted the ninth-quickest lap in time trials for the Coca-Cola 600. 

“We just have to get more consistent because we have speed in our cars and we haven’t had speed on the mile-and-a-halves in a long time and this year those are by far our better race tracks, so that’s been neat to see and we’ve had some issues,” he said. “Heck, I ran into the back of the 18 (Kyle Busch) on Lap 2 at Bristol and I felt like that was the best car we had at Bristol in practice and I ruined that for us, and then you get caught in a wreck at Talladega and then we blew a right-front at Dover.”

With those disappointments currently behind him, it appears that Stenhouse is finding the momentum at the right time as we enter the summer stretch with him currently ranked 19th in points. If he can carry forward with more consistent top-10 finishes, he could possibly be one of the 16 drivers in the post-season.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @ladybug388

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

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Stenhouse Showcasing Performance with Strong Start

LAS VEGAS, Nev — Another week into the 2019 season, and yet one more solid performance by Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

The 31-year-old started the day eighth and ran as high as second early in the afternoon, before finishing the Pennzoil 400 in the sixth, a career-best for him at any mile and a half speedway on the schedule and his first top-10 at an intermidate track since the Coca-Cola 600 last year.

The No. 17 Ford also managed to score stage points throughout the 267-lap event, with a sixth and eighthplace finish in the first and second stages.

For a team that missed the playoffs a season ago, this impressive start seems promising for the year ahead. While Sunday may have been the first top-10 of the season, their strength has been felt. They were able to lead laps in the Daytona 500 and had enough speed to hang with the leaders late despite being trapped a lap down a weekend ago at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Ultimately, it feels as if their performance Sunday is a statement saying that this is a team that can be competitive despite the lack of success Roush Fenway Racing has had recently.

However, Stenhouse is not letting these early runs get to head just yet, as he continues to keep his focus strictly on a week-to-week, rather than getting caught up in the moment.

“Yeah, it feels good. We’re doing what we need to do, but it’s a long season. We’re only three races in,” Stenhouse told POPULAR SPEED. “Definitely need to continue our progress and keep pushing forward. But, all in all, really, really happy.”

Through three races, the No. 17 team sits seventh in the standings 34 points behind leader, Joey Logano. With the next race on the schedule being at ISM Raceway next weekend, Stenhouse will hope to see the results he had in 2017, where he finished both races in the top-10. Notably, last season he ended both events at the track outside the top-20.

EMAIL MITCHELL AT mitchell.breuer@popularspeed.com

TWITTER: @MitchellB66

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

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

OBSERVATIONS: Foxwoods Resort Casino 301

It may have taken three fours to get started, but the Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 delivered at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sunday afternoon.

The end of the event came down to a classic battle between two of the best this season in Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick – Busch leading, and Harvick wanting what he had. It’s always said that one of the elements of stock car racing is bumpers as they’re made for bumping, and that’s what happened. A couple nudges in a row from the No. 4 Ford into the No. 18 saw a trade for the lead, sending Harvick to victory lane for the sixth time this season.

As Harvick said post-race, “I had to do what I had to win. I didn’t want to wreck him – I just didn’t want to waste time behind him.” The bump was enough to get the position, but it didn’t cause damage to either car and Busch came across the finish line second.

Now when Busch finishes second, you know he isn’t going to be happy and that showed. However, he kept in perspective by saying, “With a faster car, I’m not sure he had to do it. With how you race, you get raced.” In other words, the playoffs with these two battling against each other head-to-toe are going to be exciting.

Of course, you can’t forget about Martin Truex Jr. and he made that known with a fourth-place finish despite struggling part of the day. 

For the majority of the race, though, it didn’t appear as it’d be one of these dominant three winning. Harvick’s Stewart-Haas Racing teammates actually led the way as Kurt Busch led from the pole, followed by Aric Almirola holding serve; both of them saw their chances of winning slip away virtue of errors on pit road. 

The fifth-place finisher was Chase Elliott, which surprised many based on the lack of performance by Hendrick Motorsports for the majority of the year and the fact that Elliott has dubbed New Hampshire a frustrating place during rain delay interviews. It showed in his post-race interview when he said, “I was surprised with how we ran out there. I hope it wasn’t dumb luck.”

The top-five, combined with a runner-up in the first stage and win in the second was certainly necessary for the sophomore as he sits just two spots above the cut-off line for the playoffs. He now sits in a comfortable position with a 95-point gap over Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 

Erik Jones is currently 14th in the standings, 74 points to the good. The battle is really now between Alex Bowman and Stenhouse, as only 28 points separate them. Of course, that all could change if another driver scores a victory that is on the outside and we know how possible that is, especially with Watkins Glen still remaining.

With discussion increasing about the playoffs, it is nice to see the action on the track matching that. The finish was certainly exciting, but we also had an event to match that as there were battles around the Magic Mile throughout the entire day. The bonus was watching NBCSN actually show those, rather than just focus on the top-five and sole leader at times.

The television coverage has certainly been refreshing with NBCSN so far as compared to the slip-ups discussed throughout the first half of the season by Fox Sports, this squad is hitting it out of the park thus far.

They were handed a three-hour rain delay, yet managed to keep the fans entertained the entire time with a variety of interviews and features. Also, shout-out to having a well-timed break once the checkered flag flew at the end of the stage, but being back in time to show the entire pit cycle under caution. That was one of the reasons why stage racing was brought in by the sanctioning body to begin with. 

The commentary by Steve LeTarte, Jeff Burton, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. was also very refreshing, in hearing them discuss different lines, driver approaches, and strategies. However, I will admit that having Rick Allen on pit road made the transitions from racing to commercial and vise versa, as well as highlighting the position being battled for was missing. On that note, Earnhardt Jr. did an interesting job on those advertisements. 

That said, there is always room for improvement moving forward. How do you go to commercial with less than 10 laps left in a stage? But if that’s the only complaint from the day, then I say that we got a great afternoon of racing. Maybe Pocono Raceway will deliver for a change next weekend.

By the way, why does it matter what the broadcasters wear in the booth during the race?

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

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

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Do Or Die Time For Stenhouse

For the last two weeks, there has been a lot of attention on Ricky Stenhouse Jr

Most of which came in the shadow of the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at the Daytona International Speedway, a race in which the 30-year-old led a race-high 51 laps, in addition to winning two stages. However, it was his controversial driving, that became the topic of conversation throughout the garage, including complaints from several drivers.

Stenhouse’s biggest critic following the event was Kyle Busch, who in a press conference last Friday at Kentucky Speedway was open about his displeasure with the driver of the No. 17 and even threw shade at the team’s performance saying, “I can’t worry about people that are that far back in the field.”

Later that day after qualifying 14th, Stenhouse confronted Busch and offered the media his rebuttal, in which he essentially admitted that he and his team are not on the same level as the No. 18.

His actions here are something to be taken issue with.

No, not the fact that the Roush-Fenway driver defended himself; that’s perfectly respectable. It’s just when he chose to do so. He and his team had just failed to make the final round of qualifying for the sixth time in the last eight races and his focus seemed to only be on a driver who spoke poorly of him.

Again, it’s not a surprise he was upset by the comments, but there were bigger things to worry about, especially for a guy who at the time was 19 points outside the playoffs and just earned a starting position that didn’t do much to help the cause.

Now, Stenhouse would end the weekend on the fortunate side of things, as a disappointing 26th place finish was countered by an even worse day by the driver who holds the last playoff position, Alex Bowman, who finished 39th Saturday.

However,  just because he was able to gain ground does not take away the fact that there is still a lot of work that needs to be done in a short amount of time.

This is a team that hasn’t seen a top-10 since the Coca-Cola 600 in May, seven races ago. That is not a stat line of someone who can contend for a championship and because of it, they are stuck in their current situation.

A year ago, Stenhouse and his team showed they could contend. Making it into the second round of the playoffs and threatened to go deeper after leading laps at the fall Talladega race before ultimately coming up short.

It is now time for the No. 17 team to prove themselves again and, it’s going to have to come without a restrictor plate win.

You want to send a message to Busch and the rest of the field?

Go out and bring your A-game during these final regular season races, find a way to either win or point your way in and, show them that you are more than just an average team. Doing these things will make more of an impact than any interview will.

EMAIL MITCHELL AT mitchell.breuer@popularspeed.com

TWITTER: @MitchellB66

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

 

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

All Eyes on Playoffs for Stenhouse and his Team

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is looking to repeat a victory celebration at Daytona International Speedway again to get into the playoffs.

After a bumpy start to the year, his best finish this season has been fourth at Bristol. The Daytona 500 did not play much into Stenhouse luck where he placed 29th after an accident.

But this weekend Stenhouse is optimistic about his car and hopes to stay out of trouble.

“Qualified a lot better than I thought we were going to, actually so, really happy with that and obviously having a good starting spot for the race come tomorrow night,” Stenhouse told POPULAR SPEED.

Last season, Stenhouse clinched his playoff-birth early in April at Talladega, but this year that’s not the case. He is going into the Coke Zero Sugar 400 17th in the standings, 23  points behind the cutoff line.

But time is running out as we inch closer to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the battle for the final few spots is filled with competition. Guys like Erik Jones and Alex Bowman are hoping to race in the playoffs for the first time.

Attempting to make it on points or hopefully pulling off a win, Stenhouse and the No. 16 team are expected to be contenders for a championship for the second straight year.

“The biggest thing for us it put us in the playoffs, and that’s really what we’re trying to get is into the playoffs again,” Stenhouse said.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MrBrandonRivero

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

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

OBSERVATIONS: KC Masterpiece 400 at Kansas Speedway

Although it appeared the KC Masterpiece 400 would be a complete snoozefest, an incident on Lap 249 of 262 added some drama to the end of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race.

Kyle Larson proved to have the quickest car on the night, winning the second stage and leading a race-high 101 circuits. However, he will only have a fourth-place finish to show for that – and it doesn’t tell half of the story.

Entering the final run to the checkered, he fell back to second as Kevin Harvick found his way to the front. Rather than looking to capitalize on the team’s opportunity, Larson was now stuck battling Ryan Blaney for the second spot. Blaney would try to side draft off of the No. 42 Chevrolet, resulting in contact between the pair cutting a tire, sending both drivers up into the wall. Blaney was done for the night, while Larson’s team made repairs, enabling him to make the charge back up through the field. For his share of the deal, at least Blaney took the blame for the incident, saying he tried to side-draft too hard.

There are other concerns for Larson, too. The back windshield of his No. 42 Chevrolet was caved in a little, indicating the bracing had failed. In the past weeks, even when teams said the cause was due to damage like Larson claims, the team has been penalized with their car chief suspended for two weeks, a $50,000 fine for the crew chief, and 20 points taken away. It will be interesting to see what the penalty report from NASCAR says this week and whether the fifth penalty of this nature will come down.

The incident between the pair set-up some pit strategy, with seven drivers choosing to stay out as everyone else pitted for four tires. Of course, as you can imagine, that created chaos on the restart, which saw a battle for four-wide materialize, not ending well for William Byron who took a hard trip into the outside wall. Thankfully, the rookie was uninjured in the incident.

The second restart went smoother as fans were treated to watching Harvick climb for sixth to first in the final nine, passing Martin Truex Jr. on the outside with two circuits remaining. At least he didn’t completely run away with it this time, right?

His victory celebration was a little overshadowed though, thanks to a confrontation between Chase Elliott and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Battling for position with two to go, Stenhouse slid up in front of the No. 9 Chevrolet, causing Elliott to check-up and lose a pair of positions. Rather than placing in the top-10 where crew chief Alan Gustafson hoped for after staying out, the sophomore driver got credited with a 12th. The move didn’t sit well for Elliott, as evidenced by a series of events post-race.

Although it may be nice to see this spirited side from Elliott as he’s normally the quiet type, it could be a sign of the frustration showing through. His post-race comment expressed that enough in saying, “Yeah, just scratching and clawing to run mediocre.  We have a lot of work to do.”

For most of the night, he was stuck running just outside of the top-15, barely remaining on the lead lap, as his Hendrick Motorsports teammates struggled behind him. It’s been the tale of most of his season, too, as he hasn’t performed as well as expected, running in the teens most of the events before squeaking out five top-10’s in 12 events. Could the frustration be getting to him? 

That said, Stenhouse could be placed in the same boat as he only has two top-10’s in 12 races. Oh, and the first race back for his Roush Fenway Racing teammate Matt Kenseth didn’t go quite as planned, either. The past series champion ran in the 20’s most of the event, before being caught up in the crash with Byron. Jack Roush brought him in to improve their program, so it’ll be interesting to see where performance goes from here.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

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

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

OBSERVATIONS: Daytona 500

Although the races leading up to the Daytona 500 for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series lacked excitement at times, that was all out of the window on Sunday as there was drama at every turn en route to the end of the event.

Constantly running in a single file train became a common theme throughout the beginning of Speedweeks, resulting in races becoming boring. However, the first stage of the Daytona 500 saw drivers side-by-side the entire stretch of the way under green – except for four laps. 

Of course, battling for position means the chance for trouble intensifies, and that was seen on Sunday, as well. In the closing laps of the first stage, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. got sideways ahead of the field, saving it, but causing a bunch of other drivers to wreck behind him. The Roush Fenway Racing competitor’s actions were a result of lane changing to try and block Ryan Blaney for position.

Anytime you go for a block, you take the chance of getting wrecked – and here is an unfortunate case where others paid the price. But that’s the hands that the drivers are dealt with this package. The runs come quickly, and the only way to maintain position is to try and stop them. Otherwise, you’re at the back of the pack. This is just even poorer situation being that drivers not involved initially saw their days end here. 

It’s also interesting in the timing of the incident, being three laps left in the stage.

“It looked like everybody thought that was the finish of the Daytona 500 and it was really only lap 59 coming to 60,” Jimmie Johnson said. “Unfortunately, we lost our third car for the weekend.  It’s unfortunate it has turned out that way, but we will get this Lowe’s for Pro’s Chevy dialed in for Atlanta and go do it again.”

Martin Truex Jr. proved last season how critical stage points can be towards moving from round to round in the playoffs. Other drivers showed how a single point could mean qualifying for the post-season, or missing it entirely. With the knowledge learned from last year, could it be changing how people think moving forward? Something to watch when we go to Atlanta Motor Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and other races to come. 

But stage racing can’t be the main culprit for the accidents in the Daytona 500, as the next big wreck occurred with 18 laps left in the second stage. It could be dubbed another case of blocking between Brad Keselowski and Chase Elliott, but another element comes into play – the left rear corner of the car. As we seen in the Clash, you cannot ride someone’s left rear corner or you will turn them; Stenhouse turned a pair of people there. While trying to keep in line with the run that Elliott had on Blaney, Keselowski got to Elliott’s left rear corner and the wreck begins.

As this rhyme from Mike Joy says, “With this new aero package where the left rear is all the way to the ground, you don’t need to touch him to spin him around” meaning that if contact is made, it’s twice as bad. As we seen with the incident above, those earlier in the weekend, and another big wreck with three laps to go, as well. 

Jeff Gordon made the comment on NASCAR on FOX’s broadcast that the “cars are too unstable for moves like that” in relation to what happened. The drivers requested for the handling to be more back in their hands so they could have more control, rather than just locked down, stab the throttle and go. However, with all the wrecked cars from the events this weekend, there is a chance that perhaps they’ve gone a little too far. 

Although everything discussed so far was important, the big question after the Daytona 500 – was the move on the final lap fair between Austin Dillon and Aric Almirola?

You never want to see one driver hook another for the win. It’s the dirtiest form of driving, and takes out the strategy of out-battling the other for position. So certainly seeing Dillon give a bumper to Almirola, trigger an unfair victory for the Richard Childress Racing.

However, at the same time, Almirola was blocking and before the contact, he slid across the bumper of Dillon. As they say, you can take the chance of blocking, but know that there’s a possibility of getting turned. So you can’t totally fault Dillon here.

The only problem with Dillon’s actions are his reaction to what happened with his choice of wording. Speaking with Matt Yocum and FOX on the track post-race, he stated, “I did what I had to do there at the end. I hate it for the No. 10 (Aric Almirola) guys. We had a run, and I stayed in the gas. It is what it is here at Daytona.” He then went on to add in another interview, “I hate that for him, but Aric Almirola would have done the same thing if it were him in that position.”

There was still a whole other lane that Dillon could’ve moved down to, and how is he to know that Almirola would do the same thing? For his career, Almirola hasn’t shown the aggressiveness to equal a statement of that nature. When you make comments of this value, it allows people to question your character and choices, and how you choose to win. You may stand by it, but I can promise that some fans are not willing to accept drivers winning in this nature. In the weeks to follow, it’ll be interesting to see where Dillon’s popularity stands with the sport, given that it has been questioned already through the years in him being dubbed the “silver spoon” driver by Kevin Harvick. 

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

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

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

OBSERVATIONS: Can-Am Duels

Just like the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup drivers are learning more about the style of drafting and what they need with the “no ride height rule,” the fans are seeing what they can expect in Sunday’s Daytona 500.

The same mixed reviews felt after the Clash are still linger now with the Can-Am Duels complete.

The first Can-Am Duel immediately brought the dreadfulness that we completed the Clash with, seeing the drivers run in a single-file line right around the top. They found themselves that way after the first couple of laps, and shortly after each restart without any jockeying for position – until the end, of course.

But if drivers are going to continue to follow this strategy, what does that mean for Sunday? Are we going to see them play follow the leader until the last 10-15 laps of each stage? That’s the best way to chase away fans, frankly. 

It also could bring strategy at times during the event, though, as lack of passing makes track position key. If you want to wait until the end to make a move, you need to be up there first. 

The second Can-Am Duel gave a glimpse at strategy, though. Under the first yellow flag at Lap 13, Chase Elliott was penalized for his crew going over the wall too soon. Rather than going to the back on just the fuel they took, Alan Gustafson elected to bring the No. 9 Chevrolet back down pit road for four tires. Elliott then drove from the back of the field to the lead in 12 laps. So how beneficial are four tires, when handling is at a premium?

Overall though, the second event was stronger with more side-by-side racing, versus riding around single-file, as they only spent about 15 laps, versus over half like the first one. It proved that the jockeying for position witnessed in the first half of the Clash is still there. 

Kevin Harvick also timed a move like Blaney in the first one, ducking out of line with two laps to go, but was unable to get the run as the help behind him fell apart, killing the momentum with Elliott able to block. So the key for Sunday is to have friends, maybe your teammates, to help you make the moves. 

Matthew T. Thacker NKP

Team Penske looked to be set to sail to the win with their cars all in-tact as Joey Logano led Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney entering the final portion. However, Blaney made his move for the lead from the third spot in line, pulling alongside Logano, with three laps to go. It was a surprise as being teammates, it wasn’t expected to someone break the chain. But Blaney has stat he isn’t going to sit in line and ride. Recall he tried a similar move in the Clash, but went too early and ultimately fell short as he was left hung out to dry. 

Of course, that didn’t pay off for Keselowski, who wrecked while trying to shoot the gap between Jamie McMurray and the wall down the backstretch. You can only think of what Roger Penske is probably feeling right now. 

Now we know – wait until the last lap, and it doesn’t work, but you can try with about three or four to go as it seemed to be enough time. 

Rusty Jarrett NKP

Alex Bowman‘s strategy brought mixed reactions from both fans and fellow competitors, as the Daytona 500 pole sitter immediately gave up the lead on the start, keeping himself in pace at the back of the field. The plan was simple – do not risk tearing up the car because that’d force them to give up the No. 1 starting position for the Great American Race. 

Frankly, the car was not set to run in this event – yet. The Hendrick Motorsports drivers admitted post-race that they did certain things for sole qualifying reasons – like mess with the skew, that you would not do for race conditions due to making it hard to drive. With everybody being impounded between qualifying and the Duels, they were unable to change it back – until the first pit stop during this race. That’s how confident they were about getting the pole. 

With so much on the line, and the fact there are three more practices where he can get used to drafting, it seems like no harm, no foul because there’s time to get it right. But while those sessions may include packs, they’re much smaller and calmer than the real thing, therefore not allowing you to put yourself in sketchy situations to test your car’s handling. It’ll be interesting to see how the No. 88 Chevrolet performs compared to others on Sunday. 

Barry Cantrell NKP

Hendrick Motorsports may be sitting alright with Bowman and Elliott, but that wasn’t the case for the other pair as both Jimmie Johnson and William Byron wrecked out of the first Duel. 

Johnson had faded back to just outside of the top-five early, when he blew a left rear tire on Lap 9, crashing into Aric Almirola as Daniel Suarez spun behind to avoid. If you’re keeping track, that’s the second car of Speedweeks for Johnson after wrecking in The Clash. The seven-time Cup Champion has seen a mixed bag of luck at Daytona International Speedway. In the past 10 races, he has won a pair and scored five top-fives, to go with three wrecks. Concentrating on surviving to start the year well could be critical. 

Byron’s crash would come on Lap 38 after he got loose due to Ricky Stenhouse Jr. taking the air off of his left rear while trying to side-draft him. Byron would spin, hitting the outside wall with the nose of the car. Being a rookie, we expected a learning curve – especially considering how sideways he got in practice twice. 

Barry Cantrell NKP

Stenhouse Jr. quickly became the hero of the first Duel (for a little bit) as he was the only driver who seemed to want to make moves for a while, driving underneath his competitors. Unfortunately, it didn’t pan out as well as hoped as getting closer to the left-rear on both Byron, and David Gilliland caused the pair to wreck. 

Getting too close to the left rear is nothing new in NASCAR, as we’ve heard about the aerodynamic loss drivers feel when the air is taken away from that corner of the car, whether restrictor plate track or not. Recall the lectures of “don’t ever tap someone on the left rear when bump drafting” but it was okay to do the right side.

With the new rule package seeing teams lower the cars as much as possible, fighting the balance at times, there’s a concern to be stated. Does this make you very vulnerable when side-drafting? 

Notably, Stenhouse wasn’t the only driver to cause an incident of this nature as in Duel 2, Elliott got up on Erik Jones‘ left rear, and he went for a spin down the backstretch. 

“You don’t mean to do it,” Elliott said. “You’re trying to advance your position.  It’s just a bad place to be in when you’re the other guy, right?  There’s not really a whole lot you can do about it. 

“You’re kind of at the mercy of the people behind you when it comes to that.  They know definitely now where the vulnerable spots are.”

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

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

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

STENHO– USE JR.: Daytona 500 is “Our Number One Priority.”

With luck being as much as the equation as skill and a strong car, it can be hard to gain momentum on the restrictor plate tracks in NASCAR. However, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has beat those odds.

Over the past two seasons, the Roush Fenway Racing driver has become one of the staple front-runners at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway. In his last six events at both tracks, he has a combined two wins, four top-fives, and two crashes – both of those coming while running up front in the top-five.

Now entering this year, all of his focus is solely on one goal – winning the Daytona 500.

“I want to win at other race tracks, but going into the 500 I feel a lot more confident than I ever have,” he said. “I always went into the 500 thinking, ‘Hey, lets’ get off to a good start.  Let’s have a good points race.’  I never thought about winning the 500.  I just thought that I was competing in it and if I won that was cool, but I didn’t feel I had the confidence that we could.  

“After last season, I feel like going in that is the only goal that we have when we go down there is to win and not just to get a good finish out of it.  Until we’re done with Daytona, that’s our number one priority.”

His ability behind the wheel has proven to be an asset, as he has shown he can put the car in position to gain the most ground possible. Though beyond that, his manufacture Ford, has proven to have the upper hand lately.

Their stable has proven to have the upper hand, winning the last four consecutive events. Stewart-Haas Racing won the Daytona 500 with Kurt Busch, with Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski winning the fall event at Talladega Superspeedway to surround Stenhouse’s pair.

Beyond crediting the horsepower Roush-Yates Engines provides, he feels guys like Tony Gibson (Stewart-Haas) and Jimmy Fennig (Roush-Fenway) is pivotal.

“The superspeedways are some of their bread and butter that they enjoy working on and tuning those race cars,” he said. “It was obviously a huge benefit for us at Roush Fenway Racing, putting us in the Playoffs and giving us those opportunities to go win.  Now, the focus that we put in on those, I think, is also what’s gonna help us hopefully improve on our other areas because we saw that putting one person focused on our speedway program could lift it fairly quick, so we’re working on all that.  

“But I do think the other teams we can continue our superspeedway wins.  I know Ford and Doug would enjoy that if we did.  I think a lot of our Fords work well together on superspeedways.”

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

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