Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Team Penske Implements Cup Crew Chief Swap

Beginning with the newly titled NASCAR Cup Series and a complete schedule remodeling, the upcoming 2020 season is shaping up to be one of the most competitive and divisive yet. Adding to the plethora of changes coming to NASCAR’s premier series, Team Penske just announced it will be implementing a full crew chief swap amongst it’s three drivers – just one month away from the Daytona 500.

This shakeup in the Penske stable does come as a surprise for series veterans, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, as both drivers have been with their crew chiefs since joining the famed team run by Roger Penske. The two drivers have produced much success over their tenure with their respected pairings of Paul Wolfe and Todd Gordon (including championships), but looking more in-depth, the bombshell decision makes sense.

The swap doesn’t particularly target needed results in the No. 2 and No. 22 camps, but in the growth and development of Ryan Blaney. Since entering full-time competition in the Cup Series in 2016, the highly touted racing prodigy has yet to progress into the great potential he brings to the table.

Blaney – who had been paired with Jeremy Bullins in 2012 when he joined Team Penske in the NASCAR Xfinity Series  – has only found victory lane three times in the last three season. It’s not to say the driver of the No. 12 has not had moderate success; he just hasn’t produced as well as some of the other young talents in the Cup Series.

With all of this in mind, the swap should be a win for all drivers involved. Blaney will be inheriting an experienced, championship winning crew chief, as Keselowski and Logano will be gifted with a fresh change in scenery to build off of the successes they’ve had in their time at Team Penske.

Matthew T. Thacker

Brad Keselowski & Jeremy Bullins

Let’s begin with the pairing that makes the most sense – Keselowski and Bullins. Bullins makes the jump from the No. 12 team and will now sit atop the pit box of the 2012 Cup Series Champion. The new duo has a history together (and a successful one). From 2012-14, Bullins was at the helm for the Michigan-native for 47 races in the Xfinity Series and the two found victory 14 times.

Keselowski and Wolfe were one of the most dominant forces in the garage area in terms of wins, but one championship and only one additional title-bid over the last eight seasons is not the most desirable. While it couldn’t have hurt to keep the long-standing duo in-tact, the undeniable talents of the 35 year-old driver blended with the past experience of Bullins should add a little more competitive edge to the No. 2 team.

One driving factor for this new pairing is Keselowski’s inability to put together a full season, as of late. The driver of the No. 2 has yet to advance past the Round of 8 since the sport implemented it’s most recent Playoff format. Out of Bullins’ three wins with Blaney, two of them came during the post season.

While Bullins only has three Cup wins to his resume, since joining the Penske organization in 2012, he’s been the crew chief for 10 different drivers and produced 21 additional wins in that span.

Nigel Kinrade

Joey Logano & Paul Wolfe

This is the swap that should have every team on edge in the Cup Series. The 2018 Series Champion will now team up with 2012 Championship winning crew chief, Paul Wolfe. At age 29, Logano is about to enter his prime as an athlete and he already has 23 wins. Wolfe is the winningest crew chief amongst the three being moved around the  organization with 29 victories in the last nine years.

While the new tandem doesn’t have any experience working together, a champion entering his prime mixed with one of the greatest minds in the sport should bode well for the No. 22 team. Over the last three years, the Connecticut-native drove his way to six wins, one title and 64 top-10s (the most out of the three Penske drivers). In that same span, Wolfe guided Keselowski to nine wins and 40 top-fives (the most out of trio of athletes).

The most compelling argument for this pairing can be found in second half successes for both parties. Historically, Keselowski and Wolfe produced most of their success in the early stages of the season and once making it to the Playoffs, found difficulty in advancing past the Round of 8. Logano on the other hand, typically hits his stride mid-way through the season and is often a contender to make it to the Final 4.

It should also be noted that when Wolfe won the championship in 2012, his driver was 28 years old – just one year younger than the driver he is inheriting. This could be a deadly match in 2020 and beyond, all eyes will be on the No. 22 team to be a contender year-round.

Rusty Jarrett

Ryan Blaney & Todd Gordon

When dealing with the growth and development of any athlete, experience is key. With Gordon making the transition from the No.22 team to the No. 12 team, the 26 year-old will indeed be presented with tons of experience. Gordon has been a presence in NASCAR since 2005 when he began his stint as a crew chief in the Xfinity Series. He made the jump to Team Penske in 2011 when he worked alongside series veterans Keselowski, Kurt Busch and Sam Hornish Jr.

Gordon was able to guide his drivers to 28 NASCAR sanctioned wins and one series title, all with Team Penske. When him and Logano first teamed up in 2013, they found success immediately. In fact, the pair did not have a winless season in their seven year history and in that time compiled the most top-fives and top-10s for Team Penske, in addition to the organization’s most recent championship.

Gordon now finds himself in an all too familiar position while leading the No. 12 team. Much like Logano in 2013, Blaney is a hot, young talent with all eyes on him every week. While he couldn’t do much in the No. 20 car at Joe Gibbs Racing, once Logano signed with Roger Penske and worked alongside Gordon, things started clicking for the driver of the No. 22; now he is consistently one of the best drivers in the field. Mr. Penske and Gordon could be seeking that same magic that came to fruition with Logano.

This crew chief swap should spell success for all teams involved at Team Penske. Whether it be fine-tuning production that has been in the organization, or cracking untapped potential for a young driver, this could be the team to watch for in 2020. Every year, Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske are the strongest teams once the season begins at Daytona International Speedway. However, the Ford-led group typically trails off about halfway through the season. Could this be the shakeup that Team Penske needs to compete year-round with Joe Gibbs Racing?

EMAIL COLE AT: colecusumano88@gmail.com

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

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Playoff Drivers are Feeling the Pressure at ISM Raceway with New Traction Compound

AVONDALE, Arizona — The Arizona sun beams down on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series garage area. Blue skies collide with the outside wall that stretches across the dormant 1.5 mile ISM Raceway. But this is far from a laid back weekend in the Valley of the Sun.

Cup Series crew members are frantically fine tuning their machines and lining up to go through inspection before hitting the track for what will positively be an intense pressure cooker of a race in Avondale, Arizona. While the premier series will only be partaking in a pair of practice sessions this Friday, there is more on the line now than ever to perform well this weekend.

ISM Raceway has been the sight of the semi-final event on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series circuit since 2002. But it was announced that in 2020, the track that underwent a $178 million renovation would be the sight of the Championship race weekend.

Why is this race in specific one that every driver had circled on their calendar for the 2019 season?

The 2020 Championship race will be held on November 8th, exactly one year from today. Not only will track conditions be almost identical to this weekend, but the rules package being applied to the Bluegreen Vacation 500 will be the same next year. On top of that, there is a new PJ1 traction compound being applied to the racing surface, which has the entire garage area in a frenzy – and for good reason.

There was a traction compound applied to the previous race at Texas Motor Speedway and drivers like Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott, found out quickly that slipping up in those grooves could get treacherous.

Playoff drivers expressed a plethora of concerns about how the race will play out on November 10th and expect it to be a challenge for all 312 Laps. Even previous Cup Series Champions Kyle Busch and Joey Logano, who are currently in the Championship 4 by upwards of 20 points, are on edge about the competition around them this Sunday.

“We’ll be watching those Trucks and Xfinity races pretty closely,” Logano said. “I think it’s going to take a little bit for it to come in but it looks to me like it will probably come into play in Turns 1 and 2 – it’s pretty high up there in Turns 3 and 4.”

Logano was one of a handful of Playoff drivers who performed well in the AAA Texas 500 with the new traction compound, notching a fourth-place finish. He sits fourth in the standings 20 points to the good and will need a clean race to advance to Homestead-Miami Speedway for a chance to win back-to-back championships.

Busch has the worst average finish in the Playoffs – next to the driver of the No. 22 – with a 13.38 average through eight races . All eyes will be on the No. 18 M&Ms Camry as Busch is currently riding a two-race win streak at the 1.5-mile track with an impressive 2.8 average finish over the last five events at ISM Raceway.

“Here at Phoenix it’s already very challenging and difficult to pass,” Busch said when asked about the PJ1 compound. “We saw that here in the Spring, but we’ll see how it goes. It’s going to be a hard fought finish this year and next year at the end.”

Martins Truex Jr. locked himself into the series finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway after capturing his third short track win of the season in the First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway two weeks ago. Normally, Truex could play it safe and focus on the weekend ahead, but the driver of the No. 19 will be far from complacent with a lackluster performance at the track formerly known as Phoenix International Raceway.

“I think it’s on everyone’s mind that this will be the final four race that decides the championship next year, so this race and the Spring race will be very important – especially with the rules package staying the same,” said the 2017 Cup Series Champion. “Everyone’s going to want to get a good head start on next Spring here for sure this weekend.”

The driver from Mayetta, New Jersey was also one of the benefactors of a rewarding finish last weekend at Texas. It should come as no surprise that the championship-caliber driver is one of the few drivers not overly concerned with the traction compound this weekend.

“At some point Sunday we’ll use that traction compound in [Turns] three and four because we typically run a higher line on long green flag runs,” Truex said. “It just depends on if enough guys are running up there and working it in – if that happens it’ll probably get pretty good.”

Playoff drivers below the cutoff line such as Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney and Hamlin could be pitted with an advantage over drivers like Busch and Logano due to their inherent need to perform well or win for a chance to compete for the 2019 Championship.

Larson was one of the lone drivers in the Cup Series in favor of the PJ1 compound application last weekend and he is feeling confident heading into the Bluegreen Vacations 500 this Sunday.

“I feel like there’s nobody better in our series in terms of searching for lanes and grooves to make your car better,” the driver of the No. 42 said. “If it burns in quick, I think I’ll really benefit from it.”

Talladega Superspeedway winner and racing prodigy, Blaney, revealed that he believes restarts could get even more hectic than normal this Sunday due to the track compound application.

“In the Spring you saw those wild four-five wide racing on restarts, but it’s going to be even more interesting this year especially with the stuff they put down on [Turns] one and two up top,” the driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford said. “I think people are going to be using that top lane later in the day and it’s really going to affect restarts.”

The 25-year old started from the pole at ISM Raceway earlier this year and finished third with a legitimate shot to win. Blaney also reiterated that he had been pushed around quite a bit in that race and that he intends to return the favor and be one of the aggressors on those climatic restarts.

Hamlin, who finds himself 20 points below the cutoff line, was deemed one of the 2019 favorites for the Championship after an impeccable season. The 38-year old found trouble at both Martinsville and Texas Motor Speedway, but his chances really took a hit when he accidentally got caught up in the traction compound in the AAA Texas 500.

The driver of the No. 11 FedEx Camry had some strong words about the PJ1 application and even tried taking matters into his own hands following the race at Texas.

“I discussed with NASCAR that you’d have a better show from beginning to end if they didn’t add anything after the Xfinity race,” Hamlin shared. “Those cars did a really good job burning it in and it was actually really good at that time – it would’ve been great to start the Cup race with.”

Hamlin went on to further explain that the traction compound took hundreds of laps to properly develop last week and it was really slick – hence why when he got loose in re-application and crashed. With 312 Laps at a 1.5-mile track, the Cup Series may not have have the luxury of waiting hundreds of laps for the compound to burn in.

The Virginia-native boasts a series-leading average finishing position of 9.2 through 34 of 36 races this season and will need to replicate more of that magic this Sunday to continue his dominant stretch into Miami.

If the prior Playoff Round finales at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway are any indication of what to expect at ISM Raceway, then fans are in for a dramatically intense race at Zoomtown U.S.A. With two only spots available before Championship weekend at Homestead and teams already stressing about the PJ1 traction application, you won’t want to miss the Bluegreen Vacations 500 from ISM Raceway at 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time on NBC.

EMAIL COLE AT: colecusumano88@gmail.com

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

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News

Ryan Blaney advances in Playoffs with razor-thin win at Talladega Superspeedway

TALLADEGA, Ala. – Two factors threw the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs into chaos on Monday afternoon—Talladega and Ryan Blaney.

By .007 seconds—the sixth closest finish in series history—Blaney edged Ryan Newman to win Monday’s rain-delayed 1000Bulbs.com 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, which took a big bite out of most other Playoff contenders and set up a scramble for the six remaining spots in the Round of 8 next Sunday at Kansas Speedway.

With his first victory of the season, his first at Talladega and the third of his career, Blaney secured his berth in the next round, joining Dover winner Kyle Larson, who crashed out of Monday’s race in 39th place.

“Yeah, it was an amazing effort the last two days, to be honest with you,” said Blaney, who spun coming to pit road during Stage 1, which was completed on Sunday just before the rain arrived and forced the rest of the race to be run on Monday.

“We spun out early yesterday and missed some big ones today. We were able to weave our way through. I can’t thank Aric Almirola enough for helping me out there at the end.”

Blaney led the field to green with two laps left, after a caution for an 11-car pileup on the backstretch caused the eighth caution of the afternoon. On the final lap, Blaney surrendered the lead to Newman, who got a strong push to the front from eventual third-place finisher Denny Hamlin.

Coming to the checkered flag, Blaney side-drafted Hamlin and uncoupled the two cars, and with help from fellow Ford driver Aric Almirola, he beat Newman to the finish line by roughly one foot.

“That big push that Newman and the 11 (Denny Hamlin) got, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to block it. They were coming so fast and they wanted to split me. I wanted to stay to the bottom and kind of pulled the 11 off the 6 and then had a big enough run to get to the 6.

“We kind of hit above the line (at the apron) and that pushed me below the line. That is a big judgment call. You never know. I definitely wasn’t going to go below the line before we made contact (because of the possibility of a penalty). I can’t say enough about this Dent Wizard team. It has been super fun the last couple of days. We’re moving on! This is super cool.”

Getting separated from Hamlin in the last quarter-mile likely cost Newman a chance for his first victory with Roush Fenway Racing.

“We just came up that little bit short,” Newman said. “I don’t know what else to say. I could have pinched him some more. I probably could have taken the air. You can go back and bench-race that three weeks from now. It was good racing to the end.”

None of the 12 Playoff drivers escaped the race without incident. The massive wreck on the backstretch on Lap 182 of 188 destroyed the winning chances of Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski.

Kurt Busch was pushing his brother Kyle in the middle of a three-wide pack when the Ford of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. moved up the track toward Kyle Busch’s Toyota. Almost simultaneously, Kyle’s No. 18 Camry turned sideways off the nose of Kurt’s Chevrolet and slammed into the No. 62 Chevrolet of Brendan Gaughan, who was leading the outside lane.

Playoff driver Alex Bowman was gone on Lap 107, when his attempted block of Joey Logano went awry and ignited a 10-car incident that crippled the No. 19 Toyota of Martin Truex Jr. and damaged the cars of Harvick, Hamlin, Chase Elliott and Brad Keselowski.

Pole winner William Byron saw his Playoff hopes take a hit when he turned to the right off Kurt Busch’s front bumper and drove Logano’s No. 22 Ford into the wall on lap 162. That occurred after a blown tire, and a spin onto the apron waylaid Clint Bowyer on Lap 153.

Elliott recovered to finish eighth, and Logano secured an 11th-place result, but when the smoke cleared from the multicar accidents, Bowman, Elliott, Bowyer and Byron found themselves facing probable must-win scenarios at Kansas.

Almirola ran fourth, followed by Michael McDowell, Austin Dillon, Corey LaJoie, Elliott, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Ty Dillon.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Blaney Looking To Maximize Potential

LAS VEGAS — Entering the playoffs, Ryan Blaney is hopeful that the last ten races go better than the first 26.

The regular season proved to be tough for the driver of the No. 12, who score zero wins and will only have four playoff points to start with.

“Yeah, I mean I obviously like to have had a better year,” Blaney told POPULAR SPEED. “So far, you can always ask for better and do better and there’s some races I wish we would’ve had back, but at the end of the day, you know, it’s nice to be a part of the playoffs. And I think our team is plenty capable. I think we got a shot at making a good run and just can’t have any mistakes, things like that. I think we got the team to do it. Just a matter of kind of maximizing your full potential and see what happens.”

It is not all negatives for the 12 team though.

As Blaney said, the team has shown to be capable, scoring seven top-five’s and 12 top-10’s. He has also led laps, 384 to be exact, which is actually more than championship favorite, Denny Hamlin, who has only been out front for 373.

The 25-year-old will also enter the final 10 races with experience, as he has made the playoffs two of his three years of competition in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

“Experience never hurt, that’s for sure,” Blaney said. “I look at kind of the end of our playoffs last year and God, we had a terrible second round, just from run out of gas, getting wrecks and just barely missed it. And then we had a really great final three races, I wish we could have back. But at the end of the day, you just take all the experience you have and things are always changing, scenarios change. You’re rarely ever going to find yourself in the same scenario as before. Just the product of what we do. But yeah, you try to take that experience and apply it, utilize it well.”

Blaney will look to start his playoff strong at Las Vegas Speedway, where he has four top-ten’s in six starts.

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

Can Team Penske Recapture Late Season Magic At Darlington?

It is no question that Team Penske is a powerhouse in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. However, as of late, the organization seems to step behind some of the other top teams in the sport.

Brad Keselowski has not been to victory lane since his win at Kansas Speedway in May and has only had one top-five in the last seven races. His teammate Joey Logano had a win at Michigan International Speedway in June, but has had just three top-10’s and one top-five since including a current run of four straight events with a finish of 13th or worse. Then there is Ryan Blaney, who has yet to see victory lane this year and has only led 12 laps since Talladega Superspeedway in April.

It is not all bad news though, as the team is heading into a stretch of races that could be argued propelled them to their championship last season.

While many will remember the impressive run by Keselowski, who went on a three-race win streak starting with Darlington Raceway, but his two teammates were solid as well.

Logano finished runner-up in the Southern 500 and led laps in the playoff opener at Las Vegas before finishing fourth. Blaney was able to start a five-race streak of top-10 starts, and also scored a top-five in Vegas.

While stats are all fine and good, it is also worth remembering where this team was at a year ago which may bring feeling a sense of déjà vu. Why is this all sounding familiar? It is because of this a very similar position to where they were a year ago.

Team Penske was not the best team in the sport last year; they were again just behind a dominant team like Joe Gibbs Racing. However, after this upcoming three-race stretch, there was no questioning the ability of this team. They were the ones with the championship at the end of the season.

These are three drivers who get good when the pressure of the season begins to heat up.

Team Penske has had a driver in the Championship 4 in four of the last five season, despite not being the most dominant on a weekly basis. This is not anything new, which is important that we keep an eye on this team that is seemingly under the radar.

If they continue to follow the trends from a year ago, expect success from Penske in the upcoming weeks.

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.

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News

Ryan Blaney earns Busch Pole Award at ISM Raceway

AVONDALE, Ariz. – Ryan Blaney ended the day the way he started it — with the fastest car at ISM Raceway.

After leading opening Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series practice with the quickest lap of the day (141.716 mph), Blaney put his No. 12 Team Penske Ford on the pole for Sunday’s TicketGuardian 500 at the one-mile track.

Blaney covered the distance in 25.480 seconds (141.287 mph) in the final round of knockout qualifying to outpace Chase Elliott (140.045 mph) by a comfortable .203 seconds.

The Busch Pole Award was Blaney’s first of the season, his second at Phoenix and the six of his career, putting Blaney in good position to follow teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano to Victory Lane, after their respective wins at Atlanta (Feb. 24) and Las Vegas (Mar. 3).

“We’ve just got to clean some stuff up,” said Blaney, who had a fast car at both Atlanta and Las Vegas, only to be done in by pit road snafus. “While it’s nice to have Penske winning, I’m selfish — I want to win. It’s good to have our cars really fast, and our finishes definitely don’t reflect how we’ve been running.

“We’ve been really fast at all three places so far. If you keep bringing fast cars to the race track, ultimately, it’ll work out for you one of these times. I want to be part of the winning club here in the Penske group. It’s nice to have the whole team really fast right now. We fired out of the box really good this year, so hopefully we can just keep it going.”

Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin qualified third at 140.007 mph, followed by Joe Gibbs racing teammate Kyle Busch (139.855 mph), Keselowski, Alex Bowman, William Byron, nine-time winner Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Erik Jones, Daniel Hemric, and Logano.

Elliott had mixed feelings about his front-row starting position.

“I hate qualifying second,” Elliott said. “We’ve qualified second out here last fall and then this one. But I guess he (Blaney) isn’t a bad one to qualify second to. But I look forward to Sunday.”

“I think our Hooters Camaro at least has a good place to start, and we can have a good pit selection. That’s important. We have a long race ahead. But I’d really like to get a pole outside of a (super)speedway track. We’ll try again next week.”

The first round of qualifying ended with a fracas between Ford drivers Michael McDowell and Daniel Suárez, neither whom made the top 24. Suarez accused McDowell of holding up the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Mustang on his crucial hot lap at the end of the session.

Suárez returned the favor by trying to wreck McDowell’s No. 34 Front Row Racing Ford after the fact.

After exiting his car, Suárez stepped over pit wall and advanced toward McDowell who made a preemptive strike and shoved Suárez. The two grappled, and Suárez body-slammed McDowell to the pavement before the two combatants were separated.

“I was just trying to get in his way like he did to me,” Suárez said. “I’m the kind of driver that I’m going to give a lot of respect to you always, if you give me respect back. If you don’t give me respect, I’m going to go kick your ass.”

McDowell said that, with most drivers waiting to post laps until time was running out on the first round, heavy traffic was inevitable.

“It was just miscommunication on the race track,” McDowell said. “We all kind of waited till the end, and then you just had a lot of traffic. Just unfortunate. He was upset that I held him up on his good lap, and then he tried to crash us. I just didn’t appreciate it.

“It’s heat of the moment stuff. Just racing. Shorter practice session. Shorter qualifying. Getting late going through tech. The intensity ramps up. It’s all a part of it.”

Coincidentally, McDowell (27th) and Suárez (28th) will start side-by-side from the 14th row on Sunday.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Expectations Rising for Three Underrated Drivers in 2019

The new year is finally here and we are a couple months away from getting back to racing with the Daytona 500 just around the corner.

A new season means that we will be seeing some drivers change, as well as shifts in personal within organizations. The upcoming campaign will be unique since the sanctioning body is introducing a new rules package for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series cars. 

Here are a three drivers that can surprise in 2019 and can take a step forward from 2018.

1. Aric Almirola

The veteran driver from Tampa, Florida debuted for Stewart-Haas Racing last season driving the No. 10 car that Danica Patrick drove for six years. There was always potential with that ride and Almirola showed how good they can be. With an average finish of 12.8 Almirola finished fifth in the playoffs, just one spot away from being part of the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

A win late in the season at Talladega Superspeedway gave Almirola a boost that he needed to finish the year strong. However, some can argue that he could have had a few more in the bag. For example, at Chicagoland Speedway, he led 70 laps but going through tire issues twice during the race stopped him from getting the victory.

“Our car was super-fast, especially out in clean air. It was incredibly fast. We just have to execute; we have to put a whole race together. That’s the difference between being good and being great,” Almirola said after that race.

This upcoming season making the Championship 4 is what should be expected from this team after breaking out in 2018.

2. William Byron

This one might be surprise for some people. Byron is going to enter his second season as a full-time driver in the Cup Series and we have seen how much talent he has as he moved up the ranks. In 2018, you can tell that Byron went through rookie struggles, but at the end of it he has grown from it.

“I mean, a lot, I guess I mean we had a lot of up and downs and its good, you know I’m excited for whatever is to come,” Byron told POPULAR SPEED shortly after finishing the Ford EcoBoost 400 in November.

This upcoming season, there will be a switch in crew chiefs as Chad Knaus will be taking the helm for the No. 24 team. This should really help the young driver develop and gain more experience. In 2018, his best finish was sixth at Pocono where he led 10 laps; with the proper resources and tools that are coming for Byron in 2019, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t expect to make the playoffs.

A debut in the playoffs would be impressive but getting passed the Round of 16 would be even bigger.

3. Ryan Blaney

His name is becoming more known as his popularity grew massively with fans in 2018. After scoring a last lap win at the ROVAL in Charlotte in October, Blaney showed that he needed to be taken serious for title consideration. He fell short of the Championship 4, but he did show us that he is a rising star in the Cup Series.

With an average finish of 9.4, Blaney was able to impress by running consistently up front. The competition within his team had some suggesting that he was behind his two other teammates when it comes to who is better; that shows the strength that Team Penske has. His move to the Captain’s Ship in 2018 is helping him grow especially since he is learning from a pair of veterans.

Blaney is going to enter the 2019 season with more expectations on the line, as people will look for him to score more victories and take the next step in the playoffs. An appearance in the Championship 4 is one goal that should be on the docket. The upcoming campaign may be the year that Blaney takes the next step in becoming an actual championship contender.

A new chapter in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series history begins February 17 at Daytona International Speedway and these are three guys that can make a major improvement from 2018.

EMAIL BRYAN AT: Bryn_rivero@yahoo.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @BryanR_305

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

Kevin Harvick Loses Championship 4 Lock with Texas Penalty

Following the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway this past weekend, NASCAR handed down four separate penalties in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, and Camping World Truck Series combined.

The No. 4 Ford of Kevin Harvick was found in violation of Section 20.4.12.a & b of the rule book, which pertains to rear spoiler of the car. The rule states, “vehicle spoiler must conform to the CAD file and drawing. Spoilers must be used exactly as supplied from the manufacturer.” 

As a result, crew chief Rodney Childers was fined $75,000, with both Childers and car chief Robert Smith suspended from the next two Cup Series events. Additionally, they lost 40 driver points and owner points, with the victory at Texas Motor Speedway no longer locking him into the Championship 4 or to be used in a tie-breaking scenario.

“It is not our desire to issue any penalties but will do so when necessary to ensure each race and championship is contested on a level playing field,” NASCAR senior vice president of competition Scott Miller said.

Harvick will enter the final race of the Round of 8 ranked eighth on the grid, now three points above the cut-off line. 

Stewart-Haas Racing will not appeal the penalty, but rather focus efforts towards the final two races.

“We work tirelessly across every inch of our racecars to create speed and, unfortunately, NASCAR determined we ventured into an area not accommodated by its rule book,” SHR vice president of competition Greg Zipadelli said Wednesday in a statement. “We will not appeal the penalty. Instead, we will direct our immediate focus to this weekend’s event in Phoenix and control our destiny on the race track.”

Additionally, the No. 12 Ford of Ryan Blaney was found in violation of Section 20.4.17.6.b of the rule book, which pertains to the crush panels. The rule states, “all filler panels must remain permanently attached for the entire event.”

As a result, crew chief Jeremy Bullins was fined $50,000, with car chief Kirk Almquist suspended from the next two Cup Series events, and a loss of 20 driver and owner points. 

Additionally, the No. 20 Toyota of Erik Jones was found in violation of Section 20.4.h & 20.4.17.8.b of the rule book, which pertains to the package tray. The rule states, “air cannot pass from one area of the vehicle interior to another. Vehicle package tray must remain flat and straight, front to back, with one break.”

As a result, crew chief Chris Gayle was fined $50,000, with car chief Jason Overstreet suspended from the next two Cup Series events, and a loss of 20 driver and owner points.

Additionally, the No. 35 truck of Brennan Poole was found in violation of Section 20.3.4 of the rule book, which pertains to the Ballast Containers. The rule states, “loss or separation of added ballast from the vehicle.”

As a result, crew chief Ryan Bell, truck chief Jerry Kennedy, and mechanic Patrick Magee have been suspended for the next three Truck races, which includes the 2019 season opener at Daytona International Speedway.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

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

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NASCAR Cup Series

OBSERVATIONS: AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway

When it came to intermediate tracks on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule, Texas Motor Speedway was one that was circled as one to watch. The drivers covered all three grooves on the track, while track president Eddie Gossage entertained with his theatrics.

While those stunts may remain from Gossage, the track has lost it’s luster over the past two years since the reconfiguration and repave. The AAA Texas 500 now becomes a fight for the bottom groove, as drivers find it difficult to pass while racing on the racer’s edge. The result was a 501 mile race on Sunday afternoon strung out through the field without many battles for position.

The saving grace for the end of the event was a pair of cautions in the late stages, producing a pair of restarts that saw Kevin Harvick and Ryan Blaney battle for the top spot. The continued dominance from Harvick paid off as the mistakes which took him out of other events didn’t happen, and he made his way into victory lane to punch his ticket for Homestead-Miami Speedway.

His counterparts in THE BIG THREE weren’t so lucky with pit road speeding penalties and loose wheels taking both Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. out of contention for the win. Truex rebounded for a top-10, but Busch ultimately finished 17th. Those bonus points earned through victories and stage wins through the first 26 races are still paying, as the gap to the rest of the field is still significant. Ultimately, if one of them is set to be left on the outside of the Championship 4, that will have to happen courtesy of a win by one of the other four contenders.

The battle for championship does continue to get interesting, though. Joey Logano may be locked in for the Championship 4, but he’s making his life harder it may appear. After upsetting Truex with a late race bump-and-run at Martinsville, he made contact with Aric Almirola late at Texas.

“The 22 just went down in turn three and put it right on my door and about wrecked us both,” Almirola said post-race. “I am not sure. I will have to talk to him. He just continues to make things harder on himself. If that is the way he wants to race me when he is already locked into Homestead and we are out here fighting for our lives, that is fine. When Homestead comes around if I am not in, he will know it.”

Although the contact can be attributed to hard racing and the style of what Texas has become, one to has to ask – will it ultimately cost Logano at Homestead-Miami Speedway? We will see in a couple weeks.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

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

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News

Ryan Blaney wins pole as Fords dominate Texas qualifying

FORT WORTH, Tex. – Ryan Blaney may have exited the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, but that doesn’t mean the desire to win has left the driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford.

Running the fastest lap of the day in the final round of Friday’s knockout qualifying session at Texas Motor Speedway, Blaney sped around the 1.5-mile track in 26.932 seconds (200.505 mph) to earn the top starting spot for Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

In winning his first Busch Pole Award at Texas, his third of the season and the fifth of his career, Blaney fell just short of the track record (26.877 seconds at 200.915 mph) set by Kurt Busch in November of last year. Nevertheless, Blaney’s lap in the money round was the second fastest ever run on a 1.5-mile intermediate speedway.

Blaney, who paced the first round but fell to eighth in the second, beat playoff driver Clint Bowyer (200.230 mph) by .037 seconds when it counted. Kevin Harvick (199.941 mph) qualified third, as Ford drivers swept the top five spots on the grid and seven of the top eight.

“We just seemed to get tighter round to round,” Blaney said. “We just kept freeing it up, and I messed up Round 2 pretty bad. I got really greedy in (Turn) 1 and drove in there too deep. So we freed it up even more, and I backed my entry up, and that help it out…

“It felt really fast. That’s what you get with this nighttime qualifying. High speeds. Speeds pick up, and it has been cool here today. We’ve had a really good Ford all day, and it is nice to back it up in qualifying. It doesn’t mean a lot if you are fastest in practice and blow it in qualifying… I’m excited to see how it is in race trim in Saturday’s practice.”

With Aric Almirola qualifying fourth and Kurt Busch eighth, Stewart-Haas Racing placed all four of its drivers in the top seven, and all four are still in contention for the series championship. Brad Keselowski was fifth fastest, giving Team Penske two drivers in the top five.

Toyota driver Denny Hamlin was seventh with the only non-Ford in the top eight. Team Penske driver Joey Logano-already qualified for the Nov. 18 Championship 4 race at Homestead by virtue of last Sunday’s victory at Martinsville, was eighth quickest after topping the second round at 200.267 mph.

Playoff driver Martin Truex Jr. will start 13th on Sunday after Almirola bumped him out of the final round by .001 seconds.

“I got a little loose on Turn 3 in my last lap there,” Truex said. “If I didn’t mess that up, I probably would have been in. It’s a sensitive track, really fast. For whatever reason, we’ve been off qualifying since they redid this place.

“I haven’t quite figured out what I need for qualifying. In our race trim, we’ve been really good here. We’ll see. We’ll work harder on it (Saturday in practice) and see on Sunday.”

Chase Elliott, winner of two Playoff races, will start 16th. Ninth-place qualifier William Byron, Elliott’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, was the only Chevrolet driver to crack the top 12.