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XFINITY

Cole Custer Stepping Up His Game for the Playoffs

After a dominant regular season, JR Motorsports had the field asking who would be able to contend with the organization’s four cars in the NASCAR XFINITY Series Playoffs.

Cole Custer answered that question by having his best performance of 2017 in Saturday’s VisitMyrtleBeach.com 300 at Kentucky Speedway.

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver won the first two stages, led 49 laps, and finished fifth.

While it didn’t mark Custer’s best finish of the year, the performance put him in contention throughout the race, and similar runs are often rewarded in the Playoffs.

It also tied him for the driver’s standings lead with Justin Allgaier.

Entering the post-season, Allgaier accumulated 23 playoff points while Custer collected just five. However, because of Custer’s success in the stages on Saturday night, he gained enough points to make up the difference.

This advantage will likely ease the rookie into the Round of 8 where he will again need to overcome a points deficit.

A lack of experience compared to the more seasoned drivers such as Allgaier and Elliott Sadler and fewer bonus points in each round could also serve as a challenge for Custer.

However, the next two tracks on the circuit have been where he has excelled after scoring a career-best finish of fourth at Dover in June and placing in the top-10 in both of his Charlotte starts.

Once the series heads to Kansas where Custer crashed and finished 35th last October, starting the second round similarly to Kentucky will be crucial.

Texas may be his best bet to position himself for the Championship 4 as he finished fifth there in April while a 21st-place day at Phoenix in the spring isn’t a confidence booster for the penultimate race.

If he’s able to make it to Homestead-Miami, showcasing similar speed to Kentucky could put Custer in position to upset JRM.

After a year of building, the SHR XFINITY Series team is showing significant gains in the performance department at the perfect time heading into the final stretch of the season.

Not many knew what to expect out of this team in the Playoffs, but a strong start to the title battle sent a strong message.

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EMAIL JASON AT jason.schultz@popularspeed.com

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

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Fueled by Bacon: Smithfield Foods Moving to Stewart-Haas Racing

It’s official: Next year, Stewart-Haas Racing will be fueled by bacon.

The team announced Tuesday morning that it has signed Smithfield Foods Inc., longtime sponsor of the Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43 Ford, to instead support SHR next year.

No details yet on what car or what driver Smithfield will sponsor for SHR in 2018. Those announcement will come later. There are plenty of options: SHR driver Kurt Busch is a free agent as are playoff talents like Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne.

Danica Patrick said last month she won’t be back at SHR unless the team can find sponsorship for 2018. So the team has some decisions to make.

“We’re very proud to have Smithfield Foods join the Stewart-Haas Racing family,” said Brett Frood, president, SHR. “Smithfield has activated heavily and successfully within the sport, and we’re honored to be a part of the brand’s forward initiatives and strategy. Although we’re not ready to announce the full details of the program, we look forward to this new endeavor while remaining focused on the upcoming playoffs and putting forth the best effort possible to win more races and contend for another championship.”

The big loser in this announcement is Richard Petty Motorsports, which now must find some sponsor or sponsors to replace Smithfield. The team has already put its shop in Mooresville, N.C., up for lease as it looks for smaller shop space.

Categories
News

Danica Patrick ‘Trying to figure out what the next step is’

Danica Patrick might well be on the move for 2018 in terms of where she’ll race.

Patrick, now in her fourth season driving for Stewart-Haas Racing, said recently that the team does not have a sponsor for her for next season, and without a sponsor, she could be released from the final year of her contract.

Monday at Stewart-Haas Racing, Patrick took part in an unveiling of the Robert Yates tribute throwback paint scheme she’ll race in the Bojangles’ Southern 500 Labor Weekend at Darlington Raceway.

After the ceremony, Patrick confirmed that here 2018 plans have not been solidified yet.

“At this point in time, my agents are still working on things,” Patrick said. “Working with sponsors and working with teams, trying to figure out what the next step is.”

A spokesman for Stewart-Haas Racing said recently that the team will not comment on driving contracts or sponsor status for 2018.

Categories
News

Danica Patrick Salutes Robert Yates with Darlington Throwback

And the hits just keep on coming for the Bojangles’ Southern 500 throwback weekend at Darlington Raceway.

Danica Patrick’s No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford will carry a special paint scheme honoring NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2018 member Robert Yates for the Labor Day weekend throwback race.

The Quality Care/Ford Credit-sponsored paint scheme is similar to the one NASCAR Hall of Fame driver Dale Jarrett carried on his No. 88 Robert Yates Racing Ford during his championship season of 1999.

“The throwback race at Darlington is such a cool event,” said Patrick. “… I’m excited to run a true throwback scheme this year. It’s great that we’re able to honor Robert Yates and all he’s done for the sport.”

“The No. 88 Quality Care/Ford Credit Ford was definitely a memorable program for our team,” said Yates.  “We won the Daytona 500 in Dale’s first race with that scheme in 1996 and went on to win many more races and the championship in 1999. … I can’t thank Stewart-Haas Racing for honoring me and everyone that was on the team during those years.”

E-MAIL TOM AT tom.@jensen@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @tomjensen100

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
News

Without a Sponsor for 2018, Danica Patrick Could Leave SHR

In an interview with USA Today’s Brant James, Danica Patrick said she may be out at Stewart-Haas Racing after this season because of sponsorship issues.

Patrick told James that media reports of an SHR buyout of her contract for next season missed the mark.

“There’s no buyout needed,” Patrick said of her contract. “I don’t have a sponsor. It’s contingent on the sponsor.”

As for her concern, Patrick said she was relaxed.

“I would say mentally, emotionally, my approach has been peaceful and what will be will, and I don’t know,” Patrick told James. “I’m a little bit more present and a little less worried about the future or worried about what happened in the past. I’m just kind of letting it organically flow.”

You can read the full USA Today interview here. 

Like several  Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, teams, Stewart-Haas Racing is searching for sponsorship for next season.

Earlier this week, SHR declined to pick up the option on Kurt Busch’s contract for 2018, making Busch a free agent for next season.

The team Tweeted that it “expects” Busch to be back in the No.  41 Ford next year.

In an e-mail to POPULAR SPEED, an SHR spokesperson said, “The tweet we sent yesterday sums up Stewart-Haas Racing’s position. And beyond that, there will not be any further comment on the status of any of the team’s contracts, be it driver or partner related.”

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

SHR Says They “Expect” Kurt Busch Back in 2018 for Another Season

You can tell the Monster Energy NASCAR Silly Season has arrived.

Silly Season is the time of year when rumors fly about drivers and sponsors changing teams for the upcoming season or in some cases leaving the sport altogether.

The latest participants in the Silly Season vortex are Stewart-Haas Racing and driver Kurt Busch Multiple news outlets, including Nate Ryan at NBCSports.com, are reporting today that SHR has not picked up Busch’s contract option for 2018, meaning he’s free to sign with any team for next year.

SHR, in the meantime, put out this Tweet, suggesting Busch will, in fact, be back with the team in 2018.

So what does it all mean?

Just because SHR didn’t pick up Busch’s option doesn’t mean he won’t drive for the team next year. He could sign a new contract with the team, or he could move on.

The team also could be waiting on final decisions on sponsorship for Busch’s No. 41 Ford and the team’s other three cars before signing a new driver deal.

Since Busch joined the team in 2014, his car has mostly been funded out of team co-owner Gene Haas’ pocket before Monster Energy came onboard.

Haas’s company has also sponsored Clint Bowyer in the No. 14 SHR Ford for a number of races this season.

Busch, the 2004 champion in what is now the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, joined SHR in 2014.  He was won at least race in every season with the team, including this year’s Daytona 500, and is on track to make the NASCAR playoffs for the fifth consecutive season.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

BOWYER: “The Bridesmaid Deal Sucks”

Following two disappointing seasons with few bright spots, Clint Bowyer is back and more competitive than ever before.

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver scored his second consecutive runner-up finish Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway, in the Coke Zero 400 for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. It was his third of the season.

The narrative surrounding Bowyer is much different now than it was a year ago. The 38-year-old’s focus last season was getting through the year to be back in a top ride in 2017 where expectations would be high that he could excel and rejuvenate his career.

Through the first half of the season, he has delivered and is on the cusp of victory.

Bowyer’s winless streak has extended to 166 races, among the longest in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. He last won at Charlotte in October 2012 and has finished runner-up six times since.

For many teams, a second-place run would be a cause for celebration. However, for Bowyer, it’s disappointing knowing what a win would mean for his season and career.

“This bridesmaid deal sucks,” Bowyer said. “I want to win. We’re in this business to win. That’s what Tony and Gene pay me to do.”

In 2013, Bowyer found himself at the center of controversy at Richmond International Raceway — the final race that would set the Chase field. Driving for Michael Waltrip Racing, NASCAR charged him with following orders to intentionally spin his car. The caution offered a benefit to teammate Martin Truex Jr.  The scandal would leave Bowyer with a black eye and subsequently lead to the demise of MWR.

Now with nine races remaining before the playoffs, the pressure of being on the bubble is starting to mount for Bowyer in addition to wanting to fulfill a comeback of his own.

“We finished second two weeks in a row, so that’s a huge confidence booster for our team, but nonetheless, the pressure cooker is turning up,” Bowyer said. “ You’re sitting there looking up there that green‑white‑checker coming to the green there, and you’re thinking, oh, no, somehow, some way, I’ve got to get up there and keep one of those guys that are going to be first-time winners out of this thing.  That’s real, it’s alive, and it’s something you’re going to have to pay attention to.”

After Daytona, the No. 14 team sits 15th in the playoff picture, 27 points above the cutoff line. However, if drivers behind him in points including Matt Kenseth, Joey Logano, and Erik Jones win, it will bump Bowyer further back and make earning a spot in the playoffs more challenging.

A victory now would be among the most meaningful of Bowyer’s career by fulfilling both personal and seasonal goals, returning him to Victory Lane for the first time in nearly five years and allow his team to secure a post-season spot.

Based on his recent performances, a win appears to be imminent. He remains one of the hungriest drivers in the sport and will be relentless in pursuit of victory.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @HeyJasonSchultz

EMAIL JASON AT jason.schultz@popularspeed.com

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

Categories
Commentary

THREE TAKEAWAYS: My Bariatric Solutions 300

Erik Jones won Saturday’s My Bariatric Solutions 300 at Texas Motor Speedway, marking the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series rookie’s first victory of 2017.     

Slippery Slope for Texas Repave

The biggest story entering the weekend was the newly configured track surface. The XFINITY Series event was the first race on the new pavement, and a few drivers experienced trouble on the less-banked and wider Turns 1 and 2.

On Lap 12, Daniel Hemric spun in Turn 2 and backed his No. 21 Chevrolet into the outside wall while running second. The Richard Childress Racing rookie suffered damage, which relegated him to finish 32nd.

Darrell Wallace Jr. and Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Tyler Reddick and Brennan Poole wrecked in the same vicinity. Wallace was lucky enough to overcome his spin, but both CGR racers finished outside the top-30.

With seven to go in Stage 2, Garrett Smithley spun on the exit of Turn 2 but avoided contact with the wall. The second-year JD Motorsports wheelman finished 30th.

Sixth Again for No. 6

Wallace’s streak of sixth-place finishes lives on.

After being clipped by Reddick on Lap 66, Wallace spun and it looked like the streak would end. But he rebounded to finish sixth for a fifth consecutive race. He’s now fourth in the standings, still searching for his first XFINITY win.

Stewart-Haas strong

Stewart-Haas Racing entered 2017 as the newest Cup-affiliate team running in NASCAR’s second-tier level. So far, so good as both entries finished in the top-five at the 1.5-mile track.

Rookie Cole Custer finished fifth, giving the No. 00 driver his first top-five of the season and second of his career. SHR teammate Kevin Harvick finished third after qualifying 14th in the part-time No. 41. Having race laps logged on the new surface could be advantageous to the 2014 Cup champion. He starts Sunday’s 500-mile event from the pole.

EMAIL JOHN AT john.haverlin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @The5thJohnHav

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

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Past Results Give Danica Patrick Optimism at Martinsville

Danica Patrick is hoping to get her season back on track, and Sunday’s STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway may be the best opportunity to do so.

Martinsville Speedway has consistently been one of Patrick’s best tracks in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.  The 35-year-old, who is in her fifth full season in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, has scored four top-20 finishes and one top-10 in eight starts at the half-mile track.

Patrick, who began her foray into NASCAR racing back in 2010, believes Martinsville suits her because the tight confines are similar to road course racing.

“I came from road course racing and I feel like you have to set passes up a little bit like that,” Patrick said.  “I think it’s also a track that you have to exercise a lot of discipline.  It’s easy to make mistakes.  It’s easy to overdrive or overdrive when trying to get a little more when you’re passing somebody and make mistakes.  Those are the two things I keep in mind when I’m there, but you need a good car too and Stewart-Haas has always had good cars there.”

While Martinsville has been good to Patrick over the years, she does recognize that it presents its own set of challenges.  Patrick elaborated in an interview with Fox Sports last year.

“Martinsville, like any short track, you want to make sure you turn the center but you have to have drive on exit and they go hand-in-hand too,” Patrick explained.  “I mean, if you can’t turn in the center, it doesn’t matter what kind of power down you have.  If you have all that wheel in it when you’re trying to get off the corner with the power down, it puts a lot of load on those back tires to try to get you off the corner because you’re using the power to try and turn.  It’s about achieving a good balance with the car.  I feel like our team has always done a pretty good job with that.”

Patrick says her favorite thing about Martinsville is being able to set up and make passes on her competitors.

“At Martinsville, I enjoy that, if you have a good car, you can pass,” Patrick elaborated.  “I always say that Martinsville’s one of those tracks that you’re either looking out the windshield or looking in your rear-view mirror.  It doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of in-between at least for me there.  So, luckily, I’ve had more races that I’m looking out the windshield.”

When the season started, Patrick was optimistic about improving and becoming a consistent top-15 driver and potentially challenge for wins.  The Stewart-Haas team underwent a radical change in the offseason when they went from running Chevrolet to running Ford; however, that change was welcomed by Patrick.

“The goal is to do better all the time and hopefully some of the things that have changed within in our team, the big one being the changeover to Ford, will open up some opportunities and possibilities and just some pure potential for the team and we can improve,” Patrick remarked.  “Hopefully, there is more room to improve now, so that’s kind of exciting to me.  I’m optimistic and hopefully it will be something that makes a difference.”

Patrick feels running up inside the top-15 throughout the season is a realistic goal.  The veteran racer hopes she and her team can continue to improve throughout the season and work their way into the top-10.

“I think if you’re in the top-15 every weekend, then you do a little bit better and then you’re in the top-10 and then, once you’re in the top-10 with good pit stops, good strategy and all the things that play into it – some of the new formats for the races can play into segment wins – so I think it’s important to be realistic.  So, to tell you to go out and win races and segments is not something I necessarily think is going to happen right away, but we’ll assess.  We’ll assess how strong we are as a team.  A few years back, we were really strong and I felt like that’s where I was running by the end of the year, was up in the top-15 and getting into the top-10, so hopefully we can get back to that and work from there.”

Patrick’s season started on a high note, scoring points in two stages at the Daytona 500 before getting swept up in an accident in the early laps of the third stage of the race.  She scored a 17th place finish in Atlanta but finishes of 36th, 22nd, and 26th in the West Coast Swing have knocked her down to 29th in points.

Martinsville could be the race that puts Patrick’s season back on track.

E-MAIL ANDY AT  andymarquis@gmail.com

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

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

BOWYER: “We’re Getting Closer”

FONTANA, Calif. — Clint Bowyer earned his first top five in more than a year and a half with a third-place finish at Auto Club Speedway on Sunday.

Bowyer, 37, last had a top five at Bristol Motor Speedway in August 2015 with Michael Waltrip Racing. After the team had shut down, he signed a one-year deal with HScott Motorsports for 2016, which, like MWR, no longer competes in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, and had only three top 10s all year.

But now with Stewart-Haas Racing in team co-owner Tony Stewart’s former ride, he is resurrecting his career and has finished in the top 15 four times in the first five races of 2017.

“Having this crew behind you, this organization, the teamwork, it’s amazing just to be a part of it and part of my career,” Bowyer said. “Thank you to Gene Haas and Tony Stewart for giving me this opportunity. It means a lot to work with this team and have a lot of fun with [Mike Bugarewicz, crew chief] and all these guys.”

He also added his finish in the Auto Club 400 was a “momentum builder.” He was essentially the only SHR driver to have a good day as none of his teammates finished in the top 10.

“Obviously, we’re getting closer,” he added. “This is a good track for me. I wanted to win that damn thing, but to come home with a wild finish and everything that it was, we’ll take it.”

Bowyer earned 12 Stage points in the race and now sits 11th in the playoff standings. He’s failed to make NASCAR’s postseason twice since his runner-up finish in the 2012 championship with MWR.

The season is still young, but he’s smiling as much as ever and rightfully so — he’s with a team that won the Cup title in 2011 with Stewart behind the wheel.

EMAIL JOHN AT john.haverlin@popularspeed.com

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