Pressure isn’t new for Gibson

Bits and pieces from Wednesday’s Championship 4 crew chief teleconference:

Under Pressure?

When Rodney Childers, crew chief for the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford of Kevin Harvick, got a two-week “vacation” from NASCAR for an L1 infraction at Texas Motor Speedway, Stewart-Haas Racing officials looked no further than down the hall to find a suitable replacement.

Tony Gibson, who began the season in the new role of production manager at SHR, was the easy choice.

The 54-year-old came off the pit box at the end of ’17 after multiple seasons as crew chief for Kurt Busch. He’s been a crew chief at SHR since SHR became SHR in ’09. Before that he was a crew chief at the now defunct Dale Earnhardt Inc., and if you go back far enough you’ll wind up at Alan Kulwicki Racing where Gibson was car chief and fueled the car on race day.

Kulwicki won the championship in ’92, beating Bill Elliott by 10 points in a battle that wasn’t decided until the final laps of the season’s final race. Six drivers were still in contention when the race began.

In other words, it was a lot like this year’s contest pitting Harvick against Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. and Joey Logano.

“It came down to a green flag fuel stop, and Alan was coming down pit road, and I step over and I realize I’m the only guy on pit road, and we’re the only car on pit road,” Gibson said.

“And I had to get 3.2 seconds of fuel in this thing to make it to the end, and if I don’t get it in there and if I don’t do my job, then it all lays on my shoulders. That’s probably the last time I’ve been in this situation with this much load on it.”

The Last Lap

The No. 78 team transporter for Furniture Row Racing has been making the drive from the shop in Denver to the various race tracks on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series circuit for more than a decade. When it pulled out Tuesday evening to begin the 30-hour drive to Homestead-Miami Speedway, it was leaving for the final time.

The single-car operation founded by Barney Visser in 2005 will be no more after this weekend’s race, a lack of sponsorship forcing Visser to shut down an outfit that won the series title just one year ago with Truex at the wheel.

“I don’t think any of us were prepared for how emotional it was last night when we loaded up,” crew chief Cole Pearn said. “I think we’ve just been head down, kind of pushing super hard, trying to do everything we can to get ready for this weekend.”

Once everything was loaded and the lift gate closed, “there were a lot of tears shed and a lot of sad faces,” according to Pearn.

“I think all of us really realized that that was the last time we were going to do it together as a group,” he said. “A lot of relationships have been built from that shop and it’s a weird feeling for sure.”

Truex and Pearn will remain in the Toyota family, moving to Joe Gibbs Racing for 2019.

No Favorites

His driver has won eight times this season including last weekend at ISM Raceway. But don’t call Kyle Busch and his No. 18 Toyota team the title favorites.

“I would never say that about us,” crew chief Adam Stevens said. “It’s hard for me to say if there is a favorite.”

There hasn’t been that single dominant team on the intermediate tracks, the 1.5-mile venues, this year, according to Stevens. Last year, Truex won seven of 12 races on intermediates, including the championship-clinching race at Homestead.

Through 10 stops this year, Harvick has four wins, Busch three while Truex, Brad Keselowski and Chase Elliott have one win apiece.

“The last few intermediates that we’ve had are probably the biggest reflection upon what you might expect at Homestead,” Stevens said. “I just didn’t see anybody drive away from the field on pure speed in the last few races.

“You know, Harvick won at Texas but we had some issues that trapped us a lap down … lap time wise and speed wise I felt like we were right there with him. And Joey (Logano) was fast, too. I wouldn’t pin the favorite label on us, and equally I wouldn’t put it on anybody else.”

Easy Does It

Maybe the third time’s the charm for Logano and his No. 22 Team Penske Ford team. The group returns after failing to make the 2017 championship round.

Crew chief Todd Gordon says lessons have been learned. And the biggest deal is not to make it a big deal, he said.

“I think we’re trying to keep it as normal as possible,” Gordon said. “The first time into it in 2014, you didn’t know. I didn’t. It was a new format … new to everybody but you didn’t know how to handle it or how the weekend was going to go.

“I didn’t because I really hadn’t been in that position to have one race that dictated a championship of a season.”

Logano, 28, finished 16th in the 2014 contest, then fourth two years ago. He advanced to this year’s championship round after winning at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway. It was his second win of the season.

“There was a lot more anxiety, I think, into the ’14 race,” Gordon said, “and the fear of the unknown. I think ’16 we raced into that race and just felt like we needed to handle it like the other races … continue to work forward and I thought that was a decent approach to the weekend. I thought we were very competitive.”

Gordon said his team has fared well in the most recent 1.5-mile stops at Kansas and Texas where Logano has finished eighth and third. He also led more than 150 laps combined in the two events.

“We’ve led a lot of laps. We’ve won a pole,” Gordon said. “We’ve had speed and we just need to continue to do those things and we’ll be in a great position.”

The Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway is scheduled for Sunday, Nov. 18 (3 p.m. ET, NBC)

David Pearson, 1934-2018

Some say he was the greatest NASCAR driver of all time and some say he was one of the greatest and we could sit here all day and half the night arguing which statement comes closest to the truth.

David Pearson drew that sort of attention. His talent demanded it. His results on the track required it.

The list of such folks is a short one.

Pearson, a native son of Inman, S.C., died Monday. He was 83.

He hadn’t raced in NASCAR’s premier series since 1986 and then it was only two starts. Yet walk through the NASCAR garage today, more than 30 years later, and they’re still telling stories about the man known as the Silver Fox.

NASCAR in the 1960s and ‘70s belonged to Pearson and another racing legend, Richard Petty. Together they won nearly every race – or so it seemed – and 10 championships. They finished first and second 63 times – Pearson won 33, Petty 30. The first time came in 1963, the Sandlapper 200 at Columbia (S.C.) Speedway, the last at Riverside (Calif.) Raceway in ’77.

In between there was magic and memories and a nearly two-decades long history lesson.

Chief among those contests? The ’76 Daytona 500, long considered one of NASCAR’s greatest finishes. Pearson bested Petty in that one, their cars colliding and bouncing off the fourth turn wall before spinning along the frontstretch on the final lap. Both sliding through the infield grass and Pearson somehow nursing his bent and spent No. 21 back onto the banking and across the finish line ahead of Petty’s No. 43.

Pearson won three championships, the first in 1966 with Spartanburg, S.C., owner/driver Cotton Owens. In 1968 and ’69 he won two more while competing for the powerhouse Holman-Moody racing outfit.

Pearson was a three-time series champion two years before Petty won his third title.

His 105 wins remains second on the all-time win list, second only to Petty’s 200 and like Petty’s record, it’s a mark that likely won’t be topped.

Had he run for the championship more often, who knows how many wins and titles might have come his way?

His first victory came in the ’61 World 600, at the time perhaps the most grueling stock car test of them all. A year earlier he had won the series’ Rookie of the Year title, and a big reason for the honor was his 10th place finish in the 600; he was in second place when he had to stop and wire his car’s generator back on with a coat hanger.

Forty-three of his wins came while driving for the Wood Brothers. Folks with the organization that has had more than a few legends behind the wheel will tell you Pearson might have been the most talented of them all.

He won eight times at Daytona and 10 times at Darlington, where he was a three-time Southern 500 champ. He won on dirt and asphalt, short tracks and superspeedways and road courses.

He was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2011 and that was only getting it half right. He deserved to be inducted a year sooner along with Petty and Dale Earnhardt and Junior Johnson when the doors to the Hall first opened.

He was the best of his time in the eyes of a lot of folks, maybe even the best of all time.

David Pearson may be gone now but memories of the man and what he accomplished will last forever.

Digesting another penalty: more questions, few answers

NASCAR officials penalized Stewart-Haas Racing driver Kevin Harvick and the No. 4 team Wednesday and the immediate reaction seemed to be this:

“Why are we just now hearing about the penalty?”

“Shouldn’t something like that be caught at the track?”

“NASCAR needs to fix the process immediately before a champion is crowned and we find out three days later that the winning car failed post-race inspection.”

It’s surprising that much of the outcry was aimed at NASCAR and the inspection process and NOT at the team penalized for an infraction.

Harvick’s team was dealt an L1 penalty for an violation involving his car’s rear spoiler. According to Scott Miller, NASCAR’s senior vice president of competition, the spoiler was located further to the right of the centerline of the car than allowed during Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.

That placement allowed more air to reach the right side of the spoiler, thus creating more downforce in the turns.

Harvick won the race, initially earning one of four spots in the Championship Round at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He led 177 of 337 laps in his eighth win of the season and departed as the points leader.

The L1 penalty means that the victory is no longer an automatic berth in the final. And the loss of 40 driver points leaves Harvick fourth in the standings, only three points ahead of SHR teammate Kurt Busch.

Additionally, crew chief Rodney Childers has been fined $75,000 and both he and car chief Robert Smith have been suspended for the next two races (the series travels to ISM Raceway in Phoenix this weekend before moving on to Homestead the following week.)

The infraction was not announced at the track following post-race inspection. Miller said a potential issue with the spoiler was noticed at the track but because the car was one of three being taken to the Research and Development Center to complete the teardown process, the decision was made to investigate the piece more thoroughly in Concord, N.C.

Is the situation a black mark for NASCAR? Is it a black mark for the Stewart-Haas team?

Yes. In both cases.

Taking three days to determine and announce a penalty looks less than professional. It makes the sanctioning body look inefficient and inept in this day and age.

Even more so when that penalty has a major impact on the championship battle.

This is the age of technology. NASCAR officials track cars from the time they are taken off their trucks at the track until they go back on 2-3 days later. Goodyear tires are equipped with RFI devices that track their movement throughout the course of a race weekend. Everyone knows where everything is at all times.

Yet it still takes days to wrap up the inspection process following each race.

It’s hard for a lot of folks to understand why that is the case.

Cars can’t go through the entire post-race inspection process and teardown at the track for several reasons, including time constraints. That being the case, some believe that means there are too many things being looked at, too many rules.

Maybe they have a point.

Others wonder why infractions such as the spoiler issue aren’t discovered prior to the race. At the majority of the races, cars are inspected before they are allowed on the track for practice, again before qualifying and once more before the race.

But such things likely are not discovered for the same reason rear window braces became an issue earlier this year – because those parts appear normal/legal prior to the race. Checking the offset of the spoiler has not been a part of the inspection process in the past. Miller indicated it will be going forward.

Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as saying you ought to be able to inspect certain parts of the car after the race and be done with it. But maybe it ought to be.

The options seem limited: a) crack down and start disqualifying folks when they commit grievous violations, perhaps even taking away wins; b) determine what absolutely has to be inspected after the race and find a way to do so in a more timely manner; c) do nothing and continue to live with the consequences.

As for the No. 4 team, maybe moving the location of the spoiler by the smallest amount doesn’t sound like much. But neither did altered side skirts, window support braces that failed during the race and other tricks of the trade that have resulted in penalties either during the race or afterward.

What Harvick’s team did was not innovation. It was not a mistake. It broke a rule. And now it is paying the price.

Whether it took us too long to get to this point is open for debate.

Emerick, Lau win Engine Builder Showdown

CONCORD, N.C. – Move over Jeff Gordon, there’s another four-time champion at Hendrick Motorsports.

Engine builder Danny Emerick, paired with technician Keenan Lau, captured his fourth consecutive title in the annual Randy Dorton Hendrick Engine Builder Showdown Wednesday on the campus of Hendrick Motorsports.

Gordon won four Cup titles and 93 races with Hendrick before retiring as a full-time competitor in NASCAR in 2015.

Emerick and Lau beat HMS engine tuner Brian Franklin and technician Patrick Ashford in the finals with a time of 25 min., 2 sec.

Franklin and Ashford completed their task in 27 min, 40 sec.

Teams must assemble the 243 engine parts and successfully fire the engine, which must run for 60 seconds. Failure to tighten bolts/nuts and other oversights result in penalties.

Emerick, who has now won with four different technicians, said preparation is the key to success.

“I study,” he said. “I go back and look at all the footage from every build, break it down bit by bit. If somebody’s faster than me in one segment, I’ll find out why and then I try to work on that. Over time you just try to optimize every little area.

“I have videos to watch that I commentate, show him ‘hey this is a common mistake.’ Give him a lot of information. Some other competitors go to that level, some don’t. I wear it on my shoulders that he’s prepared. If he leaves something loose, I treat it as if I left it loose because I didn’t prepare him.”

The Showdown, now in its 17th year, pairs 12 HMS engine department employees with 12 certified master technicians from Hendrick Automotive Group dealerships. Lau is employed at Hendrick Lexus North Lake.

The competition consists of two rounds with the fastest two teams in the qualifying round advancing to the championship.

Lau said he knew Emerick was a past winner before the pairings were announced on Monday evening.

“There were a few guys I was keeping my eye on and hoping I would get,” Lau said. “He was definitely on top (of the list). Before we even knew we were paired together, we were sitting in the audience just talking with each other and just hit it off. When we heard our names, we were like ‘Awesome. it’s on; game on now.’

It was Lau’s first Showdown appearance; nerves weren’t an issue, he said.

“I tried to keep my cool, tried to stick to my normal routine. Just go into it knowing that I know what I’m doing,” he said.

Randy Dorton was head of the HMS engine department, joining the organization in the mid-1980s. He was one of 10 people killed in a 2004 airplane crash near Martinsville, Va.

“Randy Dorton was the foundation of this place,” Rick Hendrick told those in attendance Wednesday. “We had like six people, this little engine shop. He helped build it, not just the engine shop but the whole organization. These guys pay tribute to him every day. It’s such a nice way to present the best of the best and have a build-off in Randy’s name.

“These are the best engine builders in racing in the world. And the best technicians in the world. To get here, you’re not a loser.”

Emerick and Lau advanced to the finals with a Wednesday morning qualifying time of 24 min., 39 sec. The time include a penalty time of 1 min., 30 sec.

Franklin and Ashford advanced with a qualifying time of 24 min., 40 sec. on Tuesday.

Emerick and Scott Vester are the only multi-time winners of the Showdown. Vester, an engine assembler, is a five-time winner.

It’s a mark Emerick likely knows.

“We get invited to do this,” Emerick said. “You can decline if you want but I don’t think I ever have. I’d like to get one more win.

“Everybody wants to win; you’ve got to outwork the next guy.”

Hendrick Motorsports fields four teams in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series: The No. 48 Chevrolet for seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson; the No. 9 of Chase Elliott, the No. 88 of Alex Bowman and the No. 24 for William Byron.

Texas postscript

FORT WORTH, Texas – Kevin Harvick’s victory Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway means at least two Ford teams will be in the Championship 4 at Homestead Miami Speedway.

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver dominated the AAA Texas 500, survived a late-race restart that took the race into overtime and came away with a career-best eighth win of the season.

Harvick, 42, joined Team Penske driver Joey Logano, who won a week ago at Martinsville, in earning a berth in the championship-determining race. Harvick won the title in ’14; Logano has yet to bring home the big hardware.

Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. didn’t squander their chances at Texas but they didn’t do themselves any favors either.

Busch, second in points, finished 17th and his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was the last car on the lead lap. There was a speeding penalty and a loose wheel in there to keep things interesting for the 2015 champ.

Truex is third in points and he finished ninth and he also had a loose wheel issue and a pit road penalty.

Kurt Busch (SHR), Chase Elliott (Hendrick Motorsports), Aric Almirola (SHR) and Clint Bowyer (SHR) are fifth through eighth in points, respectively, and any one of them can upset what would be the expected outcome with a victory next weekend at ISM (Phoenix) Raceway.

None of the four ran at Texas as if that was likely, though all but Bowyer finished inside the top 10. Maybe that said as much about Harvick’s ability to run away and hide from the field as their teams’ respective shortcomings.

GET IN LINE: A bit of a tense battle at the end between Almirola and Logano left the SHR driver miffed and Logano saying “It’s just racing.”

“The 22 just went down in Turn 3 and put it right on my door and about wrecked us both,” Almirola said of a late-race restart. “If that’s the way he wants to race me when he is already locked into Homestead and we are out here fighting for our lives, that’s fine. When Homestead comes around if I am not in (the title battle), he will know it.”

Truex had insinuated nearly as much after Logano pushed him aside to win at Martinsville. But his response was more of an “I’ll take care of it by winning” explanation and less of an “I’ll get even.”

HOW DID THAT HAPPEN? NASCAR officials said it was a “communication breakdown” that led to Jimmie Johnson being sent to the back of the field prior to the start of the race. Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet had failed pre-race tech inspection twice. Under normal circumstances, that would result in a loss of 15 minutes of track time during practice the following week.

Failing three times would warrant the loss of a starting position for that race and the ejection of one of the team members (typically a car chief).

“There was an assumption from race control … that he had failed three times,” Steve O’Donnell, executive vice president for the sanctioning body, said afterward. “That was communicated over the radio” between officials in the garage overseeing inspection and officials in the tower officiating the race. “

NASCAR tracks the movement of every car during the inspection process. Yet somehow two failures became three and no one on the 48 team, including crew chief Chad Knaus, was notified until it was too late.

Johnson had qualified 23rd; he started at the back of the field, along with several others sent there for various infractions, and called it a “frustrating” day.

Mistakes are going to be made. This was one that shouldn’t have been.

“There was not a call made up to the tower that there was a third failure,” O’Donnell said. “It was written down as a third failure. So that’s where it broke down.”

Haley joins Sauter in championship round

FORT WORTH, Texas – Justin Haley join GMS Racing teammate Johnny Sauter in the championship round at Homestead, earning his berth when race leader Todd Gilliland ran out of fuel just a half-lap from the finish of Friday night’s JAG Metals 350 Camping World Truck Series race.

Gilliland, impressive in his starts this season in the No. 4 Toyota for Kyle Busch Motorsports, led laps 124-146 at Texas Motor Speedway. But when his truck stumbled, Haley was there to grab the lead, the win and a chance to battle for the championship in two weeks at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“It’s not like we’re lucky,” the 19-year-old Haley said, “we’re bringing fast trucks.”

He led four times for 33 laps Friday night, and it was his third win of the season so there’s more than just a little truth to what he said.

“To have both GMS Trucks that are running in the playoffs locked in … it’s a much bigger picture than just the (No.) 24 team,” Haley added. “There are over 100 employees at the shop that can really focus. This is our Homestead truck, we’re going to turn it around.”

Fellow GMS driver Johnny Sauter won last week’s race at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway to earn a shot at the championship.

Crew chief Kevin Bellicourt said his crew had put in just enough fuel during a final pit stop to give Haley a buffer should the race into overtime. Gilliland wasn’t as fortunate.

“We could go 50 laps (on full tank), right at it,” Bellicourt said. “We knew that so we were right at our window. I brought him in one lap earlier than I was originally planning because pretty much everyone had come down pit road. … We literally took just enough fuel to get two laps past the finish.”

Gilliland coasted across the finish line fourth after leading twice for 60 laps.

“I have no idea how we were on fuel,” Gilliland, 18, said afterward. “I thought we were good.

“I’m very disappointed but very proud at the same time. My team gave me a great truck and I wrecked it in qualifying. We were still able to come out here and contend for a win.”

Ben Rhodes finished second to Haley, while playoff contender Brett Moffitt was third.

Playoff drivers Matt Crafton, Noah Gragson, Sauter and Grant Enfinger finished ninth through 12th, respectively. Gragson holds the No. 4 cutoff spot with one race remaining, next weekend’s stop at ISM Raceway in Phoenix.

Enfinger trails Gragson by 18 while Crafton sits 23 back.

Johnson not waiting on 2019

FORT WORTH, Texas – Jimmie Johnson isn’t waiting for 2019 to begin working with his new crew chief. The seven-time champion and winner of 83 races took part in a Goodyear tire test Tuesday at Atlanta Motor Speedway in part to begin building the driver/crew chief relationship with Kevin Meendering.

“That was the icebreaker part,” Johnson said Friday from Texas Motor Speedway, site of Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race.

“Here’s a chance for us to go hang out for the day. Granted, we can’t work on the car, but we’ll be on the radio and we can talk and afterward we looked at the computers and discussed things and just tried to work on our dialog.”

Johnson said he even treated it as if changes could be made to the car, “talked about what I felt, where I thought it was coming from. Just to get that dialog started,” he said. “Because it’s honestly the most important part.”

Hendrick Motorsports officials announced Oct. 10 that the potent Johnson/Chad Knaus combination would be no more after the ’18 season. The driver and crew chief have been together since 2003, Johnson’s first full season in the series. The No. 48 team has set records, such as five consecutive championships from 2006-10, and set the standard by which all other teams have been measured.

But Johnson hasn’t won since June 4, 2017, a span of 56 races. His streak of winning seasons, currently at 16, is in jeopardy with three races remaining. He was a first-round casualty in this year’s Playoffs.

Knaus will replace Darian Grubb in ’19 as crew chief of the No. 24 entry with driver William Byron. Meendering is currently crew chief for Elliott Sadler in the Xfinity Series.

“I’ve been around Kevin a lot of years,” Johnson said. “Certainly (it was) odd having a different voice in my ears. Totally different. Of course, there’s a lot of excitement with something new and (a lot of) energy around that.

“We had a lot of fun with it and there wasn’t a lot of pressure – just kind of scratching the surface.”

Prior to joining JRM, Meendering spent 16 years at HMS. He served as assistant engineer for Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 team in 2011 before being named lead engineer for the No. 88 of Dale Earnhardt Jr. He’s in his third season at JRM.

Ross Chastain (Chip Ganassi Racing), Paul Menard (Wood Brothers Racing), Erik Jones (Joe Gibbs Racing) and Ryan Blaney (Team Penske) participated in the single-day confirmation test using the 2019 rules package.

Johnson, 43, took part in the Atlanta test to drive the wheel force car for Chevrolet. Not the move one might expect from a seven-time champion. Yet he said it’s the second time this year’s he’s driven the car and he’s offered to do it more often.

A wheel force car is basically a stock car equipped with all sorts of data-gathering gizmos that measure things such as vertical load, lateral load, camber and slip angles.

Before NASCAR outlawed testing, Johnson said his team was constantly at the track. Today, teams get two or three opportunities for track time outside of race weekends.

“I think it was probably ’08, ’09, we had our seven NASCAR tests and then we could go to other tracks and test, non-Cup venues,” he said. “We had 22 two-day test sessions in addition to our full racing schedule.

“Now to go to 1-2 organizational tests a year? My god.

“Where I really learn is hands-on, in the car, working with the team. I study video and I read notes and I go through all of that stuff that we do, but connecting it to your butt and your hands, that’s where we make our money, that’s the difference. And I only have a few ways to do that anymore, especially outside of a race weekend. So, I’m just taking any chance I can get.”

Greg Stucker, director of race tire sales for Goodyear, said Johnson’s participation was key not only because of his experience “but his skill set, too.”

“Obviously he has a good way of translating what’s going on with the race car, the tires, or any component to whoever would be looking for the information,” Stucker said. “He’s just got a good feel for the race car and he can relate that, he can communicate it well. I think that’s one reason why those guys have been so successful is because he’s been so good at doing that.

“And obviously just the experience; he’s been through a lot of different types of race tracks and different types of cars.”

Johnson said he’s encouraged his teammates – Byron, Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott – to spend time driving the wheel force vehicle. The information collected is crucial in working through the Chevrolet simulator.

“We go back to the simulator and it’s so tough because we’re very limited on data we can pull,” he said. “When we go to the simulator and have to confirm the tire modeling, it’s up to the driver’s memory and knowledge, how it felt, to confirm it. That’s what the entire simulation is built off of.

“I fundamentally have just felt like it’s something we need to be doing.”

Because the simulator is booked for both NASCAR and IndyCar teams, Johnson said his schedule hasn’t allowed him to take part in as many sessions as he would like and “close the loop.”

Officials want whoever drives the wheel force car to be in the simulator as soon as possible. “They don’t want you to be out of it for two weeks and then drive the simulator,” he said. “They want you to go straight away and drive the simulator while it’s fresh on your mind.”

A seven-time champion with 83 victories. And his foot still firmly on the gas pedal.

“It doesn’t hurt and I love to work,” Johnson said. “I do.

“Social media with all the nice and kind people that are on there like to say that I’m more interested in riding my bike but they don’t see what I put in to this.

“Anything I can to be better and help advance our team, I’m in. This is just one of those opportunities.”

Turning back the clock at Martinsville

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – This is exactly what made NASCAR.

Boil it all down and strip away the color and the money and the TV and everything else that is just so much window dressing today and THIS IS WHAT MADE NASCAR.

It’s why it became the fastest-growing, most popular sport in the 1990s and early 2000s.

It’s what made it immensely popular throughout the South long before that. Stick and ball sports reigned elsewhere. Below the Mason-Dixon it was four tires and the roar of an unrestricted engine.

It was an intense battle for the lead in the closing laps of a race. Emotions and sheetmetal rubbed raw from an afternoon spent wrestling a 3,400-pound car around the tight confines of a short track.

It was forcing the car to do things it shouldn’t do, willing it to do things it couldn’t do, but by God making it do them just the same.

It was contact and smoke and dented metal and donuts in the door and more smoke and the checkered flag.

It was a good guy and a bad guy and someone’s fuming and someone’s celebrating.

That’s a big part of what’s been missing from NASCAR.

It was there again on Sunday. On display. In all its forgotten glory.

Fittingly, it played out at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, the shortest of the short tracks on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule and the ONLY track that has been hosting NASCAR events since the inaugural 1949 season.

Joey Logano won Sunday’s First Data 500 because he moved Martin Truex Jr. out of the lead. On the last lap. In the last turn. With his front bumper. And with an opportunity to race for the championship on the line.

Those opportunities don’t present themselves every week, mind you.

The push came after several laps of side-by-side racing between the two. Truex had taken the lead on the white-flag lap, passing Logano cleanly on the inside as the two rolled out of the second turn and headed for the backstretch.

Critics howled. How dare he! Logano mugged him, knocked him out of the way!

Others came to Logano’s defense. Under those same circumstances, any driver would have done the same thing, they said. Particularly one of the eight needing a win to guarantee a spot in the Championship Four at Homestead-Miami Speedway next month.

Both groups are correct. Logano did knock him out of the way.

Just as many, many others have done in years past. Name a former champion, name a NASCAR Hall of Famer. Don’t make me do it because good Lord if you’ve followed NASCAR for any time at all you’ve seen it happen. Don’t be naïve. Those guys with seven championships? Yeah, you’re damn right, they did it. And the rest of them, too.

Doesn’t make it right or wrong. It just makes it what it is.

Races can be and have been won without “punting” the leader. Truex had every right to believe Logano would race him exactly as he had raced Logano.

It was the final lap. With a ticket to Homestead on the line. You can expect whatever you want but I’ll tell you right here and right now, I know how this is going to end more times than not.

There was a point earlier in the race when a driver complained about slower cars running side by side in front of him, making it impossible to pass.

And I thought rather than complain about slower cars, why not go up there and put the bumper to someone and move them out of the way? Is that so wrong?

That’s how races have been won and lost on short tracks for as long as there HAVE BEEN short tracks.

Is it “dirty” when a slower car holds you up in an effort to stay on the lead lap? No. It’s what any driver will try to do.

I’m not saying what Logano did was right or wrong. I’m simply saying it was a decision. No different from Truex.

Until then, a surprisingly quiet race, almost sanitary you might say, had played out before a good crowd.

But then things got interesting and I don’t care who you feel was right or wrong, you can’t say that it wasn’t a memorable finish and one that will be talked about for quite a while.

It’s the kind of thing that made NASCAR great. It’s what could make it great again.

Busch on pole at Martinsville

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Kyle Busch has been the guy to beat this year on short tracks and that won’t change when the field lines up Sunday for the First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway.

The driver of the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 Toyota will start on the pole but he has been considered a race favorite long before he beat 39 others for the top spot Saturday afternoon.

Busch, the 2015 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion, didn’t win here in March, but he finished second.

He then won at Bristol (Tenn.) and Richmond (Va.), went back to Richmond in the fall and won again. A 20th in the Night Race at Bristol has been the only hiccup this season.

All three of the tracks are less than one mile in length. Busch seems to thrive on them. Fifteen of his 50 career wins in the series have come on short tracks. Bristol, where he has seven career wins, and Richmond, where he has six, are at the top of the list. He’s a two-time winner at Martinsville.

If the series was still racing at North Wilkesboro (N.C.), a former short-track stop, Busch would probably have more than his share of victories there, too.

“I enjoy coming to this place more so now at this stage of my career than earlier in my career,” Busch, 33, said. “It’s due to a great team and all these guys and our fast … Camry.”

No driver has won from the pole here since Jimmie Johnson in 2013.

Under overcast skies, Busch captured the No. 1 qualifying position with a lap of 19.673 seconds (96.254 mph). It was the only round of the three he led. Older brother Kurt Busch was fastest in the second round, Ryan Blaney in first.

“We’ve actually had really good short-run speed so far and our long-run speed has been OK too,” Busch said. “I’ve just been able to really bust off some good lap times on the short run.

“We knew we would have the opportunity to qualify well if we hit all our marks … and we did. I still feel like we do a have a good race car and we can be a car to contend with tomorrow.”

Clint Bowyer (Stewart-Haas Racing Ford) will start second, with Denny Hamlin (JGR), Blaney (Team Penske Ford) and Aric Almirola (SHR) rounding out the top five.

Busch, Bowyer and Almirola are three of the eight Playoff drivers competing for the series championship.

Fellow contender Martin Truex Jr. (Furniture Row Racing) will start sixth, Kurt Busch (SHR) seventh and Joey Logano (Penske) 11th.

Kevin Harvick (SHR) and Chase Elliott (Hendrick Motorsports) will start 13th and 21st respectively, among the Playoff teams.

Busch has only started outside the top 10 once in his last nine Martinsville starts. He’s won twice, finished second twice and finished fifth twice in his last six.

Bowyer won here in the spring but admits his qualifying leaves something to be desired.

“Good God, after the way I’ve been qualifying it feels like I’m sitting on four poles,” he said. “We’re on the front row man.”

Maybe he wasn’t fastest Saturday but Bowyer won’t raise a fuss.

“Kyle is really good at laying laps down,” he said of the pole winner’s qualifying effort. “I like the Sunday afternoon drives.”

Graves returning to Roush Fenway

Scott Graves, who earned his first win as a crew chief while working at Roush Fenway Racing in 2012, is returning to the organization following a three-year stint at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Graves will return to RFR in 2019 as crew chief of the No. 6 Ford in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series according to a release from the Concord, N.C.-based racing organization. The group has already announced that Ryan Newman will become the driver of the No. 6 beginning next year.

The 2012 victory, which came in an Xfinity Series race at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International, was notable for a couple of reasons – in addition to being a milestone win for Graves, it was the last Xfinity Series win for former NASCAR racer Carl Edwards.

“Scott is an exceptional talent atop the pit box and he has done an outstanding job throughout his career – with multiple championship campaigns attesting to that,” Jack Roush, founder and co-owner of Roush Fenway Racing, said.

“He brings a strong engineering background to the table and we are excited about the opportunity to pair him with Ryan Newman going into the 2019 season.”

Graves most recently served as crew chief for Daniel Suarez and the No. 19 Toyota at JGR in the Cup Series. He left the position earlier this month.

He began his NASCAR career at RFR in 2006 as an engineer before transitioning into the role of crew chief.

He led driver Chris Buescher to the Xfinity Series championship in 2015 while at Roush, then guided Suarez to the title the following year at JGR.

JGR moved Suarez and Graves up to Cup in ’17, taking over that organization’s No. 19 entry following the sudden departure of Edwards.

In addition to being atop the pit box for Edwards’ final Xfinity win, Graves also was crew chief in ’14 when Buescher won at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, Ohio for his first career victory. Suarez’ first win in the series came with Graves at Michigan in 2016, and Kyle Busch picked up a win at Atlanta in ’17 with Graves calling the shots.

As a Cup crew chief, Graves has 100 starts between two drivers, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (2012-13) and Suarez (2017-18), with five top-five and 21 top-10 finishes.

He has eight wins as an Xfinity Series crew chief, and drivers under Graves’ direction have scored 38 top-five and 65 top-10 finishes.

Graves got his start as crew chief at Roush Fenway with Trevor Bayne at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway in 2012. Bayne won the pole and finished 16th.

The No. 6 entry at RFR has a long history – it was the first fielded by Roush when he became a NASCAR team owner in 1988 and was driven by Mark Martin.

In addition to the No. 6, which has featured Bayne and Matt Kenseth splitting driving chores with Matt Puccia serving as crew chief this season, RFR also fields the No. 17 Ford for Stenhouse Jr., in the Cup Series as well as the Nos. 16 and 60 in the Xfinity Series.