Catching up before an All-Star weekend

The most telling quote from the recently-returned Matt Kenseth after last Saturday night’s KC Masterpiece race at Kansas Speedway was the following:

“The good news is it’s got to get better.”

Kenseth has been brought in to trouble-shoot at Roush Fenway Racing, where he spent the bulk of his NASCAR career.

Given the initial results – the car didn’t make it through pre-qualifying inspection in time to post a qualifying lap; Kenseth finished 36th after the No. 6 Ford was swept up in a late-race crash and had often been a lap down – it seems there’s a good bit of labor ahead for the two-team organization.

Tedious work and incremental gains may eventually lead to improved performance. But it’s a slow, slow process.

Owners will tell you that competitive shortcomings aren’t corrected overnight – the go-to analogy is that it’s akin to turning around an ocean liner.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the organization’s race shop, Ricky Stenhouse led 10 laps and finished 11th at Kansas in the No. 17 RFR entry,

Kenseth is slated for six more starts in points events as well as this weekend’s Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Trevor Bayne is scheduled to return to the driver’s seat for the June 3 Pocono 400.

NASCAR officials say the crash at Talladega Superspeedway that saw the No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet of Jamie McMurray go airborne was a result of “ramping” and do not anticipate changes going forward.

McMurray, 41, was not injured when his car came up off the racing surface, was struck by Ryan Newman and flipped several times. The incident occurred during practice for the Geico 500.

McMurray’s entry turned sideways when a left-rear tire went down; as the car came up off the racing surface, the roof flaps deployed but the car was struck in the side, forcing it up into the air.

NASCAR has three categories for such incidents: pure liftoff, ramping and punting. Pure liftoff is when a car spins by itself and lifts off the track without contact from another car. Ramping is when one car runs across or is forced across another vehicle; punting is when a car is struck from behind by another vehicle and lifts off the track.

“There are so many combinations of (ramping and punting),” Gene Stefanyshyn, NASCAR Vice President of Innovation and Racing Development, said. “From what we can see, he (McMurray) ‘ramped’ on Newman and just started to roll. … the nice thing about it is he got out and walked away.”

Keeping the cars grounded has been an on-going project for NASCAR’s safety group. Almost two years ago, changes were put in place after Matt Kenseth’s No. 19 Toyota became airborne. That resulted in changes which increased the lift-off speed (necessary for a car to become airborne by itself) by 30 mph.

“We didn’t like that (Kenseth incident) so we went to work and came up with a package, we took it to Daytona with five cars, tried it, asked the drivers ‘any difference? Are you seeing anything?’ Stefanyshyn said.

“And all the drivers said ‘Hey, no handling problems … everything is fine. In fact, it feels a bit better.’

“We did see the speeds go up a bit. but when we went to the (wind) tunnel … we improved the liftoff by somewhere around 30 mph. When we could liftoff before at say 185, we put like 30 on top of that … so you’d have to go over 215 to lift off (unassisted).”

Another thing that is helping protect drivers in such instances is the enhanced vehicle chassis, mandatory on the series’ superspeedways (Daytona and Talladega) this season and all tracks by 2019.

“That car compared to what happened to Austin Dillon in 2015 where he went up into the fence (at Daytona) and came down and his floor was coming out and all that – McMurray’s car was in pretty good shape, did a pretty good job” Stefanyshyn said.

“So, we feel comfortable with that package we’re rolling out; that will really help.”

The number of teams penalized for back glass (support and structure) infractions increased by one this week with the penalty dropped on the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing team with driver Kyle Larson.

That’s five through the first third of the season.

Good thing those sort of “incidents” don’t provide a competitive advantage or else everyone would be trying it.

Of Hershel and Harvick

Hershel McGriff competed in one of two NASCAR K&N Pro Series West races this past Saturday at Tucson (Ariz.) Speedway and that’s notable for a number of reasons, which I’ll get to in just a moment.

McGriff finished 18th in an 18-car field, four laps behind race winner Kody Vanderwal. He drove a car (No. 04 Toyota) provided by long-time west coast team owner Bill McAnally with sponsorship from South Point Hotel & Casino.

He competed in only the opening 100-lap feature, the first of two Port of Tucson Twin 100 races held at the .375-mile track Saturday night. it was his first start in the series since 2012.

Vanderwal is 17. He lapped nine other drivers in addition to McGriff in the opening race. Vanderwal won the second 100-lap race, too.

Seventeen-year-olds often have more energy than they have good sense.

McGriff, on the other hand, is 90 years old.

He competed in the very first Southern 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway.

The very first Southern 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway was held in 1950.

It was the first NASCAR race ever contested on a paved “superspeedway.”

It featured a field of 75 cars.

McGriff is a four-time winner in NASCAR’s premier series, winning all four races during the 1954 season.

He didn’t beat creampuffs. His first win, at By Meadows Speedway in San Mateo, Calif., came against the likes of Lee Petty, Buck Baker, Herb Thomas.

Guys that are currently in the NASCAR Hall of Fame in other words.

He won at Macon Ga., he won at the half-mile dirt track at Charlotte, and he won at North Wilkesboro.

He beat Baker, Thomas, Marvin Panch, Ned Jarrett, Cotton Owens in those races, too.

During pre-race ceremonies Saturday at Tucson, McGriff also played the national anthem. On his trombone.

Give ‘em hell, Hershel.

NBCSN will air the Port of Tucson Twin 100s at 6 p.m. ET on Wed., May 9 (Twin No. 1) and Thur., May 10 (Twin No. 2).

For the sixth time in his career, Kevin Harvick has won at least four NASCAR Cup Series races during a single season. With 25 races remaining on the 2018 schedule, the Stewart-Haas Racing driver has an opportunity to establish a career-best in single season race wins.

Sunday’s victory in the AAA at Dover gave the 42-year-old his fourth win less than one-third of the way through the season.

Earlier this year, he put his No. 4 SHR Ford in victory lane at Atlanta, Las Vegas and Phoenix.

Harvick, the 2014 series champ, has won five races during a season twice. In 2006 he won one of the first 11 (Phoenix), added Watkins Glen and Richmond during the regular season and then New Hampshire and Phoenix in the playoffs.

He won twice in the first 11 races of 2014 (Phoenix and Darlington) then didn’t win again until the playoffs when he won the last two of the season and three of the final six.

He won four races each year in 2011, ’13 and 16.

Pocono Raceway and Kentucky Speedway remain the only two venues where the Bakersfield, Calif. native has yet to score a Cup victory.

Both Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman lost car chiefs Sunday at Dover for failing pre-race inspection three times.

How much of a role does a car chief have once the car has gone through inspection and been pushed out to the grid? I would imagine it depends on the team – some car chiefs probably have bigger race-day roles than others.

Did the loss of car chiefs David Bryan (Larson) and Austin Konetski (Bowman) impact those teams on Sunday?

Larson scratched out a 10th-place finish after losing his No. 1 starting spot because of the infraction and the resulting penalty (starting from the rear of the field).

Bowman also gave up his qualifying spot (15th) to drop to the back of the field; he finished 23rd but did lead 26 laps for the second consecutive race. His No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet was the only Chevrolet to lead a lap Sunday at Dover.

The margin of victory for the Camping World Truck Series race at Dover was .533 second; for the XFINITY Series race it was .306 second. Skin of the teeth stuff.

For Sunday’s Cup race, it was 7.450 seconds. That’s the second largest margin for the series this year – the MOV at Auto Club was 11.685 seconds.

On the whole, though, the winning margin has been less than one second almost 50 percent of the time this season.

Wild and a bit weird at Talladega

TALLADEGA, Ala. – The racing didn’t disappoint but it did surprise – there was no four-wide land rush from the lead pack as the cars shot out of the fourth turn on the final lap of the GEICO 500 Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway.

Joey Logano, flying the Shell colors on his No. 22 Ford for team owner Roger Penske, held off fellow Ford driver Kurt Busch (Stewart-Haas Racing) for his 19th career win. Chase Elliott (No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports) was third, the lone Chevrolet interloper in a top five that also included Kevin Harvick (SHR) and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (Roush Fenway Racing Ford).

There were numerous mentions of how difficult the cars were to drive as NASCAR brought its’ Monster Energy Cup Series to its longest track for the first of two times this year.

We’ve heard drivers say the cars NEED to be hard to drive so often in recent years that it was surprising to hear it turned the other way.

“I think the cars are a handful to drive and I think that is why we have seen a lot of single file racing just because everybody’s confidence in their cars isn’t as high as it has been in the past,” Kyle Larson, involved in a lap-72 incident, said. “Less big moves …”

Erik Jones, also involved in the opening accident, described driving the cars here as “really challenging” and said “I think that’s why you’re not seeing a ton of racing early on.”

There were enough saves and close calls and unfortunately too-close calls that resulted in pileups of six and 14 cars to satisfy those who come to Talladega each year in search of such things. It was more than typical in that regard.

But the final five laps saw only minimal movement from those up front, whether because of the difficulty of the driving the cars or the uncertainty of what they might do. Logano, a winner for the first time since Richmond’s spring race of ’17, led the final 42 laps.

Elliott noted that the Ford brethren “were being awfully patient with one another” in the waning laps.

“I was very surprised,” the youngster said. “I mean, it was more than obvious that they were not going to help me move forward.”

The degree of difficulty behind the wheel, he said, “scared some people off from running three-wide and four-wide. That was interesting.”

Busch, the runner-up, said he believes wider spoilers, those that extended “out to the edge of the fender,” would help stabilize the cars and help with side drafting.”

Changes in the ride height rule package “totally changed speedway racing for us,” Todd Gordon, Logano’s crew chief, said.

Now, it’s a matter of being able to balance “speed and handling.”

How fast do you want to go and how comfortable do you want to be when going that fast?

“With this new package,” Gordon noted, “you could get yourself where you couldn’t handle.”

Seems that wasn’t a problem for his driver, though.

“The moves you make can’t be as aggressive,” Logano admitted, “but it’s the same for the guy behind you, right?”

You can’t ‘rule’ out the danger at Talladega

What are we trying to accomplish here?

NASCAR officials announced a change in the size of the restrictor plate at Talladega Superspeedway Friday after Jamie McMurray’s No. 1 Chevrolet barrel-rolled down the backstretch.

McMurray wasn’t injured. Neither was Ryan Newman, whose No. 31 Chevrolet struck McMurray’s car when it turned sideways in front of the Richard Childress driver.

Ty Dillon (No. 13 Chevrolet) and Daniel Suarez (No. 19 Toyota) were also unhurt. Their two cars made contact during the same incident with Dillon getting into the outside wall.

McMurray’s car “got airborne.” NASCAR reacted, announcing a reduction in the size of the plate, which restricts airflow into the engine, from 7/8ths of an inch to 55/64ths of an inch. The move will be in place for qualifying, scheduled for Saturday, as well as Sunday’s GEICO 500 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race.

Speeds during the second practice had reached 204 mph.

The change in the size of the plate will slow the cars by as little as two mph or as much as five, depending on who you ask.

Here’s a news flash: they’ve crashed at much slower speeds here. Got up in the fence, too.

In 2009, the winning pole speed for the spring race was 188 mph and change. The race included two multi-car incidents that featured 10 or more cars in each. And a last-lap crash that saw Carl Edwards’ car get up in the fence, parts fly into the grandstands and fans injured.

Friday’s move will slow the cars but there is no guarantee that it will keep them on the track if they make contact under certain circumstances.

Those circumstances occurred Friday. Again.

They’re just as likely to occur again.

You can’t remove the chance of that taking place until you slow the cars to the point that it becomes physically impossible for it to occur.

At that point, vehicles will be running faster out on I-20, the interstate that fronts the 2.66-mile track.

Is the answer then to do nothing? Don’t change the size of the plates, just turn everyone loose and hope for the best?

Obviously, that’s not the answer either.

Fans enjoy racing at Talladega and Daytona because of the speed and the close, tight-quarters racing that unfolds out on the track. You don’t get that anywhere else in the series. Some places have the speed but not the close packs of cars. Others have the cars a bit closer, but not the speed.

At Talladega, it comes with a bit of danger. It comes with risk. It always has and always will.

How much danger are you comfortable with, how much risk is OK?

Maybe there is no answer.

Talladega and when speed used to matter

TALLADEGA, Ala. – It used to be a huge deal to qualify on the pole at Talladega Superspeedway, NASCAR’s longest and at one time fastest track. I don’t know if that’s still the case. Maybe …

I’m sure it’s important because of the pit stall selection and all that but it used to be about speed, pure and raw, and I don’t think that’s the case today.

Pit road was where you got gas and tires after somebody else wrecked and where you started and stopped there didn’t really matter all that much.

(You also came down pit road at a ridiculously fast speed but that’s a whole other story)

It was about building the sleekest, smoothest, fastest car and wringing the most horsepower out of your engine and seeing those big, eye-popping numbers flash up on the scoreboard and hearing the collective reaction/roar of the crowd. Goosebumps.

Bragging rights in the garage. That sort of thing. The folks that built the motors and those who massaged the cars walked around with their chests stuck out just a bit and for good reason.

Bill Elliott went 212.809 mph here in 1987 and that was the fastest anyone ever got from point A to point B on this 2.66-mile monstrosity. By the end of the first day’s qualifying, 37 of 41 drivers had posted laps in excess of 200 mph. Thirty-five had run their fastest laps ever.

Elliott, Georgia born and bred and a local favorite, had gone faster in testing, 214.206 mph under cooler conditions but that was “unofficial” and the 212.809 mark remains the record.

They used to trick the cars up and we’re not just talking about bending a rule or two. Spoiler rules weren’t rigid – seven years or so before Elliott’s run, Dave Marcis shot to the top spot in part by running without a spoiler on the rear of his Harry Hyde-tuned Dodge. His pole winning speed was 189.197 mph.

Imagine what that must have felt like.

They’d paint the car in silicone to help it slip through the air, that sort of thing.

It’s a bit different today – qualifying (scheduled for Saturday) is still about having a fast car but come Sunday single-car speed isn’t nearly as important. Hook up with the right fellow driver, choose the right line, make the smarter moves and you don’t have to have the fastest car to wind up in victory lane.

It used to be about speed here and nothing else really mattered.

Kenseth, sponsor news for Roush-Fenway

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The re-hiring of Matt Kenseth by Roush-Fenway Racing wasn’t dependent upon obtaining sponsorship from Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, according to one RFR official.

The two announcements were made jointly, however, Wednesday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Kenseth, the 2003 NASCAR premier series champion who was released at the end of 2017 by Joe Gibbs Racing is returning to RFR, where he began his NASCAR career nearly two decades ago.

Wyndham comes aboard to push its Wyndham Rewards program on the race track.

With work on 2019 budgets likely already under way for most folks, where did RFR get the money to hire the 39-race winner for much of the ’18 season?

“Jack does not do this for the money,” Steve Newmark said of team founder and co-owner Jack Roush. “Jack’s assessment is ‘What do we need to do win? What do we need to do to get better?’ The Red Sox and John Henry share that mentality.”

John Henry being owner of the Boston Red Sox and head of Fenway Sports Group.

Newmark, president of Roush-Fenway, said management within the NASCAR organization “constantly sitting down, trying to figure out how to get better.

“Budget obviously matters; it probably matters a lot to me as you’re running the business and trying to take care of a lot of the people who work for us.

“That was not a key consideration although it is wonderful to also bring on a new sponsor to this sport …. to us that’s a really big part of this whole deal, bringing Wyndham into the sport.”

Kenseth’s return to the organization was going to happen, Newmark said, with or without the Wyndham sponsorship. And Wyndham’s sponsorship wasn’t tied to Kenseth being in the car.

“They were not contingent upon each other,” he said. “It’s hard to predict but we would have brought Matt in regardless and it’s our hope that we would have brought Wyndham on regardless.”

Primary sponsor AdvoCare was on the No. 6 for 18 races last season and six of this season’s nine races. The company has been the primary since Bayne joined RFR in ‘15

Newmark said there has been no restructuring of Trevor Bayne’s contract. Bayne, the former Daytona 500 winner, is the current driver of the No. 6 Ford for RFR.

Kenseth, 46, left RFR at the end of 2012 with a championship and 24 victories; he joined JGR, won 15 more races and finished second in the points battle in ’13. He won once, at Phoenix, last season before his release.

Bayne is 27 and has been with Roush-Fenway since 2015; he has four top-five finishes in 117 starts with the group. His Daytona 500 win came with Wood Brothers Racing in 2011.

Putting Richmond to rest on a Monday

Kyle Busch joined Kevin Harvick as a winner of three consecutive Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races this season with his victory Saturday night at Richmond (Va.) Raceway, now having won at Texas (1.5-mile), Bristol (.533-mile) and Richmond (.75-mile).

Five different winners in nine races isn’t bad, but when two of the five have won six of the nine, well …

Someone asked me Sunday who won the Richmond race and when I told them Kyle Busch their response was, “I bet folks are getting tired of him winning all the races.”

No more so than when Harvick won three straight earlier this year, I said. Imagine when Richard Petty won 10 in a row (in ’67) …

It didn’t hurt that while Busch had to start 32nd, the first half of the season’s ninth race ran caution free, stopped only briefly for the end of the first two stages at laps 100 and 200. Then, of course, all hell seemed to break loose in the second half with four yellow flags inside the final 50 laps. …

A two-lap shootout at the end between Busch (Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 Toyota) and Martin Truex Jr. (No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota) would have been interesting. Had it not been for that problem with the jack during the No. 78’s pit stop …

Busch now has 46 career Cup wins, the same as NASCAR Hall of Fame member Buck Baker. Every driver in front of Busch in career victories is in the Hall of Fame with the exception of Jeff Gordon, who is on this year’s ballot for ’19 inductees, Jimmie Johnson (still active) and Tony Stewart (eligible for 2020 class).

The voting and announcement for the 2019 class is scheduled for May 23, by the way …

Chase Elliott finished second and now has been a runner-up eight times in his Cup career without a victory, the same number posted by his father before Bill Elliott scored his first win. The elder Elliott’s breakthrough came at Riverside (Calif.) Raceway in 1983 …

Joey Logano (fourth) earned his first two stage wins of 2018 at Richmond; all three Team Penske drivers now have at least one stage win, and the points bonus that comes with it. Busch and Denny Hamlin (JGR), Harvick and Kurt Busch (Stewart-Haas Racing) and Truex also have picked up stage wins this year. Logano was one of a few drivers who appeared to have excellent long-run cars at Richmond. Toss Aric Almirola (SHR) into that group as well …

• Surprising that not a single lap at Richmond was led by a Chevrolet driver. Even more surprising? It’s the third time this season that’s happened.

There are five Chevrolet drivers in the top 16 in points after Richmond, led by Kyle Larson in 10th …

• Looking ahead: Goodyear’s rescheduled tire test for Michigan International Speedway is set for Tuesday and Wednesday (April 24-25). Scheduled to participate in the test are Truex, Alex Bowman (Hendrick Motorsports), Austin Dillon (Richard Childress Racing), Keselowski (Penske) and Almirola.

Mustang to replace Fusion in Cup for ‘19

The Ford Mustang will replace the Fusion in NASCAR’s Cup series beginning next season, a move that’s been expected but unofficial. Until Tuesday.

The automaker announced the move via press release Tuesday morning; by mid-afternoon Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance, was answering media inquiries by phone while in Europe.

“We’re excited about going to that nameplate specifically because it’s very much Ford,” Rushbrook said. “When people hear Mustang they automatically think of Ford. It’s a big nameplate for us.”

It’s the fourth model change in NASCAR’s premier series for the company since 1998 when the move was made from the Thunderbird to the Taurus. The Fusion debuted in ’06, replacing the Taurus and last went through an upgrade in ’16.

Ford teams currently compete with the Mustang body style in NASCAR’s XFINITY Series.

According to Rushbrook, NASCAR organizations Roush Fenway Racing, Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing are working with Ford officials on the development of the Mustang race entry.

“They’re anxious to get the best car that they can on track in 2019, so they’ve been very active with us from the beginning of this program,” he said.

Ford teams have won four of this year’s first eight races; a year ago they matched Chevrolet with 10 wins each by season’s end.

Toyota, the most recent addition to the automaker battle, has led with 16 wins in 2016 and ’17. That company utilizes the Camry for its NASCAR efforts.

On the championship front, the last time a Ford team won the NASCAR Cup title was in 2004.

Rushbrook said the submission of the new car will be made to NASCAR, as required, in June.

“Then depending on how things go with that initial test, that will lay out the rest of our timeline in terms of the tools to build the 2019 bodies and when we’re going to do our official unveiling of the final product and everything like that,” he said.

Chevrolet teams unveiled a new model this season when the automaker replaced the phased-out SS with the Chevrolet Camaro.

Richard Childress Racing driver Austin Dillon won the season-opening Daytona 500, but on the whole, Chevy teams have struggled to dial in the new entry.

“We know where the current Fusion is strong and we’re going to maintain those strengths,” Rushbrook said. “We know where its weak and we want to address those weaknesses, so it’s really having the trust in our people and in our tools that we can do that.”

A Busch win or Larson loss?

BRISTOL, Tenn. – It’s never easy to beat Kyle Busch at Bristol, but was Monday’s rain-delayed Food City 500 a Busch victory or a Kyle Larson loss?

Taking nothing away from Busch, the driver of the No. 18 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing here. He scored his 45th career victory and seventh at Bristol Motor Speedway, passing Larson just six laps from the finish.

It wasn’t a win that was handed to him in any manner. Busch was fast, and fortunate, and ended up in victory lane.

A bit of a nudge and a lead change in the closing laps for Larson, and the next thing you know the Chip Ganassi driver exits still with five wins and now with 16 runner-up finishes.

For someone who led twice as many laps as the next guy, that’s probably a tough one to swallow. Larson seemed to be the only driver able to pull away from the field Monday.

“I was just checked out on that long run” he said afterward.

But at the end …

“Not sure if the track changed a lot there or what,” he said, “but I lost the balance on the car.”

On Friday he was asked about previous races at Bristol and his inability to close the deal. It’s been, he said, his fault here at the fast, high-banked half-mile track.

“As the track changes I think I have to get a little bit smarter in how I communicate on what changes I think need to be done to the car to keep turned the corner good and having good grip,” he explained. “So, yeah, I would say it’s more on me … I don’t know why I have seemed to struggle, but it seems like everybody else just becomes a little bit better than I do the second half of the race, so maybe this weekend will be different.”

No one was better than Larson over the long run on Monday.

But in a race that took two days to complete due to rain and included 13 caution periods, long runs were about as scarce as blue skies and sunshine.

Jimmie Johnson finished third for his first top-five finish of the season and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman was fifth and that’s a step in the right direction for the four-team organization (William Byron was 18th and Chase Elliott 29th) that hasn’t had anything to brag about this year.

Likewise, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. who finished fourth, ran strong much of the day Monday and that’s a boost for the Roush Fenway Racing camp. BMS has been one of his better tracks but it’s still a chore to run well here even when that’s the case so perhaps that bodes well for the No. 17 team going forward.

The problem with NASCAR-issued pit guns persists and it sounds as if that’s a situation that will be addressed when owners and officials meet later this week.

“NASCAR has been very good about working with us, and when we come up against a problem, we’ve been good about working hard to solve it,” Joe Gibbs, owner of the four-team Joe Gibbs Racing organization, said during his team’s post-race winner’s interview.

“I think we have a number of meetings this week with NASCAR, and I think we’ll be working on this and hopefully working towards a solution.”

Issues with the guns cost JGR driver Denny Hamlin the lead – the driver of the No. 11 Toyota was forced to pit road shortly after a restart to correct a loose wheel.

This is the first season NASCAR has required teams use pit guns supplied by an outside vendor and issued by the sanctioning body prior to each race. The move was made as a cost-cutting measure and at the behest of the ownership council.

Darrell Wallace finished 16th and if that’s all you know about the Richard Petty Motorsports driver’s day Monday at Bristol, you’re missing quite a bit.

Wallace ran in the top 10 for a good portion of the race. More impressively, he drove his way from sixth for first after a restart on lap 366.

It was the first time the No. 43 had been out front since the 2017 Daytona 500 with Aric Almirola.

“I was as surprised as anybody,” Wallace said. “… We were really good and that last caution came out and we were struggling with left front problems there late in runs, locking up easily, but still was able to make decent ground. Then all of a sudden it went away there and man, just blindsided there by that.”

Busch to backup and fleet Front Row

BRISTOL, Tenn. – Kurt Busch will join Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick at the rear of the field Sunday when the Food City 500 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race is scheduled to begin.

Busch, a five-time winner at Bristol Motor Speedway and second-fastest during Friday’s qualifying, spun and damaged his No. 14 Ford with less than five minutes remaining in Saturday’s final practice.

The damage was severe enough to warrant bringing out the team’s backup entry, thus forcing Busch to give up his front-row starting spot and move to the rear of the 39-car field.

“I had 45 laps on the tires and was trying to get to 50,” Busch said. “The setup changes dramatically with air-pressure builds and the VHT changing, so I was just trying to do as much research as I could.

“The lap times were really good in the car and then, boom, there’s just no forgiveness right now with how many variables there are.”

Busch had posted the fourth-best time in the session and had completed 69 laps.

Harvick hit the wall Friday during practice and the team chose to roll out the backup No. 4 Ford and prep it for Saturday practice instead of attempting to rush it into action for qualifying. He was 16th and 24th, respectively, in Saturday’s two practices at the 0.533-mile track.

Front Row Motorsports drivers Michael McDowell and David Ragan continued to log impressive laps Saturday at BMS. Ragan led the final practice while McDowell was fifth.

McDowell qualified ninth Friday, Ragan 23rd.

“Everybody knew coming in here that Bristol has been a really good track in the past for (Front Row),” McDowell said. “… They’ve had good speed in race trim and qualifying trim, so it’s been a really solid weekend.”

McDowell is the newcomer at FRR, joining the organization after being released by Leavine Family Racing at the end of 2017.

“He works really hard off the race track studying and really understanding what the cars and the track are going to do so he can make better educated decisions,” Ragan said of his teammate. “That only pushes me to be better and I think on the race track he’s real aggressive.

“We have a little different driving style, so it is unique to look at his information and look at ours, and then along with the Roush Fenway team, we can critique ourselves.”

Front Row has a technical alliance with the two-team Roush Fenway Racing organization.

NASCAR officials announced the start of Sunday’s race would begin at approximately 1 p.m. due to the likelihood of rain in the region (NOAA.org lists chance of precip at 100 percent for race day).

The race was originally scheduled to begin shortly after 2 p.m.

Ryan Preece won Saturday’s Fitzgerald Glider Kits 300 at BMS and the $100,000 bonus as the opening race of the four-race Dash 4 Cash program.

Preece, driving the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 Toyota is chasing points in the XFINITY Series but isn’t running the entire schedule. His next start is scheduled for Daytona in July.