Halfway next time by with return to DIS

Saturday night’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway marks the halfway point in the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season.

Race No. 18 takes teams back to where the season began in February. Only nine races remain in the regular season.

It’s a good time to stop and take stock of what’s transpired thus far.

Talk of the 2019 aero/rules package has often overshadowed the competition on the race track. That’s not unusual. It’s simply more noticeable in today’s social-media driven world.

While the aero changes haven’t been to everyone’s liking, that’s hardly any different from seasons past.

Because there are different packages for different tracks, it’s natural that it would be a topic of discussion as the season progressed.

Overall, it seems to have improved the product on the track. But it’s clear that the platform works better at some tracks, under some conditions (night vs. day races for example), than others.

The number of teams winning races hasn’t changed all that much, only the teams themselves. Three organizations (Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske and Hendrick Motorsports) have produced this year’s race winners – all seven of them.

A year ago? Five organizations, four if you aligned the now-defunct Furniture Row Racing with JGR, which most did, and six different winners.

Who wins first in ‘19, seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson or a team from the Stewart-Haas Racing stable?

The odds would seem to favor SHR, which fields four Cup teams. Drivers Kevin Harvick (8), Clint Bowyer (2) and Aric Almirola (1) combined for 11 victories last season; the organization is 0-for-68 so far in ’19.

 Johnson (Hendrick Motorsports) heads to Daytona trailed by a 76-race winless streak. He did win the season-opening Advance Auto Parts Clash at DIS, a non-points event.

NASCAR’s tougher post-race penalty move hasn’t cost any Cup drivers a win, although two drivers in other series have been disqualified when their entries failed post-race inspection.

Gander Outdoors Truck Series driver Ross Chastain was stripped of the victory at Iowa while Christopher Bell lost his third-place finish in the Xfinity Series race at Chicagoland Speedway.

Single-car qualifying returned in early May after months of issues with the multi-car process. At Auto Club Speedway (Fontana, Calif.) in March, none of the 12 final-round participants completed an official qualifying lap before time expired. In April, officials reduced the time of each qualifying round to five minutes.

Sweeps: Denny Hamlin led a Joe Gibbs Racing/Toyota sweep in the season-opening Daytona 500 as Kyle Busch and Erik Jones finished second and third respectively;

Team Penske finished 1-2 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway with defending series champion Joey Logano winning over teammate Brad Keselowski in a battle of Fords;

Busch and Martin Truex went 1-2 at ISM Raceway in Avondale, Ariz., then reversed their order at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway when Truex scored the victory;

Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet teammates Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman finished 1-2 in the Geico 500 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.

First-time winners: Bowman became the 192nd driver to win a NASCAR Cup Series race with his first career victory June 30 at Chicagoland. It’s the fourth consecutive season the series has seen at least one new Cup winner. Austin Hill (NGOTS) and Michael Annett (Xfinity) earned their first NASCAR series wins as well, both at Daytona in February.

Equally notable: Christopher Bell gave Toyota its first win with the Supra in the Xfinity Series at Atlanta; Keselowski’s victory the same weekend was No. 1 for the Ford Mustang in Cup competition.

Kyle Busch hit a couple of milestones during the first half of the ’19 season – his became the winningest driver in the Truck series when he scored win No. 52 at Atlanta; his Cup victory at Auto Club Speedway (Fontana, Calif.) gave him 200 wins across NASCAR’s three national series (Cup, Xfinity, Truck).

At Talladega, it’s the lure of the unknown

Looking back on an interesting Geico 500 weekend from Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway:

Folks said they didn’t know what to expect when the field took the green flag for Sunday’s Geico 500 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway but when has that not been the case at NASCAR’s biggest track?

Talladega has forever been the “unknown” when it comes to the top series, from the first race there in 1969 (PDA boycott) right up until today.

It’s part of its, well, charm sounds too nice.

There’s always been the danger factor and the speed factor and today the folks down there between Atlanta and Birmingham really push the party factor, too.

As long as the racing fits the bill, party on.

NASCAR has been known to change the rules to fit the situation and the situation was no different this time around. When speeds began to climb on Friday (eight cars were clocked at 202-plus during opening practice), adjustments were made. A one-inch wicker bill was added to a spoiler that was already just three inches shy of a foot tall.

The next time on the track, the cars went even faster. Maybe they were more stable …

What happened?

Well, a good race for one. Which wasn’t or should not have been a surprise. After all, it was Talladega and it’s a rare occasion when the 2.66-mile track offers up a dud. Lead changes and three- and four-wide packs and a few crashes that always seem to occur were the order of the day.

In other words, a typical Talladega race. Competitive, interesting and so different from races contested elsewhere.

The series will return to Talladega in October and chances are folks will arrive once again suggesting they don’t know what to expect.

Don’t listen to them though. They know. After all, it’s Talladega.

Chase Elliott became the season’s sixth different race winner when he captured Sunday’s Geico 500. There’s a playoff spot with his name on it, along with ones for Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. (all of Joe Gibbs Racing) as well as Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano (both of Team Penske).

All six of this year’s race winners were playoff participants a year ago.

Where does career win No. 4 put Elliott? At No. 79 on NASCAR’s all-time win list, along with former racers Bob Flock and Chargin’ Charlie Glotzbach and Bobby Hamilton.

Morgan Shepherd, the 77-year-old who still makes the occasional Xfinity Series start, and Ken Schrader also had four career Cup wins, as did Michael Waltrip and Wood Brothers Racing patriarch Glen Wood.

Elliott is one of four drivers to win four times for Hendrick Motorsports – joining Schrader, Kyle Busch and Ricky Rudd.

There’s a four-driver lineup when it comes to wins while working with crew chief Alan Gustafson as well. Elliott (4), Mark Martin (5), Busch (4)) and Jeff Gordon (11). That’s win No. 24 for Gustafson.

The win was the first for Chevrolet this season; dating back to the 2018 Daytona 500 the automaker has five victories and four belong to Elliott.

After sweeping the top three spots at Daytona, it was something of a surprise to see Toyota teams off the mark at Talladega. Kyle Busch was tops for the manufacturer with his 10th-place finish. Truex Jr., led 11 laps, most for the group. He finished 20th.

Busch and teammate Hamlin combined to lead 67 laps at Daytona, where Hamlin won.

The most obvious difference, aside from the rules package – Joe Gibbs Racing drivers worked closely with Hendrick (Chevrolet) teams at Daytona; at Talladega, Chevrolet organizations were practically under orders to work only with one another.

NASCAR penalized the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing team Tuesday for a violation found during opening-day inspection at Talladega.

According to the official penalty report, body filler was used on the rear deck lid of the Chevrolet. Per the rule book, the deck lid must be used as supplied by the manufacturer.

Crew chief Danny Stockman has been fined $25,000 and car chief Greg Ebert has been suspended for one Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series points race. The team was also docked 10 championship owner and driver points for the L1 infraction.

The only other penalty noted from Talladega – Jeremy Bullins, crew chief for Ryan Blaney, was fined $10,000 for a missing lug nut on the No. 12 Team Penske Ford.

NASCAR officials also noted that Austin Wayne Self, a competitor in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series, has completed the sanctioning body’s Road To Recovery program and his suspension has been lifted.

Driving for his family-owned team, Self finished ninth (Daytona), 27th (Atlanta) and 15th (Las Vegas) this season prior to his suspension for a failed drug test.

A two-day Goodyear tire test scheduled for Tuesday/Wednesday, April 20-May 1 at Chicagoland Speedway, was scuttled due to weather concerns. The test has been rescheduled for May 7-8. Drivers listed to participate are Brad Keselowski (Team Penske No. 2 Ford), Ryan Newman (Roush Fenway Racing No. 6 Ford) and Paul Menard (Wood Brothers Racing No. 21 Ford).

Ford stands ground, calls for series exit

Thursday, April 21, 1966 – After two days of meeting with factory-backed teams, officials with Ford Motor Co., remained steadfast in their decision to pull out of NASCAR due to weight restrictions put in place with the new overhead cam engine. John Cowley and Jacques Passino met with the various parties in Charlotte, N.C. to discuss the company’s stance. NASCAR’s Bill France and USAC competition director Henry Banks approved the SOHC engine in March but stipulated teams using the engine must add 427 pounds to the overall weight of the car.  Ford officials called the additional weight an unfair disadvantage.

According to reports, five of the seven factory Ford drivers agreed to stand behind the boycott. Refusing to go along with the move were Curtis Turner and Junior Johnson

Several Ford drivers were considering a move to drag racing, including Turner, Fred Lorenzen, Dick Hutcherson, Cale Yarborough and Ned Jarrett.

Ford officials discussed several options with the factory-backed teams at the time: releasing the drivers and allowing them to operate as independents while still using Ford equipment; paying drivers for the remainder of the years while withholding parts and equipment going forward; and allowing drivers to compete as independents while allowing various Ford dealers to bear the brunt of the costs.

By the time the annual Southern 500 rolled around, most if not all Ford factory teams had returned to NASCAR competition.

Running the numbers after Richmond

Where to begin? Another win by a Joe Gibbs Racing team?

That’s six in the season’s first nine races as Martin Truex Jr. joins teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin in the win column.

Maybe as NASCAR’s Monster Energy Cup Series heads into its first break, the story isn’t how good JGR has been out of the gate but how others have struggled.

Chevrolet teams are now 0-for-9 and that will continue to be an issue. Saturday’s Toyota Owners 400 marked the first time all season that a Chevrolet driver failed to lead at least one lap. The last time that happened was last fall’s stop at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway).

Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kurt Busch has been the most consistent of Chevy drivers, finishing inside the top 10 on six occasions.

Ford has a stellar lineup but thus far only Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano have struck pay dirt, winning the three races that JGR somehow overlooked.

Stewart-Haas Racing hasn’t been invisible – Kevin Harvick is fourth in points, Clint Bowyer seemed in contention for wins at Bristol and Richmond while Aric Almirola and Daniel Suarez are 11th and 12th in points, respectively. But there’s nothing in the win column yet.

Saturday’s win was No. 20 for Truex, tying him with Speedy Thompson for 41st overall on the NASCAR Cup win list. Thompson’s last victory came at Richmond in 1960.

There are more Richmond tie-ins: Jeremy Mayfield, Carl Edwards and now Truex all won at Richmond with the No. 19. The first of Mayfield’s two victories in the No. 19 (for Evernham Motorsports) came at Richmond in ’04; it was the final race of the “regular” season and catapulted the driver into that year’s Chase.

Truex is the fourth different driver to win a Cup race using the No. 19. The others were John Rostek (Arizona State Fairgrounds in 1960), Mayfield and Edwards.

He is the 10th driver to win a Cup race with JGR, joining Kyle Busch, Tony Stewart, Hamlin, Bobby Labonte, Dale Jarrett, Erik Jones, Matt Kenseth, Logano and Edwards.

Besides being the sixth Cup win for Toyota this year, it was win No. 130 for the automaker since it began fielding Cup teams in ’07. Overall, Toyota now has a combined 468 wins in Cup, Xfinity (154) and the Gander Outdoors Truck Series (184).

Kyle Busch picked up his fifth stage win of ’19 at Richmond and the 25th of his career; Logano won a stage for the fourth time this season. Neither total includes final stage (race) wins. Combined with bonus points for race wins, Busch has already earned 20 playoff points.

On Friday, Harvick ended the run of eight different pole winners to start the season. The SHR driver also started out front at Las Vegas.

Got me to wondering who might be in the midst of longest dry spell when it comes to poles. First thought was Ryan Newman, who won poles frequently earlier in his career and has 51 to his credit.

Now competing for Roush Fenway Racing, Newman’s last pole came in 2013.

That’s not the longest among active drivers though.

Clint Bowyer’s last pole came in 2007. It’s one of two for the SHR racer, it came at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Bowyer went on to win the race.

Noted in the points standings after nine races: The top two in points are unchanged from this time last season – Kyle Busch and Joey Logano. Fourth and fifth are the same as well – Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski. So four of the top five are 2018 all over again. What are the odds of that being the case?

Likewise for Aric Almirola (11th) and Austin Dillon (14th).

Several others in the top 16 are within a position or two of their points position a year ago – Truex and Kurt Busch and Ryan Blaney.

An Xfinity note: Tyler Reddick won the Xfinity championship last year with JR Motorsports and while he hasn’t won a race yet since switching to Richard Childress Racing, Reddick is your points leader through eight races. Says something about the driver and the team.

Christopher Bell (2), Cole Custer (2) and Michael Annett are your series regulars in victory lane so far and they’re second, third and seventh in points.

And along those lines … was reminded last week that the success for Cup teams winning this year shouldn’t come as a surprise since rules packages have slowly made Cup entries more similar to their Xfinity brethren (or so we’ve been told). And which teams have been dominant in Xfinity in recent years?

NASCAR takes a break for the Easter holiday this weekend; next up will be Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway for Cup and Xfinity teams April 27-28. The Truck Series will be back on track at Dover (Del.) International Speedway May 3.


Jarrett, Fords undaunted by rule changes

Sunday, March 22, 1998 – Dale Jarrett’s victory in the TranSouth 400 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway was just the second victory for a Ford team in the season’s first five races, but it came on the heels of a second NASCAR rule change aimed at taking away a perceived aerodynamic advantage the auto maker enjoyed on the race track. Earlier that week, officials had instructed Ford teams to decrease the width of the spoilers on the back of their cars by two inches. Eight of the top 10 finishers at Darlington were Fords.

NASCAR had previously required Ford teams to decrease the height of their spoiler from five inches to 4.75 inches after the auto maker swept nine of the top 10 spots at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

At Darlington, spoilers on Ford entries were decreased from 57 inches wide to 55 inches, the same as that on Chevrolet and Pontiac entries. Ford teams placed five or more teams in the top 10 in all of the season’s first five races.

“We built a good race car and all they’ve (NASCAR) done from the second race on is take stuff away from us,” Jarrett said afterward.

Ford drivers led all 293 laps in the TranSouth Financial 400 at Darlington.

Toyota leading driver development push

It’s a well-known story but it bears repeating when discussing the state of today’s driver development programs in NASCAR.

Kyle Larson was a hot shot racer competing in sprint cars when Toyota officials whisked him away to Chicagoland Speedway in the late 2000s and began introducing him to the automaker’s various Cup Series teams.

There was no push from Toyota toward those organizations to sign the youngster, although it was clear that introductions were made in hopes of kindling interest in the California kid.

No Toyota team bit, and Larson was eventually signed by Chevrolet team owner Chip Ganassi.

Today Larson is seen not only as the one who got away, but as the project/prodigy that kickstarted the Toyota driver development program in NASCAR.

David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development (TRD) USA, called it an “ah-ha moment.”

Larson wasn’t the last driver groomed by Toyota who didn’t stick around. But he clearly has been the most prominent.

Now 26 and still at Ganassi, he has five wins in NASCAR’s Monster Energy Cup Series and is considered a championship contender with the start of each new racing season. He has qualified for the series’ 16-team playoff the last three seasons.

Jack Irving is the director of team and support services for TRD. It’s his job to help locate potential candidates, track driver progress and assist those who have the ability to advance.

“You can’t help but lose Larson and then look around and watch him kick the hell out of you and think ‘Man, we probably should have kept him,’” Irving said.

Jack Irving is the director of team and support services for Toyota Racing Development. (Photo credit – Toyota Racing)

• THE PIPELINE •

Three automakers, Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota, are currently involved in NASCAR and each has its own unique approach to driver development.

Toyota appears to have the most detailed process, with a feeder system that identifies potential candidates as young as, well, there really doesn’t seem to be an age limitation. If you show promise as a racer, chances are someone from Toyota or Toyota Racing Development has noticed you or heard about you and is following your progress at this very moment. You might be 12, you might be 20. You might be aware of their interest or you might not.

Ford officials currently work closely with Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske, two Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series organizations that also field Xfinity Series teams. Talks concerning involvement in lower series are said to be on-going. The auto maker still has a foot in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series as well, through an affiliation with ThorSport Racing.

Chevrolet’s program at this time consists of a relationship with Drivers Edge Development, a platform launched just this year by JR Motorsports and GMS Racing. Six drivers are enrolled in the program and are competing in five series – Late Model, ARCA, K&N, the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series and the NASCAR Xfinity Series.

“Everybody has a different philosophy on where they are with it,” TRD’s Irving said of the various development programs. “I think there are ebbs and flows.

“I think there is this weird, ‘We’re completely out of the box different,’” he said of Toyota’s approach. “We’re not. We’re just doing it now and they did it 15 years ago, 10 years ago.”

Toyota engages with approximately 20 kids on a consistent basis, and many more to a lesser degree. “We probably actively have decent knowledge on a good 100 kids,” he said, noting that number is for pre-teen projects alone.

“The longer we go the more we are learning and the more we’re layering on to the program. I think at this point I feel like we’re in a good spot but we’re still so far away from where we want to be.

“People talk about the program with admiration – we’re years away from being really good at it.”

Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance, said Ford officials are pleased with the progress made in his company’s driver development program for one simple reason.

“Because two years ago we didn’t have one,” he noted.

“Is it to the level that we want it to be? No, absolutely not,” Rushbrook said. “That’s something that we want to continue to be working on.

“We are happy with the balance that we have with Chase (Briscoe) and Cole (Custer) and Austin (Cindric) running in Xfinity. I think that’s going to be a great combination with those three drivers. And as drivers and as teams, I think there will be some collaboration between Stewart-Haas (Racing) and (Team) Penske at the Xfinity level.”

Custer, 21, is in his third full season of Xfinity Series competition with Stewart-Haas Racing. Second in the 2018 standings and a two-time winner in the series, he pilots the No. 00 SHR Ford.

Cindric, 20, finished eighth in points last season driving for Team Penske while Briscoe made a dozen of his 17 starts last year in the No. 60 entry out of Roush Fenway Racing.

Cindric has resumed his duties with Penske for ’19 and Briscoe has landed a ride at SHR as that organization has added a second full-time Xfinity Series entry.

As part of a team building exercise, Ford put the three drivers, along with 24-year-old Ty Majeski, in Mustang GT4 entries at Daytona in January for the Michelin Pilot Challenge race. Rushbrook said the four will likely compete “at the end of the year at Road Atlanta just to continue that team building as well as driver skill building for road course racing.”

It is not yet known just how extensive the Chevrolet involvement will be with the Drivers Edge Development program. In a release announcing the effort, Kelley Earnhardt Miller, JRM general manager, said the program “is going to be critical to the future of the sport and our race team.”

“The fact that you have JRM, GMS and Chevrolet getting this off the ground speaks to that importance,” she said.

JRM is co-owned by Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick and works closely with the Cup Series organization to develop and train talent inside and outside the car.

The six drivers in the Drivers Edge system at this time are Xfinity Series drivers Noah Gragson, John Hunter Nemechek and Zane Smith; Truck Series driver Sheldon Creek; Sam Mayer, who is scheduled for Truck Series, K&N, ARCA and Late Model starts; and Adam Lemke in Late Models.

The Toyota roster is deep and includes associations with numerous teams and drivers at different levels.

“We started developing this network of relationships not just with teams at that (NASCAR) level but with Super Late Models, in ARCA, in K&N, the Venturinis, the McAnallys,” Wilson said. “Kyle Busch Motorsports runs a great Super Late Model program.”

Venturini Motorsports and Bill McAnally Racing provide entry points for racers, particularly those making the transition from dirt to asphalt.

Hailie Deegan, competing for McAnally, won this year’s season-opening NASCAR K&N Pro Series West race at Las Vegas. It was her second career victory in the series – she became the series’ first female winner last year when she won at Meridian (Idaho) Speedway while also competing for McAnally.

A day after the Vegas victory, Deegan, 17, announced a six-race ARCA schedule with Venturini Motorsports in addition to the K&N effort.

DGR-Crosley is another organization that acts as a feeder system for Toyota talent. The group fields entries in a variety of racing series, from Late Model up to the Gander Outdoors Truck Series.

Toyota also uses the program to develop relationships with sponsors. Wilson said companies such as JBL, Safelite and Exxon Mobile, “were interested in grassroots racing as well.

“The perception that we are behind the scenes stroking checks and pulling strings is not accurate,” Wilson said. “We couldn’t do this without these B-to-B (business to business) partnerships that we have developed.”

• NO GUARANTEES •

A driver development program can be a fickle endeavor. Not only is it extremely costly and time consuming to operate, but there is no guarantee of a return for the time, effort and finances invested.

Even the best-case scenario, that can’t-miss prospects are found and developed at each level, carries certain risks.

What happens when that talent is ready to advance and there isn’t a seat available? What happens if after putting all that effort into developing a driver, he or she decides to sign with another manufacturer? How many development drivers are too many? How few are too few?

Rushbrook said it’s “a balance we need to strike” when considering numbers.

“The way we’ve approached it is … from top down,” he said. “We want to make sure we have drivers at the Xfinity level to have that opportunity, so they are ready to come into Cup when there’s an opportunity.

“Then the question is when do we extend below that so that we’re reaching into ARCA and K&N?”

The addition of ThorSport for 2018 kept Ford’s presence in the Truck Series, filling a gap created when Brad Keselowski Racing closed its doors at the end of the ’17 season. While the organization has a pair of veterans in former series champions Matt Crafton and the just-returned Johnny Sauter, it also fields an entry for 22-year-old Ben Rhodes.

Myatt Snider, 24, won the series rookie of the year title last season while racing for ThorSport and is slated for a partial schedule this year.

“We’ve had a lot of discussions,” Rushbrook said. “We like a lot of the teams that are running Ford at those different series … it’s just a matter of, when do we formally engage with them so that we’ve got drivers signed at that level to come up through into the Truck and Xfinity (level)?”

The loss of a driver is a risk but some say there still are positives that come from the experience.

“I don’t think there is a huge negative between us if it hasn’t worked for whatever reason,” TRD’s Irving said. “But I think our goal was pure from the minute that we started. It was just to make it better for the kids and better for the sport.

“Ultimately, if they win races and they’re in a Toyotas, great. If they win races and they’re in somebody else’s well, at least we helped.

“One of the things we were told from the start was that drivers break your heart so there’s no point in developing drivers and I completely disagree with that.

“At some point, whoever did develop Jeff Gordon did a great job for the sport. It doesn’t matter that they didn’t end up with you. It doesn’t matter that Kasey Kahne didn’t end up with you. It’s going to suck if William Byron wins Cup races, but it was great that we were with him the year we were with him. And hopefully his view on us is as positive as our view is on him. And if we’ve done our job then I think it will be.”

Gordon, the four-time Cup champion and 2019 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee, competed for Bill Davis Racing, a Ford team at the time, in the Xfinity Series in 1991-92. But by the end of the ’92 season he had moved to Hendrick Motorsports, a Chevrolet organization, to begin his Cup career.

Kahne’s story is similar – in 2002 he competed for Robert Yates Racing and in ’03 Akins Motorsports, both Ford organizations, in the Xfinity Series. When he made the move to Cup the following year, however, it was with Evernham Motorsports, one of a handful of organizations helping to bring Dodge back to NASCAR.

Byron is the one of the most recent notables to jump ship – after winning seven times for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series in 2016, Byron moved to JR Motorsports the following year where he won the Xfinity Series title. He was moved up to Cup in ’18, where he took over the No. 24 previously driven by Gordon at HMS.

• WHAT’S NEXT? •

“One thing that they’ve been really good at is every step along the way, they’ve told me I’m going to get X, and then I get X plus five, or whatever that number is,” said Christopher Bell.

Bell is in his second full season of Xfinity Series competition with Joe Gibbs Racing. He won the Gander Outdoors Truck Series title in 2017 competing for Kyle Busch Motorsports, then won seven times in NXS competition last year driving the No. 20 Toyota for JGR.

“When we first did our deal in 2015, (Toyota officials) said ‘OK, we’re going Late Model racing’ and they gave me a schedule of 20 Late Model races,” Bell recalled. “And then the next thing you know, mid-June they’re like ‘Hey, you want to go Truck racing?’ So I ended up getting 20 Late Model races and then I think five Truck races.”

Actually, he ran seven Truck races that year. And the same thing happened after he moved into the Truck series fulltime. “Come mid-March or mid-April,” he said, “they’re like, ‘Oh hey, by the way, we got you a couple of Xfinity races.’

“They’ve always done more than what that told me and that’s something I’m thankful for.”

Bell is just one driver who likely will be looking to take that next step up to Cup in 2020.

Custer is in his third full season in the Xfinity Series; Tyler Reddick won the Xfinity title in ’18; Cindric and Brandon Jones have multiple years in the series. Are any of them ready to move up? Will there be seats available if they do?

Not everything is working in their favor.

Today’s Cup fields are smaller – in 2016 the size of the starting field was cut from 43 to 40 at each of the 36 points races. That means fewer seats are available today as the overall number of teams has dropped. The number of teams with charters, guaranteeing them spots in the starting lineup each week, has remained at 36 but the number of teams competing for those four open spots has fluctuated. Starting fields of fewer than 40 cars is no longer uncommon.

Also, the average age of the drivers in those starting lineups is younger. In 1998 the average age of the starting field for the Daytona 500 was 38. Ten years later it was 32. Fewer drivers are closer to retirement and that also means fewer seats are coming open.

“What would be great, honestly what would be awesome,” Irving said, “I would love nothing more than to have that competition (for talent). That at some point if I miss (on a prospect), then they’re taking them. I think that would be fascinating. It would be our program racing their program and trying to develop the best talent. I would love that. That would be the best thing for the sport, the best thing for us competitively.

“I do think we will get to that point.”