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.

Early exit for Busch in NHRA debut

Sunday, March 14, 2010 – Kurt Busch, the 2004 NASCAR Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion, makes his NHRA drag racing debut, competing in the Super Gas division at the Gator Nationals in Gainesville, Fla. Busch fell in the first round of eliminations when his 1970 Dodge Challenger stumbled off the starting line. He was beaten by Wes Neely. The drag racing effort came during an off-weekend for NASCAR’s Cup Series.

A year after his drag racing debut, Busch returned to Gainesville and the Gator Nationals, this time to compete in Pro Stock. He qualified his yellow, Shell-sponsored Dodge 12th in the 16-car field but once again suffered a first-round defeat, this time to Erica Enders. Busch made a respectable 6.541-second pass in his first Pro elimination effort but Enders, who had a better reaction time off the starting line, posted a winning time of 6.538 seconds.

• Busch has been quite the crossover competitor during his racing career. Not only did he compete in NHRA drag racing, in 2014 he became the fourth NASCAR driver to compete in the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day. John Andretti, Tony Stewart and Robby Gordon had previously accomplished the double-duty feat. Busch finished an impressive sixth at Indy.

Gong Show put Busch on fast track

“That was my big break,” says Kurt Busch and he’s taking about the “Gong Show,” a system used by NASCAR team owner Jack Roush to identify potential talent for his Truck Series program.

The year was 1999 and Roush was one of a handful of NASCAR owners who fielded teams in all three of NASCAR’s national series – today known as Monster Energy Cup, Xfinity and the Gander Outdoors Truck Series.

Such a system wasn’t new to Roush – he’d used something similar to help identify candidates for his Trans-Am team as far back as the mid-1980s.

The process was one of many routes taken by teams and drivers through the years as owners looked for the next contender while drivers attempted to break out of the local level and make the jump into NASCAR.

Those routes have been as different as the personalities of the drivers themselves.

There has never been a “how-to” manual.

In 1958, Richard Petty was a second-generation racer who only went racing after turning 21 and getting the blessing of his father to follow in his footsteps. The younger Petty went from crewman to driver overnight.

Years later, Ernie Irvan moved east from California, raced Late Models in the Carolinas and worked as a welder to support himself while trying to break into NASCAR.

Midwestern short-track standouts such as Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace and Alan Kulwicki moved South with little money and no guarantees. Some made it, but only after toiling away with lesser teams in lesser equipment.

Some returned home only to eventually try again. Some went home and simply never returned.

Today, Busch drivers the No. 1 Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing. He’s a former series champion and has won races at Roush Fenway Racing, Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing.

In the late ‘90s, Busch was extremely competitive in the Southwest Series and his success caught the eye of Roush officials.

But to earn a spot driving one of the organization’s Fords in the Truck Series, Busch had to beat out other competitors in two rounds of a driver combine at two different tracks.

The first stop was Toledo (Ohio) Speedway, a half-mile asphalt oval.

“When I got there and looked around, it was ‘This guy’s the top Northwest (Series) guy; I’m the top Southwest Series guy; Robert Huffman, the Goody’s Dash series champion …,” Busch said. There were others as well, most from the west coast, at least one from the Modified ranks.

Each driver got a set of tires for a one-hour practice session, followed by a fresh set of tires and a 50-lap solo run.

“It was random pill draw for who went first; then they would put the truck back to their baseline setup for each person,” Busch said. “In the interim there were interviews, how you interacted with the crew, how you jumped in and just fit in with all of it. They watched every move.

“That day at Toledo, I almost wrecked the truck on lap 1; I didn’t know Trucks had that much horsepower.

“At the end of my 50 laps, I had the fastest lap, but I burned off the tires the quickest. I was lucky to get a second invite back. They had almost drawn a line through my name.”

At Phoenix Raceway in Avondale, Ariz., for stop No. 2, Busch found himself competing with a new group of drivers.

“They told us that day, ‘One of you is getting the ride after today,’” he said.

“I went into this one way looser, way calmer, comfortable. I wasn’t confident but I was comfortable.”

Busch said his slowest lap “was everyone else’s fastest in a 20-lap run. I knew hands-down that I smoked it. I called my dad and said “I nailed it. If I don’t get the job it’s because I’m too young, I don’t quite know all the media stuff ….’”

But when he spoke with team president Geoff Smith a few days later, Busch said Smith asked, “How do you like Detroit weather?”

“I moved to Detroit and ran with the truck team.”

Roush continued the Gong Show program for several years. At one point it was filmed and packaged by the Discovery Channel as “Roush Racing: Driver X.”

Other teams had driver development programs as well, although not nearly as formal as Roush’s effort.

Hendrick Motorsports used its No. 5 Xfinity Series entry to develop drivers – Kyle Busch split seat time with Boston Reid and Blake Feese while also running Cup at HMS in 2005. The endeavor was short-lived – it quickly turned expensive after Reid and Feese were involved in multiple accidents that season.

In addition to his Cup operation, Ray Evernham fielded a developmental entry in the Xfinity Series for three years (2005-07), using a variety of drivers.

Today it’s the automakers – Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota – that have moved into the driver development arena.

NASCAR is involved in the developmental process as well – its Drive for Diversity program is run through Rev Racing and helps develop female and minority drivers in the K&N Pro Series and Whelen All-American Series. Current Cup drivers Kyle Larson, Daniel Suarez and Bubba Wallace came up through the D4D program.

But for the most part, few individual teams have “tryouts” similar to Roush’s Gong Show, where drivers go head-to-head with one another in hopes of landing a ride.

In what some say happens far too often today, if a driver can bring funding to the table, regardless of his experience, he can find a team that will put him behind the wheel.

“Now what we have are owners looking around for money. ‘Which kid has the most money, I want him to come and drive for me,’” Busch said. “That’s the unfortunate part about where our sport is right now.”