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).

What to make of Biffle’s Texas victory

Waiting on a Monday race and wondering what to make of Greg Biffle’s win in the Truck Series race at Texas on Friday night …

Obviously, Biffle hasn’t forgotten how to win races – no surprise there since he has won multiple races across all three NASCAR national series and championships in Xfinity and Truck series.

When he stepped away from full-time NASCAR competition at the end of the 2016 season, Biffle had won 19 times in the Cup series, 20 times in the Xfinity Series and 16 times in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series. The championships came in 2000 in Truck and ’02 in Xfinity.

The idea that the Vancouver, Wash., native could become the first driver to win championships in all three series was not farfetched but it didn’t happen.

Biffle is now 49 and if you’ve followed NASCAR for any length of time you ought to know that age isn’t a factor when it comes to competitiveness.

It had been more than two years since his last NASCAR start, though, and that probably said more than the fact he’s nearly 50. It would have come as no surprise had he appeared a bit rusty behind the wheel.

Still, he won Friday’s SpeedyCash.com 400 at Texas Motor Speedway and winning any race is no easy feat. It was a race of attrition and a race of survival and Biffle wasn’t dominant but in a race that featured 13 cautions, dominance wasn’t required.

As good as Biffle remains, however, Friday night’s victory would seem to say more about the KBM equipment at his disposal. Kyle Busch Motorsports puts together winning trucks. The organization has extremely capable talent beyond those folks sitting in the driver’s seat.

Biffle is the 11th different driver to win for KBM since 2010 – all but Christopher Bell and Noah Gragson are currently competing or have competed at the Cup level.

Busch himself won five times in five starts this year with the same team but is it farfetched for the owner/driver to expect similar results from drivers with far less experience? And we’re no longer talking about Biffle here.

Busch is Busch and Todd Gilliland is not. And Harrison Burton is not. Gilliland and Burton drive for KBM. Gilliland is 19 and Burton is 18 and together they’ve made fewer than 60 starts in the series.

Busch has nearly as many wins (56).

Busch has previously indicated that drivers in his trucks are expected to contend and to win.

Days before the Texas stop, KBM announced crew chief moves that included putting Wes Ward in charge of the No. 4 truck driven by Gilliland at Texas.

Gilliland, Friday night’s pole winner, led 31 laps but wound up 27th after getting into the wall. He has one top-five and four top-10 finishes this year and is ninth in points.

Burton finished fifth; it was his third top five and fifth top 10. He’s eighth in points.

It’s difficult to judge a driver’s ability when competing in average equipment. But that’s not the case here.

Maybe those are unrealistic expectations for anyone else but not for Busch.

And Biffle’s quick success no doubt only strengthened the team owner’s contention.

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.


Texas Postscript

NASCAR’s Steve O’Donnell said Monday morning that the sanctioning body may revert back to single-car qualifying for some events after problems cropped up at Texas Motor Speedway on Friday.  

“If we have to go back to single-car (qualifying) … we’ll do that,” O’Donnell said during an appearance on SiriusXM NASCAR’s “The Morning Drive” program. “It won’t be popular, probably, with some of the owners but unfortunately we’re getting put in this position.”

Group qualifying had not been an issue until the 2019 rules package debuted with its less horsepower and more downforce on larger tracks (1.5-miles and above). The package allows teams to draft on the bigger tracks, which in turn makes being the first car out a disadvantage.

As a result, drivers have sat in their cars on pit road, waiting until the last possible moment before attempting a qualifying lap. At Auto Club Speedway, none of the 12 drivers in the final round posted an official lap. At Texas, there were other issues as well although each of the 12 in the final round were able to post at least one lap before time expired.

“I think it’s ridiculous, candidly,” O’Donnell said. “I know the drivers did not like this qualifying (format) that we were going to do before the season so part of you says, ‘Are we (teams) doing this on purpose … to get rid of it?’ I know it can be done.”

O Donnell went on to say that NASCAR will “react to it.”

“We’ll make the right call and we’ll get it right,” he said. “We don’t want to see cars sitting on pit road for eight minutes. That’s not NASCAR racing and we’ll make the fix there.”

NASCAR already uses a single-car qualifying format at Daytona and Talladega, the series two largest venues.

O’Donnell is executive vice president and chief racing development officer for NASCAR.

NASCAR officials took six cars from teams, two from each manufacturer, to take to the wind tunnel for aerodynamic evaluation following Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.

That’s not surprising. It’s a normal part of the process as officials with the sanctioning body seek a better understanding of how the aero numbers between the three groups match up.

What was something of a surprise was the cars that were selected. Or those that weren’t.

NASCAR selected the No. 1 of Kurt Busch (Chip Ganassi Racing) and the No. 24 of William Byron (Hendrick Motorsports) from the Chevrolet camp and that’s about as good of a representation as you’ll get from those folks these days.

Toyota entries taken, however were the No. 19 of Martin Truex Jr., and the No. 20 of Erik Jones. Neither the No. 18 of Kyle Busch, which has two wins this season and could have won a third time Sunday, nor the No. 11 of Hamlin, which did win Sunday and now also has two victories this year, was chosen.

All four cars race out of the Joe Gibbs Racing shop but clearly the 18 and the 11 have been a cut above the others.

Ford entries chose were the No. 4 of Kevin Harvick (Stewart-Haas Racing) and the No. 21 of Paul Menard (Wood Brothers Racing).

That neither the No. 2 of Brad Keselowski nor 22 of Team Penske teammate Joey Logano was chosen for Ford representation was also puzzling. Even the 12 of teammate Ryan Blaney.

Keselowski and Logano account for the three victories not claimed by Busch or Hamlin this season.

Hamlin’s 33rd career victory tied him with two individuals – Fireball Roberts at No. 23 on the all-time NASCAR win list and Tony Stewart at No. 2 on the JGR win list. Stewart won a pair of Cup titles as well before departing; Hamlin is still seeking his first.

That Hamlin already has two victories says as much about crew chief Chris Gabehart, who replaced Mike Wheeler on top of the pit box for the No. 11 team this season, as it does Hamlin. Gabehart won nine times in the Xfinity Series with drivers Hamlin, Erik Jones and Ryan Preece.

The fifth-place finish for Jimmie Johnson Sunday was his first top-five since last year’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May. The seven-time series champion started on the pole and led 60 laps.

Kyle Busch didn’t complete the weekend sweep but the JGR racer did win two of three, capturing Friday night’s Gander Outdoors Truck Series race and Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race. It was his 95th Xfinity Series win and 55th in the Truck series.

NASCAR teams head to Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend for Saturday’s Alsco 300 Xfinity Series race and Sunday’s Food City 500. The rules package will be the same as that used at Martinsville two weeks ago – 750 horsepower and no aero ducts on the front of the cars.

Only seven active drivers – Kyle and Kurt Busch, Keselowski, Johnson, Logano, Harvick and Hamlin – have won one or more Cup races at BMS. That’s from a list of 22 current competitors with one or more wins in the series.

Kyle Busch has won two of the last three at BMS while Kyle Larson finished second in both Cup races last season. Larson also led 200 laps in the spring race.

Car of Tomorrow debuts at Bristol

Sunday, March 25, 2007 – Kyle Busch becomes the first winner in a race featuring NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow when the Hendrick Motorsports driver captured the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway. Seven years in the making, the COT featured a front splitter and rear wing as part of its aerodynamic enhancements as well as numerous structural changes to make the car safer and less costly.

“I’m still not a very big fan of these things; I can’t drive them. They suck,” Busch said following his victory. It was his final win at HMS before his release at season’s end. The win was the 600th in NASCAR for Chevrolet and the auto maker debuted its new Impala SS in conjunction with the arrival of the COT. It was also the 200th overall victory for team owner Rick Hendrick.

NASCAR rolled out the Car of Tomorrow at select events in ’07 before teams began competing full-time with the piece in ‘08. The COT was phased out following the 2012 season.

It’s a Logano, and a Ford day, at Martinsville

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Defending Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Joey Logano will start from the pole Sunday when the STP 500 gets underway here at tiny Martinsville Speedway.

The 28-year-old pushed his No. 22 Team Penske Ford around the .526-mile oval at a speed of 97.83 mph, to nudge fellow ford driver Aric Almirola (97.643 mph) off the top spot in the final round of qualifying for the series’ sixth race of the season.

Logano won here last fall, securing a spot in the Championship 4 where he ultimately won his first Cup championship. He’s already won this season to likely secure a berth in this season’s 16-team playoffs and he finished second a week ago at Auto Club Speedway.

To say he and his team, led by crew chief Todd Gordon, are running well would be an understatement.

But Martinsville, the only track that has hosted NASCAR’s top series since its debut in 1949, has been a bit of a mixed bag for the New England native. Logano has finished in the top 10 in nearly one-half his starts here (nine of 20) but he’s also finished 20th or worse five times.

In qualifying Saturday, he and his team’s efforts were short and sweet … and fast. Logano needed just two laps to land at sixth quickest in the first round and one lap in the second round to remain sixth best. That sent him into the third and final round with remarkably fresh tires.

“That really paid a reward as we got to the third round,” Logano said, noting his team chose not to make any mock qualifying runs during practice. “It’s important to win a pole here – to start up front is obviously safer, but you can also run your (race) pace and (it’s) a safer place on pit road as well.”

Tire conservation in qualifying isn’t exactly the norm at most tracks – but at Martinsville it can be a deciding factor.

“It’s not just one lap like most tracks we go to,” he said, “(where) you lay down one and you’re done. Here, you’ve got to run quite a few laps to be able to lay down a fast one, which makes me run out of breath, by the way. It’s like the most intense qualifying session for me. … We go slower here than anywhere else we go and I’m breathing harder than anywhere else we go, so there must be something to it.”

Ford teams swept the first four spots with Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski third fastest and Kevin Harvick, Almirola’s teammate at Stewart-Haas Racing, fourth.

Denny Hamlin (Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 Toyota) was fifth in the final round, after posting the quickest times in the first two rounds.

Logano, who has 22 career wins, hasn’t won a Cup race from the pole since 2016 (at Michigan International Speedway).

No driver has won a Cup race from the pole since Martin Truex captured the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway last summer.

Seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson will carry a 64-race winless streak into Sunday’s event. A nine-time winner at Martinsville, Johnson will start 12th.

Kyle Busch could muster only a 14th-best qualifying time for Sunday. Busch, driver of the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 Toyota in the Cup Series, has won the last two Cup races – at Phoenix and Fontana, Calif.; he also has two wins in the Xfinity Series this season and a win Saturday at Martinsville was his third consecutive Truck Series win.

Petty’s wins are exactly that – wins

So we’ve moved on from trying to compare Kyle Busch’s soon-to-be 200 wins across three different series with Richard Petty’s 200 NASCAR premier series wins to this: many of Richard Petty’s victories shouldn’t count because they took place in shorter races often against shorter fields.

Really?

Someone did a lot of research to reach that conclusion. That’s too bad. Because at the end of the day, Petty remains the only driver with 200 career victories in NASCAR’s top series. They came on tracks of all shapes and sizes, against big fields and small fields, on dirt and asphalt, but when you add them all up you get the same thing – 200.

When was the last time any Cup team HAD to compete 3-4 times during the same week because that’s how the races fell on the schedule?

Do today’s drivers and teams have anywhere near the concern about parts breakage? Engines blowing? That Petty won as often as he did when drivers were more likely to fall out of a race due to something on the car breaking speaks volumes. Parts failures didn’t discriminate when it came to race length so why should we?

Today’s drivers race with power steering, disc brakes and radial tires. For much of his career, Petty and his fellow drivers competed without power steering, used drum brakes and bias-ply tires.

I wouldn’t want to drive across town without power steering, much less race without it.

Win under those conditions in a 100-mile race or a 500-mile race and tell me the two shouldn’t be considered equal.

Faulting Petty for winning a 100-lap race against a field of 24 is like faulting Busch for winning a fuel-mileage race. “Well, he didn’t really beat anyone, he just outlasted them.” Really?

Do we even want to mention the differences in everything BUT driving in the race? You know, like the crew having to transport the car across the country to the next race, set the car up at the track, pit the car on race day, then haul the car all the way back across the country to get home, unload and get ready for the next race? The same crew mind you. And often volunteers at that.

Not a couple of fellas hired to drive, and only drive, the transporter to and from the track. Separate mechanics to set up the car. A separate pit crew that does nothing but pit the car.

Hell, if Petty had those “luxuries” during his prime, he might have won 300 times.

Of course, someone would probably find fault with that, too.

Maybe he’s the best we’ve seen

Kyle Busch is going to win his 200th race in NASCAR’s top three series before long and it will be compared to Richard Petty winning 200 times and some folks will say it’s blasphemy and others will say you can’t compare the two and still others will try anyway.

This isn’t a comparison of the King’s 200 wins and Busch’s soon-to-be 200 wins.

Richard Petty won 200 times in ONE series and if Busch was to win 200 times in only the Monster Energy Cup Series or only the Xfinity Series or only the Gander Outdoors Truck Series … well then you’ve really got yourself a story.

But that won’t happen.

If this isn’t a comparison of wins then what is it?

It’s this: Kyle Busch might be the most talented race car driver anyone has ever seen in NASCAR.

Whoa! Stop right there!

Better than Petty, who won seven championships and seven Daytona 500s and, as mentioned earlier, 200 races? Petty won on dirt and asphalt and some surfaces that were a little bit of both.

Better than Dale Earnhardt, another seven-time champ who won 76 races and was one of the most feared drivers of his era?

What about Jimmie Johnson, just the third driver to win seven titles? He’s at 83 career wins and those include Daytona 500s and Southern 500s and Brickyard 400s and Coca-Cola 600s.

David Pearson and Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart and Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip … all winners of multiple championships.

Better than those folks? In their prime?

Busch is 33 and just hitting his prime and he’s already won five times this year. He swept both races at ISM Raceway this past weekend (Cup and Xfinity) and won two of three the previous week in Las Vegas (Xfinity and Truck).

For the record, he now has 52 Cup wins, a series record 94 Xfinity Series wins and a series record 53 Truck Series wins.

He has only one championship and it would be easy to say it’s the current format that’s to blame – a driver and team can win 35 of 36 races and finish fourth in points based on that one final, season-ending race. How many drivers have won multiple titles since the format was introduced in 2014? None, that’s how many.

On the other hand, a truly superior competitor should be able to rise to the occasion regardless of the situation.

Maybe it’s too soon to call him the best or put him in that conversation until we see what the future holds.

Again, this isn’t about comparing one driver’s numbers with another driver’s numbers. It’s about the singular accomplishments of Busch, driver of the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 Toyota in the Cup Series.

Busch is competitive in every single series he enters – whether it’s Cup or Xfinity or the Trucks. Not just competitive though. He wins. A lot.

He also makes those around him better, whether it’s his teammates at JGR or his own drivers at Kyle Busch Motorsports.

All great drivers share that trait – they make those competing against them excel.

Save the “he should pick a series and stick to it” rants. There’s absolutely no reason Busch should not be able to compete in any series he chooses when it’s allowed. NASCAR has placed limits on how many races folks in Cup can run in other series and it may or may not be fair. But that hasn’t stopped Busch from racing in those series or winning in those series when he can.

Is he beating up on no-name competition? If you consider current and former series champions “no-name” competition, then maybe so. I don’t know. I get the impression his competition takes that particular comparison as a slight.

Busch does not have an “unfair advantage” unless you consider being blessed with tremendous talent an unfair advantage.

Would those drivers mentioned previously have more wins had they had the opportunity to compete in other series as well? Maybe. Who knows? Earnhardt won 21 times in what’s now the Xfinity Series while folks such as Gordon and Johnson and Stewart didn’t spend an awful lot of time there.

But again, this isn’t about comparing his wins to anyone else’s wins. It’s about what Busch has accomplished so far, what lies ahead and where exactly it will all leave him when he calls it a career.

Is Busch the best? I guess it depends on one’s criteria. What makes a driver “the best” in his arena? Is it championships won? Total wins?

Or something less tangible?

Busch is closing in on 200 victories and it isn’t the same as Petty’s accomplishment but it’s still pretty darn impressive.

And for that he should be appreciated. Race fans likely won’t see such an accomplishment again.

It’s more than a numbers game

I’m beginning to grow slightly weary of numbers but I’m confident it will pass.

This much horsepower, that much horsepower. The spoiler is this big, the splitter is that big.

Television ratings, attendance figures, green-flag passes … it’s become a bit much.

NASCAR is about more than just numbers, good or bad.

NASCAR is about personalities. Personalities sell the sport. Give me some strong figures, folks to care about and folks who fans can cheer for and root against, and I don’t care if the race has 20 cautions or not the first one.

People care about people.

Lee and Pops and Little Joe and Buck. The King and the Silver Fox and BP and Buddy and Tiny. The Intimidator and Rusty and Wonderboy and Swervin’ Irvan and Sterlin’ and Jaws. The Iceman and Special K, Davey and DJ and is it any wonder the sport became so incredibly popular?

Those folks weren’t setting records in terms of green-flag passes. Or if that was the case, no one knew it at the time.

NASCAR remains popular today. Maybe less so but popular just the same. There are personalities out there, strong ones, but they’re often overshadowed by the noise.

Instead we talk of numbers. And rules packages.

Decades from now, will we tell stories about Kevin and Kyle, Jimmie and Brad, Joey and Clint, Martin and Ricky and Kurt and Denny?

I honestly don’t know. I’d like to think so.

Numbers don’t tell the entire story. They have their place, but their place is not out front, used to sell the sport or to denigrate it.

Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was the first for NASCAR’s Monster Energy Cup Series teams with what’s considered the “full” 2019 rules package. All the aerodynamic bells and whistles.

Was the racing better? The numbers say it was – there were record numbers of green-flag passes for the lead (47) and green-flag passes overall (3,345) for the 1.5-mile track.

Those are good things, but do those numbers really register with most fans?

I don’t judge a race by numbers. The TV ratings may show that more people watched Sunday’s race or that fewer people watched Sunday’s race. Those numbers won’t impact my opinion of what I saw take place. Was I entertained? That’s the question.

Did the rules package accomplish everything I expected? Yes, but my expectations were that the racing would be better than before but not out of this world.

There is nothing wrong with better.

It will continue to improve. It will also fall short at some venues. That’s how it’s been forever and how it will continue to be.

The rules package shouldn’t have been the big story on Sunday. There was so much more – Joey Logano winning and Kyle Busch going for a weekend sweep and after three races is it time for some teams to begin to worry? Is it time for others to shake things up?

Numbers aren’t a bad thing. They just aren’t the only thing.

JGR extends Busch, M&M’s deals

Kyle Busch’s contract extension with Joe Gibbs Racing is complete, the signing was announced Thursday via social media, and sponsorship is a done deal as well, with Mars, Inc. brand M&M’s also extending its agreement to fund the No. 18 Toyota in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

The news comes just four days after Busch competed in his 500th Cup Series race, finishing sixth at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

The three have been aligned since 2008 when Busch began competing for JGR following three full seasons at Hendrick Motorsports. In that time, Busch has won 47 points races and the 2015 series championship.

He is the only driver who has qualified for the title-determining Championship 4 every year since 2015.

The 33-year-old said earlier this season that contract talks were nearly complete.

“Racing for more than a decade with such an iconic team and sponsor has been incredible and knowing that we can continue this winning relationship is very special,” Busch said in the statement announcing the extensions.

Mars, Inc., has been a staple in NASCAR since at least 1997 when the company sponsored the No. 36 Pontiac driven by Derrike Cope and fielded by team owner Nelson Bowers. At that time, and for the next several years, the company promoted its Skittles brand through its NASCAR relationship.

M&M’s became the focus in ’99 – Ernie Irvan had taken over the driving duties for the team by then, replacing Cope.

Terms of the agreements were not disclosed, with the length of driver and sponsor contract extensions described as “multi-year.”

“As a team owner, the hope is to find partners and drivers that help us grow as an organization, and Kyle Busch and Mars, Incorporated have done exactly that,” Joe Gibbs, founder of JGR, said. “We have one of the longest partnerships in all of sports, and that really speaks to the strength of the understanding and respect we have for one another.”

Joe Gibbs Racing fields four full-time entries in NASCAR’s top series. In addition to the No. 18 Toyota fielded for Busch, it also fields the No. 11 for driver Denny Hamlin with sponsorship from FedEx, the No. 20 for Erik Jones (multiple sponsors, including DeWalt and Sport Clips), and the No. 19 for Martin Truex Jr. (Bass Pro for 24 of 36 points races in ‘19).

The organization also fields multiple entries in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.