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