Richmond News Roundup: Day 1

Here’s a quick roundup of what drivers were talking about Friday at Richmond International Raceway:

Dale Earnhardt Jr. gave a couple more hints about what he might want to do in the future (coughTVcough).

“Obviously I enjoyed my fun in the booth (as a guest analyst),” he said. “If that’s an opportunity for me, I’m certainly going to have those conversations to find out.”

He added: “One of the people that I really respected a lot was Benny Parsons (who was also a well-known TV analyst in addition to his driving career). I thought that he left as important of a mark outside the car as he did inside the car. Whatever mark I can leave, I would love to be able to be as big an asset to the sport as I can be beyond driving.”

— The speculation about a possible Carl Edwards return still won’t go away, so I asked his former Denny Hamlin — who is very good at predictions — to estimate the odds of a Carl comeback.

“I would just be guessing, but I would say 50 percent,” Hamlin said. “Carl is a competitor. At his age (37), I’d find it hard to believe that he would just step away and not do it ever again. I think him leaving the window open in his press conference to say he’s not retiring, he’s just stepping away, I think it depends.”

Hamlin then cracked a smile.

“Has anyone found out whether he’s having a good time right now or not?” he said. “I think that would tell the story about whether he’s interested in coming back or not. From what I hear from all the retired drivers, it’s awesome for like a few months — then you kind of get bored a little bit.”

Kyle Larson and Brad Keselowski both were noncommittal when answering questions about the status of their contracts and whether they would be interested in replacing Earnhardt in the No. 88 car.

Larson, who is believed to have a contract with Chip Ganassi Racing beyond this year, would not say there was zero possibility of him leaving the team when asked.

“Oh, I’d have to talk to Chip before I came out in public about anything that serious,” he said. “So I won’t talk about anything like that because I don’t even know if I’m allowed to or not. I know Jamie (McMurray) is very secret about all his stuff. But I don’t know.”

Keselowski, speaking to a small group of reporters later in the day, wouldn’t say whether he is working on a contract extension with Team Penske (“There’s some stuff going on, but I’m not (able) to mention it in detail”).

And of any interest of returning to Hendrick Motorsports, where he began his Cup career on a partial schedule, to drive the 88?

“Do I have to have a yes or a no?” he said with a laugh. “It’s a Hendrick car, which by nature means it’s going to be one of the best cars available for a long period of time. But I would also say the car I’m in is one of the best available, and the team I’m with, I have a lot of equity in. So I’m pretty darn happy where I’m at. But I’ve learned in this world to never say no (definitively).”

Matt Kenseth won the pole for Richmond, followed by Ryan Blaney, Martin Truex Jr., Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Joey Logano.

It’s Kenseth’s first No. 1 starting spot since Kansas last fall and his seventh consecutive season with at least one pole — this after failing to get a pole in eight of his first 11 seasons.

Austin Dillon crew chief Slugger Labbe was kept back in North Carolina by Richard Childress Racing after the team failed the laser inspection station five times at Bristol last week. Operations director Sammy Johns is crew-chiefing for Dillon this weekend instead.

Dillon lost his pit selection for this week and had to start in the back as part of the inspection penalty.

There were also a host of teams that lost practice time due to Texas and Bristol infractions, including a 30-minute penalty for both Kenseth and Logano for swerving after the race.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Texas Motor Speedway race

Five thoughts from Sunday’s race at Texas Motor Speedway:

1. Stop questioning the 48 team for any reason

One of the dumbest NASCAR storylines — which I’ve probably been guilty of buying into several times over the years — is questioning Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus. Seriously, it’s really, REALLY dumb.

Incredibly, the Johnson/Knaus questions were doubled at Texas, which is extra ridiculous — especially after he got win No. 7 here.

— With only one top-10 heading into the race, had the defending champion lost a step? (OBVIOUSLY NOT, NO. HE NEVER DOES.)

— After spinning out in qualifying and being forced to start in the rear of the field, would Johnson be able to come from the back and win? (DUH, OF COURSE. HAVE YOU EVER WATCHED NASCAR?)

Johnson loves to rub it in his doubters’ faces when he wins, and he should.

“I guess I remembered how to drive, and I guess this team remembered how to do it,” he said in victory lane.

Remember, Johnson was asked at Fontana about his lack of performance so far this season and sounded annoyed.

“Sixteen years, 80 wins and seven championships and people want to question us?” he said then. “I mean, come on.”

Make that 81 wins.

Anyway, I’ve decided to never doubt Johnson and the No. 48 team until A) Johnson retires, B) Knaus retires or C) Johnson goes three years without winning.

Other than that, let’s just all make a pact not to bring up such a silly question again.

2. Short-term vs. long-term gain

Is it better go to for a stage win or get track position for the real win?

That was the dilemma facing the field at the end of Stage 2, when a debris caution presented the opportunity for a strategy play.

Ryan Blaney — who was dominating the race with 148 laps led — decided to stay out and go for the stage win (and a playoff point). He won the stage, but restarted 20th for the final stage as a result. After getting bottled up on the restart and later sliding through his pit, Blaney finished 12th. Obviously, that was a bummer.

On the other hand, Johnson and Kyle Larson used the same strategy as Blaney — and ended up finishing first and second. So it’s not like there was necessarily a right or wrong answer. It’s up to teams what is more important and what the priorities are.

“It’s easy to look back on it and say, ‘Oh, we should have done this, should have done that,’” Blaney said. “But you can’t really change any of that now.

“We thought we had enough time after (Stage) 2 to work our way back up through there. … I thought we made the right call to stay out there and try to win that segment. I’m for that.”

Knaus made a similar argument afterward, saying he was “very confident our car was going to be able to drive back through traffic” but added “you get a big pit in your stomach” after losing the track position.

“All you can do is make a decision and then adjust to the decision you make,” Knaus said.

I’m honestly not sure what the correct play is for future situations, especially since the results were a mixed bag. Either way, I enjoyed the added strategy element, which is just another plus for the stages.

3. Woe is Gibbs

Nearly 20 minutes after the race had ended, pit road had been emptied of the cars and most drivers were probably at the airport already.

But as a cloud of confetti drifted by, Denny Hamlin stood with his hands on his hips, talking to team owner Joe Gibbs, crew chief Mike Wheeler and a couple other team members.

It’s obvious why Hamlin wanted to linger on pit road: Joe Gibbs Racing is struggling so far this year.

“We were a 20th-place car at best most of the day,” Hamlin told me afterward. “I didn’t think any of us were very good.”

Texas was another bad race for JGR. The top finisher was 15th-place Kyle Busch, followed by Matt Kenseth (16th), Daniel Suarez (19th) and Hamlin (25th).

The performance can no longer be brushed off as an early-season fluke; JGR is not meeting its own high standards. And with Hendrick Motorsports finally getting a win, the “What’s wrong with JGR?” questions will only getting louder.

So what now?

“We just work harder,” Hamlin said. “We’re already working hard, but it takes time to get things figured out. We’ve got a new Camry and a lot of new things, and we’re just trying to adjust to it at this point. There’s a lot of different rules we’re trying to adjust to as well.”

4. Finally, a positive for Dale Jr.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. hadn’t scored a top-10 finish since June 6 at Pocono. That was 10 straight races without a good result.

You could tell it had started to wear on him, even though he was trying to be as optimistic as possible — for both himself and his team.

So a fifth-place finish at Texas was a welcome development for both his points position (he moved from 25th to 20th) and his psyche (he moved from “upside down face” emoji to “grinning face with sweat drop” emoji).

“I was trying not to get frustrated, but you can only take so much,” Earnhardt said afterward.

Texas was both a physical and mental challenge for a driver who had only completed one 500-mile event since returning from his concussion.

His air conditioning blower didn’t work all day, so he had to run with his visor up for the entire race. Afterward, he was more gassed than I’ve seen him in a long time; he chugged portions of two water bottles and cradled the cold, wet towel around his neck like a kid with a blankie.

Earnhardt said it was on “the backside of the top 10” most uncomfortable races he’s had in the car, which is saying a lot considering he’s made 602 Cup starts.

And it was a challenge to stay in the game mentally as well.

“When you don’t do (500-mile races on a regular basis), your mind is not as mentally tough,” he said. “I felt it. This was a tough race for us — physically and mentally. It was good exercise. Hopefully it will help make us stronger.”

5. That’s four twos for the 42

Another day, another top-two finish for Kyle Larson. Larson has finished in the top two in five of the last six races; that’s a win and four second-place results.

“We thought we’d start the year off good,” Larson said. “I don’t think we thought we’d start the year off this good.”

It looks like Larson is going to be a fixture toward the top of the series point standings this season, because he certainly isn’t showing any signs of losing speed.

At this point, it’s clear Chip Ganassi Racing isn’t just having a cute little stretch of good races, where everyone gets excited and then it turns out to be a blip in a long season. No, Ganassi is definitely for real — and so is Larson.

That’s exciting for NASCAR, because there’s a new face contending every week; even more exciting that he’s only 24 years old.

2017 NASCAR Playoff Picks

Here are my picks for the 2017 NASCAR Cup playoffs (alphabetical order):

  • Clint Bowyer
  • Kurt Busch
  • Kyle Busch
  • Austin Dillon
  • Dale Earnhardt Jr.
  • Chase Elliott
  • Denny Hamlin
  • Kevin Harvick
  • Jimmie Johnson
  • Kasey Kahne
  • Matt Kenseth
  • Brad Keselowski
  • Kyle Larson
  • Joey Logano
  • Jamie McMurray
  • Martin Truex Jr.

A few expanded predictions:

— Clint Bowyer will get back to his old competitive self after joining Stewart-Haas Racing. By September, any hiccups SHR has in the transition to Ford will be forgotten.

— Four Toyotas will make it, but rookies Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez will barely miss out because of a few late-race mistakes.

— All four Hendrick drivers will be in the playoff, including Kasey Kahne after his best season in several years. Dale Earnhardt Jr. will finish the regular season within the top 10 in points.

— Both Chip Ganassi Racing drivers will be in and Kyle Larson will win two times in the regular season.

— Austin Dillon will win his first Cup race by late August.

— Overall, Hendrick Motorsports will be the best team in the regular season (with Jimmie Johnson having the most wins), followed by Team Penske. Joe Gibbs Racing will experience a slight drop-off after two great years, just part of the usual cycle in racing.

— I hate leaving Ryan Blaney out, but I’m not a Blaney detractor. I picked him to make it last year, and it’s certainly possible he could have a great year.

Joey Logano will win his first championship in 2017.

The Top Five: Analyzing the Duels at Daytona

Each week, I’ll provide a quick breakdown of the race through a post called the Top Five — five notable storylines from the just-completed event. Today: The Duels at Daytona.

1. Well-played, Chase Elliott

Elliott was making me nervous with those aggressive blocks to blunt the runs coming behind him during Duel No. 1. But it all worked out, as he preserved his pole-winning car and won the trophy.

Still, more experienced drivers like Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski seem a bit more polished when protecting a lead — something Elliott seemed to acknowledge after the race.

“I learned a lot from (Keselowski), but I certainly don’t have it perfected quite like he does,” Elliott said.

2. Denny’s good day

Hamlin and Joe Gibbs Racing announced a contract extension with FedEx on Thursday afternoon. Less than seven hours later, the driver was in victory lane celebrating yet another restrictor-plate success — his sixth since 2014, if you count the Clash and Duels in addition to regular-season Daytona and Talladega races.

Hamlin played it perfectly at the end, blowing past Dale Earnhardt Jr. by using a big push from Austin Dillon to make a run on the high side on the white flag lap.

“Ain’t much you can do about that,” Earnhardt said. “It’s not really defendable.”

At least Earnhardt gave his fans a show and eliminated any questions about rust after a long layoff from competitive racing.

3. Over-Joied

Corey LaJoie was a onetime hot prospect whose star seemed to fade out when he couldn’t get money to fund a good ride. But he raced his way in to the Daytona 500 — albeit not the way he likely wanted.

While racing Reed Sorenson, the driver who he needed to beat for a 500 berth, LaJoie hooked Sorenson and caused a wreck. Sorenson careened into the inside wall entering Turn 1 — eerily similar to Kyle Busch’s 2015 Xfinity crash, except there is now pavement on the path Busch traveled and SAFER barrier at the end of it. Sorenson walked away with his life and health, but not a Daytona 500 spot.

Meanwhile, LaJoie said the move wasn’t intentional but didn’t exactly apologize for it.

“I didn’t want to be sipping margaritas on the beach on Sunday,” he said. “I wanted to be out there racing. If that was my mom, I would probably spin her out to make the Daytona 500, too. That’s just frank. I’m sure I’m not going to be on Reed’s Christmas card list this year, but that’s all right.”

4. Oh, Canada!

D.J. Kennington became the first Canadian driver in the Great American Race since Trevor Boys in 1988, nipping Elliott Sadler at the line to earn his way into the field.

Kennington had to beat Sadler or else Sorenson would have made the race based on qualifying time. So on the backstretch, spotter Robby Benton — a part-owner of the car who let the Gaunt Brothers Racing team use his shop — urged the 39-year-old to get in front of Sadler.

Fortunately, Kennington picked the right line and it worked out.

“This is huge for Canada,” Kennington said.

5. What’s the point?

For the first time since 1981, drivers have accumulated points prior to the Daytona 500.

The Duels paid points to the top 10 drivers in each race, and that creates some unusual circumstances heading into Sunday’s race.

An example: Cole Whitt (one point after finishing 10th in the first Duel) has more points entering the 500 than Kyle Busch (zero) and Danica Patrick (four) has more points than Joey Logano (two) and Jimmie Johnson (zero) combined.

AJ Allmendinger would have had seven points, but he failed post-race inspection and lost all of them — as did Martin Truex Jr., who would have had four. They will start in the rear of the field for the Daytona 500, along with Chris Buescher.

Elliott and Hamlin are the co-points leaders after Thursday’s races.

News Analysis: Denny Hamlin signs contract extension with Joe Gibbs Racing

What happened: FedEx signed a contract extension with Joe Gibbs Racing, which ensures Denny Hamlin will remain as the driver of the No. 11 car for presumably the next few years (though the length was not disclosed). Hamlin said never considered another team. “I’ve been a horse with blinders,” he said. “Everything’s been so good at home, why venture out?”

What it means: Hamlin could have been an intriguing free agent, but now one potential Silly Season name is officially off the market. The move reaffirms Hamlin’s position as a key leader at JGR and will leave the 36-year-old in position to win races and championships in the prime of his career as older drivers continue to retire.

News value (scale of 1-10): Three. Hamlin wasn’t expected to leave JGR, nor was FedEx. Still, it’s a big-name driver signing a contract extension, so that’s notable.

Questions: With Hamlin, Daniel Suarez and Kyle Busch all seemingly staying put for awhile, where does this leave Matt Kenseth (who turns 45 next month)? At some point — maybe next year — won’t JGR want Erik Jones to come back from his temporary stay at Furniture Row Racing? Also, how much longer will Hamlin race?

The Top Five: Breakdown of The Clash at Daytona

Each week, I’ll provide some quick analysis of the race through a post called the Top Five — five notable storylines from the just-completed race. First up: The Clash at Daytona.

1. The two best plate racers in the event crashed on the last lap

When the white flag flew, it looked like Denny Hamlin — who swept last year’s Clash and Daytona 500 — would edge Brad Keselowski for the win, barring something crazy happening.

Well, something crazy happened.

Keselowski got a huge run (which doesn’t happen that often with this restrictor plate aero package) and Hamlin went down to defend, but it was too late. Keselowski was already there, and the cars made contact.

Hamlin told MRN his attempted block was ill-timed, and Keselowski seemed relatively cool about the incident.

“Well, it is the Clash and not the 500,” he said on pit road.

But then Keselowski’s jaw clenched and the muscles in his face tightened.

“I guarantee he knows — and everyone else who was watching today — that I’m going to make that move again,” Keselowski said. “And you better move out or you’ll end up wrecked.”

A few moments later, he said it again: “I know all the other drivers are back watching it today, and they know not to make that block on me again.”

Your move, everyone else.

2. Something is up with Hendrick cars in Turn 4 at Daytona

OK, what’s going on here? Jimmie Johnson twice spun in Turn 4, which continued a pattern of Hendrick Motorsports cars having trouble in that turn over the past year (Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Chase Elliott spun out of Turn 4 last year).

After coming out of the care center, Johnson said he didn’t know — and, perhaps more telling, that the team had been so unconcerned about it that no one had discussed it prior to the race.

They certainly will be talking about it now. Johnson said he noticed Elliott looked loose in that turn as well.

One theory?

“The sun certainly sits on that edge of the track a little harder than anywhere else,” Johnson said. “We’ll take some notes and learn from those mistakes and applied that to the 500.”

3. Alex Bowman is a beast

With each opportunity he gets — and there aren’t that many on his schedule for 2017 — Bowman shows he deserves a chance to run a full Cup season in a good car.

No one wanted to help him during the Clash, and the other drivers treated him like a leper at times. At one point, it looked like Joey Logano might go with him — and then Logano went with the Joe Gibbs Racing cars again and Bowman fell all the way to the back of the field.

Bowman won the pole and almost won the race at Phoenix last year, then basically willed himself to a podium finish in the Clash. This guy will drive a great car some day and, at 23, he has time on his side.

4. Joey Logano is an underrated plate racer

Let’s not get too carried away here, because Logano wasn’t going to win the race until the leaders hit each other on the last lap.

But Logano has won three plate races in the last two seasons (2015 Daytona 500 and the Talladega fall race twice in a row), and now adds the Clash to his collection. When is he going to start getting mentioned alongside Keselowski, Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. as the best of the best on plate tracks? (I’m asking myself that question, by the way.)

Combined with Keselowski the puppet master, you’d better believe the Team Penske cars will bring a large threat to the JGR contingent next week.

5. Danica Patrick gets a good result

I’ll have to go back and watch the replay to see how Patrick ended up with a fourth-place finish, but she’ll certainly take any positive momentum she can get these days.

Her performance on the track has been below average compared to her teammates at Stewart-Haas Racing for a couple years now, and she hasn’t seemed like the restrictor-plate threat she was when she first emerged in the series.

Plus, there’s been that whole Nature’s Bakery lawsuit and the scramble to find a replacement sponsor just a month before the season.

So while a fourth doesn’t count for the official records, it’s a boost of momentum.