The Top Five: Breaking down the Phoenix race

Each week, I’ll give some race analysis through a post called the Top Five — notable storylines from the just-completed event. This week: Phoenix Raceway.

Newman!

Well, how about THAT? Luke Lambert’s strategy call — which seemed like a total Hail Mary to most of us — actually worked, and Ryan Newman ended up with his first victory since Indianapolis in 2013. That’s 127 races ago! Heck, Richard Childress Racing hadn’t won a race since Kevin Harvick left the team for Stewart-Haas Racing.

Did anyone see this coming? Certainly not me.

So was Lambert making an educated guess or just taking a total gamble? Well, Lambert had looked at the data — and Newman was the best car on long runs throughout the race. That gave him faith the tires would hold up enough to give Newman a shot.

“I figured our best opportunity to win the race was to put the car out front and see if Ryan could make it wide enough,” Lambert said. “I can’t say I felt confident we would win the race, but I felt confident we’d at least have a shot. And I felt we wouldn’t be able to do anything else to give ourselves that opportunity.”

Inside the car, Newman recalled the sketchy restart last fall here — and realized there was a chance he could get taken out if he wasn’t careful. So his first priority was to just get a good enough start to have some clearance going into Turn 1 — and deal with whoever was behind him after that.

But with Kyle Larson in his mirror on fresh tires, Newman thought he might be toast. The No. 31 car, though, was stronger than expected (after all, it had been running top 10 prior to the strategy call).

“We had a good car, and it was the first time all day we put some clean air on it,” Newman said. “It was just a matter of putting those things together and showing y’all what we had.”

Larson the amazing

Kyle Larson is the latest example of the 2.5-year rule for new Cup drivers. Basically, young drivers either figure out how to find speed within the first 2.5 years of their career — or perhaps never get any better.

Everything seemed to click for Larson midway through last year, and he’s been a much more reliable contender ever since. These days, he’s one of the best drivers in the series — and the points leader!

Larson has now finished second in four straight non-plate races. That’s Homestead, Atlanta, Las Vegas and Phoenix.

And despite getting close to wins, Larson said the runner-up results aren’t getting tiresome — yet.

“I’m sure if I ran second for the next eight weeks, yeah, it’s probably going to grow old,” Larson said. “But it’s so cool to be one of the fastest cars every week. … I just hope we can continue to work hard, be consistent, be mistake‑free on pit road and on the racetrack. If we can just keep doing that, the wins are going to come.”

Everything isn’t great

When Kyle Busch’s team informed him Joey Logano’s tire had blown with five laps to go, Busch said, “Trust me — I know.”

Afterward, Busch was asked by KickinTheTires.net why he said that.

“I knew there was a going to be a tire blown because we haven’t made it past 44 laps in any run today without one being blown, right?” Busch said, practically biting his lip to stop himself from saying more.

It had to be a bitter pill for Busch to swallow — his recent nemeses Joey Logano and Goodyear essentially combined to cost him a race (although it wasn’t either of their faults directly; Logano melted a bead with excessive brake heat).

But just when it looked like Busch would go from puncher to victor in a week, it was he who ended up getting socked in the gut once again.

That’s the brakes for Logano, Dale Jr.

Two of the recent Phoenix race winners — Logano and Dale Earnhardt Jr. — were expected to be contenders on Sunday. But that never materialized.

Logano couldn’t recover from a speeding penalty after he developed brake problems, eventually blowing a tire that caused the final caution. And Earnhardt had similar issues with his brakes, meaning he had to tiptoe around the track.

“The car just got to where I couldn’t get into the corner the way I needed it to,” Earnhardt said. “The last half of the race, the brake pedal was just almost to the floor. A couple of times it was on the floor going into the corner — pretty scary.

“The whole last 50 to 60 laps, I was pumping the brakes on all the straightaways to keep the pedal up so I would have some brakes for the corner and lifting really early. We just couldn’t run it hard enough to get up there and do anything with it.”

Toyota young guns shine

Despite seeing Busch’s win chances vanish, it wasn’t all bad for Toyota. The manufacturer’s two rookies — Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones — both got their first career top-10 finishes after different strategy calls on the last pit stop.

Suarez finished seventh after taking two tires and Jones finished eighth after taking four. Regardless of how they got there,  the results were much-needed confidence for Suarez and validation for Jones’ consistently speed to start the year.

“We didn’t have the speed, and the communication wasn’t great,” Suarez said of the first couple weeks. “We’ve been working hard trying to build chemistry, communication, and we have for sure been getting better.”

That communication was key to improving the car while also gaining track position on Sunday.

And Jones had to power through feeling sick, as he received two bags of IV fluids Saturday night after the Xfinity race.

“We’re going to have ups and downs, good weeks and bad weeks from here on out, but this is definitely a good week and one we can soak up for a minute,” he said.

 

Erik Jones shares difficult story of father’s loss

Imagine this: You’re on a rocket ship to NASCAR stardom. After years of your family sacrificing time and money to help you make it, you’re finally close to racing’s big leagues. You’re on top of the world; your dream is within reach.

And then, just when things could hardly be better, you suffer a loss that takes away part of you — the type of loss that can never truly be healed.

That’s what Erik Jones went through last year and is still going through now — at only 20 years old.

Nothing has been easy in the past year for Jones, who lost his father, Dave, at age 53 last June.

“He was really my best friend,” Jones said Friday. “I didn’t have anybody I felt closer with or felt like I could share more with at any time.”

Cancer, that cruel and despicable disease, robbed Jones of being able to share his life’s greatest accomplishment with his father. So you’ll have to forgive him if it’s taken the better part of a year to discuss what he’s dealt with.

Before qualifying Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Jones sat in a room with a small group of reporters and shared his story, baring his soul to strangers.

The pain was so severe after his father died that Jones honestly worried if he’d ever win another race.

“I didn’t know if I’d even be the same person after going through something like that,” he said.

Getting the news

It was roughly a year ago when Dave Jones lost feeling in his arm one day. He went to the doctor, figuring it was a pinched nerve.

It wasn’t. Doctors told him it was lung cancer that would later spread to his brain.

Erik, then a 19-year-old Xfinity Series driver, took the news hard. Shortly thereafter, doctors told Dave he had only a year to live — at best.

Dave had been a central part of Erik’s career despite not having a racing background. After his son began moving up through the ranks, Dave handled the finances so Erik could focus on driving — this after once selling his ’65 Corvette to help fund Erik’s racing.

When Erik had a question or needed advice, Dave “always had the answer,” he said. He leaned on his father’s wisdom and guidance heavily, as any young son would.

One of the most important lessons Dave taught Erik: Never be afraid to see someone. If you’re afraid to see someone, it likely means you have an enemy; don’t have enemies and you won’t have to worry.

“He lived his life and he was never scared to run into anybody,” Erik said. “I always try to live by that same piece of advice.”

After the diagnosis, Erik started spending all his free time in Michigan. He needed to be with his family as much as possible. But hardly anyone outside the family were aware of what was going on.

“I holed up in my house and didn’t go anywhere,” Erik said. “I didn’t talk about it at the time to anybody. Most of my friends didn’t even know he was sick at the time.”

By April, when Jones won the Xfinity race at Bristol, things looked grim. The cancer had spread faster than doctors expected, and Dave was quite sick. Erik placed an emotional phone call to his father from Bristol’s victory lane, then told reporters about his dad’s condition.

Dave lived to see Erik win one more race — a month later, at Dover. Erik returned home after the race and can vividly recall their conversation.

“He was pretty sick, but he was still able to watch the race, and we got to talk about the race,” Erik said, breaking into a smile. “He was just pumped. It was a Dash 4 Cash race, so he thought that was cool we’d won a second one.”

Dave lived only a few more weeks. He passed away four days before Erik’s home race at Michigan International Speedway.

Dealing with a loss

The rest of 2016 was somewhat of a blur for Erik. He was numb at first, then closed himself off. He ignored some things he probably shouldn’t have. There were weekends he didn’t want to be at the track, but went anyway and — to his relief — won two more races.

It’s not like Erik has dealt with the loss and moved on. That’s not how these things work. As his career continues to take off, Erik thinks about his father daily and often sees him in dreams. He feels the absence frequently — like during the holidays and on pit road prior to the Daytona 500.

“I wish he could have been there to take it all in,” Erik said of Daytona.

A gesture from team owner Joe Gibbs helped give Erik some peace of mind. When Dave was ill, Gibbs unexpectedly dropped by the family’s home. Though the deal hadn’t been finalized yet, Gibbs told Dave that Erik would likely become a Cup Series driver in 2017 with affiliate Furniture Row Racing.

That allowed father and son to have a moment of celebration.

“I’m just really happy for you,” Dave told his son. “It’s going to be a great year.”

“It was cool in that moment to be able to sit down with him and say, ‘Hey, we did it. Next year, we’re going to be at the peak, man. That’s it,'” Erik said. “It was special to be able to share that moment; at least he knew it was all going to work out.”

Looking ahead

Though just a rookie, Erik was perhaps the best Toyota driver throughout last week’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He ultimately finished 14th, but it showed once again there’s a bright future ahead.

“There’s definitely times in the last few weeks I would have loved to call him and talk to him about racing in general and life,” Erik said. “I definitely think he’s proud.”

These days, Erik’s most cherished possession is a silver Shinola watch with a leather band, proudly made in Detroit. It’s the one his Michigan-loving dad wore every day after getting it one year as a Christmas present.

After Dave fell ill, he had it engraved for Erik. Now Erik never travels without it.

“It’s kind of the one thing I have that connects me back to him,” Erik said.

Actually, there’s one more thing.

Remember that ’65 Corvette his dad once sold to help Erik’s career? Well, Erik recently found the owner — and bought it back.

Atlanta makes Carl Edwards miss racing, but no comeback plans

Carl Edwards was back at a NASCAR track on Friday for the second time this year, on hand at Atlanta Motor Speedway at the request of his successor in the No. 19 car, Daniel Suarez.

Edwards said he watched the first part of the Daytona 500, but skipped the rest once the field started wrecking. He didn’t miss that part of it, he said.

But standing in the infield of an Atlanta track where he won three times, Edwards said, “I miss driving” — at least for a day.

Still, Edwards said he was “going to try really hard to stick to my plan, step away and make sure I get my perspective right.” He said he was “certain” he wouldn’t take any full-time offers at this time and was only in attendance because he was asked.

“I’m really, really grateful to have made the decision I made,” he said. “I’m having a lot of fun. Everybody calls it retirement; I haven’t called it retirement officially.

“I admit I brought my helmet and driver suit today, just in case somebody needed something. But I’m having a lot of fun. I’m just so grateful to Coach (Gibbs) and everybody for letting me make the decision I made. But it is cool coming back here and seeing everybody.”

Edwards also attended the Phoenix test to help Suarez in January and openly addressed rumors about his departure.  He took another shot at them Friday.

“I could have messed with you guys somehow on the rumors and stuff,” he said. “Carlos (Slim) pays me a million dollars a race to come hang out. Penske wants me to spy on the Toyotas.”

He chuckled.

“No, it’s pretty cool just to be here (because) they want me here,” he said.

 

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?

12 Questions with Kyle Busch

The 2017 version of the 12 Questions begins with 2015 Cup champion Kyle Busch. Starting with this interview, the 12 Questions are in both podcast form and written form (a transcript has been edited for clarity below).

1. How much of your success is based on natural ability and how much has come from working at it?

You have to have some sort of natural ability to apply all the work and everything you do to the racetrack. There’s drivers out there I’ve tried to help along the way during the past few seasons that I give them all the work and everything possible I know what to do, and yet they can’t quite equate it to the racetrack. So there has to be a talent there.

What is the real number there? I think you have to have 100% talent, but you also have to work at it 100% in order to be successful. You can’t just be a 50% talent and a 50% work ethic, because that’s half of both, right?

2. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards have all retired in the last couple years. What’s your pitch for fans of theirs to become fans of yours?

I got candy. (Smiles) I got M&M’s, Snickers, Skittles, Starburst, Milky Way, Twix — I got everything. And I’ve got their dogs covered, too (with Pedigree). The Mars brands are great for helping me recruit fans, that’s for sure.

But also, I think people change over time. I think I have (changed) a little bit and have gotten more fan friendly, let’s say. We’ve had some neat experiences over the years with some of our fans. Many might remember the video from leaving Martinsville or the autographs I put on somebody’s motorhome with all the Kyle Busch stuff in Watkins Glen. It’s been fun to meet those people, see those people — the true, dedicated Kyle Busch fans. And it’s growing.

What we don’t want to see are the Jeff Gordon fans and the Tony Stewart fans and the Carl Edwards fans just leave because they feel like they don’t have anything to follow in NASCAR anymore. They do. I remember when I was a kid, Jeff Gordon was my first guy — but I also liked Dale Earnhardt, Dale Jarrett, Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin. I liked all these guys, one of them was just my favorite. I can see where some people might get stuck on that, so I’m hoping you can pick me.

3. What is the hardest part of your job away from the racetrack?

My hardest job away from the racetrack I guess would just be travel. Traveling every single week, going to the events back and forth, I think that’s challenging. Our schedule is pretty demanding. We start it now and it’s 38 weeks straight. Even though there are off weeks in there, you’re still going to be doing something — and it revolves around this sport.

And then in the offseason, I’m an owner, I’m a dad 24/7. So I wear a lot of different hats. And what hat I’m wearing in particular moments, it’s hard for me to remember. But I try to position myself well for each of those situations.

4. A fan spots you eating dinner in a nice restaurant. Should they come over for an autograph or no?

There’s a right way, a tactful way in approaching somebody that’s out to dinner — especially with their wife or their family. And in my opinion, that way is if you’re finished with your food and that guy just sat down, go do it quick before they start eating. But once that person — me, for instance — is picking up a hamburger and stuffing his face full of grease, don’t come over and ask for a picture or an autograph, you know what I mean? Like wait until the person completes their meal and they get up to leave, if you can have that patience to wait around for a few.

Do people actually approach you when you’re in the middle of a bite?

Oh yeah, no doubt. All the time. The biggest thing that’s disappointing is people want to be on their time. When you want something, you can’t be on your time and expect it right now; you have to be on that other person’s time, right? If I’m going to go get Peyton Manning’s autograph at dinner and I see him out with his family, I’m going to sit there patiently and wait until he’s done and he’s on his way out of the restaurant. And I’m going to follow him out and get my picture taken or an autograph or whatever the heck I want. I’m not going to go bug the guy while he’s eating and trying to enjoy an evening.

5. What’s a story in NASCAR that doesn’t get enough coverage?

I think what may be missed are the stories of the people within our sport. Some of that has been coming out — that one kid, for instance, the crew member from the Xfinity Series who met me from the Kyle Busch Foundation who is now a pit crew member on the Xfinity side and trying to make his way to the Cup side. That got hit last year and that was a really good story, that was cool.

This sport is very demanding. It’s not just demanding for media or drivers, it’s also big for team members. They work Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. They’re off Thursday, but they’re flying Thursday sometimes at 3 in the afternoon to go to a venue. And then they work from 8 a.m. until midnight or sometimes 2, 3, 4 a.m. on Sundays, getting home on that Monday morning.

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

Note: I forgot to ask this question. Not sure what happened; I just missed it. My bad.

7. Do you consider race car drivers to be entertainers?

For sure. I think we’re in an entertainment business. We are a traveling circus — some of us look at it like that. We do shed value to the facilities, to the fans — they pay for the entertainment of the race and they want it to be exciting. Some of them want to crashes, some of them want to see cars upside down, some of them want to see things they’ve never seen before. But in this day and age, man, we’re into now nearly 70 years of NASCAR racing; there’s not very many first-seen things that are going to come anymore.

8. What is your middle finger policy on the racetrack?

You’ve gotta do something really bad to get my middle finger.

Are you serious?

Yeah. I don’t do middle fingers a whole lot. You pretty much know a middle finger is coming if you get it from me. Like it’s that bad. Sometimes, I do it in the Truck and Xfinity level as a learning tool for the other drivers, for the younger ones.

I remember Ty Dillon at Michigan — I couldn’t pass the kid for 10 laps. He was just in my way. So finally I got by him, and when I got by him, I gave him one full, straight lap of the bird out the window. And ever since then, it’s been pretty good. There was one other time I had to get on him again about it.

I don’t really use it in the Cup Series, because either A) It’s never really worth it or B) You have to do something really stupid.

Landon Cassill actually got the middle finger in practice one time from me at Atlanta. I was on a qualifying run and he just decided in James Finch’s 51 (car) to pull right up on the racetrack right in front of me through (Turns) 3 and 4 and blend in while I’m on a flier. I should have just wrecked him, but I didn’t. But when I got by him, I gave him the bird.

9. Some drivers keep a payback list in their minds. Do you also have a list for drivers who have done you a favor on the track?

Yeah, I do. I have the “That guy needs paid back” folder and the “Hey, that guy has been pretty good to me” folder. Sometimes I’m like, “That guy has been pretty good to me, man, I should cut him a break — nah, I’m not going to cut him a break right now. I’ll save it for later. I’ll get him another time.” There’s this Rolodex that keeps going in your mind of folders about drivers who have either done you well or done you wrong.

10. Who is the most famous person you’ve had dinner with?

I guess I’d say it was President (George W.) Bush. We had dinner with him at the Greenbrier (in West Virginia) a few years ago. He actually came to one of our JGR sponsor summits.

I’ve had plenty of dinners with Mars family members. Obviously, they’re not necessarily famous, but they are famous — they’re a very wealthy family.

Samantha Busch?

Shop Murph boutique owner! Yeah, I’ve had plenty of dinners with her. So that’s on the list, too.

11. What’s something about yourself you’d like to improve?

I’m perfect, dude. (Smiles) Man, that’s a hard one to answer. I don’t know. Obviously, everybody wishes they had more time, right? Not having enough time with Brexton, not having enough time with the race team, so it’s kind of hard to balance that right now. I’m struggling in that regard.

I certainly know I need to improve my skills in being able to be a little better of a leader, a CEO-type person at KBM, but also be able to change hats and be a dad and share that time with him as well.

12. The last interview was with Landon Cassill, and his question for you is: “If Brexton wants to be a race car driver, what are some things you can do to make him a better driver than you are now?”

Watching film, doing notes, paying attention, working on the cars. I worked on cars when I was a kid — that’s why I know them so well, that’s why I know what I think I’m feeling that’s wrong with them and I can communicate that to the crew chief instead of just saying, “It’s tight here, it’s loose here.” That’s easy (to say), but why is it tight? Why is it loose? It’s because it’s over on the right front or it’s because it wants to unhook the back because the track bar is too high. Stuff like that.

So being able to teach him all those things, communicate about that stuff. The unfortunate thing I feel like I’m at a disadvantage with him is when he’s 5 years old, I’m still going to be racing. So when he starts racing, the best tool I have for him right now is Tom Busch (Kyle and Kurt’s dad), who has already made two race car drivers and (Tom) being able to go to the racetrack and help Brexton.

Once Brexton gets to about 13, 14, 15, that’s when I’ll be able to get with him and race against him and follow him around and we’ll have somebody filming it and we’ll watch it and I’ll really be able to help him.

The next interview is with Martin Truex Jr. Do you have a question I can ask him?

How does it really feel to get all the good stuff from Joe Gibbs Racing?

Matt Kenseth clueless as to why Carl Edwards quit racing

Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards have been fairly tight the last few years, with their infamous Martinsville altercation buried long ago.

But even Kenseth says he’s still not sure why Edwards stepped away from racing — this despite speaking with Edwards on the phone about it.

“I called him and asked him (why) straight out, and when I hung up, it was probably less clear than before I picked (the phone) up,” Kenseth said. “I tried to listen to what he was saying, I tried to listen to what he wasn’t saying and I didn’t really come up with anything.”

Kenseth said he had no idea Edwards was thinking of leaving until Joe Gibbs put all the drivers and crew chiefs on a conference call together on a Sunday night — which was the first time that had ever happened in Kenseth’s tenure with Joe Gibbs Racing.

“(Gibbs) told us about it then, and I guess the announcement was (the next) Wednesday,” Kenseth said. “That was the first time I heard about it, and I was very, very surprised.”

But Kenseth said after thinking about it more, he wasn’t totally shocked — because that’s sort of Edwards’ nature.

The AP’s Jenna Fryer asked why that is.

“Carl has always been his own guy, right?” Kenseth said. “He kind of does his own thing, and if he decided that’s what he needed to do at the time, it doesn’t shock me he actually went through with it.”

Below: Matt Kenseth cracks jokes in a sarcastic press conference.