Aaron Bearden: JR Motorsports inches closer to title shot

By Aaron Bearden

The JR Motorsports playoff trio of William Byron, Justin Allgaier and Elliott Sadler didn’t contend for the win at Kansas Speedway.

In fact, they didn’t even lead a lap.

But the group survived to tally top-10s, and based on their position in the standings, that’s all that matters.

“I think for us, survival is key to all of these playoff races,” Allgaier said of JRM. “It doesn’t matter if it’s the first playoff race or the last one.”

Byron, Allgaier and Sadler haven’t been the class of the Xfinity Series this year. That honor goes to the three Cup Series teams — Joe Gibbs Racing, Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske — who field teams in the lower series.

JRM’s five combined victories fall short of the 21 wins those other three organizations have combined to capture. However, while JRM hasn’t been the best organization overall this season, they’ve been the best of the tour’s class of series regulars.

Despite the strength of JGR, CGR and Penske, those teams have combined to field just two championship contenders (Brennan Poole and Matt Tifft) this season. Both drivers have enjoyed strong seasons and remain in the playoffs, but neither has managed to match JRM’s top trio.

Allgaier and Byron have combined to take five of the seven victories earned by playoff participants to date. The veteran Sadler has gone winless, but claimed the regular season championship. Michael Annett didn’t have the speed of his teammates, but also crept into the postseason on points before an early elimination.

The fruits of JRM’s efforts arrived as soon as the regular season ended and the sport’s newest championship gimmick — playoff points — took effect. And that’s been a different situation than in the Cup Series and Truck Series, where only a few drivers had sizable margin over the rest.

 

In the Xfinity Series, where Cup drivers and teams typically thrive, the overall lack of playoff points for the field meant JRM entered with a substantial organizational advantage.

Between wins and regular season bonus points, JRM came into the postseason with 72 of the 114 total playoff points. Byron, Allgaier and Sadler each arrived in the first round with 11 or more points on fourth-place Daniel Hemric. And because playoff points carry through each round, the trio held the same advantage going into Saturday’s Round 3 opener at Kansas Speedway.

Secure with their advantage, JRM simply survived in Kansas. JGR’s Erik Jones and Christopher Bell dominated the race up front, and Penske’s Ryan Blaney followed in third.

Behind them? Byron and Allgaier in fourth and fifth. Sadler followed in seventh, meaning JRM had the top three playoff drivers.

A perfect weekend it was not. But it was exactly what JRM needs to place all three of their remaining playoff contenders in the final four at Homestead.

Allgaier, Byron and Sadler hold point advantages of 33, 31, and 22, respectively, over fifth-place Tifft with two races remaining until Homestead. If they can match the Kansas performance two more times, the organization should head into the season finale with 75 percent of the remaining playoff field.

“Today we did our job,” Allgaier said. “We’ve gotta do that for two more races, and we’ll hopefully put ourselves in a great position to go to Homestead.”

Brennan Poole on his future: ‘I don’t have anything set’

Brennan Poole’s 2018 plans were the subject of conflicting reports this week. First, Motorsport.com reported Poole was out at Chip Ganassi Racing and could be heading to Richard Childress Racing’s No. 27 car in the Cup Series. But then Chip Ganassi Racing co-owner Felix Sabates told Sirius/XM Radio the Xfinity Series driver would likely be returning to CGR next season.

So what’s the deal?

“I don’t have anything set,” Poole said via phone on Friday. “Like I don’t really have any plans. I don’t really know what’s going to happen. I haven’t really had an in-depth conversation with Ganassi. So I really just am not sure.”

Poole said he’s “definitely open to all opportunities,” but insisted he sincerely doesn’t know where he’ll be racing next season. That murky future includes whether sponsor DC Solar will continue to align with him.

“Honestly — honestly — I really don’t know,” he said. “I’ve had a great relationship with them over the past several years, but there hasn’t been any talks. So I really just don’t know.”

What the 26-year-old does know, he said, is his team has a great chance to win a championship this season — and that’s where his attention lies after three straight top-five finishes helped him breeze through the first round of the playoffs.

“I’ve certainly been flattered with everything that’s happened course of this week, and my name being out there and tossed around,” he said. “But really, I’ve just been focused on a championship this year.”

A driver whose career once seemed completely done, Poole got the opportunity to run part time in the Xfinity Series in 2015 when co-owners Harry Scott and Ganassi offered him a ride a month before the season began. His results were impressive enough to land him a full season in the series last year — when he finished eighth in points — and he then returned this season.

After a rough start, Poole has scored 10 top-10 finishes in the last 13 races and was the highest-finishing playoff driver in two of the Round 1 races.

“We didn’t have the best start to the season, but the past couple months have just been outstanding,” he said. “We’ve been bringing really fast race cars and putting ourselves in position to win. I think it shows a lot about where our team is at and how much I’ve grown as a driver.”

That’s why Poole said he “wouldn’t say I’m nervous or anything” about his 2018 plans. He’s confident that if he can go win the title, the future will take care of itself.

“I’ve got four races left to get this championship done,” he said. “We have what it takes. I’m just excited to see what’s going to happen on the track and what’s next for me.”

Monte Dutton column: Singin’ In The Rain (What A Lovely Feeling, I’m Happy Again)

By Monte Dutton

On my way to Charlotte Motor Speedway, I learned from a radio personality that, up ahead, it was “pouring mist,” and I picked up the pace because I wanted to experience the phenomenon of mist that would pour.

My God, it’s misting sideways! Alert Jim Cantore!

Here I sit, at 4:32 p.m., in the CMS infield media center, and Top Gun is showing on the monitors, now that Duke-Virginia is over, along with Cars and, according to tweeted reports from chums who were here, Speedway with Elvis Presley before I got here.

If the advance of this storm gives us a worst-case scenario, I may get to watch Rory Calhoun in Thunder in Carolina by, oh, Tuesday.

Surely not. The Bank of America 500 is optimistically scheduled even earlier than before!

This morning I arose sorrowfully, knowing that even though I haven’t experienced one of these long, rainy journeys into night in a while, a few of them remain vivid in my psyche. It’s not like the old days when NASCAR officials waited to announce a postponement until Dale Earnhardt was safely out of the track and boarding a plane. The discerning scribe could simply find a vantage point where he could see Earnhardt climb into a black limousine, then he could go to his rented Ford Contour and beat the traffic a short distance behind the seven-time champion. He could then wrap up the day’s activities from the motel room while his ears were ringing from less astute scribes, ensnarled in traffic, cussing him from afar.

Everyone from that era misses Earnhardt. That’s my reason.

It was long ago and far away (Pocono), when men were men and race tracks had traffic.

It rained in varying degrees, from the regular, non-pouring variety of mist to the kind that made me cuss every driver on the road who didn’t know how to turn his lights on, from the South Carolina Upstate to the grandeur of the Queen City. I stopped at a truck stop for gas and considered a hoodie that was day-glow yellow but sold for a mere $14.99. Instead, I bought a Diet Coke and a corn dog because not even a truck stop can mess up a corn dog.

I still own a Winston Cup Series umbrella. As I walked into the media center, a fellow looked at it and said, “Duude, that’s, like, serious old school. Cool. I like it.”

I looked at him and didn’t say a word. He probably thought I was a serious sort. It was just the umbrella that’s been behind my seat since I bought my truck and the one before it.

The word has just come down from Imperial NASCAR that the driver introductions are going to take place momentarily. Technically, no announcement has been made regarding the running of the NASCAR Xfinity Series Drive for the Cure 300 presented by Blue Cross Shield of North Carolina, but, as a general rule, one is not held without the other.

I’ve left the infield now because I like press boxes, never more than the present, because I watch races the way they do in the infield – on TV – every week. I like to watch a race without conforming to television’s judgment. Sometimes I use primitive instruments such as stopwatches and radios that just go one way.

Besides, before the race, I heard Dale Jarrett say that this race –- because of all the rain and all the hocus-pocus stick’em and unexpected nighttime running (when all the goblins come out) — would have more uncertainty and pure madness than any race he could remember (and he remembers a lot).

What about the 1954 Carrera Panamericana, won by Umberto Maglioli? Dale might have to ask Ned.

They’ve completed a stage now, and the field seems full of professional drivers unfazed by the predicted madness. Literally hundreds are in the stands.

Tomorrow – if a scheduled Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race is run ahead of a tropical storm with a bigger advance team than a Trump golf outing – the 40 greatest drivers in Cabarrus County will take to the track without having practiced on Saturday.

I’m sorry I am unable to provide you, gentle readers, with more hard-hitting, gritty racing coverage, but I’d have had a better chance of bumping into Tiger Woods at the Family Dollar than a prominent driver in the garage. They were all holding virtual practice on simulators somewhere.

It’s after 11. Alex Bowman is in Victory Lane. It’s all been worth it … for him. I’m hoping that coffee at the truck stop I visited earlier is hot and plentiful, but truck stops are more reliable in coffee than day-glow hoodies.

What I miss most about the racing lifestyle is the glamor.

Jeremy Clements on Cup drivers dominating Xfinity: ‘Who wants to watch that?’

One of the most-cited arguments in the debate over Cup Series drivers running Xfinity races is lower-level drivers learn something by competing against NASCAR’s best.

What does Road America winner Jeremy Clements think about that theory? Ehhhhhhhh….

“The problem is they’re in top-dollar equipment,” Clements said Friday at Darlington Raceway. “(People say) ‘It’s good for you to race them, it makes you better.’ I’m like, ‘Well half the time they’re so much faster, it doesn’t make me better when they fly by me. I don’t know what I’m learning from that.'”

Clements said if Cup drivers want to race in the Xfinity Series, they should have to drive for a non-Cup affiliated team. That would mean no more Cup guys in Joe Gibbs Racing equipment, JR Motorsports equipment or Team Penske equipment, for example, which would make it “way more fair,” Clements said.

He’s not the first one to come up with that theory, but it makes sense given Kyle Busch’s only winless Xfinity season came when he was driving for Kyle Busch Motorsports in 2012 (Busch went 0-for-22 that year).

But in general, Clements said, there’s just not much entertainment value in watching Cup guys dominate in the lower series.

“Like Iowa when Ryan Preece won? We need more stories like that and more opportunities for guys like myself instead of top-name drivers in Cup getting the big rides and winning every weekend,” he said. “That’s not exciting to me.

“I don’t blame the Cup guys; I would do it, too. I’m just saying give us a chance. I mean who wants to watch that, honestly?”

 

What the hell are flange-fit composite bodies, and why do they matter?

Here’s a quick Q&A — with myself — to help explain Wednesday’s news that NASCAR will move toward flange-fit composite bodies in the Xfinity Series:

Uh, what is this?

OK, so you know how all stock car bodies in NASCAR’s national series are made of one steel piece? NASCAR is looking to change that in the Xfinity Series by introducing something called flange-fit composite bodies.

I had to Google this, but a flange is basically an attachment, like a hook. And then composite describes the laminate material the body will be made of.

I don’t really get it. How’s that going to work, exactly?

There are now going to be 13 composite panels that make up an Xfinity Series body, held together by these flanges. Remember those 3D jigsaw puzzles? It’s kinda like that, from what I gather.

That’s crazy!!! Why in the world would NASCAR do that?

Racing is expensive and this is going to save teams some sweet, sweet cash in several different ways. Also, it should promote parity if it works.

OK. How and how?

The cost savings part is legit. Let’s say a car wrecks in practice and the body is pretty much junk, but the chassis is still good. Well instead of pulling out a backup car, now the team can just take the damaged panel off and put a new one on. And if there’s a crash during the race, it will be way less of a time suck to just replace the panels as opposed to hanging a new steel body on the chassis once the team gets back to the shop.

As for parity? Well, everyone is going to be running the same panels and they are supposedly tamper-proof with security features that will prevent teams from manipulating them for aero advantages.

Can they change the panels during the race?

Nope, because the five-minute clock will still be in effect for crash damage and it would take too long to swap out the panels.

Huh. But the teams can’t possibly be on board with this, right?

NASCAR says they are. Officials say the teams have been asking for this and worked with NASCAR and the manufacturers on this project. And apparently NASCAR got some strong buy-in, because officials are expecting all but a few teams to run it at the first available opportunity — even though it’s optional.

When is that? You got this far down in the story and didn’t even say when this is all happening.

Sorry, my bad. It’s Richmond, Dover and Phoenix this fall, and then all races except for superspeedways next season.

Wait, back up a couple questions. Did you say this is optional? If so, why wouldn’t some teams keep running the steel bodies in the future?

As of right now, steel bodies likely offer a competitive advantage over composite bodies because teams can manipulate them right up to the edge of the rules.

But in the near future, that may not be the case. Brett Bodine, NASCAR Senior Director of R&D, hinted there would be competition restrictions on the steel bodies that would make them heavier and take the incentive away to use them next year.

Clearly, NASCAR wants composite bodies to be the wave of the future.

Oh. So they’re coming to Cup then, probably.

Eh, maybe. But NASCAR won’t say that and wouldn’t go there on Wednesday. Officials insist they’re “100 percent focused” on seeing how it works in Xfinity first.

And by the way, NASCAR says fans won’t be able to tell the difference between a steel car and a flange/composite car by just watching from the stands or on TV.

Interesting. Well, it doesn’t sound all bad. Did NASCAR do something right?

We’ll have to wait and see, but at least it seems that way on first glance.

News Analysis: Reports say William Byron to drive Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 car

What happened: William Byron, age 19, will be named as the driver of Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 5 car starting in 2018, according to (in order of reporting) SportsBusiness Journal, SBNation.com and Motorsport.com. The team has not officially announced the move (and I haven’t personally confirmed it, but I don’t doubt those who have). Byron, who grew up playing NASCAR video games but did not start racing until five years ago, will replace Kasey Kahne, whose departure from Hendrick was announced Monday. The racing prodigy is currently a rookie in the Xfinity Series, where he is second in points with three wins for JR Motorsports — this following his seven wins last season for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Truck Series.

What it means: The face of Hendrick Motorsports has been dramatically altered in the last few years. Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne (combined 137 Cup victories) have been replaced with Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman and Byron (combined zero Cup victories), who have an average age of 21.3. Byron will now be a full-time Cup driver after just one year each in Trucks and Xfinity — and that seems like an awfully quick move, similar to the rapid ascents of Joey Logano and Kyle Larson. Byron is unquestionably talented, but it would have been nice to see him run another full season of Xfinity before getting promoted to Cup — something even Jimmie Johnson indicated last month. “At his age, I just don’t want to be in too big of a hurry to move him up,” Johnson told a small group of reporters at New Hampshire. “If you look back at past history, like a Joey Logano scenario, it just takes time. I feel so lucky I didn’t get my Cup start until I was 25. … I think I was just in a better place than the position some of these young guys are put in. They’re super talented, it’s just a lot of pressure to put on those guys.”

News value (scale of 1-10): Eight. Even if Byron was the likely replacement after the team said Kahne was out, it’s still quite noteworthy that Hendrick continues to use young and relatively inexperienced drivers to fill its seasons considering veteran drivers like Matt Kenseth are on the free agent market. It wasn’t long ago that Hendrick was the most sought-after destination for established drivers who had already won many races. Now the seats are being snatched up by drivers who are unproven at the Cup level. Dale Earnhardt Jr. shed some light on why this might be the case for Silly Season in general, and it makes sense again in this scenario.

Three questions: Can Byron continue to immediately adapt and win at the next level, as he has done in each series along the way up the ladder? Since it turned out OK for Logano and Larson in the long run, what are the real risks of moving him up too soon? Who will replace Byron at JRM now that he will be vacating a championship-caliber seat in the Xfinity Series?

Related: Here are my 12 Questions interviews with Byron from 2016 and from 2017.

 

12 Questions with Blake Koch

The 12 Questions series of interviews continues this week with Blake Koch of Kaulig Racing. I spoke with Koch at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This interview is available in both written and podcast form.

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

Oh man. I would say that it’s probably 50/50. You can work as work as you want to, but if you don’t have that natural ability to drive a car at speed, it’s gonna be really difficult to make it. And if you have that natural ability to go fast but don’t put in the work, you’re not gonna make it, either. So I feel like both are equally important. You have to have that natural talent — that natural ability to drive a race car or for whatever you’re doing in life — and then you have to have the ability to work harder than anybody else at it to become successful.

2. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and now Dale Earnhardt Jr. have all either retired in the last couple years or will retire soon. What’s your pitch for fans of theirs to become fans of yours?

I welcome all fans. I think that’s the most important part of NASCAR, are the fans that come out to watch us. It wouldn’t be as fun racing in front of nobody, you know? I truly appreciate the fans. I like to get to know them. I like to utilize my social media platforms, whether it’s Facebook Live or Instagram Stories, to just show my fans the behind-the-scenes of my life and also follow them, too, and get to see what they do and what they’re like.

And you know the story of the Koch Krew, and how I just welcomed those guys in (through a tweet) and now they’re my biggest fans. They have their own T-shirt line now. So I just encourage people to follow me because I’m a real person. I am a race car driver on the racetrack, but I also didn’t grow up in it.

Six years ago, I was pressure-cleaning roofs Monday through Thursday to pay the bills and then racing on the weekends. And only four years ago, I was driving Trevor Bayne’s motorhome and spotting for Michael McDowell in the Cup Series, just trying to stay at the racetrack, be in front of the right people and just keep working at it like you have to in order to make it in the sport. Ever since I’ve met (LeafFilter owner) Matt Kaulig, he’s turned my career around and here I am competing for a Xfinity Series playoff position.

I love the story of the Koch Krew. They were people who were “Carl’s Crew” and they were looking for a new driver, like so many fans are now, and I retweeted them and said they were looking for a new driver. You were the only driver out of all the possible drivers to tweet them back. And now it’s like a match made in heaven.

It is cool. I remember they wrote a letter and you reposted it. I saw it and I was like, “Man, if they’re that big of fans of Carl Edwards, I would love to have those fans.” And then they just jumped all in and they showed up, I think Daytona was the first time I met them. Then they flew all the way to Vegas, they’ve been to Pocono, Dover, they go all over the place. And the Koch Krew is getting bigger now. I mean, they use the hashtag #KochKrew and they have the shirts like I said. We’re selling a lot of those shirts. And they’re just awesome people, man; they’re just really really nice and good people, and I’m proud to be their driver.

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

The hardest part of my job away from the racetrack would have to be just balancing time. I think that goes for any person that’s married with kids and has a career: just trying to balance that time, spending enough time with my kids, spending enough time with my wife, spending enough time working at my job and focusing on how to get better. So that balance is a constant struggle for me. And not really a struggle like I’m bad at it, but I make sure it’s a priority to have a good balance of time. That’s probably the most difficult part.

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

Absolutely! Yeah! Definitely come over for an autograph.

What if you’re in the middle of eating or something?

If I’m in the middle of eating, I would say still come over and talk to us. But if I’m with someone else, make sure you talk to them, too. It’s always kind of awkward when I’m talking to somebody or a fan and it’s my wife or friend sitting there and they’re feeling awkward. So make sure you say hi to everybody at the table.

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

I don’t know about a story, but I would like to hear the sponsors mentioned more. Like when you’re watching the races, watching practice, you hear, “Blake Koch, No. 11.” It would be nice to throw in LeafFilter. Every time you say my car, my name, it’d be nice to have sponsor plugs. We work really hard to get these sponsors and spend a lot of money. Anytime we can get their names mentioned on TV more is better.

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

Yes I do. I do think we are entertainers. Our job is to put on a good race and a good show for the fans watching on their mobile device or on their television or through Twitter. There’s so many ways to relive the race, but our job really is to entertain people, especially at the racetrack. If we’re doing a Q and A on stage at the Chevy trailer, you wanna be an entertainer; you want people to be excited and not just bored. So I think it’s important to entertain our fans.

7. Who is the last driver you texted?

Well that’s easy, let’s look. (Pulls out phone) Justin Allgaier is the last driver I texted.

Can you say what you were texting about?

It was last night at 8:30. We were doing media availability (on Friday of Indianapolis race weekend), and he’s like, “I figured out something about Indy where I didn’t really want to show my cars to everybody.” I texted him saying, “Hey what do you know about Indy? Call me.” And he said, “OK, I’ll call you.”

That’s a nice friend. He shared some info.

We’ll see if he shared. (Laughs) He gave me some info but it doesn’t sound like a big secret, so we’ll see.

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

Zero tolerance for the middle finger. It makes me more mad than I can even explain to you when someone flicks me off. The last person that did it, we ended up having a talk the next weekend. And I like to have a talk, I don’t like to jump to conclusions. So I just tell them, “You can’t flick me off. It’s not OK.” And I’m looked at as the nicest guy in the garage, so when I come up and have that serious conversation with you, I mean it. So that’s my policy: Zero tolerance.

So you’re just offended? If something like that happens, you’re like, “This is deeply offensive.” That’s why you’re so mad about it?

The way I was brought up, the middle finger means a particular word to you, and it would be like walking up to somebody and saying that to their face. What do you expect the reaction to be? It’s not gonna be good. So I literally see red on the racetrack, and I have to calm myself down and it kind of ruins my whole section of the racetrack. So it’s bad.

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?

Absolutely. I entered into NASCAR with respect for every single driver I race around. I don’t really keep a payback list, like I have to pay somebody back, but they do lose my respect and I will race them differently than I race someone that does cut me breaks.

So you remember who races you which way. I race people the way I wanna be raced, and then they race people the way they want to be raced. So if they’re racing you like an idiot, they obviously want to be raced like an idiot. That’s kind of how I look at it.

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

The most famous person I’ve had dinner with, well it was dinner in the hauler, more like a late lunch, but Mark Wahlberg.

How did that come about?

He sponsored my car in 2015 with the AQUAhydrate water company that he owns part of. So he came out to California Speedway and just sat in the lounge. We were up there for about an hour eating, so I can say we ate dinner together. It might not have been dinnertime, though. But I got to hang out with him and he sat on the pit box, went around the track after driver intros with him and spent some time with him. So that’s definitely the most famous person I’ve spent time with.

Did you find him to be down to earth, or did he have a celebrity air about him?

The most down to earth celebrity I’ve ever met was Mark Wahlberg. He’s just like he is in the movies; he’s just this tough guy. He was walking around, didn’t have any bodyguards with him or anything.

I think the funniest thing was he was walking behind me to driver intros, and you know at California you walk underneath that little tunnel. Well three people stopped me for my autograph and they didn’t even ask him for his autograph because they had no idea it was him — because why would he be there? So I think that was kind of funny.

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

That’s always a question I ask good friends. I’ll ask Michael McDowell in particular or Lonnie Clouse, our chaplain (from Motor Racing Outreach). Like what do you see? What are my strengths? What are my weaknesses as a person? And they’ll tell me, and I’ll work on those things.

But to improve would probably be something simple as remember people’s names. I wish I remembered everybody’s name. Our team owner Matt Kaulig, I feel like he knows every single person’s name at Leaf Filter and there’s like a thousand employees. Every time he talk to somebody, he says their name, and I think that’s very impressive and I’d love the ability to do that.

12. The last interview I did was with David Ragan. His question was: After a race, you typically go back to your hauler. What’s the first thing you look at when you get to your phone? 

If it’s a good race, it’s the text messages. If it’s a bad race, my phone’s blank. There’s not even one single text message. So I instantly go and answer some of my text messages and I’ll try to find my wife first and say, “Hi, I’m OK,” if it’s a bad race. Or if it’s a good race, thumbs up. So my wife’s the first one I text.

I don’t know who the next interview is going to be with. Do you have a general question I could ask a driver?

Yeah, one that’s already been asked that I thought was a really great question, and we’ll see if people will be open and honest about it: Who was your favorite teammate, and who was your least favorite teammate? I think that’s very interesting and when I was reading your responses, it was interesting to see that Kenseth said it was Carl. You would never think that anyone wouldn’t like Carl at first. I kind of like that behind-the-scenes information. So the next guy, I wanna know who their favorite teammate was or is, and who their worst teammate was or is.