Thoughts on Joe Gibbs Racing suspending No. 78 team pit crew members

It seems like “Only in NASCAR!” moments happen every week lately, doesn’t it? And yet another one occurred Thursday when Joe Gibbs Racing suspended two members of Martin Truex Jr.’s pit crew for three races.

Yes, that’s right: JGR issued suspensions to a pair of crewman who pit the Furniture Row Racing No. 78 car — essentially JGR’s top competitor this season.

How is that possible? Well, FRR doesn’t have its own pit crew. As part of its alliance deal with JGR (which supplies FRR with cars), the No. 78 uses a JGR pit crew each week.

So when two of the pit crew members nearly got in a fight with Kyle Busch crew chief Adam Stevens after the Brickyard 400, that was a BIG-TIME no-no.

I mean, think about it: Two employees of a company were screaming in the face of someone who was basically their superior. That would get you fired from a LOT of jobs, to be honest.

But although the suspensions were justified, the optics on this are terrible. Stevens didn’t start the confrontation — one of the crew members taunted the crew chief by clapping as he walked by — Stevens probably should have gotten some kind of public reprimand if the crew guys were going to end up losing three weeks of salary.

Otherwise, the general fan is understandably going to have a “If you can’t beat ’em, suspend ’em” reaction to what happened — no matter how much JGR and FRR try to explain that you can’t get in an altercation with a high-level person from the company that signs your checks.

Economics could push veteran drivers out of sport early, Denny Hamlin says

While there’s definitely a lot of merit to the young driver movement in NASCAR, there’s a flip side to the trend that has a big dollar sign attached.

Denny Hamlin, while acknowledging the influx of young talent into the sport, said hiring young drivers may not be what teams would prefer to do.

“It’s a shame the teams are not in a position to just put in who they want — put in the best guy available,” Hamlin said Friday during an appearance at the Indianapolis FedEx hub. “You wish the teams could operate and say, ‘You know what? We want this guy. We don’t care how old he is. We don’t care whether the sponsor likes him, because we have enough money in our company to field the car.'”

Hamlin said that because current teammate and free-agent-to-be Matt Kenseth is currently looking for a job despite still being at the top of his game.

“Without a doubt, Kenseth would be in a top-notch ride with a top-notch team if the business of NASCAR was run like that,” Hamlin said. “But it’s just not anymore. It’s tough to make money (for) these teams, and they need those sponsors to be OK with the drivers. … Kenseth, on talent, deserves to be in the sport for a fair amount of time.”

Veteran drivers, of course, demand a much higher salary than young drivers who are just happy to have the opportunity at the NASCAR Cup Series level.

Hendrick Motorsports hired unheralded Alex Bowman to replace Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 car, Erik Jones will replace Matt Kenseth at Joe Gibbs Racing and Daniel Suarez replaced Carl Edwards this season.

So is Hamlin, 36, worried his driving days might end prematurely after seeing Kenseth and Greg Biffle pushed out of rides while in their mid-40s?

“Not as long as I have this company behind me — I don’t think so,” Hamlin said with a smile, motioning to a FedEx jumbo jet over his shoulder. He added: “I know my years are probably numbered and I probably know as far as I want to go.”

Denny Hamlin walks by a FedEx plane during a visit to the company’s Indianapolis hub on Friday. (Photo: Jeff Gluck)


12 Questions with Matt Kenseth

The 12 Questions series of interviews continues this week with Matt Kenseth of Joe Gibbs Racing. I spoke with Kenseth at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

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

Oh man. I feel like for me through the years, I’ve always never felt like I was an extra-gifted, talented driver, really. Especially earlier in my career before technology changed and everything, I felt like I understood cars probably better than some of the drivers that just came in and were just drivers. So I would say for me, more it’s been hard work and studying and doing all that more so than natural ability. 

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 don’t know. I’m not much of a salesman. I don’t know that I have much of a pitch.

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

I don’t know that there really is one away from the racetrack. I hate to, first of all, call driving race cars in a circle a “job.” It’s pretty much a dream to be able to drive race cars and get paid for it. I don’t know that there is a bad part or a hard part of the job away from the racetrack.

I guess one thing I’ve never really enjoyed and been nervous about is public speaking. So probably anytime I have to get up and give any kind of a speech is probably the worst part or scariest part for me.

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

Sure, why not?

You might be eating.

You can wait until my mouth isn’t full, but yeah.

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

I don’t know. I don’t really watch much coverage, so I’m not really sure what’s covered and what’s not.

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

Last one I texted would have been Jimmie (Johnson).

Were you going biking or something?

Yeah, I was just trying to see what the plan was for the weekend. I was solo this weekend, so I was trying to see when and where we were riding. Good guess.

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

The drivers? I think it’s an entertainment business for sure. I think that people go to watch drivers, race cars, pit crews — they come to see the competition. So I don’t know if just the driver is necessarily an entertainer, but I think it’s obviously an entertainment business. Everybody comes to watch the sport to be entertained.

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

I try not to ever do it. Unfortunately, I have a couple times. But I try not to do it. They used to get fined for it, and it seems like they always find it, but you try your best to control your temper.

How do you feel when someone gives it to you, if that happens?

I don’t remember the last time I got one on the racetrack. Would have been a long time ago.

That’s a good thing.

I might not have seen it, but the last time I’ve seen it (was a long time ago).

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 don’t really keep any payback lists. I can’t remember anything that anybody’s ever done to me that I felt like was wrong or bothered me. Ever. (Keeps straight face.)

I don’t believe that, but we’ll just move on.

But yeah, I mean certainly, you try to always race people the way you want to be raced and then sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t, then you start racing people the way they race you. I really feel like typically if you’re fair with people, they’re fair back with you.

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

I don’t know.

Do you want me to help you?

I guess.

I’ll say Dale Jr. Have you had dinner with Dale Jr.?

A real sit-down dinner? Probably not.

Jimmie Johnson?

I’ve had dinner with Jimmie Johnson. I thought these were my answers, not yours.

Well, I just felt like you maybe could use a lifeline. It’s like on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

I don’t know. I would think of somebody famous would be like James Hetfield from Metallica or a movie star or something. I don’t really consider myself or my peers famous. The people I go to dinner with I think more of as friends, so it’s kind of a tough one to answer.

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

Man, I don’t know. Do you think there’s anything I can improve?

I think, except for that last answer, you’re perfect.

I think I’d like to improve on my dry humor a little bit. Nah, I don’t know. There’s a million things I can improve on. I don’t think you’ve got enough memory on your phone for all of those.

12. This is an important question because Denny Hamlin asked me to find a driver with at least six to seven years of experience to answer the following question. His question is: Who is your favorite teammate you’ve ever worked with, and who is the worst teammate you’ve ever worked with?

You can’t really pick a favorite. I’ve had a lot of teammates through the years, and I think picking a favorite is like picking a favorite child. By the way, some of my teammates have been very childish. So I don’t think you can pick a favorite.

Can you pick a worst?

You know, you can’t really pick a worst, either. But I will say that the first time around, Carl (Edwards) would have been for sure the most challenging teammate that I’ve had to get along with, and we’re probably both equally responsible for that because I would say we just didn’t really understand each other and we had very different personalities. So we definitely clashed the first time around. The second time around we got along great.

That sounds like the first time I interviewed Carl and the second time I interviewed Carl.


The next interview is with David Ragan. Do you have a question I can ask David?

You can ask him the same exact question.

Pass it along?

Yeah, just pay it forward.

The Top Five: Breaking down the New Hampshire race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway…

1. Mixed bag for Gibbs

So Joe Gibbs Racing is back in victory lane for the first time since Texas last fall, which was Carl Edwards’ final career win.

While that’s great for Denny Hamlin, you’ll have to forgive teammates Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch if they didn’t leave the track with a smile on their faces.

Busch sped twice on pit road to take him out of contention and now hasn’t won in a year (his last win was Indianapolis, which is next on the schedule). That seems crazy, because Busch is third in the standings and “he’s had a chance to win maybe eight times” (as Gibbs put it); yet he’s winless.

All the Xfinity wins in the world don’t make up for something that you just know has to be eating away at the ultra-competitive Busch.

Then there’s Kenseth. After official word of him getting the boot from JGR was released earlier in the week, his chance to win for the first time in a year went away thanks to bad strategy. Kenseth had passed Martin Truex Jr. with fresher tires, but then only took two tires on the final pit stop — while everyone else behind him took four, costing him the race.

Kenseth said the move had worked in the past, which may have led crew chief Jason Ratcliff down the wrong path.

“I just couldn’t hang on with two tires,” Kenseth said. “Typically here you can get away with that — we won in the spring doing that (last year). Four tires just made big charges today all day long. When we were the only one without lefts, I knew we were probably in big trouble.”

Gibbs made a beeline for Kenseth’s car to pat him on the back after the race, but that probably wasn’t much consolation after what would have been a sweet victory for a 45-year-old free agent.

Alas, it was Hamlin celebrating instead.

2. Joe Low

After the race, I asked Joey Logano if he knew what went wrong. I was referring to the part that broke — the one that took 33 laps to repair in the garage and resulted in a 37th-place finish — but he had to ask for clarification.

“Which part?” he said. “The (being) slow part or the car that broke?”

Yeah, it seems Logano has a lot of problems right now.

With another disappointing result, Logano is 52 points behind Kenseth for the final playoff spot with seven races remaining.

His hopes of contending for a title are not looking so good, which is fairly shocking considering how strong the No. 22 has been in recent years. I doubt many people picked Logano to miss the playoffs, but it’s trending that direction.

“We might have to win now,” he said. “It’s a pretty big hit. We’re in trouble. We’ve got to get going.”

Logano reminded reporters the team has been on the outside before and executed to advance. But that was in the playoffs — and during a time when the team was running much better.

Right now, Logano just isn’t getting very good cars.

“We’ve got to stick together and keep faith in each other — and we’ve got to make our cars faster, because we’re just slow,” he said. “It’s plain and simple and blunt as can be: We’re slow, and we’ve got to get faster.”

To make matters worse, NASCAR confiscated a part from Logano’s car after he went to the garage. A decision will be made on that during further inspection this week, although the team certainly can’t afford any more of a points penalty if it hopes to make the playoffs without a victory.

3. Hail Dale

Dale Earnhardt Jr. stayed out on old tires while the entire field pitted, which put him in the lead on a restart with 35 laps to go.

As you might guess, it didn’t work. He plummeted through the running order and ended up 18th.

But given his points position (21st), Earnhardt and his team had to try something. They have to win, not go for top-10s.

So I asked Earnhardt: Was that strategy call pretty much a Hail Mary?

“It was like a Hail Mary when you’re down 14,” he said with a chuckle.

Earnhardt said he and crew chief Greg Ives were hoping some others would stay out behind them and provide a buffer, but even that probably would have been a longshot call.

If they didn’t try it, though?

“We’d have finished 10th at best,” Earnhardt said. “Tenth to 18th is no big deal. We’ve got to try to win. That wasn’t an opportune risk to take, but we’re going to have to take them every week — no matter how (much of) a longshot it is.”

4. TrackBite leaves a mark

I’ll acknowledge the VHT/PJ1 TrackBite/sticky goo storyline was overhyped this weekend, and that made some fans cranky on Twitter.

Nobody likes hearing about the same thing over and over, after all. Any angle being hammered by the media seems to annoy people, no matter what the topic is.

But the TrackBite really was worthy of discussion, because it changed the race. So even though it wore off after awhile, NASCAR should keep pushing forward with experimenting again at future tracks.

“It hasn’t been one of my favorite racetracks because it is so one lane, but today I thought there was a lot of different lanes you could run, and it was all because of the PJ1 that they put on the track,” Kyle Larson said. “So for sure, I think NASCAR should look at doing it at other racetracks.”

What kind of tracks? While Larson said it should be done at places where slower speeds are run in the corners, Hamlin said he could envision it working on repaved tracks like Kentucky and Texas — provided it’s placed on the high line, not the normal groove.

“NASCAR is easing into it,” Hamlin said. “I think it created a multi-lane racetrack we hadn’t seen here in awhile.”

The bottom line (excuse the pun) is this: Drivers are in favor of the experiment, so expect to see it used again in future races.

5. Meme-able Moment

One thing about racing at New Hampshire is there are rarely any classic races. And I’m thinking Sunday’s probably isn’t going to qualify as a memorable one years from now, either.

But Hamlin’s last two wins have produced a couple moments that will be talked about for awhile.

In 2012, you’ll recall Hamlin made his guarantee before the Chase race — and came through, complete with a Babe Ruth swing during the celebration.

And now: Lobster Phobia.

Who knew Hamlin was so sketched out about lobsters? I guess anyone who has eaten a seafood dinner with him is aware, because he said he can’t sit next to someone who is chowing down on lobster.

But seeing him scamper away from the giant lobster when crew chief Mike Wheeler approached? Pretty funny.

Dan Gelston of the Associated Press asked Hamlin what he would do with the lobster now (since it’s a reward for the winner).

“I’m not going to do anything with it,” he said. “I’ve seen it and touched it for the last time. As far as I’m concerned, they need to put it back in the water and let it live.”

Sometimes when the races aren’t great, at least we have these kind of meme-able moments that make NASCAR fun.

12 Questions with Denny Hamlin

The series of 12 Questions interviews continues this week with Denny Hamlin of Joe Gibbs Racing. Hamlin is currently seventh in the point standings. This interview was conducted at Daytona and is available both in podcast and written form.

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

It’s probably 75 percent natural ability. I think 25 of it you can refine by just doing it and studying at it.

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 really don’t have a pitch. You like me if you like me; if you don’t, then you don’t. I’m a true, old-school short-track racer. Got here the old fashioned way, just like all those guys did. So why not me?

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

I don’t really consider my job hard on the racetrack or off the racetrack. It’s everything that I’ve really hoped it would be. The hardest part is just the time away from home.

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

They can. I don’t think I’ve really turned anyone down that’s approached me about an autograph. Doesn’t mean necessarily it’s OK or I like it or I encourage it, but I definitely never would turn anyone away.

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

I think the pit crews and how much of athletes they are gets a little bit of coverage, but we see within the race teams how all the pit crews rank, even individual positions. I think the TV or the media hasn’t seen before who has the fastest jack man on pit road, who has the fastest tire carrier, who has the faster tire changer. All those stats are available, but you never see them.

Are those stats kept by the teams? How would I get those?

I don’t know. Someone high up probably has them. But I’ve seen them.

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

Dale Jr.

Can you tell us what it was about?

We were actually talking about the refs. He thinks that things are getting pretty physical in his basketball league, so he’s asking whether he thinks my refs (in Hamlin’s “Hoop Group” league) could possibly control that or not.

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

Yeah, absolutely. I think that we’re entertainers — we’re more than just race car drivers. I mean, we go to autograph sessions and fan fests and do Q&A’s and things like that, so absolutely I would say we’re in the entertainment business.

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

I used to give it a lot, but I don’t necessarily anymore because it bothers me when I get it. I stick my hand out when I’m frustrated, but I try to keep it at five fingers instead of one now.

That’s very gentlemanly of you.

I’ve never been called that before.

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?

I do. There’s handfuls of drivers that have cut me breaks more than once. Yeah, absolutely. You know who those guys are and you repay them.

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

Are you talking about one-on-one or with a group?

It can be in a group. The great thing about this question is that so many people this year have never really had dinner with that famous of a person, but you, on the other hand, have had so many famous dinners you actually have to go through and think about who’s the most famous one.

You have to put it in a category. I would say in a very small group, probably eight people or so, with the Kardashians and Lord Disick (Scott Disick).

What!? When was this?

This was at the grand opening of Butter (Hamlin’s former nightclub), probably six years ago.

So Kim herself came? Did anyone else come?

Kourtney, Khloe and the Lord.

What were they like?

Pretty quiet for the most part, but I don’t know. You could just tell they were a little uncomfortable in the beginning, but they kinda got into their groove by the end of the night.

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

Geez, there’s so many things. What I’d like to improve: my eating habits.

What’s wrong with those?

I’ve got a bad sugar tooth. I could eat until I’m about to explode. Like I eat a lot, and then I’ll still want something sweet at the end of the night. I have a bad problem with that.

12. The last question was from Ryan Blaney. Now, Denny, I am under strict instructions not to give you any context with this. I doubled back with him just this morning and said, “Are you sure you want me to ask it like this?” And he said, “Yes.” So I’m sorry.

Did he know it’s to me?

No, he just wanted me to ask this very awkward question to a driver. I figured you could deal with it. So are you ready?

OK, I’m ready.

Who shot first?

(Long silence) This is coming from Blaney, right? Who shot first? (Pause) He did.

I don’t know if that’s the correct answer, but —

I’ll change it, I’ll change it: I did.

You did? OK, that’s definitely the wrong answer. You should just go with “He did.” But it’s a Star Wars reference.

Oh, he’s such a dork. You know what? They can’t sell to the public how awesome Blaney is if he keeps coming up with this Star Wars dork stuff. Like seriously, he’s gotta, you know… Ugh. I need to have a talk with Blaney because this is just not the road he needs to go down.

You may have to do that after this. It was apparently a reference to, have you seen the original Star Wars?

No, I’ve never seen it. I’m not a sci-fi guy. I’ve seen a couple of episodes of Star Trek when I was a kid. That was when my dad was watching it.

I don’t know who the next interview is going to be with. Do you have a question that I might be able to ask the next driver? Please don’t make it as awkward as the Blaney one was.

I have one. (Laughs) What I ask is that you interview someone who has at least six to seven years of Cup experience. And what I want know is: Of the teammates they have worked with, I wanna know who their favorite was. And the other side of that, and they have to be honest: Who is the worst that they’ve ever worked with?

News Analysis: Erik Jones to drive the No. 20 car

What happened: Joe Gibbs Racing made a long-speculated move official on Tuesday, announcing Erik Jones will return to the team after a one-year loan to affiliate Furniture Row Racing. Jones, a Cup rookie this season, has been a JGR development driver and will replace former Cup champion Matt Kenseth in the No. 20 car.

What it means: The NASCAR youth movement continues. As Kenseth has said, he does not intend to retire despite being 45 years old. It appears he essentially got pushed out of JGR by the desire to give one of NASCAR’s top young drivers a home with the team.

News value (scale of 1-10): Two. This is not a surprise at all, but it is noteworthy in that it’s a driver change at one of the top teams.

Questions: What happens to the No. 77 team at Furniture Row Racing? Will Kenseth be able to land at another top organization? How quickly can Jones become a regular winner at JGR?

News Analysis: Matt Kenseth says return to Joe Gibbs Racing is unlikely

What happened: Matt Kenseth, responding to a question about his 2018 plans from’s Bob Pockrass during a media availability at Kentucky Speedway, said he likely will not be back at Joe Gibbs Racing after this season. “I don’t think I will have the option to return to race for JGR next year, unfortunately,” he said.

What it means: Kenseth’s contract was up at the end of this season, which was why his name was floated for the No. 88 car opening in the past couple months. The 2003 Cup champ has said several times he does not intend to retire. Meanwhile, it’s been known JGR would like to get driver Erik Jones back in house from a one-year deal at affiliate Furniture Row Racing. With Suarez, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin all locked in, that did not appear to leave room for the 45-year-old Kenseth; now we have some degree of confirmation.

News value (scale of 1-10): Six. Though this is not a surprise given Kenseth’s expiring contract and age, it is unusual to hear a straight answer like that during a news conference. Also, this will serve as an unofficial kickoff to Silly Season in the public eye because now one domino is obvious to everyone.

Questions: Where will Kenseth end up next season? If Jones leaves the No. 77 car, who fills that very attractive ride? Will we have to wait until August before the first actual move is announced?