Thursday, Jul 07

The Can-Am Duels at Daytona did not disappoint this year. Throughout the majority of both races, there was action packed racing, two and even three-wide at some points. Like always, there were some cars that stood out and others that finished better than what they ran. That’s restrictor plate racing.

Duel One:

In the opening Duel race, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. proved that he will have one of the cars to beat on Sunday in the 58th Annual Daytona 500.

It didn’t take long for the restrictor plate veteran to prove that he had the best car in the first Can-Am Duel. It took him just two laps to take the top spot away from Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Chase Elliott. He held the lead until his pit stop until Lap 40.

The No. 88 car dominated the first Duel as he led 43 of the races 60 laps, but had to overcome adversity in the late stages. With just a handful of laps to go, Earnhardt was shuffled back to sixth while Denny Hamlin as on point.

With just over one lap to go, Earnhardt had to hold off a charging Joey Logano will help from Ryan Blaney from the Wood Brothers, an affiliate of Team Penske. Even with the two drivers pairing up they were unable to pass the No. 88 team.

In his post-race press conference Earnhardt eluded to his car as special and knowing that he has one of the cars to beat.

“That was crazy,” Earnhardt said on the race. “I was so nervous today about tearing the car up because I know how good it is versus what we have. What we have is a capable car in the trailer, but this thing is special. So I’m really excited.”

The defending Daytona 500 winner, Logano, finished second after getting shuffled back after his green flag pit stop. The No. 22 car was aggressive and made dicey moves in-and-out of traffic, much like his teammate Brad Keselowski who finished in a disappointing 13th.

Blaney is headlining into his second career Daytona 500, and as a rookie he stated his case as to why teams should work with him in the actual race. Last season the No. 21 car had one top-five finish coming at Talladega, the other plate track.

“We had a really fast racecar,” Blaney said. “We had a couple of problems early in the race which got us a lap down. Luckily we got a caution at the right point that got us on the lead lap so we could go racing for it.”

One lap prior to the halfway point, Blaney had a loose left-rear tire that the team accidently left loose prior to the 150-mile event. Evidently, the team overcame the bad luck and got a top-five finish.

Kevin Harvick finished fourth after starting in the rear and had a real shot the win while running second with four laps to go. The Sprint Unlimited winner Hamlin rounded out the top five and led 13 laps in the process.

With Blaney finishing in third and a 13th-place finish Michael McDowell came out on top in the race within the race, the race just to make the Daytona 500. On Lap 42, Cole Whitt had a big run on the No. 95 car that when he went to make a move to pass McDowell he overcorrected and spun out, ending his chance at competing in the Great American Race.

The other driver that McDowell had to beat was Josh Wise and he finished in 17th.

“It’s definitely a big thing for our team, Circle Sport-Levin Family Racing, we’re going to have two cars in the Daytona 500 especially for a small team” McDowell said on making the Daytona 500. “To really start out the year well, it’s very important. This is such a huge race.”

Duel Two:

The latter of the two 150-mile races was very tame until the last couple of laps. As Kyle Busch went on to dominate the event, a multi-car pileup on the last lap cost many of top drivers’ valuable starting positions for the Daytona 500.

It all started to go downhill with two laps to go when Casey Mears was running the second position and ran out of gas. The No. 13 car had just been placed into the second position and then ran out of gas, while trying to make a move on Busch.

As the lead pack of 11 cars darted in to Turn 1 on the last lap, Jamie McMurray made a move to try and win the race when he looked to the inside of the No. 18 car. While coming back up the track he clipped the front end of Jimmie Johnson’s Chevrolet, causing a five car crash, including Matt Kenseth who was scheduled to start on the outside of Row 1 on Sunday.

Also getting in the crash were A.J. Allmendinger, Danica Patrick and Martin Truex Jr.

With Kenseth likely going to a backup car, it will move Busch to the outside of the front row, alongside 20-year-old rookie Chase Elliott.

“I think I get to start on the front row,” Busch said. “I didn’t win this race to qualify myself for the fourth starting position, but with our teammate having trouble there at the end of the race, they’ll have to go a backup car, it looks. Well get the chance to start on the front row. That’s pretty cool.”

The accident looked to be the cause of all drivers going for it and getting the best starting position that they could. However, the end result was that three of the 500 favorites will now start in the rear.

“I was behind it to see it so I couldn’t really tell why the No. 48 went up the racetrack,” Kenseth said. “I was actually just in the process to get out of there and go to the back. I thought we had the best car and we led a lot of laps.”

Kenseth mentioned that this will be the No. 20 team’s third car of Speedweeks as he also crashed in the Sprint Unlimited last Saturday.

In this Duel it was Robert Richardson, Jr. who was able to fall back on his qualifying speed from last Sunday as his teammate Matt DiBenedetto finished the highest out of the cars that needed to race their way in. David Gilliland and Reed Sorenson will miss the 500-mile spectacle.

 “Two weeks ago when I got the call to run this race, I was mowing the hay pastures,” Richardson said. “I’m just very blessed to be here.”

There are three practice sessions for teams to tune up their primary or backup cars to try and win the biggest race in motorsports. The team that is able to adapt to the conditions of the race and keep up with the pace being set will find themselves the winner of the Daytona 500.

Chip Ganassi Racing had a subpar season in 2015. For the second consecutive season neither Jamie McMurray or Kyle Larson were victorious in the 36-race season. There were flashes of bright spots for both teams, but each wants to pick up the performance in 2016.

It would be normal to think that McMurray was satisfied in making the cutoff for the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time in his career. The No. 1 team showed instances in which it could contend for the win with two second-place finishes at Phoenix in the spring to Kevin Harvick and Martinsville in the fall to Jeff Gordon.

The short tracks are where the team has excelled in the past few seasons. One area in which the team decreased from 2014 was at the 1.5-mile racetracks. Throughout his career, McMurray has been solid on the mile-and-a-half tracks, but last year was an exception.

It was just two years ago that the No. 1 car won the Sprint All-Star Race and McMurray left Charlotte Motor Speedway $1 million dollars richer. Last season was a struggle, which is why in 2016 one of the team’s main goals is to re-establish itself on those tracks.

“Ultimately, it’s just about better cars and better setups,” McMurray told Speedway Digest last month at the NASCAR Media Tour. “I’ve been able to win at some mile-and-a-half racetracks in the past. In 2014, we were just really good at those tracks and in 2015 we weren’t as good.”

McMurray, 39, is coming off a season in which he posted four top fives and 10 top-10 finishes, down from the 13 that he posted a year prior. However, the Missouri native was consistent with a career-best 14.9 average finish, but finished with a career-low in laps led, 14.

In the 11 1.5-mile tracks that were on the Sprint Cup schedule, McMurray averaged a 15.8 average finish, leading nine laps at Texas back in April. Based on the fact that he accumulated just two top-10 finishes in those 11 races, he knows that he needs to improve in 2016.

“I didn’t particularly do anything different,” McMurray said. “Ultimately, it’s just about being able to have the right car and the right setup underneath you.”

Compared to 2014, McMurray had had a better average finish on the 1.5-mile racetracks, but didn’t run up nearly as much. In the previous season, he had two finishes outside of the top 35 at Kansas and Kentucky, but ended the season with three-consecutive top-five finishes at Charlotte, Texas and Homestead. The No. 1 car finished inside of the top five in both races in NASCAR’s hub in 2014.

All year long, Larson struggled in 2015. The driver that had so much animosity behind him due to his remarkable rookie season ended up with a disappointing 2015 season.

In his first year of competition at the Sprint Cup level, Larson exceeded expectations, though he didn’t go to Victory Lane. It could be argued that it was the best rookie season since Jimmie Johnson in 2002. The results were different last season.

The No. 42 car is notoriously known for riding within an inch of the wall at the majority of the 1.5-mile tracks. The closer to the wall, the more grip there is. But if you get too close to the wall, it will come and grab you, ultimately damaging the car.

“I think just as an organization we want to be better on the mile-and-a-halves,” Larson said. “That’s the majority of our schedule, so we kind of need to focus the most on that. 1.5-mile tracks are my favorite tracks too. I definitely look forward to going to them every week and I feel like we got better on them throughout the year last year.”

Last season, Larson earned just two top fives and 10 top-10 finishes, down from eight top fives and 17 top 10s in his rookie year. The mile-and-a-halves were tracks that the he really struggled on.

With the exception of the season finale at Homestead, Larson recorded zero top-five finishes. He had six finishes of 25th or worse on the 11 1.5-mile racetracks that marked his average finish down to a disappointing 21.1. With a fifth-place finish at Homestead, in a race that looked like he was going to track down race leader Brad Keselowski before a late-race caution, there is reason for optimism heading into 2016.

If the team could go back to the way it performed in the 2014 season, Larson could qualify for his first Chase this season.

The new aerodynamic package for the 2016 season could play into Larson’s hands. The way that the new setup will be plays into a dirt racers hand, with the way that the car slides around. This is something that he normally runs well in as he has had a lot of experience on dirt. In the two races that it was raced in last year at Kentucky and Darlington, the overall racing was some of the best racing all year long.

“I think the aero package will probably help the mile and-a-half racing the most to which will hopefully help our race team,” Larson said. “I would love to be better on mile-and-a-halves than we were last year.”

The team has made multiple changes over the off-season including the addition of crew chief Chad Johnson. He has been atop the pit box for three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart in the last two seasons which were two of Stewart’s worst years to date. Prior to that, Johnston was the leader for Martin Truex, Jr. at Michael Waltrip Racing, where the two accumulated a lot of success, resulting in only one victory at Sonoma in 2013.  

In order for this year to be a success, both cars will need to make the Chase and potentially complete for the first Sprint Cup championship in team history.

Prior to last season, Felix Sabates, co-owner of Chip Ganassi Racing guaranteed that both of his drivers would make the Chase. Though he was wrong, there is reason to believe that this could be the year, especially with the money and resources that Rob Kauffman is bringing in from MWR.  

The Energizer Bunny was all charged up on Sunday afternoon.

Entering Richmond International Raceway 11th in points, Jamie McMurray was set to continue the momentum at one of his best tracks since he rejoined Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. Starting ninth for the Toyota Owners 400 on Sunday afternoon, the No. 1 team stayed inside the top 10 for the entire race.

McMurray’s Chevrolet cracked the top five early in the going, but failed to show enough speed to make ground within the first half of the race. However, after a caution on Lap 170, his car excelled on the long run. Taking the lead momentarily over Kurt Busch a mere 60 laps after the halfway point, he showed how powerful his car was after restarting 30th following a loose lug nut during the competition caution on Lap 50.

“Well, this Energizer Chevy was just good on the long runs,” McMurray said following the race. “It wouldn’t take off real quick, but after 30 laps it was about the same as the leaders. It was so much fun at the end to be that much quicker than those guys. So, it was a lot of fun to get to be the guy that had the speed at the end.”

Finishing fourth, McMurray now has three fourth-place results in the last four races at Richmond. He now sits ninth in the championship standings, which currently gives him a spot inside the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Working with rookie crew chief Matt McCall, the two have been off to a fast start. Leaving Richmond in 2014, McMurray was 18th in points with Keith Rodden leading the way. Moreover, the chemistry has continued for the new tandem.

Heading into Talladega, McMurray has a pair of top fives, with four top 10s through nine races.  

2014 can be summed up in one phrase for Chip Ganassi’s organization: the best of the rest. After missing the Chase for the Sprint Cup with Kyle Larson and Jamie McMurray, they finished 17th and 18th in points, respectively. However, the sub-par finish in the standings certainly does not show the progress this Chevrolet team made in 2014.

After Juan Pablo Montoya announced he was leaving Ganassi for Team Penske’s IndyCar Series team, there were multiple candidates to replace the vacant seat. While plenty of veteran drivers were available, Ganassi selected Larson to pilot the No. 42 car with backing from Target. Although plenty of media members, including myself, had plenty of doubts of Larson’s capabilities in a Sprint Cup Series ride considering he wasn’t able to win a Nationwide Series race in his rookie year in that division, he proved us all wrong in 2014.

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sunoco Rookie of the Year was on pace to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and would have finished the year inside of the top-13 in points if it weren’t for the new format. However, that cannot take away from his impressive results, which included a runner-up finish at Auto Club Speedway during the fifth race of the season. He had another second-place finish at Loudon in the fall, but failed to win a race in his first year. With eight top-fives and 17 top-10s, Larson was the strongest Rookie of the Year since Denny Hamlin in 2006.

Getting adjusted to the Cup Series was tough for Larson. But compared to the large rookie class in 2014, he did rather well. Austin Dillon, who brought back the No. 3 car for Richard Childress Racing, entered the season as the favorite to win Rookie of the Year after taking over Kevin Harvick’s ride. Moreover, Larson and crew chief Chris Heroy clicked better than expected, which led to him leading 53 laps, including a season-high of 20 at Chicagoland Speedway in the summer.

McMurray showed just as much, if not more speed than Larson, throughout the 36-race season. The 13-year Sprint Cup Series veteran had seven top-fives and 13 top-10s in 2014, but he led 368 laps. With a best finish of third at Charlotte in October, the No. 1 team was not able to get the job done. They had plenty of speed, and had a solid shot at winning multiple races in 2014, yet his car just lost the handle to it late in events.

A common pattern from McMurray’s cars over the course of the year saw this team start our poorly in a race, then start running top-five laps times, but they fell off in the last 50 or so laps. This was shown at Martinsville, Bristol, Kansas, Chicago and Charlotte. But McMurray just couldn’t seal the deal, and that gave him an average finish of 16.2 on the year.

Crew chief Keith Rodden clearly made a difference for this team. Moving over from Hendrick Motorsports, he took the job at Ganassi after McMurray struggled in 2013 with just nine top-10s. After the team swapped to Hendrick Motorsports engines in 2013, they didn’t have the right aerodynamic package to go along with the upgrade in horse power. However, Rodden brought experience from Hendrick, which ended up being a key difference maker in McMurray’s season.

2015 Preview:

There is a lot of change going on at Ganassi. Target has opted to put an end to their funding of Tony Kanaan’s IndyCar ride and instead – they are enumerating their money to Larson’s program. This will evidently give a boost to the Cup Series team as a whole, especially since they’ll be receiving a few extra bucks to develop more competitive cars.

The team lost LiftMaster to Kasey Kahne’s No. 5 team, but that’s not all they lost to Hendrick.

After rumors had Kenny Francis moving away from the pit box in 2015, Hendrick recently announced that Rodden will take over as Kahne’s crew chief. The change could have been drastic for the No. 1 team, but Ganassi has signed formed Robert Yates Racing developmental driver Matt McCall to become McMurray’s crew chief. McCall has been racing at the short track level for the past few years, but he became an engineer within Richard Childress Racing.

Although this will be McMurray’s third crew chief in as many years, he is looking to build on the momentum he had from the 2014 season. He’s expected to have one of his strongest years since he joined the team, yet he’s going to have to get a victory early in the year in order to build more confidence, which he was fortunate to have with Heroy.

As for Larson, there is nothing stopping him from getting at least one or two wins in 2015. The soon-to-be father is moving into a new house, and his prestige is on the rise. There won’t be any major changes to his team, and if he makes the Chase, he should be a top contender for the championship.

A race that featured a pothole ended with NASCAR’s most dominant driver going back to victory lane for his second straight victory. Jimmie Johnson earned his second win a row as he led 272 of the 400 laps run in Sunday’s FedEx 400 at Dover.

Johnson has now won nine times at the Monster Mile, extending his record for having the most wins at the track. The win marks Johnson’s 68th career victory on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series circuit. On a restart with less than five laps to go, the No. 48 Chevrolet was able to hold off a hard charging Brad Keselowski for the win after passing Matt Kenseth who spun his tires on the restart.

“Our whole day, we were in a range and we were balanced pretty well, just couldn’t run that fast," Kenseth said in a post-race press conference. “If we tried running fast, we just couldn’t run that quickly. We just started off too tight and if we started out decently, we would be too loose at the end of a run. We were just trying to keep up with track position.”

"The first run or two, I didn't think we were in a dominant position, but towards the end of the first run, things started coming around and I felt like we were in great shape," Johnson said. "It was an awesome racecar. The first run wasn't sure we were really going to have the normal Dover magic here.

However, the win did not come easy as the entire field was thrown a curve ball before the half-way point of the race.

Suddenly, a piece of debris went flying into the air. There was thought that it was a can at first, but conclusions came that one of the strangest incidents occurred.

Jamie McMurray was running 16th when his No. 1 car suddenly hit a piece of the track. As he was coming out of Turn 2, McMurray hit a piece of concrete which sent his Chevrolet into the wall on the backstretch. The race was red flagged as track officials worked on repairing the hole in Turn 2 which was approximately six inches according to team radios.

“We will do the best job that we can and see what we can get,” McMurray’s crew chief, Keith Rodden said after NASCAR wouldn’t enable them to work on the car during the red flag.

NASCAR Vice President of Competition, Robin Pemberton said after the race that it was against the rules, but there has been exception to that specific rule in the past. Pemberton referenced the cable issue at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2013 as an example of when NASCAR would enable teams to work on cars under red flag conditions. Pemberton also stated that an epoxy-type solution was used to patch up the hole.

Besides having damage to the pavement, the cross-over bridge above the turn was also bruised in the incident. A piece of glass on the bridge’s outer part shattered as the concrete flew up into the air. The bridge is approximately 30 feet above the track surface according to a track spokes

Kevin Harvick stated that some guys were looking at that area on Saturday after the NASCAR Nationwide Series event. He noticed the track was coming up, but it was not worked on.

“I saw it this morning on the way to the driver's meeting," Johnson said over the radio to his crew during the red flag. "It was already coming up. I was wondering if they'd seen it."

The red flag lasted just over 22 minutes as a speedy-dry type of concrete was used to fill the hole.

As pit stops were about to start, Alex Bowman blew out a tire to throw out the first caution of the day, but A.J. Allmendinger attempted to short pit and was caught a lap down with just 25 cars on the lead lap after 65 laps.

Clint Bowyer was attempting to pass Kyle Busch in Turn 4 when he got into Busch’s No. 18 Toyota, sending him into the wall. He successfully got around Busch, but then he went right into the fence. After the wreck, Busch stalked Bowyer’s car during the caution, attempted to give him a tap, and then went into the garage with his beat up car.  Busch rushed over to his motor home where he could not be reached for comment.

Allmendinger got into Ricky Stenhouse Jr. who then hit his teammate, Greg Biffle. The rear end of the No. 16 Ford was destroyed, and the entire right side of Stenhouse’s car had to be cut off in the garage after he hit the inside wall on the backstretch.

“I didn’t see it coming," Biffle said in the garage area. "They were about two and a half groove up on the top and it looked like A.J. tried to squeeze Ricky there. When he came up off the bottom, he turned right into me. It really sucks. We were racing hard there, and that’s what happens when you are back there.”

As he was leading the race, Harvick blew a right-side tire following the restart after the red flag. Bowman got into the will two more times following his initial wreck, and went to the garage after blowing a tire on Lap 221.

Ryan Newman was working his way inside of the top-10 after running approximately 20th for the first half of the race, but had a transmission failure which forced his No. 31 crew to go to the garage. Newman was mandated to a 31st-place finish.

Entering Dover, four-time Sprint Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon was leading the points standings. Gordon was contending for a top-five spot the majority of the day. Evidently, the handling gave out on the No. 24 Chevrolet, ending the day in 15th.

After the 400-mile race, Gordon relinquished the points lead to Kenseth, who has yet to win a race this year. Kenseth leads the standings by two markers over Gordon with Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson with Dale Earnhardt Jr. rounding out the top-five.

After 13 races, 10 drivers are all but locked into the Chase for the Sprint Cup with Kenseth, Larson, Newman, Vickers, Menard and Dillon being the remaining six drivers who are high enough in points to race in the Chase as of now.

Here are some notables from the FedEx 400:
- Clint Bowyer earned his first top-five finish of the year at a non-restrictor plate track by crossing the stripe in the fourth position.

-Martin Truex Jr. recorded his best finish of the young season on Sunday afternoon by finishing in sixth.

-Tony Stewart made a hard charge for the lead late in the race, but after the late-race caution, Stewart fell back to the seventh position.

 -Finishing 11th, Kyle Larson was the Rookie of the Race. Larson started at the rear of the field for an engine change, but sporadically made his way up through the field.

-Making his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series debut – Brett Moffitt finished 22nd in the No. 66 Toyota Camry for Identity Ventures Racing.

-Danica Patrick finished 23rd on Sunday – her best career finish in four starts at Dover.

-After experiencing fuel pickup issues throughout the day, David Gilliland ended the day in 29th.

-Blake Koch recorded a career-best finish of 30th in the No. 32 Ford. Making his fourth Sprint Cup Series start, Koch outran his previous best finish of 35th during this year’s Coca-Cola 600 where he finished 35th.

-J.J. Yeley had his third engine failure for the third consecutive time this year.

 -Paul Menard earned his seventh top-10 of the season with a 10th-place finish at Dover. Menard's career-best years in 2012 and 2013 consisted of nine top-10s each. 

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