For the second consecutive week Kurt Busch will lead the Sprint Cup Series to the green flag to start the third race of the 2016 season. This is his 21st career pole and second at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, his hometown track.
After setting a new track record in Round One of qualifying (196.378 mph) Busch needed to rebound after a slightly disappointing second where he was third quick. With just minutes remaining in the final round of qualifying he was able to barely edge Joey Logano by .067 seconds.
“It was insanely fast,” Busch said of his lap. “It’s amazing all the detail that goes into qualifying with finding that perfect lap three times out there. My second outing we were way tight and I didn’t know where it came from and (Tony) Gibson and crew went to town.”
The No. 41 Chevrolet was no lower than third on the leader board in the single practice session or any of the rounds of qualifying as he is looking for his first win in Sin City.
Logano will begin his third consecutive race in Las Vegas from the front row. After a disappointing qualifying session last week in Atlanta, the No. 22 team found what they were missing and are off to a good start this weekend.
Matt Kenseth made multiple adjustments throughout the day and when it counted he was third, the best he had been all day. The 2013 winner in Las Vegas is going into one of his best tracks with his best starting position the year.
Brad Keselowski will lineup fourth on Sunday in his Ford. The No. 2 car was quickest in the opening practice on Friday and he is looking for his second win on the 1.5-mile oval. In Round Two, he was fastest but fell to Busch, .093 seconds behind the pole winning speed.
Austin Dillon needed two attempts to make it out of the first round of qualifying. But in the final moments of the last round he slotted his car into the fifth position. On his first run he was complaining that his motor wasn’t running properly, but when he came in to cool his tires down the No. 3 team fixed the problem and he feels this is the start of good runs for his team this year.
One of the biggest stories in Round One was Kevin Harvick needing three attempts to improve his car, narrowly making it into Round Two. After making it through that round his car continued to pick up speed, resulting in a sixth-place effort.
After crashing in the test session on Thursday, Denny Hamlin will start Sunday’s race ninth. The Daytona 500 winner struggled in practice, but the Joe Gibbs Racing organization looks to have made major adjustments with two of its cars starting in the top 10.
Chase Elliott is the highest starting rookie in 13th. His closest competitor for Rookie of the Year Ryan Blaney will start alongside him in 14th.
Some notable drivers that struggled in qualifying were Brian Vickers who will begin the race from 19th, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. 20th, Ryan Newman 21st and Kyle Busch 23rd. The No. 18 team struggled all day on Friday and was mired back in the mid 20s.
Just over three minutes into the second round of qualifying Carl Edwards No. 19 Toyota shot up the racetrack when something appeared to broke in the rear end of the car. After running the fourth quickest speed in Round One of qualifying, he will go to a backup car and start from the 24th position.
“I think the right rear was going down,” Edwards said. “It felt good going into the corner and there was a big bang and I think that was just the frame heights being low, hitting the ground. I thought it was the left rear, but it hit hard. I’m still not convinced that something didn’t break in the left rear.”
Other notable drivers that will start toward the rear are Greg Biffle in 26th, Jamie McMurray in 29th and Clint Bowyer in 35th.
McMurray will go to a backup car after slapping the wall in his qualifying attempt. He stated that his primary car has been a 30th-place car all weekend long.
The Cup teams will have two practice sessions on Saturday to tune their car up for Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 400.
Coming off of a disappointing weekend at Atlanta, Team Penske rebounded to pace the first practice session of the Sprint Cup weekend at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Brad Keselowski led the way at 195.327 mph, .009 seconds faster than teammate Joey Logano.
Kurt Busch posted the third fastest time as the No. 41 car was among the fastest all morning long. The car would get faster in every run it made.
The first three drivers were all faster than last year’s pole winning run by Jeff Gordon.
Paul Menard recorded his hot lap after having a close moment with the outside wall. He finished the practice fourth fastest and was the first driver over a tenth of a second behind the lap posted by the No. 2 car.
Brian Vickers, filling in for Tony Stewart rounded out the top five after posting 117 laps in Thursday’s test session at the 1.5-mile racetrack.
Defending winner of the Kobalt Tools 400 Kevin Harvick was seventh fastest at 194.126 mph. The driver of the No. 4 Chevrolet has been battling the flu throughout the week as he looks to go back-to-back in Sin City.
The first Toyota was Matt Kenseth in 11th as the Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row teams struggled on one lap speed. Kyle Busch was the slowest among the five teams in 25th. Denny Hamlin finished the session 13th in his backup car after crashing his primary on Thursday.
All 39 teams took part in Friday’s opening practice in preparation for qualifying. The drivers will look to battle slick track conditions during qualifying. If practice is a fair representation of qualifying, then there will be a new track record set tonight in Las Vegas.
In the middle of 2008, Tony Stewart took a chance of a lifetime. Like an everyday citizen, taking a risk has its rewards, but also has many downfalls along the way. The grizzly veteran’s move to join Gene Haas and create a NASCAR super team has paid off.
Prior to Stewart joining Haas as a co-owner, the team had never won a race. The highest finishing driver that Haas had ever been a part of was Mike Bliss in 2005 and Jeff Green in 2006 each finishing 28th in the championship standings.
Once Stewart made the move to invest in the team, it instantly gave Haas CNC Racing more credibility. Over the span of the seven full-time seasons that the duo has been together as owners, it has resulted in great success. The organization has accumulated two championships, 30 wins, 136 top fives and 258 top-10 finishes to go along with 26 poles.
The team was running strong in the summer of 2013 before releasing Ryan Newman. However, in the next race, he went out and won the 2013 edition of the Brickyard 400 for the No. 39 team. But then, it was announced that the organization was adding 2004 Sprint Cup champion Kurt Busch after he had a successful season with Furniture Row Racing. With an already announced Kevin Harvick coming over the driver lineup at SHR became one of the fiercest companies in all of motorsports.
As Stewart approaches his final season behind the wheel of a stock car, he personally has nothing to worry about as far as his career. He has had a dismal three seasons. But those years will not define the legacy he has left on the sport.
Stewart knows that his team needs to step up the game in order to have a successful season and make the Chase in his final year. He’s confident that with the addition of Mike Bugarewicz on top of the pit box, he has an opportunity for success. The new crew chief of the No. 14 car has led Harvick to two-consecutive winning seasons as the team engineer.
“I think we got two guys for sure that definitely have a great opportunity to race for a championship,” Stewart told Speedway Digest. “If you can win a race, you’ve got that opportunity. You don’t have to win every race to get to Homestead, Jeff proved that last year. I definitely feel like we have two drivers that have that opportunity to get to Homestead and be successful.”
The last two seasons have shaken Stewart’s confidence level. There is no reason why he can’t go out and be dominant like the old “Smoke.” The new aerodynamic package will be in his favor. It puts the car back into the drivers’ hands to an extent, and allows them to maneuver the car through traffic, something that he is magnificent at.
The three-time Sprint Cup champion is a living legend. No matter the outcome of his final year, he has had one of the most successful careers of any NASCAR driver, winning three championships and capturing 48 checkered flags. The Indiana native hasn’t forgotten how to drive, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he wins his first Daytona 500 in his final season behind the wheel of the No. 14.
“It’s a coin toss on what could happen with me,” Stewart said. “It could be the same, it could be worse, it could be better. If we make it any better I think it has potential to be a lot better. I’m excited about that opportunity on our side.”
If speed is any indication on the performance of SHR in the coming seasons, Harvick is one of the front-runners for the championship. Winning his first Cup title with the organization in 2014 and having the raw speed that he’s just never had before has elevated the No. 4 car as the one to beat week-in and week-out.
The team led by Rodney Childress is destined to do great things because there is simply no reason why they will struggle in 2016. Since the driver and crew chief combination began working together it has been the most successful combination in NASCAR.
Winning eight races in the last two seasons, and having a career-high 28 top-10 finishes just last season, Harvick is hitting on all eight cylinders as they approach the new year.
“I think as you look at the situations and scenarios that our team has had to deal with over the past couple of years with running well, kind of having that little bit of a target on your back, you learn to ignore a lot of those things,” Harvick said about winning the championship. “For us, it’s really about keeping your head down and trying to do the same things again.”
In his first two seasons with SHR, the California native has led more laps than he did in his previous 13 seasons with Richard Childress Racing. In 2015, he led a career-high and series-high 2,294 laps. But for him, that isn’t good enough. He wants more.
Harvick, 40, wants championships. He’s won every big race that there is to win. He’s a former Daytona 500 champion, Brickyard 400 champion, two-time winner of the Coca-Cola 600 and the Southern 500.
“We expect to go out and be competitive and hopefully be in position to win races, work hard on a weekly basis to try and do that,” Harvick said. “Your goal is to be around when it gets to Homestead every year.”
After coming up just short of winning two-consecutive championships, it has motivated Harvick and company to be better than they were last season. Finishing second was the theme of the year last season with 13 second-place finishes. The one that hurt the most was finishing second in the championship race to Kyle Busch, resulting in a second-place finish in the point standings.
“We constantly try to improve,” he said. “I think for us one of the big areas to improve on was Homestead. We didn’t feel like we ran as well as we should the last two years in that particular race, and we’ve already been back there and tested. We’ve changed some internal parts and pieces.
“We’ve added a lot of people from within the engineering department. We’ve added some time in the aero department. As a company we’ve definitely strengthened our self in a lot of departments to try to improve on that.”
One thing that improved throughout the 2015 season was the relationship between Busch and crew chief Tony Gibson. The No. 41 team had two wins, 10 top fives and 21 top-10 finishes, the most he has had since 2009 and tied for a career-high.
After competing in his second full season for SHR, Busch’s chemistry with the start-up team has been tremendous. He has gone from working with an engineer in Daniel Knost, to now two straight seasons with veteran crew chief, Gibson.
If it weren’t for a rain shortened race in Phoenix, potentially, the team could have been racing for a championship and slotted his car in the championship battle with with Harvick.
No one has ever questioned the Las Vegas native’s talent. He has had to build chemistry with numerous different crew chiefs over his tenure in the Cup Series, but working with Gibson is a lot like working with another old-school crew chief in Jimmy Fennig. When that dominant duo worked together, they won the championship.
“There is no reason to think that we can’t be front-runners,” Busch said. “With the results that Kevin has posted, especially him, we have to do a better job on the No. 41 car to mimic that, but for sure.
“Tony Stewart is going to have a new drive within him. He’s got a new crew chief and what I’m seeing is more collaboration amongst the four Stewart-Haas cars. It’s better than I’ve ever seen it before. I would definitely give us the thumbs up on being a front runner.”
Including Danica Patrick, all four of the SHR drivers have different personalities, which have allowed the team to grow closer together. Now as they enter their third season of working together, SHR has established itself as one of the top teams in NASCAR. Getting equipment and engines from Hendrick Motorsports won’t ever hurt, and the alliance has given SHR the boost it needs to compete for wins.
In 2015, two of the teams performed, Patrick improved and Stewart is motivated as he begins his final season as a driver. Patrick is coming off of arguably her best season as she had a 23.5 average finish the best of her young career, and finished in the top 10 twice, down from her total of three in 2014.
After this season, SHR will look a lot different as Clint Bowyer will come in and drive the No. 14 car in replacement of the legend, so this year could be the most pivotal, yet fun year in the eight years of existence for Stewart-Haas Racing.
Danica Patrick is looking to up the ante heading into the new season. Throughout her tenure at Stewart-Haas Racing, change has always occurred on the No. 10 team. For the third consecutive season, she will have a new crew chief calling the shots for her.
Consistency has not quite been there since Patrick made the move to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in 2013. Though she is entering her fourth full-time season, she hasn’t been behind the wheel of a stock car for a long time. This will just be her fifth full-time season in NASCAR, period, after racing open-wheel cars for the majority of her life.
Taking over the role of crew chief is former Michael Waltrip Racing employee Billy Scott. The third-year crew chief has never had a stability with one driver either. In 2014, Scott led Brian Vickers to nine top-10 finishes, but a disappointing 22nd-place finish in the standings at the end of the year. This came in the season that Vickers finally made it back to the Cup Series after battling to regain supremacy in NASCAR’s top series and back into a competitive ride.
In 2015, change was constant for Scott. For the better part of 18 races, he continued to crew chief the No. 55 team. However, Vickers was the driver for only two of those races after a resurfacing of blood clots came up and knocked him out of the ride. In the remaining races, he worked with Brett Moffitt, David Ragan and Michael Waltrip.
The second half of the season was better for Scott. He moved over to the No. 15 team to lead Clint Bowyer. He led Bowyer to a late season surge making the Chase for the first time as a crew chief. After making NASCAR’s playoffs, Bowyer and Scott were quickly eliminated from the Chase at the end of the first round due to poor finishes.
Knowing that, he needed to make a new career move since MWR was shutting its doors at the end of the season because co-team owner Rob Kauffman decided to take his funding elsewhere and support Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates.
The day after the 2015 season ended at Homestead, Scott was announced as the crew chief for Patrick. Since the duo has been paired together they have been able to grow closer together, even though she had very little input on whom her new crew chief would be.
“Billy has obviously been on the team now for a couple of months and he’s really done a good job of learning as much as he can, learning the shop and all of the things that need to be done to the car and obviously making changes to the car that he wants to make,” Patrick told Speedway Digest. “On our team, our crew chiefs are able to do that and I’m sure it’s pretty cool for crew chiefs to be able to call shots on the cars.”
Patrick is coming off a season in which she finished 24th in the standings. It was her best finish in the final championship standings coming off seasons when she finished 27th and 28th, respectively. She picked up two top-10 finishes and finished on the lead lap 14 times, down from three top 10s in 2014.
Typically, the No. 10 team hasn’t run well on the short tracks since Patrick began racing in the Cup Series. In 2013 and 2014, she had four top-20 finishes in the 12 short track events. However, last season, it was the short tracks of Martinsville and Bristol where she recorded her best finishes of seventh and ninth.
On the restrictor plate tracks any team can win and Patrick has done a solid job of running up front for the first three-quarters of those races. It is in the last stint of the event that she isn’t able to finish the job and be competitive as 20 of her 27 career laps led have come on restrictor plates. But either Daytona or Talladega is her best shot at winning a race in 2016.
Unloading off the hauler knowing the direction in which Scott and Patrick want to go will be crucial, and something that she has not had in her first three seasons after working with multiple crew chiefs.
She needs to give better feedback to the team so they can make changes and go in the right direction on the car instead of continuing to struggle and going in the wrong direction. Now that she has a former engineer as a crew chief, he might have a better understanding in the lingo that she gives back to the team.
“Billy and I have gotten along really well so far,” she said. “He is a super nice, relatable, easy to get along with guy and spends a lot of time on the shop floor it seems like talking to the guys and I feel like there is definitely a lot of excitement with the crew and everybody just seems like they are in a good mood.”
An advantage at Stewart-Haas Racing is its crew chiefs. Scott has previously worked with Rodney Childers, 2014 championship winning crew chief for Kevin Harvick, and has gained valuable knowledge from him. The welcoming atmosphere within the Kannapolis, N.C. shop could lead to great success and better competition on the race-track.
“He’s been doing a lot of that stuff and he worked with Rodney [Childress] back at MWR, so they have a relationship,” Patrick said of Scott. “As Kevin [Harvick] said in the ballroom there that the crew chiefs really for probably the first time are all going to be in sync and get along very well.
“Having Tony’s crew chief be the old engineer for the No. 4 and Tony Gibson works really well with Rodney and Rodney have worked with Billy, everybody has worked together. I think everybody is going to communicate extremely well, which in a four-car team is very valuable.”
Improvement is really what Patrick needs. She needs to be able to run competitive throughout the entire race and not just have flashes of quickness.
Last season, her teammates of Harvick and Kurt Busch were two of the fastest drivers each week. Learning from them is a valuable lesson for her after coming off of a combined 49 top-10 finishes between the two drivers.
If Scott and she can come into the season with momentum they might be able to point their way into the Chase. With an alliance with Hendrick Motorsports, there is no reason as to why this combination can’t be successful. However, consistency and running toward the top 10 will be the ultimate goal for the team this season.
“I think that in 2014 I feel like we finished off the season with Tony Gibson solidly being top-15, top 10 and being relatively pretty fast every weekend,” Patrick explained. “I feel like with Daniel, being a new crew chief and in a new situation last year, I feel like we didn’t quite achieve that all of the time. Sometimes we were there, but sometimes we were worse than that and that was a step back from 2014.”
The new season allows for some experimenting early on. The No. 10 team has the potential to have a solid season, but it will be what Patrick and Scott surround themselves with within the organization and how quickly they can adjust to one other. If they are able to communicate and work together throughout the first half of the season they could be in prime position heading into the Chase.
“I would like to obviously get back to that top-15 running where if you have a good day you are in the top-10,” she said. “Once you start doing that regularly you will have a chance to win.”
Kurt Busch will start on the outside of the front row for Sunday’s Pocono 400. Busch’s second-place qualifying run was the best of the year for the No. 41 team.
Entering Pocono, Busch is 27th in points, but his results do not show how strong he has been throughout the year. Although his average finishing position is 26th with five DNFs, he has run inside of the top-15 on a weekly basis.
Now, Busch believes there is light at the end of the tunnel. After having just two top-10s to this point, Busch is poised to run well at Pocono – a track which he has two victories at in 25 starts. Last year, he nearly captured the checkered flag as he finished third behind Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon, but this weekend might be different.
“It has speed again and now the track is warming up, so now we just need to make adjustments to the track warming up,” Busch told Speedway Digest after the first practice session on Saturday morning.
In Saturday’s first practice, Busch put up a time of 51.070 seconds which was good enough for ninth on the speed charts. His teammates, Tony Stewart, Danica Patrick and Kevin Harvick were each fast in practice as well. All of the Stewart-Haas Racing cars were each in the top-16 during the first practice. Harvick and Stewart were first and third, respectively, out of the nine drivers which ran 10 consecutive laps.
“If we win one more race, then we are definitely locked in. But it’s a matter now of developing the No. 41 team into a championship contender, not just a Chase contender.”