Wed, 19 Feb 2020

NASCAR notebook: Highlights from Daytona 500 media day

Field Level Media
13 Feb 2020, 08:40 GMT+10

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- In the aftermath of the first major wreck in last Sunday's Busch Clash at Daytona, Brad Keselowski was far from charitable when assessing the blocking attempt by Team Penske teammate Joey Logano.

As the cars roared through Turn 4 on Lap 66, Logano blocked the Toyota of KyleBusch, who had a run on Logano's No. 22 Ford. A tap from the nose of Busch's car turned Logano sideways and triggered the six-car wreck.

Keselowski's Ford was collateral damage in the crash, his mangled car eliminated from the race. After a mandatory trip to the infield care center, Keselowski characterized his teammate's blocking attempt as "dumb, dumb, dumb."

Keselowski and Logano both visited Disney World with their families the day after the season-opening NASCAR Cup exhibition event at Daytona International Speedway, but they didn't see each other there.

"We didn't run into each other there," Logano said Wednesday during Daytona 500 media day interviews at the speedway. "It's a big place."

However, Logano and Keselowski subsequently discussed the incident.

"We're going to have different opinions on a lot of things all the time," Logano said. "That's part of racing and things like that, but I think we'll be fine. ... I had no clue. I was like, 'Hey, what are you mad about? Let's talk about it.' There were things that I had no idea about, and I just explained my side of the story. That's all you can really do. I think once he understands the whole side of the story.

"... And you know how it is, you get out of the race car, you're frustrated, you're mad, your emotions are running high, you haven't re-watched anything yet, and they stick a microphone in your face and ask you what happened. You don't really know until you go back and study it and figure it all out. That stuff happens, but, like I said, we've been friends for a long time.

"I'm not really that worried about it. It's going to be OK. We're going figure it out. Everything always blows by. Everything gets better all the time."

--Cole Custer, 22, is one of six drivers in a much-decorated 2020 NASCAR Cup Series Sunoco Rookie of the Year class. Custer, who will drive the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, has finished championship runner-up the last two Xfinity Series seasons and is making the move into NASCAR's big time with some of his former and fiercest Xfinity Series rivals.

"I think it's nice to just kind of have everybody in the same boat," he said. "Everybody is in the same situation, but at the time same time, you're racing 38 other guys out there, so it's a matter of focusing on yourself and doing what you need to do to get better and focusing on your own plan. I can't be focusing on those two or those three trying to figure out what they're doing."

Instead, Custer said he's trying to soak up as much information as possible from his three teammates -- 2014 Cup Series champion Kevin Harvick, former series runner-up Clint Bowyer and veteran Aric Almirola. All three of those drivers qualified for the 2019 Cup Series Playoffs.

"I've talked with Kevin a lot," Custer said. "I talked with Kevin a lot through my Xfinity stuff also and he's been extremely helpful and one of the most helpful people I've ever talked to for sure. But even in our post-practice meeting (over the weekend) with Clint and Aric, and I ask those guys for advice and they're extremely open also.

"If I can get advice from any of those guys it's going to be huge. You just try to be a sponge as much as you can."

Custer ran three Cup races last year getting his feet wet with consistent finishes of 25th (Las Vegas-1), 26th (Pocono-1) and 26th (Richmond-2).

He was 14th fastest in Sunday's Daytona 500 Pole Qualifying session -- second best among the rookie drivers.

--Although he was still one lap down at the end of Sunday's Busch Clash at Daytona, Denny Hamlin's No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was fast -- fast enough to push the heavily damaged No. 20 Camry of teammate Erik Jones to the win.

But Hamlin offered a word of caution to those who might be expecting a similar denouement at the end of Sunday's Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

"The difference would be that his car was so damaged, it was pushing his car back into mine," Hamlin said. "He had such big nose damage, it kept our lock tighter than what it normally is. If you have two cars that are pretty healthy, that lock is not as strong."

Just short of the finish line, Hamlin left the back bumper of Jones' Toyota. There was speculation that the defending Daytona 500 winner Hamlin might be practicing a move for Sunday's race.

"No, I would have made the move much sooner," Hamlin said. "I didn't want to get in his checkered flag photo. I was just trying to get out of there."

--Bubba Wallace's famed No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet will carry memorial tributes to the car's former driver John Andretti and also to NBA great Kobe Bryant on Sunday.

The front roof pillar will carry Andretti's name, an homage to the popular driver who passed away on Jan. 30 after a long, valiant battle with colon cancer. Andretti drove for Petty in the 1998-2003 seasons earning a victory at Phoenix in 1999.

Bryant, a perennial All-Star, played for the Los Angeles Lakers and was killed along with his daughter and seven others in a helicopter crash in California on Jan. 26.

Wallace said it was a "given" that the team would honor its former driver Andretti, a popular competitor both in and out of the race car. And Bryant was a particular favorite of Wallace's.

"I was going to put his name where my name was on the door, but then we were like, we need to honor every single person there and I agreed with that," he said. "We decided to come up with a cool decal. ... It offsets from our Air Force scheme, but just a lot of people riding with us for the 500 on Sunday."

--The Toyotas may be outnumbered, but they'll be working together as usual on Sunday, says Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender Christopher Bell, driver of the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Camry.

"I'm sure we'll talk about that later on in the week," said Bell, who posted the ninth-fastest lap in last Sunday's time trials for the Great American Race. "But it's tough because we're outnumbered so bad, it's hard to think all the Toyotas are going to be able to compete against all that Ford and Chevrolet have."

On the other hand, even with just five factory-backed teams, Toyota drivers have excelled in NASCAR's most prestigious race. In both of Denny Hamlin's Daytona 500 victories, Toyota Camrys have swept the top three positions.

"Whenever you get down to the end of it, it's totally different," Bell said. "Typically, a lot of crashes have taken a lot of cars out. You have to look around and see what's left. Yeah, I would imagine we're going to do everything we can to help each other."

Bell has focused on the upcoming Daytona 500 at the expense of dirt racing plans in the week preceding the race. He forewent a World of Outlaws appearance at Volusia Speedway on Sunday and sprint car races at East Bay in Tampa the following two days to concentrate on preparation for his NASCAR Cup Series debut.

"I was originally planning on running Volusia, East Bay, East Bay," Bell said. "When I started looking at the details of it, I'm like, 'Man, this is my first Cup race weekend. I really need to focus on that.' I just decided to skip Florida."

Bell said he didn't feel pressure from his team to make the schedule change. Rather, the impetus came from within.

"The last that I talked to the team about it, they were giving me approval to go do it," Bell said. "But I felt like I owed it to them to show them that this is my job, and I am solely focused on the Daytona 500, starting my Cup season out right."

--Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is still enjoying his hard-earned Daytona 500 week of esteem.

The new JTG Daugherty Racing driver won the Daytona 500 pole position Sunday in his first official outing with the team and is coming off a celebratory media blitz earlier this week.

Although he drove the car, Stenhouse was insistent during a media day question-and-answer period that his good fortune on the grid was primarily a result of the JTG Daugherty Racing team -- more preparation than driver skill on the single-lap qualifying run in the No. 47 Chevrolet.

"It's been really neat so far," Stenhouse said of the one-of-a-kind media tour the Daytona 500 pole winner is treated to in the wake of his work.

"As soon as I won the pole, we were like, 'Hey, we're going to fly out at 6 o'clock and to go to New York,' and they were gracious enough to let me push that time back so I could go to the dirt track (Volusia Speedway) and watch my sprint car team run, and then we headed to New York.

"But getting up in the morning and going to FOX and doing all the shows and then all the interviews in between is just pretty cool to see everybody talking about our race team and what we were able to accomplish on Sunday.

"A lot of hard work went into that this offseason," Stenhouse said. "A lot of Saturdays, long nights in the shop, long days in the wind tunnel, and to see it all kind of come together, pay off and get to see all the media that our team was able to get is pretty special. I got to enjoy it for a week, or we get to enjoy that for a week before the race on Sunday, so it's a big deal for our team."

The pole was Stenhouse's third in eight full-time seasons; the first since the two-time Xfinity Series champion won the Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway NASCAR Cup Series race from the pole in 2017.

Stenhouse conceded he has plenty of motivation to make good on this prime starting position -- especially starting the 2020 season with a new team -- but with a familiar crew chief in Brian Pattie, who worked with Stenhouse at Roush-Fenway Racing from 2017-2019. Neither considers the performance at Daytona last weekend to be a surprise effort considering their track record together, particularly on superspeedways, where Stenhouse has earned both career wins.

"Brian and I together have shown what we can do on speedways," Stenhouse said. "I think it shows the work that the team put in and the resources that we have to come down here and be the fastest car in Daytona 500 pole qualifying.

"So, I wouldn't say it would be an upset. I don't know how you'd put it, but I feel confident. Maybe an eye-opener, but I am confident in what our ability is and our race car, especially here at Daytona."

--When Martin Truex Jr. started working with engineer James Small at Furniture Row Racing, the biggest obstacle to their communication might have been Small's Australian accent.

When Truex transitioned to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2018, Small came with him. Last year the Aussie served as lead engineer on a No. 19 team that won seven races, tops in the NASCAR Cup Series.

With the departure of crew chief Cole Pearn during the offseason, Small has assumed that role on Truex's team. So far, the transition has been comfortable, as far as the driver is concerned

"So far it's been good," Truex said. "I think James has been right there on the front lines with us the past few seasons, and obviously he wasn't out in the spotlight, because he was an engineer and not a crew chief.

"But I feel like he's really doing the same things as before, and our communication really hasn't changed a whole lot. I just feel like it's business as usual. From that standpoint, it feels comfortable, and he's done a good job of just keeping things the way we've always done them."

--By Reid Spencer and Holly Cain, NASCAR Wire Service. Special to Field Level Media.

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