Larson, McMurray surge as CGR work bears fruit
BUY TICKETS: See the races at Bristol A strong finish to the 2016 season and an equally impressive start to 2017 has placed the two-team effort of Chip Ganassi Racing squarely in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series spotlight. These are heady days for drivers Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson, crew chiefs Matt McCall and Chad Johnston, and the dozens upon dozens of support personnel surrounding the No. 1 and No. 42 teams. Not that you would know it from speaking with the principals. "No, I think that's what we expected," Johnston said of the organization's rise up the competitive ladder. Johnston's driver, Larson, is the series' points leader heading into Monday's Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway (1 p.m. ET, FOX, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR). "I think it catches some people off guard and I think it's gotten a lot of hype, but we felt like we were pretty good last year toward the end of the year; we weren't as consistent as we wanted to be. "But performance-wise we felt like we were pretty good. We also knew we needed to continue to work hard to keep gaining on it through the offseason. I think anything less than what we started off would have been a disappointment for all of us." McCall said the resurgence is more than lip service. The results back up the attention being paid to the Ganassi organization this year. "Because you know how it is, everyone always claims they're working hard, working hard and that's the case," he said. "But until you actually have something to show for it, you really don't get to show the world that. "It's good for everyone that works here, a lot of long hours, to get a little recognition for all the work that's been put in." RELATED: Penske, Ganassi battle for early season supremacy The explanations run the gamut, from the obvious to the intricate. "I don't know what the difference ... is, but our race cars are just way faster," said Larson, who has banked one win and four runner-up finishes after seven races. "I think after we struggled so bad through this point of the season last year, (Chad) got really aggressive on what changes he wanted done in the race shop and with the race cars, with the bodies. As soon as he got his bodies and chassis built, we had a great test at Pocono (in April 2016), then we went to Dover, almost won that race; came to Charlotte, won the Showdown, almost won the All-Star Race. "Really since that point, we've had a lot of speed in our cars and we've just built on that and made them better and better." There's been no magic bullet, according to McMurray, who sits eighth in points and has four top-10 results this season. Instead, he said, it's a combination of things that have, in some cases, taken years to develop and implement. Better cars, better personnel, better decisions. The organization has been a contender before, but it's also had its share of expectations that failed to pan out. "It's been kind of years in the process of getting every department just a little bit better," McMurray, 40, said. "I think taking everybody's ideas from engineering, from the guys on the shop floor that have grown up racing, taking all that and combining it and it's all added up to a really good performance." McMurray has been "on both sides" of the situation -- those times when you show up at the track confident that you will contend and those times when you know there's still plenty of work to be done just to survive. "The frustrating part is that you know it's not one little piece," he said. "It's a lot of little, small things that are going to add up to getting you there. "(From) 2010 being as high as you can get to, by 2012 it was horrible. It was super frustrating to go every week and know that if you did everything right you were maybe going to run 20th. Super frustrating weekends." McMurray won the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400 and the Charlotte fall race in '10. He also won four poles. Two years later, he had only three top 10s and finished outside the top 20 in points. "But right now we are back on top and it's so much fun to show up every weekend and know that even if your car doesn't drive great that you're going to run really well and hopefully have a shot to win," he said. Two Teams, Two Styles, One Goal There's a 16-year difference in ages between McMurray and Larson, and nearly as large of a gap in their approach to racing. Now in his fourth full season in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Larson's approach is simple: "I show up and drive," he said. McMurray, however, is a product of his past, having arrived on the scene at a time when "guys that were big into setups and how do you make your car drive better," he said. "I was raised with that mentality of kind of understanding the car and trying to make the right adjustments to it to make the car faster. Where Kyle really doesn't know anything about cars. He doesn't really give suggestions of what he thinks you need on the car to make it faster. He just searches around. A lot of times that works out well for him, so that's opened my eyes up to maybe not trying to make the car perfect but maybe just search around and try to find something on the track." Larson calls his teammate "a very underrated driver" with a ton of experience. "He's won every big race on our circuit," Larson said of McMurray. "I can go to him ... and just pick his brain and get any bits of advice I could, look at his data and compare it to mine. "I feel like we are very similar drivers and the way we use our hands and feet and how aggressive we are, so we mesh well together. I love working with Jamie; I hope he stays around for a long time and we can work together for a long time, as well, and have a lot of success together." While the drivers come from different backgrounds and developed different approaches, the crew chiefs come from similar backgrounds. Both McCall and Johnston had driving careers and served at one point as engineers for other teams. While experience behind the wheel has been helpful, understanding the methodology behind making a car go fast has been more crucial as the two made the move atop the pit box. "I think the driving part, that sort of changes week to week," McCall said. "Especially every time you change a package and the tires change. ... "The other side (of that) is the managing skills, the people skills -- there's no experience for that so that's definitely different on the crew chief side." Johnston said the "other side of the steering wheel pays a lot better but it comes with a lot more hassles, too." "The engineering side and just knowing all the nuances, the aerodynamics ... things like that probably helped me more than anything," he said. The two teams work as one, with key personnel working out of one trailer every week at the track. That promotes open dialogue, with both teams knowing what each is doing at any given time. The differences in the cars and their setups are minor, tweaked to suit each driver's individual needs. And their driving styles really aren't that different. While some folks make much over Larson's high-groove, sideways-here-I-come approach, Larson said it's certainly not by design. Changes in the aero package and the loss of downforce, he said, have actually hurt him as much as anyone. RELATED: Larson fast, atop the standings and having fun "Everybody thinks that because I grew up dirt racing that I like the car sideways and all this and that," he said. "But I don't. Stock car sideways is a way different feeling, a bad feeling, compared to Sprint cars. When you're sideways in a Sprint car, you still have grip; you're making more grip, to a certain point. Where with stock cars, you've got to worry about tire management so much and all that. "If anything, I would honestly say less downforce is bad for me. In 2014, my first year in Cup, we had the most downforce we've had since I've been in NASCAR and I ran really well that year. That's been my best season up until this year. I know last year we won a race and made the (playoffs) and all that, but consistently (2014) was our best up until this season. "Lower downforce, the racing is better but I wouldn't say it suits my driving style any better than it suits anybody else." Having been in the spotlight before, McMurray isn't fazed by the recent surge in attention paid to the Ganassi operation. He's just happy to be a part of the process. "I don't know that when you're on the inside that you view it that differently," he said. "When I think about our shop I know all the sacrifice and the work that's gone into this and sometimes you don't get rewarded for that. Sometimes you put all that time and effort in and it doesn't translate to speed. "But when you're on the inside, you know everything that's happened and why it is. I'm just thankful for it."
Jones brings quiet demeanor, big results to rookie year
BUY TICKETS: See the races at Bristol RELATED: More on Jones DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Erik Jones would be the first to tell you he is not high drama, flash-and-dash. Instead, the 20-year old Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series rookie prefers a more workmanlike, low-key approach to his high-profile job. And his rise up the standings this season reflects the rewards of that method. The Furniture Row Racing driver heads to the always-exciting Bristol Motor Speedway bullring this weekend ranked 14th with a season-best eighth-place finish at Phoenix last month and five top-15 finishes through seven races. RELATED: Full series standings "I don't usually have a lot to say most of the time," Jones said of his reserved demeanor during a test at Daytona International Speedway last week. "I always feel we have a job when we come to the race track, we know what we're supposed to do." His quiet manner with reporters is in sharp contrast to the noise he’s been making on track as a new Monster Energy Series driver in a new car -- the No. 77 Toyota Camry -- with a first-year crew chief in Chris Gayle. Jones said he hasn't necessarily sought out anyone from last year's rookie class for advice on his maiden premier series season, instead just kind of put his head down and gone about his business. It's certainly worked before for him. "I don't hang out with the other drivers too much," Jones said smiling. "I kind of do my own thing. I show up at the race track to do my job and that's kind of always how it's been. I've always lived the by the mentality that you bring your friends to the race track with you." And so Jones' friends must be impressed. He has patiently and methodically worked forward in his debut season in NASCAR's big leagues -- improving each week in some aspect of competition. But then again, success is not new to him. MORE: Jones on his late father: 'I definitely think he's proud' He won the Camping World Truck Series championship at the age of 19 in his first full season of competition and finished fourth last year in the XFINITY Series championship in his only full year competing there. Clearly, Jones' progress reflects both his quiet confidence and his great natural ability. He considers the eighth-place showing at Phoenix (where he has a pair of Truck Series wins) the best full weekend he's had so far in the Monster Energy Series and the top-10 has given him a healthy dose of assurance. "We just worked our way forward all day," Jones recalled of that race. "We didn't qualify that great, but we worked our way forward. We were running fifth with about 20 laps to go and if not for that late caution, I think we would have finished there. That was a day where I definitely felt good about it. "Fontana (Auto Club Speedway) was another one. We consistently ran fourth to fifth to six all day long and then got a penalty late on the last (pit) stop. Those two races were really good for us as a team and races where I felt I had the speed to go up and be really competitive." Jones has certainly established a pattern of high expectations collecting a truly remarkable 43 top-10 finishes in 63 XFINITY Series starts (entering Bristol) -- a measure of 68 percent. RELATED: Jones wins at Texas in XFINITY " All his XFINITY stats Specifically, he has had great success at Bristol, starting from the pole position in three of his four XFINTY Series starts. He won from the pole position there last spring (and scored the Dash 4 Cash prize for that race) and has three top-10 finishes. He also has a strong XFINITY Series record at next week’s venue, Richmond International Raceway, with three top-five finishes, including a runner-up in the XFINITY Series race there last fall. "I would say performance-wise other than last week at Texas (22nd in the Monster Energy Series race ), I've been really happy with where we've run," Jones said. "We've run consistently in the top 10 at Phoenix, Fontana and Atlanta but we just didn't get the finishes we deserved. "Either way I look at it, we've done as good a job as we can and we brought fast race cars to the track. We're just learning more about how to execute, how to close these races out, and how to get the finishes we feel like we are capable of."
The air up there: Record motorcycle jump planned for 'Dega
BUY TICKETS: See this event, races at Talladega Alex Harvill is used to making the most of wide expanses. His pastime of jumping motorcycles great distances requires it, and the two leaps he's made that stand as current world records have both taken place in the sweeping sand dunes of his home state of Washington. But when Harvill wanted to bring his high-flying show to NASCAR, making the most of his Monster Energy backing and the energy drink maker's sponsorship deal of stock-car racing's top series, Talladega Superspeedway seemed likely to be a natural fit. Combine the 2.66-mile facility's wide stretches of asphalt, its tendency for wild on-track action and its rabid fan base even more so make it an obvious choice. Harvill will attempt to set a world record for the longest ramp-to-ramp motorcycle jump on May 7 before the start of the GEICO 500 (2 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), aiming to go 400 feet or farther. The jump will take place in the fan-frenzied zone called Talladega Boulevard, and the timing is even more audacious -- the 24-year-old rider is scheduled to make his leap in the five-minute window between the national anthem and the command to start engines. "I want to be under the most eyes as possible," Harvill told NASCAR.com, "make it on TV and kick off the NASCAR race with the biggest jump ever." Until this week, Harvill had never been to Talladega, "but I have on NASCAR video games, so it's like I've been here before because I've raced it many times. But this is my first time here, and it's very impressive with how big it is." Harvill currently holds two world records for motorcycle distance jumping -- a 425-foot leap to set the bar for ramp-to-dirt jumps in 2012 and a 297.5-foot distance to establish the dirt-to-dirt benchmark a year later. The current ramp-to-ramp record is 351 feet, set in 2008 by Australian rider Robbie Maddison, but Harvill has designs on more than the target distance of 400 feet. "I want to go for the furthest jump and then to keep going," says Harvill, who projects a target speed of 106 mph to achieve his Talladega goal. "My goal is to go 500 (feet), and I'm hoping Monster and NASCAR provide me platforms to keep going further and further."
NASCAR Inside Track: Sponsor search and hero honored by the Brickyard
Rick Horrow talks about Kentucky Speedway's tribute to Sprint as the series searches for a new entitlement sponsor and talks how Indianapolis Motor Speedway's honors a hero as the namesake for the Brickyard 400 .
Staff picks for Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway
RELATED: See all the cars lined up for Sunday's race Jimmie Johnson : "The focus is rightly on Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart this weekend. Away from the spotlight, though, Johnson and his No. 48 team finally get back on track with a dominant showing -- and "Six-Time" ties Gordon with his fifth career win at the Brickyard ." -- Brad Norman Tony Stewart : 'Smoke' has been on a roll and no place means as much to him as the Brickyard . -- Kenny Bruce Kyle Larson : " Fueled by a landmark victory at Eldora Speedway and increased team performance, expect Kyle Larson to ride a wave of momentum into the Brickyard , backing up his two Indy top-10s by landing in Victory Lane for the first time in his Sprint Cup Series career." -- Pat DeCola Martin Truex Jr. : Furniture Row Racing puts all the pieces together, shedding any bad luck for another crown jewel win to pair with its Coca-Cola 600 triumph. -- Zack Albert Jimmie Johnson : " He's won here four times before and it's time for his frustrating summer to end." -- Holly Cain Tony Stewart : "Equipped with a third-place starting position for his final Brickyard 400 run, look for Indiana native Tony Stewart to continue his hot streak up front -- and eventually in Victory Lane." -- Jessica Ruffin Ryan Newman : "The Rocket Man has been close the past two weeks (seventh at Loudon, third at Kentucky) and qualified sixth at the Brickyard , so let's go with Indiana's forgotten son to pull off the upset on Sunday. After all, his last Sprint Cup Series win came at Indy (2013)." -- George Winkler Kyle Busch: " The Sprint Cup Series champ is starting on the pole and I think he's going to stay there to bring home his second consecutive Brickyard win. Also, with Saturday's XFINITY Series win under his belt, Busch is eyeing a sweep again, a feat that's only been done by him." -- Taylor Nunnally Carl Edwards : " The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has the speed this weekend and his quiet summer is about to come to an end with his first Brickyard win." -- RJ Kraft Jimmie Johnson : Four-time Indy winner is due for a Brickyard win and this weekend could be the year "Six-Time" ties Jeff Gordon for the most wins at the 2.5-mile track. -- Maggie MacKenzie Make your picks in Streak to the Finish !
Ray Black Jr. spins, collected by David Starr
Ray Black Jr. loses control of his No. 07 and then receives heavy damage following contact with David Starr's No. 99.
GarageCam replay: Going big in Texas
Chuck Bush guides us through the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series garage at Texas Motor Speedway in GarageCam, presented by Mobil 1.
Johnson looks to cure cold spell at the Brickyard
RELATED: Johnson through the years " See all the winners at the Brickyard SPEEDWAY, Ind. – Jimmie Johnson looked comfortable and calm taking questions from the media Friday morning at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The six-time Sprint Cup Series champion's No. 48 Lowe’s Red Vest Chevrolet was fastest in the day's opening practice here and seventh quickest in final practice. The historically tough 2.5-mile track has been a positive outlet for Johnson. His success at Indianapolis – four wins – is undeniable, but it is also sporadic. And overdue. Johnson won three times at Indy in four years between 2006-2009 – a mark both unmatched and highly impressive. He added a fourth victory in 2012 and then nearly a fifth in 2013 when he finished runner-up. Only Jeff Gordon (five wins) has won more here. The flip side of the success is that three times Johnson has finished 36th or worse. He was 14th and 15th in his last two races at Indy. And his need to add another win here in Sunday's Crown Royal presents the Combat Wounded Coalition 400 at the Brickyard (NBCSN, IMS, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) is as much about turning his season around in pursuit of a record-tying seventh NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title as it is attaining Indianapolis-specific glory. "We love big events, that's one thing about Hendrick Motorsports,’" Johnson allowed, smiling. "We look at the 500 and the 400 and all big races as an opportunity; and are excited for it." Johnson was the first driver in 2016 to collect multiple trophies winning the second week of the season at Atlanta and then again three weeks later at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. But in the last 10 races, he's crashed out three times and had only a single top-10 finish – a third-place finish at Charlotte in the Coca-Cola 600 . In fact, four of his finishes in this stretch have been 25th or worse. Before a 12th- place finish from the pole position at New Hampshire last week, Johnson uncharacteristically crashed out in back-to-back races with a 35th- place showing at Daytona and 32nd at Kentucky. He's currently eighth in the points standings, however, he is fourth on the Chase Grid because of his multiple wins. "I guess last week is kind of a good example of some of the difficulties we've had," Johnson said of New Hampshire. "We had competitive cars all running in the top 11 and in one corner we lose two of them. "It's been tough, but I think we have a good foundation to build from. We have respectable finishes in our cars, but nobody wants to be a decent finisher or a respectable finisher. We all want to dominate. And, we're working real hard on all fronts; from our engine shop, chassis shop, aero, teams, pit stops, and all of it." Contrary to what other teams may be experiencing, Johnson said it's not that his team isn't trying hard enough to return to form. It may be they are trying too hard. "And that's the problem," Johnson said. "I've been at 110 percent and you make too many mistakes there. And I think our team has, too. So, that's one thing we have recognized and we're going to really try to dial back and make sure that we run where we should. "If we have a fifth place car that week, let's be sure that we at least finish fifth. Maybe there's some opportunities to give us a chance to win, but stop making mistakes. And, I've got to do that, first and foremost." Johnson said he was even open to having the team’s "new driver" Jeff Gordon give feedback on the cars since Gordon – who retired last year – is filling in for Dale Earnhardt Jr. this week at Indianapolis and next week at Pocono while Earnhardt continues to recover from concussion-like symptoms. "We're months in, and I feel like all the drivers have expressed where we could be stronger and what we might need, but a fresh set of eyes and I guess it is kind of biased, but versus the four drivers in unbiased evaluation of the car and where we stack-up and how the engine feels compared to others," Johnson said of possibly getting Gordon's opinion. "And Jeff has had a unique opportunity to see the sport from a totally different angle; and certainly watching cars and I know he's formed some opinions watching other race cars and where the Toyotas might beat us. So, to be able to sit in the car and look for those opportunities and moments, I think will be helpful for us, for sure." The recent struggles are certainly an unfamiliar position for team owner Rick Hendrick, who was just selected for the 2017 NASCAR Hall of Fame class. He's grown much more accustomed to winning championships or at the very least challenging for titles. Recently his team has been challenging simply to finish a race. But righting the course is something everyone expects. And the trick is doing it sooner than later. "It seems like when it rains, it pours," Hendrick said. "I think at Daytona we wrecked three or four cars. And then we went to Kentucky and wrecked again. We were in good shape in New Hampshire, but wrecked again. I've been doing this long enough that you can't stay on top forever. You have to work hard to get back. And I think we've made a lot of improvements. "I think we'll see some, hopefully, this weekend. But, you never like having a curveball. This is kind of one of the toughest things you have to go through as one of your star drivers can't drive. And so, the encouraging news is that everybody just stepped up and is working harder. "We're determined to work in every area from the engine to the chassis and aero and everything. And the teams are excited. It's kind of our 'refuse to lose' belief. But we didn't need this, for sure. We didn't need the wrecks we've gone through. Our place looks like a salvage yard where all of the cars have been tore up. But that just makes us dig harder." And Johnson appears ready to lead the charge. "We're all highly inspired to get back on top of the mountain, that is where we feel we should be at Hendrick Motorsports," Johnson said. "We've just got to clean it up on all fronts. Hopefully we have it all together here and can win."
@nascarcasm: 2017 Peeps 400
RELATED: Read more Inside Groove @nascarcasm held his annual Peeps 400 this week in honor of the marshmallow, Easter-time treat. The premise: 16 Peeps with numbers corresponding to the drivers in last year's playoff field were placed in a microwave, heat set to high for five minutes. The one Peep to outlast the other 15 will be crowned the winner of the 2017 Peeps 400 . Watch the video below to see who won. &amp;lt;/center&amp;gt;
Busch picks up Coors Light Pole Award in search of Brickyard defense
RELATED: Full starting lineup " See the full field SPEEDWAY, Ind. – A sweep at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is nothing new to Kyle Busch. But this year, he started early. With a lap at 184.634 mph (48.745 seconds) in the final round of Saturday's knockout qualifying, Busch claimed the pole position for Sunday’s Crown Royal 400 (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN, IMS, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Earlier in the day, the driver who swept both the NASCAR Sprint Cup and XFINITY Series races at Indy last year earned the pole award ahead of the heat races prior to Saturday afternoon’s Lilly Diabetes 250 XFINITY race. But the Sprint Cup pole that completed the Saturday sweep was special, because it was the first for Busch at the vaunted Brickyard . "I haven't been great at qualifying here, but the guys gave me a great piece this time around, and I'm real pumped about that," said Busch, who claimed his second Coors Light Pole Award of the season and the 19th of his career. "We're starting first in both of these (races), and hopefully we can end that way. "It means a lot (to win the pole). It's definitely pretty special to be running the way that we're running and to have the success that we've had here the last couple of years at Indy, and I’d love nothing more than to try to win here again." Busch’s No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was .023 seconds faster than the No. 19 of teammate Carl Edwards (184.547 mph). "I was happy with my lap," Edwards said. "I was surprised Kyle got me. That was a good lap for him – I mean, that was a good lap that he ran because I felt like my lap was pretty good – but, yeah, it's frustrating right now to be second because it's so close, and the pole position is obviously huge here. "But by tomorrow, the race gets started and I think I'll be pretty happy with that starting spot, so just good job by all my guys." Making his last appearance at Indy as a Sprint Cup Series driver, Tony Stewart earned the third starting spot with a lap at 184.328 mph and knew exactly where he had lost critical speed. "I just wish I could do lap three (final round) one more time and not clip the apron in (Turn) 4," Stewart said. "I think we could have been on the pole." RELATED: Stewart discusses his qualifying effort Denny Hamlin qualified fourth, giving JGR three of the top four spots. Brad Keselowski in fifth has the top Ford. Ryan Newman , Kevin Harvick , Martin Truex Jr. , Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson will start from positions six through 10, respectively. The time trials were a disappointment for the Hendrick Motorsports drivers, who failed to place a car in the top 12. Jimmie Johnson ran the fastest lap of the day in the first of three rounds, touring the 2.5-mile speedway in 48.435 seconds (185.816 mph). But the six-time series champion failed to advance beyond the second round, losing the 12th and final position to Kurt Busch by .008 seconds. Johnson will start 13th, Chase Elliott 15th and Jeff Gordon , subbing for Dale Earnhardt Jr. , who is out with concussion-like symptoms, claimed the 21st spot on the grid. "I felt really comfortable right there," said Gordon, who was 15th fastest in the first round. "I feel like today I’m much calmer than I was yesterday (in practice). Usually, my heart is beating more for qualifying than it is for practice, but that wasn't the case. "So, today I feel more relaxed and comfortable in the car. I hope to feel the same way tomorrow. Tomorrow's challenge is going to be being around traffic, and also trying to get the balance of the car right and do that when you're by yourself as well as when you're around other cars." Josh Wise failed to make the 40-car field. </p>
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