After having an eventful morning in northern Tennessee, Denny Hamlin conquered final practice in preparation for the Food City 500 on Sunday.
Early in the session, the No. 11 Toyota posted a lap at 126.129 mph which is equivalent to just over 15 seconds on the stop watch. Hamlin was fastest in practice on Friday and will roll off the grid from the fourth position.
In the first session on Saturday morning Hamlin and Danica Patrick were involved in an incident heading into Turn One. The No. 11 car darted underneath the No. 10 machine and mistimed it, causing for both drivers to be confused.
“Man, I love Denny, but he makes a lot of mistakes behind me,” Patrick said. “I don’t know if he misjudged it or I was going slower than he thought, but I put my finger out the window and pointed him by. I had no intention to race him. I was not fast enough. I don’t know, but the guys are going to try and fix it.”
The only non-Toyota in the top five in final practice was Chase Elliott in second at 125.823 mph. The No. 24 Chevrolet posted his fastest time of the session as time expired, giving him confidence heading into his first event at the world’s fastest half-mile.
Just seconds before Elliott clocked off a hot lap, Martin Truex, Jr. had posted the second fastest time. He ended the session in third at 125.749 mph.
A duo of Joe Gibbs Racing teammates rounded out the top five. Pole-sitter, Carl Edwards was fourth quickest at 125.691 mph. Kyle Busch was fifth at 125.395 mph, after pacing the opening practice earlier on in the morning.
The fourth JGR Toyota and defending winner of this race, Matt Kenseth was 10th in the session, yet he was just over a tenth of a second off the fast lap.
The highest Richard Childress Racing car was Austin Dillon in 20th. His RCR teammate, Ryan Newman ran just over 100 laps, but only fast enough for 27th.
Sprint Cup Rookie Chris Buescher ran 104 laps, the most of the 40-car field. His hot lap was quick enough for 21st on the speed chart.
The Food City 500 is slated to begin shortly after 1:00 p.m. on Sunday, a race that has been rain delayed in each of the past two years.
It was announced on Wednesday morning that Landon Cassill would take over the helm of the No. 38 Ford full-time for Front Row Motorsports in 2016. The Iowa native will be joining 2015 NASCAR XFINITY Series champion Chris Buescher to fulfill the driver lineup for the now two-car team.
In mid-December, it was announced that Buescher would take over the No. 34 Ford full-time for the upcoming season. Several weeks later, he was notified that Love’s Travel Stop would serve as the primary sponsor for 18 races.
The newly formed lineup at FRM comes with a technical alliance with Roush Fenway Racing, something that came with Buescher’s success over the past two seasons in the XFINITY Series. For Buescher, he will look to beat out the likes of Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney to claim the Sunoco Rookie of the Year award, as well as clinching a Chase birth with a victory.
“I think Landon is going to be a great compliment to Front Row Motorsports this season,” Buescher said at the NASCAR Media Tour. “I have not worked with him in the past, but I have raced with him a lot. He’s a great competitor and very fast.”
Buescher is coming off of a season in which he picked up two victories while claiming his championship. In 2015, he recorded 11 top fives and 20 top-10 finishes as he out-did his rookie season in the XFINITY Series, when he won at Mid-Ohio and recorded 14 top 10s after missing the season-opener at Daytona.
His newly acquired teammate, Cassill, stated he has never had a better opportunity then he will in 2016. Coming off of a season where he drove the No. 40 for Hillman Racing, he is excited about the opportunity that presents itself.
“This is an upgrade for my career,” Cassill told Speedway Digest. “This is a team that now has an alliance now with Roush that I’ve never worked with in my Cup career. I’m going to get Donnie Wingo as a crew chief and I’m going to get the team that he had last year. There’s nothing new for him except for the driver, so I feel like it’s up to me to fit in with those guys and be a part of that team.”
As well as running full-time in the Cup Series last season, Cassill also competed in 29 of the 33 XFINITY Series races, but is not sure if he will run in that series this season. He did state that if the opportunity presents itself, he would like to since at some tracks, the crossover between the divisions helps on the racetrack. However, after running a couple of full-time seasons, he is looking forward to having some Saturday’s off.
The new duo of teammates are in a transition period when FRM is looking to upgrade in performance. Last season, the team struggled to run inside of the top 20. Brett Moffitt, Cole Whitt and David Gilliland fulfilled the majority of the races for the then three-car team. Combined, the team did not record a single top-10 finish in the 2015 season. With the addition of Buescher and Cassill, FRM is in the process of creating new team morale.
FRM has now built itself around youth. Buescher, 23, and Cassill, 26, provide a demographic shift for the team after competing for multiple years with Gilliland and David Ragan.
“It looks awesome for this season,” Buescher said of the team morale. “The alliance with Roush Fenway Racing is going to be a big help. The amount of engineer data that we will be able to share back and forth, the amount of teammates that we will have is just strengthening our program so that we can run well each and every week. I think this is an opportunity for Front Row to gather more information than they have ever been able to.”
Said Cassill: “They are just extremely motivated right now. Just like I’m getting chances that I’ve never had in the Cup Series, this is a group of guys that have been working their tails off for years and years and years to build their own racecars the best way they can. Now, they are getting to build their racecars with information from Ford and from Roush that they have never had access to. It was really cool to see smiling faces when I went to the shop.”
Now that FRM has the driver lineup set in stone for the coming year, the technical alliance will look to be a pivotal shift for the future of the organization. If it happens to not work out, and ultimately fail, there is no telling what the future holds for the organization.
Normally, it is not ideal for a team to have its driver lineup announced less than four weeks until Speedweeks. However, if FRM is looking to move to the upper-echelon of teams in NASCAR the alliance will need to work with Roush Fenway Racing, even though that team has struggled in the past couple of seasons, including going winless and failing to have at least one car qualify for the Chase for the first time since the Chase was implemented in 2004.
The amount of technology and data is there for both teams to race well. The new lineup could be the piece that solves the puzzle and allows FRM to be a well-rounded organization.
Round Table Discussion: Breaking Down the Mid-Year ‘Silly Season’ with Joe Gibbs Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing
This NASCAR season has been everything but ordinary. Over the past three months, there have been multiple drivers to miss time due to medical issues, and teams have acted like they are in the MLB or NFL.
Trading drivers seems rather far-fetched, but that is what has occurred in the NASCAR world in 2015.
Following Kyle Busch’s hard wreck at Daytona, where he hit an area of the inside retaining wall that was not protected by the SAFER Barrier, the 29-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series winner was sent to the hospital. With Busch being out for several months, and no announcement on when he will be back other than that it will be before the series returns to Daytona in July, Joe Gibbs Racing made a “trade” with Front Row Motorsports. Well, it would have been a trade, but the small Ford team ended up losing its top driver.
Two-time Camping World Truck Series champion Matt Crafton replaced Busch for the Daytona 500, and David Ragan has since piloted the No. 18 car. Meanwhile, Brian Vickers, who missed the first two races due to cardiovascular surgery over the off-season, returned to the seat of his Michael Waltrip Racing car at Las Vegas. Evidently, his blood clots returned, and after announcing he would be out for at least three months, MWR was forced to put rookie Brett Moffitt into the car.
Now, with Erik Jones set to take over the No. 18 Toyota for JGR until Busch’s return, Ragan is set to join MWR for the remainder of the season. If and when Vickers come back is still in question, but our Speedway Digest team takes a look at some key questions that have come up with all the announcements as of late in our first round table discussion.
Brett Winningham: I see Ragan fitting in with the Michael Waltrip Racing team very well. Even though the finishes with the Joe Gibbs Racing team could have been better, I think he will perform just as well with MWR. The team has been off lately, earning only three top 10 finishes in 2015. With the addition of Ragan, it could potentially improve the team moving forward. It also allows Ragan a much better chance at making the Chase for the Sprint Cup if he can score a victory or record enough solid finishes to get into the Chase via points.
Steven Wilson: Ragan has been able to keep the car clean through the events he's run with JGR aside for an issue at Bristol. For one, it makes him look good to a team that is going to be able to give good information on what the car is doing and how to make it better with his many years behind the wheel. But most of all, he can bring the car home in one piece.
Joseph Wolkin: Ragan is a marketable driver. He was the face of AAA when he first came into the sport, and eventually did the same for UPS. Though he has had some struggles with Front Row Motorsports, the chance with Joe Gibbs Racing has shown that he is capable of running up front. His results don’t show it, but Ragan has proved thus far in 2015 that he can and will be a consistent driver once again.
Dustin Albino: Ragan has always been a solid talent behind the wheel of a racecar. Ever since he was with Roush Fenway Racing in his rookie year, he established himself as a threat to make the Chase. However, in 2012 when Ragan jumped into the No. 34, that wasn’t the best move at the time. But, it was the only ride available in the Cup Series. A big reason why Ragan landed the No. 18 ride following Kyle Busch’s injury is because he is more established and a true veteran of the sport.
Wilson: Vickers has had such an up and down past 18 months or so with his health coming back early this year for two events to have to get out the car the next week. With him being back on medications that will take him out the car for the foreseeable future, throwing in the recent announcement he will have to take a hard look at his abilities going forward. Will he be able to run 400-500 mile events? Do the rewards out-weigh the risks?
Albino: This is a real bummer for Vickers. The big question is will he be healthy? No one knows. The blood clots seem to be reoccurring very often. Vickers first has to put his health first. As hard as that may be, he needs to continue being smart about the way he approaches his life.
The fact that Aaron’s stuck behind Vickers through thick and thin, and now that Ragan is hopping in the No. 55 for the remaining of the 2015 season has to be eating Vickers alive. There is no telling where his career may go from here, but getting healthy is the number one priority.
Winningham: At this point for Brian Vickers, I don’t see him returning to the No. 55 Toyota next year if he ends up sidelined for the rest of the season. The Michael Waltrip Racing team cannot afford to be effected by this week after week. When and if Vickers returns, it will be interesting to see how the situation will unfold.
Wolkin: This is a very difficult situation for everyone involved. Obviously, Waltrip’s team was trying to prevent this situation, but it appears Vickers’ career is in jeopardy with this latest health issue. The team needed a season-long replacement to give the sponsor a driver that is consistent behind the wheel, which puts Vickers out of a ride if he can come back before the end of the year.
If he can beat the odds and race again, which he seemingly will be able to do once doctors take him off Xarelto, it appears he will have to find sponsorship to run a third car for the team. Co-owner Rob Kauffman has put his company on the team’s cars before, and this is a situation where he probably would do so at least until the remainder of the season. However, he’s in a bit of a pickle if Ragan performs well, which would mean he could likely be a free agent once again.
3. Prior to his stint with Joe Gibbs Racing, Ragan was slated to run for Front Row Motorsports for the fourth straight season. What opportunities are presented to the Georgia native now that he has publicity on his side, along with a possible developing relationship with MWR's sponsor, Aaron's?
Wolkin: This opportunity with MWR is gigantic for Ragan. Performing well, he can see himself in the No. 55 car in 2016, and possibly locking up a multi-year deal. However, if he struggles, Ragan could be sent back to a lower-tier team, such as Front Row Motorsports. This is his last big chance at getting a top ride in the Cup Series, and his future will be based on his performances. There are several drivers with expiring contracts this year, and if MWR opts to put another driver in the car for 2016, there should be some openings for him.
Albino: Ragan is now a veteran of the Sprint Cup Series, and he is able to have sponsors behind him, while previously driving the No. 34 the past three seasons, Front Row Motorsports didn’t have a primary sponsor to fund him. Now that he knows where he will be for the remaining of the 2015 season, it will be critical for the Georgia native to perform. He was also put in a tough situation by taking over the No. 18 for Kyle Busch. Erik Jones is the future of Joe Gibbs Racing, and team owner Joe Gibbs hinted that the young 18-year-old would be in the Cup Series soon following his first career NASCAR XFINITY Series win at Texas. However, Ragan is now granted an opportunity to drive for a sponsor in Aaron’s that is fully committed to Michael Waltrip and Michael Waltrip Racing. Ragan may have found himself a quality long-term ride.
Winningham: If David Ragan can build a relationship with the Michael Waltrip Racing organization, it would more than likely save his racing career. It would also be a huge confidence boost since he entered the 2015 season not knowing how many races he could run with Front Row Motorsports due to sponsorship issues. At the same time, if Ragan cannot produce for MWR, it could also hurt his racing career.
Wilson: Other than being with JGR, giving him a shot to do some good things in a racecar was still a temporary spot for him not knowing when he would be out of the car and go back to Front Row Motorsports. This gives him one of his best shots to have the engineering and sponsorship money behind him with MWR and Toyota to back his effort for the remainder of 2015. This also is an opportunity for him to move into 2016 with a team that is better equipped to give him more wins in the Sprint Cup Series. Obviously, having long-time MWR sponsor Aaron's onboard gives him the path to continue with MWR if and when Vickers may return or if he doesn't, he will have a legitimate shot at keeping the seat with his knowledge and ability to bring a car home clean.
Albino: It will be interesting in the upcoming weeks to see what Front Row Motorsports decides to do with the No. 34 car. It seems as if the team is giving Roush Fenway Racing XFINITY Series driver Chris Buescher the go behind the wheel. He is a fellow Ford driver who has done a respectable job in his first four races behind the wheel with an average finish of 24.8. However, Bob Jenkins doesn’t want to go in the hole in regards to money, and without a primary sponsor on board, it will be hard to do. Giving young drivers an opportunity is always a good thing for the sport. However, is the driver up for the challenge? Maybe rotating a few younger drivers in that car for the remainder of the season is the way to go. But what if Vickers ended up in that ride? Only time will tell.
Wolkin: Chris Buescher is the obvious choice for the races that his XFINITY Series ride does not conflict with the Cup Series schedule. If he runs more than seven events this year, he will not be eligible for the Rookie of the Year when he races full-time in the Cup Series (possibly as soon as next year or 2017). Expect Buescher and Brett Moffitt to split this ride, with an occasional shot for young drivers, such as Ryan Ellis, Ryan Reed, Darrell Wallace Jr. or another driver who is associated with Ford.
Winningham: The Front Row Motorsports organization should continue to field the No. 34 Ford with Chris Buescher. Since making his debut with the team earlier this year, Buescher has finished inside the top 30 in each of those starts. In his Sprint Cup Series debut at Auto Club Speedway, Buescher left the two-mile oval with a 20th-place finish. In his last start at the Bristol Motor Speedway, Buescher walked away with a 25th-place finish. Based on these results, I see Front Row continuing to field a Sprint Cup Series entry with the young driver.
Wilson: This puts Brett Moffitt, who's already been in the car for Front Row Motorsports, in a position to be in a more stable seat week in and week out if he is given the opportunity. MWR would obviously like to keep Moffitt, but the lack of sponsorship to fund a third car leaves him out of that. Chris Buescher won't be able to compete each week for FRM due to obligations in the XFINITY series, where he's running for the championship, but gives him more seat time at tracks he's in need of to move on with his career.
On Sunday morning, just hours before the Brickyard 400, Roush Fenway Racing officially announced Carl Edwards’ departure from the organization. Edwards’ story is well known. He snuck into the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series garage area to hand out business cards, and after racing for the Mittler Brothers, Cousin Carl caught the eyes of Jack Roush.
Over the past several seasons, the team’s performance has depreciated, and it has shown since Edwards finished second in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings in 2011. With Edwards departing the only team he has known in NASCAR’s top-tier division, Roush has to move on – whether they want to or not.
“We made him an offer, but I believe his decision was not based on – NASCAR racing, Cup racing is a big-time sports entertainment thing today. Like football and baseball and basketball, athletes move around. We wish it wouldn’t happen, but there’s curiosity about what another team’s situation would look like and I think that although I shouldn’t speculate, I think Carl wanted to try something different before he saw his career get in its middle term and its final years,” Roush said on Sunday morning.
Replacing Edwards will be Trevor Bayne – the 2011 Daytona 500 winner. Bayne has struggled with his health over the past several years, and announced late last season that he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis – a disease that disrupts the nervous system. Fortunately, the 23-year-old doesn’t have any serious symptoms of the disease, and it will not have an effect on his career. He’s been racing on a part-time schedule for the Wood Brothers – a Roush satellite team, but with Advocare moving up the ranks with him, Bayne will be able to race full-time at NASCAR’s top division.
This will leave Greg Biffle as the team’s lead driver. Biffle has struggled on a higher level compared to Edwards this year. He has just five top-10s along with a pair of top-fives. With 3M likely resigning as Biffle’s primary sponsor, Roush does have some long-term security. However, as a 44-year-old, he might be nearing the end of his prime.
“It doesn’t look different than when Mark Martin stepped away and we were left with Greg and Carl to go forward. We’ve been in this business, as I said, for 27 years counting and we have made it our habit, our practice, our preference to bring drivers in,” Roush said. “We’ve brought in 23 drivers that had never been part of NASCAR before and 19 of them are still in this sport and 17 of them have won races, so we’re pretty much on time. We may have more rookies, but Ricky and Trevor and Greg are gonna be great. I’m real excited about that for next year and not less excited than I’ve been at any time in the past.”
“Certainly the focus of our leadership is gonna be with Greg Biffle and the things that he does with the race car and the leadership he provides for the engineering initiatives we take. We had that split with Carl and Greg together this year, so that will be a little different next year, but Ricky (Stenhouse Jr.) is ready to step up.”
Now, Stenhouse will be the team’s No. 2 driver. Like Biffle, he has struggled this year as well. In a season in which he has been reunited with Mike Kelley – the same crew chief that led him to two Nationwide Series titles, the sophomore driver has four top-10s, but sits 27th in points. However, the team has faith in him – just like they did with Edwards and Biffle over a decade ago.
Roush has certainly struggled with consistency this season. Their strength has moved away from the intermediate tracks, and is slowly reeling towards the short tracks – the minority of the schedule. Edwards has been the team’s lead driver since Matt Kenseth made the move to join Joe Gibbs Racing after the completion of the 2012 season. However, neither Edwards nor Biffle have been able to step up to the plate. Although he has to wins this year, the 34-year-old has struggled, and he understands that.
"Right now, the mission is to win this championship, this race. This is my decision. It's a decision I made, and I didn't take it lightly,” Edwards said. “Sometimes you just want to make a change, and opportunities present themselves and you say, 'Hey, what was that like to not take that opportunity?'"
It is likely that Edwards will be joining Joe Gibbs Racing – a Toyota organization – in a fourth vehicle. The team has run a fourth car in the past with David Gilliland and Joey Logano in 2008, as well as Elliott Sadler in select races last season. However, they have never run a fourth car on a full-time basis after starting the No. 11 team with Jason Leffler in 2005 before Denny Hamlin took the reins of that car.
As he stated, Edwards’ deal has been completed with another organization. Although he did not admit to signing the Missouri-native, team owner Joe Gibbs, admitted to having discussions to start a fourth team. If this were to happen, Edwards would be driving a non-Ford owned car for only the second time in his career. The lone occasion which he didn’t race a car with the blue oval on the nose was in 2002 in the NASCAR Nationwide Series at Gateway with Fred Bickford where he raced a Chevrolet.
“Carl Edwards has been a part of the Ford family for a decade, and it will certainly be tough to see him leave Ford and Roush Fenway Racing. During Carl’s time with Roush, he has represented Ford Motor Company with the utmost class, both on and off the track. We at Ford Racing did everything to facilitate keeping Carl a part of the Ford Racing & Roush Fenway family, but in the end that option did not come to fruition,” said Jamie Allison, director of Ford Racing.
For the future, Roush does have some promising drivers moving up the ranks. Chris Buescher, winner of the 2012 ARCA Series title, is racing the team’s No. 60 car in the Nationwide Series, and sits seventh in points. Buescher is a candidate for Bayne’s part-time ride at the Wood Brothers and would be the ideal scenario for both sides. However, Ryan Reed is also in the Nationwide Series. Reed has struggled slightly more than Buescher, but is starting to gain momentum after being labeled one of the series’ most frequent crashers earlier in the year.
The Roulo Brothers team in the ARCA Series – Roush’s satellite team in that division, has Kyle Benjamin and Kyle Weatherman in their stable as well. They are expected to move up the ranks like Buescher and Reed over the next few years – giving Roush some stability for the future.
“Our goal when we bring drivers up through the system is to retain them – to have them start with us, to win championships and then to retire with us, so this is all part of the process. I think if you talk to Greg and Jack they would tell you that they have some unfinished business. They set out a while ago to be the first tandem to win the Truck, the Nationwide and the Cup championship,” said Steve Newmark, President of Roush Fenway Racing. “It’s always disappointing when you lose a driver that you bring up through the organization. I think everyone is aware that we pride ourselves on being a driver development program. It’s in our DNA and our heritage.”
It started out as an abysmal season for one of the Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidates in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. However, Chris Buescher has learned from mistakes made early in the season, and now he is inside of the top-10 in Nationwide Series points.
Buescher, 21, is racing for Roush-Fenway Racing this year, but there is an open seat available in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. His teammate, Trevor Bayne, has been racing full-time on the Nationwide Series circuit for RFR while running part-time at NASCAR’s highest level for the Wood Brothers for the past several seasons. Now, Bayne is taking his Advocare sponsorship to the Sprint Cup Series with RFR in the No. 6 Ford – leaving an open seat available with the Wood Brothers.
Rumors have been swirling around the NASCAR garage area that although Sam Hornish Jr. is the leading candidate for the ride, Buescher also has a strong chance to drive the famous No. 21 car.
“There have been no discussions as far as that goes,” Buescher said. “They are still focusing on the rest of this season and getting Trevor some more good runs in for the rest of the year.”
However, even though he has not started to talk to the Wood Brothers, Buescher has not completely closed the door on the possibility of racing for them in 2015.
“I’m sure we’ll start talking to them about where they are headed next year, but there is not a whole lot to talk about at the moment.”
Even if he races with the Wood Brothers next year on a part-time basis, Buescher will continue to pilot a car for Roush on a full-time basis in the Nationwide Series – similar to the process which the team had to develop Stenhouse.
Since 2011, the No. 21 car has not been on the track at more than 16 events in a single season. Besides their Daytona 500 victory, Bayne and the Wood Brothers have seen limited success with just two top-10s after that race (both of which came in 2012). However, the team has a strong relationship with RFR, whom of which influenced the team to sign Bayne to replace Bill Elliott after the 2010 season.
“Trevor is very helpful with us every weekend, but it is not like he’s going to be far away. He’s going to be right next door in the Cup Series garage. Any help we can get from him is always appreciated as well as Ricky Stenhouse Jr. It is tough going to some of these places for the first time,” Buescher said on what his perspective would be after Bayne leaves RFR.
Buescher missed the season-opener at Daytona when qualifying rained out after the first session. Since then, he has six straight finishes of 13th or better. The 2012 ARCA Series champion is looking to record his second top-five finish of his rookie season as he sits eighth in the Nationwide Series points standings.
“We’ve been coming on pretty strong here lately. Our Roush-Fenway Racing cars are getting better as we go through the season. We ran really well at Michigan. We’re definitely making progress and I’m looking forward to where we are headed,” he said.