Thursday, Oct 21

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.

Richard Childress Racing is currently in its longest winless streak in team history. The current drought sits at 73 races, going back to when Kevin Harvick was victorious at Phoenix in Nov. 2013.

There is optimism within the camp heading into the new season.

Ryan Newman and Paul Menard both made the Chase for the Sprint Cup last season, but had early exits within the first two rounds. It was the Menard’s first time competing for a championship after joining RCR in 2011.

In 2014, Newman made it to the championship race at Homestead, still having a legitimate shot at the championship. Unfortunately for the No. 31 crew they came up one-point short of beating Harvick’s Stewart-Haas Racing team for the championship. The Indiana native set his personal best finish of second in the championship standings in his first year with RCR.

Last season, Newman began the season with a lot of raw speed. In the first five races, he posted four top-10 finishes, including three top-fives, with a best finish of third at Las Vegas and Phoenix.

Following the ninth race of the season, momentum began to swing in the wrong direction. Crew chief Luke Lambert was suspended following the race at Auto Club Speedway, but appealed. The final decision didn’t come until after Richmond, in which he was suspended for six races, moving veteran crew chief Todd Parrott atop the pit box after he was named the XFINITY Series Competition Director at RCR during the 2014 off-season.  

In the first three races, the duo clicked off three-consecutive top-10 finishes, but then fell off the map with finishes of 18th, 39th and 18th respectively. Lambert came back at Daytona in which the team recorded an eighth-place finish.    

It was a tale of two halves of the season for the No. 31 car.

 In the first 18 races, the team posted 10 of its 15 top-10 finishes. In the second half of the season, the team fell off the map, but made it to the second round of the Chase when Newman was eliminated after Talladega in a controversial finish.

“We’ve got to win,” Newman told Speedway Digest. “That’s the biggest thing. You’ve got to win for the Chase, but you’ve got to win for momentum on your team, your organization, everybody involved. We saw last year because of our alliance with the No. 78 car how big that momentum really is when you do get that victory.”

In order to win a race, Newman will need to spend more time at the front of the field. He is coming off a season in which he led just 20 laps, and in two seasons with RCR, he had led a mire 61 laps. He has been consistent, but in order to put the Caterpillar Chevrolet in Victory Lane, the team needs to lead more laps and contend for top-five finishes on a regular basis.

“After finishing second two years ago, we really expected it (win) to happen last year and it didn’t,” Newman said. “We were close several times, but we didn’t lead enough laps to put our self in position to do that. That’s really what we need to work on is just putting our self in a better position to win and that’s leading laps and the guys in the pits did a good job of stepping up.”

Newman hasn’t won a race since he won the Brickyard 400 in 2013 when he beat Jimmie Johnson. That was when he was with Stewart-Haas Racing, but the move to RCR has had its positives and negatives.

 “Everybody on the team has to do a perfect job and then you might still get beat by ability by some other team,” Newman said. “There are so many variables in our sport that you have to have everything right on a given day to put yourself in contention and you still might get beat.”

Menard, on the other hand, is coming off what would seem to be a career year. That is not the case.

The No. 27 car finished inside of the top 10 just five times in 2015, down from a career-high 13 in 2014. Two of those top-10 finishes were top fives, but he led just 10 laps on the season, the lowest amount he’s led in a single season since 2009, when he was a part of Yates Racing.

His best finish of 2015 in May at Talladega, where he finished third and had a shot at the victory until the tri-oval, but Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was victorious blocking from the bottom of the track all the way to the top.

One positive for the organization was that Menard completed 98.7 percent of the laps on the season, with an average finish of 17.1. Though he didn’t record the top 10s necessary to be competitive in the Chase, he is coming off his highest finish in the championship standings of 14th, beating Clint Bowyer and Matt Kenseth in the 10-race battle.

Menard’s goals are set for this season. He wants to be better than last season, but also make the Chase for the second-consecutive year.

“Our plan is to be in the Chase again and advance further,” Menard said. “When the Chase started last year we were not at our best, we were probably at our worst all year. We got eliminated in the first round.

“Justin is in his second year as being crew chief. He’s got more experience under his belt. We basically have the same team together as last year.”

The team is nearly the same except for an engineer change during the off-season. The same pit crew that pitted Menard’s car in the Chase will be back on the team after shuffling over to his car midseason.

One thing that has eluded Menard from his Cup career is a victory outside of the 2011 Brickyard 400.

It is strange that as to why Menard made the Chase last season, as it could be argued that it was his worst seasons in his tenure at RCR. There is reason to optimism for the team as he seems to always get off to hot starts then collapses in the summer. He doesn’t think that will happen in 2016.

“I feel like it can be any given week,” Menard said. “Especially toward the end of last year we hit on some things that I felt really good about. I feel like we can roll into Daytona with as good of a shot as anybody. When we get to Atlanta which is the low-downforce and the first true test of the season everybody has a clean slate.”

The other driver that yet been mentioned is Austin Dillon. Though he was the lone RCR driver to not make the Chase last season, he led the most laps out of all three teams and seemed to have the most speed throughout the second half of the season.

RCR will look to come out guns blazing in 2016 starting at the Daytona 500. Newman is a former Daytona 500 winner, while Menard and Dillon typically run well on restrictor plate tracks. It would make the season a lot easier for the organization if one of the three drivers wins the Great American Race.

Taking over the iconic No. 24 Chevrolet in 2016 is 20-year-old Chase Elliott. Imagine that, just two years out of high school and taking over the ride from NASCAR legend Jeff Gordon.

In 2014, his first full-time NASCAR season, Elliott went out and dominated the NASCAR XFINITY Series for JR Motorsports. He won three races, the most out of all of the XFINITY Series regulars, and secured 42 more points than his closest competitor and teammate Regan Smith.

During the 2015 season, Elliott ran up front for the majority of the year, but was unable to win back-to-back championships. Overall, he had 27 top-10 finishes, more than he had in his championship-winning season. But outside of his win at Richmond in September, he struggled to run as the leader on a consistent basis, leading 236 laps, down from 390 in 2014.

Like all rookies, Elliott will have some bumps in the road in his first full-time season in the Sprint Cup Series. Joining Elliott as first-year drivers are Brian Scott, Chris Buescher, Jeffery Earnhardt and Ryan Blaney.

Each have a different story behind them, but Elliott’s is the most significant. If he fails in his first campaign, questions will be raised about whether or not he is the right driver to replace Gordon in the elite ride.

One thing is certain, Rick Hendrick believes so.

 It seems like ages ago now that Hendrick put Elliott into some of his equipment, but in reality it was only five years ago and he was just 15 years old. Hendrick is the one who basically told Dale Earnhardt, Jr. that he needed him to fill a position at JR Motorsports, before he had ever even raced in an XFINITY Series event. The legendary team owner believes in the kid, like he does all of his drivers.

The 2016 Sunoco Rookie of the Year class looks to be one of the best in recent years. Sure, there was the rookie class in 2014 that was made up of Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon and others. But in terms of raw talent, this one could compete against it as arguably a better overall class, and possibly one of the strongest in recent memory.

One of the obvious goals for the No. 24 team in 2016 is to win the Rookie of the Year Award, something that the team hasn’t faced since the 1993 season when Gordon was a rookie as a part of the “Rainbow Warriors.”

“All of them, I’m sure, I really don’t know,” Elliott told Speedway Digest as to who his biggest threat will be for the award. “I think that there are a lot of good teams and drivers that are going to be hard to beat on that side. But as I’ve said before, if we can go and be the team that we want to be and if I can go and try to do the job that I expect of myself, I think the rest will kind of take care of itself.”

Elliott will be teaming with some of the sport’s best. Six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, 26-time Cup winner Earnhardt and a resurged Kasey Kahne.  

There are other team goals for 2016. Of course, a Chase for the Sprint Cup berth is always a necessity. Since the Chase was implemented in 2004, the No. 24 car has only missed out on the playoffs one time, back in 2005 and has finished in the top 10 in points 22 out of the last 23 seasons.

In order to qualify the Chase, Elliott would most likely need to win a race. A few playoff berths will be given out to the highest drivers in the standings without a win, but a win essentially assures a chance to compete for the championship.

Elliott is not worried about his rookie competition. It’s not that he thinks NASCAR should engrave his name on the trophy now, but the fact that worrying about his competition could always cause turmoil. If he goes out and drives his style, everything will take care of itself.

“I’m definitely not going to show up to the racetrack each week and worry about what the other rookies are doing because I think you’re going to have to focus a lot,” Elliott said. “That’s definitely not going to be my main concern when I show up each week.”

On his down time, Elliott could be seen with one of his closest competitors and rivals in Blaney.  The two have become good friends as they’ve grown up together, though they sit a couple years a part in terms of age. Their fathers have cemented a legacy in which the two youngsters will look to better and add onto the legacy of their last name.

Elliott stated that he doesn’t have a great relationship with any of the rookies except for Blaney. As both drivers have progressed through the ranks of NASCAR, they’ve been able to have a real bond off the track.

“I guess the only other one that I really know or talk to any is Ryan Blaney,” he said. “We’re good friends and he’s really the only one of the rookie guys that I even know at all.”

By many, Elliott is the pre-season favorite to win the Rookie of the Year award and begin his legacy inside of the No. 24 car. If all goes well for him, he will put check marks next to all of his goals at season’s end and call it a successful rookie campaign.

Track time will be important for the team. In five career Cup races, Elliott has experienced some difficulty with a best finish of 16th and an average result of 26.2.

When Kasey Kahne made the move over to Hendrick Motorsports in 2012, it was the best career move he had ever made in NASCAR. He was joining a team that had won five out of the last six championships, and in 2011, Hendrick equipment took home the title. It seemed like he was entering a wonderland and the perfect ride to elevate his career.

That wonderland came to a screeching halt this past season when Kahne struggled on the racetrack and was visibly frustrated after missing the Chase for the first time in four seasons as the driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet.

Kahne is coming off back-to-back seasons in which he recorded just three top-five finishes. His top 10 total was down from 11, to 10 in 2015, his lowest since 2010, when he was a part of Richard Petty Motorsports.

But for Kahne, a driver who came into the sport with such high regard and excelled rather quickly, there is no real reasoning as to why he has fallen off the radar. He has been in the same shop as four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon over the past four seasons, and on the same team as six-time champion Jimmie Johnson and multiple race winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. 

The No. 5 team hit rock bottom in 2015. After re-aligning himself with former team engineer, Keith Rodden, the team was destined to have instant success, especially with how Rodden elevated Jamie McMurray just a year prior at Chip Ganassi Racing.

In 2015, he lead a career low 66 laps. He also had three DNF’s including a scary incident at Pocono in which he crashed into the pit wall, scurrying members from AJ Allmendinger’s team. But for the majority of the season he was irrelevant when it came to running up front.

“There are different areas that we as a team needed to work on, so we worked on those positions and spots,” Kahne said of changes that occurred over the off-season. “We changed a few people around that we feel will be better for our team morale. Some of the things that I look for in a car and then the other thing is just enjoying what we get to do again.”

Kahne made it clear that last season was the worst he felt inside of a racecar as he was never comfortable on track. He wasn’t able to enjoy the success that his teammates did, all winning a race. It really put his personal morale and the entire team morale down. With racing over the off-season, he believes it will be an increase in momentum heading into 2016.

“I think by going over and racing my Sprint car and racing midgets and doing things over the off-season that I’ve wanted to do for a long period of time kind of was able to start over in a way and feel good about racing cars,” he said. “I think that helped me in the way that I approached this off-season”

2016 will be all about regaining confidence that the Washington native once had. He was unable to gain consistency throughout 2015 and really through his tenure with Hendrick Motorsports. Sure, he finished fourth in the point standings in 2012, but still needed one of the Wild Card positions to make the Chase.

Since joining one of the top teams in motorsports, Kahne was taken the checkered flag, five times. Compare his first four seasons at HMS to his previous four years with other teams, the amount of wins are the same. Even in qualifying the numbers are down as the No. 5 team has only sat on one pole in the last three years.

Change was needed for the new season. Kahne needed a new mindset, and a clear slate before the Daytona 500. With the recent birth of his son, Tanner, Kahne will look to enter the new year with even more of a reason to perform.

He is under contract with HMS through the 2018 season. He doesn’t have to race for his job, but for himself wants to be successful or else he would have a different job. There is so much left for him to achieve inside of a racecar and the first step might be racing more throughout the season.

With recently getting back into a Sprint car, it has urged him to want to race more. He wants to race for his Sprint car team throughout the NASCAR season, if allowed by Rick Hendrick.

Since the death of his friend Jason Leffler in 2013, Kahne has done very little to no dirt racing. In part it was because Farmers Insurance and Hendrick Motorsports didn’t allow him the opportunity to compete outside of NASCAR. With the recent resurgence on dirt, Kahne seems to be amped up heading into the new racing campaign.

Kahne knows that the team needs to be improved if they are to have any success in 2016. The team has been partially rebuilt, and it will be the second season that Rodden and he have worked together as driver and crew chief. The chemistry needs to improve, but he believes that they can outperform from their 2015 numbers.

“As a team we need faster cars,” he said. “It’s not that it’s not all there, it’s what we are putting on the track and what I’m driving and the way I’m driving. The speed’s not there. There are times when I was as fast as anyone this year, but not near enough.

“I want to be at the front for practice, qualifying and reach each week, not just three times a year. We’re better than that and our cars, our team, everybody is better than that.”

Kahne has a history of being on the Chase bubble heading into Richmond, if the team has better equipment, and prepares like every week is its last there is no telling what this team can do. Take for example the 2014 season where it took him until Atlanta to lock himself into the Chase, two races prior to the point reset.

Driving for Hendrick Motorsports, there are no excuses. Kahne needs to achieve success in 2016 or else his first five years with HMS could be called a bust.  

A relationship between driver and crew chief is a determining factor of how successful a race team can be. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has had several different leaders on his pit box throughout his career. However, his chemistry with crew chief Greg Ives in their first year together seems to have led him to become his team leader for the immediate future.  

In 2015, Ives led Earnhardt to three victories in the duo’s first season together. The No. 88 team took the checkered flag at Talladega in the spring, Daytona in July and Phoenix in the fall. Though the chemistry grew as the season went on, Earnhardt still came up short and failed to make it out of the Contender Round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

At Talladega in October, Earnhardt lost out on a controversial green-white-checkered restart when the “big one” occurred just past the start-finish line, thus handing the victory to Joey Logano as NASCAR had to go back and look at the final scoring loop before the caution flag waved.

Even though Earnhardt wasn’t able to advance out of the second round in the Chase for the second-consecutive season, he is a big believer in Ives and the job that he does atop the pit box. The former No. 48 team engineer and XFINITY Series championship crew chief had big shoes to fill after former crew chief Steve Letarte made the move to the broadcast booth for NBC.

 “He was a rookie and probably had a lot of nervous, maybe not doubts, but just being that guy,” Earnhardt told Speedway Digest at the NASCAR Media Tour. “He’s been in that situation, but he never really had to have control over everyone and so much responsibility with so many people looking at him to make the decisions.”

The relationship resulted in career-tying statistics for Earnhardt. The No. 88 had 16 top fives and accumulated 22 top-10 finishes in 2015, which each tied previous marks he set in both categories.

Arguably, Earnhardt’s best season came in 2004 when he worked with his cousin, Tony Eury Jr. The team picked up six wins and 16 top-five finishes, tying his benchmark record of last season. In 2013, he never took the checkered flag first, but picked up then a career-high 22 top 10s. It was in 2015 when Earnhardt, led by a first-year crew chief tied these numbers and led 287 laps in the process down from over 300 laps led in each of the previous three seasons.

When Earnhardt drove for Dale Earnhardt Inc. he was feared on the restrictor plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega. Outside of winning the 2014 Daytona 500, Earnhardt hadn’t won a plate race in 11 years. There was a time when the No. 8, Earnhardt’s former number won four straight races at Talladega spanning from the fall of 2001 to the spring of 2003.

Comparing those numbers to 2015, Earnhardt won two races on the plate tracks. He was at his best inside of a racecar when he was running up front at plate tracks, more importantly winning.

“He’s got a year under his belt and I’m thinking he’s going to go into this year a lot more confident,” Earnhardt said of Ives. “He knows what he’s got to do, he knows what he has at his finger tips and he knows what his job is. He came in kind of mid-offseason last year, so he’s got some time with the guys this offseason to prepare us for Daytona. I look forward to being strong.”

More experience will most likely lead to better results. The 26-time race winner is still looking for his alluded first Cup championship. Driving for Hendrick Motorsports in general leads to more pressure as the organization has won 11 titles in NASCAR’s premier series.

His racecars come out of the same shop as six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, and with the fact that Ives is a former engineer on Johnson’s racecar, Chad Knaus and he have a tight relationship.

As Ives prepares for his second season of leading the No. 88 team, there is no doubt that the pressure remains intact as Earnhardt’s crew chief. If the team gets off to a slow start, the fans will start to wonder why, and ultimately question Ives’ decision-making. The good thing for “Junior Nation” is that Earnhardt has never had a better first season with another crew chief. In his rookie season he found victory lane on two occasions, but struggled with consistency. It took years before Letarte and he clicked and started winning races. It only took the first-year combination 10 races to find victory lane.

With the current Chase format, one win all but guarantees a position into the race for the championship. The No. 88 team has a total of seven wins in the last two seasons, which has allowed them to test out new engines and setups heading into the Chase since the pressure was off their shoulders after securing a victory early in the season.

Something new heading into the season is the pit crew changes at Hendrick Motorsports. Earnhardt is coming into a season where the majority of the road guys are newly acquainted with Ives. Change might be exactly what NASCAR’s most popular driver needs to win his first championship.

“We’re right there,” Earnhardt said. “We’re just outside of that bubble of the top-three or four. I’m just getting ready to come through it. I’m telling you man, we can do it this year.”

 There is no doubt that Earnhardt is confident heading into the new season and looks forward to getting back on the racetrack. The now 41-year-old is looking to be even more consistent then he has been over the past few seasons.

In order to win it all the team will need to get all of its bad luck and misfortunes out of the way before the Chase starts. Even though the current system is more favorable if a team is to have a bad race, Earnhardt doesn’t want to rely on having to win a race, like he has the past two years at Talladega.

2016 might be the best shot Earnhardt has ever had at winning a Cup title. The driver has never been more relaxed or comfortable with his personal life and it has translated over to the race track. In order to secure a championship, happiness and avoiding the distractions is the key. He even admitted that he had wished he’d settled down earlier in his life with fiancé Amy Reimann. 

The relationship between the driver and crew chief will look to increase to even a higher standard in 2016. Earnhardt’s pre-season attitude could go a long way in determining how far the team goes this year.

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