Reddick/Briscoe To Race More Conservative Sunday Where Bell Could Be Aggressive
Following two straight weeks of first time winners in the NASCAR Cup Series, the top sleepers to keep this trend going for this Sunday’s Dixie Vodka 400 (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN) at the Homestead-Miami Speedway are Tyler Reddick and Chase Briscoe. After all, Reddick was fourth in this race last year and has never finished worse than fourth in six career NASCAR attempts on the South Florida race track. Briscoe, won the 2017 Truck Series race there to go along with the Xfinity Series race a year ago too. Combined, they’ve won the last three NXS races on the 1.5-mile track.
But, due to the nature of how their seasons have begun, both may play it a little more conservative this weekend. Reddick, sits 33rd in points after finishes of 27th and 38th respectively. Briscoe, isn’t much better at 27th in points. He was 19th and 32nd respectively in Daytona.
On the flipside, last weeks winner Christopher Bell has the opportunity to play it more aggressive by virtue of that trip to victory lane at Daytona. He rolls off third.
Bell, knows now that he’ll be in the playoffs this year. That spot is now guaranteed. With a track like Homestead to where the fast way around is the top side of the banking in the corners, it’s also the most dangerous in that you could get into the SAFER barriers and ruin your day as well.
“Homestead is definitely a place to where risk vs. reward is a huge conversation to talk about,” Bell said on Thursday. “We know that there’s a ton of speed to get up there right up against the fence. The Cup cars are very, very sensitive and prone to damage if you get against the fence. It’s really easy to cut a tire. That’s going to be something that’s definitely talked about all amongst the teams and it’s going to be really fun to see play with that razors edge. I think we’re a team that definitely could play with it more than others since we’re already won and locked it. For me, it’s going to be all about seeing the checkered flag. If it’s the closing laps and I’ve got a shot to win and I’m pushing hard, then I think I’m gonna get up there and try and make it happen.”
In the case for Reddick and Briscoe, each start in the back on Sunday too with Briscoe rolling off 30th and Reddick 36th. Briscoe, says that he’s not expecting to just drive up from 30th to the front like he could have last year. That’s part of the big adjustment to joining the Cup Series in 2021.
“That’s been pretty eye opening for me in just how hard it is to gain track position,” Briscoe said. “In the Xfinity stuff, you could start in back and you would be able to be up front pretty quickly. In the Cup Series, there’s still guys that can do that but it’s been a lot tougher.”
Briscoe, says the plan on Sunday is to just steadily make their ways to the front as the race goes on. By Lap 20, they want to be near 20th. From there, it’s just a methodical approach in his No. 14 Ford to slowing move forward.
“Every pit stop and every restart just need to gain 2-3 spots,” he said of the game plan. “Just a matter of executing it. I’m confident going into this week because I feel like I know how to get around this race track well.”
For Reddick, he agrees, as he says that you can run the top on Sunday to get to the front, but he has to be more conservative now. He’s afraid if he pushes too hard, he could get into the wall and put him back even further. Reddick, notes that he’s a good chunk behind 16th in points and doesn’t want to allow that gap to get bigger.
He also says that while the fast line is on top and the preferred method, the Xfinity car has composite bodies and the Cup car doesn’t, which with the racing package for both varying, it contrasts in how you get into the wall while running up high.
When you’re inches from the SAFER barrier, there’s going to be a time you scrape it. Reddick, describes the difference in the two series in doing so and how a Cup car reacts differently.
“Air is very important in these cars,” Reddick said. “You can run too much closer than someone’s bumper than you can in a Cup car. You can run the fence by yourself, but you’ve definitely got to be careful. You can get away with a couple of scrapes, light contact. With the Xfinity cars, you can really see it. They’re hung out a little bit more. When they do get in the fence, the right rear kind of sucks them in and the right front gets stuck on the wall.
“These Cup cars are more straight in line and so you can make slight contact with the wall and not get stuck on it but you don’t want to hit it too much, because when you take off on sticker tires or you have short runs, you need to run off the wall and any damage that you do have is going to take away from having that 10-15 lap speed that you have. You just have to keep it in one piece. You can hit it, but you don’t want to. It will hurt you in the beginning of the run.”
Homestead The “Perfect Race Track” Says Briscoe, Still Says Learning Curve Big In Cup
Chase Briscoe won nine races a year ago in the Xfinity Series. One of those nine was right here at the Homestead-Miami Speedway, the site of Sunday’s Dixie Vodka 400 (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN). It was his second win in four years on the 1.5-mile South Florida race track. He also won the 2017 Truck Series season finale there too.
With having two straight first time winners in as many weeks to jump start the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season, Briscoe would be a popular sleeper pick to win Sunday’s race you’d might think.
“Homestead is just the perfect race track,” said the Stewart-Haas Racing driver. “There’s a lot of tire fall off. There’s multiple grooves. You can run right up against the fence. You can run the dead bottom. You can run the middle. It has a lot of options and it also changes a lot. It reminds me a lot of dirt racing because literally every 5-10 laps it’s constantly changing in what grooves a little better. If your car is a little too tight or a little too loose, you can do a lot at Homestead in kind of changing the balance and changing the line and doing kind of different things with the car. It’s a really well built race track. I wish we went there more than one time. It’s really the perfect race track in my opinion.”
But, Briscoe is starting towards the back though too. Seven of the last eight Homestead Cup winners came from a top five starting spot. Briscoe’s No. 14 Ford is coming from 30th.
“Every pit stop and every restart just need to gain 2-3 spots,” Briscoe said of their game plan for this weekend. “Just a matter of executing it. I’m confident going into this week because I feel like I know how to get around this race track well.”
The other reason as to why he’s starting in the back is unfortunately due to his slow start to the season. He was caught up in a crash at Daytona in the ‘500 and finished 19th. He had a top 10 car last weekend on the Daytona road course but suffered more damage.
Briscoe, notes that the main difference between the two series between Cup and Xfinity is just from a competitive standpoint and how talented the Cup field really is.
“For me, the biggest thing is just how many guys are competitive,” Briscoe said. “The Truck Series and the Xfinity Series, it almost seemed like there were 3 or 4 different races within the race. Just on the equipment side of things. The Cup Series is very eye opening on how good it is. Just from a drivers standpoint, everybody that’s there I’d say 90% of the field has all won at some point in their career. They’re just good race car drivers. The biggest thing is just how hard you race for 20th vs. how you race for the win in past series.
“I’ve got a little bit of experience in the Cup Series with just being able to start up on the front row and run up in the top five the last couple of restarts. It honestly felt like it was easier to race up there than it was for 20th-25th. That’s been one of the biggest things on how many guys are just really good and how many cars are really good. Just everybody that’s there is there for a reason. That’s been pretty eye opening for me in just how hard it is to gain track position. In the Xfinity stuff, you could start in back and you would be able to be up front pretty quickly. In the Cup Series, there’s still guys that can do that but it’s been a lot tougher.”
He said that it’s going to take some time before he’s running up front on a weekly basis. The main thing in getting there, is just taking care of his equipment. Briscoe knows that he needs to log laps in order to get experience. But, in order to log laps, you have to take care of your car which is way different than the mindset from Xfinity in which those cars have a different body composite.
“It’s going to take a little bit of time to be consistently running up front,” said the Indiana native. “It’s going to take time of probably tearing up race cars and you know, just making mistakes to learn not to do those anymore. That’s probably the thing in this Cup Series in these first 2 weeks just to learn, you’re just going to have to take care of your race car because with this body, and I haven’t had the last few years with the Xfinity car where I’ve kind of beat it around the last 2 years and still be okay, where on the Cup side it really kills you.”
The good thing is, he notes just how fast his cars have been thus far. The finishes aren’t indicative of his standing heading to Homestead.
“The ‘500 to obviously finish 19th was disappointing but to have the data that we have, we were lucky to get out of there with a 19th. Then, with the road course, truthfully for how much damage that we had, I felt like at the end if I didn’t get into Denny (Hamlin) that we could have finished 7th or 8th. I feel like from a speed standpoint, we’ve been really strong. I felt like we were able to draft from the back to the front a couple of times.”
Bell’s Win In Daytona Huge For His Confidence
“Winning always helps your confidence. Confidence makes you to be a better race car driver,” Christopher Bell told me on Thursday morning. Well, his confidence is booming with pride right now as he heads to this weekend’s Dixie Vodka 400 (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN) at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. But, prior to his win last Sunday in Daytona, confidence isn’t something Bell had a lot of built up.
It took a lot of soul searching for this second year NASCAR Cup Series driver to get to this point that he’s in right now. His triumph in last Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 253 was big in a number of ways for a number of people. For Bell personally, it was huge to just get his first career NASCAR Cup Series victory out of the way. He was 0-for-38 prior.
But, to do so at the time that he did it, well this win couldn’t have come at a better time.
“It was a low point in my career for sure,” Bell said of last year’s disappointing season. “You start doubting yourself. I’m a winner, so I’m on top of the world but last year, it wasn’t looking good for me.”
See, Bell has been a winner in literally everything that he’s ever driven. He’s had three Chili Bowl’s triumphs, multiple Turkey night victories and a Midget championship on his march up through the ranks. Then, the Oklahoma native won in just his third ever Truck Series start in a part time role in 2015. He was full time in 2016 and again in 2017 with Kyle Busch Motorsports to where he made the Championship 4 in each season. He won six times those two years including being the champion in ’17.
That allowed him to graduate up to JGR in NXS. But, in 2017, he ran limited races in the series and it only took him seven starts to win there too. 2018 and 2019 he was full time with JGR to where he also made the Championship 4 each year then too. He’d win 15 times in 66 races.
With a midget championship, three Chili Bowl’s, a Truck Series title, 4 Championship 4 appearances in as many years and 23 combined wins in Truck and Xfinity Series competition, it was time to move up to a Cup opportunity. It’s time for the pinnacle of his career and all his dreams to come around.
Without anywhere to go with JGR for Cup in 2020 though, Toyota had to house him at Leavine Family Racing. While the resources were similar to JGR, LFR was still a small team without much past Cup success. Combine that with longer races than he’s been accustomed to, a different aero package, a tough starting spot for most races and no practice or qualifying for a majority of the season, well it forced a steep learning curve for his rookie campaign.
That all led to a low point of his career. Despite expectations from the outside being lower seeing that he was a rookie, Bell was always so used to running at the front, that all these struggles forced him to lack confidence.
On top of that, Bell told me on Thursday that getting over losing races is a weakness personally for him. He had 36 of them a year ago and each one stung a little more as the season wore on. He felt like last year that wasn’t getting any closer to victory lane and he wasn’t used to that. At least on the dirt track ranks, they ran several times a week. It’s easier to get over not winning there, because you’d have another race within the next few days.
In NASCAR, you have just one race a week. If you’re not winning on a consistent basis, it’s hard to get over those loses especially as they start to stack up because you have longer time between races.
“It’s tough man,” Bell told me about the 24 hour rule in sports. “That’s one thing that I’ve always struggled throughout my NASCAR career is you get only 1 race a week and growing up dirt track racing, I was accustomed to running 80 to 90 races a year. Whenever you have that type of a schedule, if you have a bad night, typically you’re either racing the next night or a couple nights later.
“On the NASCAR side, you’ve only got one opportunity then you’ve got to wait 7 days at best and if you have an off week, you’ve got to wait even longer than that. So that’s been a huge change from dirt racing to NASCAR which makes it amazing whenever you win because you get more time and you’re a winner longer. On the flip side, whenever you have bad days, you can’t wait for the next opportunity to come and race.
“As far as learning from the bad days and dropping them and forgetting about it, I’m not very good at that.”
That’s why it was so big to come out of the gates with a victory in just the second race of the season.
Big For Joe Gibbs Racing
But, it was also big to do so in just his second ever start with Joe Gibbs Racing on NASCAR’s top level too though too.
“I knew going to Joe Gibbs Racing that this is my time,” Bell said following his first career Cup win on Sunday. “I’m either going to put up or shut up. I’m very grateful for how it’s played out so far between the first two weeks.
“It’s a dream come true to be able to drive for the Coach, have all of our great partners. Those guys are who made it happen. I just want so bad to be in this No. 20 car for the rest of my career. I need to perform well to do that. I just got to stay after it.”
This car has struggled a bit as of late. Erik Jones won twice in it in three seasons. He missed the playoffs last year and was a first round exit in each of the two seasons prior. JGR made the touch choice to push Jones aside, despite bringing him up through the ranks and replace him with Bell.
So, for Bell to reward that difficult decision by Toyota and JGR by taking the No. 20 Toyota to victory lane in just their second start together in NASCAR’s premiere series was big for both sides.
“It’s a huge deal for us,” team owner Joe Gibbs said. “To have Christopher, everything that he kind of fought through last year and then to come back this year. When you think about it, Christopher got in that car last year and never made a lap and was going to racetracks. It was a lot to overcome. And he did show speed at a number of racetracks.
“It was great for him to get that victory. … To have Christopher already in the playoffs, it’s a big deal for us, for sure. It’s hard to do, put it that way.”
Bell said that it’s been a ton of fun just to win again anyways. It’s fun to be relevant again he noted and that he feels like he fell off the face of the earth last year.
Big Win For Toyota Too
That win last Sunday in Daytona was also big for the manufacturer too. Bell’s win made Toyota execs, including TRD President David Wilson, emotional. That’s because Bell is the first driver to start in the Toyota Racing Development ranks and make it all the way up to the Cup Series as a winner for them.
“He’s first development driver that came all the way from dirt to winning at the highest level of North American motorsports, and a big part of the reason he’s there is Toyota and because of the belief we put in him,” said Wilson. “His family does not have the resources, and that’s why we invest and will continue to invest.”
TRD has produced a ton of talent you see. They’ve got a rich supply of drivers that have worked their ways up through the ranks. The problem is, they haven’t had a ton of places to house them when they’ve been ready move up. The Xfinity Series rides are really just down to Joe Gibbs Racing. Same for in Cup. It’s a breeding ground for future Cup stars but it’s almost been that they’re breeding the future of NASCAR for other manufacturers.
That’s how they lost out on drivers like Kyle Larson, William Byron and Noah Gragson. All departed to Chevy deals. Bell, stayed the course though. He went from Midgets to some K&N action to Trucks to Xfinity then to Cup — all with Toyota’s backing.
He’s won on every step of the way too.
“Christopher Bell’s win on Sunday, for me, justifies every dollar we’ve spent,” Wilson continued. “Every hour we’ve spent. All the blood, sweat, and tears. Jackpot. That’s all it takes. You find one hope diamond, and all the hours of mining make it worthwhile.
“We had a great idea that Christopher was that kind of a talent, and so again, it’s extremely rewarding. I was delighted when he called out publicly Tyler Gibbs and Jack Irving, these are the architects of our driver development program. These are the guys that spend their Friday nights and Saturday nights at dirt tracks all across this country, working with these kids and talking to their families and working with teams like Keith Kunz and many, many others. So, I’m very personally proud and just delighted for Christopher. He’s a good kid.”
Bell noticed that too. He said this win has been so big, not only for him personally, but to see how much it meant to so many different people around him. From Wilson, to Tyler Gibbs to Jack Irving, to everyone on that Toyota side, it’s been really fun for him to see how much his win meant to them and so many different people he said.
“It hit me hard knowing how much it meant to so many different people,” Bell said.
With LFR closing their doors at season end last year, Toyota didn’t want to risk losing Bell like they did the others, so out went Jones and in came Bell. They took a driver who’s confidence was low but ability was as high as anyones.
That risk paid off. Bell is a Cup Series winner.
Letarte Makes Return To Pit Box, Why He’s Hoping This Move Helps His Broadcasters Role
Steve Letarte is making it perfectly clear for his role during this upcoming weekend’s Dixie Vodka 400 (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN) at the Homestead-Miami Speedway – he’s in more of a race management role and not necessarily a crew chief position on Sunday.
But, this role is all about the future too. What kind of a future? Well, keep reading.
For the first time since the season finale at Homestead in 2014, Letarte is going to come back to pit road and work for a race team.
Letarte, 41, has been an NBC Sports analyst for their NASCAR coverage since 2015. He essentially went from the pit box to the broadcast booth. But, due to NBC Sports not starting their NASCAR coverage until the second half of the year and Corey LaJoie’s crew chief, Ryan Sparks, coming down with COVID, Letarte will now be the crew chief on the No. 7 Chevrolet for Sunday’s race.
Some may wonder, how did this all come about? After six years, why do this now? Well, to get to that answer, you first have to peel back the first layer. Call this opportunity more of returning a favor than anything else.
That’s because, on top of his NBC Sports duties, Letarte is a competition consultant for Spire Motorsports too. This is his first year of doing so at that. Well, when Sparks tested positive for COVID after Daytona last weekend, the team knew that they needed a new crew chief replacement for the upcoming race at Homestead. Jeff Dickerson called in his old pal Letarte to see if he would be willing to fill in.
Letarte, says that this was the first step and it was all about repaying a favor for Dickerson who Letarte had to call in last minute a few times to be a spotter in a pinch. Now, Dickerson returned the favor from years past and Letarte obliged. Well, first he had to call his employer NBC Sports to ensure that it was okay. They naturally agreed since this actually helps Letarte’s role as an analyst for when their broadcast takes over this summer. What better way to bring information to the fans than actually fulfilling a role from earlier in the season.
That’s part of the second layer. This helps his TV role too.
“This is a chance to throw myself into the fire,” Letarte said. “I love my job at NBC. I love analyzing what happens on and off the track. I’m thankful NBC let me do this. It’s kind of a win-win opportunity. I’m very proud of my role as an on-air analyst.
“I have a contract with NBC and I’m excited to return to the booth. This is purely me trying to help two friends trying to run a race team.”
In saying that, some former stick-and-ball coaches say that they can bring a lot to a broadcasting role since they lived it. Then, when they go back to the sidelines, they take a lot of what they’ve learned from the booth back down to the field. It helps both ways and can help both parts of their careers.
Does the same ring true in NASCAR?
Letarte says that he hasn’t been on the pit box in well over 200 races, 218 to be exact. How much has he learned over the last six years while being in the broadcast booth that he can take down with him to the pit box since he’s had a different perspective the since 2015?
“I learned that the ability in the booth is easier because you have no responsibility to one driver and you get to watch all 40 cars,” Letarte told me. “It’s very easy to say that this guy is doing this and this guy is doing this. I don’t believe I’m going to carry a lot of knowledge from the booth down to the pit box but what I’m really looking forward to, to be 100% honest, is that everything that I’m reminded or learned that I can now carry from the pit box back to the booth. I think that’s the direction the information will flow.”
The third layer is the timing of this nature. Letarte also said that the one-day show further helps this decision as he’s not having to massage a car all weekend between practice and qualifying to get it ready for a race. While it could have its detriment in the sense that he’s going from no pit box action for 218 races straight into a race in the COVID era, Letarte says that the one day show actually helped make his decision too.
“Totally, that’s a great question,” Letarte said. “I’ve been out of it for 6 years. Do I think that I could come in on a Friday and run practice and get through qualifying and all the decision that had to be made? I would be nothing more than a voice on the radio.
“What these guys and the men and women on all of the teams that develop all of this speed, I mean we see the cars, they’re engineered. They’re amazing. The speed that they produce is amazing. I don’t have any claim to feel like I can go back in there and run a weekend of practice or anything. The fact that it’s a one day show, I’m really there, well you can call me whatever title you want, but what I’m really there as is calling a race for the 7 and executing Ryan Sparks’ plan.”
Also, Letarte says that his race day role is going to be just not to make headlines. He’s just managing the race for LaJoie and that Homestead is a pretty straightforward track in the sense that pit strategy is out the window with any time there’s a yellow you pit and take on four tires.
He noted that he and Sparks will be in communication on the live chat throughout the race and that he’d lean on him as need be. He does understand that there could be some last minute decisions that he’d need to make as he sees fit too though.
“Ryan Sparks is in charge and this is his race car,” he reiterated. “He’s the only one I’m asking for opinions on what his concerns are. The rest just needs to come as it goes.
“I think my goal is to do nothing that gives you fine media folks such as myself reasons to talk about us. It’s going to be great to remind myself what it was like 6 years ago and the current nuances.”
Drivers Already Eyeing Points
We’re just two races into the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season. There’s 34 races remaining before we crown a champion. There’s also 24 races left in the regular season now too. Is it too early to start looking at points yet?
Well, after Michael McDowell and Christopher Bell snagging wins in the opening two weeks, it may not be after all. McDowell, was certainly a surprise, but Bell?
Neither had won a Cup race before and while some say Bell didn’t necessarily steal a playoff spot, how many had him winning a race as an automatic berth? Right now, there’s 14 spots available and we still have five more road courses, two superspeedway’s a dirt race among the 24 regular season races left. That’s essentially a 1/3 of the regular season as wildcard events.
“Absolutely,” Denny Hamlin said on if the midpack teams should be getting nervous about the playoffs. “I think the 34 (Michael McDowell) certainly is a surprise. He’s going to be in the Playoffs. 90% of the people that know anything about the sport, 95% really would put the 20 car in the Playoffs one way, shape or form anyway. I don’t think that that’s really taking up a spot that wasn’t already probably pegged.”
Last year, we saw just how tight the bubble was. Cole Custer and Austin Dillon took two of the spots via wins which made it difficult for drivers like Erik Jones, Jimmie Johnson and Tyler Reddick to make it in.
This year, you’re more than likely going to see some more big teams not make it. I mean, numbers alone prove it. You have four JGR cars, four at Hendrick, four at Stewart-Haas and three at Penske. That’s 15 cars right there among those big four teams. That doesn’t even count the alliance from the Wood Brothers with Penske or 23XI Racing with Gibbs. What about the two Chip Ganassi Racing cars? That pushes that number to 19. Then throw in both cars at RCR and you get honestly 21 cars that are playoff caliber. So, with McDowell winning, it takes one spot away from them. Then, with Bell taking a win and not having to worry about a wildcard spot anymore, it essentially takes away another.
You have Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, William Byron, Alex Bowman, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney and Kevin Harvick all likely to take 11 of those 14 wildcard spots. Then you have Kurt Busch, Ross Chastain, Austin Dillon, Tyler Reddick, Bubba Wallace, Matt DiBenedetto, Aric Almirola, Cole Custer and Chase Briscoe all battling for three spots among nine drivers. The more drivers off this nine person list win, the more it’s going to force the bubble higher to make those 11 on the first list nervous.
“The dynamic has changed dramatically right now,” said Keselowski. “We’re very early in the season and it’s not turned into a points race for those last few spots. Hopefully it doesn’t matter for us. If you don’t win, you’re in a lot of trouble right now because it’s not looking like you’re gonna be able to get in the playoffs right now without a win.”
If this season plays out like its started, watch out. That’s why Homestead is a big race this weekend for the heavy hitters to get on track. Austin Dillon and Denny Hamlin each think Homestead will be a spot to where more normal winners occur which with Las Vegas, Phoenix and Atlanta to follow, you could very easily seen the usual suspects going back to victory lane.