Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – JOLIET, IL – Both Joe Gibbs Racing team drivers Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch eased into grins Saturday morning when asked if their Monster Energy NASCAR Cup excellence this year has caused any sort of divisive inner team rivalry.
Judging by the demeanor of these two former Cup champions, the competition is good between them and the respect aplenty.
And the results prove the positive vibes. Busch has four wins and series bests 10 top fives and 15 top 10s in the No. 18 JGR Toyota. He trails championship leader Joey Logano by a single point entering Sunday’s Camping World 400 at Chicagoland Speedway (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Truex, who drives the No. 19 JGR Toyota, is ranked fifth in the standings, but his four wins ties Busch for most in the series. He has seven top-five and 10 top-10 finishes.
“I would say that it’s a friendly rivalry,’’ Busch said. “The way we go about it, we put everything out on the table. We have crashed each other a few times and we have been pissed at each other a few times, but a couple weeks later we are back to business and we are joking around in meetings and we are working with one another and stuff like that.
“You are going to have those situations that happen just because of how close we are running. We try to give each other the space you need and the respect that each of us deserve. Sometimes we run into one another, but that happens. But it has been good overall.”
Truex agreed. The mutual respect is there and even a certain acceptance and fondness of their newly-strengthened friendship since Truex joined JGR this season.
“I think it’s definitely more of a friendly rivalry now that we are the same shop,’’ Truex said of their relationship. “I think there were some challenges throughout the years with two different teams. It wasn’t always on-track stuff. Definitely now, it’s more a friendly rivalry. It has been really good.”
The two are the last three race winners at Chicago – Busch winning last year and Truex winning the previous two races. Twice this year they’ve finished first and second. Busch won at Phoenix and Truex was runner-up. Truex won last week at Sonoma, Calif. and Busch was runner-up.
“We were joking all weekend last weekend,’’ Truex said of the Sonoma race. “It was cool to put it in Victory Lane and get the back-and-forth on pit lane. It was really cool that he stuck his head in there and to see all those guys after the race was really good. I’m sure they weren’t over the moon happy with me winning, but they were very respectful and great teammates about it.’’
While two teams – Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske – have accounted for 15 of the 16 race wins so far this season, Stewart-Haas Racing driver Aric Almirola is confident his team is on the verge of a victory circle visit. Last year, SHR had seven wins by the time the series arrived at Chicagoland Speedway – nearly half of the races run.
This season, the SHR team is winless – although still running strong and making championship noise. All four drivers are currently among the current championship 16. Kevin Harvick, who had scored five of his eight wins by this point in the season last year is ranked third in the points standings with five top fives and 11 top 10s, but is still looking for his first victory
Aric Almirola, who quietly and efficiently finished a career best fifth in the 2018 championship standings, is currently ranked 11th. His nine top-10 finishes and pole position (at Atlanta) however, represent the best season start in his seven-year full-time Cup career.
Clint Bowyer, who had a pair of victories by Chicago last year, is also winless in 2019 but ranked 12th. And the team’s new driver Daniel Suarez, is ranked a career best 13th place – with a pair of top-five finishes.
“I think we are all a little surprised,’’ Almirola conceded of the team’s winless situation this season. “That is the hard thing about our sport. It is very cyclical. Teams come and go. The teams that are on top today might not be on top tomorrow. Last year was a phenomenal year for us at Stewart-Haas Racing and for me personally in my career. This year we just haven’t outclassed the field like we did last year.“
And while this season is proving more challenging, Almirola remained calmly optimistic about both the potential of the SHR organization to rally into Victory Lane and its legitimate shot at challenging for a championship when that time comes.
“Honestly, the guys are working harder now than they ever have,’’ he said. “We are trying. It is not from lack of effort, I can promise you that. We are just trying to figure it all out and put all the pieces of the puzzle together.
10 TO GO
Largely depending on their position in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standings, drivers say the annual 10-to-go mark in the regular season does typically mean an increase in competitive intensity.
Sure, drivers such as championship leader Joey Logano, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin have multiple wins already this season and are challenging one another atop the standings, but there is a lot of movement still in the bottom half of the 16-driver playoff cutoff.
William Byron in the 14th position is separated from 19th place Erik Jones by only 33 points entering Sunday’s race at Chicagoland Speedway. Ryan Newman is currently in the 16th place – and final playoff eligible position – by a mere one point over Jimmie Johnson. And while most drivers insist it’s still too early for panic, they concede points are more and more the primary focus – both in the race and in team meetings before and after.
“I race like it is the last race of the year at every single race, from race one to race 36,’’ said Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney, who is winless but ranked ninth in the standings, 77 points above the 16th-place cutoff.
“I don’t really change the way I drive depending on what part of the year it is. That is just me personally. … Sometimes maybe, people will make a little bolder moves. I think especially teams with the strategy deal with drivers that are close to the cutoff line or outside of that line may try to win the race and make a big move (to do so).
And, Blaney conceded, “I think you will see more of that. More of people playing around with stage points and maybe sacrificing track position to try to win a stage or run top three or four in a stage and then reset and try it all over again. … There might be a few more bold moves toward the end if you are close to that cutoff and trying to win the race or things like that.’’
BELL SIGNS EXTENSION WITH JGR
NASCAR Xfinity Series championship contender Christopher Bell told reporters Friday that he has indeed signed with Joe Gibbs Racing for another season – carrying him through the 2020 season. Which NASCAR series Bell will be racing in, however, remains unclear.
“No not right now, it’s a little bit too early,’’ Bell answered when asked whether he will remain in the Xfinity Series or move up to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series level.
While Bell didn’t disclose any details, he conceded it was comforting to know his immediate future is settled. Where he will race, however, remains an unknown – perhaps even to Bell himself. The JGR team has four cars in the Cup series so which seat Bell may take should he move up to the Cup level is a source of rumor and debate in the garage.
“It’s really good that I have a job,’’ Bell said. “Driving for Joe Gibbs Racing is where I want to be at. I’m thankful that I got another year.”
“As far as the JGR Cup guys, I really don’t have very much interaction with them,’’ Bell added, cautioning against anyone making assumptions on a Cup ride.
“There’s really not anything awkward because you look at the results and all four of their drivers are doing exactly what they need to do. I don’t feel like any of their drivers feel like they’re on the hot seat at all. Obviously, me looking in, there’s not really a hole for me yet. I don’t know where I’m going to be.’’
Bell is currently ranked second in the 2019 Xfinity Series championship with a series high four victories in the No. 20 JGR Toyota. He won seven races and finished fourth in the championship in his 2018 rookie season.