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Friday 5: Ryan Newman ‘thankful’ to be heading back to Daytona

Kevin Harvick wins the Consumers Energy 400 a day after winning the Firekeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway.

Ryan Newman admits he’ll feel some emotion returning to Daytona International Speedway this weekend for the first time since he was hospitalized after his last-lap crash in the Daytona 500.

Newman was on his way to winning the season-opening race in February when a push from Ryan Blaney’s car unsettled Newman’s Ford and sent it into the wall and upside down. Corey LaJoie’s car slammed into Newman’s, which slid across the finish line on its roof. The No. 6 Ford came to rest just beyond the exit of pit road.

Rescue workers needed 15 minutes, 40 seconds to extricate Newman. He was sent directly to Halifax Medical Center. Newman walked out of the Daytona Beach hospital 42 hours later holding the hands of his two daughters.

“I guess after February I’m pretty emotional every day,” Newman said of returning to Daytona for Sunday’s inaugural Cup race on the road course (3 p.m. ET on NBC).

“I’m just thankful for the opportunity to continue on. I get to hit the reset button in a roundabout way, not with my life, but the reality is just to continue to play on.

“I will probably be some sort of emotional going back to Daytona, but I don’t see it being a whole lot different than the kind of emotion I had getting in the car at Talladega or even going back to Darlington for that matter when I went and did my first test.”

NASCAR Cup Series 62nd Annual Daytona 500

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 17: Track workers attend to Ryan Newman, driver of the #6 Koch Industries Ford, following a crash during the NASCAR Cup Series 62nd Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 17, 2020 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

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Newman suffered a bruised brain and missed three races before the coronavirus pandemic paused the season in March. When the series returned in May, Newman was back in the Roush Fenway Racing car.

Although seconds from winning the Daytona 500 and earning a playoff spot, Newman said he can’t focus on what might have been.
“No doubt I’ve thought about it, but the reality is it’s not the truth, it’s not what happened, it’s the what could have been and everybody has that in their season,” he said.

This weekend is the first of two trips to Daytona this month for NASCAR. Cup, Xfinity and Truck teams will race on the road course Saturday and Sunday. Cup and Xfinity teams return in two weeks to race on the oval. The Aug. 29 race marks the end of the Cup regular season.

Four races remain before the Cup playoffs begin. Newman needs to win one to make the playoffs.

“I feel like we made a huge stride for us and our organization and our team going from Saturday to Sunday in Michigan (last week), and I look forward to continuing that,” said Newman, who finished 28th on Saturday and 13th on Sunday at Michigan.

“The reality is we want to lead one lap and that being the last one, so need to be realistic about it and keep the ball rolling, but you’re right we’re here to win, we’re here to win for ourselves, for me personally, for our sponsors, our team, crew chief Scott Graves … everybody involved, we want to win but we all want to see progression as we do that.

“Leading a bunch of laps and finishing 35th isn’t going to cut it. … It’s been a struggle for us, as many other teams, just the lack of track time, the lack of laps and getting the car dialed in. It’s been a challenge.”

2. Chase Elliott looking for better performances

Chase Elliott comes to Daytona with three straight top-10 finishes, but it is a bit misleading.

He’s no finished better than seventh in those races. He’s not finished better than seventh in his seven races. This from a driver and team that was in contention to win late at Darlington before he was wrecked by Kyle Busch, was a pit call away from winning the Coke 600, won the second Charlotte race and saw an aggressive move for the lead late at Bristol backfire. Since Bristol, he’s had seven top-10 finishes and six finishes outside the top 10.

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series AAA Texas 500 - Qualifying

FORT WORTH, TEXAS - NOVEMBER 02: Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, stands on the grid during the Salute to Veterans Qualifying Day Fueled by The Texas Lottery for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on November 02, 2019 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

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“Yeah, I think we’re struggling a little bit, for sure,” he said. “I think on one hand, historically the Pocono (25th in the first race, fourth in the second), Indy (11th), Kentucky (23rd), and Texas (12th) tracks have been, I would say, historically poor for me, personally. Maybe not from a stat sheet or whatever in some cases, but I think those tracks have been a problem a little bit in the past. So, I’m not as surprised to struggle with those places.

“But certainly, I thought we would do a little better at Kansas and thought we would be maybe a little better at Michigan. I feel like our success came early there at Michigan. We had some really good runs there in my rookie year and then in that second year. But really, since then I feel like we’ve even struggled there.”

While maybe not viewed by most as a road course racer, Elliott won last year’s race at the Charlotte Roval, the most recent road course event.

“I think it’s going to be a fun challenge for everyone,” he said of having no practice before Sunday’s inaugural Cup race on the road course. “I’ve never entered a race like that where you literally just have no idea what to expect. Road racing, in my opinion, is a lot about brake-markers and a lot about visual aids and these nuances around the track that you can see with your eyes to help with your hands and your feet do the right things at the right times. Heck, I have no idea where I need to stop on Turn 1 on Sunday; or (Turn) 2 or (Turn) 3 and all the way back around to the start/finish line.”

3. Extra help

Hendrick Motorsports drivers Alex Bowman and William Byron worked this week with Corvette driver Jordan Taylor at the Chevy simulator to prepare for Sunday’s race on the Daytona road course.

January marked Taylor’s 13th consecutive Rolex 24 start at Daytona. He was on the overall winning team in 2017 with brother Ricky, Max Angelelli and Jeff Gordon and won the event in 2019 with Fernando Alonso, Renger van Zande and Kamui Kobayashi.

Bowman said Taylor’s expertise has been helpful.

“Jordan really helped with entry to Turn 5,” Bowman said. “His entry in there was quite different than how I was approaching it. Some of the braking zones were a little bit different. Then some line stuff and some rain stuff as well. Having his knowledge is super helpful. He’s a really good guy, and I really appreciate his help. The rain will be the biggest thing. I have absolutely no clue what I’m doing in the rain, so being able to have an idea of what to expect there is a big help.”

Monterey Sportscar Championship powered by McLaren

SALINAS, CA - SEP 13: Jordan Taylor displays of sticker in honor of teammate Max Angelelli, who is recovering from surgery, as he prepares to drive before practice for the Monterey Sportscar Championship powered by McLaren IMSA WeatherTech Series Race at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, September 13, 2019. (Photo by Brian Cleary/Getty Images)

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Taylor taught the drivers the “little nuances” of the 3.61-mile course.

“When you look at it on a track map, it looks pretty basic but each corner has little tricks that can help you,” Taylor said. “They’re going into this race with zero practice and zero laps on this track, so they need as much preparation as they can get. From my side, I bring some experience from that track that I can give – little tips that maybe would take them a session or two to figure out. Hopefully they can hit the ground running when they show up for raceday.”

Taylor hopes Bowman and Byron can repay the favor when the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Series races at the Charlotte Roval in October.

“None of us on the sports car side have driven the new course there, and they’ve had a couple races in the past,” Taylor said. “It would be nice to get some feedback from them and some tips and tricks they’ve learned the last couple of years. The Hendrick guys have had a lot of success there. … When we go there for the first time with our Corvette C8.R, they can definitely show us a few things.”

4. Race for points

The goal the next couple of weeks is simple for Cup drivers. Score as many points as possible before the playoffs begin.

Other than that, some say, this stretch of races does little to prepare for the playoffs.

Last weekend’s doubleheader at Michigan marked the final races on a 2-mile track this season. This weekend’s Cup race at the Daytona road course is a unique track. Next weekend’s doubleheader at Dover could provide some insights on Bristol but the tire is different between those tracks.

So that leaves one thing for many to focus on.

NASCAR Xfinity Series Production Alliance Group 300 - Practice

FONTANA, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 28: Joey Logano, driver of the #24 AAA Southern California Ford, speaks to media during a press conference prior to practice for the NASCAR Cup Series at Auto Club Speedway on February 28, 2020 in Fontana, California. (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

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“Playoff points,” Joey Logano said. “That’s all it’s about right now. … They’re different racetracks than what we’re racing in the playoffs, but that’s OK. There are trophies out there to go out and get and that’s all that matters. That’s all I need.

“That’s the only carrot I need to hang out in front of me is a big check and a big trophy and some playoff points to help propel you into the Championship Four.”

Logano’s struggles in the final six regular-season races before last year’s playoffs contributed to failing to make it to the championship race. He had one top-10 finish during that stretch at the end of the regular season.

In the last six regular-season races last year, Logano fell from first in the season standings to sixth. That cost him nine playoff points — the difference between first, which is 15 playoff points, and fifth, which is six playoff points. He scored one playoff point, winning a stage in those six races. Between the potential playoff points he lost and what he actually gained, he lost a total of eight points.

Logano made it to the final eight of the playoffs last year but failed to advance to the championship race. He missed making the final spot in the title race by seven points to Kyle Busch.

That wouldn’t have mattered had Logano won a race in the third round to advance to the title race, but he didn’t so his only way to the title race was via points.

While Logano lost the chance at eight additional playoff points in the final six regular season races, Busch gained eight playoff points in that same time for a net gain of 16 points over Logano. Busch gained his points by moving from second to first to win the regular-season title and gain five additional playoff points (the difference between those positions). He also scored three stage wins in those races, giving him three more playoff points for a total of eight playoff points gained.

That was more than enough to keep him ahead of Logano in the standings and keep Logano out of the title race.

5. Uncertain future

Austin Cindric has won four of the last five Xfinity races and starts on the pole for Saturday’s race (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN), but he doesn’t know what he’ll be doing next season.

The son of Team Penske President Tim Cindric, Austin said he does not have have a contract for next season.

“I’ll continue to work hard on the weekends and work hard during the week to understand what the best pathway is to take me,” Austin Cindric said. “Obviously, I’ve had a lot of loyalty within the Penske organization. I mean, I wouldn’t be at this point without them and without Ford Performance.

Austin CIndric Road America

ELKHART LAKE, WISCONSIN - AUGUST 08: Austin Cindric, driver of the #22 Menards/Richmond Ford, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Xfinity Series Henry 180 at Road America on August 08, 2020 in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

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“Those two relationships have really brought me here as quickly as I’ve kind of come up through the NASCAR ranks, so I would love to be able to stay within that camp, but, at the same time, I’m focused on trying to figure out what the next steps are in my career in NASCAR because it’s where I want to be, it’s where I want to stay, and it’s where I’ve put the most effort in the last couple years, so I’m pretty motivated at that.”

The coronavirus pandemic and economic impact on companies has created challenges for teams seeking sponsorship. That is expected to slow the process in teams signing drivers for next season. Cindric acknowledges he needs to look at all options for next year.

“I’m not doing myself any service if I don’t go out and understand what’s out there,” he said. “The squeaky wheel gets the oil and that’s the case. You’ve got to pick up the phone and not expect it to ring, but having success while you’re doing that is great. It makes those conversations easier to have and easier to convince people that you’re the guy, but, overall, it’s what I’ve been doing during the week and I’m very focused on doing my job during the weekend first and foremost.”

The 21-year-old Cindric drove for Brad Keselowski’s Truck team in 2017. Cindric ran for Team Penske and Roush Fenway Racing in the Xfinity Series in 2018 and has been full-time at Team Penske the past two years.

Along with four wins this season, Cindric has nine top-three finishes in 18 starts.

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