Teamwork could again play a factor in helping a driver advance in the Chase

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TALLADEGA, Ala. – Chase Elliott said it best Friday morning at Talladega Superspeedway.

“It’s great to have teammates, especially when you come to the plate tracks,” Elliott said any of potential race strategy. “We have seen groups or teams work together in the past to try to help a guy have a good run or help an organization to have a good run as a whole.”

Sunday, Elliott may need to rely on one of his teammates, Jimmie Johnson, to advance in the Chase. Elliott enters the Sunday’s race 25 points out of the final transfer spot. Johnson has already locked himself into the next round.

Elliott expects the two to sit down later this weekend to discuss how they can help each other.

“I think the biggest thing is just to not hurt one another,” Elliott said. “At the end of the day you can be in situations, and it can be hard to help somebody so to speak, but there are sometimes where you could hurt them a lot easier. So I think just trying to avoid the hurt side of that and just be as helpful as you can be without getting yourself in trouble.”

Stewart-Haas Racing finds itself in a similar situation. A win last weekend at Kansas Speedway advanced Kevin Harvick in the Chase, while teammate Kurt Busch is fifth on the Chase grid. Busch has a 17-point advantage on the final transfer spot.

Team owner Tony Stewart, eliminated after the first round of the Chase, admitted he has one agenda for his last Talladega race.

“All I care about is Kurt,” Stewart said Thursday during a Mobil 1 media event. “That’s the only one I care about this weekend. (Toyota) They won’t help us, so why would we help them? That’s the scenario that it’s been put into. I’m only worried about him. Kurt’s the only one I’m worried about now. I’ll sit in the back, and I’ll cruise, and that way if they have a bad pit stop or get disconnected from the pack, I’ll be back there to pick him up and make sure we get him back where he needs to be.
“You see it and see how it plays out most of the time better than I do there. It’s got the potential to be really chaotic because of the cutoff this week. There’s a lot of guys who had a bad week who are having to make up for it. I don’t think it’s going to be a very calm, peaceful race this weekend. I think there’s going to be a lot happening.”

The goal for the likes of Elliott and Johnson, as well as Stewart and Busch, will be to replicate what Team Penske accomplished in 2014. Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski perfected their teamwork in the Talladega cutoff race to advance both cars in the Chase.

Logano was already locked into the third round while Keselowski was in a must-win situation. The two controlled much of the race by drafting together and working every lane the pack formed. As the race wound down, Logano and Keselowski were not only at the front of the field, but Logano played blocker for his teammate. Keselowski won.

“Brad was in a do-or-die situation, and I was locked in, so our main goal was to get Brad through,” Logano said of that race. “That was our goal. There was a lot of talk about how we help each other and how we can put him in position to make the moves at the end of the race. I gave him my commitment that I was going to be there for him. I was going to push him along. I was going to do everything that I knew how to do to help him win.”

Logano and Keselowski will be in a different situation Sunday as neither has locked into the Round of 8. Logano is in the final transfer spot, tied with Austin Dillon, who’s ninth. Keselowski is 11th on the Chase grid, six points out of a transfer spot.

“That situation will happen throughout a lot of other teams this week, but it’s something Brad and I need to have an understanding that, ‘Hey, yeah, we’re going to help each other as much as we can, but we both kind of have to win,’ ” Logano said. “It’s a little bit different than (the 2014) race, but at the same time, we’re good teammates. We’re going to race each other, and we’re going to help each other like we do every single week.”

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Long: 2018 schedule provides big test for one track; other musings on changes

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For all the talk about Indianapolis’ move to the last race before the playoffs or Charlotte’s road course event, the track that will face the most scrutiny from Tuesday’s 2018 schedule announcement is Richmond International Raceway.

Although the racing has been better when the track hosted day races, Richmond will go back to two night races next year and its September event moves into the playoffs after serving as the cutoff race since 2004. 

The change comes at a critical time for Richmond, a favorite among drivers but a track that has seen waning fan interest — thus the flip-flopping from night to day back to night events to please a fanbase that wants good racing but doesn’t want a sunburn. The spring crowd, no doubt affected by unseasonably warm temperatures in the 80s, was disappointing.

What makes the schedule change more critical for the track is what could be next. International Speedway Corp., which owns the facility, has slated Richmond as next for upgrades after Phoenix Raceway’s $178 million makeover is completed late next year.

While crowds have thinned at all tracks in the last decade, Richmond has seen its seating capacity cut from 110,000 in 2009 to its current capacity of 59,000, according to ISC annual reports. The 46.4 percent decline is the largest percentage capacity reduction among ISC’s 12 tracks that host Cup events.

The question becomes if the crowd continues to thin — even though Richmond is a day’s drive for nearly half of the U.S. population — will it be worthwhile for ISC to make the investments to the track? Or would it be better for ISC to invest in another of its facilities?

Something that could help Richmond is what will take place this weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The track’s upper groove is being treated by the same PJ1 TrackBite compound used at Bristol to improve the racing.

What’s unique is that the compound is applied to an asphalt track instead of a concrete track such as Bristol. If it entices drivers to use the high lane for part of the race, that will be significant. The challenge is that as the race moves into the evening and cooler temperatures, the bottom groove will be the fastest way around.

Richmond seemed to have a good solution when it sealed the track from 1988-2002 but hasn’t done since. The time seems right to do something to the track with two Cup night races. 

Drivers say that the best racing is during the day when conditions are the hottest. That’s not the most enjoyable conditions for fans. So fans who wanted night racing back at Richmond will get it for both events.

Fans should be careful what they wish for because cool, evening temperatures are not conducive to the best type of racing.

DAYTONA CHANGES

Another alteration to the schedule is that Daytona 500 qualifying and the Clash will be held on the same day, Feb. 11, a week before the 500.

It’s a nice move to tighten the schedule, but why can’t more be done?

Does Daytona need to be held over two weekends?

“I would say certainly we talked about a lot of things,’’ said Jim Cassidy, NASCAR vice president of racing operations when asked about shortening Daytona Speedweeks. “But when you kick off the season with your biggest event of the year, and you have a number of races to support that kickoff of the season, Daytona has a portfolio of races that commands a number of weeks. I think our fans look forward to spending a lot of time in Daytona in the month of February.

“Certainly there’s consideration around the race teams, the amount of time they spend. But when you talk about the biggest event of your season, it certainly warrants a couple of weeks based on what we have from a content standpoint.”

I’m not convinced. I think you could compress it into one week and make the week more entertaining.

Here’s one possible way how:

Tuesday: Cup haulers park in garage.

Wednesday: Cup teams practice and qualify. Truck teams park in garage.

Thursday: Cup teams compete in the Duels. Xfinity teams park in garage. Truck teams practice.

Friday: Cup teams practice. Xfinity teams practice. Truck teams qualify and race. Cup teams in the Clash practice.

Saturday: Cup final practice for the Daytona 500. Xfinity teams race. The Clash is held an hour after the Xfinity race ends.

Sunday: Daytona 500.

A doubleheader with the Xfinity Series and the Clash the day before the Daytona 500 creates more reasons for fans to be there for the weekend.

Maybe there’s a better way, but the point is cut a weekend out of Speedweeks and that can give teams a break at some other point in the season (or just start the season a few days later).

As the sport looks to be more efficient with its race weekends — Pocono, Watkins Glen and Martinsville each will have qualifying a few hours before the race in the second half of the season — cutting a weekend out of Daytona only makes sense.

Also, watch for more two-day Cup weekends if the experiment works this year.

INDY THE RIGHT RACE BEFORE THE PLAYOFFS?

Indianapolis taking the spot as the final race before the playoffs raises some questions.

When Richmond was there, at least many more teams had a chance to win. At Indianapolis, those that can win are fewer. Typically, the best teams excel at Indy because they have the best aero and engine packages. That’s not something a smaller team can overcome as much as it can on a short track.

The notion of an upstart winning their way into the playoffs is less likely at Indianapolis. Those who need stage points in a last-gasp effort to make the playoffs will have to gamble. Truthfully, that could make Indy more dramatic in some ways. Paul Menard won the 2011 race on a fuel gamble, but such payoffs are not likely to happen often and then what you are left with?

Something to consider is that the Xfinity cars will race there in July with restrictor plates and other modifications. If those changes enhance the racing, then it would make sense for the Cup cars to go with something similar. If NASCAR can get its cars to make passes like the IndyCars (there were 54 lead changes in last year’s Indianapolis 500), then you’d have something worth talking about.

If that doesn’t work, maybe you’re left with the tradeoff that Richmond gives the playoffs two short tracks.

A NOVEL IDEA BUT WILL IT WORK?

Charlotte’s roval for the playoffs will smack of desperation to some, and they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. Still, one has to applaud the sport and the track looking for a different way to entertain fans. Sometimes, the greatest rewards come after the greatest risks.

While drivers will race on the infield road course, they still nearly will race all the way around the 1.5-mile track. If the action on the road course section mimics what fans see at Sonoma or Watkins Glen, then this will be a good move. If not, what then?

Charlotte’s format will present challenges for crew chiefs in setting up the car, but the key is going to be action. Few people go to races to watch the crew chiefs. It’s about the drivers. And it will be about contact on the road course.

SAME OLD, SAME OLD

Even with all the changes to the front half of the playoff schedule, three of the final five races are on 1.5-mile speedways.

Cassidy said NASCAR isn’t as concerned about that.

“I wouldn’t get too hung up on the number of intermediate tracks because I think what you’ve seen, if you want to focus on the back end of the playoffs, focus on the racing that we’ve seen at intermediate tracks, each of the intermediate tracks as kind of taking shape from having its own distinct personality from a racing standpoint,’’ he said.

“I think you saw that at Texas this year with the changes they made, again, a vision to change things up on that side, and to create a different racing dynamic at a mile‑and‑a‑half track.

“What you saw at Kansas a couple weeks ago kind of speaks for itself.

  “And then I don’t think you could argue that Homestead has provided some of the most compelling racing you could ever imagine to bring home a championship.’’

Miami is the best 1.5-mile track and has produced some good racing in the season finale. Nothing wrong with it where it is. Kansas has had its ups and downs but did have 21 lead changes earlier this month in what was viewed as an entertaining race. With its new track surface, we’ll see where Texas goes from its race in April.

If all three can provide entertaining racing and allow drivers to move through the field instead of being stuck in a line, then they should stay in their spots. But if they can’t do so, then NASCAR should not be afraid of making further changes to the playoff schedule.

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NASCAR America: Slugger Labbe says why he left Richard Childress Racing (video)

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Slugger Labbe announced Monday that after six seasons, he would be leaving the No. 3 team of Austin Dillon and Richard Childress Racing.

While he does not rule out a potential return to RCR at some point in the future, for now he’s just taking a break and fielding potential opportunities from other organizations.

Justin Alexander will take over as Dillon’s crew chief immediately, just in time for arguably the most difficult race on the schedule, Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

My Home Tracks: New Mexico’s the Land of Enchantment and home of Cardinal Speedway

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The state of New Mexico is known more for IndyCar racing, with the Unser family being the state’s favorite sons.

Al Unser won four Indianapolis 500s, brother Bobby three and Al’s son Al Jr. a two-time winner (this weekend’s 500 marks the 25th anniversary of Little Al’s second 500 triumph).

But there’s a strong grassroots racing scene in the Land of Enchantment, particularly in the far southeast corner of the state at Cardinal Speedway, a half-mile dirt track in the little town of Eunice.

NASCAR America continues its My Home Track series of 50 states in 50 shows.

Wednesday, we visit New York state.

2018 NASCAR schedule changes: EVP Steve O’Donnell breaks it down (video)

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On Tuesday’s edition of NASCAR America, NASCAR executive vice president Steve O’Donnell joined us to discuss the NASCAR Cup schedule changes in 2018, including running a road race at Charlotte and having Indianapolis be the final race before the playoffs.

“I’m real excited about these changes,” said O’Donnell, who cited unprecedented cooperation between NASCAR, its teams, drivers and sponsors to reach agreement on the schedule changes.

Among the key changes: Las Vegas will kick off the 10-race playoffs in 2018 (Chicagoland Speedway, which will have hosted the last seven playoff openers, will return to its more traditional race date in early July/late June and serve as a run-up to the Coke Zero 400 in Daytona.

Several other changes include:

  • The fall playoff race at Charlotte will move up a couple weeks in the schedule and also incorporate competition on both the infield road course and part of the speedway itself.
  • After 14 years as the deciding race to qualify for the NASCAR Cup playoffs, Richmond International Raceway will now become the second race of the playoffs.
  • Indianapolis Motor Speedway will see it’s Brickyard 400 go from late July to become the final qualifying race for the playoffs in early September.

Catch up on all the changes in the above video.