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Wheeling and dealing keeps Sprint Cup owners busy

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Deep in the NASCAR Sprint Cup garage, well away from the championship contending teams, a race for survival takes place.

Owners seek partners. Others look to sell or buy a charter, the sport’s golden ticket that guarantees a revenue stream and a starting spot in every race.

The movement is taking place because of a performance clause with the charters.

If a chartered team finishes in the bottom three among the 36 chartered teams in the owner standings three consecutive years, NASCAR has the right to remove that charter. Although the first year with this system isn’t yet complete, teams aren’t waiting to act.

“Let’s face it, anybody in the bottom three is exploring all their options right now,’’ car owner Archie St. Hilaire told NBC Sports on Friday at Talladega Superspeedway.

St. Hilaire’s Go Fas Racing team ranks last in the standings among charter teams. He seeks a partnership. He is willing to lease his charter and partner with another chartered team if that will help his team grow.

That’s just among the many movements taking place. Leavine Family Racing is expected to purchase the charter from Tommy Baldwin Racing after this season. Leavine Family Racing has been partnered with Joe Falk’s Circle Sport Racing this year and used Falk’s charter.

Falk told NBC Sports that NASCAR viewed his action as leasing the charter. Owners can lease their charter only once in five years. That means Falk must keep his charter and partner with a team without one or sell the charter after this season.

“You’ve got too many sellers and not any buyers, so the price is dropping,’’ Falk said of the charters. “It’s dropped dramatically on what some people have been able to acquire one. Even if (a team has) an investor who is willing to put up the $3-5 million to buy one, it won’t work unless a sponsor comes along.’’

There’s even more movement that could take place. Premium Motorsports leased its charter to HScott Motorsports for the No. 46 team this year. That charter must be returned after this season. Furniture Row Racing is expected to secure a charter for next season for the No. 77 car that will have Erik Jones as a teammate to Martin Truex Jr. The Wood Brothers remain without a charter.

As all that swirls in the sport, St. Hilaire, who said his team has a $5 million budget, knows he must react.

“To really stay out the bottom three I think $10 million is a key number,’’ he said. “We’ve got to get that thing to $10 million to be competitive.’’

The team, which has had seven different drivers this year, has a best finish of 19th by Bobby Labonte at Talladega in May. Labonte is in the car this weekend.

St. Hilaire acknowledges his team is young. His joint venture with Fas Lane Racing began in 2014. Still, he wants better results.

“I need to peak that fun meter a little more,’’ St. Hilaire said. “Thank God I don’t live off this business. I do it for fun, and I’m not having a lot of fun right now,’’ he added with a chuckle.

Even so, St. Hilaire remains committed to the sport and hopeful his team’s performance can improve.

“It’s nothing money can’t fix,’’ he said. “Money buys speed in this business, no doubt about it. We just need an affiliation, which we’re shopping like hell for.’’

St. Hilaire said he hopes to have an idea in the next month what direction he’ll go.

“All options are on the table to make the team better,’’ he said. “We’re going to go racing. I just got to look at how and where.’’

That’s similar to what car owner Tommy Baldwin told NBC Sports this week, saying he was “exploring all my opportunities’’ for the team’s future.

“If you don’t have the money to keep up with the Joneses, you’re going to be left behind,’’ Baldwin said. “If you told me eight years ago when I first started this team I would be pretty much in the same spot as when I started, I would have told you that you were crazy. This sport has taken off so much here as far as how smart we’ve all gotten. It’s not that we don’t know how to do it, it’s just that we don’t have the money to apply the proper resources to do it.’’

Any deal likely will not be finalized until after the season and some might not get done until January, depending on how quickly teams move. Falk notes that he and Leavine decided to partner last December. NASCAR announced the charter system Feb. 9. Falk was granted a charter but Leavine’s team did not qualify. That made their pairing even better for this season.

So why doesn’t Falk sell his charter to Leavine? Falk admits he wants to have some hand in a team, while he said Leavine wants 100 percent control. Falk admits they still might be together next year if a sponsor can be found for a second car.

If not, Falk will be looking for a partner.

“Still something might pop up at (Richard Childress Racing) where they need another car,’’ said Falk, who has been aligned with Childress. “I’ve got a lot of things working. I’ve also got some things you wouldn’t expect. There’s a lot of stuff going on right now.’’

One thing he said he might consider is partnering with Curtis Key of The Motorsports Group, which does not have a charter for the No. 30 car.

“I truly don’t know what I’m going to do,’’ Falk said. “I wish I did. Curtis Key and I are from Chesapeake (Virginia). We’ve known each other our whole life. I don’t really have a problem going over there to help Curtis. We have to have sponsorship.

“At the end of the day, Curtis Key has everything sitting there, he’s got a very nice shop and his cars all come from Stewart-Haas. He’s got a relationship with Hendrick. I’ve got a relationship with Childress. It would be easy to make it work, but we cannot make it work without sponsorship.’’

Xfinity Spotlight: Noah Gragson on being a Dale Jr. ‘fanboy,’ his impressive Xfinity debut

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Noah Gragson admits he was a bit full of himself when he made his Camping World Truck Series debut in 2016 at ISM Raceway.

“I won a couple of K&N races, I thought I was going to be one of the top dogs and be competing for the win and that just didn’t happen,” Gragson told NBC Sports of the race where he started 14th and finished 16th.

Things started better for the 19-year-old driver in the Xfinity Series. The Las Vegas native, who competes full-time in the Truck Series with Kyle Busch Motorsports, made his debut last weekend at Richmond Raceway with Joe Gibbs Racing.

As part of a three-race deal, which continues this weekend at Talladega, Gragson started 11th, led 10 laps and fought teammate Christopher Bell for the win before placing second.

“I told myself before this weekend, I said, ‘Listen, these guys are good, you’re stepping up a level,'” Gragson said. “I just tried to remind myself that, ‘Yeah, I’m not the top dog. I’m going to get my ass stomped out here.’ That’s how I felt. I felt it was going to be a rude awakening. It wasn’t. I don’t know what was different, but I just felt a lot more comfortable. … I just felt like it came to me a little bit more. I was on my game.”

The following Q&A has been edited and condensed.

Noah Gragson celebrates his first Truck win at Martinsville in 2017. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

NBC Sports: When I last interviewed you two years ago, I asked how you viewed NASCAR growing up. You said you “didn’t respect” it because you “didn’t think it was hard.” Now that you’re more than a few years into your career, how hard is it? How easy is it compared to what you thought it would be?

Gragson: Like I said a couple of years ago, I thought NASCAR was just driving in circles, and not in a disrespectful way. I didn’t know, I wasn’t educated on the sport. It’s just what I figured. You never know until you try it. … Being in it now, understanding everything that goes into it, I didn’t know there was this much preparation that goes into a weekend. That’s what I’ve been really trying to focus on this last year, I’ve been trying to change-up the way I prepare before I go the race track. Just being on top of it and not having to ask questions and already knowing the answer to those questions is the biggest thing I feel like. With enough preparation and the right preparation, you won’t have to ask any questions when you get to the race track. … It’s a lot tougher Monday through Friday than I ever figured it would be.

NBC SportsIf you could have picked any three tracks to get your Xfinity start at, would these (Richmond, Talladega, Dover) have been those tracks?

Gragson: Talladega I can assure you wouldn’t be. I’m still a little timid, a little nervous about going to Talladega. Richmond I really liked. I think I had a good idea that I would run somewhat decent just at Richmond. I really like that track, just on video games. I was hoping it would kind of translate to real life and I think it did. If I could build a top-three schedule, probably Richmond, Iowa and maybe like a road course. I also like Dover quite a bit. I feel like I run really good there on “NASCAR: Inside Line” in a Cup car on Xbox. Hopefully it’ll translate to real life.

NBC Sports: With the resources you have at Joe Gibbs Racing and Kyle Busch Motorsports who have you been talking to the most about what to expect this weekend at Talladega?

Gragson: I haven’t really talked to anybody pretty much yet. I was going to talk to Kyle Busch maybe a little bit. He hasn’t run the Xfinity cars in a while, so I might talk to him just about some small stuff, but also probably Joey Logano. I’m working with his management team, Clutch Studios and Clutch Management. They’ve been a help to me. Joey helped me a little bit before Richmond along with Kyle Busch. I would talk to those two guys and then Eric Phillips, my crew chief and what not, try to get a game plan before we go.

NBC Sports: In your pre-race interview at Richmond you said you were more nervous than the first time you leaned in to kiss a girl. Did you wake up with that feeling Friday or did it creep in over the course of the day?

Gragson: I think it just creeped in over the course of the day and then you walk over to driver intros and everything is going off and then it hits you when you’re walking back to you car and you’re like, ‘Damn. This is real. I’m going to be making my first Xfinity start. This is a pretty cool deal, this is a big opportunity.’ You’re standing there and you’ve got everybody around you. A lot more than a truck race for sure. Just all that hype and that pressure comes together and like I said, yeah, it hits you and you’re like, ‘Oh, this is big. I better go make something happen here.”

Noah Gragson drive his No. 18 Toyota in the Truck Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in March. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

NBC Sports: Who did you learn the most from just by racing around them over the course of the night?

Gragson: Probably Tyler Reddick. In practice I was following him. I wasn’t getting frustrated, but I was kind of at a road block where I just didn’t know where I needed to be on the race track and I went up behind him in practice and I followed him and I changed up my line a little bit closer to what he was doing and boom, I picked up a couple of tenths and we were back on pace. … I don’t think anybody knows that, but that’s probably the thing that helped me the most.

NBC Sports: Has anyone delivered you ice cream via Twitter lately?

Gragson: Breyers did. Breyers sent me some, which was really cool. … They sent me vanilla, a couple things of vanilla ice cream. Which was super cool. They saw my tweet and they said ‘We’ll get on it’ and they sent me some, which I didn’t actually think they were actually going to do, but I got a package. I was all fired up. I love some ice cream.

NBC Sports: What’s the coolest thing that’s happened to you because of social media?

Gragson: Probably getting followed by Dale Jr. After that whole wasabi deal last year. So I did that and he liked the tweet and retweeted it and he followed me and I was a total fanboy. … When he followed me I was losing it. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, Dale Jr. just followed me.’ It was so awesome, so I took a screenshot. Just getting those guys to follow me is really, really cool.

NBC Sports: Which social media platform is your favorite?

Gragson: Probably Tinder. No, I’m just kidding. I’m kidding, I’m kidding, I’m kidding. JK on that one. I like Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter. Probably Instagram, then Twitter and Snapchat.

NBC Sports: Why that order?

Gragson: Snapchat use to be my favorite but it’s trash now. They messed up the whole story deal. You’d be better off trying to find a Wama on (video game) “Fortnite” than finding a story on Snapchat. … It’s really, really tough to navigate Snapchat now and I really do not enjoy it. I feel like it’s taken away a lot of my viewership, their new update.

(Writer’s Note: Earlier in the interview Gragson discussed his schedule for the week, which involved mailing merchandise purchased by fans).

NBC Sports: You talked about your new merchandise and selling it. Are your merchandise sells your primary way of measuring how large your fan base is? If not, what is?

Gragson: Probably the amount of likes I get on Instagram helps me kind of gauge. I really pay attention to the insights and data, the numbers and what not to my posts. I feel like with Instagram they have a really good way for people to see what their engagement is and other insights. I really pay a good amount of attention to that. I kind of notice when some posts get viewed more than others. Just the timing of it and what not. That’s really the biggest thing.

NBC Sports: At any point does it feel like social media is too controlling of your life, too overwhelming?

Gragson: No, I don’t feel that way. Some might not agree. It’s not bad.

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Weekend schedule for NASCAR at Talladega

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NASCAR goes restrictor-plate racing again this weekend when it takes to the high banks of Talladega Superspeedway.

The Cup Series competes in Sunday’s GEICO 500 and the Xfinity Series takes part in the Sparks Energy 300.

Here’s the full weekend schedule for Talladega Superspeedway.

All times are Eastern.

Friday, April 27

8:30 a.m. – 6 p.m. — Cup garage open

9 a.m. – 8 p.m. — Xfinity garage open

11:35 a.m. – 12:25 p.m. — Xfinity practice (Fox Sports 1)

12:35 – 1:25 p.m. — Cup practice (FS1, Motor Racing Network)

1:35 – 2:25 p.m. — Final Xfinity practice (FS1)

2:35 – 3:25 p.m. –Final Cup practice (FS1, MRN)

Saturday, April 28

8 a.m. – 3 p.m. — Cup garage open

9 a.m. — Xfinity garage opens

11 a.m. — Xfinity qualifying; single car/two rounds (FS1)

12:45 p.m. — Xfinity driver-crew chief meeting

1:05 p.m. — Cup qualifying; single car/two rounds (Fox, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

2:30 — Xfinity driver introductions.

3 p.m. — Sparks Energy 300; 113 laps/300.58 miles (Fox, SiriusXm NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, April 29

9:30 a.m. — Cup garage opens

Noon — Driver-crew chief meeting

1:20 p.m. — Driver introductions

2 p.m. — GEICO 500; 188 laps/500.08 miles (Fox, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

 

Podcast: Trevor Bayne needs to ‘rebuild his reputation’ as a driver

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In the wake of Wednesday’s announcement that Matt Kenseth would be returning to Roush Fenway Racing in a part-time capacity for the rest of the season, the odd man out was Trevor Bayne.

Kenseth and Bayne will share the No. 6 Ford with Kenseth making his 2018 debut May 12 at Kansas Speedway. What’s in store for them both beyond this season is unknown.

When Kenseth talked with NASCAR America’s Marty Snider after the announcement, he had yet to talk with Bayne about their new situation.

“I’ve known Trevor for a long time,” Kenseth said. “Trevor is a great, great guy. Nobody likes being in the spot he’s in necessarily right now. But I think after he thinks about it for a few days and what he really desires and what he wants out of it, knowing Trevor, I think he’s going to come in and work even harder and try to be better. So I’m looking forward to having that conversation.”

Bayne’s prospects going forward were discussed on the latest NASCAR America Debrief podcast episode with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Steve Letarte.

Both agreed the 2011 Daytona 500 winner will need to work to “rebuild his reputation” as a driver, with Letarte comparing Bayne’s potential future to the career of JR Motorsports’ Elliott Sadler and Earnhardt likening it to Justin Allgaier‘s.

“Trevor Bayne’s in a position much like Justin Allgaier was in years ago where he’s got a partner that believes in him in AdvoCare,” Earnhardt said. “If I’m him, I’m on the phone with them right now and talking to them, ‘Do you want to work with me in the future, we can go over here and look at this opportunity or look at this opportunity in Xfinity or the Truck Series,’ wherever it is. I would be trying to make sure I have a very strong relationship with them because that’s going to be the key to making any move to continue his driving career.

“He’s unlikely to get an opportunity that’s rewarding without some financial support.”

Earnhardt added: “He has to rebuild his reputation as a race car driver and that’s the only way to do it, is to go win races and run well.”

Letarte said he believes the situation between Kenseth, Bayne and Roush Fenway is “past awkward” given Bayne’s results. He has run in the top 15 in 10.5 percent of the laps run this season. Bayne’s average finish is 23.9 — compared to 19.5 last year — and he ranks 25th in the series in average running position (23.0).

“I think if anybody finds this awkward, then shame on them,” Letarte said. “Let’s just be honest. Stats tell a pretty accurate story. Comparing your teammates, comparing the field, there’s a hundred different ways you can do this. If at any point Trevor Bayne is shocked or anything like that, then shame on his own management team and Roush Fenway for leading him down this path of disbelief that everything was going to be OK.

“Should he be upset? Sure. Emotion comes into it. Is it going to be awkward the first time they meet? Yes. But I think Trevor Bayne should be and I will say is smart enough to realize, ‘the more awkward this is, the worse it probably is for me.’ ”

Letarte also assessed how he viewed Kenseth’s return for the future health of Roush Fenway despite the lack of detail about how long the deal is with the 2003 series champion.

“I love the fact that they didn’t try to put structure around everything,” Letarte said. “Not every road trip can be planned, A -to-B, every stop. Sometimes you have to say, ‘Hey man, it’s cold here, we’re heading south, we’re going to get on 85 and see where we go.’ And that’s what I heard from Roush Fenway. ‘Where we’re at is no good. We’ve been to the right and it’s no good, so we’re going to go to the left and that involves Matt Kenseth.”

Earnhardt believes Kenseth will return to Roush next season as the full-time driver of the No. 6.

“That’s my hope if I’m an owner of the car, that this change brings performance,” he said. “I think that’s what Matt wants. And Matt said that he doesn’t think he’s a long-term solution for the 6 car. He sees an opportunity to try to improve the team and help the team on all fronts.

“He comes in there and does really well in the car, fires up some partners, sparks some interest from Corporate America to get involved in the team, and then they can move on to the next season with Matt as the full-time driver. I don’t believe you keep Matt and Bayne together as a part-time deal. That doesn’t happen.”

To listen to this week’s NASCAR America Debrief, click here for Apple Podcasts, here for Stitcher, here for Google Play, or play the Art19 embed below.

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NASCAR America: Dale Earnhardt Jr. reveals secret to Talladega success

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In Wednesday’s edition of NASCAR America, Dale Earnhardt Jr. revealed the secret to his success at Talladega.

“I always made people feel like we were best friends until I didn’t need them anymore,” Earnhardt said. ”To win at plate races, you’ve got to be everybody’s best friend and then turn around and be the biggest jerk you’ve ever been in your life when it matters.”

Describing his 2003 victory in the Aaron’s 499 – his fourth straight win at Talladega SuperSpeedway – Earnhardt walked Jeff Burton, Steve Letarte and Rick Allen through a play-by-play of what he was doing during the final five laps.

Some highlights include:

“I’m getting ready to get some good help from behind. The 48 looks like he’s in trouble, but he jumps in front of the 22 and they get a real good push down the back straightaway. Now, I’ve got no help. I’m freaking out a little bit because their run looks pretty good on the outside.”

“Here, they’re trying to pin me behind the 16, but I wasn’t having anything to do with that and that hurt Ward (Burton) a little bit.”

“I pushed Matt (Kenseth) up way far, so the 48 is waiting, waiting, waiting. They’re thinking about side drafting each other a little bit, but they’re not too sure. Matt goes up there to side draft now, not really paying attention to me. Here I come with a great push from Elliott Sadler to get by them both. That was just luck that Matt wasn’t really paying attention there.”

“I stay in the gas. I never really rode the brake to back myself up to anybody. I always just waited on them to get to me. If I needed the pack to get closer, I would take a longer route; just drive higher in the corner.”

For more insight into Earnhardt’s secret to success, watch the above video.